Cline relates the life of the great Italian Renaissance architect, engineer, and artist Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) in this debut historical novel.
Before Brunelleschi became one of the most venerated artists in Florence, Italy, he was a hotheaded young man desperate to prove his father wrong. Instead of continuing the family profession as a notary, he enrolls in a goldsmithing school, where he meets his lifelong friend, the perpetually drunk sculptor Donatello, and his bitter enemy, artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. His focused sketches show promise, and he approaches life with an innate sense of self-confidence. But after losing a bid to finish the doors of the Baptistery of St. John to Ghiberti, he and Donatello depart for Rome in the hope of starting anew. There, they have a chance meeting with Cosimo di Medici and Cardinal Colonna, and soon they’re the cardinal’s favored artists, working in a well-funded studio. After the death of Brunelleschi’s father, however, he finds himself back in Florence, facing old demons and attempting to do what his dad said was impossible—create a ceiling for the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. This work was written as part of the Mentoris Project, a series of biographies and novels about important Italian figures, sponsored by the Barbera Foundation. In it, Cline reimagines Brunelleschi’s life with a modern sensibility that stays true to its historical context, even during fictional dialogues. The novel combines the lightheartedness of the 2000 animated buddy-comedy The Road to El Dorado with the melodramatic gravity of Les Misérables. However, it’s as much a history lesson as it is a dramedy, with several interludes describing the history of famous monuments, such as the Coliseum, and figures, such as Pope Eugene IV. These are often distracting, but they do provide key background information in an approachable way. Stray attempts at profundity feel clichéd, though, as when a father figure delivers a pithy maxim: “Greatness is a choice that always requires effort.” Overall, however, Cline delivers an engaging work of historical fiction.
A fast-paced and often fun foray into the development of an underappreciated artist.