Wednesday, 27 July 2011

David by Mary Hoffman

Michelangelo's statue of David is renowned all over the world. Thousands flock to Florence to admire the artistry behind this Renaissance masterpiece, and to admire the beauty of the human form captured in the marble. But the identity of the model for this statue that has been so revered for over five hundred years has been lost ...In this epic story Mary Hoffman uses her persuasive narrative skills to imagine the story of Gabriele, an eighteen-year-old who, by becoming Michelangelo's model, finds himself drawn into a world of spies, politicking, sabotage and murder. Set against the backdrop of Florence, this is a rich, colourful and thrilling tale.

I really like historical fiction. I mean, love it. Especially when fictional characters are used to bring actual historical events to life. So I was enormously happy to realise that Mary Hoffman employs her fictional narrator Gabriele to showcase this volatile period in Florence's history. For me, this enables real empathy with the situation, and I can identify with the motives of the actual personages who peopled the time.

Here we have a Florence that is being overcome by the rifts between the Republicans and the De Medici supporters, who want the city to remain in the hands of one particular family. Hoffman writes elegantly about the historical reasons why Florence is suffering so, and manages - with great talent - to people both sides of the conflict with likeable characters, so that the reader is conflicted as to which is the "right" side. Which, inevitably, is how the people of Florence must have felt at the time.

I would say that this is most definitely YA fiction - in that there are a few scenes unsuitable for younger readers, involving sex and/or violence. But it easily transcends being a book for a particular sex of reader - boys and girls would both find much to enjoy within its pages.

One aspect that I felt was missing was humour. This feels like quite a serious book and, although it presents a serious period in history, Gabriele and Michaelangelo are both young man, and yet come across as far too po-faced. I would have expected more light-heartedness from men like this and it was absent.

This lack of humour is replaced with a genuine love and appreciation for art, which suffuses every page. Hoffman has quite clearly researched her topic but, beyond that, she shows real warmth and affections for the pieces she describes - not least the eponymous David.

Honestly, for anyone who enjoys art, it is rather a thrill to read about the behemoths of the art world Michaelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci - their slight enmity, but respect, for each other; their rather casual attitudes to commissions received; the element of competition between them. It was awesome seeing them brought to life by Hoffman's lively prose.

This is a fairly slight novel by the standards of YA these days, but it is worth the cover price for a real glimpse into a very turbulent part of Italian history. It is thrilling and thoughtful by turn, and is peopled by charismatic characters. Very enjoyable.

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