Category Archives: Renaissance Trivia

The things your history teacher never told you

Arrivederci San Lorenzo Market

Vendors' carts and awnings line the street across from Florence's Basilica San Lorenzo. Photo by Roy Scarbrough

Vendors’ carts and awnings line the street across from Florence’s Basilica San Lorenzo. Photo by Roy Scarbrough

The three bouquets someone attached to the barricades could stand as funerary offerings for the once-lively and historic marketplace. The city of Florence has cast out the money and souvenir exchangers from the vicinity of San Lorenzo Basilica steps.

Not everyone is sorry that the street merchants of the San Lorenzo Market have folded up their canvas awnings and wheeled their push carts away. Some folks are happy with the newly unobstructed views of one of the city’s principal Renaissance-era structures, Basilica San Lorenzo. The news has not been good for the vendors who have long operated a kind of flea market around the church. The city has now ordered them out.

Officially, the move is temporary. The city needs to reset the paving stones in the street and in the plaza as part of a redevelopment plan for the district.  These things take time, a lot of time in Italy. There’s no guarantee that vendors will be back, and even the mayor is talking like merchants are gone for good.

The marketplace has its own cultural history. The vendors have been saying they have been in the piazza since 1792. That was barely twenty years after workers completed the finishing touches on the church.

View from space: Google satellite view of merchant stalls against the old church.

View from space: Google satellite view of merchant stalls against the old church.

In the decades that poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning lived in Florence, Robert liked to browse through the old books in the market. In 1860, at one of the vendor’s stalls, Browning found a bound volume of official trial court records of the 1698 Franceschini murder case. This was a sordid affair involving a count who killed his unfaithful wife and in-laws, a story that became the basis of Robert’s best selling book, a long narrative poem, The Ring and the Book.

A tweet from Mayor Matteo Renzi last week shows the extent that some people welcome the ouster of the street merchants. “Basilica di San Lorenzo libertata dalle bancarelle'” the Mayor Tweeted. That is,  “Basilica San Lorenzo now liberated from the cart vendors.  We have liberated as promised the San Lorenzo area. One of the most beautiful places in the world. ” You’d expect that there was similar sentiments expressed over the end of the French occupation of 1494.

A quick check of more  #Firenze tweets shows some solidarity with the popular mayor. “What a beautiful sunny day it is in Florence. San Lorenzo without the push carts.” says another Italian language tweet.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed the buzz of the place.  I’ve watched the vendors in the mornings wheel their carts to the lanes surrounding the old church and its cloisters, then spread their white canvas awnings. And I’ve watched these fellows push their rigs home, down dark, half-lit, narrow streets at night, the wheels rattling over the paving stones.  The selfie I use for my Twitter avatar happens to be a picture I took while standing front of a cracked full-length mirror that one of the vendors had set out for his customers. So, there was something there that was part of my identity.

I’ve always found the vendors convivial. On the final day of my last visit to Florence, I bought two men’s wool scarves.  He told me his name is Eddie. I’m guessing it was really, Eduardo, but he wanted me to know him as Eddie. I liked him, and it seemed like he liked me. Eddie taught me how to tie them in the traditional Florentine fashion.  When it came time to pay, I was short of Euro. I tell I’ll come back for my purchase after visiting the ATM.  He says, no, take them now. You come back and pay me.”

Over the years I’ve purchased two Chinese-made wallets.  Functional wallets with a built-in coin purse in a style I think I might now have to have custom made. I’ve bought maybe three Italian-made woolen neck scarves, and a pair of sandals from an Italian manufacturer that claimed on its tag to supply the pope with footwear.

To be fair, none of these things I’ve purchased in the San Lorenzo market were produced by local craftsmen, which is part of the public’s complaint against these vendors.  While the marketplace has historic roots, its critics see it as lacking in complete authenticity. Robert Browning was English and the 17th Century murder trial documents he purchased came from Rome. Fair enough. Still,  there’s stuff there that people who live in the neighborhood can use. As far as I know, the San Lorenzo Market commotion never woke the Medici dead, and its reputed tackiness has never made any of them roll over in their tombs across the street.

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So what’s the big picture? Change happens. People adjust. Across town, for hundreds of years, butchers and tanners occupied the shops on the Ponte Vecchio. Their time to go came one day in 1593 when they were replaced by the goldsmiths on order of Duke Fernando de Medici, who disliked the odors from those establishments.

Who now misses the butchers?  Not many, but I think I would like to see them at work when crossing the Arno.  The jewelry I see in the Ponte Vecchio windows doesn’t interest me so much. When I see all the gold, and the high-Euro price tags, I try to remember the tanners and butchers.

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.

Vargas Llosa and the Florentine Literary Tradition

Like Dante in The Commedia, Mario Vargas Llosa casts himself in the dual role of both the author and the self-exiled narrator-character in the Storyteller We’ve seen this act before. In those few pages of the novel where Llosa speaks directly to the reader he speaks of his time in Florence, Italy. It’s here where Vargas Llosa plays with the Florentine literary tradition.

There’s a feeling that this Peruvian Mario is a man who to has lost his way. He is unhappy, sad, working his way through the circles of recollection, a kind of Purgatorio. He is remembering an old friendship, a faraway culture, and wanders the Florentine Streets whole world away from family and home.

Vargas Llosa’s account of his stay in Florence leaves the reader with the feeling that he means these months to be a period of self-exile. Throughout the account, Vargas Llosa experiences a longing for his homeland, together with sadness over the state of its political affairs back home. Meanwhile, he tells us, he spends hours in cafes and the libraries reading Dante and Machiavelli.

Why Machiavelli? Why Dante?

The simple answer is that modernist writers like Vargas Llosa tend to reference literary figures in their works. Beyond that, it’s a little risky to guess what is in the mind of a living writer. You never know. Vargas Llosa may one day Google himself and see this blog. Not likely, but you never know. The comment box is below. So, lets continue with this thought experiment in conjecture.

While Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, a little how-to manual for despots on the art of political manipulation and deception, the bulk of Machiavelli’s writings are more benign than that. There’s plays, poems, history, and one work that praises the virtues of republics. Yes, bad old Machiavelli was an advocate of representative democracies that govern with the good will of the people. Machiavelli was also pragmatic. When he was out of a job after the Florentine Republic fell, he wrote The Prince and offered it as a gift to the city’s ruler. It would be the French who would later tag Machiavelli with Machiavellianism.

Dante and Machiavelli lived in much different times. Machiavelli lived during the high Renaissance, as opposed to Dante’s middle ages. And yet the thing they have in common is that both held high public office in Florence, and both the became exiles from Florence when the political tides changed. Here’s the risky part, Vargas Llosa appears to be identifying with their experience. Vargas Llosa was politically active in his country. He even ran for President. He fell out of favor with his country’s ruling party after he fought Peru’s nationalization of banks, and again when he protested against his governments human rights violations.

It’s less risky to say that writers and poets generally enjoy toying with the literary canon.  Dante and Machiavelli are clearly part of the canon, and there’s no reason to think that Vargas Llosa would not be deliberately putting the Dante and Machiavelli at play in his work. One can hardly be in Florence without sensing something of the  presence of  Dante. You can walk right up the Alighieri home, then cross the Ponte Vecchio and stand in the doorway of Machiavelli’s digs.

If one is a writer or a poet. one is going to be especially mindful of the likelihood down this or that old street,  or these stairs Dante or Machiavelli walked. If you write, and know something of your literary history, and have spent any time in places like Florence, or Paris,  or Stratford, you know this feeling.

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.

Pope Boniface’s Dog

Dante made a place for Pope Boniface in Hell, meanwhile this despised pontiff of the late middle ages was commissioning manuscripts with artfully decorative images and designs in the margins. So, here’s a pre-Renaissance dog chasing a hare. It’s purely decorative and has no connection with the Latin text in this book, Liber Sextus, which is a collection of Papal letters clarifying points of Canon Law.

Still, one can ponder with some amusement the historical juxtaposition of this rabbit-chasing dog and the degree that the pope pursued his enemies. Dante fell out of graces for being on the wrong side of the debate over whether the Florentine Republic should assist the pope with its soldiers in one of those pursuits. For that, Dante was convicted and condemned to death on trumped of corruption charges, forcing the poet into exile for the rest of his life. It’s a sad story, but then without that we would probably not have quite so divine of a Comedy to enjoy.

(This manuscript is from the University of California, Berkeley, Robbins Collection.)

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.

Renaissance Dogs


“Death of Procris”, Piero di Cosimo, ca 1500-1510

From his baptistery doors in Florence we can see that Lorenzo Ghiberti did not love dogs as much as Piero Di Cosimo. Lorenzo’s gilded bronze dogs are beautiful, just not rendered quite so lovingly, or sympathetically as Piero’s.

Here’s Piero’s painting “Death of Procris”. One thing it’s famous for is that flagrantly forlorn hound on the right, who appears to be experiencing human-like grief over the death of the woman. The picture has at times been hailed as the first instance where a dog is depicted experiencing emotions we humans can relate to. The subject comes from a Greek myth. Procris has just died. The sad tragedy is that her husband killed her in a hunting accident. Piero managed show the signs of a profound emotional bond between beast and human. Now, that’s cross species empathy.

By contrast, Ghiberti’s dogs on the baptistery doors in Florence display a diabolical presence in the scene known as “Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing.” We’re not supposed to feel any sense of tail wagging love. The dogs appear at Jacob’s heels, and directly below a serpent in the background. Evil and deception is afoot. Jacob goes before his blind father pretending to be the elder brother in scheme to take the father’s blessing intended for his brother, Esau. Apparently this is part of a plot secure the tidy inheritance that was due Esau. It’s a complicated story anyone can read in Genesis 27, but it’s enough to say Ghiberti’s dogs appear almost reptilian in their expressions as they stand in the shadow of evil-doing.


Detail of “Jacob Steals Esau’s Blessing”, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, on the Baptistery doors, Florence, a copy of 1425-1457 original. Photo by Roy Scarbrough

Now, let’s do give Ghiberti some of his due. This door panel and the others are gorgeous. The Jacob panel is particularly striking in depicting perspectival depth in those receding arche. Look at what he did in creating that illusion of space, in less than an inch.

And lets keep in mind Ghiberti is of a generation that lived several decades before what could be a more enlightened time with respect to how people related to animals. Contemporaries of Piero seem more apt to hold more convivial attitudes towards dogs. More on that later.