The Medici Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (better known as Donatello) was one of the most gifted sculptors and artisans of Renaissance Italy. He lived from 1386 to 1466 in the politically volatile city state of Florence. His bronze statue of David is among his greatest works and one of the most famous works of the Italian Renaissance. He shows David as a beautiful, delicately nude youth, a shepherd boy who has just slain the giant Goliath. We see David’s foot resting on Goliath’s head, a sword in his right hand, his left hand on his left hip and his left knee canted out. He is an almost androgynous figure with long, curling hair and a slight frame. He looks like anything other than a slayer of giants.
In The Medici Boy, John L’Heureux has written a purely fictional account of Donatello’s creation of his bronze statue of David and his obsessive and destructive love for the model, one Agnolo Mattei. Agnolo is a male whore, a bardassa. He prowls the streets at night, looking for men who will pay him to perform sex acts. (Donatello is, of course, a real person, while Agnolo is a fictional construct.) For all his physical appeal (some people don’t see it at all), Agnolo is a trouble-maker. He exerts a kind of spell over Donatello, a physical attraction that develops (for Donatello) into an all-consuming passion. Sodomy is, of course, a terrible sin and a crime in Florence, referred to as the “Florentine vice.” Men who engage in the forbidden practice are subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment, fines, or even death. (The penalty for each conviction is more severe than the one before.)
The Medici Boy is told in the first-person voice of one Luka Matteo, a worker in Donatello’s workshop (bottega). He is himself an artisan, but he also keeps the account books for the enterprise and handles other details that Donatello is too busy to handle himself. He has a wife, a former prostitute, and four children, two of whom are “carried off” by the Black Pest, a terrible disease that seems always to be lurking in the background in fifteenth century Italy.
Luka is a sort of step-brother to Agnolo, the male whore who has stolen Donatello’s heart, but he hates Agnolo for all the trouble he causes. (He is also a little bit jealous of Agnolo because he ingratiates himself with both men and woman.) When a political conflict erupts between the different factions in Florence, the opposing side hopes to use Agnolo to inform on Donatello, in an attempt to bring down the powerful Cosimo di Medici, a long-time associate and patron of Donatello.
For a speculative story about a real person (Donatello) in a real place (Florence, Italy), The Medici Boy is convincing and believable. We can easily believe that this is what “might have happened.” It’s obvious that the author has done a lot of research to render the time and place just right, although he has filled in the details of the lives of the characters with fictional details. It’s an easy and fascinating book to read, especially if you like historical fiction that removes you from your distasteful surroundings and transports you to another time and place. The sexual content is never graphic or offensive (after all, it was not written by Jacqueline Susann) and is handled in good taste and never sensationalized. Now that we have that out of the way, go and get the book and read it.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp