Mar 302013
 

I can’t come up with any really appropriate illustrations for this entry, so am including random pictures of cool objects from Florence, since Machiavelli likes Florence. This is the Chimera, the most impressive Etruscan bronze ever excavated in Tuscany, now in the Florentine Archaeological Museum.  (The Etruscans were contemporaries and rivals of the early Romans).

Was Machiavelli an atheist?  We don’t know and never will, but we can learn much about our society’s attitudes toward atheism by examining the persistence of the question, and the different reasons we have asked it over and over for centuries even though we know we have no proof.

(This is the last entry in my Machaivelli series.  See also Machiavelli Part IPart I.5Part IIPart III and Part IV)

No historical discipline can be honestly called “neutral”, but the study of atheism (and of its cousins skepticism, deism, and more general freethought, heterodoxy and radical religion) has always been particularly charged because it is so impossible to be detached from the central question.  Setting aside the elaborate and bloody history of religious violence, oppression and entanglement in politics, whether you answer “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” or “Sort-of,” the question of whether or not there is a divine force and/or being(s) ordering or governing the cosmos, your answer has an enormous impact on your everyday actions, decision-making, ethics, attitudes toward law and government, and every other corner of the human condition.  Even if religion and government had never mixed in the history of the Earth, if tomorrow you encountered irrefutable proof that the answer to the question was the opposite of what you had hitherto believed, your life and actions thenceforth would be radically different.  The stakes are high, and personal.  This makes it hard for historians to be calm about it.

Historians did not try to be calm about it in the early, juicy days when atheism was first presented as having a history.  In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets and books discussing famous atheists were a thriller genre, scandalous tales of tyrants and madmen which occupied largely the same niche as biographies of serial killers, or penny museums displaying the death masks of executed murderers.  Treatises on “Infamous Atheists” served a slightly more learned audience than wax heads and the numerous early versions of the Sweeny Todd legend, but only slightly, and as they proliferated in printing shops tales of the scandalous excesses of Tiberius and Caligula under the label “atheist” were part morality play, part voyeurism, and part slander as each particular collection targeted its audience’s enemies.  French collections accused Italians and Englishmen of atheism while Italian collections accused Frenchmen; Catholic collections accused Martin Luther and John Calvin of atheism, while Protestant collections accused popes and papists, and almost all European collections accused Muslims and Jews of atheism in a spirit of general racism and lack of accountability and lexical clarity.

An awesome Baroque tomb, in the Santa Croce cloister.

You may note that neither Martin Luther nor Caligula is on record as ever having philosophically attacked the existence of God, but the logic chain of these collections is, from our perspective, backwards: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) These men were bad.  (3) These men did not fear Hell.  (4) These men were atheists.  In the Renaissance, sinful living in overt defiance of divine law was considered evidence of atheism, to the degree that we have records of many atheism trials from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in which the evidence brought by the prosecution involves no statement of unbelief on the part of the accused.  Rather the evidence will be sinful living, promiscuity, homosexuality, gluttony, irreverence of civic and religious authority, anything from a monk taking in a mistress to a drunkard running around in public with no pants on (See Nicholas Davidson, “Atheism in Italy 1500-1700,” in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, ed. Michael Hunter & David Wootton (Oxford, 1992), 55-86, esp. 56-7).

Serious attempts to write a history of atheism began in the later nineteenth century, when secularization had progressed enough that an atheist was no longer a thrilling exotic creature, but was instead a black sheep in a land with many, many sheep of which some were even more alarming colors than black.  It was also at this point that histories of atheism bifurcated.  Some presented pessimistic accounts (by theist authors) of the modern decay of morals as atheism proliferated, while others presented optimistic accounts (by guess who) of the progress of secularization.  Even in their more objective accounts, when dealing with earlier periods when atheism was rare and its traces elusive, these historians were, or rather we historians are, still prone to hyperenthusiasm when we think we have found what we are looking for, as whale watchers may mistake any dark shape for a humped back.

Everyone (whether theist or atheist) who studies pre-modern atheism is excited when we find evidence of it.  This is because secularization, this brave new world in which atheism is both commonplace and legal, is an essential characteristic of the modern Western world, one of its unique features, differentiating us, here, now, from all earlier times and all other places.  When I say the modern world is secularized I do not mean that atheism is a majority or even a plurality—it remains a small minority.  What I mean is that atheism is universally present in Western discourse as a coequal interlocutor in theological debate, and all contemporary Western theists have lived their whole lives in contact with atheism, debating with atheists or at least expecting they might have to do so, and generally knowing that atheism is a commonplace alternative to their own views.  This is radically different from the pre-modern situation, in which people saw atheists as elusive and invisible enemies (rather like vampires), and most books on the subject described atheism as a form of mental illness (often thought to be inborn), or as a moral perversion (compared in the period to homosexuality), while the genuine philosophical atheist was expected to be so extraordinarily rare that we might see only a couple in a century (such categories are employed by David Derodon in his treatise L’atheism Convaincu (1659), see Alan Kors, Atheism in France (1990), p. 28).

In Florence’s $1,000 Purse District, holiday decorations last year consisted of live olive trees inside huge gauze vases with floating neon halos above. Why not?

If the study of history is more than mere delight in exciting stories of past exploits, it is an attempt to understand our origins and ourselves.  When we comb the past and spot something characteristically modern—be it the scientific method, hygiene, feminism or atheism—we are excited because we have found an early trace of home.  Religious tolerance and the presence of atheism as a coequal participant in religious discourse in our own day is part of what makes us radically different from our predecessors.  The following claim may seem counter-intuitive, but if I were to send an average modern American theist back in time to the seventeenth century, I think that person would debate more comfortably with an early atheist than with a theist of the same era, because the atheist, while disagreeing with our time traveler, would be disagreeing with somewhat familiar vocabulary and justifications, while the seventeenth-century theist would be going on about Aristotle, and teleology, and angels pushing the Moon around, and other fruits of an alien religious conversation that has no experience of 90% of the theological issues which our modern time traveler is used to considering.  The seventeenth-century atheist probably knows what “natural selection” is (he read about it in Lucretius) but the corresponding theist probably hasn’t read such a rare and stigmatized text, so when our time traveler says “I want a proof of the existence of God that stands up against natural selection,” the atheist can have that conversation, while the theist is much less prepared.  For most Renaissance theists Thomas Aquinas’ Proof of the Existence of God from Design is unassailable; for us, it’s been assailed every minute of every day of our lives; for the early atheist, it has an assailant, and it’s a similar assailant to the one we moderns are used to, so we can talk about it with the atheist and feel more at home than if we tried to talk to a theist who had never experienced any such attack.  A pre-modern theist is, of course, well prepared for attacks from heresies we no longer worry much about: Arianism, Averroism, Antinomianism, but Darwin is a bolt from the blue.  Not so much so for the early atheist, who, whether right or wrong, is more prepared for modern conversations than the average theist of his day.  Thus, for atheists and believers alike, the history of atheism is the history of theology coming to be shaped more like what we’re used to in the modern era.  Hence why even a theist historian thinks it’s super special awesome when we spot a bona fide atheist before the Enlightenment.

The study of what was going on with atheism before the mid-seventeenth century is not, and cannot be, the study of actual atheists.  There are none for us to study.  There may have been some, there may not, but in a period when saying “I think there is no God” led pretty directly to arrest and execution, no one said it.  No one wrote it.  If anyone thought it, not even private letters can confirm.  Knowing that an atheist won’t fess up in documents, we historians naturally read between the lines, seeking hints of heterodoxy in the subtext of a treatise or the double meaning of a couplet.  This is the only place we can realistically expect to find evidence, but it is also prone to giving us false positives.  As Lucien Febvre put it in his enormously influential The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais, we moderns are bound to see that rare beast the atheist around every dark corner.  We see him because we want to.

Why have an enormous awesome globe when you can have an enormous awesome globe sitting on gold lions?

The first really real for sure definite actual atheists who, by golly, said they were atheists (OMG!) date to the mid-seventeenth century, the Libertine movement, when a push toward religious tolerance (largely in the name of stopping the Reformation wars of religion before they wiped out all homo sapiens on the European continent) meant that wealth and power were enough to armor figures like the Earl of Rochester and his circle (including the bone-chilling Charles Blount) sufficiently that they could be known to be atheists and survive so long as they denied it in public.  This trend strengthened in the Enlightenment.  I often compare late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atheism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuality: there were circles in which one could let it be an open secret that one was an [atheist/homosexual] and it would be okay so long as one didn’t ruffle too many feathers or say anything in public or in front of civic authorities.  One was always at risk of prosecution, and if one wanted to be safe and respected one kept it carefully hidden (as Diderot hid his atheist works), but there was enough sympathy within the apparatus of power that one could write of one’s [atheism/homosexuality] in private letters, and even hint at it in public works, and more often than not be safe.  The pre-seventeenth-century atheist enjoyed no such safety, so not even in Renaissance private correspondence (where talk of homosexuality is quite commonplace) do we see even the most timid hand raised when the historian calls back: “Is anybody there an atheist?  Anybody?  Machiavelli?”

Why is Machiavelli our favorite candidate?  Many reasons.  First, he is in other ways so very modern.  Having spotted someone who thinks about history as we do, and thinks about ethics as we do, and definitely, provably thinks in a very much more modern way than others of his century, he is a natural candidate for other modern twists including atheism.

Second, he was called an atheist by so many people for so long.  The mystique of vague, beard-stroking villainy invoked by the term “Machiavellian” (Note: Machiavelli did not have a beard) falls nicely into the pre-modern logic chain: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior.  (2) Machiavelli advocates sinful behavior including lies, betrayal, murder and reign by terror.  (3) Machiavelli does not fear Hell.  (4) Machiavelli was an atheist.

But there are more focused reasons than that.  If we return to Febvre’s warning that we are prone to spot atheists in every shadow, Febvre argues that, instead of seeking the rare beast of our desiring, we should instead confine ourselves to searching for a habitat capable of supporting him; only then can we safely say that we have found him, not his shadow.  By “habitat” Febvre means the apparatus of other ideas related to atheism which make atheism easier and more likely.

Imagine that you are a biologist studying a particular fungus.  This fungus is hard to find, but often grows around the roots of a particular tree species, with which it has an unexplained but well-documented symbiosis.  You thus survey mainly regions where this tree is common.  And if you hope to trace your fungus back to before material records survive, you might trace the history of that tree species, through fossils or early human artifacts made of its wood, and conclude that, while you can’t be sure the fungus was there too, the odds are certainly better than the odds of it having been in places where its tree friend was unknown.  You have not provably found your fungus, but what you have is certainly enough to talk about, and enough to get people excited if your fungus is a truffle and may yield millions in delicious profit if your information leads to improved cultivation.

Florence struggles to find a Christmas tree that can manage to look big against its architecture.

Now, for the truffle substitute the elusive pre-1650 atheist, and for the tree substitute the ancient Greek theory that matter is made of atoms.  The two are unrelated, and the atomic theory does not attack theism in any way, but it is certainly easier for atheism to flourish when “How was the world made if God didn’t do it?” can be answered with “Atoms interacting chaotically in the void clumped together to form substances… bla bla… planets… bla bla… natural selection… bla bla… people etc.” instead of “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” is the centerpiece here.  Medieval and Renaissance Europe had perfectly respectable answers to all scientific and sociological questions, they just all depended on God all the time.  Take gravity, for example.  Celestial bodies are moved by angels.  As for why some earthly objects fall and others rise, morally inferior objects fall down toward Satan and morally superior ones rise up toward God, sorting themselves out into natural layers like oil and water.  Stones sink in water because Water is superior to Earth, hot air rises because Fire is superior to Air, and virtuous men go to Heaven because good souls are light and wicked souls are heavy with sins which make them fall to the circle of Hell corresponding to the weight of their sins: nine circles separated out in layers, again like oil and water.  God established the first societies, handed down the first laws, created the first languages, and directed the rise and fall of empires to communicate His Will.  If one wanted to be an atheist in the Middle Ages one had to throw away 90% of all science and social theory, and when asked “Why do rocks sink?” or “How do planets move?” or “Where did the world come from?” one had to answer, “I have no idea.”  Turning one’s back on social answers in that way is very difficult, and is part of why the study of atheism is so closely tied to the study of philosophical skepticism—only very recently have atheists had the leisure of both denying God and still having a functional model of the universe.  Early atheists had to be, largely, skeptics.  They also had to embrace a not-particularly-functional partial worldview which made rest of the world (which had a much more complete one) think they were completely crazy.  I thus sometimes compare Medieval atheists with modern creationists, since both are individuals willing to say, “I believe this one thing so fiercely that I will throw away all the other things to keep it, even if it makes everyone think I’m nuts.”  Doing this is very hard.  Doing it when other ideas are around to satisfy the gaps left by removing God from science becomes much easier.

One of my favorite Florentine doors, featuring a saint crushing a devil (top left), a saint on fire (top right) and Medici balls (below).

How then do we seek the habitat capable of supporting the invisible pre-1650 atheist?  We look for radical scientific theories: atomism, vacuum, heliocentrism, anything which makes Nature more self-sufficient and less dependent on divine participation.  We look for related theological challenges: attacks on the immortality of the soul, on miraculous intervention, on Providence, on angelology, anything which diminishes how often God is part of the answer to some basic question.  We look for who is reading ancient texts which offer alternate explanations to Christian theological ones: Epicurus, Lucretius, Plato, Pythagorean cult writings, Cicero’s skeptical dialogs, Seneca.  Who is reading all this?  Machiavelli.

In the pre-modern world, a firestorm of accusations of atheism and wickedness awaited anyone who raised a powerful and persuasive alternate answer to some question whose traditional answer depended on God.  This firestorm fell even if the author in question never made any atheist arguments, which, generally, they didn’t.  It happened often, and fiercely.

Thomas Hobbes awoke one such firestorm when his Leviathan suggested that savage man, living in a state of terror and war in his caves and trees, might through reason and self-interest alone come together and develop society and government.  Until that time, Europe had no explanation for how government came to be other than that God instituted it; no explanation for kings other than that God raised them to glory; no explanation for what glue should hold men together, loyal to the law, other than fear of divine punishment.  Hobbes’ alternative does not say “There is no God,” but it says, “Government and society arose without God’s participation,” a political theory which an atheist and a theist might equally use.  It gives the atheist an answer, and thereby so terrified England that she passed law after law against “atheism” specifically and personally targeting Hobbes and banning him from publishing in genre after genre, until he spent his final years producing bad translations of Homer and filling them with not-so-subtle Hobbesian political notions one can spot between the lines.

Dante knows where the author of “The Prince,” goes – straight to circle 8 section 10, for those who advise others to do sinful things. Machiavelli knew his Dante well, so one must wonder if he found it comforting to be so sure that, “Well, if there is a Hell, there’s me.”

Machiavelli awoke such a firestorm by creating an ethics which works without God.  Utilitarianism depends entirely on evaluating the earthly consequences of an act, and can be used as a functional system for decision-making whether or not there exists any external divine force or absolute code of Truth.  He also painted a world of politics in which he recommends actions which are the same that one might take if there is no God watching.  In order for people to be virtuous they must first be alive—doesn’t that sound like the sentiment of someone who isn’t thinking about Heaven?  It is justified and necessary to kill and lie in order to protect the stability of the state and the lives of the people—doesn’t that sound like there isn’t a separate Judgment waiting?  The man who will do so much—even serve the Medici who tortured him—in order to guard and protect Earthly Florence seems to have an Earthly mistress, and not to be thinking of a Higher One.  He certainly talks like an atheist, and he certainly created the first system of politics and ethics which an atheist could coherently employ.

In addition to all this, there is what we can glean about religious attitudes from Machiavelli’s personal sentiments and behavior.  We know that he was a military commander, and fought, and killed people.  We know that he was what I think of as “averagely promiscuous” for a Renaissance man based on my experience of letters and autobiographies, which is to say that (while married) he had both male and female lovers, and wrote comfortably and playfully about friends doing the same.  We know friends wrote to him for advice about their love-affairs, which he freely gave, though warning against getting too caught up in them.  We know he helped his family in a push for a profitable priestly position for his brother, and was thus involved in minor acts of simony.  We know he owned many pagan classics and loved to read them, including a fascinating little volume in his own handwriting (now at the Vatican) which contains his complete transcriptions of two texts, first Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, containing antiquity’s best account of god-free atomistic physics and denial of the soul, afterlife, Providence and prayer), and second Terrence’s Eunuch (containing one of the most uncomfortable scenes in all of ancient comedy which the young hero boasts triumphantly about having just committed rape).  Machiavelli himself wrote the infamous comedy The Mandrake, which does not contain rape, but in which the twist is that in the end all the deception and adultery goes just dandy and in the end no comeuppance is had and everyone carries on committing deception and adultery and lives happily ever after, including those being deceived.  We know he had a sense of humor, and we know he often directed it against the antics of priests and monks.  I will include one sample of this edge of him, taken from a letter from late in his life, when he was sent on behalf of the Florentine wool guild to recruit a preacher for Lent (an extremely high-profile public performance, rather like picking who will play at superbowl half-time), Machiavelli wrote to his high-ranking political friend Guicciardini, from Carpi, May 17th 1521 (Note the playful way he juxtaposes the mandatory obsequious Renaissance opening address with the base setting of the second sentence.)

The Florentine cathedral, paid for by the wool guild. It was a great honor to be called there to be the Lent preacher, and they worked hard to pick a real celebrity to come.

Magnificent one, my most respected superior.  I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world; I was completely absorbed in imagining my style of preacher for Florence: he should be just what would please me, because I am going to be as pigheaded about this idea as I am about my other ideas.  And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out – if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words than with signs – I have no intention of disappointing her now.  In truth, I know that I am at variance with the ideas of her citizens, as I am in many other matters.  They would like a preacher who would teach them the way to paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the Devil.  Furthermore, they would like their man to be prudent, honest and genuine, and I should like to find one who would be madder than Ponzo (who at first followed Savonarola, then switched), wilier than Fra Girolamo (Savonarola), and more hypocritical than Frater Alberto (either a Boccaccio character or someone whom Alexander VI sent to Florence and who recommended summoning Savonarola to Rome so they could seize him under false pretenses), because I think it would be a fine thing – something worthy of the goodness of these times – should everything we have experienced in many friars be experienced in one of them.  For I believe that the following would be the true way to go to Paradise: learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it.  Moreover, since I am aware how much belief there is in an evil man who hides under the cloak of religion, I can readily conjure up how much belief there would be in a good man who walks in truth, and not in pretense, tramping through the muddy footprints of Saint Francis.  So, since my imaginative creation strikes me as a good one, I intend to choose Rovaio (Riovanni Gualberto, “the north wind” or “the hangman”), and I think if he is like his brothers and sisters he will be just the right man.”  (Translation from Machiavelli and His Friends, Their Personal Correspondence, James B. Atkinsons and David Sices eds. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 1996, p, 336).

Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself.  This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on.  At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring.  Unfortunately a later letter hints that Machiavelli thinks they are on to the prank, and the correspondence ends there.

An ambulance parked by Giotto’s bell tower, ready to spring into action to protect Machiavelli’s dear Florentines.

You now have pretty-much as much evidence as anyone does about Machiavelli’s religious beliefs.  Smells like an atheist, doesn’t he?  His manifest unorthodoxy, the unique modernity of his ethics and political attitudes, and his playful anticlericalism, not to mention his charisma as an historical figure, inevitably tempt us into wondering whether we have found here a beautiful specimen of the rare beast we seek.  But until we develop a time-traveling telepathy ray to let us read the thoughts of the dead, we must remain very wary.  Is Machiavelli religiously unorthodox?  Absolutely.  Does he deny the existence of the divine?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  1520 is very early, and there are many genres of heterodoxy besides denial of God which we may be smelling here.  Thinking forward two hundred years, Enlightenment deism with its Clockmaker God denies divine intervention in Nature, removes the Hand of God from politics and lessens theology’s role in ethics without removing God.  If Machiavelli is an early deist, rather than an early atheist, that is certainly enough to fit comfortably his model of politics without God as a central factor, his ethics which segregates Earthly activities and consequences from broader divine concerns, and his interest in Lucretius and pagan scientific models for how Nature can function without constant divine maintenance.  If Machiavelli thinks these monks are corrupt and hypocritical, so would Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Martin Luther, without any of them being atheists.  Radicals yes, atheists no.  We may, in fact, ascribe any number of heterodoxies to Machiavelli, and as we review the history of writings about him we in a sense review the history of what radical religious veins we are most worried about, since whatever is most scary tends to be ascribed to him in any given decade.  These days it is often atheism, nihilism, skepticism, rarely deism, since we are at present as a society very comfortable with the Clockmaker model and associate it more with the bright and kind Enlightenment than with he-who-advocates-fear-over-love.

Is Machiavelli an atheist?  We have no idea, but by looking at why we want him to be, or don’t want him to be, or think he was, or think he wasn’t, and why new historians keep trying to answer this literally unanswerable question, we can watch the evolution of our own societal anxieties about the origins of unbelief, and how we understand how we got to this modern situation in which theism must stand constantly prepared to face its thousand enemies and is not (like Baldur) so secure in the presumption that no one will aim for the heart that it doesn’t realize it might have to dodge.  This is a slight exaggeration, as Medieval Christianity did prepare itself for onslaughts of atheism, and we have numerous practice debates written by theologians showing how they would argue with imaginary atheists since they had no real ones about to spar with.  (Alan Kors in his meticulous history Atheism in France has argued that these practice debates against pretend atheists were actually critical in introducing atheist arguments to broad audiences and thus themselves responsible for propagating atheism, even though they were written by theists for theists in a world populated probably only by theists.)  But it is not much of an exaggeration, since such preparation was much more an academic exercise than real sharpening of mental blades.  Since Machiavelli is the first of the great, famous possible-atheists—before Hobbes, before Spinoza, before Bayle, and before the real beast Rochester—Machiavelli is where we turn to test our anxieties about how our world came to be so secularized.

Machiavelli’s honorary tomb in Santa Croce, with the epitaph: “Tanto nomini nullum par elogium,” (For such a name no praise is enough.)

In the small talk phase of a party, I often answer “What do you do?” with “I study the history of atheism.”  The response usually takes the general form of, “Tell me more!” but as discussion unfolds I often feel one of two undercurrents shaping my new acquaintance’s replies: either “I’m an atheist and, since I presume you’ll agree with me, I now want to vent at you about how much I hate organized religion and my parents,” or “I’m a theist but pride myself on being rational about it, and I’m scared that if I tell you I’m a believer I’ll sound like the kind of religious nut that gives theism a bad name.”  I sympathize with the anxieties behind both these reactions, but both sadden me.  They are symptoms of the debate done badly: an atheist motivated more by rebellion than by Reason, a theist shamed into buying into rhetoric in the worst sense.  They are what happens when people grow up surrounded by others who care more about propagating their own beliefs than about helping young people meet and explore great questions for themselves (see comment thread).  I love this debate.  I love all of the people on all the sides.  I love the passion, and earnestness, and urgency of writings on atheism, by both sides.  It is the essence of the examined life and the exercise of Human Reason at its most intense.  I love everyone involved: Plato, Aquinas, Ockham, Ficino, Sade, Nietzsche.  I love when a student comes to my office hours and asks me directly, “I want you to be a Socratic gadfly for me and help me test my position,” whichever position it is.  I do it.  I love it.  When I wonder whether Machiavelli was an atheist, it’s not because I want to know, but because I want to talk to him about it, at length, and we would stay up all night, and eat all the cheese and olives, and drink all the wine, and Voltaire would come, and Hobbes, and Locke, and Rochester and Rousseau would get plastered and piss themselves, and Diderot would help me mop it up while we talked about Leibnitz and the imperfection of Creation, and Machiavelli would keep pace with us even though most of the ideas in question would be two hundred years younger than him.  They would be new to him, but he would understand them easily and join in comfortably to the debate.  He should be there.  There isn’t anybody else we know of from Machiavelli’s century who really should be there in the imaginary salon where we revisit the Enlightenment debates that made this modern era secular the way it is.  Just Machiavelli.  That’s why we can’t stop asking.

(Here ends my Machiavelli series.  I hope you have enjoyed it, and thank you for being patient.  Also, I have now added a substantial discussion of atheism in the classical world in the comment thread on this post, for those interested.  You can also read my entries on remembering the Borgias, and the Borgias in TV dramas.)

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of atheism, skepticism, heterodoxy, deism and freethought, I recommend these sources:

  • Allen, Don Cameron.  Doubt’s Boundless Sea; Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance.  Baltimore, Johns Hopkins.  1964.
  • Hunter, Michael and David Wootton ed.  Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.  Oxford: Clarendon.  1992.
  • Kors, Alan Charles.  Atheism in France, 1650-1729.  Vol. 1, Princeton: 1990.  (The long-awaited second volume is forthcoming.)
  • Popkin, R. H.  History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle.  Oxford: 2003.  (Earlier editions of the book have titles, “History of Scepticism from X-other-dude to Y-other-other-dude.  All editions are good, but the most recent is the most comprehensive.)

Also recommended:

  • Betts, C. J.  Early Deism in France, From the so-called ‘déistes’ of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire’s ‘Lettres philosophiques’ (1734).  The Hague: Martinus Nijhogg Publishers. 1984.
  • Buckley, Michael J.  At the Origins of Modern Atheism.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  1987.
  • Febvre, Lucien.  The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais.  Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  1982.
  • Ginsburg, Carlo.  The Cheese and the Worms.  New York: Penguin Publishers. 1992.
  • Jacob, Margaret. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans.  London, Boston: Allen & Unwin.  1981.
  • Kristeller, P. O. ‘The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought’. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 6 (1968), pp. 233-443.
  • Lemay, J. A. Leo ex.  Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment.  Newark: University of Delaware Press.  1987.
  • Wagar, Warren W. ed.  The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe.  New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers inc.  1982.
  • Wilson, Catherine.  Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity.  Oxford: 2008
  • Wootton, David.  ‘Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period’  The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 695-730.
May 102012
 

A quick review of the architectural centerpieces of Florence.  Prices and hours may change arbitrarily (this is Italy, after all).

Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria):

  • The old seat of government of the Florentine Republic, later taken over as the seat of the Medici Dukes.  The different parts of the building are a micro-history of Renaissance Florence right before your eyes.  Going to see the outside is a must.  You can pay to go inside, to see the ducal decorations, the offices where all the great humanists used to work, and Dante’s death mask, which is kept there because why not.  Among the decorations are some beautiful intarsia (inlaid wood) doors with portraits of Dante and Petrarch, plus the original of Donatello’s Judith.  You can also see the enormous Hall of the 500, which Savonarola had built, and its over-the-top decorations.  You can’t go up the tall tower where the prison was.
  • Cost: Seeing it from the outside, and entering the lower story, is free.
  • Time required: 20 minutes to just look at, 2 hours for the museum.
  • Hours:  Changing all the time, but usually 9 am to 7 pm, but sometimes 2 pm to 7 pm, and sometimes open super late, often on Thurs or Tues.
  • Website:  http://www.museicivicifiorentini.it/en/palazzovecchio/ 
  • Notes:  See my discussion of it: http://exurbe.com/?p=37

Baptistery:

  • The old heart and symbol of the city, sacred to its patron saint John the Baptist.  The baptistery is right in front of the cathedral, and the oldest of the grand buildings erected to show off Florence’s affluence.  The outside features the Gates of Paradise, with Ghiberti’s gilded bronze relief sculptures, one of the greatest moments in Renaissance sculpture.  Seeing the outside is free, but it is worth paying to go in, because the entire interior is covered with gorgeous gold mosaics in stunning condition, including a fabulous depiction of Hell.  Also Florence’s antipope is buried inside (closest thing they had to a pope before the Medici), and outside keep an eye out for the Column of St. Zenobius nearby.
  • Cost: 4 or 5 euros to go inside.
  • Time required: half an hour
  • Hours: 12 pm to 7 pm weekdays, open 8:30 am to 2 pm on the first Saturday of the month.
  • Notes:  The tickets are sometimes sold at the entrance of the baptistery, but sometimes in a confusing archway to the right of it (if you stand facing the gates of paradise).  People will usually point you the right way.  You get a slight discount if you get the baptistery ticket along with a ticket to climb the Duomo and go to the Museo del Opera del Duomo.

Duomo (cathedral) and Belltower:

  • The grandest church in Christendom when it was built, and still so beautiful that, when you’re standing in front of it, it’s hard to believe it’s real.  The outside is a must-see.  The dome was the greatest engineering marvel of its day, and still astoundingly humongous.  The inside is also worth seeing, with colored marble floors, high clean vaults, and the dome frescoed with a particularly excellent last judgment, with a great Hell-scape.  On the right hand wall look for the tomb of Marsilio Ficino (who restored Plato the the world) and on the left the painting of Dante standing in front of Florence, Purgatory, Heaven and the gates of Hell.
  • You can, separately, pay to climb the dome.  It is taaaaaaaaaaaaall.  Climbing it lets you see the inside between the two layers of the double dome (which is how a dome that big stays up), and lets you see the fresco on the inside of the dome up close.  The view on top is spectacular but a lot of people get major height fear and vertigo up there, even people who don’t usually, due to the dome’s dizzying slant.  Also the cramped area between the domes is rather claustrophobic, giving you the world-class claustrophobia-acraphobia combo!
  • You can also pay to climb the belltower but it’s not hugely worth-it, unless you want to see the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells bells.  In general, though, if you want to climb something, go for the Duomo.
  • Cost: Free to enter the cathedral.  You have to pay to climb the dome.
  • Time required: Half an hour for seeing the cathedral, a couple hours for climbing the dome.
  • Hours: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with some complicated exceptions. Check the website with an Italian friend.
  • Website: http://www.operaduomo.firenze.it/monumenti/duomo.asp
  • Notes:  Climbing the dome has a long line a lot of the year, as does the cathedral itself even though you don’t pay; they only let a certain number of people in at a time. (Ex Urbe’s humble assistant Athan can confirm that the line is long and the climb cramped even in January.)

I stole this photo, but there is no other way to show you. Mea culpa.

San Marco:

  • No photography allowed in the monastery, so I can’t offer decent photos.  This is the major Dominican monastery and church (in contrast with the Franciscans at Santa Croce).  The church itself is free, while you have to pay to go to the monastery museum, but it’s only 5 euros and very worth-it.
  • The church is mostly baroque at this point, but contains the tombs of the Renaissance scholars Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano.  Also a byzantine mosaic Madonna, a nice annunciation, the tomb of St. Antoninus, and an angry bronze statue of Savonarola.
  • The monastery section is the real centerpiece.  Every cell in the monks’ living area was frescoed by Fra Angelico, as were the refectory and other important spaces.  This rare chance to see Renaissance paintings still in their original context lets you understand how they were used and interacted with in daily life.  While almost every room has a crucifixion scene, each one is unique, highlighting some different emotional or theological aspect of the crucifixion, in a perfect example of how Renaissance artists moved on from the repetition of icon making to make each piece offer the viewer a unique new angle on the subject.  You can also see Savonarola’s room and relics, and the room Cosimo de Medici had made for himself when he paid for the renovation of the monastery, so he could come there to have a break from public life sometimes.
  • Cost: Free for the church, 4 euros for the monastery section.  It is on the Friends of the Uffizi pass.
  • Time required: 2+ hours
  • Hours: 8:15 to 1:20 pm weekdays, 6:15 to 4:50 weekends.  Closed odd numbered Sundays and even numbered Mondays.
  • Website: http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=sanmarco
  • Notes:  The priest will usually glare at anyone who comes into the church and makes straight for Pico’s tomb.

Santa Croce:

  • On the East end of town, Florence’s major Franciscan monastery church came to be the major burial place for famous Florentines.  Includes the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, Fermi, Marconi (who invented the radio), Bruni (who invented the Middle Ages), the cenotaph of Dante, and dozens and dozens of other tombs crammed into every surface.  Also excellent Giotto and Giotesque frescoes, and other exciting art.  The orphanage it used to house taught orphans leather working, and it still contains a leather working school.  Also contains one of the surviving tunics of St. Francis of Assisi.
  • Cost: 5 euros!  Expensive!
  • Time required: 2 hours
  • Hours: 9:30 AM to 5 PM except Sundays, when it opens at 2
  • Website: http://www.operadisantacroce.it/
  • Notes:  It tends to be quite cold inside.

Ponte Vecchio:

  • The old bridge, covered with tiny jewelry shops.  This has been the heart of Florence’s gold trade for a long time, and is incidentally one of the most valuable shopping strips on Earth.  At night the tiny little shops lock themselves up in wooden shutters and look like giant treasure chests, which is really what they are.  The view of this bridge from the next bridge down (Ponte Santa Trinita) is also worth seeing.  Be sure, while on the bridge, to greet the statue monument of the incomparable Benvenuto Cellini, Florence’s great master goldsmith/ sculptor/ duelist/ engineer/ necromancer/ multiple-murderer, who wrote one of humanity’s truly great autobiographies.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Time required: half an hour, more if you want to shop
  • Hours:  Shops shut around sunset.

San Lorenzo:

  • My photos do not do this church justice, but they don’t let you take pictures inside.  San Lorenzo is a little complicated because you have to pay separately to go in the different areas:
  • The main part of the church (which costs 3.5o euros) is a mathematically-harmonious, high Renaissance neoclassical church full of geometry and hints of neoPlatonism.  I recommend going in it after Santa Croce and Orsanmichele, since the contrast of its lofty, light-filled spaces and rounded arches gives you a vivid sense of how much architecture has changed in so little time.  Here you can see the excellent tomb of Cosimo de Medici (il vecchio), and some other early Medici tombs, as well as some Donatello reliefs and the remains of Saint Caesonius (no one knows who he is or how he got there, but he’s clearly labeled as a saint, so no one’s willing to move him).  This ticket also gets you into the crypt below the church, where you can see the bottom of Cosimo’s tomb, and a collection of really gaudy reliquaries.
  • Separately, the library attached to the cloister courtyard at the left of the church (which also costs 3.50 euros, but you can get a combined ticket to it and the church for 6) contains the reading room with the desks where the great Laurenziana library was housed.  It is very much a scholarly pilgrimage spot to see one of the first great houses of the return of ancient learning.  The old reading desks are still there where the books were chained, and still labeled with the individual manuscripts.  To get in you also get to (or rather have to) go up Michelangelo’s scary scary staircase.  The library periodically has small exhibits of exciting manuscripts, most recently on surgery, and on the oldest surviving copy of Virgil.  The library is only open in the morning!  Its gift shop sells some fun things including a lenscloth decorated with a reproduction of the illuminated frontispiece of the Medici dedication copy of Ficino’s translation of Plato – ultimate history/philosophy nerd collectable.
  • Separately, the Medici Chapels in the back of San Lorenzo (under its big dome; costs 5 euros, but is on the Friends of the Uffizi card, unlike the other two [why?!]) contain the later Medici tombs, those of Lorenzo de Medici, his brother, the next generation of Medici, and the Medici dukes.  The earlier Medici tombs here have some Michelangelo sculptures on them, while the later ones are in a ridiculously over-the-top baroque colored marble chapel which knocks you breathless with its unbridled and rather tasteless opulence.  One friend I visited with subtitled the chapel: “Baroque: UR doin’ it WRONG!”  An excellent excercise in trying to grapple with the evolution of taste, and why certain eras’ taste matches our own while others don’t.  Also you get to see more over-the-top sparkly reliquaries.
  • Hours:  Different for each bit.

Orsanmichele:

  • The former grain market and grain storage building at the heart of the city was turned into a church when an icon of the Madonna there started working miracles.  Because it was the official church of the merchant guilds of Florence, the different guilds competed to supply the most expensive decoration for it, so the outside is covered with fabulous statues, each with the symbols of its guild above and below.  Seeing the outside is quick and easy.  Seeing the inside is trickier and not always worth cramming into your schedule, but the inside is also beautiful, a very medieval feeling, with saints painted on every surface.  A museum above (open rarely, mainly Mondays) holds the original sculptures, which have been replaced on the outside with copies for their own safety.  But since the sculptures were designed to be seen in their niches, the copies in situ look better than the displaced originals in my opinion.
  • Cost: Free
  • Time required: half an hour
  • Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Monday.
  • Notes:  Occasionally hosts concerts.  On the outside is a booth where you can get tickets to the Uffizi without waiting in the Uffizi line.

Mercato Centrale & Mercato San Ambrosio:

  • Not historic, but the two great farmer’s markets of the city are definitely worth visiting, and great for both lunch and souvenir shopping.  Cheese, salumi, spices, sauces, fruits, veggies, oil, vinegar, truffle products…  The Mercato Centrale (near San Lorenzo) has more touristy things and things to take home, while San Ambrosio has more things to eat right now or cook at home, but both have both.  At the Mercato Centrale I particularly recommend eating fresh pasta at Pork’s (order tagliatelle with asparagus, or all’ Amatriciana (with tomato, onion and bacon) or tortellini with cream and ham (prosciutto e panna)), and/or having a porchetta sandwich.  You can also try tripe or lampredotto if you’re brave.
  • Cost: Free
  • Time required: 1+ hours
  • Hours: Morning through early afternoon.
Apr 182012
 

Kicking off my new Travel Reviews section, a quick review of some centerpieces among the many, many, many attractions Florence offers her visitors.  Please keep in mind that times and prices change constantly, so always check before you plan:

Uffizi Gallery:

  • The city’s great painting collection, housed in the offices built by Vasari for the Medici dukes.  Arranged in mainly chronological order, the collection chronicles the progression of art out of the middle ages through the Renaissance.  This is where you find the big names: Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, all in halls decorated with Romanesque grotesque ceilings, covered with portraits of everyone who was anyone in the Renaissance, and crammed with classical sculpture, including the Medici copy of the Laocoon.  Highlights include the three big Madonnas, the Botticelli room featuring the Madonna della Magnificat and the Birth of Venus, Raphael’s portraits of popes Leo X and Julius II, and Michelangelo’s Holy Family With Gratuitous Naked Men.  Endless gift shop including a huge room of academic books.  Fantastic venue for Spot the Saint.
  • Cost:  11 euros plus 3 or so extra for making a reservation.
  • Time required: 6+ hours if you can stand up that long.
  • Hours: 8:15 am to 6:50 pm Tuesday through Sunday.  Closed Monday.  Sometimes open late Tuesdays.
  • Website:  http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/en/index.php
  • Notes: The Uffizi has an infinite (3+ hour) line during peak season, so it’s a very good idea to make a reservation.  It also has very few places to sit, no water fountains (they scan your bag as you go in so you can’t bring water), and a very inconveniently-located bathroom.  So enormous and exhausting is it that it’s very difficult to go through in one day.  If you’re in Florence for a week, I highly recommend getting a Friends of the Uffizi pass, which costs 60 euros at present (40 for student-age) and gives you unlimited access plus line skipping at the Uffizi, Academia, Bargello, Pitti Palace and San Marco, plus some other secondary places.  The card, which can be purchased at an office at the Uffizi, gives you the leisure to go to the Uffizi for half a day, then go do something else, then return.  In my experience a typical visitor does not quite get 60 euros out of the pass in a single week, but it comes close, and the convenience makes up the difference.  No photos.

Academia:

  • The other most famous and frequently-visited museum in the city.  The Academia hosts the original Michelangelo David and Michelangelo Prisoners, plus a great collection of Renaissance paintings, and, in the upper floor, a great Saint Spotting area including a huge collection of icons of Saint Zenobius.  Michelangelo’s fame means the Academia is always extremely crowded, and there are always mobs around the David.
  • Cost: also 11-ish, 14-ish with an appointment.
  • Time required: 5+ hours
  • Hours: 8:15 am to 6:50 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.
  • Website: http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/musei/?m=accademia
  • Notes:  The Academia is great, but it’s also a lot of hassle and chaos, especially during peak season, and it’s not actually that much better than most of Florence’s other, less popular great museums.  As with the Uffizi, make an appointment or get the Friends of the Uffizi card, but honestly, if you are only in Florence briefly and need to choose carefully, there are other things you can see that are just as fabulous and a lot less difficult.  No photos.

Bargello:

  • Formerly the prison and seat of the city’s chief of police, the Bargello is a fabulous fortress, with battlements and hundreds of coats of arms of knights who served in it.   Now it houses the city’s Renaissance sculpture collection, including Donatello’s David and Cellini’s Ganymede.  Easy to reach and inexpensive, this little museum takes a comfortable half-day to see thoroughly, but is crammed with  world-class pieces.   Also contains collections of ceramics, a chapel whose fresco includes the oldest surviving portrait of Dante, and assorted “stuff” ranging from Roman cameos to an ivory and ebony medieval portable backgammon set.
  • Cost: 5 euros
  • Time required: 3-4 hours.
  • Hours:  (sigh) 8:15 AM to 1:50 PM, closed the 2nd & 4th Monday and 1st, 3rd & 5th Sunday of each month and randomly selected holidays.
  • Website: (the official one seems to be down) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bargello
  • Notes:  No photography is permitted in the sculpture rooms, but they do let you take photos in the courtyard.

Palazzo Pitti:

  • This enormous palace in the across-the-river (Altrarno) area is where the Medici dukes moved once the Palazzo Vecchio proved too cramped for their royal style.  It contains seven museums in one, which are confusingly grouped into two separate tickets.  They are constantly rearranging what is on what ticket, so this info may be out of date:
  • Ticket 1 is for the Palatine Gallery, which includes yet another collection of extraordinary paintings, including a lovely Raphael holy family, a great Filippino Lippi madonna, Titian’s extremely sensual Mary Magdalene, and elaborate baroque frescoed walls and ceilings.  It also contains some of the finest examples of Pietra Dura, the Florentine art of making elaborate images out of inlaid semi-precious stone.  It also includes the Royal Apartments, with all the fancy furniture.
  • Ticket 2 is for the Argenti Museum, or silver museum, which houses the ridiculous treasures which belonged to the Medici family.  When I say ridiculous I mean it, and the endless cases of ivory vases, gilded cups, huge amber reliquaries and elaborate hand-carved rock crystal dishes leaves one completely overwhelmed by the opulence of wealth.  Prepare to be stupefied by the sheer genius of human opulence.  This collection is very different from anything you meet at a typical museum, and I recommend it highly as a break from too much art.  The first few rooms also feature truly astounding fake-perspective frescoes, and one of my favorite fresco cycles of all time, depicting Lorenzo de Medici inventing the Renaissance.  There are also frequently interesting temporary exhibits in the initial rooms.
  • Also on Ticket 2 are the Boboli Gardens, the large, meandering Italian gardens behind the palace.  These are great for a quick stroll, or for getting really winded on the endless slopes and stairs.  At the river end of the gardens is the grotto, an elaborate Renaissance fantasy of a fake excavated ancient Roman villa, covered with fake mud and fake ruins and rustic mosaics made of seashells.  It is only open for brief intervals at unpredictable times of day, so if you go, ask an employee when it will be open that day, to make sure you don’t miss it.
  • Minor museums included in one ticket or another are the Modern Art gallery, the Costume Museum (disappointingly small and modern), the Porcelain Museum, and the Carriage Museum.
  • Cost: 8.5 euros for the Palatine, 7 for the Argenti.
  • Time required: 3-4 hours for the Argenti, another 3-4 for the Palatine, 1-2 each for the others.
  • Hours: 8:15 to 6:50, closed Mondays.
  • Website: For the Argenti: http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=argenti, For the Palatine: http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=palatina
  • Notes:  No photography except in the gardens.

Museum of the History of Science (Museo Galileo):

  • A phenomenal collection of scientific instruments from the Renaissance through 19th century, though mostly 17th and 18th.  Astrolabes, sextants, orreries, clocks, barometers, telescopes, electrostatic generators… These are pieces from the period when scientific demonstration models were designed to impress aristocratic patrons, so gold and engraving are the norm.  Highlights include Galileo’s telescopes (and finger and thumb in a reliquary), apothecary’s work table, the Military Compass (dagger with built-in compass and other mathematical tools), and a gruesome collection of 18th century full color obstetric models showing dissected female torsos and the various ways babies can be laid wrong in them.
  • Cost: 8 euros.
  • Time required: 3-4 hours.
  • Hours: 9:30 AM – 6:00 PM, except on Tuesdays, when it closes at 1:00 PM.
  • Website: http://www.museogalileo.it/en/index.html
  • Notes: Private museum, not included on the Friends of the Uffizi ticket.

Museo del Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Cathedral Corporation):

  • The construction of Florence’s massive cathedral, which was, at the time, the most spectacular church in Christendom, was an incredibly expensive undertaking, and the Renaissance corporation created to oversee it survives to this day.  This museum showcases the art and artifacts which belong to that corporation, including numerous sculptures from the old early Renaissance facade which was later torn down in favor of a more modern one, the wooden models of different designs for the church, and many of the tools used for it.  Highlights include Donatello’s stunning wooden sculpture if Mary Magdalene, the reliquary from the Baptistery containing the right index finger of John the Baptist, and the original Baptistery sculptures and (once they’re done cleaning them) the real Gates of Paradise.
  • Cost: 6 euros
  • Time required: 2-3 hours.
  • Hours: 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM, except on Sundays, when it closes at 1:45 PM.
  • Website: http://www.operaduomo.firenze.it/ There does not seem to be an English version of this website.
  • Notes: Not included on the Friends of the Uffizi ticket.

Palazzo Strozzi:

  • An enormous city palace built by one of Florence’s leading merchant families, the Palazzo Strozzi hosts a circuit of temporary exhibits, usually pretty good, but each is unique, so check it each time you consider coming. The Strozzi family were never the most powerful, but generally the biggest wealthy merchant family, with the most individual households, so widely feared (and often exiled) by the Medici and other rivals. This palace was built after a return from exile, and celebrates their presence in the city.
  • Cost: Variable by exhibition and greed.
  • Time required: 2-4 hours depending on exhibit.
  • Hours: 9:00 AM – 8:00 PM, Thursdays 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM.
  • Website: http://www.palazzostrozzi.org/index.jsp?idProgetto=2&idLinguaSito=2
  • Notes: Private museum, not included on the Friends of the Uffizi ticket.

La Specola (Museo di Storia Naturale):

  • All major cities have natural history museums, but not ones founded by the Medici.  La Specola hosts eighteenth-century specimen collections, including skeletons and dissection models, many many more elaborate wax surgical models than the science museum, and the Medici’s pet hippo (stuffed).  Not for those with weak stomachs.
  • Cost: 6 euros, 10 euros for museum and exhibition.
  • Time required: 2-4 hours.
  • Hours: 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM, closed Mondays.
  • Website: http://www.msn.unifi.it/mdswitch.html
  • Notes: Some ticketing connection with Pitti Palace which I don’t quite understand. (Quoth the website in two contiguous lines: disabled access: YES / disabled access: NO)

Read about Florence’s Churches and Monuments.

A Passion for Porphyry

 Posted by on December 22, 2011  History  10 Responses »
Dec 222011
 

The Vatican museum: hall after hall of ancient Rome.  Shelves crowd the corridors with busts of Caesar, of Cicero, of a hundred obscure Senators, of still more-obscure Romans, anonymous but vivid with two-thousand-year expressions of resolve or grit or whimsy crowded shelf on shelf.  Here sits Penelope still patient, Diana hunting, Bacchus laughing merry, while somewhere in the distance the Sistine Chapel lurks, complacent in its celebrity.  In the Hall of Animals, Roman hounds sniff at Roman horses, rabbits, crabs, crocodiles, camel heads with their enormous, gummy lips, all stone.  The Belvedere Courtyard stunned you with its circle of masterpieces every one of which transformed the history of sculpture: the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso that so fascinated Michelangelo, and, as matchless when the Renaissance unearthed it as it was when Pliny called it the best of sculptures 1500 years before, the real Laocoön.  The walls and ceilings of the patchwork labyrinth-palace are such an ocean of gilded cornices and marble tracework that it becomes impossible to tell north from south or ground from upper floors, so all sense of grounded space is long gone as you turn the corner into a grand scarlet rotunda, floored with vivid Roman mosaics.  Statues of gods and emperors loom, more than twice life-height: grim-faced Athena, tired Claudius, the massive gilded Hercules; while the friend beside you stops dead and, slack-jawed, points at a big stone tub in the middle of the room: “Look at the size of that hunk of porphyry!”

Yes, it’s porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple speckly stone, and this room, for the many who enter and ooh and aah and glittering Hercules, is another moment of material illiteracy.  Just as a Catholic spots John the Baptist by his hairshirt, and a fashionista a Gucci handbag by whatever alien cues its curves contain, so from the Roman Republic to Napolean a European knew what porphyry implies: Wealth, Technology, Empire, Rome.

Porphyry has become a generic term for igneous rock containing large spots (crystals), but the source of the name is the Greek word for purple, and the purple form is the true original.  This is referred to as Red Porphry, Purple Porphyry, or, most aptly, Imperial Porphyry.


The Imperial Porphyry found in Italy came from a single mine in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites.  It was imported by the Romans as a decorative accent stone, for use in tiled floors, as colored columns, or occasionally carved into a vase or sculpture.  Its color invokes Royal Purple, but is also very close to the color of the fabulously expensive shellfish-based purple dye which produced the purple stripe which marked the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class.  This also dyed the completely purple toga worn by those who occupied the rare and severely powerful office of Censor, a special official created only on occasions, whose task was to examine the state of the Senatorial families and judge which were still worthy of office and who should be removed or added to the roster of Rome’s leading citizens.

A Roman statue with a purple toga rendered in porphyry, from the Boboli gardens behind the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

Several Caesars held this special office, so purple, and porphyry, and as their palaces became more opulent it became increasingly an imperial symbol.  In Constantinople, once the capitol moved in the late empire, the imperial palace contained an entire room covered in porphyry, and this was traditionally where empresses gave birth, giving imperial princes and princesses the title Porphyrogenos, “born to the purple”.

Porphyry is extremely hard, also dense and heavy.  Even lifting a substantial hunk of porphyry is a great feat, let alone transporting it by ship from Egypt.  It is also so hard that it takes very strong, well-tempered steel to cut it, and even then, achieving any great degree of precision is very challenging.  The Romans had steel good enough, but it too was lost in the Middle Ages, making Roman porphyry artifacts not only symbols of the Caesars but of the impossible godlike skills of the ancients, which their weak successors could only marvel at.  It was physical, recognizable proof that the Romans could do the impossible.  In addition, the location of the mine in Egypt was lost around the fourth century AD, and not successfully rediscovered until 1823.

Imperial Porphyry has a cousin, green porphyry, or Lapis Lacedaemonius, commonly called Serpentine.  It is just as hard, coming from a mine near Sparta (or near the modern Greek town of Krokees).  It is speckled too though often with larger speckles, many somewhat rectangular or X-shaped.  The combination of rich green and purple, usually set in a white Italian marble background, was an extremely popular decorative element seen all over Rome, in the houses of Rome’s imitators, and especially in palaces and churches which re-used floor tiles looted from Roman sites.  Porphyry ornaments the floors of Rome’s greatest churches, with the size and density of porphyry among the framing stones increasing toward the altar.  The header at the top of this very blog shows a porphyry section from the floor of the Sala della Disputa, the frescoed room in the Vatican which hosts Raphael’s incomparable School of Athens, while the Sistine Chapel Floor (not a phrase you hear often enough) completes the opulence of the other decoration with a dense decoration more purple than white.

In the Middle Ages, then, porphyry meant Rome, specifically the lost power of the Caesars who could reach across oceans and achieve impossible feats.  Anywhere porphyry appeared it was a Roman relic, and anyone who had it could claim thereby to be an inheritor, in some small way, of that lost Imperium.  Porphyry also came, over the middle ages, to symbolize Christ (reddish purple = blood), but in the Middle Ages everything came to represent Christ, from griffins and unicorns to pelicans and pomegranates (no, it’s totally not a co-opted pagan symbol, why do you ask?), so what distinguished porphyry from the zillion other things that represented Christ was still its imperial connection and its technological unachievability.

Re-purposed porphyry in a Church floor, with remnants of its Roman inscription.

Thus everyone who’s everyone wanted porphyry, and if you wanted it, you had to steal it.  The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source.  Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church?  Loot it from a Roman temple.  Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven?  Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus.  If a pope wanted porphyry columns for his tomb, he had no better source than to go to some surviving Roman temple (say, the Pantheon…) and rip out the porphyry, perhaps if he’s polite substituting some less valuable stone to keep the looted edifice from falling down.

Some places already had porphyry brought there by the Romans, and in these cases it was proudly displayed as proof of the noble Roman origins of a town or province.  Even in Florence, on the baptistery which is the literal heart and center of the city, the gilded Gates of Paradise are still flanked by two old, cracked and mended, asymmetrical dark reddish columns, built into green and white facade despite a complete chromatic mismatch.  So old and dull are they that many don’t even notice them upon first or even third visit, but these are porphyry, relics of the Roman-era Church of Santa Reparata, or its predecessor, preserved and re-used here as proud proof of Florence’s Roman roots.

The Uffizi “lupa” i.e. she-wolf

Porphyry sculpture was even more impressive than a tile or column, since working such an adamantine substance into complex shapes required immense time and skill.  Diamond was rare and valuable and not a practical tool for trying to make a large chisel to work large stone, but short of diamond the only means to shape porphyry was to rub it against another piece of porphyry for a very long time, grinding both down, a clumsy, labor-intensive and imprecise technique.  Many, especially the Medici family, poured funds and efforts into researching ways to make a metal sharp enough to carve porphyry, or a solvent capable of weakening it, in hopes of adding this to their list of resurrected Roman achievements.  Even before they succeeded, however, possessing a Roman porphyry sculpture was an even grander boast than possessing simple tiles, and at last now we can understand why, in the Uffizi Gallery, where the great Roman sculpture treasures of the Medici are still housed, one comes around the corner to the very center of the U-shaped gallery, expecting to see in the center some exceptional masterpiece, an Emperor or bold Athena, one sees instead the mangled, limbless torso of an animal.  Look again: those hips, those hanging teats.  This is the mangled, limbless torso of a porphyry she-wolf, the symbol of Rome herself.

A porphyry bust at Versailles.

Naturally, the greatest concentration of porphyry lay (and lies) in and around Rome itself.  The farther you are from Rome, the scarcer (and more impressive) porphyry becomes.  Florence had a couple columns and the odd basin, but for more porphyry they had to buy or steal from Rome, or elsewhere.  The Venetians carried off large pieces of porphyry from Constantinople when they looted it, and still display them proudly as pulpits on either side of the main alter in San Marco.  Porphyry in northern Italy is comparatively scarce, so a Venetian palace with a few roundels in its facade makes a real statement.  Even as far as France, when Louis was decorating Versailles, porphyry was scarce indeed, but what few busts and vases he got hold of went straight into the best places: the throne room, and the Hall of Mirrors where every visitor would see, and understand, Louis = Caesar.

The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case.  The staggeringly enormous porphyry basin in the round sculpture room in the Vatican palace is referred to as Nero’s bathtub, and is the largest piece of porphyry I have ever seen; I would not be surprised to discover it is the largest in the world.

The sarcophagus of St. Helen

One is generally still reeling from trying to imagine the staggering cost and difficulty of creating and moving such an object, when in the next room one encounters an even more impossible vision: two enormous solid porphyry sarcophagi, both taller than a standing person, and covered in deep relief carvings of horsemen, prisoners and acanthus leaves.  This is Rome indeed.  Specifically, these are the sarcophagi of the women of Constantine’s family, including the tomb of his mother, Helen, or more specifically Saint Helen, who traveled to the holy land and brought back the True Cross and the Lance of Longinus and… at least one other major relic, but I can’t right now remember whether it was a nail or part of the Crown of Thorns, or perhaps that piece of the Holy Sponge they have in Rome…  (Spot the Saint moment: Helen’s attribute in art is that she carries the cross.)  Regardless, the two tombs have no Christian imagery, just the most Roman of Roman decorations, horsemen leading vanquished prisoners for Helen, and for the other fertility images.  In deep, impossible relief.  In an era when it was a substantial feat to scrape two looted pieces of porphyry into sufficiently matching shapes to make them seem symmetrical in a floor pattern, there is no purer proof of the godlike power of the ancients.  After that, there is just too much, and every further encounter with porphyry in the Vatican labyrinth feels like one, two, three, five, ten too many.

That guy should be taking a photo of the porphyry!

St. Peter’s is just as much a showroom for porphyry, with columns, tiles, tombs.  Every purple object that, from a distance, makes you think “is that porphyry?” turns out to be the genuine article.  And it’s worth keeping in mind that, except for the most modern pieces, they’re all relocated chunks of what were Roman temples scattered around the city from the Caesars’ days.

One large porphyry round in the floor close to the entrance is supposed to be the stone from the original St. Peter’s on which Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (and successor to the Caesars) on Easter, 800 AD.  It’s just inside the entrance in the exact center of the Church, sort of balancing the altar, secular power facing sacred.

Perhaps my favorite piece of papal porphyry, though, is this set of porphyry keys carved and set into other stonework in the threshold of the Church, so every visitor who enters walks across them.  Most ignore them, but in the pre-modern world one glance at heraldic papal keys in porphyry spells a very special kind of awe: not only does the pope have Porphyry but apparently he has the power to carve it into a Christian shape.  Clearly he is Rome’s successor.  With so many visiting feet for so many centuries, the papal threshold keys are also the best proof I know of the extreme hardness of porphyry, since the stone around them is worn down by more than a centimeter, while the keys stick up, unharmed by the tread of millions.  The Florentine Museum of the History of Science has examples of scientific instruments and grinding stones fashioned from porphyry, chosen for its rigidity and inelasticity as well as for its opulence.

It is not easy stopping traffic long enough to take this detail shot of the threshold of St. Peter’s

Note how much more detailed the carving on the marble chest is than the porphyry head on this bust of a late Medici.

The ability to carve porphyry was eventually recovered, and in the 18th century Roman relics were transformed into large numbers of sculptures, especially busts, of rather questionable taste and quality.  Porphyry remains hard to work with, so the very subtle curves and scratches necessary to make a really lifelike human portrait are simply impossible in it.  Its products are always a little too smooth and shiny, the edges of the eyes clumsily cut, the wrinkles a little too smooth, like waves rather than folds.  Also, purple with speckles is not the most flattering skin tone.

Fake porphyry was, naturally, an industry as well, and many of the most famous buildings in Europe contain not only real porphyry but painted fake porphyry, made of plaster or wood painted with the signature purple and speckles.  This was most often done for bases on which statues sat, or for trim around rooms, but the Villa Borghese in Rome contains whole tabletops of fake porphyry, with real porphyry busts nearby to make them plausible.  Porphyry was also a popular ingredient in painted scenes, especially paintings of imagined palaces, and of places intended to be ancient Rome.  And heaven, of course.  The halls of Heaven, where saints and angels pose for altarpieces, have plenty of porphyry.

Reverse of a decorative wooden platter, painted to look like porphyry

Oct 312011
 

Since I talked recently about the Heavenly Court, comparing the office of Patron Saint to nobility holding landed titles, I would like to pause a moment to discuss Florence’s two former patron saints.  Just as cities and counties move from noble house to noble house and dynasties replace each other over the course of meandering politics and war, so cities can change hands from saint to saint.  John the baptist is not, in fact, Florence’s first patron saint, but its third (fourth, if you count the very early patronage of San Lorenzo).

Saint Reparata (Santa Reparata)

  • Common attributes: Crown, martyr’s palm frond
  • Patron saint of: nothing specific, really
  • Patron of places: Florence, Nice
  • Feast days: October 8th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints
  • Relics: Nice Cathedral

Santa Reparata falls into that palette of early martyr saints which historians constantly point out may be mythical.  If she existed, she did so in Caesaria in Palestine, and was martyred under Decius.  She was saved from being burned alive by miraculous rain, was then forced to drink boiling pitch, but still refused to recant, so was beheaded. Thus she falls into the same general late Roman virgin martyr category as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, but was never nearly so popular.  Her relics were (much later) brought to Nice.

Santa Reparata doesn’t have much distinctive iconography becuase she is a very obscure saint, and never depicted, really, except in her own territories of Florence and Nice.  Much as you don’t find portraits of a low-ranking baron in faraway cities, you don’t find Santa Reparata in Rome and Paris, she’s just not high up enough in the heavenly court.  She often has a crown–as martyrs frequently do–and a palm frond–ditto–but other than that she’s just a girl in late Roman clothes.

How then can you spot her?  She’s one of the saints you have to sort by taxonomy, i.e. looking for generic attributes then using common sense.  “There’s a woman here with a palm frond and no other attributes–wait, I’m in Florence, so it’s probably Reparata!”

Florence was Santa Reparata’s major cult site throughout the Middle Ages.  Her church stood in the center of the city opposite the baptistery.  When the growing power of Florence demanded a correspondingly large and impressive cathedral, and inclined them toward higher ranking patron saints, the city had to secure special permission to consecrate the replacement church to the Virgin.  The Duomo stands on the former site of Santa Reparata, and parts of the original church are visible if you go down into the crypt.   The Duomo which replaced it is Santa Maria del Fiore, St. Mary of Flowers, the flowers referring to the Florentine Lilly and the papal rose, since it was personally dedicated (and permitted) by Pope Eugene IV who was in town in 1436 doing, you know, pope things.

Saint Zenobius

  • Common attributes: Bishop
  • Occasional attributes: Florentine red fleur de lis, flowering tree
  • Patron saint of: Florence
  • Patron of places: Florence
  • Feast days: May 25
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, resurrecting somebody
  • Close relationships: St. Ambrose, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius
  • Relics: Florence, Santa Reparata crypt

Saint Zenobius was the first bishop of Florence.  He supported St. Ambrose in battling the Arian heresy.  He brought several people back from the dead, and his relics resurrected a dead elm tree.  He used to be buried in San Lorenzo in Florence, but was later moved to Santa Reparata/the Duomo.

Saint Zenobius is one of these cases of an early Christian who did a good job and was pious and therefore got to be a saint just for that, without getting martyred or founding a giant order or anything.  I support this, but it means his primary role was in Christianizing Florence and putting it on the map, so he is not and never will be particularly beloved outside his native town.

Zenobius is particularly valuable for Florence since he’s a saint who’s actually from Florence.  The more one studies hagiography, the more one realizes that Florence had a rather embarassing paucity of saints.  Milan had Ambrose, Padua had Antony, Verona had Peter Martyr, Sienna had Bernardino and Catherine, Assisi had Francis and Claire, Dominic died in Bologna, even Pisa had Rainerius, while Florence… Florence…

Peter Martyr defeats a possessed horse, a minor miracle but it totally happened in Florence!

There was that one time Peter Martyr dropped by and defeated a possessed horse, and Francis and Dominic visited, and Bernardino of Sienna, but with such illustrious saintly neighbors, many from less powerful cities, Florence really needed a local saint, not just a patron but an actual Florentine, or it frankly looked bad.  Florence was one of the five largest cities on Earth during the Renaissance–shouldn’t it produce at least one local saint?  And the fact that the Medici had arranged for the city to bury the infamous antipope John XXIII in the Baptistery didn’t help matters.

The Florentines made a decent sainthood case for Dante (which I heartily support), and the optimistic Dominicans at San Marco have carefully preserved the relics of Savonarola just in case, but getting someone made a saint requires approval from the pope, and both Dante and Savonarola were… how to put this delicately… well, Dante made a special place in Hell for popes and wanted the papacy’s earthly power to be overthrown by the Empire, while Savonarola declared that the pope was the Antichrist (which, given that the pope in question was Alexander VI, aka. Roderigo Borgia, may not have been far off, but  it didn’t exactly endear Savonarola to said Antichrist’s successors, nor did the fact that Savonarola’s writings were so popular with Reformation leaders).  So both Florence’s leading candidates for sainthood were flatly on the wrong side of the official approval process.  Plus Dante was banished from Florence, so his relics are in Ravenna (not helpful), and the Florentines killed Savonarola, and he was from Ferrara originally anyway.  Not the best show, oh magnificant republic, and not the best P.R. situation for a city which already had a reputation as a bizarre and wicked sin-pit, whose economy was based on usury, whose greatest poet and saint-candidate declared that Florence’s name was famous throughout Hell, and whose name in verb form (“Fiorentinare” i.e. make like a Florentine) genuinely was a medieval euphemism for sodomy across Europe.  So, Saint Zenobius it is!

Zenobius, in partnership with Reparata and, to a lesser extent, Lorenzo, were the city’s patrons for many centuries.  Eventually Florence increased in importance (and relic possession) and the city became one of the territories possessed by that most favored of courtiers (and cousin to the King!) John the Baptist.  But, like any good fiefdom, Florence still honors its lower local patrons too.

Zenobius is impossible to recognize in art most of the time, since he has no unique attributes.  Even the facade of the Duomo had to label him so people would be sure.  He was a bishop, so he dresses like a bishop, but so do at least fifty other saints.  Sometimes he has a flowering branch, representing his resurrected elm tree, which helps, but usually all you can do is say, “I’m in Florence and there’s an unidentified bishop saint; maybe Zenobius?”  Occasionally a Florentine red fleur de lis is put on his clothing somewhere as a clue, but not always, and the fleur de lis wasn’t a Florentine symbol until many centuries after Zenobius’ death.

Saint Zenobius had two deacons who worked for him, Eugene and Crescentius.  They also get to be saints, because they worked hard and did a good job (reason enough for me).  They dress like deacons (i.e. like San Lorenzo does) and are easily recognizable because if St. Zenobius is standing around with two guys dressed like deacons then they’re Eugene and Crescentius; they are never depicted in any other contexts.

We now have our set of Florentine saints.  If you see a painting or mosaic that has Lorenzo and John the Baptist and a random bishop and a woman with a crown and martyr’s palm and nothing else, it’s a pretty certain guarantee that it was made in Florence.

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SAINTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

You know everyone in this picture except the woman on the right hand side; but with her, you should at least be able to tell one important thing about her.

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Arbitrary Pricing

 Posted by on October 26, 2011  Italy  No Responses »
Oct 262011
 

Drum roll please… time for the results of my Guess the Purse – Guess the Price challenge:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse

Purse #2: The inconveniently small reptile purse (giant clutch)

Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

 

I often stroll through what I call the “thousand dollar purse” district, but even I stopped short the first time I spotted Purse #2 in the window.  Did they put in an accidental extra digit?  I was used to trying to guess from a distance whether any given purse cost 200 or 400 or 600, but nothing had quite prepared me for quintuple digits.

This thousand-euro dress is made of hand painted art nouveau velvet lace and is beautiful and obviously very labor-intensive and I am totally comfortable with it costing a thousand euros.

I had known fashion items in the ten grand range existed, so it wasn’t that which shocked me as much as my complete inability to tell why that particular purse cost ten times what its neighbor did.  Not only did I not know, but I couldn’t even begin to understand how I might know, yet at the same time I’m very aware that for people connected with the world of fashion, all it would take is a glance to tell.  It was a language barrier.  Like how an architect fluently interprets the vocabulary of a facade, a mechanic the sounds of an engine, or a medieval person can recognize saints at a glance.  A moment of feeling what illiteracy must be like.

If these purses came with the chicken feet, and if they would run around and follow you and fetch your bag whenever you wanted... no, it still wouldn't be worth 2000 euros!

Except at the same time, Reason rebels:  10,900 euros!  It’s a purse!  It’s a glorified sack!  I could make one in 20 minutes out of fabric or duct-tape, and the materials can’t possibly cost more than a few hundred.  Nice ones are nice, and I have some bags I’m very fond of, but… is it from the Moon?  Made of the hide of the last surviving wyvern?  Does it cure disease and repel undead?  Is it electronically synched with a satellite which will shoot pickpockets with lazers from space?  Was the leather bathed in the healing liquor which drips from the tomb of Saint Catherine of Alexandria ?  Is it perhaps like George Jetson’s suitcase, and folds out into a car?  I’d pay fifteen grand to never have to park again, but anything less…

Apparently crabby thirteen-year-olds shop at Prada

Now, I don’t dislike fashion.  I quite enjoy looking at interesting clothes, studying costume history, making costumes, looking at shop windows, get excited over a particularly rich fabric or elegant coat tail, and I do pay serious attention to how I myself dress.  Fashion is a form of communication.  That’s how I primarily think of it: a social tool whose vocabulary of gender, class, situational, ethnic, geographic and subcultural cues let people communicate to others a kind of instant introduction and self-presentation.

 

Sullen vampire faeries shop at Cavalli

When a dolphin meets another dolphin the first thing they do is urinate at each other, because by tasting each other’s urine in the water they can tell a lot about each other: age, gender, health, “Hello, I’m a juvenile female who just pigged out after a long journey without enough food.”  “Well, hello, I’m a middle-aged female local to this area and in heat; get stuffed.”  Clothing accomplishes the same, in balance with function, comfort and expense, of course.  On a bus or subway one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know a lot about what class and type of professional or hobbyist most people are trying to seem.  I have a great respect for people who manage to use clothing to present themselves in ways which make them seem exciting and also give a good sense of who they are, and I strive to do so myself, and, in my case, maintain several different wardrobes (nerd, professional, historical, otaku) for presenting myself when I hop from hat to hat among my many spheres.

This fashion succeeds in communicating: if you want to present as an Icy Big Boss Lady and bully action heroes, shop here.

Like language, clothing as communication requires one to work within a set vocabulary.  As an astute economics textbook I read on the matter once pointed out, it might be that to some person encasing herself in a two-foot-diameter aluminum tube perfectly summarized her thoughts about herself, but if she walked to a room like that no one would be able to interpret it, so it would fail as communication.  Tweed jacket with leather elbow pads = professor, black with spikes = punk with all its countercultural associations; you can’t reverse or change that until the whole culture does, or no one will know what you mean.

This outfit succeeds in communicating: wealthy, fashionable

But the fashion industry is something different: it changes constantly, every season, and it’s in its very changeability that it somehow communicates.  Bowtie = quirky/geeky/old-fashioned; wearing the latest fancy thing that’s currently in shop windows, whatever that may be = fashionista.  Thousand dollar purses do have a function, which is to communicate that this is a person of sufficient wealth and education and with the proper tastes to want one.

Returning to the familiar ground of the Renaissance, a blue garment or a lady with pearls woven through her hair is a declaration to passers-by of social class, and important for enabling the correct interaction between classes, and for making political and economic contacts and alliances.  When Alessandra Strozzi writes in her letters of having a daughter married wearing hundreds of florins worth of pearls sewn to her garment, the wedding procession was an invaluable advertisement of the family’s wealth and status and its connection to its neighbors, which played a significant role in the political interplay between Strozzi, Medici and other rival powerful families in the city.  This has a function, and even a wedding dress that cost as much as a house did have a function, and I respect that.

Here a wedding procession through downtown Florence is depicted on the Adimari Cassone (c. 1450). A cassone is a wooden chest, usually used to hold clothing, and they were often decorated with wedding images and carried in the wedding procession; another way to display the wealth of clothing involved in the alliance of great houses. You can see the Baptistery and Florentine trumpeters on the left.

I can respect these shoes. They make their owner seem like an interesting person.

I understand these shoes; they tell me a wealthy woman is going to an important, formal event.

The problem comes in contemporary fashion from the fact that now one often has to be such a fashion-conscious person in order to interpret correctly, because to the untrained eye this year’s black Gucci purse looks exactly like last year’s black Gucci purse.  It’s a private dialect spoken only among a specific type of wealthy, trend-minded elite.

 

This season’s trends prove precisely why the private dialect of high fashion baffles me where other regions of fashion seem reasonable and, indeed, fun.  This season’s “look”, as one can’t help but notice on a stroll past Florence’s boutique windows, focuses on huge, rough, bulky, shaggy knitwear, mostly in brown, beige, gray or black, with accents in orange and teal.

Huge, shaggy knitwear of precisely the style that knitting hobbyists–a slice of society associated with old-fashioned handicrafts, tradition, nerd culture, and the shy prim crafts-doing girl type–produces.  There is no way that I can perceive to tell the difference between these 300 euro Ralph Lauren shawls and scarves and something one might request from a grandmother, or see growing longer panel by panel at a con.

This tells me that the wearer is cold and slobby, not trendy and rich!

Spot the Saint! The John the Baptist Hairshirt Look is in this season.

It really is the John the Baptist Hairshirt Look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The John the Baptist winterwear ensemble

The John the Baptist Hairshirt Purse, available in camel, avocado and hypercosmic cherry

Hairshirt Shoes complete the ensemble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communication has failed.  Generally speaking,the presumed goal of a fashionable trendy dresser is to communicate to the layman that they’re generically nicely dressed and upper class or upper middle class, while to communicate to the expert that they’re savvy enough to know that boutique X rather than boutique Y is the correct space to spend a few hundred on sunglasses in 2011.  This season’s fashion accomplishes B but fails at A, since passing such an outfit in the street, my first thought would be “oh, that person knits or knows someone who does,” not, “ah, that person is a fashionable dresser.”  The vocabulary of fashion has left communication behind.  The dialect is now incomprehensible to the bulk of the country.

As for the extreme edges of fashion, and fashion advertising, which too often leaves you uncertain even what they’re selling, there one can only revel as in surrealist art.  Here are two choice specimens from the Milan train station billboards.  What am I supposed to want to buy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Heavenly Court

 Posted by on October 21, 2011  Spot the Saint  1 Response »
Oct 212011
 

The ceiling of the baptistery in Padua, with the court of Heaven centered around Christ

Following up on a comment (an as I sit here in my high medieval tower hearing the winds howl through the stone) I want to discuss the institution of Patron Saints.

To me, the key to how Patron Saints were understood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is the concept of the Heavenly Court.  Heaven was often imagined (especially by the less educated classes) as a direct parallel to feudal Earth, that is as a court, with God in the role of ruler, i.e. Emperor, King, Duke, whatever sort of Signore (lord) people are used to.  Heaven in this model is the capital city, and the saints are the courtiers who enjoy the favor of the Lord and are invited to His court.  Mary is the Queen of Heaven, and literally the Lady presiding over the heavenly court.

In normal feudal life when someone needs a favor from a lord, i.e. a tax break, help repairing a bridge, an office, permission to marry in odd circumstances, the settlement of a dispute, one doesn’t go directly from peasant life to the king, one goes through intermediaries, petitioning a local lord, who petitions a higher-ranking noble, who then sends the petition on to the sovereign, or, if nervous that the sovereign might be harsh, to the Lady of the court, who is supposed to be more likely to be sympathetic.  The most powerful saints, Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, are the inner circle of favored councilors, and newcomers like St. Francis of Assisi sometimes join the ranks of inmost courtiers.

Mary, the queen, is the best positioned to secure favors, and, being the societally idealized mother archetype, is expected to be kind, generous, forgiving and nurturing.  And remember that the Latin word “gratias”, often translated as grace, can also be translated as political influence or political favoritism.  Thus “Hail Mary, full of political influence…”

 

The courtiers of Heaven assemble to watch the coronation of the Queen. You should be able to spot Peter, Paul, John the Baptist and Lorenzo among their ranks.

 

 

Beatrice presents the newcomer Dante to some of the heavenly court.

Thus, in Dante’s Commedia, when Beatrice (a virtuous, deceased citizen of Heaven) wants permission to have Dante escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, she does not go directly to God to ask permission.  She goes first to Saint Lucy, patroness of eyesight and some aspects of scholarship and one of Dante’s personal preferred patrons.  Saint Lucy then presents Beatrice’s petition to the Virgin Mary, and Mary, then, presents it to her Lord/Son who gives final permission.

Focusing on the model of God as Emperor, the pope then is his vicar on Earth, which is to say the Emperor is resident in his distant capital but rules a foreign city through a vassal, as the Holy Roman Emperor might be resident in Germany but nominally rule Ferrara from a distance through the Duke of Ferrara, his vassal.  Priests, then, are the bureaucratic agents of that vassal, who are trusted by the distant Emperor and can send messages to him and expect answers, and the hierarchy of the clergy is thus the hierarchy of a subsidiary Lord ruling under a distant overlord.  This, in 1400, makes perfect sense.

The mass of intermediaries seems irrational given our modern individualist model of a world (and therefore universe) of dignified equals (liberty, equality, brotherhood here and in Heaven), and the Protestant model which focuses on a direct relationship between individual and god reduces the value of saints as intermediaries, but in the feudal world feudalism is normal, and the absence of this structure would be rather terrifying.  Your average peasant doesn’t want to imagine himself directly in front of the King without the kind protection of his local patron.

Now, the Patron Saint bit makes sense when you realize that the nobility generally correspond to places: the Duke of Ferrara, the Marquess of Provence, the lord of this or that.  Many nobles rule different scattered territories in different places, as the King of Spain might also be Duke of Athens, for example.  But there are also Crown territories that belong directly to the monarch, rather than belonging to a vassal.  The king may grant these crown territories to a vassal at any time, as a reward for good service, or a show of his love, and different vassals may also acquire territories through marriage, or conquest, or election, etc.

John the Baptist, there on the left, is well-positioned to request favors for his territories, like Florence.

Thus, London is a city which, in the heavenly hierarchy, has been granted to Saint Paul.  Philip the Apostle received the nation of Uruguay much as Spanish and English nobles received hunks of the New World once they became relevant to European courts.  Thomas More was granted the city of Arlington, Virginia once it came into existence, but like any noble who hasn’t yet gotten a particular territory, he was still in the heavenly court before this and enjoyed the favor of the heavenly King, he just didn’t yet have the noble title Patron of Arlington, VA.  Sometimes a town goes from having one patron saint to a different one, or gains a second, just as feudal holdings change hands.  Meanwhile, before these places acquire patron saints, they are Crown Territories, governed directly by their Lord.

Patron saints of particular occupations and types of people also roughly correspond to medieval institutions.  A Wool Guild has its earthly patron in the nobles or wealthy leaders who run it, and children do in the nobles or city lords who pay for orphanages; and they have heavenly patrons too, so if Florence’s gild of locksmiths looks to St. Peter and armorers and weapon makers to St. George, that too makes nice feudal sense.

This is, of course, one of the clearest ways of seeing how extremely medieval a lot of the accumulation of Catholic doctrine is, and why the modern progress of individualism and democracy has made some of that accumulation awkward in the modern world.  Things which were obvious to medieval minds now have to be explained and justified to modern ones not used to the same assumptions about the Heirarchy of Nature etc.  Rituals, allegories and similes which were developed by Medieval people to explain doctrine to Medieval people are being adapted and reframed by moderns for moderns.  Attempting to explain a patron saint to someone who doesn’t have the medieval concept of “patron” is no simple task.  I struggle in my teaching all the time to help students wrap their minds around temporally alien concepts like this, and there’s nothing harder.  The fact that contemporary Catholic theologians have succeeded so well in re-framing and reexplaining so many of Medieval Christianity’s concepts in modern terms is, from a teaching standpoint, very impressive.

This mismatch is also another indicator of how strange Renaissance Florence was, with its Republican government.  Feudalism, monarchy and hierarchy, was the norm, not just in political realities but in the way people thought, their general assumptions.  Even the republican Florentines didn’t imagine Heaven as a republic, they imagined it as a feudal monarchy.  The guilds would rebel violently against any single master on Earth, but were happy to look to their patron saints, and to John the Baptist as the city’s heavenly governor.  The inscription over the Palazzo Vecchio makes it clear: republic-loving Florence still happily submitted to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but not to anyone else.  In the medieval world, then, hierarchy and monarchy were not just the norm but literally worked into the fabric of Heaven and Earth; to have something so different required a truly extraordinary mental leap–though it is certainly debatable whether we should read the leap as forward to modernity, backwards to Athens, or sideways to the unique moment that was Republican Florence.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Sep 102011
 

It’s a bunch of people standing around; thrilling, right?

In galleries, museums, and even on the art-spotted streets of Florence, friends and I love to play “Spot the Saint” – trying to identify the saints in art without looking at the blurb.  I know it sounds flippant to make a game of it, and perhaps it is flippant, but it is also in an important way authentic.  Renaissance art, religious art especially, is aesthetic, but it is also narrative.  Sculptures, paintings and other artifacts were created to retell and comment on stories and people whom the audience was expected to already know.  Being able to identify different subjects, especially saints, by their vocabulary of recurring attributes is a kind of cultural literacy which all Renaissance people had, but most modern viewers lack.  We are the illiterate ones, from the Renaissance perspective, when we come to an altarpiece unable to tell Paul from Peter or Augustine from Jerome.  If you understand who these figures are and what they mean, a whole world of details, subtleties and comments present in the paintings come to light which are completely obscure if you don’t understand the subject.  Time after time I’ve taken friends, who didn’t have much interest in Renaissance or religious art before, and after a few rounds of “Spot the Saint” in the Uffizi had them declare that it suddenly made a lot more sense, and carried a lot more meaning.

What a sweet Venetian street (and canal) corner.

Renaissance art often focuses on details that are absent from the main versions of stories, showing the emotional expressions and making you think about the experiences of secondary characters present at scenes (almost like fanfic, in fact).

There is a wonderful example which (curses!) the internet cannot supply me with a photo of, an altarpiece by Alessandro Gherardini housed in the elusive and rarely open Santo Spirito church, across the river.  It shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary (a very common scene) accompanied by St. Monica and St. Augustine.

(On Augustine see my post on the Doctors of the Church).

Wait a minute – what’s that?

This is not in any way exciting until you think about the fact that Monica is Augustine’s mother, who watched patiently throughout his wild and chaotic youth (wild by any standards – he joined the Manichean cult, and ditched her in Italy while hitching a boat to Africa with no warning), but she kept on, patient and loving, until he finally—through his own independent studies—explored and eventually embraced the Christianity she loved so much, and became one of its great Doctors.  The altarpiece makes you think about the touching parallel between the two mothers’ love for their sons, and how proud Monica would be in Heaven watching Augustine’s growing greatness, and eventually getting to present her beloved son to Mary and her beloved Son.

Why, it’s San Lorenzo!  With his grill!

But if you can’t spot the saints, it’s all a bunch of random figures.

Recognizing saints is also valuable for figuring out who made a piece of art, and why.  Even an expert in a lifetime can’t memorize every single Florentine art treasure and its history, but a layman in a few days can learn enough to tell from the contents and context of a painting how to read a lot about its past and goals.  Some saints are specific to cities; see something with a prominent St. Mark and you can smell Venice, while St. Zenobius is never seen outside Florence.  Some are specific to types of patrons: is your altarpiece full of Dominicans?  Probably the church that commissioned it was too.  Full of female saints flanking Mary Magdalene?  It’s time to suspect it may have been commissioned for nuns, or by a female patron.  Renaissance masterworks didn’t come down to the modern age with convenient explanatory tags already attached: we wrote them, and the historians who did so used these same clues to figure out their origins.

Thus, this will be the first of many “Spot the Saint” posts, by which I hope to introduce the characters and thus open up the story of the art I see every day.  Each entry will introduce a couple of new saints and how to recognize them, so we can all play, and understand.  Since I am in Florence, I will concentrate first on the saints I see every day:

Addendum:

One friend, through more rigorous online hunting than my own, has very kindly provided this low-quality and slightly blurry photo of the altarpiece of Augustine and Monica at the coronation of the Virgin which I discussed above.

Santo Spirito, the church where it is housed, strives to fulfill its mission to protect the church from dangerous activities, like people going to it, looking at its art, or taking decent pictures of its treasures.  I love to visit it, both for the gorgeous contents and architecture, and to spite its over-zealous guardians.  It’s easier to go in these days, but a few years ago you practically had to have a Florentine accent to be admitted.

 

San Giovanni Baptista (St. John the Baptist )

  • Common attributes: Hairshirt, robes, tall stick with a cross on it, wild medium-length hair
  • Occasional attributes: Beard, scroll saying “Ecce agnus dei”, pointing at things, sheep or lamb, rarely a book or something with a lamb on it
  • Patron saint of: baptism, lambs, horse hoof care, printers, tailors, invoked to combat epilepsy and hailstorms (some of these are shared with several others, as is often the case).
  • Patron of places: Florence, Turin, Genoa, Cesena, Umbria, a zillion other Italian towns,Jordan, Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, French Canada
  • Feast days: June 24, August 29, January 7
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, baptizing Christ, pointing at Christ, pointing at viewer, pointing at heaven, visiting young Christ when they’re both kids, standing at the left hand of Christ during the apocalypse and overseeing the sorting of those damned to Hell, being imprisoned by King Herod, being beheaded, having his severed head delivered to Salome on a silver platter.
  • Here he’s pointing at the baby Jesus, lest the viewer, like Mary, be distracted by ever-distracting Saint Sebastian.

    Close relationships: Christ’s second cousin, son of Mary’s much older cousin Elisabeth and of Zachariah (both descended from Aaron); birth prophesied by Gabriel.

  • Relics: Scattered around.  His tomb is in Egypt, but his head is in Rome and Munich and Damascus and Bavaria and many other places.  Florence has his right index finger and part of a forearm.

John the Baptist is an intimidatingly-important saint.

Not only is he a blood relative of Christ, and the pioneer of baptism, his grim task at the resurrection is vividly depicted in the numerous Last Judgment images which traditionally decorate the rear walls of churches.

And if Mary is so important partly because of her role as the kind protector sitting at the right hand of Christ to mitigate the wrath and protecting her faithful during the second coming, John the Baptist does the opposite.  I certainly wouldn’t want to tick off a city under his personal protection.

Florence’s baptistery ceiling makes it clear

As Florence’s patron saint and protector, John the Baptist appears all over the place in Florentine art, and they never tire of painting him pointing at things, both to remind the viewer of his importance as the one who “points the way” to Christ, but also because they have that finger.  You can still see it, in fact, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo, but it used to be housed in the Baptistery, which is the historic heart and symbol of the city.

And a place that made a strong impression on a certain Dante when he was a little boy.

 

You don’t want to tick off the guy in that chair!

The main thing for spotting John the Baptist, though, is the hairshirt, depicted as some kind of fuzzy fur.  Sometimes it’s under a robe, sometimes it’s all he’s wearing.  Even in bronze or stone, it’s always clear:

Ghiberti’s statue on Orsanmichele – I wish this were my photo, but I don’t have a ladder.

San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)

  • Common attributes: carries an enormous iron grill, dressed as a deacon (wearing a dalmatic tunic), short, tonsured hair
  • Occasional attributes: palm frond (any martyr can carry a palm frond), often dressed in red or pink
  • Patron saint of: cooking, chefs, barbeque, librarians, libraries, notaries, administrators, tanners, paupers, comedians, some other things
  • Patron of places: Rome, Canada, Rotterdam, Sri Lanka, Canada
  • Patron of people: Medici Family
  • Feast Day: August 10th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, being roasted alive, being sentenced to death by the Emperor Vespasian, distributing alms to the poor
  • Close Relationships: He’s one of the Deacons of the Church who oversaw its finances in early days, so is associated with other early deacons, and early martyrs, like St. Stephen
  • Relics: They burned him so there are only bits.  Florence has some.  The grill is in Rome.

I already discussed San Lorenzo and his most excellent patronage of the poor in my post about the celebrations of his feast day.  As a prominent early martyr he is very commonly depicted with other martyrs.

“Flip me over, Caesar,” from the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, fresco in the Santuario della Madonna del Colle

He’s a favorite in Florence because he was a keeper of money, and the many moneylenders of the Italian banking circuit (not least the Medici) were eager for examples of virtuous people who dealt with money, so they could justify their financial obsessions and deflect accusations of usury.  That a man who was grilled alive is patron saint of cooking and specifically roasting and barbeque proves there is a sense of humor to these things, as does the fact that his witty last words, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side,” earned him eternal fame as Patron Saint of Comedians.  True grace under (over?) fire.  Also: patron of cooking AND libraries?  There’s a saint dear to my heart.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Good morning, Giotto!

 Posted by on August 7, 2011  History  1 Response »
Aug 072011
 

This morning the Campanile is having some inspections & cleaning.

The city of Florence would like it to be known that 7:00 AM is the correct time to get up and admire Giotto’s bell tower.

Perhaps you didn’t hear me.

IT’S 7 AM!  DONG!!!  I’M A BELL TOWER!  DONG!!!  LOOK AT ME!  DONG!!!  YOU WEREN’T STILL SLEEPING WERE YOU?  DONG!!!

Needless to say, sleeping in is an impossibility in an apartment a few blocks from, not one, but eight separate audible bell towers, which all ring with different degrees of force and verve at different times, all day.  Every day.  Especially Sunday.  The main campanile, though, designed by Giotto and started in 1334, is the hefty one, and guarantees a long, productive morning out of everyone.  Actually, the bell tower (or Campanile) was not finished to Giotto’s design, but he still gets credit, since he is, after all, the much-beloved heart and founder of Renaissance art.

Yes, it is that big, and it's three blocks from where I'm trying to sleep.

Why?

Five minute art history lesson: amaze your friends and impress your parents by being able to tell at a glance the difference between Medieval and Renaissance art!  Yes, it’s that easy.

To explain why Giotto matters I will take you to the first main room of the Uffizi gallery to look at three identical altarpieces depicting the Madonna enthroned with child and angels.  All derive from that era in which almost all art (I’m not talking 3/4, I’m talking 90%) consisted of nearly-identical, stiff iconic images of saints.  In fact, it’s safe to say 50% of them are the Madonna and Child.  This is an era of art that some people find beautiful but many find tedious and repetitive, and both camps are, in my opinion, right.  It is also the perfect way to demonstrate what Giotto did, and why everyone considers him the beginning of Renaissance art.

Madonna Ruccelai (Duccio di Buoninsegna; 1285)

Above is a lovely Madonna by Duccio di Buoninsegna, an excellent late medieval master.  (Click for a bigger version).  Note the beautiful and detailed patterns on the drapes behind the Madonna, rendered in elaborate colors and veined with gold leaf which would have glittered hypnotically in the church candlelight.  It’s beautiful.  Note too that Mary has pretty-much no anatomy.  She’s a big blue blob with a knee, and stars on her robe (one of Mary’s attributes, since Mary is the Queen of Heaven so gets stars).  The angels too are lovely with detailed wings, floating in a stack in non-space.  And her throne, elaborately patterned, knows nothing of perspective.  The whole thing is nearly-identical to a Byzantine icon.

Now, jumping up a few years:

Maestà di Santa Trinita (Cimabue, 1290-1300)

This Madonna, by the excellent and progressive artist Cimabue.  New things are going on here.  Mary has a lot more anatomy: feet, drapes outlined in gold.  The angels, with their lovely wings, are not floating vaguely but are in front of each other as if actually in the same place.  The throne has no formal linear perspective, but does have breadth due to being broader in the front than in the rear.  This is again lovely.

Now, check out Giotto’s:

Ognissanti Madonna (Giotto, 1314-27)

Houston, we have volume.  Look at Mary’s body; she has a chest, weight.  Look at the baby; you can tell how thick his arms and legs are.  Look at the kneeling angels, how you can see the volume of their thighs.  And check out the saints standing on either side: they’re standing in space.  In a plane.  Not just in front of each other but on an actual floor, like people standing in a room.  Their halos are starting to get in the way too, setting the stage for the era when halos will turn from gold discs to smaller arcs, to make room for other objects occupying the same space.  Look at their faces, how they have the proportions of real faces.  Mary less than the others, but the angels’ eyes are in the vertical center of the head, their brows, chins, noses, all in correct proportion.  If he had secretly snuck in a portrait of a real human onto one of those standing saints it would look the same.  Look how the shading on the drapery isn’t just lines but actual shadow so it looks really 3-dimensional.

All checked out and ready for the week.

When you look at it by itself, yes, it’s another fairly monotonous painting of the Madonna, but with more realistic figures we can now move toward realistic space, realistic facial expressions, people interacting with objects, foreground, background, landscape, architecture.

With this we can have a Renaissance.

And with this you can literally glance at a painting, look at how the figures are proportioned, and tell the difference between something from the Renaissance and something that’s in the Medieval/Byzantine/eastern tradition (since, after all, they still make icons of Mary as a shiny blue blob, they just don’t do it much in Italy…)

And I didn’t make you get up at 7 AM to do it either.  DONG!!!