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Breaking the Renaissance myth

Culture and the universal genius were not the only things to thrive in this supposed golden age – so too did slavery and warfare.

We still use the word “medieval” as a term of opprobrium: all sorts of things, from Islamist terrorism to faulty plumbing, are described as such when we want to signal a range of negative aspects. Something “medieval” is archaic, life-denying, sub-rational, obstinately ill-informed or incompetent, and so on. And by contrast, “renaissance” is usually a sunnier word. It evokes exuberance and creativity, intellectual freshness. A “renaissance man” (and it usually is a man) is someone endowed with an almost superhuman galaxy of qualities and skills.

As many scholars have pointed out, this odd bit of chronological snobbery is largely a 19th-century creation, from the days when the Renaissance was seen as the precursor of the Age of Reason, the moment somewhere around the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century which saw the beginnings of Western civilisation’s liberation from dogma and bigotry. It is not news for historians that the story is more complex than this – or that it was also a period (particularly in Italy) of ceaseless and destructive warfare.

The publishers of Catherine Fletcher’s book have described it as an “alternative history of the Italian Renaissance”, but it is in fact a finely-written, engaging and clear essay in rather straightforward narrative history. It is none the worse for that, but is it really the case that we have failed to notice the “stranger and darker” side of Italian politics in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as they suggest?

Professor Fletcher’s introductory chapter quite rightly notes that we are familiar enough with the stereotype of violent and corrupt machinations in Italian courts of the period (thanks to historical soaps about the Borgias and the Tudors), and that we need to penetrate more fully those systemic aspects of the society that colluded with or promoted slavery, sexual exploitation and the like. This book succeeds admirably in highlighting some of the features and figures of the period that have indeed slipped below (or never been spotted on) the radar.

Fletcher is particularly good, for example, on the initially surprising fact that women were more likely to wield political influence in princely states than in republics (think of the formidable figures of Lucrezia Borgia or Isabella d’Este). Elections in republics reflected classical prototypes that gave no public role to women. Elective rule typically produced a whole cohort of male leaders, in contrast to the princely state where a ruler’s spouse was expected to pick up the reins when her husband was away at war. Princely and aristocratic wives who ran their husband’s domain in their absence or after their death constitute a formidable cohort of influential rulers.

More broadly, the opportunities offered by war are a major theme in Fletcher’s narrative: we learn a great deal about the developments in military technology that changed the face of conflict in Italy over the period covered by this book. Fletcher traces very skilfully the way in which the creation of more sophisticated firearms for soldiers encouraged greater pay differentials, which placed some strain on small Italian states heavily dependent on mercenary troops for their perennial conflicts over territorial advantage and dynastic security.

This, in its turn, increased the attractions for Italian states of searching for powerful foreign allies who could afford standing armies of their own and were only too eager to go in search of power and profit in Italy. One of the most important shifts in Italian politics between the relatively peaceful situation in the mid-15th century and the blood-soaked chaos of the first half of the 16th, is the scale of foreign intervention. This began with the French attempt to secure the throne of Naples in the mid 1490s, when the ruler of Milan and the Pope encouraged the French king (Charles VIII) to supplant a Neapolitan monarch to whom they were hostile. It was a fateful start to decades of opportunistic foreign involvement in local Italian conflicts.

Italy’s political history in the Middle Ages had seen a fair amount of this already, especially in the conflict between pro-papal states or groups and the supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, but the emergence of strong local dynasties in many Italian cities had stabilised things somewhat in the 1400s. By 1500, however, the stage was set for the peninsula to become a battlefield for European powers (especially France and Spain) to conduct their struggles, at an enormous cost to lives and resources.

This cost was intensified by new technology; it is poignant to read about contemporary campaigns (and even legislation in some Italian states) to limit the production and use of new varieties of firearms, and laments at their evil effects in warfare. The Spanish were noted for their reliance on firepower, and although it is possible to exaggerate the role of firearms in the subjugation of the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, some Italians – and others like the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne – were not backward in characterising the Spanish campaigns there as barbaric, precisely in their use of overwhelming firepower against underequipped opponents.

Against such a background, it is not surprising to learn that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were in demand for their services as military engineers no less than as artists. Both were involved in large-scale projects, and da Vinci famously left designs for assorted weaponry, including what is often described as a machine gun. It was certainly the case that artists were expected to have a good basic grasp of engineering, and that the boundaries between art, architecture and engineering were very fluid.

The stereotype of the “renaissance man” is accurate to the extent that the culture of the age characteristically did not favour specialisation, but the record of actual achievement is patchy. Some of da Vinci’s military designs were more or less feasible, others were not; the elegance and flair of his sketches should not mislead us into thinking that all these projects represented some visionary anticipation of modern machinery, and it is better to see them as brilliant thought experiments in solving engineering problems rather than exact designs.

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All this underlines the immense power of the Renaissance myth: from the 16th century onwards, the image of the tormented multifaceted genius, soaring ahead of the conventions of the age, has left us with a rather lopsided view of figures such as da Vinci. Giorgio Vasari’s famous Lives of the Artists (which first appeared in 1550) helped to fix the image of the inspired creative spirit – and to create a story in which Italy (and especially Florence) is the epicentre of all that is noble and truly humane in the rebirth of civilisation after centuries of barbarity. It was Vasari’s narrative that was embraced so eagerly by 19th-century European cultural historians.

It continues to mould our understanding not only of the history of the period but our sense of what an artist and a genius really should be, and it would have been good to have in this book a slightly fuller account of how Vasari shaped the cultural “soft power” of the Italian Renaissance across the centuries – as described by Fletcher in an insightful final chapter. The Renaissance model of genius becomes a kind of witness to the sublime nature of Western civilisation as a whole; 16th-century Italy joins Periclean Athens or Marcus Aurelius’s Rome as a paradigm of timeless and universal human excellence.

The force of Fletcher’s narrative is not so much in offering a radical new evaluation of Italian Renaissance civilisation as in insisting that we see it as a cluster of cultural strategies and techniques within an exceptionally turbulent political milieu. This does not mean for a moment that we relegate da Vinci or Michelangelo to some dramatically inferior position, but it might prompt us to greater caution about the way in which the Renaissance myth has served a rather dubious geopolitical agenda.

Fletcher spells out at many points the role of Renaissance Italy in the great drama and tragedy of the age: the beginnings of the subjugation and enslavement of indigenous peoples on both sides of the Atlantic – through finance, seafaring expertise and, not least, by way of the legitimation given by the Papacy to various aspects of the colonial enterprise. As her final paragraph puts it, we need to be aware of where the great works of the period come from, and how their initial reception was “curated” by figures like Vasari.

Recognising artistic excellence is not an excuse for failing to see the political and economic factors that make it practically possible – and this is bound to be shot through with a degree of moral shadow, where those factors include slavery and exploitation. A great achievement is not necessarily a timeless ideal; we can admire and even be astonished by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without using it or its designer as a universal measure of human creativity.

If we demythologise the Renaissance a little, we may learn to do more justice to what preceded it. Professor Fletcher has a brief discussion of scientific advances in the mid 16th century, especially in anatomy, navigational skills and botany – the latter two spurred on by the fresh stimulus of colonial travel and discovery. But the fact that this treatment is relatively brief and relates to a period rather later than the “high Renaissance” should give us pause if we are inclined to think of this as an epoch of spectacular scientific progress.

Many scholars have pointed out that the 15th and early 16th centuries are a rather stagnant period in many areas of natural science compared with some parts of the Middle Ages, when astronomy, mechanics and logic made substantial advances. The great 16th-century exception, Copernicus’s treatise of 1543 on the circulation of planets around the sun, was not a dramatic and total rejection of earlier astronomical method based on new scientific evidence, but a refinement designed to clear up the mathematics of charting the heavenly bodies. It was received with interest and some enthusiasm at the time, but was clearly not seen as a radical departure from the principles of Aristotle. Only with slightly later figures like Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) did actual observation of the heavens play a decisive part in the argument.

The uncomfortable truth is that the age of the Renaissance contributed very little to innovation in science. This was largely because the revival of classical learning and languages concentrated attention on what was called humanitas – literary and rhetorical accomplishment (hence our designation of some academic subjects as “humanities”) – rather than on empirical observation or technical skill in logic and mathematics.

Later medieval philosophy had become achingly technical, and the recovery of classical literature offered a welcome relief. The writings of the medievals were mocked for their stylistic awfulness; and the exhilaration and enthusiasm for the Platonic tradition that arose in the later 15th century was, as much as anything, an enthusiasm for a philosophy that more obviously promised moral and spiritual insight, rather than the virtuoso analysis of concepts. So might a 20th-century student have felt on reading Jean-Paul Sartre after an unbroken diet of logical positivism in undergraduate philosophy.

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For good and ill, the Renaissance as an intellectual phenomenon was not a revolt in the name of “reason” or “liberty” or any such Enlightenment motive. It was an excited recovery of the ideals of formal elegance and proportion in writing and building. It was also the flowering of a sort of New Age fascination with ancient and hidden wisdom. The great strength of Professor Fletcher’s book is that it helps us keep the Renaissance in proportion, rather than seeing it as either the decisive foundation for Western modernity (it was in many ways backward-looking, its energy linked to models of revival and recovery rather than advance), or a melodrama of Olympian geniuses and (literally) Machiavellian villains.

To learn that Lucrezia Borgia owned a mozzarella factory is somehow a useful corrective to the melodrama; to know that some of da Vinci’s supposed inventions were Heath Robinson fantasies balances the myth of universal genius.

Reading this engaging book helps us to appreciate the undoubted exuberance of the period without signing up to a distinctly shopworn narrative of some triumphant awakening from dogmatic slumbers, destined to change the face of global humanity – whether global humanity liked it or not. 

The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance
Catherine Fletcher
Bodley Head, 432pp, £25

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 appears in the 29 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak