I started to visit Italy in my early twenties, and was smitten. I studied for a brief period in Siena, and it was there that I fell in love with the works of Italian Renaissance painters and with the subtle beauty of the countryside that inspired them. Over the years I have visited Italy on numerous occasions, and have always found something new to delight the senses.
Last year I was the guest of the Acerbi Foundation, which is based in a small town outside Mantua. The hospitality and warmth was overwhelming; in addition to numerous dinners, the organisers arranged a visit to the Ducal Palace in Mantua. This palace is vast and rambling, even by the standards of Italian public buildings, but its gems are not the great staterooms, but the exquisite, more intimate rooms created for the Gonzaga family, who ruled Mantua until 1708.
The Camera degli Sposi, or Bridal Chamber, is not a large room, but has the lovely feeling that goes with modestly-sized square rooms. Ludovico Gonzaga, who had appointed Andrea Mantegna as his court artist in 1460, commissioned the decoration. Mantegna intended that all the walls and the ceiling should be completely covered with his painting, but that the room should seem to be a loggia, giving the impression of being in the open. So, although it is indoors, one does not feel enclosed. This is a room that is filled with air and light, with a sense of being at the centre of a world of graciousness and space.
On one of the walls we see the Duke and members of his family. Courtiers stand about him, among whom is a tiny figure, a dwarf, who looks directly at us. If you look up to the ceiling, there is a glimpse of clouds and playful putti standing upon a ledge. It creates a feeling of uplift, of soaring, that is more powerful than any I have seen in any other painting.
Any visit to Italy inspires me. I come home wanting to write. I come home feeling as if I have been vouchsafed a vision. The fact that places like this room exist makes this world seem infinitely precious. It is beauty, pure beauty, rendered in plaster and pigment, a gift of art that is still capable of transforming those who will receive it.
Three new novels by Alexander McCall Smith are out this autumn: Bertie Plays the Blues (a 44 Scotland Street novel); The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (an Isabel Dalhousie novel and Unusual Uses for Olive Oil (a Von Igelfeld novel).