Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Medici Boy by John L’Heureux reviewed by Charlene Diane Jones

Astor + Blue Editions. April 2014, Hardcover: 346 pages. Available here.

God in the guise of famous 15th Century Florentine sculptor Donatello, the search for the transcendent in everyday life by fictional character Luca Matteo, and destiny-shaping by the historic figure Lorenzo Medici play out against a backdrop of depravity and sodomy in John L’Heureux’s great read The Medici Boy.

L’Heureux employs a tactic also used by Eva Stachniak in her exciting book The Winter Palace. There, Stachniak places a young nobody, a Polish girl named Varvara within the Palace and puts her eye to a peep hole, through which the story of Empress Elizabeth unfolds.

In The Medici Boy it is Luca Matteo of humble origins who reveals the workings of daily life within the bottega of the great Donatello. While Varvara must steal her vision of the inside workings of the Great Empress’s private chambers, Matteo works openly side by side with his icon Donatello whose description, through Matteo’s eyes, invokes an old Testament sense of God himself:

It seemed to me nothing short of the Final Trumpet could have interrupted him. He bent over the bozzetto with an intensity impossible to describe. His hands were quiet, they seemed to rest on the air. He had long thin fingers that hovered above the wax as if he were conferring a blessing. As I watched him, he seemed to slip out of time… I thought the wax would melt beneath his gaze.

Donatello, whose concentrated gaze and one time kiss brings to life the embittered Matteo as well as the bronze or marble upon which the great Master lays his hands seems to breathe life not only into the statues he creates but into the very air breathed by those fortunate enough to share it with him.

Donatello is portrayed as Godlike in his talent, his stamina for long days of extremely hard work and in his capacity to understand and forgive himself his own failings. That last is a strength Matteo lacks. In his judgements of others, Matteo cannot forgive either Agnolo nor the master nor ultimately himself.

John L’Heureux
Whetted appetites abound throughout the work: that of the young Matteo for release of his own juice, for the village whore who gives him more than her body when they make love while she has fever, the appetite of Agnolo, the irresistible youth for whom Donatello, his appetite and skill for sculpture already legendary in his lifetime, acquires an all consuming appetite, and Agnolo himself ruled beyond common sense or self-preservation by an appetite gone rogue.

These hungers of the flesh stand over and against trust in God, as most of most characters in the book are searching for the will of God. Every event braids throughout their lives as mystery and superstition concerning God and His Will. Every disaster from the Black Plague that regularly scythes its wake through the population, to harsh drought and thin crops sources itself in the Will of God.

Is it the Will of God that Donatello should be supported by the great patron of the Arts Lorenzo de Medici? These characters believe so.

Yet the belief in God and God’s will does nothing to prevent Matteo’s ongoing suffering. In the dust filled bottega, Luca lives, breaths, and suffers jealousy as he describes the joy Donatello takes in the young beauty Agnolo. The reader feels the timber of Matteo’s humanity, his struggles with jealousy, his vicious temper and vile responses to the younger man Agnolo. Matteo writes in admirable honesty of his belief he ought feel a remorse he cannot conjure for such insults. His self-reflections compel us toward empathy as we see our own failures as humans marked in his.

Our failure as humans, our depravity, also rings through the pages that describe the torture wrought upon a man found guilty of sodomy. We as Politicians, as Church Fathers, as the crowd of peasants assembled to watch and cheer at this man’s agony see ourselves revealed as depraved.

If the writing contains a weakness, it is in the author as apologist for the sexual urges of all men. From the first pages, where Matteo reveals his nightly struggle with his biology, we are to assume the urge that thrusts in the flesh of the male is superior, somehow more virulent and unrelenting than that of say, the lovely woman who takes Matteo first to her bed.

Overall the book is a great read and not to be missed.

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Charlene Jones’ poetry has most recently appeared on Commuterlit. Her poem “Visitors to the ROM” was a runner up in the Ontario Poetry Society’s annual Arborealis poetry contest. Charlene also writes for her radio program Off the Top with Whistle Radio, 102.7 fm, aired every second Tuesday from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. (Note: Whistle Radio and CommuterLit have recently teamed up to run a monthly contest. Details here.) You can see Charlene perform her poetry and prose at Portobello Restaurant and Bar the first Saturday every month in Toronto. Finally, Chalene’s first novel, The Stain, was released in 2014.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Barrie, Bracebridge, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.


  1. A beautiful, page-turning, historical novel about the Italian Renaissance and its great sculptor, Donatello, his assistant, Luca Mattei, and his model for David, Agnolo It lays bare the human psyche and its frailties. John L'Heureux's superb knowledge of sculpture, the Renaissance era as well as his writing style allow you to not only read the novel but live in that period and identify with the characters. An unforgettable read. A book you wish would not end. Alas, it does and you will want to read it again.

  2. This is an outstanding historical novel, worth all the kudos received. The author has broad awareness of this complex period in the history of Italy, and the history of art. An incredible amount of research went into this book. Each individual in the book is brought to life in unforgettable ways, in ways that are, moreover, completely believable and reflect extraordinary sensitivity. I can't rate it highly enough.

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