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Book Review: The Medici Boy

By (April 14, 2014) No Comment

The Medici Boythe medici boy cover

By John L’Heureux

Astor + Blue Editions, 2014


When it came time to write about Irving Stone’s massive 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, which follows the life of Michelangelo from birth to death, one rather dyspeptic book reviewer groused that “around the 500-page mark, I started to wonder, despite every encyclopedia entry ever written, if Michelangelo was ever, in fact, going to die.” There are two main reasons for this: first, Stone’s book is nearly 800 pages long, and second, not at any point in a writing career spanning 50 years did Irving Stone ever actually learn how to write engaging prose – so you feel every single one of those 800 pages right in your poor rheumatoid joints, and by the time Michelangelo finally expires, you’re just about ready to crawl into the mausoleum with him.

John L’Heureux’s latest novel, The Medici Boy, likewise follows the life of a Renaissance artist over a span of more than half a century, but this book’s differences from The Agony and the Ecstasy are legion: it’s about the sculptor Donato di Betto Bardi (known to history as Donatello), not Michelangelo; it’s 300 pages long, not 800; and best of all, it’s written not by a dogged researcher with delusions of auteurship, but by one of the most impeccable craftsmen working in American letters today. L’Heureux is an editor, a poet, and the author of a little shelf-full of first-rate prose, including 1988’s A Woman Run Mad and 1996’s delightful The Handmaid of Desire. He was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Grant in order to research The Medici Boy. Other writers of historical fiction – on subjects ranging from Alexander the Great to Trajan to Erasmus to William Howard Taft, say – will marvel (or perhaps complain?) at how much easier their own researches would have been with an extra $50,000 in the piggy bank, but there’s certainly no denying the money here was well spent: 15th century Florence is brought incredibly to life in these pages, not just the details of Donatello’s life and work, but also the broader canvas of Italian life at the time.

Beginning, very early on, with death – specifically the bubonic plague, which our narrator Luca Mattei contracts in 1417 at the age of 17. The novel’s not quite that short, however: Luca survives, tended during his illness by a young monk from the Friary of Saint Francis – and accompanied by L’Heureux’s signature light, sly, sideways irony:

“You have survived the pestilence,” he said. “You are very blessed by God.”

He had a bucket of water beside the cot, and he bathed the wound and put on it a poultice of rosemary, cumin, long grass, and pig dung to kill the infection and induce healing. “You have survived,” he said again, and sat on the stool beside my cot and told his beads. When he was done, he bathed my forehead with cool water, slowly, lingering, and before he left, he kissed me on the lips. He was being Saint Francis, of course, kissing the leper. He was a dedicated novice.

It’s a fitting foreshadowing of the so-called Florentine vice, which Luca encounters full-on once he enters the bottega of Donatello and begins getting to know his fellow apprentices and the master himself, a prosperous and busy city artist who’s also (like virtually all of his equally famous industry peers) a gay man living under the dominion of a Church that abominates him. L’Heureux writes in his Author’s Note of the first time he saw Donatello’s famous sculpture of David at the Bargello: “It was naked in every sense and seemed to me personal, erotic, a testament to the sculptor’s sexual obsession for the teenaged boy he had created.”

That boy is not Luca (our fussy, priggish narrator is that oft-recurring L’Heureux character who’s only just emotionally competent enough to report on the emotions of others, and even then, we must often look “over his shoulder” in order to understand things he himself does not) but rather a mouthy part-time bardassa named Agnolo, whose spellbound relationship with Donatello is the novel’s animating story. Luca has nothing but admiration for his master, so he can’t help but view this connection with disapproval. Donatello is, after all, “a man of forty-five years – already in his late middle age – too old for the foolishness of first love and too wise to give over his good sense to a boy who sold himself at the Buco.” And yet, the attraction is there, and poor Luca can only dumbfoundedly relate it:

How can it be, I thought, that such a man as he could fall in love with such a boy as Agnolo. It could not be question of physical attraction because Agnolo was mere skin and bones. In truth he had a fine, handsome head and wondrous yellow hair but he was soft and girlish and his behind was flabby and without form. Yet he was desired by many, so it must be that I simply did not understand the nature of his beauty … he was quick of wit in a vulgar way. He was keen to please when he was in the mood to do so. He was ready with a smile. But he was a soulless, selfish child.

One of the many strengths on display in this magnificent novel (tempting to call it L’Heureux’s best, but then, his books are often so radically different from each other that it feels almost like a dodge) is the author’s ability to make Agnolo simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, but the central creative glory here is of course the portrait of Donatello himself, this mercurial genius now so unfairly overshadowed by Michelangelo and Leonardo. Luca may be a dimwitted little prude at times, but his love of his master encourages us to feel very acutely the great man’s heartbreaks – most of which are occasioned by the changes in Agnolo’s fortunes over the years. Luca may not understand those heartbreaks, but he’s keenly aware of their toll:

Donatello had grown old – he was more than fifty years of age by now – and it seemed that with the exile of Agnolo he had lost interest in both his work and his life. Those good days when he would gather us all together at the end of a work day and we would joke and drink and he would say witty things about Ghiberti or intimate things about my lord Cosimo de’ Medici, those days were gone. He no longer laughed and he seemed always a little lost.

The odds are good (sad, but good) that you’ve never read a novel by John L’Heureux. As Edward St. Aubyn, Percival Everett, M. A. Harper, and many others can attest (with varying degrees of profanity), the phenomenon of the “mid list author” is deeply confounding; these are the writers who should be our standard-bearers, the ones who aren’t churning out autobiographical swill ghostwritten by their own terrified interns (and then turning up at Hollywood launch parties in tweed jackets and smug grins) but rather laboring over their work with care and finesse, sometimes for sales that hardly justify a trip to the post office. These are the authors, in other words, who are most certainly do it for love of prose itself; it should go without saying that theirs are the novels most worth reading.

But you can make up for lost time, and you can have a deeply satisfying reading experience while you’re at it. Do yourself a favor and start with The Medici Boy.