The Measure of a Man by Marco Malvaldi

Translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor

Review by Terence Jagger, 21 Nov 2019

I was intrigued to see this novel on my doormat: Malvaldi is better known (to me at least) as a writer of crime stories, and I read his Three-Card Monte with pleasure (my Shiny review is here). But that is light, amusing, almost frothy, adjectives which do not seem to fit a novel about Leonardo da Vinci at the court of Sforza in Milan.  And indeed, this is a completely different style of writing, and an utterly different challenge.  I enjoyed it, and the central story – which is, actually, still a murder mystery – is engaging and a strong narrative force.

But what of the plot? In the midst of complex diplomatic and personal exchanges, the body of a man is discovered in the castle precincts, who has died suddenly but unaccountably. The Duke’s astrologer is baffled (but doesn’t lose any of his misplaced confidence as a result), so Leonardo is called in.  While he is investigating, emissaries from Charles VIII in France arrive, and the diplomatic skulduggery, the financial machinations, and the resolution of the mystery – including accusations against Leonardo himself – are all entwined and make a compelling tale.  The politics can be tricky to understand, but are central to the story, and the resolution is rewarding. Different voices give us different aspects of the tale, or different versions of the truth, some of the best being the letters sent by Trotti, the Duke of Ferrara’s envoy resident in Milan, who casts much light on proceedings but also comes to a laughable misunderstanding of what value the French court wants to buy or steal from Leonardo, thus muddying the waters considerably.

So in addition to the death – murder, probably – there is a lot of other novelistic interest – the politics, fragile and inflammable human relationships, and exciting new developments in science, the arts and finance.  If you know nothing about late fifteenth century Milan, don’t worry, Malvaldi makes it all clear as you go along, or at least he gives you all the information.  Personally, I continued to find some of the personal relationships obscure throughout, but there is a helpful nine page (nine pages!) dramatis personae at the beginning with thumbnail portraits, which keeps you straight if needed.  But if I have any concerns about this book, they revolve round Malvaldi’s relentless pedagogic instinct – he rather force feeds you with history and science as you go through the plot, and revels in his own cleverness as he does so, though I do wonder if the translators (Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor) might be responsible for some of the slightly clunky glee.

The central characters are well drawn and intriguing; Leonardo himself comes across as a genius skilled in many different fields, of course, but also as an engaging eccentric – wearing pink robes, eating no meat (much odder then than now, at least for someone who could afford to eat well), atheistic or agnostic in an age of faith, and one half of a loving but frustrating and occasionally tetchy relationship with his mother, with whom he lives.  He worries about getting paid, is politically wary, but speaks truth unto power and commands great respect from all around him, except in the matter of the great bronze horse (7 metres tall we are told, anachronistically) he is to cast in memory of Francesco Sforza, which never gets made and is probably impossible – a source of bitter contention between Leonardo and the Duke of Milan, Ludovico.

And the writing is often very good – amusing, clear, effective, although occasionally slightly portentous and over-intense.  The description of Salai, for example:

general factotum in Leonardo’s workshop and his favourite apprentice, a thief and a liar, stubborn and greedy. But he also has a few faults.

Or this gloss on an enigmatic exchange between the Duke of Milan and the head of the Franciscan order:

Welcome to the Renaissance, where every sentence is calibrated and adorned like a jewel, every single word weighed on miniature scales and then displayed, not to show off its beauty but to suggest how powerful its wearer is. Where the meaning of every speech must be interpreted on the basis of who is delivering it, who is or isn’t present in the room, which names are mentioned and, above all, which names are not even uttered.

The point is always well made, but maybe is sometimes made to demonstrate Malvaldi’s cleverness too, and sometimes underestimates the reader’s understanding.

When the conclusion comes, it is pleasingly complex and brings all the strands of the novel together.  It is historically and narratively satisfying, although it is not a completion in the way of a conventional mystery, as there is real history here, which of course flowed on.  In his note at the end of the book, Malvaldi describes the inevitability of historical errors in his work, but explains that many of the assumptions and incidents are based in reality or at least possibility, although he has inevitably invented some events.

Overall, an enjoyable and not too demanding novel about an intriguing period in European history, with a good whodunnit at its heart.

Marco Malvaldi,  The Measure of a Man (Europa Editions, 2019). 978-1787701888, 267pp., paperback.

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