Awed by the great art in Italy's galleries, little did author Jeffrey Archer know it would flavour his bestselling novels
My first trip to Italy was with a friend when I was about 19. I was living in Somerset at the time and so we headed by train, ferry and more trains across Europe. It was a long, slow journey. When I got to Venice, I just couldn't believe its beauty. Seeing it was an experience in itself. We stayed for about a week, in a hostel, and did all the touristy things, including visits to the galleries and a ride on a gondola. It was my first taste of real Italian food, too. Spaghetti followed by more spaghetti. I didn't learn the finer joys of Italian cooking until much later in life. I remember we ran out of money as well.
Not long after that, I made another trip to Italy to take part in an athletics meet in Rome. I remember we stayed outside the city and travelled in. Walking around the streets, I really enjoyed getting to know the city. Rome has such amazing galleries. The Vatican Museum's art gallery, in particular, is very special. You can see Caravaggio and all the greats there. And of course, the National Gallery of Modern Art has some fabulous art. I really had fallen for Italy and art in a big way.
Sadly, I had no artistic talent of my own but I just loved to be around it. I did visit quite a few art galleries after I fell in love with a girl when I was at Wellington School in Somerset, although that relationship didn't last.
By the time I started writing my first novel, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, I was in my 30s. I always say write about what you know and so art, as well as business and politics, has been appearing in one guise or another in my books across the years. One of the main characters in that first novel was an art gallery owner.
By the time I had written three or four books, I met an owner of an art gallery, Christopher Beetles, and Simon Bainbridge, who worked at the famous Hatchards bookshop. We all bonded over a love of art and Italy and eventually started going for what became virtually an annual trip to different cities or towns in Italy. We tend to go for a few days in the spring or autumn, which fits in with my writing schedule.
As the scholar, Simon decided which places and galleries we would visit. He would tell us over breakfast about what we were going to do that day and we'd set off to see whatever galleries, churches and monuments he had chosen. He made sure that we only ever looked at a dozen pictures and half a dozen sculptures a day, so as to avoid "art fatigue". He would tell us about the selected objects - for me as a layman, it was an immense privilege to have his scholarship and Dr Beetles' knowledge.
There was another advantage to my travelling companions: they were both gourmets. By contrast, I am not. I'm happy with my spaghetti bolognese as it brings a smile to my lips, but no, this is not good enough for Dr Beetles and Mr Bainbridge, who like to sample wines and test the dishes. After 40 years of dining with them, I am still none the wiser but it has been a privilege to sit at their feet and eat the leftovers.
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Over the past 35 or 40 years, we have visited 50 to 60 cities and towns across Italy, some very small but in possession of remarkable masterpieces, such as the Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca in Monterchi, or Fra Angelico's Annunciation of Cortona in Cortona. You don't have to go to Venice, Florence and Rome to see masterpieces. I was lucky because Simon knew where to go and look for them as he had been there before.
Having said that, I do love Florence. It has three of the best art galleries in the world, namely the Uffizi, the Bargello and the Pitti Palace. I have a particular love of Rembrandt's paintings, especially his self-portraits, which I think are amazing.
For the first book in the William Warwick series, I placed the detective in the art and antiquities squad, where he was investigating the theft of a priceless Rembrandt painting, so art is still very much a theme in my work. Other places that have a place in my heart are Umbria and Tuscany - and when I'm in Sicily, I have to make a pit stop at Corrado Costanzo in Noto. Their stracciatella icecream is sublime.
Sadly, this year our trip to Italy had to be postponed, but I have seen some amazing pictures coming up for sale all over the country. I purchased three to add to the collection I have built up over the years. I'm fortunate to be able to indulge in my passion for Italy and its art, inspired by those early visits so many years ago.
Hidden in Plain Sight, the second in the William Warwick series, by Jeffrey Archer (Pan Macmillan; $39.99) is out now.
- Telegraph Media Group