The story of the Sistine Chapel is a tale of two cities. One of them is a place which we’ve heard an awful lot about in the course of the preceding chapters: Rome, where the chapel itself is located. The other has been a more sporadic presence in these pages to this point: Florence, whence sprang the artist who provided the Sistine Chapel with its most striking ornamentation. Indeed, Florence was the locus of the entire Italian Renaissance, without which neither artist nor chapel would ever have come to be. So, it is there that we must go now, in a quest to understand how this moderate-sized city in a crowded country came to punch so far above its weight in the grand scheme of history.
Florence, as English speakers call it — it is known to the Italians and to the speakers of many other European languages as “Firenze,” a name with a much better lilt to it to my ears — lies about a third of the way down the boot of Italy, 145 miles (230 kilometers) north of Rome and 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Bologna, both of which are much larger and more intrinsically significant cities. It is an inland town — in fact, just about as inland as it can be, standing almost equidistant between Italy’s west and east coasts. In lieu of the sea, its lifeblood is the Arno River, in whose valley the bulk of the city lies, surrounded on all sides by the rugged green hills of Tuscany.
Florence isn’t always the most congenial place. What with its sunken and sheltered location, the summer heat is seldom relieved by more than a breath of wind. It positively bakes under the merciless Tuscan sun, much to the distress of the millions of sweaty travelers who stream through for a night or three on their package tours of Italy. Twentieth-century novelist Mary McCarthy began a meditation on life in the city with five simple words that can be still be heard on many a visitor’s lips: “How can you stand it?” “Venice has the sea,” she elaborates. “Rome has a breeze and fountains; Bologna has arcades; Siena is high. But the stony heat of Florence has no extenuation.” Ever since ancient times, every Florentine with the means to do so has done her level best to get out of the city during the infernal months of July and August.
Yes, ancient times; Florence may not have risen to real prominence until the latter half of the Middle Ages, but its history stretches back a great deal farther. The first fixed settlement near this spot was called Fiesole, a name that is still held today by a district of the modern city, situated in the same place as its ancient forbear, on one of the breezy hills above the valley where the rest of Florence swelters for much of the year. As the archaeological museum on those heights attests, a people called the Etruscans, who created what we believe to have been the first advanced civilization ever to exist on the Italian Peninsula, built a citadel at Fiesole around the eighth century BC, presumably to protect trade moving up and down the Arno.
But here as everywhere in Italy, the Etruscans were eventually displaced by the rising Roman Republic. It was the Romans who first built in the valley of the Arno, around 200 BC. Their “Florentina” — the “City of Flowers,” so named for the beauty of the local plant life — was first and foremost a commercial trading town, and it would remain such forevermore. (What is tourism, the primary occupation of the modern city, but another kind of commercial trade?) The place was razed to the ground in 82 BC for getting on the wrong side of one of Rome’s occasional civil wars, but it had become too useful a node in the peninsula’s network of trade routes to abandon entirely, and was soon rebuilt a bit further downstream, in the spot it still occupies today. That said, we shouldn’t exaggerate ancient Florentina’s role in the grand scheme either. Ferdinand Schevill, the author of a classic chronicle of the city, saw no reason to believe that “the Roman town ever rose to be more than an unimportant provincial center of the greatest empire of antiquity.”
As a provincial town of Rome, too small and too close to the capital to be of more than local political or economic interest, Florentina rolled along on the tides of history without ever standing out from them: the transition from a Roman Republic to a Roman Empire; the glory centuries of the Pax Romana; the coming of Christianity; the empire’s gradual slide into stagnation and decay; invasions and sackings by the Germanic “barbarians” out of the north. Florentina became Florence — or, if you like, Firenze — as Antiquity gave way to the Middle Ages and Latin gave way to Italian as the people’s vernacular. The city belonged to the Lombards for a couple of centuries, until they were driven out by the Frankish King Pepin III, the father of Charlemagne.
Florence was not in that part of Italy that Pepin gave to the pope to rule personally; it was rather in the part that he took for himself. It remained a possession of the Holy Roman Empire until about 875. A period of instability followed, as Italy sorted itself into the competing republics and city-states that would define its internal politics all the way until the country’s belated unification in the nineteenth century. Little is known about the Florence of the tenth century, when it struck out fully on its own and saw its profile begin to rise. But we do know that by the beginning of the eleventh century it was large and rich enough to be the seat of a Church bishopric.
The High Medieval Florentine economy was built on textiles; dyes and silks were sailed up the Arno from as far away as Asia, wool from as far away as England, to be transformed into the best finished products of their kind by the city’s skilled weavers and artisans. Banking followed the explosion in the textile industry, making Florence the financial hub of all of Italy. And it was all thanks to the hard work of the Florentines themselves, whose home was possessed of few natural advantages beyond the sweat of their brows and what seemed to be an almost congenital commercial savvy. “A Florentine who is not a merchant,” wrote one visitor, “enjoys no esteem whatsoever.”
Like that of many of its Italian neighbors, Florence’s economy was now more capitalist than feudal, and thus less naturally suited to the traditional models of Medieval governance. In keeping with the city’s commercial identity, the government evolved, not without much conflict, into what the ancient Greeks would have called an oligarchy: a democracy of sorts, but one in which only the wealthiest citizens — at most 10 percent of adult males — were allowed any voice at all. In practice, public affairs were dominated by just a handful of rich families. Florentine politics were not especially civilized or polite; many of the dramas among the ruling classes led to the spilling of blood — sometimes copious quantities of blood — in the city’s streets. Even Florence’s most hallowed son of all wasn’t immune to the vicissitudes of its politics; Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265, but he wrote The Divine Comedy in exile between 1308 and 1321, after a brief-lived Florentine political career had ended in two separate death sentences. In addition to the near-constant internecine warfare, Florence had to weather the many external crises of the High Middle Ages whose tales I’ve already told: the Crusades; the conflicts between popes and emperors and popes and kings; the Avignon papacy; the Black Death, which reportedly killed 70,000 of the 100,000 people who lived in the city at the time. Yet somehow this town of weavers kept the money machine spinning throughout it all.
The First Family of Florence — and by extension the First Family of the Renaissance — will always be the Medicis, who made a fortune in textiles and finance during the thirteenth century and became active in politics soon after. Despite their own wealth, they stormed the halls of power as champions of the poor and the middle class, those Florentines who otherwise were totally without a voice. In 1421, for example, Giovanni Bicci de’ Medici was the architect of the city’s first income tax on the rich. His son Cosimo de’ Medici then rode a populist wave into the position of Florence’s indispensable leading citizen among ostensible equals in 1434, when he was 45 years old. He would rule the city for the remaining 30 years of his life, its king in all but name. While he was not averse to employing violence when he considered it absolutely necessary — at least one political opponent fell out of a high window under mysterious circumstances — he strove to embody Plato’s ideal of the “philosopher king,” even if he didn’t get to bear any royal title. He was a sober and wise leader in most respects, and, most famously in the context of history, a tremendous patron of learning and the arts, determined to turn his bustling, acquisitive city into a cultural center to rival ancient Athens or Alexandria. And in this he succeeded: he and his progeny are the reason that Florence and the Renaissance are so inseparable today, the reason that 15 million tourists descend on a city of barely 350,000 fixed residents every single year.
Then again, this “Rebirth” — the literal meaning of the word “Renaissance” in its native French — is a more complex, multi-faceted development than any single line of philosopher kings. Its roots are planted deep in the Middle Ages, in more of the proceedings we’ve already observed: Charlemagne’s investments in scholarship and literary preservation; the scribbling monks in the Church’s monastic libraries; the birth of the universities; the recovery of ancient texts from the Byzantines and the Muslims; the proto-humanism of Saint Thomas Aquinas; the ribald popular fictions of Boccaccio and Chaucer; ultimately the transformative magic of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, which he invented in Mainz while Cosimo de’ Medici was ruling over Florence. Even the apocalyptic horror of the Black Death, which had seemed to so many to herald an end to all things rather than a rebirth, may have played a tragically ironic role in making the Renaissance possible, by deconstructing European civilization so thoroughly that it was left ripe for reconstruction in a different mold. All of which is to say that the Florence of the Medicis was the outlet for cultural currents that had been bubbling up for centuries rather than their wellspring.
But what were those currents precisely? In short, what was the Renaissance?
Well, it was the period — and the force — of transition that led the West out of the Middle Ages and into our current epoch of Modernity. And it was a mental paradigm shift the likes of which we have seen only a few times in the course of all of history. The most iconic of all the images on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, that of the hand of God touching the hand of Adam and delivering the spark of a new life, has sometimes been used as a symbol of this change, and this may not be entirely out of keeping with its importance to the life of Europe. And yet none of this quite answers the question of what the Renaissance really was; it remains easier to sense than it is to explain.
Still, explain — or at least try to explain — I must. I might make a start by reviewing one more time the way of thinking that preceded the Renaissance.
Medieval thought was characterized by a rejection of this world, this valley of sin and vale of shadows. Even in temporal rather than religious terms, it saw the world’s present as a fallen shadow of the better past epitomized by the Rome of Constantine. Such a worldview offered little obvious incentive for Progress; the wonder of the Middle Ages is not its lack of invention, but rather how much of it did take place in practical fields like agriculture and war making in the face of modes of thought that militated rather stridently against it. I return to what Will Durant said to us in our very first chapter, that “to understand the Middle Ages we must forget our modern rationalism, our proud confidence in reason and science, our restless search after wealth and an earthly paradise.”
The word “modern” is telling here; alongside the end of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance brought with it all of those Modern things that the Medieval worldview had asked humanity to forget, the things that we Modern souls take so for granted. If the Renaissance can be boiled down to a single key idea, that idea must be that this world and all that it contains are worth studying, enjoying, and celebrating, that the lives we are living now are worth living prodigiously, whatever more ethereal future might be waiting for us after they are through. As we’ve seen at some length by this point, plenty of people — among them plenty of popes and other purported holy men — partook of worldly pleasures enthusiastically during the Middle Ages. But there was always a conflict between their words and their deeds, one which we’ve also seen and mused about. Taking a page from Thomas Aquinas, Renaissance thinkers dared to say that it was okay to enjoy and appreciate this world whilst waiting for a next, thus eliminating the cognitive dissonance of Barbara Tuchman’s “generality of mankind [that] is not made for renunciation.” Likewise, it was okay for humanity to use its God-given intellect to make life on earth better. For, as Thomas had argued, why would God have given people the ability to reason at all if he didn’t intend for them to use it? And why would he have made this world so intricately beautiful if he didn’t intend for people to appreciate and explore its wonders?
It is vital to recognize that this newly sanctioned interest in worldly things did not in the vast majority of cases entail any rejection of the Christian God; there is a reason that so much of Renaissance art is widely recognized by both the faithful and the not so faithful as some of the most moving of all religious art. The first stirrings of conflict between the religious and the emerging scientific mindset wouldn’t begin to reveal themselves until Nicolaus Copernicus publicized his theories of a non-geocentric cosmology well into the sixteenth century, and wouldn’t reach a complete sticking point until the time of Charles Darwin. In the meantime, the Renaissance “humanists” could and did see their explorations of the things of this world as a way of celebrating God’s creation, and their writings and art were received on that basis by many a priest, bishop, and pope.
We must also understand that the Renaissance happened gradually, leaving no bright line of demarcation between the Middle Ages and Modernity. In this sense, the Sistine Chapel’s picture of a single incandescent moment of creation is most definitively not the correct one. The term “Renaissance” would not even be coined until centuries after the era it represented had faded into the past; it can be credited to the French historian Jules Michelet, who first used it at the surprisingly late date of 1855. (This explains as well why the word “Renaissance” is a French rather than an Italian one.)
Still, none of that has kept countless people since Michelet from trying to find a God-and-Adam moment for the Renaissance. For example, not long after the term was introduced, the Swedish historian Jacob Burckhardt claimed he could pinpoint the precise day when the intellectual and spiritual sea change it stood for began. That day was April 26, 1326, when a young Florentine poet and scholar who signed his name as simply “Petrarch” climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux, at more than 6000 feet (1850 meters) the highest peak in Provence. (The mountain is best known today as the host of the most difficult single stage of the Tour de France bicycle race.) No one before Petrarch would ever have imagined doing such a thing for no good reason other than the challenge, argued Burckhardt. After him, it would seem perfectly natural. For all that many of us can probably agree that he was laying it on a bit thick here, Burckhardt does capture something of the revolutionary quality of Petrarch, who also goes by the title of “The First Humanist.”
Sadly little read and only moderately known in English-speaking circles today, Petrarch was and is a towering figure for Italians, second in their own rankings of their post-ancient literary geniuses only to his fellow Florentine Dante. Whether we outside of Italy recognize it or not, he has had a major influence on our view of Western history writ large. For it was Petrarch who coined the term “Dark Ages” as a euphemism for the Middle Ages. He believed the world around him had been in an arrested, benighted slumber for the better part of a millennium, and that it was high time that it woke up. For this, yet another nineteenth-century French scholar, this one named Ernest Renan, would label him “the first Modern man.” Yet there was a paradoxically reactionary strain to Petrarch’s Modernity: he thought that, in order for the world to move forward, it had to take its example from the distant past.
As I mentioned earlier in these pages, most serious historians now shy away from the term “Dark Ages” as prejudicial and far too unnuanced, particularly when applied to the second half of the Medieval epoch. The futile fanaticism of the Crusades aside, the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries were times of not inconsiderable progress on many practical fronts in Europe. The windmill, the watermill, the heavy plow, the horse collar and horseshoe, and sophisticated systems of crop rotation are just some of the inventions that demonstrate that Medieval people had in some areas of understanding at least advanced well beyond their ancient forefathers by then. At the the same time, though, it isn’t hard to see why Petrarch felt about his world as he did: he grew up and lived his entire life in the more tragically tumultuous fourteenth century, when Europe really did seem to be going to hell in a hand basket.
He was born in 1304, not actually in Florence at all but rather a little village called Arezzo, in which his family had sought refuge during one of the City of Flower’s recurring periods of dangerous political upheaval. Already as a young boy, he was entranced by the scant few ancient classics that were in regular circulation among his set. But it was his original poetry that made him famous from a very young age, especially the 207 sonnets he wrote about his passionate but unrequited love for Laura, a young woman he met one day in 1327, who rebuffed all of his advances but left a lifelong impression on his heart.
As it happened, his revered predecessor Dante also had a muse, a girl named Beatrice whom he knew from their mutual childhood until her death, apparently from tuberculosis, at age 24. A comparison between Beatrice and Laura may begin to show why, if Dante was the height of Medieval literature, Petrarch marked the beginning of something new. Dante on Beatrice:
When she appeared in any place it seemed to me, by the hope of her excellent salutation, that there was no man mine enemy any longer, and such warmth of charity came upon me that most certainly in that moment I would have pardoned whosoever had done me an injury. She went along crowned and clothed with humility, and when she had gone it was said by many, “This is not a woman, but one of the beautiful angels of Heaven.” I say, of very sooth, that she showed herself so very gentle that she bred in those who looked upon her a soothing quiet beyond any speech.
And now Petrarch on Laura:
In what bright realm, what sphere of radiant thought
Did Nature find the model whence she drew
That delicate dazzling image where we view
Here on this earth what she in Heaven wrought?
What fountain-haunting nymph, what dryad sought
In groves, such golden tresses ever threw
Upon the gust? What heart such virtues knew? —
Though her chief virtue with my death is fraught.
He looks in vain for heavenly beauty, he
Who never looked upon her perfect eyes,
The vivid blue orbs burning brilliantly —
He does not know how Love yields and denies;
He only knows who knows how sweetly she
Can talk and laugh, the sweetness of her sighs.
Whereas Beatrice was an unattainable ideal for Dante, as pure as the Virgin Mary and equally untouchable by the profane likes of himself, Laura was a much more palpable, sensual reality for Petrarch, who gives plenty of attention to her physical as well as her spiritual charms; his love did not go unrequited by his own choice. His poems do betray some of the influence of the Medieval tradition of courtly love, but there is also a rawer edge to them and their frequent pagan allusions, an undercurrent of Dionysian sexual obsession — “her chief virtue with my death is fraught” — from which the Apollonian likes of Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Dante himself would have recoiled in revulsion.
Petrarch kept one foot in the literary circles of his day whilst living the life of a vagabond troubador, tramping through the wilderness and fishing in brooks for his dinner. “Would that you could know,” he wrote to a friend, “with what delight I wander, free and alone, among the mountains, forests, and streams.” (This predilection for the countryside over cities may very well have been what kept him alive during the Black Death.) His memories of Laura prevented him from getting married, but they didn’t stop him from taking lovers and siring at least two children with them.
Most importantly for our purposes, Petrarch never lost his passion for the ancients, nor his conviction that his own fallen age could be dragged up to the heights of Antiquity again by reading and emulating them. This is the nub of the difference between Medieval and Renaissance thought: both agreed that this world was fallen, but the former believed it to be irredeemably so until Jesus Christ made his return, while the latter believed there was much humanity could do for itself in the meantime. Petrarch did not delude himself about the state of his age: “Peace is exiled; civil and external warfare rages; dwellings are prostrate; walls are toppling; churches are falling; sacred things are perishing; laws are trodden underfoot; justice is abused; the unhappy people mourn and wail.” (It’s no surprise that he sought escape in nature!) Yet he still had hope for a brighter future: “This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our grandsons will walk again in the pure radiance of the past.” The reverence he expressed for ancient Rome — as idealized in its way as the love he expressed for Laura — was hardly new; read enough of a certain strain of Medieval texts, and the whole epoch can begin to seem like nothing but the long hangover from the blowout cultural bash that was Antiquity. But Petrarch expressed it more forcefully and eloquently than just about anyone ever, and he explicitly tied it to the possibility of future progress. Rather than a permanently lost age, never to be recaptured by a fallen world, Antiquity could become a bootstrap — or, to more thoroughly mix my metaphors, a stepping stone to ages of glory yet undreamt.
In that spirit, Petrarch collected ancient manuscripts everywhere he went, searching tirelessly through the dusty corners of monastery scriptoriums and the libraries of the many noblemen who took him in as an honored guest as his renown as a poet spread. He became fast friends with Boccaccio of The Decameron fame (who happened to be yet another son of Florence). Together they moved on from the Latin classics to the more linguistically and logistically fraught territory of the ancient Greeks, funding stiff and haltingly imperfect translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey among other works. They mooted a rather strange and strained kinship between Christianity and the ancient pagan beliefs, equating God to Zeus, Satan to Hades, Jesus to Ares, and Mary to Aphrodite. Needless to say, such views were seen by many conservatives in the Church as heretical; they were perhaps lucky that the Inquisition had little force in Italy in this topsy-turvy period of the Avignon papacy.
Petrarch died in 1375, leaving behind a country primed for change; his prediction that “our grandsons will walk again in the pure radiance of the past” would prove prescient. Within two more generations, the Renaissance would indeed be in full bloom in Florence and, increasingly, elsewhere in Italy as well, as, in the words of Will Durant, “interest in a future life gave ground before secular, human, earthly concerns.” Petrarch himself would be worshiped by the succeeding generations of Florentines as a veritable demigod, not only for his many love sonnets to Laura, fodder for many a young man’s own romantic fantasies, but for the sprawling corpus of more sober-minded translations, essays, histories, and epic poetry he had also left behind.
Petrarch’s posthumous influence could be strongly felt in Florence already in 1397, when a Byzantine scholar named Manuel Chrysoloras agreed to join the faculty of the University of Florence, which had been established back in 1321. A native Greek speaker, he brought with him a clutch of Greek texts unknown in the West, and used them to train dozens of earnest young Florentines in the language, opening up heretofore unimagined vistas on the life of Greece that had preceded that of Plutarch, Cicero, Virgil, and the other sturdy Roman favorites. This was important; the Greek literary tradition, wilder and more passionate than its Latin counterpart, was destined to become an equally significant influence on the nascent Renaissance. “I gave myself to his teaching with such ardor,” wrote one of Chrysoloras’s students, “that my dreams at night were filled with what I had learned during the day.” Many a waking dreamer envisioned Florence as “the new Athens on the Arno.” Small wonder, then, that the Florence of 1397 is another frequently mooted place and date for Ground Zero of the Renaissance.
The new ways of thinking were soon to take concrete shape all over the city in the form of “Renaissance Art,” those two words that fill our modern imaginations with images of weeping Madonnas and haloed infants hanging in museums beside, a little incongruously when you stop to think about it, paintings of nymphs and fawns and pagan philosophers. And of course we can add to that collection of imagery the meeting of divine and mortal fingertips on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So, it is to the milieu of art and artists that we must turn now in earnest, as we inch in fits and starts toward the moment when that image came to be realized in sand and lime and pigment.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)