Jul 262013
 
BorgiaFrenchTVPoster

A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!

Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.

My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.

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Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.

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See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy

The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.

Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:

borgia-s1-brd-fr-2d

I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).

The Scariest Library

 Posted by on June 26, 2013  Travel  7 Responses »
Jun 262013
 
The Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel.

I am going to spend the next 5,000 words complaining about library architecture.  Let’s see if I can keep you excited.

(NOTE: This post contains many images, so you may want to read it on a large screen.  It also includes Renaissance paintings with nudity, so be prepared.  Also, I am happy to report that my Kickstarter was a great success and raised a over 200% of its goal.  This will let me organize more performances and other expansions of the project.  Many thanks to the readers who chipped in.)

Michelangelo was a profoundly angry person.  Manifold grievances accumulated over his unreasonably long life: against picky, stingy, and fickle patrons, against incompetent suppliers and cracked marble, against rival artists and their partisans, against ungrateful  and ambitious students, against frustrated love and the Renaissance criminalization of homosexuality, against manipulative popes and his Florentine homeland which never did enough to protect him from them, against lawsuits over fees and contracts whose endlessness swallowed years of productivity, against painting, which he kept getting sucked into even though he hated it (Michelangelo’s bumper sticker: “I’d Rather Be Sculpting”), not to mention against plague, famine, war, debt, Borgias, Frenchmen, Pisa, and all the usual butts of Renaissance Florentine hatred.

We see Michelangelo’s accumulated wrath in late works, like the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.  The much earlier Sistine ceiling (1508-12) is a coherent progression of Old Testament scenes framed by luxurious painted fake architectural elements covered with naked men lounging around in pleasant poses that would be easy to carve out of marble (“See what I’d rather be sculpting!”).  It has strange elements, among them the fact that each biblical scene is held up by four naked men (“Look what I could sculpt!”) sitting on pillars painted to look like carved marble held up by two more naked men (“I could use marble!”) flanked by other naked men made to look like gilt bronze (“Bronze is great too!”), for a ratio of sixteen gratuitous naked men to each Bible scene (“Please let me sculpt something!”).

This is actually a featureless vault.  All the moldings and structures are Michelagenlo's invention, imagining architecture he would enjoy creating (and covering with naked men).

The Sistine ceiling is actually a featureless vault, not flat but smooth-ish, curved subtly by the underlying structure but about as flat as it was possible to make it. All the moldings and structures you see here are Michelangelo’s invention, imagining on a flat surface the architecture he would enjoy creating (and covering with naked men).

Strange and novel as it was, the Sistine ceiling was a brilliant and comprehensible expansion of the artistic ingredients of its era, one which all comers could understand and enjoy.  It was instantly hailed as a masterpiece and much admired and praised, and it instantly made complex painted fake architecture the standard vogue for fresco ceilings, displacing the popularity of the old blue-and-stars.  In contrast, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the altar-side wall of the chapel, painted more than twenty years later (1536-41), is a chaotic ocean of exaggeratedly muscular bodies massed without order or structure, and even the most beloved Spot the Saint stars are barely identifiable.

Il_Giudizio_Universale

Here, for reference, are a couple examples of more standard Last Judgments.  Note the traditional layout: Christ the judge in the center, with Mary at his right and John the Baptist at his left.  On either sides, ranks of the blessed watch in prayer and reverence, usually with Peter and Paul prominent among them.  Below, tombs are opening and the dead emerging, and on Christ’s right (our left) the blessed are being raised to Heaven, while on the left the damned are led off to Hell.

Last Judgment

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lastJudgmentGiotto

Michelangelo’s is radically different.  Calm, ordered structure has been replaced by a sea of chaotic, disorganized clusters of figures, and masses  of muscular flesh.

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Easy-to-recognize figures fade into the muddle.  Here, for example, are some Spot the Saint friends in familiar forms, and in his:

JohnTheBaptistDetail

 SaintPeterDetailSistine

Lorenzo

Catherine

MichelangeloDetail

We now recognize that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a masterwork, and while individual modern people may like it or not depending on taste, we do not, like its original patron, find it so terrifyingly challenging that we want to paint it over, but we can certainly see why it shocked people as it did, and sometimes still does.

The Sistine Chapel is not a library, but I present this sketch of Michelangelo’s rage to help you understand the vestibule into which we are about to stray.

Florence's church of San Lorenzo, built by the Medici, with attached library.  The big dome is a later Baroque addition.

Florence’s church of San Lorenzo, built by the Medici, with attached library. The big dome is a later Baroque addition.

The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Laurenziana), where I often work, was commissioned by the Medici in 1523.  With their second pope (Clement VII) solidly enthroned and Florence subdued, they wanted to add the world’s most sophisticated library to the already stunningly sophisticated architectural masterpiece which was the neoclassical Medici church of San Lorenzo.  The library had many goals—to entice scholars, safeguard the collection, glorify the city—but above all the project aimed to ensure that the Medici’s famous collection of rare books and scholars was suitably displayed, an advertisement to all visitors that they were Europe’s most learned noble house (“We’re nobles now! We bribed the right dudes!”).  Petrarch’s successors had spent over a century filling Florence with rare classics and commentaries from the far corners of the accessible Earth, and time and wealth funneled these into Medici hands.  Thus, the Laurenziana at its birth was staggeringly close to being what humanists had dreamed of: a new Alexandria, collecting ancients and moderns, pagans and Church Fathers, poets and clerics, Greeks and Latins, even Hebrew sources and many translated out of Arabic, assembled and organized for the use of a newly-learned world.  Such a gem deserved a worthy jewel box.

LaurenzianaWhen Michelangelo was commissioned to take on the San Lorenzo library, his patrons wisely instructed that he leave intact the mathematically-perfect neoclassical external structure of the church, and its elegant cloister.  All Michelangelo’s additions are internal, the layout of windows and benches, panels and decoration.

Reached by an unassuming door to the left of the church façade, the cloister remains to this day a welcoming and peaceful haven, whose cool, citrus-scented air washes away the city’s outside bustle.  This architectural vocabulary was familiar to any Renaissance visitor, with the rows of pillars and the single central tree which formed the heart of any monastery, though with slightly more perfect ratios, giving it a neoclassical edge.

Thus it is with an air of awe, comfort and anticipation that our Renaissance visitor ascends the steps to the upper floor to enter the famous library.

Exposici—n

“IT’S GONNA EAT ME!”  I have no better summary of the whiplash moment as one steps into Michelangelo’s vestibule.  What is this sprawling black staircase oozing down at me like a lava flow?  What is this vast dark space, crowded and empty at the same time?  Why is the light so far away?  How is this airy and gloomy at once?  Things!  Things all over, columns, niches, railings, frames, all crammed in too tight, so they seem about to burst out and spill all over you, like an overstuffed suitcase.

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 Photography cannot do it justice since so much of the effect is being suddenly surrounded by this on all sides.  The more familiar you are with how architecture of the era is supposed to work, the more powerful the shock.  Nor is the shock negative: the room is amazing, beautiful, harmonious, just also tense, overwhelming, alien.  Right and wrong at once.  At first one’s reaction is a mass instinctive “What the?!” but as you stay and start to think about it you realize how each individual feature is made of familiar architecture and yet makes no sense.  These dense, paired columns are stuck inside the wall where they do nothing—the point of a column is to not have a wall.  These aren’t columns, they’re column-like things trapped in a wall.  These blank dents, they’re niches, with stands for sculptures that aren’t there and clearly are never supposed to be there.  These blind windows, window frames around solid wall, there’s open air outside them, there is no reason to have rows of window frames without windows except that he wanted that, blind darkness where the shapes of the frames teach your eye to expect light.  Why are these pediments fractured and jagged?  Why do these frame struts remind me of an Egyptian tomb?  What are these huge curving swirly things stuck into the wall?  They don’t do anything?  They just loom!  Why do these three staircases merge into one?  It doesn’t do anything useful!

Michelangelo_Firenze_Biblioteca Laurenziana 2

There is no need for this!

There is no need for this part to be extra tall!

In fact, this whole enormous room is completely unnecessary.  There is nothing in here except a set of stairs whose only purpose is to get you to up to where the main library is, yet the ceiling of this room is above the ceiling of the library, because he actually added an extra half story to it just so more architecture could be there looking menacing. This room is three times as tall as it needs to be, just so Michelangelo can fill it with terrifying stuff!  Shock turns to awe.  The fake architectural elements painted on the Sistine ceiling are now real, but purely as objects of imagination.  The architect has broken free of utility entirely, and wields architecture as pure communication, aimed toward the single purpose of overwhelming all.  Columns, windows and other forms are free to be anywhere, like poetry written in a language that doesn’t have required word order, so a poet can put anything anywhere for maximum impact.

The Laurenziana is not the library architecture I intend to complain about today.  Rather I cite it as an example of successful architecture, which stuns and amazes, and achieves what it set out to.  Michelangelo’s scaaary scaaaary staircase is gorgeous, shocking but gorgeous, like when an unsuspecting public first met Kafka, or Nietzsche, or Dangerous Visions, and came away staggering: “I didn’t know you could do that!”  You can, and if you make Michelangelo angry enough, he will.  One too many Medici commissions had fallen through, and he himself had to leave most of the library to assistants, arming them with models and sketches as he was dragged off yet again to Rome for yet more papal commissions which would inevitably go sour.

He also left us the reading room beyond the vestibule, a restorative paradise of symmetry and order, with warm stained glass and row on row of welcoming wood benches with the books on their chains ready for scholars’ hands.  On the tiled floor and inlaid wooden ceiling, decoration with organic themes—garlands and scrolls with Medici slogans—counterbalances and soothes away the heartless, grim geometry of the vestibule outside.

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November2011 161The books are no longer kept in the reading room, but in more protected quarters downstairs, so visitors can come into this part freely, and experience the three successive plunges into quiet cloister, looming vestibule, and heavenly reading room, and stroll along the seats where our humanist predecessors pored over the Virgil and the Lucretius and so many other wonders.  A friend I went with once called it a secular pilgrimage site, and rightly so.  The clumps of people who speak a dozen languages in awed whispers tiptoe along the tile with the same reverence and thrill of connection that I see fill people in St. Peter’s or San Clemente.  Often someone stops to squat beside the lists posted on each bench, calling a friend’s attention to some especially beloved author: Lactantius, Porphyry, Averroes’ commentaries, Catullus, Theophrastus, Ficino.  It is the opposite of a graveyard—inscriptions row-by-row of who survived.

Beyond the reading room, a little museum area displays a rotating selection of the books themselves: Byzantine medical books, our oldest Virgil, illuminated Homer; and a little gift shop offers temptations including what may be the single best-thought-through piece of merchandising I have ever seen: a lens cleaning cloth featuring the illuminated frontispiece of Ficino’s translation of Plato, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici, so Neoplatonism can literally help you see more clearly.

Some fun treasures displayed at the Laurenziana museum (which is only open before noon):

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Venice’s Marciana library. Certainly passes the architecture test.

I have worked at many libraries similar to the Laurenziana: the Ambrosiana in Milan, the Marciana in Venice, the Estense in Modena, Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the Vatican of course; all grand historic buildings advertising their learned patrons with luxurious halls and stunning facades.  The gorgeous old reading rooms of the American Library of Congress and Harvard’s Widener and Houghton Libraries achieve much the same effect.  Others are housed in more modern buildings, the Villa I Tatti outside Florence which houses the Berenson Library, or the library of the Danish Academy in Rome which showcases modern Danish design.  Some of the modern buildings are, I will admit, not particularly attractive, but places like the Cambridge University Library and the Roman Biblioteca Nazionale are at least comfortable and reasonably practical.

Oxford’s Bodleian library. The current reading rooms have been moved, but one still gets to savor kings and gargoyles.

I took this photo standing on top of the dome of St. Peter's.  In a few seconds I will turn slightly left...

I took this photo standing on top of the dome of St. Peter’s. In a few seconds I will turn slightly left…

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And there is where I have to go to work when it’s Library day.

BritishLibrary1The prince of modern library buildings in my own experience is the British Library in London.  A quick examination of it will provide a perfect, last point of contrast before we  move on to the true subject of today’s post, a library so dreadful I have felt it necessary to show you others first, in order to help you understand the shock and dismay of we who have grown accustomed to spending our research hours basking in beauty only to be cast into dystopia.

The British Library is, to start with, conveniently located on the same block as the King’s Cross hub of London’s underground, in the heart of a city, a comfortable stroll down lively shopping streets and past seductive bookstores to the British Museum and the theater district beyond.  It is surrounded by London’s signature layered architecture, samples of many centuries commixing amicably, like so many dog breeds rough-housing in a park.  Its designers chose brick for the structure, in order to blend with the stunning historic St. Pancras Hotel next to it, augmented by a grand welcoming gate, and a pleasant courtyard with outdoor café and sculptures.
British Library Panorama.

BritishLibrarySculpture

Within, the library is bright and airy, with several different dining options and well-labeled levels.  Chairs of a wide variety of different shapes and types wait for the convenience of patrons of different body types who find different things comfortable.  Card services are downstairs, but no card or ID of any kind is necessary to walk straight up the steps into the “Treasure Room” on the left, which displays a rotating selection of true prizes of the collection: original copies of the Magna Carta, the first draft of Alice in Wonderland, the Beowulf manuscript with the page proofs from Seamus Heaney’s modern translation displayed beside it, the first score for the Pirates of Penzance, Wilfred Owen’s poetry journal with Siegfried Sassoon’s hand-written corrections, Robert F. Scott’s diary, and dozens of other relics which make this free and open display room another worthy pilgrimage spot.

May2013 506Closed stacks are a necessity at such a library, but a selection of several thousand of the most attractive volumes are displayed in a glass-walled interior tower within the structure, so you can see the giddy acres of gilded leather spines, while the rest of the comfortable space is decorated with informational posters about temporary exhibits on topics from sci-fi to propaganda, and whimsical bibliophile art, like the Book Bench and “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth and it does that thing.”  “Eeh?” you say?  Confusion is natural.  Many a time I have tried to describe this thing to people who have never been to the B.L. and failed utterly, while with people who have been, without fail all I have to say is “You know, that thing, when you’re going down the stairs, where you go like this,” (bob head left and right) for the person to say, “Oh, yeah!  That thing!” and bob their heads slowly back and forth the same way.  Even photographs fail, but since amateur video technology has taken a leap forward in the last year, I can at long last coherently present to you what may be the most fun piece of bibliophile art in the world.  Its actual title is “Paradoximoron,” (created by Patrick Hughes) but all are agreed it should forever be known as “That thing at the B.L. where you move your head back and forth.”  (Below are two photos from different angles, then a video.)

 Paradoximoron1

Paradoximoron2

 

Long could I sing the praises of the convenience and practicality of the British Library, but today is not a day for library anecdotes. Today is for architecture, and it is time now to face up to its dark underbelly.

Those who, like me, work on rare books often discuss libraries.  When I tell a fellow specialist I am going to a particular city to do research, the instant question is, “Which library?” since Florence, Rome, Venice, London, and other great capitals house several major collections, generally including a main city library, a separate state archive of government documents, libraries of key noble families or monasteries, and one or more institutes which offer modern secondary sources, academic journals, and critical editions.  Just as one can bond with a friend over shared experience of a favorite shop or restaurant, specialists bond over memories of the libraries where careers, discoveries, and even marriages are made.

When I tell someone, “I’m going to Paris for research,” I get the same question, but with a wholly different tone: protective, timid, scared, “Which library?” The veiled grief is the same which, in troubled times, might follow “Big news at the office today” with the tremulous question:  “Good big news or bad big news?”  Research in Paris can be great news: the Louvre, the bakeries, the Pantheon, and if one is fortunate enough to be working on books at the old Bibliothèque Nationale one can enjoy the same elegant gilt wood and stonework one expects, both of great European libraries, and of Paris, whose general city-wide style is elegant bordering on opulent, with occasional pockets of modern avant-garde and gothic grace.

But there is a fearsome alternative.

The new Paris Bibliothèque Nationale is one of the infamous failures of modern architecture.  Located inconveniently far down a subway line near nothing in particular, it achieves the impossible: wasteland isolation in the midst of Paris itself.  This is not the kind of avant-garde that is hated at first but then becomes an icon of its era, like the Eiffel Tower or the Centre Pompidou or Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.  First I will show you.  Then I will talk you through the depths.

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What are we looking at?  We are right now, believe it or not, on top of the library.  This sprawling, nearly football-field-sized sea of unpainted colorless wood planking is both the roof of the library, and its entrance, since the layout requires you to climb on top, so you experience a feeling of abandoned wilderness as the beauties of Paris vanish away below you, leaving you exposed to wind and sky.  The complete absence of color enhances the feeling of post-apocalyptic desolation.

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Four identical L-shaped towers of featureless glass rise from the corners.  Their completely transparent faces reveal row upon row of identical interior spaces half-shielded by slanted barrier walls of unpainted wood, with occasional glimpses of mass-produced furniture providing the only hint of life.  I have never seen a living person in these towers, and cannot start to fathom their purpose.

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Bars of reflective silver-gray metal fence off the precipices around the outside of the raised wooden walk, and in the extreme periphery cubes of bush isolated within metal cages represent a vague homage to garden.  In the center, emptiness, a cast rectangular pit opens down, and one can just barely lean far enough over a fence of silvery steel bars to glimpse the scraggly, dark tops of trees growing in the depths.  It is down into this pit that we must descend to gain access.

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The whole is so aggressively lifeless that the occasional passing pigeon becomes an exciting reminder of nature.  Apart from the sky (which, on a merciful day, is blue) the only color are the enormous signs in brilliant yellow block writing labeling the two entrances OUEST (West) and EST (East), since otherwise the featureless symmetry of the structure makes it impossible to tell which way is which—the internal labyrinth enhances this confusion, and it is easy to emerge completely uncertain which way lies exit and which way nothing.

We descend via a long conveyor belt along a slanted entry ramp of colorless metal, which provides a better view of the spindly trees in the courtyard.  This is no garden, but an attempt at something “natural”, with woodsy trees and unkempt brush growing underneath. But walled as they are on all sides by towering walls, the trees cannot get as much light or wind or water as nature intends, so they are all thin and wiry, and most require metal struts to keep them standing, creating a sickly parody, neither forest nor garden, artificial without artistry.  It is easy to imagine a dystopian future in which this struggling false ecosystem is the last surviving preserve of “forest” maintained by gardeners who barely understand how trees are supposed to work on an Earth swallowed by the urban waste above.

We enter through glass doors and are examined by guards and instructed to deposit all our worldly goods in lockers, transferring the necessities to clear plastic boxes.  This step is not uncommon—even the British library requires lockers and clear bags—but here one cannot lock things up personally.  Instead we must hand our possessions over to brisk attendants who spirit them out of sight, giving us a numbered paper tag in either blue or yellow (or green, remember the green option).  Stripped and de-bagged, and with our card in hand (if we brought the esoteric materials necessary to secure one) we are prepared to enter.

A cold steel turnstile brings us to mirrored metal doors, then into what feels like an airlock, a completely featureless claustrophobic metal cube with doors on both sides, so we must let the first set close before we can open the second.  It is clear that they can lock them down in an emergency, but how or why, or what one would do if trapped within the airlock, is utterly unclear:

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The area beyond is like nothing I have ever seen: a vast space, looming above and dropping deep below, through which an escalator descends, too tiny, like a single stalactite in the vastness of a cave.  The only windows are so high above and so deeply set that they are no more than taps through which light emerges, and I could not honestly swear that it is sunlight and not some substitute.

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Beyond the first escalator lies another, just as dizzying, though here at last the floor is in sight:

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The walls of this dizzying area, which extends around a corner and down another two stories in one long chasm, are covered with (I kid you not) woven steel wire.  These raw, unpainted metal walls, punctuated only by large metal bolts to hold them in place, reflect off the mirror-polished steel escalator framework to create an architecture not unlike the way I would imagine the interior of a robot.  There are no familiar shapes or substances: no window frames, doors, moldings, not even walls or paint, so the rubber banister of the escalator becomes the only curved or friendly substance in the space, unless one counts the vastness of the industrial orange carpet on the distant chasm floor.  In an interview, the architect said the woven wire walls were supposed to evoke the feeling of chainmail.  Because nothing says “comfortable space to read and study” like a material designed to repel savage medieval combat.

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On the chasm floor we face turnstiles, and must present our reader cards to be scanned and approved, or beeped at by irate machines which instruct us to go to a computerized kiosk and argue with a computer who has some grudge against our library card.  Presuming we pass inspection, another silver airlock gives us admittance to the library itself.  The interior space is one enormous rectangle of unbroken corridors, carpeted in brilliant red, while the rest is still glass and unpainted wood looming many stories above us, and stretching on and on and on.  The computer has assigned us a random desk, hopefully in a subsection relevant to our research interests, and we wander the lengths of the box looking for the right letter.

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The pit, or “courtyard”, with its “forest”, is directly beside us on the other side of the glass wall as we seek our spot, bowed trunks and breeze-tossed weeds a far cry from the Laurenziana’s citrus garden, but at least better than more steel.  But we can’t reach it.  There is no access from the reading room area to the courtyard—we can stare through the slightly dirty glass at life, but can’t actually emerge to stroll among the trunks or smell the leaves.

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BNParis 580The reading rooms themselves are also huge connected spaces, reaching the length of the library, so a cough from one desk reaches half the library, though the incomprehensibly high ceilings help absorb sound.  Periodically the rows of numbered seats are broken up by help desks where sympathetic librarians wait ready to help you wrestle with the automated system.  The work desks themselves are fine, and once Friend Computer consents to deliver your materials it is perfectly straightforward to do a day’s work, once one recovers from the entry process.

BNParis 577Leaving is its own Kafkaesque process.  One returns one’s library materials and heads out the lower airlock to the chainmail chasm, where the turnstile again scans your card and permits exit, or squeals its electric fury and demands that you return to fix some unspecified check-in error.  If the computer decides to set us free, we emerge through another airlock, there to beg for the return of our worldly goods, and must wait in one of two lines depending on whether we received a blue or yellow ticket.  We, in fact, received a green ticket, and mill around in some confusion until we collect twelve other people with green tickets and start clogging things until they consent to send a grudging drudge to take us to an area not usually used for this (or anything) where the green ticket bags have (who knows why?!) been transferred.  We get our bag if we are lucky.  If we are unlucky we receive confused instructions to descend again and try a different exit.  The library is, as I mentioned, symmetrical, so there are, in fact, four chainmail escalator chasms, and one can easily choose the wrong end, emerging to an identical-looking check-out desk where you have to go all the way through the line to discover you are in a completely different place.  But, if Fortune can peer through the wire walls enough to smile on us, we find the right exit and obtain our stuff (Beloved stuff!  Look how not-made-of-metal it is!  Look how it has colors!  Like brown, and beige, and blue!).  Now we exit past the guards, the glass doors, the steel rails that guard the tops of spindly trees, and ascend the (usually not actually switched on) conveyor belt to find ourselves deposited again in the colorless vastness of the wooden decking above.  The overwhelming feeling, especially as everyone is fleeing at day’s end, is that this is not a space designed for humans to be in it.  Or for life to be in it.  Whatever unfamiliar intelligence this place was built for, I have not met it.  The wise know when to flee.

BNParis 378Only upon returning to ground level, when the Parisian skyline and nearby fun façades and bustling streets return to view, does one grow calm enough to analyze this experience.  On purpose, someone built this.  This is not an urban wasteland generated by cost-cutting, or a sudden recession.  This was a very expensive, high-profile public works project designed to display the pride of Francophone scholarship.  And Paris did this!  Paris!  Paris, whose average street corner department store has woven ironwork and imperial grandeur.  People who study architecture and urban planning know the details of the commission, the who and when and why of its construction, but the first-hand experience is just so dehumanizing that I cannot understand how any intentional act of human civilization—of Paris’s civilization—took some wood and glass and metal and created Orwell.  And I am far from alone in my confusion.  In fact, the whole neighborhood around the library is a little nexus of consolation for those doomed to approach it: a movie theater offers instant escapism, food carts bring Paris’s culinary richness, and human civilization shows itself most pointedly hilarious when, on the first corner one reaches after evacuating the wastes above, one finds a pub named “The Frog and British Library.” In other words, “Don’t you wish you were at the British Library?”  Yes.  Yes, I do.

The randomly-selected building across from my cheap hotel in Paris.  With this as the architectural average, the BN becomes even more absurd.

The randomly-selected building across from my cheap hotel in Paris. With this as the architectural average, the BN becomes even more absurd.

But for all this, there is one metric by which the French Bib Nat is a bizarre success.  I have long kept a joke ranking of libraries I use, rating them by how successful they are at preventing people from getting at books.  This facetious metric helps me remain cheerful in the face of particularly impenetrable libraries, like the Capitolare in Padua, which is only open from 9 AM to noon on weekdays not sacred to saints the librarians particularly like (they like a lot of saints), and which so excels at protecting its books from people that it took me three visits to Padua before I managed to get in for a precious two hours and see two books.  By this metric the Vatican is one of the world’s most successful libraries, and the British Library the absolute worst.

But there is a less joking side to this.  In a perverse sense, people are the enemy of books: we touch them, rip them, bend their covers, get our oily finger pads all over them, etc.  The safest book in the world is one sealed away in frigid, nitrogen-rich darkness, far from human touch.  The two duties of the librarian, to protect the books and serve the patrons, are directly antithetical.  I believe this is a big part of why some librarians are so hyperbolically gung-ho about digitization, since touching can’t hurt a digital book.  The majority of librarians, of course, love readers and want books to be used, even though all are aware that use damages them.  Especially in the case of rare books that can’t be easily replaced, libraries must seek a balance in which people use books a moderate amount, so the books can last while the work gets done.  The Paris library achieves this balance to a near perfect degree, since it is so intimidating and inhospitable that no one ever, ever goes to work there unless it is absolute necessity.  Only researchers who have to go will go, and if there is any way to avoid using those books everyone takes it.  Result: productivity with minimal book use, ensuring maximum book survival.  The balance might even be praiseworthy if it had been intentional.  In fact, Michelangelo’s sinister Laurenziana vestibule achieves something of the same effect, since anyone who steps into it immediately flinches back, which certainly drives away some portion of visitors who have no acute need to brave the oozing stairs to reach the reading room above.  Thus we have identified a powerful tool for protecting library collections: scaring off readers with terrifying architecture.  Let’s hope it never catches on.  If it does, I trust you’ll all help me track down the perpetrators and feed them to Michelangelo’s staircase.

 

Apr 272013
 

Note: this is a guest post.  I am on another research jaunt, speaking in Rome and Oxford and visiting an intriguing book in Paris.  While I’m travel-swamped, a good friend, Rush-That-Speaks, has agreed to write a guest post, describing a little Roman adventure we shared.

Rush-That-Speaks writes:

The last time “Ex Urbe” and I were in Rome together, which was late in November of 2011, we were sitting in our hotel room one moderately tired evening, and, as one does, were discussing the Borgias. I believe that this was in the context initially of the Borgia arms, which are stamped on everything the family sponsored in Rome during Rodrigo’s papacy (1492-1503). The coat of arms of the reigning pope also gets put up at all the churches where the pope is a regular celebrant, and not taken down no matter how many centuries go by, and sometimes popes just put their arms up on things because they’re pope and they can and it’s a Statement. The Borgia bull, therefore, is pretty common throughout the City, along with various other Renaissance great houses who at some point took the papacy: Medici and della Rovere and so on. Honestly these tend to be in better taste than more recent stamps-of-arms; Benedict’s arms came out a rather nasty shade of fuchsia. So we were talking about places we’d spotted the bull that day, surprising and otherwise, and how annoying it is that Cesare Borgia is buried over in Spain where people who have been traveling through all the scenes of his life in Italy cannot easily go and look at him.  [Ex Urbe Note: Reminder regarding Cesare’s tomb, he was originally buried in the Church of Santa Maria in Viana but in 1537 the bishop had the tomb destroyed and his remains buried in unconsecrated ground, as (many thought at the time) such sinful monsters deserve. In 2007, on the 500th anniversary of his death, the Archbishop currently in charge of the site had Cesare dug up and moved back into a proper tomb again, partly on the theory that 500 years’ exile was enough even for such a monster, and because it was a publicity and tourism coup.  Lucrezia is in the castle in Ferrara with her last husband, Alfonso d’Este]

The Tomb of Alexander VI, nominee for Worst Pope. But where is it?

Which led to contemplation of the death of Cesare Borgia, purulent with syphilis and defeated but still fighting as he was, and then to the anecdote about the seven devils who came to Rodrigo Borgia’s deathbed to bear him off when his time for plaguing the world was finished (a fairly well-accepted bit of gossip); and then a question occurred which had never really crossed either of our minds before, namely, if Cesare is off in Spain, then where is Rodrigo Borgia buried?

If you want a papal tomb of course you traditionally look in St. Peter’s. He wouldn’t be in the upper level, the church itself, because you have to be a saint or at least beatified to be buried in that part at all. Many popes who have not yet achieved sainthood but hope for it are buried in hopeful little tombs in the basement crypts, and then whenever one of them is exalted in status he is moved upstairs and showered in triumphant statuary. But it’s not as though there’s a morals requirement for being buried in the basement. Boniface VIII is down there, the pope Dante spent several cantos calling the Antichrist, and Boniface is even buried with his nephew, the one whose appointment as Cardinal gives us the word ‘nepotism’, from nepos, nephew.

However, if Rodrigo were in the basement of St. Peter’s either “Ex Urbe” or myself would have heard about it at some point. St. Peter’s is a very heavily documented and famous place, discussed by artists and architects throughout history. There are explanatory books and pamphlets about it sold maybe every fifty feet in the City of Rome, there are guided tours, there are non-guided tours, and at some point in some way one of us would have come across the fact of him if he were in there, even if he were in a portion never open to the public.

Ex Urbe note: Popular historical figures in Rome receive frequent visits, flowers and letters. Here is what collected at the foot of a modern statue of Julius Caesar near the forum, while other flowers appear (the and throughout the year) at his tomb, and at the spot where he was killed. Cities, nations, clubs and organizations leave big wreathes, while many individuals just contribute a single blossom. I often do too when in town on the ides, and get a special thrill seeing how many others are so moved by history.

So we looked it up. Rodrigo Borgia is buried in Santa Maria in Monserrato degli Spagnoli, the Church of Holy Mary in Monserrat of the Spaniards, which is the official Spanish church in Rome. By this I mean it is the church in which Spanish dignitaries in Rome conduct their ceremonies, and the church which is specially charged to look after Spanish travelers in distress, and, most importantly, where famous Spaniards who die in Rome are buried. Many countries have such churches in Rome, and so do several professions– the official sailors’ church in Rome is very close to S. Maria in Monserrato, and so is the official Russian church (a more surprising object). It is not, however, a very prestigious place to be buried, not if you are a Pope. The reason why is tomb desecration: people kept trying it. They’d put Rodrigo in one place, and someone would desecrate the site, and then they’d move him, and it would happen again, and it just kept happening, so they moved Rodrigo and the previous Borgia Pope, Callixtus III, who was somewhat better liked, into the Spanish church. And didn’t mark the place. And buried them together. And hoped that would do it.  [Note from Ex Urbe: There are reports of Alexander’s immediate successors, especially Julius II, refusing to let him be in St. Peter’s, and Julius even ordered that all Borgia tombs be opened, but the vandalism seems to have been not only fast but also frequent and consistent over decades.]

It’s marked now, because in the middle nineteenth century a fairly popular King of Spain died in Rome, and when they buried Alonzo XIII next to the Borgias they figured they’d better put up a mausoleum so everybody knew who was where. The body of the King of Spain has since been repatriated, but apparently no one is angry enough to desecrate a Borgia tomb anymore, so the plaque for Rodrigo and Callixtus remains.

This meant we could go over and leave Rodrigo some flowers. I was curious to see whether anybody else would have.

We started by going over to the Campo de’ Fiori, which is the flower market of Rome. It’s also an open-air market for a lot of other things, the usual tourist souvenirs but also a very good produce and farmers’ market with a wide selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables in the early mornings, and in the center it has the monument to Giordano Bruno on the spot where he was burned at the stake for heresy. A thing it is pleasant to do, and which I had done earlier in the trip, is to buy fruit from the market, such as one of the kaki, the big sweet orange Italian persimmons, and sit on Bruno’s plinth and eat it looking at him. He is usually covered in pigeons, as are many statues in Rome, but he looks less indignant about it than most of them. But that day we had to figure out what kind of flower you take to the grave of Seriously The Most Evil Pope. The flower market is not seasonally restricted the way the rest of the market is, and is basically open-air florist’s shops, so you can really get just about anything. An orchid might be overdoing it a little? What seemed most appropriate was a single dark red rose, though in the end a small cluster of coral-colored roses was the best we could acquire.

Then to find the church. It is not easy to find a single church in Rome. Any given block will have between two and five of them. The internet told us that S. Maria in Monserrato was on a street called the Via Giulia, pretty much due west of the Campo de’ Fiori, south of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and south-east of the Mazzini bridge. The Via Giulia is a fairly long street, running north-west to south-east, in a quiet little quarter between Everything Historic and the river. We found the street itself pretty easily, and it turns out to be a sheltered backwater of a neighborhood, somewhat residential but mostly centered on antique shops and obscure churches of precisely the sort we were looking for. We went into several antique shops, as “Ex Urbe” is on a years’-long quest for an affordable piece of porphyry, and the thing I will never quite forget about the Via Giulia was the way every single antique shop reeked desperately of a different flavor of incredibly penetrating cigarette smoke. It was astonishing. I would have been afraid to buy stone tablets from some of those places for fear of the smell having seeped into solid rock. But the owners were friendly and knowledgeable and good at their professions, which means of course that there was no affordable porphyry, because no one good at the profession of antiquing would permit such a thing to happen.  [Ex Urbe note: had I been 900 euros richer, I might have left one shop 900 euros poorer with the most beautiful marble tile inlaid with spiraling triangular chips porphyry and serpentine… I can still see it if I close my eyes… just like the Sistine Chapel floor.  Have I griped recently about how hard it is to find a photo of the Sistine Chapel floor?]

Part of Via Giulia was under construction that day, so Rome, in good spirit, covered the construction wall with images of Renaissance ladies’ costumes.

There were also signs up and down the Via Giulia talking about celebrating the neighborhood, and the artistic and antique beauty of the quarter and its long history, and these signs had on them a portrait of… could it be? Does irony work in such mysterious ways? Was Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, The Most Evil Renaissance Pope, really buried on a street named for Pope Julius II, Giuliano della Rovere, Rodrigo’s successor to the papacy and rival, enemy and heir? Della Rovere who fled to France when Rodrigo was elected, for fear of poison, della Rovere who brought Charles VIII of France back with him to conquer Italy, so mad was he to see it taken from the Borgias? (It didn’t work. Rodrigo bought the right people in the King of France’s cabinet: Charles conquered, but did not depose the papacy.) Via Giulia. There was his picture on every signpost banner. How remarkable.

Except of course that we couldn’t find the church anywhere. As I mentioned, the street is a long one, and we went up and down it two or three times, from the Official Church Of The Florentines In Rome at one end of it to the bit where it peters vaguely out near the river at the other end. [Ex Urbe note: of course Florentines need their own Church in Rome: S.P.Q.F!] There are a lot of little churches, all with similar facades, white and severe with the same kinds of inset columns, the same triangular pediments, the names carved neatly into the marble somewhere or other, but no facade that matched the one we’d seen on the internet, and no remotely similar name. It was beginning to get late, on a November evening which was starting to aim for freezing, and the first few people we asked had no idea either.

It was an antique-shop owner who told us, finally, that of course Via Giulia as the address of the church didn’t mean it fronted on the Via Giulia; it has its unmarked back to that street. No, it fronts on the Via Monserrato, one street easterly, and we’d walked by the back at least four times. We located it, and there indeed it sat, the white facade, the inset columns, the neat blank triangle pediment, the carved correct name, and the sign on the door saying that it is open only for Masses at seven and nine a.m. Sundays.

The interior of the church where Alexander is buried. Given that it’s a Spanish-run church, readers should be able to Spot the Saint in the painting toward the left, even blurred and from this distance.

This is not actually that uncommon a situation with churches in Italy. They do not always enjoy being treated as art objects and goals for a tourist tramp. They are part of a living religion and tradition and would like that respected, and also they haven’t got the manpower to keep everything open all the time, because there are just too many churches for that to be possible. A small, obscure church might only be open for Mass on its saints’-day, or every other Sunday, or every third week, or whenever it is part of the rounds of the local bishop, maybe every few months. Open every Sunday actually indicates that S. Maria in Monserrato has a devoted and habitual congregation, quite possibly composed of the expatriate Spaniard community for whom it was originally built. We had had to give up all hope of seeing the grill of St. Lawrence earlier in the trip, because the church where that is kept opens once a year officially and we couldn’t figure out what door nearby it might lead to someone with the ability to let us in. There’s a church with a Michelangelo in it in Florence which is practically a landmark because of the crowds of tourists standing around it trying to figure out why it is inexplicably closed all the time; “Ex Urbe”’s lived in Florence for more than one year of her life and never gotten in there, and no helpful signs, either.  [Ex Urbe note: Someday I will be there on Good Friday, when ALL Churches are required to open their doors to everyone. Then I will go in and perniciously look at all the art!  Wahaha!  Wahahahaha!]

But fortunately, we had tramped out to find Rodrigo Borgia on a Saturday afternoon, and Sunday lay before us. So we hauled ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning, and were at the church doors just before nine a.m., and they were open.

Now, any Mass at a church of this sort is open to anybody, but it is rude to hang around for very long if you are not actually going to go to the service, and it is very rude to wander around a lot taking pictures and gawking and then leave visibly. We did not even go up to the front. There may well be some decent statuary or painting in there somewhere, but we did not see it, because we went straight to the Borgia tomb, which luckily is in the first niche on the right-hand side, and stayed there, out of the way of the entering crowd. There’s a railing keeping you out of the actual niche, and the tomb itself is well back in the niche, in the right-hand-side wall, so in order to see it you have to stand with your back to the front of the church (and the altar) and crane your neck over, which seems appropriate. It’s a chaste enough marble tomb, done up like a little Greek temple, with relief busts of Rodrigo and Callixtus and a model stone pope hat, the Borgia bull three times and no motto. The tomb of the Spanish king, which is under it, is very much more mourning-centered and has a motto about how much his people loved him; I am pretty sure the contrast was intentional.

A terrible pope, yes, but, with the luxury of distance, an historian can’t help but be fond of him for giving us such interesting times to study. He deserves the occasional visit, even if the old half-Spanish roman ladies who had turned up for mass stared at us suspiciously.  Can’t blame them – I’d stare suspiciously at someone who brought flowers to Borgias.

“Ex Urbe” is taller than I am and has better aim, so she leaned over the railing at an angle and then tossed the rose. It landed well, on the floor in front of the tomb. There weren’t any other flowers in sight. We slipped out of the church just as the doors were shutting and Mass was about to start, blinking into the bright morning. Speculating over whether, when they came to clean the niches, the staff would think the rose was for the King of Spain, and whether this happens often. I somehow think it doesn’t.

So Rodrigo is buried facing the Via Giulia, and the church he’s in is facing away from it, but also actually on it. This is very much the way the City of Rome turns out to work, sometimes. Like how Caesar was stabbed on the messiest junction of the overground tram tracks, a gentle and unmarked unintentional joke upon history. I am not entirely certain it is worth going out of your way for his tomb, as a tourist, unless you are the way we are about the Borgias and happen to have a free Sunday morning, but it was certainly worth it to us, and the option is there for those who may want it.

(Rush-That-Speaks writes book reviews of sci-fi and fantasy literature, and blogs about many things including reading an impressive range of books, a lot of genre topics.  She recently completed a project to read 365 books in 365 days, a fascinating and impressive undertaking.  You can find her own blog here, or hosted through LiveJournal.)

Related: Read about the Borgias in TV Drama.

Feb 192013
 

Pope Julius II (Portrait by Raphael)

(See also Machiavelli Part I, Part I.5, Part II and Part III)

Long has he waited, the new prince who in 1503 joins Borgia and Medici in stage center of Machiavelli’s tumultuous Italy: Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513), intelligent, experienced, educated, well-connected, versed in the new old arts of the resurrected ancients, fluent in the subtleties of theology, and politics, and war, crafty, persuasive, bellicose, power-hungry–more than power-hungry, power-starved–and patient.  His is not a willing patience but that silent, vindictive patience which sets in like a sickness when spirit and ambition have been trapped in the stables waiting for the starter’s gun too long.  He had been a Cardinal twenty-one years when the election of 1492 brought him within a few votes of St. Peter’s throne.  He had planned so hard, spent so much, twenty-one years mapping the subtle battlefields of Rome’s Church, only to have the papal tiara snatched away by the Spanish Bull, that filthy Borgia, with his blackmail, and his bribery, the same arts della Rovere tried to use but Borgia, by a hair’s breadth, used them better.  The tension of 1492 made Giuliano della Rovere and Rodrigo Borgia bitter enemies from the instant Borgia became Alexander VI, and della Rovere, scenting the monsters’ nature before most others did, wisely fled to Ostia, thence to France, beyond Alexander’s reach, to wait and plan how to ensure that the throne he had been within a few votes of grasping would, next time, be his.

Long too has the reader waited for this new installment in my Machiavelli series.  I was sick for nearly three full months from mid-October to mid-January of this year (it was a nasty flare-up of a known chronic condition, exhausting but not dangerous).  This blog was one of many activities which I had to postpone while I concentrated on recovery.  Happily I am now recovered, and looking forward to a productive spring, during which I hope to return to my former pattern of producing a fresh post every two-to-three weeks.  I am very grateful all of you for your patience, and for the many kind and encouraging comments and responses I’ve received in the meantime.

Pope Sixtus IV

The della Rovere family rose to papal prominence in much the same way the Borgias had, through a compromise candidate.  His uncle Sixtus IV (pope from 1471-1484) came from a middlingly important Italian family, and was pious and learned enough to be a well-respected cleric.  He became a Franciscan, an act of uncommonly sincere piety for his class, since it was not a promising political move, and eventually became head of the order.  He was probably elected largely due to his piety, since after a couple of bizarre popes, including the fiercely humanist and weirdly progressive Pius II, then the anti-humanist, anti-social, confusing (rouge-wearing!) Paul II, people wanted something safe.  Given worldly power, our Franciscan decided to exercise it, and became engaged in many worldly ends of politics, including fomenting aggression against Ferrara, and encouraging the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, which attempted to expel the Medici from Florence by trying to assassinate Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giovanni (who was killed) by attacking them in the cathedral during mass (the pope’s involvement in the details of the plan were slim but it was still a stain).  Sixtus IV also built a new chapel, called the Sistine Chapel after him, and engaged freely in nepotism, granting Cardinalships to numerous nephews from both sides of his family, including young Giuliano della Rovere, who then waited for his chance after his uncle’s death, precisely as young Rodrigo Borgia had waited after the death of his uncle Callixtus III.

After Alexander’s election, in 1492 della Rovere retreated from Borgia-controlled Rome, but did not sit quietly.  He had spent time at the French court before, and had many friends and the ear of the king.  In France he made himself useful to as many powerful men as possible, and used his knowledge and mastery of statecraft to secure support, and weaken Borgia attempts to court the French king.  In 1494 he was one of the voices who persuaded the king to take advantage of Alexander VI’s squabble with Naples to invade Italy, and Cardinal della Rovere personally rode with the invading forces as they crossed the Alps and carved their bloody path south through his homeland, seizing Milan, threatening Florence, and forever transforming the face of northern Italy.  As Cesare Borgia’s attempts to carve out a kingdom, and strife between Naples and France, turned Italy increasingly into a battlefield, della Rovere was clever enough to foment Italian hatred of the Spanish Borgias, drawing allies who saw him as the safely Italian alternative, despite his involvement in the far more direct French invasion.  But della Rovere was not powerful enough to counter so savvy and ruthless an adversary as Cesare.  The younger cardinal acquired ally after ally, including Florence and Ferrara, and in the end Borgia attempts to woo France were too powerful for even della Rovere to convince the French king that the enemy of his friend should be his enemy.  France allied with Cesare, offered him a half-Spanish French princess and a French ducal title, and assurances of support so long as he upheld French interests in Italy.

Young Julius with his uncle the pope, in the early years when the ambitious young Cardinal was not yet soured by so many years of forced patience.

On August 6th, 1503, pope Alexander and Cesare Borgia dined in their fortress at Castel san Angelo with Cardinal Adriano da Corneto.  Both became terribly sick.  Alexander died.  Cesare recovered, but slowly, after weeks of weakness and horrible suffering (one account describes his skin peeling off, though likely due to attempts to treat the illness rather than the illness itself).  Anyone who could possibly be accused of poisoning has been blamed, including both Cesare and Alexander, who had been uncomfortable partners since well before Giovanni’s death.  It may well just have been food poisoning in a pre-refrigeration world. Whatever the cause, Borgia fortunes were now at a critical moment, and the surviving Borgia prince had had little time to prepare, and was sick in bed, unable to lead troops or conduct negotiations.  He sent troops to loot the palace before the mob did, and it is unclear in the ensuing chaos what treasures were carried off by whom, but by the time it was done Alexander’s corpse is supposed to have been found alone, wrapped in a carpet, in a room from which every stick of furniture and scrap of clothing had been looted.  The body was displayed on the steps of the palace, a swollen, purple and black, stinking mass with its tongue sticking out that witnesses describe as the most vile corpse they had ever seen (and Renaissance people saw a lot of corpses).

Three armies threatened the Papal Election that followed: the armies of France and Naples, en route to fight each other, both camped just outside Rome to make the College and people aware that their kings and cannons were watching and would not tolerate a hostile victory in the vote.  Meanwhile Cesare’s armies were within Rome itself, and while he was too weak to take the field, he was far from too weak to command troops, and to command the eleven Spanish Cardinals who were far more Borgia pawns than anything else.  The conclave was delayed to allow extra time for French Cardinals, and della Rovere, to arrive and participate.

The Tomb of Alexander VI

Cesare had renounced his Cardinal’s hat in order to become a Duke and marry and pass on the Borgia bloodline.  There was no rule that the pope had to be a Cardinal, or even a cleric, and if Borgia forces had been at their peak it is possible Cesare might have pushed to be elected himself.   As it was he did not have the speed or power, so needed to compromise, and bide his time if he wanted to someday be pope.  But who to ally with?

France was determined to have a French pope, and worked hard to advance Georges d’Amboise as their candidate.  The French planned carefully.  Most Italians would never tolerate a French pope, remembering with dread the days of the Avignon Papacy, so Cesare’s contingent of Spanish cardinals was a perfect asset.  France promised to continue to support Cesare and recognize him as master of all his father had granted him if he would give his eleven votes to d’Amboise.  That added to the French cardinals would be nearly enough.  For the remainder, they could count on their good della Rovere and his cousins (whose votes he commanded), and on Ascanio Sforza, Cardinal of Milan, whom they had captured in the invasion, and released on condition that he vote for the French candidate and persuade as many allies as he could to do the same.  The plan had only one flaw: it relied on trusting the Italian Cardinals.

Della Rovere refused to vote for the French candidate.  If France wanted an ally on the throne, he insisted, they would need to elect him.  It would be easy: he was Italian, and an enemy of the Borgia, so all the Italian cardinals would flock to him, and none would support the French without his persuasion.  No amount of reminding della Rovere of the support and aid France had given him in the past made any headway.  France must give him the throne, or watch it fall into hostile hands.

Ascanio Sforza, now free, broke his word to woo his fellow Italians to the French cause.  He did, as a point of honor, vote for France himself, but let his capture and release make him a living argument to his fellow countrymen of the danger France posed.  With him as reminder, no Italian would ever vote for France.

Even the Spaniards turned.  With Cesare weak and sick and possibly about to die, Borgia stooges were looking to new powers to protect them.  For them, the King of Spain was the clear option, and he did not want a French pope, even if Cesare did.

The Della Rovere Arms

The French bloc, triply betrayed, refused to accept della Rovere’s proposal that they vote for him, and would forever after blame him for their defeat.  Since neither could win, and no Spaniard could win, all powers looked for a compromise candidate, someone old and sick and inert, likely to do little and die soon, and all hoped they could regroup and gain a majority by the time of the next election.  Thus  Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini became Pope Pius III.  Nephew of the earlier humanist firebrand Pius II, Piccolomini was from the comparatively neutral town of Sienna, enough of a cowardly Borgia stooge to be tolerable from Cesare’s perspective, and not long for this world.  He reconfirmed Cesare as commander of the papal armies, postponing war and temporarily granting Cesare continued power over his dominions.  His most memorable act as pope was to announce that Alexander VI would not be buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s where popes were (and are) usually laid to rest.  Alexander was too wicked to be in St. Peter’s, he decided, not then, not ever.

September 22nd, Pius III is crowned.  October 18th, Pius III dies.  New election.

Cesare has recovered, and is still commander of the papal armies, but his forces are weakened and his position precarious   He has regained command of the eleven Spanish Cardinals but has no other sure votes.  France has not forgiven della Rovere, but he has worked hard to convince them that, given the general hatred of France, he is the most France-loving man likely to get on the throne.  Now he courts Cesare, offering solemn promises that, if Cesare and the Spanish cardinals support him, he will maintain Cesare in his current position, leave him the papal armies, his titles, his funds, his lands, and make him a close and trusted ally.  The Borgia Kingdom in central Italy will be forever secure, and della Rovere might even help Cesare into a position such that, when he is a bit older, he might succeed della Rovere as the next pope, restoring and finally solidifying the Borgia dream of turning the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.  Cesare will henceforth practically be della Rovere’s adopted son, and they will rule Italy together, with the support of their mutual ally in France, and Cesare’s ties with Spain.  Cesare accepts, the bargain is solemnly sealed, and a few promises to Ascanio Sforza are all it takes to secure the unanimous election of Giuliano della Rovere as Pope Julius II.

Julius takes the throne.

He has Cesare arrested, thrown in prison, stripped of all his titles and property, deported to Spain, and, after some intervening chaos and a brief escape, Cesare is killed.

This is an absolute shock, much, much more shocking than it sounds.  The Roman Pontiff, highest prince in the world, has betrayed and destroyed a noble sovereign Duke to whom he had pledged himself as a bosom ally, and to whom he owed his throne.  Cesare was Julius’ supporter and benefactor, and vice versa.  This alliance was in many ways virtually adoption.  We have read about a lot of broken promises and murders in the course of our Borgia stories, but this is different, utterly and unimaginably different.  When enemies duel or battle each other, those violent acts are honorable.  When enemies poison enemies, or send assassins after each other, that is dishonorable but still reasonably acceptable and common.  When Cesare killed his own man Remirro de Orco, that was new, shocking, different.  Confusing.  This is the same thing but on an unimaginable scale.  The innermost circle of Dante’s Hell is for people who betray their feudal benefactors.  This is that again, only a pope, and also the reverse, a patron betraying a supporter he has promised to defend and treat as an ally.  There is no place for this in Dante’s Hell.

There is also no place for it in the Handbook of Princes genre.  The Prince has betrayed and murdered his closest supporter.  No one can trust him now.   Any pledge he makes is unreliable.  Anyone near him is in danger.  The sword he wields is arbitrary and cuts down friend and enemy.  The rational man and the moral man now both come to the same conclusion: do not serve such a master.  Leave him.  Run.  The vassals of such a lord should abandon him at once, declare the tyrant what he is, unite and take up arms and overthrow him.  That is what must happen.  Machiavelli, good student of politics, knows it, and all through the night when the deed is done everyone expects that in the morning Julius will rise to face an empty throne room, while the banners of his former allies mass against him.

Julius, pope at last

The next morning, everyone turns up and kisses the pope’s ring and feet and politics goes on, and no one even whispers the name ‘Borgia’.  It never happened.  Everyone serves the traitor-pope just as before.

This is the moment that cannot be, as Machiavelli explains in The Prince and more in his letters.  This is where the Handbook of Princes fails.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be better ruler because he commands the respect and loyalty of his servants, unlike the wicked prince who loses them: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to enjoy the blessings of God who would make him strong, while the tyrant was unseated: untrue.  The virtuous Prince was supposed to be more effective because good, wise policies have good, beneficial consequences for his people and his nation: untrue.  Uncertain why the last is untrue? Look at what has just happened and what could have happened:

Outcome if Julius II had been virtuous:

Julius seals his pact with Cesare.  After his election, he continues to treat Cesare as a close ally, allows him to control the papal army, and use it to continue waging war in central and northern Italy.  Thousands if not tens of thousands die in combat and more from bandits and disease as the chaos continues.  Cesare secures Romagna and the papal states, then turns on Florence, probably Modena and Ferrara too, on the Venetian land empire, shoring himself up more and more at the cost of chaos.  In the end either the Emperor invades to check Cesare’s rise, or Cesare grows strong enough to make his bid to be Julius’ successor, and bloody civil war erupts whether Cesare wins or loses as he and the rest of Italy battle to see whether or not the papacy will indeed become a hereditary monarchy.  Death toll: tens if not hundreds of thousands.

Outcome if Julius II is a treacherous deceiver:

Cesare is instantly removed.  The wars in central Italy cease.  The suddenness of the change makes it easy for provincial forces, as well as papal forces and city forces, to bring about some degree of stability.  The shock of the suddenness of Julius’ betrayal makes everyone else wary of causing trouble.  Peace is instantly restored, the Borgia Kingdom eliminated, exiles restored, Florence protected.  Death toll: Cesare Borgia, plus, perhaps, a few of his guards and associates.

Conclusion: the Virtuous Prince is not more successful.

Plate decorated with the della Rovere oak

Julius instantly solved a problem no one else had been able to solve in a terrible decade.  The worst days of Italy are gone.  Julius’ vassals did not abandon him, nor did God smite him with skyfire.  The advantages that the Virtuous Prince was supposed to have are invisible.  Julius did it, not through love, but fear.  Perhaps it is more useful to be feared than loved?

More is undermined here than just the Handbook of Princes genre.  Ethics is a problem too.  The Virtuous Pope here, the one who was loyal to Cesare, would have doomed thousands to death and Italy to chaos and conquest.  Julius’ betrayal saved everyone.  Yet, the Christianity and ethics of Machiavelli’s day declare that Julius has done a wicked deed, and will go to Hell for it.  Going to Hell for saving thousands?  This does not sound right.  Is it really a morally wicked deed, Machiavelli asks, to betray and murder Cesare Borgia, and thereby prevent so much evil?  Is this really what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?

Thus Utilitarian Ethics was born.  It is a familiar thought pattern for us, but for Machiavelli (and Europe at that point)  it was a completely new idea, never thought before.  What if this is good?  This act that, by destroying a terrible, wicked, monster of a man, saved a hundred thousand lives?  How can I call it evil?  What if I want to judge the act, not by what it was (betrayal, murder), but by what it did, save Italy (and Florence!) and the world from the Borgia menace.  And if Julius had done the “good” thing, and kept Cesare going, and let all that evil happen when he had the power to stop it with one dark command, could we really call that “good”?  And what of virtue ethics?  Why do I care whether Julius betrayed Cesare for selfish or selfless reasons–he still saved Italy, and so many, many lives.  Doesn’t that matter?  Doesn’t the consequence of an act, its utility, factor into the moral equation?  I think, he says, it does.
This is the advice Machiavelli writes for the Medici when the forced retirement of exile gives him time to write a new Handbook of Princes for a new kind of prince: the princes of Florence, whose duty is to protect Florence–beautiful, unique, burgeoning, irreplaceable Florence–and her citizens–artists, philosophers, poets, statesmen, craftsmen–from the perils of conquest and extermination which constantly threaten her fragile walls.  With France so close, one more civil war could be the end.  This is not a question of selfishness or power for power’s sake, but of the very survival of the nation in their care.   “In order to be virtuous, the people must still be alive,” (paraphrase).  In this situation, he writes, we should study and emulate Julius Caesar, but we should also study and emulate Cesare and Julius II.  If fear will discourage conspiracy, use fear.  If the betrayal and exile of one dangerous faction or family will stabilize the republic, use betrayal.  If breaking a treaty will give Florence the ally she needs to survive, rip up that scrap of paper.  It is the prince’s duty.

This is not a good consequence erasing an evil act, it is the argument that the act itself is not evil because of its good consequence.  Saving a hundred thousand lives, or Florence, is good–the means, therefore, are good, even if the means are a murder.  “The end justifies the means” thus does sort-of ring true, but rather he is saying that we judge the means by its end: what Julius II willed in his heart, Machiavelli would say, wasn’t the betrayal and murder of Cesare, but was the salvation of Italy.  If Julius had defended Cesare, as he promised, and let all those people die, that would have been the evil act.  At times he puts it almost as if the prince here is taking on sin for the people, as if in order to guard those in their protection the sovereign volunteers to damn himself to commit the sins necessary to create an era of peace in which citizens will have the leisure to live virtuously (instead of being dragged into violence, hatred, rape and death).  At other times it feels as if he is saying there is no other real scale beyond the Earthly consequence (no Hell?  Do we smell atheism?).  He never explicitly discusses the religious import of utilitarianism, but the mind of the reader cannot help but jump there instantly.

We now have consequentialism   The can of worms is open, and in my next post I shall explore it, and its religious implications.  But we have also opened another can of worms: the papacy of Julius II.

Julius II brought peace to Italy and saved thousands of lives.  Then he started a new war.  This is Giuliano della Rovere, referred to in his own lifetime and after as the Warrior Pope, and as “Il Papa Terribile”.  This is an infinitely ambitious man made tired and bitter by thirty years of waiting, ten of them wrestling with terrible Borgia enemies.  This is a pope who likes to ride in armor.  His is not an ambition which ends with wealth and power.  He is “Julius” and will remind the world that the pope is Emperor, successor to the Caesars.  Those territories Cesare left behind, that are now vulnerable and rebuilding, he demands them, and sends armies to seize them, and when Venice or other powers try to reclaim their own, he makes war.  France is still stirred up from earlier wars, and still bitter at him.  Naples is stirred up, the Emperor is stirred up, England is eager for conquests, Spain is defensive about its Mediterranean holdings, the Ottomans are expanding, the Swiss are ready with their mercenaries, and Florence is still delicious.  Julius stirs all these powers toward war, demanding in the name of his imperial power that Europe’s princes come in on his side to defend his right to rule Italy.  It is in this phase that the powers meet at Cambrai, a despairing Machiavelli watches the balance of power so carefully, exchanges so many letters with his friends trying desperately to predict who will be at war with whom when the council ends: France & Emperor against England?  France & England against Spain?  Which of the nearby armies, Julius, France, Naples and Emperor, will move first against Florence?  He studies, he worries, he plans, and in the end the council emerges and Julius II has persuaded every crowned head of Europe to join into a Holy League and help him attack Venice and take all the former Borgia territories and turn them into his new papal Roman Empire.  This is a pope determined to wipe away the Borgia stain with blood, and make the pope a true Emperor again.  This is a pope who will be remembered.  He also brings more humanism to the Vatican, stocks its libraries, has his beloved Michelangelo (a complicated dynamic if ever there was one) decorate the new Sistine Chapel with neoclassical art and figures of pagan sibyls mixed among the Hebrew prophets to reinforce the fact that the ancient philosophies revived by the humanists are part of his Christianity as much as anything.  But the humanism he brings is all in service of power: empire, law, Rome, Constantine, reminders of the sovereignty of Rome and Italy and the higher sovereignty of Julius.  He is a pope for whom means seems to mean nothing, and ends everything.  And he is incredibly effective, and remakes the papacy as no one had imagined it could be remade.

Five hundred years ago today, the 19th of February 1513, the order was given for the arrest of Niccolo Machiavelli on suspicion of participating in a conspiracy against the newly-reestablished Medici regime.   The Medici had been in exile in Venice for eighteen years, consolidating their wealth and allies and gathering resources so they could retake the city Piero had abandoned during the French (Borgia-caused) invasion of 1494.  In the intervening years, the Borgias had carved out their Italian kingdom, Giovanni had been murdered, Cesare had turned from a fearsome Cardinal to a more fearsome Duke and conqueror, and then the Borgia years had ended, and the family’s fall left a weak and disorganized Italy ripe for new ambitious families to carve out kingdoms; one of those best positioned to do so were the Medici.  Florence herself had experienced the theocratic rule of the monk Savonarola, then the restored Republic of Soderini, of which Machiavelli was one of the central figures.  When the Medici army of allies and mercenaries recaptured the city, they did not arrest Machiavelli right away.  They ended the Republic and moved into the Palazzo Vecchio, but Machiavelli remained in the city, a cautious but free citizen, until a small nest of anti-Medici conspirators was uncovered.  Among their documents were found a page listing the names of others they had intended to recruit but had not yet approached, including Machiavelli.  It was too much.  Machiavelli was arrested, interrogated, tortured (using a device a similar to the rack), and exiled.  It was in that exile that his forced retirement gave him the time to write the texts which would so transform how we understand politics, ethics and history: the Discourses on Livy treating Republican government, The Prince, and the personal letters which show even more clearly than his polished books how his new political and historical theories were the direct results of his experiences of the Borgias, their rise, their fall, and the new Emperor Julius II who rose to occupy the (bloodied and stained) papal throne.

Thus, today, while Google commemorates the birth of Copernicus 40 years earlier, Florence is marking February 19th 1512 with a procession through the city, in which the crier will call for Machiavelli’s arrest in each quarter o f the city.  It may seem a strangely dark day to celebrate, the imprisonment and torture of our beloved historical figure, but it is in many ways the birthday of political science, the one day which, if disrupted by some time traveler, could deprive us of the produce of that vital exile.  Machiavelli could have been forgiven and hired by the Medici he wanted so desperately to work for.  He could have been executed, or died in the prison, or been tortured enough to die of some infection or hemorrhage.  Instead we have utilitarian ethics, a vein of thought which is so universal in the modern world that we find it almost impossible to think about what “decision-making” meant without it.

Here at last we see both central facets of why Machiavelli is important.  When historians argue about “Who was the first modern philosopher,” those who argue for Machiavelli argue this: he was the first person to use consequentialist ethics, i.e. to believe that an act might be good or bad because of its consequences rather than the act itself, and the first person to practice political science, that is to use history as a set of examples to be studied and compared to rather than as a source of moral tales to be read and absorbed through virtuous osmosis.  We as modern people use both these things every day, so constantly that we struggle to think without them.  When deciding, what is the consequence?  Even if in the end you go with a decision based on Virtue Ethics or Deontology you still think about the consequence.  When looking at events, what historical ones are similar?  We study history to learn from it, and not repeat mistakes, right?  And when we do, we look at economics, oppression, class struggles, technological change, environment, patterns, not just the moral character of king and commander.  These are indispensable elements of modern thought, which define the modern era more clearly and more universally than, for example, any technology.  What is a modern person?  One reasonable answer is “someone who uses consequentialism and political science.”  There may be (and are) other differences, but this certainly is one, and Machiavelli is its father.  Julius and the Borgias were the spark, but he was the one who was there to see and analyze, and describe.

Next Time: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” and why it is still valuable for historians and philosophers to write book after book about that question even though the only possible answer is, “We don’t know.”   Read the conclusion.

Oct 032012
 

Cesare Borgia.  With him and Lucrezia we have several different paintings which have been identified as possible portraits, but fewer certain ones.

Once upon a time (circa 1475) the whimsical Will that scripts the Great Scroll of the Cosmos woke up in the morning and decided: Some day centuries from now, when mankind has outgrown the dastardly moustaches of melodrama and moved on to a phase of complex antiheroes, sympathetic villains and moral ambiguity, I want history teachers to be able to stand at the front of the classroom and say, “Yes, he really did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask and killing people for fun.”  Thus Cesare Borgia was conceived.

Note: I have discovered that I have a lot to say about the Borgias, so this will be the first of two posts about their impact on Machiavelli.  I will try my best to get the second one out promptly. Thank you, kind readers, for being patient with the long delay between the last post and this.  It was a chaotic September.

See also the earlier chapers of this series: Machiavelli Part I: S.P.Q.F.Part I addendum, and Part II: The Three Branches of Ethics.

The Handbook of Princes:

In the middle phase of the Harry Potter saga, my father phoned me one day to exclaim that if he were Harry he would walk up to Crabbe and Goyle and appeal to them in the name of rational self-preservation.  Voldemort is a terrible, terrible person who randomly kills people who work for him.  Joining his side, or becoming involved with him in any way, is absurdly dangerous.  If you’re a Malfoy or something, and you know he’d come after you if you tried to quit, then joining him is certainly the safest option. But willingly getting involved is rather like plunging enthusiastically into a game of Russian roulette.  I cite this example because its simple appeal to human Reason (Evil is bad! You don’t want to be around it!  Think about it!) is exactly the sort of argument which lay at the heart of the Handbook of Princes genre before Machiavelli got his ink-blackened hands on it. The Princewas far from the first Handbook of Princes.  To the contrary, it argued against a long tradition of manuals of etiquette and collections of heroic maxims which were a common literary form, especially in an age when authors made money from their books only by dedicating them to patrons, who were often more inclined to reward books which seemed directly useful to themselves and their heirs.

Augustus was a great prince. If we read his biography 50 times, we will be too!

A typical Handbook of Princes consisted of a mixture of anecdotes and advice.  The anecdotes were great tales of heroic exploits, focusing on brilliant and successful historical figures (Augustus Caesar, Henry V, take your pick) or on more obscure stories wherein a single figure (usually from Roman history) is remembered for a single noble act.  The presentation focuses on the hero, his character and the virtues (courage, wisdom, patience, generosity, self-sacrifice, industry) which enabled his successes.  These works are histories/biographies in a sense, but unlike the modern versions of those genres, were largely devoid of cultural and historical context, and would never discuss how men were products of their times, or how their successes were affected by class movements or economics.  The men were successes because they were great men, and by reading about their actions and the virtuous decisions which underlay them, the young prince could absorb these virtues and learn to do the same. Moral advice accompanied these moral examples, advice predicated on a combination of logic and the Renaissance universe in which we must remember God is presumed to take a very active part.   The virtuous prince will be more successful than the corrupt or wicked one.  Why?  First, because people will love and respect him, and therefore obey him.  If he acts like Voldemort, reason and self-preservation will drive his followers to realize that it is dangerous to be around him, and he will be abandoned and overthrown.  Tyrants fall to tyrranicides.  Beneficent monarchs, on the other hand, attract loyal followers who want them to stay in power.  People living under a good king will be willing to go to effort to keep him in power.

Castiglione, author of the Book of the Courtier, another high Renaissance descendant of the Handbook of Princes genre, which teaches one how to be an ideal courtier and help to advise and support an ideal prince.

As for dealing with rivals and enemies, i.e. foreign affairs, here too virtue is advised.  The virtuous prince will be more successful.  Why?  Because people will respect and listen to him.  Because chivalrous conduct makes a man outstanding and brave.  Because a virtuous man will have fewer enemies, at home and abroad, and thus be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience and less fear of assassins.  And because God is part of politics in this age.  This culture still believes in trial by combat, that the champion of a virtuous and true cause will always defeat the champion of an unjust one.  The saints will like and bless the good king, and drive plague from his kingdom.  “But bad things happen to good people too!” objects the devil’s advocate.  “What about Job?  What about the fall of the Roman Empire?  What about nuns who get the Black Death tending to people who have the Black Death?”  True, the culture answers, sometimes God sends tests to virtuous men, but by persevering through them with virtue one earns even greater rewards.  There is Providence.  If there is Providence, it is logically never, ever a good idea to do evil.  While the ultimate balance lies in Heaven, even on Earth, in a world with a deep belief in saints and direct divine intervention to answer prayer and protect the chosen, virtue is 100% the right call.  And religion aside, won’t a prince who is loved be showered with support and help?  Certainly Petrarch and his followers, who were so desperate for peace and stability, would eagerly shower any virtuous prince with support and help, and very sincere loyalty. So stands the genre when a young Machiavelli works with Soderini in the Palazzo Vecchio, attempting to run the government of Florence and to achieve stability and peace in a world of chaos and conquest.  This government is the product of Florence’s rebellion against Medici corruption, and everyone knows it exists for the sole purpose of protecting and serving the Florentine citizens and protecting the city and all her works and precious people.  No one in Florence has any incentive to do anything but love and support this government.  Right?

Unmatched in Infamy:

I was in the palace section of the Vatican Museum recently, showing some friends the dark neoclassical frescoes and blue and gilded Borgia bulls which so oppressively dominate Alexander VI’s apartments that no pope has been willing to inhabit that part of the palace since, when a guide came by with her tour group.  She was speaking English as  a compromise language, since she was a native Italian and her group was Korean, but since they were all 75% fluent in English it sufficed for basic communication.  Basic, but not subtle, so when they entered the room she began, “These are the rooms of Pope Alexander VI, he…” and then I saw a look of exasperated despair wash over her face.  How with broken English could she communicate the significance of the Borgia papacy to this group to whom Renaissance Italian politics were so foreign that if she’d told them Michelangelo was a pope, or Duke of Florence, or both, they would probably have believed her.  “He was a very very, very very, very, very bad pope,” she concluded, and shooed her flock on. I applauded her concision at the time, but when she had moved on my friends immediately turned on me and (with the full pressure of a common language demanding thoroughness) asked, “Why was he so bad?  I mean, this is the high Renaissance right before the Reformation – weren’t all the popes incredibly corrupt and terrible?  You’ve been telling us stories about catamites and elephants and brothels all day; what made Alexander VI so exceptional?”

The Borgia Bull. Learn to look for it. (I accidentally terrified my Sicilian tour guide once by spotting it over a cathedral doorway and, being rather startled, pointing at it and shouting “Borgia! Borgia Borgia Borgia!”)

It is a fair question.  The papal throne was indeed at its most politicized at this point, a prize tossed back and forth among various powerful Italian families and the odd foreign king, and Italy remains littered with the opulent palaces built with funds embezzled by families who scored themselves a pope.  My best short answer is this:

  1. They were Spaniards, and the Italians hated that, so all possible tensions were hyper-inflamed.
  2. Instead of the usual graft and simony, they tried to permanently carve out a personal Borgia duchy in the middle of Italy, and when that was going well, they tried to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy.
  3. They very nearly succeeded.

The Borgia family came from Valencia in eastern Spain (then Aragon), and were powerful enough there to frequently secure Church offices for younger sons, including the bishop’s miter.  Trivium of the day:  Valencia’s Cathedral is known for possessing one of the best accredited Holy Grails (i.e. more confirmed miracles than any leading rival grail candidate), which means both Rodrigo and Cesare Borgia were briefly custodians of the Holy Grail. The first Borgia pope, Callixtus III(originally Alfonso de Borja, b. 1378, d. 1458), was from Valencia in eastern Spain. During the middle years of his career he was instrumental in getting the royal house of Aragon to accept the compromises which ended the schism, in those years when Europe was going through its antipope-a-month phase.  He was made a Cardinal as a reward, came to Rome, and was elected pope in 1455 as a compromise candidate.  A compromise pope is elected when two or more powerful rivals have a deadlock in which neither can secure the majority necessary to become pope, and neither will let the other win, so they pick someone neutral and extremely old who is guaranteed to die within a couple years, giving the rivals time to level up their bribery skills and try again.  The most notable achievements of his three year reign include a brief crusade, excommunicating Halley’s Comet when its bad luck interfered with his crusade (“Take that!  No communion or last rights for you, comet!”), and securing Cardinal’s hats for two of his nephews, including young Rodrigo.

Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI

Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was only matrilineally a Borgia, the son of Callixtus III’s sister.  He took a law degree at the university of Bologna, and was twenty-five when his uncle became a compromise pope.  Making good use of their manifestly narrow window, Callixtus had the city of Valencia promoted from having Bishops to having Archbishops. He thus made Rodrigo an Archbishop, then a Cardinal, and finally gave him the position of Vice-Chancellor of the Church, an important (and lucrative!) position managing the papal purse, particularly its taxes and military expenditures.  There is no better office from which to be plugged directly into the detailed workings of the Church, and to secure a precarious but powerful position as one of the foremost non-Romans in Rome.  After his uncle’s death, Rodrigo stayed in this position through four more papacies, setting up a permanent household in Rome and there  raising his most famous bastard children.  When his fifth papal election rolled around in 1492, he was nicely on track to be another mildly-entertaining, thoroughly-corrupt Renaissance pope. The papal election of 1492 was one of the great power games of world history.  Anyone seeking to create a board game or one-shot role-playing simulation of an exciting political moment need look no farther.  Twenty-three men are locked in the not-yet-Michelangelized Sistine Chapel.  They can’t leave until someone receives twelve votes and becomes pope.  Everyone has a different goal.  A few want to be pope.  Others want to sell their votes to the papabile (pope-able candidates) for the best price going.  Some want wealth; some have plenty and want to turn it into power.  Some want titles; some have titles but have lost the fortunes that should go with them and are hoping to earn that back.  Some are young and want to make friends and be owed favors; some are old and want young relatives to become cardinals to preserve the family’s toehold in the College.  The Medici Cardinal is sixteen and hoping to cement the family’s hold on Florence.  The Patriarch of Venice is ninety-six, dying, and wants to go back to his impregnable hometown and eat candy.  Ten of the cardinals present are nephews of previous popes, eager to keep nursing from the coffers and to keep their family fortunes safe from rivals.  Eight are pawns of kings and want to secure the clout necessary to get the new pope to grant their masters’ requests should a king want to, for example, divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boelyn (that’s a few decades off but it’s the kind of thing one has to be prepared for).  The previous pope glutted the College with his own relatives but all are too young for anyone to be willing to vote for them, so they have thrown their collective clout behind the cunning veteran Giuliano della Rovere: learned, aggressive, interested in art, interested in the classics, and interested above all in how both can be used as tools of power.  As for Rodrigo Borgia, he has waited a long time.  This may well be his last shot at his uncle’s throne.  Resources: all the wealth, contacts, secrets, tax-returns and dirt he has accumulated in decades managing the papal purse.

The Sistine Chapel is not actually that large a place for thirty-odd men to be trapped for several days.

It was a very complex election, about which we have lots of information, but little that is reliable.  We know there were four rounds of voting, and that Borgia was not one of the front runners in the three leading to his unanimous or near-unanimous victory in the last.  We have records of enormous bribes, offices and territories representing tens of thousands of florins in annual income changing hands.  Some allege that the king of France contributed hundreds of thousands to efforts to get Giuliano della Rovere on the papal throne.  It seems pretty clear that the Borgias smuggled letters offering fat bribes into the chapel inside the food which was delivered for the cardinal’s meals.  One delightful anecdote from the period claims that the 96-year-old Patriarch of Venice was the last critical swing vote, who, having a wealthy family, secure lines of power, a literally impregnable homeland, and not long to live to enjoy the fruits of bribery, sold out for a couple hundred florins and some marzipan, since, when one is locked in the Sistine Chapel with a bunch of clerics for day after day, sweets are precious hard to come by.  In the end even Giuliano della Rovere himself seems to have accepted that, if he could not win, it was better to profit and wait than to remain stubborn and gain nothing.  He was still fit, favored by the King of France, and likely to survive to see another election.   (For more nitty-gritty details on what we think we might maybe know could have happened potentially, see the wiki.)

The Papal Arms of Alexander VI

Thus Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI. One point of friction which came up in the course of the election was a proposal to contractually limit the number of new cardinals the new pope could appoint.  All popes strove to load the College of Cardinals with their kin and allies to ensure that their factions had a leg up in the next election, and over the course of the five popes Rodrigo had lived under the portion of stooges and nephews in the college had ballooned like the bubo of a plague victim.  Rodrigo Borgia agreed to a high but reasonable limit (I believe the limit was six, although I could be a little off).   Then, still within the blushing springtime of his papacy, he trashed that limit and appointed twelve!  One of those twelve Cardinal’s hats went to the Archbishop of Valencia, one of his own bastard sons, Cesare Borgia. It was a strange and strained life growing up a Borgia bastard, with a Spanish father but an Italian mother, raised in Rome.  The kids learned Catalan as well as Italian and French, not to mention Latin and Greek, since by 1480 humanism was sufficiently victorious that even a twelve-year-old bastard daughter of nobility received a healthy dose of  Homer.  The Italians considered the Borgias Spanish, but in Spanish eyes they seemed Italian, making them literally at home nowhere.  Even within the walls of their own house, as bastard children of a Cardinal they could not be properly acknowledged, at least not in the earlier parts of Rodrigo’s career. This left them wealthy and well-set-up, but also rootless in a world of enemies.  Our protagonists here will be Rodrigo’s children by the primary mistress of his Roman pre-papal years, Vannozza dei Cattanei.  He had other bastards both before and after, but none that will interest us as much as Giovanni Borgia (1476/7?-1497), Cesare Borgia (1475/6?-1507), Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) and Gioffredo Borgia(1482-1518).

A Pope Like No Other:

Rodrigo now had one goal: permanently establish the Borgia as one of the great families of Europe.  He was an old man, and had to move fast.  He bought a ducal title for his intended heir, Pier Luigi.  When Pier Luigi died, he bought one for the next son, Giovanni, and made Giovanni commander of the papal armies.  He married his younger son (Gioffredo, aged 12) to a princess of Naples (aged 16).  He filled the College of Cardinals with stooges who owed their positions and fortunes to the Borgia family, and ensured they had no other allies and many enemies, so they had nowhere to turn if they broke from the Borgia fold.  And he positioned his “nephew” Cesare in the College as a cardinal, just as his uncle had positioned him.

The ceiling of Alexander’s apartment.

All this is expected of a Renaissance pope. He spent lavish sums on redecorating the papal apartments within the Vatican palace, with the Borgia bull all over them.  He took a new mistress, the young and enchanting Giulia Farnese, and soon the papal palace rang with the cries of a newborn papal princess.  He gave vast sums from the Church’s coffers directly to his children, to spend on amassing land and personal troops.  He made corrupt appointments of clerics that fed vast sums into the pockets of allies who never went near the abbeys or peoples whose spiritual well-being they were supposed to oversee.  He used papal military forces to pursue personal family vendettas, particularly against the Orsini and Delle Rovere. All this was also pretty standard for a Renaissance pope.  Here is where it gets exceptional. Cardinals and other powerful figures who opposed the Borgias kept dying–sometimes of symptoms suggesting poison, sometimes of bloody assassinations, sometimes of obviously trumped up court sentences, or of unexplained issues while they were incarcerated in the private papal prison in Castel san Angelo.  The estates of the condemned kept getting confiscated by the holy see, and winding up, not in the papal treasury, but privately in the hands of the popes sons and cousins.  Giovanni was a Duke, and begins demanding to be treated as the equal of the many Italian nobles who had looked down their noses all those years at the half-Spanish mutts.  Cesare, meanwhile, positioned in the papal conclave and with fourteen-or-so other Cardinals appointed by his father and sure to vote his way, was in a good position to succeed his father in the next election.  Now the papacy was ready to become a permanent hereditary Borgia monarchy.

More Borgia Bulls, on Alexander’s ceiling.  The next pope refused to live in those rooms, and made new ones.  Now they keep confusing modern art there.

In 1494 big problems began, somewhat hard to summarize, but largely revolving around the primary rival Borgia had defeated in that hard-fought 1492 election: Giuliano della Rovere.

  • Giuliano della Rovere: “Hey, King of France!  This Borgia pope is evil!”
  • France: “What’s wrong with him?”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s better at bribing people than I am, and bought the election I was trying to buy! I hate him! I hate him!! I hate him!!!”
  • France: “Is that so?   What a strange and marvelous age we live in.”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “He’s also Spanish.”
  • France: “What?  We hate those guys!”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “Please invade Italy!”
  • France: “Srsly?”
  • Giuliano della Rovere: “To oust the evil Borgia pope and free Rome from corruption that isn’t mine!  And if you make me pope, I’ll be your buddy and do whatever you want.”
  • France: “Tempting… say, Naples is in Italy, right?  I seem to remember my distant cousin being King of Naples…”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Your Highness should totally invade Italy.  On the way in, might I recommend attacking Milan?”
  • France: “Sforza?  Aren’t you the Duke of Milan?”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “No, my nephew is Duke of Milan.  Please invade Italy, attack my home city, and murder my closest relative!”
  • Della Rovere: “Makes sense to me.”
  • France: “You Italians have very strange priorities.  OK.  I suddenly care deeply about this evil Spanish pope. I will oust him!”
  • Sforza & della Rovere: “Hooray!  France is invading Italy!”
  • Italy: “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
  • France: “CRUSH THINGS!”
  • Della Rovere: “Hey, don’t crush too much!  I want to tyrannize this stuff later.”
  • France: “CRUSH MILAN!”
  • Sforza: “Thank you!”
  • Other Sforza: “You jerk!!”
  • France: “CRUSH FLORENCE!”
  • Savonarola: “Have you considered not crushing Florence?”
  • France: “Oh, I thought you Italians liked being crushed; my mistake.”  *gentle condescending head pat*
  • Machiavelli: “What the… that worked?!  How did that work?!?!”
  • France: “CRUSH ROME!”
  • Della Rovere: “Excellent!  Now, get that evil Borgia pope!”
  • France: “Right.  Where is this evil Borgia pope?”
  • Alexander VI: “Hello, Your Majesty.  Would you like me to make you King of Naples?”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Great idea!  Go crush Naples!”
  • France: “Did you two read my character sheet or something?  Yes!  Naples!  That is indeed what I want.”
  • Alexander VI: “I hereby crown you King of Naples.  Now you can crush and tyrannize the entire southern half of Italy without consequence.  I shall tyrannize the middle, and you and Sforza can share the top.”
  • Ludovico Sforza: “Here’s a big bat.  Have fun!”
  • France: “I AM THE KING OF NAPLES!  CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
  • Della Rovere: “But, the evil Borgia pope…”
  • France: BANG!  CRASH!!  SMASH!!!  “Sorry, can’t hear you, della Rovere, busy conquering Naples.”
  • Della Rovere: “Borgia bad!  You said you’d oust Borgia!”
  • France: “Yeah, I can see why Borgia out-bribed you at the election.  He’s way better at this evil pope stuff!”  SMASH!!!!
  • Alexander VI: “In the name of Saint Peter, CRUSH THINGS!!!!”
  • Italy: “Wait, did the papal runner-up just invite the French to invade, and then the pope encouraged them to invade more, and then the pope started a new war of his own to seize the ravaged territories?  That’s a new one for the ‘worst popes’ book!”
  • Alexander VI: “Della Rovere did it.”
  • Della Rovere: “Borgia did it.”
  • Savonarola: “THIS POPE IS THE ANTICHRIST!  THESE ARE THE END TIMES!  APOCALYPSE! JUDGMENT!”
  • Everyone: “You know, that explains a lot…”

But he remained the pope,  however destructive his exploits.  He had armies, money, his own prison-fortress, his own courts of law, political instincts honed by decades, detailed knowledge of everyone’s secrets, the authority to grant noble titles (like King of Naples), and the power to damn you to Hell forever and ever.  His every move made him more powerful at the cost of his enemies, so the worse things got, the bleaker the prospect of taking down the Borgia monster.

Lucrezia Borgia

If you can’t take down the monster, one traditional option is to marry it.  Yet in this case, even allying with the pope by marriage, effectively agreeing to permanently condone and support whatever antics he got up to, was not necessarily a permanent fix.  The infamous and enchanting Lucrezia Borgia deserves an entry of her own someday, but I will treat her briefly here.  She was supposed to be one of the most beautiful ladies in the world, with blonde hair which fell past her knees, and a keen and well-trained intellect.  I can testify personally to the latter, since I have read some of the letters she wrote to her father from Milan at the age of fourteen, and the depth of her understanding of the European situation as she warns her father of political turmoil along Italy’s northern border certainly adds plausibility to the impossible competence of a lot of teen-aged young adult and anime protagonists.  In marriage terms, she was the best catch in the world.  Unfortunately, she was too valuable.  Alexander engaged her to one noble, then broke it off in favor of a better one, then a better one (“What’re ya gonna do about it?  Her dad’s the pope!”).  Eventually he married her to a bastard of the Sforza, the ruling family of Milan, then when the Sforza weren’t valuable enough wrangled an annulment (the Sforza objected fiercely: “You can’t do that!  We’re Catholic!  Ending a marriage requires a special dispensation from the pop… oh, right. #%$&!”)  Next Alfonso of Aragon, from the Naples-Spanish royal family.  That one ended in a juicy (and unsolved) murder. All the rumors of corruption that follow corrupt rulers naturally followed the Borgias, and I mean all of them.  Every important person who died was poisoned by the Borgias.  Every body found floating in the Tiber was their fault.  Lucrezia was sleeping with her brothers.  Lucrezia was sleeping with her father.  Giovanni was sleeping with Gioffredo’s wife.  Giovanni murdered his own wife.  Cesare murdered Lucrezia’s second husband out of jealousy because he was in love with her.  Alexander was sleeping, not just with Julia Farnese, but with Julia Farnese’s brother Alessandro.  Alexander was sleeping with the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem.  Most of these rumors must be untrue, and experts have spent many years making baby steps toward sorting true from false, but the majority is pretty much impossible to verify.  It does seem to be true that there was a patch in there when so many Cardinals were being murdered that there were active betting pools in Rome where you could lay money on which Cardinal would be offed next.  I myself am half convinced by the numerous accounts that claim that Cesare used to go out in the streets at night and murder people for fun.  I mean, why not?  His dad’s the pope!  Many of the claims may be outlandish, but neither historical facts nor the rule of plausibility can really help us quash them when the facts we do have are so exactly what we would expect if everything was true.  For example, in 1498, two of Lucrezia’s household servants were found dead in the Tiber without explanation, and shortly thereafter she definitely gave birth to a bastard, which was officially declared to be Cesare’s son, then to be Alexander’s son, then to be her half-brother with no claim about who the father was.  What was history supposed to think?  And all this time, the Ottoman Sultan’s brother Cem, who was living in Rome as a political hostage, did spend a suspiciously large amount of time hangin’ with the Borgias.

Shock! Dismay! Much later romanticized image of Cesare, Lucrezia and Rodrigo as the body is brought in.

But these were small things.  In 1497, one of the bodies floating in the Tiber was their own.  Giovanni Borgia, Duke of Gandia, Alexander’s heir.  An untouched purse containing gold worth more than a year’s income to many Romans proved it was not a random murder.  Alexander launched an intense investigation, then suddenly halted it after less than two weeks without any announcement of the result.  No one was convicted.  Rumors blamed the Orsini.  Darker rumors blamed his fellow Borgias.  Young Gioffredo Borgia was accused, on the grounds that Giovanni was supposed to have been sleeping with his wife.  Cesare Borgia was accused on the grounds of… of… frankly, it just seems that everyone who knew Cesare and knew Giovanni and knew the situation just agreed, as if by instinct, that it was Cesare.  Nothing else made sense.  Fratricide–the narrative demands it.

The Dark Prince Rises:

Why kill Giovanni?  [Disclaimer: there is no proof Cesare did kill Giovanni.  I freely confess that my tendency to believe those who claim he did is based solely on (A) its consistency with his later actions, and (B) the fact that it feels narratively right.  There is no proof!]  Cesare was supposed to succeed his father as pope.  But Giovanni, he was the one who got to be a Duke, to marry a princess, to enjoy the lands and castles, and to carry on the Borgia name.  He had been the heir.  The logical next heir should have been Gioffredo.  Instead Cesare took center stage.  He renounced the Cardinalship, becoming the only man in history ever to do so.  His father pressured the French into giving him a princess for a wife, and a Ducal title.  So little did the actual people ruled by nobles matter to the aristocrats who owned them at the time that they decided to make him Duke of a region called Valentinois for the sole reason that, as Archbishop of Valencia, he was already nicknamed “Valentino”, and this way they wouldn’t have to change his nickname.  He took command of the papal armies, and control of the Borgia estates.  But Alexander continued to sort-of treat him as a Cardinal and he continued to sort-of act like one, making everyone worry that they might still intend Cesare to succeed his father as pope even though he was now also intending to succeed as worldly heir.  What did it mean?

This drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci is pretty-much unknown, but an expert whom I have reason to trust told me with confidence that he believes it is a portrait sketch of Cesare.

Titular power was not enough now.  During Giovanni’s years, Alexander had already started signing papal lands over to his son-and-heir, not as temporary leases but as permanent gifts, carving off pieces of the Papal States and creating a private Borgia kingdom out of what had been Rome’s.  You see, titular ducal titles like Gandia and Valentinoi,s to Italian eyes, just meant some faraway nowhereville which gives people money and makes us have to call them “Your Grace”.  Such territories didn’t matter, not like a territory in Italy would matter.  What Alexander and Cesare made now was different.  Alexander gave a big hunk of the papal states to Cesare, as a permanent gift.  The cities within the Papal States were governed by papal “Vicars,” i.e. nobility granted rule over sub-territories within the papal lands much as Dukes and Counts are granted sub-territories in a kingdom by a king or emperor.  These vicars were in theory appointed by the pope and could be replaced by him, though in practice the position was by custom passed along noble lines from father to son.  To depose them all and give their lands to his son as the new vicar was thus technically legal but practically unthinkable, and an as great a shock to the political scene as if a king of France had suddenly deposed half his top nobles.  It also implied Alexander’s intention to leave these territories in Borgia hands permanently.  Next Cesare raised armies and started, on small pretexts, attacking neighboring city-states and territories, ejecting the current rulers and adding them to his private Borgia kingdom.  (“What’re ya gonna do about it?  My dad’s the pope!”)   A new blotch appeared on the European map.  Let me repeat: a new blotch appeared on the European map, a kingdom out of nowhere, carved out in the heart of Italy, a kingdom which no longer belonged to the pope, or any Italian house, but to the Borgias.   Whether Cesare became pope next or not, he would be Duke—perhaps soon King—of an ever-growing chunk of the world.  No pope had done this.  No pope had done anything close to this.

Maps help, even if this is not the best.  The blue section in the middle is the Papal States.  The northern arm is what Alexander carved off for the Borgia kingdom.  Ferrara to the north (Yellow) and Modena (also yellow, west of it) are what became Borgia allies when Lucrezia married Alfonso D’Este.  Notice how Florence’s orange territory is now an inconvenient bite-shaped hole in the side of Cesare’s kingdom.

The new and growing Borgia Kingdom was an especially terrifying force in the eyes of those on its ever-changing borders.  The pattern rapidly became clear: ally with the pope–by marriage or treaty–or you are next on Cesare’s chopping block.  These were not subtle takeovers but outright sieges, with the full brutality of Renaissance warfare.  Even Ferrara—the untouchable no man’s land between Venice and Rome which no man dared disturb lest strife on the Venetian border weaken the power whose fleet was the only barrier between the Turk and Christendom—even here Cesare threatened war.  The threat of war with the Turk meant nothing to him.  He was ready to ravage Ferrara, and would have if the Duke hadn’t speedily married Lucrezia and agreed to condone and acknowledge all his new brother-in-law’s conquests.  So even the untouchable noble house of Este fell into Borgia hands.  And do you know what plump, gold-fatted city-state lay directly west of the patch where Cesare was playing king-unmaker?  Good guess.

Good morning, Mr. Machiavelli.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent Cesare Borgia from conquering Florence.  You will serve as our official ambassador to his court.  You will shadow the Duke-Cardinal as closely as possible, report to us about his character and tactics, and develop a strategy to keep him from adding Tuscany to his expanding kingdom.  While at his court, you will need to maintain yourself and your team with grandeur sufficient to make him take us seriously as a political force, but we can’t send you any funds to pay for this, since Borgia has so completely destroyed peace and order in the region that bandits are rampaging through the countryside robbing and murdering all our couriers.  As always, should you or any member of your team be caught or killed, the Signoria will disavow all knowledge of your actions.  This message will self-destruct in a few weeks when your office is inevitably looted and burned, but if you throw it in the fire that will speed things up.

Thus began Machiavelli’s very special education in the conduct of a different kind of prince.

Cesare’s ducal coat of arms, adding the French fleur de lis after he successfully wins the King of France to his side.

Cesare Borgia was both feared and loved.  The “loved” part may seem out of place given Borgia infamy, but it was true.  The papal vicars Cesare replaced had been widely disliked by the peoples they ruled, since most of them were corrupt and more interested in family advancement than their people’s well-being.  Cesare offered something different, and in many cases better.  Better how?  Because the fundamental purpose of government, from the perspective of a butcher or a weaver, is to keep the peace and prevent killing and looting.  Cesare did that.  Cesare did that very, very well.  How?  If someone was caught causing strife in the streets, that person would be executed in the most horrifically graphic possible way and his corpse strung up in public.  Consequence: peace. Two examples of Cesare’s activities in this period crop up particularly vividly in the history books, and in Machiavelli’s “little book on princes.” The first is the case of Remirro de Orco.  Cesare conquered the territory of Romagna (East/middle hunk of Italy), including the city of Cesena.  Such was the chaos resulting from the violent upheaval and expulsion of the old rulers, that the region of Romagna had largely degenerated into chaos, banditry, killing and looting.  Cesare needed to bring order.  He appointed a mercenary captain named Remirro de Orco, one of his more loyal men, and commanded that he bring peace to the area as efficiently as possible by using maximum brutality.  Following Cesare’s order, Remirro carried out numerous executions, using methods gruesome even for the Renaissance, and speedily crushed the region under the iron heel of peace.  No one looted.  No one dared.  After peace was achieved, Cesare inspected the region and confirmed that it was indeed stable, arguably even more prosperous than it had been before his conquests, but that the people were fired with bitterness and rage.  The next morning, Cesare had departed, and Remirro de Orco was found in the town square of Cesena, having been sliced in half, with his gore-spewing entrails strewn across the decorative pavement.  No one doubted it was Cesare’s doing, but to Machaivelli’s astonishment, the effect of this unthinkable betrayal was instant and lasting peace.  The people were satisfied, even grateful, that Cesare had taken revenge upon the brutal oppressor, and the new, gentler vassal he left in place to rule the region was readily obeyed.  They did not blame Cesare for the atrocities loyal Remirro had carried out at his express order – instead they thanked him for avenging them.  Cesare was loved.

Coins minted by you-know-which-pope.

He was also feared, by other loyal vassals who noticed (as my father urged Crabbe and Goyle to) that the villain had a tendency to brutally murder people near him, even loyal servants.  This was unheard of.  The Handbook of Princes says the success of the prince depends on his ability to inspire loyalty and love from his vassals.  The vassal betraying the benefactor is the worst thing in Dante’s Inferno; Dante didn’t even have a section for benefactors who betray their vassals because it simply didn’t occur to the Renaissance political mind that one would ever want to.  But it did occur to Cesare. By this phase, by the way, Cesare’s face had been disfigured by syphilis, and he had taken to wearing a mask.  And dressing all in black.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he genuinely did go around dressed all in black wearing a mask, betraying and murdering people.  Sadly, we have no documentary evidence that he went “Wa ha ha!  Wa ha ha ha ha!” The nervousness that swept through Cesare’s vassals leads us to the second amazing incident, the massacre at Senigallia.  In very late 1502, several of the vassals who had supported Cesare in return for receiving power under him and having his help crushing their enemies became increasingly afraid, both for their lives and for Italy and Europe, and plotted against him.   This was really quite rational.  But they were disorganized and uncertain, and did not follow through well.  They heard rumors that Cesare had heard about the plot.  They didn’t quite trust each other not to sell each other out to him.  One problem led to another, and in the end they decided to abandon the plot, confess to him that they had considered treason but renew their vows to follow him to the end, and beg his forgiveness.  They confessed.  He forgave.  They rejoiced.  He invited them to join him for a feast.  They heartily accepted.  He massacred them all.  High on Olympus Hestia sighed, and the vengeful Furies in the depths gnashed their teeth as the Laws of Hospitality lay wounded.  Cesare’s vassals never plotted against him again.

Our most reliable portrait of Machiavelli, made from his death mask.

I will never forget the letter written to Machiavelli by his friend Biagio Buonaccorsi on January 9th 1503, expressing absolute delight and abject gratitude and relief upon hearing that Machiavelli had survived the massacre at which so many of Cesare’s court had been killed.  Throughout this period, dear Niccolo’s friends and family were prepared to read any day that he had been killed, either with Cesare or by Cesare.  And they didn’t manage to send him his salary.  Once they tried giving it to Michelangelo to carry to him when he was en route to Rome, but even Michelangelo turned back in Cesare-ful times of banditry and chaos.  But something else unsettling was happening too.  What of our Handbooks of Princes?  Shouldn’t a betrayal like that make the rest of Cesare’s vassals turn and flee?  Shouldn’t these people rebel hearing rumors of his brutality?  Doesn’t the Handbook of Princes genre teach us that every move Cesare is making should fail?  Then why does every step he takes seem to be a step up?  They’re trying to turn the papacy into a hereditary monarchy, and they’re succeeding. It should be noted that Cesare’s rise does not necessarily completely undermine the advice in the traditional Handbook of Princes.  Providence has exalted tyrants before, and fools have followed them, many out of of fear.  The apparent (psychological) effects of the incidents with Remirro and at Senigallia are hard to explain, but this can still fit traditional narratives, especially if the Borgias fall in some appropriately cataclysmic way, demonstrating the wages of sin and the grisly fate that waits for bad princes and bad popes.  Then Cesare’s story can join our collections of moral anecdotes as an example of hubris and cruelty, while one of his enemies (Guidobaldo da Montefeltro perhaps?) becomes the hero.  But for now, hubris and cruelty seem to be winning the day.

A sample of Cesare’s surviving handwriting, with his signature at the bottom.

Machiavelli’s letters from the period include some of his reflections on these larger philosophical and historical questions, but he does not have the leisure to invent political science just now.  That must wait for the leisurely days of his exile.  On this mission, every second is reserved for Florence.  Seeing all who opposed the rising prince fall one by one, Machiavelli too chose to follow fear’s advice and suggested an alliance.  Florence accepted his plan and, after many careful approaches by their wily ambassador, so did Cesare.  Florence became an official Borgia ally, agreeing to recognize Cesare’s legitimate claim to his newly-carved kingdom and to offer money and resources to help him conquer more.  Florence was safe for now—at least, as safe as Remirro de Orco had been. And it is in this precarious state that we must leave Florence, and Machiavelli, and the triumphant Cesare for a little while, as the spring of 1503 promises Great Change.

Continued in Machavelli IV: Julius II, the Warrior Pope

Aug 242012
 

Scheme, scheme, scheme… the adorably romantic and villainous 19th century statue of Machiavelli at the Uffizi.  Some men are not remembered as they would have expected.

Machiavelli, Part the Second: in which terms are defined, moral codes collided, teachers betrayed, a hypothetical man executed, Batman and Sherlock Holmes placed before the reader’s judgment, and Machiavelli never actually appears.

See also Part I: S.P.Q.F., and Part I addendum.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy which deals with decision-making, how we separate correct from incorrect action.  A moral philosophy, or ethical system, is the set of criteria by which an individual judges whether an action should or should not be taken.  All ethical systems can, believe it or not, be separated into three categories, whose names are, to the eternal detriment of students, misleading and confusing.  The three are Virtue Ethics (note, does not necessarily involve any concept of “virtue”), Deontology (no relation whatsoever to “ontology”), and the younger sibling, Utilitarianism, aka. Consequentialism.  I will give away my ending here by saying that Machiavelli is the founder of Utilitarianism, and that few changes in the history of thought have so radically transformed the human world.  But for the moment we shall live in a world without Consequentialism, for it is in such a world that Petrarch, and Savonarola, and the young Machiavelli find themselves.

Virtue Ethics is any ethical system which judges an action based on the interior motives and feelings of the actor.  Did that person will a good deed when the person took that action?  If so, it was a morally good action.  Did the person will a wicked deed?  If so, it was a morally wicked action.  The primary question is of the character of the doer: is this a good person or a bad person while performing this action?  Virtue Ethics is thus what leads to such legal terms as self-defense, heat of passion and premeditation.  Yes this person killed another human being, but it was an act of self-defense: this person does not have the character of a murderer.  Yes this person killed another, but (s)he was temporarily out of control due to shock and truma: this person does not have the character of a murderer.  Yes this person killed another, but it was a rash, improvised action, not the result of days and weeks of maliciously plotting how to take human life: this person does have the character of a murderer but the flaw is not so deep, not so perverse, not so terrible.

Even when Plato’s works were lost, the Middle Ages remembered his importance.

The father of Virtue Ethics is Plato, whose argument in The Republic attempts to define Justice.  Is Justice, as one interlocutor proposes, “The will of the stronger?”  Is it “the law?”  Plato concludes, defines Justice and other virtues as “a harmony of the soul,” i.e. an interior quality independent from any action.  In such a system a man is equally virtuous, whether Fortune sends him to rescue a drowning child, to plunge into bloody battle, or to sit in solitary meditation, if his inner state remains the same.  Plato also concludes that it is virtue—the inner harmony of the soul—which makes people happy, rather than wealth or fame or power, which bring with them stresses, risk, and, often, the very opposite of happiness.

Deontology is any ethical system which judges action based on a presumed-universal set of laws or rules external to the doer.  The rules, and their source, may vary enormously.  A patriot who judges actions good or bad based on whether they are lawful or unlawful exercises deontology.  A religious person who judges actions good or bad based on a code of conduct taken from a holy book exercises deontology.  A philosopher practicing rational deism who judges actions good or bad based on a set of “natural laws” (s)he has logically derived from observations of Nature and human behavior exercises deontology.  The uniting characteristic is the focus on rules.  Examples: Killing another human being is wrong.  Killing another human being over whom you do not hold paternal right of life or death is wrong.  Eating an animal is wrong.  Eating a certain type of animal is wrong.  Eating an animal in a certain month is wrong.  Burning a book is wrong.  Permitting the circulation of a book whose dangerous content might lure people into eternal damnation is wrong.  If there is a father of Deontology it is also Plato, since Plato is the first author to discuss such ideas and to contrast them with Virtue Ethics, but Plato is the first Western philosopher to discuss ethics at all.  When his dialogs contrast different views voiced by different interlocutors, are we to credit Plato as the creator of all?  Or shall we argue that deontology was already in the air as the “obvious” approach to what was not yet an “-ology.”  For simplicity’s sake we can credit Plato as the father of ethics.

Having treated the father, Plato, I will take a split second to present the son, Aristotle (who broke violently [by philosophical standards] with his master and strode off either boldly into the truths of the Earth or foolishly back into the Cave, depending on whether you believe the apprentice or the master).  Aristotle presents virtues as a mean between two vices, i.e. bravery is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness; generosity between miserliness and prodigality.  These are, as in Plato, internal qualities, and a brave man can be brave even if he never has the opportunity to show it.  Yet Aristotle discusses what he calls habits of virtue.  The idea is that someone who does not have the correct virtuous internal disposition might attain it gradually through practice.  He who is not naturally generous can nonetheless practice giving to the poor and eventually, through practice, acquire a habit or instinct to give, and thus become generous.  A coward who practices charging into danger might gradually become brave.  A rebellious child who is forced, through the schoolmaster’s rod, to behave might eventually settle down and learn his grammar.  This approach lies, distantly, behind the medieval Christian practices which say, if you’ve sinned, you can improve yourself by rote reciting prayers and giving alms.  It lies even more distantly behind our modern practice of assigning public service hours as punishments for minor crimes.

Here is a real, period portrait of Machiavelli, with the period label of why he was important: Writer of histories. Not what we remember.

Now, some practical examples of Virtue Ethics vs. Deontology:

EXAMPLE:  Guido kills Paolo.

A virtue ethicist is not a position to answer at this point whether Guido has done good or bad.  Most deontologists would also be unable to answer.  If a deontologist follows a code like some strict forms of Buddhism which say that taking a life is always wrong regardless of the circumstances, such a deontologist could at this point say with certainty: Guido has done wrong.  But for all others we need detail:

EXAMPLE 2: Guido is a professional executioner.  He kills Paolo, executing a sentence ordered by the lawful government, for a capital crime which Paolo did indeed commit.

Now a broader range of deontologists can answer whether or not Guido has done wrong.  In a deontological system in which the lawful government has a right to lethal force and is largely the source of the rules by which we judge (think Hobbes) then Guido has committed no evil.  A deontologist who believes it is absolutely wrong to execute anyone can judge that Guido has done evil.  Others may want to know what Paolo’s crime was (Murder? Rape? Adultery? Atheism?  Public urination?  Homosexuality? Freedom of speech?) to determine whether or not it indeed merits death.

Yet, in any or all of these situations, our unfortunate virtue ethicist still has no way to judge Guido because we need to know what is going on in Guido’s mind.  Did Guido become an executioner because Guido looooooves killing people and jumped at a state-sanctioned way to do it?  If so we would probably not call his action virtuous.  Did Guido become an executioner because he saw a botched execution as a child, and thereafter determined to do it himself in order to strive to be as humane and respectful as possible to those about to face the undiscovered country?  If so we might call this very virtuous.  Was Guido drafted into Hitler’s army where he is following orders?  Does he question them?  Does he not?  Was he brainwashed?  Does he hate this task or does he do it unblinkingly?  All these details the virtue ethicist must have before answering whether Guido is performing a morally good deed.  (For anyone sitting here thinking: No!  The Holocaust was unconscionable!  No matter what the motives, if Guido was a Nazi it’s evil!  Congratulations: you have identified a point in your personal ethics which is firmly deontological.)  Note too that in all these executioner scenarios, it does not matter whether or not Paolo is guilty or innocent, deserving or undeserving of death.  What matters is whether Guido thinks Paolo is guilty or innocent, etc.

“What about me?” objects voluntarism in a high, squeaky voice.  Yes, I was just getting to you.  Voluntarism is an ethical system which says that an act is only moral if it is good by both virtue ethics and deontology.  That is, an act must be good and permissible by absolute external rules, and the doer must also have good motives while doing it.  The quintessential example, for which we may thank William of Ockham (1288-1348), is a man who goes to church.  “You may think this is a good act,” Ockham warns his presumed-Catholic High Medieval reader, “but what if the man goes to Church not for God’s sake or out of love and piety, but in order to show off his Sunday finery to his fellow man, and make political and economic connections to further his own earthly greed?  Only if a man takes good actions for good reasons is true moral virtue present!”  In a less formalized but also more emotionally powerful formulation, which has the distinction of being the first real manifestation of voluntarism in the history of philosophy, Heloise (1101-1164) spends her days in the nunnery praying, and fasting, and looking after the sick, and mortifying her flesh, and everyone tells her she is a very good nun and leading a virtuous life, but, she writes, “Even while I’m praying I spend all day thinking about how much I want to be having sex with Peter Abelard (1079-1142)” (slight paraphrase).  “How is this morally good?  How is this rote repetition of pious words and actions without feelings behind them supposed to help me become a better person?”

Thus we have deontology, virtue ethics and their child voluntarism.  (Deontology: “A child conceived within the strictures of formally permissible union.” Virtue ethics: “And in love!”)

Care to spend a fun evening with your friends?  Sit around picking interesting characters from various pieces of fiction and discussing whether they based their decisions on deontology or virtue ethics.  This game brings endless delight, especially if you’re the sort who enjoys slotting various characters into the old Dungeons & Dragons Alignment Grid, since this categorization system is actually universally applicable, and leads to many fascinating distinctions and telling disagreements.  You will also notice a pair of general patterns, at least in popular fiction of the last few decades, (1) that good guys tend to be more dominated by Virtue Ethics, and bad guys by other motives, and (2) the author or scriptwriter (very common in movies) tends to assume the viewer will judge the characters based primarily on Virtue Ethics.

“Luke, search your feelings: you know you’re guided primarily by virtue ethics.”

Test cases:

Batman.  Absolute commitment to never using lethal force: deontology.  (Unless we think he refrains from killing out of fear of what killing would do to his moral character.)

Spiderman.  Uncle Ben was killed because of Peter Parker’s selfish and vengeful impulse in that moment he let the thug go instead of using his powers for good.  Why, then, does Peter dedicate himself to fighting crime?  If it is because he has come to an absolute conclusion that with great power comes great responsibility, i.e. he is morally required to, that is deontology.  If it is because he hopes to redeem the flaw in his character which led to his selfish decision, it is Virtue Ethics at its most habit-of-virtue Aristotelian.

Average Disney Hero.  Battles villain to save princess, then villain conveniently falls off a cliff.  The virtue ethicist remains content that no shadow is cast on the hero’s character.  Hooray, we have neatly dodged any and all possible moral complexity!

Calaban.  Prospero enslaves him and seizes control of his native island as punishment for Calaban’s attempted rape of Miranda.  Virtue Ethics says Calaban is a horrible and malicious being, and that this punishment is just (unless you have a super-charming actor playing Calaban).  Deontology’s answer depends on which of several different rights/laws the individual deontologist considers primary.  Right of Conquest?  If so, Prospero can do whatever he likes to Calaban.  Right of sovereignty?   If so Prospero is a wicked invader.  Right of benefactor, to punish the ungrateful Calaban to whom Prospero taught and gave so much?  Then Prospero is in the right.  Right of host, to punish the ungrateful Prospero whom Calaban welcomed to his island?  Then Calaban is in the right.  Right to punish the terrible crime of rape?  Only if the deontologist in question believes in some specific absolute code by which rape is criminal in this specific circumstance.

Sherlock Holmes. Tendency to bend the rules and let criminals escape when he thinks they are good people or generally should not suffer the vengeance of the law: Virtue Ethics.  Or is it?  In the case of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes states “I am aiding a criminal, but I may be saving a soul.”  Is this an application of religious deontology against law-code-based deontology?  In the self-defense killing of The Abbey Grange, Holmes goes through the formula of an impromptu trial before releasing the homicide who he fears would be wrongly convicted in a real trial.  Even when he burgles the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, he invokes the (deontological) duty of a gentleman to aid a lady in distress as his moral justification.  Our perfect analytical reasoner walks a fine and subtle line on the edge of what feels like comfortable, emotional Virtue Ethics, but it is hard to catch him actually outstepping the bounds of what he would surely call universal rules of right and wrong.  Holmes has, of course, enjoyed many versions, and I encourage everyone (especially fans of the Sherlock TV series) to examine how his ethics vary variant by variant.

Personal favorite for this exercise: Darth Vader.  [Do I really need a spoiler warning for this?]  He betrays his master the Emperor to save his son.  The film presents this as redemptive, and his spirit moves on to the vague glowy-person positive Manichean afterlife of the Star Wars special effects universe.  Hooray.  Virtue Ethics supports this absolutely, since the morally good side of his character has won out, even after so many evil deeds, proving him good inside.  What about the deontologist?  If we believe that an apprentice owes true fealty to his master, then this betrayal is a wicked act.  If we believe that the father’s drive to protect his child is a natural and universal bond deeper than law, then this killing-in-defense is a good act.  If we believe the Emperor was the legitimate ruler of the Empire and that its laws are binding, then this treason is a wicked act.  If we believe the Emperor is a tyrant who has unjustly displaced the rightful Republic, then this tyrranicide is, potentially, a good act.  What if the general Sith lifestyle says the apprentice is supposed to kill his master to take his place?  Then Darth Vader is a lazy bum, and should’ve done this a long time ago.  This is but one of many occasions in which Hollywood presents a narrative which is simple and easy to judge using virtue ethics—which is presumed to be the default in today’s audience—but much more complex if deontology rears its head.

Or worse, the dreaded utilitarianism.

Murky waters lie before us as ethics’ third branch stirs from the depths.

Utilitarianism, or Consequentialism, is any form of ethics which judges an action based on the consequences of the action, rather than the action itself or the motive of the doer.

Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could push the nuclear destructor button and end all life on Earth.  Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could exterminate a bus full of nuns and orphans.  Guido killed Paolo before Paolo could kill ten nuns and ten orphans.  Two nuns?  One nun?

We moderns, saturated with utilitarianism, feel that these situations are different from one another, though feel discomfort with “the end justifies the means” and all feel that the scale gets slipperier and more uncomfortable as the numbers get smaller.  Throughout these scenarios the deontologist’s view is unchanged, unless the set of rules the deontologist is applying has specific caveats for killing to defend life.  The virtue ethicist is, of course, not in a position to judge, because the exploding nuns do not tell us Guido’s motive.  If Guido killed Paolo in order to prevent the nuclear destruction of thousands of innocents, Guido is probably, by virtue ethics, not actively willing evil.  But what if Guido didn’t know or care about the nuclear destructor button, and shot Paolo just because Guido loves shooting people?  Or in order to steal Paolo’s avocado club sandwich?  What if Guido is a government assassin who was hired to kill Paolo in order to save innocent lives, but who originally became a government assassin in order to have license to kill because Guido just loves, loves, loves killing?  In all these cases Guido’s character is different, so the virtue ethicist must judge him differently, while most deontological systems would still pay attention mainly to the act itself.  As for Utilitarianism, we have now entered the frightening realm where we must admit that even if Guido committed murder and did it out of love of snuffing out the human candle, it might have saved a hundred billion lives and it is hard to say flat out: that was a bad act.

No greater can of worms has been opened in philosophy’s long march.  Several equal perhaps, none greater.

Questions multiply:

  • How many lives must Guido save before killing Paolo is justified?
  • What if Paolo is a drowning baby and Guido saves him, but then Paolo grows up to become an evil overlord and slaughters millions?  Does the rescue become retroactively evil?
  • If, with our finite perspectives, we cannot ever know the infinite consequences of any particular butterfly wing-beat, let alone moral choice, can we ever in fact say with certainty that any act is good or bad?  Have we, in fact, surrendered the capacity to judge at all?!
  • And, stepping back one level, the historical question: If deontology and virtue ethics were both created at the very spark-birth of philosophy, why did it take 1,800 years for the third (to us equally obvious) branch to come into being?

Ah, friends: before we can have utilitarianism, we must have Borgias!  Before we can understand why this this third mode of human thought was born, nearly two millennia into the unassailed riegn of the original two, I must narrate the papacy’s darkest and, in my view, most exciting hour.  And before I can devote myself to the events around 1503, I must reserve a few days for my own affairs in 2012.

Continued in Machiavelli III: Rise of the Borgias

May 022012
 

It’s been a while, so here are some extra trixy new saints to add to our challenge.  (Note, the Renaissance images featured in this post will feature nudity, so if you’re not comfortable with that skip this entry):

John the Evangelist (Giovanni Evangelista)

  • Common attributes: Eagle, book, pen, Roman robes, EITHER beautiful young man OR old man with very long beard
  • Occasional attributes: Chalice with a snake or dragon crawling out of it, often dressed in pink
  • Patron saint of: Friendship, everyone in the bookmaking industry (writers, editors, compositors, booksellers, bookbinders, print makers, engravers), protection from burns, protection from poison
  • Patron of places: Asia Minor, Umbria, Wroclaw Poland, Sundern Germany, lots of weird places like Cleveland and Milwaukee and Boise Idaho
  • Feast day: December 27th, also May 6th (his surviving being boiled in oil).
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, mourning at the Crucifixion or Deposition, asleep in Christ’s lap at the Last Supper, being boiled, in a set with the other three Evangelists
  • Relics: Ephesus (church has now been turned into a Mosque)

Due to the popularity of Crucefixion scenes, the most commonly depicted apostle in Renaissance art is not, shockingly, Peter, nor Paul, but John the Evangelist, who, like the fainting Virgin and tearful Magdalene, makes a mandatory cameo at the base of every cross.  Add to this the frequency with which artists decorate four matching surfaces (four vaults, four doors, four pinacles above central images) with the Four Evangelists, and the frequency with which John is depicted writing his Gospel or witnessing events of his Gospel, and he becomes one of the most familiar faces in our list.

Familiar but tricky.  John the Evangelist, or “the Beloved”, presumed author of the Gospel of John, is a great challenge to saint spotting for three reasons.  First: he often has no attributes, and has to be identified from his general bearing, location and activities.  Second: he appears at two completely different ages, which can throw one off.  Third: when young he often looks so female to the modern eye that the mind leaps straight to our list of female saints, looking for spiked wheels and eyes on plates, without considering the fact that this might be a boy.  The fact that he appears so often in the same scenes where Mary Magdalene makes sense to appear makes the two of them frustratingly easy to mix up.

John’s radically fluctuating age is due to the fact that he is believed to have lived a very long time, and did important things at many different points in his life, unlike martyrs who are pretty-much always shown at the ages they were when they died.  He was established as having been very young (and handsome) during Christ’s life, and can be spotted among full sets of apostles by being the most handsome, and often the only one without a beard.  He then went on to live a very long life preaching and writing, and survived numerous near-martyrdoms: He was arrested and beaten by Domitian, but remained impervious.  He was then poisoned, but he blessed the chalice and the poison turned into a snake or dragon and ran away (Where did it go?!  Is it still out there?…), hence his attribute of holding a cup with a snake in it.  He was then boiled in oil, but that didn’t work either, and he escaped to Ephesus where he lived a long and pious life.  He also supposedly got into a conflict with some worshipers of Artemis at one point, who tried to stone him, but the stones bounced off, and then at his invocation two hundred of them were killed by lightning, and then resurrected, in one of the largest mass-resurrections in the palette of saintly miracles.  But because none of the implements involved in these stories actually killed John, he does not carry them around with him in Heaven (i.e. in art), so while Lorenzo and Catherine and Paul have convenient death tags, John remains elusively short on attributes.

John is depicted either as a beautiful youth, or as an old man with a very long beard.  Modern gender tag conventions make his youthful form particularly easy to mistake for a woman, mainly because of his hairstyle, which is usually long and loose down to his shoulders or shoulder blades.  This style looks feminine by modern standards, but was not by Renaissance standards.  In Renaissance art, pretty-much no woman would ever have hair nearly that short.  Women’s hair is generally to the elbows, and is worn tied up in an elaborate hairstyle, or at least covered by a veil.  Loose hair with nothing tying it up is the style of a knight or dashing nobleman, never a woman.  The to-modern-eyes feminine presentation of John the Evangelist is enhanced by the fact that, at least in Tuscan art, he’s usually dressed in pink.  I don’t know why this is, and it certainly isn’t a solid rule, but just as the Virgin Mary is almost always in a blue robe, John is almost always in pink, which was not gender-coded in the Renaissance as it is now, but does rather add to the overall effeminacy of the young “beloved”.

The Four Evangelists have four winged animals that represent them: the Winged Lion for Mark, the Winged Bull for Luke, the Winged Person i.e. Angel for Matthew, and the Winged Eagle for John (no, no one has a non-winged Eagle as an attribute).  Sometimes just the animal is used to stand in for the evangelist, with no human figure at all.  The evangelists’ animals are sometimes depicted covered with lots of eyes, but more often John just has an eagle hanging out next to him.  This, combined with John’s youth and beauty, strongly invokes the Greco-Roman image of the handsome Ganymede being carried of by Zeus in the form of a lustful eagle, and puts John solidly with Sebastian in the palette of “sexy saints,” i.e. saints who are sometimes used as an excuse to show a sexy male body in a world in which eroticism, particularly homoeroticism, was controversial, yet religious content often eased criticism.  We have Renaissance diatribes in which theologians rail against the sensuality of paintings in aristocrats’ collections, citing nude Venuses and scandalous Ganymedes, but the same treatises often explicitly say that nudity is A-ok in religious art, because the bodies of John, Sebastian and Mary Magdalene point the soul toward heavenly thoughts rather than Earthly.  Looking at them, though, it is sometimes hard to see the difference:

Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede

John the Evangelist. Note the pose of the legs, and the position of the eagle.

The old John, author of the gospels, is often depicted with the other three evangelists in a set, but sometimes he is depicted as just a bearded sage with a book and an eagle, or, less helpfully, with just a book, or even less helpfully as just a bearded man, though, often, still in pink robes.  Sometimes, to mix things up, he’s just an eagle.

One way to spot John when he has no attributes is by his customary position.  At a Crucifixion, John is always depicted near the foot of the cross, mourning dramatically, accompanied by Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and ladies attending to the Virgin, usually including Margaret.  Thus, if there are several beautiful mourners at Christ’s feet, the one with the shortest hair is John.  The gender tags remain trixy, however, and unless one knows what to look for in the hair styles, it can be difficult to tell the difference between John and Christ’s other major mourner, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene

  • Common attributes: Long loose hair
  • Occasional attributes: Ointment jar (often made of alabaster) or cup, skull, naked except for her hair
  • Patron saint of: Penitent sinners, converts, the contemplative life, apothecaries, women, reformed prostitutes, protection against sexual temptation
  • Patron of places: Atrani, Italy
  • Feast day: July 22nd
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, grieving at the Crucefixion or Deposition, anointing or embracing Christ’s feet, in the wilderness being a hermit, being airlifted to heaven by angels, with Christ in the garden attempting to touch him while he refuses (“noli me tangere”)
  • Relics: Either Constantinople OR the French hemitage on La Sainte-Baume, depending who you ask

Ah, Mary Magdalene, unofficial patron saint of conspiracy theorists, historical mystery fiction and feminist historicist conflicts.  There is either way too much information about Mary Magdalene or way too little, depending on what sources you listen to.  Our goal is to present the version which appears in Renaissance Art, as opposed to the skillion other versions, from Mary “Equal of the Apostles”, to Mary thesystematically-suppressed founder of a long-lost feminist Christianity, to… I don’t actually know what she is in the Korean comic “Let’s Bible!” but given that Jesus is a teenage girl with no pants and Satan is a Mexican guitarist, I think I am safe in assuming that she is a talking spider plant.

In the Gospels, apart from a vague reference to her being cleansed of “seven devils”, and being Lazarus’ sister (even this is debated), she pretty-much only appears during the Crucifixion process, at which she is a named and specified witness of (A) the Crucifixion, (B) the fact that the tomb is empty, and (C) the Resurrection.  Renaissance artists depict her consistently at all these things, accompanied at the Crucefixion and tomb by the Virgin Mary, the confusingly vague “Other Mary”, and at the Crucifixion by them along with John the Evangelist and, often, Margaret.

Gregory the Great (in 591 AD) is credited with establishing the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, who renounced and reformed her evil ways when she converted, and it is this version who populates Renaissance art as the second-most-commonly-depicted woman after the Virgin.  She is thus usually a very beautiful, sensual young woman, the cultural antithesis of the Virgin, and a figure which lets Renaissance religious art have a conversation about female sexuality in a way that the endless martyred virgins like Catherine and Lucy can’t facilitate.  The legend also has Mary Magdalene go out into the wilderness after the Crucifixion and live as a hermit, allowing her to be used as a prototype for serious female participation in the extreme religious life of total commitment, contemplation and self-denial which made hermits and, later, monks such a central part of medieval Christian ideas of true religious life.  Remember that, until St. Francis’s revolutionary program of bringing religious life to the urban lay population, the term “religious” in European culture meant a hermit, priest, monk or non, who were considered the only people with meaningful religious lives, and the only ones likely to go to heaven without being martyred.  The archetype of Mary Magdalane, female hermit, opened this to women.

As champion and representative of the Contemplative Life, Mary Magdalene is patroness of contemplative philosophers, and of the Dominican order, which so values contemplation as a path to the divine.

A depiction of the “Noli me tangere”

While the Mary Magdalene story could serve to open some doors of religious activity to women, it also closed some in the form of the “Noli me tangere” scene.  This scene, frequently depicted in art, was when the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary (before he did to anyone else) and, when she attempted to embrace him, said “Don’t touch me” (Noli me tangere).  This scene is sometimes used to justify refusing to allow women to be priests, where they have to consecrate and touch the body of Christ.  The scene in which Thomas, after doubting the resurrection and saying he won’t believe until he touches Christ’s wounds, is then actually allowed to touch Christ’s wounds is used to demonstrate that men can touch him but not women.  The fact that Mary Magdalene was allowed to anoint Christ’s body when he was dead leads to all sorts of confusing cultural attempts to figure out the correct divisions of male and female physicality in liturgical, medical and funerary situations which I will not attempt to sort out.

“Penitent Magdalene” in hermit mode, with skull

The thing which makes Mary Magdalene recognizable 95% of the time in art is the fact that she has long loose trailing hair.  This derives from (A) the pre-modern association between loose hare on a woman and wantonness/ sensuality/ prostitution, and (B) a medieval legend that, when Mary renounced being a prostitute and threw away her luxurious seductive clothes, her hair miraculously grew to cover her nakedness.  And even though the miracle of her long hair happens at a certain point in the logic of her linear narrative, the same special relationship with time that allows renaissance artists to cheerfully depict toddler-aged John the Baptist in a hairshirt and carrying a staff allows them to depict Mary Magdalene’s miraculously long hair at any point.

Another fun Mary Magdalene legend moment, also medieval, describes the fact that she refuses to eat while in the wilderness, so to keep her alive angels air-lift her to Heaven every day where she is fed divine manna and then set down again.

All this makes Mary Magdalene the top choice saint for painters who want an excuse to depict a sexy woman, just as the usually-nearly-naked Saint Sebastian is the top choice for depicting a sexy man.  Saint Sebastian can be depicted as a fully clothed guy holding an arrow, but is usually a luscious youth with a gauze-like loincloth, and in the same way Mary Magdalene can be a haggard penitent hermit, or she can be a luscious nude, chest heaving with ecstatic (religious) excitement, indistinguishable from Lady Godiva.  Thus we encounter extremes with Mary, as we do with John, ranging, in her case, not in age, but in sensuality, from the extreme of Titian’s Magdalene, whose luscious hare carefully covers everything except the naughty bits, to Donatello’s gaunt and stunning hermit.

Donatello’s Version

Titian’s Version

The disparity of how Mary Magdalene is depicted is perhaps best summarized by who artists tend to pair her with, since saints are most often spotted in symmetrical groups flanking Christ or the Virgin, and thus every one needs a partner symmetrically opposite.  Often “reasonable Magdalene” (as I think of her) beautiful, in nice clothes, with long flowing hair and her jar, is paired with John the Evangelist, the two beautiful, young people who loved and were emotionally close to Christ the man.  In contrast, “hermet Magdalene” is usually paired with John the Baptist (her hair paralleling his hairshirt), or to the old wasted hermit Saint Jerome, so the pair of them can kneel on rocks and beat their breasts and contemplate skulls and crucifixes in the wilderness in parallel.  Finally “sexy Magdalene” is usually alone, as an excuse to have a naked lady.

But don’t forget to look for the jar – she does have it sometimes.

Population of a Crucefixion Scene:

With John and Mary Magdalene under our belts, it is now possible to sort the population of a standard Crucifixion scene.  Generally not all of these figures are present, but the scenes often include:

  • Virgin Mary, generally wearing a hood/veil, and depicted fainting into the arms of companions
  • Mary Magdalene, with long beautiful hair, generally embracing the foot of the cross, or otherwise grieving very conspicuously, with arms flung wide
  • John the Evangelist, also grieving conspicuously, occasionally helping those who catch the fainting Virgin
  • St. Margaret and “The Other Mary”, nondescript women catching the Virgin Mary while she faints
  • A skull at the base of the cross, supposed to be Adam’s skull, because he was buried at the same place that the cross was set up
  • The Good Thief and the Wicked Thief, crucified on two other crosses on the either side of Christ, with the Wicked Thief on Christ’s left having his soul carried of by a (usually adorable) little devil.
  • St. Longinus, the centurion who stabbed Christ with a spear, depicted carrying a spear, sometimes on horseback.  May or may not have a halo, since at the moment he does the stabbing he hasn’t yet converted, so some artists show him not-quite-yet a saint and therefore halo-free
  • Other non-saint figures, including the soldiers playing dice to see who keeps Christ’s clothes, an unappealing man mocking Christ’s thirst by offering him a sponge dipped in vinegar on a long pole (the Holy Sponge!), and assorted random witnesses who are sometimes so plentiful that it starts to feel like they must be time travelers gathering to watch the occasion
  • Angels with cups (the holy grail) catching the dripping blood
  • Other random saints who logically shouldn’t be there, like John the Baptist, or Francis or Dominic, or whoever is the local patron saint is, stuck in by the artist and shown as witnesses, contemplating the scene and grieving, or, in John the Baptist’s case, pointing at Christ.

The population of a Deposition, when they take the body down and mourn it, is about the same.

Samples:

Quiz Yourself on the Saints You Know So Far:

 The next level of challenge in saint spotting is judging when you do and don’t know figures.  In the image below, you should recognize five of the seven figures.  (One figure is deceptive, since the figure on the left holding lilies is, in fact, a portrait of a more obscure local figure made to look like a more famous one, but you should be able to identify who he’s pretending to be).

Some comments on the old figure second from the right (read these after you have done your best to identify everyone in the picture).  It is often possible to figure out a fair amount about a figure even if you don’t know who it is from looking at details of costume.  Looking at this figure, you can tell first what religious order he is a part of from his clothes, and from the extra decorated band on his habit you can tell he held a high rank, probably a bishop.  Now, note his halo.  See how, while everyone else’s halo is a circle, his is instead a bunch of linear rays coming from his head?  Artists sometimes use this technique, employing two different halo styles in one painting, to differentiate full saints (with the round halos here) from someone who is beatified, i.e. who has gone through the first three stages of becoming a saint but not the last one.  Someone who is beatified has been examined officially by the Church, which has determined that the person is in Heaven and capable of using their position in heaven to intercede with the divine on behalf of people, but who has not yet had the three confirmed miracles necessary to establish sainthood.  Historically, beatification was controlled more by local officials, so that bishops had the authority to beatify local people, while sainthood always required Vatican approval.  Reverting to our Kingdom of Heaven terms for a moment, someone who is beatified is at court, but hasn’t yet succeeded in securing any notable favors from the king, so is a less certain benefactor than an established court favorite like John the Baptist or St. Francis.  For example, Pope John Paul II is currently beatified, but not yet officially a saint.  Long-term, cult followings for figures who are beatified but never canonized are sometimes actively discouraged by the Vatican, which usually has a reason for denying sainthood to such a figure if they do.  For example, Charlemagne was beatified but never canonized, and when the power struggles between Pope and Emperor as rival claimants to imperial power got tougher, the Vatican actively suppressed the cult of Beato Carlo Magno in order to monopolize heavenly authority – this, however, is why Charlemagne is sometimes depicted with a halo, and his remains are stored in fancy reliquaries and treated as holy relics.

Reliquary of Charlemagne

Thus, whoever this figure in the painting is, you can tell by looking, has been beatified but not yet canonized at the point that the painting was done.  Since beatified figures are usually only popular in the areas where they lived, when you see a beatified figure like this, it’s a safe guess that the painting was done in the figure’s home town, or somewhere (s)he was active, and that it may well have hung over the beatified figure’s tomb, or in a church where (s)he worked.

The presence of two different distinct styles of halo is thus a marker that can help you nail down a painting’s origin.  Note: some artists use linear halos for everyone, so you can’t always say a linear halo = a beatified figure, rather what you need to look for is two different types of halo in one painting.  At other times artists use the same technique to differentiate other weird kinds of things, for example an altarpiece I saw at the Academia last week which had round halos on a bunch of female saints and linear halos on some allegorical ladies who were hanging out with them.  This can also be used to differentiate saints from angels, and from Virtues, like Temperence and Strength/Fortitude, who also hang out in Heaven when they’re not busy crushing Vices underfoot or participating in Tarot readings.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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

Dec 012011
 

The ecstacy of St. Francis. He is accompanied above by the three angels of Monastic vows, Chastity (with lily), Obedience (with yoke) and Poverty (in patches), while under his feet he crushes the vices of Vanity/Lust, Vainglory, and Greed. This painting is heretical, by the way, since it’s totally not allowed for anyone other than Christ, the Father or the Virgin to have that red corona made of Seraphim, but people really, really love Francis, so just this once…

A dear friend’s visit and a weekend in Rome has delayed this update, but while I was trying to write up my recent tour of fascinating Roman churches, a mix of famous and obscure, I discovered that I couldn’t make the discussion make sense unless I covered a couple other related topics first.  I shall begin with the Order of the Friars Minor, aka. the Franciscans (just as the Dominicans are officially the Order of Preachers).

In art, Franciscans wear plain habits that are usually a gray-brown color, but sometimes gray and sometimes brown.  There are several sub-groups of Franciscans, including the Capuchins, but for our Renaissance purposes, and in art, we are concerned only with the main branch.  The Friars Minor are so called in memory of the focus on modesty, humbleness and obedience of their founder.  They were founded at the very beginning of the 1200s, just like the Dominicans.  This means that during the lives of early Renaissance figures like Dante and Petrarch, the Franciscans were a powerful but recent movement, something Italy could be proud of.

Saint Francis (San Francesco) 1181/2-1226

  • Common attributes: Franciscan habit, stigmata (wounds of Christ on his hands, feet, side)
  • Occasional attributes: lamb, bird, wolf, T-shaped cross (“Tau”)
  • Patron saint of: The Franciscan order, animals, merchants
  • Patron of places: Italy (yes, all of it), Assisi
  • Feast day: October 4th
  • Most often depicted: Receiving stigmata from an angel, nude as a young man being received into the Church, kneeling before the pope, preaching to animals, in front of a sultan intending to walk through fire, embracing Saint Dominic, dead with people examining his corpse
  • Relics: Assisi, Basilica di San Francesco

Francis is Patron Saint of Italy.   Not part of it, not a town, not a province, not an order, not a profession; Italy.  Italy had a lot of major saints to choose from: Peter, Paul, Mark, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory… the fact that the all-important home province went to a saint from the late twelfth century is proof by itself that Francis is something very special within Heaven’s high heirarchy.

Young Francis returns his clothes to his father, and is welcomed by the bishop.

Francis’ father was a merchant and his mother was French.  As a youth he spoke French, loved French clothes, French songs, French everything, and his baptismal name of Giovanni was soon forgotten in favor of the nickname “Francesco” i.e. little Frenchman.  He took part in some military stuff when young, during which time he seems to have had a religious crisis, and thereafter showed a growing interest in monastic life.  One day, on the way home from selling some of his father’s goods at market, he couldn’t take it anymore, went into a church and insisted he was going to stay there and become a monk.  The priests were terrified, knowing of his father’s wealth and inevitable wrath, and tried to force the boy to leave, but he refused.  He tried to give them the money he had been carrying home, but they didn’t dare touch it, and the bag of coin sat in the church, abandoned out of fear.  After a while Francis’ father came hunting for him, enraged, and insisted that he return.  Francis gave the money back, but refused to come himself.  His father continued to insist that Francis was his and was coming home with him.  Francis then stripped naked and handed his clothes to his father, saying he had returned everything that was his father’s and the rest belonged to god.  At this point, the bishop intervened, and wrapped his cloak around the young man, welcoming him into the Church.  Francis then went on to be the most enthusiastic and influential monk of all time.

Why was Francis so incomparably important?  Put simply, he changed what the word “religious” meant.  In the Middle Ages, when one said a “religious person” one meant a monk, nun or priest, or maybe a hermit.  That’s simply what the word meant.  There was not really the concept that a lay person, particularly an urban person like a merchant or crafts worker, could have a meaningful religious life.  One wanted them to be baptized and to try to live virtuously, but that was mostly in order to prevent earthly divine smiting, and expectation was that someone living a secular life was likely not heaven-bound most of the time, and certainly didn’t participate in religious life or thought any more than occasional churchgoing.  Francis changed that.  He came into the cities and preached to the urban poor.  He encouraged everyone to think about religious questions and have a personal intellectual religious life.  He suggested that merchants and workmen might gather once a week for religious meetings, wear monastic symbols under their clothes as self-reminders of their faith, and in other ways meaningfully do things “religious” people did despite, or rather as an enhancement to, their worldly lives.  He made Christianity welcoming and accessible to ordinary people in a way it really hadn’t been before.  He made people welcome, and for that people adored him, and still do.

St. Francis marries the Angel of Poverty (in the patched, brown dress) while her sisters Chastity (in white) and Obedience (in pink, carrying a yoke) attend.  Note how, unlike her sisters, Poverty has no shoes, and gazes wistfully after Francis as the three depart.

 

 

Francis was also very hard core about the monastic life.  Francis was so fierce in his renunciation of wealth and his fixation on wandering and begging that, even when he was an invited guest at someone’s house, he would nonetheless insist on going outside to beg for his supper on the street.  Francis was spiritually married to the Angel of Poverty, one of the three angels of monastic vows, who hangs out with the Angel of Chastity and the Angel of Obedience.

In honor of Francis’ dedication on this front, to this day the Franciscan order, is the only mendicant (begging) order whose members are still forbidden to own any property whatsoever.  All items possessed by Franciscans, from the grand Basilica of St. Francis to the sheets on their dormitory beds legally belong to the pope who lends them to the Franciscans, and the pope can walk up to any Franciscan and demand the shoes off his feet and he has to give them up (I am assured that popes don’t generally actually do this, but I imagine many popes have had fun thinking about it).  The Friars Minor also focus on humility, following the model of Francis who, despite being a great and popular leader, never let himself be in authority, always deferring to the commands of others, and preferring to be led, not followed.

Francis was also big on the mortification of the flesh.  He referred to his physical body as “Brother Ass” which had to be frequently beaten into obedience; he practiced intense fasting, as well as physical mortification, and, among other things, would often throw himself naked into snow (whenever Italy’s clement environment made snow an option).  So fierce was he in this self-mortification that he often made himself quite sick, and would likely have died sooner than he did had his fellow monks not frequently ordered him to eat more, take it easy on himself, permit himself richer foods, etc., and orders Francis eagerly obeyed (thank you Angel of Obedience).

Francis himself did preach, to anybody and anything who would listen (people, birds, wolves, insects), but he led mainly by example.  He himself was not particularly literate and did not know Latin pretty much at all, nor sophisticated theology, and the only book he left was a little collection of sweet prayer poem-songs.

Now, when a new, weird, popular and powerful movement enters a religion and starts getting a lot of momentum, attention, press and money, and is led by someone who isn’t quite preaching the usual, the religious leaders inevitably become nervous.  In the Catholic tradition, a moment of examination arrives, when the new movement hovers on the edge between being welcomed as a breath of fresh reform, and being expunged as a heresy.  It could easily have gone either way with Francis, whose changes to the usual way Chrisitanity had been practiced, particularly in urban settings, was so extreme.  But, especially since Francis was so keen on obedience, he was eager to be part of the Church rather than against it, and was happy to formally acknowledge the authority of the pope.

On the left, the pope dreams that Francis will hold up the crumbling Church; on the right, Francis presents the rule for his monks to the pope for approval.

When one sees paintings of scenes from the life of Francis, one of the most common and, on the surface, least interesting is a scene showing him kneeling before the pope, being received in Rome.  This may seem boring, the sort of moment which should go without saying, but the scene, and repeated images of the scene, were a critical reminder to all that, powerful as the Franciscan movement was, the Franciscans served Rome, Francis served the pope, and the old structure still stood.

The rivalry with the Dominicans came about mainly after Francis’ death.  It was partly a power and money thing.  Even though both orders were founded on the notions of poverty and modesty, there is a life cycle of monastic movements, which generally runs:

 

  1. Charismatic leader wants to live more modesty, without corruption, imitating Christ, so breaks off from the corrupted institutions of the Church.
  2. Many others find spiritual richness in this, and follow him/her.
  3. Movement takes off, gets official recognition from the Church, becomes established.
  4. People who like the movement donate wealth and land to it, both out of respect for the order, and in hopes that the monks/nuns will pray for them (and thus get them out of purgatory).
  5. Movement becomes wealthy and powerful, and noble families start sending their younger sons into it in order to gain wealth and power.
  6. Corruption leads a charismatic leader to want to break off and live more modestly, imitating Christ.
  7. A new order is formed… (Lather, rinse, repeat.)

This eventually happened even to the Franciscans, spawning the more extreme Capuchin sub-group, and it was mainly in the money and power seekers that the orders rivalry grew.  But there was also an intellectual contrast, as I mentioned.  The well-educated scholar-priest Dominic believed that the best way to reach God was through knowledge, since God is Truth.  Studying the nature of God, the soul, Christ, heaven, even the Earth would help the soul understand the divine and, through understanding, reach toward union with it (those of you who smell Plato’s residue in this are spot on).  The less educated and more passionate Francis focused in stead on reaching God through fierce desire, since God is Love, and that a heart that deeply and sincerely loved God would be drawn toward His heavenly light (those of you who also smell Plato here are also right).  Both movements, and both techniques, were much loved, but Francis’ focus on simplicity, and the idea that one could reach God through passion by itself, without the rigor and expense of education, made the Franciscan movement able to appeal much more broadly to the poor populace, in contrast with the inherent elitism of Dominican literate culture.  To Dominic went the universities, to Francis went the crowds.

Still, it was an amicable rivalry, since both groups had the same goals.  Perhaps my favorite token of this is in Dante’s Paradiso, where the great and ultra-educated Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, before administering the theology exam which Dante must pass to get to the upper levels of Heaven, recites a long, praise-filled biography of Francis, founder of his order’s rival, but still loved by all in Heaven.

Francis was the first saint to have stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his hands and feet, and the spear wound in his side.  An eyewitness account states that he was in the mountains one day when an angel (or possibly a flying crucifix) zapped him with rays of light, and gave him the wounds.  We have accounts of the examination of his body upon his death (often depicted in art, since many were curious to examine the famous wounds up close); medical scientists reading the descriptions of the wounds as having been strange and hard and bumpy believe them to have been some kind of cancer.  In art, Francis is usually holding his hands and feet out so you can easily see the nail marks on them, and often his robe has a slit so you can see the spear wound.  Sometimes rays of golden light are radiating from the wounds.  The stigmata and his Franciscan habit are usually more than enough to make him recognizable.  While he is often depicted in more recent art with a lamb or bird or animals, since the story of him preaching to animals is popular, in Renaissance art he didn’t need that; stigmata was enough.

Francis’ story also has enough interesting episodes that he has many distinctive common activities you can keep an eye out for:

  • As a young man, being wrapped in the bishop’s cloak as he stands naked before his father
  • Receiving the stigmata
  • Marrying the Angel of Poverty
  • Hugging Saint Dominic
  • Appearing in a dream, where the pope sees Francis holding up a crumbling church (prophesying how important Francis would be)
  • Kneeling before and being received by the pope
  • Dead, his corpse being inspected by curious mourners, one of whom is reaching into the wound on his side
  • “Walking through fire before the sultan.”  I put this in quotes because the standard image shows him standing before the Sultan, with a big bonfire, and Francis in front of it, while some Arab-looking people shudder and gawk.  The story is that Francis went to the holy land to try to convert the Sultan (or get martyred; it’s win-win!).  He preached earnestly in front of the Sultan, who said he was a sweet kid, and gave him some presents and told him to go home.  Francis then insisted he was going to walk through fire to prove his faith, and asked if the Sultan’s Muslim spiritual leaders would do the same.  Nobody but Francis thought this was a good idea, and, in the official story, the Sultan told Francis that he had convinced him, and that the Sultan had secretly personally converted, but that he couldn’t reveal that publicly without causing a civil war, so he told Francis to please go home and stay safe before someone murdered him.  Francis then went home, so the scene is actually a depiction of Francis not walking through fire in front of the sultan.

Saint Antony of Padua (San Antonio) 1195-1231

  • Common attributes: Franciscan habit, tonsure
  • Occasional attributes: Book, flaming heart, carrying Christ child, lily, occasionally bread or fish
  • Patron saint of: Lost objects (and those seeking them), travelers (and their hosts), the elderly, lots of other rather random typical stuff like barrenness, harvests, oppressed people etc.
  • Patron of places: Portugal, Brazil, Native Americans
  • Feast day: June 13th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other Franciscan saints, preaching, holding the Christ Child and looking friendly
  • Relics: Padua, Basilica di San Antonio

Antony, or Anthony, was originally named Fernando, and came from Lisbon, Portugal, from a noble family, but insisted on becoming a friar.  An Augustinian friar, at first, an old and lucrative order, which Thomas Aquinas’ parents would’ve approved of.  When he was still young, early on in the history of the order (11 years after Francis founded it) five Franciscans came through Lisbon on their way to Morocco, and stayed in the guest house young Antony ran.  He was impressed by them, and even more impressed when they got martyred (a great political coup for the Franciscans, and good proof of why the Dominicans made such a fuss over Peter “I have a big knife sticking out of my head” Martyr).  Seeing the five martyrs’ bodies as they were being brought home, young Antony was struck by their devotion and got special permission to quit being an Augustinian in order to become a Franciscan.

Since there weren’t Franciscans outside Tuscany yet really, Antony went to Tuscany and lived as a semi-hermit with the order, doing nothing in particular, until one day a bunch of Dominicans came over to, you know, do monk things together, and there was a bit of a fuss over whose job it was to preach to the assembly, each order expecting the other to step forward.  After some kerfluffle, somehow Antony wound up on the podium, and everyone discovered suddenly that he was an extremely well educated child of the nobility and preached with extreme clarity and erudition.  A stellar career of preaching, fame and distinguished service followed.  He did not succeed in his childhood dream of martyrdom, but did become one of the best loved and most famous of his order and a major international hero of the church.

In art, Antony is very tricky.  His attriutes have varied a lot over time, tending gradually toward the more adorable.  Early on he usually has a lily and a book, just like Dominic except with a brown/gray Franciscan habit.  Later he often has a flaming heart, representing his passion for preaching.  Sometimes he has flame and separately a heart, just kind-of sitting there, on a tray or something.  He also, in early art, often had a book with an image of the Christ Child on it, then later a book with the Christ Child kind-of coming out of it as if it were coming to life, and, eventually, he just holds the Christ Child (do not confuse him with the equally adorable St. Christopher who does the same, and who is, with Antony, co-patron saint of travelers).

These days Antony almost always has the adorable Christ Child with him and the whole thing is terribly cute.  Often in early art, though, the best way to spot him is process of elimination: there are two Franciscans here and only one can be Francis, therefore the one without stigmata is probably Antony.  Antony is also the only major Franciscan to carry a book, since Francis was not particularly literate, and left only a few vernacular songs.

As patron saint of lost objects and those seeking them, Saint Antony is a very popular and frequently-invoked patron in practical and everyday life.

One of my favorite proofs of how incomparably valuable relics were in the Renaissance is the official Life of St. Antony of Padua.  The little book is divided into three sections of roughly equal length.  The first describes his life.  The third describes his posthumous miracles.  The middle one describes the virtual civil war which broke out in Padua after his death, when it was obvious he would be made a saint, so the different groups who had a potential claim to his body (the monastery he lived at, the one he was visiting when he died, local lords, local communal government) divided into fiercely-opposed camps even before he died, and in the end martial law had to be declared and the force of the Holy Roman Emperor called in to settle the dispute.

Saint Bernardino of Siena, 1380-1444

  • Common attributes: Franciscan habit, plaque or other item with the Coat of Arms of Christ! (Christogram), narrow chin and dour expression
  • Occasional attributes: Three mitres (representing 3x he refused to be made a bishop; note, despite looking I have NEVER actually found him with this attribute).
  • Patron saint of: Advertising, advertisers, public relations work & PR employees, chest conditions (coughs, asthma etc.), gambling addicts
  • Patron of places: Aquila (Italy), San Bernardino CA
  • Feast day: May 20th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other Franciscans, glaring at you looking angry, brandishing the Coat of Arms of Christ! (Christogram) and making you feel guilty you don’t have one.  Yes, you!  I’m talking to you!!
  • Relics: Aquila, Italy; his personal tablet with the Coat of Arms of Christ! is at Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome.

Bernardino was an orphan from a noble family, and became an extremely popular preacher.  He resolved feuds, reconciled enemies, fired hearts, drew crowds, held vast bonfires of the vanities, and, when he was eventually called to Rome by the inquisition, who needed to make sure everything he did was orthodox, he impressed the pope so much that the pope had him preach in Rome and held a big procession.  He turned down offers of being made bishop of Siena, Ferrara and Urbino in turn, to focus on his preaching rather than career things.  He also ministered to the sick, and contracted the Black Death himself, from which he recovered.

Bernardino’s big thing was the Christogram, aka. the Coat of Arms of Christ! A Christogram is when you use an abbreviation of some part of one of Jesus’ names, i.e. X for Christ, or IHS for the Greek form of Jesus.  Bernardino used a certain common version of the IHS monogram, surrounded by a distinctive circle with radiating sun rays, which had been a favorite of, among other figures, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernardino would end every sermon by dramatically unveiling a tablet with the Coat of Arms of Christ on it, gilded, to the great excitement of the crowd.  Bernardino encouraged people to put it everywhere, and even suggested that in a perfectly pious world all coats of arms would be replaced with the Coat of Arms of Christ!  Thanks to him you see the Coat of Arms of Christ! on Churches and even simple houses all over Tuscany and central Italy, and in a rather Kilroy-esque sense, it always translates in my mind to “Saint Bernardino of Siena was here.”

The Coat of Arms of Christ! It’s so exciting!

In art, Bernardino wears a Franciscan robe, and usually carries the Coat of Arms of Christ!   He also generally looks like he’d be no fun at a party.

Bernardino is one of the few saints who lived late enough that Renaissance art was developed enough that there were good, lifelike portraits of him made while he was still alive.  As a result, actual images of his real face were available when the first icons were made, so he doesn’t have a generic face in art but a distinctive one, based on what he seems to have really looked like.  He looks… like he’d be no fun at a party.  That’s my best description: a narrow, dry, bony face with a very pointed chin and sunken cheeks, who just looks like he’s about to go on and on about, well, in his case probably the the Coat of Arms of Christ!

The unique face does make him extra fun to spot, though, since it feels more like recognizing a real person than a symbol of a person, and sometimes it’s enough by itself to spot a dour, prune-faced Franciscan to know it’s him, even if some artist didn’t include his Coat of Arms of Christ!

Here, by the way, here is the actual Saint Bernardino of Sienna, visible in his tomb in Aquila, Italy, which proves that his particular Franciscan habit was more on the brown side than gray:

The variable attributes on Antony make Franciscans a little hard to tell apart, but usually a simple mental order of operations flow chart will do the trick:

  • (1) Does he have stigmata?  If yes, it’s Francis.  If not…
  • (2) Does he have the Coat of Arms of Christ!?  If yes, it’s Bernardino.  If not…
  • (3) Does he have a lily, a book, a heart, fire, or a baby?  If yes, it may well be Antony.
  • (4) Does he lack all of the above, and look like a narrow-chinned un-fun guy?  If so, back to Bernardino as our prime suspect.
  • (5) If none of the above, you may be dealing with a different Franciscan.

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

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