Reviewed in the United States on June 30, 2020
One of the greatest challenges in writing a historical novel about a figure as colossal as Michelangelo is finding the proper angle from which to view him, a perspective that will provide a dramatic narrative arc as well as insight into the man beneath the reputation. In her newly published novel, THE GIANT, art historian Laura Morelli examines Michelangelo's creation of the iconic statue of David, commissioned by the city of Florence in 1501, through the eyes of his friend and collaborator Jacopo Torni (1476-1526). The novel's deliciously ambiguous title captures the multiple avenues of exploration this inspired choice of perspective opens. "The Giant" is, of course, the statue of David, which, at 17 feet, towers three times the height of a man. The sobriquet also refers to Michelangelo himself, a sculptor whose skills and vision far exceed those of the vast majority of artists. Yet, beyond the historical person, "The Giant" refers to the looming construct of "Michelangelo" in Jacopo's mind. "The Giant" is a talented rival whose focus, achievement, and fame forever dwarf and inhibit Jacopo's own accomplishment. As Michelangelo labors to free David from the marble block, Jacopo wrestles to escape the self-doubt and insecurity that haunt him in the shadow of his gifted friend.
Narrated in Jacopo's engaging, first-person voice, THE GIANT is as much, if not more, his story as it is Michelangelo's. The narrative revolves around the gigantic slab of marble that has lain, abandoned, in the cathedral precinct for decades. When the city fathers announce a contest to carve a figure from the stone, Jacopo invites Michelangelo back from Rome to collaborate with him on an entry. Although Jacopo's suggestions influence Michelangelo's designs, Michelangelo submits a proposal in his own name and wins the commission. He withdraws, surly and alone, into a high wooden pen to work on the statue in private, while Jacopo, ever the fun-loving, garrulous prankster, fritters away his sister's dowry and his own self-worth at the gambling table, waiting to be invited to help. Slowly, meticulously, Michelangelo's tools rasp away at the marble, giving exquisite form to the beauty of his vision. Just as steadily, and with as much painful effort, frustration and circumstance chip away at Jacopo's resistance, urging him to abandon his sloth and free his own talent from unreasonable expectations. With Michelangelo's unexpected help, Jacopo learns that he can either wallow, unproductive and overlooked, in envy, or use it as a spur toward greatness. It is a choice all creatives face as they contemplate the grand achievements of the artists that have preceded them.
Based on a true story and replete with the details of technique and historical context that only an expert in the field can provide, Laura Morelli's THE GIANT provides a fascinating, satisfying account of the creation of one of the Renaissance's most revered works of art. Its convincing evocation of the vibrant artistic culture of early sixteenth century Florence reveals that, for many an artist, the most exacting challenge is not competing against other creators, but inspiring the reluctant self. Highly recommended.