Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo

Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo

by Stephanie Storey


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Called “tremendously entertaining” (The New York Times) Stephanie Storey’s brilliant bestselling debut, brings early 16th-century Florence, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo Buonarroti alive for art lovers and readers of historical fiction.

With extraordinary empathy into the minds and souls of the two great Renaissance artists, Storey offers a stunning art history thriller. From 1501 to 1505, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti both lived and worked in Florence. Leonardo was a charming, handsome fifty year-old at the peak of his career. Michelangelo was a temperamental sculptor in his mid-twenties, desperate to make a name for himself.

Michelangelo is a virtual unknown when he returns to Florence and wins the commission to carve what will become one of the most famous sculptures of all time: David. Even though his impoverished family shuns him for being an artist, he is desperate to support them. Living at the foot of his misshapen block of marble, Michelangelo struggles until the stone finally begins to speak. Working against an impossible deadline, he begins his feverish carving.

Meanwhile, Leonardo's life is falling apart: he loses the hoped-for David commission; he can't seem to finish any project; he is obsessed with his ungainly flying machine; he almost dies in war; his engineering designs disastrously fail; and he is haunted by a woman he has seen in the market—a merchant's wife, whom he is finally commissioned to paint. Her name is Lisa, and she becomes his muse.

Leonardo despises Michelangelo for his youth and lack of sophistication. Michelangelo both loathes and worships Leonardo's genius.

Oil and Marble is the story of their nearly forgotten rivalry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628729061
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 06/19/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 45,190
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stephanie Storey is a writer and art fanatic. She has a degree in fine arts from Vanderbilt University and an MFA from Emerson College. When not writing fiction and screenplays, she works as a television producer. Oil and Marble is her debut novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, an actor and Emmy-winning comedy writer.

Read an Excerpt

Oil and Marble

A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo

By Stephanie Storey

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2016 Stephanie Storey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-640-4



December. Milan

From up close, he could see that the mural was already beginning to flake off the wall. The paint was not smooth, as it should be, but grainy, as though applied over a fine layer of sand. Soon the pigment would break away from the plaster and crumble into specks that would blow away, bit by bit. The earthy tones, made from dirt and clay, would be the first to go. The vermilion, the rusty red color of blood and pomegranate, would most likely stick the longest; it had the most permanent qualities. But the ultramarine worried him most. Ground from precious lapis stones, the brilliant blue was shipped in from a faraway land in the East and was the most expensive hue on the market. By using a hint of ultramarine, a painter could elevate a picture from mediocre to masterpiece, but its use on fresco was rare. Without ultramarine, his work could be dismissed as insignificant or, worse yet, conventional. And it was already starting to crack.

"Porca vacca," he swore under his breath. The deterioration was his own fault. He had pushed his experiments too far. He always pushed things too far. The left side of his face twitched. He took a deep breath, and his expression softened back into serenity. No need to feel ruffled. For now, he reassured himself, this was still a masterpiece, and he was still the master. He turned to entertain his audience with secrets and stories. It was, after all, what they had come for: to hear the great Leonardo from Vinci explain his latest painting, The Last Supper.

"One of you will betray me!" Leonardo boomed, his voice echoing down the vaulted stone dining hall in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where his fresco spanned the north wall.

The crowd of French tourists was delighted by his dramatic outburst. He knew that for many of them, he was a great curiosity. At forty-eight years old, the Master from Vinci was one of the most famous men on the Italian peninsula; his name had spread to France, Spain, England, and the far-flung land of Turkey. He was known for his ingenious designs of war machines and groundbreaking innovations in paint. Tourists traveled from all over the world to see him stand in front of his famous fresco, which was known for its luscious colors, still clinging to the plaster for now — for its thirteen realistic portraits of Jesus and his disciples, and its an undulating composition, balanced around a central, stable Christ.

"This is the moment immediately following Christ's accusation," he said, stepping away from the fresco in hopes of diverting the crowd's attention away from the decaying paint. "At this point in the story, no one yet knows it is Judas who will betray Jesus. The revelation that there is an impostor among them is shocking. The disciples jump up, flail their arms, and cry out in alarm. One of them is a traitor. But who?" He scanned the tourists, as though hunting for a snake among them. In truth, he was studying their faces, looking for unique features and expressions that he might scribble into his notebook after they were gone.

"I hear you use your own face for Doubting Thomas," a voluptuous French girl remarked in heavily accented Italian. "But I do not see ressemblance." Her lips puckered over the French pronunciation, as though ready to plant a kiss.

Leonardo knew that both women and men appreciated his good looks. Although he often wore spectacles to aid his aging sight, when he looked into a mirror he saw that his golden eyes still sparked with youthful vigor. He was lithe and muscular, with a full head of wavy dark brown hair just starting to gray. If the masses were going to gawk at him as though he were some sort of mythical creature, he had a responsibility to look good, he reasoned, so he bathed every day and wore fashionable clothing that heralded his success: knee-length tunics, pastel-colored tights, and a gold ring with multicolored gemstones in the shape of a bird, worth more than most artists made in a lifetime.

He slid his eyes to the French girl's bosom, flushed pink and corseted upward in the latest fashion. Sometimes when a tourist caught his eye, he took the boy or girl back to his studio to sketch them, and sometimes they were so excited to meet the maestro that they happily slipped into bed with him, too. "That's because there is no ressemblance," he replied, copying her French accent. "If I relied on my own image as a model, I would draw variations of myself over and over again and never generate a unique face. And that would make for boring pictures."

His audience laughed, including the fleshy French girl.

Patrons often told Leonardo that when he spoke, it was difficult to tell if he were serious or joking, so he injected extra gravitas into his voice. "I'm telling the truth."

Except for one detail.

He looked down at the bejeweled bird glinting on the ring finger of his left hand, his dominant hand. God-fearing Italians considered left-handedness an aberration. The right side was the divine side. The left, driven toward sin. Most left-handed children were forced to use their right hands, to keep them on the righteous path. Leonardo's father had produced twelve legitimate children with a legitimate wife and all were right-handed. But for Leonardo, his bastard son, the result of a youthful affair with a lowly house slave from Constantinople, the sinister side had been acceptable.

In The Last Supper, two seats to the right of Jesus, a shadowy man in a green tunic reached for a roll of bread with his left hand. Judas was left-handed, too. "Imagine you're part of a large family." Leonardo stared past the French girl and into his painting. "One of twelve siblings gathered around a holiday dinner table. Your parent is in the middle, trying to keep order and balance. Imagine ..." The sounds and smells of the room seemed to fall away as he meditated on Judas's left hand. "But as with any family, beneath the surface, there are secrets. In the middle of our boisterous family, one man doesn't belong. He is still among us, but hard to find."

In other depictions of the Last Supper, Judas was easy to spot, often sitting on the opposite side of the table from the others. In Leonardo's version, however, the traitor was in the middle of the group, just one of the disciples, hidden through his very inclusion, only identifiable by the small moneybag he clasped.

"In the moment immediately following Jesus's accusation, everyone is in shock, asking who is the betrayer. Is it him? Or him? Or that one over there? Or, the most frightening question of all, could it be me? When none of us have yet been identified as the betrayer, we all are. We could all be the illegitimate other. We could all be the Judas."

As the spectators leaned in to examine each face, Leonardo groaned inwardly. He had intended to divert their attention from the deteriorating picture, not direct them to scrutinize it more carefully.

Suddenly, the refectory door banged open and an attractive twenty-year-old dandy burst into the chamber. Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno had a panicked look on his smooth-skinned face, and his coiffed hair was mussed. "Il Moro is coming!" The crowd fell silent and exchanged looks, as though trying to discern if this were a genuine warning or a ruse designed to entertain them. They glanced at Leonardo for a sign. "If you're teasing, Salaì, it's very cruel to these poor people." He called his assistant Salaì, which meant Little Devil, because of his propensity for playing practical jokes during the past — how long had it been now? Ten years already?

"This is no trick, Master. I swear. Il Moro is returning. With an army." Although prone to mischief, the young man wasn't a good actor. He was telling the truth.

Two ladies screamed. The voluptuous French girl pressed her hand against her corseted stomach. Husbands ordered families to flee. If Il Moro was returning to Milan, all of their lives were at risk.

Especially Leonardo da Vinci's.

The Sforza family had ruled Normandy for fifty years, until two months ago, when the French military invaded the capital and drove the family from town. Duke Ludovico Sforza — called the Moor because of his dark complexion — had escaped unharmed, but it was a humiliating defeat. If Salaì were right about the ousted leader's return, Sforza would mount a vicious assault. Every Frenchman still in Milan would be in danger.

Including Leonardo. For the last eighteen years he had been living and working in Milan, serving the Milanese court, but when the duke fled, Leonardo had not followed like a loyal patriot. Instead, he'd remained in his comfortable rooms in Sforza Castle and offered his services to the French king. If the duke returned to power, Leonardo would probably be arrested for treason. And everyone knew what the Sforzas did to traitors.

"We must go to the king. He'll take us with him to France or Naples or wherever he is headed." Leonardo twirled the bird ring on his left hand.

Salaì's expression darkened. "The king is already gone. He took his court with him. He left us behind."

Leonardo's left eye twitched. He needed time to think, so he pulled out the little notebook that dangled from his belt, sat down on the floor in front of the fresco, and began to sketch the panicked French tourists. With quick strokes, he captured rough impressions: their wide eyes, flared noses, thrashing arms, anything to give the suggestion of fear. The only way to truly understand human emotion was to study its physical effects, and having the chance to witness this kind of raw reaction was rare. He wished he could capture the sound of rustling fabric, gulped cries, and panting. If he could have drawn the taste of terror, he would have.

"Master, please, not now ..." Salaì gently tried to take the notebook from his hands, but Leonardo would not let go. "We are abandoned. We must leave Milan."

"We should think before we do anything hasty." He must sketch that plucky French girl the way he saw her now: head thrown back, mouth open in a wail, chest heaving and flushed. Fear looked a lot like ecstasy, and he scribbled a reminder to study the implications of such an incongruous similarity. As she hustled out of the room, he lamented that he wouldn't have the chance to indulge his desires with her.

The last Frenchman left the hall. The heavy door closed, muffling the cacophony of panic in the streets.

Salaì grabbed Leonardo's elbow. "We don't have time to think."

"There's always time to think, my young apprentice." Leonardo calmly put away his notebook.

Having time to think was why he had tried this now-spoiling experimental fresco technique in the first place. In true fresco, an artist slathered a coat of lime onto the wall and then painted directly into wet plaster, so the picture became a permanent part of the building. However, durability had its price. One had to finish painting an area of fresh plaster before it dried. It required fast, continuous work — but fast and continuous wasn't Leonardo's style. He liked to take his time, to contemplate every detail. He might start a project, stop, and then start again. Moreover, many of his favorite colors, like ultramarine, were made from minerals that counteracted with lime. It was why he'd developed a technique befitting his style, applying an egg-based tempera directly onto a dry wall sealed with primer. Using that method, he could employ his favorite mineral pigments — ultramarine, vermilion, even the sparkling green-blue of azurite. But more importantly, by avoiding wet plaster, he could take his time, making changes whenever a better idea occurred to him days, weeks, months, even years later. Once, while painting this very fresco, he had thought about a single brushstroke for three days before applying a touch of umber to Jesus's right hand.

Salaì pulled Leonardo to his feet. "I already have your notebooks and loose drawings packed." He patted a heavy satchel slung across his torso. "We'll have to leave everything else behind."

Leonardo looked back at The Last Supper. The paint was deteriorating, of that there was no doubt. He would not be able to save the crumbling picture. "That's all right, Salaì," he said, as much to himself as to his assistant. "Those who long to hold onto their belongings forever are misguided. We artists know how to let go of our possessions. Our work, after all, doesn't belong to us, but to the patron. Besides, paintings are never finished, only abandoned."

As they made their way out, cannon fire echoed in the distance. Outside was chaos. Galloping horses carried soldiers out of town. French courtiers and citizens frantically packed up carriages. A stormy winter wind kicked up clouds of dirt, veiling the city in a brown haze. The fashionable northern capital of Milan had descended into anarchy. In the midst of the pandemonium, a solitary French soldier stood peacefully in the piazza and gazed up into the eyes of a massive clay statue, a horse that towered taller than five men standing on each other's shoulders.

That clay horse, a monument to Il Moro's dead father, had been designed by Leonardo as a test model for what would have been the largest bronze equestrian statue in history. Poets composed verses about the glorious beast, and tourists traveled from far and wide to visit the model, planning to return to see the bronze statue once it was finished. But Leonardo had never even completed the mold for the sculpture, and eventually Il Moro had melted down the statue's bronze to make cannonballs for war. When the French invaded Milan, they had used the clay horse for target practice, shooting it with burning arrows and beating it with clubs. The soldiers took off its ear, part of its nose, and a chunk of its hindquarters. If it had been a living horse, it would have died within the first few moments. But even though the clay model was full of holes, it was still standing.

"Master, come. We have to go!" Across the street, Salaì was saddling two horses.

Leonardo didn't move. He couldn't take his eyes off the French soldier silently communing with the great horse. Leonardo hoped the monument was giving the young man a sense of peace and purpose during this time of turmoil. The soldier reached into his belt and slowly pulled out a long sword. Leonardo imagined the young warrior placing his weapon at the foot of the statue, as though surrendering before the beauty of his art. Instead, the soldier swung his sword and yelled, "Death to Sforza!" The blade hit the horse's front right leg with a reverberating clang. The leg shattered. The horse held strong for a moment, and then teetered forward and crashed to the ground.

"No!" Leonardo shouted. He had spent four long years designing that horse. Many nights he had fantasized about finally casting the statue in gleaming bronze.

At this point in his career he was an uncontested success, but many of his contemporaries were already dead. What would he leave behind once he, too, was gone? He had no children to carry his name into the future. Half of his paintings were unfinished. The other half, including his portraits of Il Moro's mistresses, hung in private rooms and might never be on regular display to the public. He had a slew of unrealized inventions and a stack of notebooks full of useless ramblings. Now his Last Supper was crumbling off the wall and the model for his equestrian masterpiece was destroyed. Years from now, would anyone remember Leonardo, the painter, inventor, and engineer from the inconsequential town of Vinci?

"Leonardo!" Salaì called, already astride his horse.

He turned away from his clay horse and crossed the chaotic street. When he'd moved to Milan, he had been thirty years old, just beginning to make a name for himself as an engineer, scientist, inventor, director of spectacular social events and, of course, painter. In Milan, he had grown into an elder master. He'd thought he would die in that great city. He mounted his horse and nodded to Salaì. Side by side, they galloped out of Milan's protective walls and into the surrounding wilderness. No one knew what the future held for the city, or for the war-torn peninsula, as kings and dukes and popes battled over territory. No one knew what the future held for Leonardo. Only one thing was certain: the Master from Vinci needed to find a new home, a new patron, a new life, and a new legacy.


Excerpted from Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey. Copyright © 2016 Stephanie Storey. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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