Curtis Wong has had an incredible career. He has produced critically acclaimed educational CD-ROMs at Corbis and the Voyager Co., as well as the definitive editions of feature films for the Criterion Collection. He ran the Content Group at Intel, and was granted many patents at Microsoft Research. Today he joins us to tell some stories from his career, including his groundbreaking work with Bill Gates to produce the digital version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester.
Leonardo was fascinated with how brains work. So much so, he decided to cut them open to study them. One reason he might have been obsessed with brains was to help him work out his own depression. Why was he depressed? It might have been how little success he was having in Florence. So in 1482, the year he turned 30, da Vinci left Florence for Milan. He lived there for the next 17 years.
The other major painting Leonardo did in this period of his life, around 1480, still in Florence, before he went to Milan, is “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness”. Another unfinished work, it depicts the fourth-century Christian scholar who translated the Bible into Latin (aka the vulgate bible), beating himself on the chest with a rock.
Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi has been called “the most influential unfinished painting in the history of art” and “the most revolutionary and anti-classical picture of the fifteenth century”. Commissioned as a favour to his father when LDV was 29. As payment, he would only get some firewood and some property near Florence – but he had to pay for a girl’s dowry out of it.
Leonardo da Vinci liked boys. Young boys were his weakness. He liked to draw them, paint them and have sex with them. He even got arrested twice for sodomy, which was punishable by death in Florence. Fortunately for us, one of his co-accused was tight with the Medici.
Thirty years before he painted the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s first non-religious painting was a portrait of another woman – Ginevra de’Benci. He was only 21, but already his genius was showing. This portrait broke new ground in several important ways. Who was Ginevra and why did he paint her portrait?
In addition to working with his old master, Verrocchio, on painting in the 1470s, Leonardo also produced at least four paintings mostly on his own. The Annunciation, two Madonnas and a portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. In these paintings we can see the young master innovating, experimenting and even making some mistakes.
Leonardo’s earliest surviving work of art is a landscape sketch of Vinci in his notebook dating from 1473 when he was 21 years old. The earliest surviving painting is BAPTISM OF CHRIST, a collaboration with his old master, Verrocchio (as seen in Marketing The Messiah). On this episode, we go deep on both works of art, looking at what made Leonardo da Vinci different from his contemporaries.
Leonardo’s first known artwork is a Frankenstein monster and he invents sfumato.
We examine Leonardo’s writing style, and his apprenticeship at age 14 to Andrea del Verrocchio, an Italian painter, sculptor, and goldsmith, because even geniuses need a master to learn from (despite what The Queen’s Gambit will have you believe).
“Extraordinary power … conjoined with remarkable facility, a mind of regal boldness and magnanimous daring.” That’s how Vasari described Leonardo da Vinci. But how much do we really know about the world’s most famous artist? And how much of what we think we know is myth?
Savonarola was notified that he and his closest colleagues had been condemned to die. His most ardent believers had faith that the Lord would save him at the last minute, but, yet again, God didn’t show up for work. At 1pm, May 23, 1498, they were degraded then burned in the Piazza della Signoria. And now Florence needs to get its shit together. Do they bring back the Medici? Join the Holy League? And what can they learn from the Savonarola episode?
The trials of Savonarola begin. First he is put on trial by the Signoria of Florence for his political interference. Then he is put on trial by the Pope for his religious accusations and claims of prophecy. This being Catholic Italy, part of the trial involves torture – the strappado. Under torture Savonarola confesses to making everything up and being a big old fake.
With Charles out of the picture, Piero de Medici figures it’s time for him to return to Florence. He marched into Tuscany with a force of four hundred lancers, light cavalry, and foot soldiers. Unfortunately, nobody shows up to welcome him and he goes back into exile. But his attempt at a return sets off a series of political assassinations in Florence, supported by Savonarola. Civil tensions increase until a Franciscan friar challenges Savonarola to trial by fire. When this doesn’t work out as planned, the people are furious and Savonarola gets thrown into prison.
Yes, we’re still talking about Savonarola! Deal with it! On this episode, Savonarola refuses the Pope’s summons to go to Rome and to stop preaching. He uses the ol’ Bill Clinton defence. During some of his downtime, one of his colleagues offers to go through a trial by fire to prove how much God loves Savonarola. And when he returns to preaching, Savonarola demands for blood to be spilled by anyone who criticises “his” signoria and decides to build the Hitler Youth to force Florence into being good little Christians. But then the Holy Roman Emperor sets sail for Italy with an armada to kick out the French and Florence yet again needs to choose a side – Savonarola or the Pope?
By early 1495, Savonarola managed to get control of the Great Council of Florence and has his reforms passed. He may not be gonfaloniere, but he is a political force. He soon gets one of his own followers elected gonfaloniere and then has complete control over the city. Then he started arguing to shut down more fun things. Sodomy, dancing, poetry, prostitution, blasphemy – he’s the anti-Lorenzo. Meanwhile King Charles of France and the Pope go to war and Florence is forced to choose between the King, who Savonarola has said is the agent of God, and the Pope. When they choose the King, Savonarola ends up on the Pope’s naughty list – and his future suddenly looks dim.
With the Medici and the French both gone from Florence, Savonarola tries to influence the new Signoria to pass significant reforms – but they ignore him. Then another enemy appears – this time, a religious rival. Feeling like he wasn’t appreciated, Savonarola eventually spat the dummy and said he wanted to leave Florence once and for all. Meanwhile, on November 17, the day Charles VIII and his troops entered Florence, Pico della Mirandola died at the age of thirty-two – only two months after his friend and possibly lover, Poliziano, who died aged only 40. They were poisoned – possibly on the orders of the exiled Piero de Medici.
Savonarola meets with King Charles VIII of France in Pisa, calling himself a prophet of God and telling Charles that he was the instrument of God’s divine plan. Then he returns to Florence where the Medici have been kicked out and he congratulates the Florentines on a bloodless revolution. But, he says – there is still more work to be done to get back into God’s favour. Shortly after, the King arrives in Florence with 9000 troops – and announces he wants them to bring back Piero de Medici.
Savonarola’s predictions that God was going to punish the Florentines seem to be coming true when, in 1494, King Charles VIII of France invades Italy to take control of Naples. On his way south, he also threatens to attack Florence. When Piero de Medici tries to negotiate a settlement, it’s a complete failure. So the Signoria send Savonarola to meet with the king instead.
– In 1492, Lorenzo The Magnificent died. His heir was his eldest son, 20 year old Piero de’ Medici, a useless turd. The Pope died soon afterwards and was replaced by the corrupt Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. Savonarola proclaimed that the “Sword of the Lord” would soon descend upon Florence for its wicked ways. In this case, the sword would soon be carried another another 20 year old ruler – King Charles VIII of France.
In his sermons in early 1491, Savonarola attacked the people and priests who thought of Christianity as a merely ceremonial religion. He also criticised how ignorant the people were of the doctrines of Christianity, ‘thieving priests’ who sold lucrative posts and Church offices to the wealthy, and he claimed the clerics and people were all sodomites and attacked the oppression of the poor, by unjust taxation.
After Lorenzo de Medici’s death in 1492, Botticelli gave up painting, abandoned his humanist studies, and became a hardcore fundamentalist Christian. As did a lot of Florentines. The reason? They all fell under the spell of the original fire and brimstone preacher. He wasn’t rich. He didn’t have an army. He wasn’t of the nobility. He wasn’t sent by the pope. In fact, the Pope hated him. But he managed to do what so many rich men with armies had failed to do for decades. He overturned the government of Florence, kicked out the Medici family, and took control of the city. And… to top it off, he was a precursor of the Reformation. He is famous for the Bonfire Of The Vanities. His name was Girolamo SAVONAROLA.
When Giuliano de Medici gets murdered in the Duomo during the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, Booty was probably there. What should a Florentine painter paint after the Pope had your best friend killed during a church service in a cathedral? No more Madonnas and Baby Jesuses. It’s time for Booty to paint his ultimate masterpiece – The Birth Of Venus.
We go back to the beginnings of Botticelli’s career as a solo artist to examine his progression from Lippi’s apprentice to becoming the breakthrough Renaissance artist. We start by putting some of his early Madonna and Child paintings under the microscope including the Virgin and Child with an Angel, Madonna of the Rose Garden, Madonna della Loggia and The Virgin and Child with Two Angels.
We continue talking about the life and art of Sandro Botticelli. We go deep on his paintings of The Adoration of the Magi, and the first of his pagan masterpieces, the Primavera.
During Lorenzo de Medici’s life, no fewer than three of the outstanding artists of the Renaissance are thought to have spent at least a brief formative period of their early lives in the Palazzo Medici: Leonardo and Michelangelo and the one we’re going to talk about for the next few episodes – the great Sandro Botticelli.
When King Manuel of Portugal evicted the Jews in 1497, he didn’t actually want the Jews to leave. He wanted them to convert to Christianity. When, instead, the chose to leave, he tried to stop them – by seizing their children and converting them. Rather than see their children raised as Christians, many Jews killed their own kids and then committed suicide. The Jews who did convert didn’t get it any easier, either. As in Spain, they were subjected to violence and then, finally, the Inquisition came to Portugal. It’s just your basic Christian terrorism.
This episode starts with a correction about the skin colour of the Moors, brought to you by our Moroccan listener Mohamed.
Then, to set the scene for this episode, we have a special song – “The Alhambra Decree” by legendary contemporary folk singer-songwriter David Rovics. Crazy coincidence – I’ve been a fan of David’s work for 15 years and have been on his mailing list forever. And the same week I happened to be preparing this episode, I saw his latest email that contained this song. So I reached out and he was nice enough to give me permission to use this track.
So what was the Alhambra Decree? It was the 1492 decision, by Isabella and Ferdinand, after they concluded their war with the last remaining Muslim region of Granada, that all of the Jews were to be banished from Spain. But did they really want to banish them? Or just give them an added incentive to convert to Christianity? And why would anyone want to convert to Christianity after the hell the Inquisition had just put the conversos through?
Some gave in under pressure and converted – some stuck to their guns and migrated to Portugal, whose King promised them refuge. Which was great – until the King of Portugal decided he wanted to marry the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand.
When the Inquisition came to your town, they would grant you 30 days to confess to being a heretic. This was known as the “Edicts Of Grace”. If you confessed, you might get a hefty fine, but at least you wouldn’t end up in prison or burned at the stake. Of course, many conversos decided it was the smart move to confess – whether they actually were a crytpo-Jew or not.
In 1482, as the Spanish Inquisition started to ramp up in more towns, the Pope appointed seven more inquisitors, including the infamous Tomás de Torquemada. However, critics of the Inquisition claimed that “the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls, but by lust for wealth.” The critic who wrote that was none other than the Pope himself.
The papal bull issued by Pope Sixtus IV on 1 November 1478 provided for the appointment of two or three priests over forty years of age as inquisitors. Powers of appointment and dismissal were granted to the Spanish crown. This wasn’t the first time an inquisition into heretics had been established. In 1401 a special new law in England permitted the execution of heretics – De heretico comburendo – a law passed by Parliament under King Henry IV. In Spain, the first auto de fe (‘act of faith’) of the new Inquisition was celebrated on 6 February 1481, when six people, men and women, were burnt at the stake and the sermon at the ceremony was preached by Fray Alonso de Hojeda.
By the 15th century, Christians, Jews and Muslims had lived side by side in Spain for centuries. The Muslims controlled a large region of modern Spain, as did the Christians. But the Jews continued to get massacred in periodic pogroms. However, there were also many rich Jews, among them the financiers who enjoyed royal favor. Then it all fell apart with Queen Isabella when she became aware of the existence of Crypto-Judaism – Jews pretending to be Christians. Jesus hates a faker.
In 1184, Pope Lucius III issued a papal bull, Ad Abolendam, to combat the Albigensian heresy in southern France. They were known as Cathars, or Good Christians. They were going around doing horrible anti-Christian things – like saying killing was bad, being vegetarian and treating women as equals was good, and that the church was too rich. The Pope decided they had to be stopped. How? In the words of the army commander he sent to them: ‘Kill them all. God will recognise his own.’
On this episode we discuss the artists Poliziano, who popularised the new sophistication and learning expected of a gentleman; Mirandola, who at age 23 decided to debate the entire world; and the magnificent breasts of Simonetta Vespucci.
As the war with the Pope continues, Lorenzo sacrifices himself to save Florence and surrenders to Naples. He gets on a boat by himself and sails to Naples, putting his own life at great risk. It’s one of the reasons he becomes known as Lorenzo The Magnificent.
In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy, Florence found itself excommunicated en masse by Pope Sixtus IV unless they handed over Lorenzo De Medici. When the city refused, Pope Sixtus went to war.
Early in his rule, Lorenzo de’ Medici cracked down on the town of Volterra, resulting in rampage, murdering, looting and raping. Meanwhile, in Milan, on the day after Christmas 1476, Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, was stabbed by three noblemen as he entered church. And Larry upsets Pope Sixtus IV over a loan request, which leads to an assassination attempt in 1478 on both Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, also while attending church. It’s known as The Pazzi Conspiracy.
The Pitti faction get Soderini elected gonfaloniere and install an anti-Medici signoria but they can’t get the guilds, who remember the troubles of the pre-Cosimo years, to agree to banishing the Medici. So the Pitti party decide to try an armed revolution, calling in support from Venice and Ferrara. In the middle of all this, Francesco Sforza dies in Milan and his house is taken over by his craaaazy son, Galeazzo Sforza, who liked to rape noblemen’s wives and tear his enemies limb from limb.
In 1464, with the death of Cosimo, his only surviving son, Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici – or Piero the Gouty, ‘il Gottoso’, as he came to be called – took over. He was 48 years old. He would survive – and rule – Florence for just five years. Piero was perceived to be so weak and ineffectual that long-standing friends and allies of the Medici turned against him and the family. It was a decision they would live to regret.
In his later years, Cosimo goes to war with Naples, gets saved by Joan of Arc (kind of) and René of Anjou and Charles VII. Then he joins a Holy League against the Turks and plays “pick the next Pope” a couple of times. Then, in his old age, he retires to his country estate to study philosophy, before finally dying in 1464, at the age of seventy-four.