The book review blitz continues! I rarely get asked to review fiction, so this one was a treat for me.
The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux
There’s a particular sub-genre of historical fiction that attempts to imagine the inner worlds and intimate experiences of great real-life historical figures. In The Medici Boy, John L’Heureux has chosen Renaissance sculptor Donatello as the great central figure upon which to build a (mostly? entirely?) fictional tale of forbidden homosexual passion and the tension between Renaissance society’s quasi-worship of artistic genius and its vicious persecution of sexual deviance. Even the most homophobic society gives some leeway to the privileged deviant, whether that privilege is based on money, family connections or respected talent. But the space of permission is terribly conditional. L’Heureux’s novel spins its tale almost entirely in that liminal space between permission and punishment, lending an aching, urgent quality to even the most banal of everyday activities in its characters’ lives.
The Medici Boy tells the story of Donatello’s life through the eyes of one of his devoted assistants, Luca Mattei. This set-up creates yet another liminal space: the space where a man stands when he works closely with a genius for decades, knows his moods and preferences like his own flesh, sees all his terribly human flaws while still admiring his superhuman abilities, loves him with a multifaceted kind of love, and yet never quite touches or fully understands the artist’s inner experience. The story conveys a kind of intimacy between the two men, not exactly sexual but hardly lacking in erotic energy, and a kind of utterly unbridgeable distance all at once.
Donatello does turn his amorous attentions to Luca, once, as well as to other assistants, some for a long time, some fleetingly. But the object of his long-term affection is Luca’s younger step-brother, a shallow, shady layabout who uses his good looks as currency, and lives off the goodwill of his older admirers. Oscar Wilde can tell us how this goes – although in this version of the tragic tale, the backdrop is the Black Plague, the Italian Church, and rich families’ political battles for control of Italy’s major cities.
The rich historical detail is immersive, and a reader could get lost in the lush descriptions of Donatello’s artistic practice alone. The sweaty task of pouring boiling metal into moulds feels both hellish and heroic at once, with loyal assistants straining to complete the raw grunt work that makes the genius’s role possible. You can almost smell the sharp stink of effort and fear and liquid bronze. But the novel’s real strength lies in its ability to convey the nuance of a tale that’s in some ways heartbreakingly predictable and in other ways utterly unique to its time and its people. In this story of love and persecution, overflowing wealth and brute labour, adulation and imprisonment, L’Heureux succeeds in bringing us deep into the past and showing us just how far back our history of great injustice goes, showing us exactly what we expect to see while also demonstrating just how much we can’t know. While spinning his own kind of myth, he still conveys how different real people can be from the legends that grow up around them.