The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux
Publication Date: April 9, 2014
Publisher: Astor + Blue
Hardback ISBN-13: 978-1938231506
Synopsis (from John L’Heureux’s website)
The Medici Boy begins in the early 1400s. It is a time of great, ground-breaking artists: della Quercia, Brunelleesci, Ghiberti, Fra Anngelico, Uccello della Robbia, Masaccio, and Donatello. It is also a time of wealthy and powerful families: the Medici, the Albizzi, the Pazzi, the Strozzi, the Sforza, and the Visconti. It is a time when, for a few years, three popes reign simultaneously. And it is a time, finally, when art and politics and religion collide in a single, unique historical moment.
Agnolo Mattei, a street boy and sometime prostitute, enters Donatello’s bottega and offers to pose in exchange for money. He is young and palely beautiful and Donatello is at once taken with him. But what begins as sexual fascination quickly becomes love and in time a consuming passion. Donatello sculpts him as David, one foot on the head of Goliath, and guarantees him immortality as the first bronze nude in over a thousand years and one of the master works of the Italian Renaissance. But Donatello’s consuming passion has its own inevitable consequences.
We view these consequences through the eyes of Luca, the narrator, who is a failed Franciscan, a failed painter, a failed sculptor, and whose only claim to our attention is his love and knowledge of Donatello. It is this knowledge that gives us access to the mystery of the great sculptor himself in what J.M. Coetzee calls “a gripping story of love, genius, and betrayal.”
The Medici Boy is a sweeping narrative spanning over 60 years. Meticulously researched — John L’Heureux was awarded a Guggenheim Grant in 2006 — the novel presents a detailed view of 15th-century Florentine culture and climate, from political, social, religious, and artistic arenas. The result is a picture of life that, though fictional, feels authentic and true.
Given that The Medici Boy is told in the form of a confessional by our narrator, Luca Mattei, I was reminded of Dumas’ brilliant tale of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo. Indeed, each work examines human weakness and frailty. The Medici Boy focuses on love, loyalty, passion, sexuality, desire, and human need, while not shying from darker aspects like jealousy, lust, greed, betrayal, hatred, and murder. Characters are so consumed by their feelings that they become obsessive to the tune of Ahab. Luca even describes himself as “possessed”.
Its exploration of human nature gives the novel teeth. Set at a time when Italy was still under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, moral law and civil law collided. The Church, however, was weakening. In its desperation to control the sexual impulses of men and stamp out sodomy, the church legitimized and regulated prostitution. Still, both practices flourished. However, it was a dangerous time to be even a suspected sodomite. The penalty was cruel. The reenactment of the humiliation, whipping, hanging, and burning at the stake of convicted sodomite and rapist Piero di Jacopo (1429) is harrowing. The scene’s prolonged torture mirrors the crucifixion, complete with a throng of humanity reduced to a roiling mob with an unslakeable thirst for pain.
In another similarly unforgettable moment, Luca witnesses the barbaric behavior of men in the act of torturing a cat for sport. His observation is astute: “I had always hated this sport. I prefer cockfighting or bear baiting, sport where men can at least pretend it is the animals and not they themselves that are by nature vicious.” At these intense moments, so strong is the author’s grip that, no matter how you may try, you are unable to turn away.
Love is not portrayed in a good light: “There is no love without pain.” It has the ability to weaken: “Love robs us of our strength — of mind as well as of character — and we cease to know who we are.” It can ruin: “Love is the great destroyer”. Man’s agency is in question, as love’s grip seems not just undeniable, but unavoidable: “We love where we must, not where we choose.”
None of the novel’s relationships, outside of friendship, are entirely happy and healthy, and all the characters are in some way flawed. No one escapes sin, for it is human to sin: “A man must get through life somehow, poor forked creature that he is.” And Luca, a bastard child, grows to adulthood without ever knowing a pure love. So eventually he concludes “that love is not always what it seems and that some hungers can never be satisfied.” Herein lies one of the main conflicts of the novel. Luca and his brother (though not his brother) Agnolo are a kind of Cain and Abel competing for the attention and affection of Donatello.
I normally avoid fictional works that take liberties with real-life historical figures. However, little is known about the gifted Donatello, and The Medici Boy maintains a dedicated focus on the master’s art. And though itself a work of art, the novel respects Donatello rather than reducing him to a fictionalized novelty and rewriting his life.
L’Heureux’s descriptions of Donatello’s artwork are another strength of The Medici Boy. His understanding of the process and techniques used in Donatello’s sculpture is thorough. Where a less gifted writer might have become bogged down by minutiae, so lively and vivid is L’Heureux in his descriptions that the reader can easily imagine these masterpieces. Indeed, while he related the pouring of the bronze that would complete the construction of the David, as the apprentices sweated and labored, L’Heureux had me holding my breath. Admittedly, prior to reading The Medici Boy, I was familiar only with Michelangelo’s David, which now seems to pale in relation to the more emotional rendering by Donatello.
Ultimately, Donatello remains enigmatic. His passionate genius and sometimes volatile nature seem at odds with something more gentle and delicate, such as his David. Yet, though he remains elusive, L’Heureux is able to present a plausible version of Donatello’s private life, hinting at unplumbed depths but just scraping the surface, suggesting one can never truly know or understand genius. We are, however, made keenly aware that no one is immune to love, which has the power to bring even a giant to his knees.
4 of 5 hearts. Recommended. Thorough and meticulous in his research, L’Heureux brings Renaissance Florence to life in vivid detail while asking difficult questions about the nature of man and love. This would be a good title for book groups and should spawn meaningful conversation.
Donatello’s Bronze David (c. 1440s).
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
Photo Credit: Patrick A. Rodgers (Wikimedia Commons)