by Kirsten Bowen, Woolly Mammoth Literary Director & Botticelli in the Fire Production Dramaturg
In February 1497, Florence was burning as followers of conservative Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola created a massive sixty-foot, seven-story pile of luxuries — heretical and immoral books, nude paintings, musical instruments, perfumes, and baubles — and lit them on fire. This “Bonfire of the Vanities” may have also contained artwork by the painter Sandro Botticelli. Why did Botticelli participate? And why did he save his most famous and notorious painting, The Birth of Venus?
Answers to these questions are posited by Jordan Tannahill in Botticelli in the Fire, which (though inspired by real people) is a historical re-imagining that has as much to say about our world today as five hundred years ago. Tannahill first wrote the play as a companion piece to another play, Sunday in Sodom, which was a contemporary update of the story of Lot’s Wife, answering another ancient mystery of why she turned around. Toronto’s Canadian Stage premiered both pieces on the same bill in 2016. Tannahill’s initial inspiration for both plays was to present them from the points of view of those who have been typically left out of the story. He is interested in these “alternate histories” from a different, up-until-now untold perspective. In the case of Botticelli in the Fire, Tannahill re-examines history from a queer lens. “What are the narratives that have been buried through time and silenced?” he has asked. “I’m interested in excavating those or queering existing narratives.”
In their 2005 essay “Queering History,” Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon write, “In opposition to a historicism that proposes to know the definitive difference between the past and the present, we venture that queering requires what we might term ‘unhistoricism.’ Far from being ahistorical — or somehow outside history — unhistoricism would acknowledge that history as it is hegemonically understood today is inadequate to housing the project of queering… To queer the Renaissance would thus mean not only looking for alternative sexualities in the past but also challenging the methodological orthodoxy by which past and present are constrained and straitened; it would mean resisting the strictures of knowability itself…” In other words, to queer history opens up not only the parameters of sexual identity, but how we see and understand history itself.
According to Tannahill, “For me, queerness is about taking a kind of sense of power and ownership over being on the periphery. It’s a joyous, kind of radical space in which to dismantle and question the status quo.” Tannahill’s history of Sandro Botticelli presents him as a queer artist and celebrity whose appetite for life and art know no bounds, even as he and his community are threatened by a deadly plague and persecution as “sodomites.” To tell this story, Tannahill has accelerated and smashed together historical events, and brought together historical figures in new and invented contexts. This version has Botticelli himself greeting us from beyond the grave to tell us the story of his downfall. He begins with the commissioning of The Birth of Venus by his patron Lorenzo de Medici, his relationship with his assistant Leonardo Da Vinci, and the rise of Savonarola, who is determined to bring the powerful and decadent of Florence to their knees, including the artists they support.
Tannahill’s re-telling does not stop with altering the historic record, but brings that history in closer conversation with the present. Characters speak in casual, contemporary vernacular, and anachronisms abound, from cell phones to limousines. Thus early Renaissance Florence — a city of wealth and opportunity for many (but not all), on the precipice of great change, divided between progressive humanism and a desire to embrace conservative, faith-based ideals — bears a remarkable resemblance to our own world. “I’m really interested in the ways in which very old stories can play upon the contemporary condition,” he says. Questions that Tannahill asks in the play that link fifteenth-century Florence to the twenty-first century include:
Why have pleasure and sexuality been so readily scapegoated for political ends in both these times? How does a seemingly progressive, liberal society allow a demagogue to rise to power? What is the artist’s obligation to their community vs. their art? If called to sacrifice, which is of greater value — our art or our people?
Tannahill’s own path as an artist has been one of questioning the status quo and often working outside of the box of traditional theatre. Between 2008 and 2016, he wrote and directed plays with his own Toronto-based theatre company, Suburban Beast, which staged work in theatres, galleries, found spaces, and in collaboration with non-professional theatre performers, such as night-shift workers and pre-teenagers. From 2012–2016 he ran the alternative art space Videofag out of his own home in Toronto, which became one of the most influential places for avant-garde and queer theatre. His 2015 book Theatre of the Unimpressed is a cri de coeur for a theatre in service to the transformative live event, predicated on artistic risk and unafraid of the possibility of failure.
Like its author, Botticelli in the Fire lives outside the norm of the traditional. Neither historical or contemporary, the play exists across time, asking age-old questions of sexuality, politics, class, and love that will continue to vex artists and their audiences long into the next millennium.