Tuesday, March 2, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey

 I needed a novel for the European Reading Challenge. I also wanted to read something about men for a change, other than historical mystery/thrillers. So I picked Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storey.

The novel covers the years 1499 through 1505 and is mainly set in Florence, Italy. Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. During this time period, each completes a masterwork. For Leonardo, it is the Mona Lisa. For Michelangelo, it is his David.

The two artists are as different as could be, and the novel plays up their differences and the rivalry between them.

Leonardo is in his fifties and is at the height of his fame. He is charming, well-liked, and is known as a profligate lover and seducer of many of those who commission work from him. However, he’s also a dabbler, often more interested in his scientific and engineering endeavors, particularly his dream of inventing a means for human flight, than he is in his art. As a result, he has left a string of unfinished works in his wake. He’s always looking for that next project rather than completing what he has begun. Moreover, he’s a bit of a jerk. He’s vain and selfish, self-important and condescending.  When he doesn’t get a commission he wants, he sells himself and his ideas for war machines to Florence’s enemies. When he sees a young artist as a potential competitor, he does everything he can to humiliate and thwart him.

Michelangelo is young, uncouth, largely unknown, devout, and passionate only about his art. When he wins the commission to carve a new statue of David from a massive block of damaged marble, the task consumes him. He’ll do whatever is necessary to complete it. He craves the love and respect of his family and has a few close friends, but he is not the gadabout that da Vinci is. He’s able to respect Leonardo’s work even if he hates the man. Michelangelo, un-charming though he may be, comes across as the better man in this novel.

Leonardo is saved, to some extent, by a chance meeting with a merchant’s wife. He is enchanted by her and, after a time, is able to wring a commission from her husband to paint her. She is the model for the Mona Lisa. From her, he learns something about emotional depth that softens his rough edges.

There is a lot going on in Florence besides the workings of these two. The city is threatened by Borgia’s army and by followers of the Medici. In the greater world, popes die and new popes are named. Their policies will affect the people of Florence. The politics of the times influence the city’s patronage of the artists.

The author knows the subject matter well and is able to make the historical events and the rivalry between the two great masters come alive. In addition, she guides the reader step-by-step through the creation of these two masterpieces so that they are almost visible on the page. This is engrossing historical fiction.


  1. I bought this book last year but haven't read it yet. I am glad that you liked it. Thanks for the review.

  2. This sounds pretty good... I'll put it on my "maybe" list! Thanks.