Provocative, anachronistic, Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre paints the Renaissance artist as never before
PUBLISHED: 11:03 16 October 2019
Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill imagines an alternative queer history that suggests why the Birth of Venus artist might have thrown his own work on the Bonfire of The Vanities
Why might Renaissance genius Sandro Botticelli willingly toss his paintings into Florence's infamous Bonfire of the Vanities?
That was the springboard for Jordan Tannahill's Botticelli in the Fire, which plays fast and loose with both history and 15th century vernacular in a deliberately anachronistic queering of the era.
Played by actor and performance artist Dickie Beau, Botticelli returns from the dead to the early 1480s when he was painting The Birth of Venus. He scandalises Florentine society by painting his patron Lorenzo de Medici's wife nude and falling in love with pupil Leonardo da Vinci.
Neither actually happened, but the Canadian playwright, who lives in Islington, says that's not the point.
"I was struck by a footnote in a text book that in 1497 Botticelli participated in the Bonfire of the Vanities and seemingly willingly offered up a number of his masterpieces to the fire. What would compel someone to do this?"
The 31-year-old's alternative history makes a "fictive link" between Botticelli's late life conversion to Franciscan friar Savanorola's firebrand Christianity and an accusation of sodomy - imagining how a queer man might survive at a time of political upheaval.
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"A few years earlier he and his contemporaries including Leonardo da Vinci been accused of sodomy, which at the time drew harsh reprisals including punishment of death. What it relevant to me is excavating buried queer narratives, imagining what queer men had to do to navigate through history, to make compromises and deals with the devil as it were. It's ostensibly set in the Renaissance, with wildly contemporary anachronisms sprinkled throughout and liberties taken to create an emotional distance between us and them, to show how these narratives are cyclical through history, with echoes of this story in our present."
In Savanorola's burning of sinful art and books, Tannahill sees echoes of contemporary populism and the rise of the Christian right.
"There's a great Mark Twain quote that history doesn't repeat but it does rhyme. The rise of Savanorola was a kind of populist backlash to a liberal opening up under the Medici and the Renaissance. It felt like a trenchant parable for our time with echoes in a disaffected working class rising up against what they percieve to be a corrupt liberal elite and the way in which the other - in this case sodomists - are scapegoated to various political ends."
Tannahill who is fascinated by Trumpian neo-Fascism and its "profound amorality and aspirituality" has taken to activism as well as writing and says the two are "mutually self informing". In April he took part in direct action outside the Brunei-owned Dorchester Hotel against the country's strict laws on gay sex, and was arrested on Waterloo Bridge for joining the Extinction Rebellion protest.
"We recorded actions that went viral and for a Millennial, who grew up seeing the lack of impact the Iraq War protests had on public policy, it was heartening and inspiring to see the impact that it had. The Sultan did back down and it is exciting to see a sea change in consciousness prompted by climate change with citizens using their voice.
He points to "art's historic relationship with protest, great works that have created a catalyst for major social change and been censored because of it" and says making art that is reflexive is "an important conduit in my life."
That said, after three hours in a police van, 15 in a cell, then Police questioning, he was glad he was released without charge.
"I'm grateful there is no public appetetite to convict 1500 people as it would limit my ability to travel to the US. It's funny how the mechanisms of establishment really curb your capacity and enthusiasm for protest."
Botticelli In The Fire Runs at Hampstead Theatre from October 18 to November 23. Hampsteadtheatre.com
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