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Jay Wright
The Soul's Tariff
Jay Wright, author
When a telescope arrives in Venice from the East, Jacopo Robusti, better known as the painter Tintoretto, is asked to examine and replicate it. In the winter of 1571 Cyprus has fallen. The Habsburgs press on the Venetian State from the north. War with the Ottoman Empire is coming to the seas.
Historical Novel Society

The artistic and personal world of 16th-century Venice is beautifully evoked in Johnson’s kaleidoscopic novella The Soul’s Tariff, in which a telescope newly arrived in Venice from the East is shown to an artist and craftsman named Jacopo Robusti, known to history as the famous painter Tintoretto, who is asked with duplicating the device. Johnson’s Tintoretto is a wonderfully convincing fictional creation, an inspired combination of brilliance and a contemplative kind of pessimism (“It is not his fault so many are unschooled about what they pay for,” we’re told at one point, “he washed off the watercolor, leaving the painting in the oil in his style, to applause and bitterness. Always both”). That particularly Venetian mordant humor filters throughout Johnson’s dialogue-rich book (as when we are told that the Medici are “surprisingly humorless” and that it is “hard to laugh all the way to the bank when you are the bank”), applying equally to Tintoretto and his colleagues and rivals as well as to fascinating side-characters like Moorish merchant Rawh Abdul-Gaffar Asrar al-Fihri. Johnson also does a first-rate job succinctly painting the tense international background in which Venice is threatened both by the Habsburgs in the north at the Ottomans in the east. The whole thing is fast-paced and entirely satisfying. Recommended.