Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Review: Mary Hoffman's 'David'

Very little is known about the boy/man who modelled as Michaelangelo's "David", perhaps the greatest work of Renaissance sculpture, and certainly one of the world's most famous and well-known works of art in any medium. So what a tantalising subject for a writer to tackle: reconstructing a possible biography for the model, as he lived and worked in 16th century Florence.

Taking on such a job is a real high-wire act for any author: Bend a few historical facts to fit a compelling narrative, you risk the ire of academics; Gloss over important aspects of the politics or art of the times, you'll be dismissed as a lightweight. But throw in too much historical detail and you risk killing the narrative and turning off the general reader. Luckily the author in question is Mary Hoffman, someone who has distilled a passion and knowledge of Italy history into thrilling works for children, including the Renaissance-inspired Stravaganza series and The Falconer's Knot.

And she gets the balance just right in David. It is a total triumph. What emerges is an intelligent yet exciting story, which plunges us into the brilliantly realised city-state of Florence, with all its tensions, rivalries, culture and networks, and then ratchets up the tension as the sculpture takes shape. And the stakes could not be higher for the central character, the 18-year old 'Gabriele'.

Gabriele arrives in Florence keen to seek out the master sculptor, having been nursing 'brothers' early in life. But as a young man of dazzling beauty, he soon finds himself inducted into a world of wealth and privilege, and a political situation of which he is desperately naive. He brushes up against a heavyweight supporting cast including the Medici family, a Borgia, and even Leonardo de Vinci himself.

(In fact, one of my favourite bits of the book is a slightly mischievous side-plot about the ongoing - and very slow - production of a painting by de Vinci of a noble's wife, Lisa del Giocondo, which may or may not bear more than a passing resemblance to Leonardo's male 'companion'. The painting is destined to become very famous, incidentally - no prizes for guessing the title...)

So there is humour, passion and beauty. But this being 16th century Italy, there is also sex and death. It is at times unflinching in the descriptions of what was a brutal and bloody age, but nothing is gratuitous: Gabriele's beauty, and the women who fall for him, provide the network for him to move in circles way above his class. And you understand by the end why noblemen would fight each other to the death to defend - or destroy - a single piece of art.

The book requires a lot from the reader, particularly in the early stages, as there is a lot of context that needs to be put in place as a backdrop for the story - but that effort is richly rewarded. The book is aimed at the Young Adult (YA) market, but will easily find a readership with anyone who wants to truly understand the importance of this period in Western history, and why Michaelangelo's work is still admired today.

By the end you understand intuitively the city of Florence, where it sits in the European power-plays, and the high stakes that are being played - but by then Gabriele is in mortal danger. Whether he will survive or not is something you absolutely have to know, and for that you are going to have to grab a copy when it's published in early July.

We are delighted that Mary will be at Mostly Books tomorrow at 5.30pm for a special teachers and librarians event. More details about that can be found here.

But in the meantime, here is a suitably grand trailer that Bloomsbury have produced. You may just spot that painting in there...

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