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Renaissance reflections


The Devil’s Broker: Seeking Gold, God and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy, by Frances Stonor Saunders, Fourth Estate
Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, by Tim Parks, Atlas Books, WW Norton
From Heaven to Arcadia: The Sacred and the Profane in the Renaissance, by Ingrid D. Rowland, New York Review Books

What keeps our interest in Renaissance Italy alive – after so many scholarly tomes, so many tourist brochures – is its ravishing material residue. The politics and history are intricate, venal, violent and often repetitive; the literature is mostly inaccessible (much of it in Latin). What remains arresting, after all these centuries, are the paintings, the sculpture, the buildings, the civic vistas. The sheer accumulation of beauty still overwhelms the visitor, as it overwhelmed Stendhal two hundred years ago. But even more stunning than the quantity is the variety: a tour through the churches and museums of the Renaissance capitals is an encounter with an extraordinary array of individual visions. What makes the period special, and accounts for much of its continuing fascination, is the variegation, the proliferation of local and personal signatures, the kaleidoscopic shifts in taste and technique.

It is this forceful entry of individual style into our world that has led generations of commentators to see Renaissance Italy as the birthplace of our own society, the laboratory of modernity. This was the thesis adumbrated with synoptic grandeur by Jacob Burckhardt in his Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, published in 1860. Burckhardt’s thesis has been shaken by reams of subsequent scholarship, but it retains the resilience of a partial truth. The individualist theme informs both Frances Stonor Saunders’ convincing, carefully-etched portrait of the English mercenary, John Hawkwood, and Tim Parks’ much less satisfactory struggle with the mysteries of the Medici fortune. It is also echoed in Ingrid Rowland’s collection of art historical essays, many previously published in the New York Review of Books.

In The Devil’s Broker, Saunders sees her subject (immortalised in Paolo Uccello’s ferocious fresco in Florence’s Duomo) as emblematic of “the age of the new man, of the renaissance man, who willed himself into existence”. Hawkwood was the second son of minor Essex gentry who sought his fortune on the battlefields of France. With a hiatus in the Hundred Years War in 1360, he was one of thousands of armed men who found themselves overseas, footloose and, literally, “free-lance” (the origin of the term, as Saunders notes). Many assembled in the White Company, a professional army without a war to fight, loyal only to its own interests. They plundered the countryside and laid siege to the Papacy in its exile at Avignon. Having been bought off by the Pope, they moved south, and found rich pickings among the welter of Italian city-states, with their internal factionalism and perpetually shifting diplomatic alignments.

The English marauders soon acquired a reputation for military efficiency and barbarous cruelty. The single-minded spirit in which they pursued their business is bluntly expressed in a letter written to a papal legate by a mercenary captain: “Our manner of life in Italy is well known – it is to rob, plunder and murder those who resist. … those who value their lives can buy peace and quiet by heavy tribute. Therefore, if the Lord Legate wishes to dwell at unity with us then let him do like the rest of the world – that is to say, Pay! Pay!”

In 1364, Urban V denounced the mercenaries as “sons of iniquity”. Within twelve months, he was employing them. During his thirty year career in Italy, Hawkwood led armies for and against the papacy, for and against the Dukes of Milan and for and against the Commune of Florence – and in each instance was well paid for it. Petrarch admonished the pope: “Those you thought you had appeased with gold, you actually roused with it, as their lust for plunder is boundless. They have no fear of god, no respect for men, no hesitation in deceiving and finally no shame.”

The mercenary companies thrived amid anarchy, but could do so only because they were themselves well-organised private corporations, mobile communities with a sophisticated division of labor. Along with the fighting men, there were carpenters, leather-workers, tailors, cooks, prostitutes, blacksmiths, musicians, accountants and notaries. The captains – of whom Hawkwood was pre-eminent in his time – were required to display logistical and strategic skills, and if they failed would be deserted or removed by their armies.

Saunders’ book unravels the complex military and political manoeuvres that made Hawkwood one of the most influential figures of his age, a man who could install or topple regimes, dispense or destroy vast estates. She also brings to life another highly individualistic wheeler-dealer of the era, St Catherine of Siena, whose catalogue of neuroses (eg. drinking pus from the sores of the dying) enhanced her career as an agent of papal politics and opponent of republican and popular forces in both Siena and Florence.

Saunders notes the similarities between the era’s paid killers (many imported) and its ruthless financiers (mostly domestic). Both were pioneer entrepreneurs. Among their other innovations, Italian Renaissance city-states created the apparatus of finance capital – bills of exchange, holding companies, marine insurance, double-entry book keeping. But the city-state was also always a problematic environment for merchants and bankers. “We worship freedom more than anything else, as the end and goal of our commonwealth,” insisted the Tuscan humanist, Leonardo Bruni,

During Hawkwood’s sojourn in Italy, the lower orders periodically rebelled not only against the domination of popes and feudal lords but also against the nascent capitalist class. In 1378, a woolworkers’ revolt in Florence succeeded in installing, for forty-one days, a radical popular government. The regime cut taxes on essential items, suspended small debts and put a stop to hoarding. The merchants and the craft guilds coalesced to put down the rebellion, but its memory haunted the city. Indeed, the fear of popular revolution often kept together the otherwise belligerent elite factions, and was a critical factor in the Medici’s gradual monopolisation of state power.

In his breezy chronicle of the Medici fortune, Tim Parks is at pains to untangle the methods by which the family amassed its wealth (much of which he attributes to currency speculation), as well as the increasingly flagrant political interventions that led to its fiscal demise. Frustratingly, his research is skewed by an insistence on a paradigm that is less revealing than he thinks. Struck by the disparity between the church’s condemnation of usury and the widespread practise of this putative vice, he elevates what he calls “metaphysics” to a primary explanatory category. Each apparent contradiction in human behaviour is explained by invoking the curious potency of supra-rational ideas, embodied above all in Christian faith. So for the Medicis, the appeal of art was that it offered a means to reconcile “banker and beatitude”, “the conflicting claims of Christian devotion and secular fame”. Art, Parks says, was “money rehabilitated”.

This emphasis leads him to misread some of the history of the period (in particular, the Medici’s relationship with the papacy). Parks oscillates between treating hypocrisy as an eternal human trait (hardly a compelling insight) and as a peculiar vice of Renaissance Italy (which superimposes the assumptions of one age on another). What’s lost here is the specific interaction between ideologies and social power, both of which were sharply contested during this period.

The Medici’s century-long progress from bankers to autocrats was stubbornly resisted by the people they sought to rule. Cosimo, the canniest of the dynasty, was exiled in 1433 because, his rivals claimed, he was setting himself above his fellow citizens. After his return the following year, he worked patiently to undermine the Republic’s constitution, rigging the secret ballots, bribing officials and keeping Milanese troops on stand-by for emergencies. Despite the power of the merchants and the mercenaries, Florence’s popular republican tradition repeatedly resurfaced. And each time the ancient, quasi-democratic mechanisms of government were resuscitated, the rich would find themselves more heavily taxed. No wonder Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo (Il Magnifico) commented: “In Florence things can go badly for the rich if they don’t run the state.” The grandiose palace built for the family by the humanist architect Michelozzo was windowless on the ground-floor – a fortress against their fellow Florentines’ rage. In his last years, Lorenzo could move nowhere in the city without an armed guard (paid for by the state). When the republic was restored in 1494, with Lorenzo’s heir chased from the city, the family’s palace was sacked and its assets confiscated. The Medici were only able to return, years later, courtesy of foreign military might. As Ingrid Rowland remarks, “We have only to look at Michelangelo’s David, carved for the revived Florentine Republic in 1504, to know what it felt like to be rid of the Medici, and to appreciate the civic sprit their dynasty had subdued with its sinister charm.”

Like Saunders, Parks works hard to make his account appealing to non-specialists. Towards that end he adopts an informal, novelistic style. Unfortunately, it’s too often padded out with banalities (“Downtown Florence is a busy place … ”) and statements of the obvious (“in general luxury goods were expensive… people died young … the era of the sports celebrity had not yet arrived… ”).

Stylistically, Ingrid Rowland’s essays are a refreshing antidote – erudite without being academic, warmly personal without being lazily over-familiar. What appeals above all is her sense that there is still much nourishment to be gained from an intimate acquaintance with the art and the society that created it. While she is alert to the historical context in which the art was produced, and the broadening of our perception of that context thanks to recent studies of women, workers and minorities, she returns always to the splendour of the artwork itself. She is sensitive to the forces driving both artist and patron, the contribution of the specialist and the response of the laity.

All three of these books ponder over the tensions between sacred and profane, religious and secular. But, as Rowland makes clear in her essays on Botticelli, Titian and Coreggio, one of the features that makes the Italian Renaissance and its visual legacy compelling is that the boundaries between these domains are blurred; there is an inter-penetration that seems to defy our assumed categories. This was an age in which astrology and alchemy were considered sciences, and architecture and mathematics endowed with mystical properties.

Reading these books together is a reminder that the Italian Renaissance isn’t a static entity; it’s a process, an unfolding of contradictory historical trends. Here the birth of capitalism in the 11th and 12th century communes is accompanied by the emergence of a radical critique of capital: in 1206, St. Francis disrobes himself in Assisi’s public square, renounces his merchant father’s wealth and unleashes a movement of human-centred Christianity that is as integral to the art of the period as the patronage of the plutocrats. Over the next three hundred years, the accumulation of wealth and the desire to spend it conspicuously fuels the production of artworks on an ever more lavish scale; yet during the same period, art is gradually endowed with an unprecedented extra-monetary significance, artists are elevated from the status of craftsman to philosophers. Finally, the historical upshot of an era widely associated with middle class assertion, social mobility and individual freedom is several centuries of backward-looking aristocratic authoritarianism; the city-states are overrun by foreign armies and the peninsula subjected to French, Austrian and Spanish imperialisms; and in a further paradox, it is at this very moment of national humiliation, the early 16th century, that Titian, Raphael, Corregio and Michelangelo create their masterworks. The age of perspective, pictorial rationality and anatomical observation ends with the visionary dissolution of space and the expressionistic distortion of the human figure.

The mercenary, the banker, the artist: these appear to be archetypal self-made men, embodiments of the individualism we like to see as the foundation of our civilisation. But the temptation to equate individualism, and artistic freedom, with the advance of a precocious capitalism should be resisted, as should the identification of individualism with the availability of a choice of consumer goods. As the saga of the Italian renaissance demonstrates, individualism emerges not only from the challenge of deracinated finance to fixed feudal hierarchies, but also in the struggle for human dignity against the power of money.