A review of The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux, New York, 2013
Well-written and researched, but a missed opportunity ****
The eponym of this story, Agnolo Mattei, is not literally a Medici, but the fictitious boy model for Donatello’s bronze David commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici. This statue, “the first free-standing bronze nude in more than a thousand years”, is felt by L’Heureux to be “a testament to the sculptor’s sexual obsession for the teenaged boy he had created.” Hence this richly imagined tale of that obsession, narrated through the life story from birth in 1400 to death in 1467 of Donatello’s assistant Luca, the disapproving foster-brother of Agnolo. Luca disapproves because Agnolo, as a shallow rent boy, is unworthy of the great man’s obsession, a convincingly conceived scenario except for the stretch of the imagination required to see a youth of 17 to 18, however slender and effeminate, as the model for the barely pubescent David to be seen in the Bargello today.
The author spent a year doing research for his book in his Florentine setting, and it certainly shows. So much popular fiction set in the fifteenth century betrays quite fundamental ignorance of how people thought and behaved that it is a rare and wonderful delight to find an author so obviously at home in this setting that one can drop one’s guard and enjoy his story without worrying that one is being lulled into a false sense of the sights and sounds of Florence in its golden age. It is rich in fascinating detail of life then and most especially enlightening on the technical means of production of artistic masterpieces.
Despite the premise on which the story is built, some may be taken aback by the amount of homosexuality depicted as going on in Florence then. Oddly enough, however, it is really only through underplaying it in certain ways that L’Heureux’s recreation has fallen short of the historical reality. He has read and richly informed his story with many of the findings of Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships, the monumentally important study which ascertained from Florentine court records that most men and boys there were at some time implicated in what was then called sodomy and would now be called pederasty. Nevertheless, without contradicting Rocke’s evidence, L’Heureux has given his story a modern sensibility which stops him doing it full justice.
Considering both the evidence Donatello loved boys actually more fervently and frequently than depicted here, and his failure to marry, it is fair enough to depict him as one of those fairly rare individuals the court records called “inveterate sodomites” to distinguish them from the majority for whom pederasty was mostly a youthful phase preceding marriage. But by choosing for his two other main characters males with an equally exclusive taste for one gender, Luca for women and Agnolo for men as a boy then boys as a man, rather than choosing typical members of what Rocke found to be “a single male sexual culture with a prominent homoerotic character”, L’Heureux has given his tale an untypical, modern feeling. Worse still, recognizing that his 12-year-old son Franco Alessandro was eager for sex with men (a recognition as historically realistic as it is courageous for a 21st-century author to depict), Luca wonders “Why is he made so?” This is anachronistic: a 15th-century father might have thought such a son wicked, but not fundamentally different from others.
In a review of Forbidden Friendships, I wrote that “Rocke's findings provoke one extremely important question neither he nor anyone else I have heard of has ever attempted to answer: what effect does ubiquitously-practised pederasty have on a society? The ancient Greeks believed erotic bonds between men and boys were vitally important in transmitting skills and virtues from one to the other. … Fifteenth-century Italy in general was considered "the mother of sodomy" and Florence in particular was in Savonarola's words "defamed throughout all of Italy" for it. One might well say exactly the same about their respective reputations at the forefront of the extraordinary cultural flowering known as the Renaissance, a flowering that included the revival of the naked male youth as a worthy subject of art by artists themselves often well known for their love affairs with boys. Is this just an amazing coincidence?” Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most firmly-documented of the many Florentine artists who loved boys, certainly thought not, defending the practice as explaining why “there have issued forth so many rare spirits in the arts.” I believe he must have been right and that his point is of momentous importance.
I explain this because what seriously disappointed me about The Medici Boy as a well-written novel on the topic is the missed opportunity to explore how this could have worked. Mary Renault showed brilliantly how it did in ancient Athens in her Last of the Wine. Showing this in Florence would admittedly be more challenging. Instead of philosophical writings, virtually all our information comes from court records. Necessarily concerned as these were with only the potential for prosecution offered by the love affairs between artists and boys, they are nearly useless for showing how such bonding could transform merely promising adolescents into geniuses. With enough imagination and emotional honesty though, it must be possible to show, and it would be an extraordinary and original accomplishment. L’Heureux forfeited the chance to try through focusing narrowly on an artist’s sexual obsession with a worthless “boy whore” incapable of deep emotional or intellectual response. It would have been more rewarding, for example, to have told the story of how the boy Donatello evolved as an artist through the love affair Luca is made to say he had had with the older Brunelleschi. Moreover, I think it would have made a much more moving story. The one told here instead is certainly interesting, but not emotionally compelling enough to be great.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 8 Dec. 2014