NOWHERE are the prejudices of the historian so likely to mislead him as when he seeks to determine the moral level of an age—unless it be in the kindred inquiry into the decline of religious belief. In either case the dramatic exception will strike his eye and turn it from the unrecorded average. His vision will be further blurred if he approaches the problem with a thesis to prove—as, for example, that religious doubt brings moral decay. And the records themselves are ambivalent, capable, according to the selective bias, of proving almost anything. The works of Aretino, the autobiography of Cellini, the correspondence of Machiavelli and Vettori can be stressed to convey the odor of disintegration; the letters of Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, of Elisabetta Gonzaga and Alessandra Strozzi can be quoted to paint a picture of sisterly tenderness and ideal family life. The reader will have to be on his guard.
Many factors entered into the moral decline that accompanied the intellectual exaltation of the Renaissance. Probably the basic factor was the growth of wealth that resulted from Italy’s strategic position on the routes of trade between western Europe and the East, and from the flow of tithes and annates out of a thousand Christian communities into Rome. Sin became more prevalent as more funds were provided to meet its costs. The spread of wealth weakened the ascetic ideal: men and women came to resent an ethic that had been born of poverty and fear, and that now ran counter to both their impulses and their means. They heard with rising sympathy the view of Epicurus that life should be enjoyed, and that all pleasures are to be accounted innocent until proved guilty. The charms of woman triumphed over the prohibitions of theology.
Perhaps next to wealth the main source of immorality was the political unsettlement of the times. The strife of factions, the frequency of war, the influx of foreign mercenaries, and, later, the invasion of Italy by foreign armies recognizing no moral restraints on Italian soil, the repeated disruption of agriculture and trade by the ravages of war, the destruction of freedom by despots who replaced peaceful legitimacy with autocratic force: all these disordered Italian life, and cracked the “cake of custom” that normally conserves morality. Men found themselves unmoored in a sea of violence. Neither state nor Church seemed able to protect them; they protected themselves as best they could, by arms or craft; lawlessness became the law. The despots, placed above the law and dedicated to a short but stirring life, indulged themselves in every pleasure; and their example was followed by the moneyed minority.
In assessing the role of religious unbelief in releasing the natural immorality of mankind, we must begin by distinguishing the skepticism of the lettered few from the persistent piety of the many. Enlightenment is of minorities, and emancipation is individual; minds are not freed en masse. A few skeptics might protest against false relics and bogus miracles and indulgences offering promissory notes for cash; but the people accepted them with awe and hope. In 1462 the scholar-Pope Pius II and some cardinals went out to the Milvian Bridge to meet the head of the Apostle Andrew, which was arriving from Greece; and the scholar-Cardinal Bessarion pronounced a solemn oration when the precious figment was deposited in St. Peter’s. The people undertook pilgrimages to Loreto and Assisi, flocked to Rome in jubilee years, made the stations of the cross from church to church, and mounted on their knees the Scala Santa which, they were told, was the very stairway that Christ had climbed to the tribune of Pilate. Powerful characters might laugh at all this while their health was good, but rare was the Renaissance Italian who did not ask for the sacraments on his deathbed. Vitellozzo Vitelli, the rough condottiere who had fought Alexander VI and Caesar Borgia, begged a messenger to go to Rome and seek papal absolution for him before Caesar’s handy man tightened the noose around his neck. Women especially worshiped Mary; almost every village had a miracle-working icon of her; now (c. 1524) the Rosary became a favorite form of prayer. Every decent house had a crucifix and a holy picture or two; and before one or more of these, in many homes, a lamp was kept burning endlessly. Village squares and city streets might be adorned with a statue of Jesus or the Virgin, placed in a separate tabernacle or a niche in a wall. The festivals of the religious calendar were celebrated with a pomp and magnificence that gave the people thrilling interruptions to their toil; and every decade or so the coronation of a pope offered processions and games that to antiquarians recalled the spectacles of ancient Rome. Never was a religion more beautiful than when the artists of the Renaissance housed and carved its shrines, and painted its heroes and legends, and drama, music, poetry, and incense joined in the colorful, odorous, sumptuous worship of God.
But this, again, is but one side of a scene too diverse and contradictory to be briefly described. In the cities many of the churches were left relatively empty of men then as now.1 As to the countryside hear Archbishop Antonino of Florence describing the peasants of his diocese about 1430:
In the churches themselves they sometimes dance and leap and sing with women. On holydays they spend little time on divine service or hearing the whole Mass, but most in games or taverns or contentions at the church doors. They blaspheme God and His saints on slender provocation. They are filled with lies and perjuries; they make no conscience of fornication, and of worse sins still. Very many of them do not confess even once a year; far fewer are those who take Communion…. They do little to instruct their families in the manner of faithful folk. They use enchantments for themselves and their beasts. Of God, or their own souls’ health, they think not at all…. Their parish priests, caring not for the flock committed to them, but only for its wool and milk, do not instruct them through preaching and the confessional, or by private admonitions, but walk in the same error as their flocks, following their corrupt ways.2
We may reasonably conclude, from the existence and natural deaths of such men as Pomponazzi and Machiavelli, that a large section of the educated classes in the Italy of 1500 had lost faith in Catholic Christianity; and we may more precariously assume that even among the letterless religion had lost some of its power to control the moral life. An increasing proportion of the population had ceased to believe in the divine origin of the moral code. Once the Commandments appeared to be man-made, and were shorn of their supernatural sanctions in heaven and hell, the code lost its terrors and its efficacy. Tabus fell away, and a calculus of expediency took their place. The sense of sin, the gloom of guilt, waned; conscience was left comparatively free; and each man did what seemed to him convenient, even if not traditionally right. Men no longer wished to be good, but to be strong; many private individuals took to themselves, long before Machiavelli, those privileges of force and fraud—that principle of the end justifying the means—which he conceded to the rulers of states; perhaps his ethic was an after-image of the morals he had seen around him. Platina attributed to Pius II the remark that “even if the Christian faith had not been confirmed by miracles, it ought to be received because of its morality.”3 But men did not reason so philosophically. They said, simply: If there is no hell or heaven, we must enjoy ourselves here, and we may indulge our appetites without fear of punishment after death. Only a strong and intelligent public opinion could have taken the place of the lost supernatural sanctions; but neither the clergy nor the humanists nor the universities rose to this task.
The humanists were as morally corrupt as the clergy they criticized. There were shining exceptions, scholars who found decency compatible with intellectual liberation—Ambrogio Traversari, Vittorino da Feltre, Marsilio Ficino, Aldus Manutius…. But an impressively large minority of the men who resurrected Greek and Roman literature lived like pagans who had never heard of Christianity. Their mobility deracinated them; they passed from city to city seeking laurels and fees, and sank no roots in stability. They were as fond of money as any moneylender or his wife. They were vain of their genius, their income, their features, their dress. They were coarse in their speech, ungenerous and disgraceful in their controversies, faithless in their friendships and transient in their loves. Ariosto, as we have noted, dared not trust his son to a humanist tutor for fear of moral contamination; probably he found it unnecessary to forbid the boy to read Orlando furioso, which was salted with melodious obscenity. Valla, Poggio, Beccadelli, Filelfo summarized in their loose lives one of the basic problems of ethics and civilization: must a moral code, to function effectively, have supernatural sanctions—the belief in another life, or in the divine origin of the moral code?