Monday, 4 July 2011

A Fanfare for 'David'

In a brief departure from 'Fairytale Reflections' (which continues this Friday) I'm delighted to welcome back to Steel Thistles the award winning writer Mary Hoffman.  Mary writes not only historical fantasy (the marvellous 'Stravaganza' series, published by Bloomsbury) but also 'straight' historical fiction for young adults.  I loved her last such book, 'Troubadour' (nominated for the 2010 Carnegie Medal): so it's a pleasure to be part of the blog tour for her new novel - the hero of which is perhaps the most beautiful young man in the world, the model for Michelangelo's famous statue, 'David'.

Beautiful and famous in his day he must have been, but anonymous now.  In this novel, Mary has recreated him, led him out of the shadows of history to step forward as Gabrielle, a naive, good-hearted country lad who becomes embroiled in the politics and violence of 16th century Florence and loses his innocence in more ways than one.

Perhaps the very heart of the novel is the chapter in which Gabrielle and his 'milk brother' Angelo journey together to the great quarries of Carrara, to source new marble. For this is not only the story of Gabrielle.  It is the story of  Michelangelo's stern young 'David', symbol of hope and rebellion: and of the beauty and strength of stone in the hands of genius.  And here is Mary to tell you more...


“Stone! I was born to it, my father, my uncles, every male I knew worked in the quarries. My childhood and youth passed in a haze of stone dust. Even Angelo used to boast that he got his calling from imbibing chisels and mallets with my mother’s milk!”

This is what Gabriele says in chapter fourteen of David. He is talking about marble and he and his “milk-brother”  Michelangelo are on their way to Carrara to choose twelve pieces of marble for the great sculptor to turn into statues of the Apostles. We can know with hindsight that these statues were never made but neither the younger or the older man has any idea of that when they set off from Florence to the Apuan Alps in search of the pure white blocks they needed.

“They led me inside the mountain, along the sloping floor. The deposits of marble towered on either side of us, like cliffs. Or like the walls of a vast natural cathedral. Walls veined with grey, red and green where minerals had stained the rock. If you half-closed your eyes you could imagine it as a church interior with worked marble columns and floors.”

I tried to put myself into the mind of an uneducated country boy from Settignano, who knows about almost nothing but stone, the material he has worked with since he was strong enough to pick up a hammer. The quarries at Settignano are nothing like the famous ones at Carrara and I wanted to convey Gabriele’s awe at what he sees, alongside his understanding that they are the very best version of something he already knows.

In the book, this young stonecutter has a bond with the sculptor, not only through the fact that his mother was Michelangelo’s wet-nurse but because they both work with stone. I say that neither of them could bear their hands to be sticky or greasy but were content with the chalky, dusty deposits from working with marble. They also have an enormous unslakeable thirst and Michelangelo has a “stonecutter’s cough.”

In other words I tried to get inside what their daily lives might have been like.

But Gabriele also learns about what is made from those great intractable blocks of marble and the alchemy by which inert matter is translated into art. That is genius. It is a modern use to call someone “a genius.’ What would have been said in the Renaissance is that they “had genius” and Gabriele realises that his milk brother does have it.

There is a lot of imagery about stone and marble in the book, not all of it intentional. I found it had just crept in without my realising. I bought a little cube of white Carrara marble in a shop in Pisa and I treasure it for its smooth polish and its satisfying weight. It gives me a glimpse of what it must be like to work this material; much labour and skill went into producing my little cube. How much more into carving the seventeen-foot Giant that is David?

Mary's blog tour continues tomorrow at YA Bookreads - and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and visit her fascinating blog The Bookmaven

Picture credits: Mary and David: Mary Hoffman
Carrara: Trajan's Quarry: John Singer Sargent 

1 comment:

  1. For those who haven't yet read this book, I can tell you it's a rare treat. Mary has done a brilliant job of getting into Gabriele/David's head, and I know I'm going to love all these little extra snippets of information on the blog tour.
    Lucy Coats at Scribble City Central