Over the past year, while working on Mantegna, I’ve often though it a shame that there aren’t more novels about him. He had the kind of life that cries out for fiction and so, when I stumbled across this novel on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t get on with it terribly well. It isn’t just that I found it hard to engage with it as a piece of historical fiction – though I did – but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the numerous errors, which could have been avoided by a ten-second check on Wikipedia. Perhaps this warrants a discussion about the purpose of historical fiction. We can get into that later, because (you won’t be surprised to hear) I have strong opinions about it. Perhaps it also warrants a discussion about whether you should read novels set in your specialist historical period. But the most remarkable thing is that I’ve actually ended up feeling sorry for Mantegna who, while one of the most unpleasant, litigious and self-conscious artists in history, does not deserve this. I should warn you that this is a long one and there is much ranting. I’d suggest you make a cup of tea first.
I was hoping for an author’s note, because I was keen to find out where the inspiration had come from; but there was nothing. It seems that McInerney was inspired by the figure of the woman dressed in black who stands behind the dwarf girl in The Court Scene in the Camera degli Sposi (and by the girl herself). Although there’s nothing obviously Asian about her, this haunting figure gives rise to the story of Ya Ling, a Chinese girl of good family, who is tragically kidnapped and sent overseas to Venice, to be sold as a slave. Her beauty and virginal state promise to raise a great deal of money, but to everyone’s surprise she is purchased by the painter Andrea Mantegna, who just happens to be in town. Despite having sacrificed a vast amount of money for this woman (money which he doesn’t have), Mantegna shows little sign of valuing his expensive new acquisition. He takes Ya Ling from the auction room, almost immediately throws her into a deserted stable and rapes her. He continues to rape her on an almost daily basis throughout most of the book, even after he brings her home to his house in Mantua, where he keeps her in shackles. Not only does he treat Ya Ling terribly, but he shows her off to his wife Nicolosia, and brags about the pleasure he gets from using her.
This all makes me deeply uncomfortable (I felt slightly sick for most of the book), but I’m willing to accept that it’s just because I have a different idea of what Mantegna was like. But we’ll come to that. The story focuses on the culture clash between Ya Ling and the people who surround her in Mantua. Unfortunately there is little subtlety to this. Ya Ling, who up until the point of her kidnap was an absolute brat, suddenly becomes a compassionate, forbearing and enlightened woman, using her advanced herbal knowledge to treat and save the lives of members of Mantegna’s household. (Mantegna himself criticises her every time he finds her doing something other than lying waiting for him, splayed and naked.) Apart from the artist – the less said the better, really, otherwise I’ll get upset again – the household is divided between the women and men. The women are close-minded, blinkered shrews, whose understandable dislike of Ya Ling turns into shrill tale-telling and pettily vindictive torments. The men are universally in love with her and try to champion her to their embittered womenfolk. Most of the book is formed of repetitive scenes in which Ya Ling is brutalised in various ways, yet remains serenely above it all (what is the Asian-in-Italy equivalent of a white saviour?).
I could accept the story if the characters were nuanced, or if they grew plausibly as people during the course of the book, but they don’t. Each of them is two-dimensional, giving little real sense of them as people rather than as straw men for Ya Ling to shine out against, radiant in her enlightenment. The pacing is also bizarre. The first year or so of Ya Ling’s imprisonment in Mantegna’s house, with its repeated rapes, humiliations and miseries, takes up most of the book. Yet, in the final chapters, we suddenly start moving through time in seven or ten years in a sentence, upsetting the slow pace of things. And the conversation is often weighed down with exposition and helpful, ‘as you know, Bob’-type monologues in which the characters explain things to one another that they must surely have known. A further run of forceful editing would have made a great difference. And a fact-checking assistant would have been enormously helpful too.
Probably the errors aren’t things that most people will care about. But I am now going to put on my nerd hat, and you can skip the next few paragraphs if you wish. The points I’m about to make are founded on my very strong belief that, if you write historical fiction, you have a moral and intellectual duty to get it right. Sure, you can write counter-factual or alternate history, but that isn’t what’s happening here. The Pumilio Child seems to be a case in which an author has eagerly grabbed the chance to have a big-name character in her story without being willing to do the research that goes with it. You can do that. But you shouldn’t. It’s the old phrase: with great power comes great responsibility. On the one hand, you can make the great figures of the past do anything you like. (“Hey! Let’s make Mantegna a hideous rapist! There’s no evidence to support this – even less evidence that he had a Chinese sex slave – but it’ll show off my heroine’s resilience to greater effect!”) Really? If you just want a generic wicked rapist artist, why not make one up?
Here’s a selection of some other (small but niggling) issues I had with the ‘facts’. Feel free to scroll down to the bottom without reading them. I won’t be hurt:
- The story opens in Mantua in 1459, where Mantegna and his wife Nicolosia have been living for some years. This is incorrect. Mantegna and his family did not move to Mantua until 1460, four years after he had been engaged by Ludovico Gonzaga, because he had to finish commissions in Padua first.
- In the story, Mantegna and Nicolosia have a son, Francesco, who is in his late teens and helps his father in the workshop. Remember, this is 1459. Mantegna and Nicolosia didn’t even get married until 1453, so book-Francesco really shouldn’t be any older than six. But in real life, Francesco wasn’t even born until somewhere between 1460 and 1470.
- There is a scene in which Mantegna roams around the streets of Venice looking for people to sketch. His apprentice carries around an easel for him. I’m not sure why. Is Mantegna meant to be sketching on canvas, like a plein air Impressionist? If he did sketch out in the streets (which he may or may not have done – Leonardo did, of course, but most artists sketched from models in their studios), he’d have done so on paper, in chalk or, just possibly, metalpoint. No easels would have been involved.
- In the story, Mantegna keeps a load of paintings rolled up in a chest in his house just in case he can sell them off on spec. I suppose it’s just about possible that he might have kept his pictures rolled up. But a good number of his pictures were actually on wooden panels, which would make rolling difficult.
- I also can’t help noticing that, every time he takes out a painting to show it to someone, it just happens to be one of his great masterpieces. (“An Agony in the Garden!” exclaims the client. Or, “Oh look! A Presentation in the Temple!”) I wouldn’t completely lay my life on the line about this, but I’m pretty sure that such pictures would have been commissioned or at least painted for a specific recipient. If you were a Renaissance client in Mantua, you just didn’t go into some back room to browse Mantegna’s finished pictures in secret, as if he was a spiv showing off a new batch of nylon stockings.
- There’s one scene in which Mantegna spreads out his paintings on a table and they rustle as he goes through them. Maybe this is me being harsh, but paper rustles. Canvas doesn’t. And nor do wooden panels.
- Mantegna says at one point that Ya Ling has inspired him to paint an Adoration of the Magi in which one of the Magi holds a Chinese bowl. There is indeed such a picture, now in the Getty, but it was painted around 1500, not around 1460, and the Chinese bowl is probably inspired by the Gonzaga porcelain collection rather than the presence of a Chinese sex slave in Mantegna’s house. (There’s a very good study devoted to the picture, which you can download as a free PDF here.)
- In the story, Mantegna is looked down on and sneered at by courtiers in Mantua for being a nobody, a mere son of a cobbler. In fact, he was not a nobody. At the age of eighteen he was being celebrated in letters and poems by humanists across Italy. While still a teenager he’d ended up heading the team in the Ovetari Chapel, the most prestigious commission in Padua. If there was one thing Mantegna wasn’t, it was a nobody. And he made sure everyone knew that. Maybe not as repetitively and monotonously as he does in the novel, but he never doubted his own genius. Not that the Gonzaga needed reminding. Anyone who was anyone would be taken off to Mantegna’s studio or to see his paintings. And this deep-seated, genuine admiration for him is entirely lacking in the novel.
- Mantegna is snide, cutting and dismissive about the Bellini family throughout the novel. Having just done an exhibition about the numerous ways in which Mantegna and the Bellini influenced and responded to one another, I would contest this.
- A small, especially nerdy point to finish. There’s an inadvertently amusing scene in the novel when Ludovico Gonzaga’s chamberlain shows him some of Mantegna’s recent paintings hanging on the wall in the palace in Mantua. One of them is The Martyrdom of St James. The chamberlain admires it as an extraordinary work of art. But what’s truly extraordinary is how it could be hanging on canvas in the palace in Mantua when, in fact, it was painted in fresco on the wall of the Ovetari Chapel in Padua.
And this is why authors need to do their research properly, otherwise they get people like me pointing out things that are wrong. One or two things wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But, when you get this many things piling up, it undermines the credibility even of the fiction. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this. Having just written (part of) a book on Mantegna myself, I’m bound to be in a place where I can’t see the wood for the trees. But shouldn’t historical fiction be just as enjoyable for those who know about the period, as for those who know nothing?
One thing I will say in the novel’s favour is that it introduced me to the concept of the pumilio or ‘unnatural dwarf’, in which children were tortured in order to form their bodies into particular shapes that would better fit them for becoming court fools. I would have loved to know where to find out more about this, as it isn’t something I’ve ever come across before. A quick search on the internet has produced an article on ‘The Comprachios’ from the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1913, by John Boynton Kaiser, but that’s about it. Were such practices used in 15th-century Mantua? If so, that’s fascinating and disturbing and I’d be interested to know where to find some documentation about it. It isn’t something that’ll directly affect my work, but it’s always good to have a rounded historical context. Strangely enough, I was reading about artificially elongated skull-shaping the other day, in the context of Akhenaten and his daughters. It turns out there are whole regions of medical history of which I had absolutely no awareness whatsoever. So that’s intriguing.
Now, although I didn’t quite click with this novel, that isn’t to say that someone else might not enjoy it a lot more. In fact, there are some very positive reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. I’m sure that I would have been a lot less frustrated if I hadn’t spotted quite so many factual errors – although I maintain that, even when taken just as a novel, there are some weaknesses in characterisation, pacing and plot. But I would be interested to hear what others have to say about it – perhaps those who haven’t spent the last two years living in Mantegna’s company, and can take a more objective view on the matter.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review