This weekend I rewatched the first two seasons of Hannibal and, wow, y’all, have I got a lot to say about this show. For my regular readers: I’m not a Fannibal or Hannibal blogger™, I swear. I just have problems with impulse control when I encounter a piece of media with so many complex layers and an inherent queerness. Don’t expect fancy, or even basic editing, but do expect lots and lots of feelings about history, poetry, and love.
TL;DR: Buckle up nerds, Rae’s gonna talk about Renaissance Italian romantic tropes and Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Spoiler alert: this is incredibly gay.
Back in 2008 the Metropolitan Museum of Art put out a book called Art and Love in Renaissance Italy; it’s edited by a lady named Andrea Bayer and you can get it for free online. This is more or less my only source for this analysis because I trust museum curators and experts in the field, even when they’ve been compiled for a single exhibition, more than Wikipedia. It’s a pretty good book, all things considered. It’s a little academic (read: dry) but the language is accessible, which y’all know I value above all else, and the art included with the text is stunning. The depth with which romantic love of all stripes is discussed is satisfying and, I think, gives a thorough survey of how Italians related to that sort of thing without becoming bogged down in the details. I highly recommend it as a starting point for your own research. Anyway.
In the Renaissance, love and romance was a big deal. Especially for Italians. Marriages were the ideal time to show off how much wealth one could wear and could last for days in merrymaking and draw crowds that would necessitate the leveling of homes to widen streets. Courtship was a dangerous road, though– at least metaphorically speaking– so of course it had a huge payoff.
The art of the time was concerned heavily with walking the fine line between celestial and vulgar expressions of love; the sacred and the profane; the cerebral and the bodily. Love affairs and courtship were “primarily intellectual exercises that enjoyed great favor among the elite and educated young men” (Art 29) and women were typically the objects of their focus. Love was known to be dangerous and it was widely understood that “the beloved’s gaze wounds the heart of the lover” (Art 89); so a woman merely returning an affectionate look to her suitor risked killing him. This idea permeates all manner of Renaissance lyrical and poetic composition. Returning affection to the lover wounded him but meeting him with indifference was worthy of nothing less than divine punishment. In the popular novel, The Strife of Love in a Dream of Poliphilo, the title character, Poliphilo, is madly in love with a young woman called Polia. When she ignores his advances– not rebuking them, simply not showing interest– in favor of maintaining a vow of chastity (more on that concept later) she is punished by the pagan god Cupid, forced to watch innocent women being beaten and dismembered by the god of love. Ironic, considering that the greatest beauty that was understood at the time was “chastity” a term that meant for Renaissance Italians something closer to “integrity” or “honesty of self” than “virginity”. (Had they meant “virgin” they would have used likely “virtuous” to describe Polia instead.) Her desire to be true to herself required her to avoid romantic entanglements with Poliphilo and this was punished because, narratively-speaking, her purpose was to shed her sense of self in favor of Love.
Narrowing focus a little bit, now: there’s this poet you may have heard of called Dante Alighieri. One of his poems “I Want to Charge My Words with so Much Harshness” (the title translates to sound so much less poetic than the original “Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro”) illustrates just how cruelly such indifference could be felt. The poet sees his beloved and the beloved “seems to care about my every anguish/ as does a vessel about tranquil billows” (Dante 18 – 19), which is to say not at all, and the poet is unswayed in his affections. But rather than bloom into something beautiful they intensify until they consume him, “now eating/all of my senses with the teeth of Love/ it is my thought, I reckon, chews on their strength and makes their function fail” (Dante 27 – 35); they dominate him, “Daring my weary life he [Love] often raises / his hand against me – this horrendous god / who keeps me on my back” (Dante 40 – 43); his feelings of love distract and render him vulnerable. Vulnerable was not a good thing for a man to be in Renaissance Italy. Caught in the ouroboros of his own feelings, the poet resents his beloved. He hopes that his words will “her heart with a fast arrow cleave” (Dante 82); and we might think that this is a wish, perhaps, to give her some similar feeling to the throes of agony he has been caught in so that she might recant her indifference and have empathy for his plight. But, no, that is not the intent of the lover at all. He tidies up any illusions we might have about wanting to share his pain with the swift declaration that, “for in revenge great honor we achieve” (Dante 83) and says nothing more on the subject. Vengeance is the only right course of action, turning Love’s wrath back onto the cruel and cold heart who dealt the first wound, and relishing their suffering in return. Not for the sake of gaining their love. Merely to punish them and to preserve one’s own honor.
You all know where this is going but it wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t spell it out.
When Hannibal is invited to meet and dissect Will Graham in Apértif, he is wearing that infamous person suit, tailored specifically for this context: bare throat and open collar and muted colors, looking altogether unassuming and one might consider him approachable if one shared Will Graham’s blue collar aesthetics and sensibilities. Will, though, wants nothing to do with him. Not out of fear, but out of a genuine and intense desire to be left alone. Unlike Hannibal, Will isn’t lonely and he doesn’t care about being seen. Undaunted, Hannibal takes a slightly-subtler route than Renaissance Italians might have, dressing well and providing a breakfast that would be humble next to a proper feast held to woo one’s intended. He meets Will where he’s at, metaphorically and literally. In living room, still in his pajamas and eating a human-sausage scramble, Will informs Hannibal in no uncertain terms (say it with me), “I don’t find you all that interesting” (Hannibal 1.1) and he scoffs at Hannibal’s assertion to the contrary. Hannibal, acting as the lover, has declared his intent and proven his ability to provide– and been met with the dreaded indifference of his beloved.
I wish, like the caption of the opening seconds of the third season, I could state that there is “nothing but music from this point” (Hannibal 3.1) but that would be a terrible lie.
In rejecting Hannibal, Will opens himself up to punishment by no less than god– the god Hannibal sees himself as, an unnamed agent of destruction and of transformation and, lately, of love. Will is made to bear witness to the suffering of innocent young women whose lives end in agony before they are dismembered; taking it a step farther than Polia’s tormentor, he must eat them, too. Their suffering must be a part of him. And he dutifully looks, time and again, and consumes one after the other in his own mind and at Hannibal’s table and still does not recant his vow. He pushes back against Hannibal even from behind bars, reminding the wounded doctor, “You’re not my friend” (Hannibal 2.1) because, like Polia, Will’s own sense of integrity demands that he remain an individual. Hannibal might lash out at Will but he will not win his heart until he concedes that Will must and should exist separate from him. Hannibal puts on a respectful awareness of boundaries but it is only ever an affectation. He lacks integrity. He is not, as the Renaissance Italians might consider the term, chaste.
Let’s detour here to talk about chastity. “Chastity’, meaning honesty of self and authenticity in self-presentation, is considered to be among the best virtues a beloved or a lover can embody in Renaissance Italian art and literature. Honesty breeds conflict because it is often painful and does not give us what we want. Acting with integrity is a sure fire way to be dissatisfied often. Yet artifacts from Renaissance Italy– dowry chests, paintings, letters, poetry– are inscribed with statements like “integrity makes beauty”. A difficult virtue to embody but that is what makes it so beautiful and so worthy of love.
Chastity, honesty, integrity, these are synonymous with beauty. When Will tells Beverly Katz that Hannibal’s advice on the Mural Maker, “may be what he said, not necessarily what he thinks” (Hannibal 2.2) he is, almost bitterly, signaling Hannibal’s failure to embody the Renaissance conception of chastity. Hannibal is a liar– to himself, and to others. By contrast, Will has only ever been one to speak his mind and the truth and, like mythical Cassandra, he is seldom believed. Enter the orderly, Michael Brown. Brown tries to give Will the gift of an acquittal, mimicking the murders Will is accused of in an effort to redirect the eye of justice. He fails in this regard but he does give Will the perfect way to punish Hannibal for his lack of chastity. Will doesn’t let Michael’s “love go to waste” (Hannibal 2.3), as Hannibal’s taunt implies he might, because Brown’s offered “poem” is honest in its intentions. He treats Will as if they are equal and declares his intent that they be partners in crime. He is base but he is authentic and this contrast makes him the perfect tool with which to flog Hannibal for his lies. A double rebuke: the humiliation of being caught and (nearly) killed by someone who isn’t Will in combination with the knowledge that Will accepted Brown’s suit, at least on a superficial level and as a means to an end.
Hannibal spent the whole of season one pulling on Will’s metaphorical pigtails and is only further enchanted when Will loses patience and pops him one right in the nose in response. Will may hear Hannibal’s voice in place of his own thoughts (Hannibal 2.1) but like Dante’s lover, Hannibal’s very senses are being worried between Will’s teeth and he cannot extract himself from them.
Once they are on equal footing– Hannibal seemingly obeying Will’s edict that he only commit “sins of omission” rather than lying (interesting how, here, Will casts himself as divine; we must explore that later), Will weaving careful machinations to deceive Jack and Hannibal both– Will returns Hannibal’s affections. He declares, “I don’t want to kill you, Dr. Lecter, now that I finally find you interesting” (Hannibal 2.8) and yet this is still clearly a threat. Will plans to do something far worse to Hannibal than kill him: he is going to look back at him as a Renaissance beloved might look at their lover. The wound, Renaissance literature tells us, that such a gaze can give might prove fatal or it might be utterly transformative. In either case it’s going to hurt. By looking, by seeing, Will is choosing to understand Hannibal; an understanding which Will’s own dreaming mind insists must be tempered by love: “No one can be fully aware of another human being unless we love them”, Hannibal states in Will’s dream of strangling him slowly via rope and ravenstag, “Expressing that love, our beloved’s potential comes true” (Hannibal 2.9). Will is nothing if not honest with himself. He may not like the truth but this sequence and the choice to return Hannibal’s gaze make clear the truth that Will loves Hannibal. By turning his lover’s gaze back on him, Will is transforming him, perhaps into something more chaste than existed before.
I’ve never known how to write conclusions but I think at this point I’ve successfully made my point: Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham embody the Renaissance Italian ideals of lover and beloved and their relationship plays out, across the first two seasons of Hannibal, with all the horrifying detail those roles require. Will is not some passive recipient of punishment, either, but a powerful actor in his own right as he struggles with his own sense of chastity to drag Hannibal up to his level. Hannibal, even while he suffers, is enjoying every second of the ride.
I’m still working on the next installment of what is tentatively titled “my one-sided blood feud” with the author of Aestheticism, Evil, Homosexuality, and Hannibal since I am oath-bound to prove definitively that … well frankly that Klock’s book is drivel. (For Heaven’s sake the man conflates “personality” with “identity”; it’s embarrassing and offensive.) Right now my notes are all centered on Will Graham’s sense of identity and his fundamental resilience and stability throughout the series. What this will look like when I finally get down to writing is anyone’s guess.