The Pumilio Child is a dark, unsettling thriller that challenges the perception that Italy during the Renaissance was cultured and refined. The day-to-day reality was surprisingly barbaric.
The characters in Andrea Mantegna’s dazzling family fresco in the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua come to life to reveal the story of the survival of a young slavewoman. Ya Ling’s cultured life of privilege in Beijing is cruelly cut short when she is abducted and shipped to the slave market in Venice. When celebrated Renaissance artist Mantegna sees her chained to a post, although his finances are perilous, he digs deep and buys her. His initial intention is to paint her exotic beauty, but he soon moves her into the harness room for pleasures of a more private nature.
Ya Ling has two ambitions, to ruin Mantegna, then to escape her brutal and sordid life in Mantua and return back to her family in China. However, Mantegna’s latest commission, two huge frescos for the ruling Gonzaga family, make him invincible.
This gripping story is interwoven with a subplot introducing a bizarre and vicious practice that took place during Renaissance times. It was so corrupt and disturbing it has been wiped from history.
Mantua, Italy. 1461.
It looks like a whorehouse. Cheap and run down. Mean little windows in odd places. Dark chunks of timber jutting out. Pieces of masonry, pediments and columns from an earlier age are stuck in the walls like fragments of old teeth.
But it seems deserted. No loud talk, music and raucous laughter when you walk past. No girls about either. There should be a gang of them outside, offering up their tits like apples on a tray. Some shrivelled. Some just ripening.
‘Will we be long here Maestro?’
‘Silence. Wait here. Stay outside. Talk to nobody.’
‘Of course Maestro,’ Gregorio murmurs holding the mare still. ‘And tell nobody where we have been today. Do as you are told or fear the consequences boy! Unless you fancy a spell in the cage, eh?’
Gregorio’s boyish features drop in fear. He swallows quickly. ‘No Maestro.’
‘Clinging on. Swinging about up there. The wind freezing your blood to ice?
‘No Maestro.’ The groom shivers at the thought. He wouldn’t be the first to be condemned to a public death in the cage.
‘Then keep it shut like this.’ Mantegna bunches his fist together and pushes it against his groom’s mouth.
Gregorio flinches. ‘Yes Maestro.’ Not daring to look round, he strokes the mare’s velvet muzzle. He waits until the door creaks open and Mantegna enters. ‘Bastardo!’ he hisses. The mare pulls back against the reins, her eyes fearful. She stamps a nervous hoof into the red dust. ‘Not you.’ Gregario murmurs, gently pulling on her silky ear. ‘No, not you little lady.’ She blows grassy breath into his palm. He dares a quick glance over his shoulder. ‘Him.’
Mantegna pushes on the massive studded doors and slips inside. Five minutes later he is still standing in the arcaded courtyard. Normally he would have stormed off, but he has to stay. Money is tight. He looks down in the direction of an odd shrill noise that seems to be coming from below the filthy floor. His wipes his damp palms down his sides.
‘Where’s Dati? The servant who finally ambles up is a stocky Neapolitan, a shifty looking peasant who understands none of the Mantovan dialect. The man motions him to wait.
Mantegna’s face has set hard by the time Goacobo Dati makes his way quickly down the stairs. He eyes the man’s nondescript clothes. No courtly manners. No idea how to dress, no senza vergogna at all.
‘No velvets today Maestro? How wise.’ He sounds out of breath. ‘Or perhaps necessity.’
Mantegna gives him an uneasy glance. It’s as if his thoughts are being read. Ludovico Gonzaga has already reprimanded him over his lavish ways and the scarlet velvet jerkin had probably been one ostentation too far. Scarlet. The colour of cardinals and emperors. But he had looked magnificent. He remembers the gasp when he swaggered into court. His glance drops down to his worn tabarro. The jerkin was pawned months ago. He looks round warily. ‘Where can we talk? I want this over with as soon as possible.’
The Notebook section of The Times 08/07 tells me that a start-up company is now writing companies' letters to customers by hand. On the same day I received a thank you letter written by an elderly friend in delicate copperplate script using a fountain pen. A pleasure to read and a treasure to keep.
This prompted me to buy the first in the series of Letters of Note by Shaun Usher right here…
James Parry is a really good family friend and a phenomenal chef, who has cooked everywhere from top end restaurants in London and Hong Kong to working with local chefs in remotest rural China. When he heard I was looking for some interesting regional Chinese dishes for some of the pledges he emailed me this one and told me the story behind the name. I love it!
‘I think Yunnan is a province often…
I am so thrilled that The Pumilio Child is going to be published. Sincere thanks to everyone who has pledged. To family and friends thank you all once more for your overwhelming support. For those kind souls who don't know me and for whom I don't have an email address, I cannot send a personal note of thanks but I want you to know that I am really touched by your interest and support.
Now the hard…
First of all continued thanks to all the people who have pledged for The Pumilio Child. I really do appreciate your support.
I am really enjoying my research trip to Mantua. I had the most wonderful guide, an eminent art historian called Lorenzo Bonoldi who tailored a wonderful day specifically around the nine year period when Mantegna was painting the frescos in the Camera degli Sposi. He persuaded…
I have been researching recipes to be able to offer some unusual ideas for the menu pledges, and although it’s been making me permanently ravenous, I have been really enjoying reading the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, by Fuschia Dunlop which introduces some really bold spicy dishes from Hunan, the home province of Chairman Mao. Any recipe called numbing-and-hot chicken certainly gets my vote.…
First of all many thanks to the Unbounders who have pledged for the Pumilio Child. I don’t have your details so I can’t send you a personal thank you email, but I am incredibly grateful to you all for taking a punt on an unknown writer.
Secondly one thing that really concerns me is that over a hundred public libraries closed last year.
I have been spending a lot of time recently in my local…
I've just started what is going to be really fascinating book called The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, which examines what world history might look like if focus had been directed eastwards rather becoming so centred on Europe. The Silk Roads didn't just transport silks and spices, and were the conduit of not just wealth and commerce but for new ideas about education, science, philosphy, religion…
Well, the whole process has started and I am very touched with all the support and good wishes which have been sent. Spent last night trying out a new Chinese recipe so I can make sure it's good enough to be included as one of the recipes in the pledges. Lamb cooked with coriander and pomegranate molasses. Went down very well!
These people are helping to fund The Pumilio Child.