Batman, The Renaissance and Plato

Lets say you’re an established comic book author. You have a sweet gig writing Batman stories for DC Comics. Also, say DC wants to publish a series of their superhero comics set in actual historical times and places. What historical details do you change in your Batman story? Which do you keep intact?

Back in the pre-Google days of 1994 Doug Moench wrote a Batman story set in the Italian Renaissance, back when it was not so easy to gather this fact or that from history. Still, this Batman would be a Batman who talks shop with Leonardo da Vinci, and combats notorious evil-doers of Fifteenth Century Florence.

If you were Moench, how much history would you really have to know about the time period? What would it take for the speech bubbles to convincingly represent what Leonardo might say about Plato or human-powered flight, or to unravel the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s smile? Could you do all that and still retain all the cool factor of a comic book?

Sure, why not?

This particular story comes from a DC Comics’ edition of its Esleworlds imprint series published off and on from 1989 to 2005. The series featured DC superheroes in stories set in alternative histories. This one is Batman Annual #18, Dark Masterpiece. An earlier edition placed Batman in Victorian England in the darkest days of Jack the Ripper serial murders.

As Batman fans know, the backstory is that young Bruce Wayne suffered horrific childhood trauma from seeing his parents murdered. That experience manifested itself in a strange adult obsessions for crime fighting while dressed up in the regalia of tights, cape and mask. Here, in the Renaissance era version, it’s the same obsession. Again, tights, cape and mask, but a different boy, a different Batman.

This historic Batman lives in Florence, that cradle of the Renaissance. He is Tomas Di Medici, a son of the ruling Medici family, patrons of the arts and letters. Tomas’ father is Giuliano de Medici.

Here’s where some of the actual history comes into play. On Easter Sunday, 1478, Giuliano de’ Medici was assassinated in an attempted coup by members of the rival Pazzi clan. The killing took place during mass in the Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, The Duomo. Although, the comic book moves the crime scene to a dark side street outside of the Leonardo’s studio. Both the father and mother die in the attack. It is still Pazzi clan at work and Giuliano is just as dead. “Death to the Medicis!!” reads the speech bubble over the head of a shadowy figure.

Advanced students of Renaissance studies should get a kick out of the opening pages that devote nine panels and 16 speech bubbles to a conversation referencing something as esoteric as 15th Century Florentine Neoplatonic philosophy. Frankly, this scene does very little to advance the Batman story, so it must be here for those of us who enjoy the history and don’t mind all the poetic license that is being taken with the facts.

The scene is Leonardo’s studio, minutes before the assassination. Giuliano de Medici has arrived with his wife and little boy to view a painting. Art history buffs will recognize the angel as being the one in Leonardo’s “Annunciation”, an early work from 1473. The conversation between Giuliano and Leonardo veers awkwardly into the territory of religion. “This is not the first time you have you flirted with Blasphemy in my presence,” Giuliano complains.

Leonardo has a comeback. “Is it not ironic, Giuliano, that so religious a group as your Medicean Circle should lean so heavily on the pagan Plato?”

This refers to the Medici sponsored Platonic Academy, and their attempt to emulate Plato’s original academy of Athens. To that end, many of Florence’s most powerful and influential men attended Friday evening Academy sessions at the Medici-owned villa at Carregi, just outside of Florence. They dined, drank wine, played games and read Plato to each other.

The Florentine variant of Neoplatonism was a little like the modern New Age “movement” in that it borrowed “wisdom” from a variety of religions. As Neoplatonists they strove to reconcile all theological differences through Plato’s metaphysics.

This fixation on Plato helped drive the an impulse to embrace the arts and thinking of the ancient past, ushering that rebirth of classical ideals and aesthetics we call the The Renaissance.

Strains of this thinking continued for centuries, becoming apparent in the works of Goethe, Shelly, Keats, Emerson, Thoreau, Ezra Pound and the psychologist Carl Jung. Neoplatonism informed the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, but not Leonardo.

“I am more concerned with achieving wonders in the here and now,” says Leonardo in the penciled script of a speech bubble.

What a thing to come across in a comic book.

This digs a whole lot more deeply history one would expect in a comic book. It’s way more than what is needed to tell a tale of a batman who takes revenge on the Pazzi and brings them to justice after they kidnap the woman who was the model for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

Better serving the story, are the wings enfolded in this Batman’s cape. Batman creator Bob Kane has said that Leonardo’s drawing of flying machine wings inspired the character. In this story, Leonardo re-configures his ornithopter wings so that Batman soar from a church bell tower to another tower where the Pazzi are holding the Lady Mona Lisa captive for ransom. Moensch pays homage to Kane, who paid homage to Leonardo.

What does the story have wrong?

First of all, Giuliano was neither a husband nor a father at the time of his death in the Pazzi Conspiracy. Although, his mistress bore a bastard son a few weeks later.

Instead of becoming Batman, the son became a pope, Pope Clement VII.

One panel shows Batman running across the top of the Ponte Vecchio. The problem is that the famous bridge is as it appears today, and as it has appeared after a later Medici duke had Georgio Vasari remodel the bridge. The project included construction a single continuous roofline, covering the Duke’s a personal private passageway. In 1478 the bridge would be occupied by butchers and tanners, not jewelers. It would be decades later when the jewelers moved onto the bridge, after the duke banished the foul-smelling tanners and butchers that had been there.

In these drawings Guiliano resembles his contemporary portraits by only a little. The drawings do resemble his older brother, Lorenzo. Lorenzo “The Maginicent” was also attacked by the Pazzi, but he survived, thwarted the coup, and raised his brother’s orphaned son, the one who became pope.

Leonardo appears much older that he would have been when Guiliano died.

Leonardo tells the boy that Columbus has proved the world to be bigger than was recently thought. It would be decades before Columbus returned from his voyage. Even then Columbus was insisting that world was just as small, small enough for the Caribbean Islands to be a part of Asia, populated by “Indians.”

There is more of discrepancies and convergences discover of course. That means there’s more fun in store fora Renaissance-savvy reader who orders one of the reasonably priced used copies out there on the internet.

Batman charges across the roof of the Ponte Vecchio in pursuit of a Pazzi conspirator in the plan to rescue Leonardo’s beloved Lady Mona Lisa.

All images appear under “fair use” and “creative commons” provisions of copyright statues pertaining to reviews. Images under copyright of DC Comics, 1994.

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