Category Archives: Renaissance Slam

The presence of the past colliding with the pastness of the present

Seeing Mona Lisa Differently

I’m sorry. I don’t know this clever artist’s name.  It so often happens that way with all the graphic art that surround us. For the past 100 years or so we’ve been increasingly inundated with mechanically reproduced images.  This has relegated most of what we see to the realms of anonymity.
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In this case, I wear it.  I bought the t-shirt. Twelve Euros, I think.

The problem here is that without the name, there’s no way I can properly credit the artist whose unsigned work I’m discussing here. And without the name, it’s hard to express my gratitude for way this playful work of  t-shirt art has changed how I  look at the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s  Mona Lisa.

Because it is customary to give credit where credit is due, at first opportunity I meant to return to shop in Florence where I bought the t-shirt and ask the lady to point me down the path to the artist. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile: Hey artist,  are you are out there?  Step up and let me know.  We’ll have an espresso.  I want you to know that I wear your shirt once a week.  That is, at work, in the packing house where other working people stop me all the time to ask me what it signifies. The lady who cleans the restrooms loves it and was the last to ask.

As I have told one or two of my co-workers in the packinghouse,  the truth is that Leonardo’s masterpiece is a painting I once literally turned my back on.  This was a long time ago. I was just 19.  I’m not fond of crowds then, nor am I now. I needed relief from the crowd-induced claustrophobia I was experiencing in the Louvre, where the painting hangs.  These people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking of that “mysterious smile”, that “enigmatic smile”, that smile they were seeing under their own reflections upon the bullet-proof glass. The experience was less than I had hoped.

And so the this is how it was for me back then, and how I left it for years, a smile fixed in recollection and behind glass  I nursed a sour grapes feeling that the painting was overrated.

Not too long ago, I bought this Mona Lisa-themed t-shirt as a souvenir in Italy. Artsy T-shirts are about the only kind of souvenir I will buy when I travel. They’re reasonably cheap light, and perfect for the kind of travel packing I do. When I buy a new t-shirt,  I throw out the one in my backpack that is the most worn.

shirtszAs I was saying,  this unidentified  graphic artist’s work changed how I see the Mona Lisa, or rather how I see the Mona Lisa when viewing computer screen reproductions of the Mona Lisa.

How so?

That’s the question I’ve been mulling over lately. I believe the answer lies in how the brain likes to process visual images artists create in the form of a painting or sculpture.  At some level the brain has to ask, is this a thing in motion or a thing at rest?

Michelangelo’s David is stationary, and that’s important because that David is captured in a moment of intense mental preparation for the kill. Also,   Donatello’s David, stands posed with one foot resting on Goliath’s severed head.  But then,  Bernini’s  David  appears with his the body awhirl in the act of  launching of the stone from the sling.

The same can be said of paintings. A still life is still life. The fruit is not supposed to be going anywhere. Jesus can hang lifeless on the cross in one painting, but and in another be carrying the cross to the hill.

As for the Mona Lisa.  It’s a portrait. Ordinarily, a portrait’s  subject is a figure that is not in motion. Leonardo’s model is posed, it should seem,  positioned at rest, seated in a chair that someone has set out in a lovely patio or loggia,  an outdoor room with a commanding view of the rocky landscape.

So, is she, or isn’t she? Stationary, that is.  I sure thought so for years and years after I turned my back on the painting to extract myself from the crowd. Because Leonardo was an excruciatingly slow painter,  Lisa del Giocondo would be sitting for long time indeed.

Being a painter who liked to take his sweet time,  clever Leonardo arranged for entertainment to amuse the lady during her long sitting. Giorgio Vasari tells us that Leonardo hired musicians and clowns to perform for the lady.

So with clowns, we can assume there was some slapstick, high jinks and jokes. And from that, can we not assume that Lisa also laughed?  Now,  if she laughed, would that smile have been a fixed, long-posed smile?

The art on my shirt has lead me to think otherwise and process the image as one frame in a motion picture.  This graphic presents the lady’s expression in a series of twelve consecutive frames that appear to represent a face in full animation.

That is,  from the mild amusement of, say,  Leonardo’s hired clown entering the loggia, followed by more schtick and buffoonery,  leading up to a final moment of some rollicking ROFLMAO-worthy pratfall.  I particularly like how the graphic artist has her falling out of the right edge of the final frame.

Brilliant.

So these days, I’m going with Leonardo’s subject being a subject in motion. His notebooks do attest to an abiding interest in the motion of birds and other animals. He liked to purchase caged birds just to release them and study their movements.

Like some other works of art from the past, this painting remains in continuous play in our times. Duchamps and Dali have painted spoofs of it. I don’t bemoan the appropriation of old works for present day tastes and amusement.  I like it, perhaps in way similar to the way Renaissance era people enjoyed seeing the works Romans and Greeks at play in their time and in their art.  I relish the past achieving a presence in the present, like how  Mona Lisa made an appearance in Batman comics.

And these days, as forensic archeologists pick at the bones in her grave,  I see do imagine a much-alive Lisa del Giocondo laughing. I so love to wear her laugh across my belly. Better that, I think,  than just a smile behind bullet-proof glass.

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Superhero Leonardo Da Vinci

In the beginning it looked like a bad sign to me.  I’m speaking of  the title of the new Starz fantasy thriller about Leonardo Da Vinci. “Da Vinci’s Demons,” is what they’re calling it.

Next, I see that the story opens with the Duke of Milan being assassinated on Palm Sunday, not on December 26 as history tells us.

I think, couldn’t they at least  get these two things right?

There’s always that temptation to pan a video or film drama that takes liberties with the history, or language or literature.

At some point there will be a line crossed where you feel like throwing something at the screen.  In this case, however,  my drink remained in my hand and it didn’t take long for the show to really grow on me. I want to see more of these episodes.

It’s best to make a few allowances. This show is, after all,  a TV show, and a kind of comic book superhero story. Enjoy, enjoy, I start telling myself. Leonardo is a Batman figure, but in spite of that, the narrative does gets more things right with the history than I should expect for this kind of fiction  Of course there’s fudging here and there.

“Da Vinci’s Demons”  presents breath-taking recreations of the streets and piazzas with the look of Florence in 1476. That alone is worth the price of admission. Note, these episodes do include graphic violence,  nudity,  profanity, but I say that’s something that serves the gritty period look grownups can enjoy.

In this series, Leonardo is going to become a batman-like character, just as Florence could  really use a superhero, just the Pope Sixtus IV plots to suppress knowledge in secret archives and stage a nasty coup d’état in the Florentine Republic. And this is just as the republic’s leaders are nurturing a modern secular culture, the reviving ancient wisdom. In other word the bad guys are threatening the golden age of the Renaissance.

Last week in Cannes, writer David S. Groyer told reporters that Batman was a “primary inspiration” for his shaping his Leonardo character into a Fifteenth Century Renaissance caped crusader. This is due in part to the bat-like wings on Leonardo’s flying machine drawings.

That, of course, should be no surprise to readers of these pages. We talked about how Batman creator Bob Kane was inspired by Leonardo’s drawings of glider wings back in 1939, and how decades later D.C. Comics published one edition of Batman Comics with a Renaissance era Batman era gliding around on wings Leonardo created for him. In that 1994 edition, a much-older Leonardo recruits and creates the batman, who is a young Lorenzo Di Medici.

So, in the Starz show, Leonardo is the superhero and Lorenzo is just Lorenzo, not yet Lorenzo the Magnificent, but whose Florentine Republic is in peril from Papal hegemony.

A diabolical Pope Sixtus IV moves to increase the number of Papal states in Italy and expand his authority to the self-governing principalities and republics. At this point Italy is hundreds of years away from becoming a unified country. So, that is roughly the history.

Here, in the opening episode of the series, the bloody and graphic assassination of the Duke of Milan is the first strike by the Vatican. We know from the history that the assassins do strike next in Florence, on Easter Sunday, 1478, but the Pazzi-Sixtus conspiracy is presumably a matter for subsequent episodes.

Part of what made this episode fun to watch was seeing where the writer and producers have managed to credibly incorporate details from the period into the plot, even if they do botch it elsewhere.

There’s a scene where Leonardo purchases several caged starlings from a vendor, and then has the birds released as he sketches their wing movements. Now, that serves the plot if he is going to build some kind of flying machine, but there’s more being offered here.

For those of us who like to geek out on this sort thing, there’s the satisfaction of saying to one’s self.,”Hey, that’s right. Leonardo always carried that little notebook.” And, “Yes, he loved animals and liked freeing caged birds.” One can enjoy seeing those kinds of details that one has read about, even if almost every other aspect of the Starz Leonardo character is quite different from the historical Leonardo.

And then there is the beautiful computer-generated scenery behind all the action. My favorite is a shot of the Piazza della Signoria, one of the most familiar settings in Florence with its towered Pallazo Vecchio across from the arcade of the Loggia dei Lanzi.

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There’s also a bawdy carnival scene in Florence Piazza del Duomo.  One might think that the plain-Jane facade of the cathedral does not look as it should, but then it wouldn’t have the look we’re now familiar, not in 1476. The those decorative faux Gothic flourishes were a creation of the 19th Century, unfortunately.  Starz got that one right. And yes, Florence’s mardi gras style carnivals were bawdy.

Elsewhere, this Leonardo strolls across the Ponte Vecchio, that famous bridge lined with the jewelry shops. In the background of the scene, a butcher hacks at a piece of meat on a block.  It’s gratifying to see they got that right too.  Butchers and tanners  did occupy the bridge before they were evicted by a later-day duke who was offended by the odor.

On the other hand, a shot of the exterior of Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, appears to be the newer  domed structure completed almost 115 years later.  This  image appears as a scene intro and needed to signal the change in setting from Florence to Rome. Who would recognize the old St. Peter’s these days?

Overall, I’m delighted to see this fascinating chapter of  history at play in popular culture. We really should be able to have a little fun with it in the form of a Batman comics or a Starz TV fantasy thriller.  Even if we don’t have a great bio-pic, it’s great to have the period-appropriate storytelling.

Although, the one thing I really wish they had done differently is the title: “Da Vinci’s Demons.” It gives some of us the fits when the town where Leonardo was born –Vinci — is passed off as his last name.

See, he’s either Leonardo, or Leonardo from Vinci, as he was known in nearby Florence, or Leonardo Da Firenze, as he was known in Milan. It’s never just Da Vinci, not properly so,  even if Dan Brown wrote a bad novel called “Da Vinci Code”.

What I would like to know is, why couldn’t it have been “Leonardo’s Demons”?  Is it a Dan Brown thing?  I know. I know. Dan Brown really sells.

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.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Florence’s Mosquitos and Art

Mario Vargas Llosa once traveled to Florence with a plan to forget about his native Peru in “absolute solitude”. The 2010 Nobel Prize winning novelist tells us about this trip in the opening and closing chapters of The Storyteller. Florence’s Renaissance art was supposed to help with the forgetting. The mosquitos didn’t help at all.

The Storyteller is a postmodern novel in which Vargas Llosa is not just the author, but also a character and narrator in those chapters. It turns out that Mario’s time of solitude were mobbed by summer crowds and menaced by mosquitos he remembers attacking the tourists on behalf of displaced Florentine natives.

Even while viewing Florence’s Renaissance art, the mosquitos bite Mario. He can’t forget Peru. The mosquitos won’t allow it. The swarms continue to remind him of Peru and the Peruvian mosquitos that bit him on the arms, legs and neck years earlier when he visited the jungle’s Machiguenga people

While Florence’s art is clearly at play in the opening and closing chapters, specific works receive scant mention. The narrator mentions Botticelli’s Primavera and Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. That’s it, and he mentions these only to praise a contemporary photograph taken in the Peruvian jungle, a photograph displayed as part of a temporary exhibit in a little gallery near Dante’s house.

In the jungle picture, a storyteller performs among a gathering of Indians. Mario is so captivated by the image that he says the photo is as much a masterpiece as those two paintings hanging in Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery. The story is, after all, a novel primarily about the immense cultural value of storytelling, and a Jewish man who disappears from modern Lima to live among the indigenous Machiguenga people as their storyteller. And as a postmodern Latin American novelist, author Vargas Llosa means to undermine the old Eurocentric grand narrative.

The Mario in this story rents a room in a pensione and spends his days either in galleries viewing paintings and photographs, or in cafes reading Dante and Machiavelli. He tells us that the stream of tourists inundate the streets like a flooding “Amazonian River.” So, instead of a comfortable and reflective solitude, he experiences a sense of isolation among the crowds, and a sense of loss and sadness in seeing foreign invaders occupy Florence. He says, “…there are virtually no natives left in Firenze.”

That part is an exaggeration, although it is true that some of the city’s streets become choked with foreign tourists in the summer. It’s true that many Florentines schedule long vacations from the city in the peak tourist season. Vargas Llosa is too good of a storyteller to let the facts spoil his story.

With his exaggerated crowds and mosquitos, Vargas Llosa raises those big questions of cultural hegemony and threatened native populations, and applies those questions to both the Machiguenga and the Florentines. While the Machiguenga are displaced by the corporate exploitation of their jungle homeland, Florentines see their lives altered by the tourists and the travel industry. And so, he asks, “Are the mosquitos the zanzare of the Firenze totem animals, the guardian angels of Leonardos, Cellinis, Botticellis, Filippo Lipis, Fra Angelicos?” He wants to know if the mosquitos are that, “or are they the weapon that the absent Florentines try to put their detested invaders to flight?”
–rs

Next time: What Vargas Llosa lifts from Florentine literary traditions.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Florence

Who would expect the city of Florence to figure prominently in a novel about a man who lives among a threatened Indian tribe in the middle of the Peruvian jungle? The question came to mind last week with the news that writer Mario Vargas Llosa was being awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

Florence is the setting of the first and last chapters of The Storyteller. The rest of the book is set in Lima and the jungle, as the narrator tells the story about a friend who had become a traditional storyteller, traveling from one jungle village to another.

Stay tuned. Will follow-up.

Dogs of the Passeggiata

The passeggiata is the traditional evening walk in Italian communities. It’s a fun time with the local folks stepping out of the doorways and into the streets. In the most Renaissance of Italian of cities, Florence, dogs seem to have become part of the street scene. For best viewing, go during the off-season.


(photo by Roy Scarbrough/ponte commedia)

That’s the Basilica of Santa Maria Fiore and its polychrome marble siding in the background.

More on the historical portrayal of Renaissance dogs in art and literature to come.

More Renaissance Dogs

From the looks of a manuscript from the 1480s, it appears that the Medici household in Florence could have used the services of the Dog Whisperer. TV dog obedience trainer Cesar Millan just might have an idea on how to better socialize this dog pack had he lived in the late quattrocento.

In this illustration, a man standing in an upstairs room holds one of the dogs in his arms. Meanwhile, in the dining area below, a servant is setting a table for a feast while another dog appears to have become airborne. Four more dogs frolic about the scene.

This beautiful rendering of a domestic dog pack is one of 135 illustrations from what is known as the Medici Aesop Manuscript.

The volume is in the Spenser Collection from the New York Public Library. It’s an illustrated edition of Aesop’s Fables with the text in Greek. The art is usually attributed to Mariano del Buono, a prolific illustrator of lavish sacred texts. Although, in this case the text appears to be something a boy would be reading while studying Greek. Learning classical Greek would at that time be in vogue among the Renaissance elite with their obsession with classical times. (There’s more on the manuscript here.)

Appearing in the background behind the head and shoulders of the dog to left is the Medici coat of arms. This makes it easy to imagine the scene as part of one of the Medici villas or palaces. The head of that household, and head of Florence and its Tuscan territories would be Lorenzo the Magnificent, that father and consummate patron of Renaissance art.

The boy who might have been one tutored in Greek with the book would be his son, Piero di Medici, later known as the exiled Piero the Unfortunate. The family’s records do show a volume of a Greek Aesop in still in private library in 1495.

The fable here is “The Dog that Came to Dinner.” In that story, a dog belonging to a rich man invites another dog to a feast the man is planning. The guest dog then brags to other street dogs, but later gets tossed out of the home by the cook. Perhaps the airborne dog is he one that got himself toss out.

The image is rich in material to deconstruct toward one interpretation or another about Renaissance folks related to their dogs. We might start with seems to be the personal connection the rich man seems to have with the little dog he holds in his arms.