Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Secrecy Secrecy is set in 17th century Florence and tells the story of Gaetano Zumbo, a sculptor famous for creating gruesome wax models depicting the human body in various stages of decay. Zumbo (or Zummo, as he is usually referred to in the novel) arrives in Florence in 1691, having fled from his home in Sicily for reasons which are revealed later in the book. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, is an admirer of Zummo’s work and commissions a very special sculpture from him – one which must be kept a secret between the two men.

After settling into his new home, the House of Shells, and getting to know his landlady, her young daughter, and another lodger, a French acrobat, Zummo concentrates on creating the Grand Duke’s special wax model. But when he falls in love with the apothecary’s niece, Faustina, and makes an enemy of Stufa, a monk and advisor to the Grand Duke’s mother, Zummo’s life suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

Gaetano Zumbo was a real person, although I didn’t know anything about him or his work before reading this book. If you’re curious and not too squeamish, you can find plenty of images online showing his various plague scenes, dismembered bodies and rotting corpses. Apparently some examples of his work are displayed in Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History, but I have to admit I don’t have any desire to go and look at them as they sound a bit too grotesque for my liking!

There’s no doubt, though, that Zumbo is an unusual and intriguing subject for historical fiction. The setting is fascinating too. I don’t think I’ve ever read about this particular period of Italian history before and I enjoyed reading about Florence under the rule of Cosimo III – portrayed here as a corrupt and dangerous place. The novel has a dark, unsettling atmosphere and the theme of secrecy is woven into the complex plot in several different ways.

But the interesting protagonist and atmospheric setting were not quite enough to make me love Secrecy. I found the characters, even Zummo himself, difficult to fully connect with and never really managed to engage with any of them on an emotional level. I also thought the narrative style was slightly confusing as it was sometimes not immediately obvious when Zummo was dreaming or remembering something that had happened in his past.

Still, if you enjoy historical fiction set in Italy and are in the mood for something a little bit different, this book could be just what you’re looking for.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

6 thoughts on “Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

  1. Leander says:

    I was interested to read you thoughts on this, Helen – it seems that you had essentially the same reaction as me. The period is fascinating, but the book just never quite comes to life. It would be great to find more books set at this time in Florence though – the dramatic material certainly seems to be there!

    I’ve just got back from a long weekend in Florence and I was *so* tempted to go to La Specola and see some of the models for myself… but like you I’m a little squeamish so in the end I cut my losses and went to Santa Maria Novella instead 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I remember reading your review and that you had a few problems with this book. It’s a shame because the subject and setting are so fascinating. I’m envious that you’ve spent the weekend in Florence – I hope you had a great time.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    I’m not sure Zumbo’s work sounds like my cup of tea but I do find Florence and the de Medici family fascinating. I have been watching a TV show Da Vinci’s Demons which contains both.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the Medicis are fascinating. I’ve read about some of the earlier generations of the family before but never Cosimo III, who was one of the last.

  3. Fleur in her World says:

    I’ve picked this up in the library, because the cover of the hardback edition is so lovely and because I love the period, but I put it down again each time because I didn’t like the writing style. So I’m sorry you didn’t like it more, but i’m also reassured that I did the right thing.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think you’re missing too much by not reading this book. I didn’t dislike it but it could have been so much better – it was probably the right decision not to bring it home from the library.

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