Set in 17th-century Florence, this impressive debut from a British writer illuminates a dark time in Italian history: the years of intellectual and religious repression under the rule of Cosimo III. Now in his eighth decade, lexicographer Frederico Credi looks back on the events of his youth, when he came under the wing of hunch- backed scholar Antonio Magliabechi, who was involved in a plot to save the Medici library from destruction by the Jesuits. The novel depicts the Inquisition's relentless persecution of heretics and scholars (``after the Jews they will come for the books'') and the corruption of political power that produced poverty, starvation and random lawlessness in Tuscany. His voice irreverent and witty, Fredo narrates the events whereby vicious Pasto Bomboni acquires power in the notorious secret police, the Salti, and becomes the nemesis of the artists and scientists who are conspiring to preserve the wisdom of the ages from the Inquisition's depredations. Richly detailed, the narrative builds suspense slowly, meanwhile introducing an array of vivid characters, including a giant and a dwarf, an apostate Irish monk and a flamboyant actress. A marvelously evocative picture of post-Renaissance Florence, city of matchless art and architecture and squalid, garbage-filled streets, the book holds up a mirror to intolerance and bigotry, reminding us how easy it is for a civilized society to sink into corruption. Major ad/promo. (Jan.)
It is the late 17th century and the Florence of The Palace of Wisdom has certainly seen better times. Decay and decline fester in the once remarkable city, and the great literary works of the age are destined for extinction at the hands of the Inquisition. An unlikely group of cohorts bands together to foil this evil: a fang-toothed dwarf; a learned physician; a hunchbacked librarian; and the narrator, a 15-year-old scholar. These often quirky characters, coupled with a bawdy, sardonic humor, lend this diverting tale a farcical note which in no way undermines the legitimate historical setting, or the serious undertaking of the characters. More disturbing is the cockney-like speech of the lower orders and a hasty ending, unworthy of the novel. Still, a solid debut. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/89.-- Lydia Burruel Johnson, Mesa P.L., Ariz.