Tag Archives: Italy

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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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”.

Inspiration from the Tuscan Farm:


This is my Flesh

Normally, I don’t eat meat.

I’d be lying if I said I never do.

When I work on the farm in Tuscany

they have me build fences

to keep Apennine Wolves

from the lambs, cows, pigs and sheep.

The animals seem happy.

I am only the hired hand at the table.

So, I eat the food they offer.

So, anything they’ve killed.

I sleep and work there,
to travel on,
and travel
on the cheap.

The house dates
to the lifetimes of Renaissance men,
and women.
In the celler there is red wine,
and salami hung among hams
with cloven hooves attached.

This is my flesh.

Something wicked on this bridge came

So much for the romance of Florence’s bridges, so much for strolling honeymooning couples after destination weddings, and so much for lovers attaching locks and tossing away the keys. We’ve done that. That was the other day.

Something different now. Bridges have a dark side. We’ve heard the diabolical histories of trolls, suicides, executions and assassinations. Take for example, Ponte alla Carraia. This bridge spans Florence’s Arno River two bridges downstream form the more famously picturesque Ponte Vecchio.

It’s the year 1304, May Day. Dante has been exiled from Florence for the past two years, so he has nothing directly to do with this story, except he would have heard the news of the disastrous outcome. Perhaps it’s at this point Dante begins thinking up some lines from the forthcoming Inferno If so, he would could be thinking about them as he wanders a dark Tuscan woods. He imagines coming across those gates of Hell, and he composes the first a of the lines.

Midway through the journey of life, I found myself ln a dark forest, lost to the straight path

Meanwhile, word goes out on the narrow and cobbled streets of Florence that the Devil can be met at the Ponte alla Carraia. The “Carriage Bridge”. The streets on each side of the bridge become tributaries to the human stream flowing toward the river. Creative works and performance art depicting Hell and the Devil’s rule over his realm seems to be in vogue on these days.

…and after it came so long a stream of people…”

What they discover is that players have floated a barge toward the bridge. This is the stage, complete with elaborate scenery and scaffolding depicting the different levels for that City of Woe, as Dante called it. He made them rings.  Far from abandoning hope, this a festive affair for the Florentine spectators looking for a good time.

Still, this bridge’s dark history would not be lost on the audience.

There was a medieval belief that the Devil expected his due once a bridge was completed. The expectation was that the Devil would take the first soul to cross the completed bridge. The sly Florentines devised a plan for tricking the Devil. The plan entailed running a goat across the bridge. The plan worked.  Everyone said so. There were no reports of missing human souls.

It was not as simple as that. According to accounts collected by 19th Century folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland in Legends of Florence, on many nights an apparition in the form of a goat appeared on the bridge, running and casting flames in its wake, running and then inexplicably vanishing in a flash of fire.

Back to the May Day performance.

A significant portion of the city’s 30,000 population must have joined that human stream flowing toward the river and the Ponte alla Carraia. They way it turns out is not good. So many people came to see the Devil and his woeful souls  that the bridge collapses under the weight of the spectators. Hundreds drown, maybe more than that. News of the disaster would spread throughout Tuscany, and surely make it to an exiled poet.

…I never would have believed that Death so many would have undone… Dante Alighieri, Inferno.

Also:

…A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many… T.S. Elliot, The Waste Land

The Romance of those bridges.

The signs of romance are everywhere on Florence’s bridges. Lovers and honeymooners photograph themselves on the bridges. And when no one is looking, they might attach a lock to some portion of the railing, and toss the key into the Arno. The ritual serves as their testament to their hearts being forever locked to each other, supposedly It is a little naughty, like the ever-popular car sex in the hills above the town. It’s also illegal. There’s fines, but they do it anyway. Sometimes they write their names on the locks with a marker.

The English painter William Turner visited Italy in 1819, and he seems to have had Romantic take on at least one of Florences bridges, The Ponte alla Carria. Lovely, is it not?

Another English painter’s Pre-Raphaelite take gives us a romantic depiction of a Florentine bridge. What could be more romantic than Dante’s chance meeting of Beatrice at the foot of Ponte Santa Trinita? There’s a view of the Ponte Vecchio in the background further down river. So, here’s that work of Henry Holiday, 1883.

Now, there’s a dark side the bridges. Really Dark. Next time: upon these bridges the Devil gets his due

The Skin of a Corpse

The story goes that once upon a time, during the Italian Renaissance, there was an artist who cut himself a jacket out of the skin of a corpse.

Now, who would that be?  Caravaggio?  Pollaiuolo?

Swiss art historian and essayist Jacob Burckhardt tells the story in his classic, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860.  This book is a compelling read full of heft about the lasting significance of the Renaissance on Western modernity, and it is also a volume with no small amount of exquisite page-turning Renaissance trivia.

Unfortunately, Burckhardt does not identify the artist.  He mentions the account only in passing in a section on the practice of magic during the Renaissance. Scientific observation was rapidly overtaking magical thinking, even among artists. Although, he says, “One of them, in his anatomical studies, may have cut himself a jacket out of the skin of a corpse, but at the advice of his confessor he put it again into the grave.”

Oh, Jacob, how could you just let it go at that?

Imagine the mind of this man in the throes of his anatomical studies contemplating what it would be like to wear the skin of a dead man. Did he expect any special powers?  It’s impossible not playfully imagine the narrative possibilities if one has ever developed any of the instincts of a writer or storyteller. Did the jacket have brass buttons, a silk lining, pockets? Did he wear it walking the night where he crossed the Arno’s dark waters over the unluckiest of bridges, the Ponte Vecchio. If not that, did he stroll about in the Piazza della Signoria in broad daylight for all to see and whisper about the peculiarities of artists and their dark Faustian ways?

From what little Burckhardt shares with us, we know something frightful must have happened to this artist. It always does in such stories. A man is drawn by some dark impulse, his fortunes turn for the worse, fears for his soul and regrets dabbling in the dark matter of human existence. In this cautionary tale, the artist gets religion and enters the confessional booth to disclose to a priest the wicked thing he has done.