Glyndebourne’s current production of Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra brings an ancient tale of love and duty up to date, with a powerful contemporary setting. Being a historian, however, I always wonder what it would’ve been like to experience these operas as they were originally performed. What would we have seen if we’d been in the audience for Hipermestra’s premiere in 1658? Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Extensive visual and written documentation records the costumes and sets. Even more excitingly, the theatre where the opera was first performed still exists and is still functioning. During a recent business trip to Florence, I took some time out to visit the Teatro della Pergola and its remarkable archives, in search of Hipermestra…
Last week, in a spirit of spontaneity that’s entirely uncharacteristic, I went on a last-minute trip to Florence. Work has been very intense this year, and that looks set to continue, so I was in desperate need of sunshine, gelati and the scent of pine, the chatter of cicadas and the quiet grace of frescoed churches. Fortunately I had a marvellous excuse. This summer everyone has been talking about the exhibition on Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, subtitled Diverging Paths of Mannerism, at the Palazzo Strozzi. Not that I needed much of an excuse to return. Florence has been a very important place for me ever since I first went there with my parents at the age of fifteen, my head full of A Room with a View and the Medici, Leonardo and Michelangelo. I managed to get there three more times in my student days, but it’s been eight years since I was last there at the age of twenty-one. It was time to go back.
Secrecy has been drifting on the edge of my radar for some time, as you might expect of a book set in Medicean Florence. I finally got around to reading it last week, and found it a rather unusual piece of work: it deals with both a period and a subject that don’t crop up very often in historical fiction. The Medici in this novel are not, as I’d initially expected, the glittering Laurentian Medici of the Renaissance. On the contrary, these are the Medici left over at the dwindling end of the family’s great trajectory through Italian history: a fading dynasty of Grand Dukes, weakened by inbreeding and debauchery, their ancestors’ political acumen frittered away, their virility and vitality exhausted.
How the Renaissance began
The winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, this book was recommended to me during our Sicily trip a year ago, in the course of a rather splendid dinner-table conversation. It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an Italian humanist who worked at the papal curia and who, during the upheavals after the Council of Constance, sought to distract himself by going book-hunting in the monasteries of Germany. Poggio dreamed of finding previously unknown classical texts in these monasteries, preserved by chance through years of copying as part of the monastic discipline. He and his fellow humanists had already uncovered fragments of letters and treatises, but the discovery that Poggio would make in 1417 would come to have a powerful impact on the very roots of Western philosophy: the full text of De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius.
Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing
(The Morgan Library, New York, until 3 February 2013)
Current service has been temporarily interrupted by a business trip to New York, but even there I did my best to keep up the ‘idle’ spirit. On the afternoon of my arrival, I hotfooted it down Madison Avenue to the Morgan, hoping to keep the jetlag at bay by looking at some wonderful drawings. This January’s crop of exhibitions in New York aren’t as focused on the Old Masters as they were last year, and so the show at the Morgan was the one that bore the brunt of my expectations. I was a little disappointed to find that it took up only one room and there was no catalogue; but, nevertheless, that one room contained some beautiful things, many of which I hadn’t seen before. The purpose of the exhibition was to trace the development of Florentine drawing as it grew out of the Renaissance tradition into the full, eccentric bloom of Mannerism.
You may remember that a few months ago I spoke of my admiration for Linda Proud’s wonderful Botticelli Trilogy, which follows the circle of painters and philosophers who gathered around Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence in the 1480s and 1490s. Her newly-published book, which can also be read as a standalone novel in its own right, forms a prequel to that trilogy. Looking back to the foundations of the intellectual and artistic world described in the Botticelli Trilogy, it moves between Florence and Prato over a span of some thirty years, from 1434-1469.
The three books in Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy provide a powerful, moving and life-affirming insight into Renaissance Florence. Essentially they are three instalments in the same book, so it makes no sense to speak of them individually: they need to be read and appreciated together. Following the life and career of Tommaso de’ Maffei, the books begin with his boyhood and his journey to Florence, where he earns his living as a scribe.