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Machiavelli II: The Three Branches of Ethics

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

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Machiavelli I (addendum): thoughts on this style of presenting history

People asked for book recommendations. Primary sources are where I start. Click through to Amazon.

I have determined, based on the volume of questions my the first installment of my Machiavelli series sparked, that two entries on Machiavelli is not enough. I now have a four part plan in mind. I must, therefore, beg some patience from my readers, as I postpone tales of Borgias and adulteries and historically documentable assassinations for another fortnight. I think, in the end, my treatment will be clearer, as well as more comprehensive, if I take my time. In the first entry I addressed Machiavelli’s political and personal life.  Next I shall treat his contribution to the field of ethics. Third, I shall turn to the Borgia cataclysm which birthed that ethics. Then, fourth, I shall address religion, why Machiavelli was so long styled “arch-heretic”, and, on a more personal note, my own experiences as an historian specializing in the history of heterodoxy, heresy and unbelief in the Renaissance, who faces regularly that perennial question: “Was Machiavelli an atheist?” A fifth post may yet grow out of more questions, we’ll see.

The next proper installment is underway, but first I want to address one question I received, which was likely intended to be rhetorical, but for which I have an answer. The question was: “Holy cow, why isn’t more history taught like this?”

The answer comes down to what I call the simplification bell curve. The type of treatment I am presenting here of Machiavelli is extremely simplified. I simplify the historical details, using such phrases as “Florence’s republic went through some twists” or “everyone joins forces to attack Venice” to gloss over infinitely complicated political situations which an expert might unpack into many volumes. I also simplify Machiavelli’s thought, presenting not his own words nor even citable paraphrases, but the broadest summaries. Indeed, it would take some effort on my part or a reader’s to trace any of my statements to a single line or section from the authentic text.

Excellent essays by a variety of experts with a good balance between info & simplification.

This simplification involves an enormous amount of personal judgment on my part, and a corresponding amount of trust on yours, as I ask you to accept my claims while I supply no evidence to verify them. It requires a great deal of expertise, comfort and what I call fluency in a topic, in this case fluency in Machiavelli’s world and thought, for an historian to competently make such simplifications and judgment calls, and I myself demand to know a lot about an author’s background and other works before I will trust that author enough to accept such a simplified narrative. Many do it badly, even misleadingly (intentionally or accidentally); few do it well. There are perhaps a few dozen people in the world who know any given topic well enough, and these are not enough to populate all classrooms. Even when a teacher is truly fluent in one topic, the rigors of scheduling may suddenly demand that our Machiavelli expert suddenly teach Medieval theater, or Heidegger (that was a scary semester). Thus, if syllabi and textbooks frequently resort to details and facts, encouraging memorization as well as critical thinking on the students’ part, this is in my view a reasonable, even necessary device for avoiding the dangers posed if someone less comfortable with a topic attempts to synthetically simplify. I myself would never be comfortable presenting a simplified synthetic narrative of an historical topic outside my own area of specialization. In fact, being still early in my career, I am not yet comfortable putting a piece like this in formal print, since, while I am confident in my fluency in Machiavelli, I do not yet have the publications under my belt to prove it to cautious colleagues.

Fabulous window on Machiavelli's personal side.

How is this a bell curve? Because synthetic simplification is a tool well-suited for two points on a bell curve: an extremely introductory treatment of an historical topic can legitimately simplify things in the interest of a novitiate audience, and an extremely expert treatment of an historical topic can also comfortably simplify, relying on trust in the author’s fluency. It is at middling levels of expertise that details, facts, figures and footnotes are necessary, to prove points and so readers can hold the historian accountable, reading critically and questioning anything which seems implausible, biased, partisan or otherwise sketchy. This form of teaching history is less efficient, less elegant and less fun, but nonetheless necessary, and indeed useful, since it teaches the student not only facts but how to interpret them in the raw, a necessity in a world saturated with bias and incomplete information. It presents information, rather than interpretation, because interpretation is far more difficult to do well, and does (and should) ring more warning bells in the minds of readers who know to mistrust interpretations which are not accompanied by evidence. In sum, this style of history requires a lot of historical fluency on one end, and a lot of trust on the other. That, in (not very) short is my theory about why more history is not taught like this.

Next up: Ethics!


Three good basic Florence intros.

 The one shown in the middle above, Brucker’s “Golden Age” is a basic textbook with lots of shiny pictures.  The others are more detailed, the one on the left by a Machiavelli expert.

See next Machiavelli II: the Three Branches of Ethics

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Machiavelli I – S.P.Q.F. (Begins Machiavelli Series)

Machiavelli’s office is at the front left corner, near the fountain statue of Triton (which the Medici Dukes added later)

My year in Florence has flown by, leaving me to face up to a life without battlements and medieval towers, without Botticelli and Verrocchio, without church bells to inform me when it’s noon, or 7 am, or 6 am, or 6:12 am (why?), without squash blossoms as a pizza topping, without good gelato within easy reach, and without looking out my window and realizing that the humungous dome of the cathedral is still shockingly humungous whenever I see it, and the facade so beautiful that it hasn’t started to feel real, not even after so long.  Among the cravings I have felt for Florence in the first weeks of separation—cravings for watermelon granita, Cellini’s statue of Perseus and long walks between historic facades—the most acute has been for a view: the view up from the square into the little office in the Palazzo Vecchio where Machiavelli worked.

You may have noticed that I appended the tag “S.P.Q.F.” to every post this year.  It has been my title for the year-in-Florence chapter of my activities, and in explaining why I find it such a fitting title I am at last going to answer formally here one of my favorite questions.  It’s my habit in Florence to strike up conversation with random passing tourists, and as one thing leads to another (and often to pizza, gelato and the Uffizi) there are various questions I am often asked by people who discover they have a chance to talk to a real live Renaissance scholar.  “Why did they make all this art?” is a common one.  Also “Does the Vatican Library really look like it does in Dan Brown?” (that’ll be another day’s post), but the one which I am always happiest to get, and which I get delightfully often, is “So, why is Machiavelli really so important?”  Now, I read The Prince in school, and remembered ideas including the stock “It is better to be feared than loved,” and “The ends justify the means,” but I also remember having no idea then why Machiavelli was a big name.  I’m pretty sure my teacher didn’t really know either.  In fact, most introductions to the works of Machiavelli that I’ve read didn’t even manage to make it clear.  After ten years as a specialist in the Renaissance, I think I can finally explain why.

I cannot, however, explain everything at once.  There’s too much to do it well.  I will therefore divide it into three parts.  Doing so is easy, because Machiavelli made two big, big breakthroughs. If I treat each in turn, with the proper historical context, I think I can make Machiavelli make sense.

  • Machiavelli, founder of Modern Political Science and History.
  • Machiavelli, founder of Utilitarianism/Consequentialist ethics.

The latter issue is where Machiavelli picks up such titles as Arch-Heretic, Anti-Pope,  and Destroyer of Italy (also father of modern cultural analysis and religious studies).  The former, however, is even more universal in its penetration into modern thought.

A modern monument to Julius Caesar

Many are familiar with S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populus que Romanus, i.e. the Senate and the People of Rome).  This is the symbol and slogan of the city of Rome, and has been from the ancient Republic to today.  One finds it on stone inscriptions, modern storm drains, grand coats of arms, sun-bleached baseball caps, tattoos, always as a symbol of pride in the continuity of the Roman people and their republican heart.  For we who learn in middle school to place the fall of the Empire in 410 or 434 AD, and the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BC when Augustus became Emperor, it is hard to remember that the Senate and other offices of the Republic continued to exist.  They existed under the Caesars.  They existed in strange forms under the Goths who replaced the Caesars.  There were some struggles in the 550s, but even after the 600s, when we think the political Senate probably ceased to exist, there were still important families referred to as Senators.  New senates were periodically reintroduced (the Republic had a big moment in 1144) but even when there wasn’t a Senate, the popes who ruled Medieval and Renaissance Rome had to maintain a careful, wary balance with the Roman mob and the powerful Roman “senatorial” families, who sincerely believed they were descendants of ancient Roman senators.  Thus, while S.P.Q.R. is the symbol of the Roman Republic, in a long-term sense it represents more Roman pride in self-government as an idea, whether that self-government operates as it did in the Republic through popular election of Senators from among the members of a select group of oligarchical ruling families, or as it did in much of Christian Rome; by securing minimal concessions from the popes through the ability of the Roman city populace and its wealthy lead families to riot, prevent riots, stop invaders, aid invaders, supply funds, refuse to supply funds, and in crisis moments generally be of great aid or great harm to the pontiff and his forces.

S.P.Q.R. represents civic pride so deeply that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, many other cities picked it up.  London occasionally used to use S.P.Q.L., and one may read S.P.Q.S. on the shield above the door of the civic museum of the miniscule one-gelateria town of Sassoferrato.  And so, I have chosen S.P.Q.F. as the slogan for my year in Florence. “But none of those cities have a Senate!” you may object.  Neither, sometimes, did Rome, but it always had a Senate in spirit, and so did these other cities who, by adopting S.P.Q.*. proclaim that they love their city as much as Romans love Rome.

Petrarch, father of Renaissance humanism, desperately wanted Florentines to love Florence as much as Romans had loved Rome, the ancient Romans that he read about in mangled copies of copies of copies of the beautiful, alien Latin of a lost world.  He read of the Consul Lucius Junius Brutus who ordered the execution of his own sons when they conspired against the Republic, while at the same time Florence was hiring noblemen from other cities to enforce her laws, and equipping these mercenary magistrates with a private fortress within the city walls (the Bargello) so they could endure siege when they arrested members of powerful Florentine families, and the families attacked to try to liberate their own.  He read of the golden peace forged by Augustus, even as rival Florentine families used meaningless factions like the Guelphs and Ghibbelines as excuses to make bloody civil war within the city’s walls.  He read of hero after hero who sacrificed their lives for Rome, as families took turns coming to power and persecuting or exiling their rivals, mingling grudges with politics in wholly selfish ways. Petrarch himself grew up in France because his father had been exiled in the squabbles between Black Guelphs and White Guelphs, and had gone to seek work in Avignon, where the French king had carried off the papacy because Rome and her neighbors were too weak to defend the capital from what had once been her own colony.  He was born in exile, as he put it, an exile in time as well as place, for his home should have been, not fractious Italy, but glorious Rome, and his neighbors Seneca and Cicero.

The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans.  If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome.  Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands.  Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.

(Yes, I am going to talk about Machiavelli, and I hope you see here that the fundamental mistake most introductions to Machiavelli make is that they start by talking about Machiavelli.  Context is everything.)

“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways!  Let’s do it!”  Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened.  Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable.  Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read.  Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors.  No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.

And we’re off!  Fountains!  Busts!  Triumphal arches!  Equestrian bronzes!  Romanesque loggias!  Linear perspective!  Mythological frescoes!  Confusing carnival floats covered with allegorical ladies!  Latin!  Greek!  Plato!  Galen!  Geometry!  Rhetoric!  Navigation!  Printing!  Libraries!  Anatomy!  Grottoes!  Syncretism!  Philosopher princes!  Ninja Turtles!  Neo-Stoic political maxims!  Neo-Platonic love letters!  Lyre-playing!  Theurgic soul projection!  Symposia hosted by Lorenzo de Medici where philosophers and theologians lounge about discussing theodicy and the nature of the Highest Good!  All that stuff that makes the Renaissance so exciting!

In 1506 the Florentine Captain General Ercole Bentivoglio wrote to Machiavelli encouraging him to finish his aborted History of Florence because, in his words, “without a good history of these times, future generations will never believe how bad it was, and they will never forgive us for losing so much so quickly.”

Yes, this is the same Renaissance.

The flowering peak, as we see it, when Raphael and Michelangelo and Leonardo were working away, when the libraries were multiplying, and cathedrals rising which are still too stunning for the modern eye to believe when we stand in front of them, this was such a dark time to be alive that the primary subject of Machiavelli’s correspondence, just like the subject of Petrarch’s 150 years before, was the desperate struggle for survival.

Let us zoom both in and out, for a moment, and take stock of Florence’s situation in the world of Europe as the 1400s close.  Florence is one of the five most populous cities in the European world, well… four, now that Constantinople has fallen (1453).  Its population is near 100,000, and it rules a large area of farmland and countryside and several smaller nearby cities.  It is also one of the wealthiest cities in the world, thanks to the vast private fortunes of its numerous wealthy merchants and banking families, of whom the Medici are but the wealthiest of many.  We live in an era before standing armies, but Florence has a force of soldiers for enforcing law, and some modest mercenary armies which it hires.

Who else exists?  There is France, the most populous kingdom in Europe, with vast wealth, a population of millions to sustain enormous armies, and Europe’s most powerful king.  There are the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, with vast naval resources, entering the final stages of merging their crowns into what will soon be Spain.  There is the Holy Roman Empire, a complex confederation of semi-independent sub-kingdoms under an elected-but-traditionally-hereditary Emperor who is also ruler of Italy in name, though not in practical terms.  There are other kingdoms with ambitious kings and powerful navies: England, Portugal.  There is the mysterious and terrifying Ottoman Empire to the East which has made great inroads in the Balkans and Africa.  There are the two peculiar and impregnable powers of Europe: Venice with its modest land empire but huge sea empire of port cities and coastal fortresses which pepper the Eastern Mediterranean much farther out than any other Christian force dares go; and the Swiss who live untouchable between their Alps and base their economy almost entirely on renting out their armies as mercenaries to whoever has the funds to hire what everyone acknowledges are the finest troops on the continent.  With the sole exception of the Swiss, all these powers want more territory, and there is no territory juicier than Italy, with its fat, rich little citystates, booming with industry, glittering with banker’s gold, situated on rich agricultural fields, and with tiny, tiny populations capable of mustering only tiny, tiny armies.  The southern half of Italy has already fallen to the French… no wait, the Spanish… no, it’s the French again… no, the Spanish.  The north is next.

That’s how bad it was.  That’s why there was such a great flourishing of art and literature and philosophy and invention; because in desperate times people try desperate things to stay alive, and if art, philosophy and cunning are one’s only weapons, one hones one’s art, philosophy and cunning.  And that’s why we needed a good historian.

1492.  Lorenzo de Medici, the philosopher quasi-prince, dies, leaving the Medici family resources and effective rule of Florence to his 20-year-old son Piero.  Roderigo Borgia is elected Pope Alexander VI, handing control of Rome to the Borgias.  Also, some guy called Christopher finds some continent somewhere.

1494.  The French invade Italy.  This can be partly blamed on Borgias, partly on members of the Sforza family squabbling with each other over who will rule Milan, but France, and every other major power in Europe, had been hungry for Northern Italy for ages.

Now is the moment for young Piero, Lorenzo’s successor, educated by the greatest humanists in the world with the reading list that produced Brutus and Cicero, to marshal his family’s wealth and stand bravely before the enemy.  Piero… runs away.  Not a high point for Petrarch’s idea of instilling virtue and good leadership through classical education.

In the absence of the Medici, Florence’s republic went through some twists (i.e. Savonarola) and managed to persuade the French not to destroy them through sheer force of argument (again Savonarola), and in 1498 (by removing Savonarola) reverted again to mostly actually being the republic it had consistently insisted it still was all this time.  S.P.Q.F.

This, now, was Machiavelli’s job when he worked in that little office in the Palazzo Vecchio:

  • Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
  • Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
  • Go!

“Desperation” does not begin to cover it.  There are armies rampaging through Italy expelling dukes and redrawing borders.  Machiavelli is an educated man.  He has read all the ancients, all the histories, all the moral maxims and manuals of government.  He negotiates.  He makes alliances.  He plays the charisma card.  We’re Florence: we have all the art, all the artists, all the books; you don’t want to destroy us, you want to be  our ally.  When that fails, there is the bribery card.  We can’t defeat you, France, but we can give you 100 bags of gold to use to fund your wars against other people if you attack them instead.  Machiavelli negotiates alliances with France.  He negotiates alliances with Cesare Borgia.  He negotiates anything he has to.  He tries to create an army of citizen soldiers who will not, as mercenaries do, abandon the field when things are against them because they have no incentive to die for someone else as citizens do for their families and fatherland (the Senate and the People of Florence!)

1503.  The Borgias fall (a delightful story, for another day).  The bellicose and crafty Pope Julius II comes to power.

1508.  The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest.  Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield.  Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe.  If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources.  How will it fall out?  Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France?  Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg?  Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French?  Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean?  Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried?  (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.)  All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove.  He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations.  At last a courier rushes in with the news.  The day has come.  The alliance has formed.  It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.

O_O      ????????

Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.

Donatello’s Judith, celebrating the overthrow of tyrants (i.e. the Medici)

I am being only slightly facetious.  The War of the League of Cambrai is the least comprehensible war I’ve ever studied.  Everyone switches sides at least twice, and what begins with the pope calling on everyone to attack Venice ends with Venice defending the pope against everyone.  Between this and the equally bizarre and unpredictable events which had dominated the era of the Borgia papacy and pope Julius’ rise to power (another day, I promise!) Machiavelli was left with the conclusion that the current methods they had for thinking about history and politics were simply not sufficient.

Machiavelli did not, however, stop immediately and start working on the grand treatises and new historical method he would hand down to posterity.  He had a job to do, and wasn’t concerned with posterity—or rather he was, but with a very specific posterity: the posterity of Florence.  S.P.Q.F.

1512.  The Medici family returns, armed with new allies and mercenaries, and takes Florence by force.  The Pallazzo Vecchio, seat of the Signoria, heart of the city, is converted into the Ducal palace.  Machiavelli is expelled from government and, after a little while, is (falsely) accused of plotting against the Medici, arrested, tortured and banished.

Now, after the grand and fast-paced life of high politics, after being ambassador to France, after walking with princes, Machiavelli finds himself at a farm doing nothing.  He describes in a letter his weary days, taking long walks through fields and catching larks, retiring to a pub to listen to the petty babble of his rustic neighbors.  At the end of a wasted day, he says, he returns each evening to his little cottage, there strips away the dirt and ragged day clothes of his new existence, and puts on the finery of court.  Thus attired, ready to negotiate with kings and popes, he enters his library, there to spend the evenings in commerce with the ancients.

And he starts writing his “little book on princes.”

Now, everyone who’s anyone is banished from Florence at some point.  Dante, Petrarch, Cosimo de Medici, Benvenuto Cellini like five times…  When one is banished, one is often banished to some spot in the countryside outside Florence, which is what happened in this case.  The terms, generally, are that if you’re good and stay there then they’ll think about someday calling you back, but if you run off to some other city they make your banishment a bit more permanent.   Machiavelli is expected to run off.  He’s a talented and experienced political agent, a great scholar, author and playwright.  He could get a job in Rome for the pope or a Cardinal, in Naples, in Paris, in a dozen Italian citystates, in the Empire.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t even try.

Machiavelli only works for Florence.   S.P.Q.F.

What he does do is everything in his power to get the Medici to hire him.  “The Medici?  Didn’t they destroy his precious republic?  Didn’t they expel him?  Didn’t they torture him?”  Yes, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they rule Florence, and whoever rules Florence must be strong.   History shows that, when there is a regime change, there is civil war and people die.  When Florence has a regime change, Florentines die, and non-Florentines have a good chance of stepping in for conquest.  The Prince is a manual for staying in power.  Machiavelli writes it for the Medici, hoping it will secure him a job so he can get back where he should be, working for Florence’s safety from the inside.  But it also explains his conclusions from all this dark experience.

History should be studied, NOT as a series of moral maxims intended to rear good statesmen by simply saturating them with stories about past good rulers and hoping they become virtuous by osmosis.  History should be studied for what it tells us about the background and origins of our present, and past events should be analyzed as a set of examples, to be compared to present circumstances to help plan actions and predict their consequences.  Only this way can disasters like the Borgia papacy, the French invasion and the War of the League of Cambrai be anticipated and avoided.  What worked?  What didn’t?  What special characteristics of different times and places have led to success and failure?

This is modern Political Science.  It is how we all think about history now, and the way it is approached in every classroom.  We are, in this sense, all Machiavellian.

Of course, that is not what the word Machiavellian means.  The new system of ethics Machiavelli introduces in his manual to keep the Medici in power is deservedly recognized as one of the most radical, dangerous and potentially destructive moves in the history of philosophy, and one of the most far-reaching.  We are used to the trite summary “the end justifies the means,” and all the terrible, villanous things which that phrase has justified.  But Machiavelli’s formula is not in any way villanous, nor was he.  I will need another day to fully explain what that phrase means, but in a micro-summary, yes, Machiavelli did argue that the end justifies the means, and yes, he did mean it, but in his formulation “the end” was limited to one and only one very specific thing: the survival of the people under a government’s protection.  Or even more specifically, the survival of Florence.  That cathedral, those lively alleyways, those sculptures, that poetry, that philosophy, that ambition.  S.P.Q.F.

Do you ever play the game where you imagine sending a message back in time to some historical figure to tell him/her one thing you really, really wish they could have known?  To tell Galileo everyone agrees that he was right; to tell Schwarzschild that we’ve found Black Holes; to tell Socrates we still have Socratic dialogs even after 2,300 years?  I used to find it hard to figure out what to tell Machiavelli.  That his name became a synonym for evil across the world?  That the Florentine republic never returned?  That children in unimagined continents read his works in order to understand the minds of  tyrants?  That his ideas are now central to the statecraft of a hundred nations which, to him, do not yet even exist?

But now I know what I would say:

“Florence is on the UNESCO international list of places so precious to all the human race that all the powers of the Earth have agreed never to attack or harm them, and to protect them with all the resources at our command.”

He would cry.  I know he would.  It’s the only thing he ever really wanted.  When I think about that, how much it would mean to him, and pass his window in the Pallazzo Vecchio which he spent so many years desperate to return to, I cry too.

Machiavelli definitely loved Florence as much as the Romans loved Rome, and worked to protect it as much as Brutus or Cicero.  Florence also deserved to be loved that much.  It deserves its S.P.Q.F.  I’ve had, not just this year, but several earlier opportunities to get to know Florence in person, and even more years to read deeply into Florentine history and really understand all the invaluable contributions this city has made to the world.  I could never call myself a Florentine, but I do believe I am now someone who understands why Florence deserves to be loved that much by her people, why Florence deserved Machiavelli, and his efforts, and all the efforts of the other great figures—Dante, Petrarch, Ficino, Bruni, Brunelleschi, Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici—who worked so hard to save it—through art, philosophy and guile—from the destruction that always loomed.  I know why it deserves UNESCO’s recognition too.  It makes it a hard home to leave.

See next, Machiavelli I.5, Thoughts on Presenting this Style of History, then Machiavelli II: the Three Branches of Ethics

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A Passion for Porphyry

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 Christmas day, 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
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Good morning, Giotto!

This morning the Campanile is having some inspections & cleaning.

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

Perhaps you didn’t hear me.

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

Madonna Ruccelai (Duccio di Buoninsegna; 1285)

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

Now, jumping up a few years:

Maestà di Santa Trinita (Cimabue, 1290-1300)

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

Now, check out Giotto’s:

Ognissanti Madonna (Giotto, 1314-27)

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

All checked out and ready for the week.

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

With this we can have a Renaissance.

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

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

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Vasari, the Palazzo Vecchio and the History of Florence (Begins Introductions to Historic Cities Series)

Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio

On July 30th Florence, the Uffizi gallery, Google and numerous other Earthly powers celebrated the 500th birthday of Georgio Vasari (1511-1574).

Both praising and describing Vasari are challenging, since no one could in fairness call him one of the Renaissance’s best painters, nor one of its best architects, nor even one of its best biographers. His Lives of the Artists is certainly what has brought him the most fame, but this collection of brief biographies of Renaissance artists is not only dry but unreliable, both in the poor-fact-checking-sense and in the extreme and unblushing bias which is as ubiquitous in pre-modern biography as tomato sauce on an American pizza. We read Vasari today only because he was these artists’ only biographer, and needs must as the paucity of sources drives. Yet, if Vasari was surpassed by many in arts and letters, walking the streets of Florence today I can think of few who touch him in footprint. He was a Great Figure of the Renaissance, one whose touch I feel constantly as I cross squares and explain architecture to new-made friends, to whom I find myself constantly repeating, “Of course, that bit wasn’t like that back then—it was redone by Vasari.” In brief, Vasari redid the Palazzo Vecchio. At length, in order to avoid making Vasari seem to be a petty, place-seeking stooge, I’m afraid I have to go back a ways…

Once upon a time the Roman Empire ended, and with it the network of roads and trade and safety that had strung cities together into a web of economy and culture. Small, unsteady kingdoms followed, but in Northern Italy at least, while cities formally passed from prince to distant prince, the absence of real central infrastructure and enforcement left them virtually alone. Italy’s cities became citystates, ruled by remote powers, pope or Emperor, in name only, while in reality they governed themselves, walled islands of population and production, independent and, at first at least, many republican. They had Rome as their model, an elite voting population and elected offices, not quite the same as the old republic but close enough to breed patriots as proud as Cicero. But these little city republics, like Rome’s, weren’t stable. Faction fighting bred civil war, brought on partly by ambitious families but more often by that Hobbesian principle that anyone powerful or rich enough to be envied by his neighbors can never sleep safe at night until he has deprived said neighbors (through subjugation or execution) of the ability to kill him in his sleep. Winners became rulers and one-by-one the city republics became the seats of lords and dukes and counts and other-titled princes. (This is all oversimplified, of course, but the romantic narrative is more important than the gritty details when our purpose is to understand what the Palazzo Vecchio means as a symbol of what was.)

Florence held out longest of the great cities (excepting Venice; we must in all things except Venice, since Venice is that special), Florence the stubborn, free, fractious, strange Republic. Over and over it nearly fell, as ambitious nobles and entrenched vendettas (think Montagues and Capulets) made the streets stream with blood and the road with exiles, Dante among them. From a pure body-count perspective there is no way around admitting that the surrounding cities that did turn to monarchies were better off, stable, efficient, comparatively immune to faction fighting, but free Florentines would never sacrifice liberty and dignity for ease and calm—and this includes the vast, disenfranchised majority who were not members of the voting elite but still took pride in their Republic.

San Gimignano still has its towers (wiki pic)

After one near-tyrant too many, the Florentines decided to create a system of government which could never, ever let anyone gain enough power to take over, and so conceived the Signoria, a system so bizarre that if someone made it up in fiction no reader would think it plausible. The Florentines had long since exiled, killed or at least banned from government all their nobility. The private towers of the powerful families, which had once turned Florence into a forest of tiny battle-ready fortresses, were knocked down, their palaces burned, and a new law forbid any private citizen from building tall towers which could be used as private forts to defend elite families as their goons battled in the streets below. What remained as the elite were members of the merchant guilds, the great trade families who controlled cloth production, oil, wine, medicine, bureaucracy and, that great Italian invention, banking. A Signoria, or council of elected rulers, was created in 1282, a vaguely-defined political body also used by several other Italian republics. Florence’s unique system of “scrutiny and lot” was introduced in 1328, in which each qualifying member of the great guilds over thirty years of age was examined for fitness and then his name was put in a bag. Every two months nine names were pulled out, and these nine men became the Signoria, the ruling council, to rule the city for two months. At the end of these two months new names were drawn, so no one ever ruled alone, and no one was in office anywhere near long enough to form a personal power base. There were no elections to fix or sway with bribery and campaigning, so all would remain fair and stable and happy ever after. In theory, at least.

 

The Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio (begun in 1299, the year before Dante went to Hell), was built to house the Signoria, and while in office they were held within the palace and never permitted to leave, since outside they could be bribed, kidnapped, even contaminated by passing heretics or devils (horror!). The palace was built on the crater left when the victorious Guelphs razed to the ground the palaces of their Ghibelline rivals (think Montagues on the smoldering graves of Capulets) and instantly became the symbol of the unity, stability and prayed-for longevity of the noble Republic.

The apartments of the Signoria, grandly decorated with painted wooden ceilings, were on the top floor. The ground floor was originally open, a place where people could gather and talk and trade. It was later closed in so a garrison could defend the palace from attack. On the lower levels, representatives of the people receive the laws sent down by the Signoria, and could vote to accept or reject them. An intermediate floor between the council level held the scribes and clerks and secretaries who kept the system running.

Yes, Assassin’s Creed fans, there really was a prison in the tower, and if someone you know was imprisoned there, that means he was very, very naughty.

Finally the great tower was a symbol of the supremacy of the republic, and at the top a special prison was built to hold the most dangerous traitors against the state, who were sometimes executed by being hanged off the tower itself.

A completely unfounded but nonetheless delightful urban legend holds that the semicircular battlements on top of the tower, associated with the defeated Ghibelline faction in contrast with square battlements used by Guelphs, represented the vicious, Ghibelline-leaning traitors imprisoned there.

Problem is, the Signoria system had one vital flaw:

(A new Signoria is elected)

Duke of Milan – Hello, Signoria. I’m the Duke of Milan. Congratulations on your election. Have a fruitcake.

(1 week passes as the Duke’s message is carried from Milan to Florence)

Signoria – Nice to meet you, Duke of Milan. Thanks for the fruitcake. We knit you this nice scarf.

(1 week passes as the Signoria’s reply is carried back)

Duke of Milan – Thanks for the scarf. Now that we’re friends, would you like to make a treaty for mutual defense against the French?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Sure, we hate the French. What do you propose?

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – I propose committing X many troops, Y many florins, and everyone involved gets cookies every Thursday in honor of St. Ambrose.

(1 week passes)

Signoria – We want to send W many troops and Z many florins, and we demand that the cookies be distributed in the name of St. Zenobius.

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – Perhaps X many troops but Z many florins, and the cookies can be distributed in the name of both saints?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Who are you? What are you talking about? We don’t want to give our troops and florins to someone we’ve never talked to! And we abhor cookies!

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – You had another election, didn’t you? Hi, Signoria, I’m the Duke of Milan. Have some fruitcake. Now, about the French…

No Tyrants within these Gates (David agrees).

Needless to say, the Signoria system was not popular with foreign powers who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, nor with Florentines who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, since the toothlessness which made the Signoria tyrant-proof also made it about as streamlined as a hedgehog. It certainly didn’t help that the guild members generally had no experience of government, and two months is far from long enough even to learn the ropes. Hence the rise of the Medici.

You see, there’s this brilliant thing called ‘banking’ which means you can leave your money with people in one city, and then go to another city and receive the same amount of money (minus a small fee), without having to carry bags of gold with you on the road where, in the absence of a real empire, bandits and adventuring parties roam free. The savings, in cash and in not getting your throat slit, made this option instantly popular, and the Italian families who did it instantly wealthy. The Medici managed to finagle the position of Official Bankers to the Pope, which meant that it was their job to escort donations, church taxes, land rents, indulgence fees and every kind of income from every church in Christendom back to Rome, taking a healthy cut. This rapidly made the Medici just about the wealthiest private people since Crassus.

Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) was the one who applied wealth to politics. If you have enough money to keep a third of the city of Florence on your payroll, then you can tell all your clients “Do XYZ if you’re elected to the Signoria,” and then even if you can’t contact them while they’re inside, a third of the Signoria on average will still do what you want. Then, if the Duke of Milan wants to negotiate, instead of negotiating with the fleeting and inexperienced Signoria, he can negotiate with Cosimo, a stable, long-term political contact who will still be there in a year’s time. And eventually if Cosimo finds a way to bribe the men whose job it is to pull the names out of the bag, then things get even easier.

Was this Medici takeover tyrannical? Absolutely, since it directly perverted and controlled the Republic. Was it good for Florence? Absolutely, since Cosimo’s unofficial rule lent great stability, and he spent his enormous wealth on neoclassical architecture, public art, libraries, translating Plato, plumbing, a perfect mix of useful and sublime contributions to the glory and everyday living of his fellow Florentines.

There was resistance, of course. In 1433 Cosimo was arrested and imprisoned in that same Palazzo Vecchio tower where so many dangerous traitors and would-be tyrants enjoyed a last, grim vista of the city they tried to enslave. He escaped, bribing the cell guard with 300 florins and the captain with 700 florins, and is reported to have said they were the two stupidest men in history since he was the wealthiest man in Italy and would have happily paid tens of thousands of florins for his liberty. At the next election, by a total and not-remotely-bribery-related coincidence, all the members of the new Signoria decided to invite him back.

There were more tumults after Cosimo’s return – weak Piero’s succession, the bloody Pazzi conspiracy, assassin priests, the French invasion, the Black Friar Savonarola (stories for another day) – but the important part is that Cosimo never officially ruled anything. Legally he was a private citizen and remained so through his life. So did his successor Piero, and his successor, much-loved Lorenzo de Medici, a perfect humanist prince except that he was never technically prince of anything. The Signoria system continued, officially, with Medici control behind the scenes, and while it did so did Florentines’ patriotic zeal and, with it, enmity against the Medici tyrants.

Duke-worthy Offices

For more than a century the Medici kept being opposed, thrown out, restored, struggling to maintain control of their infamously fractious and rebellious city, until in the early 1500s there was one overthrow too many. The Medici raised a fresh army, marched in, got rid of the Signoria and in 1531 finally had themselves crowned Dukes.

Returning to Vasari…

Architecture remained the physical embodiment of Florence – its government, its church, its people – and the Palazzo Vecchio was by now the solid, permanent embodiment of the authority to rule. The Medici moved in, literally occupying the Signoria’s seat, a permanent end of the Republic. The old palace needed to be redone, and it was Vasari’s job to turn this icon of the long-loved Republic into a symbol of its death and rebirth as a glorious Medici monarchy.

The palace itself he had redecorated with new, more beautiful (and expensive) gilded ceilings, pseudo-Roman frescoes, and a beautiful but unsubtle mural of the Medici besieging Florence, with the simple message: you are here, my troops are here – think about it.

Vasari’s “Siege of Florence”

He also tore down the old quarter by the Palazzo Vecchio where the merchant guilds had had their headquarters and created the Uffizi, “offices”, a long, folded neoclassical loggia surrounding a new public square. Inside the guilds were installed into new, nicer, more mathematically harmonious and luxurious lodgings provided by their new ducal master. Below, the new square was comfortable and shaded by the galleries, perfectly situated to be the new center of commerce and civic gossip, again dominated by the elegant silhouette of the duke’s new offices above. Florence’s civic heart was literally transplanted into the duke’s architectural grasp. The offices were then decorated again with Roman-style grotesque frescoes, antiquities, the family’s collection of Renaissance masterpieces, busts of Roman emperors, and portraits of Medici family members and their famous vassals and political allies.

Vasari’s addition

The surface of the Uffizi is all perfect neoclassicism, elegant symmetrical gray window frames and pediments in harmonious mathematical precision, creating a square which feels at the same time new and ancient, and above all planned, intentional, in contrast with the eclectic mix of different eras’ facades which surrounded every other square in Florence and, pretty much, in all of Italy. Even before the installation of the statues of Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo il Magnifico, the feeling of standing in the square below the Uffizi is the best possible summary of the events: the chaos and liberty of the Republic have been replaced by an educated, organized, neoclassical, irresistible force. Vasari carved that lesson in brick and stone, and made it clear.

He also created the Vasari Corridor, a closed, elevated walkway which starts at the Palazzo Vecchio itself, connects it by a high (dukes only!) bridge to the Uffizi, then on the far side connects the Uffizi to a long hallway which runs well above head height along the river, across the Ponte Vecchio with its tight-crammed sparkling goldsmiths’ shops, through the houses and rooftops of the quarter across the river, and ends at the Palazzo Pitti, a much larger,

The Vasari corridor

grander second palace which Vasari’s scheme connected with the first. The Palazzo Vecchio was, after all, more than two hundred years old, and a bit cramped and old-fashioned, built for cobblers and dyers, not for dukes. The Pitti Palace had worthier apartments (worthy to house the kings of Italy in the early days of the unification). Now the Duke could walk in assassin-proof safety from palace to palace, even across the river, and more, now the Duke’s movements were a central part of the city’s face. Florentines going about their daily business would (and still) follow along the ducal way, enjoying the shade provided by the walkway above, while all across the city one could see the corridor along the bridge, tying the two halves of the city together like a great artery. Its pulse was the Duke.

Was Vasari a fawning Medici stooge? Essentially. Was anybody NOT at this point? Not who had a job. Artists need patrons, and the Medici were a wealthy, cultured, politically savvy, respectable and above all stabilizing force for a city that had gone through a dozen regime changes in two generations. Vasari was not one of the Renaissance’s greatest painters, nor its greatest architects, nor its greatest authors, but I will nominate him unreservedly for the title of greatest communicator.

Vasari’s Space

He packed the feeling and intensity of what had happened, two hundred years of chaos and gradual transition, into a series of physical spaces which perfectly teaches the viewer what happened and what this great change meant, even if the viewer doesn’t actually know the specifics of the great events which created these great spaces. Architecture, painting and interior design combine to create a very specific tint of awe, one which really does communicate both what was lost and what was gained.I know no comparable grand architectural scheme—not the Vatican Palace, not St. Peter’s, not the castles of Milan or Naples or even Versailles—which succeeds in channeling history so complicated into a simple view. Florence’s history, as you can tell, needs concise summary or it turns into a saga. Vasari turned it into a vista, and was in that perhaps a better biographer of Florence than he was of his fellow artists.

For that achievement, on his five hundredth birthday, he deserves congratulations.

Jump to an Overview of Florence’s Museums, or Venetian Carnival.

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