April 8: Lorenzo the Magnificent dies in Florence.
The portents ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. By 1492, Lorenzo de’ Medici had been Florence’s boss for over two decades. Ever since he was twenty years old, he had ruled the city without ever occupying any formal office of state, manipulating its institutions and its wealth, encouraging its writers, scholars, and artists, and ruthlessly suppressing his political enemies. Until the omens appeared, the security he created seemed invulnerable.
On April 5, 1492, a woman leaped from her seat in the church of Santa Maria Novella at early mass and “rushed about with terrible cries,” claiming to see a “furious bull, with flaming horns, tearing down this great temple.” Shortly afterward, “the heavens suddenly became black with clouds,” and lightning felled the famous dome of the cathedral—the highest in the world at the time. The marble light trap at the summit toppled and crashed into the north wall, “and especially at the side where the Medici palace can be seen, great pieces of marble were wrenched away with awful force and violence. In this portent it moreover happened that one of the gilded balls which also are to be seen upon the roof, was struck by lightning, and fell.” 1 That was a peculiarly strong omen, as the balls were the symbols of the Medici and had been added to the skyline at Lorenzo’s behest.
Three days later, Lorenzo was dead. Politian, one of the poets in Lorenzo’s pay, was anxious that his correspondents should be under no illusion; the heavens had predicted his master’s demise: “And on the night on which Lorenzo died, a star, brighter than usual, and larger, hung over the country villa where he lay dying, and at the very moment at which it was ascertained that he breathed his last, it seemed to fall and go out.” 2 So Lorenzo’s death was attended by a portent as powerful as at Christ’s birth. Lightning flashed for three nights following the event, illuminating the vault where the Medici dead lay entombed. As if in anticipation of the civil strife that followed, fighting broke out between the two caged lions kept for the terror and delight of the citizens. Lights glimpsed unnaturally in the sky and the howls of a she-wolf were among other events classed as omens. Even the suicide of a famous physician was interpreted as “an offering to the shade of the Prince” on the ground that “Medici” literally means “doctors.”
Lorenzo died joking that he wished death would wait until he had exhausted the contents of his library. A fellow humanist wrote to Politian with words of partisan consolation: “Is God angry with us, that he has taken from us, in the person of the wisest of men, all hope, all sign and symbol of virtue?” But he continued with a generalization few would contest: “The evils that befall us in our high places are often like snows, which, as they melt upon the mountain tops, make mighty rivers.” Lorenzo, the writer correctly affirmed, “maintained the peace of Italy.” 3 The king of Naples bewailed the end of a life “long enough for fame but too short for the good of Italy.” What chance was there for peace to continue now that he was gone?
“I am not Florence’s lord,” Lorenzo wrote in 1481, “just a citizen with a certain authority.” 4 This was strictly true. To be a lord was not a practical aspiration where republican virtue was ingrained. Other Florentine communes had submitted to lords in the course of the late Middle Ages, but not Florence—or so Florentines kidded themselves. Leonardo Bruni, the great ideologue of early-fifteenth-century Florence, was proud that while tyrants triumphed elsewhere, his city had remained true to its heritage as a foundation—so myth sustained—of ancient Roman republicans. Political malcontents who plotted to kill Lorenzo in 1478 saw themselves as embodying the virtues of Brutus, sacrificing Caesar to preserve the purity of the republic. “Popolo e libertà!” were rebels’ recurrent watchwords—not to be taken too literally, as most rebellions were struggles of excluded families against those the Medici favored, and few conspirators were willing to sacrifice the blessings of oligarchy: they just wanted the freedom to exploit them for themselves. Alamanno Rinuccini, one of the most thoughtful of the rebels’ supporters, secretly denounced Lorenzo in an unpublished Dialogue on Liberty, but his main gripe was with the parvenus the Medici raised to eligibility for office.5
The exceptional majesty with which the Nuremberg Chronicle displays Florence suggests the close links between the humanist scholars of the two cities.
The “certain authority” Lorenzo admitted to elevated him above all his fellow citizens. He never held any political office. He was never even a member of Florence’s executive council, much less head of state—but that did not matter. The Florentine constitution was saturated in republican principles and riven with safeguards against tyranny: in consequence, the nominal officeholders could never get a grip on power. They rotated at two-month-long intervals, selected by a mixture of indirect election and lottery from mercurial lists of eligibly rich or aristocratic families. The key to permanent power lay not in holding office oneself but in managing the system. Lorenzo ruled by stealth.
The first element in his system of management was the dexterous manipulation of institutions and networks. He joined everything, cultivated everybody. Unlike earlier Medici rulers, he chatted with fellow citizens in the cathedral and piazza. He belonged to far more confraternities, guilds, and committees than anyone could hope to attend regularly; but they were a means of extending his network of obligation and of keeping himself informed of what was going on in the city. The formal business of all the organizations he joined was reported to him as a matter of course; more important, perhaps, the gossip transacted at meetings fed back into his system. Ruling a republic was a matter of cybernetics. The key lay in manipulating the system of indirect election and selection by lot that led to membership on the ruling council and other influential committees. Rinaldo Albizzi, for instance, who had briefly forced Lorenzo’s father from power and into exile, neglected to fix the elections, with the result that his supporters were ousted and his enemy recalled. The only way to be sure was to be crooked. Lorenzo used bribery and intimidation to fix the rules of eligibility, privilege his own creatures and cronies, and make sure that the final lottery for office was always rigged.
As a result, though he had no formal right of jurisdiction—which, at the time, was considered to be the main attribute of sovereignty—he dispensed justice, in effect, arbitrarily, according to his whim. On a notorious occasion in 1489, he ordered a peremptory public execution—with the scourging of bystanders who had the temerity to object. The only palliation one can offer is that his gout—which always tortured him—was peculiarly painful that day. Effectively, the Medici were monarchs. Lorenzo was the fourth of his line to run the city in succession. When he died, leading citizens lined up to beg his son to take over.
Lorenzo relied on wealth to buy the power he could not get by force or guile. Largesse made him magnificent. The mob that rallied in Lorenzo’s support when he survived an assassination attempt in 1478 hailed “Lorenzo, who gives us bread.” 6 He milked the state (the evidence, though not conclusive, is too suggestive to discount) and embezzled money from his own cousins when they were his partners in business. He dispensed wealth corruptly to gain and keep power. He never solved the problem of balancing wealth with expenditure; as Lorenzo famously said, “In Florence, there is no security without control.” But control cost money, and Lorenzo, like his predecessors, tended to overspend to buy it. He inherited a fortune of over 230,000 florins by his own estimate. This was the biggest fortune in Florence, though depleted from its peak in his grandfather’s day. Fraud leached it. A new enterprise—exporting alum—nearly proved ruinous. Lorenzo’s personal extravagance made matters worse.7
The next element in Lorenzo’s system was the exploitation of religion. Though a mere private citizen of ignoble ancestry, he affected sacrality almost as if he were a king. His love poems are justly renowned. His religious poetry was of greater political importance, which is not to say that it was insincere; to become a great saint, it is no bad first step to be a big sinner. Indeed, there is something convincing about Lorenzo’s lines, with their yearning for “repose” with God and “relief” for the “prostrated mind”: the intelligible longings of a heart bled by business and a conscience stirred by the responsibilities of power. In “The Supreme Good,” he confronts this issue:
How can a heart that avarice infects
And saturates with such outrageous hopes
And such unbounded fears discover peace?8
Confraternities to which he belonged chanted his calls to repentance. He invested heavily in adorning the religious foundations his family had endowed and boosting their prestige. In particular, he nurtured the Dominican house of San Marco in Florence—a nursery of greatness, where Fra Angelico painted. San Marco struggled to survive financially and recruit postulants until Lorenzo poured wealth into it. His motives were not merely pious. He saw San Marco as a venue for supporters: it was at the heart of the quarter of the city that had the longest associations with the Medici family. He tried to make it the dominant house for the Dominicans of Tuscany and a source of wider influence over the affairs of the Church. He also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to organize the canonization of Archbishop Antonino of Florence, the pet churchman of his house in his father’s day. When Lorenzo died, his supporters portrayed him as a saint.9
Finally, and hardly consistently with saintly aspirations, he made an art of intimidation. Wealth bought power in its crudest form: toughs and bravos to bully fellow citizens within the city; and mercenaries and foreign allies to cow Florence from without. Lorenzo cultivated allies—sometimes the popes, sometimes the kings of Naples, always the Dukes of Milan. Invariably, part of the deal was that they would send troops to his aid in the event of an attempted coup or revolution in his city. It was not just that everyone knew he could afford to crush opposition with mercenaries or foreign troops if he wished. He practiced the politics of terror to overawe opposition. The city of the Florentine enlightenment was a cruel, savage, bloody place, where the body parts of condemned criminals strewed the streets and revengers mimed ritual cannibalism to round off vendettas. Lorenzo impressed his enemies with horrifying displays of terror and implacable campaigns of vengeance.
The participants in the conspiracy of 1478 suffered the most vicious—but not unrepresentative—violence Lorenzo ever unleashed. Normally, criminals died on gibbets just outside the walls so as not to pollute the city, but Lorenzo had the conspirators tossed screaming from the windows of the palace of the governing council. The crowds in the main square could watch them dangle and twitch, convulsed by their death throes, before slaking their vengeance by literally tearing the bodies to pieces when they hit the ground. Lorenzo made vindictiveness a policy, harrying his victims’ survivors into beggary. For a while, the government of Florence even made it an offense to marry one of the conspirators’ orphaned or bereft womenfolk: this was equivalent to condemning the women to starve to death.
Lorenzo was magnificent, of course, in art as well as power. As art patrons, the ruling branch of the Medici were never leaders of taste. For them, art was power and wealth. Lorenzo was not, however, the boor modern scholarship has made out. He was a genuine, impassioned aesthete. His poetry alone is ample evidence of a replete sensitivity and a perfect ear. He had, perhaps, a less than perfect eye. His aim was to collect objects of rarity and stunning visual effect: jewels, small-scale antique triumphs of bronze and gold work and gem work. The courtyard of the Medici palace was lined with ancient inscriptions—a display of fashion and wealth.
He was not a builder on the lavish scale of his Medici predecessors. Politics, perhaps, constrained him. He remained actively interested in all public building projects and quietly embellished many of the grand buildings and religious foundations his family traditionally patronized. But there was a touch of vulgarity and ostentation even about the architecture he favored: the cathedral’s golden topknot was a conspicuous reminder of that, especially when the prophetic thunderbolt struck it down. The paintings Lorenzo favored—it was a trait apparently heritable in the ruling line of the house of Medici—were old-fashioned by Renaissance standards: the hard, gemlike colors of the works of Gozzoli and Uccello, the rich pigments—gilt and lapis lazuli and carmine—that glowed like the fabulous collection of jewels Lorenzo assembled. His taste for battle paintings was part of his pursuit of the cult of chivalry. Tournaments were among his favorite spectacles, and he assembled gorgeous ritual armor in which to appear in the lists. But goldsmiths’ work, jewelry and small, exquisite antiquities, constituted his biggest expenditure: wealth that could be handled for tactile satisfaction and moved quickly in case of a change of political fortune—the potential solace of exile, such as befell Lorenzo’s father and son.10
Still, whatever the deficiencies of his taste or the selectivity of his spending, he was the greatest Maecenas of his day. His death not only brought down his political system; it also threatened with extinction the great artistic and cultural movement we call the Renaissance.
The Renaissance no longer looks unique. Historians detect revivals of antique values, tastes, ideas, and styles in almost every century from the fifth to the fifteenth. The West never lost touch with the heritage of Greece and Rome. Nor did Islam. The culture of classical antiquity and all its later revivals were in any case products of large-scale cultural interaction, spanning Eurasia, reflecting and mingling influences from eastern, southern, southwestern, and western Asia. Nor does the reality of the Renaissance match its reputation. Scanning the past for signs of Europe’s awakening to progress, prosperity, and values that we can recognize as our own, we respond to the excitement with which Western writers around the end of the fifteenth century anticipated the dawn of a new “golden age.” As a result, if you are a product of mainstream Western education, almost everything you ever thought about the Renaissance is likely to be false.
“It was revolutionary.” No: scholarship has detected half a dozen prior renaissances. “It was secular” or “It was pagan.” Not entirely: the church remained the patron of most art and scholarship. “It was art for art’s sake.” No: it was manipulated by plutocrats and politicians. “Its art was unprecedentedly realistic.” Not altogether: perspective was a new technique, but you can find emotional and anatomical realism in much pre-Renaissance art. “The Renaissance elevated the artist.” No: medieval artists might achieve sainthood; wealth and titles were derogatory by comparison. “It dethroned scholasticism and inaugurated humanism.” No: it grew out of medieval “scholastic humanism.” “It was Platonist and Hellenophile.” No: there were patches of Platonism, as there had been before, and few scholars did more than dabble in Greek. “It rediscovered lost antiquity.” Not really: antiquity was never lost, and classical inspiration never withered (though there was an upsurge of interest in the fifteenth century). “The Renaissance discovered nature.” Hardly: there was no pure landscape painting in Europe previously, but nature got cult status in the thirteenth century, as soon as St. Francis found God outdoors. “It was scientific.” No: for every scientist there was a sorcerer. “It inaugurated modern times.” No: every generation has its own modernity, which grows out of the whole of the past. If modernity, for us, becomes discernible at around the time Lorenzo de’ Medici died, we have to look all around the world to see it stirring.
Even in Florence, the Renaissance was a minority taste. Brunelleschi’s designs for the Baptistery doors—the project widely held to have inaugurated the Renaissance in 1400—were rejected as too advanced. Masaccio, the revolutionary painter who introduced perspective and sculptural realism into his work for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the 1430s, was only the assistant on the project, supervised by a reactionary master. In Italy generally, the most popular painters of the age were the most conservative: Punturicchio, Baldovinetti, and Gozzoli, whose work resembles the glories of medieval miniaturists—brilliant with gold leaf and bright, costly pigments. Michelangelo’s design for the main square of the city—which would have encased the space in a classical colonnade—was never implemented. Much of the supposedly classical art that inspired fifteenth-century Florentines was bogus: the Baptistery was really a sixth- or seventh-century building. The church of San Miniato, which the cognoscenti mistook for a Roman temple, was actually no earlier than the eleventh century.
So Florence was not really classical. Some readers may think that that is too easy to say. By similar logic, after all, one could claim that classical Athens was not classical, for most people there had other values: they worshipped Orphic mysteries, clung to irrational myths, ostracized or condemned some of their most progressive thinkers and writers, and favored social institutions and political strategies similar to those of today’s “silent majority”: straitlaced, straight-backed “family values.” The plays of Aristophanes—with their lampoons of louche aristocratic habits—are a better guide to Greek morality than the Ethics of Aristotle. Florence, too, had its silent majority, whose voice resounded in the 1490s in the blood-and-thunder sermons of the reforming friar Girolamo Savonarola and in the bloodcurdling cries of the street revolutionaries his words helped to stir a few years later.
The principal states of Italy in 1492.
Savonarola was born in 1452 to a life of prosperity, even luxury. Why he turned from it is a mystery—inspired, perhaps, by his pious grandfather, or repelled by his worldly father. There was a hint of reproach or defiance in the language he used when he wrote to his father with the news of his religious vocation.
The reason that moves me to enter a religious order is this: first the great misery of the world, the iniquity of men, the carnal crimes, adulteries, thefts, pride, idolatry, and cruel blasphemies, all present on such a scale that a good man can no longer be found…owing to which I prayed daily to my lord Jesus to pull me up out of this slime…. I want you to believe that in all my life I have had no greater pain, no greater affliction of mind, than in abandoning my own flesh and blood and going out among people unknown to me, to sacrifice my body to Jesus Christ…. I have a cruel struggle on my hands to keep the Devil from jumping on my shoulders, and all the more so the more I think about you…. These times with their fresh wounds will soon pass away, and I hope that in time you and I will be consoled through grace in this world, and then in the next one through glory.11
Homosexuality and whoredom were the sins that preoccupied him most. He was relatively inexplicit about most others. By the age of twenty, he was convinced that he would be “the enemy of the world.” He joined the Dominicans—an order of friars with a strong vocation for preaching and a mission to the poor. He belonged to the strictest tendency in the order, renouncing even the most trivial of personal possessions.
But he was not yet a Bible-thumping thunderer. On the contrary, he was a scholar among scholars, with a distinguished career as a teacher of logic in the schools of his order. The audiences that attended his early sermons consisted of “simpletons and a few little women.” He discovered his talent as a popular preacher in the late 1480s. Public adulation began to turn his head. He started believing that “Christ speaks through my mouth.” He often vaunted a claim to madness, calling it the folly of God. His views, which were always trenchant, became increasingly fanatical. Rome was a perversion. The true Church was of the poor and known to God alone. His tirades against the sins of the rich became increasingly politically subversive as he established the role of an apostle to the desperate and discontented. “The Devil,” he declared, “uses the great to oppress the poor.” He denounced the greed and egotism of those who could “buy anything with money.” Engravings show what his performances—to call them “sermons” somehow does not capture their function—were like at the time he returned to Florence in 1490 after three years of study in Bologna: the friar flings dramatic, demonstrative gestures at packed audiences, with one hand stretched in rebuke, the other pointing heavenward.12
By then, according to his later recollections, he was reading the Bible, beginning with Genesis, “but then I did not know the reason why”—which was tantamount to saying that his readings were inspired by God. “When I came to the Flood,” he wrote, “it was impossible to go further.” The sense of impending doom, of a new punishment due to a wicked world, was paralyzingly strong. He turned to prophecy suddenly. On the second Sunday of Lent, 1491, he gave a sermon that, he said, terrified even him. After a sleepless night, he predicted the end of extravagance and its replacement by a new regime of poverty and charity and “Christ in men’s hearts.” 13
Recurrent images began to characterize his visions, recycled in his sermons. He kept seeing swords and knives raining down on Rome, a golden cross above Jerusalem. The hand of God poised to strike the wicked, while angels distributed crosses to those willing to undertake a spiritual crusade to save the Church and the city from corruption. The angels returned with brimming chalices and gave sweet wine to those who took the cross, bitter dregs to those who refused. In an engraving his admirers bought in bestselling numbers, the people of Jerusalem appeared, stripping for baptism, while Florentines averted their gaze. A medal struck to exploit the market for Savonarola memorabilia showed contrasting scenes of divine vengeance and abundance. “I saw,” he wrote, in recollections that capture the flavor of the sermons,
through the power of the imagination, a black cross above Babylonian Rome, on which was written “THE WRATH OF GOD,” and upon it there rained swords, knives, lances, and every weapon, a storm of hail and stones, and long, awesome streaks of lightning in dark and murky skies. And I saw another cross, of gold, which stretched from heaven to earth above Jerusalem, and on which was written “THE MERCY OF GOD,” and here the skies were calm, limpid and clear as could be; wherefore on account of this vision I tell you that the Church of God must be renewed, and soon, for God is angry…. Another image: I saw a sword over Italy, and it quivered, and I saw angels coming who had a red cross in one hand and many white stoles in the other. There were some who took these stoles, others who did not want them…. All at once, I saw that sword, which quivered above Italy, turn its point downward and, with the greatest storm and scourge, go among them and flay them all…. Be converted, Florence, for there is no other remedy for us but penitence. Clothe yourselves with the white stole while you still have time…. for later there will be no room for penitence.14
Critics of his fanaticism leveled predictable charges. “I am not mad,” Savonarola retorted. At first, he refused to say where he got his prophecies from, because “in the past I, too, would have laughed at such things…. I am not saying, nor have I ever told you, that God speaks to me. I say neither yes or no. You are so far from the faith that you do not believe. You would rather believe in some devil who spoke with men and foretold future things.” Nor did Savonarola make the mistake of claiming any personal merit or pretending, blasphemously, that God’s favor was evidence of God’s grace. “This light,” he admitted, referring to the gift of prophecy, “does not justify me.” By January 1492, however, he was getting less cautious. “It is God,” he began to claim, “not I, who says these things.” 15
In as far as they referred to Florence rather than to the Church, Savonarola’s rages against wealth and corruption and the general moral state of the city seem unmistakably directed against Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo, however, showed no resentment or anxiety. He had expelled Bernardo da Feltre, another tub-thumper whom he suspected of political subversion, but he treated Savonarola with indulgence. Lorenzo cherished much devotion for the Dominicans. He regarded their house in Florence as a special project of his dynasty. He hoped to use reformers’ programs and arguments to augment his own family’s influence over the Church.
Nevertheless, it was becoming obvious that Savonarola was shaping up to defy Lorenzo openly. The ground he chose was not solely or even chiefly that of politics, but rather matters of philosophy and taste, and he bade for the support of intellectuals as well as the mob. He prefaced his own prophecies with an anatomization of the falsehood of astrology—which was one of the esoteric enthusiasms of Lorenzo’s circle. Another ground of conflict concerned the usefulness of reason and science. One of the most powerful books to appear in print in 1492 was Savonarola’s ruthlessly masticated digest of logic (Compendium Logicae), in which he denounced reason as diabolical. The idea that pagans like Aristotle and Plato had anything to teach readers of scripture was, to him, revolting. He denounced the specious arguments of classically inspired theologians who had tried to fit the ancient Greeks and Romans into God’s scheme of salvation. He pointed out how dodgy their etymologies were that linked Jove and Jehovah. He deplored the way classical scholars made pagan deities double as personifications of Christian virtues, and he lampooned their solemn invocations of Virgil as a supposed prophet of Christianity. He scorned humanists’ cherished notion that ancient Greeks had experienced a partial revelation from God.
Savonarola denounced astrology, the humanists’ favored means of political forecasting, as “contrary not only to holy scripture but also to natural philosophy.”
Girolamo Savonarola, Tractato contra li astrologi (Florence: Bartolommeo di Libri, ca. 1497). Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Library.
In November, Politian hit back with Lamia. The title alluded to a classical commonplace—a mythic queen who, thwarted in love, lost her reason and turned into a child-murdering monster. In Renaissance scholars’ learned code, she represented hypocrisy: Politian was accusing Savonarola of abusing learning against learning. At a time when Europe was convulsed by fear of witches, he likened his adversary to hags who reputedly plucked out their eyes at night in a diabolic ritual, or to old men who remove their spectacles along with their false teeth and become blind to self-criticism. Philosophy, Politian insisted, is the contemplation of truth and beauty. God is the source of our soul and our mind. He gives them to us for the scrutiny of nature, which in turn discloses God.
Savonarola also differed bitterly from Lorenzo’s circle on the subject of poetry. Lorenzo and his followers loved it and practiced it. Savonarola claimed to see it as an abomination. On February 26, 1492, Politian published an outline of knowledge, which he called the Panepistemon—the Book of Everything. He made what at first glance seem extraordinary claims for his own favorite art of poetry. The poet’s was a special kind of knowledge, which owed nothing to reason or experience or learning or authority. It was a form of revelation, divinely inspired. It was almost the equal of theology—a means of revealing God to man. Politian was speaking for most of his fellow scholars. He was uttering a commonplace among Florence’s academicians. Shortly afterward, in the summer of the same year, after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Savonarola’s reply appeared in print. The idea that poets could write in praise of God was sickeningly presumptuous. “They blaspheme,” he declared, “with vile and stinking lips. For not knowing Scripture and the virtue of God, under the name of the most loathsome and lustful Jove and other false gods and unchaste goddesses and nymphs, they censure our omnipotent and ineffable Creator whom it is not at all permitted to name unless he himself allows it in Scripture.” Poetry “wallowed among the lowest forms” of art.16 Botticelli painted his enigmatic allegory of Calumny to defend the theology of poetry from Savonarola’s imprecations.17
In sermons, meanwhile, the friar began calling for the books of poets and Platonists to be burned. A couple of years later, when his supporters seized power in Florence and drove out Lorenzo’s heir, they made a bonfire of Medici vanities and outlawed the pagan sensuality of classical taste.
The Florentine engraver of the 1500 edition of Savonarola’s Truth of Prophecy imagines him debating the topic with the learned of all religions.
Girolamo Savonarola, Dialogo della verità prophetica (Florence: Tubini, Veneziano and Ghirlandi, 1500).
In retrospect, Savonarola came to see Lorenzo’s death as a kind of showdown with the values he hated and a kind of divine validation of his own views. He claimed to have predicted it. The night before lightning struck the cathedral he had another of his fits of sleeplessness. It was the second Sunday of Lent, and the lectionary called for a sermon on the subject of Lazarus, but Savonarola could not concentrate on the text. God seemed to take over. “This saying,” the friar later recalled, “came out of my mind at that time, ‘BEHOLD THE SWORD OF THE LORD, SUDDEN AND SWIFT, COVERING THE EARTH.’ So I preached to you that morning and told you that God’s wrath was stirred up and that the sword was ready and near at hand.” 18
Another death Savonarola claimed to predict occurred on July 25: that of Pope Innocent VIII. To understand the significance of his death, a retrospective of his life is necessary. Innocent never impressed anyone very favorably. The Florentine ambassador, Guidantonio Vespucci, summed up common opinion diplomatically when he said the pope was “better suited to receive advice than give it.” 19 Innocent became pope at a stalemated conclave in 1484, allegedly by signing petitioners’ claims for favors in his cell at night during the voting. He was renowned for affability and good intentions. But—even in his rare intervals of good health—he was hardly equal to the job.
Most of his pontificate was dominated by violent quarrels with the king of Naples, who scorned the papacy’s historic rights to jurisdiction in his kingdom and incited rebellions in the papal states. The throne of Naples, and that of Sicily, which was tied to it, had been disputed between rival claimants from Spain, France, and England for over two hundred years—ever since Spanish conquerors installed the ruling Aragonese dynasty and displaced the French House of Anjou, whose descendants never ceased to assert their claims and who were still plotting coups and launching raids. The Angevin claim was a subject of dispute in its turn between the houses that descended from the line: those of the dukes of Lorraine, who had a strong claim but little power with which to enforce it; the kings of England, who had long abandoned interest in Sicily; and the kings of France, who—because of their growing power, if for no better reason—were increasingly realistic claimants.
Another of Savonarola’s prophecies was that France would invade Italy in order to seize the Angevin inheritance. France was the sword that pierced his many visions. But you did not need to be a prophet to know that an invasion was only a matter of time. As Innocent’s pontificate unfolded, everyone could see it coming.
Expectations focused on the king of France, Louis XI, who united Angevin claims to Naples and Sicily because he was the residuary legatee of the previous claimant. Louis, however, was too prudent and practical to risk launching long-range wars. Louis was not made for glory. His mind was calculating, his methods cautious, his ambition worldly. “I will not say I ever saw a better king,” wrote his secretary, “for although he oppressed his subjects himself, he would not allow anyone else to do so.” By a mixture of astuteness and good fortune, he had a glorious reign. His great rival, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, fell at the Battle of Nancy, in 1477, in an attempt to re-create the ancient kingdom of Lorraine. The English, who had carved an empire in France by violence early in the century, had been expelled from the mainland by 1453, their former dominions firmly attached to the crown. Louis was free to assert royal power in parts of France that had formerly been merely nominal parts of the kingdom, including Languedoc in the south and Brittany in the north. France was the fastest-expanding realm in Christendom. Success nourished ambitions, excited envy, and attracted the eyes of outsiders in need of allies.
Louis’s son and heir, Charles, had an upbringing that might have been calculated to turn him away from the paths his father followed. Louis was a neglectful father, but when he did take a hand in his son’s education, he was full of uncharacteristically high-minded counsel.
God our creator has given us many great favors, for it has pleased him to make us chief, governor, and prince of the most noteworthy region and nation on earth, which is the kingdom of France, whereof several of the princes and kings who preceded us were so virtuous and valiant that they gained the name of Very Christian King, by reducing many great lands and divers nations of infidels to the good Catholic faith, extirpating heresies and vices from our realm, and preserving the Holy, apostolic See and the holy Church of God in their rights, liberties, and prerogatives, as well as by doing various other good deeds worthy of perpetual memory and in such a way that a certain number of them were held to be saints living forever in the very glorious company of God in his paradise.20
This rhetoric was traditional in the French royal house, as was the doctrine that the king was the servant of the people. But like most rhetoric, it tended to get honored more in the breach than in the observance. Charles’s values—his frameworks of understanding his role as a Christian king—were drawn more from stories of knights than of saints, more chivalry than clerisy. He ascended the throne as Charles VIII in 1483 at the age of thirteen, resolved to be as unlike his father as possible. Their personalities were at odds. Where Louis had been worldly, Charles was wooly; whereas the father was a realist, the son was a romantic. He spent most of his childhood in his mother’s company, reading her books. He became immersed in what we would now classify as chick-lit: romantic tales of chivalry, much the same kind of stuff that turned Columbus’s head—the medieval equivalent of dime novels, in which, typically, heroes undertook perilous journeys to conquer distant kingdoms and marry exotic princesses. In the Histoire de Mélusine, Charles read of a queen’s sons—young men like himself—who launched adventures of conquest in Cyprus and Ireland.
Lady, if you please, it seems the time has come for us to undertake a journey, so as to learn of foreign lands, kingdoms, and places and win honor and good renown on distant frontiers…. There we shall learn what is different about distant lands and what they have incommon with our own. And then, if fortune or good luck is willing to befriend us, we would dearly like to conquer lands and realms.21
It would be hard to imagine a program that more exactly foreshadowed Charles’s ambitions. Taking her leave of her adventurous sons, Mélusine grants them leave to do “what you wish for and what you see as being to your profit and honor.” She advises them to follow all the rules of a chivalrous life, adding counsel that seems to anticipate Charles’s methods as a conqueror:
And if God gives you good fortune and you are able to conquer land, govern your own persons and those of your subjects according to each person’s nature and rank. And if any rebel, be sure to humble them and make clear that you are their lords. Never lose hold of any of the rights that belong to your lordship…. Take from your subjects your rents and dues without taxing them further, save in a just cause.22
In one aspect, however, the successors of Mélusine’s sons failed to follow her advice. “Never,” said the heroine, “tell of yourselves what is not reasonable or true.” Writers of chivalry, by contrast, filled their chronicles with marvels and fables, improbable episodes, fantastic monsters, and impossible deeds. People treated them as true, much as modern TV addicts relate to their soap operas. Scenes from fictional pilgrimages adorned stained-glass windows at Sable and Chartres. Charles VIII was among the many readers chivalric tales suckered.
Even more relevant to Charles’s own prospects was The Book of the Kings’ Three Sons, in which young heirs to the thrones of France, England, and Scotland quit their homes secretly to fight for the king of Naples and his beautiful daughter, Yolande, against the Turks. “If you undertake the journey,” urged the knights who sought the princes’ help, “you will learn knowledge of all the world. Everyone will be happy to be your subject. Neither Hector of Troy nor Alexander the Great ever had the renown you will gain after your death.” In August 1492, when he was planning his own expedition to Naples, he read the book afresh. His moral education was largely based on a book of chivalric examples drawn from stories of the Trojan War and presented in the form of dialogues between Prince Hector and the Goddess of Wisdom.23
Historians have tried to discard the traditional view that tales of chivalry besotted Charles VIII and filled him with romantic notions. But none of the alternative explanations for his behavior works. There was no economic or political advantage to be gained from invading Italy, whereas the conclusion that storybook self-perceptions jostled in the king’s mind seems inescapable. As heir of René of Anjou, he succeeded to a great romantic lost cause. Beyond Naples and Sicily lay the lure of Jerusalem, the long-lost crusader kingdom. The title of King of Jerusalem, though disputed by other monarchs, went with the Sicilian throne. Charles’s accounts show that he remained an avid collector of chivalric books throughout his life. He identified with a former conqueror of Italy, his namesake Charlemagne, whom many writers reworked as a fictional hero. He called his son Charles-Orland, after Roland, Charlemagne’s companion, who, in fictions his legend spawned, supposedly roamed southern Italy performing deeds of love and valor and who, in an equally false and venerable fiction, died fighting Muslims. Charlemagne was more than a historical figure: legends cast him as a crusader and included a tale of a voyage to Jerusalem, which he never made in reality. He was a once and future king who, in legend, never died but went to sleep, to reawaken when the time was ripe to unify Christendom. The legend blended with prophecies of the rise of a Last World Emperor, who would conquer Jerusalem, defeat the Antichrist, and inaugurate a new age, prefatory to the Second Coming.
Italians with their own agendas encouraged Charles’s fantasies. When he entered Siena, the citizens greeted him with paired effigies of himself and Charlemagne, his supposed predecessor. In the violently divided politics of Florence, some citizens wanted him as an ally against others. Venetians and Milanese wanted him on their side in their wars against Naples and the pope. When popes had quarrels with Naples, they wanted him to fight on their behalf. When Charles was still a small boy, Sixtus IV had sent him his first sword as a Christmas gift.
If Charlemagne’s road through Naples led—at least in fiction—to Jerusalem, it was conceivable at the time that Charles VIII could follow him all the way. The prospects for renewing the crusade against the Turks seemed genuinely promising. The internecine squabbles of the Ottoman dynasty had driven the pretender to the sultanate, Prince Djem or Zizim, into the arms of the Knights of Rhodes, who had sent him to France for safekeeping in 1482. The Book of the Kings’ Three Sons featured a Turkish prince who embraced Christianity and converted his people: to Charles, it must have read like a prophetic text. The sultan of Egypt, who put politics above religion, offered a million ducats in support of a new crusade. Meanwhile, the menace of Turkish power in the Mediterranean grew as raids spread as far as Italy and a Turkish task force seized Otranto. In 1488, a Venetian publicist visited France to canvas support. “Today,” he complained, “faith has fallen, zeal is dead. The Christian cause has tumbled to a point so low that it is no longer for the sake of Jerusalem, or Asia, or even Greece that the Holy See has sent us to your Majesty, but it is for Italy herself, for the very towns of the holy Roman Church, her cities and people, that we have come to beg your aid.” 24
On the way to Jerusalem and the lands of the Turks, the crown of Naples and Sicily gleamed. As early as 1482, the pope—Sixtus IV at that time—trailed the possibility before the unresponsive eyes of Louis XI, suggesting explicitly that young Charles could be the beneficiary. If France wanted to conquer Naples, “now is the acceptable time…. This realm belongs by hereditary right to his royal Majesty…. The pope’s will is that his Majesty or the lord dauphin be invested with this kingdom.” 25
In the late 1480s, dissensions within the kingdom of Naples seemed to make the project increasingly practicable. In 1489, Charles received a group of dissident Neapolitan nobles at his court. Their numbers grew over the next three years. During 1490, they laid out plans for the conquest at repeated meetings of Charles’s council. The pope’s envoys reported—with some cautious qualifications—that the French at last seemed to be steeled for the invasion. Charles prepared his route southward by alliance with Milan and covered his northern flank by marrying Anne of Brittany and attaching that dangerously independent duchy firmly, at last, to France. The news of the fall of Granada in January 1492 came like a call to compete for glory. A few weeks later, Innocent made his peace with Naples. Broadly speaking, the terms were that the pope would continue to dispense justice in Naples—but only according to the king’s wishes—while Naples would support the papacy with force of arms. To seal the bargain, the Neapolitans presented the pope with their most precious relic—the tip of the lance that was supposed to have pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion. Ironically, the settlement excited French interest as the dispute never had. French lust for the Neapolitan crown began to increase, with consequences that would prove fatal in the future. From March to May 1492, a Milanese embassy was in Paris, enticing the king into a final decision. Their machinations infuriated Peter Martyr, who from his vantage point at the court of the King of Aragon thought it “folly to place a viper or scorpion in one’s own bed in the hope that it may poison one’s neighbor…. You will all see. Charles, if he has any sense, will know how to exploit his chance.” 26
While they were at work, news of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s death arrived. A major obstacle disappeared. Florence, weakened by Lorenzo’s death and awestruck by Savonarola’s preaching, would be unable to put up much resistance to a French advance. Meanwhile, almost as soon as Innocent fixed matters with Naples and took solemn possession of the Holy Spear, a new, protracted illness overcame him, which proved to be his last. His physicians grew desperate. One of them allegedly offered to succor his patient with his son’s blood, which the pope refused to drink. By July, Innocent’s stomach pains were becoming unbearable, the sores on his legs unsightly. The shadow of his impending death seemed visible. The mob grew restive. The cardinals began to maneuver in preparation for the conclave. By July 19, according to the Florentine ambassador, the pope’s body was effectively dead and only his soul remained to him. He yielded it up five days later. Before an invasion could begin, however, another obstacle arose. Innocent VIII had already decided to back a rival contender for the throne of Naples; but between indecision and infirmity he is unlikely to have offered serious opposition to Charles’s hopes, had he lived.
The conclave that followed his death took place in an atmosphere redolent of corruption. Moralists loved to find fault with Rome. According to the most anticlerical and sententious of the diarists of the time, the city housed sixty-eight hundred harlots “not counting those who practiced their nefarious trade under the cloak of concubinage and those who practiced their arts in secret.” The front-runner to succeed Innocent VIII seemed representative of all that was rotten in Rome. Rodrigo Borgia had been the favorite and runner-up at the last conclave, when Innocent VIII was elected, but his reputation, as a Florentine ambassador recorded, was already unsavory: false and proud. People excused his notorious womanizing, and the three children he fathered, on the grounds that he was fatally attractive. The wealth he piled up by accumulating benefices and offices of profit quenched all his disadvantages. “He possesses,” as a diarist who knew him observed, “immense quantities of silver plate, pearls, hangings, and vestments embroidered in gold and silk, and all of such splendid quality as would befit a king or a pope. I pass over the sumptuous adornments of his litters and trappings for his horses, and all his gold and silver and silks, together with his magnificent wardrobe and his hoards of treasure.” 27
To win the new election, Borgia supposedly bought Cardinal Sforza’s vote with four mule loads of silver—on the pretext that they would go to his house for safekeeping. He got most of the rest of the votes he needed without compromising his own fortune—by promising to reward his supporters from the church’s stock of profitable jobs. Stefano Infessura, a humanist diarist with a talent for satire, explained how on his election the new pope began his reign “by giving his goods to the poor”—by paying for the votes he had bought with promises. The cardinals elected him Pope Alexander VI on the night of August 10.
It was a scandalous choice but not—for the times—an inappropriate one. Borgia was an accomplished and indefatigable man of business. His flagrant nepotism dominates historical traditions about him. He heaped honors and titles on his children. “Ten papacies,” according to the ambassador of Ferrara, would not have yielded enough to satisfy all the Borgia cousins who thronged the curia. Abuses, however, did not doom the Church. The problems that proved intractable were diplomatic.
From the pope’s point of view, a French invasion, which his predecessors had sought so ardently, would now be a disaster. The arrangements Innocent VIII made with Naples were perfectly satisfactory. The new heir to the Neapolitan throne bettered them and paid Alexander handsomely for his support. Charles VIII, the pope knew, would spread ruin and scatter ban. As Alexander strove to uphold the royal house of Naples, Charles took the offensive, igniting the pope’s deepest fear by impugning the validity of his election. In effect, Alexander had bribed his way into the papacy, and the legitimacy of his position was questionable. Charles recalled the French cardinals and banned all payments of church dues to Rome. He bade for a higher source of legitimation than even the pope could confer. He took a crusading oath and vowed that he would not stop at Naples, but use it as a launching point for the conquest of Jerusalem.
While Charles secured his flanks and rear by treaties with his enemies the rulers of England and the Netherlands, the invasion was postponed until 1494. When the king of Naples died in January 1494, the French were almost ready to invade. On September 3, 1494, Charles left the French frontier and marched on Naples with an army of some forty thousand men. Peter Martyr, watching events unfold, raged in frustration: “What Italian can take up his pen without crying, without dying, without being consumed by pain?” The invader’s progress south was like a triumph, as cities and duchies capitulated and the pope’s partisans defected or fled. Along the way, Charles picked up fortunes in ransoms—the price communities paid to avoid pillage. Pope Alexander, seeming to accept the inevitable, surrendered Rome into the king’s hands, counting himself lucky to escape deposition. Rome emptied of notables and valuables. “People are in terror,” wrote the Milanese envoy in May 1495, “not only for their property, but for their lives also. Rome has never been so entirely cleared of silver and valuables of all sorts. Not one of the cardinals has enough plate to serve six persons. The houses are dismantled.” 28 Refusing to anoint Charles as king of Naples, Alexander fled.
But Charles was the victim of his own success. He occupied the kingdom of Naples with such ease that all Europe’s neutrals, and even some of his former friends, became as alarmed as his enemies at the growth of his power. The pope put together a coalition of Venice, Spain, England, and the Duke of Milan, ostensibly to fight the Ottomans but really to reverse Charles’s achievements. It was not, at first, militarily active, but it was effective in encouraging local opposition to Charles. When the king returned to France with his booty in July, Milanese forces ambushed him and seized almost all the treasures he had gathered. Over the next couple of years, Spanish-led forces chased out the garrisons he left behind in Naples.
“1494: Charles VIII invades Italy. Beginning of modern times.” I can still recall the list of memorable dates my history teacher wrote on the blackboard when I was at my first school. The idea behind what at the time was a conventional way of dating the dawn of modernity was that until the French invasion, the Renaissance was confined to Italy. Charles unlocked it and took Italian arts and ideas back with him across the Alps, making it possible for the initiatives that made our world to spread around Europe.
No one still thinks anything of the sort. The Renaissance no longer looks like a new departure in the history of the world; rather, it was just more of the same, or an intensification of medieval traditions of humanistic learning and reverence for classical antiquity. New ideas were not all of Italian origin, and humanism and classicism had independent origins in other parts of Europe—especially in France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Italian learning and technical and artistic savoir-faire were already sought after in much of Europe. In Spain, the fall of Granada did most to introduce Italian taste, for the conquered city cried out for new churches and palaces in a classicizing spirit. Charles VIII, in any case, did little to spread Italian taste even in France. The year 1492 was at least as decisive as 1494 in the history of his involvement in Italy, for it was then that he made up his mind to invade.
In combination, the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the invasion of Charles VIII constituted a crisis in the history of the Renaissance. Ficino thought Plato’s fortunes had collapsed with Lorenzo’s death.29 After the Bonfire of the Vanities, even Botticelli gave up painting erotic commissions and reverted to old-fashioned piety. The Renaissance seemed in abeyance. But the greatest age was long over. By the mid–fifteenth century, the generation of Brunelleschi (d. 1446), Ghiberti (d. 1455), Donatello (d. 1466), Alberti (d. 1472), and Michelozzo (d. 1472) was aging, dead, or dying. The institutions of the republic had fallen under the control of a single dynasty. But the tradition of excellence in arts and learning lived on. The sculptor Andrea Verocchio and the incomparable painter Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) lived next door to the house of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose writings popularized knowledge of the continent that came to be named after him. In the church of Ognissanti, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio (1448–96) worked on commissions from Vespucci’s family.
Although the revolution that was to overthrow the Medici in 1494 caused a temporary loss of opportunities for patronage, the careers of the next generation—including Michelangelo, who was Ghirlandaio’s apprentice—were already under way. At the time, Machiavelli was an unknown twenty-something. Florence’s fertility in the production of genius seemed inexhaustible. Leonardo da Vinci had left the city in 1481 and went to Milan, where he struggled to get paid for his paintings and worked hard glorifying the local tyrant in bronze or designing engineering works. Michelangelo was just eighteen years old when the death of Lorenzo forced him from the security of the Medici court back to his father’s home. He worked hard to regain favor and in January 1494 was commissioned by the new head of the Medici family to produce a snow statue. The snow seemed hardly to have melted when political upheaval forced the Medici out. Michelangelo (among other artists) went with them and took refuge in Venice.
Nor is it fair to say that Lorenzo’s death, or even the revolution that followed it, seeded Florentine talent throughout Italy. There had long been a lively market for skills in artistry and eloquence. Rome was the most important focus, for the popes had a long tradition as collectors of antiquities, patrons of art, and employers of high achievers not only in sacred learning but also in law, diplomacy, rhetoric, and the formulation of propaganda. To the frustration of believers in the exemplary value of ancient republican virtues, the rise of dictators and despots in Italian cities actually stimulated the markets in learning and art. Autocrats needed rhetoricians to advocate their merits, justify their usurpations of power, and excuse their wars. Tyrants needed sculptors and architects to design and erect their monuments and perpetuate their images. Courts needed artists to paint their personnel and design their theaters of power—the masques and jousts, the processions and parades that awed enemies and enthused followers. Because artists often doubled as engineers, and sculptors skilled in bronze casting could transfer their talents to making guns, the growing political tensions in Italy also created opportunities for artists all over the peninsula.
Even in combination with the events of 1494, those of 1492 did not stimulate the Renaissance, liberate it from the confines of Florence, or disseminate it around the world. Lorenzo the Magnificent and Charles VIII no longer look like harbingers of modernity. The mental world they shared was chivalric. They looked back for their values: Lorenzo to antiquity, Charles to a fictional version of the classical and medieval past. Savonarola, perhaps, was a more important or representative figure for the future of the world. At first glance, he seems an even more regressive type than his chivalrically minded contemporaries, sunk in the ostentatiously austere late-medieval piety that most people nowadays find baffling or irksome. His addiction to millenarianism, his confidence in visions, his prophetic stridency, his hatred of art, and his mistrust of secular scholarship align him with aspects of the modern world most moderns reject: religious obscurantism, extreme fanaticism, irrational fundamentalism. In some ways, the conflicts he brought to a head—the confrontation of worldly and godly moralities, the uncomprehending debate between rational and subrational or suprarational mind-sets, the struggle for power in the state between the partisans of secularism and spirituality or of science and scripture—are timeless, universal features of history. Yet they are also, in their current intensity and ferocity, among the latest novelties of contemporary politics. The culture wars of our own time did not begin with Savonarola, but he embodied some of their most fearsome features.
In his prescriptions for Christendom, Savonarola was not an innovator, but he seemed “swollen with divine virtue,” according to Machiavelli, who, as a youngster, heard the friar’s sermons as he huffed and puffed in the pulpit. He brought unique force to the expression of some long-standing priorities of the reforming prophets of the late medieval Church: revulsion from the Church’s involvement in the world and the corrupting effects of wealth and secular power; denunciation of the overweening power of the popes over clergy and the clergy over laypeople; horror at the way pharisees seemed to have taken over the Church, binding and laming the search for salvation with obedience to formulaic rules and meaningless rituals. He was convinced that Scripture contained the whole of God’s message, universally accessible, and that readers of Scripture needed no other knowledge except of prayer and mortification. His condemnation of Roman excess—though perhaps not quite as colorfully insulting as Luther’s, with its rich language of the lavatory and the whorehouse—anticipated in tone and content the invective of the founder of Protestantism:
Go to Rome and see! In the mansions of the great prelates there is no concern save for poetry and the oratorical art. Go thither and see! Thou shalt find them all with the books of the humanities in their hands, telling one another that they can guide men’s souls by means of Virgil, Horace, and Cicero…. The prelates of former days had fewer gold miters and chalices, and what few they possessed were broken up and given to relieve the needs of the poor. But our prelates, for the sake of obtaining chalices, will rob the poor of their sole means of support. Dost thou not know what I would tell thee?…O Lord, arise, and come to deliver thy Church from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates.30
Savonarola prefigured Luther, too, in his insistence on the doctrine of salvation by the free grace of God, which—except in the hands of reformers who used it to denounce the Church’s rules of charity and piety—was perfectly innocent, orthodox Catholicism, but which became the slogan of the Reformation:
God remits the sins of men, and justifies them by his mercy. There are as many drops of compassion in heaven as there are justified men upon earth; for none are saved by their own works…. And if, in the presence of God, we could ask all these justified sinners, “Have you been saved by your own strength?” all would reply as with one voice, “Not unto us, O Lord! not unto us; but to thy name be the glory!” Therefore, O God, do I seek thy mercy, and I bring not unto thee my own righteousness; but when by thy grace thou justifiest one, then thy righteousness belongs unto me; for grace is the righteousness of God.31
An anonymous painting from 1498 shows what became of Savonarola, and how Florentines wanted the rest of us to remember his fate. Here, in place of the “vanities” the prophet had kindled in the same place a few years before, the flames consume Savonarola himself. It is a depiction of his death at the stake: the pyre is gigantic, towering, more like a ship than a scaffold, with its skyward, mastlike reach, topped with a cross. A high causeway links it to the municipal palace, from where the preacher was led to public execution. But the man who once turned heads and sparked ardor in the hearts of the people is now strangely ignored. Children play, merchants pass through; it is business as usual in the Piazza della Signoria. Only those who carry wood to the pyre are engaged in Savonarola’s reckoning. The message of the image is obvious: Florence spared no pains or expense to burn the heretic, but did not want to appear to have taken any notice of him.
A few years after Savonarola’s immolation, Luther visited Florence. But he did not need to experience the place to adopt the martyred friar as a hero or succumb to his influence. Savonarola’s popularity with his followers, and the informal power he exercised in the Florentine republic after the fall of the Medici, ensured that almost every word he uttered from the pulpit found its way into print. Luther knew his sermons well, reprinted two of them, with an admiring preface of his own, and acknowledged him as a forerunner. “The Antichrist of that time made the memory of that great man perish,” he complained, “but see! He lives. And his memory is blessed.” 32