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.

A Renaissance tale makes Pulitzer list

Among yesterday’s announced Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephan Greenblatt’s, The Swerve–How the World Became Modern. This is the story of the 15th Century Florentine book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who rescued and recopied long-forgotten ancient texts he found stashed in the scriptoriums of remote German monasteries.

The lead story of the Pulitzer announcements was that they found no works of fiction worthy of the fiction prize. I’m sure they hunted around, so it’s interesting that a non-fiction prize would go to a book about a man who made difficult journeys to hard-to-get-to places in search of great books.

Unlike the Pulitzer folks, Poggio found great books. He found some lost oratories of Cicero, Commentaries on Virgil. He would copy them in his own hand in the monasteries, and then bring his copies back to Florence.

The most significant find, according to Greenblatt, was a previously unknown Roman poet. That would be Lucretius, whose “On the Nature of Things,” supercharged the secular humanism of the Italian Renaissance. After Poggio copied the book in his own handwriting, a script we now know as Italic, the Roman poem became widely read in the circles that included, Galileo, The Medicis, Machiavelli, and later Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Freud and Einstein.

Greenblatt is the founder of a school of literary analysis called, “New Historicism,” which views history something that has properties of a all-at-onceness, rather than linear. With its subtitle, “How the World Became Modern”, Greenblatt’s book stands as a testament that events of the Italian Renaissance remain in play in our own era. I think one way to look at this is that our mindsets operate as part of a collective consciousness with past mindsets.

When was that Dream?

I’m in Rome, trying to find my way around. This is not too long ago, maybe a day or two after seeing a dwarf nun walk across St. Peters Square. I’m back on the streets. I need to get to an apartment on one of the back lanes — Via de Something — one with broken pavement, a steep hill, and Smart Cars parked horizontally among the scooters upon the narrow sidewalks. I’m getting closer to where I need to be, I think. The street dips to the shadows of a tunnel to pass under something. Now under the surface I think, “Wait, have I been here before? I swear I’ve been here, or is this a dream? I wonder, where would I have seen this tunnel? I’m having another one of those Fellini moments.

The Renaissance, still a work in progress

If there ever was a sign that the Renaissance remains a work in progress, it could be the current efforts to complete Michelangelo’s design work on  the facade of Florence’s San Lorenzo Basilica. Construction  delays are not so unusual, but  this one has been going on now for  nearly 500 years.

Florence’s mayor, Matteo Renzi, wants to change that. He’s advocating completion of the long-abandoned work on that plain Jane facade almost everyone is accustomed to.

While the interior of the church remains one of the most magnificent in Italy,  the exterior is  decidedly ordinary with crude  masonry.  That was not the intention back in 1515 when Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to design a facade. Those Renaissance brick layers didn’t even bother to scrape away the excess mortar and smooth out the gaps between the blocks.

Michelangelo made some sketches and built wooden model, but the Pope halted the project before incurring the expense of hauling in the blocks of white marble from Carrara.

Instead of completing the facade, the Pope decided to use the money to build  a magnificent mausoleum for his own Medici family relatives’ remains. Today, you’ll the Medici Mausoleum attached to the rear of the church.

This would not be the first time a facade was added to one of Florence’s major churches hundreds of years after it was completed. The multi-hued pink and green marble face of the main cathedral, Santa Maria Fiore, otherwise known as “The Duomo”, was added to the structure in the 19th Century. This facade was in a gothic revival style what would have appalled Renaissance era Florentines.  To this day, the public reception of that  facade reception remains mixed, some saying it reminds them of a zebra in striped pajamas.

So,  it shouldn’t be too surprising. idea of restarting the facade project is  being beset with some controversy. Some people are not comfortable with the change. The design for San Lorenzo and  may be true to the Renaissance and may be 500 years old, there’s no denying that the church’s present appearance is its historical appearance.

No longer would the square in front of the church have quite thesame feel as it did in Michelangelo’s time.  Then again, it could be gratifying to see whatwould have been one of Michelangelo’s most significant works  brought to completion.  It could end up reminding us just how much the of Renaissance remains in play in our times.

Enough of those Penis Print Souvenirs

Authorities of several Tuscan cities are talking about putting a stop to the sale of naughty novelty souvenirs, including those boxer shorts and cooking aprons sporting a rendering of the penis from Michelangelo’s David statue.  It seems this is not how some folks want to see the Renaissance remain at play in contemporary culture.

Last month Florence’s Deputy Mayor, Dario Nardella, called for summit meeting with officials from five Tuscan towns: Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, Pienza and Siena. They will meet sometime before the end of August.

Pisa has already begun to crack down on the sale of merchandise authorities think is too trashy, such as the boxer shorts decorated with an image of the leaning tower over the fly. The owners of five Pisan souvenir stalls have been fined 500 Euros ($705) for selling “merchandise offensive to public decorum.”

This is not the first time Michelangelo’s depiction of male anatomy became an issue.  In 1561 church ordered scores of penises painted over in the Sistine Chapel on the Last Judgement. Artist Daniele da Volterra received the commission and for that he has since been known as with the nickname “the Pants Maker”.

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.