Alfonso left his kingdom to his putative son Ferdinand (r. 1458–94). Ferrante, as his people called him, was of dubious parentage. His mother was Margaret of Hijar, who had other lovers besides the King; Pontano, Ferrante’s secretary, affirmed that the father was a Valencian marrano—i.e., a Christianized Spanish Jew. Valla was his tutor. Ferrante was not known for sexual profligacy, but he had most of the vices that can come from a passionate nature untamed by a firm moral code, and aroused by apparently unreasonable hostility. Pope Calixtus III legitimated his birth but refused to recognize him as king; he declared the Aragonese line in Naples extinct, and claimed the Kingdom as a fief of the Church. René of Anjou made another attempt to regain the throne bequeathed him by Joanna II. While he landed forces on the Neapolitan coast, the feudal barons rose in revolt against the house of Aragon, and allied themselves with the foreign foes of the King. Ferrante confronted these simultaneous challenges with angry courage, overcame them, and revenged himself with somber ferocity. One by one he lured his enemies with pretended reconciliation, gave them excellent dinners, killed some of them after dessert, imprisoned others, let several starve to death in his dungeons, kept some of them in cages for his occasional delectation, and, when they died, had them embalmed and dressed in their favorite costumes, and preserved them as mummies in his museum;5 these stories, however, may be “war atrocities” manufactured by historians in a hostile camp. It was this king who dealt so fairly with Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1479. Revolution nearly upset him in 1485, but he recovered his footing, completed a long reign of thirty-six years, and died amid general rejoicing. The rest of the story of Naples belongs to the collapse of Italy.
Ferrante did not continue Alfonso’s patronage of scholars, but he engaged as his prime minister a man who was at once a poet, a philosopher, and a skillful diplomat. Giovanni Pontano developed—Beccadelli had founded —the Neapolitan Academy. Its members were men of letters who met periodically to exchange verses and ideas. They took Latin names (Pontano became Jovianus Pontanus), and loved to think that they were continuing, after a long and cruel interlude, the stately culture of Imperial Rome. Several of them wrote a Latin worthy of the Silver Age. Pontanus composed Latin treatises on ethics, praising the virtues that Ferrante allegedly ignored, and an eloquent essay De principe, recommending to a ruler those amiable qualities which Machiavelli’sPrince, twenty years later, would contemn. Giovanni dedicated this exemplary tract to his pupil, Ferrante’s son and heir Alfonso II (1494–5), who practised all that Machiavelli preached. Pontano taught in verse as well as in prose, and expounded in Latin hexameters the mysteries of astronomy and the proper cultivation of oranges. In a series of pleasant poems he celebrated every species of normal love: the mutual itching of healthy youth, the tender attachment of newlyweds, the reciprocal satisfactions of marriage, the joys and griefs of parental love, the merger of mates into one being by the accumulation of the years. He described in verses seemingly as spontaneous as Virgil’s, and with a surprising command of the Latin lexicon, the holiday life of the Neapolitans: the workers sprawling on the grass, the athletes at their games, the picnickers in their carts, the seductive girls dancing the tarantella to the clash of their tambourines, the lads and lasses flirting on the bayside promenade, the lovers keeping tryst, the bluebloods taking the baths at Baiae as if fifteen centuries had not passed since Ovid’s raptures and despairs. Had Pontano written in Italian with the same felicity and grace with which he composed Latin verse, we should have ranked him with the bilingual Petrarch and Politian, who had the good sense to march with the present as well as roam in the past.
After Pontano the most prominent member of the Academy was Iacopo Sannazaro. Like Bembo he could write Italian in the purest Tuscan dialect—far different from the Neapolitan speech; like Politian and Pontano he could mold Latin elegies and epigrams that would not have shamed Tibullus or Martial. For one epigram praising Venice Venice sent him six hundred ducats.6 Alfonso II, at war with Alexander VI, took Sannazaro with him on his campaigns to shoot poetic darts into Rome. When the Justy Pope, whose Borgia family carried a Spanish bull on its coat of arms, took Giulia Farnese as his alleged mistress, Sannazaro gored him with two lines that must have made Alfonso’s soldiers regret their ignorance of Latin:
Europen Tyrio quondam sedisse iuvenco
quis neget? Hispano Iulia vecta tauro est;7
which is to say:
That once on Tyrian bull Europa sat,
Who doubts? A Spanish bull bears Julia.
And when Caesar Borgia took the field against Naples, a barb went his way:
Aut nihil aut Caesar vult dici Borgia; quidni?
cum simul et Caesar possit et esse nihil;8
Caesar or nothing Borgia would be called;
But why not both, since he is both at once?
Such sallies passed from mouth to ear in Italy, and shared in forming the legend of the Borgias.
In a gentler mood Sannazaro composed (1526) a Latin epic On the Virgin Birth (De partu Virginis). It was an astonishing tour de force: it used the classical machinery of the pagan gods, but brought them in as adjuncts to—eavesdroppers on—the Gospel narrative; and it dared comparison with Virgil by quoting the famous Fourth Eclogue in the body of the poem. It was excellent Latin, and delighted Clement VII, but not even a pope will lose himself in it today.
The masterpiece of Sannazaro was written in the living tongue of his people, in a medley of prose and verse—Arcadia (1504). Like Theocritus in ancient Alexandria, the poet had grown tired of cities, and had learned to love rural fragrance and peace. It was an urban sentiment that Lorenzo and Politian had expressed, with evident sincerity, some twenty years before. The landscapes in the painting of the time marked a growing appreciation of the countryside; and men of the world began to babble of woods and fields, limpid streams, and virile shepherds piping amorous lays. Sannazaro’s book caught these fancies at their flow, and was carried to such fame and popularity as favored no other book of the Italian Renaissance. He led his readers into an imaginary world of strong men and beautiful women—none of these old, and most of them nude; he described their splendor, and that of natural scenes, in a poetic prose that set a fashion in Italy, and later in France and England; and he interspersed his prose with pardonable poetry. In this book the modern pastoral was born, perhaps less graceful than the ancient, more elongated and windy, but with interminable effect upon literature and art. Here Giorgione, Titian, and a hundred artists after them would find themes for their pigments; here Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney would take impressions for their faery queens and an English Arcadia. Sannazaro had rediscovered a continent more enchanting than the New World of Columbus, a melodious Utopia where any soul might enter at no other cost than literacy, and might build its castle to its taste and whim without lifting a finger from the page.
The art of the Regno was more masculine than its poetry, though there too the soft Italian touch showed its hand. Donatello and Michelozzo came down from Florence and set the pace with an imposing mausoleum for Cardinal Rinaldo Brancacci in the church of San Angelo a Nilo. For the Castel Nuovo, begun by Charles I of Anjou (1283), Alfonso the Magnanimous ordered a new gate (1443–70), which Francesco Laurana designed, and for which Pietro di Martino, and probably Giuliano da Maiano, carved handsome reliefs of the King’s achievements in war and peace. The church of Santa Chiara, built for Robert the Wise (1310), still contains the lovely Gothic monument set up by the brothers Giovanni and Pace da Firenze soon after the King’s death in 1343. The cathedral of San Gennaro (1272) received a new Gothic interior in the fifteenth century. There, in the costly Cappella del Tesoro, the blood of St. Januarius, protective patron of Naples, flows three times a year, insuring the prosperity of a city weary with commerce and burdened with centuries, but consoled by faith and love.
Sicily remained aloof from the Renaissance. She produced a few scholars like Aurispa, a few painters like Antonello da Messina, but they soon migrated to the wider opportunities of the mainland. Palermo, Monreale, Cefalù had great art, but only as the relic of Byzantine, Moslem, or Norman days. The feudal lords who owned the land preferred the eleventh to the fifteenth century, and lived in knightly scorn or ignorance of letters. The people whom they exploited were too poor to have any cultural expression beyond their colorful dress, their religion of bright mosaics and somber hope, their songs and simple poetry of love and violence. The lovely island enjoyed its own Aragonese kings and queens from 1295 to 1409; thereafter, for three centuries, it was a jewel in the crown of Spain.
Lengthy as this brief survey of non-Roman Italy has seemed, it has done scant justice to the full and varied life of the passionate peninsula. Consideration of morals and manners, of science and philosophy, may be deferred till we have spent some chapters with the Renaissance popes; but even in those cities that we have touched how many precious byways of life and art have escaped our eyes! We have said nothing of a whole branch of Italian literature, for the greatest novelle belong to a later period. We have inadequately visualized the major role that the minor arts played in the adornment of Italian bodies, minds, and homes. What deformed or inflated botches were majestically transformed by the textile arts! What would some of the grandees and grand dames glorified by Venetian painting have been without their velvets, satins, silks, and brocades? They did well to cover their nakedness and brand nudity as a sin. Wise it was of them, too, to cool their summers with gardens, even though so formal; to beautify their homes with colored tiles on roof and floor, with iron wrought into lacery and arabesques, and copper vessels gleaming smooth, and figurines of bronze or ivory reminding them how fair might men and women be, and woodwork carved and marquetried and built to last a thousand years, and lustrous pottery brightening table and cupboard and mantelpiece, and the miraculous embroidery of Venetian glass offering its fragile challenge to time, and the golden dies and silver clasps of leather bindings around treasured classics illuminated by happy bondsmen of the pen. Many painters, like Sano di Pietro, chose to ruin their eyesight with drawing and coloring miniatures rather than spread their subtle and intimate dreams of beauty crudely over panels and walls. And sometimes, weary of walking through galleries, one could sit gladly for hours over the illumination and calligraphy of such manuscripts as still hide in the Schifanoia palace at Ferrara, or in the Morgan Library at New York, or in the Ambrosiana at Milan.
All these, as well as the greater arts, and the labor and love, chicanery and statesmanship, devotion and war, faith and philosophy, science and superstition, poetry and music, hatreds and humor, of a lovable and volcanic people combined to make the Italian Renaissance, and to bring it to fulfillment and destruction in Medicean Rome.