John L’Heureux’s novel about one of the world’s greatest artists who ever lived, Donatello, is a deeply complex and fascinating portrayal of life in Renaissance Italy. L’Heureux, who did much of the research for this story in Florence, takes readers on a fascinating trip to the 15th century.
Most of the story takes place at Donatello’s bottega (workshop) and is narrated by Luca Mattei, the sculptor’s devoted assistant. Ultimately, the book is about art and sex, specifically homosexuality, and the undulating tides of both passions.
Luca, born illegitimately, discovers women and his artistic talent before he turns seventeen. Three years later, Donatello hires him as an apprentice. He goes on to become the workshop’s accountant.
Donatello’s work involves recreating Biblical scenes and saints in wood, marble, and bronze. His talent earns him favors from the most powerful man in Florence, Cosimo de’Medici. It’s Medici who commissions Donatello to create a five-foot statue of David, the giant killer. But it’s his obsession with street urchin, 16 year-old Agnolo who becomes his primary model, and part time rent boy, that I found the most fascinating.
Supposedly in his 30s at this time, Donatello is at his artistic peak. He has many commissions and a stable of artists working under him. As Angolo comes and goes throughout the story, the bottega is sometimes chaotic and sometimes calm.
But, although homosexuality was common in Florence during this time, I was shocked to the degree in which men were penalized for this behavior. Sodomy was against the law and had a varying degree of fines ranging from a cascading series of monetary charges to hanging to death by fire.
The novel is very well written and completely absorbed me. Not a fast read, but a plot that ebbed and flowed, much like Donatello’s passions. On the book jacket, there is mention of a murder, so on first glance, I thought this was to be a murder mystery. Instead, the book is more literary/historical fiction. The murder doesn’t occur until very late in the novel—which is why I give The Medici Boy four out of five stars.