March 1, 2013 7:36 pm

Fugitive pieces

How the macabre works of Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, a mysterious 17th-century Sicilian wax modeller, inspired Rupert Thomson’s new novel ‘Secrecy’
Gaetano Giulio Zumbo’s miniature wax tableau ‘The Plague’©Nick Ballon

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo’s miniature wax tableau ‘The Plague’

I spent the winter of 1999-2000 in a large cold farmhouse in Tuscany with my pregnant girlfriend. While there, we met an Australian called Jan, who was a nurse and a photographer. On January 16 she came round for dinner. If I’m sure of the date, it’s because my girlfriend’s waters broke that night and our daughter was born the following day. During the course of the meal, Jan mentioned that she had recently been to Florence and had visited the Museum of Zoology and Natural History, also known as La Specola. She was particularly enthusiastic about the rooms of anatomical waxes. “You should go,” she said. “You’d love it.”

‘The Plague’ in its cabinet at the La Specola museum in Florence©Nick Ballon

‘The Plague’ in its cabinet at the La Specola museum in Florence, which houses all the works shown here

Driving back to England two months later, I stopped in Florence. Opened in 1775, La Specola is the oldest scientific museum in Europe, and the first 24 rooms are filled with extraordinary zoological specimens. There is a 17th-century hippopotamus that the Grand Duke used to keep in the Boboli Gardens. For some reason, the taxidermist had given the hippopotamus what appeared to be the feet of a dog. There is also a manatee, and a basilisk in a jar. In the two months since the birth of my daughter I’d had little sleep, and I was so deeply tired that I felt at times as if I were hallucinating. I hurried on, eager to see the waxes Jan had spoken of. All I remember from that day is walking into a room that was dominated by three hip-high glass cases. Each case contained a life-size woman made of wax. They were naked except for delicate pearl necklaces, and their heads rested on satin pillows. They had real human hair, and eyes of coloured Venetian glass. Their skin, a sallow golden-yellow, gleamed as if they had just broken out in a light sweat. Though I knew nothing of their provenance or their purpose, they seemed distinctly ambiguous, walking a fine line between the medical and the erotic. I came away from La Specola fascinated by wax as a medium; the way it mimicked human flesh – in his Natural History, Pliny calls it “extreme resemblance” – was uncanny, disquieting.

Towards the end of that year, I went to the Spectacular Bodies exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. I still have the page of scribbled notes I made that day. Though I recorded the names of several wax artists – among them Joseph Towne, Anna Morandi, Petrus Koning and Clemente Susini (who had made the three women in La Specola) – almost a quarter of my notes related to Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, whose “Dissection of a Head” was on display, and who was described in the catalogue as an “eccentric Sicilian wax-modeller”. I learnt that several of Zumbo’s most important works were kept in La Specola, and felt stupid for not having noticed them in March. As I left the Hayward, I resolved to learn more.

I quickly discovered that Zumbo is perhaps most celebrated for his plague pieces, which are wooden cabinets – or teatrini – that are filled with the macabre yet oddly tactile bodies of the dead and dying. When I first saw them, as photographs, I was reminded of nativities – though their subject is obviously human not divine, death not birth. Zumbo’s figures sprawl on a rubble of broken tombs and scattered bones, and their flesh is green, yellow, brown or black, depending on the degree of decomposition. The detail is intricate, obsessive – rats tug at entrails, eyeballs are festooned with maggots – so much so that art historians suspect Zumbo of using a magnifying glass when he was modelling; there is a secret, hidden element to the work, just as there was in society, knowledge being the prerogative of the few in those pre-Enlightenment days. Each tableau Zumbo made contrives to be both rich and desolate, and each has a painted backdrop – one of his innovations – which affords the dying a “view” of the landscape beyond the grotto, a last glimpse of the world they are about to leave. Though most of the figures would fit on the palm of your hand, they look more like individuals than specimens, and have an unnerving flamboyance or sensuality that borders on exhibitionism.

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo's 'The Triumph of Time'©Nick Ballon

‘The Triumph of Time’

Jorge Luis Borges once said that great art always has a certain ambiguity about it. Here, in that case, was great art. Here, also, was a conundrum. And, as a writer, that is precisely where a novel begins for me. Something seems to open out in front of me, something I feel driven to explore, and the only tools I have are sentences.

A detail showing the tiny self-portrait Zumbo painted and placed at the bottom of the wax tableau©Nick Ballon

A detail showing the tiny self-portrait Zumbo painted and placed at the bottom of the wax tableau

If I were to base a fiction on Zumbo I would need biographical details but they were scarce and often contradictory. Using sources as various as Antonino Mongitore, whose 18th-century work on Sicilian artists included letters relating directly to Zumbo, and two articles by Ronald Lightbown from the Victoria and Albert Museum, published in The Burlington Magazine in 1964, I began to build up a picture of the “eccentric wax-modeller”. He had been born an aristocrat in Siracusa in 1656, though some claimed his mother was a servant or a slave. He studied at the Jesuit college there, and was referred to as “Abate” – Abbot – yet he never entered the priesthood. He left Siracusa when he was young “per un fastidioso accidente” – on account of an irksome episode or mishap. He probably spent some time in Palermo, where it seems likely he began to learn his craft. Later, he lived in Naples. In 1691 he was invited to Florence by Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He left Florence four years later, appearing in Genoa, where he quarrelled with his colleague, the French anatomist and surgeon Guillaume Desnoues. He died in Paris in 1701. There was some uncertainty as to his name: he began life as Zummo, and ended it as Zumbo.

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo's ‘The Transience of Human Glory’©Nick Ballon

‘The Transience of Human Glory’

In 1988 Maria Azzaroli Puccetti of the University of Florence published a long article on Zumbo. “The tiny scraps of information that we possess relating to the life of the Sicilian artist,” she wrote, “refer to the last 10 years of his life … but what did he do until that moment? Where was he? When did he leave Sicily, and why?” His life wasn’t just poorly documented. He was, himself, an enigma. It was strange how he kept moving north, as if trying to put distance between himself and his homeland. And then there was that intriguing phrase: “an irksome episode”. I didn’t know what Zumbo had done. No one knew. The more I looked at the phrase, though, the more it resembled a euphemism – or an understatement. Something had happened. Something so serious that Zumbo had fled Sicily, never to return. If he was a fugitive, as I suspected, I could use wariness and apprehension as character traits. Even, possibly, paranoia. I came across a self-portrait, a tiny oval painting in the bottom left-hand corner of “The Triumph of Time”, one of Zumbo’s teatrini, which seemed to confirm my view of him. In the painting he looks furtive, haunted. I began to see Zumbo as a man whose neck ached because he was always glancing over his shoulder. To start a novel, all I ever need are a few clues as to a character’s psychology, and plenty of space to walk into. With Zumbo, oddly, I had both – even though he was a real person.

. . .

A detail of ‘The Transience of Human Glory’©Nick Ballon

A detail of ‘The Transience of Human Glory’

Writing is like acting. The difference is writers do their acting on a private stage, alone and in silence. Since I felt my narrative should be told in the first person, I knew I would have to get inside Zumbo’s head. I would have to be him. I took the facts, such as they were – his ambiguous origins, his flight from his homeland and a tendency, perhaps, to fall out with people – and began to flesh them out in such a way that I could inhabit them myself. Prompted by his having trained for the priesthood – the traditional fate of second sons – and needing to come up with my own version of the “irksome episode”, I gave Zumbo a pathologically jealous older brother, Jacopo. As a boy, Zumbo would be the object of relentless bullying. This would culminate in a concerted attempt to disgrace him, and he would have no choice but to flee. The fact that he is innocent of the charges Jacopo brings against him would render the pain of exile all the more exquisite. I found myself focusing on the years Zumbo spent in Florence. He was 36 by then, and already had something of a reputation as an artist. He had been on the run for almost half his life. I could see him standing on a ridge and looking down on the city for the first time. It would be here that he would get the public recognition he deserved.

By the late 17th century, the glories of the Renaissance were long gone. Florence had entered a profound economic slump – it was an age of austerity, not unlike our own – and the mood was neurotic, disapproving and suspicious. In order to survive, you had to dissimulate, cultivating a gap between your thoughts and actions. During his travels Zumbo may have come to see himself as an outsider but in Florence he was definitely a foreigner as well, and the graphic, gruesome nature of his plague pieces, which teetered on the brink of horror, would also have marked him out as an oddity. To Cosimo III, famously morbid, Zumbo’s work spoke of the transience of life – it was cautionary, meditative – but in centuries to come, opinions would differ wildly. Predictably, perhaps, it appealed to both Lord Byron and the Marquis de Sade. De Sade’s description of the plague pieces – their “fearful truth”, as he put it – was used in Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded, a context that mingled desire, cruelty and death. “So powerful is the impression produced by this masterpiece,” de Sade wrote, “that even as you gaze at it your other senses are played upon; moans audible, you wrinkle your nose as if you could detect the evil odours of mortality.” But Herman Melville, who mentioned Zumbo’s work in Journal up the Straits some 50 years later, took a different view: “A moralist, this Sicilian,” was his measured response. To this day, however, a sense of unease remains.

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo's ‘Syphilis’©Nick Ballon

‘Syphilis’

And what of Zumbo’s private life? The devil doesn’t appear in Zumbo’s work, and he makes no reference to salvation or paradise. His focus is specifically terrestrial. For Zumbo, the threat is not sin, but time. His anatomical pieces were forensic but they were also, quite clearly, sensual – or, as the art historian Roberta Panzanelli puts it, “love-letters to life itself”. If I took the view that Zumbo was celebrating life, with all its exquisite pains and pleasures, there was, surely, potential for a love affair. It was an extrapolation from the work itself. I felt instinctively that Zumbo would be drawn to a woman with a secret that matched – or even surpassed – his own. They would sense concealment in each other. I imagined a woman who was dark and quick, like him, and thought of Olivia Magnani – the way she looked in Paolo Sorrentino’s film, The Consequences of Love (2004). But given the nature of the Florentine regime in the 1690s – Cosimo III was ruthless when it came to fornication – any relationship would represent a risk.

. . .

A detail of ‘Syphilis’©Nick Ballon

A detail of ‘Syphilis’

Between August 2009 and December 2011 I wrote six drafts of the novel but I had the constant, nagging feeling that there was something missing. Prompted by the title I had settled on – Secrecy – I felt there should be something hidden deep in the book that wasn’t immediately apparent to the reader or even, perhaps, to Zumbo himself, but I didn’t know what that something should be. In January 2012, I flew to Sicily. I had set up an interview with Paolo Giansiracusa, director of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Siracusa. He is also a leading authority on Zumbo’s life and work. In his office on the first floor the sun slanted through the window, surprisingly hot for the time of year. The atmosphere was relaxed; a young man swept the room as we talked. My opening question had to do with Zumbo’s origins. There were two stories, I said. Some claimed Zumbo had been born into the aristocracy. Others said he was illegitimate. Where, in Giansiracusa’s opinion, did the truth lie?

I came away with four hours of recorded conversation. Back in London, I began to transcribe the tapes. If Zumbo had been born an aristocrat, Giansiracusa had told me, he would have been shielded by his family, or by the community, no matter what he had done. Zumbo’s flight suggested that he had not been protected. He paused. There was another crucial piece of evidence. Documents relating to Zumbo had been found in the Gargallo archive, which suggested that Zumbo’s parents were servants who had worked for the local noble Gargallo family. Then he said something I couldn’t grasp the meaning of, though I must have listened to the tape a dozen times.

Three weeks later, as chance would have it, my brother Rory flew into London. He works for an Italian bank in Shanghai, and his Italian is fluent. I played him the troublesome passage. He couldn’t understand it either. He suggested calling Renato, an Italian friend who lived in Hertfordshire. Renato answered, and we played him the tape over the phone. Though he listened to the sentence twice, he couldn’t make any sense of it. “Hold on,” he said. “My mother’s here, and she’s Sicilian. I’ll put her on.” We played the tape to Renato’s mother, and she understood it immediately. When Rory gave me her translation, I felt a surge of excitement go through me. Those few simple words allowed me to inject a whole new layer of secrecy into the novel, a layer that seemed to complete the architecture of concealment and disclosure I had been trying to build from the very beginning. By early April, the book was finished.

If research can shape a novel by triggering fictional discoveries, it can also open some unexpected windows on the world. In December 2012 I went to meet the art historian Edward Goldberg in his apartment near the Piazza Beccaria in Florence. We had been talking for an hour, about Zumbo and Cosimo III, and about the Jewish ghetto that had once existed in the city, when he suddenly broke off. “There’s something I have to show you,” he said, his dark eyes glinting. “You’ll need your coat.” We left the building. After walking for five or 10 minutes, he pointed ahead to a white neon star that dangled out over the street. “That’s where we’re going.” The place he took me to was an institution for the mentally handicapped run by a religious foundation. The entrance hall was empty apart from two men sitting on hard wooden chairs, and a number of glass fish-tanks. Each tank had little plastic figures of Joseph, Mary and the Christ child arranged in the gravel on the bottom while goldfish swam incuriously above. “That’s just the beginning,” Goldberg said. “Come this way.” He led me down a slope and through a heavy curtain. Before me was a series of elaborate nativities that reached from floor to ceiling, all sealed behind plate-glass like window displays in department stores. There were whole villages perched on hillsides, with smoke rising from the chimneys. There were hundreds of miniature figures, many with moving parts. Women stirred pots and kneaded bread. Men chopped wood. The animals that made their way towards the rain-drenched Ark included a charming pair of dinosaurs. Baby Jesus clapped his hands. When darkness descended, as it did now and then, lights came on in the houses. At one point snow began to fall. I looked at Goldberg. We both smiled. He had seen the array of nativities as a distant, surreal echo of Zumbo’s work, and he had somehow known that I, too, would make the connection.

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‘Secrecy’, by Rupert Thomson, is published by Granta Books on March 7

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