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Upon Further Reflection

November 1, 2010

Got a little more research done yesterday.  I’d forgotten how much fun research can be, not having done any since I worked on a Renaissance spy novel idea set in France in the reign of Henri III and IV.  When you set out to write a novel, you’re looking at a blank page in your own mind, with little idea what’s about to happen.  Research both forces your hand (i.e. Bronzino can’t meet the Young Man at the Medici wedding because it’s ten years before the date of the drawing), and guides it – in the chapter I’m reading now in Brock’s book, on Bronzino’s female portraits, there’s a picture done in 1542 of a woman who will be convicted by the Roman Inquisition in 1552 of possessing heretical books.  So there’s a potentially interesting minor character right there – I’d simply forgotten that the whole Protestant Reformation was happening at this time (far from Florence of course) and that the Inquisition had been revived in spades to deal with it.  In my outline, I’d just said “insert act 2 crisis here,” without a clue what that might be.  The Inquisition alone won’t do as the crisis point; we all know the damage inflicted by religion on civilization’s progress – but the actions of the Inquisition would be absurd not to mention in this place and time, and can serve as the catalyst for other occurrences. 

I’ve written my own impressions of Renaissance portraiture before, noting that while in religious paintings everyone is looking away from the viewer, in some state of ecstasy or terror or wicked glee, in portraits everyone looks at the viewer, commanding us with their aristocratic mien.  But I hadn’t considered how many ways there were for the subject to look at us until this chapter.  Brock discusses the “conversational” portrait in this chapter, and how for many years painters despaired of being able to paint “the heart,” of rendering personality and emotion in a subject.  The goal of the portrait was originally to preserve the subject for eternity, as they wished to be remembered, and those who could both afford to be painted and wished to be immortalized wanted to be Taken Seriously.  The “conversational” portrait was revolutionary because, even though it kept the viewer at a formal distance from the subject, it portrayed the subject as they would like to be thought of looking as they took part in society, at dinners and other gatherings of one’s own kind – a slightly more relaxed pose, though still of course possessed of the dignity which One must always have about Oneself.  The Mona Lisa was one of the first such conversational portraits, though it was shocking in its time in that the personality of the subject was so brazenly on view – it was simply Not Done for a woman to smile in a portrait, unless it were done with no more emotion than a politician might display standing in the background as another politician speaks.  Otherwise one might be taken for a most forward hussy, and since the point of the portrait was to display the public “mask” of the subject, possessed of all the decorum and decency that society required of one, this was unthinkable.

I’ve noticed that in Bronzino’s portraits, the only people who smile at us are male artists.  As if only those who had no aristocratic “mask” to uphold, no high status and power in the world, could afford to display their real selves in a painting.  So that tells me that the Young Man, when it comes time for his portrait, is a member of the upper class or wishes to be one, and that the portrait is following the conventions of the time – maybe the wild child of the drawing is still the real man; maybe the portrait expresses only the public mask – maybe only the “change of venue” accounts for the differences in personality between the two.  That wouldn’t make the greatest fiction, of course – characters have to change for there to be plot.  There does seem to be a note of regret in the portrait, the subject looking “offscreen” as if lost in a reverie, as if something has been left behind in the transition.

So today is day 1 of NaNo, and I’m completely unprepared to write the first chapter.  I need to “get” Bronzino to c. 1550 in my research before I can get him right, but I don’t want to delay with only 30 days to get something done.  I think I can “fake” something today, enough to get the story moving – set something in his studio, with the young Allori protégé, the rather dotty Pontormo (Bronzino’s mentor), the neighborhood – having him working on some “wrong” pictures that don’t exist or don’t exist at this time, and then go back and fix the fact checking later.  Just don’t want to end day 1 w/a word count of 0 on the NaNo page – shame is so motivating!

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