The Faces of Secrets
Florence in the 17th century straddles two worlds: the past glory days of the Renaissance, and the emerging era of the Enlightenment. Knowledge is the prerogative of the few, and prolonged economic decline has engendered both austerity and a deep suspicion of outsiders. This is the backdrop for Rupert Thomson’s riveting new novel Secrecy, which is based on the life of Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, a Sicilian wax modeler, who arrives in Florence in 1691 at the invitation of Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Thomson was inspired to write about Zumbo after seeing his celebrated models of plague victims in the La Specola museum in Florence. Wax was Zumbo’s preferred medium because of its ability to mimic human likeness, including the intricate details of the dead and dying. According to an article by Thomson in FT Magazine, he began with only a few scraps of information on Zumbo’s life: that an “irksome episode” had forced him to flee Sicily for Florence, and that he had a tendency to fall out with people. “To start a novel, all I ever need are a few clues as to a character’s psychology, and plenty of space to walk into. With Zumbo I had both—even though he was a real person.”
Zumbo’s jealous elder brother, Jacopo, forces him into exile by filing false charges against him. Once he arrives in Florence, Zumbo keeps his past a secret. But because he is an outsider with an interest in anatomy, he soon draws the attention of the powerful Dominican priest, Padre Stufa. Now Zumbo and those he associates with are being closely watched, and the secret commission the Grand Duke has given him—to produce a full-sized woman in wax that resembles his estranged wife—if discovered by Stufa, could be his undoing.
One of the elements that makes Secrecy such an engaging read is how Thomson unravels his historical thriller around two characters who meet only once on the page. The novel opens in the tantalizing voice of Marguerite Louise d’Orleans, the cousin of Louis XIV of France and the Duke’s estranged wife, who resides in a convent in Paris. The narration swiftly transitions to Zumbo’s voice, and as the reader accompanies him through Florence’s Jewish ghetto and along the banks of the Arno, all the while observing the care with which he works on the wax model for the Duke, adorning her with organic materials such as hair and nail cuttings to bring her to life, clues slowly accumulate that connect Zumbo back to Marguerite.
As Zumbo’s art focused on the abundance and diversity of life and death in Florentine society, the novel displays a world of characters beyond the Duke and his court officials, revealing the ordinary men and women inhabiting the city. There is young Earhole, an assistant to the artist, who struggles against his mother’s alcoholism; Fiore, a lonely girl who works at the House of Shells where Zumbo rents a room; and Cuif, a French court jester whose friendship with Zumbo will ultimately threaten his life.
Thomson has said that in trying to recreate Zumbo’s character, he was struck by how his anatomical pieces were not only forensic but also highly sensual. “If I took the view that Zumbo was celebrating life, with all its exquisite pains and pleasures, there was surely potential for a love affair.” And love does erupt when Zumbo meets the mysterious Faustina, an apothecary’s daughter who has her own hidden secret, which will eventually lead back to Marguerite Louise d’Orleans at the bittersweet close of the novel.
Secrecy is much richer than most historical thrillers. Under the surface of Thomson’s startlingly inventive prose, the stories within the stories bring to light the many faces of secrecy—those imposed against one’s will, those sought out and relied on, and those which people carry unknowingly, like the hour of their death—which mark and shape all human lives.
Secrecy is Thomson’s ninth book.