Were the morals of Renaissance Italy really worse than those of other lands or times? It is difficult to make comparisons, since all evidence is a selection. The age of Alcibiades in Athens displayed much of the immorality of the Renaissance in sexual relations and political chicanery; it too practised abortion on a large scale, and cultivated erudite courtesans; it too liberated simultaneously the intellect and the instincts; and, anticipating Machiavelli, Sophists like Thrasybulus in Plato’s Republic attacked morality as weakness. Perhaps (for in these matters we are limited to vague impressions) there was less private violence in classic Greece than in Renaissance Italy, and a bit less of corruption in religion and politics. During an entire century of Roman history—from Caesar to Nero—we find greater corruption in government, and a worse breakdown of marriage, than in the Renaissance; but even in that epoch there remained many Stoic virtues in the Roman character; Caesar, with all his ambivalent capacity in bribery and love, was still the greatest general in a nation of generals.
The individualism of the Renaissance was another side of its intellectual vivacity, but compares unfavorably, in morals and politics, with the communal spirit of the Middle Ages. Political deceit, treachery, and crime were probably as rife in France, Germany, and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as in Italy, but those countries had the wisdom not to produce a Machiavelli to expound and expose the principles of their statecraft. Manners, not morals, were coarser north of the Alps than below them, except for a small class in France—exemplified by the Chevalier Bayard and Gaston de Foix—which still retained the better side of chivalry. Given equal opportunity, the French were as adept at adultery as the Italians; observe how readily they adopted syphilis; note the sexual melee in the fabliaux; count the twenty-four mistresses of Duke Philip of Burgundy, and the Agnès Sorels and Dianes de Poitiers of the French kings; read Brantôme.
Germany and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were too poor to rival Italy in immorality. Travelers from these countries were therefore astounded by the laxity of Italian life. Luther, visiting Italy in 1511, concluded that “if there is a hell, then Rome is built upon it; and this I have heard in Rome itself.”111 Everyone knows the shocked judgment of Roger Ascham, the English scholar who visited Italy about 1550:
I was once in Italy myself; but I thank God my abode there was but nine days; and yet I saw in that little time, in one city, more liberty to sin than ever I heard tell in our noble city of London in nine years. I saw it was there as free to sin, not only without all punishment but also without any man’s marking, as it is free in the city of London to choose without all blame whether a man lust to wear shoe or pantocle.112
And he quotes as an established proverb the saying, Inglese Italianato è un diavolo incarnato: “An Englishman Italianate is a devil incarnate.”
We know the corruption of Italy better than that of transalpine Europe because we know more about Italy, and because the Italian laity made little effort to conceal its immorality, and sometimes wrote books defending it. However, Machiavelli, who wrote such a book, reckoned Italy as “more corrupt than all other countries; next come the French and the Spaniards”;113 he admired the Germans and the Swiss as still possessing many of the virile virtues of ancient Rome. We may diffidently conclude that Italy was more immoral because she was richer, weaker in government and the reign of law, and further advanced in that intellectual development which usually makes for a moral release.
The Italians made some laudable efforts to check license. The vainest of these efforts were the sumptuary regulations that in nearly every state forbade extravagance of immodesty of dress; the vanity of men and women overrode with sly persistence the occasional assiduity of the law. The popes inveighed against immorality, but were in some cases swept along with the stream; their attempts at reforming abuses in the Church were nullified by the inertia or vested interests of the clergy; they themselves were rarely as wicked as passionate history once painted them, but they were more concerned to re-establish the political power of the papacy than to restore the moral integrity of the Church. “In our corrupt times,” said Guicciardini, “the goodness of a pontiff is commended when it does not surpass the wickedness of other men.”114 Valiant attempts at reform were made by the great preachers of the time, men like St. Bernardino of Siena, Roberto da Lecce, San Giovanni da Capistrano, and Savonarola. Their sermons and their audiences were part of the color and character of the age. They denounced vice with a vivid detail that contributed to their popularity; they persuaded feudists to forswear revenge and live in peace; they induced governments to release insolvent debtors and let exiles return home; they brought hardened sinners back to long neglected sacraments.
Even these powerful preachers failed. The instincts formed through a hundred thousand years of hunting and savagery had re-emerged through the cracked shell of a morality that had lost the support of religious belief, of respected authority, and established law. The great Church that had once ruled kings could no longer govern or cleanse itself. The destruction of political liberty in state after state had dulled the civic sense that had enfranchised and ennobled the medieval communes; where there had been citizens there were now only individuals. Excluded from government and flush with wealth, men turned to the pursuit of pleasure, and foreign invasion surprised them in siren arms. The city-states had for two centuries directed their forces, their subtlety, and their treachery against one another; it was now impossible for them to unite against a common foe. Preachers like Savonarola, rebuffed in all pleas for reform, called down the judgment of heaven upon Italy, and predicted the destruction of Rome and the break-up of the Church.115France, Spain, and Germany, weary of sending tribute to finance the wars of the Papal States and the luxuries of Italian life, looked with amazement and envy at a peninsula so shorn of will and power, so inviting in beauty and wealth. The birds of prey gathered to feast on Italy.
Fig. 47—RAPHAEL AND GIULIO ROMANO: The Transfiguration; Borghese Gallery, Rome PAGE 514
Fig. 48—MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI: Tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici; New Sacristy, San Lorenzo, Florence PAGE 641
Fig. 49—TITIAN: Portrait of Aretino; Frick Gallery, New York PAGE 659
Fig. 50—TITIAN: Portrait of Pope Paul III; Museum, Naples PAGE 662
Fig. 51—TITIAN: Portrait of Pope Paul III; Museum, Naples PAGE 662
Fig. 52—TITIAN: Venus of Urbino; Pitti Palace, Florence PAGE 662
Fig. 53—TITIAN: Portrait of a Young Englishman; Pitti Palace, Florence PAGE 666
Fig. 54—TITIAN: Self-portrait; Prado, Madrid PAGE 666
Fig. 55—TINTORETTO: The Miracle of St. Mark; Academy, Venice PAGE 670
Fig. 56—TINTORETTO: Presentation of the Virgin; Santa Maria dell’ Orto, Venice PAGE 671
Fig. 57—PAOLO VERONESE: Self-portrait; Uffizi Gallery, Florence PAGE 681
Fig. 58—PAOLO VERONESE: Portrait of Daniele Barbaro; Pitti Palace, Florence PAGE 679
Fig. 59—PAOLO VERONESE: The Rape of Europa; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York PAGE 680
Fig. 60—PAOLO VERONESE: Mars and Venus; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York PAGE 680
Fig. 61—DANIELE DA VOLTERRA: Bust of Michelangelo Buonarroti; National Museum, Florence PAGE 721