Book review: Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey

Last week I read Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey. The book is a fictional rendition of Florentine life between the years 1501 and 1505, the time during which Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti were both in Florence, each working on creating the respective masterpiece that would later immortalize them for future generations.

As backdrop to the tumultuous lives of these two artists, history provides us with some of the most eventful years in Italy’s colorful past: the ascension of Pope Alexander VI, better known as the Borgia Pope, and consequently the ravaging of the Italian city-state system by the Spanish Pope’s son, Cesare Borgia, leading the Papal armies. The interplay between the Medici family, the French invasions of Italy and the near constant conflict between Pisa and Florence also comes into play here, but the much stronger underlying spirit of the book is one of pride, honor and love.
As an Art History student during my undergrad years, I briefly met these artists, learned about the zeitgeist that surrounded their genius and of course, the art itself. But coming to this book more than a decade later, purely with an eye on reading art-historic fiction, I was both surprised and delighted at the depth of perception it brings to the reader and how much of it is based in truth. The book not only lets us in on the machinations of sixteenth century patronage and politics, but also on the perceptions of art, art-making and society during a time when gender and class distinction dictated every aspect of a person’s life and education.
Storey’s Da Vinci is undoubtedly the genius we know him to be, but he is also a man of complex emotions, dreams and of great pride. In Oil and Marble, Da Vinci’s beauty and arrogance hides his own insecurities. He knows his allure, his power over people (by way of reasoning) and over art (by way of science), but he carries within him a kind of darkness that only comes to the fore in his most private moments. In contrast, Michelangelo’s character is portrayed as one of constant and very public turmoil. He lives and dreams at a pace unreachable by philosophers and scientists because he fears, above sickness, or starvation, or even death, that he will be forgotten. He does not, like Da Vinci, know his power, but he nevertheless believes steadfastly that it is within him to reach greatness. If only he would be given a chance, if only he can do so before he dies of hunger.
Both artists believe in possibility. For Michelangelo, the Duccio stone holds uncountable possibilities, despite its many flaws. He is at odds with the stone; if it would just speak to him, would allow him to see what is at its heart, then perhaps he can find what lies within the marble. The greatest possibility Michelangelo sees, however, is not the beauty of the art, or the amount of comfort the payment from its completion will provide him. He sees a future far beyond his own lifetime and he rushes toward it with unerring clarity. In contrast, Da Vinci sees, perhaps, too much possibility. He claims to leave his art unfinished because, by doing so, it will forever contain the possibility of greatness. Da Vinci, too, looks well into the future. Will the humans of the future achieve flight? Will they uncover the secrets he is forced to leave undiscovered because of time? And what about the arrogant young stonecutter? Will he perhaps make something more worthy of Florence than the Master from Vinci?

What struck me as most unusual was how biased my own opinion of these artists had been prior to reading Oil and Marble. Perhaps I had preconceptions because I had studied these artists somewhat at university, or maybe it was in spite of my prior experience of them, but I had always had this idea that Leonardo Da Vinci had come by his education and knowledge because of his privilege. This privilege, I now understand, only existed in name. Leonardo did not have a formal education on account of his being the illegitimate son of the notary Piero from Vinci. Though home-schooled in basic reading, writing and arithmetic, Leonardo couldn’t read or write properly until well into adulthood, when he had chosen to study letters by writing and rewriting words and sentences until he was fluent in their use. Even his signature, not an artist’s rounded lettering, but a child’s scribble, attests to his lack of skill in this regard. Yet, today, he is known equally as a writer, mathematician and scientist as for his art.
There is also another, perhaps much more important aspect to the bias I noticed while reading Oil and Marble, and that is the preconceived one-dimensionality of an artist’s sexual orientation.
It is a well documented fact that Leonardo Da Vinci had many male partners, specifically his long-time student and partner Salai, to whom he left the Mona Lisa upon his death, as well as Francesco Melzi, who shared his final years and inherited all of his notebooks. Based on his personal history it is reasonable to assume that Da Vinci was homo-sexual, and this is also what we are predominantly taught. Because there is sufficient evidence for Da Vinci’s homo-sexuality, it is easy for art historians to underplay and even overlook the sexuality in his works, especially his paintings, or to make sweeping statements about his experiences of and attitude towards sex, sexuality and gender. But in Oil and Marble, Storey achieves an intricate balance between what we know of the man’s sexual exploits and the interpretation of the artist’s very unique ability to imbue sensuality onto his female subjects, specifically Lisa Gherardini (del Giocondo). Storey suggests a side to Da Vinci that most historians wholly ignore: that through his careful study and constant questioning of the human condition, he not only learns to understand the suppressed intelligence inherent in his female sitters, but he comes to love them on a level that surpasses sex or sexuality.
The book culminates in the completion of each of these artists’ most iconic works, but it also leaves us with a new beginning for each of them. For Michelangelo, it is the beginning of a career, the beginning of acceptance by his family and friends, the beginning of a life underpinned by taking responsibility for himself. For Da Vinci, it is the beginning of a more personal journey, one of acceptance, understanding and humility.
In the afterword to Oil and Marble, Stephanie Storey says the book was twenty years in the making. As her first novel it set an impossible standard. Her prose is uncomplicated, well-researched and beautifully written. Her settings are colorful and tactile. Her characters are well-rounded, unique human beings who experience the entire spectrum of emotion while inspiring an equally broad range of emotion from the reader. But beyond her ability to write interesting characters and strong plot, Stephanie Storey understands that for the reader of art-historical fiction, there is the added expectation of well-written art. Art that comes to life on the page. Art that is tangible, vibrant and evocative. Stephanie Storey writes this kind of art.
There is a reason why, while reviewing a book that is essentially about art, I haven’t written a single thing about the art contained within Oil and Marble’s pages. This sacred task I trust to the writer.