Thomson (Death of a Murderer, 2007, etc.) takes us to 17th-century Florence, which by definition seems to be full of corrupt politicians, unscrupulous clergy and aspiring artists—and this, of course, long after the Renaissance has ended.
We begin with a dialogue between Italian sculptor Gaetano Zummo (called “Zumbo” by the French) and Marguerite-Louise of Orléans, now an abbess at a convent but formerly wife of Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Zummo’s reminiscences take him back some 25 years, though the bulk of the action occurs about 10 years before his meeting with the abbess. He’s been summoned by the Grand Duke on an odd commission—the Duke wants Zummo to sculpt the female form, perfect in every detail, from wax. The Duke in part wishes to escape a marriage in which his wife does not try to hide her contempt for him and, particularly, for his failings as a lover. (The Duchess has plenty of experience in this amatory realm and is thus likely a fair judge of her husband’s lack of prowess.) In his wanderings around the city, and in his need to experiment with various techniques to produce the desired aesthetic result, Zummo meets Faustina, a lovely Florentine. They quickly become lovers, and Zummo develops a strong desire to protect her, for she’s being both pursued and persecuted by an exceptionally cruel and sensual Dominican priest named Stufa, nicknamed, for reasons that become obvious, “Flesh.” Through some detective work, Zummo eventually discovers that Faustina is in fact the daughter of the Grand Duchess, but this knowledge does not protect her, and Zummo comes up with a plan to forever rid their lives of Stufa.
Thomson succeeds on a number of levels here, for the novel works as a mystery, as a love story, as a historical novel and, more abstractly, as an exploration of aesthetic theory.