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Rupert Thomson: Secrecy

Thomson’s books have generally been set in the recent past, the present and, in some cases, the future. This one is unusual as it goes back to the past, seventeenth century Florence. Many of the protagonists are historical characters. The main characters is Gaetano Zumbo, also known as Zummo, the name Thomson uses for most of the book. Zummo made sculptures out of wax, often of bodies in various states of decomposition. We do not know a great deal about him, which gives Thomson leave to speculate on his life and, in particular, the period he spent in Florence, working for the Grand Duke Cosimo III.

Cosimo had married Marguerite Louise d’Orléans. They met when she was fifteen and she immediately despised him (according to Thomson, he was dressed in clothes from an unfashionable clothes shop). He fell in love with her but the marriage was a disaster. She was in constant dispute with her husband and his family and, eventually, was sent off to a convent in Montmartre, where she continued to misbehave. Despite this, they had three children, the second son, Gian Gastone, succeeding his father, though he was the last Medici Duke of Florence. The Duke continued to love his wife, according to Thomson. The book actually starts with Zummo visiting Marguerite in her convent, allowing Zummo to tell her his story. He was born in Siracusa in Sicily and had a difficult childhood, as he was dark-skinned like his father’s father, while Jacopo, his older brother, was fair-skinned like his mother. Jacopo tormented his brother all their childhood, accusing him of being a bastard and even accusing him of necrophilia with their father after he died. Eventually, Gaetano left the family home and eventually made a reputation for himself as a wax sculptor. As a result, he was summoned to work for Cosimo III.

In Florence, he finds lodging with a widow and her daughter and is soon summoned to the Duke. The Duke has seen his wax sculptures of decomposing bodies and wants Zummo to do some for him though he will later request that he wants Zummo to do a sculpture of a non-decomposing woman. Zummo is inclined to refuse, as this is not what he does, but does not want to alienate the Duke, who is paying him very well. At the Court of the Duke, he meets a variety of characters, in particular, the Duke’s Secretary, Apollonio Bassetti, and Stufa, the spiritual adviser of the Duke’s mother. Bassetti is friendly enough but Zummo has his doubts about him. Stufa, however, is the typical Thomson sinister character, lurking in dark corners and not to be trusted. While keeping an eye on the local political scene, which includes a major campaign against vice, which includes both homosexuality and prostitution, Zummo gets on with his work.

While out exploring Florence with Fiore, his landlady’s daughter, he catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman in the window of an apothecary but is unable to remember where it was. He sees her again, serving as a waitress at a banquet given by the Duke but then cannot find the kitchen. However, he bumps into her in the street by chance one day and they start a relationship. Her name is Faustina. Much of the second part of the novel is about Zummo and Faustina and their relationship and her mysterious antecedents, which, as we have guessed, may well involve Marguerite Louise d’Orléans. Zummo has to deal with his sculptures but also with Faustina, Zummo and dark deeds in Florence.

It is not a bad book, even if the plot is a bit thin and predictable, and it does introduce us to some interesting characters, particularly the melancholic Duke, the delightfully wicked Marguerite and the evil Stufa. However, this will not go down as one of Thomson’s better books.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Granta