Books

Renaissance woman

An Italian mother recounts her life to her son

Brian Bethune September 8 1997
Books

Renaissance woman

An Italian mother recounts her life to her son

Brian Bethune September 8 1997

Renaissance woman

Books

An Italian mother recounts her life to her son

THE SECRET BOOK OF GRAZIA DEI ROSSI

By Jacqueline Park (Distican, 572pages, $34)

In its own way, this first novel is almost as much a curiosity as its prototype—the libri segreti or secret books that Renaissance Florentine merchants once wrote for their sons to pass on the private details of the family business. Winnipeg-born Park, a 72-year-old professor emerita at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has crafted a serious historical novel of the old-fashioned sort rarely attempted nowadays. The fictional Grazia dei Rossi’s lengthy story of her life, addressed to her beloved son, Danilo, comes complete with a map, a family tree and a cast of thousands (almost)— many of them real-life figures about whom virtually every detail is historically accurate.

The well-educated daughter of a Jewish banker, Grazia begins writing her story in the fall of 1526, with the pogrom that sends her family fleeing from Mantova when she was 8, on a horrific journey during which her mother dies in childbirth. In the ensuing 39 years, Grazia encounters almost everyone § who matters in the late Ital“ ian Renaissance, from sculp£ tor Benvenuto Cellini to Isabella d’Este, a grande dame of politics and art patronage, to whom Grazia becomes confidential secretary. And through much of her life, she is torn between her faith and her love for a Christian.

In short, The Secret Book seems readymade to be trapped by the shortcomings inherent in sweeping historical epics, from vast length to the plot limitations forced by a known story. But Park, a veteran TV and film writer, skilftilly dodges most of the pitfalls. Grazia’s voice—gently cynical, laced with sardonic wit (“when it comes to money, patricians never jest”)—is well-suited to the observant, vulnerable outsider she is. And rather than try to ignore the fact that

some readers, at least, will know how her novel ends, Park actually uses it to great effect. As Grazia starts to write, a Protestant German army begins to cross the Alps, on a meandering expedition that will culminate in the sack of Rome in the spring of 1527. Park keeps this key event in the decline of Renaissance Italy looming over the novel like the shadow of death, adding poignancy to the author’s account of the era’s astonishing cultural and artistic achievements.

Eventually, of course, the barbarians do reach the gate of Grazia’s Roman refuge. The Germans bring slaughter and destruction to the city, and send her on another perilous flight—and Park into the one trap she has not succeeded in avoiding. The book’s jarring conclusion seems more a desperate attempt to halt a novel already overlong than a fit ending to an engrossing story. But until then, Park’s artistic erudition and the complex, engaging character of her heroine let The Secret Book stretch its genre as far as it can go.

BRIAN BETHUNE