Brunelleschi’s Balancing Act

image of the duomo in sunlight. The story goes that one day Filippo Brunelleschi, the goldsmith who would go on to become the most important architect in Europe and arguably the originator of the Renaissance, devises a practical joke he and his buddies play on their mutual friend, Manetto the woodworker. The gist of it is that they contrive to convince Manetto that he is not himself but another man named Matteo.

The prank works by having everyone in Manetto’s social sphere suddenly refer to him and treat him as Matteo. He is even arrested and sent to jail for several nights for debts owed by Matteo. Brunelleschi manages the deception so well that, apparently, Manetto eventually answers to Matteo, though perhaps not entirely happy with adopting this new identity.

Eventually Filippo and company drug “Matteo,” bring him back to his home, and then begin calling him Manetto again as if nothing happened. Manetto, perplexed beyond imagination, decides he dreamed the whole thing.

It’s not clear if anyone ever explained the joke to Manetto, though it’s unlikely Brunelleschi would have. He liked his secrets.

He also protected the secret of perspective painting, which he developed decades before anyone else figured it out. His apparent insight encapsulates the central impulse of the Renaissance: to look with human, not divine, sight.

We don’t know whether a lot of the stories about Brunelleschi are true. Did he really win the competition to design the cupola in Florence by standing an egg on end? Did he really fake an illness in order to make his rival, Ghiberti, look incompetent? [Read more…]

Canada: Detroit’s Southerly Neighbor

Detroit RiverDetroit is the only major city in America, people will tell you (even if you haven’t asked), where you drive south to get to Canada. The southerly orientation of our otherwise-northern neighbor is due to an odd strip of Canada that squeezes in between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. That strip extends all the way to the outskirts of the Motor City. There, just across the Detroit River, is the city of Windsor, which is located in Ontario, which is a province of Canada.

You can stand at the bottom end of Belle Isle—a Detroit city park on a small island connected to the rest of the city by a bridge—and observe, if you are so inclined, the goings-on in Canada just a stone’s throw away. (You are not encouraged, however, actually to throw stones.) That man jogging along the path just across the water there? He’s a Canadian.

Why is it so striking, this Canadian proximity? One answer is that we’re in Detroit, and Detroit, more even than other American cities, seems to be so very much an American city. Perhaps this is because of Motown, that most American of American Pop music. Perhaps it is because of cars, American cars: General Motors, Chrysler, Ford. [Read more…]

Prime Time Secrets

Recently I completed work on the first season of The Americans, a new FX drama about Soviet spies posing as D.C. suburbanites in the Cold War heyday of early 1980s America. My prior job was on Boss, about a ruthless Chicago mayor desperate to hide and survive at any cost an equally ruthless degenerative disease.

Loath as I often am to watch TV at night after a day spent creating it, I am hooked enough on Breaking Bad that ahead of its final chapter this summer I’m catching up on back seasons of the saga about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who puts his lab skills to use in the crystal meth business to secure the financial future of his family.

But I’m way behind on Mad Men, about a 1960s ad exec whose primary marketing campaign consists of maintaining his fabricated identity.

What gives with all the secrets that form a kind of landscaping in prime-time television? [Read more…]