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on 29 September 2015
Interesting insight into the times of the Medici and Donatello.
Whether this story is based in fact I would not know but an
interesting read.
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on 14 October 2014
Pedestrian. L'Heureux has done his research; he now needs to sew it altogether, piece of cloth by piece of cloth, lump of clay on lump of clay, yawn...
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Luca Mattei, now sixty-seven years old, is writing his memoirs – he has nothing left but time. And writing gives him pleasure. So he tells us of his life; from his birth in 1400 to a mother who died three days later of the Black Pest, of his failure in the Friars, of his failure as the apprentice to Cennino and then Ghiberti. But it is his life as apprentice to the great goldsmith and sculptor Donato di Betto Bardi that really fires Luca in his writing – to work for the master and Michele di Bartolomeo, to see the great Cosimo de Medici, to find a path in life that he feels accepts him. Until he sees a danger in his life that he doesn’t know how to combat.

This is a wonderfully yrical book which tells of life in fifteenth century Florence; a world where Cosimo de Medici and Rinaldo degli Albizzi lead warring factions in political struggles to the death, where art and beauty coexist with squalor and hardship, and where sinners are burned at the stake and rich and poor alike live under the cloud of the returning Black Pest. What can Luca tells us that reveals him to us? The writing is evocative, bringing the sounds, smells and tastes of Renaissance Florence to life for the reader, and the narrator is one we can feel empathy with; all too human in his failings and desires, and who does his best to live the life he has been dealt. But the life he thought he had left behind comes back to haunt him, with terrible results.

A wonderful book, beautifully written, and one which really brought fifteenth century Florence alive. Totally recommended.
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on 11 June 2014
I couldn't put this book down - and how often can you say that? The author imagines the creation of Donatello's bronze statue of David, an ambiguous, soft-bodied figure who wears only a hat and high boots and stands in a pose that is both classical and provocative with one foot on the severed head of Goliath. L'Heureux evokes an intricate web of passions around the work - the ageing scupltor's love for a much younger man, the jealousy of the narrator, the envy, loyalty and venality of the apprentices in the workshop and the fatal narcissism of the model. Beyond the workshop rage the political storms of the era, threatening the great Cosimo de Medici, Donatello's patron and, indeed, patron of so many great artists of the Renaissance. It's not a perfect novel - lapses into exposition, clunky cameos from Vasari's big names - but the emotional truth is completely compelling and the history seems scrupulous.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 November 2014
This laboured and laborious book about a hormone-driven young man who lands an apprenticeship with Renaissance sculptor Donatello, shoe-horns in everything you ever wanted to know about artistic life in 15th century Florence. Plus a few things you didn't.

It centres on the prevalence of gay prostitution in Florence at the time and, specifically, Donatello's love for one of his models, a wanton young rent-boy. Now no-one objects to a little artistic licence but to base an entire story around the famous sculptor's unproven sexuality based solely on the author's interpretation of Donatello's David bronze, oversteps the mark and leads one to doubt the many other period details presented here.

L'Heureux is a much-lauded teacher of fiction writing who must surely advise his students against the use of exposition but this book is full of it. It also got to a point where I felt that if he used the word 'bottega' one more time, I would scream. In my humble opinion, historical fiction is best left to British authors who are innately more skilled in this particular genre.
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on 8 December 2014
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.

Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander's Choice, www.amazon.com/dp/1481222112, a modern British tale of Florentine-style amore masculino.
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on 3 October 2014
A gripping story of the human condition written around the creation of one of the most iconic pieces of renaissance sculpture. The author describes the loves and social pressures of a complete cross section of Italian 15th century society from the lowliest workshop assistant to the most powerful political patron, Cosimo de' Medici. The theme of sexual jealousy is shown bursting through the bonds of self control of the unfortunate narrator.
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on 31 August 2015
Intelligently contrived 'insider's view' account of life in Florence during the supremacy of the Medicis, focussing on the workshop of Donatello. Based on surviving documentary evidence of the religious, social and political context in which art was produced at that period, the narrative is also a compelling insight into the moral dilemmas of the age.
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on 19 April 2015
A extremely good work of fiction with factual elements. The book has a gay theme but this is just a background fact which gives the book its base. I found the tale a remarkable read and it give the reader a glimpse into the past of the Medici times. I would recommend this book yo anyone.
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on 6 December 2014
An absorbing, well-written story which brings to life Renaissance Florence and the life of a great artist, through the eyes of his assistant.
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