Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Conservator and The Novelist

In 1997 Daniel Silva gave up journalism to become a writer of best-selling novels. 21 years ago, he published his first book in the Gabriel Allon series. It is now 21 books long. It is amusing to me that way back then I was reading these books and today I listen to them in my car. Yes, things change.

Gabriel Allon started out as an assassin for Israeli Intelligence and became a master spy with others to do the dirty work. His avocation, and passion, however, is as a restorer (these days called a Conservator) of Old Master paintings. Allon sees this as a way of healing of all he feels he must destroy for the good of Israel. While Allon works on a 17th century painting, he plays classical music, one example being Puccini’s La Boheme. For us art interested people there is plenty of culture to enjoy along with the intrigue.

Daniel Silva looks like he could be Gabriel Allon

The lengthy Wikipedia discussion of Silva’s characters explains where the hero found his talent: Allon’s grandfather was a well-known Berlin-based German Expressionist painter who passed his talents onto his daughter (Gabriel’s mother) before he was killed at Auschwitz in January of 1943. She in turn passed these talents on to her son, Gabriel.

In his novel, “The Fallen Angel” Allon is working on “The Deposition of Christ” by Caravaggio and there are discussions of the risks and rewards of restoring a painting. The theme continues for objects as well. Many other paintings are mentioned in the novel. Also mentioned is a visit to the Villa Giulia where Allon sees the Euphronios Krater (returned to Italy by the Metropolitan Museum) and comments on the fact that it is where few will see it. This evolves into a discussion of getting collections from a private hands into museums. The Carravagio Depoisition is in the Vatican.


So where does all this insider knowledge on art and restoration come from? Silva recounts how he had the good fortune to meet David Bull, a conservator at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. at the time. Bull was born in Bristol, Great Britain and worked at British museums as well as a private restorer. When he moved to the United States, he worked for the Norton Simon Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles eventually becoming conservator of paintings at The National Gallery. He continued to take on private commissions, though rarely, including one of the paintings from my gallery.

David Bull

Bull became the eminence grise behind Gabriel Allon. Bull recounts that only once was he upset with Silva who wished to have Allon roll up a van Gogh, that was definitely a “No-No”.

Conservators are rarely known outside of the rarified art world, so Bull has enjoyed his celebrity. He has even been called Gabriel Allon but he does not wish to be taken for a spy. He says, “I would be very bad at it. I don’t think I could shoot straight.”! Silva will check with Bull on the most minute details of restoration so that his character is absolutely accurate in the pursuit of his avocation

In Silva’s most recent novel, “The Cellist”, classical music of all sorts comes into play as does a newly discovered painting, “The Lute Player” by Orazio Gentileschi, father of the far better known Artemisa Gentileschi. Orazio’s original Lute Player is in the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.


If you, like me, enjoy mystery and spy novels and want a touch of art and music mixed in, try Daniel Silva’s series. When asked if it matters where you start reading the reply is no. However, once you have read and enjoyed one you will want to go back and start at the beginning so you can learn how the fascinating characters develop and once in a while change.