Why a historian of Florence says #SaveHannibal

Well, I didn’t expect to be launching a new blog with a plea to save a favourite TV show, but there you go. I’d been writing something else about the history behind NBC’s Hannibal and its characters’ trip to Florence – and then NBC announced they were cancelling the show. I was not impressed.

It’s not often, as a historian, that I find a show on TV that does something really fun and creative with the history of its setting. This one’s an exception. To date Bryan Fuller’s TV spin on the characters from Thomas Harris’ books has given viewers a visually-stunning back-story to the first novel in the series, Red Dragon. As Season Three opens, popular culture’s favourite cannibal Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is on the run to Italy with his former psychiatrist Dr Bedelia DuMaurier (Gillian Anderson). His cover has been blown with the bloody finale to Season Two.

But Florence is not only a glamorous setting for a killer on the run. Hannibal is all about the co-existence of civilisation and evil. The series plays with the city’s historic reputation as a place of both beauty and bloodshed, where aesthetics outweigh ethics.

It’s an image of Renaissance Italy that was famously summed up by Orson Welles, improvising on the set of The Third Man:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

In Hannibal, talk quickly turns to Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), one of the most important Italian poets of his age. Dante is most famous for his Divine Comedy, an account of his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Inferno, the first part of this work, is the source of more than one conceit in the series.

In what is known as the contrapasso, the punishment for sinners in Dante’s Hell often fits the crime. Schismatics, for example, find their bodies split open. Mason Verger, who in the second season schemed to feed people to his pigs, found himself feeding his own face to Will Graham’s dogs. He endured a Dantesque penalty.

In the Season Three opener, Dr Lecter puts down a critic by quoting the first sonnet from Dante’s Vita Nuova, with its striking image of a woman eating her lover’s heart. He goes on to lecture on the seventh circle of Dante’s Hell, home to suicides, and makes a throwaway reference to “chewing” elsewhere in the poem.

This is a nod to the punishment for traitors. In the final circle of Hell Satan has got his teeth into Brutus and Cassius (the assassins of Julius Caesar) and, of course, Judas. The same image appears in the spectacular mosaic ceiling of Florence’s Baptistery. “You really are the Devil,” says Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) to Hannibal, as the latter dishes up Gideon’s leg. He has a point.

Before Dante gets to that final circle, he hears the long and gruesome tale of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, betrayer of Pisa to its enemies, who has been condemned to eat the back of his co-conspirator’s head ‘like a dog’. The Count was imprisoned with his own children, who pleaded with their father to save himself by eating them. Whether he did so or not, Dante leaves to the reader’s imagination.

Another Florentine historical reference to watch out for is the Pazzi conspiracy. Featured in Season Three of Hannibal is Italian police inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, whose name is no accident. The historical Pazzi were rivals of the Medici, Florence’s leading family. In 1478 they led a conspiracy to murder Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ and Giuliano de’ Medici at Mass in the city’s cathedral. The former escaped; the latter did not.

The conspirators were strung up from the Palazzo Vecchio. According to a famous account by scholar and poet Poliziano, as they struggled at the end of their ropes, one of them, Archbishop Francesco Salviati, sunk his teeth into the body of another, Francesco de’ Pazzi. The Pazzi reference sets up a parallel between Lorenzo, the celebrated Renaissance man, famed for his patronage of art and letters, and our anti-hero with his equally exquisite taste. (There’s another in-joke here: Lorenzo’s wife was called Clarice.)

You might have spotted by now that the most famous line of the Hannibal canon, memorably performed by Anthony Hopkins in the film Silence of the Lambs, alludes to two Florentine specialties: fava beans and Chianti.

The history of Florence – and the city as metaphor – has plenty still to offer today’s writers and film-makers. I really hope someone decides to #SaveHannibal and gives us a chance to see more.

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One thought on “Why a historian of Florence says #SaveHannibal

  1. This may be a question for a Dante scholar, but I’ve read that Dante put Pietro della Vigne with the suicides rather than traitors because Dante thought he was falsely accused. Hannibal claims he was a traitor and points out the connection to hanging (supposedly Pietro bashed his own head in once imprisoned, but hangs from a branch in Inferno). Do you know what the consensus on Pietro is, either by historians or Dante scholars?

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