Chapter 9: Italy, the new center of the world in the Renaissance
9.1 The new influence of Italy in Europe
The 13th century saw clearly a reemergence of the Italian peninsula as the center of the new Europe: Catholic, under the spiritual leadership of the pope in Rome, and sitting on the west and north side of the Mediterranean, which was growing separate from the southeast side in the hands of the Muslims. Byzantium—ever weaker and more in the hands of its former subjects, the Genoese and the Venetians—struggled to survive, ever afraid of its old enemies, the Islamic Arabs and Turks, and of its bullying Italian allies. In the new environment, neither Italy as such in its entirety nor any given Italian city or territory established a true powerful empire (as it had happened with Rome before). Different cities, always in competition with one another, stretched their trade, influence, and at times even armies out of their old region and deep into the eastern Mediterranean, challenging the Muslims and replacing Byzantium. With the wealth of their prey and trade, they built a network of commerce, money, and power that took over basically all of what is modern Europe. The influence of the Italians then is rightly attributed to their seminal contribution to the rise of modern finance and capitalism. Money and the ability to make money was the basis of power: armies could be bought and sold, but the ability to make money and commerce—and thus spread wealth and welfare around—could not be conquered by armies. Also for this reason the money-making small Italian states prevailed for a few centuries over the larger and more populous states of Europe and the Mediterranean. For these small Italian states the territorial expansion was not as important as trade and economic expansion, one of the keys of modern capitalistic countries. This had started with the First Crusade, which broke the Muslim and Byzantine hold on the eastern Mediterranean and greatly revived trade with the Near East. Arab vessels brought luxury goods from the East to ports on the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. From there they were shipped by caravan to Alexandria, Acre, and Joppa, and from those ports the merchants of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa transported the goods to Italy on their way to the markets of Europe. Other trade routes from Asia came overland, passing through Baghdad and Damascus and on to ports, such as Tyre and Sidon, in the crusader states. From Venice and other northern Italian cities, trade flowed through such passes as the Brenner, sharply reducing the earlier business of the Rhone Valley route and the famous fairs of Champagne. Fairs were important and elaborate events held either seasonally or annually in specified areas of each European country. The feudal law of the region was set aside during a fair, and in its place was substituted a new commercial code called the “law merchant.” Special courts, with merchants acting as judges, settled all disputes. Fairs also greatly stimulated the revival of a money economy and early forms of banking and credit. The resurgence of trade in Europe was a prime cause of the revival of towns, but towns also stimulated trade by providing greater markets and producing goods for the merchants to sell. Greater wealth led to population growth, which in turn brought about the cultivation of wastelands, clearing of forests, and draining of marshes, which all lead to greater food production and thus a further increase in population. The merchants and artisans organized themselves into guilds, which were used for business, social, and political purposes. The merchant guilds ensured a monopoly of trade within a given locality. Alien merchants were supervised closely and made to pay tolls. Disputes among merchants were settled at the guild court according to its own legal code based on the Roman law. Guilds also tried to make sure that the customers were not cheated: they checked weights and measures and insisted upon a standard quality for goods. To allow only a legitimate profit, the guild fixed a “just price,” which was fair to both producer and customer. All these rules were set with the idea of creating better conditions for trade and commerce. The general aims of the craft guilds were the same as those of the merchant guilds: the creation of a monopoly and enforcement of a set of trade rules. Each guild had a monopoly on a certain article in a particular town, and every effort was made to prevent competition between members of the same guild. The guild restricted its number of members, regulated the quantity and quality of the goods produced, and set prices. It also enforced regulations to protect the consumer from bad workmanship and inferior materials. In the 13th century, these people in northern Italy had become a powerful, independent, and self-assured group, whose interest in trade was to revolutionize social, economic, and political history. The members of this class were called burghers and came to be called bourgeoisie. Also associated with the rise of towns and the bourgeoisie was the decline of serfdom and the manorial system prevalent in Europe. A townsman’s social rank was based on money and goods, rather than birth and land. The Italian cities had learned from Byzantium the difficult art of political powers’ equilibrium. Byzantium had to balance threats coming from all directions, and so soon leaned on the Italian cities, joining hands to fight the German or the Byzantine emperor but quick to push against one another once bigger external challenges were over. This created a slightly unstable social and political situation, which was actually beneficial for the development of trade and of individual initiative. This also shaped a situation where singular social and cultural personalities emerged. They were able to spread vast influence on their own without much structural backing. The period starting then is called Renaissance, and its history perhaps can be best told as the history of these personalities.
Yet before delving into them it is worth considering a cultural element that became very important – a rediscovery of the past. New and better trade and ties with the east brought back to Europe the Greek language originals of Greek history, literature and philosophy. These were known already in the west through their Latin or Arabic translations, however greater and more convenient access to the originals created a whole new sensibility. It is hard to appreciate this in our times, but here perhaps a comparison with China and our present situation can be useful. What would happen in the Western world now if a trove of documents from the Etruscans or the Carthaginians, two civilizations carefully and systematically erased from history by their Roman conquerors, were recovered and interpreted? What if these records offered completely new testimony on past events and the cultural and philosophical debates of the time? Or better, what if new texts were discovered with direct accounts of Jesus’s ascension to heaven three days after his crucifixion? Billions of followers of Christianity and Islam would have their lives changed forever by believing or denying the documents. In fact, history and the interpretation of history has a place in the Chinese value system equivalent to that of gods—or god—in the Mediterranean tradition, and new material on Chinese antiquity could shake the future into which China is projecting itself in this critical moment. New records have been indeed found in the past decades, and now for the first time professor Sarah Allan draws on them to offer what amounts to a completely new interpretation of the cultural debate in ancient China. Sarah Allan introduces four short texts, which have been recovered in recent archeological findings. With massive scholarship that draws also on the work of Qinghua University’s Research and Conservation Center for Excavated Texts headed by Li Xueqin and other Chinese specialists, she offers edited Chinese versions of the manuscripts (originally from disordered and damaged bamboo strips written in semi-obscure regional graphs), translates them into English, and interprets them. The four offer a worldview very different from the usual Confucian-Legalist tradition that has dominated Chinese culture for over 2,000 years, since unification by the first Qin emperor, at the turn of the 3rd century BC. According to the extant tradition, the rule was to be passed to a blood heir, a son, at the death of the sovereign. The new documents conversely maintain that the reign should be passed from the ruler to a sage of his choice before the king’s demise, when the ruler feels he is getting weak. This issue is also present in the living tradition but in a very partial and isolated way, and it was fleshed out noticeably only by Mozi, a thinker whose influence disappeared after the Han imperial unification in the 2nd century BC. Allan notices that this theme is not isolated: it goes together with the issue of caring (ai) impartially for all people, not simply for one’s family or the state hierarchy with the king at the top. This also comes together with a stronger religious streak, where ming stands for natural order, not the worldly Mandate of Heaven to be conquered by the righteous king; music is the sound of the spirits through the many natural noises, wind, leaves in the forests, the chirping of crickets; and centrality (zhong) is a concept resounding of divinity, not just of human ethics. This again is linked with the vision of Heaven endowed with a will, as described in the tianzhi (Will of Heaven) chapters of Mozi. This idea is not just a religious belief but has practical consequences. The newfound records recognize that the passage of power from king to son can be messy because after the demise of the parent, different sons will fight between themselves for power, and there is no guarantee that any them will be capable of ruling. Conversely abdication to a sage creates a much smoother passage of power and avoids the risk of the violent revolutions and uprisings, which have punctuated Chinese history for millennia. The four texts in Allan’s book prove that all these ideas were common in the 4th century BC, and there was an open, unresolved philosophical/political debate on succession. Should it be from father to son, based on an ethical system grounded in human nature and human support? Or should it be from ruler to sage, based a numinous belief of the divinity of the natural order, of which men are part? This debate becomes seminal for China, akin to that in Greece and ancient Rome between the power of the aristocracy and the démos, the plebeians. Even now, aristocratic and democratic parties are vying for power and attention in the West. Chinese tradition might then be seen as a majority in favor of the rule of the hereditary versus the “party” for the abdication. Of course, as the four newly excavated texts prove, positions were also different within these two camps. But what is important is that one idea, the abdication to a sage, which had strong currency at one time, was later almost totally erased from the tradition. This in turn puts in doubt the subsequent cultural tradition of China and calls for its deeper reexamination now when China is becoming a global power and needs to rediscover its past to prepare for its future. This could then be the tip of the iceberg of a very important cultural moment in China, similar to when Italy and Europe rediscovered the Greek tradition from the Greek originals, and not from their Latin or Arabic translations. That was the beginning of the Renaissance, and a similar effect might be possible in China, if the Chinese intellectual elites are brave enough to deeply rethink their past in the light of the new findings. These scripts prove that the Confucian-Legalistic tradition is just one of China’s legacies, and others, so far buried in the past, might also be quite important. This is especially true since China, in President Xi Jinping’s recently published document on literature and arts , is called to find inspiration in its past and in foreign examples. After all, Deng Xiaoping abdicated his power to Jiang Zemin, and most recently Xi gained his position thanks to the abdication of his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Although it is unlikely this was inspired by the newly found ancient records, unavailable to these leaders, it seems that the recent political choices were taken as those leaders felt some element in the cultural DNA around them.
9.2 Francis of Assisi
The first of personality, also chronologically, was that of a saint and roaming teacher in many ways similar to one of the Buddhist masters wandering about China at the same time and spreading hope and learning. Francis (1181–October 3, 1226) gave a new sense to the Christian tradition in the West and pushed a reform of the church and society. He preached poverty at a time when Italians were gaining pride in getting rich, and this call for attention to the poor also helped spread a new sense of solidarity between different classes: the rich were even more expected to provide for the poor in times of need. The example of his life and teaching inspired many artists of the Renaissance. He was the son of a prosperous silk merchant and as a young man fought in war. His father took to calling him Francesco (“the Frenchman”), possibly in honor of his commercial success in France. In 1204, a serious illness led him to a spiritual crisis. He started nursing lepers, joined poor in begging at church doors, and then renounced his father and his patrimony (a huge step for the times, even more than presently), and embraced the life of a penitent. On February 24, 1209, Francis heard a sermon about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them and that they should take no money with them. He joined the poor, began to preach repentance and within a year Francis had eleven followers. They spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, and thus making a deep impression upon audiences with their earnest exhortations. In 1209 Francis’s order sought and received papal authorization. This is a very important step in the Franciscan trajectory. Many new religious orders sprang up at about at the time, seeking greater equality and fighting the new wealth, like the Waldensians, established just a few decades earlier between northwest Italy and southeast France. The Waldensians also preached about poverty and equality but did not seek papal recognition and violently opposed the church hierarchy, whose interests were bound together with those of the old aristocracy. Eventually Rome called for a crusade against the Waldensians, who were branded heretics, and almost totally exterminated. Francis spoke and presented himself much like a Waldensian, but because he sought papal approval, the church and the European society of the time used his preaching to renew themselves. Women were added to the order, which soon expanded beyond Italy. Francis also went on to travel widely and his most important and significant effort was one that remained inscribed in church and European history and turned a very different page from the times of the Crusades. In 1219, hoping to convert the sultan of Egypt or win martyrdom in the attempt, Francis journeyed to Egypt. In the middle of a protracted battle, Francis crossed the Saracen lines and was brought before Sultan al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin, remaining in his camp for a few days. He eventually returned to the crusaders camp unharmed but without having achieved his goal. The attempt made a huge impression on contemporary Christian sources, while Arab ones of the time don’t report it. Later Franciscans claim the sultan eventually converted on his death bed and certainly the Franciscan Order has been present in the Holy Land almost uninterruptedly since 1217 (so two years before Francis’s meeting with the sultan) when Brother Elias arrived at Acre and received concessions from the ruling Mameluke sultan in 1333. His life and efforts have been celebrated for centuries as the closest imitation of the work of Christ, in Christ’s own way, and unlike other more militant movements, it did not attempt to subvert the existing political and social order. For the church, Francis was a huge boost: he proved to the world that the church was still very vital, renewing its vows of poverty and support for the common people—but it did not shake the new political order that was shaping Europe then. This delicate balance of change and conservation inspired many artists and thinkers in Italy and beyond. In many ways, his message was felt so profoundly and yet remained so difficult that only after eight centuries did a pope, the present one at the time when we write, decide to be named after this saint.
9.3 Frederick II, The Stupor Mundi
As Francis was to inspire the spiritual life of the time, his slightly younger contemporary Frederick II (December 26, 1194–December 13, 1250) was to be one of the most powerful Holy Roman emperors of the time and a paragon of the great rulers of the new Europe. Yet, despite all his success, or perhaps also because he had set the bar so high, he was also the last German emperor to play an important role in Italian politics for centuries. Soon after his death, his vast empire, stretching from Germany to Sicily and to Jerusalem, collapsed. His greatest enemies were the popes, who resented his power and his views. Yet behind the popes, who excommunicated him six times, there was also the new power of the rising Italian cities, which after having wrested their independence from Frederick’s grandfather, Barbarossa, and having sacked the once mighty Constantinople were not keen on having a new emperor ruling them. He spoke six languages (Latin, Italian, German, French, Greek, and Arabic ). His Sicilian royal court in Palermo, from around 1220 to his death, saw the first use of a literary form of an Italo-Romance language, which together with the new preaching and poetry of Francis, played a seminal role in the creation of the early Italian as a written language with literary dignity. His political life started very early, being elected emperor of the Germans at less than two years old. At that age, and with powerful rivals, he could not hold on his German claim and his mother took him to Sicily, which remained the center of his power. For most of his childhood, princes and popes vied for his regency, weakening for some time the imperial authority. It was only on November 22, 1220, after years of negotiations with the pope and the German barons, that Frederick was eventually crowned Holy Roman emperor. The title still carried huge prestige in Europe, putting him above all other kings. In Germany his hold remained tenuous, while in southern Italy, in the kingdom of Sicily, he made reforms that were to set an example of statecraft for centuries in Europe. He made the Kingdom of Sicily into what can be defined as the first absolutist monarchy, cutting down the power of barons and introducing bureaucrats answering only to the ruler. He also set a precedent for the primacy of written law. With relatively small modifications, his Liber Augustalis remained the basis of Sicilian law until 1819. Yet this concentration of power, while addressing the popular resentment against the old aristocracy of the barons, did not account for the new social fabric of Italy at the time, when as we saw traders and craftsmen had proved ready to take up arms to defend their newly acquired status. In 1225, Frederick summoned an imperial Diet at Cremona, the main pro-imperial city in Lombardy. The main focus was the restoration of the imperial power in northern Italy, which had been long usurped by the numerous towns organized into communes there. These towns responded with the reformation of the Lombard League, which had already defeated his grandfather Barbarossa in the 12th century, and again Milan was chosen as the league’s leader. The diet was cancelled, and the situation was settled only through a compromise found by Pope Honorius between Frederick and the League. During his sojourn in northern Italy, Frederick also invested the Teutonic Order with the territories in what would become East Prussia, starting what was later called the Northern Crusade against the then semi-barbaric Russians. In 1228 he embarked on what was to be the Sixth Crusade, which ended without much fighting and with a treaty, signed in February 1229. This resulted in the restitution of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. This coincided also with a conflict with the pope. Many religious orders—such as the itinerant Joachimite preachers, many radical Franciscans, and the Spirituals—actually supported Frederick against the papacy, which they considered corrupt. The friar Arnold in Swabia proclaimed the Second Coming would occur 1260, at which time Frederick would confiscate the riches of Rome and distribute them among the poor, the “only true Christians.” The barons in Germany rose against Frederick and almost succeeded in wresting away all imperial authority. After reaching a difficult compromise, the emperor had to face open and widespread revolt in Italy. He descended there from the north, but war was irresolute, as cities had to be subdued one-by-one. Moreover, as the imperial army moved out, other communes would rebel. The main force in the Italian towns was the pope, who clearly understood that only by undermining the imperial power in Italy he could gain prestige. In 1245 Pope Innocent IV declared Frederick deposed, calling him a “friend of Babylon’s sultan,” “of Saracen customs,” “provided with a harem guarded by eunuchs,” like the schismatic emperor of Byzantium, and in sum a “heretic.” The pope backed a rival for the imperial crown and set in motion a plot to kill Frederick and his son Enzo. At this point it was a total war against imperial power. Innocent also sent a flow of money to Germany to cut off Frederick’s power at its source. Here war restarted again with indecisive results until his death in 1250. He was a religious skeptic, he used Muslims in his army, respected Islam and was fond of many gnostic thesis. He also employed Jews in Sicily, who had immigrated there from the holy land, to translate Greek and Arabic works. He was also alleged to have carried out a number of experiments on people. Some of these were like shutting a prisoner up in a cask and killing him leaving a hole open. It was to check if the soul could be observed escaping through the hole when the prisoner died. Others were: feeding two prisoners, sending one out to hunt and leaving the other to bed and then having them disemboweled to see which had digested their meal better; imprisoning children without any contact to see if they would develop a natural language. His 1241 Edict of Salerno made the first legally fixed separation of the occupations of physician and apothecary. Physicians were forbidden to double as pharmacists and the prices of various medicinal remedies were fixed. This was meant to impose some kind of a check on the physician. This became a model for regulation of the practice of pharmacy throughout Europe up to now. His rule also opened to the fragmentation of the German Empire. He granted a charter of liberties for the leading German princes at the expense of the lesser nobility and commoners. The grand princes gained whole new power of jurisdiction, and the power to strike their own coins. The emperor lost his right to establish new cities, castles and mints over their territories. The Statutum, the new agreement regulating the imperial powers, severely weakened central authority in Germany which had been strong also because of power to balance the constant conflict between higher and lesser aristocracy. From 1232 the grand vassals, reinforced in their new prerogatives, had a veto over imperial legislative decisions. Every new law established by the emperor had to be approved by the princes. This had serious consequences about 250 years later, as the German princes used those privileges to rise even more decidedly against the emperor in support of Luther and his religious reform.
9.4 Thomas Aquinas, the new philosophical basis for Christian Europe
As the pope had gained almost absolute religious primacy in the Christian world, with the power of Byzantium and his church declining fast, and the papacy was becoming a magnet of new political autonomy against the imperial power, a new philosophical outlook was needed. It had to reconcile the old religious tenets with the new rationalistic drive of the Italians cities, growing around rational trade. Here Thomas Aquinas (1225–March 7, 1274) provided the philosophical pillars that held the Christian world together for over 250 years, until Luther split Europe in two again with his Reformation. His influence is immense, and much of modern philosophy was conceived in development or opposition of his ideas, particularly in the areas of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory. Unlike many currents in the church of the time, Thomas embraced several ideas put forward by Aristotle—whom he referred to as “the Philosopher”—and attempted to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. The works for which he is best known are the Summa Theologica and the Summa contra Gentiles.\ In modern times, under papal directives, the study of his works was long used as a core of the required program of study for those seeking ordination as priests or deacons, as well as for those in religious formation and for other students of the sacred disciplines (philosophy, Catholic theology, church history, liturgy, and canon law). His greatest contribution was to bring European thought (he taught for many years in Paris) into a new dimension, integrating the legacy of the Islamic (Averroes) and Jewish (Maimonides) philosophers, deriving from Aristotle within the cradle of Catholic theology. Inspired also by the contemporary Islamic and Jewish thinkers , he stressed a continuity of human logical and philosophical efforts with the pursuit of the godly faith. This attempt was a radical departure from many trends of Christianity, which pit faith against reason, and vice versa and stressed that inspiration from God was to be achieved by forsaking reason and its logical pursuits. His theories would fit the strife of the growing Italian and European merchant class, who were to rely more on their wits to advance themselves. But they were extremely controversial at the time, as they hit against entrenched interests of the church and barons to retain some kind of privileged access to God. In 1277 Étienne Tempier, bishop of Paris, issued a very extensive condemnation of Thomas’s theories. This was to clarify that God’s absolute power transcended any principles of logic that Aristotle or Averroes might place on it. More specifically, it contained a list of 219 propositions that the bishop determined violated the omnipotence of God. Included in this list were 20 Thomistic propositions, and their inclusion badly damaged Thomas’s reputation for many years. Yet the rising tide of the church and of the world of his time was in favor of Thomas, who saw the growth of the new business class as a positive element for the church. His findings have had far-reaching consequences in the foundation of modernity. Thomas believed “that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act” . And, he believed that human beings have the natural capacity to know many things without special divine revelation, even though such revelation occurs from time to time, because God decided to give man intellect. The belief in continuity between intellect, nature, and God gave basis to his ethics, where the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude are natural and revealed in nature—thus binding everyone, Christian or not. But there are three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—that are proper for Christians. Based on this, Thomas listed four kinds of law: eternal, natural, human, and divine. Eternal law is the decree of God that governs all creation. Natural law is the human “participation” in the eternal law and is discovered by reason. Natural law is based on “first principles”: that there is a difference between good and bad. The continuity between God, nature, and intellect also gave rise to his then-famous five proofs of the existence of God. The rise of the Enlightenment thinking in the late 17th and 18th centuries dealt directly or indirectly with trying to confute Thomas’ proofs. From this came also thoughts about the economy as an aspect of ethics and justice. He dealt with the concept of a just price, normally a market price or a regulated price sufficient to cover the seller’s cost of production. This concept was to become crucial in the modern idea of a market economy developed by Smith and Ricardo, and eventually used by Marx in explaining the principle of exploitation of labor and surplus value. In fact Thomas was the first to reason about the seller’s cost of production. From this came the questions, central to classic economic theory, about what constitutes cost of production, what is fair and what is unfair in this apportioning of cost which include the labor. Thomas argued it was immoral for sellers to raise their prices simply because buyers were in pressing need for a product. This addressed a then pressing problem: the huge market distortions of the then vastly unregulated markets. The issue of the cost of production and the labor components became then central when the market had become regulated enough and new distortions appeared in the labor market where producers of goods were trying to “buy” labor and have cheaper prices. The philosopher also made a fundamental contribution on the issue of a just war. Christianity had been troubled for centuries by the clash between the pacifist tenets of the Gospel and the practical recourse to force by many Christians. Thomas identified the Christian principles to reconcile peace with war, which could then be used to define just war. He wrote that war must occur for a good and just purpose, not for the pursuit of wealth or power; it must be waged by a properly instituted authority, recognized by the papacy; and it must have the central motive of achieving peace. These principles inherently gave the papacy enormous power to bless or not bless the recourse to violence. But in the list Thomas also included the possibility of a just war against a tyrant—no doubt an idea developed to justify the Italian wars against Frederick II—but which soon gained a life of its own, as it became a reason to rebel against unjust kings and start revolutions in later centuries. Of course the recourse to violence had to be sanctioned by the pope. However if the principle is established and papal authority is shaken, as would happen with Luther in the early 16th century, revolutions could spring up on their own with a just cause that would be justified by god or by whomever claimed to represent him.
9.5 Dante and the birth of the first official language in Europe other than Latin
In the 12th, 13th century at the time in the Mediterranean area, when Italian started to emerge as a written language with literary dignity all other languages of common usage were sacred or related with a religion. Latin was the tongue of the Catholics, Greek was used by the Orthodox, Arabic belonged to the Muslims, in Persian were written the Zoroastrian texts, and its sophisticated literary tradition, and wordings, contributed to new philosophy and theology. Italian was the first language that emerged at the time without any structural link with a specific religion. The languages of Europe can described as before or after the poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). Before Dante, in Europe the only language was Latin, and other languages were considered what modern times would be called dialects. Yes, there had been attempts to use local languages—even in Italy, the dialect of Sicily was used in the court of Frederick, the dialect of Umbria with Francis, and the language of Provençal troubadours, from nowadays in southern France—but it was the dialect of Florence used by Dante and some of his fellow Tuscan poets that introduced to Europe the use of local languages against the universal practice of Latin. Dante did that by producing a literary masterpiece in his own new language. He gave dignity to Tuscan, the root of modern Italian, and proved that it could have the maturity to mold very sophisticated literary works. It may seem ironic that in the land where the language was closest to Latin, Italy, there was the first systemic break with Latin, the language that had given Western Europe cultural unity and identity. It was also a separation of written texts with sacred texts, and this it was somewhat a return to the tradition of ancient Rome and Greece. It was Italy, with the rise of the communes and its dynamic townspeople, that broke the mold of the old feudal society. The new class and the new people needed a new language. Of course once Italian started to be used, also other countries aspired to have their own languages different from Latin, so Europe, by slowly shedding its linguistic unity, started also to develop regional differences. The process, however, was to take centuries. At the time Dante recognized three popular neo-Latin languages, differentiating them with the usage of the affirmative word. They were the languages of oil (of what is now northern France), oc (southern France and northwest Italy), and sì (the rest of Italy and possibly a share of Spain then partly under Arab control). Dante wrote his masterpiece the Divine Comedy in a language he called “Italian,” in some sense an amalgamated literary language mostly based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, but with some elements of Latin and other regional dialects. He deliberately aimed to reach a readership throughout Italy including laymen, clergymen, and other poets. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression . His work revolves around a central theme of Western conscience, even today: the progression of the pilgrimage from hell to paradise. The work begins with the pilgrim’s moral confusion and ends with the vision of God. The Comedia intertwines beautifully two grand elements, one philosophical and one human. The first element deals with themes that are scientific and broadly cultural and political, as Dante attempts to weave in philosophical and political arguments of the time; a theology owing to Thomas’s thesis of continuity between God, nature, and intellect; and a political drive in favor of the German emperor and against the overbearing of papacy. In this he has a very original position: Thomas sided totally with the pope and against imperial powers, whereas Dante did not. In this Dante poses a big question, relevant in future decades in Italy: the necessity of limiting the power of the pope now that the imperial authority had weakened and the need for Italy to find some kind of common cause. In this philosophical drive, his work is different from the grand poems of the past, such as the Aeneid or the Iliad and the Odyssey, which all lacked broad philosophical ambitions.\ On the human element, during his journey Dante meets and describes all the important people of his life and time, telling their human sufferings and pains through the tortures of his hell and purgatory or in the rewards of paradise. In this pilgrimage and through these people, we meet Dante’s personal, labored soul, as he speaks in first person throughout the work, unlike his model, Virgil, who was in turn inspired by the other great poet of antiquity, Homer. It is the primeval horror story, the archetype of the travels through hell that crowd modern movies, TV series, and videogames. At the very beginning of the long process that would lead to the industrial revolution, only Dante went to the afterlife in search for truth and redemption. With the beginning of modernity, at the end of the 19th century, the afterlife and hell burst into our lives, with demons, like vampires, zombies, witches, and werewolves wandering our sprawling cities. This reminds us that the Middle Ages, from which Dante sprang forth, is still with us, more deeply than ever; and the Inferno, from which Dante emerged, to find a more balanced life in his time, has now splashed into our cities. From this we can see that Dante’s influence over the course of centuries has been endless and certainly greater than that of his model, Virgil. Even modern poets like Eliot and Pound were inspired by Dante and popular literature can’t help even now but feeling the pull of this incredible voyage through afterlife. The most recent, at the time of writing, book directly inspired by Dante is the worldwide bestseller Inferno by Dan Brown, published in 2014!
9.6 Giotto and the invention of the modern way of seeing things
If the influence of Dante seems hard match, one has only to look at his contemporary, the painter Giotto, to see somebody who might well have outdone him. Giotto (1266/7–January 8, 1337) in fact almost single-handedly invented the new way of representing nature, people, and things in paintings, showing them with the three elements that were to be developed fully in the next two centuries by artists of the Renaissance: a first research on human anatomy, a use of bright colors, and attempts at perspective. Giotto’s contemporary, the banker and chronicler Giovanni Villani, wrote that Giotto was “the most sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature.” The late 16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari describes Giotto as making a decisive break with the prevalent Byzantine style and as initiating “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years” . It is hard for modern eyes and minds—clogged by billions of moving pictures bombarding us from all kinds of bright screens, TV, computers, mobile phones, et cetera—to understand the importance of images in the Middle Ages. But pictures—drawn on walls, slabs of wood, or even on cloths—were extremely rare in the 14th century. The wealth of Roman pictures had been taken away with the destructive Barbaric invasions and so was the Greek art, sculpture, and architecture. Little more than rubble was left in the west, and even in Byzantium these pieces were not very well preserved. For centuries the church had fought fiercely with words and weapons over the sanctity and the propriety of showing holy images, of having those images, and their power over people’s souls. We saw earlier that the Byzantine Empire took very seriously the movement over the importance of icons and their destruction to prevent people from being distracted and deluded by the fascination of pictures. The claim held so sway in those times that Muslims forbid the representation of God or the prophets in their religion. Sacred art (the main drive of art in those times) in Islam could only be calligraphy or architecture. Sacred icons (almost complex pictograms) mostly on wood, a very stylized form of representation of Christ and the saints, were the main art form in Christian Europe, both east and west. The pictures of the icons were the image of God for humans. Christ was more divinity than man, or something like divinity somehow taking the recognizable shape of man but still very much a divinity. When Giotto first tried to portray the world as he saw it, it was a revolution. Sure enough, as we saw in previous paragraphs, this was in line with the religious, philosophical, literary, political, and social changes of the time, but to see those changes must have been mind-boggling. Giotto’s pictures drew together common people, newly rich traders and craftsmen, and aristocrats. It gave them a new way of seeing the world, a world represented in pictures, not through a process of abstraction and stylization (used by the painters of icons) that the public had first to learn to appreciate. Everybody had the face of the people around. Christ and religion was no longer in a distant place, but close at hand, spoke the common language used by Dante in the Commedia, and moved and dressed like the little friars of Francis. Divinity was around us; it was humanity itself. With Giotto a process began in which pictures grew to resemble more and more reality as observed by the natural human eye. That is, as the human mind, according to Thomas Aquinas, could simply comprehend the natural laws leading to God, so the human eyes could naturally and immediately recognize people and situations represented in pictures. This process existed already in sculpture in Rome and ancient Greece, and was visible in the statues still extant at the time but it had completely disappeared from paintings, if ever it existed in the form that Giotto begun to use. Moreover, as Francis’s experience proved that the sacrifice of Christ was not something godly and distant in time, so all the stories of the Gospel could be depicted in the present time, not in the old Roman era. The process of imitation of reality was perfected in the course of centuries by refining the rules and better understanding the science of vision, perspective, and anatomy. The goal was to recreate the illusion of a three-dimensional world on a two dimensional canvas. The spirit of this effort to create the most faithful “translation” between three and two dimensions is what endures in all the images we see in the modern bright screens surrounding us now. This revolutionary drive was started by Giotto. Unlike Francis, Thomas, or Dante, who came from relatively noble or wealthy families, Giotto sprung almost from nowhere. Vasari relates that Giotto was a shepherd boy discovered by the great Florentine painter Cimabue while drawing pictures of his sheep on a rock. They were so lifelike that Cimabue approached Giotto’s father and asked if he could take the boy in as an apprentice. Vasari also relates that when the pope sent a messenger to Giotto, asking him to send a drawing to prove his skill, Giotto penciled a perfect circle and instructed the messenger to give it to the pope. By the time of Vasari, over a century after Giotto, the main skill of the artist was thought to be the ability to recreate a perfect illusion of reality as seen by the eyes. But in Giotto’s time this was not common. Also for this reason many doubt Vasari’s recollection. Yet Vasari’s stories, whether authentic or not, tell us that the search for imitation of reality had started with Giotto. All in all, Giotto shares little with his master Cimabue. While Cimabue painted in a manner that is clearly ancient, Giotto’s style draws on the solid and classicizing sculpture of Arnolfo di Cambio—that is, Giotto brought the feeling of the Roman tradition of human-like sculpture into paintings. Unlike those by Cimabue or other great painters of the time, Giotto’s figures are not stylized or elongated and do not follow the Byzantine models of his contemporaries. They are solidly three-dimensional, have faces and gestures that are based on close observation, and are clothed not in swirling formalized drapery but in garments that hang naturally and have form and weight. He also took bold steps in foreshortening and having characters face inwards, with their backs toward the observer, creating the illusion of space. The figures occupy compressed settings with naturalistic elements, often using perspective devices so that they resemble stage sets. This realistic similarity is increased by Giotto’s careful arrangement of the figures in such a way that the viewer appears to have a particular place and even involvement in many of the scenes. Lastly, the people in Giotto’s depiction show feelings. His representation of human faces and emotions sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries: they cry, yell, show despair, and act as actors moving on a stage set. The stories were still sacred, about biblical events but they were not distant saints; they were people to which common people could relate to, like Francis and his friars.
9.7 The Medici, the paragon of a political and economic family in Italy
The rise of Florence in the 13th and 14th centuries was due to a combination of many factors, of which three stand out. The first crucial was the discovery in the Tolfa area, near Florence, of vast deposits of alum, essential as a mordant in the dyeing of wool and certain cloths manufactured extensively in Florence. Previously, the Islamic countries had been the only exporters of alum, and Europe had been forced to buy from them. The pope granted the Medici family the monopoly on mining there, making them the primary producers of alum in Europe. The second factor was being on the route to Rome, the destination of pilgrimages in Europe and the main beneficiary of donations from penitents from all over Europe. Part of this money could easily find its way up to Florence, especially since the Medici gave four popes to Rome in the 16th century, who practically ruled Rome and Florence together. The third and more elaborate reason has to do with the religious restrictions on lending money. In those times, the church forbid charging interest on money loaned, arguing that people could not profit from time, which belonged to God. Restrictions also applied to Muslims, who charged only a minimum interest, but did not apply to Jews. However for all practical purposes loaning money should be compensated, otherwise nobody would lend anything. Thus the Christian Florentines invented an elaborate system in which they would lend money and could be compensated by exchanging currencies in the trade transactions throughout Europe, where many coins were used in different places and even different cities. Then lending, trade, and a growing elaborate system of accounting and credit developed together and became linked to one another. Here the trade of alum and wool (whose coloring was done with alum), the source of cheap finance, the influence in Rome gave Florence a unique centrality in Europe, making the city the banking center of Europe. In Florence, furthermore, the power of this one merchant family grew, coming to embody all pros and cons of early capitalism: the family claimed power through money, and through power it protected its money and thus expanded its sources of money and power. In the 15th century, they were the largest bankers in Europe and de facto ruled Florence, although they remained private citizens, not monarchs. The power and money of Medici produced also two regent queens of France: Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610). They incidentally brought to France their cooks and eating habits, starting the tradition of what later became the French cuisine. Their wealth originally came from the wool trade. There are some estimates that the Medici family was the wealthiest family in Europe for a time, and from this base, they acquired political power initially in Florence and later in broader Italy and Europe. A notable contribution to the profession of accounting was the improvement of the general ledger system through the development of the double-entry bookkeeping system for tracking credits and debits. These two words come from Italian: one entails belief (credito, from credere, who is believed) in the person who is receiving the money loaned, the other that the loaned amount must absolutely be (debito from dovere, who is obligated) returned. The Medici were among the earliest businesses to use the system. The family started to rise in the 13th century, at the time of Dante and Giotto. In 1298, one of the leading banking families of Europe, the Siena’s Bonsignoris, went bankrupt and so the city of Siena lost her status as the banking center of Europe. This opened opportunities for the Medici and their main competitors in Florence, the Albizzi family. It was not until the 15th century with Cosimo that the family emerged as dominant in the city. In the 15th century a Medici heir, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici gained great popularity by introducing a proportional taxation system, in which he would pay the most. Giovanni’s son Cosimo the Elder, Pater Patriae, took over in 1434 as gran maestro, and the Medici became unofficial heads of state of the Florentine republic . Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo, three successive generations of Medici, ruled over Florence through the greater part of the 15th century, without altogether abolishing representative government though clearly dominating it. From this they moved to lead Italian politics for a century. Their fall started however in the 16th century with the division of Europe because of the rise of Protestant Christianity. They were patrons of the arts, but in the religious field they proved unable to stem the advance of Martin Luther’s ideas, which took place under a Medici pope. Clement VII was also the pope during the sack of Rome by the French king Charles V and later was forced to crown him. That sack started the phase in which Italy fell under the power of foreign countries.
9.8 The ultimate art of politics in the political balance of the Mediterranean
Politics in Italy at the turn of the 14th century presented a picture that was to remain basically the same for the next two hundred years. If we want to put it very briefly, Italy was regaining a greater role in the Mediterranean and European political and economic scene in the 13th and 14th century yet Italy was fragmented, with no given state able to rule the whole peninsula or even a large part of it. Similarly both the Islamic and the Christian worlds were extremely divided. Byzantium, though weakened and basically reduced to a rump state with bits of Anatolia and Tessalia, held out against assaults from its Muslim and Slavic neighbors. Islam was also divided, with many rulers splitting the once-formidable Arab Empire, while the Seljuk Turks, the newcomers in the region, were unable to unite all their fellow Muslims even after having defeated their neighbors. Venice and Genoa were making inroads, buttressing the presence of the Latin Christian kingdoms in the region but again they did that without registering definitive successes. The Catholic world was similarly divided. France and England were locked in a protracted war, and the German princes were progressively shedding the dominance of the German emperor, were acting more independently, and expanded east at the expense of the then semi-barbarous but aggressive the Baltic populations and the Rus Slavs. In this hugely unstable political environment, where states would come and go and borders were continuously redrawn, like listed stocks moving up and down the board with daily fluctuations, the popes gained an unprecedented centrality. Financed by the newly affluent Italians and the donations of pilgrims, they had immense monetary power to couple with their religious influence. Moreover, the political instability stretching between east and west helped the booming trade with the Far East and its Silk Road, as no single state had the force to monopolize trade. This trade had existed for centuries, but the wealth of Italy, the new booming economy in Europe, increased the demand for luxury goods and spices from East Asia, and as we saw wool manufacture and trade was the main engine of the growth of credit and the economy in Florence. The pope benefitted from this general lack of unity, and may have also been a force against efforts for concentration of power. Trade was possibly better with smaller states, who also pushed this unstable balance of power. The example of the Italian independent communes spread in many parts of the German empire. The cities of the Hanseatic League stretching from what is modern Russia in the east until modern Belgium, became a power in northern Europe. The constellation of fairs and city markets in France, Germany and England provided a chain of trade and commerce for the whole continent. At the time when princes were vying for power against each other and the emperor, when France and England were locked in a hundred years war, waged from 1337 to 1453 (the year the Turks took Constantinople), cities and traders became dominant. However, things started to change in the second half of the 15th century. As we shall see, the Ottoman Turks conquered Byzantium in 1453 and proceeded to unify the other Muslim realms while expelling the Latins from the Levant, something that was to set in motion even bigger changes in the world. Meanwhile, the French had ended their long war with the English, and a unified, militarily strong France was emerging. The same was happening in Spain, where the belligerent kingdoms of Castiglia and Grenada were expelling the Arabs from the peninsula. In this environment worked Niccolò dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469–June 21, 1527), someone who was to have a seminal influence on the development of political thought in Europe. In this time of harsh power-plays, no single country held sway, but several powers were competing for greater centralization of power. His ruthless analysis of political theories and practices ran against the official morals of the time, but had a such deep ring of truth that they were to mark political developments and outlooks in Europe for centuries. The Prince was his masterpiece and “Machiavellianism” is even now widely used to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Machiavelli described in the book. The book seemed to be endorsing behavior often deemed evil and immoral, and because of this, the term “Machiavellian” is often associated with deceit, deviousness, ambition, and brutality. Machiavelli was born, as we said, in a tumultuous era—popes waged expansionary wars against Italian city-states, and people and cities often fell from power as France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, or Swiss battled for regional influence and control. Political-military alliances continually changed, featuring mercenary leaders, who changed sides without warning, and many short-lived governments rose and fell . In this situation Machiavelli, much like Hanfeizi in China, presented an analysis that explained the reasons to use violence, coercion, and lies in order to gain and keep power. In contrast with the ideals of Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli insisted that an imaginary society is not a model by which a prince should orient himself. This analysis, though publicly spurned, was devotedly studied for centuries. In the 1920’s the founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, argued that Machiavelli’s Prince could be understood to be the Communist Party of the time , representing the most dynamic forces of society that could move the state and the common people in the proper direction through education. Modern philosopher Leo Strauss has gone so far as to name Machiavelli as the originator of modernity itself. Machiavelli also wrote on the art of war, but was not just an author of philosophy. He was an experienced and very talented Florentine diplomat, politician, and fiction writer. His play The Mandrake is considered a masterpiece of Italian literature. It was interpreted as a satire of the Medici family, and further stresses Machiavelli’s analysis in favor of a republican government, against the excessive concentration of power in the hands of one ruler. This lesson was also very important to the founding fathers of America when they drafted the constitution and set up the USA.
9.9 Leonardo da Vinci, the conjugation of art and science and the ideal of modernity
If Giotto brought art back to normal life and strived to reproduce shapes and perspectives as seen by the naked eye, Leonardo brought, over a century later this process to perfection, connecting art and science. Yet Leonardo was not only this: he embodied in one person all elements of innovation—the art, yes, but also the visionary inventions. Almost all future features of what was to become modernity besides telecommunications can be traced to him. He envisioned the engineering for devices like the car, tank, airplane, helicopter, et cetera. The basic features for many of these devices were already there, figured out by Leonardo, who was “only” short the force to power those engines mechanisms. This force was later found with steam and gasoline engines and with electricity. Basically there is no field of knowledge to which he didn’t contribute: sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived.\ Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452–May 2, 1519) epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination.” Among his works, the Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait, and The Last Supper the most reproduced religious painting of all time. Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man is also regarded as a cultural icon, reproduced on items as varied as the euro coin, textbooks, and T-shirts. Perhaps fifteen of his paintings have survived, the small number because of his constant—and frequently disastrous—experimentation with new techniques. Leonardo is revered for his technological ingenuity. He conceptualized flying machines, an armored vehicle, concentrated solar power, an adding machine, and the double hull, while also outlining a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics. Relatively few of his designs were constructed or even feasible during his lifetime, but some of his smaller inventions, such as an automated bobbin winder and a machine for testing the tensile strength of wire, entered the world of manufacturing unheralded. He made substantial discoveries in anatomy, civil engineering, optics, and hydrodynamics. His life and work proved to men of his time that they could break all kinds of limits—nothing could stop them. The world was to be discovered through attentive research, investigation, and experimentation. A new invention or a new vision could change the world. This was the cultural atmosphere in which a new route to the Indies—later to be recognized as a totally new continent—had been recently discovered by the fellow Italian Christopher Columbus, and the world was proven to be no longer flat but round and vaster and far more diverse than previously thought. It was the world of modernity that had opened, when humans had become almost like gods, or at least super-humans. Nature was to be researched and exploited in all its secrets, and then put to better use. All the hallmarks of present times were born and ready to spread, first in Europe and then in the rest of the world. But for this to happen, as we shall see, Italy was to lose its centrality. After all, if Italian geniuses worked for the queen of Spain to discover a new continent, like Columbus, or for the king of France, like Leonardo in the last years of his life, that proved that somehow that the peninsula was a cradle of creative thought too small to contain its children. And its exiled children thus contributed to its political and historical decline.
9.10 The new vision of the world from the Renaissance of Michelangelo
In a system of great political confusion and social instability, wealth spread widely and so did art, under the patronage of the powerful and rich lords ruling Italy, mainly concentrated between Florence and Rome. As Giotto started this revolution, Michelangelo Buonarroti (March 6, 1475–February 18, 1564) at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries represented the peak of perfection, the paragon of art, a vision of the world and nature of the time, and is still a point of reference for the Western culture. Under the dome he painted in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, cardinals still elect their popes, a symbol that his vision of religion still holds for the Catholics, the majority religion in the Western world and the largest unitary religion in the world. As Giotto took inspiration from sculpture, so Michelangelo, 25 years younger than Leonardo, moved to painting from sculpture. It is as if he found his figures in the rocks he was sculpting, and somehow one does not understand his great sculpture masterpieces, like David, The Moses, and Pietà, if one does not first see his unfinished statues. In those it is as if the figures are trying to wrest themselves out of the block of white marble, as if they were beautiful butterflies trying to shed the shapeless cocoon and are suspended in action—the movement is frozen, left incomplete. But in their being incomplete state, we see the extraordinary effort of a superhuman figures, naked flawless bodies, all muscle and tension, sometimes only covered by a veil dropping from the shoulders with perfect tension, without fat, drooping skin, or wrinkles in the clothing. They are the archetypes of the bodies we see in modern American cartoons from Batman to Spider-Man. They were no longer the very common men of Giotto. They were still men and gods in human form, but their bodies and features were flawless, ideal . These ideal bodies were already the main feature of Greek and Roman art, which had been forgotten and pushed aside for centuries, as ungodly, heathen representations and now had been rediscovered and revalued. In Giotto saints and religious figures took the shape of common people of the 14th century, with later artists and especially in Michelangelo they had the form of the superhuman, perfect bodies of Greek sculpture. Christian Religion was thus fully embodied in the Greek sculptural tradition, which no longer was regarded as inimical or different from Christianity. Yet there was one more element in this new art: the psychology. In ancient Greek and Roman art the psychology of the figures represented are distant, almost emotionless. After all there are deities, removed from human toil. The people looking at them see the distance: they may look like humans, have the four limbs of humans but their mind and way of thinking is far and detached. Michelangelo, as a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer, exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. In many ways, Western art should be considered before and after him. One of the qualities most admired by his contemporaries was his terribilità, a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur—the divinity and the superhuman element taking shape in the flesh of and the sentiments of his people. The saints are not removed entities, they have the sufferings, the pain the drive of common people, however extraordinary they may be. His work was highly personal and infused with psychology: Moses demonstrates his personal relationship with God; the Madonna of the Pietà is a holy young mother, disheartened by the loss of her son, David is a young lad, boastful and surprised of his feat. Many subsequent artists attempted to imitate Michelangelo’s impassioned and highly personal style. He brought to painting this search for the psychology of the figures he depicted. The Christ of the Last Judgement is a formidable, awesome figure, but not distant—he remains somebody we feel we can understand and relate to, where we can see he is fully human, as the Catholic creed says. His contributions are not limited to pure art. Saint Peter’s Dome opened up a new style of architectural technique. Michelangelo modified the round dome, engineering inherited from the time of the Etruscans and the Romans, with a slightly higher vault so that is no longer perfectly round but tends toward the sky to exemplify the special relationship to divinity. According to legend, after the main works of the dome were completed some cracks appeared and Michelangelo feared the dome would collapse and so he ran away for a few weeks. When no news of collapse came to him, he returned to Rome, and the dome has been there ever since, for five centuries now.