by Rupert Thomson

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

Like a Fellini film, Secrecy focuses on the weirdness, cruelties, deformities and superstitions of the past. It's based on the life of the seventeenth-century Sicilian sculptor Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, an artist whose works included tableaux depicting the ravages of plague. For a time, he worked in Florence under the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo de Medici III; he created a series of colored wax sculptures for the Duke illustrating the processes of decay in a dead body. The Duke was unhappily married to Marguerite Louise d'Orléans, who had departed for a convent by the time Zumbo arrived in Florence. The novel imagines the Duke commissioning Zumbo (or Zummo, as he is called through most of the novel) to create an eerily realistic wax model of a woman to replace Marguerite.

The novel's pace, unhurried at the beginning, gains steam as Zummo falls in love with a strikingly beautiful woman he glimpses in an apothecary shop, and also attracts the enmity of one of the Duke's advisors, a Dominican monk who enforces the laws against adultery and prostitution. One plot thread which emerges late in the novel is a murder mystery; however, since Zummo does not avidly pursue it and the resolution is not a big surprise, the novel can't really be classified as a mystery. It's more a literary novel that morphs into a thriller, atmospheric in its presentation of the odd and sometimes gruesome tragedies of life, and suspenseful as the cruel Dominican's vendetta against Zummo and his friends reaches a dangerous stage. Zummo's imagination occasionally conjures up dream-like images, leading to passages in which readers may need to pause briefly to sort out what is really happening in the story and what Zummo is imagining. (2013; 377 pages)

More about Secrecy at Powell's Books or

Other novels set in Florence:

A Tabernacle for the Sun by Linda Proud (1997), about a boy in Volterra during the town's revolt against Florentine rule in the 1470s and its brutal suppression by Lorenzo de' Medici's army, after which fate brings him to Florence; #1 in the Botticelli trilogy. See review or more info at

Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (2004), about a young wife in fifteenth-century Florence during the time of Savonarola. More info

The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato (2010), a thriller about a young prostitute who teams up with a monk to figure out a secret code in Botticelli's Primavera. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about wax sculpture and Cosimo de Medici III:

Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure by Roberta Panzanelli, et al. (2008). More info

The Last Medici by Harold Acton (1980). More info

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert (1974). More info


Notes on "A Polychrome Wax Relief of a Plague Scene" at the Christie's website (click on the "Lot Notes" tab to see biographical information about artist Gaetano Zumbo)

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