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The Outline of History

December 7, 2010

An end to my life stress at last – at least as long as I don’t cause myself any more.  Spent the most wonderful peaceful evening watching a terrible football game, contemplating the pleasing stack of art books I’d set up on the coffee table in my “new” living room, and paging through Leonardo’s Universe, a NatGeo book on the artist.  I had a “moment” early on, when I turned the page to find a double spread photo of Florence, which I’ve poorly reproduced below:

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Big art books were the original Imax – I had a “moment” because suddenly Bronzino’s Florence, Renaissance Florence, was real to me.  That’s the view, pretty much, that someone in his time would have had of the city (the pic was taken from “Piazza Michelangelo,” and even more fantastic pix are on Wikipedia).  Having that picture fill my field of vision made a connection in my head to what has been in many ways abstract verbal material – history of Florence, history of the Medici, Lives of the Artists, etc. etc. – into something tangible, touchable.  Now I feel a visceral need to go to Florence to make this novel real, although who knows if or when that could actually happen in a reasonable time frame before the book really gets started, which I think will be soon.  All it takes is money…

It’s funny how ideas do their own work in a creative mind.  Jonathan Franzen was on Oprah yesterday, and I made sure to record it – Freedom really is magnificent stuff.  He was the polar opposite of everything I’d expected from his I Am Serious photos and Great Pronouncements on Writing – he was warm, friendly, relaxed, funny, and polite.  He talked a little about his process, which I wanted to hear about much more than the background of “the feud,” entertaining as that was.  He mentioned that Patty, the abrasive center of the book, was a character who’d come up in something he’d written that he described as awful, and though he discarded it, Patty remained in his mind, to live another day.

The characters in my unnamed book have started to “talk” about their lives as well.  It’s an interesting experiment, historical fiction:  you have a blessing and a curse in the fact that you’ve got to color within the lines of what really happened (unless you’re writing a Hollywood screenplay, in which case you can jumble it all up and make up what you want to).  The “blessing” is that so much of your novel’s structure is given to you, a ready-made foundation on which to build .  So there are certain “facts” that drive the novel:

  • Bronzino’s career is well-documented, so in the novel he has to physically be where he really was, doing what he was doing, and painting what he was painting – at least I have some leeway there, as dating of many works is approximate.
  • His friends and colleagues (and enemies) are documented as well, and will take their appropriate places in the story.
  • Pierino da Vinci (more on his role here in a minute), Leonardo’s nephew, died at the age of 24 in 1553.
  • The Counter-Reformation was yet to sweep away the advances of the Renaissance in art, politics and individual freedom of thought and action, but it destroyed Bronzino’s career a few years after the action of the novel.  (Vasari’s dismissal of Bronzino as a minor “life” stems I think from Vasari’s own eager acquiescence to the demands of the reactionaries, which is how he replaced Bronzino at Cosimo’s court – and with Bronzino so out of favor with the Church, Vasari may not have dared to “celebrate” him even had he wished to.  I see no problem making Vasari a villain, at least in terms of his readiness to turn and tack with the wind.)

So what I’m thinking now, in rough outline, is that Bronzino is a pivotal character, serving as a mentor but not a lover to Niccolo, the name I’ve given to the unknown Young Man in the pictures above.  Niccolo serves at Cosimo I’s court, which gives him a wide range of actions, places, and real historical characters with whom he can interact – this world then intersects with Bronzino’s world of artists and poets via Niccolo and Bronzino’s friendship, and, eventually, the romance between Niccolo and the doomed Pierino (cause of death possibly malaria, though I’m having a hard time finding out).  Niccolo grows from a rough, culturally naïve but naturally politically savvy young man into a “Renaissance Man,” but the price to be paid for his emotional growth is in the loss of his beloved only a year or two after they meet.  The wild youth of the drawing thus becomes the more subdued, restrained “Florentine-faced” mask of the portrait, a portrait that in my novel will reflect the sense of loss that both Niccolo and Bronzino feel at Pierino’s death – thus the “dark” nature of the portrait, the subject dressed in black, with, unusually for both Bronzino and Renaissance portraiture, no symbolism at all save the sword on which his hands rest (and I’ll have to decide why that was chosen, and what it will mean in this context).


As a coda, I’ll leap forward to Bronzino’s execution of the St. Lawrence, his last work and a defiant “middle finger” to the Counter-Reformation and its anti-body, anti-joy suppression of the “Florentine” style initiated by da Vinci and Michelangelo.  Niccolo secures one last commission from Cosimo for his old friend, who by this time had tried to obey the Council of Trent and paint “modest” figures who would not incite the viewer to lust (that those who so loudly disapproved of such pictures were the first to see the sexy sexiness and not the beauty and celebration of “God’s work” says much about the censorious mind).  The story ends with the unveiling of the painting, and only Niccolo sees what I saw – the foot of the “Emperor” on the head of God, suppressing not only art but religion’s true role in life as seen by the greats of the Renaissance. 

As a hardcore atheist, the greatest stretch of imagination for me is to accept that great humanists, great artists and thinkers, could believe in God – not in most cases the exact version of the Christian God as prescribed and proscribed by the Church, but a Christian God nonetheless, with miracles and resurrections and the life to come and all that.  And to accept that it was that genuine belief that inspired some of the great works of art of that time, of all time – that will be a “leap of faith” on my part indeed.


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