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.

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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.)

The dog and the beast

The dog in this 15th Century German text appears worried as he looks up plaintively to the man holding his leash. He is among some people who are worshiping the beast. The image is part of one of 36 painted miniatures contained in this book illustrating the apocalypse. The dog seems to know something is not quite right here. Unfortunately for him, being on the leash prevents him from doing much about it.

The book is part of the manuscript collection of the New York Public Library. More information here

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.

Another Renaissance Dog

This happy dog is about to enjoy some slices of ham. This image comes from one of the pages of an early 16th century French book of Christmas carols.

One of the interesting things about this image is the relationship of the man and the dog. The man is shoeless, and yet he carries a beautiful ham, from which he feeds the dog. Does this man love the dog in the way contemporary pet owners love their animals and tend to spoil them with food? That has to be one expensive piece of meat.

Yes, meat was precious. The typical Florentine ate meat once a week with the Saturday meal. Workmen to labored on Brunelleschi’s dumo made a sport of catching the pigeons that nested on the ledges of the incomplete basilica.

The above image is from the rare book department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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.