4.0 1
by Rupert Thomson

View All Available Formats & Editions

A sorcerer in wax. A fugitive. Haunted by a past he cannot escape. Threatened by a future he cannot imagine.
Zummo, a Sicilian sculptor, is summoned by Cosimo III to join the Medici court. Late seventeenth-century Florence is a hotbed of repression and hypocrisy. All forms of pleasure are brutally punished, and the Grand Duke himself, a man


A sorcerer in wax. A fugitive. Haunted by a past he cannot escape. Threatened by a future he cannot imagine.
Zummo, a Sicilian sculptor, is summoned by Cosimo III to join the Medici court. Late seventeenth-century Florence is a hotbed of repression and hypocrisy. All forms of pleasure are brutally punished, and the Grand Duke himself, a man for whom marriage has been an exquisite torture, hides his pain beneath a show of excessive piety.
The Grand Duke asks Zummo to produce a life-size woman out of wax, an antidote to the French wife who made him suffer so. As Zummo wrestles with this unique commission, he falls under the spell of a woman whose elusiveness mirrors his own, but whose secrets are far more explosive. Lurking in the wings is the poisonous Dominican priest, Stufa, who has it within his power to destroy Zummo’s livelihood, if not his life.
In this highly charged novel, Thomson brings Florence to life in all its vibrant sensuality, while remaining entirely contemporary in his exploration of the tensions between love and solitude, beauty and decay. When reality becomes threatening, not to say unfathomable, survival strategies are tested to the limit. Redemption is a possibility, but only if the agonies of death and separation can be transcended.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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 Orléans, 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. Agent: Peter Straus, RCW Literary. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Thomson paints a suspenseful picture of the moody, factional world of Florentine politics and draws parallels with the inner life of an artist whose work imitates darkness and decay." —The New Yorker

"Thomson succeeds on a number of levels here, for the novel works as a mystery, as a love story, as a historical novel and, more abstractly, as an exploration of aesthetic theory." —Kirkus

“Thomson brings Renaissance-era Florence to life with rich descriptions and scenic locales. Readers who have toured Florence will enjoy revisiting the sites in the mind’s eye, and historical fiction fans in general will relish the virtual trip brimming with mystery and intrigue.” —Booklist

“Beautifully evocative prose…makes this unusual historical novel truly memorable.” —Publishers Weekly

“Thomson’s thorough research and exceptional skill for the sort of detailed storytelling often missing in historical novels make Secrecy an absorbing and thrilling mystery, full of dark alleys, gray skies and cobblestone.” —BookPage

"A page-turning historical thriller by one of Britain's finest writers; Thomson's lyrical and economical style draws comparisons to George Eliot's Romola." —Library Journal
“A novel rich as the past it conjures up, weaving a story as playful and disturbing as the strange wax sculptures that its hero gives life to.” —Sarah Dunant, author of the best-selling The Birth of Venus

"Reads like a fairy tale for adults." —Leah Hager Cohen, author of No Book but the World

"Under the surface of Thomson’s startlingly inventive prose, the stories within the stories bring to light the many faces of secrecy—those imposed against one’s will, those sought out and relied on, and those which people carry unknowingly, like the hour of their death—which mark and shape all human lives." —Historical Novel Society

“Secrecy is also a stunning literary piece. The author uses language with as much skill as his hero Zummo uses wax, and the luminous city of Florence reveals a shocking core of corruption and darkness. If you are a fan of Umberto Eco, don’t miss Secrecy. Highly recommended.” —Historical Novels Review 

 “Chillingly brilliant and sinister…masterly.” —Financial Times

“Bewitching…Intensely atmospheric…Superb.” —Daily Mail

“Scene after scene trembles with breath-stopping tension on the edge of bliss or dread. No one else writes quite like this in Britain today.” —The Observer (UK)

Kirkus Reviews
Thomson (Death of a Murderer, 2007, etc.) takes us to 17th-century Florence, which by definition seems to be full of corrupt politicians, unscrupulous clergy and aspiring artists—and this, of course, long after the Renaissance has ended. We begin with a dialogue between Italian sculptor Gaetano Zummo (called "Zumbo" by the French) and Marguerite-Louise of Orléans, now an abbess at a convent but formerly wife of Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Zummo's reminiscences take him back some 25 years, though the bulk of the action occurs about 10 years before his meeting with the abbess. He's been summoned by the Grand Duke on an odd commission—the Duke wants Zummo to sculpt the female form, perfect in every detail, from wax. The Duke in part wishes to escape a marriage in which his wife does not try to hide her contempt for him and, particularly, for his failings as a lover. (The Duchess has plenty of experience in this amatory realm and is thus likely a fair judge of her husband's lack of prowess.) In his wanderings around the city, and in his need to experiment with various techniques to produce the desired aesthetic result, Zummo meets Faustina, a lovely Florentine. They quickly become lovers, and Zummo develops a strong desire to protect her, for she's being both pursued and persecuted by an exceptionally cruel and sensual Dominican priest named Stufa, nicknamed, for reasons that become obvious, "Flesh." Through some detective work, Zummo eventually discovers that Faustina is in fact the daughter of the Grand Duchess, but this knowledge does not protect her, and Zummo comes up with a plan to forever rid their lives of Stufa. Thomson succeeds on a number of levels here, for the novel works as a mystery, as a love story, as a historical novel and, more abstractly, as an exploration of aesthetic theory.
Library Journal
★ 02/01/2014
In 2010, Thomson gave readers a glimpse into his personal life with a heartbreaking memoir, This Party's Got To Stop. No stranger to historical fiction (Air & Fire), he sets his new work in 17th-century Florence, drawing on the life of Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, a Sicilian sculptor granted patronage by the grand duke of Tuscany to create a replica of his wife in wax. Given the cultural climate of Florence and the looming threat of the Roman Inquisition, it is a dangerous commission. In the process of completing the grand duke's order, the novel's protagonist, Gaetano Zummo, falls in love with a local woman with a dark past, runs afoul of a Dominican priest, and uncovers the complicated relationship that links them all together. Through picturesque language, the historical space of Florence becomes an ideological filter through which concepts of power, religion, and identity are interpreted and critiqued. VERDICT A page-turning historical thriller by one of Britain's finest writers; Thomson's lyrical and economical style draws comparisons to George Eliot's Romola.—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH

Product Details

Other Press, LLC
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

I had left my hometown of Siracusa in 1675, the rumors snapping at my heels like a pack of dogs. I was only nineteen, but I knew there would be no turning back. I passed through Catania and on along the coast, Etna looming in the western sky, Etna with its fertile slopes, its luscious fruits and flowers, its promise of destruction. From Messina I sailed westward. It was late July, and the night was stifling. A dull red moon, clouds edged in rust and copper. Though the air was motion-less, the sea heaved and strained, as if struggling to free itself, and there were moments when I thought the boat was going down. That would have been the death of me, and there were those who would have rejoiced to hear the news.
I was in Palermo for a year or two, then I boarded a ship again and traveled northeast, to Naples. I hadn’t done what they said I’d done, but there’s a kind of truth in a well-told lie, and that truth can cling to you like the taste of raw garlic or the smell of smoke. People are always ready to believe the worst. Sometimes, in the viscous, fumbling hours before dawn, as I was forced once again to leave my lodgings for fear of being discovered or denounced, such a bitterness would seize me that if I happened to pass a mirror I would scarcely recognize myself. Other times I would laugh in the face of what pursued me. Let them twist the facts. Assassinate my character. Let them rake their muck. I would carve a path for myself, something elaborate and glorious, beyond their wildest imaginings. I would count on no one. Have no one count on me. I was in many places, but I had my work and I believed that it would save me. All the same, I lived close to the surface of my skin, as men do in a war, and I carried a knife on me at all times, even though, in most towns, it was forbidden, and every now and then I would go back over the past, touching cautious fingers to the damage. It was in this frame of mind, always watchful, often sleepless, that I made my way, finally, to Florence.

Meet the Author

Rupert Thomson is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including The Insult, which was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize and chosen by David Bowie as one of his Top 100 Must-Read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, which was short-listed for the Costa Prize. His memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, won the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Book of the Year. He lives in London.   

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Secrecy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
archetype67 More than 1 year ago
(3.5 stars) Set during the days of Cosimo III, Secrecy is a fictional account of the Sicilian wax sculptor Gaetano Zummo. Zummo left Sicily at 20 under suspicious circumstances and has always felt he was on the run, always looking over his shoulder. He ends up in Florence and gains the Patronage of the Grand Duke, Cosimo who wants him to sculpt him a woman of wax.  Thomson does an excellent job a detailing and describing 17th Century Florence - where hypocrites of the state and church cruelly punish anyone guilty of just about all pleasure. The Duke confesses to Zummo all about his tortured marriage, while those around the Duke find reasons to question Zummo's life. I loved the description of Florence and having visited there a few years ago, I could not only picture the sites such as the Uffizi, Bargello, and Sante Croce as they are now, but also as they were in the 1600's. Not only was Florence well drawn, but all of the characters were wonderfully described. The process of how wax was sculpted was also detailed - anyone who enjoys art will find it fascinating. The novel's opening was a bit slow and the framing story was difficult to connect until the very end, but once it was moving it held my interest. There was some intrigue and there were great connections between different aspects of the story that pulled it all together in the end. Beyond the plot, the story explored the idea of art and sensuality, art as representative of something larger in life, and of hypocrisy.  The frame story, distracting at the beginning, eventually makes sense and surprisingly, led me to sympathize with a character that through one character was painted as whole unsympathetic. Overall, I enjoyed the book, and while it's true strength is in the vivid descriptions and details, had a good plot and well done characters and delved beyond plot to explore larger issues. The slow beginning, and some areas that fell flat kept it from being a solid four, but it was worth the read.