Common attributes: Book, lion, skull, cardinal’s hat, withered old man
Occasional attributes: Cardinal’s robes, crucifix, rock
Patron saint of: Translators, archivists, librarians, libraries, students and school children
Patron of places: Saint-Jérôme (Quebec)
Feast day: Sept 30 (June 15)
Most often depicted: In the wilderness contemplating death or Christ, writing in a book, hitting himself in the chest with a rock, having an angel blow a trumpet in his face, receiving his last communion before death
Relics: Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome
For scholars, few historical figures are as central as St. Jerome (c. 347 – 420 AD), the great translator of the early Christian world. Jerome was responsible for first translating large sections of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, producing what would become the Vulgate, the standard Latin Bible which filtered Christian Europe’s understanding of scripture for over a thousand years. Whenever you hear standard Church Latin chanted or quoted, it’s Jerome’s Latin, and he was responsible for such quirky translation moments as translating the “rays of light” which are supposed to radiate from Moses’ brow as “horns”, leading to horns or horns made of light becoming Moses’ perennial Spot-the-Saint-like-dude attribute. He also wrote and translated other major works, including the Chronicon of Eusebius (a multi-calendar record of assorted events from Abraham to the late 300s which tells us a lot about early attempts at history and record keeping) and many commentaries, saints’ lives and other treasures of the not-otherwise-well-recorded past. (A faithful facing page English-Latin translation of Jerome’s Vulgate bible was recently printed by the gorgeous new Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, for those interested in getting directly at the Latin form which shaped Catholicism so much.)
Jerome’s parents were Christian, but he himself started out pagan and had a truly top-notch classical education which left him quoting Cicero and Virgil all his life. He enjoyed the traditional wanton youth that wealthy Romans so often enjoyed, then converted, and plunged himself into repentance and guilt. Thereafter his primary activities were visiting catacombs to contemplate death, spending time alone in the wilderness contemplating death, and writing. His life was dominated by a conflict between his profound love of the Greek and Latin classics, and deep shame that he still loved something he now considered wrong, corrupt and sinful. He supposedly vowed at one point to never again read a non-Christian author, and there are anecdotes of him being repeatedly distracted mid-devotion by an overwhelming desire to read Cicero, particularly as he slogged through the rough and clumsy Latin of early Christian authors. Jerome attempted to conquer this desire through mortification of the flesh (hence the paintings of him beating himself in the chest with a rock), but eventually determined to help others and himself by translating Christian texts into elegant Latin, so those who, like him, craved gorgeous prose could sate themselves, and not be tempted, as he so constantly was, to sneak some classics between sermons. This made Jerome not only a founder of the Medieval literary canon, but a model for later authors, especially in the Renaissance, who wanted to figure out how to balance enthusiasm for Ovid and Homer with their Christian faith. He was also a model for monks and hermits, since he was so dedicated to the hermetic life that even when he was made a bishop it was only on condition that he could continue to live in the wilderness contemplating death and writing alone. While he is not patron of any particular monastic order, he appears frequently in monastic art as a general role model and core author of scholastic education.
In addition to translating and collecting texts, Jerome took part in heresy fights, and wrote powerful and far-reaching pamphlets against the heresies of his day, like Origenism and Pelagianism. Sometimes his activities were so effective that he got in trouble. In Rome, for example, he convinced a few too many eligible young aristocratic ladies to become nuns, and was eventually driven out by families angry at losing the chance for politically advantageous marriages. He left Rome for Antioch, but even here occasionally stirred up the odd angry mob when he wrote too fiercely against a rival sub-sect.
As I write it out here, his story is not particularly remarkable for a saint’s life, and he doesn’t have an exciting martyrdom or particularly flashy miracles. What he does have is something far more unusual: a meaningful scholarly presence that is still discussed today by theologians and, more broadly, by historians.
In my daily work it’s common enough for me to be reading about Saint Luke, or Saint Bartholomew, or Saint Francis, to be studying their iconography, their followers, their influence, but with Jerome it’s different. Jerome I look at as a source, and an interpreter: what he says about the date of a certain figure’s death, what he thought about the causes of a particular intellectual or political rift, comparing his reading and interpretation with those of other historians of his and later eras including our own. Even with someone like St. Augustine I’m usually studying his ideas, not consulting his guidance in studying someone else. Jerome is a secondary source, in essence, a predecessor and colleague of current historians, while the others are all primary sources, or, for those who left no writing, topics rather than sources at all. It makes Jerome feel strangely more human, and I admit that I almost always forget to put the “Saint” in front of his name.
In art, Jerome is invariably depicted as a scrawny old man, almost always bearded. He usually has his flat red Cardinal’s hat discarded on the ground somewhere nearby, but is wearing only a loincloth, or his red robes pulled down so as to work like a loincloth, leaving his care-weathered torso bare. Occasionally, though, he is depicted in his full red robes, particularly when he is standing around among other saints, instead of off in the wilderness.
There is a legend that Jerome removed a thorn from the paw of a rampaging lion, and so tamed it. He is often accompanied by his lion, making it easy to mix him up with Saint Mark, especially since both of them usually have beards and books. Rule of thumb: look for the cardinal’s hat. If there is a cardinal’s hat and the lion has no wings then it’s Jerome. If there is no hat, and the figure is wearing apostolic robes (i.e. a colorful toga-like drape), or if the lion has wings, then it’s Mark. Sometimes St. Jerome is depicted at work being visited by angels, or hearing an angel blow the trumpet of the Last Judgment, which is often awkwardly framed so it looks like an angel blowing a horn in Jerome’s face.
Jerome is one of the original “Four Doctors of the Church,” and is often depicted with his three comrades, Saints Augustine, Ambrose and Gregory the Great. I will discuss the set of four in another entry, but it means that if you ever see a set of four saints of which two have bishop hats, one has a papal tiara, and the fourth has a cardinal’s hat, you’re probably looking at the four doctors, and the cardinal is probably Jerome. Especially if he looks like he might be thinking about Cicero.
Saints Cosmas & Damian (Cosimo & Damiano)
Common attributes: Distinctive red hats, twins
Occasional attributes: Medical equipment
Patron saint of: Doctors, surgeons, barbers, taking care of kids, and of the Medici family
Patron of places: Mostly places the Medici used to own
Feast day: September 26 (or 27)
Most often depicted: Performing a miraculous leg transplant, being beheaded
Relics: Cyrrus (in Syria), skulls at the Convent of the Poor Clares in Madrid
Cosmas and Damian are precisely the sort of saints that are not secondary or primary sources. They are supposed to have died around 287 AD in Roman Syria, and effectively count as one saint despite there being two of them, since they are twin brothers who did everything together, including being martyred. They were doctors, specifically surgeons, and are supposed to have worked for free for the poor. Their most celebrated miracle was a miraculous leg transplant, from an Ethiopian (dead) donor onto a (presumably) Syrian or Roman patient, depicted in art with a very dark leg being transplanted onto a pale patient.
The historical pattern of Christian persecutions in the Eastern Roman Empire involved periods without much persecution followed by acute bouts of it, usually brought on by political pressures or the need to vent public dissent on a scapegoat. The persecution of Diocletian fit this pattern exactly, and it was from this particularly massive and nasty one that Cosmas and Damian’s martyrdom story arises. The full account says they were tortured but refused to give up their faith. They were first hung from crosses for a while, then shot with arrows, and finally beheaded. Some accounts have them beheaded along with a number of younger siblings, or possibly orphans they were caring for.
Cosmas and Damian were patron saints of the Medici family (Medici = doctor, Cosmas = Cosimo), so, despite their obscurity, they are extremely prominent cast members in any game of Spot the Saint involving Florentine artists. In fact, spotting the pair of them in a painting, particularly if Lorenzo is with them, is a pretty powerful indicator that a Medici paid for whatever this is. That makes them useful to art historians who are trying to identify the source and history of an otherwise unknown piece of art. In fact, Cosmas and Damian are so closely tied to the Medici that they not only gave the name “Cosimo” to so many Medici named Cosimo, but the Medici sometimes had themselves painted in portraits as their patron saints. In the pair below, the right half is a copy (by our good ol’ Medici stooge Vasari) of a classic portrait of Cosimo the Elder in his traditional Florentine merchant red hat and robes, but the addition of a halo has turned him into St. Cosimo, accompanied on the left by a portrait of Vasari’s patron Duke Cosimo I as Damiano, completing the pair. Definitely the kind of hubris the Medici only displayed after they were in power. The age difference between the “twins” is a little awkward, more so when you remember we are looking at men separated by several generations:
When painted, Cosmas and Damian usually seem to be in their thirties or forties. Their most reliable attribute is that they have matching hats, usually distinctive round red hats. These are presumably doctors’ hats, and they generally wear red robes with them. This is only a semi-reliable tell, however, since those hats and robes are actually just how Florentine doctors dressed, so it only holds true in Florentine paintings of them. I remember going to Venice and seeing them in green and going “What the?!” But since they aren’t depicted very often except by artists on Medici payroll, they usually look Florentine. Other attributes–pill boxes, medical tools, medical spoons–are less reliable. The easiest tell, of course, is that there are always two of them. I found that after a few months in Florence I picked up the inexplicable capacity to recognize Cosmas and Damian in paintings even when they had no attributes at all. I would say it’s proof that I’ve been in Florence too long, but you can never be in Florence too long.
And now, Spot the Saint quiz time!
There are ten figures in this one. You can identify eight with certainty, and the final two you should be able to identify categorically as being a specific type of saint, and you can be sure of one of them from the fact that this was painted in a monastery called “San Marco”. If you could read the text on the book you’d also get the last one. You should also be able to tell who forked over the cash, and what order of monks it was made for.
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!”).
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.
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.
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.
Easy-to-recognize figures fade into the muddle. Here, for example, are some Spot the Saint friends in familiar forms, and in his:
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.
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.
When 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.
“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.
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!
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.
The 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):
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.
The 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.
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.
Closed 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Beyond the first escalator lies another, just as dizzying, though here at last the floor is in sight:
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
Leaving 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.
Only 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.
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.
Periodically readers ask me if there is a “tip jar” or other way to support Ex Urbe and say thank you for my work. Normally the answer is no, I do it out of pure enjoyment and the desire to share the places and periods I study. But short-term there is a way.
I compose music (polyphonic a cappella and mythology-themed folk music), and have just launched a kickstarter to raise money for my next project. I have been working on this set of songs for ten years, and have given my mythological subject the same care I have given the Renaissance in my posts, so it has come together to be quite something (though I do say so myself). I can’t post a direct link here because I still want to preserve the public anonymity of this blog, but if any readers would like to support me, or check out the project, please e-mail me (JEDDMason at gmail dot com) and I will send you the link. Thank you.
Meanwhile, for your enjoyment…
I want to introduce you to my favorite artifact at the “Museo Galileo,” the Florentine museum of the History of Science. It is a unique artifact, a “Military Compass.” Designed in the seventeenth century, it is the epitome of a gentleman’s weapon: a dagger which splits apart to become a geometric compass, so the educated wielder can use it to measure ground, calculate the sizes of fortresses, distances, and aim artillery:
A hinge in the hilt allows the blade to snap apart. The two halves are marked as rulers, and a weight drops out of the handle into the center to form a central measure, making it possible to use it as a compass, a level and for many other types of calculations. The pommel flips open to reveal a small magnetic compass, and pieces fold out from inside the hollow blade to provide additional tools for calculation. But if it is folded up, it is as deadly as a dagger should be. Such weapons were far from commonplace, more curiosities, status symbols and showpieces, but they were certainly designed to be usable. We have records of them as early as the 16th century, when one was designed for a Medici commander.
Instructions for the use of such a weapon are preserved in an anonymous 16th century Italian manuscript, also on display:
The museum also preserves other gentlemen’s instruments, such as walking sticks with concealed barometers, telescopes and other paraphernalia far more impressive than a cane-sword, but this one has always caught my imagination as something which encapsulates the ideal of the warrior-scholar-adventurer-noble which is so much at the heart of romantic notions of the “Renaissance man”, both our notions and the ideals they had in the period. I want to read a book where the protagonist carries this. I want to read ten books where the protagonist carries this. Also, as a reminder that the past never fails to sex-segregate no matter how unnecessary it is, they also have items intended for ladies of the period at the museum, including a “lady’s microscope” which is petite, delicate and carved out of ivory.
(NOTE: This post is a continuation of my earlier “unbiased” reviews of the Marvel Thor and Avengers movies, in which I presented a reading of the films positing that Loki’s apparent ‘defeats’ in both movies were intentional parts of an extremely long-term plan, and that in The Avengers, when Loki zapped Tony Stark with his mind-control rod and it seemed not to work, it actually did work, but he made Stark pretend it didn’t so that after Loki allowed himself to be ‘defeated’ and ‘captured’ no one would realize Stark was still his agent on the outside. Do I sincerely believe this is how the films are meant to be read? No. Do I enjoy them a heck of a lot more by reading them this way? Absolutely. This review is full of spoilers for the ‘plot’ of Iron Man 3.)
Character over plot has been a signature of these Marvel films, as the main events grind on in the background and we focus instead on the small, human experiences of side characters like Tony Stark, which a less subtle writing team would leave undeveloped and unexplored. While Iron Man 3 offers no direct glimpse of the massing invasion which Loki is masterminding, it offers instead a detailed case study of an issue too frequently glossed over in such stories: the psychological effects of long-term mind control. Instead of seeing only the use Loki makes of his new servant, we are presented with a sensitive examination of the process of surrender and conversion.
The first quarter of the film establishes that the long-term domination of an intellect like Stark’s is far from simple. Loki’s control is not weakening, but the unwilling mind is in turmoil, and breaking down. The directors use no ham handed cliches, like a sinister Loki voice-over in Stark’s head, but show the realistically imagined symptoms of such a mental battle: sleeplessness, hyperactivity, memory loss, breakdowns in social interaction, eventually panic attacks, which trigger especially when those around Stark bring up New York, the aliens and the Avengers, topics which require him to directly lie to conceal the control, putting the most pressure on his deception. If this continues, Stark will break down. If he is to be useful to his new master, the former self sleeping inside him must succumb, accepting his new identity as a servant of Loki. It is this process we watch as the film unfolds, starting from Stark’s opening line about how we “make our own demons,” referring, of course, to his fear that he is becoming a demon as he gives in.
The initial flashback to 1999 shows how early Loki sowed the seeds we will see blossom. We instantly recognize that the regenerating plant effect, which mad science botanist Dr. Hansen is researching, cannot be human technology, and must be based on the effects of the Well of Urd which the Aesir use to regenerate Yggdrasil every day, though the exploding side-effect is clearly an enhancement by our favorite Jotun. This event is years before Loki’s mind control took hold, so the audience is left guessing from the start: who is Loki watching here? Stark, the conspicuous genius? Or this woman Hansen, to whom he gave this power? Does she know? The answers come only toward the end of the film, when we come to understand the real import of the name tag reading “You Know Who I Am” – a message for the audience more than the characters that the true, hidden protagonist of these films is with us.
The main plot sparks when Stark, and the greater intellect which watches through him, encounters the completed form of the Well-of-Urd-based regeneration formula. Obviously-corrupt mad scientist Aldrich Killian (a colleague of Hansen) enters Stark’s headquarters and shows Pepper Potts a holographic demonstration of the work his group AIM has done inserting Well-of-Urd regeneration into humans, and thereby creating precisely the effect that the hosts of Valhalla are supposed to enjoy: fighting, hacking off limbs and rising to fight and feast again (hereafter I shall refer to this by its obvious true name, the “Valhalla Serum”). Loki’s hand is clear in the beautiful irony of the “Valhalla Serum” offering the same bribe Odin gives his chosen (with a super bonus heat-generating power added).
But, we realize, this research has matured while Loki is imprisoned in Asgard, an inconvenient necessity serving his larger goals, which means he does not actually have access to the finished Valhalla Serum formula, nor access to AIM’s current plans. He seeded the research, but could not guide it further–at least not until it crossed his new servant’s path. This happens when Stark’s security chief and friend Happy Hogan shows Stark the scene of Killian showing his holographic data display to Pepper Potts. The data display, which Loki-through-Stark glimpses through Hogan’s tablet camera, is enough to confirm that what Killian has must be the mature form of the Valhalla Serum. In an elegant moment of planning for deniability, Loki has Stark pretend that Hogan fails in his attempts to re-orient the camera toward Killian’s display, convincing Hogan that Stark never even saw Killian’s data, so he can thereafter claim not to know about it. This is one of a number of steps Loki has Stark take to alienate Hogan, who, of course, as an old friend is the most likely person to notice Stark’s changed behavior and suspect mind-control, so Hogan is systematically pushed away until he can be conveniently left in a coma. The explosion which leaves Hogan incapacitated also gives Stark and Loki their first glimpse of the delicious power of the mature Valhalla Serum. From this point, gaining AIM’s finished Valhalla Serum (and other research) becomes Loki’s secondary goal, the primary, of course, being breaking Stark to his control.
Loki then has Stark publicly challenge this infamous terrorist “The Mandarin” and invite him to attack Stark at his home. The viewer is left wondering: does Loki know at this point that the Mandarin was a puppet of Killian and AIM, or did he, like Stark and the viewer, discover it when Hansen revealed it? After all, the Mandarin plan was Killian’s, presumably developed quite recently, while Loki was imprisoned in Asgard. Is it a plan he seeded before he let himself be captured? Can we believe that his command that Stark challenge the Mandarin was mere chance? Or did he know? The idea that he might not know, that he might be improvising, is an entertaining one, and the authors let us believe it for a while, since there are three direct benefits to challenging the Mandarin which Loki could easily have seen even if he did not realize the connection between the Mandarin and his Valhalla Serum:
First, the destruction of Stark’s house (the inevitable consequence of the challenge) provides a powerful psychological marker for the internal destruction of his past self, making it easier for Stark to think of his past free self as a lost self, and his new self as having no home to return to other than that provided by service to his new master. This destruction of the past is completed at the film’s end when all the old suits are destroyed – a new beginning for a creature with a new purpose.
Second, by putting Pepper Potts in danger, the attack sets up for the first of the great carrots Loki offers Stark as a reward for his surrender. Stark can easily see that a superhero’s girlfriend will constantly be in mortal peril, but if Loki can give him a complete and stabilized Valhalla Serum then Potts can be made indestructible and therefore safe, a fit reward for a loyal servant. Loki dangles this danger, and his offer, before Stark through the whole latter two-thirds of the film, when he guides Stark’s actions toward ensuring that Potts is kidnapped by Killian. Loki and, presumably, Stark as well already know that a regeneration serum is the heart of this scheme, and knowing how mad scientists always like to turn the “girl” into “their creature” it is obvious that Killian will give Potts the serum. Of course, Killian’s version is unstable – only Loki can grant Stark the final steps necessary to make a perfected version, which he does at the end of the film.
Third, and most obvious, Stark’s challenge brings the focus of the Mandarin, the US government and the world upon Stark, setting up a fresh opportunity for “Iron Man” to save the world (and especially America) from a great threat. This wins Stark greater trust and security clearances, which we saw Loki already make such great use of in the Avengers film, where he used Stark to gained access to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Enterprises’ security systems. Stark’s flashy digital review of data on the Mandarin reminds the viewer that he has already given his new master access to Police, CIA, FBI records etc., but more trust is always worth winning, and taking down this great terrorist threat is an easy and fun opportunity to gain further inroads into human governments. When Stark convinces James Rhodes (the pilot of War Machine) to give him his access password, on the excuse of helping thwart AIM and the Mandarin, Loki gains full access to AIM’s plans and research, as well as to new levels of NSA clearance. Thus, during the hilarious scene in the tech van where Stark meets his obsessive fanboy, Loki is obtaining all data on the Valhalla Serum, as well as many other secrets of AIM and the US government, while in the fanboy Stark faces a reminder of how ridiculous his narcissism is, another hint of how much he will benefit if he lets Loki help him mature into something new.
The maturation of the AIM/Mandarin plan has several small but commendable boons for Loki’s side. War Machine, the only Iron Man suit not under Stark’s direct control, is hijacked by the enemy and thereby discredited in the eyes of a trusting government, which is led thereby to rely even more on Stark’s personal reliability. The US president is kidnapped and personally rescued by Stark, engendering gratitude which will lead to even blinder future trust, and the Vice President is removed and replaced, presumably, with a figure Loki prefers. The final battle is also an excellent opportunity to test the full range of Stark’s autonomous armor, though the suits deployed there must all be destroyed afterwards, since presumably S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Earth forces were watching the battle closely, and will develop counters for any suit deployed there – best to scrap them and trust to the new, superior ones which the newly-reborn Stark, Servant of Loki, will create (we have already had hints of stealth gear in planning). (We can only imagine what delightful distraction Loki cooked up to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the Avengers busy while he is playing with Stark and the Mandarin–perhaps we can hope to see that in another film.)
It is, incidentally, during the final rescue of the President that Stark makes his one slip and shows how much his mind is being taken over by the Norse worldview, when he realizes they intend to burn the President and instantly calls it “A Viking funeral.” He tries to cover, overcompensating with the wildly out-of-character Christian blessing gesture and the line, “It’s Christmas. Take ’em to church,” line. Naturally War Machine is too thick to spot the slip, but it is a fun touch, and proof of how excited Stark is to get to see Potts after her Valhalla Serum transformation.
The Mandarin is, of course, secondary. The true conquest occurs within Stark himself. I called this a game of carrot, stick and mirror. We had the carrot in granting the Valhalla serum to Pepper. A second carrot is revealed at the end when suddenly, out of nowhere, Stark figures out how to remove the shrapnel from his heart, an impossible medical feat which he himself is, as we know, incapable of, so it must be a boon from a superior intelligence. We had the stick in the destruction of Stark’s house, and other points at which his master forced him to endure hardships, though, as the film matures, it becomes clear (to the viewer and to Stark) that most of Stark’s pain is being brought on, not by his master, but by his own resistance.
The mirror is a special touch, supplied by figures of Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian, both genius scientists like Stark, who have themselves gone through a process of corruption and surrender. In them Stark sees what he thinks he will become if he succumbs, the “demon” he fears. Their example makes him more determined to resist. Yet, as he confronts them (in the scene where they have captured him and tied him to a bedframe) he realizes they are not what his master would have him become. They are weak and petty, fractious, self-absorbed, serving no greater plan. Fools. Fools who failed the test, and we see now there was a test, as we realize at last what really happened in 2009 when Loki seeded the Valhalla serum to Hansen. Hansen shows Stark the old name tag he left with her in 2009, with “You Know Who I Am” on the front, and on the reverse the formula for the next stage of the Valhalla Serum. Hansen thinks Stark wrote it, but Stark says he does not remember writing it. The truth is obvious: Loki left the formula, as he must have left other seeds for Hansen before, testing to see if she was smart enough to realize these were not human achievements but products of an inhuman genius. By leaving the formula on a paper connected to a famous genius, Loki tests Hansen: is she foolish enough to believe Stark wrote this, or will she realize there is something greater reaching out to her? Hansen failed the test, so Loki abandons her.
Stark passes. He says nothing, but he realizes when he sees that formula that it is no work of his. It is this that shows him just how much smarter he is than these other “fallen geniuses” he had thought were mirrors of himself. He realizes now that the transformation he is undergoing is entirely different from their weak corruption. The determination to “not be like them” vanishes, replaced by fresh awe for the scope of intellect, both his own intellect, for passing the test, and his master’s, for weaving such wonders. In that moment Stark realizes how much greater he can become, how much more he can accomplish, if he throws away the flash and brawn of Iron Man and allows his new master to guide him toward his true calling: the full exercise of his intellect. This is one central step in his metamorphosis.
The other, of course, is contact. Stranded by his suit’s malfunction, Stark just “happens” to come across the convenient little boy genius “Harley Keener”, who has been active in the area near the first successful Valhalla Serum blast. “Harley” has a shed full of equipment, a conspicuous lack of interfering parents, in-depth knowledge of the blast zone where the Valhalla Serum activated, and an uncanny ability to poke at Stark’s weak spots (New York, aliens), egging on his transformation. The boy tells a story about being abandoned by his father, a story which is a little too… familiar. Even his potato gun is a very familiar shade of green. It is this “Harley” who pushes the change, who urges Stark to stop thinking of himself as a fighter and think of himself as a smith (“mechanic”) again, who makes him realize his mind, not his suit, is his true weapon. A second test unfolds here: will Stark recognize his master? Will he realize the great honor he has been granted, being invited to work side-by-side with the Great Intellect in this dwarf-like improvised smithy? The worthy outpouring of gifts and tribute which Stark sends to the “child” at the end of the film confirms that he passes this test too.
We do not yet get to know how Loki is able to manifest while still in prison. Did he slip out and take this form? Is this a boy priest he is possessing? Is this an illusory projection? The possibilities are thrilling, and Loki’s presence on the scene of the first Valhalla Serum blast confirms to us at last that he must indeed have known about the AIM Mandarin scheme from its inception, since it was conceived to cover up these blasts and make them seem like the work of a terrorist instead of scientific accidents. If Loki was there from blast one, we can easily assume he was watching Hansen, Killian and AIM as the Well-of-Urd seeds he planted bore their sweet, explosive fruits.
“My armor was never a distraction or hobby it was a cocoon, and now I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away. I am Iron Man.” This conclusion, from Stark’s own mouth, marks the end of his transformation, and confirms that this was always about his rebirth as Loki’s servant. He receives his rewards–the perfected Valhalla Serum for Potts, the healing of his heart–but the greatest reward is self-discovery. Genius is stronger than iron. Brains over brawn, Loki’s subtlety over Thor’s force, smithcraft over hack and slash. That is what Iron Man is, and always should have been. Stark is ready now to become greater than he has ever been, and serve something greater than any human has ever served: his master’s Plan.
Where, then, does this sideline character sketch leave our central protagonist Loki? We know he remains physically in his Asgardian prison, but this film reassures those of us who were worried that he might be suffering in the boredom of such confinement. We had assumed he had plans for his months of imprisonment, but it is comforting to have this confirmation that his reach remains long, and his plans active. And we have uncovered new facets of his character: generosity, and delight in intelligence in all its forms. He watched Stark for years, long enough to recognize not only the potential utility of this human genius but also the flaws preventing him from achieving his full potential. Given power over Stark, Loki could break him viciously, but instead he breaks him kindly, helping him to actualize his hitherto stunted potential. Our prince of intellect, it seems, loves intellect in others, even in humans, enough to cultivate it when he can reach it. Certainly Stark will make a more valuable servant this way than if he were simply broken, but the patience, the rewards, and the hands-on touch of a personal visit all establish this as more than mere utility. We have been shown a rare glimpse of the kinder face of our mastermind. Months of prison have not made him bitter; they have made him subtler.
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.
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]
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.
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?]
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.
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.
“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.)
We still have plenty of saints to cover, now that the Machiavelli series is done.
In the last edition of Spot the Saint I discussed John the Evangelist, common in crucifixion scenes and in paintings that want an excuse to show a comely young man. But another common reason to depict him is when one, for aesthetic symmetry purposes, wants a set of four saints to depict, often for architectural purposes: decorating a row of four vaults or four arches, in the four corners of a frame, on the four sides of a dome or a cabinet, etc. The four Evangelists serve perfectly, and in Florence at least one sees Matthew, Mark and Luke far more often in the set of four than one sees them individually; John is the exception. I will thus briefly discuss each of the remaining three gospel-writers, and then treat how one spots them when they’re together.
Each of the four Evangelists has a special symbolic animal, making the set very easy to spot. The animals come from Revelations 4.7, and their connection to the Evangelists is… vague but firmly rooted in iconograpic tradition. Any given Evangelist is often sitting near or on his animal, or has the animal as a decorative motif in the frame. Sometimes the animal alone is used to depict the saint. These animals are always winged, and sometimes covered with eyes. Spotting the four in a set makes the Evangelists easy to pick out. The four are a Lion for Mark, a Bull for Luke, an Eagle for John, and a winged person i.e. an angel for Matthew.
Saint Mark (San Marco)
Common attributes: Winged Lion, book, long white beard
Patron saint of: Lawyers (Barriesters), Venetian Sailors
Patron of places: Venice, Egypt, Alexandria
Feast day: April 25th
Most often depicted: Writing in a book while looking dower, being a winged lion, riding a winged lion.
Relics: Venice. (Venice: “We have him! You can’t have him! Wa haha! Wa hahahaha!”)
Setting aside the technical biblical details about who Mark started as (which never appear in art), St. Mark seems to have served as an interpreter and traveling companion for Peter for a while, transcribing his sermons (which turned into the Gospel of St. Mark), and thereafter founded the Church of Alexandria and eventually served as its bishop. The Church of Alexandria later evolved into the Coptic Church (notable for leaving us many exciting manuscripts and for coming up with the brilliant idea that instead of writing in long scrolls you could bind pages of writing together into a rectangular structure called a “codex” which we recognize as the modern standard book) so Mark is extremely popular with the surviving Coptic Church, and there are late Coptic stories that he might have been martyred by having a rope tied around his neck and being dragged by it through the street until he was strangled, but this is quite apocryphal so there are fairly few Italian paintings of it.
Mark is particularly prominent in Italy because he is the patron saint of Venice. In 828 AD, Venetian sailors stole Mark’s relics from Alexandria and took them to Venice, where they are now housed in the stunningly expensive Basilica of St. Marco. Venice is excessively proud of this, so much so that the front of said Basilica boasts a mosaic featuring the theft. This may seem strange, but stolen relics were particularly prestigious in the pre-modern world. When a relic was stolen it was “The will of the saint,” whereas if it was bought then human greed and avarice made the acquisition less holy. Mark wanted to be in Venice, is the logic, which is why he arranged to be stolen. Theft also proves power and conquest, and the rest of the Basilica is built from expensive colored marbles looted from Constantinople when the Venetians conquered it, thus advertising Venice’s wealth and military prowess as well as their piety.
The winged lion of St. Mark is thus the symbol of Venice, and they put it on absolutely everything. In fact, if lost in Italy you can usually tell how close to Venice you are by the steady increase in winged lions as one approaches the lagoon. So enthusiastic is Venice about the winged lion that, when called upon to create a three-part symbol representing the city, its land empire and its sea empire, the government settled on a winged lion standing on land for the land empire, a winged lion standing on waves for the sea empire, and a third winged lion in a different pose in the middle for the city itself. So powerfully was St. Mark associated with Venice in the Renaissance that, if you ever see him depicted outside the context of the set of four, smart money says there are Venetians about. Even in Rome you can spot Venetian-built buildings by the winged lions all over them, and anywhere once ruled by Venice is saturated with them.
Common attributes: Winged ox, book, beard.
Occasional attributes: Paintbrush, surgical tool, icon of the Virgin and Child.
Patron saint of: Artists, sometimes doctors, surgeons, notaries, historians, butchers.
Patron of places: Padua
Feast day: October 18th
Most often depicted: Painting the Virgin, sitting on a winged bull, being a winged bull.
Relics: Padua, with a piece in Thebes.
Luke came from Antioch, in Syria, and is credited as author of the Gospel of St. Luke and of the Acts. He is described as having been a doctor, but is not particularly associated with doctors or generally invoked as their patron becuase, unlike Cosmus and Damian, he did no medical miracles. He is often discussed as an historian, since the books credited to him seem to contain an unusual amount of historical and geographical detail in addition to describing events he did not himself witness and must have researched. His status as an historian is thus a product of later scholars noting the difference in his tone from other bits of the New Testiment. Debates over whether or not Luke counts as an historian have been fought a lot, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, and are something of a nexus for arguments over what an “historian” is, i.e. can someone whose work had a specific persuasive goal be called an historian? An interesting debate.
Even more divorced from textual sources but far more important in visual depictions of Luke is the idea that he was a painter. He is supposed, according to Medieval tradition, to have painted the first religious icon, a portrait of the Virgin Mary, painted either while she was alive or while she visited him in a vision. The incredbly monotonous and identical icons of Mary which proliferated throughout the Middle Ages and, in the East, even later, were supposed to be copies of his, and their slavish dedication to being as identical as possible was motivated by the desire to preserve the authentic original. Icons supposed to be the original painted by Luke pop up from time to time in the Renaissance, often brought home to places like England from Italy, or farther east. When shown solo, saint Luke is most commonly depicted as an artist, and one of the most popular tricks is to paint St. Luke painting the Virgin, so one gets to paint her, him, accompanying angels, plus the canvas with his unfinished portrait.
Luke’s relics were in Ottoman hands for a long time, but were brought to Europe as part of the dowry of a Serbian princess and then sold to Venice sometime close to 1500. Venice put the relics in Padua, the city closest to it on the mainland, its most constant and important subject city and the home of its university. The relics were examined by scientists in the 1990s (when the Eastern Church asked for a piece back to put in his tomb in Thebes, a request which was, in fact, granted) and the bones seem to be of the right place and period. His animal is the ox, for which reason he is occasionally a patron of butchers.
Common attributes: Book, beard, accompanied by a small angel
Occasional attributes: Money bag
Patron saint of: Tax collectors, accountants, other people who handle money, perfumers
Patron of places: Salerno, Trier (Germany), Washington DC
Feast day: Sept. 21, Nov 16
Most often depicted: Writing his gospel
Matthew was a tax collector before converting to writing and preaching. Tax collectors were not well-liked at the time, so he is taken as an example that Jesus wanted to call bad people as well as good. In addition to the Gospel of St. Matthew, many now-officially-apocryphal writings were attributed to him, and he is one of few Apostles whose existence is firmly accepted in the Muslim tradition as well. Everyone agrees he evangelized in Ethiopia. We don’t know that much about Matthew’s life and he has few extra adventures credited to him by the medieval tradition, so is rarely depicted at all except with the set of the other three. A man in apostolic (i.e. vaguely Roman) robes with a beard, a book and an angel is often him, but might be any number of other people, so it’s best to see if his three companions are nearby before making a firm guess. His relics are the pride of the city of Salerno, in a very early cathedral, constructed in the 1000s.
The fourth, of course, is John, who, when in the set with the others, usually has his eagle, and is usually depicted in his old man state to match the other three.
Evangelists are usually easy in Spot the Saint, particularly since they travel in a set, but occasionally you get one by himself just standing there with no animal or nothing: bearded man in apostle-looking robes with book. Sometimes the first line of the relevant gospel is written on the book, so if you have memorized the Latin Vulgate translation of the first sentence of each you can tell who’s who, but few of us today have. Failing Latin, in such circumstances the best way to figure out who it is is to think about where you are, or where the painting is from. Are you, perhaps, standing in a monastery named “San Marco”? Or looking at a painting made in Venice? Or Padua? If so, you can make a pretty confident guess. Sometimes, though, the best you can do is: “There are two apostle-looking guys discussing a book. They’re probably evangelists, most likely Mark and Luke since they’re the most popular.”
The Evangelists are also a good way to get yourself used to spotting what apostles dress like, which is to say they are always in Roman-ish robes, with a colored drape of one color over a floor-length tunic/robe of a second color. This uniform is exclusive to saints of the Roman era and pretty exclusive to apostles, so is a good taxonomic way to narrow things down. Is the mystery saint dressed like an Apostle? If so you can rule out a huge portion of saints.
And now, Spot the Saint Quiz time.
First, since it’s been a while, a brief review of everyone we’ve seen so far, so you have the possibilities fresh in your mind. See if you can remember one or two attributes for each:
Saint John the Baptist
Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Saint Peter Martyr
Saint Thomas Aquinas
Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Antony of Padua
Saint Bernardino of Sienna
Saint Nicholas of Cusa
Saint John the Evangelist
Saint Mary Magdalene
Saint Mark the Evangelist
Saint Luke the Evangelist
Saint Matthew the Evangelist
And now the quiz, a Fra Angelico fresco from one of the cells in the gorgeous monastery of San Marco in Florence, a political hotbed of a monastery, patronized and paid for by Cosimo do Medici but later the seat of Savonarola. All but one of the figures in this image are figures we have discussed. The last one is St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monks, here depicted unhelpfully without his usual attribute, a bundle of canes to flog novices with. You should still be able to tell which he is. Throwing one’s hands up as the saints are doing is a gesture of surprise and awe.
Was Machiavelli an atheist? We don’t know and never will, but we can learn much about our society’s attitudes toward atheism by examining the persistence of the question, and the different reasons we have asked it over and over for centuries even though we know we have no proof.
No historical discipline can be honestly called “neutral”, but the study of atheism (and of its cousins skepticism, deism, and more general freethought, heterodoxy and radical religion) has always been particularly charged because it is so impossible to be detached from the central question. Setting aside the elaborate and bloody history of religious violence, oppression and entanglement in politics, whether you answer “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” or “Sort-of,” the question of whether or not there is a divine force and/or being(s) ordering or governing the cosmos, your answer has an enormous impact on your everyday actions, decision-making, ethics, attitudes toward law and government, and every other corner of the human condition. Even if religion and government had never mixed in the history of the Earth, if tomorrow you encountered irrefutable proof that the answer to the question was the opposite of what you had hitherto believed, your life and actions thenceforth would be radically different. The stakes are high, and personal. This makes it hard for historians to be calm about it.
Historians did not try to be calm about it in the early, juicy days when atheism was first presented as having a history. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets and books discussing famous atheists were a thriller genre, scandalous tales of tyrants and madmen which occupied largely the same niche as biographies of serial killers, or penny museums displaying the death masks of executed murderers. Treatises on “Infamous Atheists” served a slightly more learned audience than wax heads and the numerous early versions of the Sweeny Todd legend, but only slightly, and as they proliferated in printing shops tales of the scandalous excesses of Tiberius and Caligula under the label “atheist” were part morality play, part voyeurism, and part slander as each particular collection targeted its audience’s enemies. French collections accused Italians and Englishmen of atheism while Italian collections accused Frenchmen; Catholic collections accused Martin Luther and John Calvin of atheism, while Protestant collections accused popes and papists, and almost all European collections accused Muslims and Jews of atheism in a spirit of general racism and lack of accountability and lexical clarity.
You may note that neither Martin Luther nor Caligula is on record as ever having philosophically attacked the existence of God, but the logic chain of these collections is, from our perspective, backwards: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior. (2) These men were bad. (3) These men did not fear Hell. (4) These men were atheists. In the Renaissance, sinful living in overt defiance of divine law was considered evidence of atheism, to the degree that we have records of many atheism trials from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in which the evidence brought by the prosecution involves no statement of unbelief on the part of the accused. Rather the evidence will be sinful living, promiscuity, homosexuality, gluttony, irreverence of civic and religious authority, anything from a monk taking in a mistress to a drunkard running around in public with no pants on (See Nicholas Davidson, “Atheism in Italy 1500-1700,” in Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, ed. Michael Hunter & David Wootton (Oxford, 1992), 55-86, esp. 56-7).
Serious attempts to write a history of atheism began in the later nineteenth century, when secularization had progressed enough that an atheist was no longer a thrilling exotic creature, but was instead a black sheep in a land with many, many sheep of which some were even more alarming colors than black. It was also at this point that histories of atheism bifurcated. Some presented pessimistic accounts (by theist authors) of the modern decay of morals as atheism proliferated, while others presented optimistic accounts (by guess who) of the progress of secularization. Even in their more objective accounts, when dealing with earlier periods when atheism was rare and its traces elusive, these historians were, or rather we historians are, still prone to hyperenthusiasm when we think we have found what we are looking for, as whale watchers may mistake any dark shape for a humped back.
Everyone (whether theist or atheist) who studies pre-modern atheism is excited when we find evidence of it. This is because secularization, this brave new world in which atheism is both commonplace and legal, is an essential characteristic of the modern Western world, one of its unique features, differentiating us, here, now, from all earlier times and all other places. When I say the modern world is secularized I do not mean that atheism is a majority or even a plurality—it remains a small minority. What I mean is that atheism is universally present in Western discourse as a coequal interlocutor in theological debate, and all contemporary Western theists have lived their whole lives in contact with atheism, debating with atheists or at least expecting they might have to do so, and generally knowing that atheism is a commonplace alternative to their own views. This is radically different from the pre-modern situation, in which people saw atheists as elusive and invisible enemies (rather like vampires), and most books on the subject described atheism as a form of mental illness (often thought to be inborn), or as a moral perversion (compared in the period to homosexuality), while the genuine philosophical atheist was expected to be so extraordinarily rare that we might see only a couple in a century (such categories are employed by David Derodon in his treatise L’atheism Convaincu (1659), see Alan Kors, Atheism in France (1990), p. 28).
If the study of history is more than mere delight in exciting stories of past exploits, it is an attempt to understand our origins and ourselves. When we comb the past and spot something characteristically modern—be it the scientific method, hygiene, feminism or atheism—we are excited because we have found an early trace of home. Religious tolerance and the presence of atheism as a coequal participant in religious discourse in our own day is part of what makes us radically different from our predecessors. The following claim may seem counter-intuitive, but if I were to send an average modern American theist back in time to the seventeenth century, I think that person would debate more comfortably with an early atheist than with a theist of the same era, because the atheist, while disagreeing with our time traveler, would be disagreeing with somewhat familiar vocabulary and justifications, while the seventeenth-century theist would be going on about Aristotle, and teleology, and angels pushing the Moon around, and other fruits of an alien religious conversation that has no experience of 90% of the theological issues which our modern time traveler is used to considering. The seventeenth-century atheist probably knows what “natural selection” is (he read about it in Lucretius) but the corresponding theist probably hasn’t read such a rare and stigmatized text, so when our time traveler says “I want a proof of the existence of God that stands up against natural selection,” the atheist can have that conversation, while the theist is much less prepared. For most Renaissance theists Thomas Aquinas’ Proof of the Existence of God from Design is unassailable; for us, it’s been assailed every minute of every day of our lives; for the early atheist, it has an assailant, and it’s a similar assailant to the one we moderns are used to, so we can talk about it with the atheist and feel more at home than if we tried to talk to a theist who had never experienced any such attack. A pre-modern theist is, of course, well prepared for attacks from heresies we no longer worry much about: Arianism, Averroism, Antinomianism, but Darwin is a bolt from the blue. Not so much so for the early atheist, who, whether right or wrong, is more prepared for modern conversations than the average theist of his day. Thus, for atheists and believers alike, the history of atheism is the history of theology coming to be shaped more like what we’re used to in the modern era. Hence why even a theist historian thinks it’s super special awesome when we spot a bona fide atheist before the Enlightenment.
The study of what was going on with atheism before the mid-seventeenth century is not, and cannot be, the study of actual atheists. There are none for us to study. There may have been some, there may not, but in a period when saying “I think there is no God” led pretty directly to arrest and execution, no one said it. No one wrote it. If anyone thought it, not even private letters can confirm. Knowing that an atheist won’t fess up in documents, we historians naturally read between the lines, seeking hints of heterodoxy in the subtext of a treatise or the double meaning of a couplet. This is the only place we can realistically expect to find evidence, but it is also prone to giving us false positives. As Lucien Febvre put it in his enormously influential The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais, we moderns are bound to see that rare beast the atheist around every dark corner. We see him because we want to.
The first really real for sure definite actual atheists who, by golly, said they were atheists (OMG!) date to the mid-seventeenth century, the Libertine movement, when a push toward religious tolerance (largely in the name of stopping the Reformation wars of religion before they wiped out all homo sapiens on the European continent) meant that wealth and power were enough to armor figures like the Earl of Rochester and his circle (including the bone-chilling Charles Blount) sufficiently that they could be known to be atheists and survive so long as they denied it in public. This trend strengthened in the Enlightenment. I often compare late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atheism to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homosexuality: there were circles in which one could let it be an open secret that one was an [atheist/homosexual] and it would be okay so long as one didn’t ruffle too many feathers or say anything in public or in front of civic authorities. One was always at risk of prosecution, and if one wanted to be safe and respected one kept it carefully hidden (as Diderot hid his atheist works), but there was enough sympathy within the apparatus of power that one could write of one’s [atheism/homosexuality] in private letters, and even hint at it in public works, and more often than not be safe. The pre-seventeenth-century atheist enjoyed no such safety, so not even in Renaissance private correspondence (where talk of homosexuality is quite commonplace) do we see even the most timid hand raised when the historian calls back: “Is anybody there an atheist? Anybody? Machiavelli?”
Why is Machiavelli our favorite candidate? Many reasons. First, he is in other ways so very modern. Having spotted someone who thinks about history as we do, and thinks about ethics as we do, and definitely, provably thinks in a very much more modern way than others of his century, he is a natural candidate for other modern twists including atheism.
Second, he was called an atheist by so many people for so long. The mystique of vague, beard-stroking villainy invoked by the term “Machiavellian” (Note: Machiavelli did not have a beard) falls nicely into the pre-modern logic chain: (1) Fear of Hell drives men to good behavior. (2) Machiavelli advocates sinful behavior including lies, betrayal, murder and reign by terror. (3) Machiavelli does not fear Hell. (4) Machiavelli was an atheist.
But there are more focused reasons than that. If we return to Febvre’s warning that we are prone to spot atheists in every shadow, Febvre argues that, instead of seeking the rare beast of our desiring, we should instead confine ourselves to searching for a habitat capable of supporting him; only then can we safely say that we have found him, not his shadow. By “habitat” Febvre means the apparatus of other ideas related to atheism which make atheism easier and more likely.
Imagine that you are a biologist studying a particular fungus. This fungus is hard to find, but often grows around the roots of a particular tree species, with which it has an unexplained but well-documented symbiosis. You thus survey mainly regions where this tree is common. And if you hope to trace your fungus back to before material records survive, you might trace the history of that tree species, through fossils or early human artifacts made of its wood, and conclude that, while you can’t be sure the fungus was there too, the odds are certainly better than the odds of it having been in places where its tree friend was unknown. You have not provably found your fungus, but what you have is certainly enough to talk about, and enough to get people excited if your fungus is a truffle and may yield millions in delicious profit if your information leads to improved cultivation.
Now, for the truffle substitute the elusive pre-1650 atheist, and for the tree substitute the ancient Greek theory that matter is made of atoms. The two are unrelated, and the atomic theory does not attack theism in any way, but it is certainly easier for atheism to flourish when “How was the world made if God didn’t do it?” can be answered with “Atoms interacting chaotically in the void clumped together to form substances… bla bla… planets… bla bla… natural selection… bla bla… people etc.” instead of “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know,” is the centerpiece here. Medieval and Renaissance Europe had perfectly respectable answers to all scientific and sociological questions, they just all depended on God all the time. Take gravity, for example. Celestial bodies are moved by angels. As for why some earthly objects fall and others rise, morally inferior objects fall down toward Satan and morally superior ones rise up toward God, sorting themselves out into natural layers like oil and water. Stones sink in water because Water is superior to Earth, hot air rises because Fire is superior to Air, and virtuous men go to Heaven because good souls are light and wicked souls are heavy with sins which make them fall to the circle of Hell corresponding to the weight of their sins: nine circles separated out in layers, again like oil and water. God established the first societies, handed down the first laws, created the first languages, and directed the rise and fall of empires to communicate His Will. If one wanted to be an atheist in the Middle Ages one had to throw away 90% of all science and social theory, and when asked “Why do rocks sink?” or “How do planets move?” or “Where did the world come from?” one had to answer, “I have no idea.” Turning one’s back on social answers in that way is very difficult, and is part of why the study of atheism is so closely tied to the study of philosophical skepticism—only very recently have atheists had the leisure of both denying God and still having a functional model of the universe. Early atheists had to be, largely, skeptics. They also had to embrace a not-particularly-functional partial worldview which made rest of the world (which had a much more complete one) think they were completely crazy. I thus sometimes compare Medieval atheists with modern creationists, since both are individuals willing to say, “I believe this one thing so fiercely that I will throw away all the other things to keep it, even if it makes everyone think I’m nuts.” Doing this is very hard. Doing it when other ideas are around to satisfy the gaps left by removing God from science becomes much easier.
How then do we seek the habitat capable of supporting the invisible pre-1650 atheist? We look for radical scientific theories: atomism, vacuum, heliocentrism, anything which makes Nature more self-sufficient and less dependent on divine participation. We look for related theological challenges: attacks on the immortality of the soul, on miraculous intervention, on Providence, on angelology, anything which diminishes how often God is part of the answer to some basic question. We look for who is reading ancient texts which offer alternate explanations to Christian theological ones: Epicurus, Lucretius, Plato, Pythagorean cult writings, Cicero’s skeptical dialogs, Seneca. Who is reading all this? Machiavelli.
In the pre-modern world, a firestorm of accusations of atheism and wickedness awaited anyone who raised a powerful and persuasive alternate answer to some question whose traditional answer depended on God. This firestorm fell even if the author in question never made any atheist arguments, which, generally, they didn’t. It happened often, and fiercely.
Thomas Hobbes awoke one such firestorm when his Leviathan suggested that savage man, living in a state of terror and war in his caves and trees, might through reason and self-interest alone come together and develop society and government. Until that time, Europe had no explanation for how government came to be other than that God instituted it; no explanation for kings other than that God raised them to glory; no explanation for what glue should hold men together, loyal to the law, other than fear of divine punishment. Hobbes’ alternative does not say “There is no God,” but it says, “Government and society arose without God’s participation,” a political theory which an atheist and a theist might equally use. It gives the atheist an answer, and thereby so terrified England that she passed law after law against “atheism” specifically and personally targeting Hobbes and banning him from publishing in genre after genre, until he spent his final years producing bad translations of Homer and filling them with not-so-subtle Hobbesian political notions one can spot between the lines.
Machiavelli awoke such a firestorm by creating an ethics which works without God. Utilitarianism depends entirely on evaluating the earthly consequences of an act, and can be used as a functional system for decision-making whether or not there exists any external divine force or absolute code of Truth. He also painted a world of politics in which he recommends actions which are the same that one might take if there is no God watching. In order for people to be virtuous they must first be alive—doesn’t that sound like the sentiment of someone who isn’t thinking about Heaven? It is justified and necessary to kill and lie in order to protect the stability of the state and the lives of the people—doesn’t that sound like there isn’t a separate Judgment waiting? The man who will do so much—even serve the Medici who tortured him—in order to guard and protect Earthly Florence seems to have an Earthly mistress, and not to be thinking of a Higher One. He certainly talks like an atheist, and he certainly created the first system of politics and ethics which an atheist could coherently employ.
In addition to all this, there is what we can glean about religious attitudes from Machiavelli’s personal sentiments and behavior. We know that he was a military commander, and fought, and killed people. We know that he was what I think of as “averagely promiscuous” for a Renaissance man based on my experience of letters and autobiographies, which is to say that (while married) he had both male and female lovers, and wrote comfortably and playfully about friends doing the same. We know friends wrote to him for advice about their love-affairs, which he freely gave, though warning against getting too caught up in them. We know he helped his family in a push for a profitable priestly position for his brother, and was thus involved in minor acts of simony. We know he owned many pagan classics and loved to read them, including a fascinating little volume in his own handwriting (now at the Vatican) which contains his complete transcriptions of two texts, first Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things, containing antiquity’s best account of god-free atomistic physics and denial of the soul, afterlife, Providence and prayer), and second Terrence’s Eunuch (containing one of the most uncomfortable scenes in all of ancient comedy which the young hero boasts triumphantly about having just committed rape). Machiavelli himself wrote the infamous comedy The Mandrake, which does not contain rape, but in which the twist is that in the end all the deception and adultery goes just dandy and in the end no comeuppance is had and everyone carries on committing deception and adultery and lives happily ever after, including those being deceived. We know he had a sense of humor, and we know he often directed it against the antics of priests and monks. I will include one sample of this edge of him, taken from a letter from late in his life, when he was sent on behalf of the Florentine wool guild to recruit a preacher for Lent (an extremely high-profile public performance, rather like picking who will play at superbowl half-time), Machiavelli wrote to his high-ranking political friend Guicciardini, from Carpi, May 17th 1521 (Note the playful way he juxtaposes the mandatory obsequious Renaissance opening address with the base setting of the second sentence.)
Magnificent one, my most respected superior. I was sitting on the toilet when your messenger arrived, and just at that moment I was mulling over the absurdities of this world; I was completely absorbed in imagining my style of preacher for Florence: he should be just what would please me, because I am going to be as pigheaded about this idea as I am about my other ideas. And because never did I disappoint that republic whenever I was able to help her out – if not with deeds, then with words; if not with words than with signs – I have no intention of disappointing her now. In truth, I know that I am at variance with the ideas of her citizens, as I am in many other matters. They would like a preacher who would teach them the way to paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the Devil. Furthermore, they would like their man to be prudent, honest and genuine, and I should like to find one who would be madder than Ponzo (who at first followed Savonarola, then switched), wilier than Fra Girolamo (Savonarola), and more hypocritical than Frater Alberto (either a Boccaccio character or someone whom Alexander VI sent to Florence and who recommended summoning Savonarola to Rome so they could seize him under false pretenses), because I think it would be a fine thing – something worthy of the goodness of these times – should everything we have experienced in many friars be experienced in one of them. For I believe that the following would be the true way to go to Paradise: learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it. Moreover, since I am aware how much belief there is in an evil man who hides under the cloak of religion, I can readily conjure up how much belief there would be in a good man who walks in truth, and not in pretense, tramping through the muddy footprints of Saint Francis. So, since my imaginative creation strikes me as a good one, I intend to choose Rovaio (Riovanni Gualberto, “the north wind” or “the hangman”), and I think if he is like his brothers and sisters he will be just the right man.” (Translation from Machiavelli and His Friends, Their Personal Correspondence, James B. Atkinsons and David Sices eds. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press) 1996, p, 336).
Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself. This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on. At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring. Unfortunately a later letter hints that Machiavelli thinks they are on to the prank, and the correspondence ends there.
You now have pretty-much as much evidence as anyone does about Machiavelli’s religious beliefs. Smells like an atheist, doesn’t he? His manifest unorthodoxy, the unique modernity of his ethics and political attitudes, and his playful anticlericalism, not to mention his charisma as an historical figure, inevitably tempt us into wondering whether we have found here a beautiful specimen of the rare beast we seek. But until we develop a time-traveling telepathy ray to let us read the thoughts of the dead, we must remain very wary. Is Machiavelli religiously unorthodox? Absolutely. Does he deny the existence of the divine? Perhaps, perhaps not. 1520 is very early, and there are many genres of heterodoxy besides denial of God which we may be smelling here. Thinking forward two hundred years, Enlightenment deism with its Clockmaker God denies divine intervention in Nature, removes the Hand of God from politics and lessens theology’s role in ethics without removing God. If Machiavelli is an early deist, rather than an early atheist, that is certainly enough to fit comfortably his model of politics without God as a central factor, his ethics which segregates Earthly activities and consequences from broader divine concerns, and his interest in Lucretius and pagan scientific models for how Nature can function without constant divine maintenance. If Machiavelli thinks these monks are corrupt and hypocritical, so would Voltaire, Rousseau, and even Martin Luther, without any of them being atheists. Radicals yes, atheists no. We may, in fact, ascribe any number of heterodoxies to Machiavelli, and as we review the history of writings about him we in a sense review the history of what radical religious veins we are most worried about, since whatever is most scary tends to be ascribed to him in any given decade. These days it is often atheism, nihilism, skepticism, rarely deism, since we are at present as a society very comfortable with the Clockmaker model and associate it more with the bright and kind Enlightenment than with he-who-advocates-fear-over-love.
Is Machiavelli an atheist? We have no idea, but by looking at why we want him to be, or don’t want him to be, or think he was, or think he wasn’t, and why new historians keep trying to answer this literally unanswerable question, we can watch the evolution of our own societal anxieties about the origins of unbelief, and how we understand how we got to this modern situation in which theism must stand constantly prepared to face its thousand enemies and is not (like Baldur) so secure in the presumption that no one will aim for the heart that it doesn’t realize it might have to dodge. This is a slight exaggeration, as Medieval Christianity did prepare itself for onslaughts of atheism, and we have numerous practice debates written by theologians showing how they would argue with imaginary atheists since they had no real ones about to spar with. (Alan Kors in his meticulous history Atheism in France has argued that these practice debates against pretend atheists were actually critical in introducing atheist arguments to broad audiences and thus themselves responsible for propagating atheism, even though they were written by theists for theists in a world populated probably only by theists.) But it is not much of an exaggeration, since such preparation was much more an academic exercise than real sharpening of mental blades. Since Machiavelli is the first of the great, famous possible-atheists—before Hobbes, before Spinoza, before Bayle, and before the real beast Rochester—Machiavelli is where we turn to test our anxieties about how our world came to be so secularized.
In the small talk phase of a party, I often answer “What do you do?” with “I study the history of atheism.” The response usually takes the general form of, “Tell me more!” but as discussion unfolds I often feel one of two undercurrents shaping my new acquaintance’s replies: either “I’m an atheist and, since I presume you’ll agree with me, I now want to vent at you about how much I hate organized religion and my parents,” or “I’m a theist but pride myself on being rational about it, and I’m scared that if I tell you I’m a believer I’ll sound like the kind of religious nut that gives theism a bad name.” I sympathize with the anxieties behind both these reactions, but both sadden me. They are symptoms of the debate done badly: an atheist motivated more by rebellion than by Reason, a theist shamed into buying into rhetoric in the worst sense. They are what happens when people grow up surrounded by others who care more about propagating their own beliefs than about helping young people meet and explore great questions for themselves (see comment thread). I love this debate. I love all of the people on all the sides. I love the passion, and earnestness, and urgency of writings on atheism, by both sides. It is the essence of the examined life and the exercise of Human Reason at its most intense. I love everyone involved: Plato, Aquinas, Ockham, Ficino, Sade, Nietzsche. I love when a student comes to my office hours and asks me directly, “I want you to be a Socratic gadfly for me and help me test my position,” whichever position it is. I do it. I love it. When I wonder whether Machiavelli was an atheist, it’s not because I want to know, but because I want to talk to him about it, at length, and we would stay up all night, and eat all the cheese and olives, and drink all the wine, and Voltaire would come, and Hobbes, and Locke, and Rochester and Rousseau would get plastered and piss themselves, and Diderot would help me mop it up while we talked about Leibnitz and the imperfection of Creation, and Machiavelli would keep pace with us even though most of the ideas in question would be two hundred years younger than him. They would be new to him, but he would understand them easily and join in comfortably to the debate. He should be there. There isn’t anybody else we know of from Machiavelli’s century who really should be there in the imaginary salon where we revisit the Enlightenment debates that made this modern era secular the way it is. Just Machiavelli. That’s why we can’t stop asking.
(Here ends my Machiavelli series. I hope you have enjoyed it, and thank you for being patient. Also, I have now added a substantial discussion of atheism in the classical world in the comment thread on this post, for those interested. You can also read my entries on remembering the Borgias, and the Borgias in TV dramas.)
If you’re interested in reading more about the history of atheism, skepticism, heterodoxy, deism and freethought, I recommend these sources:
Allen, Don Cameron. Doubt’s Boundless Sea; Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins. 1964.
Hunter, Michael and David Wootton ed. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Oxford: Clarendon. 1992.
Kors, Alan Charles. Atheism in France, 1650-1729. Vol. 1, Princeton: 1990. (The long-awaited second volume is forthcoming.)
Popkin, R. H. History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: 2003. (Earlier editions of the book have titles, “History of Scepticism from X-other-dude to Y-other-other-dude. All editions are good, but the most recent is the most comprehensive.)
Betts, C. J. Early Deism in France, From the so-called ‘déistes’ of Lyon (1564) to Voltaire’s ‘Lettres philosophiques’ (1734). The Hague: Martinus Nijhogg Publishers. 1984.
Buckley, Michael J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1987.
Febvre, Lucien. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: the Religion of Rabelais. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1982.
Ginsburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms. New York: Penguin Publishers. 1992.
Jacob, Margaret. The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans. London, Boston: Allen & Unwin. 1981.
Kristeller, P. O. ‘The Myth of Renaissance Atheism and the French Tradition of Free Thought’. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 6 (1968), pp. 233-443.
Lemay, J. A. Leo ex. Deism, Masonry and the Enlightenment. Newark: University of Delaware Press. 1987.
Wagar, Warren W. ed. The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers inc. 1982.
Wilson, Catherine. Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity. Oxford: 2008
Wootton, David. ‘Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period’ The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 695-730.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
(No very specific spoilers for Skyfall appear in this post, just comments on the overall structure & mood).
“Why did no one mention this before!” My shriek ricocheted among the fluorescent wooden parrots of the Tex Mex restaurant. “You can shoot a laser through a clear blimp! Now–Yes!–now all the clear blimps that are anchored on top of the villian’s giant high-tech white & chrome treehouse complex can have goons shooting lasers from them! And they can shoot at the little helicopter that has James Bond in it! Oh! And the two little helicopters can weave all around the blimps trying to shoot at each other with the machine guns, but they don’t dare shoot through the blimps in case they explode! But the blimps are clear so Bond and the bad guy can see each other through the blimps, and they can zoom up and around trying to get a clear shot, and all the time all the minions are shooting at Bond with lasers through the blimps!”
“But before or after the helicopter bit there has to be a fight on top of the interconnecting corridors of the treehouse base,” my Dad contributed, “in some kind of vehicle.”
Roommate: “Like a Smart Car!”
Dad: “Or a Segway!”
This climactic battle (and the subsequent debate over the relative merits of a man in bullet-proof armor riding a Segway vs. a Segway with a bullet-proof armored chariot casing built in) was the peak of our post-movie cathartic deconstruction of why Skyfall had been an unsatisfying Bond movie while undeniably being a perfectly respectable movie in the broader sense.
“What should our villain be after? How about a continent?” “Yeah!” “Australia.” “What does he want it for?” “To experiment. Remember, he’s a geneticist, so he wants to create his own biosphere. With mammoths.” “And condors. Shouldn’t he put condors?” “And he’ll use the global electromagnetic field manipulator to increase the temperature so rainfall increases in Australia and it becomes a fertile rain forest.” “Yes, by accelerating global warming.” “No, no, too much eco-villainy lately. We want something more classic. He just wants Australia so he can experiment freely. He’s already rich but it’s not enough. Now he wants to be free to pursue his science and genetic engineering faster. To do that he needs a private world.” My fist slammed the table triumphantly enough to make the guacamole jiggle. “He means to terraform Australia!”
Now we could cross out #7 “Outlandish villainous ultimate goal” on our James Bond Movie checklist, as well as #9 “climactic battle” #5 “awesome villain tech” and #6 “evil lair”. We had gotten this far through #4 “Grand evil scheme” which involved creating genetically modified super-aggressive swarming creatures which could be directed to attack target areas around the world using a machine which manipulated the Earth’s electromagnetic field. The first attack would be bees, some target city, millions and millions of bees would all swarm in and devastate everything. The world is held hostage. But oh, the people think, we can hide inside our airtight houses. So they all hide and the bees swarm black outside and people think they’re safe, but then the termites! The electromagnetically-commanded termites burrow through the walls and let in the swarm! And now the villain can demand they hand over Australia to become his brave new mammothy world!
There are certain questions that you always want your James Bond movie to be a potential answer to: “Which was the one where there was a henchman with a special jaw that was super strong, and then they wound up in space?” “Which was the one where he was driving through the ice palace while it was being melted by the solar space laser reflector beam? Was that the invisible car?” “And he was driving it from the back seat, while they were shooting at him–or was that a different one?” All sorts of variants on “Wasn’t that the one where…?” And Skyfall will never be the correct answer to these questions. Skyfall didn’t… it just didn’t…
…James Bond Movie checklist item #1, the “Opening mission”…
“Can we have the swarms cause an opening pre-credits disaster on an oil rig?” “Hm… what swarm… squid? Squid that swarm up the poles!” “Squid? Wouldn’t that have to be octopus?” “Octopodes are too intelligent. But can squid climb an oil rig?” “Squid can go pretty fast in the water, they just tend to do it horizontally, this could just be vertical. Pwoo!” (Sound-effect combined by gesture of arm shooting up in the air with finger-tentacles wriggling.) “I don’t know…” A few moments absently rearranging Jalapenos with my fork. “Ooh, wait! What if it works because there’s a submarine nearby, and millions of squid all whoosh up and drag the submarine along–” “–and smash it into the oil rig! Of course!” “Wait, I thought the beginning was when we were going to have him steal the prototype electromagnetic railgun. How does the oil rig help?”
…James Bond Movie checklist item #3, the “Early stage of the scheme”…
“No, the railgun isn’t before the credits, it’s the second stage thing, after the credits.” “And I thought it wasn’t going to be the main villain who stole it, we were going to have it be the woman who was working with him.” “Did she want to steal it to use as a weapon?” “No, they thought she was going to steal it to be a weapon, but instead she brought the railgun to the geneticist to use for the magnetic field effect to control the killer bees, but then in the end she betrays him and helps Bond stop him, and then she betrays both Bond and the villain and sneaks in separately at the end and takes the railgun to use as a weapon.” “Like Catwoman!” “Only Bond stops her. Because she isn’t Catwoman.” “Right.” “So she’s a villain, and then not a villain, and then a villain again, in addition to the main bioengineer villain.” “Yes. Oh, is she also the business scheming villain? Or is there some other one doing the sinister businessy politicsy part.” “Oh yes, someone has to do be a big business schemer, because someone has to invite him to a party, because…
…James Bond Movie checklist item #10: “Bond must order a martini at a swanky party”…
Bond did order a martini in Skyfall (oops, and I promised no spoilers!). And he does so at an expensive party in a ridiculously glamorous exotic place, and drinks it with a beautiful and mysterious bond girl, and there are piles of cash and expensive evening gowns and goons in dark suits. And these are all the right ingredients to set things up for the plan to unfold its first petal, and then… there are supposed to be more petals, right? The twists are supposed to keep unfolding and unfolding, with one more layer of deception right when you think it’s all over. And the stakes are supposed to be high. Like a continent, or a coup, or ten billion dollars, or at the very least killing a head of state.
Our true triumph arrived with the dessert: “Ooh! Ooh! Can Bond have to go into Australia but to avoid the swarms and the magnets he has to do a super-high-altitude parachute jump like the Red Bull guy did? Only, Bond has to do it while fighting a guy!” (Whatever stunt other people can do, Bond can do “while fighting a guy.” That’s Bond’s superpower.)
In all seriousness, we were aware that hordes of squid and stampeding mammoths are too sci-fi outlandish for Bond, but you can’t blame us for overcompensating after a flick where the most advanced technology displayed was… was… the internet? I mean, there was a touch screen… those are… well, one came standard with my new laptop, so… yeah, I’m going with the internet.
After our post-movie decompression we watched the recent Casino Royale movie again. No clear blimps here either, and it started the recent pattern of the films being more interested in (of all things) giving James Bond character progression than it was in the grandness of the scheme. In fact, during Bond’s climactic battle over the suitcase full of $120 million I turned to my friends and pointed at the 16th century Venetian palazzo, which Bond had just destroyed, and said “You know what’s worth more than 120 million dollars?” But it was still more satisfying than Skyfall because it had the requisite twist, followed by another twist, followed by a false ending, followed by yet another twist. That was enough.
Instead of twists and grand schemes, Skyfall tried to do something which was undeniably bolder and more original, and considerably more worthy of respect. It focused on the characterization of M. Brilliant idea! A great and veteran part of the Bond universe as-of-yet underexplored. And stepping out of the Bond universe for a moment, this was an action flick which focused on an intelligent, dignified, 100% non-sexualized, retirement-age woman! Maybe one or two movies a year give meaningful attention to an older woman, and certainly not ones full of car chases! It didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and still degenerated into male-dominated action, and rescues, and characterizing her as Mom, but she was still an actual centerpiece of the movie in a way no gray haired woman has been in any action flick I’ve ever sat through. It even passed the Bechdel test (something we usually know better than to apply to Bond films) in a scene in which M was questioned about her career by a female government official. Such a move in a Bond movie was as startlingly deserving of respect as if someone had delivered a brilliant proposal for how to solve the Economic Crisis in the middle of Antiques Roadshow. They also flirted with homosexual elements that no Bond had dared before, in a way which was a little awkward but also overdue and therefore somewhat healing in one of the most fiercely hetero-normative franchises in pop culture history. On both counts it may not have really succeeded, but I respect the fact that it tried, and getting any kind of movement on sexual politics out of a Bond movie is rather like wringing tears from a stone. I respect trying, but there is a difference between a movie I respect and a movie I enjoy, and it remains empirically true that I left the theater dissatisfied.
“I sure hope they make a normal James Bond movie soon,” I muttered later that evening, as we played fridge Tetris with the leftover fajitas.
Roommate: “What do you mean?”
I: “You know, one that isn’t about something. One where they shoot lasers through clear blimps, with an evil villain, and James Bond defeats him, and there are quips, and no characterization.”
And that’s the story of how I found myself wishing the movie I had just seen had been less ambitious. But thinking back on it, that isn’t really what I wanted. I went to that Bond movie instead of any number of other movies that were actually supposed to be objectively good because I wanted the comfort of a familiar formula and the thrill of action-escapism. Instead I got character depth. Why couldn’t I have both? Why couldn’t they have deepened the characters and still had more than three petals on their rose? Why wasn’t there room in the movie for M and clear blimps? Why did the first action movie I’d ever seen focus on a mature woman have to make me wish it wasn’t?
The weirdest thing is that it felt like the writers had the same idea. The film ended with an “And now the whole team is assembled again!” moment, implying a vein of self-awareness: “Yeah, the last three Bond Movies have been weirdly character-ful, but now that we’re done dealing with Bond’s origin story and the retirement crisis, the next one will be a [….] Bond Movie, we promise.” How did they intend their audience to fill [….]? “Normal”? “Traditional”? “Action-centered”? “Satisfying”?
Skyfall gets marks, though, for the most important test of every Bond film: the opening credits. Also points for the new Q; someone (probably who was following the success of Sherlock and the new Dr. Who and Avengers) noticed that smart geeks, especially scrawny ones with glasses, draw a slice of the female demographic that Bond’s brawn misses. Nerd is the new fan service – enough so that even a franchise as trope-encrusted as Bond has found one new “sexy” to tap. Let’s just hope they never try to put Bond himself in glasses and a labcoat; I fear for the audience whiplash.
Addendum: many thanks to all my readers for being patient these few months with my slow posting speed and the infinite delay of the Machiavelli series. I have been wrestling with the old illness/over-commitment combo. I do intend to return to the Machiavelli series as soon as I am sufficiently rested and caught up on my 10,000 tasks.
I was racing from my office to the gym yesterday, struggling not to spill orange goo on my 18th century reenactment overcoat while wolfing down instant microwave mac & cheese with my reusable pocket eco-spork, when I finally faced up to the reality that the November demands of academia & inevitable autumn illness were not going to give me a chance to finish the next chapter of my Machiavelli series this week, or even next. But since the holidays are coming, I thought I might share some quick gift suggestions which I’ve accumulated this year. These are all items I either own, or have gotten for friends, or both, with, I hope, enough variety to make for a fun read, and possibly to fill some corners under your trees.
The photography I have enjoyed sharing on this blog requires a practical, small, portable camera, not easily damaged but quick to use and that takes very good pictures. After trying many models and doing a lot of research, I can enthusiastically recommend my current camera, a Nikon COOLPIX S9300, which is the top of the COOLPIX camera line, with very high resolution and an astounding zoom. The 16x zoom is much too powerful to actually be usable unless you set the camera down or use a tripod, but even at half-way-zoomed I could get amazing detail on faraway bits of cathedrals and fortresses. It eats up its batteries, so you need two, but is a great pocket camera.
The most exciting, and unusual, of the numerous tablets on the gift market this year has to be an authentic reconstruction of a Roman period wax writing tablet. A standard technology used throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, this affordable alternative to papyrus or vellum worked by scratching text into a wax surface with a stylus, which could then be wiped smooth and re-used. Standard for letter-writing and short-term note-taking. Through this cutting-edge ancient technology, your friends and loved ones can enjoy the miraculous gift of writing, then erasing it, then writing again on the same surface! Wonders will never cease!
In order to avoid the life-threatening condition known as “gelato withdrawal” I rely upon my dear and trusty DeLonghi GM6000 Home Gelato Maker. I have been making gelato with it not quite every day for many months now. It is a little loud but whips up a batch in 3o to 45 minutes and many of the best recipes (yogurt gelato, lemon sorbet, chocolate) require practically no preparation. It came with a very good basic recipe book, and for some reason is currently $250 instead of $400+ on Amazon. Also, Amazon allows you to subscribe to chocolate, I repeat, subscribe to chocolate, so fresh chocolate powder is delivered to your house for free on a periodic basis to restock your gelato-making needs. There is now no excuse for not having gelato.
Books are often hit-or-miss holiday gifts, since we all love them, but we all have a to-read list a mile long (I must state here the maxim: “Never give a book to a grad student if they didn’t request it.”) But just the right book can be just the right thing. This year my three book recommendations are the Unnecessarily Interesting Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, an astonishingly exciting and even more astonishingly true account of the life and adventures of the Renaissance goldsmith/sculptor/arms-master/duelist/murderer who should’ve been the protagonist of Assassins’ Creed III, and by far the most exciting account of an historical figure’s life I’ve ever read; my manga pick of the year which has to be the long-awaited release of Shigeru Mizuki’s classic Gegege no Kitaro, a post-WWII collection of classic Japanese oral tradition ghost stories framed around an adorably morbid little zombie boy, packed with folklore and second really only to Astro Boy in its seminal position in mid-20th-century manga (English release finally available for pre-order!); or, the meta-book gift ideal for any bibliophile already weighed down by too many books, Petrarch’s Four Dialogues for Scholars, featuring excerpts from his “Remedies against fortune” which advise the reader on how to avoid pride and hubris over owning a lot of books. That’s right, it’s a book about having too many books. Witty, delightful and bilingual, it is a quick and entertaining read, a rich and rewarding reread, and also features dialogues to prevent hubris if you have a graduate degree, multiple graduate degrees, or are a published author.
In DVD recommendations I prefer to focus on things you have likely not heard recommended elsewhere. Thus this year’s three pics are: The Secret of Kells, a gorgeous animated film based on the manuscript illuminations of the Book of Kells; the stunning and sadly under-publicized anime film Summer Wars, which is as beautiful, wholesome and delight-filled as a Miyazaki movie but with an action plot; and Borgia: Faith and Fear, by far the superior (and sadly the more obscure) of the two Borgia TV series that were produced last year. Like all recent over-dramatic historical TV series it makes sex and violence a centerpiece, but they’re the Borgias so it should be nasty, and it does a good job making the sex and violence feel authentically period, while also having the right combination of historical accuracy and storytelling to make it entertaining. We hope someday there will be a season 2.
Truffle butter. Truffle butter. Truffle butter. Eat the Truffle Butter. There are many kinds and I cannot say which is best since I haven’t tried them all, but it is out-of-this-world stuff. Have it on bread, or melt it over fresh pasta, or a white meat, like chicken. But pasta is always best.
Italian cold cuts are another treat which I mourn on returning to the New World. While many grocery stores in the US now carry prosciutto, pancetta and even bresaola, the delicacy I miss most intensely is the cured spiced lard which melts across your tongue like butter. Lardo Toscano or Lardo di Colonnata I have yet to reliably find, but a good Spanish Lardo can be ordered from Boccalone, and other good salumi from Murray’s cheese.
One of the most enthusiastically-received gifts I’ve ever given was “Professor Doctor Sweetie-Pie’s European Adventures”, a glossy photo book of my research travels which made my Mom bounce and cheer and which she has read over and over for many a moon. Many companies allow one to create these things, but I did mine through Shutterfly, and while they’re a little pricey they really can be a big hit.
Pants are an essential but oft-neglected clothing item, allowed to languish in boringness while shirts and jackets receive all the stylish decoration and superhero logos. I derive constant joy and frequent compliments from my habit of sewing decorative trim down the side seams of my jeans and other pants, making them with an hour’s effort into something distinctive and fun. The trims I use come from CelticTrims.com, and can also be added to all sorts of other simple things to make them excellent.
As a frequent flier, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could no longer carry a pocket cutting tool to open plastic packaging etc. without risk of confiscation. For others with the same problem, small round-tipped metal scissors like these are pretty-universally allowed on planes.
In the kitchen I continue to swear by my Leifheit Garlic Slicer and use it pretty-much every day to turn cloves of garlic into luscious quick-cooking petals of deliciousness.
For travel, I can also recommend a folding travel backpack like this one, which folds almost as small as a reusable compact shopping bag but is much more practical since it’s a backpack. I usually travel with one and stick it in my pocket when heading out to wander a town, so I can easily carry any shopping. It’s also useful for when one leaves with one bag but inevitably can’t fit new acquisitions into it for the return.
We are all drowning in eco-products, making it hard to tell which ones are actually useful. I have had several happy years now with my credit card cutlery, little flat plastic silverware that fits inside a credit card slot in your wallet, providing a fork and spoon/knife. I would estimate that in three years or so they have prevented me from using about thirty plastic forks, but more valuably, they have often provided me with a fork when one would otherwise not be available, and the spoon is firm enough to act as a slicing tool for cheese or fruit.
A trick I learned from my father when thinking of stocking stuffers is that one can often achieve smiles by returning to those items which were exciting when we were ten, and are still exciting even though grown-ups aren’t supposed to be excited by them anymore. For example, yes you can have little colorful umbrellas in your drinks every day, that’s what being a grown-up means! Also, remember those little capsules that you put in water and then there’s a colorful sponge that expands out of it shaped like a whale or a dinosaur? Well they’re still just as fun now as they were in the science museum gift shop when you were barely tall enough to peer over the display case.
Life without olive oil is not worth considering. Now that I no longer have access to Italy directly, I have been doing a survey of the best olive oils stocked in the US. For a basic one, even carried by some grocery stores, I have been very impressed by California Olive Ranch, which is now my new default oil. For something more extraordinary, The Olive Tap produces incredible infused oils and vinegars, and I can particuarly recommend their out-of-this-world Tangerine Balsamic (I am not a tangerine fan but this is the best thing to put on a salad I have ever, ever, ever tasted!), and their Blood Orange Olive Oil. For imported Italian oils I have enjoyed Ottavio Private Reserve, but can’t find a good online source.
And when in doubt, there are 10,000 things you want on ThinkGeek.com. Just don’t buy them all.