Tag Archives: Batman

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.

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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.