DISCUSSION FOR THE MEDICI BOY
- A. The Period.
The MEDICI BOY is set in early 15th century Florence at a moment when art, politics, and religion collide. The Medici become the unofficial, de facto rulers of Florence, the great patrons of art and architecture, and the banker to Popes who rule a church that is in disarray and beginning to show the stress signs of any absolute monarchy.
- Is it ironic that such a period with so many of the great names in art and history should be presented to us as the ruminations of a man who is a failed monk, a failed artist, and a limited, very human husband and father?
- What are the advantages of telling the story from Luca’s point of view?
3. How do Luca’s studies with the Franciscans—mathematics, Latin, reproducing texts–make him an ideal narrator for this novel?
B. Themes A dominant theme in The Medici Boy is obsession, obsession with art and the artist, with love and lust, with power and control. Luca, the protagonist and narrator, struggles with all of these in his long journey.
1. Discuss instances of Donatello’s obsessive behavior in his work: for instance, the creation of the St. Louis, the Cavalcanti Annunciation, the David and contrast with his indifference to the Prato Pulpit . How do we explain his differing responses?
2. Donatello kisses Luca. Is the kiss erotic? paternal? Does the reader see the kiss in the same way Luca does? In what ways does this kiss affect the rest of Luca’s life? Why does he not tell Alessandra about it when he tells her everything else? Does its effect on Luca relate to the climactic scene in the narrative? Is it credible that one kiss could cause Luca such an obsession?
3. How does Cosimo de’ Medici function in this novel? In the lives of Donatello, Agnolo, Luca? What is the effect of showing this powerful man suddenly imprisoned, tried, and exiled? What are we to make of his triumphant return to Florence one year later? Or of his obsessive fear of the final judgment that impelled him to lavish a fortune on the reconstruction and decoration of the Monastery of St. Mark.
C. The Bottega
The reader gets to know the characters of the artists and assistants of the bottega through their interactions with fellow artists and assistants, but always as seen through the eyes and heard through the voice of Luca. He is a reliable narrator with nothing to gain by altering the truth—he insists on his devotion to facts—but his prejudice against Agnolo is clear from the start. In what ways? Is this prejudice an indication of Luca’s unreliability or rather an index to the complexity of his character?
Characters in the Bottega
Donatello carved his way from Gothic classicism to Renaissance modes of realism and human emotion. Little is known of Donatello’s personal life beyond some few anecdotes and the evidence of his tax filing in 1427. Much, however, is known about his art: the patrons who commissioned the pieces, where the work was to be displayed, the proposed fees, the final cost, and the history of the works’ survival. (cf. Janson, The Sculpture of Donatello for a brilliant, detailed record of nearly all of Donatello’s extant works)
- How should the reader respond to a novel where the real-life characters mingle and grow beside the fictional?
- We get to see Donatello at work as one of the period’s master craftsmen. What do we learn about focus, intensity, commitment, the priority of art over life?
- Is it credible that Donatello could become so obsessed by Agnolo that the obsession would take control of his life? Of his art?
- Are his rages and frustrations compatible with his famous generosity and dry wit? If so, how?
- What do we learn about him from his relationship with Cosimo? From Cosimo’s evident love of him?
- Does Luca’s love for Donatello alter with time?
- Do we find that love contaminated by jealousy, envy, spite?
Agnolo appears first as the elfin and slightly menacing child of a clearly menacing mother, but later he seems liked by everyone except Luca.
- Does the reader share Luca’s view of Agnolo? Why or why not?
- Does the conclusion of the novel tell us anything about the rightness of Luca’s view? Of Donatello’s?
- Has Luca, in his disdain for Agnolo, simplified the enemy, making him easier to hate?
- What are we to make of Alesssndra’s sympathy for Agnolo?
Michelozzo, a major sculptor and architect of the period, is Donatello’s closest associate. In the novel he becomes Luca’s friend as well.
1. Can a minor character play a major part in the plot? How does Michelozzo give the reader insight into Luca’s character? Into Donatello?
2. Does his view of Agnolo differ from Luca’s? Why? Is it closer to Donatello’s? Pagno’s?
3. How do we explain Donatello’s enormous dependence on Michelozzo for the running of his bottega?
4. How does Michelozzo’s closeness to Cosimo de’ Medici emphasize for us his importance to early Renaissance art and architecture?
Pagno di Lapo, a minor sculptor of the period, functions in different ways throughout the novel. In the beginning, he annoys Luca by befriending Agnolo. By the end of the novel, Pagno becomes pivotal to the plot resolution.
- Does Pagno appear to be a sympathetic character? If so, why?
- Do we see him as interesting and important despite Luca’s distrust of him?
- What does he reveal about the complex relationship of Luca and Agnolo?
- Does knowing that in real life he was an inept sculptor of putti on the Prato Pulpit affect in any way our feelings about him? About Luca?
Caterina Bardi is a fictional character, the niece of Donatello.
- What might justify having a woman in the Bottega?
- How does Caterina function in the lives of the men around her?
- Does she serve as more than just a sexual distraction for the men?
D. Lust, Love, and Sodomy Laws in 15th Century Florence.
- When Luca confesses fornication with Maria Sabina, he insists that he cannot view the act as sinful since obviously man and woman were made for one another. His confessor replies that Luca is confused, that he mistakes carnal lust for love. What is Luca’s immediate response to this and what is his response in the future? Do you accept Luca’s easy dismissal of fornication as sinful?
- If we accept the notion that lifeflong love is often in a state of flux where intensity is greater in one party than the other, what do we think of Luca’s love for Alessandra? How does it differ from his love for Donatello?
- Describe the nature of the Donatello / Luca relationship. How does it differ from the relationship Donatello has with Agnolo? Does Luca have romantic feelings for his master, or is it something else entirely?
- The character of Piero di Jacopo is a real life figure who was burned at the stake for sodomizing a ten year old boy. Luca describes the day of his execution as “a great shame” on the Florentine Republic. What makes Piero’s execution such a tragic affair? What does the scene reveal about Florentine society as a whole?
- Readers who are curious about the extent and gravity of the laws against sodomy should consult a definitive source: Michael Rocke’s FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIPS: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence.