The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon

published 2012   chapter 9

[Caterina is researching the life and papers of composer Agostino Steffani in Venice] The next paper was a letter dated 21 June 1700, addressed to Mio caro Agostino, the familiarity of which salutation brought the scholar in her to the equivalent of a hunting dog’s freezing at point. There was general talk of work and travel, mutual friends, the problem with servants. Then things turned to gossip and the writer told his friend Agostino about the Duke N.H.’s public behaviour with his brother’s wife at the last ball of Carnevale.

The third son of G.R. had died of bronchial trouble, to his parents’ utmost grief, in which the writer joined them: he was a good boy and barely eight years old. And then the writer told his friend that he had overheard… [a Baron] speaking slightingly of Steffani and making fun of him for singing along with his operas while attending in the audience. The writer thought his friend should know of this, should he receive compliments or promises from the Baron. Then, with affectionate good wishes for Agostino’s good health, the writer placed his illegible signature at the bottom.

observations: Donna Leon has written a long series of very popular police procedurals featuring Commissario Brunetti of Venice – the city where she, an American, has lived for many years. This book is a standalone, and is the fictional story of a young musicologist researching papers relating to this rather obscure (but real) composer. There is a mystery regarding what happened to Steffani, and an unlikely dispute over inheritance, with ‘family’ following up several hundred years later. (This is a bit of a mystery in itself – perhaps Italian relations are different, but as none of them are direct descendants, they have surely gone a long way from him and each other in the intervening time? Late on there is a sudden implication that Steffani DID have descendants, but this is not followed up).

But then, on top of all this, there is a real-life linkup with the sublime singer Cecilia Bartoli, who has produced a CD of Steffani’s music, and even bravely disguised herself as him for a photo:

- when she normally looks like this:

The Bartoli connection makes the whole deal worthwhile. The book is, perhaps, a vanity project – Leon’s publishers presumably let her do whatever she wants. It’s not a great book by any means, but harmless (apart from an almost bizarre hatred of the Catholic church – what did they ever do to Leon?), and if it makes one person listen to Bartoli singing, then good.

Links on the blog: There’ve been a few Venice entries – click on the label below. Particularly, Byron’s Beppo had people misbehaving at Carnevale (and more great pics).

The picture of Steffani is from Wikimedia Commons, the photo of Venice is from Perry Photography, and the Bartoli pictures are publicity for her Steffani CD, Mission.


  1. Moira - I must confess I haven't read this although I really like Leon's Brunetti series. I should though just for the music connection. And the whole theme of a scholar digging into history interests me. Even if it's not one of her finest, I should read this...


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