Thursday, August 10, 2017

Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo

by Stephanie Storey
Arcade    2016
345 p.      Historical Fiction

Make sure you have access to the Internet  before you begin reading Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, because you will spend a great deal of time looking for images of the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, among others. Storey has created a well-imagined rivalry between the fifty-year old Leonardo and the much younger Michelangelo. When the novel begins, both have returned to their home city of Florence to begin new projects.

Leonardo had fascinating interests—from science to painting. The narrative emphasizes the plan he had to reroute the Arno river, so that ships could get from Florence to the sea. He is also fascinated with the idea of flying, and devised a plan for a flying machine. 
At the same time he is on this creative journey, he receives commissions from the city to paint frescoes on public buildings, which he works at sporadically. His primary obsession, during these years, is a young wife of a successful silk merchant. Her name is Lisa Gheradini, and Leonardo convinces her husband to commission a painting of her—the painting that became the enigmatic Mona Lisa.

Michelangelo's obsession is a huge block of marble owned by the city. He had just returned to Florence from the successful completion of his statue, the Pieta, in Rome. Surprisingly, for a relative unknown, Michelangelo receives the commission to sculpt a statue from the gigantic hunk of marble. He decides to create a statue of David, slayer of Goliath, and he dedicates all his energy to its creation—an effort that nearly costs him his life. The David statue came to symbolize the strength of the city of Florence and set Michelangelo on a path to artistic super stardom.

The New York Times reviewer calls Oil and Marble a "richly imagined tale," and indeed the novel is eminently readable. Storey really knows her history, and she manipulates her knowledge gracefully so that it tells a cohesive story. Even though I have been to Florence and seen David, and to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa, I had no idea that both artists were living and working in Florence at the same time. Of course Storey took dramatic license with the plot and the historic figures involved. Even Machiavelli plays a manipulative role in the story line.

I was particularly drawn to the concept of creativity, and how these two men exemplify the spirit of the times and of the creative movement in Florence, in particular. The early 1500s were an amazing time in Florence, and the two men were so fortunate to be part of that era. One quote from the novel about da Vinci speaks to his creative potential: "Leonardo believed in potential like many men believed in God." The scope of his creativity knew no bounds. I was fascinated with the way Michelangelo let the stone speak to him, and after he decided to sculpt David out of the stone, he found that he was asking David to speak to him through the stone, guiding his hand and his hammer.

The rivalry between the two men is a secondary story line, but a powerful one. It reminded me of the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri as it was depicted in Amadaeus, although in the case of da Vinci and Michelangelo, both of them created iconic representations of the times—neither was a secondary player. 

Another minor plotline, but also a powerful one, is da Vinci's idea about redirecting the flow of the Arno River. With my ever handy Google, I found that this was, in fact, true. The construction project failed, and much land was wiped out by a flood, killing many people. Leonardo's shock and grief over the failure of the project is exciting and horrifying at the same time—one of the best written sections of the book. The plotline involving Lisa Gheradini and Leonardo's obsession with her is not as well developed and much less believable. 

It has been at least 45 years since I was in Florence, but Oil and Marble really made me want to return. I loved the city. Storey has made the city of Florence in the early 1500s one of the characters in the book. The book is perfect for lovers of history and historical fiction, art, and excellent character development.

Here are 10 top questions about the creation of Oil and Marble.

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