I’m excited to welcome back author and archaeologist Sarah Wisseman today to talk about her delightful mystery BURNT SIENNA. I read this in about one sitting, and felt as if I traveled to Italy with the beautiful artistic descriptions. Sarah is a friend I’ve enjoyed meeting at several conferences. She and Molly MacRae usually enjoy a few meals with me and Kathleen Ernst. -AA
I first visited Siena, Italy, as an archaeology graduate student in 1975. I fell in love immediately. This picturesque city still has a medieval tower, at least one palazzo turned museum, and a spectacular Gothic cathedral with a multi-colored marble façade. Il Campo, the main piazza, is a car-free place for lounging, people-watching, and a suicidal horse race called the Palio. The race, held twice each summer, is preceded by days of colorful flag-tossing and pageantry. But after the race, the Sienese audience becomes a mob. Demented men from the losing contradas, Siena’s traditional town districts, compete in crying and screaming for each other’s blood and fighting in the streets.
I was delighted when an archaeology conference gave me the excuse to return to Siena in 2008. While soaking up atmosphere and taking pictures for my next book, I was amused to discover the old sign over the entrance of our conference venue: “ospedale psichiatrico,” or insane asylum. A perfect place for passionate and peculiar academics to meet!
Both the Palio and the insane asylum crept into my novel, Burnt Siena (Five Star/ Cengage, June 2015). The mystery stars Flora Garibaldi, a half-Italian art conservator who discovers that her job with the Lorenzettis, a renowned family of painters in Siena, is not at all what she expected. Instead of using her advanced training in restoring Old Master paintings, Flora is assigned menial tasks mixing gesso and fixing picture frames. Then she discovers that her employers are supplementing their legitimate income with forgery and smuggling antiquities. After a colleague is murdered, Flora juggles the demands of her irascible boss and a young policeman, Vittorio Bernini. Bernini appears less interested in in solving the murder than he is in getting to know Flora.
The other star of the story is a Greek statue, a kouros (young man), that Marco Lorenzetti is sculpting. A driven artist, Marco is much more concerned with creating a fine marble sculpture than he is with what his father, Beppe Lorenzetti, may do with the finished product. Will it be sold as a modern replica of an ancient statue? Or will it find its way onto the black market as an ancient Greek “original”? This key part of the plot was inspired by the notorious kouros purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California in the 1980s for a cool nine million dollars. Multiple scientists examined the statue to determine the source of the marble and the age of its patina, and sculpture experts around the world weighed in on the statue’s authenticity. To this day, scholars disagree about whether the Getty Kouros is a fabulous fake or an unusually well-preserved antiquity.
***Sarah Wisseman, a retired archaeologist at the University of Illinois, is the author of four Lisa Donahue Archaeological Mysteries set in Boston (Bound for Eternity and The Fall of Augustus) and the Middle East (The Dead Sea Codex and The House of the Sphinx) and one stand-alone historical mystery (The Bootlegger’s Nephew) set in Prohibition-era Illinois. Visit her at sarahwisseman.com