Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 28, 2019

A Splendid Sin, by Alana Bolton Cooke

As regular readers of this blog know, I really enjoy books about art so it will come as no surprise that I liked Alana Bolton Cooke’s  A Splendid Sin.  It’s a fictionalised foray into the life of Michelangelo: the sculptor of ‘David’ in Florence and the ‘Pieta’ in Vatican City; the painter of the ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel and ‘The Last Judgement’ on its altar wall; and a pioneer in architecture who designed beautiful buildings such as the Laurentian Library and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Seeing Michelangelo’s most famous artworks in Florence and Rome was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy in 2005, and even the monstrous crowds in the Sistine Chapel could not dispel my awe.  (I was so glad someone had suggested that I take my opera glasses!  Binoculars are too heavy in the suitcase, but good opera glasses work nearly as well.)

Part of the pleasure of reading this novel was the stimulus to find the paintings referenced in it, in the books I have at home.  I didn’t delude myself that I could capture these artworks with my own camera—far better to enjoy the work of professional photographers.  So I have Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (2008) which tells the human story of its creation; and also The Sistine Chapel, The Art, the History and the Restoration (1986) by Carlo Pietrangeli et al, which has large full-colour reproductions and is really good for seeing the details. (But of course for those who don’t have these resources on hand, it is easy enough to find the same images on the internet, one of the luxuries of the digital age we live in).

Much is known about the life of Michelangelo (1475-1564) because of the volume of correspondence and other documentation that has survived.  He was, Wikipedia tells me, the first Western artist to be the subject of biography while he was still alive, and I have one of them, in my three-volume set of Lives of the Artists by Georgio Vasari (1511-1574), translated by George Bull.  However, I don’t need to read that to know that there will be no mention of Michelangelo’s relationships with young men.  As the author says in her Notes at the back of the novel, there are no records of any such relationships being consummated, and nor would we expect them to be, given the religious sensibilities of the 16th century.  Nevertheless,  Cooke has crafted a compelling story from the extant records, focussing on Michelangelo’s devotion to a young man called Tommaso de Cavalieri.  In A Splendid Sin, she—considering the frailty of human nature— has fictionalised the relationship as more than Platonic.

Cooke’s novel reveals their mutual and enduring affection through letters, poetry and sketches.  This was a love that transcended an age difference of over 30 years, and the gulf between social classes.  Michelangelo was an esteemed artist, famous throughout the Renaissance World, but despite his claims to be descended from the nobility, his father was a minor administrator and the family was not wealthy.  Tommaso, on the other hand, was a nobleman from a very rich family.  And despite Michelangelo’s fame, he always remained dependent for his commissions on the system of Renaissance patronage—and given the risk that Michelangelo could fall out of favour for any number of reasons—that patronage was always precarious.  The world was fortunate that the succession from one pope to another didn’t forestall the completion of the Sistine Chapel altogether, because there were always plenty in the religious fraternity who did not like his work.

Michelangelo, however, was not the only one taking risks in a homoerotic relationship that was not just illegal but was also believed to be a mortal sin.  Tomasso was doing the same, though in the novel, it seems that his father did not object to what he was thought was a Platonic friendship.  Indeed, he dispels Tommaso’s doubts and actively encourages the relationship:

‘Perhaps he needs such relationships to enable him to create,’ Giovanni said thoughtfully.  ‘You can respond to him spiritually with your writing, your letters, your words.  He wants to use your beauty as inspiration and he wants your friendship with it. Your beauty to him, is a conduit for his creativity. I doubt he would ever express himself physically to you. If he does, you will tell him that you are not that way inclined, as politely and kindly as possible.’ (p.66)

Michelangelo idealised the young male body, and he painted his religious works with nudes because he thought the body was a sublime manifestation of God’s work.  But it wasn’t just that some thought that nudes in a religious building were obscene, it was also that Michelangelo surrounded himself with handsome young male apprentices who were his models.  So there was plenty of gossip, and as the novel shows, there were also spies hoping to get the evidence that Cardinal Biagio da Cesena wanted in order to sabotage ‘The Last Judgement’.   Of more importance, spiritually speaking, was Michelangelo’s dilemma: his faith was strong but so were his passions, and so we see episodes where Michelangelo is justifying his desires not just to others but also to himself.

(Whoever would have thought that in Australia in the 21st century, a high-profile rugby player would be tormenting people about their sexuality, on the grounds of his religious belief?)

Some characters are fictionalised, and one of these is Michelangelo’s loyal servant Bernadino.  He is characterised as a dwarf, which gives Cooke the opportunity to shed light on the way these people had to endure the cruel mockeries meted out in that era.

Bernardino saw the helpers stopping their work to turn and stare at him.  Smirking grins stretched the paintwork on their faces, making them look like clowns in the marketplace.  Bernardino cringed, despite being used to ridicule throughout his life.  The sharp sting he once felt at rejection was now a dull ache, often exacerbated by an amused, mocking glance, a thoughtless comment, or someone pointing and sniggering.  He would have to endure ridicule until the day he died. (p.31)

There is also an ironic scene where it is Bernardino, living in a household where handsome young men were lionised, who comforts Michelangelo because his face has been disfigured after a fight. No one ever comforts Bernardino because his body isn’t a ‘gift from God’.

You don’t have to have stood dumbstruck in front of the statue of David or the Pieta to know that sculpture is the most unforgiving art. One slip of the chisel and a work of art can be ruined.  There is a beautiful scene in which the life within the marble is discovered.  Use your imagination, Michelangelo tells his tentative apprentice, what can you feel within the marble?

Can you feel skin, clothing? Can you feel the contours of an arm, a leg, a foot, the features of a face, nose, eyes, forehead? The curls of hair? Can you feel the muscles beneath the skin?  The tendons? The fat folds?  Can you imagine?

Marco, feeling the cold stone block with his hands, finds in a moment of triumph that there’s something within it.  Something to be brought forth, like a woman giving birth. (p.73)

This evocation of the sculpting process reminded me of another book from Cloud Ink Press: Beneath Pale Water by Thalia Henry. That features a sculptor too, and depicts the mysterious process by which a lump of rock becomes a work of art like a living, breathing being.  These parts of the book about the artistic process were what I liked best.

However,. I found the novel is a little too long for itself, and some of it is repetitious.  Some judicious pruning of the numerous excerpts from Michelangelo’s passionate letters might have been better: the author IMO is at her best with her own prose rather than quoting his.  Still, overall, it’s enjoyable reading.  Especially if you love art!

Author: Alana Bolton Cooke
Title: A Splendid Sin, Michelangelo: A Renaissance Affair
Publisher: Cloud Ink Press, Auckland, 2019, 335 pages
ISBN: 9780473457761
Review copy courtesy of Cloud Ink Press

Available from Fishpond: A Splendid Sin: MIchelangelo: A Renaissance Affair


Responses

  1. Thanks for this Lisa … I probably won’t read it, but it took me back to my art studies and visit to Florence and Rome in 1980. We didn’t have the crowds then – partly I suppose because we went in January. Who’d go there in January. I will remember, though, the opera glasses trick. That’s excellent!

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    • I think we were probably lucky that we went in Autumn. I can’t imagine how crowded things must be in summer, and today — with those dreadful cruise ships? That would ruin everything.

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      • Autumn is my favourite time for Northern hemisphere travel. Well any hemisphere really but I love Canberra in Autumn so prefer not to miss that.

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  2. This sounds very good. With that I am always have some mixed feelings about fictionalizations of real people and events. Of course some great literature has come from this form of writing.

    The character of Bernardino sounds so well done.

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    • Well, I am not entirely convinced that Michelangelo did ‘consummate’ these forbidden relationships. Our generation has grown up in the aftermath of the sexual revolution and perhaps we tend to assume that it’s an essential part of life for everybody. But having read E M Forster’s Maurice, where he writes so powerfully about the religious torment felt by his gay character, who genuinely believed in hell and thought he was destined to doom there, and then again, reading about the legal and social prohibitions in Victorian England and elsewhere, I am more inclined to think that some people at least were never prepared to risk it.

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  3. I’m glad to see this pop up and to read that you liked it. I have a copy too, thanks to your recommendation of me to the publicist! I do love art in novels so I had high hopes.

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  4. Thank-you very much for your review. I am so pleased ‘A Splendid Sin” found an appreciative audience. I have always admired Michelangelo and his artistic vision. He was a great human being and his artistry was brilliant, but like all great artists, he could be torn and conflicted at times: think of Mozart, Beethoven, Caravaggio, Van Gogh and many more. I have a page on Facebook called ‘The World of Michelangelo’ which so far has been well received.

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    • Hi Alana, thanks for dropping by, it’s always a pleasure to hear from an author.
      Are you working on something new?

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  5. I read The Agony and the Ecstasy fifty years ago and except when the (replica) statue of David had to wear a figleaf outside Myers in the 1960s haven’t thought about Michaelangelo since. I see in Wikipedia that Irving Stone’s work was based on the letters too. I find it hard to believe that men didn’t consumate their urges in any age. After all, adultery is a sin too, but still often indulged!

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    • Gosh, yes, I’d forgotten that about the figleaf… we were the laughing stock of the world over that. Wasn’t there some fuss about the importation of the little replicas as well?
      But seriously, I prescribe a trip to Italy (but *not* in summer when it would be too crowded) so that you can see for yourself why the man was/is considered a genius.

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  6. As usual , a thorough review, Lisa. Well done. :-) Certainly a bold novel. I had read elsewhere that Michelangelo was gay. And it seemed as if his creativity was derived from that passion. Well, though this may be fiction, this book throws some light on his life and his conflicts. Poor guy.

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    • Hello Celestine, good to hear from you! It’s always fascinating to get an insight into the creative process, I agree.

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  7. […] Splendid Sin is subtitled Michelangelo: A Renaissance Affair and as you can see from my review, it illuminates how Michelangelo’s relationships with young men informed his art practice, […]

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  8. […] Splendid Sin is subtitled Michelangelo: A Renaissance Affair and as you can see from my review, it illuminates how Michelangelo’s relationships with young men informed his art practice, […]

    Like


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