Whether you love art, history, or dual timelines, The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli is the perfect combination of all three. The novel goes between Leonardo da Vinci’s Renaissance Italy and WWII Europe, where Edith a German conservator risks everything to get Leonardo da Vinci’s The Lady with the Ermine out of Nazi hands.
In this interview Laura shares about when her love of art history began, what it was like getting inside the mind of Leonardo da Vinci and some of her favorite Italian destinations to visit for inspiration.
When did your interest in art history first begin?
Ever since I can remember, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said that I wanted to be a writer… or maybe an archeologist. I feel grateful that I got to be more or less what I wanted to be as a kid.
I was fortunate enough to travel at a young age. On a trip to Paris when I was 12, I stood spellbound before the façade of Notre Dame in Paris. That splendid cathedral sparked a passion, lured me to continue to travel, and inspired me to immerse myself in medieval history.
I think art history is the most fascinating topic in the world and it’s why I pursued a Ph.D. in the subject. In the end, art history is really just about stories and people. That’s what makes it such great fodder for historical fiction. But sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction. Those can’t-make-it-up stories are some of the best!
What do you enjoy the most about combining your love of art history with both real and fictional characters in your novels?
Historical fiction has a certain duty to pin itself to the facts and readers come to the historical fiction genre for authenticity; they want historical novelists to bring the past to life on the page. When writing about real figures, I feel especially that historical novelists bear the burden of making sure that their readers understand what’s made up and what’s not.
But the nature of studying history is to realize that many details are lost, even from the recent historical record. For me, that’s where imagination takes over, and the fun of fiction begins! I think the best characters for historical novels are those with only a tantalizing handful of known facts.
At a certain point, I’ve only done my job if all this research “disappears” for the reader. If a reader picks up a historical novel rather than a history book, they want to embark on an immersive journey to the past. A historical novel has to deliver a great story above all.
When did you first come up with the storyline (and the title which intrigued me instantly) for The Night Portrait?
Few parts of World War II were more brutal than the Nazi invasion of Poland. So when, a few years ago, my teenaged son Max invited my husband and me to watch a TV documentary about Hans Frank, the Butcher of Poland, my first reaction was to recoil and bury myself in a novel set during the Italian Renaissance instead. But my son (who, incidentally, was born a short drive away from Milan’s Castello Sforzesco) had grown into an avid, knowledgeable World War II buff. As a small kid, he knew all the plane models and major players from the Normandy beaches to the Pacific theater. He interviewed World War II veterans as part of his Eagle Scout project. He loved to play the board game Axis and Allies. So in the name of family time, I joined my husband and my son on the sofa.
The 2015 documentary “What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy” included interviews with Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank. I found myself immediately wrapped up in the incredible story, but when Niklas Frank described how Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine had once hung on the wall of his childhood home in Bavaria, it stopped me dead in my tracks. Truth is often stranger than fiction, but how on earth did that happen, I wondered? I did what I always do: I plunged headlong into research. What would it be like, I wondered, to be the person tasked with the job of stealing a painting by Leonardo da Vinci? The curiosity led me down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, until a story told in two timelines emerged clearly in my head. Edith and Cecilia suddenly seemed as real to me as my next-door neighbors. After that, the book seemed to write itself.
It’s incredible to realize that by 1944, the Nazis had either stolen or tried to steal every known painting by Leonardo da Vinci—in addition to thousands of other priceless masterpieces. Many German art experts who were conscripted to the Nazi effort to collect works of art—functionaries like the fictional Edith Becker in The Night Portrait—quietly returned to their lives and their jobs after the war. A few of them later spoke about their attempts to assist the Resistance, either by documenting stolen works, saving convoys from bombing, or returning works to their original owners. Others undoubtedly took these secret activities to the grave. It’s amazing to imagine what personal decisions they had to make.
Did you visit Italy again prior to or during the time you were writing The Night Portrait?
Yes I did, but I was primarily focused on research related to my online course on ancient Etruscan art. I also took a secondary research detour to Urbino in the footsteps of Raphael. In retrospect, I feel so fortunate to have spent wonderful weeks in Italy just before the pandemic hit. It’s amazing to realize how quickly the world changed.
In the novel you write from the perspective of both real characters such as Leonardo da Vinci to Edith a fictional character in 1939 Munich, Germany. What was it like getting in the ‘mindset’ of Leonardo da Vinci versus Edith’s character?
What would it be like to be tasked with the job of stealing a priceless painting? That was the original question that opened the world of The Night Portrait to me.
Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Cecilia Gallerani–The Lady with the Ermine—is interesting on many levels, but particularly because it was an object of desire both in the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries. Getting into the mindset of characters spanning 500 years was such an interesting prospect.
The earlier story revolves around the court of Milan and Ludovico Sforza, who commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint his teenaged mistress in the late 1400s. Ludovico practically had a revolving door for his mistresses; Cecilia was just the latest in a string of amorous pursuits, if we are to believe the historical record.
But there must have been something special about Cecilia for Ludovico to ask Leonardo da Vinci to paint her. I wondered what it was.
At the time, the portrait was groundbreaking; up until then, most Italian Renaissance portraits depicted the female sitter in profile, with no sense of engagement with the viewer. But Leonardo captured Cecilia’s liveliness in this remarkable image.
Nearly 500 years later, another powerful man was enraptured with Cecilia’s image. The portrait was at the top of a list of masterpieces that senior Nazi leaders wanted to confiscate for Adolf Hitler’s planned art museum. Hans Frank, Hitler’s governor in Krakow, was obsessed with this portrait, had it wrenched from a personal family collection, and did everything possible to keep it in his personal possession. The so-called “Butcher of Poland” was held responsible for the lives of millions of innocent Polish people, and yet he claimed after his capture that he had only wanted to “safeguard” masterpieces like this one. The portrait was one of the last treasures in Frank’s personal possession when the Allies arrested him in 1944.
The storyline goes between the High Renaissance era to WWII Europe. Was it difficult transitioning from one time period to another?
I always start with primary sources—documents written during the time period I’m researching. What did people choose to focus on? What did they choose to ignore? How did they write about events? What language did they use and what telltale details stand out?
I also rely heavily on my training as an art history scholar, because there are so many rich pieces of information to be gleaned even from footnotes. I read widely about Leonardo da Vinci and scoured the scholarship about this portrait and the known facts of Cecilia Gallerani’s life before I began formulating her story.
For the 1940s, obviously there are a ton of primary sources—official records like the Nuremberg transcripts, German and American newspapers, and of course, personal testimonies. Reading the eyewitness accounts of the Monuments Men and diaries of art professionals helped shape the fictionalized character of Edith, a German conservator who finds herself embroiled in an impossible situation.
Of all the amazing things I researched, I think what still stops me in my tracks is realizing the massive, almost incomprehensible scale of Nazi art confiscation during World War II. It’s even more incredible that the majority of those works made it back to their original owners. Nothing short of a miracle!
If you could have met any of the characters in the book either real or fictional, who would it be?
It’s an interesting question, since some of the characters are based on real historical people who would be interesting to encounter. I would have soooo many questions for them! Dominic is sort of an amalgamation of several extended family members, so even though he’s a fictional character, he feels very real to me and I feel I’ve met him already.
In addition to your novels, you’ve also written guides. Where are some of your favorite spots to visit while in Italy that have provided inspiration for your novels?
There are so many! My book, Made in Italy, has a companion guide with more than 500 hand-picked artisans. Here are a few of my favorite off-the-beaten track destinations:
- The beautiful hilltowns and ceramics capitals of Umbria: Deruta, Gualdo Tadino, and Gubbio
- Cremona in Lombardy, the world capital of violin-making
- Sardinia! Shhhh… Don’t tell anyone.
You’ve won numerous awards as well as being reviewed in literary journals etc. What was one of the first awards you won for your writing?
My debut novel, The Gondola Maker, won several awards including an IPPY and Benjamin Franklin Award, as well as the Da Vinci Eye Prize for cover design. The story is about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice.
While you’ve taught college students across the US and in Italy, what do you enjoy the most about the online teaching experience versus being in the classroom?
Since I completed my PhD some 20 years ago, I’ve taught college students across the United States and in Italy, and have also developed lessons for TED-Ed. Though my own research centers around medieval and Renaissance Europe, I have taught all periods and topics of western and nonwestern art history, everything from prehistoric cave art in Spain to Chinese calligraphy to the history of photography and contemporary sculpture in America. I admit that I love it all!
Over time, my readers and other people well beyond college age began to contact me to tell me they loved the art history courses they took in the past, and would love to continue learning. Others never had the chance to take such a course to begin with—but still wanted to learn about art history.
I want students to be in my online classes for the same reasons I am—for the joy of learning and for a passion for art and history. It’s exciting to move beyond the walls of a college classroom and begin to offer art history courses to a wider audience online. Yay for technology!
You have a currently untitled, WWII/Italian Renaissance novel coming out next year. Can we get a sneak peek of the storyline?
In 2021, look for a second dual-timeline story about another one of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portraits and its fate during World War II. In the meantime, I’ve released a historical novel based on the creation of Michelangelo’s David. It’s a story that I worked on little by little over two decades, one that features one of those tantalizing protagonists and a work of art that wouldn’t let me go! More about The Giant at https://lauramorelli.com/giant/.
Laura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University and has taught college students in the United States and in Italy. She is a longtime trusted guide in the world of cultural travel and authentic shopping, known for her Authentic Arts guidebook series that includes Made in Italy and other guides. She has been a columnist for National Geographic Traveler and Italy Magazine, and has developed lessons for TED-Ed.
As a historical novelist, Laura’s passion is bringing the stories of art history to life. Her award-winning books include The Gondola Maker, The Painter’s Apprentice, and The Giant: A Novel of Michelangelo’s David. Laura’s latest historical novel, The Night Portrait, is based on the creation of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous portraits and its theft by the Nazis during World War II.