John L’Heureux, the author of this vibrant novel about the great Italian sculptor Donatello (1386-1466), explains in an author’s note how he came to write it:
“On my first visit to Florence I had the exhilarating experience of seeing Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and later that same day seeing Donatello’s David in the Bargello. Michelangelo’s deeply moved me but Donatello’s was a revelation. 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. Someone, I thought, should write a novel about it.”
That someone became L’Heureux himself, who over the years has published many highly praised novels. His luminous prose, swift narrative, love of art history and cool eye for human weakness make this one a pleasure to read.
Donatello’s story is set against the early 15th-century Florentine panorama of creativity, wealth, cruelty, piety and political unrest. In most regards, “The Medici Boy” is a story about art — indeed, genius — but it also turns on the grave dangers occasioned by the sculptor’s homosexuality (debated by art historians but assumed by L’Heureux) in a city where it was punishable by death.
The story is told by Donatello’s devoted assistant, Luca. Illegitimate at birth, by the age of 17 Luca had discovered both his talent for art and his passion for women. (When the priests warned that he would burn in hell for his lust, he decided to risk it.) At 20, he was hired as an apprentice to Donatello, who was then in his 30s and already a celebrated craftsman in wood, marble and bronze.
L’Heureux presents Donatello (formally Donato di Betto Bardi) as a man of great sensitivity, a humanist who captures the pain, sorrow and occasional joy of the saints he brings to life. The sculptor is in his early 30s when we meet him, and he has already won the friendship and patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, the most powerful man in Florence.
It is Medici who commissions Donatello to mold a bronze statue of David, the Biblical conqueror of Goliath, an undertaking central to the novel. The complex process of creating a five-foot, free-standing bronze statue is explained in fascinating detail, but the more urgent drama lies in the sculptor’s passion for the boy who becomes his model. Agnolo is 16 and a child of the streets, selling himself to men and sometimes living with a soldier. But the soldier has gone to war, and Agnolo insinuates himself into Donatello’s studio, where his beauty and wiles captivate the sculptor.
Art historians have long noted how slender, even effeminate, Donatello’s David is, particularly in contrast to Michelangelo’s later, more heroic marble version. In L’Heureux’s account, Donatello fashioned his David to mirror the beautiful, vain, difficult boy who had enthralled him. Historians have debated why this otherwise nude David — at a time when nude male subjects were virtually unknown in Italian art — wore a peasant’s hat and a soldier’s boots as he stood insolently with one foot resting on Goliath’s severed head. As L’Heureux tells it, he was thus clad because that hat and those boots were what Agnolo often wore in the artist’s studio.
Luca is aware of Donatello’s attraction to “comely youths,” but the sculptor had always been discreet. Now his passion for Agnolo not only throws his studio into disarray but puts the artist in peril. An angry Luca tells us, “I had no concern for the wretched boy himself; he was vain and stupid and a whore; it was Donato in this new frightening blindness I was concerned for.”
Although homosexuality was common in Florence at the time, the penalties could be severe. They began with fines, but repeat offenders could face exile, the loss of a limb or even death by fire. The author provides one long, horrifying scene in which a known offender who allegedly raped a boy is led through the streets, whipped to excite jeering mobs and finally hanged — this is considered a mercy — before his body is burned.
Donatello’s passion for Agnolo does not quickly fade. He sadly tells Luca, “We love where we must, not where we choose.” Inevitably, tragedy results, although not necessarily the one we expect. Yet for all the pain and heartbreak in L’Heureux’s portrait of Donatello, the artist’s work triumphed. You can see it in Florence today or glimpse it on the Internet; and next year you will be able to see a number of pieces by Donatello in a rare exhibition of his work at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. But you may not fully appreciate his achievement until you read this remarkable novel.
Anderson reviews frequently for Book World.
THE MEDICI BOY
By John L’Heureux
Astor + Blue. 328 pp. $25.95