Posts Tagged ‘Florence’

Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

  • This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”
  • This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.
  • This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.
  • And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard.

I started writing this post a few weeks ago but rapidly discovered that a thorough answer will be book-length (the book’s now nearly done in fact).  What I’m sharing now is just a precis,  the parts I think you’ll find most useful now.  So sometimes I’ll make a claim without examples, or move quickly over important things, just linking to a book instead of explaining, because my explanation is approaching 100,000 words.  That book will come, and soon, but meanwhile please trust me as I give you just urgent parts, and I promise more will follow.

Now, to begin, the phrase “golden age” really invokes two different unrelated things:

(1) an era that achieved great things, art, science, innovation, literature, an era whose wondrous achievements later eras marvel at,

(2) a good era to live, prosperous, thriving, stable, reasonably safe, with chances for growth, social ascent, days when hard work pays off, in short an era which—if you had to be stranded in some other epoch of history—you’d be likely to choose.

The Renaissance fits the first—we line up to see its wonders in museums—but it absolutely positively no-way-no-how fit the second, and that’s a big part of where our understandings of Renaissance vs. Medieval go wrong.  So, our outline for today:

  1. Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)
  2. Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)
  3. Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)
  4. Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance
Leading my study abroad Florence students on our THIRD Uffizi visit.

It’s also important to begin this knowing that I love the Renaissance, I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to studying it if I didn’t, it’s an amazing era.  I disagree 100% with people who follow “The Middle Ages weren’t really a Dark Age!” with “The Renaissance sucks, no one should care about it!”  The Renaissance was amazing, equally amazing as the Middle Ages, or antiquity, or now.  I don’t love the Renaissance for being perfect.  I love it because it was terrible yet still achieved so much.  I love it because, when I read a letter where a woman talks of a nearby city burning, and armies approaching, and a friend who just died of the plague, and letter also talks about ideas for how to remedy these evils, and Xenophon’s advice for times of war, and how Plato and Seneca differ in their advice on patience, and the marvelous new fresco that’s been finished in the city hall.  To find these voices of people who faced all that yet still came through it brimming with ideas and making art, that makes me love the human species all the more.  And gives me hope.

In Florence, there are little kiosks near the David where you can buy replicas of it, and alongside the plain ones they have copies dipped in glitter paint, so the details of Michelangelo’s design are all obscured with globs of sparkling goo.  That’s what the golden age myth does to the Renaissance.  So when I say the Renaissance was grim and horrible, I’m not saying we shouldn’t study it it, I just want you to scrape off the glitter paint and see the details underneath: damaged, imperfect, a strange mix of ancient and new, doing its best to compensate for flaws in the material and mistakes made early on when teamwork failed, and violent too—David is, after all, about to kill an enemy, a celebration of a conquest, not a peace.  Glitter drowns all that out, and this is why, while the myth of the golden Renaissance does terrible damage to how we understand the Middle Ages, it does just as much damage to how we understand the Renaissance.  So let’s take a quick peek beneath the glitter, and then, more important, let’s talk about where that suffocating glitter comes from in the first place.

Part 1: Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-condensed version)

The Renaissance was like Voldemort, terrible, but great.

On February 25th 1506, Ercole Bentivoglio, commander of Florence’s armies, wrote to Machiavelli.  He had just read Machiavelli’s Deccenale primo, a history in verse of the events of the last decade. Bentivoglio urged Machiavelli to continue and expand the history, not for them, but for future generations, so that:

“knowing our wretched fortune in these times, they should not blame us for being bad defenders of Italic honor, and so they can weep with us over our and their misfortune, knowing from what a happy state we fell within brief time into such disaster.  For if they did not see this history, they would not believe what prosperity Italy had before, since it would seem impossible that in so few days our affairs could fall to such great ruin.”

Of these days of precipitous ruin, Burkhardt, founder of modern Renaissance studies, wrote in 1869:

“The first decades of the sixteenth century, the years when the Renaissance attained its fullest bloom, were not favorable to a revival of patriotism; the enjoyment of intellectual and artistic pleasures, the comforts and elegancies of life, and the supreme interests of self-development, destroyed or hampered love of country.” (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, end of Part 1)

Burkhardt seems to be describing a different universe from Bentivoglio, so desperate to prove to posterity that he tried his failing best to defend his homeland’s honor.  Yet this was the decade that produced Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Bramante’s design for the new St. Peter’s Basilica, Josquin des Prez’s El grillo (the Cricket), the first chapters of Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso, and Castiglione’s first courtly works at the court of Urbino, soon to be immortalized in the Courtier as the supreme portrait of Renaissance culture.  These masterworks do indeed seem to project a world of enjoyment and artistic pleasure in utter disconnect with Bentivoglio’s despair.  Can this be the same Renaissance?

This double vision is authentic to the sources.  If we read treatises, orations, dedicatory prefaces, writings on art or courtly conduct, and especially if we read works written about this period a few decades later—like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists which will be the first to call this age a rinascita—we see what Johan Burkhardt described, and what popular understandings of the Renaissance focus on: a self-conscious golden age bursting with culture, art, discovery, and vying with the ancients for the title of Europe’s most glorious age.  Burkhardt’s assessment was correct, if we look only at the sources he was looking at.  If instead we read the private letters which flew back and forth between Machiavelli and his correspondents we see terror, invasion, plague deaths, a desperate man scrambling to even keep track of the ever-moving threats which hem his fragile homeland in from every side, as friends and family beg for frequent letters, since every patch of silence makes them fear the loved one might be dead.

Published lament for the assassination of one of the Dukes of Milan – not the same murders Ercole’s parents were directly involved with, but a cousin, and another link in the long and bloody chain.

Machiavelli’s correspondent, Ercole Bentivoglio, typifies the tangled political web which shaped these years.  His father had been Sante Bentivoglio, who began as a blacksmith’s son and common laborer but was identified as an illegitimate member of the Bentivoglio family that dominated Bologna (remember Gendry in Game of Thrones?), so Sante was called to rule Bologna for a while when the only other adult Bentivoglio was murdered in an ambush, and young Ercole grew up in a quasi-princely court with all the grandeur we now visit in museums.  Ercole’s mother was Ginevra Sforza, an illegitimate niece of Francesco Sforza who had recently conquered Milan, replacing the earlier Visconti dukes who had in turn seized the throne by treachery fifty-five years before.  Renaissance politics isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s murders and betrayals all the way down.

Why was life in the Renaissance so bad?  This is going to be a tiny compressed version of what in the book will be 100 pages, but for now I’ll focus on why the Renaissance was not a golden age to actually live in, even if it was a golden age in terms of what it left behind.

Let’s look at life expectancy:  In Italy, average life expectancies in the solidly Medieval 1200s were 35-40, while by the year 1500 (definitely Renaissance) life expectancy in Italian city states had dropped to 18.

Images of swaddled infants, from the Innocenti foundling hospital in Florence

It’s striking how consistently, when I use these numbers live, the shocked and mournful silence is followed by a guy objecting: those numbers are deceptive, you’re including infant mortality—voiced as if this observation should discredit them.  Yes, the average of 18 does include infant mortality, but the Medieval average of 35 includes it too, so the drop is just as real.  If you want we can exclude those who die before age 12, and we do get a smaller total drop then, average age of death 54 in the 1200s dropping to 45-48 in 1500, so only a 12-16% drop instead of 48%, but the more we zoom the grimmer the Renaissance half proves.  Infant mortality (within 12 months) averaged 28% both before and after 1348, so the big drop from Medieval to Renaissance Italy is actually kids who made it past the first year, only to die in years 2-12 from new diseases.  We also think of the dangers of childbirth as lowering women’s lifespans, but death from childbirth stayed steady from Medieval to Renaissance at (for Tuscany) 1 death per 40 births, while the increase in war and violence made adult male mortality far higher than female even with the childbirth threat.  If we look at the 20% of people who lived longest in Renaissance Italy it’s almost entirely widows and nuns, plus a few diehards like Titian, and poor exiled Cardinal da Costa of Portugal languishing in Rome to the age of 102, with everyone he’d known in the first 2/3rds of his life long gone.  Kids died more in the Renaissance, adults died more, men died more, we have the numbers, but I find it telling how often people who hear these numbers try to discredit them, search for a loophole, because these facts rub against our expectations.  We didn’t want a wretched golden age. (Demographics are, of course, an average, and different bits of Europe varied, but I’m using the numbers for the big Italian city-states precisely because they’re the bit of Europe we most associate with the golden Renaissance, so if it’s true there, it’s true of the Renaissance you were imagining.)

Why did life expectancy drop?  Counter-intuitively the answer is, largely, progress.

Look what we can make now! A pistol that shoots nine random directions at once! (Bargello museum)

War got worse, for one.  Over several centuries, innovations in statecraft and policy (which would continue gradually for centuries more) had increased the centralization of power in the hands of kings and governments, especially their ability to gather funds, which meant they could raise larger armies and have larger, bloodier wars.  Innovations in metallurgy, chemistry, and engineering also made soldiers deadlier, with more artillery, more lethal weapons, more ability to knock a town’s walls down and kill everyone inside, new daggers designed to leave wounds that would fester, or anti-personnel artillery designed to slice a line of men in half.  Thus, while both the Middle Ages and Renaissance had lots of wars, Renaissance wars were larger and deadlier, involving more troops and claiming more lives, military and civilian—this wasn’t a sudden change, it was a gradual one, but it made a difference.

Economic growth also made the life expectancy go down.  Europe was becoming more interconnected, trade increasing.  This was partly due to innovations in banking (which had started in the 1100s), and partly, yes, the aftermath of the Black Death which caused a lot of economic change—not growth but change—some sectors growing, others shrinking, people moving around, people trying to stop people from moving around, markets shifting.  There were also innovations in insurance, for example insuring your cargo ship so if it sinks you don’t go bankrupt like our Merchant of Venice.  This meant more multi-region trade. For example, weaving wool into fine-quality non-itchy thread required a lot of oil, without which you could only make coarse, itchy thread.  England produced lots of wool but no oil (except walnuts), so, in the Renaissance, entrepreneurs from England, instead of spinning low-profit itchy wool, started exporting their wool to Italy where abundant olive oil made it cheap to produce high-quality cloth and re-export it to England and elsewhere.  This let merchants grow rich, prosperity for some, but when people move around more, diseases move more too.  Cities were also growing denser, more manufacturing jobs and urban employment drawing people to crowd inside tight city walls, and urban spaces always have higher mortality rates than rural.  Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, deadly influenza, measles, the classic pox, these old constants of Medieval life grew fiercer in the Renaissance, with more frequent outbreaks claiming more lives.

The Black Death contributed too—in school they talk as if the plague swept through in 1348 then went away, but the bubonic plague did not go away, it remained endemic, like influenza or chickenpox today, a fact of life.  I have never read a full set of Renaissance letters which didn’t mention plague outbreaks and plague deaths, and Renaissance letters from mothers to their traveling sons regularly include, along with advice on etiquette and eating enough fennel, a list of which towns to avoid this season because there’s plague there.  Carlo Cipolla (in the fascinating yet tediously titled Before the Industrial Revolution) collected great data for the two centuries after 1348, in which Venice had major plague bursts 7% of years, Florence 14% of years, Paris 9% of years, Barcelona 13% of years, and England (usually London) 22% in the earlier period spiking to 50% in the later 1500s, when England saw plague in 26 out of 50 years between 1543 and 1593.  Excluding tiny villages with little traffic, losing a friend or sibling to plague was a universal experience from 1348 clear to the 1720s, when plague finally diminished in Europe, not because of any advance in medicine, but because fourteen generations of exposure gave natural selection time to work, those who survived to reproduce passing on a heightened immune response, a defensive adaptation bought over centuries by millions of deaths.

The real villain: Y. Pestis, the bacterium that causes plague

Today thousands of cases of Y. pestis (the plague bacterium) still occur each year, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia where it was not endemic so immunities didn’t develop.  And if geneticist Mihai Netea is correct that the immune mutation which helps those of European descent resist Y. pestis also causes our greater rate of autoimmune disorders, then the Black Death is still constantly claiming lives through the changes it worked into European DNA over 400 years (and literally causing me pain as I type this, as my own autoimmune condition flares).  While the 1348 pandemic was Medieval, most of the Middle Ages did not have the plague—it’s the Renaissance which has the plague every single day as an apocalyptic lived reality.

Economic growth also made non-military violence worse.  Feuds (think Montagues and Capulets) were a Medieval constant, but the body count of a feud depends a lot on how wealthy the head families are, since the greater their wealth and the larger their patronage network, the larger the crowd of goons on stage in the opening scene of Romeo & Juliet when partisans of the two factions are biting their thumbs at each other, and the larger the number of unnamed men who also get killed in the background while Romeo fights Tybalt.  In Italy especially, new avenues for economic growth (banking and mercenary work) quickly made families grow wealthy enough to raise forces far larger than the governments of their little city states, which made states powerless to stop the violence, and vulnerable to frequent, bloody coups.  The Bentivoglios of Bologna and Sforza of Milan (whose marriage alliance produced Ercole who wrote that letter to Machiavelli) had risen by force, ruled by force, and were in turn overthrown by force, several times each, in fact, as rulers were killed, then avenged by returning sons or nephews, and cities flip-flopped between rival dynasties every few years:

Look what happens with the Dukes of Urbino 1440s-1530s

In the 1400s most cities in Italy saw at least four violent regime changes, some of them as many as ten or twelve, commixed with bloody civil wars and factional massacres, until all Italy’s ruling houses were so new that the Knights Hospitaller—who normally required knights to have been noble four generations to join—let Italians in with only two generations because otherwise there would have been no one.  Petrarch talked about this in his poem Italia Mia, which we think was written by 1347 (i.e. before the Black Death); he described Italy’s flesh covered with mortal wounds, caused by “cruel wars for light causes, and hearts, hardened and closed/ by proud, fierce Mars,” and his poor poem begging Italy’s proud, hard-hearted people for, “Peace, peace, peace.”  It sounds just like what Ercole described to Machiavelli, doesn’t it?   Well, Petrarch’s poem is as far from Machiavelli’s history as Napoleon’s rise from Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, a long time during which the wars grew worse, armies bigger, cities richer, plagues more frequent, steady escalation of the same things Petrarch feared would wipe out Italy 150 years before.

Important: none of this was new in the Renaissance!  These were all gradual developments: banking, trade, centralization, the cultural produce of the Renaissance too (paintings, cathedrals, music, epics), these had all been gradually ramping up for centuries, changing the character of Europe decade by decade.  Banking innovations started in the 1100s, insurance innovations in the 1300s, economic shifts before as well as after 1348, political shifts accumulated centuries, it’s all incremental. Thus, when I try to articulate the real difference between Renaissance and Medieval, I find myself thinking of the humorous story “Ever-So-Much-More-So” from Centerburg Tales (1951).  A traveling peddler comes to town selling a powder called Ever-So-Much-More-So.  If you sprinkle it on something, it enhances all its qualities good and bad.  Sprinkle it on a comfy mattress and you get mattress paradise, but if it had a squeaky spring you’ll never sleep again for the noise.  Sprinkle it on a radio and you’ll get better reception, but agonizing squeals when signal flares.  Sprinkle it on the Middle Ages and you get the Renaissance.  All key qualities were already there, good things as well as bad, poetry, art, currents of trade, thought, finance, law, and statecraft changing year by year, but add some Ever-So-Much-More-So and the intensity increases, birthing an era great and terrible.  Many different changes reinforced each other, all in continuity with what came before, just higher magnitude, the fat end of a wedge of cheese, but it’s the same cheese on the thin end too.  The line we draw—our slice across the cheese—we started drawing because people living in the Renaissance started to draw it, felt it was different, claimed it was different, and their claims reordered the way we think about history.

Some more quick un-fun facets of Renaissance life: while the Medieval Inquisition started in 1184, it didn’t ramp up its book burnings, censorship, and executions to a massive scale until the Spanish Inquisition in the 1470s and then the printing press and Martin Luther in the 1500s (Renaissance); similarly witchcraft persecution surges to scales unseen in the Middle Ages after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 (Renaissance); and the variety of ingenious tortures being used in prisons increased, rather than decreasing, over time.  Rule of thumb: most of the scary practices we think of as “Medieval” were either equally true of the Renaissance, worse in the Renaissance, or only started in the Renaissance. If you want corrupt popes, they too can be more terrible as they get richer. And pre-sanitation, the more luxury goods traveled, the more people grew wealthy, the wider the variety of food people ate, and with more kinds of foods came more different kinds of parasites living in your intestines eating your from the inside out, hooray!  Even in the Middle Ages we can tell your social class from the variety of parasite eggs in your preserved feces (the more you know!), but in the Renaissance the total could go up, and the frequency and intensity of chronic pain with it (not to mention a wider variety of horrible toxic things doctors would try to feed you as a cure; before sanitation more doctors = bad, not good).

In sum, if you’re a time traveler and you’re being banished, don’t pick the Renaissance.

Florence’s Gates of Paradise

As for how an age so terrible to live through produced the masterpieces and innovations we still hold in awe, my ultrashort answer is that Renaissance art and culture was also a gradual ramp-up from ever-changing Medieval art and culture, and that the leaps we seem to see in the later period are the desperate measures of a desperate time.

Legitimacy is a key concept here.  The secret we all know is that governments, countries, laws, they’re all just a bunch of stuff we made up.  They exist only as long as we all keep agreeing they exist, and act accordingly.  Far more than Tinkerbell, regimes and governments need us to believe in them or they die.  Sometimes this death takes the form of people just ignoring old structures, like in the Hellenic age when a remote Greek colony might hear from the founding city so infrequently that it starts ignoring the empire and just makes its own government.  A more common consequence when people stop believing in governments is that some rival will take advantage of that lack of confidence, and rise up to claim power instead, whether through an electoral primary challenge or a bloody civil war.

For this reason, regimes to work hard to gain legitimacy, that is to acquire any and all things that make people agree the regime is real, and has the right to rule.  When a usurper murders the old king but marries his widow, sister, or daughter, that’s an attempt to secure legitimacy in a world where people are used to government going with blood right.  When no local royal-blood bride is available, the usurper might instead marry a princess from a famous distant kingdom, and fill his court with expensive, exotic treasures and other indications that he’s connected to foreign powers and money—this is another bid at legitimacy since it implies the new ruler has strong allies and the means to bring prosperity and trade. There are lots of other ways to project legitimacy: getting trusted local elites to work for you, getting religious leaders to bless you, publishing your pedigree (fake or real) with mighty ancestors, cracking down on crime and having showy trials, paying an astrologer to circulate your horoscope with great predictions, mounting a big parade, building an equestrian statue of yourself in the square that everyone walks past, receiving ambassadors in a showy way so everyone sees how much foreign powers honor you, repairing bridges and caring for orphans so people talk about your generosity and virtue, even a modern city funding a zoo and orchestra and art museum is that city projecting legitimacy with the trappings we associated with cultured power.  When a regime has lots of sources of legitimacy, it makes people more willing to go along with that regime continuing.  Some sources of legitimacy tie into a culture’s traditional ideas about what makes power lawful (religion, heredity, virtue, particular values), while other sources of legitimacy, like a collection of exotic animals or a fancy palace, just impress people, and make them feel that life under this regime will probably be good, and that overthrowing it would probably be difficult if it has money to throw away on palaces and elephants.

Medieval illumination of a king sitting on a throne with a crown being placed on his head by two robed bishops.
Here’s Henry III of England depicted receiving the crown from two very legitimate bishops. In Richard III Shakespeare has Richard arrange to be found at prayer standing between two priests when he’s trying to convince the people to make him king — a classic bid for legitimacy which Shakespeare knows is often insincere.

Thus the radical oversimplification is that, when times get desperate, those in power pour money into art, architecture, grandeur, even science, because such things can provide legitimacy and thus aid stability.  Intimidating palaces, grand oratory, epics about the great deeds of a conqueror, expensive tutors so the prince and princess have rare skills like Greek and music, even a chemical treatise whose dedication praises the Duke of Such-and-such, these were all investments in legitimacy, not fruits of peace but symptoms of a desperate time.  In an era when a book cost as much as a house (it really did!), and Florence’s Laurenziana library cost more per GDP than the Moon Landing, you don’t get that level of investment unless elites think they’re going to get something out of it.  Just as today giant corporations fund charities or space tech because they get something out of it, publicity raising their stock prices, so a mighty merchant family might repair a church or build a grand public square and put their coat of arms on it, drawing investment and intimidating rivals.

Don’t YOU want a trade deal with the people who can build THAT?

Culture is a form of political competition—if war is politics by other means, culture is too, but lower risk.  This too happened throughout the Middle Ages, but the Renaissance was ever-so-much-more-so in comparison, and whenever you get a combination of (A) increasing wealth and (B) increasing instability, that’s a recipe for (C) increasing art and innovation, not because people are at peace and have the leisure to do art, but because they’re desperate after three consecutive civil wars and hope they can avoid a fourth one if they can shore up the regime with a display of cultural grandeur.  The fruits fill our museums and libraries, but they aren’t relics of an age of prosperous peace, they’re relics of a lived experience which was, as I said, terrible but great.

All this I’ll explore further in the book, but if you want more info in the meantime you can get an excellent overview of the period in Guido Ruggiero’s The Renaissance in Italy, and a look at how this fed philosophical innovation and birthed Renaissance humanism in James Hankins’s Virtue Politics.  For today, though, our goal isn’t to look deeply at the David, it’s to look at the glitter we just scraped off it, and to understand where that glitter comes from.

Part 2: Where did the Myth Come From in the First Place? (A Renaissance Story)

The moment when all Medievalists *facepalm*

Whenever I’m with Medievalists and the subject turns to one of the bad things people say about the Middle Ages (dark age, backwards, superstitious, stagnant, oppressive, enemy of progress, all homogenous), I make a point of speaking up and saying, “Yeah, that’s my guys’s fault.  Sorry.”  It was a joke the first time, and it’s still half a joke, but I keep doing it because there’s this special smile under the resulting chuckle, this pause, warming, affirming, on the Medievalist’s face that says: I’ve always felt I deserved an apology from the Renaissance!  Thank you!

Because the beginning of the problem was the Renaissance’s fault.

Pretty-much every culture, when it tells its history, divides it into parts somehow (reigns, eras, dynasties).  These labels may not seem like a big deal, but they have a huge effect on how we imagine things.  Think of how the discourse about boomers vs. Gen-X vs. millennials affects people’s self-identities, who associates with whom, and the kinds of discourse we can have with those terms that we couldn’t have with different ones.  The lines and labels in our history are powerful.  In my Terra Ignota science fiction novels I mention that the people in my 25th century society debate whether World War I ended in 1945 or 1989, and it always blows readers’ minds for a few seconds, and then follows the reflection: yeah, I could see WWI and WWII being considered one thing, like the Wars of the Roses.  My first exposure to the way this makes your brain go *whfoooo* was as a kid and hearing Eugen Weber provocatively call WWI and WWII “The Second Thirty Years War”.  Feels weird, right?  Weird-powerful.

Interesting choices made in this timeline of where to divide this timeline. Many other choices could be made. Google for “European History Timeline” and you’ll find dozens.
Modern illustration of a Medieval mystery play, enacting battles between good and evil for the audience’s moral edification – just like history.

People living in the European and Mediterranean Middle Ages generally (oversimplification) divided history into two parts, BC and AD, before the birth of Jesus and after.  For finer grain, you used reigns of emperors or kings, or special era names from your own region, i.e. before or after a particular event, rise, reign, or fall.  There was also a range of traditions subdividing further, such as Augustine’s six ages of the world which divided up biblical eras (Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, etc.), though most of those subdivisions are pre-historical, without further subdivision post Christ’s Incarnation.  The Middle Ages also had a sense of the Roman Empire as a phase in history, but it was tied in with the BC-to-AD tradition, and with ideas of Providence and a divine Plan.  Rome had not only Christianized the Mediterranean and Europe through the conversion of Constantine c. 312 CE, but authors like Dante stressed how the Empire had been the legal authority which executed Christ, God’s tool in enacting the Plan, as vital to humanity’s salvation as the nails or the cross.  Additionally, many Medieval interpreters viewed history itself as a didactic tool, designed by God for human moral education (not the discipline of history, the actual events).  In this interpretation of history, God determined everything that happens, as the author of a story determines what happens.  The events of the past and life were like the edifying pageant plays one saw at festivals: God the Scriptwriter introduces characters in turn—a king, a fool, a villain, a saint—and as we see their fates we learn valuable lessons about fickle Fortune, hypocrisy, the retribution that awaits the wicked, and the rewards beyond the trials and sufferings of the good.  The Roman Empire had been sent onto the world’s stage just the same, a tool to teach humanity about power, authority, imperial majesty, law, justice, peace, offering a model of supreme power which people could use to imagine God’s power, and many other details excitedly explored by numerous Medieval interpreters.  (Many Renaissance interpreters still view history this way, and the first who really doesn’t do it at all is Machiavelli.)

The two people most directly responsible for inventing the Middle Ages are two men from Tuscany: Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444).

Fresco of Petrarch

Petrarch was the first person to talk about the era after the Roman empire as a separate, bad period of shadow, misery, darkness, and decay.  Petrarch gained his fame with his Italian poetry, and popularized the sonnet (though we have a long time still to wait for Shakespeare), but later in his life he was part of a circle of Italian scholars who loved, loved, loved, loved Cicero, and read his political works intensively as they thought about questions of republicanism and statecraft.  Petrarch described himself as having been born in exile.  He was born in exile in space quite literally, while his parents were in banishment, and he grew up in Avignon in the period the papacy was there in French control.  But he also considered himself an exile in time, exiled from that community of antiquity which was the true home of his spirit.  I already quoted his lament Italia Mia, and his sense of the degeneration of his era was enhanced by the feeling that France’s control of the papacy had ravaged and spoiled Rome and Italy.  He also lived through the Black Death, and lost almost all his scholar-friends in it.  Two surviving friends wrote to him after the main wave had passed to plan a precious reunion—they were attacked by bandits on the way, and one murdered, while the other escaped but was missing for many months.  You can understand why Petrarch, reading of the Pax Romana when the ancient texts claim you could walk in safety from one end of Rome’s empire to the other, might see his age as one of ash and shadow.  He projected that ash and shadow back on everything since Rome, lumping together for the first time the long sequence we now refer to as the Middle Ages.

Fresco depiction of young Cicero reading in his Roman home; raising the next generation of Italy’s rulers the same way was Petrarch’s plan to save Italy and Europe from an age of ash and shadow.

Petrarch, importantly, did not claim his era was already a golden age, nor did he use the word Renaissance; he claimed his era needed to have a transformation, that desperate times called for desperate measures, and that if Italy was to have any hope of healing it must look to its ancient past, to Rome, the Pax Romana, that dream age when there were no bandits on the road or pirates in the sea.  The lost arts that nurtured the age of Emperors were languishing in ancient tomes waiting to be restored if only people reached for them.  We know the Renaissance as the era that revived a lot of lost Roman technologies, geometry, engineering, large-scale bronze work, and those were important, but what Petrarch really thought would change things were people, intellectual technologies, not science or engineering tools.  Petrarch wanted the library that educated Cicero, and Seneca, and Caesar.  When we today look at ancient Rome we’re often struck most by the wicked Emperors, Caligula, Nero, the anecdotes of decadent corruption, but Petrarch instead saw the republican Brutus, who executed his own sons when they conspired to take over the state—in a world where city after city was falling to monarchal coups, and Lord Montague was used to using his great influence to make the Prince let Romeo get away with murder, the thought of Brutus putting Rome before his family felt like a miracle.  (Unhelpfully, Petrarch didn’t write a single clear treatise where he spelled this out, but if you want a sample try his letters and invectives, or for the mega-thorough scholarly version see James Hankins’ Virtue Politics).

Important: even using antiquity wasn’t new in the Renaissance.  Medieval people had been reading Seneca, and Cicero, and Virgil the whole time, and imitating and reusing ancient stuff, they just used the classics differently from how Petrarch did, just as the classics are also used differently in the 17th century, and the 19th century, and today. There were some major innovations in Renaissance engagement with the classics (several stages of innovation in fact), that differentiate them from Medieval, but those are complexities for another day.

Stunning portrait face of Leonardo Bruni, from his tomb in Santa Croce.

Leonardo Bruni was the next step.  He was child when Petrarch died, and grew up in the era of heady excitement of trying to use classical education to create the golden age Petrarch proposed.  Bruni studied Latin with a focus (as Petrarch encouraged) on imitating ancient Latin instead of Medieval Latin whose grammar and vocabulary had evolved (as any language does) over the centuries.  Bruni served as Chancellor of Florence, and imitated ancient Roman historians in writing his History of the Florentine People, which for the first time formally divided history into three parts: ancient, middle, and modern, which we now call Renaissance.  He also filled his history with analysis and deep interpretation, which many Renaissance scholars will tell you was the first modern history, the first history of a post-classical time/place, and the first truly analytic history written since antiquity, and then Medievalists will scream at them and pile up examples of Medieval chronicles full of framing and moral analysis, which absolutely are doing sophisticated interpretive work, and vary enormously from each other, but Bruni’s is recognizably as different.  Why?  Largely because Bruni actively wanted his history to seem innovative and different, and wrote with that as a goal, in a new kind of Latin, with new structure, setting out to make something everyone would look at and say: Wow, it’s like what the Romans did!

Illuminated manuscript of a French translation of Bruni’s history; every court had to have it, and make one of their own.

With Bruni we had three periods—ancient, medieval, and the new age.  That new age wasn’t called rinascita until Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550 (more than a century after Bruni) and renaissance proper was coined by Jules Michelet in 1855, but Bruni’s idea of three periods, and that this new one could be a golden age, caught on quickly because of its potential for… (da da da daaa!) …legitimacy!  Back then, as now, claiming that you’re the start of a new golden age is an ideal way to make your (teetering, illegitimate) regime seem exciting, full of momentum, glorious.  History-writing modeled on Bruni quickly became all the rage, and you could awe people with a history of how great your city/people/family is, get them excited about a golden age, make yourself seem legitimate.  And Bruni’s history writing had another power too.

One set of events Bruni described in his Florentine History were the conquests of Gian Galeazzo Visconti the “Viper of Milan” (1351-1402), a man who lived up in every way to his badass family crest of a serpent swallowing a helpless little dude. After ambushing and supplanting his uncle, the Viper seized Milan (bribing appropriate powers to make him duke), then took Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and tried for all of northern Italy including Bologna and Florence, securing a great victory at the Battle of Casalecchio in 1402.  But then (according to Bruni) brilliant Florentine cunning arranged the would-be conqueror’s defeat and downfall.  When Bruni’s history circulated in 1444, the Viper’s grandson Duke Filippo Maria Visconti did a spit take: “What the?!  We didn’t lose that war!  Granddad dropped dead of a f*ing fever and the troops had to go home!  The Florentines never beat us in a single battle!  They can’t say won the war!”  They can.  They did.

It turns out history isn’t written by the winners; history is written by the people who write histories.

So, what are you going to do about it, grandson of the Viper of Milan?  There’s only one thing to do: hire one of these new classically-educated humanisty types to write a history of your city and your family framed your way, and replacing the murdered-his-uncle bribed-the-king totally-illegitimate conquest-by-force narrative with a glorious lineage that constantly kicked Florence’s ass!!  That’s what he did—that’s what everybody did, Milan, Venice, France, England, Hungary, Naples; everybody had to have a history, and all the histories claimed there had been a bad middle age, that it was over, and that we were now in the glorious classical-revival-powered new age which had the potential to surpass it thanks to the virtues and glories of [Insert Prince Here].  This is why, up in England, baby King Henry VI’s uncle Duke Humphrey of Gloucester tried to hire Leonardo Bruni to come to England and work for him, and write a history that would shore up the tenuous Lancastrian claim to the throne (we’re entering the Wars of the Roses here).  And this is why, while Bruni stayed in Florence, another major Florentine figure Poggio Bracciolini actually was lured by the high pay to go to England and work for Humphrey’s rival Cardinal Beaufort.  And all these histories pick and choose details to make the current regime/ruler look great and legitimate, at the expense of making the newly-invented middle age look bad.

No no no no, please, just no…

This is why all Medievalists, deep down inside, know they deserve an apology from the Renaissance.

One attempt at a solution is dropping the term Renaissance, but that doesn’t actually solve the problem, since it leaves us with antiquity and a period from then to… what?  Is the dividing line the Enlightenment?  Industrialization?  Colonialism?  The Industrial Revolution?  The Agricultural Revolution?  The French Revolution?  WWI?  No matter how late you push the line, any of these divisions is still accepting Bruni’s ancient-middle-modern division, and involves making a claim about what begins the modern.  Normal parlance in history now is “early modern” which begins with [insert-scholarly-squabble-here] and ends roughly with the French Revolution, which is generally agreed to kick off “modern” proper.  While “early modern” does avoid accepting claim that the Middle Ages were bad and needed a rebirth, and I use it myself, I also think it’s a dreadful term, since (A) it’s confusing (“early modern” sounds like the Crystal Palace, not Shakespeare’s Globe), and (B) the term actively worsens the degree to which your selected start date is a judgment call about what makes us modern.  Because the real problem with the myth of the bad Middle Ages versus golden Renaissance is not what Petrarch and Bruni created within the Renaissance itself—it’s what happened later to entangle both terms with an equally problematic third term: modern.

Part 3: Why is the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age Retold so Much? (a post-Renaissance story)

The thing about golden ages—and this is precisely what Petrarch and Bruni tapped into—is that they’re incredibly useful to later regimes and peoples who want to make glorifying claims about themselves.  If you present yourself, your movement, your epoch, as similar to a golden age, as the return of a golden age, as the successor to a golden age, those claims are immensely effective in making you seem important, powerful, trustworthy.  Legitimate.

In sum, one of the most powerful tools for legitimacy is invoking a past golden age.  Under my rule we will be great like X was great!  Whether it’s a giant golden age (Rooooome!) or a tiny golden age (the US 1950s!), if you can claim to be bringing it back, you can make a very clear, appealing case for why you should have power.  This claim can be made by a king, a duke, a ruling council, a political party, an individual, or a whole movement.  It can be made explicitly in rhetoric (I am the new Napoleon!) or implicitly by borrowing the decorative motifs, vocabulary, and trappings of an era.  An investment banking service that uses a Roman coin profile as its logo, names its different mutual funds after Roman legions, and has a pediment and columns on its corporate headquarters is trying to project legitimacy from the idea of antiquity as a golden age of power and stability.

The newborn United States of America when it decided to make the Washington Monument be a giant obelisk, that was another bid at legitimacy and projecting power by invoking the golden ages of ancient Egypt and conquering Rome, combined in the Washington Monument’s case with other things like, instead of the traditional gold tip on top, using high-tech more-expensive-than-gold aluminum, mixing golden age with power claims about wealth and science.

So…

Painting of the Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, by Willem van Haecht, 1628

…because the Renaissance had called itself a golden age, by the 17th century it had joined the list of epochs that you can invoke to gain legitimacy, and has been invoked that way many times.  This is why 18th and especially 19th and earlier 20th century governments and elites raced to buy up Italian Renaissance art treasures and display them in their homes and museums.  This is why Mussolini, while he mostly invoked imperial Rome, used the Renaissance too, and even made special arrangements to meet Hitler inside the Vasari Corridor in Florence to show off the art treasures of the Uffizi.  And this is why the US Library of Congress building is painted all over inside with imitations of Renaissance classicizing frescos and allegorical figures in Renaissance style even though the quotations they include and values they celebrate are largely not Renaissance.

Mussolini takes Hitler on a tour of the Uffizi

One consequence of golden ages being so powerful is that powers squabble over them: “I’m the true successor of [XXX]!”  “No, I’m the true successor!”  You see this in the fascinating modern day dispute over the name Macedonia in which both Greece and the country now called North Macedonia both want to be seen as the land of Alexander the Great, and argued over the name tooth and nail, dragging in both the UN and NATO.  Since golden ages are mythical constructions (the events are real but the golden age-ness is mythmaking) they’re easy to redefine to serve claims of true successor status—all you have to do is claim that the true heart that made the golden age great was X, and the true spirit of X flourishes most in you.  Any place (past or present) that calls itself a new Jerusalem, new Rome, or new Athens is doing this, usually accompanied by a narrative about how the original has been ruined by something: “Greece today is stifled by [insert flaw here: conquest, superstition, socialism, lack of socialism, a backwards Church, whatever], but the true spirit of Plato, Socrates and the Examined Life flourish in [Whateverplace]!”

Brutus or Caesar, you can pick either one!

Ancient Rome is particularly easy to use this way because Rome had several phases (republic, empire, Christian Rome) so if some rival has done a great job declaring itself the New Roman Empire you can follow up by saying the Empire was the corrupt decadent period and the Roman Republic was the true Rome!  Simply quote Cicero and talk about wicked emperors and you can appropriate the good Rome and characterize your rivals as the bad Rome.  If republic, empire, and Christian Rome are all claimed, you can do something more creative like the 19th century romantic movement which claimed the archaic pastoral Rome of Virgil’s Georgics, replacing pediments and legionary eagles with garlands and shepherds and claiming a mythic golden age no one had been using lately.

The same is true of claiming Renaissance.  If you can make a claim about what made the Renaissance a golden age, and claim that you are the true successor of that feature of the Renaissance, then you can claim the Renaissance as a whole.  This is made easier by the fact that “the Renaissance” is incredibly vague.  When did it start? 1400? 1350? 1500? 1250? 1550? 1348? When did it end? 1600? 1650? 1700?  You can find all these dates if you dig through books about “the Renaissance” written in different countries and different fields (art history, literary history).  I pointed out that Petrarch’s Italia Mia is as far from Ercole’s Bentivoglio’s letter to Machiavelli as Napoleon’s rise from Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, but even at Machiavelli we’re still only half-way through the large, vague period that different people label Renaissance.  On my own university campus, if I drop by different departments and ask colleagues when Renaissance begins, I get 1200 or 1250 from the Italian lit department (some of whom say Machiavelli is already “modern”), but in the English building I might get 1450 or even 1500.  I think drawing a line after Black Death makes sense for Italy at least, or maybe at 1400, but there are plenty of counter-arguments, and people on campus who identify as Medievalists who study things later than some things I work on.  I think it’s great for Medieval and Renaissance to overlap, since I—looking mainly forward—ask different questions about someone like Petrarch from the questions my Medievalist colleagues ask.  The only “wrong” answer to where the line falls, in my opinion, is to believe there is a clear line.

And if we zoom into this long, vague period, when was the “high Renaissance” i.e. the best part, the most characteristic part?  If you ask a political scientist it’s usually the very early 1400s, when Bruni and other innovative political thinkers were writing; if you ask an art historian it’s the decades right after 1500 when ¾ of the Ninja Turtles overlapped; if you ask a theater scholar it’s Shakespeare who was born fully 200 years later than Bruni and his peers discussing politics.  It all depends on what you think defines the Renaissance, so if you have a different focus then different dates feel like periphery or core.

So, just as when we invoke Rome we can pick republican Rome, imperial Rome, pastoral Rome, Christian Rome, the conquering Rome of Julius Caesar or the peaceful Rome of the Pax Romana, similarly there are a huge range of Renaissances one can invoke: Bruni’s, Raphael’s, Machiavelli’s, Luther’s, Shakespeare’s.  But choosing your Renaissance is an especially potent question because of… (drumroll please)… the X-Factor.

Okay, deep breath.

Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett Version) with his pocket Petrarch

After the Renaissance, in the period vaguely from 1700 to 1850, everyone in Europe agreed the Renaissance had been a golden age of art, music, and literature specifically.  Any nation that wanted to be seen as powerful had to have a national gallery showing off Renaissance (mainly Italian) art treasures, and capital buildings with Renaissance neoclassical motifs, while an individual with elite ambitions had to know classicizing Latin, and a bit of Greek, and have opinions about Raphael, Titian, Petrarch, and the polyphonic motets of Lassus.  Seriously: in the original Doyle Holmes stories, so 1850-1910, after having Watson establish Holmes’s “Knowledge of literature—nil. Philosophy—nil.” still has Holmes carry a pocket Petrarch and write a monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus, because that’s what a smart, impressive person did in 1850.   This also meant that Renaissance art treasures were protected and preserved more than Medieval ones—if you’re valorizing the Renaissance you’re usually criticizing the Middle Ages in contrast, so these generations learned to think of Renaissance art as good taste and the periods on both sides (Medieval and baroque) as bad taste, and a lot of great Medieval art was left to gather dust, or rot, or was even actively destroyed, since nothing invokes the Renaissance like sweeping away the “bad” medieval.  As a result, the Renaissance became a self-fulfilling source base: go to a museum today and you see much more splendid Renaissance art than Medieval, leading to the natural conclusion that the Renaissance produced more art in general, but Middle Ages did make splendid art, it’s just that later centuries didn’t preserve it as carefully, so less survives, and what survives is more likely to be in storage than in the main gallery.

The transition from people being excited about Renaissance art and culture to being excited about the Renaissance as an era came in the mid-1800s, primarily with the work of Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt, and his 1869 The Civilization of the Renaissance in ItalyIt’s a gorgeous read, unskimmably rich prose, and Burkhardt’s work was a major breakthrough moment for the practice of history as a whole, because he showed how you could write a history, not of a country or a person, but of a culture, discussing the practices and ideas of an era, examining art and artists side-by-side with authors, soldiers, and statesmen as examples of people of a period and the way they thought, acted, and lived.  The book pioneered cultural history, the practice of trying to study societies and their characteristics, acknowledging the interrelationship of politics with art and culture instead of examining them separately.  Cultural history remains a major field, and one where some of the best work on once-neglected topics like women, pop culture, and non-elites has flourished.  But…

Burkhardt was also the main figure who popularized the terms “modernity” and “modern.”  He argued that the Renaissance was the birth of “modern man,” and that modern man was defined by a powerful sense of human excellence and human potential.  According to Burkhardt, the core of this change—the spirit of the Renaissance which sparked the triumphant path of progress toward modernity—was the rise of individualism.  As he says in the beginning of Part II:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.

The Medievalists reading this are gnashing their teeth, and yes, this moment is core to the persistence of the myth of the bad, backward, stagnant, sleepy middle ages, and equally core to the myth of the Renaissance Man: awake, ambitious, aware of his own power, rational, ripping through the cobwebs of superstition, desirous of remaking the world but also of intentionally fashioning him or herself into something splendid and excellent.  A human being who realizes human beings can be their own masterpieces.

In the mid-19th-century, when Burkhardt wrote, Europe was very enamored of individualism, of new democratic ideas of government, of nationalism and ideas of individual consciousness and national consciousness, and of the notions of genius, both genius individuals and the geniuses of peoples.  Thus, Burkhardt’s claim that the Renaissance was born from individualism gave all sorts of 19th century movements the ability to claim the Renaissance golden age as an ancestor.  Germany, Britain, the young United States, despite having little to do with Italy, they could all claim to be the true inheritors of Renaissance greatness if they could claim that individualism and the opportunity to be a self-made man prospered more truly among their peoples than in Italy.

But there was more: by claiming that the Renaissance—and all its glittering art and innovation—was caused by individualism, Burkhardt was really advancing a claim about the nature of modernity.  Individualism was an X-Factor which had appeared and made a slumbering world begin to move, sparking the step-by-step advance that led humanity from stagnant Medieval mud huts to towers of glass and iron—and by implication it would also define our path forward to an even more glorious future.  In other words, the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the defining spirit of modernity.  If individualism was responsible, not only for the Renaissance, but for the wonders of modernity, then logically those regimes of Burkhardt’s day which most facilitated the expression of individualism could claim to be the heart of human progress and to hold the keys to the future; those nations which did not advance individualism (where socialism prospered, for example, or “collectivism” which was how 19th century Europe characterized most non-Western societies) were still the slumbering Middle Ages, in need of being awakened to their true potential by those nations which did possess the X-Factor of human progress.

I hope you winced a few times in the previous paragraph, recognizing toxic 19th century problems (eurocentrism, orientalism, “White Man’s Burden” thinking), as well as basic historical errors (spoiler: you can find plenty of individualism in Medieval texts, and lots of things that are absolutely not individualism in Renaissance ones).  But those specifics aren’t the big problem.  The big problem was how entrancing the idea of an X-Factor was, the notion that there is one true innovative spirit which defines both Renaissance and modern, and advances in a grand and exponential curve from Petrarch through Leonardo and Machiavelli on to [insert modern hero here].  Thus Burkhardt birthed what I call the quest for the Renaissance X-Factor.  Because when the first scholars disagreed with Burkhardt, they didn’t objcet to the idea that the Renaissance was caused by a great defining X-Factor, they loved that idea, they simply argued about what exactly the X-Factor was.

(Note: If you haven’t read it already I recommend you also look at my post On Progress and Historical Change, discussing the history of ideas of progress.)

Thanks to Burkhardt, the Renaissance came to be defined as the period after Medieval but before Enlightenment when something changed and pushed things toward modernity—the moment that the defining spirit of modernity appeared.  From that point on, claiming you were the successor to the Renaissance didn’t just mean claiming a golden age like Rome, it let you also claim that modernity itself was somehow especially yours.  If you could argue that the reason the Renaissance was great was that it did the thing you do, then you are the heart of modernity and progress, even of the future, while those who don’t celebrate that spirit are the enemies of progress.  Thus every time someone proposed a new X-Factor, a different explanation for what made Renaissance different from Medieval, that made it possible to make new claims about the nature of modernity, and which nations or movements have it right.  This model even lets one claim the future: the X-Factor was born in the Renaissance, grew in the Enlightenment and in modernity, and is the key to unlocking the next glorious age of human history as it unlocked both Renaissance and modern.  This lets you advance teleological arguments about the inevitable triumph of [democracy, nationalism, atheism, capitalism, whatever].   It’s a version of history that’s not only legitimizing but comforting, since it lets you feel you know where history is headed, what will happen, who will win.

Savonarola is one of many Renaissance figures appropriated by many later movements, including revolutionaries in the Italian unification movement.

To give specific examples, if we’re in the middle of the Cold War, and an influential historian publishes a book arguing that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was double-entry bookkeeping, i.e. the rise of banking and the merchant class, America can say: “The Renaissance X-Factor was the birth of capitalism!  The fact that it was a golden age proves capitalism will make a golden age too, and the true successor of this golden age is our alliance of modern capitalist regimes!”  If, on the other hand, we’re in a nationalist wave, say in 1848 or 1920, and someone argues that the X-Factor that sparked the Renaissance was the call for national unity articulated in Petrarch’s Italia Mia or Savonarola’s sermons (this is Pasquale Villari), and that what ended the Renaissance golden age was when Italy was conquered and divvied up among the Bourbons and Hapsburgs, then the Renaissance can be claimed as a predecessor by the Italian unification movement, the German unification movement, any nationalist movement anywhere can claim that uniting peoples into nations is what drives modernity.  If we claim the Renaissance was birthed by the rise of secular thought, that Renaissance geniuses were the first people to break through the bonds of superstition, and that Leonardo and Machiavelli were secret atheists (this is Auguste Comte), then we can claim that secularization and the secular state is the heart of human progress and modernity.  And if someone claims the X-factor was republican proto-democratic thought, the political writings and discourse of civic participation unique to the Italian city republics, Florence, Venice (this is Hans Baron), then we can claim that republican democracy is the key to human progress, that modern democracies are the heart of modernity, and everything else is backwards, outside, Medieval, bad, and needs to be replaced.

To this day, every time someone proposes a new X-Factor for the Renaissance—even if it’s a well-researched and plausible suggestion—it immediately gets appropriated by a wave of people & powers who want to claim they are the torch-bearers of that great light that makes the human spirit modern.  And every time someone invokes a Renaissance X-Factor, the corresponding myth of the bad Middle Ages becomes newly useful as a way to smear rivals and enemies.  As a result, for 160 years and counting, an endless stream of people, kingdoms, political parties, art movements, tech firms, banks, all sorts of powers have gained legitimacy by retelling the myth of the bad Middle Ages and golden Renaissance, with their preferred X-Factor glittering at its heart.

Recommended reading for more, or see my page of History book recommendations

We scholars do our best to battle this, to introduce a complex and un-modern Renaissance, but the very usefulness of the myth guarantees that it will be repeated much more broadly than our no-fun efforts to correct it.  A lot of Renaissance historians today reject the idea of a single X-Factor and try instead to talk about combinations of mixing factors.  Many of us also try to argue that the Renaissance was not fundamentally modern, that it was its own distinctly un-modern thing.  But it’s a hard sell, because the narrative of a special spirit launching us from Petrarch to the Moon Landing is enchanting, and because a complicated, messy, un-modern Renaissance snatches away the golden Renaissances most people meet first.  Nobody in this century has read about the French Invasion of 1494, or even about the Guelphs and Ghibellines, before meeting the genius cults of Leonardo and Michelangelo.

Scraping the glitter off to reveal the imperfect and violent David underneath is an assault on our understandings of our past and present, on what it means to be ourselves, even on our sense of where the future is heading.  People find that unsettling.  And people who look to Renaissance celebrities as role models and intellectual ancestors don’t like to hear about their rough un-modern sides.  So people get hostile, or unsettled, they keep telling the myths, and use cherry picked sources to glob the glitter-paint back on.  It’s not always done in bad faith—if from early childhood you’ve always learned the Renaissance was sparkling and golden, and you see a bare patch where the glitter has come off, of course you’ll think that bare patch is the error, that the still-sparkly parts are the real thing.  You treat the oddball patch as damage, and keep believing what that documentary or museum label told you years ago when you saw your first Renaissance masterpiece and fell in love.  So the myth persists, and for every attempt to correct it we’re up against a dozen tour guide scripts, and TV specials, and corporate statements, and outdated textbooks, and new books (fiction and nonfiction alike) that glob the glitter on.  So you can understand why, from time to time, Renaissance and Medieval specialists alike just have to stop and scream like Sisyphus.

David gets his regular scrub. He needs it.

Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance

This, in not-very-brief, is why we keep telling the myth of the golden Renaissance, and bad Middle Ages.

The Wheel of Fortuna, which turns, elevating men from beggar, to townsman, to king, then falling again in a chaotic cycle representing life. Notice the ABSENCE of an idea of the world getting better OVERALL.

Now, let’s look again at our other starting question: “If the Black Death caused the Renaissance will the COVID pandemic cause a golden age?”  You see the problems with the question now: the Black Death didn’t cause the Renaissance, not by itself, and the Renaissance was not a golden age, at least not the kind that you would want to live in, or to see your children live in.  But I do think that both Black Death and Renaissance are useful for us to look at now, not as a window on what will happen if we sit back and let the gears of history grind, but as a window on how vital action is.

The Black Death first: it didn’t cause the Renaissance, no one thing caused the Renaissance, it was a conjunction of many gradual and complicated changes accumulating over centuries (banking, legal reform, centralization of power, urbanization, technology, trade) which came together to make an age like the Medieval but ever-so-much-more-so.  The idea that the Black Death caused a prosperity boom comes from old studies which showed that wages went way up after the Black Death, creating new possibilities for laborers to gain in wealth and rise in status (like the golden 1950s).  But those were small studies from a few places (mainly bits of England), and we have newer studies now that show that wages only rose in a few places, that in other places wages didn’t rise, or actually went down, or that they started to rise but elites cracked down with new laws to control labor, creating (among other things) the first workhouses, laws limiting freedom of movement, and other new forms of unfreedom and control.  What the Black Death really caused was change.  It caused regime changes, instability letting some monarchies or oligarchies rise, or fall.  It caused policy and legal changes, some oppressive, some liberating.  And it caused economic changes, some regions or markets collapsing, and others growing.

It’s Viking time!

If you really want to know what COVID will do, I think the place to look is not Renaissance Italy, but the Viking settlements in Greenland, which vanished around 1410.  Did they all die of the plague?  No.  We’re pretty sure they never got the plague, they were too isolated.  But the Greenland settlements’ economy had long depended on the walrus trade: they hunted walruses and sold the ivory and skins, and ships would come from Norway or Iceland to trade for walrus, bringing goods one couldn’t make in Greenland, like iron, or fine fabric, or wheat.  But after 1348 the bottom dropped out of the walrus market, and the trading ships stopped coming.  By 1400 no ships had visited Greenland for years except the few that were blown off-course by storm.  And meanwhile there were labor shortages and vacant farms on the once-crowded mainland.  So we think the Greenland Vikings emigrated, asked those stray ships to take them with them back to Europe, as many as could fit, abandoning one life to start another.  That’s what we’ll see with COVID: collapse and growth, busts for one industry, booms for another, sudden wealth collecting in some hands, while elsewhere whole communities collapse, like Flint Michigan, and Viking Greenland, and the many disasters in human history which made survivors abandon homes and villages, and move elsewhere.  A lot of families and communities will lose their livelihoods, their homes, their everythings, and face the devastating need to start again.  And as that happens, we’ll see different places enact different laws and policies to deal with it, just like after the Black Death.  Some places/regimes/policies will increase wealth and freedom, while others will reduce it, and the complicated world will go on being complicated.

That’s why I say we should aim to do better than the Renaissance.

Because we can.  We have so much they didn’t.  We know so much.

For one thing, we know how pandemics work.  We know about germs, viruses, contagion, hand-washing, sanitation, lowering the curve.  We can make plans, take action that does something.  Forget 1348, even in 1918 we didn’t understand how to treat influenza, how it moved, and hand washing was still controversial. 1918 was a US election year but we didn’t discuss delaying or changing the election, there was nothing we could do to make it safer, we didn’t know about six-feet-apart, or sanitizing voting booths, or have the infrastructure to consider vote-by-mail, all we could do was let men (women still had two more years to wait) vote and die.  We’ve come a long way.

Suffragettes at the 1918 election.

This year, 2020, this is the first time in the history of this planet that any species has faced a pandemic knowing what it is, and how to take effective action.  We aren’t taking perfect action, and we absolutely should be criticizing and condemning the many flaws—some small, some huge—in how it’s being dealt with, but there is real, efficacious action we can take.  As an historian, not just of the plague of 1348, but of  the plagues of 1435, and 1485, and 1494, and 1503, and 1596, and 1630, and 1656, what I see is those many generations who not only had to live through this over and over, but who had no hope that their children would ever be free of it.  We know about vaccines, and that we’ll make one—it’ll take a while, and we’ll mess up various ways along the way, but none of us is afraid our grandchildren will grow up spending one year in ten locked up in their homes like this as COVID-19 spreads; we will solve it.  We know we’ll solve it, and any other age in history would treasure that confidence like miracle.  Because all Petrarch could say after losing his world in 1348 was that, the next time plague comes back, we should console ourselves by thinking of it as dying with much good company.

We know about mental health now too.  We’re talking about the mental health crisis of COVID, the mental health costs of fear, poverty, racial injustice—in 1918 we were still excited by electroshock, and debating the radical new idea that outpatient psych treatment might be a thing, instead of doing only institutionalization.  We have the language to talk about the mental cost of crisis, and that language alone opens so many possibilities for helping, acting, aiding that previous eras never had.  Without the concept, we couldn’t start to try to treat it—now we can.

And we have more language: social safety net, social welfare, social services, concepts for thinking how state and society can put structures in place to relieve human suffering.  We have economics now, not the kind of economics that’s trying to prognosticate the stock market, the basic kind with terms like GDP, and unemployment rate, and wealth gap, and retirement age, and inflation.  There were economies in 1348, and even social services, hospitals, orphanages, city grain supplies, but we didn’t have a science for discussing it, vast banks of data comparing how different systems work, or help, or harm.  After the Black Death when different places tried different policies for their recovery, they didn’t have comparisons, examples—we do.  We won’t be guessing in the dark when each nation decides its recovery plan for this pandemic—we won’t be omniscient, but even partial knowledge makes us powerful.  That raises the stakes.

Youth climate strikers in New York City, featured in an article in Forbes

Because, like after 1348, there is about to be big change.  There are many options before us, different things that states can do post-COVID, some of which will help with poverty, empower labor, lend a helping hand to those exhausted Greenland Vikings as they start again, and there are other things states can do that will instead widen the gaps, entrench elites, help the rich get richer and see the disempowered locked more inescapably into modern versions of workhouses.  Different places will make different choices.  Some places will see regime changes, others just policy shifts, but there aren’t vast wheels of history that lock a pandemic into automatically yielding a boom or bust.  There is no automatic outcome.  Rather, all nations in the world are about to make a set of choices which will have a far larger, deeper impact on the next decades, on lives, rights, options, everything, than the normal choices states make in a normal year.  The stakes are higher.  Unlike in 1348 we have a lot of knowledge, answers, options, concepts we could try like safety nets, or UBI, or radical free markets, many very different things.  Which means that acting now, demanding now, voting, pushing, proposing change, we’re shaping policies that will affect our big historical trajectory more than normal—a great chance to address and finally change systemic inequalities, or to let them entrench.   There is no predetermined outcome of pandemic; pandemic is a hallway leading to a room where something big is going to be decided—human beings decide.

I love space exploration. I’ve written novels about it, and a song that makes everyone cry, I make myself tear up thinking about it all the time, especially civilian spaceflight and the hope that this chapter of history might be advanced by curiosity, teamwork, and human hope, not war or competition.  But after looking forward to it for so long, the recent SpaceX launch was the first I’ve watched in a long time without tearing up.  Because watching a space ship launch while looters are smashing shops outside my window (and cops ignoring them in favor of harassing peaceful protestors & giving carte blanche to the gunwielding vigilante on the corner) feels a lot like Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa while cities around were literally burning (and rich merchants’ private goons guarding their wealth & allies as faction dictated).  This year, this specific year, 2020, with the world shut down by plague, and civil strife, and fire in the streets, and teetering distrust in governments, this is the first time our present has reminded me of the Renaissance.  But we aren’t the Renaissance—we have social science, and efficacious medicine, and the Enlightenment under our belts, when we learned we can analyze our laws and institutions, and step by step replace them with better ones.  We aim for better.

At the Renaissance Society of America Conference some years ago, two scholar friends got into a debate about whether Machiavelli’s world was fundamentally pre-modern, different from our own, or whether fundamentally it faced the same problems we do.  Responding to the claim that the Renaissance was far more violent than our present, the advocate of Renaissance-as-modern quoted the statistic that modern Chicago had as many murders every year as Renaissance Florence.  The rebuttal that surged in my mind was that the population of Florence was less than 100K, so Chicago’s millions have far fewer murders per capita, but the other speaker had a far better answer.  We’re working to change that murder rate.  We study it, understand it, plan interventions, act.  We believe it’s a problem we can solve, should solve, that citizen and state should act, and if the state will not the state should change.  We have policy studies, plans, alternatives.

Voltaire, 1763 “Treatise on Tolerance,” written in his outrage over the judicial murder of Jean Calas.

Petrarch wanted to end the cruel wars for light causes that were wounding Italy, but had no plan beyond sending his poem out into the world, and urging elites to have their kids read Cicero. Machiavelli also wanted to end the cruel wars for light causes, and seeing that reading Cicero had failed he proposed a new way of evaluating history, collecting examples of what worked and didn’t in the past, basing our statecraft and actions on them so the next time we try things we’ll choose more wisely.  It was the birth of social science.  It took us a long time for us to get good at it, to turn the observations in The Prince into big databases and systematic studies, just as it took a long time for medicine to get from the four humors to our confidence that we can make a vaccine, but we can make one.  We can make good social policy.  Will we do it perfectly?  No.  Many bad policies will be advanced, just as vaccines and treatments will be distributed unfairly and slowed down by bigotry and selfishness.  But we can do it, we have tools, as real in our hands and libraries as the knowledge of vaccines is real—tools Machiavelli and Petrarch would have given anything to have.  We can aim for better than another Renaissance.

Let’s try.

 

Machiavelli and Intellectual Technology, plus Shakespeare & Summer Updates

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Hello, patient friends.  The delight of brilliant and eager students, the siren call of a new university library, the massing threat of conjoining deadlines, and the thousand micro-tasks of moving across the country have caused a very long gap between posts.  But I have several pieces of good news to share today, as well as new thoughts on Machiavelli:

  1. Most important: I have a new essay up on Tor.com: “When Less Plot is More Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost vs. Pericles Prince of Tyre.”  I’m sure anyone who enjoys my usual pieces here will enjoy it in the same way. It’s part of the wonderful Tor.com Shakespeare Reread series, which has a lot of other great authors contributing, so I hope you’ll check out their pieces too.
  2. The next installment of my Sketches of a History of Skepticism series is 2/3 finished, and I hope to have it up in a week or three, deadlines permitting.
  3. I have an excellent new assistant named Mack Muldofsky, who is helping me with Ex Urbe, music, research and many other projects.  So we have him to thank in a big way if the speed of my posting picks up this summer.
  4. Because I have a lot of deadlines this summer, I have asked some friends to contribute guest entries here, and we have a few planned treating science, literature and history, so that’s something we can look forward to together.
  5. For those following my music, the Sundown Kickstarter is complete, and it is now possible to order online the CD and DVD of my Norse Myth song cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok. In addition to the discs, you can also order two posters, one of my space exploration anthem “Somebody Will” and one which is a detailed map of the Norse mythological cosmos.  CD sales go to supporting the costs of traveling to concerts.
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    The finished CD, with its full-color lyrics booklet. So many hours of layout and proofreading, but so worth-it!

    I have several concerts and public events lined up for the summer:

    1. At Mythcon (July 31-Aug 2), Lauren Schiller and myself, performing as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King” will join Guest of Honor Jo Walton for “Norse Hour,” in which she will read Norse myth-themed poetry in alternation with our Norse-themed songs.
    2. Sunday August 9th, I have been invited do a reading of the freshly-polished opening chapters of my novel Too Like the Lightning (due out in Summer 2016) at the Tiptree Award Ceremony event honoring Jo Walton, who couldn’t make it to the initial ceremony but received the Tiptree this year for her novel My Real Children. The event is being held at Borderlands in San Francisco at 3 PM, and will feature readings by local authors, and music performed by myself and Lauren.
    3. Monday August 17th, at 7 PM, I am joining Jo and Lauren again at Powell’s, where Jo will read from her books, Lauren and I will sing, and I will interview Jo and talk about my writing as well as hers.
    4. Finally at Sasquan (Worldcon, Aug 19-23) Lauren and I will have a full concert, I will do another reading from Dogs of Peace, and I will be on several exciting panels.
For those who read and enjoy my Tor Shakespeare post, one addendum: the recent Globe production of Love's Labour's Lost (available on DVD) is VERY good, highly recommended!
For those who read and enjoy my Tor Shakespeare post, one addendum: the recent Globe production of Love’s Labour’s Lost (available on DVD) is very very good, highly recommended!

Meanwhile, I have a little something to share here.  I continue to receive frequent responses to my Machiavelli series, and recently one of them sparked such an interesting conversation in e-mail that I wanted to post it here, for others to enjoy and respond to.  These are very raw thoughts, and I hope the discussion will gain more participants here in the comment thread (I have trimmed out parts not relevant to the discussion):

In this discussion, I use a term I often use when trying to introduce intellectual history as a concept, and which I have been meaning to write about here for some time, “Intellectual Technology.”

A little conversation about Machiavelli:

From Michael:
I have been reading your blog posts on Machiavelli. You write with tremendous learning, clarity and colour, and really bring past events alive in a brilliant way.  But……..  I think you’re far too soft on Machiavelli!!!
I’m working on a PhD about him and it’s fascinating to see that nearly all present-day academics, and indeed academics during much of the second half of the 20th century, have a largely if not completely uncritical admiration for him and his works. He is lauded, for example as a forerunner of pluralism, and supporter of republicanism/democracy, yet his clear inspiration of Italian fascism is almost completely overlooked.  The fact that Gramsci revered Machiavelli is dealt with by many scholars, but Mussolini’s admiration for him is hurriedly passed over.
In the absence of a relevant illustration, please enjoy this beautiful hand, on a ceramic Madonna, in Berlin.
In the absence of a relevant illustration, please enjoy this beautiful hand, on a ceramic Madonna, in the Bode museum, Berlin.
Your post on Machiavelli and atheism is really interesting – in that context the 2013 book Machiavelli by Robert Black would be of interest to you…
Best regards, Michael Sanfey, IEP/UCP Lisbon.
Reply from Ada:
Michael,Thank you for writing in to express your enjoyment of my blog posts. I think your criticisms of Machiavelli are interesting and largely fair, and my own opinions overlap with yours in many ways, though not in others. I agree with you completely that there are inappropriate tendencies in a lot of scholars to praise Machiavelli inappropriately as a proto-modern champion of Democracy, republicanism, pluralism, modern national pride etc., all of which are characterizations are deeply inappropriate and also deeply presentist, reading anachronistic values back into him. But there is also a tendency, dominant earlier in the 20th century, to villify Machiavelli too much in precisely the same anachronistic and presentist way, characterizing him as a fascist or a Nazi and reading back into his work the things that were done in the 20th century by people who used some of his ideas but mixed them with many others. My way of approaching Machiavelli focuses above all on trying to distance him from the present and place him in his context, to show that he is neither a modern hero nor a modern villain since he isn’t modern at all. The question is separate, which you bring up, of how much to blame him or criticize him for opening up the direction of reasoning which led to later consequentialism, and also to fascism which certainly used him as one of its foundational texts. Here I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of historical blame at all, particularly when it’s blame over such a long span of time.

I tend to think of thinkers as toolmakers, or inventors of “intellectual technology”, innovators who have created a new thing which can then be used by many people. New inventions can be used in many ways, and in anticipatable and unanticipatable ways. Just as, for example, carbon steel can be used to raise great towers and send train lines across continents, it can be used to build weapons and take lives, so it is a complex question how much to blame the inventor of carbon steel for its many uses. In this sense, I do believe we can see Machiavelli as a weapon-maker, since the ideas he was generating were directly intended to be used in war and politics. We can compare him very directly to the inventor of gunpowder in this sense. I also see him–and this is much of the heart of my critique–as a defensive weapon maker, i.e. someone working in a period of danger and siege trying to create something with which to defend his homeland. So, imagine now the inventor of gunpowder creating it to defend his homeland from an invasion. Is he responsible for all later uses of gunpowder as well? Is he guilty of criminal negligence for not thinking through the fact that long-term many more people will be killed by his invention than live in his home town? Do the lives saved by gunpowder throughout its history balance out against the lives saved in some kind of (Machiavellian/consequentialist) moral calculus? I don’t think “yes” or “no” are fair answers to such a complex question, but I do think it is important, when we think about Machiavelli and what to hold him responsible for, to remember the circumstances in which he created gunpowder (i.e. consequentialist ethics), and that he invented other great things too, like political science and critical historical reasoning. The debts are complicated, as is the culpability for how inventions are used after the inventor’s death. So while I join you wholeheartedly in wanting to fight back against the distortion of Machiavelli the Mythical proto-modern Republican, I also think it’s valuable to battle against the myth of Machiavelli the proto-Fascist, and try to create a portrait of the real man as I see him, Machiavelli the frightened Florentine.

More beautiful ceramic Madonna hands, from Berlin.
More beautiful ceramic Madonna hands, from Berlin.

I do know Bob Black’s Machiavelli book, but disagree with some of his fundamental ideas about humanism itself – another fun topic, and one I enjoy discussing with him at conferences. He’s a challenging interlocutor. There is a very good recent paper by James Hankins on Academia.edu now about the “Virtue Politics” of humanists, which I recommend that you look at if you’re interested in responses to Black.

Best, Ada Palmer, University of Chicago

More from Michael:
First, I want to thank you for this fantastically detailed and brilliant response…  I’d like to “come back at you” on consequentialism and some other points:
* Regarding your point about Machiavelli not being modern at all, I see what you mean, albeit you do say of Machiavelli in the post on atheism that “he is in other ways so very modern”. Leo Strauss certainly thought he had a lot to do with the introduction of what we know as “modernity”.
* When you seek to balance the need to fight against the Proto-republican myth and against the Proto-fascist myth, the first of those “myths” enjoys immeasurably wider currency than the second, and I ask myself, why is this?
*  On the “intellectual technology” point below, and its being essentially neutral, in this case I wouldn’t agree with you, because we are not talking here about an object like gunpowder, it’s actually concerning something much more important. In ethical terms, Machiavelli took transcendent values out of the equation. As you put it, Machiavelli created “an ethics which works without God” – except that it doesn’t work!!!
* Machiavelli has had a questionable impact in regard to “realism” in International relations. You mention in one of the posts that he backed an alliance with Borgia so as to protect Florence, agreeing to offer money and resources to help Borgia conquer more – a very good example of Machiavelli‘s undoubted sympathy for imperialism.
PPS  On the question of Machiavelli being an atheist or not, I really was fascinated by that part of your Ex Urbe writings.  I’ve concluded that, whatever about him being an atheist or not, one could certainly describe him as “ungodly” would you agree?
Quick response from Ada:

I think “ungodly” does work for Machiavelli depending on how you define it; it has a connotation of being immoral–which does not fit–but if instead you mean it literally as someone who makes his calculations without thinking much about the divine then it fits.

Teach yourself German! "Schweinerassel," a ceramic bottle in the shape of a pig. 2nd century!
Teach yourself German! “Schweinerassel,” a ceramic bottle in the shape of a pig. 2nd century! I had fun in Berlin, and this year’s Renaissance Society of America conference there was one of the best academic conferences I’ve ever attended.

A supplementary comment on “Intellectual Technology”:

I find “intellectual technology” a very useful concept when I try to describe what I study.  Broadly my work is “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas” but what I actually study is a bit more specific: how particular kinds of ideas come into existence, disseminate, and come to be regulated at different points in time.  The types of ideas I investigate–atomism, determinism, utilitarianism–move through human culture very much the same way technological innovations do.  They come into being in a specific place and time, as a result of a single inventor or collaboration.  They spread from that point, but their spread is neither inevitable nor simple. Sometimes they are invented separately  by independent people in independent places, and sometimes they exist for centuries before having a substantial impact. When a new idea enters a place and comes into common use, it completely changes the situation and makes actions or institutions which worked before no longer viable. I compare Machiavelli’s utilitarianism to gunpowder above, but here are some other examples of famous cases of technological inventions, and ideas which disseminated in similar patterns:

The Bicycle and Atomism

Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for a bicycle in the Renaissance, and may have seriously tried to construct one, but afterward no one did so for a very long time. Then many other factors changed: the availability of rubber and light-weight strong metals, the growth of large, centralized cities and a working population in need of inexpensive transit, and suddenly the bicycle was able to combine with these other factors to revolutionize life and society in a huge rush, first across Europe and then well beyond.  We have moved on from it to develop more complex technologies that achieve the same function, but still use it and develop it more, and even where we don’t, and cities would not have the shapes they do now without it, and it is still transforming parts of the world it has touched more slowly.  Similarly atomism was developed and used for a little while, then languished in notebooks for a long time, before combining with the right factors to spread and rapidly transform society and culture.

The Unity of All Life and Calculus

Newton and Leibnitz developed Calculus independently at the same time. Similarly, both classical Stoicism in Greece and Buddhism in India roughly simultaneously and independently, as far as we can tell, developed the idea that all living things–humans, insects, ancients, people not yet born–are, in fact, parts of one contiguous, interconnected, sacred living thing.  This enormously rich and complex concept had a huge number of applications in each society, but seems to have been independently developed to meet the demands for metaphysical and emotional answers of societies at remarkably similar developmental stages.  The circumstances were right, and the ideas then went on to be applied in vastly different but still similar ways.

Feminism and the Aztec Wheel

Aztec wheeled toyFor a long time we thought the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel.  More recently we discovered that they had children’s toys which used the wheel, but never developed it beyond that.  Which means someone thought of it, and it disseminated a bit and was used in a very narrow way, but not developed further because what we think of as more “advanced” or “industrial” applications (wagon, wheelbarrow) just weren’t compatible with the Aztec world (largely because it was incredibly hilly and didn’t have the elaborate road system Europe developed, relying instead on human legs, stairs, and raw terrain, which were sufficient to let it develop a robust and complex economy and empire of its own.  The wheel became more useful in the Americas when European-style city plans and roads were built).  Similarly Plato voiced feminism in his Republic, arguing that women and men were fundamentally interchangeable if educated the same way, and people who read the Republic discussed it as a theory among many other elements of the book, but didn’t develop it further (again, I would argue, this was at least in part because the economic and social structures of the classical world depended on the gendered division of labor, particularly for the production of thread in the absence of advanced spinning technology, which is why literally all women in Rome spent tons of time spinning–spinning quotas were even sometimes required by law of prostitutes since if there was a substantial sliver of the female population employed without spinning Rome would run out of cloth.  Feminism was better able to become revolutionary in Europe when (among other changes) industrialization reduced the number of hours required for the maintenance of a household and the production of cloth, making it more practical to redirect female labor, and question why it had been locked into that in the first place).

In sum, there is a concreteness to the ideas whose movements I study, a distinct and recognizable traceability. Interpretive analyses, comparative, subjective analyses, analyses of technique, aesthetics, authorial intent, authenticity, such analyses are excellent, but they aren’t intellectual history as I practice and teach it.  I trace intellectual technology. Just as the gun, or carbon steel, or the moldboard plow came in at a particular time and had an impact, I study particular ideas whose dissemination changed what it was possible for human beings to do, and what shapes human society can be. It is meaningful to talk about being at an “intellectual tech level” or at least about being pre- or post- a particular piece of intellectual technology (progress, utilitarianism, the scientific method) just as much as we can talk about being pre- or post-computer, gunpowder, or bronze. Such things cannot be un-invented once they disseminate through a society, though some societies regulate or restrict them, and they can be lost, or spend a long time hidden, or undeveloped. Elites often have a legal or practical monopoly on some (intellectual) technologies, but nothing can stop things from sometimes getting into the hands or minds of the poor or the oppressed. Sometimes historians are sure a piece of (intellectual) technology was present because we have direct records of it: a surviving example, a reference, a drawing, something which was obviously made with it. Other times we have only secondary evidence (they were farming X crop which, as far as we know, probably requires the moldboard plow; they described a strange kind of unknown weapon which we think means gun; they were discussing heretics of a particular sort which seems to have involved denial of Providence).

One last excellent sculpted hand, again from my conference trip to Berlin this year.
One last excellent sculpted hand, again from my conference trip to Berlin this year.

I realize that it would be easy to read my use of “intellectual technology” as an attempt to climb on the pro-science-and-engineering bandwagon, presenting intellectual history as quasi-hard-science, much as we joke that if poets started calling themselves “syllabic engineers” they would suddenly be paid more.  But it isn’t a term I’m advocating as a label, necessarily.  It’s a term I use for thinking, a semantic tool for describing the specific type of idea history I practice, and linking together my different interests into a coherent whole.  When I spell out what I’m working on right now as an historian, it’s actually a rather incoherent list: “the history of atheism, atomic science, skepticism, Platonic and Stoic theology, soul theory, homosexuality, theodicy, witchcraft, gender construction, saints and heavenly politics, Viking metaphysics, the Inquisition, utilitarianism, humanist self-fashioning, and what Renaissance people imagined ancient Rome was like.  And if you give me an hour, I can sort-of explain what those things have to do with each other.”  Or I can say, “I study how particularly controversial pieces of new intellectual technology come into being and spread over time.”

In that light, then, we can think of Machiavelli as the inventor of a piece of intellectual technology, or rather of several pieces of intellectual technology, since consequential ethics is one, but his new method of historical analysis (political science) is another.  We might compare him to someone who invented both the gun and the calculator.  How do we feel about that contribution?  Positive?  Negative?  Critical?  Celebratory?  I think the only universal answer is: we feel strongly.

See more thoughts on this in the follow-up post: Intellectual Technology–A Promoted Comment.

How to Spot Good Gelato from 15 Feet Away

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Luscious, fresh, enticing… bad gelato.

Friends traveling with me are often perplexed to see me stick my head in a gelateria’s door and instantly proclaim it good or bad, despite not having approached close enough to smell, let alone taste, the contents of the brilliant, alluring bins of swirling color. It can be done. There are visible signs of good and bad gelato, so today I am sharing my gelato-assessment method, applicable in Italy and around the world, and hopefully of service to you (especially to several specific friends who are going to Italy soon).

First I want to clarify that pretty much all gelato is delicious, even what I term “bad gelato.”  The very humblest kind of gelato is made from pre-packaged powdered mix, consisting of sugar and (usually artificial) flavors and colors, which can be mixed with milk and popped straight into the gelato machine.  The sweet, cold, creamy dessert this produces is still quite yummy, the way cheap candies or grocery store cookies are yummy despite their mundane provenance.  One is certainly happier eating this gelato than no gelato, but in an area saturated with Great Cuisine, like Florence, or Rome, or Montreal, it is seldom worthwhile to settle for the adequate when the sublime lurks around the next corner.

I also stand by my conviction that the quality of gelato is far more variable than that of ice cream, and far harder to predict from flavor options alone.  Ice cream depends on the fat of the cream to help keep it soft, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are lend well to complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and are also very effective at concealing it if the ingredients (especially the cream itself) are of middling quality. Gelato is fundamentally just sugar and milk, or sugar and fruit in the case of a sorbetto, and the flavors are usually simple (hazelnut) or extremely simple (fior di late, pure milk).  Thus, you can taste it very easily if gelato contains poor milk, poor fruit, or artificial chemicals (many respectable places still use chemicals to help the gelato coagulate and remain the correct degree of softness in the freezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream. Thus high quality gelato is (in my opinion) better than the best ice cream because it showcases its excellent ingredients better than the ice cream does, but bad/cheap gelato tends to be worse than bad/cheap ice cream because ice cream’s natural fattyness and saltiness effectively conceals poor ingredients and artificial additives. Notice also that the best grocery store gelato brands (like Talenti) wisely tend to focus on flavors which combine multiple ingredients (salted caramel, cherry and chocolate, mint chocolate) since mixed flavors more effectively conceal the softening additives which grocery store gelato needs to contain to let it last overnight.

Speaking of lasting overnight, another difference between gelato and ice cream is that ice cream keeps better. Both substances are suspensions of tiny ice crystals, which gradually clump to form larger and larger ice crystals, which is why old ice cream has lots of hard bits in it, and sometimes freezes into a solid block. But gelato forms these much faster than ice cream does, since fat and salt slow the clumping process, so gelato without additives can’t even last overnight without freezing into a block, whereas ice cream can. This means the best gelato must be made anew every day in small batches, increasing the labor and meaning anything unsold at the end of the day is a pure loss for the gelateria.  In contrast, ice cream can last several days, even a week, so ice cream places have lower labor costs and lower losses on unsold product, a key reason why ice cream parlors can be supported by much smaller communities whereas gelato places require a high population center to ensure that sales move quickly — or else they have to include additives which make the gelato taste funny.

“But I can’t have gelato, I’m vegan and/or lactose intolerant.”

In Florence, Perche no...! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.
In Florence, Perche no…! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.

I want to briefly combat this assumption.  At its heart gelato is indeed milk-based, but good gelato places also make fruit-based sorbetti, which at their best are pure fruit with sugar, and no dairy at all, while some lower quality ones are mixes of water and fruit extracts, like frozen limeade.  These are perfectly safe for vegan and lactose intolerant people, and many dairy-lovers also love, or even prefer, sorbetti to dairy flavors.  Occasionally the fruit flavors contain egg whites to help them stay solid, but this is uncommon in my experience. If this is a concern it is usually easy to find out by asking.  In addition, more and more serious gelato places have started offering a few flavors based on soy milk or almond milk, to open up gelato more to people who can’t have dairy, and to make use of new exciting flavor possibilities offered by new bases. When I attended the 2012 International Gelato Festival in Florence, I think about a quarter of the competing flavors were dairy-free, possibly more, including both exotic fruits and creamy flavors based on non-dairy milks.  And all were delicious.

Now, the test:

#1) Look at the color of the fruit flavors.  Banana, apple/pear, or berry flavors (frutti di bosco) are the easiest tell.  If the fruit gelati are made of pure, real fruit then they will be the color that fruit would be if you crushed it: berry flavors a deep dark off-black purple/red, apple white or brownish or yellowish sometimes with flecks of peel, and banana a rather unappealing shade of gray.  If, on the other hand, banana is a cheery yellow, apple a perky spring green and berry flavors are the light-ish color of blueberry yogurt, then the gelato before you is a mix of milk with food coloring plus fruit extracts or artificial fruit flavor.  Pistachio similarly should be the color of crushed nuts, not bright green.  The artificial fruit gelati can still be delicious, but only pure fruit sorbetti will give you the overwhelming flavor of top quality fruit gelato which tastes more like fruit than the fruit does, hyperconcentrating the fruit’s flavors and bringing them out with sugar.  This matters even if fruit isn’t your thing: making the gelato out of pure fruit is more laborious and expensive than using flavor extracts, so a gelateria with a brilliant dark frutti di bosco is one that is definitely trying to produce the best, and thus also likely to produce a superior chocolate, crema, etc.  Now, sometimes mixes of fruit with dairy can be good, so a blueberry-yogurt-colored frutti di bosco isn’t always a bad thing, but the pure fruit ones are more difficult and more expensive, so they are always a good sign, even if the opposite is not necessarily a bad sign.  Looking for fruit colors is generally my first test, and if a place passes that’s often enough to say “Yes!” without worrying about other elements of the test.  But if still in doubt:

 

GelatoD
Poor quality fruit gelati. In the foreground left is strawberry and the right mixed berry (frutti di bosco), both in very creamy colors betraying the presence of dairy.
GelatoH
Good berry sorbets. Bottom right blueberry, bottom middle blackberry, bottom left sour cherry, top center strawberry, to its left raspberry, left of that an intentional dairy-mixed creamy frutti di bosco.

#2) Is the gelato mounded up in huge tall piles?  Gelato is soft and fluid, and over time it will naturally flow down, like pudding.  The only way to get it to stably stay in a big tall mound is either to freeze it solid (no longer yummy), or to add chemicals that help it remain solid (which can usually be tasted since there is no salt and little fat to conceal them).  Thus big, tall, enticing mounds of gelato can be a warning sign.  The best gelato will usually not stick above the rim of the bin, unless it has just been brought out.  Many very good gelato places don’t even have an open bin, but keep the gelato in round metal containers with lids deep inside the counter.  This means you can’t see the color of the gelato, but is generally a good sign, since anywhere that doesn’t show off the visuals of its gelato is usually good enough that it knows it doesn’t have to, and cares more about protecting the gelato than about showing it off.  You do need to watch out, though, since some places that serve cheap gelato delivered by vans from warehouses receive it in flat bins with plastic wrap over the top, which is then unwrapped and served.  So while tall mounts of gelato are a bad sign, flat bins aren’t a guarantee of quality.  Metal lids pretty much always mean good quality.

GelatoE
Tall, eye-catching mounds of colorful gelato, not a good sign. The green in the middle is either pistachio or mint – either way, that’s food coloring we see.
GelatoF
Flat bins of good gelato, in a range of natural colors. Soft and served with flat paddles, not curved scoops.
Gelato1
Round metal lids protecting top quality all-natural gelato, in Rivareno (Florence).

#3) Look at the flavors of fruit offered: are there seasonal fruits?  Once again this is a sign relevant to both fruit lovers and those indifferent to fruit.  All gelato places will produce lemon, strawberry, and other popular flavors year round, but a gelato place which pays careful attention to the seasons, producing watermelon, apricot, and peach in summer, fig, apple, and pear in autumn, citrus in winter, and diverse berries in spring is another sign that the people in charge care about quality, and are therefore willing to put in extra effort to master a fleeting seasonal fruit which will only be profitable for about a month a year.  This too bodes well for the quality of all the flavors.  Similarly if you see a bright orange apricot flavor offered in December, safe money says that is a 100% artificial flavor, and many of the others probably are as well.

GelatoB
July in Florence. Perche no…! serves blackberry (nearly black), fig (green and speckly since summer figs are young and not red yet), and vivid cantelope. If I saw blackberry in January or mandarin in July, I would worry.

#4) Look at the translucency of the lemon.  A small gelato place may not have any of the more telltale fruits, but lemon is pretty much always in stock.  Is the lemon an opaque, creamy white that looks rather like the white cream-based flavors?  If so, it is milk mixed with lemon extract.  If, on the other hand, the lemon is translucent white or subtly yellowish off-white, so the edges of it are almost transparent like the transparent outer edge of an ice cube that’s in the process of melting, then it is just water and fruit extract.  This again is a bit more difficult and expensive, because it requires better lemon juice to taste good, and is harder to make stay firm, so again it means the gelato makers have put in more effort.

Gelato8
The difference with the lemon is very subtle and hard to photograph. This image may be useful: this is not lemon. The cone on the left is pear and persimmon, while the cone on the right is fior di latte and mango yogurt. Notice how the fruits, on the left, are a little bit more translucent, while the dairy flavors on the right have a milk opacity all the way to their melty edges. Persimmon and mango are both vivid colors naturally, so vivid here, while the pear is subtle and almost white.
GelatoG
The pistachio on the right here is clearly very artificial. The lemon on the left, though, is translucent, and you can see where it’s melting at the bottom of hte bin that it is becoming clear, rather than milky, when liquid. This place (in Venice, where fresh ingredients are extra expensive) is using artificial flavors and additives, but still doing its best to make a passable lemon sorbet.

#5) Do they offer fior di latte, or fior di panna?  These flavors, made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, are the basic form of gelato.  It means they are the flavors that most clearly expose the quality of the milk, and most clearly betray the presence of artificial additives.  In Italy, virtually all gelato places will offer fior di latte, and any one that doesn’t is conspicuous.  Abroad, especially in the US, it is much more rare, because it exposes inferior ingredients, and few non-Italians know what this flavor is (Americans, for example, always ask for vanilla instead, because we’re not used to the idea that the pure white version of a frozen desert could be so good as to require no flavor, not even vanilla).  If a non-Italian gelato place offers fior di latte, it’s often a good sign.  If an Italian one offers fior di panna, that is a sign that they have put in extra serious effort into maximizing the flavor of their dairy (and cream is more expensive than milk) so also good.  But if they only offer fior di latte with chocolate chips, or with flavored syrup drizzled all over it, they could be showing off their syrups, or they could be covering inferior milk.

GelatoA
Center: fior di latte gelato drowned in flavored syrup. The syrups all over these (and the vivid color of the mint in the top left) are warning signs of lower basic quality underneath the sugary drizzle.

#6) Do they offer hazelnut (nocciola)?  This flavor is, gram for gram, usually the most expensive to produce, and to make genuinely powerful.  For that reason, many gelato places save funds by offering chocolate-hazelnut flavors, bacio or Nutella, but not pure hazelnut.  Others compensate with artificial or weak hazelnut.

Gelato13
An interesting case of what is obviously middle-quality gelato. To the left, “pear and Nutella” has used the supplemental flavors of chocolate and hazelnut to boost a pear which is obviously dairy-based. To the right, the vivid green flavor of the fig shows there are artificial colors but there are also flecks of peel, so this is real fig bolstered with additives. Not the best gelato, but far from the worst, and doing the best with what they have.

#7) Still in doubt?  Now you’re ready to ask to taste something to see if the place is good, but what?  Usually you’re going to order two or more flavors, so asking to taste them all in advance is often a bit much.  Traditionally people recommend tasting the hazelnut, since if it has a powerful, good flavor it means they are sparing no expense.  Tasting fior di latte can also work well, since it is the core of all the other cream-based flavors, so if it is strong and pure the rest will be. Another good choice can be to taste a fruit to see if it’s good quality, or anything unusual or subtle, like basil.

Gelato14What do I do if the gelato place is “bad” but it’s the only one around and I want a gelato?

Despair not!  You can still have a delicious experience at a mediocre gelato place, you just need to choose your flavors appropriately.  Usually if a gelato place is mediocre, it is working with inferior milk, and may have to put additives in the gelato to make it stay soft overnight because they can’t afford to make a new batch every day.  These problems can be tasted easily in pure, simple flavors like fior di latte or the fruit sorbets, but you can choose flavors that conceal them, and thus still have a good experience.  Chocolate is a reliable fallback in almost all circumstances.  Another thing to look out for in mediocre gelato places is a complicated flavor mixing two or more flavors, like tiramisu.  A place local to me here has very disappointing sorbets, but respectable chocolate, tiramisu, and pistachio, and remarkably good creative original flavors like root beer or “Elvis” (chocolate, banana, peanut butter) which are well balanced and conceal the mediocre undertones nicely.  Lemon is also a good fallback.  Whenever I have a rough travel day in Italy, I go to the train station gelato place and get a nice cold lemon, and even the terrible gelato they have in a train station is still miraculously curative after a rough day.

For more on gelato, see also my earlier post: Relax: have a gelato.

My next gelato-related project is to assemble an International Gelato Atlas listing gelato places around the world, to help everyone who has worked up an appetite find good gelato wherever you travel.  So far it has lots of listings for the USA and Italy but a few for a whole lot of other countries too.  If you know of a good gelato place, please post about it in the comments here, and I will add it to the list.  Please specify (A) location, (B) how much of the above test it passes, (C) if its gelato is all natural, (D) recommended flavors, (C) other attributes you consider worth mentioning, and (D) website if there is one.  Hopefully together we can make a world wide gelato map capable of combating the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!

“The Borgias” vs. “Borgia: Faith and Fear” (accuracy in historical fiction)

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

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

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

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tumblr_linfk0hHYg1qzg8hbo1_r1_500
Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

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

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.
BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

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

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

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

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

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.
Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

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

But what about historical accuracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final evaluation:

borgia-s1-brd-fr-2d
I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the Saint: Jerome and Cosmas & Damian

Alessandro_Gherardini_-_Saint_Jerome_penitentSaint Jerome

  • 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 will never win a "most cheerful Saint to hang out with" competition, but I still want to discuss linguistics with him.
Jerome will never win a “most cheerful Saint to hang out with” competition, but I still want to discuss linguistics with him.

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.

Jerome's lion sits patiently as he contemplates the ablative absolute.
Jerome’s lion sits patiently as he contemplates the Ablative Absolute.

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.

Here Jerome has no beard, and is wearing his robes, and has a nice office instead of a cave and a rock, but he still has the telltale lion and industrious attitude.
Here Jerome has no beard, and is wearing his robes, and has a nice office instead of a cave and a rock, but he still has the telltale lion and industrious attitude.

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.

"HELLO! I AM AN ANGEL! CAN YOU HEAR ME?!"
“I’M AN ANGEL! CAN YOU HEAR ME?!”

 

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.

0926cosmasanddamian1Saints 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.

Angelico_Fra_2010-The_Healing_of_Justinian_by_Saint_Cosmas_and_Saint_Damian_San_Marco_Altarpiece

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.

saint-cosmas-and-saint-damian-before-lisius-1440
Cosmas and Damian being sentenced in the persecution.

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:

Giorgio-Vasari-Cosimo

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.

Fra_Angelico_SanMarcoDormatory

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry: the Four Doctors and Saints’ Hats.

The Scariest Library

The Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Il_Giudizio_Universale

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

Last Judgment

the-last-judgement-jan-ii-provost

lastJudgmentGiotto

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

Michelangelo_-_Cristo_Juiz

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

JohnTheBaptistDetail

 SaintPeterDetailSistine

Lorenzo

Catherine

MichelangeloDetail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exposici—n

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxford’s Bodleian library. The current reading rooms have been moved, but one still gets to savor kings and gargoyles.
I took this photo standing on top of the dome of St. Peter's.  In a few seconds I will turn slightly left...
I took this photo standing on top of the dome of St. Peter’s. In a few seconds I will turn slightly left…
VaticanLibraryVoiewLabeled
And there is where I have to go to work when it’s Library day.

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

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

BritishLibrarySculpture

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

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

 Paradoximoron1

Paradoximoron2

 

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

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

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

But there is a fearsome alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Chance to Support Ex Urbe; Military Compass

Who is the author of this blog?  It remains a mystery, so I can continue generalize without footnotes unhindered, wa ha ha.
Who is the author of this blog? I choose to remain shrouded in mystery, so I can continue to generalize without footnotes unhindered.  Wa ha ha!

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:

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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:

MilitaryCompassManuscript

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.

Machiavelli V: Why We Keep Asking “Was Machiavelli an Atheist?”

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

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

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

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

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

An awesome Baroque tomb, in the Santa Croce cloister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also recommended:

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

Machiavelli IV: Julius II, the Warrior Pope

Pope Julius II (Portrait by Raphael)

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

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

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

Pope Sixtus IV

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

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

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

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

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

The Tomb of Alexander VI

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

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

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

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

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

The Della Rovere Arms

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

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

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

Julius takes the throne.

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

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

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

Julius, pope at last

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

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

Outcome if Julius II had been virtuous:

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

Outcome if Julius II is a treacherous deceiver:

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

Conclusion: the Virtuous Prince is not more successful.

Plate decorated with the della Rovere oak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machiavelli III: Rise of the Borgias

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

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

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

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

The Handbook of Princes:

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

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

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

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

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

Unmatched in Infamy:

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

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

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

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

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

Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI

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

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

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

The Papal Arms of Alexander VI

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

A Pope Like No Other:

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

The ceiling of Alexander’s apartment.

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

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

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

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

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

Lucrezia Borgia

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

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

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

The Dark Prince Rises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coins minted by you-know-which-pope.

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

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

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

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

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

Continued in Machavelli IV: Julius II, the Warrior Pope