Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Tabernacle for the Sun

The poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, tells in her autobiography, of her first glimpse of the poet, Edwin Muir. He was sitting, off to one side, at a party, smoking, and gently talking to another guest in the quiet cadences of his native Orkney. She fled confronted by an image of grace and goodness that her then own carried self estimation could not bear.

There is a moment in Linda Proud's novel, 'A Tabernacle for the Sun' (the first of her wonderful Botticelli trilogy that I have just finished) when her central character, Tommaso dei Maffei, flees from a prospective encounter with the Renaissance philosopher and translator, Marsilio Ficino, with a similar fear disguising his innate goodness and taking him, temporarily as with Kathleen Raine, from a sphere of sustaining, revealing truth, embodied in a particular and receptive person.

This small episode is illustrative of much of the virtue of the book. It vignettes a psychological truth bound by a metaphysical one. We continually shy away from the sources of our own potential freedom, inwardly and outwardly, and it often appears that we do not want to be whole. Is this because our freedom is, in truth, so vast? Not simply bearing wellness but incarnating truth. Freedom is found both in a soul bearing the image of God as well as in a psyche capable of a harmonious, continual balancing of competing energies (or gods). No wonder it appears too arduous to bear.

The book weaves such invitations to thought within a compelling, richly sketched narrative whose attractions are of particular characters - Tommaso's journey from child to adult, Lorenzo dei Medici's rule over Florence - of history both cultural and political - the workshop of Sandro Botticelli and a corrupt Rome's struggle with a potentially more hopeful Florence over the 'unity' of Italy - and of plot Tommaso's coming of age against the background of an assassination plot against the Medici.

The book breathes the Renaissance - as cultural marker, as conflicted history, as renewing sign of hope.

Just as the Renaissance looked back on Greece as a source of remaking, so the book invites us to look at the Renaissance as a source of a renewing consideration. Here, amongst its finest, was a view of humankind that saw the necessity of building a balance between the quest for internal self-knowledge and for outer harmony and that saw that quest held in patterns of friendship, scholarship and common work that transcended institutions, that was carried by communities of interest and concern and was rooted in a shared philosophy that was focused enough to be animating yet capacious enough never to be dogmatic; namely, neo-Platonism, whose truths can only ever be fully known by being embodied in experience. It was a civilisation that had a divine source that danced into multiple possibilities - that contrived to be unified yet polytheistic. A world that was demanding yet tolerant.

This is beautifully evoked in a description of Tammaso encountering Botticelli's 'Primavera' (as it has become to be known). He encounters it at a moment of deep need and potential revelation that allows him to 'read' it recognising the polyvalence of its symbolism. What a painting means in the Renaissance is both what is there and what is in the reader's possibility of vision. That it should have multiple meanings is intentional for multiple are the possible pathways into a transformative vision of the one that creates all possibility. This is symbolism as divine play not as dogmatic sign reading!

Thus too can you enjoy the novel on many different levels from exemplary historical fiction to an invitation to contemplate ahistorical truths!


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