Vasari, The SIege of Florence (ca. 1555)

Vasari, The Siege of Florence (ca. 1555)


I decided to read Transmetropolitan, even though it required a significant investment of time and money. It’s a political story, basically: the city as the center of politics, of power, of corruption, and of resistance to corruption. Spider Jerusalem fights the good fight against politcal evil and in the end wins — as much as one can win in such a contest; all political victories are relative, contingent, and temporary — but at the cost of his health. A broken man, at least apparently, he returns to his mountain cabin and devotes much of his time to growing vegetables. Visiting him there, his old editor Mitchell Royce says, “So this is it? You’re going to stay up a mountain for the rest of your life growing shit like a hillbilly?”

“I know you,” he continues. “You can’t stay away, weirdo brain-wrong or no. You couldn’t last time, and you won’t this time. You’ll be back.” Looking back at the first issue, I think that that doesn’t seem to be true: Spider wanted to stay away from the city, but was forced back. But who knows? Perhaps he was glad to have the excuse. He certainly readjusts to city life immediately. And the last panels of that concluding comic suggest that he will indeed be back, that as long as the City calls him he’ll answer. And it’s not like anyone in his right mind would want to live on a mountain for the rest of his life growing shit like a hillbilly.

When Niccolò Machiavelli was exiled from Florence by the Medici, he moved to the countryside. In a famous letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, he wrote,

And what my life is like, I will tell you. I get up in the morning with the sun and go to a wood of mine that I am having cut down, where I stay for two hours to look over the work of the past day, and to pass time with the wood­cutters, who always have some disaster on their hands either among themselves or with their neighbors. And regarding this wood I would have a thousand beautiful things to tell you of what happened to me with Frosino da Panzano and others who want wood from it. And Frosino in particular sent for a number of loads without telling me anything, and on payment wanted to hold back ten lire from me, which he said he should have had from me four years ago when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini’s. I began to raise the devil and was on the point of accusing the driver who had gone for it of theft; but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and brought us to agree.

Later in the day, he says, he would get into similar scrapes at the local inn. “Thus involved with these vermin I scrape the mold off my brain and I satisfy the malignity of this fate of mine, as I am content to be trampled on this path so as to see if she will be ashamed of it.”

And yet. There’s something else to be told about this life of rural exile, so far from the heart of things in Florence.

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them.

Such reading, and not the exercise of political power, is “the food that alone is mine and that I was born for.” This letter is like a little holographic card: tilt it one way and every word testifies to the emptiness of life outside the city; tilt it another and Machiavelli’s exile looks like a felix culpa, a fortunate fall. Maybe Machiavelli’s experience is the mirror image of Spider Jerusalem’s: he was forced out of the city, as Spider was forced into it, but came to see that what he had not chosen was precisely what he needed.