Rupert Thomson (2013) Secrecy Granta, London; 320 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84708163-6
Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656-1701) was known for wax sculptures that depicted miniature scenes of mortal decay (a popular religious theme at the time) as well as highly realistic wax renderings of human anatomy. He was born in Sicily but for a long period worked in Florence under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Zumbo is the central character in this novel which tells a story based on his time in Florence.
The short opening section is narrated by an old abbess, Marguerite-Louise, cousin of Louis XIV and once the wife of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. She bore her ex-husband two sons and a daughter but loathed him from the first time she set eyes on him. In late 1701, Zumbo comes to visit her in order to talk about a second daughter that she had, fathered by a groom in her employ. The abbess is shocked: she had always assumed that this child’s existence was a secret known only to herself and her lover.
In the second section, which forms the bulk of the novel, Zumbo tells the story of how he came to Florence and the threats and rumours that drove him from his Sicilian home. While Zumbo works on his miniature scenes, the Duke asks him to carry out a secret commission, a life-sized naked woman made of wax. It is an odd request and one that Zumbo finds both a personal risk and an artistic challenge. Still, he cannot refuse his patron.
For most of the time Zumbo lives at an inn called the House of Shells. He forms a friendship with the widow who runs it, her small daughter, and a French jester named Cuif who spends almost all of his time in his room practising acrobatic routines. Zumbo also gets to know Pampolini, the morgue attendant who is able to supply bodies and body parts as models for Zumbo’s works. Zumbo slowly learns that all of these people have secrets.
On a walk in the city Zumbo sees a woman who captivates him. It turns out that she works in her uncle’s apothecary shop and Zumbo manages to track her down. Her name is Faustina and she and Zumbo quickly fall in love. His passion for her remains unabated during the whole of the time that he lives in Florence, but Faustina is also hiding a secret that puts both her and Zumbo at risk.
Late seventeenth century Florence is in the grip of a moral crusade against sodomy and prostitution. Zumbo’s first sight on entering the city is the heads of executed sodomites placed on the battlements. Offenders are treated harshly by the authorities and by mobs of citizens unless, of course, they are connected to those in power. The city is awash with fear and this is conveyed strongly in the story – a feeling of menace and unease permeates Zumbo’s tale. Secrecy and concealing one’s true intentions have become a way of life.
In such repressive societies, those in power have a great fear of secrecy and they employ people to dig out secrets and reveal the truth. They believe that such knowledge will give them greater control – intelligence gathering we like to call it nowadays. Don Bassetti, the Duke’s private secretary, and Stufa, a Dominican friar who advises the Duke’s mother, are the key figures seeking out moral corruption and the secrets of the city’s residents. Like all intelligence gatherers they have no qualms about the methods they use or about damaging the lives of, or even killing, the innocents who stand in their way. People are merely disposable flesh in the search to unravel secrets. The erotic thrill for intelligence gatherers is in the exercise of naked power.
Zumbo gets off on the wrong foot with Stufa, and rumours of Zumbo’s life in Sicily feed the suspicions of both Bassetti and Stufa, putting Zumbo on their radar. Zumbo’s relationship with Faustina and his secret work for the Duke further fuel their interest in him. Eventually this comes to a head and Zumbo must take decisive action to save himself and Faustina.
In the final section of the novel, the abbess resumes the narration. Two years after Zumbo dies of liver disease in Paris, she travels (secretly and illegally) to Tuscany to test the contents of his tale. What she discovers will bring some closure to her own life as well as ensuring her own secret is safeguarded into the future.
Rupert Thomson creates a complex web of intrigue mixed with dreams and an ever-present sense of foreboding. The atmosphere of seventeenth century Florence, its politics, poverty and artistic magnificence, thread into the story but do not steal the limelight. The characters inhabit a city that is lost in history to us, but it is one in which people’s thoughts, fears and motivations feel plausible and still relevant to our world. The tension in the narrative is sustained and adds an element of uncertainty that keeps our attention.
In the closing pages the abbess tells us that there are three kinds of secrets: those imposed on us by others but where we still know the truth, those we cultivate ourselves and those that always remain beyond our ken. Zumbo’s tale is riddled with all of these and Thomson weaves them into a memorable and spellbinding novel.