Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City

How a mad monk spawned our ideas of egalitarianism.

Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City
Paul Strathern
Jonathan Cape, 448pp, £25

"Don't be so gloomy," said Harry Lime, the sinister anti-hero of Graham Greene's Third Man, "in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they
had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Lime's history may not have been entirely accurate - the Swiss were a notably martial people during the early modern period, for one thing - but in suggesting that the Italian Renaissance was born of savage conflict, he was on to something.

A familiar view has it that, with the Renaissance, a highly civilised part of Europe turned away from medieval fanaticism to embrace a modern notion of the world. The reality was more complicated. The boundaries between medieval and modern in Renaissance Italy were neither clear nor fixed, but intensely contested, with some of the protagonists adopting stances that might seem paradoxical from the perspective of many people today. The ruling passions of the modern world - the ideal of equality and the demand for popular government, for example - were often most clearly visible among the Renaissance's enemies, while the Renaissance was in some ways the opposite of a modern movement. No one exposes these contradictions more clearly than Girolamo Savonarola, the nondescript Dominican monk who rose from provincial obscurity to galvanise Florence at the end of the 15th century, only to perish in the upheaval he fomented.

Savonarola's story overturns many conventional notions - not least the idée fixe that says fundamentalism is a revolt against modernity. But the life of the gentle-mannered friar who terrorised congregations with his lurid sermons on the punishment they would receive in the hereafter for their lust and greed is a fascinating study in itself, and Paul Strathern's Death in Florence grips the reader from the first page.

As Strathern shows, this turbulent cleric was far from the ignorant obscurantist of urban legend. Savonarola was on friendly terms with some of the leading figures of Renaissance learning, including the intellectual adventurer and humanist Pico della Mirandola, a member of a circle of freethinking minds that had formed around Lorenzo the Magnificent at the Palazzo Medici. The author notes:

The worldly philosopher and the ascetic theologian - in so many ways such opposites - indubitably continued to have one thing in common: the exceptional depth of their theological knowledge. They also had another, somewhat surprising, element in common: their extensive knowledge of unorthodox philosophical thinking.

Like many others in the vanguard of Renaissance thinking, Pico was attracted by esoteric traditions, particularly the Kabbalah, and while Savonarola never followed Pico in this direction the two thinkers spent many hours together "piously philosophising" (as Pico put it) in the Dominican's monastic cell. Savonarola was intellectually cultivated to a high degree; but that did not prevent him from launching a wave of book-burning, encouraging the destruction of "immoral art" and preaching that gay sex (which had been tolerated in Florence) should be an offence punishable by death.

When the ruling Medici family was toppled after French forces invaded the city in 1494, Savonarola became the lawgiver in a type of direct democracy, his anathemas against vice enforced by roaming bands of militant young men. The fiery monk's apocalyptic vision of divine punishment was reproduced in a Bonfire of the Vanities, in which "anything that brought pleasure was fair game" - playing cards or dice, wearing wigs, jewellery, perfume or brightly dyed dresses and reading Petrarch's love poems were among the items that he condemned as sinful.

But Savonarola's position as de facto leader of a republic of virtue did not last: his army of young followers turned against him, he was accused of heresy and excommunicated, arrested and tortured, then executed by hanging and burning. The gibbet on which he had been hanged was consumed by the flames along with the charred body, so that no relic of the heretic remained. The burning was begun by a man who, Strathern reports, burst from the crowd and lit the brushwood, exclaiming: "Now at last I can burn the friar who would have liked to burn me!"

It is an arresting and horrifying tale, and Strathern tells it with immense skill and verve. The interpretation of the Dominican friar's life that he presents is equally thought-stirring. "Savonarola," he writes, "can be seen as the precursor of a tradition that would go on to produce such figures as Luther, Cromwell, Robespierre, even Lenin."

For a time at least, the monk seems to have believed that Florence might become what no other city had been - a place in which virtue ruled. It is true that fundamentalists invoke an imagined past when faith was not yet corrupted; but they do so in order to open the way to a new world that is better than anything that has ever existed. Savonarola's followers have more in common with Mao's Red Guards than they do with the Inquisition. Far from being a medieval throwback, he inaugurated the modern revolutionary project that aims to reorder the polity on an egalitarian and puritan model.

In the folklore of secular rationalism, the artists and scientists of the time turned back to the Greeks and Romans for instruction and inspiration. So they did, but what they took from the ancient world was a type of humanism quite different from the kind that emerged with the Enlightenment.

Despite all his prudent protestations, few people have ever been more emancipated from Christianity than Machiavelli; but there is nothing in this prototypical Renaissance thinker of the belief in human progress that animates later humanists such as Mill and Marx. Machiavelli believed that history follows a cyclical pattern in which old civilisations decay and die, while new ones are born in chaos and violence.

The Renaissance humanist Michel de Montaigne had a similar view but did not share Machiavelli's interest in power. Like the thinkers of the ancient world, the artists and scholars of the Renaissance accepted that the peaks of human achievement could be reached again and again as history moved on; but they would never be surpassed, because human nature was constant and unchanging. If it is the belief that humanity is advancing and improving which defines modernity, then it was Savonarola who was modern, in the full sense.

There is some controversy about the source of Harry Lime's celebrated remark. Most likely it originated not with Greene, who wrote the script of the film, but with Orson Welles, who acted the part. Whoever the author may have been, Lime's quip captures an uncomfortable truth. The Swiss may have produced more than cuckoo clocks, but it was the creative turbulence of the Renaissance that gave us the murderous modern world.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book is "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death" (Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide