Secrecy has been drifting on the edge of my radar for some time, as you might expect of a book set in Medicean Florence. I finally got around to reading it last week, and found it a rather unusual piece of work: it deals with both a period and a subject that don’t crop up very often in historical fiction. The Medici in this novel are not, as I’d initially expected, the glittering Laurentian Medici of the Renaissance. On the contrary, these are the Medici left over at the dwindling end of the family’s great trajectory through Italian history: a fading dynasty of Grand Dukes, weakened by inbreeding and debauchery, their ancestors’ political acumen frittered away, their virility and vitality exhausted.
As Grand Duke Cosimo III regards his heirs – the effeminate Ferdinando and the obese Gian Gastone – it’s no surprise that his thoughts should turn towards the extinction of his family. But Cosimo’s preoccupation with death is part of a wider cultural trend, and it’s this that Thomson’s book recreates so intriguingly. In these dying days of the 17th century, the scientific interests of the Enlightenment have been warped by an almost perverse religious obsession with decay and the fragility of human life. The freakish, deformed and diseased have become objects of fascination for the elite, who tantalise themselves with images of mortality and suffering.
Gaetano Zumbo (or Zummo), the novel’s protagonist, was a real person. Born in Syracuse, he was a sculptor who worked in wax, specialising in strikingly realistic anatomical specimens, as well as figures or tableaux which showed the progressive stages of disease or corruption. His work was perfectly pitched to appeal to those, like Cosimo, who found something instructive – or even titillating – about the moribund. Examples of Zumbo’s work can still be seen in the Natural History Museum in Florence (La Specola), the only Florentine museum I’ve never chosen to set foot in: the exhibits sound entirely too lifelike and gruesome for my taste.
In the novel, Zumbo has spent his life perpetually on the run from his own past, keeping one step ahead of the rumours spread by his envious brother, but he seems to have found a safe haven in Florence. Cosimo has a great admiration for Zumbo’s plague-pieces and he is tantalised by the artist’s ability to come so close to living (or decaying) flesh through the medium of wax. Presently he approaches Zumbo with a unique and very secret commission – one which risks blurring the lines between art and life, and which brings Zumbo closer than ever to illicit methods. And he must be careful: he is already marked as someone to watch. The Grand Duke’s officials are too interested in his past in Sicily; and he has developed an immediate antagonism with a dangerous enemy: the Dominican priest Stufa, confessor to Cosimo’s formidable mother.
To make matters more complicated, Zumbo has begun to make friends in the town beyond the court, each of whom makes him more vulnerable: the anatomist who helps him with specimens; his landlady and her naive, innocent daughter; and, most compromising of all, the apothecary’s niece Faustina, who has damning secrets of her own.
Thomson is good at conveying the unpleasant and the gruesome. There is something of Gormenghast about this fading Florentine court, whose tarnish reaches into the very souls of its courtiers, and the book’s atmosphere also reminded me of novels like Pure and Perfume. However, it is technically flawed and that’s where the inevitable ‘but’ comes into the equation. There’s slightly too much going on and so the characters never quite have time to develop into the fully engaging figures they could have been. There are issues with the storytelling, too: Zumbo has a frustrating habit of breaking off halfway through a scene or conversation in order to remember another episode from his youth. And, for something which is meant to be a great romance and a driving force of the novel, his love affair with Faustina never quite feels convincing. I don’t really believe that two people would fall instantly in love through an apothecary’s window. Nor did I think it likely that the Grand Duke would be so short of servants that Faustina, a random townswoman, would be able to find her way onto the waiting staff of an exclusive banquet (what about the security concerns?).
It was slightly problematic that the romance simply didn’t engage me, especially because I felt there were much more interesting things going on in the novel that I’d rather have heard more about. The wax-modelling, for example. Some of the most fascinating and beautiful passages in the book were descriptions of how Zumbo goes about his art, especially in the way that he creates varying flesh tones through delicate layers of pigment painted into the wax. I’d have loved to learn more about this precisely because it is so unusual.
It’s frustrating that the book never quite comes to fruition, because both the striking subject and the unfamiliar period are so promising. It just never felt as if all the separate strands came together into a strong enough whole. Nevertheless, the history is reliable. I’m not all that familiar with it, but a quick consultation of the relevant chapter in Paul Strathern’s The Medici suggests that Thomson has stuck faithfully to the facts about Cosimo, his sons and Zumbo’s employment in Florence (save the secret commission). To date I haven’t come across any other novels about this historical period in Florence, so I feel compelled to recommend it on that basis (and would be interested to hear if anyone else has come across similar books). I’m also very conscious that this was a case of my not getting on with a book, as opposed to finding it objectively bad. It might very well be worth a go if you like your historical fiction with a soupcon of grotesquerie.