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.