Plugged as an art historical novel in the style of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Holdstock’s debut about the Italian Renaissance is more Bosch than Botticelli.
The luscious Sofonisba has followed in her father’s footsteps as an artist in the Medici’s Florence. Her genius for painting is revealed in a flabbergasting episode when, at 15, she experiences an epiphany, grasps a brush for the first time, and paints like Michelangelo. Fiercely independent, she is yet susceptible to the charms of the earthy sculptor Matteo Tassi, who woos her with ribald remarks and brutish gestures. She is also partial to a dissection, as are seemingly all the characters—hardly a chapter passes without a loving description of a man, pregnant woman, or at least live pig being gloatingly disemboweled and flayed. The characters can’t summon any more tender feelings for each other than bestial lust and vengeful ire, yet they never fail to be moved to sentimental tears by a cadaver or fetus. Holdstock’s Florence is deliciously, unrelentingly, gross. Her characters leave off breaking wind and puking only when it’s time for them to perish with repulsive symptoms. Even the festa can’t come off without the feeble pauper who plays God the Father being accidentally burned alive, with heavy winks from the author lest we miss the symbolism. The plot is at once complex and aimless, moving in a squiggle. A lucky vest of hanged man’s skin and an unlucky girl slave with curious pinto coloring are traded among the characters in countless permutations, a device of farce used here to conjure bathos. The tale precipitously ends after unruly rake Matteo rapes Sofonisba and is banished both from her affections and the city. She goes on to succeed in Rome as an artist and single mother.
An incoherent treatment of a potentially fascinating theme. Strictly for those who want putrefying flesh on every page.