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A Distant Mirror

November 16, 2010

Historical fiction, done right, does more than satisfy romantic urges for lost days of courtliness, manliness, chivalry, frippery etc.  Like well-written history, it should remind us that there were people like us in distant times – people who questioned religious authority and indeed religious truth, people who were sexually sophisticated, who valued learning and considered a well-read wit to be a requirement for membership in good society. 

The right wing would lay claim to all that is good in history, that it wants to “conserve” what has been built before us, and they call the left a recent, brutish threat to it, but in truth the march of history, of social, economic and scientific progress has been the march of people like us against the tide of the right, two steps forward and one step back, again and again.  Adam Smith of Wealth of Nations fame, whose work is held up by the right as their rationalization for laissez faire, actually believed in a minimum wage that would allow a man to marry and raise two children.  Our founding fathers, alleged by the right to have founded a “Christian nation,” were generally semi- or irreligious or, in the case of Thomas Jefferson, downright anti-religious – a fact which we have made so well-known in recent years that Texas has moved to suppress children’s knowledge of him.  The right can only lay claim to all that is good in history by rewriting it.

The period of the Renaissance in which I’ve ended up setting my book, a period whose choice was forced by the dates of the drawing and the painting above, turns out to be just about the greatest time and place I could have had to work with.  This was a “golden age” of about twenty years during which Florence, and much of Italy, was at peace. (Despite the bellicosity of the right and the fact they love to trumpet about the First Great Depression only being cured by world war, as a general rule war is not good for economies and other living things).  It was a “liberal” climate in many ways, although it was ruled autocratically – political dissent was suppressed, but then it was suppressed everywhere at that time.  Theology was in upheaval, and from what I’ve garnered (I need to go back to my unfinished copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation, which I abandoned for lack of interest in theological hair-splitting), even Italy under the very nose of the pope took an interest in heretical, if not “Lutheran,” notions, including Cosimo I himself.  Sexual liberation, at least for men, including gay men, was in full swing, so to speak.  One of my next library acquisitions is Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships, about gay life in Florence during this time.  (I know, all my avowals about no more Gay Novels of Gay Interest with Gay Men on the Gay Cover… “Just when I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in!”  As I said before, characters and novels have their own goddamn wills.)  Even if I don’t get explicit, I still have to acknowledge the existence of what’s going on around my characters, and what many of them were no doubt participating in.  Bronzino’s work, both his poetry and his paintings, are full of sodomitical references, especially in two of his Venus and Cupid paintings.  Can you spot them?



These paintings, like the portrait of Cosimo as Orpheus, were intended for private consumption, so Bronzino was free to work in as much sexuality as he pleased.  Of course, as always, the aristocrats who consumed these libertine productions would have as quickly denounced the same work in a public presentation, as “harmful” to the masses, who needs be kept in line with the tenets of religion to which religion’s leaders so rarely adhere.

Brock even takes the line on Venus and Cupid that the figure in shadow, left side of the first painting above, represent syphilis or jealousy or both, if not inevitable then certainly highly possible consequences of the sexuality on display.  Nonetheless, “the pleasant and the painful” coexist, and “the fundamental oxymoron of love” is presented:

intensity of desire and present pleasure cast sorrows or illnesses out of the mind…Despite the warnings abounding in the London picture, the putto carries on running and Cupid still embraces and caresses Venus…

So fifty years after syphilis came to the Old World, we find that in certain circles, a settlement has been made with the risk – perhaps not as extreme as Edmund White’s quote that “sex was worth dying for,” but when you put that quote in context, it mirrors much of what the Renaissance was about, in the shadow of plagues of one sort or another:

I do think that sex is something worth dying for.  I believe what art is primarily about is beauty, and what beauty is about is death.

Not coincidentally, the condom made its appearance in Western civilization just about this time.

But like all liberal ages so far, it faced and was defeated by the forces of reaction, in this case the Counter-Reformation.  The Council of Trent in 1563 essentially issued a fatwa against everything Michelangelo, Bronzino, and the Fiorentina had treasured, and undoubtedly ended Bronzino’s career with the Medici court.  From now on, in religious art

…every superstition shall be removed … all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust… there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.

Even Michelangelo’s Last Judgment would be painted over to hide the dirty bits during this time.  The shadow of a second Dark Age was looming during the time of my story, but it had not yet recovered the earth, and the work of the Risorgimento, like that of the Classical era, would be buried and suppressed and painted over, but would, eventually, rise again.

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