WE’RE in Venice in the year 1510. The artists in the city include Giorgione, aged 33, or Zorzo, as he’s called, the novel’s central character. His mentor and teacher Bellini is now 80 years old, while Leonardo is 58 and in Florence, Michelangelo is 35 in Rome. In Germany, Durer is 39, Bosch is 60 and Grunewald is 40.

Some of the greatest artists of the European Renaissance are becoming increasingly aware of each other’s work and the changing politics of the times they live in. This sense of discovering the mysteries of art and politics lies at the heart of the new novel by Damian Dibben, The Colour Storm (Penguin, £9.99).

The plot hinges on a magical promise of something no artist has had access to before, a new colour. But crossing this is the intrigue of the relations of power between, on the one hand, political men of authority and property, and the established Catholic Church, with access to violence and the hardest of society’s rules, and, on the other hand, the authority of artists, intellectuals and thinkers.

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But there’s more. Crossing this is a love story, or rather, a story about the blindness and mistakes that what seems like love might bring to any one of us.

I’m making the novel sound complex, and it is, but it reads with the fluency of a thriller, with page-turning compulsion, a mystery unsolved and unresolved, that keeps you guessing right through to the last pages.

Structure is the key. The Prologue begins “Sixty years afterwards. Rome. January, 1570.” And the artist we know as El Greco is visiting an elderly woman, frail and near to death, who promises to tell him a secret, but first he must listen to her story.

Who this woman is, and how the story will reveal the secret, and what we will return to in 1570, after most of the novel takes place, in 1510, drives the curiosity of the reader eagerly onwards.

Zorzo meets his paint supplier Caspien, who brings out a case: “A battered block of black oak, two feet wide and one deep, studded with rivets and fortified with iron straps.”

A gold key unlocks the casket, many more clasps must be undone, a secondary lid must be pulled up, and then the materials inside begin to be revealed: the essential materials of the artist, the painter: “The aromas are familiar and intense: urine-smelling verdigris, nose-burning sulphur and the mulched-leaf scent of madder root. In each stall is a different material, some half wrapped in paper or pushed into phials: portions of rocks, dull powders, quantities of metal, cubes of caked earth, crushed bone, dried bark – pigments in their raw form, barely giving their secrets away.”

Zorzo is trained to see the “tiny burns” of colour that come off from these strange substances: “indigo, ultramarine, vermilion, yellow ochre, burnt umber and malachite”.

Caspien tells him that the destiny of every colour “is to break free of its ordinary beginning and dazzle the world”.

But it’s more than dazzlement: it’s a sense of revelation, of possibility, of the transformation such colours can be made to realise in the practice of the artist. And that begins to make the artist a palpable threat to accepted truth, whether of the predominant Church or of the landowners, the rulers of geography.

If the arts enable people to see differently, accepted authorities may be overturned. Better for the authorities to stop the arts in their tracks, either by violence and oppression, with religious heretics and thinkers burned to death at the stake, or by discrediting and relegating the value of arts and artists, cutting their funding and making certain that no education is provided to anyone to help people to see how their lives can be helped by the arts.

After Caspien shows Zorzo the contents of his casket, he takes him to a nearby inn: “I have a story to tell you, mein Freund. A secret that will entrance you. About a colour that no-one has ever seen, one that could be even more precious than ultramarine.”

This colour is called “Prince Orient” and it might possibly have been used only once, by Giotto di Bondone, in Padua, in a series of murals for the Scrovegni Chapel, and in only one picture, of Bethlehem, “with a star tracing across the sky.” But, Caspien explains, it cannot be seen any more: “Isn’t time a cruel mistress? She took it away, That, or some thief removed it for himself. But find it again. Find it for all mankind ...”

The National: The Colour Storm links Renaissance painting to contemporary politicsThe Colour Storm links Renaissance painting to contemporary politics (Image: Penguin)

And so the quest begins. An enormously wealthy and influential – and reputedly violently jealous – lord, is arriving in Venice with his young wife, with a portion of the colour, and a new commission ready to take forward. The artist who gets the commission will be have access to the colour. Michelangelo and Leonardo are already in Venice looking for that commission, but Zorzo is a driven man.

ONE of the qualities that heightens the novel is its attention to the senses, those aspects of living things which the arts enhance by drawing attention to them, sensitively and firmly.

When he attends a gathering of the good, the great and the Machiavellian: “Zorzo takes a cup of wine and as he lifts it to his nostrils, the aroma catches him by surprise: there’s no hint of the one-note acidic drafts he’s used to. When he drinks, it tastes royal.”

And when he circulates: “He observes how different a room of wealthy people feels from the type of room he’s used to”; “how heavy fabrics deepen the sound and how the colours of cloth – vermilion, orchil, dark indigo, cherry red, pearl and madder green – seem exaggerated; how light leaps everywhere from jewels in earrings and neck-chains, sewn into dresses, on to collars and cuffs; and how expensive scents – of chamomile, violet, jasmine and camphor – put him in mind of a flower market, or a cathedral at Easter.”

Taste, sound, colour and scent, and the tactile feel of things mediating between the external world and internal realities, are his condition, and the subject of his art. Which makes him a dangerous man.

When he meets his former mentor, the old artist Bellini, there’s a sense how of the political and religious world beyond the immediacy of people and works of art is swirling around everyone like a plague, a dangerous contagion you won’t suspect is near you until it’s too late.

This becomes a sinister disclosure of a whirlpool of threat: “Bellini is turned from the light and his face is in darkness. ‘They have their eyes on us, you know? The powers that be. They’re watching us artists, us thinkers. I do not care. I’m too old to care. I’ll be cold guts in the ground soon enough, but you should be mindful’.”

Zorzo is sceptical: “The powers that be?” Bellini confirms: “That think we are the cause of this strife, all these ill omens … Bad tidings. Strange happenings. Venice is stricken by them. Have you not noticed the flooding of late? Three times this month San Marco has sunk beneath the lagoon and water crept into the cathedral, our sacred heart. But that is just the beginning…”. “I don’t understand,” Zorzo protests: “Why would we be the cause of – ”

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BELLINI tells him: “‘Vengeance. All our successes, all our ideas’. Ideas: he speaks the word with a twist in his mouth. ‘Artists and philosophers unpicking a thousand years of rules. All those paintings and sculptures and essays, all our wicked thoughts – that declare man is the centre of it all. Not God. In Castile, you know, they have the Tribunal of the Inquisition for such sinners’.” And suddenly Zorzo “finds the air in the cabin stifling”.

Zorzo infiltrates the confidences of “the richest man in the world”, one of the men “who own the world”: Herr Jakob Fugger and his wife Sybille. First he is commissioned to paint her portrait but their relationship becomes more intimate, led by his attraction to her, and by her manipulation of him. The threat of what Herr Fugger might bring down upon them both, as well as Sybille’s missing brother, grows more fearful the more it remains undisclosed.

In the gathering tension of the plot, the intermittent moments highlighting the material data of painting counterpoint the conventions of the thriller genre with an experiential understanding of the physicality of the arts.

Their sensual apprehension is a testament to the vulnerability of human bodies. Both are repositories of “hidden treasure” as we hear of the old map that had been made by Bellini’s father that led to the discovery of yellow ochre in the Dolomite hills, or discoveries from even more abstruse sources. “We used to go to the meadowlands west of Padua to collect particular wild flowers and grasses, vines, berries too – berries make true magenta.

“We tracked down certain insects, for even they have colours locked inside. Beetles, ladybirds, crickets. Or we’d go to the seashore to grub for molluscs and shells. You’ve seen a sea urchin, haven’t you?

Ugly-looking creature, with all the spines. They can be deadly too. But what if I told you, in the right hands, they produce indigo. And there are certain shells that make navy blue or iridescent silver …”

And there’s more: “Colours from creatures, and from the earth, are good enough, but it’s minerals that produce the marvels … A colour, the right one, an exquisite one, can turn a good painting into a masterpiece. Blue from cobalt, blue as vivid as sky. Orange from potassium, the colour of fire. Rich green from serpentine and olivine, red from haematite …” Even grinding stones until the colour comes out of them, “I learnt that everything has a colour hidden within it.”

“And this is the essence: Colour is the purest form of things, of us, even … The trick with a portrait is to capture a fleeting moment, but at the same time, the essence of a person …” The relation between what’s essential and what’s momentary is defined in a painting by colour. And it’s this perception that the novel expands into political understanding.

Zorzo tells Sybille of his belief in the history of Venetian authority, centred in the Doge’s Palace: “A gigantic room – it spans the whole length of the building. You almost can’t accept it’s real. It’s where the city council meets, to look after their people, and to dream of greater things to come …”

But Sybille replies that if there are some people who mock power, most people remain ignorant of the slaves it turns them into: “Blind. Bound. Drudges to do the bidding of the tiny few.” And Zorzo must know who they are: “The Church of Rome, and those in its thrall. A handful of others, my husband chief amongst them …”

The parallels with contemporary Scotland, the UK, the world at large, need not be spelled out; they’re surely clear enough. And then comes the crux of the novel, which takes it from its historical location to our own contemporary world with a desperately urgent application: “Think what’s at stake. The world now, look at it. The time of print. Fifty years ago, the total number of books in the world was barely in the hundreds. Now it’s in the hundreds of thousands. Presses in all quarters.

“Pandora’s box opened. Knowledge everywhere. Opinions far and wide. Man has all but gone around the Earth. Mysteries solved. Of course the Pope’s church is going to fight for its existence. It has the world to lose. Its whole architecture is being torn down, brick by brick. That’s why they’re building a new St Peter’s, why they want painters like you to fill it with pictures of their choosing.”

The story of Zorzo and Sybille and Sybille’s terrifyingly powerful husband Jakob takes its urgent twists and turns and keeps you guessing brilliantly but the underlying and sustaining argument surfaces finally when Zorzo and Jakob have their final confrontation, and despite Jakob’s personal rage and the rich man’s sense of entitlement pressing upon the vulnerable artist, Zorzo has his moment and Jakob listens to his speech: “When I was a student, my master, Bellini, had me sketch the faces of 12 Roman emperors. To give the pictures authenticity, I learnt about each of them, their good deeds and bad, their triumphs and failings … “On the one hand there were Trajan and Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Good men. Bold men. They reshaped governments, built universities, made systems of laws, fought poverty and ignorance. They were wise, and moral.

“Then at the other end of the scale, there were Domitian and Nero and Caligula, who just stamped on freedoms, pulled down learning places … set up tribunals of fear, built palaces for themselves.

They were men who didn’t heed the past or care for civilisation, who had no interest in culture, not truly, who were tyrannical and selfish. You have as much power as these kings, Herr Fugger, I have come to realise that. More so. And the question …”

The question is, “which would you be, sir, a Hadrian or a Nero?”

And you’ll have to read the novel to find the answer Zorzo finally gets.