Nobody’s Perfect

05 03 machiavelli Today is the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli. He was born on this day in 1469. Even though the adjective ‘Machiavellian’ has become a pejorative term to describe someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. Even though the Devil may be called ‘Old Nick’ in his honour. I’d like to argue that he may have made some good points.

Machiavelli lived through a time of enormous political unrest. New leaders were constantly rising to power, only to be immediately knocked down by someone else. He wrote his most famous work, ‘The Prince’, for Lorenzo II de’ Medici (father of Catherine) at a time when the Medici family were newly reinstated as rulers of Florence. Machiavelli had lost his job in the upheaval. He had been accused of plotting against the Medicis, he had been arrested, he had been tortured. He had been released and he had banished from the city. He was hoping to win Lorenzo’s favour. It is a political treatise offering advice on how a new prince might retain his power. Machiavelli knew that a prince should be both loved and feared, but if it is not possible to have both, it is best to be feared. He advised that the prince kill not only his enemies, but anyone who might be powerful enough to become an enemy.

His belief was that, sometimes, violence is necessary to maintain a stable society. That if you do something awful, most people will not notice if it achieves a result that is good. That there is no point imagining an ideal society where everyone is lovely because it’s not going to happen. He thought that religion was a bad thing for leaders because it made them lazy. Those who left everything up to the ‘Will of God’ never achieved anything. On the other hand, religion was a good thing for the geneal populace because it made them easy to manipulate. You could say anything was the ‘Will of God’ and they’d be fine with it. Some of his observations are based on the life of Cesare Borgia (brother of Lucrezia). He tells the story of how Cesare appointed a deputy to do his more unpleasant jobs. When his deputy was hated for it, he had him killed. Not only that, but he had his body cut in half and left in the town square along with a butcher’s block and a blood-stained knife. Of course, I’m not in favour of people who lie, cheat and murder their way into a position of power. But, let’s face it, destroying the opposition and having a good scapegoat is the way people get into postions of power.

Unfortunately Lorenzo didn’t like his book and Machiavelli continued to live on his farm outside the city, which he didn’t like very much at all. That’s when he wrote his comedy ‘La Mandragola’. I’d like to tell you about that because it sort of illustrates his political thoughts in microcosm and in a much less violent way. Everyone in the play does something completely immoral and yet everyone ends up happy.

05 03 mandragolaThe protagonist, Callimaco, falls hopelessly for a lady named Lucrezia who is young and beautiful. She is marries to an old man called Nicia who is a complete idiot. They have no children and Nicia is desperate for a son and heir. Callimaco’s scheming friend, Ligurio, devises a plan that will allow Callimaco to spend the night with Lucrezia which also involves a corrupt priest. Our hero poses as a doctor who can offer a solution to the couple’s childlessness. He convinces Nicia to drug Lucrezia with mandrake, claiming it will increase her fertility. However there is a caviat. The mandrake will undoubtedly kill the first man to have sex with her. Callimaco helpfully suggests to Nicia that an unwitting fool be found for this purpose. The ‘mandrake’ will be, in fact, just a big glass of wine and the ‘unwitting fool’, Callimaco in diguise. Lucrezia, being a religeous lady is reluctant but is eventually convinced by her mother and the priest to comply. The priest tells her that, like eating meat on a Wednesday, it is a sin that can be easily washed away with holy water. She allows a disguised Callimaco into her bed and, believing that the events which caused her to break her marriage vows were due to divine providence, accepts him as her lover on a more permanent basis.

Callimaco is happy because he gets to keep seeing Lucrezia. Lucrezia is happy because she has a nice new lover and has been told it’s not a sin. Nicia is happy because he will get his son and heir. Lucrezia’s mother is happy because she will have a grandchild. The priest is happy because he got a big bribe for taking part in a lie. Ligurio is happy everyone is pleased and that means he can get himself a free lunch whenever he wants.


04 15 leonardo de vinciOn this day in 1452 Leonardo da Vinci was born, in the town of Vinci in the Florentine Republic. I truly love Leonardo. He is a person for whom the term ‘Renaissance Man’ might have been invented. He was interested in painting, sculpture, architecture, invention, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography. With such a wide range of interests, he seems to have been easily distracted and rarely finished any of his projects. Even his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was with him until he died because he didn’t think it was finished.

His interests were so wide-ranging that I can’t possibly do justice to him in a single blog post. So I mainly want to talk about some of his lost projects and what he might have been like as a person. Of course, that’s going to make it rather hard to illustrate, but let’s see what happens…

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a wealthy legal notary called Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman called Caterina. He showed an early talent for art and his father sent him to study with an artist called Andrea del Verroccio in Florence. At some point his father was given a shield made by a local peasant. The man wanted Ser Piero to find someone in Florence to paint it for him. Ser Piero took the shield to his son. It was quite roughly made so Leonardo had it fixed up and made smooth, then started to think about something scary to paint on it. He collected together specimens of slow worms, lizards, crickets, snakes, moths, grasshoppers and bats. Then he devised a horrifying imaginary creature made up from bits of all of them. He painted it breathing fire and smoke. It was so terrifying and so good that his father never gave it back to the peasant. He bought him another with a heart pierced by an arrow on it and sold Leonardo’s shield to a Florentine merchant for a hundred ducats. The Duke of Milan later paid three hundred for it.

In 1482, he was sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to work for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He brought with him a letter detailing all his skills of building fortifications and siege 04 15 horseweapons. He also mentions, almost as an afterthought, that he also does painting and sculpture. Leonardo also brought his lyre with him. He played very well and had built the instrument himself out of silver, in the shape of a horse’s skull. He also designed floats for the Duke’s pageants and planned to build a huge equestrian monument in honour of Ludovico’s father, Francesco.  It would have been the biggest in the world and seventy tons of bronze were set aside for casting it. He worked on it on and off for sixteen years but unfortunately, when he had finished the life-size clay model, Michaelangelo rudely suggested that he wouldn’t be able to cast it. This put the Duke off and he gave away the bronze to make cannons instead. The cannons didn’t do the Duke much good though, as soon after he was overthrown by the French. They also destroyed Leonardo’s clay horse, their archers used it for target practice.

At the same time as he was working on the giant horse, Leonardo was also painting his famous ‘Last Supper’. This also took a very long time and the Prior who had commissioned him started to worry about it. He sent the Duke of Milan round to try and hurry him up a bit. Leonardo was having trouble with two of the faces. Jesus, because he couldn’t imagine anything holy enough, and also the face of Judas, because he couldn’t find a model who looked evil enough. Leonardo loved interesting faces, but more of that in a moment. He told the Duke that he was looking really hard for a suitable face for Judas, but if he couldn’t find one, he would just use the face of the Prior instead.
 04 15 last supper

I don’t think he was terribly fond of the Clergy in general. Once, at Easter, he was visited by a Priest who went round his studio sprinkling his paintings with Holy Water. Leonardo asked the priest why he’d done this. The priest replied that he was doing a good thing and that his actions would be rewarded a hundred times over in heaven. Leonardo watched from his window as the man left and threw a bucket of water down on him, shouting ‘There’s your gift from on high, you’ve ruined half my paintings.’

I’m very fond of  his drawings, So I thought, as we’re short on pictures of his lost works, I’d show you a couple of them. He’s so clearly fascinated by people and it seems that the more unusual looking they were, the more he liked them. An early biographer, Vasari, tells us that if he saw someone with an interesting face he would follow them around all day, observing them. Then he would go home and draw them. But his interest in people wasn’t only skin deep. Working with a doctor called Marcantonio della Torre, he made loads of very detailed anatomical drawings that would probably have been massively useful if he’d ever got around to finishing them and getting them published. He studied not only the skeleton and muscles, but also the internal organs. He was the first to draw a foetus in utero and he also made a glass model of the aorta which he filled with water and grass seed to watch how liquid flowed through it.

04 15 warrior04 15 portrait

Leonardo loved animals. He was a vegetarian, which was unusual at the time. Also he would buy caged birds in the market just so he could let them go. But in contrast to this, he also dissected animals, and he did some pretty strange things with them. He seems to have enjoyed filling them with air and flying them round like a balloon. His favourite trick was to get hold of some intestines from a sheep or a bullock. Wash them out, then invite his friends round. He showed them how small the intestines were. You could hold them in the palm of your hand. Then he would attach them to a pair of bellows and inflate them so that they filled the whole room. Everyone had to hide in the corners to get away from the ballooning innards.

I think my favourite story though, I like it even more than the Priest and the bucket of water, is about a lizard. He was at the Vatican working for Pope Leo X. A vine-dresser brought him an unusual looking lizard. Leonardo was delighted. He made it a pair of wings from the scales of other lizards and mercury. They trembled when the lizard walked around. He also gave it some false eyes, horns and a beard. Then he tamed it and kept it in a box. What he liked to do then was suddenly show it to people.

Black Widow

04 13 catherine de mediciToday is the birthday of Catherine de’ Medici, who was born in 1519 in Florence. Historically Catherine has had a terrible reputation as a ruthless poisoning witch. For centuries. it was thought that she killed her daughter’s future mother-in-law, Jeanne d’Albret, with poisoned gloves. But it turned out that she died of tuberculosis. But, also connected with her daughter’s wedding was a most dreadful massacre which frankly makes George R R Martin’s ‘Red Wedding’ look like a squabble at a picnic. As it probably wasn’t anything to do with Catherine and was not brilliant, I am side-stepping it today. Catherine was accused of practising magic and of bringing occultists to court. She did bring Nostradamus, but it’s really no worse that Queen Elizabeth I’s relationship with John Dee. She also brought the Ruggeri brothers who were notorious practitioners of black magic. On the other hand she is credited with introducing the French to the fork, ice cream and women’s underwear.

The Medici were a powerful family of bankers who ruled Florence. They had come by their wealth and power by bankrolling the monarchies of Europe. Her great uncle was the Pope, that’s how influential her family was. Two weeks after she was born, her mother died of a fever. A week after that, her father died of siphylis. She was raised by her grandmother and then an aunt. Then she spent time as a beloved and honoured guest of another Pope, Clement VII, who was also a relative.

In 1527, the Medici were overthrown, which left Catherine in a difficult position. She was hidden away in a convent, but for political reasons that I won’t go into, she wound up with a mob outside baying for her blood. They wanted her stripped naked, chained to the city walls and used for target practice. Catherine was then ten years old. When all that blew over, Pope Clement began to look for a husband for her. Catherine was rich but her family were no longer so well connected, so when Clement had the chance to marry her off to the second son of the King of France, he was delighted. So, at fourteen she was married to Henry, (also fourteen) the second son of Francis I.

The consummation of their marriage, on their wedding night, was witnessed by King Francis, which must have been awkward, and they were doubly blessed the following morning with a visit from the Pope Clement. Her marriage would be beset by problems. It didn’t really help that the Pope died, probably of poison, without ever paying her dowry.

The Medici’s weren’t terribly popular in France and were thought of, not without reason, to be a particularly ruthless family. When her father Lorenzo II became Duke of Urbino, someone wrote a book for him, a manual suggesting all the ways he should deal mercilessly with his enemies. The book was called ‘The Prince’ and its author was Niccolò Machiavelli. Italians generally’ were thought of as poisoners and Catherine’s dowry included a unicorn’s horn which was widely regarded as a powerful antidote. It was almost as if they expected trouble. Catherine didn’t really help her case much by bringing her Italian friend and perfumier, Renato Bianco, to court with her. He provided her with perfumed gloves which became quite popular. But he also set up Bianco’s Perfume, Cosmetics and Poison shop near Notre Dame.

Several people close to Catherine died in what were described as ‘mysterious circumstances’, most notably perhaps her husband Henry’s elder brother. He became ill after a tennis match and this left Henry as heir to the French throne. Catherine and Henry had no children for the first ten years of their marriage, which was obviously a problem for the future King of France. Needless to say, the blame fell on Catherine and she tried everything to provide an heir to the throne. She refused to ride a mule, because she believed that contact with an infertile animal might transmit it’s sterility to her. She tried charms and alchemy, she tried drinking the urine of pregnant animals. None of it worked and it didn’t do much for her reputation either. Eventually they found a doctor who realised that Henry’s oddly shaped genitals might be the problem and was able to offer them advice which proved helpful. Catherine eventually gave birth to ten children.

Catherine didn’t hold much power during Henry’s reign as he had a mistress who had a great deal more influence over him than his wife. Henry died after he was stabbed in the eye with a lance during a joust in 1559. Catherine wore black for the rest of her life and adopted the lance as her symbol. Following Henry’s death three of her sons would become Kings of France and then she became very much the power behind the throne. Her Eldest son, who was married to Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in 1559 but died after seventeen months. Her second son, Charles IX became king aged ten and cried at his coronation. She became regent on his behalf. Charles died at twenty-three leaving no male heir and was succeeded by Henry III, her favourite son, in 1574. She had a great deal of influence over him almost until her death in 1589.


03 22 virginia oldoini 1Since the invention of digital photography and social media it is not uncommon for people to amass hundreds of photos of themselves. In the nineteenth century, that was not so easy to achieve. Virginia Oldoini, the Countess da Castiglione managed to provide us with over 400 pictures of herself between 1856 and her death in 1899 and it is her birthday that I am celebrating today.

She was born in Florence in 1837 and was the daughter of a Tuscan marquis. At seventeen, she married an Italian Count, but it was not a happy marriage, she had numerous affairs and extravagantly spent all his money, eventually leaving him bankrupt. In 1856 the couple visited Paris and she was urged by her cousin to plead the case for the unification of Italy with Emperor Napoleon III. Italy was then, not a single nation but a collection of city states.  Her instructions were “succeed by any means you wish, but succeed.” She dazzled everyone at the French Court with her beauty. At a ball hosted by the Emperor, her entrance caused such a sensation that the even the orchestra stopped what they were doing to look at her. It wasn’t long before she became Napoleon’s mistress. The affair caused such a scandal that it led to her divorce.

03 22 virginia oldoini 4It was during her affair with Napoleon III that she first visited the studio of Mayer & Pierson and discovered the delights of photography. She was terribly self absorbed and narcissistic and probably quite annoying to know. The Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador, described her thus: “Wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph, and a complexion the colour of pink marble! In a word, Venus descended from Olympus!…after a few moments… she began to get on your nerves.” After her first portrait she went back again and again but she was no passive subject. She literally called the shots. With the help of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, she began to recreate moments from her life and the beautiful and sensational gowns she had worn. Then, she began to dress up as historical, mythical or fictional characters. In one photo she might be a courtesan, in another a nun. When her ex-husband tried to get custody of their only child, Giorgio, she 03 22 virginia oldoini 5sent him a photograph of herself dressed as Medea holding a dagger dripping with blood. She would choose costumes, props, even camera angles and directed the hand colouring of some of the pictures. She became totally obsessed with her own image, spending all her money and even getting into debt in the process. Virginia Oldoini enjoyed particularly using mirrors in her photographs. Even when she was capturing her image for posterity, she was looking at herself. Some of her later photographs have an almost surrealist quality. There are photographs that are of just her legs, which was not only unusual but quite shocking for the time. There is even a photograph of her, from the waist down, lying in a coffin.

03 22 virginia oldoini 2As she grew older she became reclusive, living in an apartment of rooms painted black. The blinds were kept drawn, there were now no mirrors and she only ventured out at night. This made her very mysterious and intriguing to a poet and dandy named Robert de Montesquiou. He loved the idea of a great beauty locked away in darkened rooms. He really wanted to meet her, but the Countess was then living a rather squalid existence and she declined to receive him. After she died in 1899, he claimed that he arrived at her funeral just in time to glimpse her face as the lid of her coffin was shut. When her possessions were disposed of, he bought her nightgowns and 433 of her photographs. He also composed her biography ‘La Divine Comtesse’. It is clear from her later photographs that she was mourning her fading beauty. Although her life long project was born of extreme narcissism the photographs are beautiful and it is a truly unique 19th century record of one woman’s life.

03 22 virginia oldoini 3


01 02 piero di cosimoToday is the birthday of Piero di Cosimo, an artist of the Renaissance who was born in Florence in 1462. He was a contemporary of da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Botticelli. Like any good Renaissance artist he painted religious subjects, portraits and mythological scenes but some of them are very odd. Take his painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a sea serpent. That’s Perseus flying in on the top right. There he is again on the back of the monster about to kill it. Andromeda is tied to a weird looking tree on the left. Then, in the bottom right, they are getting married. But look at that sea serpent. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined. The musical instruments are lovely too. Just what is that string and woodwind combination with a birds head on it. Is it real, or is it something he made up?

01 02 perseus and andromeda

He certainly had quite an imagination. We know a little bit of his life from Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ which was written in 1568. He tells us that: “He would sometimes stop to gaze at a wall against which sick people had been for a long time discharging their spittle, and from this he would picture to himself battles of horsemen, and the most fantastic cities and widest landscapes that were ever seen; and he did the same with the clouds in the sky.” Piero was clearly in a dream world of his own. It was hard to tell him anything, because he would drift off and stop listening. He didn’t like loud noises, was terrified of lightening and never let anyone sweep out his house. Neither would he let anyone tend his garden because he liked to see everything growing wild. He didn’t attend much to his diet either, but lived on eggs which he cooked, fifty at a time, whilst boiling glue.

01 02 the visitation

Of his religious paintings, I’ve decided to show you ‘The Visitation’ which shows Mary being visited by her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. It’s so full of detail. In this picture, you might be able to make out the Nativity on the left and the Massacre of the Innocents on the right. Bottom right, in the glasses, is Saint Anthony, on the left is Saint Nicholas. Can you see the three gold balls I mentioned when I talked about him last month? Actually, there’s a much better reproduction of this painting here, but it’s not mine to share. It belongs to the Washington Post. But if you take a look at it, you can see the detail of the reflections in the balls. If you’re in the mood for a game, can you also spot the Annunciation, the three kings and the Star of Bethlehem?

Of his more mythological subjects, it’s hard to decide which to choose. He painted a series of panels depicting scenes from primitive humanity, for his patron Francesco del Pugliese, that are truly barbaric and must have been quite difficult to live with. One hunting scene includes a man pulling a bear off a lion that is eating another bear. It’s carnage. Yet he truly seems to love painting animals. There are loads of them in his pictures. Did you see the pig in The Visitation? There is a great painting of the Satyr and Nymph with some really lovely dogs in it. And, in another, a beautiful rabbit frightening an infant Cupid.

01 02 hunting scene

There is at least one of his works that I can’t show you though. The citizens of Renaissance Florence really enjoyed a carnival and, on at least on occasion, Piero built a float for them. It was such an amazing thing that it was still remembered by old men when Vasari was writing about Piero forty-six years after the artist’s death. So luckily, even though we can’t look at it, we have a fine description. Vasari tells us that it was not remembered for it’s beauty but: “on account of a strange, horrible, and unexpected invention…”. It was an enormous carriage, drawn by buffalo. It was painted black and covered with white crosses and skeletons. On the top was a huge figure of death carrying a scythe. All around the sides were tombs. Every time the procession came to halt, there was a sound of muffled trumpets accompanied by low moaning. The tombs opened and figures disguised as skeletons came out and sang a mournful song. The carriage was accompanied by many more skeletons who were riding on the most emaciated horses that could be found in the city. The horses wore black caparisons (which are cloaks for horses, you can imagine what I mean) which were painted with white crosses. Each horse was accompanied by four grooms dressed ‘in the guise of death’ and carrying a black torch. They also carried black standards painted with crosses, bones and death’s heads. Piero received a great deal of praise for this spectacle, which was the cause of both marvel and fear in equal measure. He really set the standard for future carnivals. It’s such a shame there isn’t a visual record. The best I can do is ‘The Triumph of Death’ by Bruegel.

01 02 triumph of death bruegel