Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo.

If I had known how long Merezhkovsky’s novel Воскресшие боги. Леонардо да Винчи (Resurrected Gods: Leonardo da Vinci; text) was (over 800 pages in printed versions), I doubt I would have tackled it; I was under no illusions it was going to rival War and Peace in greatness. But Dmitry Bykov, one of my favorite writers on literature, was so enthusiastic about it in his lecture (part of his “100 years, 100 lectures” series) — he says it makes no sense to read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita without first having read Merezhkovsky! — that I decided to give it a try. And it starts off wonderfully, with an intimate portrait of the street where the dyers’ guild of Florence was based in 1494, the guild-master Cipriano Buonaccorsi in his office, and his employee Giovanni Beltraffio, a young student fascinated by the brilliant Leonardo he’s heard so much about, who is in town on a visit from Milan. We follow Giovanni on a secret nighttime excursion to a nearby hill where a statue is being excavated; pious Christians consider it an abomination of the devil and want to destroy it, but Cipriano, a connoisseur of the antiquity that is being dug up all over Italy (hence the Resurrected Gods of the title), wants to preserve it in his villa. The whole scene is captivating and makes you want to read more; after I finished the novel, I learned that it’s a callback to the end of Julian the Apostate (the first part of his Christ and Antichrist trilogy, of which Leonardo is the second), in which the statue is buried along with pagan antiquity, conquered by triumphant Christianity, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy it.

After that, however, we leave Giovanni (though he crops up throughout, torn between Leonardo, who has “one face towards Christ, one towards Antichrist,” and the Church) and Leonardo becomes the viewpoint character, and the novel turns for large stretches into the kind of novelized biography that is almost always a bore from the artistic viewpoint (the locus classicus in cinematic terms being Gandhi). The novelist has to plod through every major place and event of the protagonist’s life, and drags us along for the ride; in this case, we go from the ducal court of Milan to the peripatetic adventures of Cesare Borgia to the Vatican of Leo X to the Amboise of Francis I (and why do the Russians call French kings of that name Франциск rather than Франсуа?), and it all feels dutiful despite the author’s attempts to liven it up with local color and spiritual agonizings. The only author I know of who completely succeeds at this is Hilary Mantel (see this LH post), and I can’t wait to read her third and final Cromwell novel, due out this year.

There are, however, two breaks in the biographical slog that shake up and enliven the novel. The first is Book 4, Шабаш ведьм [The Witches’ Sabbath], in which two witches, the young Mona Cassandra and the old Mona Sedonia, strip off their clothes, smear themselves with ointment, mount brooms, and ride off across the Alps to a gleefully described gathering of witches. I have no idea how seriously Merezhkovsky expects us to take it, but it certainly makes for a change. (I suspect he may have gotten the idea to insert the characters from Aleksandr Kuprin’s 1898 novella Олеся [Olesya], in which the narrator falls for the witchy young Olesya, who lives with her witchy grandmother in a hut in the Polesye, in much the same way Giovanni falls for Cassandra.) And then there’s the utterly unexpected appearance, about a third of the way through, of Danilo Mamyrov, the envoy of the Grand Prince of Muscovy, who makes a scene at the duke of Milan’s banquet, demanding to be seated above the envoy of Venice. It seems like a one-off, a nod to the Russian readership (“See, it’s not all a bunch of Italians!”), but it pays off at the end of the novel, when the young icon painter Evtikhii Gagara, a member of the Muscovite embassy, finds himself in Amboise and sees Leonardo’s androgynous John the Baptist, which knocks him for a loop and makes him rebel against his traditionalist training, altering the icon of the Baptist (or the Forerunner, as he’s called in Russian) he’s been working on for years. He falls asleep and has a dream in which a woman in shining garments and fiery wings, Divine Wisdom, stands over the boundless expanse of Russia. Now, that’s a surprise ending!

Incidentally, a few years earlier Merezhkovsky wrote a short story, «Любовь сильнее смерти» (Love Is Stronger than Death, published in 1896) that was something of a practice run for the novel — it too is set in Renaissance Florence and includes a young sculptor who’s described somewhat like Leonardo (the sweet young Ginevra falls in love with him but is forced by her greedy uncle to marry a rich old scholar, and after the wedding she apparently dies when entering her new husband’s home, but wakes up in the tomb — all very Gothic/Hoffmannesque, in the style of the 1820s), and it exhibits in parvo one of the sins of the novel. Here’s a quote:

Фра Марьяно пустился бежать без оглядки через кладбище, через площадь Баптистерия Сан-Джованни, по улице Рикасоли — только деревянные сандалии, «цокколи» монаха стучали, отбивая дробь по обледенелой кирпичной мостовой.

Fra Mariano [the priest who was in the tomb and witnessed Ginevra’s apparent resurrection] started running, without a backward glance, across the piazza of the Baptistry of San Giovanni, along the via Ricasoli — only the monk’s wooden sandals, or zoccoli, pounded, drumming along the ice-covered brick roadway.

Talk about strangling the throat of your own song! He interrupts an exciting passage of frantic action to show off an Italian word he’s dug up in his researches (Merezhkovsky researched all his novels to a fare-thee-well). That sort of thing is everywhere in the novel, with bits of period vocabulary and culture sprinkled on like glitter — one of the many pitfalls Mantel avoids.

I’ll end with a couple of extended quotes from books that discuss Leonardo. First, from Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal’s Dmitri Sergeevich Merezhkovsky and the Silver Age: The Development of a Revolutionary Mentality, pp. 101-02:

The second volume, Leonardo da Vinci: Birth of the Gods (1900) deals with the return of Pagan themes and their eventual reconciliation by the Godman who incorporates them into a Christian setting. Emphasizing Leonardo’s Christianity, Merezhkovsky rebuked Leonardo’s contemporaries for considering him a heretic. Leonardo actually harmonized the “two principles,” the Pagan elements were subsumed in a Christian whole. From Christianity he derived some spiritual tranquility. The opposite of his passionate and tormented fellow artist Michelangelo, Leonardo’s “spirit” enabled him to soar above the world in serene contemplation; Michelangelo, ruled by the “flesh,” remained mired to the earth, a soul in torment. Leonardo’s plan for a flying machine indicates both the Christian desire for heaven and the Pagan desire for superhuman powers. His paintings also illustrate the harmonious combination of divergent elements, their detailed accuracy stems from the careful observation of one who loves the world, but the details themselves serve to recapture the “living spirit” of the subject. Prefiguring the Godman, Leonardo combined masculine and feminine elements, perfect love and perfect knowledge, strength and compassion, daring and humility, sensuality and intellect, idealism and practicality, art and science, love of beauty and spiritual yearning.

And yet, Merezhkovsky realized, Leonardo was troubled. His Christianity was not consistent; he wavered between the Christian ideals of meekness and humility and the pagan ideals of sensuality and personal freedom. Both his art and his life mirrored the dichotomies of the world around him; the Renaissance synthesis, which revived the amoral pagan gods, was not completely successful. Leonardo himself never solved the “mystery of the flesh”; thus he was unable to love and full happiness eluded him. He left no spiritual testament to his successors. Indeed, one of his disciples, Giovanni Boltraffio, a devout Catholic, dies from the embraces of a White “She-Devil,” an incarnation of Merezhkovsky’s beloved Aphrodite, but also a succuba (a female demon fabled to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep).

Merezhkovsky’s inclusion of the succuba was not just for aesthetic effect; it was a remnant of his Nietzschean desire to go “beyond good and evil.” […]

Returning to Leonardo, the work mirrored Merezhkovsky’s hope that the Renaissance would provide a model for the combination of Christianity and Paganism. He then believed that the Renaissance man was the precursor of the Godman. If the superman is Christian, all will be well; he will be able to love. Leonardo was premature; the world was not yet ready for his message and he himself had not worked out all its ramifications. Each component of the dialectic needed further development before they could be reconciled. Leonardo was the prophet of the new religion, but not its fulfillment. Furthermore, he was too detached from his fellow men to affect their thinking. Raphael, whose paintings epitomize the fusion of spiritual and sensual love, was actually closer to the new ideal than Leonardo.

The novel itself was overlong, quite dull, tendentious, and its characters wooden. But its attempt to posit a new hero made it an international success. Merezhkovsky brought the Italian Renaissance to the consciousness of Russians.

(I wasn’t thrilled by the novel, but “overlong, quite dull, tendentious, and its characters wooden” is way over the top!) The second is from the introduction to Leonardo da Vinci: The Resurrection of the Gods, translated by Ignat Avsey, pp. v-vi:

We see Leonardo branded as a heretic, a godless corrupter of souls, the Antichrist, and the very Devil himself. His personal tragedy becomes evident from the first time we meet him. He is dispassionate, cold, scholastically inquisitive; calculating in the sense of being rational – and weighed down by loneliness. His interest in science and art is all-embracing, and that somehow is an alienating factor that sets him apart from people. In Niccolò Machiavelli alone is he able to find a kindred soul and a worthy enough intellectual companion.

Leonardo is tireless in his multitudinous pursuits, but as time passes and he watches his great contemporaries, notably Michelangelo and Raphael, go from strength to strength, he begins to see himself more and more like a sad failure: La Gioconda unfinished (in his estimation), his overall body of work small; his most ambitious sculpture — The Colossus of Francesco Sforza — shot to pieces by French soldiers in target practice (Louis XII had entered Italy in 1499); The Last Supper under threat from rising damp; The Battle of Anghiari likewise doomed; his prized flying machine grounded; his anatomical research unproductive.

That reminds me to mention that the portrait of Machiavelli is one of the best things in the novel; it’s utterly convincing, and I’ll never be able to separate it from my historical understanding of him.

Incidentally, I haven’t read either translation, and maybe Avsey is an improvement on ‎Herbert Trench’s 1902 version (“This translation is direct from the Russian, and is the only one in the English language which is or will be authorised by the Author”), but he screws up the very first sentence:

Во Флоренции, рядом с каноникой Орсанмикеле, находились товарные склады цеха красильщиков.

In Florence the warehouses of the dyers’ guild stood hard up against the church of Orsanmichele.

No, no, no! The каноника — not a Russian word, but a cyrillicization of Italian canonica — is not a church but a presbytery or manse, and the canonica of Orsanmichele is now known as the Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, to the west of Orsanmichele itself. Trench got this one right: “In Florence the guild of dyers had their shops hard by the Canonica of Orsanmichele.” Translation is hard; you have to do your homework!

Comments

  1. Ooh, ooh! But I won’t read any reviews — spoilers!

  2. He’s been dead for, what, nearly five-hundred years? Yeah, but you’re right.

    I’m ordering it.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    and why do the Russians call French kings of that name Франциск rather than Франсуа?

    We still call them Franz in German. And the others Ludwig.

    I think the oldest monarch not to get some stab at translation was Juan Carlos.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Why do the English call French kings of that name Francis?

    … and we follow the Germans, more or (usually) less: Frans and Ludvig. English kings are named Karl, Henrik, Georg and Johan. The current pope is a Frans. The previous two were Johannes Paul (rather than Johan Paul or Jon Pål).

  5. One can see why this might be important background reading for The Master and Margarita. There is not merely the portrait of an important historical figure, but the way the witches “strip off their clothes, smear themselves with ointment, mount brooms, and ride off” sounds awfully familiar—to the extent that the scene where the male Soviet bureaucrat gets smeared with the same ointment and so turned into a pig might be a specific parody of Merezhkovsky (unless witches using ointment is a standard Russian trope).

  6. Yes, there’s that, and the Master being modeled after Leonardo.

  7. …into the kind of novelized biography

    In movies, its biopic, in letters should we call it bionov?

    and why do the Russians call French kings of that name Франциск

    Russians use Latinized or Germanized names for the kings, Wilhelm for William etc. I had a chance to comment on these pages that two adversaries G. Washington and G. III are known in Russian as Джордж and Георг. I wait with anticipation for Charles III to assume the throne to see whether he will turn from Чарльз to Карл (I mean, long may she reign, I am just curious).

    «цокколи»

    It might be just an example of a pointless embellishment, but it’s fun for a Russian reader. цокать means “pound[..], drum[..] along the ice-covered brick roadway”, it’s a regular word used for a sound of horse shoes on pavement.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    unless witches using ointment is a standard Russian trope

    It’s much more widespread than that, but not very common anywhere.

    Charles III

    Rumor has it the name is so skunked he’ll pick another upon accession. I forgot if it’s supposed to be George again.

  9. Bathrobe says:

    after I finished the novel, I learned that it’s a callback to the end of Julian the Apostate (the first part of his Christ and Antichrist trilogy, of which Leonardo is the second), in which the statue is buried along with pagan antiquity, conquered by triumphant Christianity

    When I was young I had an even younger Japanese girlfriend. She once said to me: What’s so great about Western civilisation? We all know that it’s just a mixture of Hellenism and Judaism*.

    Er…

    * Perhaps it was Hebraism or something the sort.

  10. It might be just an example of a pointless embellishment, but it’s fun for a Russian reader. цокать means “pound[..], drum[..] along the ice-covered brick roadway”, it’s a regular word used for a sound of horse shoes on pavement.

    Good point; I’ll lessen his demerit for that one.

  11. AJP Crown says:

    I forgot if it’s supposed to be George again.
    Although there have been more Edwards – eight so far. I’d go for John, there’s only been one, or something fun like Louis-Armstrong or Eileen-Mohammed to probe the legal envelope.

  12. Rodger C says:

    Bathrobe: “Hellenism and Hebraism” suggests she might have been reading Matthew Arnold.

  13. @Brett: “…the way the witches “strip off their clothes, smear themselves with ointment, mount brooms, and ride off” sounds awfully familiar…”

    It’s a common image from European witch-hunting literature and visual arts. Bulgakov may have found out about it via Merezhkovsky’s novels but it is also possible they both drew from the same sources.

  14. @AJP Crown: There’s no chance Charles chooses John. The British monarchs always choose one of their lifelong given names as their regnal names; for the current heir apparent, that means Charles, Philip, Arthur, or George. Moreover, Charles actually vetoed John as a name for Prince William. Diana wanted to name their son that, after her own father, but Charles objected—as the name is considered ill-favored in the British royal family. Besides the generally poor reputation of King John, there is the sad case of John, the youngest son of George V, who was severely disabled and died of an epileptic seizure at the age of 13. Since his death in 1919, the name has been out of circulation among the Windsors.

  15. PlasticPaddy says:

    @alex, brett

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_ointment

    Francis Bacon (attributed as “Lord Verulam”) listed the ingredients of the witches ointment as “the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat.”

    Don’t try to make this one at home…

  16. Well, unless you happen to have some smallage lying around and don’t want it to go to waste.

  17. Huh, smallage (“Any of several kinds of celery or parsley; esp. wild celery, Apium graveolens, formerly used medicinally and to flavour food”) is small + ache: “Compare Anglo-Norman smalache (14th cent.), post-classical Latin smalagium (14th cent.), both < English” (OED).

  18. 1900 E. Spencer Cakes & Ale xi. 129 Celery is simply cultivated ‘smallage’; a weed which has existed in Britain since the age of ice.
    1945 Folklore 56 354 Smallage (Apium graveolens) was an important constituent [of herb gruels].
    2001 D. Farland Wizardborn 313 For long minutes he extolled the virtues of goosegrass and feverfew, elder flowers and smallage.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    Children’s fat and meal of fine wheat are available in bulk, and any old witch can put together a simple and effective ointment in minutes. It’s the juices of herbs that make the difference to the connoisseur.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    “Hellenism and Hebraism” suggests she might have been reading Matthew Arnold.

    Very doubtful. Although she might have been influenced by a teacher (or some kind of book) that was influenced by someone who’d got that trope from Matthew Arnold second, third, fourth, or fifth hand.

  21. John Cowan says:

    The Prince of Wales’s PR machine has declined to say what royal name he will assume. George is nothing more than a guess.

    Of course, Charles might resign in favor of the Duke of Cambridge, whose names are William Arthur Philip Louis; I think it unlikely he would choose anything except William V, given the implications of Arthur and the foreignness of Philip and Louis. He might even need to be Philip II, on the assumption that Mary I’s husband, the future Philip II of Spain was Philip I in England.

    While at Sagana Lodge in Kenya, the Queen was asked in what name she would reign, and replied “My own, of course”. This suggests that she could have chosen not only Alexandra or Mary III, but any name whatsoever, as popes do.

  22. @John Cowan: To understand what Elizabeth meant by that, I think we would need to have an understanding of how she felt about her other baptismal names. For some people, middle names are a part of their core identity, but for others, a middle name functions more like an adjunct or alternative to the principal name. If somebody calls me “David,” my natural internal response is, That’s not my name, not They are calling me by the wrong one of my names.

  23. Our late friend thegrowlingwolf was born David Michael Greene but changed it to Michael David Greene when he moved to NYC, and he was perfectly comfortable with Texans who knew him when calling him David and New Yorkers calling him Michael. (He also said “All Greenes are kin.”)

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Our late friend thegrowlingwolf

    You misspelled fiend. 🙂

    the implications of Arthur

    What are those? Letting go of Northern Ireland and Scotland to be King of Just the Britons?

  25. AJP Crown says:

    I didn’t know about Brett’s rule, but I think they need a fresh, unused name so they don’t get in fights with the Scots about which number he is. King Brett I would be ok. No baggage there and one syllable is cool after El-iz-a-beth, it fits easily on coins: B R E T T R. “Things go better with Brett R.” They only need a name in order to put something on the coins & banknotes really. Otherwise it’s just ‘the queen’; like ‘the pope’, ‘kongen’ or ‘the president’. Rex would be a good name except Rex Rex sounds too much like a dog.

  26. John Cowan says:

    What are those? Letting go of Northern Ireland and Scotland to be King of Just the Britons?

    If that were the case, he’d have to let go of England too. Arthur was a British dux bellorum: that is, Welsh. He was neither English, French, nor Sicilian (where there are Arthur legends too, carried there by the Normans of the South).

    But what I meant is that to call yourself “King Arthur” is to lay implicit claim to a heroism you are unlikely to possess.

    For some people, middle names are a part of their core identity

    I don’t think the notion “middle name” fits the British royals: they just have a succession of personal names. Looking at just the Hanoverian succession, we find:

    George Louis => George I
    George Augustus => George II
    George William Frederick => George III
    George Augustus Frederick => George IV
    William Henry = > William IV
    Alexandrina Victoria => Victoria
    Albert Edward => Edward VII
    George Frederick Ernest Albert => George V
    Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David => Edward VIII
    Albert Frederick Arthur George => George VI
    Elizabeth Alexandra Mary => Elizabeth II

    So the regnal name may be any personal name up to and including the fourth. It is definitely not aligned with the familiar name: Victoria was called Drina and George V was called Albert. Elizabeth was called Elizabeth, which is surely what she meant by “my own name”.

    My younger grandson is Luca Avgust in English and Luca Avgustovich in Russian, a convenient consilience. His father is Avgust Michael officially in English (he has no usable patronymic in Russian), and is called Avgust by us (who have known him since childhood) and Mike by most people.

  27. Only today it occurred to me how odd is the avoidance of name John in the British royal family. They got over acquisition and loss of (half the) France, acquisition and loss of the Empire, membership and exit from the EU, union and dissolution with Scotland (oops, haven’t happened (yet)), but cannot get over Magna Carta

  28. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I think the usual practice is to baptize heirs apparent (and further generations) with some reasonable regnal name as the first, and the rest of the lot get backup regnal names as second or later names for when life goes and screws things up. We (Denmark) have a Crown Prince Frederik with an oldest son Christian, but all the other members of the Royal House who were in the top four or so of the succession at birth have Frederik, Christian or Margrethe as well — Isabella Henrietta Ingrid Margrethe (3), Vincent Frederik Minik Alexander (4), Joachim Holger Waldemar Christian (6 but 3 at birth), Nikolai William Alexander Frederik (7 but 3 at birth), Felix Henrik Valdemar Christian (8 but 4 at birth).

    But that doesn’t always work when monarchs get adopted. Christian Frederik Carl Georg Valdemar Axel of Denmark (not to be conflated with his older brother Christian Carl Frederik Albert Alexander Vilhelm) became King Haakon VII of Norway in 1915, and in 1862 Christian William Ferdinand Adolf George (younger brother of Christian Frederik Vilhelm Carl, the later Frederik VIII) became Γεώργιος Α΄ of Greece.

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