History in the faking

Gioconda, by Lucille Turner, Granta, RRP£12.99, 304 pages

David, by Mary Hoffman, Bloomsbury, RRP£10.99, 288 pages

The Ground is Burning, by Samuel Black, Faber, RRP£12.99, 352 pages

Historical fiction is riding a wave of critical and popular acclaim in Britain. Philippa Gregory and CJ Sansom, the great names in commercial historical fiction who confine themselves to the well-trodden paths of history such as Tudor England or the Regency, are now being joined by authors more familiar for their scholarly non-fiction.

There’s Tudor historian Alison Weir, turning her hand to fiction with The Lady Elizabeth about the young Elizabeth I and The Captive Queen, about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Stella Tillyard has published Tides of War, set in the Napoleonic era, and Saul David’s bloody, exhilarating novels featuring the swashbuckling Zulu Hart are overtaking his serious non-fiction. Meanwhile, award-winning travel writer Justin Hill, author of The Drink and Dream Tea House, has just published Shieldwall, about the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings.

Once dismissed as “bodice-rippers”, historical novels tended not to be literary prize-winners; that is, until Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall came along in 2009. A subtle and sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell, one of English history’s supposed villains, it won the 2009 Man Booker prize and also the inaugural 2010 Walter Scott prize, which was set up, ironically, to counter a perceived lack of respect for historical fiction.

The success of Wolf Hall seemed to chime with a shift in popular history writing. Personality-rich, royalty-based tales in the mould of Jean Plaidy had looked old-fashioned during the social history boom of the 1960s and 1970s. Historians were stressing underlying forces rather than large personalities, uncovering the lives of the people rather than the thin top-crust of society.

But with the work of David Starkey, for example, focusing once more on grand narratives and giant individuals such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, traditional historical novels are back on trend. And we are less snobbish these days about the things that bring us pleasure. As one publisher muttered darkly to me: “I’d rather read Georgette Heyer than the new Graham Swift.”

Literary novelists are bringing an intense interiority to a genre that has in the past seemed more concerned with the march of outward events. Taking their cue from Mantel, novelists are tackling the biggest risk of all: to make a historical figure breathe as a literary creation whose life is not fixed but lived moment to moment.

Novelists have always been drawn to writers: this year David Lodge examined the love life and teeming ideas of HG Wells in A Man of Parts, and Helen Humphreys’ The Reinvention of Love focused on the friendship of Victor Hugo and the critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve. More tangentially, Clare Morgan’s debut A Book for All and None featured haunting episodes showing Nietzsche, and Ben Markovits reaches the finale of his Byron trilogy with Childish Loves, out in August.

We of course know much about these people through their own writing, which makes the historical novelist’s task of reimagining their lives more manageable. It is another thing altogether to get a feel for a towering historical figure who isn’t famous for the written word. Samuel Black’s The Ground is Burning, Mary Hoffman’s David and Lucille Turner’s Gioconda all feature Leonardo da Vinci as a significant or central character, and all hinge on the year 1500. Gioconda proposes an elegant solution to the problem of why the portrait of the wife of a silk merchant was never delivered; David brings a sexy immediacy to the creation of a sculptural marvel; and The Ground is Burning investigates the harsh background of continual military danger and strife underlying the peerless artistic achievements of the Renaissance.

What is it about this pacifist, left-handed vegetarian that so appeals to the modern novelist? Leonardo remains the archetypal “Renaissance Man”, someone who could theoretically know everything worth knowing and be a kind of capstone on the pyramid of human intellect. His scientific method and lack of religiosity mark him out as perhaps the first modern man, a figure standing almost out of time.

His (supposed) homosexuality may also be easier for we moderns to understand. And in an era when the hot artistic ticket is Tracey Emin’s bedspreads and scribbles, we remain in thrall to a matchless maker of beautiful things that embody magnificent ideas, rather than shoddy goods reminding us that our dreams are mostly rubbish.

Lucille Turner was inspired by Wolf Hall to write her debut, Gioconda. Her publishers make a bold claim: “Leonardo da Vinci and the birth of his masterpiece, the ‘Mona Lisa’, brought to life in fiction for the very first time.” This is more enthusiastic than accurate; it would puzzle anyone who read The Ground is Burning on publication back in the spring, featuring as it does another woman with a mysterious smile and an artist on the alert to express the inexpressible.

But Black’s book has a wider scope than Turner’s, telling the interlinked stories of Cesare Borgia, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo. Gioconda is much more focused on the personality of Leonardo himself, and Turner works hard to chart the development of his ever-questing intellect.

The inspiration for the novel came when Turner bought a print of “Mona Lisa” in a French supermarket for €20. “I just thought it was so incongruous,” she smiles. “It was funny walking through the supermarket with it in the trolley – it just didn’t seem to belong there, but it’s such a widely diffused image that in some ways it is not surprising it ended up there.” Every writer is looking for a mystery, she says, and mysteries swirl around “Mona Lisa”. “Was it a self-portrait, was it this, was it that, is it a woman, is it a man – all these crazy theories. When you start researching it, you realise that there are some real mysteries surrounding it.”

Despite centuries of study, there are still fruitful aspects of Leonardo’s life for the novelist to explore, Turner believes. “There’s been a great deal of research about his work, but his private life ... You may know the events that surround someone, you may know about their achievements but do you ever really know about their motivation?” Yet there are limits to the novelist’s invention. “When you get to someone’s character, there’s a moral obligation to remain true to what you know,” Turner maintains. “You can fill in the gaps, you can enlarge the picture, but I think you have to stay true to the spirit of the person as much as possible, otherwise why write about the real person, why not just invent your own?” One of the things we think we “know” about Leonardo – his homosexuality – is left well alone by Turner.

“I think that when you’re writing about a very well-known historical character, you have to be careful about stamping them with labels,” she says. “In Leonardo’s particular case I feel that he probably had no time for it [sex]. His mind, I think, was elsewhere and when you look at his notes, his diary – there’s just so much going on that it just seems silly to focus on that.”

She makes a telling point about what this sort of writing is seeking to do when she says: “The role of the novelist is to put the character on the couch, try and analyse them in some way.” This is both hopelessly ahistorical and fascinating; Charles Nicholl attempted to do something similar in his 2004 biography Leonardo: Flights of the Mind, which looked for deep-buried urges and early memories in notebook jottings and images. Psychoanalysis, itself a story, proves a fitting solvent with which to unstick the bare historical facts.

Every historical novelist stands on the shoulder of giants, and Turner acknowledges the art historian Martin Kemp for his help with her book. “I felt I needed to be able to lean on an expert,” she says, also citing Nicholl. It’s an uncomfortable irony that when non-fiction writers are getting smaller and smaller advances to write books which may be years in the writing and involve expensive travel, their labours often inspire and facilitate the writing of novels. Black’s book came out after historian Paul Strathern’s study The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior on the same topic; but where Black can freely invent scenes and dialogues, Strathern has to be more circumspect. Where the prudent biographer fears to tread, the novelist can rush in, enacting what the biographer can only assert.

All three novels feature invented supporting characters, but in the case of Mary Hoffman’s David, the protagonist himself is fictional. Teenaged Gabriele is the supposed model for Michelangelo’s statue, a young stonecutter who shared a wet-nurse with the older artist. All the books refer to the Medici, the Pazzi conspiracy, various plotting popes, Savonarola and the manoeuvres of the King of France, but Hoffman has it easier than the others. Gabriele is not smart, which is useful when you’ve got a lot of exposition to do: “Um. Can you just assume I know nothing and tell me all the background?” he says. “What do the French have to do with anything?”

Gorgeous Gabriele is lusted after by nearly every woman he meets, and many men. The tone is enjoyably arch: “My portraiture is coming along,” Leonardo remarks at one point. But the meat of the book is the rivalry between the pro-Medici faction and the frateschi, those who still follow the friar Savonarola. Inclined to the latter as the party of the people, Gabriele becomes a double agent through his links with a gay aristocrat. Hoffman’s account is freely inventive – at one point she breaks Michelangelo’s arm in a riot – but the book makes palpable the contemporary meaning of the statue of a giant-killer – a (literally) gigantic anti-aristocratic gesture.

But do these novels amount to anything more than an entertaining literary game? Can they really shed light on such towering figures as Michelangelo and Leonardo, or such enigmatic and unappealing ones as Machiavelli and Borgia? It’s worth remembering George Eliot’s least successful novel Romola, which also dealt with Savonarola’s Florence. If she couldn’t crack it, who can?

Gioconda is a qualified success, scrupulous with its sources, careful with its conclusions. But somehow the intellectual, social, sexual and artistic ferment of the Renaissance is muted. Black is livelier, but has such a large time-frame to cover and so many political and military incidents to chart that his book becomes a gruelling route march with exciting outposts. David is less ambitious than either.

In the end, these huge personalities can’t be cemented into novel form with perfect success. The characters’ great fame, the thing that presumably attracted the authors and publishers in the first place, overwhelms their best endeavours. David regards us impassively from his plinth, and Mona Lisa still gently mocks our efforts to understand her.

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