The Common Good
March-April 1998

A Tour of the Italian Renaissance

by Catherine Preus | March-April 1998

Fiction and fact intertwined.

Jacqueline Park’s first novel, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, is worth reading just for the story and its heroine. As a bonus, one gets to take a ride through the Italian Renaissance, a time of great art, religious frenzies, and brazen contradictions such as furs and jewels worn in streets clogged with human waste. Grazia dei Rossi, of a Jewish banking family, raised in the humanist tradition to think for herself, describes the upheavals of her life, and thereby of the age.

As a scribe for the Christian ruler Isabella Gonzaga (a historical figure), Grazia writes for the benefit of her son, "so that you may know whence you came and on whose shoulders you stand....What I propose to set down for you are the secrets of the heart." The events of her life will also give little Danilo something to go on as he must choose between the two worlds of his mother’s life. She tells him of her illicit love for a Christian lord—Jews could be burned at the stake for such presumption—and of how she is saved from ruin by her education and strong spirit, by her family, and by an offer from a famous Jewish physician.

Park’s gem of a story is set in several frames. The historical frame: Park comes across and then researches the letter of a young Jewish woman who Isabella Gonzaga wishes to convert, promising the girl "a gracious husband who longs for you so much that the wretched man...is pining away and falling apart like a snowflake that the sun has discovered." Grazia’s character is based on this briefly mentioned Jewish maiden. Within this frame, the prologue sets Grazia to work on her libro segretto, a secret book for her son, and the epilogue lays her story to rest. Finally, at the center stands her tale told by "her own exquisite hand," as she says of her job as a scribe.

Grazia writes to her son, and Park thereby writes to the reader, "Then the thought occurred....Why not put aside, even search out, the documents in which you will hear these people speak in their own voices as I do?" So Grazia includes in her narrative purloined copies of Isabella’s correspondence. This makes for an interesting time element, since the events referred to in the letters of course haven’t happened yet in the story Grazia is writing. They serve nicely to give the reader a flavor for the preferred modes of expression of the day—a bit overwrought by modern standards—and to foreshadow the turns Grazia’s life will take.

WHEN I BEGAN THIS NOVEL, I was also reading Barbara Tuchmann’s A Distant Mirror, an account of the "calamitous 14th century," and I was fascinated to see the movements of the Dark Ages come to life in Park’s characters. We see through her well-researched story that the Renaissance did not extinguish the barbarism of the Dark Ages; passages about the treatment of heretics and the conquered are not for the squeamish. In the author’s notes, Park tells us that she didn’t fudge on dates, and from copies of the letters that inspired the tale, one sees that she didn’t fudge on the style of the times either. The age that historian Tuchmann describes becomes the era that ignites novelist Park’s imagination.

As a writer for television and film, Park knows how to set a scene that makes readers revel in the sights, or lose their appetites: "The table was...worm-eaten inside and out and greasier than a butcher’s slab....And the cloths! Purple wine stains and the greenish marks of spoiled soup covered those rags like giant buboes. Around the edges of these islands of festering slop, vermin dined daintily....Poor as it was in every other respect, the place abounded in animal life." We seem to have made advances in the area of cleanliness.

In other areas, perhaps we have not. We sometimes speak of the 20th century as if it were full of unprecedented promiscuity, the young bombarded with sexuality early and violently. But violence and sex seem inextricable in Grazia’s time. She says of a city under siege that it is "bottled up tighter than a virgin’s hymen." As she writes to her son of his beginnings, she uses images of knights and Amazons—true love, she says, requires the meeting of equals—riding great steeds into battle. Add to this that lives ended early in Grazia’s day; though the rich lived longer than the masses, the ruling class often came to power in adolescence and commanded armies, economies, and affairs of state accordingly. It seems our society’s sexual violence isn’t unprecedented. We just haven’t gotten very far.

The advances that our heroine makes in her life are occasionally incredible, especially at the close of her story. But most of the time she matures with believable humanity. I’m amazed by actors who can grow up before our eyes in a space of two hours, certainly with the help of script and makeup, but also with the way they move and react. Grazia similarly ages as we read, sometimes flinching as she writes of the indiscretions and foolishness of her youth. But these mistakes—wearing garish makeup and drenching herself in perfume in hopes of arousing her husband’s passion, drinking her quack brother’s potion in hopes of conceiving a child—endear her to us.

So does her clear-headedness. She is a feminist of her time, a formidable scholar with an eye for injustice. Throughout her life, she works on a Book of Heroines, which "deals with the lives of heroic women," she tells her patroness Isabella. "You mean virtuous women?" Isabella asks. "No, ma’am. I mean women who abound with that quality of virtu that men strive for so mightily." "You speak of courage, then?" "Courage, yes. And constancy. And boldness." Isabella then wonders whether she has found many women to include in her gallery. "The problem I have faced," Grazia answers, "is not so much who to put in as who to leave out. The world abounds with women of spirit."

Jacqueline Park makes a late entry into the gallery with the story of Grazia.

CATHERINE PREUS is a copy editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she is a member of the singing group Bread for the Journey (see next review).

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi. Jacqueline Park. Simon & Schuster Trade, 1997. Now available from Amazon.com.

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