Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
This compelling historical murder mystery set in Renaissance Rome begins “It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a body pulled from the Tiber River, but it was the first one he recognized . . . even in the filthy water, her hair was still every bit as golden . . . as his beloved Juliet’s.” Thus the juxtaposition of beauty and brutality begins.
Twenty-year-old Florentine lawyer, Francesco Angeli, our narrator and main character, exiled to Rome to be a houseboy to Michelangelo, takes the reader on a journey through papal palaces and grungy back streets in his search for truth. Who murdered this prostitute, from the house of Imperia, an elegant brothel frequented as a gathering place of Rome’s artists?
The idea that began The Wolves of St. Peter's sprang from paintings of Madonnas. The authors asked what if, what about the lives of these artists' models who were often peasants and prostitutes.
Francesco’s love affair with his employer’s wife, the blonde Juliet, has led to his exile by his prominent father: partly for his safety and partly as a punishment for his foolishness. In the first chapter, we are made aware of the casual nature of violence in 16th century Rome which emerges as a dark and dangerous place. The rain and floods have caused the Tiber to overflow its banks and homeless people flee to the hills, wolves become a threat, metaphorically and literally.
Pope Julius II has harassed Michelangelo and fearing for his life at the hands of papal spies and assassins he has acquiesced to paint the Sistine Chapel. This pope was the manipulative and evil Cardinal della Rovere, arch-rival and bitter enemy of treacherous Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI). Michelangelo resents the cardinals as “expensive parasites of the Church” and in my opinion the wolves of the title. Perversion and pedophiles were rampant and cover-ups the order of the day. Have things changed very much? The pope has ‘the French disease’ - syphilis. His feet are covered in syphilitic sores. He also has at his side cherubic blue-eyed blond-haired Agnello, The Pope’s Boy, who has come from Imperia’s brothel.
We come to see the quick-tempered and perfectionist Michelangelo drawn in contrast to the polished, classy and well-respected Raphael - two great and very different Renaissance artists. The chapter when Rafael and Francesco bribe the guards, break into the Sistine Chapel and climb up the scaffolding to view The Flood is particularly interesting.
As Francesco investigates the murder of Calendula, the beautiful golden-haired whore and artist’s model fished out of the Tiber (many models for the Madonna were prostitutes), he spends time with Susanna, the silversmith’s housekeeper, who lives behind Michelangelo’s squalid home. With her quick wit, belief in superstition, street smarts, sweet nature and gypsy black hair and eyes, it’s no wonder that Francesco falls in love with her. Their scenes together are quite touching.
It’s an engrossing read as the clues build up and we solve the mystery along with our narrator. Although more lives are lost, the novel ends with hope as Francesco rescues the Pope’s Boy and sails for Venice – “the city he had visited in his student years and start again, but this time with a little more wisdom and humility.”
The Wolves of St. Peter’s is published by HarperCollins.