The Colour of Heaven
The Colour of Heaven is set in Italy, from 1295 until 1315. It is a simple story about painting, short-sightedness, faith and love.
I’ve always been obsessed by the painterly depiction of heaven – how artists take pigments from the earth, real earth, and attempt to depict the divine - and I’ve always been fascinated by the colour blue: not only for its beauty and variety but also because it has so many associations- taken as the colour of constancy, and the colour of sorrow or anguish- taken as the colour of plagues and things hurtful- the clear sky, the sea, indefinite distance, and the unknown.
In the Renaissance the most valuable blue was ultramarine- oltramarino – from beyond the seas - it was made from semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, found only in Chile, Zambia, a few small mines in Siberia and most importantly in Afghanistan. Marco Polo referred to these mines in 1271 ‘There are mountains likewise in which are found veins of lapis lazuli, the stone which yields the azure colour ultramarine, here the finest in the world. The mines of silver, copper, and lead are likewise very productive. It is a cold country.’
In the novel, three men go to this cold country: a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew, accompanied by my central character, Paolo.
It starts simply and biblically with the discovery of an abandoned baby in a canal- just like Moses, and then moves out into a story about colour, faith, life and love.
No one noticed the child.
He had been left in a small boat which now sailed out towards the lagoon, following nothing but the slap and tide of each narrow canal.
It was Ascension Day in the year twelve hundred and ninety. The people of Venice were parading through the streets, hoisting crimson pennants and bright yellow banners in celebration. Tailors dressed in white tunics with crimson stars, weavers in silver cloth tippets, and cotton-spinners in cloaks of fustian, mingled with blacksmiths, carpenters, butchers, and bakers, singing and shouting their way towards the Piazza San Marco.
The square was filled with showmen, swindlers, soothsayers and charlatans; jesters, jugglers, prophets and priests. Alchemists cried out that scrapings of amber gave protection from the plague, and that an emerald pressed against naked flesh could preserve a woman from apoplexy. A dentist with silver teeth sold a special compound which he vowed would improve the value of all metal; a barber displayed a gum to make bald men hirsute; and a naked Englishmen sold pine seeds which were said to guarantee invisibility as surely as the talisman of Gyges.
But no one had noticed the baby.
“Runcie’s real gift, like that of his appealing young hero, is a wonderful feel for colour. The book has a winning charm.”
Sally Vickers The Independent
“The novel shares much of the serenity and luminosity of the painting at its heart.”
Michael Arditti The Independent
“Runcie has taken a small nugget of history and polished it to delicious effect.”
Max Davidson Sunday Telegraph