It is Florence, 1691. The Renaissance is long gone, and the city is a dark, repressive place, where everything is forbidden and anything is possible. The Enlightenment may be just around the corner, but knowledge is still the property of the few, and they guard it fiercely. Art, sex and power - these, as always, are the obsessions.
Facing serious criminal charges, Gaetano Zummo is forced to flee his native Siracusa at the age of twenty, first to Palermo, then Naples, but always has the feeling that he is being pursued by his past, and that he will never be free of it. Zummo works an artist in wax. He is fascinated by the plague, and makes small wooden cabinets in which he places graphic, tortured models of the dead and dying. But Cosimo III, Tuscany's penultimate Medici ruler, gives Zummo his most challenging commission yet, and as he tackles it his path entwines with that of the apothecary's daughter Faustina, whose secret is even more explosive than his.
Poignant but paranoid, sensual yet chilling, Secrecy is a novel that buzzes with intrigue and ideas. It is a love story, a murder mystery, a portrait of a famous city in an age of austerity, an exercise in concealment and revelation, but above all it is a trapdoor narrative, one story dropping unexpectedly into another, the ground always slippery, uncertain...
Beautifully evocative prose ("A burnt-orange sun dropped, trembling, from behind a bank of cloud, like something being born") makes this unusual historical novel truly memorable. In 1691, a mysterious artist known as Zummo, or Zumbo, with a taste for the macabre, is summoned to Florence by Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. After viewing a typically grim sample of Zummo's work, a tableau in wax depicting plague victims in various stages of deterioration (titled The Triumph of Time), Cosimo hires Zummo to craft a realistic-looking, life-sized woman out of wax. The commission rubs Dominican cleric Stufa, the spiritual adviser to Cosimo's mother, the wrong way. Subsequent court intrigue turns deadly, and, throughout, the reader wonders about the prologue, set in 1701, in which Zummo meets the abbess of a convent in Orl ans, Marguerite-Louise, whom he confronts with news of her secret daughter before launching into a flashback to his involvement with the Grand Duke. But the plot twists take a back seat to the complex picture Thomson gives of his oddball protagonist, a man given to wandering around carrying "little theaters filled with...the dead and dying" in the name of art.