Printing, New/Old Books, and Dangerous Ideas
The story goes that when Cosimo de’ Medici decided to build a library of the basic books most necessary for being a learned individual, he turned to the noted book dealer Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421–1498) to produce it. Vespasiano was well known for his abilities in this area. He had also worked with Pope Nicolas V and the duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, a noted condottiere, patron, and scholar, to build their famous book collections. On his advice Cosimo commissioned two hundred books. To produce them in the minimum of time, Vespesiano hired forty-five professional scribes who took twenty-two months to complete the task. This works out to each scribe taking approximately five months to produce one book in manuscript form. Vespasiano prided himself on the high, virtually artistic quality of his books, and there were many shops that could have produced hand-copied books more cheaply and more rapidly, employing the assembly-line techniques used for textbooks or legal and medical reference works, where each scribe repeatedly copied a small group of pages rather than the whole book.
Shortly after midcentury, however, the printing press arrived in Italy from Germany, and relatively quickly printed books began to appear, produced more rapidly and cheaply. Vespasiano, outraged at this novelty, which he saw as undercutting the artistic and cultural aesthetics of hand-copied books, retired to his country estate to write a collection of lives of the most famous men of his day, his Vite d’uomini illustri del secolo XV (The Lives of Famous Men of the Fifteenth Century), which included a brief biography of Cosimo. Evidently he felt that printed books fell into that dangerous and to-be-avoided category, “the new” – a novelty that he despised, not a positive innovation.
He was not alone. The ancient world and its culture had not had printed books; the Bible made no mention of them; furthermore, there was no hint of them in sacred literature, no forewarning to be glimpsed in the past. Here was something definitely new and thus, from the perspective of the Rinascimento, self-evidently dangerous. Yet, as the time and expense involved in the production of Cosimo’s two hundred volumes suggests, this novelty had its appeal to both the commercial spirit and the intellectual world of the day; for there was a growing market for books among the literate public. Moreover, the profits to be made producing them more quickly and at lower cost, and the promise of a larger supply of more affordable books, added to the attraction. The question remained, however, how to deny the new in all this and demonstrate that it was in fact safely old.
That unlikely program – denying the new in order to claim the old – played a major role in the early stages of printing in Italy. First, most of the pioneering printers did not attempt to print books as cheaply as possible. Markets were still perceived as captured by the highest-quality products rather than by the lowest-priced; thus small-quantity luxury production was seen as the most profitable mode of producing cloth, furniture, housewares, and other products. From this perspective, in the early stages of what we think of today as the printing revolution in Italy, print shops focused on producing high-quality books that mimicked handwritten ones as much as possible. Experiments with typefaces thus tended to focus on three quality issues; first, artistic merit; second, creating a typeface that reproduced as closely as possible ancient Roman script; and third, clarity. Especially preferred were typefaces that reproduced the form of the letters found in the most ancient manuscripts still in existence, which contemporary scholars had favored for handwritten books because it was assumed that they were closest to the original Roman letters – a literal rebirth of ancient Roman letters. As the oldest manuscripts still existent tended to come from the period of the Carolingian revival in the early Middle Ages, it was actually forms of that script, Carolingian Miniscule, that were favored – making the letters of printed books, at least, old rather than new.
Early printed books also tended to be printed in a way that required considerable hand work to finish them into elegant pieces of artisanal workmanship competitive with earlier and contemporary hand-produced volumes. Elaborate bindings costing more than the printed work itself were virtually required at first and remained fashionable, especially with more aristocratic buyers. Moreover, early printed books were often produced without capitals for opening paragraphs or new sections of the volume. Artisans would add the missing capitals by hand, once more creating a more expensive and upscale product that added to the impression that the aesthetic nature of the book had not really changed with printing. Finely made paper and hand-done illustrations also raised the cost of early books and added to their aesthetic nature. All this helped maintain the status of a luxury product for printed books produced for an aristocratic book-buying public. Finally, the book was a luxury product that had a crucial additional value: it was a luxury product that opened a door onto the elite culture of the day, and during the Rinascimento that culture was heavily reliant on classic first times. Thus that window provided vistas of the ancient world, once again looking back on what was perceived as an aristocratic past, even as it used new technology to do so. That reality was reified by the simple fact that the first books printed in fifteenth-century Italy focused heavily on works from first times, both secular and religious.
It appears that the first printers in Italy were German artisans, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, who worked from a Benedictine monastery in Subiaco not far from Rome in the mid-1460s. No copy of their first book, Donatus pro puerulis (Donatus for Boys), a Latin grammar textbook printed in 300 copies, exists. It was soon followed by Cicero’s De oratione (On Speaking), printed in a more modest 275 copies, one of the most popular works of that canonical ancient author. Their first dated publication was printed in 1465, an edition of three works by the early Christian author Lactantius (c. 240–c. 320). Finally, a printing of 275 copies of Saint Augustine’s City of God added one of the most important foundational Christian texts to their list. Thus their first published works in many ways presaged the agenda of the early printing industry in Italy: two classical authors, one religious classic, and one classic textbook for learning Latin. Virtually nothing was new here if one focused on content and was willing to overlook how their books had been produced.
Soon after publishing these works Sweynheym and Pannartz moved to Rome, which offered a more likely market for their books with its lively classical revival, its university, and its rich clerical culture encouraged by the newly returned papacy. Nonetheless, by the early 1470s their press was failing, undoubtedly aided in this by small print runs that continued in the range of 250 to 300 volumes; by an inability to produce on demand, which meant tying up limited capital in books waiting to be sold; and, more immediately, by the expense of producing a five-volume edition of Nicolaus of Lyra’s Expositiones (Commentaries on the Bible). When the secretary of the Vatican Library wrote to Pope Sixtus IV in 1472 requesting that he rescue the press, he spoke highly of its importance and listed twenty-eight works that had already been produced. Approximately two-thirds were ancient Latin texts, with most of the rest being religious works. Once again virtually nothing of these early printers and their books was new under the sun. The pope did supply some funds to keep them afloat, but they soon went under anyway. Perhaps beyond all the other problems they faced, their failure was ultimately due to the fact that they were unable to fully appreciate the extent to which they were producing something new and thus could not imagine the need to develop new strategies, still thinking in terms of producing and selling high-quality volumes on demand.
The lure of a larger supply of books produced more quickly and potentially more cheaply, however, was quickly picked up by others. Venice, making use of its strong connections with Germany, and with the aid of artisans from north of the Alps, early on became a leader in using the new technology. In fact, there have been attempts to suggest that the Venetians actually “invented” printing. Usually these claim that reports of moveable type used in China brought back by Venetian merchants encouraged experimentation in the city. As unlikely as it might seem, even Marco Polo (1254–1324) has been suggested, and fanciful accounts have tried to connect his descendants to early printing in the city. Well after the introduction of printing, the Venetian scholar, librarian, and patriot Marcantonio Sabellico wrote in the 1580s, in his History of Venice, that during the first years of the dogeship of Pasquale Malipiero (1392–1462; doge 1457–1462), “Among the other happy events of his Dogeship, it should be noted that for the first time the method of printing books was discovered in Italy – the same invention which it is believed was made by the Germans.” Venetian chauvinism aside, it appears that printing did not get started in Venice until 1469, when a German, John of Spires, printed Cicero’s Epistolae ad familiars (Familiar Letters) there.
Although he died shortly thereafter, his press continued. But it faced rapidly increasing competition. It has been estimated that more than 150 presses opened in Venice in the 1470s alone. During the same period presses were set up in Florence, Milan, and at least seven other Italian towns. One of the early leaders in the industry in Venice was Nicholas Jenson, a Frenchmen who had served as metallurgist at the mint of the French King Charles VII before moving to Mainz, where he mastered the new technologies associated with printing. Jenson migrated to Venice in 1468 and was soon operating a press that produced a large number of Latin classics in the 1470s, using his own particularly impressive Roman script, often seen as the prototype of modern typefaces. The publishing boom moved so rapidly that by the mid-seventies one angry scribe complained that Venice was “stuffed with books,” a claim supported by rough estimates that by the middle of the decade 176 editions had been published there and that by 1480 the figure had jumped to 593. It has been plausibly argued that by the end of the century approximately 4,000 editions of books had been published in Venice.
Actually this explosion of publications created problems for the printing industry. A number of Venetian presses failed in the early seventies, victims again of overproduction and an inability to sell stocks quickly enough to recover the capital invested in their production. The failures of the early period did not prevent new competitors from joining the fray, however, probably because setting up a press was relatively easy. The technology was fairly straightforward, with the largest costs and skills being required for producing and maintaining the typefaces – both of which drew upon artisanal skills in metalworking already well developed in Venice and much of Europe. Early presses apparently involved less technical innovation and seem to have been adaptations of various forms of presses used in making wine, oil, or the more complex processes for making and finishing cloth. As a result, they required little in the way of skilled labor and minimal costs to maintain and operate. Also, restrictive guild legislation that often limited innovation in more traditional skilled crafts was less a factor in this new industry, allowing for considerable freedom to innovate, as well as to exploit cheap labor.
It is interesting to consider in this context that with the metalworking skills necessary for producing fine types and the gearing of clocks (developed in the fourteenth century), Italian artisans had created the basic mechanical techniques necessary for an industrial revolution, especially given the milling techniques, long available, that had harnessed the power of moving water and wind. Yet even with a society deeply committed to a wide range of entrepreneurial investments, skilled artisans, and an impressive number of artisan/writers and scholars, no such revolution occurred. Impressive astrological clocks were produced that recreated the supposed movements of the heavens, and fantastic automatons and toys were produced for princes and courts. On a more practical level, some forms of cloth processing made use of water-driven hammers and processing techniques. Why this did not turn into an industrial revolution is a question historians tend to avoid, as history rightly focuses on what happened rather than speculating about what did not. Still, such conjunctures, which seem like missed opportunities in the past, call for speculation.
And as – to a degree, at least – such speculation turns on the very nature of the Rinascimento, it warrants a moment’s highly hypothetical reflection. First, it may simply have been that printing was one of the few proto-industrial forms that could be contemplated, because, for all its newness, it was so deeply connected to the old that its newness could be largely overlooked. The social organization of production also undoubtedly played a role. Guilds controlled production and had progressively limited the work of women and children – the heavy lifters of the later industrial revolution – placing the emphasis on craftsmen who produced high-quality luxury products. Skilled craftsmen were not ready or available to become the mere “hands” of industrial production in sufficient numbers to make such production imaginable. This in turn suggests an additional factor, the lack of a felt need or markets for cheaply made mass-produced products. Just as large numbers of inexpensive books at first created problems for distribution and marketing, other products that might be produced in large quantities could not be marketed widely enough without railroads, canal systems, or more efficient forms of sea transport to make mass production viable or at least perceived as viable. The cheaper products for everyday use that were produced by hand – either at home, by women and children, or by local artisans in more limited quantities – fit the scale and the way production was organized by the guild system. And significantly, in all this traditional production nothing else dangerously new had to be reimagined as old.
The introduction of printing in Italy is also interesting because it complicates traditional ways of understanding technological change. Some scholars celebrate the introduction of printing as a triumph of lower-class artisans, whose mastery of the technique of printing was based on artisanal skill and traditional modes of passing on technical knowledge. For these scholars, the real innovation in the printing revolution came from below and strikes a blow against any trickle-down vision of cultural and technological advances. And, of course, they are right. At the same time, those who favor the idea that elites set the cultural course of society tend to see printing as a triumph of high culture; for what was printed by the presses were the texts of a high and increasingly aristocratic culture, and thus printing slowly but surely allowed that culture to trickle down to a broader society. And, of course, they are right as well. Yet ultimately the innovation and successes associated with printing, like many major changes, were much more complex than such simple oppositions suggest.
Actually, before printing based upon moveable type could even be considered, a number of preparatory changes had to occur. Perhaps most notably, as long as books and documents were written by hand on parchment, a mechanical form of reproducing texts made little sense. Parchment, after all, was made from the hides of animals. As each folio or pair of folios was usually one hide, it was simply too expensive to meet the demand for an affordable printing surface that could sustain the higher levels of book production that printing offered. In sum, until there was a relatively inexpensive medium of high enough quality to print upon, printing multiple copies of anything made little sense. Paper, although it had long been known in the East, and was seen from time to time in the West, only began to be used more widely in the fourteenth century in Europe, although parchment was still preferred for hand-copied books. Toward the end of the century one begins to see more and more ephemeral documents done on paper, rough drafts of things such as wills and minor contracts. In fact, it was probably the increasing use of these kinds of documents and their penetration into the daily lives of more common people in the urban world of the day that created a demand for cheaper paper – paper that cost less but came as close as possible to parchment in terms of its ability to endure over time. Whether or not this was the case, it is clear that at the turn of the fifteenth century paper was slowly but surely moving up, from more humble documents and texts to more important ones, until eventually only the most important documents or texts would be written on parchment.
The growing availability of paper may have had a deeper impact on the intellectual life of the day, for writing, in a way not often considered in histories, is a significant way of thinking and analyzing ideas at a deeper level. One need only look at a scholastic text from the Middle Ages to see a way of thinking that to a great degree relied upon writing out ideas and then breaking them down via dialectic in written form. Without necessarily following a strict dialectical method, writing out ideas essentially allows one to break them down and to analyze them from an ever-finer perspective, taking things much deeper than most people are capable of doing when merely thinking abstractly. But thinking with writing is a strategy that is not particularly easy to follow or even to envision at a time when writing materials are precious and not widely available. Before paper, then, writing on parchment meant that very few had the opportunity to think with writing. Glosses on parchment texts were widely employed, of course, and they represent a good example of the ability to think more deeply with writing, but the number of parchment texts remained limited by the cost and time it took to produce them. It may be, then, that as paper became more readily available, this form of thinking became more widely practicable and that working with one’s ideas on paper eventually became a powerful, if often unrecognized, tool in a new way of thinking more deeply and exploring ideas.
At a more straightforward level, paper was also very important in the Rinascimento for the development of record keeping and bureaucracies for both business and government. Well into the fourteenth century, most contracts, wills, and business documents were written in highly abbreviated Latin on parchment, adding significantly to their cost. As paper became more widely available and less expensive, less important documents quickly made the shift to paper, and that aspect of business record keeping became cheaper and more widely used. Moreover, the complex system of abbreviations originally developed to make it possible to write more words in less space on expensive parchment became less essential. Texts, as a result, became more fully and more accurately spelled out and required less training to read. A significant decrease in the use of abbreviations also made printing more feasible, as it cut down the number of different characters necessary to print a text.
But where one notices the change paper wrought even more dramatically is in the significant increase in the number of records kept by government and governmental bureaucracies. The most important documents continued to be written on parchment, a reflection of their perceived significance. But progressively more everyday government business was recorded and kept on paper, with the sheer volume of paper records creating a mini-revolution that seemed to significantly improve the ability of government to control and discipline society. It would be unwise to claim too much for this small, largely unnoticed revolution in the technology of government, however, because while more could be recorded, the increased quantity of records kept actually made them more difficult to use or keep track of. Still, paper changed the level at which governments and bureaucracies could attempt to function and in the process greatly increased the quantity of historical records after the last years of the fourteenth century.
As far as printing is concerned, however, as cheaper paper became widely available, the crucial missing ingredient was available to make it viable. Presses, already widely used for many purposes, along with the technical skills earlier developed in metalworking, made it possible for artisans to develop fairly rapidly a printing press and moveable type that could cover the many more pages of paper available with text. From this perspective the printed book might seem largely a change driven by the incremental knowledge of artisans coming together with the increased availability of paper. But, of course, without a market for books, there was little need for such innovation. Significantly, that market had more potential than is often assumed. First, of course, the long-standing demand for classical texts on the part of scholars and upper-class intellectuals, along with more aristocratic buyers anxious to demonstrate their elite status, played a crucial role, even as some were not eager to see books become too inexpensive or common. Less recognized, but important, was that large segment of the population that had a desire to read the early texts of Christianity, or at least have them read to them, motivated by the religious enthusiasms of the day. University students and those already practicing law and medicine also provided a growing demand. Moreover, in the urban centers of much of Italy, where, as discussed in Chapter 5, a large segment of the populace was able to read, there was also a large potential demand. In sum, the market was there.
A sense of this explosion of books in Venice is provided by Marcantonio Sabellico, who around 1490 wrote a work defending the purity of the Latin language in the form of a dialogue, De latinae linguae reparatione (On the Renewal of the Latin Language), that includes a description of a walk through what is still the main shopping district of Venice, the Merceria, which stretches almost a kilometer from the Rialto Bridge to Saint Mark’s Square. One person in the dialogue, a Venetian named Sararisius, takes his scholarly friend Juliarius through the area to show him the city’s riches. They find the Merceria lined with bookstalls, and Juliarius, overwhelmed by the selection, tarries to examine the books for sale. Sararisius leaves his visitor to his browsing, continuing on to the main square, Saint Mark’s, to conduct his business. When Sararisius finally returns several hours later, he finds Juliarius loaded down with his purchases and still exploring the titles available. In fact, it takes some coaxing to get his friend to leave this paradise of books, which sets off a discussion about whether such easy access to learning is a good idea for the general populace – an issue that troubled many who felt that knowledge should be limited to those capable of mastering its complexities. Still, the very fact that the question could be raised – and Juliarius’s armload of books – provides a sense of how decisively printing had changed the world of knowledge in barely a generation.
Given its emphasis on the classics, printing soon followed the developing trajectory of classical studies, expanding from Latin to Greek (and eventually to other ancient languages). Two problems had to be overcome in order to make this transition: first, a workable Greek type had to be developed; second, scholars with enough training in Greek to edit and correct texts had to be found. In Florence, an important student of ancient Greek, Janus Lascaris, designed a Greek type wholly in capitals. With the help of a Venetian printer there, he produced the first published edition of Homer’s Illiad in 1496, and over the next two years brought out at least five more editions of classic Greek texts. At much the same time, in the early 1490s, Aldus Manutius (1449–1515) opened a press of his own in Venice dedicated to publishing the Greek classics, a press that would have a long and distinguished publication record, printing many of the first editions of ancient Greek works.
Although he made his reputation in Venice, Manutius was actually born near Rome, and his early studies there focused on ancient Latin authors. For a time, he served as a secretary in the papal curia and lectured at the University of Rome on Latin topics. During that period it seems that Manutius met and developed a working relationship with the noted Greek scholar and cardinal Bessarion, whom he reportedly accompanied on a mission to France. Whether he actually traveled to France or not, he later studied Greek intensively in Ferrara with Battista Guarino, toward the end of the 1470s. Guarino was the son of the noted educator Guarino da Verona, who had perfected his Greek in Constantinople and spent several years in the East searching for lost Greek manuscripts at the turn of the century. During these same years he also made friends with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and the circle of intellectuals fascinated with Greek that Pico had gathered around him in his hometown of Mirandola. For a while Manutius even served as a tutor to Pico’s nephews, one of whom, Alberto Pio, would eventually help finance his early printing ventures in Venice.
Many of the contacts made in those early years were essential to his success as a publisher in Venice and allowed Aldus, when he arrived in Venice around 1490, to be received as a recognized scholar of the classics, well schooled in Greek and with impressive connections. The timing of his arrival, much like his training and development as a classical scholar, was uniquely favorable for the success of his publishing endeavors. For in those same years the brilliant intellectual culture of Florence, with its emphasis on the classics and especially on Greek works, was already declining, along with the health of Lorenzo de’ Medici and that of his bank as well. As we shall see, the fall of Lorenzo’s son Piero in 1494 and the return of republican rule, which quickly fell under the sway of religious reform enthusiasm that called into question the pagan nature of classical scholarship, created an exodus of scholarly talent that Aldus drew upon to augment the local Venetian scholarly tradition of Greek studies. Particularly important for that tradition was the long, close trading and cultural relationship that Venice had had with Constantinople and the Greek-speaking East; the strong tradition of Aristotelian studies at Venice’s university city of Padua; and, perhaps most immediately relevant for Manutius, the impressive collection of Greek manuscripts that Cardinal Bessarion had left to the city upon his death in 1472. Venice, with perfect timing, had become the ideal place to publish the most important ancient Greek texts, and Manutius was the ideal person for the job.
His home and print shop in Venice soon became a kind of rallying place for Greek scholars, with reports, perhaps overly optimistic, that even everyday conversations were carried on in Greek there. Still, under his direction a new Greek typeface was created, modeled on the hand of a Cretan scholar, Marcus Mursius. Aldus’s printed Greek books were particularly impressive; his most important editions were virtually works of art, printed on expensive paper and handsomely bound. From 1494 to 1515 he printed first editions in Greek of Aristotle, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Euripides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Pindar, Aeschylus, Athenaeus, and Plato, among others. And while these publications were perhaps his most famous, he also published an impressive range of books in Latin and Italian, many in less expensive formats, including works by Dante, Petrarch, Bembo, and even Erasmus, who visited his shop while touring Italy and penned a not entirely complimentary account of its bustling activity.
After a little more than a generation of printing, the industry was well established in Italy and well on its way to immortalizing in multiple print copies the learning of the ancient world as well as the Rinascimento. And, tellingly, it seems clear that these early printed books were yet again seen as a rebirth of the ancient world, old and safe, rather than new and dangerous. Of course, that did not make the danger of their newness disappear, and fairly quickly the world of written culture would be laid open to a much larger audience, with unexpected and quite revolutionary results. One only has to think of the reform movements that swept Italy and Europe a few decades later, based in part on the reading of the Bible and the early texts of Christianity, now printed for the first time. The larger audience reached, which included large numbers of everyday religious people not trained as theologians or intellectuals, seemed to many to play an important role in the violent conflicts that followed – leading many to fear the negative potential of the newly widespread print culture.
These fears were frequently expressed. In the first half of the 1470s Filippo di Strata, a Dominican friar and copyist, wrote a damning account in Latin of the dangers of printing addressed to the doge of Venice, Nicolò Marcello, full of warnings. Filippo played most of the chords of its menace, stressing its newness and the fact that it was an innovation brought by foreigners, and lamenting that those foreigners were boorish and drunken at that. Later in the 1490s Filippo rehearsed most of these same themes in a diatribe against printing written in Italian, adding fastidiously that one could not walk down the street without being harassed by book dealers selling cheap books – in a way, the obverse of Sabellico’s proud depiction of the Merceria and its bookstalls. Moreover, he complained that these printed volumes were badly done, illegibly printed, and edited by “ignorant fools” who did not know what they were doing. Yet, because of their lower prices, they were driving off the market carefully done, handwritten manuscripts produced by skilled scribes (like himself, it should be noted). Filippo went on to argue that this readily available knowledge was dangerous, because it gave the ignorant access to ideas and learning that they were incapable of handling. Even if this was the claim of an irate scribe, it was one that struck deep chords for an elite intellectual tradition that saw knowledge as essentially esoteric, a privilege of the few and the best. But in the end he stressed the greatest negative of all – the dangerous newness of printing, pointing out that if the world had endured for six thousand years (the widely accepted age of the Earth at the time, based on biblical calculations), there was little need now to take up something new.
Filippo was not merely an irate conservative crying out against the new. There was considerable truth to his claim that unscrupulous publishers, rushing to print their badly edited editions of classical authors, often provided inaccurate and corrupt texts, distorting the classics, and that their cheap editions often made it harder for better ones to be produced or to survive. Like Filippo, a number of critics also worried about the impact of cheaper, more widely available editions of classical works that were seen as dangerously pagan or obscene. One of the favorite targets for such attacks, and one of the favorite and most profitable texts of early publishers, was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, discussed earlier. With its short stories that were often quite provocative, and sexually suggestive, portraying ancient life and the often risqué relationships between gods and humans, it titillated as it conveyed a troublingly fascinating pagan world and its culture. Many scholars claimed that such works when read by those who had the intellectual background to “correctly” understand them were not really dangerous, but when read by the young or the ignorant were full of dangerous and seductive ideas and errors. Such dangers were made worse as printers began to print cheaper editions and to translate such literature into Italian, making it available to an ever larger market.
Beyond pagan and risqué material, however, printing the first texts of the Christian tradition was seen as particularly dangerous. Especially troubling from this perspective was the printing in the vernacular of the Bible and the popular classics of the Christian tradition, such as compilations of saint’s lives and florilegia – collections of short texts by classical authors or the Church Fathers that were seen as particularly meaningful. These publications, it was feared, had the potential to convince even the most uneducated and gullible that they had the ability to read such texts and understand them on their own. This, in turn, meant that every person could consider himself (or, more dangerously in the eyes of authorities, herself) a theologian. It was not that many people did not already have their own understanding of Christianity, often quite distant from what the leaders of the Church and theologians held, but rather that they could now support their views with reference to the classic texts of Christianity. In essence, they too could return to firsttimes, with texts in the language they used every day, to defend their own religious beliefs. This certainly gave added impetus to the religious ferment of the day; to various reform movements eventually labeled heretical; and ultimately to the Reformation and the Catholic Reformation as well. In sum, even as it disguised itself as old and offered to return to the beginnings of many beliefs and first times, this new beast of printing was disseminating the dangerous seeds of change and the new.
Invasions and New Political Realities
In contrast to printing, initially at least, the invasion of Italy in 1494 led by the young and inexperienced French King Charles VIII (1470–1498; ruled 1483–1498) to assert his dynastic claims to Naples seemed nothing new at all. European kings and emperors had regularly threatened to assert their dynastic claims to various parts of Italy and had even, every now and then, attempted to realize those threats, with little or no success. In fact, the results had frequently been disastrous for them, which, as discussed earlier, meant that the city-states of Italy had largely been left free to follow their own destinies in war and politics. If anything, trans-Alpine powers had been viewed for almost two centuries more as pawns of Italian city-states than as feared invaders. Charles also made the traditional and highly unlikely-sounding claim that taking Naples was just the first step in his crusading plans to free the Holy Land and Constantinople from the Turks. As such, it was easily dismissed as merely another sign of his youthful incompetence and the projected failure of the whole unlikely venture. All this seemed to mark him out as an excellent pawn for more powerful and clever Italian leaders to use for their own immediate ends.
At the same time, the city-states of Italy seemed in many ways stronger than ever. Tuscany was dominated by an apparently powerful Florence, having executed a relatively smooth transition of power, following the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, to Lorenzo’s yet more aristocratic and princely son Piero (1472–1503). Milan ruled with relative calm most of the western portion of the Lombard plain, under the increasingly powerful hand of Ludovico Il Moro Sforza (1452–1508), who governed in the name of the young heir Gian Galeazzo Sforza. Most of the eastern Lombard plain and much of the coast of the Adriatic, along with a maritime empire that cut deeply into the eastern Mediterranean, was controlled by the republic of Venice, reputed to be one of the richest and most powerful states in Europe. In Rome, the popes were back. And, although powerful families from the Iberian peninsula had gained a foothold in the bureaucracy of the Church in order to compete with Italian and French prelates and had even managed to win the papacy itself, popes had been largely successful in their program of becoming Italian princes. Even the more contentious south of the peninsula seemed to have settled down, with the Aragonese in control of the kingdom of Naples and apparently quite capable of standing up to the young Charles’s distant dynastic claims.
Appearances, however, were deceiving. Italian confidence that Charles would quickly fail was unwarranted. A closer look at the Italian situation in 1494 gives the lie to the rosy picture just sketched. Florence did control most of Tuscany. Pisa was under her direct rule, as was the port city of Leghorn (today Livorno), and although Siena and Lucca remained independent, they were essentially humbler companions of Florence. But economically, especially in the international arena, the power of the city had fallen off considerably. The Medici bank, following years of mismanagement and bad loans, was on the verge of collapse. Other banking families were in a stronger position, but the era of Florentine banking dominating the papacy and Europe was over. The once-powerful cloth industry of the city had also fallen into decline, with northern European producers undercutting Florentine markets with less expensive imitations of similar quality as well as with cheaper products. At the same time, more organized and aggressive northern European governments were taxing Italian cloth more heavily or actually restricting its entry into their lands, in order to encourage their own production. As part of this move to encourage local production, northern rulers were also making it more difficult to obtain the higher-quality raw wool so essential to the production of Florentine luxury cloth. Turning to trade, Florentine commerce was essentially a carrying trade, transporting goods to and from the city, and with the decline in cloth production and the international banking network that went with it, a good deal of this trade was drying up as well. Finally, Lorenzo’s magnificent rule and his wars had been costly, and the government of the city was heavily in debt, which severely limited its ability to spend the money necessary to defend itself. In sum, although still rich in appearance, the city had feet of clay, and, in fact, many intellectuals were voting with their feet and deserting the city for richer climes and patrons.
In the end, however, Medici leadership may have been the biggest problem of all. The sixteenth-century statesmen, political theorist, and historian Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) certainly thought so, dismissing the young Piero de’ Medici as “the eldest of Lorenzo’s three sons, still very young and not qualified either by age or understanding to carry so heavy a burden, nor capable of governing with that moderation with which his father had ruled.” In 1492, when he took up the officially invisible Medici rule of thecity, he was barely twenty, still a callow youth by the standards of the day. Two years later, as Charles moved into Italy, Piero was already facing growing Florentine discontent caused by a number of unpopular and inept decisions. Perhaps most notably, early on he broke off Florence’s alliance with Milan, which dated back to the time of Cosimo, in order to align with Naples.
Unpopular and perhaps as unwise as contemporaries claimed, that move had its logic when one realizes that Piero’s mother was Clarice Orsini – from that old Roman noble family, long important power brokers in papal politics and allies of Naples. Moreover, his brother Giovanni de’ Medici (1475–1521) was already a cardinal in Rome and, although only in his late teens, busily building a power base with Orsini support that would win him the papacy at the early age of thirty-eight, in 1513, as Pope Leo X. Still, the move was problematic. Significantly, it put him at loggerheads with the then Borgia Pope, Alexander VI (1431–1503; pope 1492–1503). The pope’s election had been as strongly supported by Milan as it had been opposed by the Orsini; thus Piero, by following the Orsini lead and switching his alliance from Milan to Naples, angered both Milan and a dangerous Borgia pope.
But to appreciate fully the issues involved, a closer look at Milan in 1494 is necessary. Economically, its mini-empire in the western Lombard plain remained financially solid, with its balance of agriculture, local banking, local industry, and local trade. The main exceptions to this local economy were its highly-thought-of arms industry and its power over a number of the Alpine passes that to a degree controlled overland trade with northern Europe. Socially, it featured a well-established aristocratic society that at the highest levels had built significant ties with European aristocratic families outside of Italy. It was those aristocratic ties, however, that had placed the de facto ruler of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, in jeopardy and made him even more concerned about Piero’s switching of alliances. Actually, before the aristocratic and courtly turn of the fifteenth century, popolo grosso elites had tended to intermarry locally, seeing non-Italian aristocratic families as largely irrelevant to their social and economic world and goals. Among the first to break this unwritten taboo were the families of signori who had risen to power in the fourteenth century, often seeing such foreign marriage ties as offering potential allies to help in local struggles, and as offering greater prestige and legitimacy for their rule. In fact, the Visconti lords of Milan were among the most aggressive in using what has been called bedroom diplomacy – marriage alliances to build dynastic strength that transcended the local.
From this perspective, Ludovico Il Moro’s problems can be traced back at least to that famous enemy of Florence, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Gian Galeazzo, seeking allies against the anti-Viscontean league organized by the Florentines in the late 1380s, married his daughter Valentina to Louis of Orléans, brother of the French king, in 1386. The dynastic ramifications of that distant moment were haunting Ludovico il Moro more than a century later, which gives one some sense of the power and danger of such marriages. The problem was, of course, that the legitimate Visconti line of rulers had ended with the death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447. That succession crisis had been overcome with the marriage of Visconti’s illegitimate daughter Bianca to Francesco Sforza, the founder of the Sforza line. But when Galeazzo Maria Sforza, son of Francesco, died in 1476, his heir was his son Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1469–1494), who was too young to rule. Ludovico, the most aggressive of his father’s brothers, quickly established himself as the tutor of his young nephew and slowly but surely pushed him aside, becoming the de facto ruler of the city.
To this point, although there may be more Galeazzos and Gian Galeazzos involved than might be desired for clarity, things were still relatively straightforward – Ludovico was doubly illegitimate. He was not the legitimate heir of the Sforza line, nor was the Sforza line all that legitimate in its own right, descending from a match between an illegitimate daughter of the Visconti and a condottiere, Francesco Sforza. Meanwhile, a legitimate branch of the Visconti line had moved to France with the marriage of Valentina to the duke of Orléans, and, to make matters more complex, that theoretically legitimate claim had passed down to the duke’s grandson, Louis, Duke of Orléans, who, getting ahead of the story, would become king of France himself in 1498.
Unfortunately, things were not so simple. More immediately, Ludovico faced the claims of the family of Gian Galeazzo’s wife, Isabella, for the young Sforza in 1494 was no longer a boy, but rather a young man in his early twenties who should have been ruling on his own. His wife, Isabella, was the granddaughter of Ferrante, King of Naples, and the daughter of his son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria. She, again in the style of aristocratic bedroom diplomacy, had been literally invested in marriage to the future duke of Milan. For her and her family, then, it was time for Ludovico to step aside so that they could reap the benefits of their investment. And here, finally, is where the deeper problem of Piero de’ Medici’s switching alliances comes in; for the Orsini family in Rome were not just tied to the Medici in Florence, they were also closely tied to Isabella and Ferrante of Naples. Thus, Piero’s switching alliances clearly threatened Ludovico, proclaiming that he had lost an important ally to the very family that was contesting his hold on power in Milan. That meant in turn that Charles’s planned invasion of Italy to make good his claims to Naples seemed to Ludovico a boon rather than a threat and was thus to be encouraged.
In turn, Ferrante (c. 1431–1494; ruled 1458–1494) in Naples had problems of his own, even before Charles VIII decided to assert his claims to rule his kingdom. Most notably, he ruled an unwieldy nobility made up of families that reflected the contested history of the region. Normans, Aragonese, Italians, and French had all tried their hand at dominating the area, with varying degrees of success; and Ferrante as king was merely the latest claimant, who had to work out his compromises with the various nobles who actually controlled the land. Many were of questionable loyalty, especially as Ferrante himself was noted for his aggressive attempts to strengthen his rule at their expense. In addition, his kingdom included a highly variegated mix of economies. Much of the land was held by his noble barons and farmed in a quasi-feudal fashion or used for pasturage. And although such areas produced significant amounts of food and raw materials for the rest of Italy, this was often accomplished using inefficient methods and a high level of exploitation that encouraged peasant unrest. Moreover, this agricultural economy did not produce the kind of tax base for Ferrante that the urban-based economies of the north enjoyed, forcing him to rely heavily on feudal levies along with a limited number ofcondottieri in his military operations. The city of Naples was, of course, a major urban center, and it was there that he centered his court. But it was mainly an administrative center and commercial hub, relying heavily on foreign bankers and foreign luxury products. As a result, it tended to be more a consumer than a producer of wealth, in contrast to the cities of the north.
The complex series of wars and marriages that had brought Ferrante’s father, Alfonso, to power were recounted in Chapter 6. At his death, however, Ferrante, who was his illegitimate son, faced a number of opponents who were anxious to deny his claims to the throne, including the house of Anjou, led by Jean of Anjou, who had a strong hereditary claim, and much of the local nobility eager to escape what they saw as the heavy hand of the Aragonese. But Pope Pius II, seeking a crusading ally, eventually supported Ferrante’s claim, both verbally and militarily. Thanks to Pius, with some of the most powerful papal condottieri at his side Ferrante eventually defeated Jean and put down his rebellious nobles; thus, six years after his father’s death, he finally ruled. His reign followed much in the pattern of his father, with a mix of cruel repression, heavy taxation, and a brilliant court, although division and unrest plagued him at every level, from peasants and nobles in the countryside to plebs and nobles in Naples itself.
Turning to Rome, in 1492 a Spaniard, Rodrigo Lanzo e Borja, was elected Pope Alexander VI, reputedly helped by the votes of the Sforza family cardinal, Ascanio Sforza, in exchange for a promise of a large sum of money. Borgia, as his name was rendered in Italian, was perhaps both the most famous and most infamous pope of the Rinascimento. His nepotism was notorious, and not just for his son Cesare Borgia or his often-married daughter Lucrezia Borgia; for Rome and Italy were virtually overrun by Borgia family members seeking to make their fortune on the back of their pope. Recently scholars have attempted to rehabilitate Alexander, pointing out the brilliance of his court and his patronage, and his impressive building program. He was also a successful defender of papal power and the ideal of a princely pope, based upon a firm territorial base in the center of Italy. That he was ruthless in the pursuit of these goals, however, cannot be denied, and many who stood in the way of his plans for a strong papacy and a strong Borgia family in Italy found themselves pushed aside or simply dead.
The licentiousness of his court, his family, and his personal perversities may have been exaggerated by critics, and even by some of his supporters, but his numerous nipoti (a polite euphemism for illegitimate children) and acknowledged mistresses suggest that he enjoyed his sexual life and at times flaunted it. Yet in a way, an active and productive sexual life was just another aspect of the masculinity expected of a true Rinascimento prince. And Alexander played the role to the hilt. When he was made pope, he was so taken with his new mistress, the young and beautiful Giulia Farnese, wife of the Roman noble Orsino Orsini, that he made little attempt to keep the relationship secret, and it was the talk of the town. In fact, shortly after he became pope she gave birth to a daughter whom he recognized as his own and named Laura, perhaps after Petrarch’s own love. Nonetheless, in his own way, he was also loyal to his earlier long-term mistress, Vannozza Cattanei, who had given birth to four of his children, including Lucrezia and Cesare, continuing to support her even as he found new companions.
In the tensions leading up to the French invasion, Alexander played a typically vacillating role aimed at gaining the maximum advantage for himself and his family. On the one hand, he continued a long-standing papal animosity to the Aragonese rule in Naples that stretched at least as far back as his uncle Pope Calixtus III (1378–1458; pope 1455–1458), who had turned against his former Aragonese allies in an attempt to reassert papal claims to the territory, apparently in order to reward his own rapacious branch of the family with lands there. Geography also played a role, as Neapolitan territory bordered the Papal States to the south and seemed to offer enticing opportunities for expansion that might benefit Borgia’s voracious relatives. Certainly Piero de’ Medici’s switching from Florence’s traditional alliance with Milan to Naples, given the pope’s obligations to the Sforza family, merely gave Borgia additional reasons to oppose the Aragonese in Naples. Thus in early 1493 the pope concluded an alliance with Milan and Venice as a means to counterbalance that between Piero’s Florence and Ferrante’s Naples. And to seal the deal, he married his daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, for the second time to Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, annulling her earlier marriage.
It appears that during this period he also encouraged Ludovico Il Moro, who needed little encouragement, to support the planned French invasion in order to put pressure on Ferrante to relinquish his daughter’s claims to rule Milan with her husband, Gian Galeazzo. The pope, however, played both sides of the fence, as was his wont, by marrying his son Goffredo to Ferrante’s granddaughter. This was followed in short order by an attempt to get all the Italian parties to agree to a pact to keep the French out of Italy, which failed as virtually everyone had already chosen sides. When Charles did invade in 1494, again Alexander played both sides of the fence, first aligning with Naples, but doing little to aid those attempting to block the invasion, then switching to the French side when Rome was faced by the French army at its gates and rebellion within, led by his old enemies the Orsini.
Venice might have remained neutral in this conflict, which was, at least officially, between distant France and relatively distant Naples, but Aragonese pretensions on the Adriatic coast of Italy and in the Mediterranean had created tensions between the two powers. Moreover, Charles’s interest in a crusade to defeat the Turks and retake the Holy Land was attractive to Venice, even if there was a great deal about it that seemed unlikely. With the Aragonese as enemies of the French, if the crusading idea ever became a reality, Charles would need a naval power to aid him, and Venice stood to profit as a major naval power that he could rely upon. Once again, then, for the Venetians, using the French as a pawn in their political and economic strategies seemed attractive.
The young Charles VIII certainly seemed to most in Italy to be an ideal pawn. At twenty-four, he had just taken up rule, pushing aside his sister, who had served as regent since the death of his father in 1483. Guicciardini, with considerable exaggeration and more than a bit of wishful thinking, described the young man as physically weak and unhealthy, small in stature, ugly and ungainly, barely able to read or write, and totally dominated by his unworthy favorites. Although he wrote a generation after the invasion, his low opinion of the man was widely shared as Charles marched into Italy. This serious misjudgment reveals the weakness of judging a kingdom solely by its leader or his reputation. Great rulers, great generals – great men or women in general, for that matter – are all well and good, but often they are only as good as the resources they command. And there has been no shortage of mediocre figures who have triumphed over their personally superior adversaries because they commanded superior resources. In many ways, then, Charles’s lack of acumen or good looks was irrelevant. The key to the success of his invasion was that it was not actually his invasion at all, but a French invasion with all that that implied, a reality that the Italians seriously underestimated.
For France was undergoing a transition from a semifeudal state, where the resources available in its vast territory were marshaled only with difficulty, to an early form of the nation-state, with considerably more effective revenue collection, bureaucracy, and ability to actually utilize its resources. Although it was still a long way from being one, it was becoming far more able to focus its extensive resources on prosecuting a war. In this context, scale had always been the heart of the matter and remained so. Previously the smaller scale of the Italian city-states and their more advanced bureaucracies, better suited to the more manageable size of their urban societies, had allowed them to mobilize their wealth for war more effectively, although wars, as we have seen, almost always pressed their economies to the limit. Larger-scale states like France and England, however, had lacked the economies, social structures, and bureaucracies to effectively mobilize the potentially much greater wealth available given their size; thus, although it may seem counterintuitive, in many ways the Italian city-states had been more competitive than their northern neighbors and Mediterranean powers across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries precisely because of their smaller scale.
But that was changing. The northern European Hundred Years’ War had ended in the early 1450s. The French King Louis XI (1423–1483; reigned 1461–1483) shortly thereafter aggressively began to limit the power of the French nobility and build an Italian-style royal bureaucracy, based less on court favorites and more on non-noble lawyers and notaries – innovations often pioneered in the Italian city-states of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and exported with Italian merchants, bureaucrats, and notaries in the years that followed. He also suppressed the Estates General, calling the body only once during his reign, and at that meeting he essentially took over the right to collect traditional taxes without the Estates’ permission. Using these funds, he built up a standing army and, perhaps more importantly, paid the larger and more professional bureaucracy that he used to administer his realm more effectively and attempted to limit the power of the French nobility. Although Louis became less effective in his later years, thekingdom that Charles inherited was one in which the country’s potentially great resources were much more available. And that meant that even if he lived down to Guicciardini’s negative evaluation of him as a person and ruler, France was no longer a pawn.
Perhaps more immediately important was the fact that in the eyes of many contemporaries Charles had a better dynastic claim to rule Naples than did Ferrante. René of Anjou had been the adopted son and legal heir of Queen Joanna when she died in 1435. But he had not been strong enough to assert his claim against Alfonso of Aragon, as we have seen. Thus, after defeating René, Alfonso became king and passed his rule on to his illegitimate son Ferrante. Meanwhile, back in France, a sister of René married the French King Charles VII, who inherited the claim to Naples through his wife when René died. Thus Charles VIII found himself the legitimate heir to the Neapolitan throne as the legitimate son of Louis XI, who was in turn the legitimate son of Charles VII, faced off against an illegitimate son (Ferrante) of an illegitimate conqueror of that throne.
There is more that could be said about the messy dynastic complications of Charles’s invasion, but suffice it to say Charles had a strong claim and, practically speaking, a surprisingly strong proto-nation-state to support it. In sum, the game had changed: the new was about to arrive, and it would be a new that would transform the Rinascimento across the board, finishing the political independence of most of the city-states of the penisula; beginning a long diaspora of its culture and political and social ideals throughout the West and the world; and setting off a gradual transformation of Italian society into what is often labeled the European Renaissance. As far as Charles was concerned, he had the power to succeed; he had the dynastic claims to succeed; and Italy offered him the riches to make his invasion possible and worthwhile. Unfortunately, for him and for Italy, he was not the only one in that situation. In these basic prerequisites, he was joined by Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Together they would turn Italy into Europe’s battleground for at least two generations, inaugurating what has been labeled the Age of the Italian Wars.
The French Invasion
Charles and his French army crossed the Alps in 1494. Almost immediately things did not conform to Italian expectations. Guicciardini noted in his account of the invasion that the advisors to the French king were “men of low condition” (piccola condizione) rather than “nobles.” But that meant that it was an invasion that would be organized by advisors and a bureaucracy serving the crown and less subject to the intrigues and whims of aristocratic nobles and favorites. Guicciardini noted that the same was true of the army itself. It did have a significant number of traditional noblemen fighting on horseback and raised by feudal levy. But it also had a large, well-trained infantry capable of standing up to a cavalry charge, which brought the invading force up to about 20,000 men – a large but hardly overwhelming force. More importantly, however, it had small, light, mobile artillery that would play a crucial role in the French success.
The contrasts with the Italian armies that it would face, however, were significant and seemed to heavily favor the Italians. The famed Italian condottieri, still reputedly the best professional soldiers in Europe, fought mainly on horseback like the French nobility, but their superiority came from their better training and tactics, especially their ability to fight in tight formations, due in part to that training and in part to the crueler bit that was used to keep their horses under tighter control. Because of the expensive training and limited manpower available, these cavalry tactics tended to involve much smaller numbers or at least smaller corps of top-quality soldiers. The numbers of professional foot soldiers were swelled by local militias, poorly trained and lightly armed, that seldom were seen as crucial in gaining victories. The Italian powers were most sure of their superiority, however, in fortifications. Most cities and towns had strong walls that could withstand long sieges. In fact, often it was those who besieged Italian towns, whiling away long summer months in unsanitary conditions, who found their armies wasting away due to illness and lack of resources. Thus the Italian strategy was straightforward. As the French, in order to secure their lines of supply, would need to capture the major fortifications along the route from the north of Italy to Naples, they would simply allow the French to take on a series of sieges that would drag on for months, and sooner or later they would lose their enthusiasm or their lives.
Virtually everyone was confident that in the end a realignment in Italy that would reveal the true winners and losers would be worked out and that the French would slink home, once again used as pawns and discarded. As the invasion got under way Gian Galeazzo Sforza in Milan died of mysterious causes, some claiming that his death was caused by his insatiable sexual appetites, others concluding, more cynically, that he had been poisoned by his uncle and erstwhile protector, Ludovico Il Moro. Whatever the cause, this seemed to decisively change the political situation, as Ludovico gained control in Milan, and Naples, at least theoretically, was no longer a threat to his rule. It seemed to many that Ludovico had made good use of Charles to create a distraction that allowed him to eliminate his problems with his nephew and with Naples, and that Charles could now safely be abandoned to his fate, to lose and leave.
But that was not to be. Once again Guicciardini depicts the surprise and then the terror of the Italians when the first major fortified town that resisted the French army, instead of sustaining a long siege, quickly fell and was given over to a bloody sack. The French then moved on and rapidly took the next town, again putting it to the sword. With the advantage of hindsight Guicciardini attributed these rapid victories to the small, light artillery of the French, which he described as “lighter [than Italian canons] and all cast in bronze … [which] shot at very short intervals … and could be used as effectively in the field as in battering walls.” Although Italian condottieri armies had used large cannons from the second half of the fourteenth century, they had never been particularly effective. Used more to create terror and confusion, condottieri tended to favor outsized cannon that, much like medieval trebuchets, fired large stones or iron balls. Unwieldy and slow, they were as likely to explode and destroy their crews as they were to actually damage the enemy.
The French light artillery, by contrast, fired a more standardized shot, fairly rapidly, and, wheeled and lighter, was quite mobile. Thus the French, faced with their first walled town, wheeled their artillery up to close range and, with rapid and repeated bombardment, quickly reduced the walls to rubble, entered with ease, and brutally destroyed the city and its populace. The lesson was clear. Things had changed. Once again the new had reared its ugly head, with disastrous results that were difficult to deny. Fortified towns could no longer count on their walls to protect them. And instead of the French army being mired in one siege after another as they moved south toward Naples, they found one town after another opening its gates and welcoming them before speeding them on their way south to Florence, Rome, and Naples.
The unexpectedly rapid advance threw all three cities into turmoil. As usual, Florence was unprepared to fight, and the weakness of Piero de’ Medici only added to the problems. Most importantly, the city lacked the resources to field a major army, and there was little hope for much support from its allies. Meanwhile, the Borgia pope was switching sides with alacrity, attempting to find an alliance that would gain him some profit from the invasion while sparing Rome a sack. In Naples, Ferrante had picked the right time to die, early in 1494, before the invasion got under way, leaving his son Alfonso II in charge and the kingdom in turmoil.
In sum, with his opposition in disarray, Charles and his army moved south rather like a knife cutting through warm butter. As he approached Florentine territory Piero de Medici was faced with a dilemma: his alliance with Naples required that he oppose the French advance, but he lacked an army to do so. A defeat and a sack of Florence seemed imminent. Piero, like his father, Lorenzo, before him, tried what he hoped would be perceived as a courageous and heroic move. He left the city and went to meet the French army to negotiate a peace that would save the day. Unlike his father, however, he had little with which to negotiate. As a result, in the end he capitulated, promising to open the gates of the city to the French and ally with them against Naples in return for a promise that Florence would not be sacked. That essentially was the end of Piero and the first Medici rule, for after briefly returning to the city, he fled into exile. His opposition quickly reinstated a republican government to replace the theoretically republican sixty-year rule of the Medici (1434–1494) .
The first problem the new government faced was Charles VIII and his army. For in early November 1494, when he marched into the city through the reluctantly opened gates with his army, he rode with his lance ostentatiously at rest, a traditional sign of a conquering general rather than a visiting ally. In a society acutely attuned to gestures, that gesture was not lost on the Florentines. Evidently Charles was claiming more than a mere alliance, perhaps even indicating that Florence was his by right of conquest. When the king’s secretary confirmed Florentine fears by reading an ultimatum that claimed the city for the French, Piero Capponi, a leader of the new government, supposedly ripped the document from the secretary’s hands, tore it to shreds, and threw it on the ground, proclaiming that Florence would never accept such terms. Almost certainly the French, better armed and better disciplined, would have won eventually had they decided to press their claims. But “eventually” was the key term that saved the day, for Charles was on the way to Naples, and he apparently did not want to be held up fighting a determined Florentine resistance, street by street and house by house, when he had already neutralized the city and was free to proceed to his real objective without any loss of troops or time.
In the end he negotiated a sizeable indemnity and the ceding of some important territory, and then moved south, leaving Florence to lick its wounds and try to work out the complicated process of reestablishing a republic. At the end of November the French army was already at the gates of Rome. Pope Alexander, like the Florentines, was unprepared. His last switch of alliances had been in favor of Alfonso II of Naples, and as the French army had advanced with one success after another, his opponents in Rome, seeing an opportunity to gain an advantage at the pope’s expense, were in attack mode. The Colonna family had taken Rome’s port city of Ostia. Within the city, the Orsini family had risen against him as well. As this left him in a difficult situation, he did what he perhaps did best: he changed sides once more and allied with the French, albeit very cautiously. He opened the gates of the city to Charles after securing a promise of their peaceful passage, but carefully locked himself in the papal fortress, Castel San’Angelo, just in case. Charles in turn negotiated a costly alliance with the pope and continued his inexorable march south.
If lack of preparation and internal dissension had bedeviled Florence and Rome, Alfonso’s Naples made those cities seem models of organization and solidarity. Never popular with his barons or the city itself, the French army bearing down on Naples brought his family’s popularity to an all-time low. Adding to the tension, upon entering Neapolitan territory Charles quickly took two fortified border towns and massacred the inhabitants. Alfonso sent his son Fernando II (1467–1496; officially king 1495–1496), called Ferrandino, along with his brother to face the French, but they were unable to stop Charles’s advance and slowly retreated to Naples as the year ended. With things collapsing around him, Alfonso did the fatherly thing and abdicated in favor of his more popular son Ferrandino, withdrawing to a monastery where he soon died, perhaps even of natural causes. As the cities of Capua and Gaeta fell to the French, Naples rebelled and opened the gates of the city to the French army. Ferrandino fled to Sicily, which he would use as a base to regain his short-lived kingship.
But for the moment Charles and the French had traversed much of the Italian peninsula, easily overcoming some of the most important powers of the day, and taken Naples in less than a year. The lesson was not lost on other European powers. Rich and full of treasures, the cities of Italy seemed to be there for the taking. And, significantly, their riches would in the end more than pay for the cost of doing so. In the face of that new reality, the Italian city-states felt that they needed to make a show of their strength and drive the French from the peninsula immediately. Ludovico Il Moro, with Milan securely in hand, had been growing more worried as the French successes mounted; the Venetians shared his concern, especially as they saw their potential enemy Naples fall before the French; the pope was also anxious to see his new “allies,” the French, driven out. North of the Alps, the Emperor Maximilian was worried that Charles might take more of Italy or even transform his new Italian “allies” into subjects, a concern shared by Spain as well. The result was a league comprised of much of Italy and Europe, known as the League of Venice or the Italian League, that forged an alliance against the French and began raising an army to drive Charles from Italy.
Recognizing the danger, Charles left the duke of Montpensier in Naples with a strong force to protect his conquest until he could return and headed north. As he passed through Florence, the city stayed loyal to its French alliance, but as the army moved north over the Apennines, the League raced to intercept and defeat Charles before he could escape from Italy. Their army, led by the noted Italian condottiere Francesco II Gonzaga, lord of Mantua and husband of Isabella d’Este, met the French at Fornovo di Taro on July 6, 1496. Had the French lost the battle, far from home and with little in the way of support in Italy, it might well have meant the demise of the young king and of French pretensions in Italy. In the end, however, both sides claimed victory, and in a way both lost. Gonzaga had the larger army and in many ways had the best of the fighting, with the French taking heavy losses and losing much of the spoils that they were carrying back to France. Yet the French managed to fight their way free and hurriedly carried their triumphant king back over the Alps. In the short run, notwithstanding French promises to return and support their troops left in Naples, Ferrandino, with the help of Aragon and Venice, drove the unpopular French garrison out of the city after only a year, in July of 1496.
For the moment it might have seemed as if the French invasion had been undone and that things had returned safely to the status quo. Ferrandino and the house of Aragon were back in Naples; Alexander and the Borgia clan were back in the saddle in central Italy; Florence was no longer in the hands of the Medici, but it was a republic again; Ludovico had Milan more strongly in hand than ever; and Venice remained strong, rich, and apparently invincible, at least in Italy. But almost no one was taken in by such appearances. The French clearly had every intention of returning and not only asserting their claims in Naples, but apparently also of taking advantage of dynastic claims to overthrow their enemies in Italy, especially Ludovico il Moro in Milan. The emperor was also deeply interested in reasserting his claims to Milan and making himself a power in the rest of the peninsula. And, of course, Aragon was anxious to defend its power in the south, and perhaps expand it northward, at the expense of the papacy. Moreover, the papacy remained rapacious with its own territorial goals. Clearly a return to the status quo was out of the question, and in the end the real question was how long Italy would remain a battleground before a new balance of power could be established. The most optimistic response to that question today would claim about two generations, until the peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), signed by the major powers of Europe, carved up Italy into a limited number of city-states largely dominated by the Hapsburgs, with some under direct Spanish rule (Milan, Naples, and Sicily), some clients of Spain (Genoa), and almost all of the rest closely tied to the larger nation-states of Europe or the Holy Roman Empire. The new had arrived, and Italy was no longer on its own, politically independent of the larger European powers.
Italy as a Battleground: The Unlikely War of the League of Cambrai (1509–1516)
The wars of those two generations are a quagmire of dynastic politics and incessant fighting that would require too much space to narrate here. But one of the more trying moments of those decades of war is worth a closer look, for it involved the fall and rise of Venice, the one Italian power that managed to survive independent across that period of travail and did so in a manner that confirmed its myth of republican longevity and stability – a myth that would have a significant impact on the political vision of the day and the Western republican tradition. On December 10, 1508, most of the leaders of Europe met at Cambrai, including Louis XII of France (1462–1515; ruled 1498–1515), who had succeeded Charles VIII; Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor (1459–1519; emperor 1493–1519); Ferdinand, “the Catholic” King of Spain (1452–1516); and Pope Julius II (1443–1513; pope 1503–1513), former and future enemies all. Yet they formed a league to conquer and divide the one territorial state in Italy that seemed to remain a threat to their various plans for Italy. Their intended victim, Venice, appeared to be an unlikely mix of paradoxes: a republican city-state-empire in an age increasingly dominated by princely nation-states; a republic led by a nobility; a trading city with a substantial agricultural hinterland; a naval power able to field large and effective land armies; and an unusually open and free city that often was quite closed. It was also, more straightforwardly, rich and powerful – enticingly so.
Perhaps the most important immediate motivation for the formation of the League was Venetian expansion into territory in the center of Italy that had traditionally belonged to the papacy. At the end of the fifteenth century and in the first years of the sixteenth, Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) had taken advantage of the military and political confusion of the moment to ally with the French to carve out for himself a small state in the Romagna, with an unusual brutality and lack of regard for the traditional rules of war that made him hated, feared, and respected by many, including Machiavelli. When his father, Pope Alexander VI, suddenly died in 1503, Cesare, who was already making inroads into Tuscany, was caught unprepared. Ill himself, he was unable to influence the election of a new pope or to protect his conquests; thus he became the victim of those anxious to divide up his growing ministate. Venice was first in line. Uncomfortable with the power of the aggressive Borgia on their southern mainland borders, they gobbled up a group of cities in the area, including Faenza, Rimini, Ravenna, and Cervia. Many feared that this was part of a Venetian plan of expansion to gain control of the whole Adriatic coast east of the Apennines and become the dominant power in the peninsula, creating a territorial state that included the eastern half of Italy from the middle of the Lombard plain down the eastern coast of the peninsula, threatening not only the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples but all who hoped to rule in Italy.
Obviously this did not sit well with the new pope, Julius II, whose own goal was to reintegrate Borgia’s mini-empire back into the Papal States. Julius was a different breed of pope and Renaissance prince. His lack of virtù, at least as Machiavelli envisioned it – especially careful planning and diplomatic maneuvering – deeply troubled the author of The Prince, who saw his impetuousness and penchant for direct, virtually unpremeditated action as totally wrong, but disconcertingly successful. In fact, Machiavelli’s representation of the pope provides such a perfect foil for his own vision of the way a virtù-ous prince should behave that it must be taken with a grain of salt. Still, it seems clear that Julius was a warrior pope, who preferred action to careful preparations or negotiations. In 1505, feeling that negotiations with the French King Louis XII over dividing up the ex-Borgia lands in Italy were stalled, he reportedly put on his armor and headed north to personally take the territories he claimed as part of the Papal States.
Perugia was the first major city that he attempted to regain. Sitting atop an easily defended hill on the road north from Rome to the Apennine passes to the north, the city was well defended by its lord, Giampaolo Baglioni, who was noted for his violence, intrigues, and willingness to do whatever was necessary to maintain power – apparently a perfect foil for the impetuous Julius. Arriving before Perugia, the pope asked to meet with Baglioni; entered the city virtually without troops; and demanded that Giampaolo respect papal rights to the city or face the consequences. To Machiavelli’s later amazement, rather than dispatching his enemy, as one might expect of a tough and unscrupulous tyrant, Baglioni, who had the undefended pope in his hands, capitulated. Later, in The Prince, Machiavelli pointed out that while Giampaolo had committed both incest and parricide in order to secure his rule, like many other princes famous for their lack of morality and cruelty he had lacked the courage or the understanding to use it wisely at crucial moments and simply eliminate Julius and his claims with one brutal deed.
Continuing north, the pope and his army attacked Bologna, which was held by another, more powerful signore, Giovanni Bentivoglio. Bologna was a crucial strategic stronghold and the largest city of the Papal States. Even Cesare Borgia, with all his military and diplomatic skill, had not been able to take it. But where Cesare’s virtù had failed in Machiavelli’s eyes, again much to his distress, the pope succeeded. Arriving with his army before the walls of the city and realizing that he had caught Bentivoglio unprepared, Julius attacked immediately. Machiavelli ruefully reports that the pope actually scaled the walls of the city in full battle armor and from their heights oversaw the attack. Although the sixty-four-year-old pope scaling the walls of Bologna in battle armor provides a striking and questionable image, it does say much about how Machiavelli and his contemporaries had come to see popes as warriors and princes, ready to defend their territorial claims. With the fall of Bologna, Venetian and papal territories had come face to face – and that meant, sooner or later, conflict. On the one hand, once north of the Apennines the pope was in a position to reclaim the cities that Venice had taken on the eastern side of the peninsula and block any further Venetian expansion to the south. On the other, as Bologna controlled the main passes to the south, the Venetians saw a threat not only to their expansion in the region, but also to their main north/south trade route.
As if this were not enough, the pope was unhappy with a well-established Venetian tradition of control of its local clergy and independence vis-à-vis the papacy. Like many Italian cities, it had taken advantage of the absence of the papacy in Avignon to assert a greater power over the local Church and to divert its resources to Venetian ends. Julius, however, was anxious to cut back such inroads on papal authority; thus, as an opening gambit, he attempted to deny the Venetians the right to appoint bishops in their territories. In theory, this had always been the right of the papacy, but Venice had long elected its own bishops, formally asking the papacy for approval only after the fact. As a result it had become a Venetian practice that local bishoprics were used to reward noble sons of powerful families, who had entered the Church to diversify family fortunes and as bishoprics usually included handsome incomes, such sinecures had become an important part of Venetian noble fortunes. But when the city attempted in 1507 to appoint the bishop of Vicenza, a major city in their mainland empire, Julius blocked the appointment, claiming the right to name his own bishop. The Venetians, in the end, won and successfully forced the pope to accept their appointee, but that was only the first battle in what would become a war.
As noted earlier, the pope had no lack of powerful potential allies who shared his displeasure with the Venetians. The other power with pretensions to world dominance, the Emperor Maximilian I, had his own immediate grievances with the city. It seems that Maximilian had become concerned that the French King Louis XII was growing too powerful in Italy and, along with his growing territorial claims, was planning to have himself made emperor, while at the same time making one of his French cardinals pope to replace Julius. To block any such plans, Maximilian aligned with the king of Aragon, with the aim of asserting his traditional claims to Milan and Genoa. This would have thwarted any greater plans Louis had in Italy and made the emperor a major power in the peninsula. But among other problems, his plan to make good his claims to Milan required that his army pass through Venetian territory. Obviously, Venice was not enthusiastic about the emperor becoming their neighbor ruling Milan and eastern Lombardy. Moreover, in their own mini-empire they held many cities that had traditionally been subject to imperial rule, to which the emperor could easily advance claims. Finally, he was a nearer potential enemy than the French, with lines of communication that required regular passage through Venetian territories, and this evidently increased the danger that he would decide to transform any alliance, even a short-term one, into dominance. Thus the Venetians drew a line in the sand and said, “No.”
The emperor decided to pass through Venetian territory anyway, perhaps hoping that his boldness and the size of his army would force the Venetians to back down. But Venice was a rich city with an ability to quickly raise a significant condottiere army. And no sooner had Maximilian crossed the eastern border of their mainland territories in 1508 than he was soundly defeated by their army and forced to beat a hasty retreat. To make matters worse, the peace treaty imposed on the emperor was particularly humiliating and crippling for imperial pretensions in Italy, as he was forced to relinquish Trieste, his port city on the Adriatic, and other lesser cities in the area. Having come to Italy to establish himself as a major power there, he found not only that had his plans been thwarted, but that the Venetians had forced him to give up what foothold he had once had there. This humiliation led Maximilian to do the virtually unthinkable, to unite with his traditional enemy Louis XII to destroy Venice.
Louis had his own grievances with Venice. In the early stages of the wars following Charles VIII’s invasion, France had expanded its territories in Italy, managing to take Milan and much of the western Lombard plain, asserting their dynastic claims there. As a result, his Milanese state was now bordered on the east by Venice’s own mainland state, and the tensions along that uncertain border were palpable. Moreover, cities like Cremona, Brescia, and Bergamo, now held by Venice, had until fairly recently been under Milanese control, and Louis, never one loathe to demand territory that he believed belonged to him, was eager to assert his claims. Thus the ambassadors of the emperor and the king came together at Cambrai, ostensibly to make peace between the two traditional enemies, but in reality to draw up plans to carve up the Venetian mini-empire among themselves. The result was the League of Cambrai, pitting the major powers of Europe against Venice.
It was feeding time among the sharks. The League’s plans envisioned that the pope would get the Romagna; the emperor would get Friuli and the eastern part of Venice’s mainland empire; the king of Hungary would get the territory Venice controlled along the eastern side of the Adriatic; the duke of Savoy would get Cyprus; the king of France would get the rest of Lombardy not taken by the emperor; the king of Aragon would get all the Venetian territory on the eastern coast of southern Italy; and the smaller, still independent cities of Mantua and Ferrara would get assorted tidbits in their local spheres of influence. It seemed evident that Venice did not stand a chance against this coalition. But there were chinks in the league’s armor right from the start. Neither the pope nor the king of Aragon had participated in the negotiations and thus might reject the agreement. In fact, Julius did attempt to work out a separate deal with Venice, offering to withdraw from the League if they would give him the territory and assurances he wanted. But the Venetians refused, and the pope retaliated by officially joining the league and excommunicating the city for good measure.
Excommunicated and facing most of Europe, Venice mobilized its resources for the impending war. They bought a condottiere army of about 20,000 professional soldiers, supplemented by light cavalry brought in from Venice’s territories in the east, primarily Greeks and Albanians. This army was led by two condottieri: Bartolomeo d’Alviano, a young, aggressive rising star; and the count of Pitigliano, older, more experienced, more careful, and in command in the field. Final command, however, remained in the hands of the Venetian Senate. Attempting to wage a war with an army led by a large legislative body seems a dubious strategy. But the Senate’s overall tactics made sense – avoid battle for as long as possible, confident that it was only a matter of time before the unlikely group allied against them would collapse. Those best-laid plans failed almost immediately, however, foundering on the reported impetuousness of the young condottiere d’Alviano. Given the Venetian preference for older, more experienced leaders and senatorial control of the war, there may be some reason to doubt accounts that emphasized the Senate’s wisdom and a young general’s impetuous desire for glory. Still, the story goes that d’Alviano, camped with his troops near the small town of Agnadello and waiting impatiently for instructions from the Senate, noted that the enemy forces gathering nearby were quite disorganized and apparently vulnerable. Thus he decided to take matters into his own hands and strike before the League was ready.
As he attacked, the battle cry of the Venetian army, “Italia e Libertà,” powerfully evoked the way Venice sought to present the war to contemporaries. “Italy and Liberty” made the city the defenders of Italian liberty in a way that emphasized their self-fashioned mythic role as an enduring and safely old republic in a new world of dangerous change. The cry of “Liberty” also evoked Venice’s republican tradition, which had in an earlier day been the rallying cry of republics like Venice and Florence against Gian Galeazzo Visconti and other tyrants who had threatened Italian liberty and civiltà. Evocative battle cries do not by themselves win battles, however, and after some initial successes the League troops rallied and won the day. In this they were greatly aided by the fact that the other Venetian general, Pitigliano, did not bring up his troops to support d’Alviano. Unwilling to go against the Senate’s orders not to engage the enemy, he held back his soldiers and eventually withdrew. The result was disastrous, especially as Pitigliano’s retreating forces found themselves locked out of the cities of the Venetian mainland empire, apparently anxious to be liberated from Venetian rule. Thus the retreat turned into a rout, and the Battle of Agnadello (1509) became perhaps Venice’s most ignominious defeat.
Venice, its mainland empire lost at virtually one blow and its army badly beaten, seemed to have lost the war with the first battle. The League’s troops gathered victorious on the shore and gazed at their soon-to-be prize, the fabled entrepot of Venice lying virtually undefended on the open waters of the lagoon. But in this case nothing failed like success. With the city lying there for the taking, the leaders of the League hesitated, ostensibly to work out a strategy to cross the lagoons and take their prize, but in reality to maneuver among themselves to see who would gain the maximum advantage. As they jockeyed for position, the mainland cities of the ex-Venetian mainland empire began to get their first bitter taste of their liberation from Venice. The conquerors, having spent large sums raising their armies, were anxious to see immediate profits. Thus their new taxes and other excuses for raising revenues were unusually aggressive and made Venetian rule seem light-handed by comparison. Moreover, the local nobility, which had largely been kept in check by Venice, took advantage of the situation to try to reassert their old noble prerogatives, prerogatives that were often seen as the normal order of things by their new imperial and French overlords. Already by the midsummer of 1509 murmurings from the mainland were being heard in Venice, and on July 18 Venetian troops, suddenly appearing before the gates of Padua, were let into the city as the Paduans rallied the populace with the cry “Marco, Marco.” The republic of San Marco was back.
This success not only threatened the League’s lines of supply and communication, it also added to the climate of distrust among the unlikely allies in the League – a distrust that the Venetians were more than willing to exploit. The first to break ranks was Pope Julius II, who had never been entirely convinced by the idea of strengthening the French in Italy. He had designs on Ferrara, once at the northern edge of the Papal States. The city was particularly attractive because it controlled the main fords over the Po River and thus was in a position to block both the main east/west river artery that opened the Lombard plain as well as one of the main roads to the north where it crossed that river. The French in Milan would never have accepted Julius’s gaining that city, but Venice was more than willing to encourage his hopes in order to break up the League. In short order the pope announced the formation of a new league, the Holy League, with the slogan “Fuori i Barbari.” The “barbari” or barbarians to be pushed out (fuori) were the French, even if the League in its enthusiasm apparently overlooked the fact that many of their number were themselves barbari. This new league included the pope and Venice, along with the king of Aragon and the Swiss (mercenaries who had previously been fighting for the French). Maximilian was content to sit on the fence and wait to see if the League would eliminate the French, saving him the necessity of doing so himself.
The Holy League eventually fought a major battle against the French at Ravenna in April of 1512. And although they lost, outmatched by the superiority of the French troops and their famous general, Gaston de Foix, fortunately for Julius and the Venetians, Gaston was killed in the battle, and the French troops withdrew without pressing their victory. In fact, without their best general, and also lacking the Swiss mercenaries who had played such an important role in their earlier successes, the French were slowly driven out of Italy. But for that to have ended the war would have been far too simple for the complexity of the European battleground that Italy had become. Venice took advantage of the Holy League and the retreat of the French to retake much of its mainland empire, but to finish the task they turned on their former allies and aligned with the French. After several more years of war and with the aid of a new French king, Francis I (1494–1547; ruled 1515–1547), they finally recovered virtually all of their mainland empire, which stretched once again from Brescia in the west to halfway down the eastern Adriatic coast in the east. Phoenix-like, the republic had risen from the ashes of defeat at the hands of virtually all of Europe and in less than a decade reestablished its former prominence in Italy and Europe.
The War of the League of Cambrai (1509–1516), however, was far from the end of the new European wars in Italy. As noted earlier, things settled down a bit only after midcentury with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559), when a new balance of power was established in Italy based on a series of dynastic alliances – bedroom diplomacy again – stabilized a new status quo in the peninsula. In the last years of his long reign, Francis I essentially gave up his Italian claims in return for Burgundy, nearer to home and one of the richest regions of Europe. Charles V (1500–1558; emperor 1519–1556), Maximilian’s successor, was the ultimate winner, and through a fortunate and wise series of dynastic moves the Habsburg ruler and emperor gained Spain, most of the “New World” (new, of course, only from a European perspective), much of Germany, Austria, southern Italy and Sicily, Milan and the western Lombard plain, and exerted a strong influence over many cities in Italy, including Florence and Genoa. The papacy, weakened by the conflicts of the first half of the century associated with the Reformation, settled for as much of the traditional Papal States as they could hold against the interests of rapacious neighbors and powers from outside the peninsula.
But Venice remained a republic and the primary independent Italian city-state, a model of success and survival that to a greater or lesser extent would be copied by other states that saw themselves as republics, including England and much later the new United States of America. As an agricultural mini-empire in the north of Italy, Venice was unusually aggressive and entrepreneurial in its approach to farming, introducing new crops from the “New World” and the East and experimenting with new techniques to get the most profit from the land. Problems with the Turks would continue to plague the other major source of its wealth, the city’s powerful international trade economy – problems that were compounded in the short run by the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa, which created a direct trade connection with the Far East that allowed them to undercut Venetian prices for spices and silks, the staples of Venetian long-distance trade. Recent research, however, suggests that Venice continued to compete in both markets with some success. In the long run, however, it was the opening of the “New World” to European exploration and exploitation that would slowly but surely create an Atlantic economy and “civilization.” That new future would literally change the geography of the world, leaving the Mediterranean basin no longer the sea at the heart of the West, but progressively a periphery of an Atlantic world – or, perhaps more accurately, a world of ocean empires – to which Venice’s much more humble Mediterranean empire was no longer central. Once again the dangerously new struck at the heart of even the toughest of Rinascimento survivors like Venice.
“New Worlds” for “Old”
At first, given the Rinascimento view of the world, Europeans were reluctant to see the “New World” as new. The first explorers hoped and believed that the lands they had discovered were merely the outer reaches of the Far East, a territory long known. The people they encountered were seen as the lost tribes described in the Bible or other ancient texts or simply as “Indians” in the sense of distant tribes of the Indian subcontinent. But slowly, and unwillingly, the Rinascimento had to admit that the world that had been discovered was “new.” Of course, it was actually old, but from the Eurocentric vision of the day, it was new, devastatingly so: it was not in the Bible; it was not in ancient Latin texts; it was not in the Greek classics; it was not in the supposed earlier texts that had impressed Ficino and many others (at least not without some extremely convoluted readings). This helps to explain why Europeans, even after they began to call it the “New World,” and to marvel at the many new and wondrous things found there, continued with grim determination to attempt to force virtually every new thing encountered into a familiar ancient mold, almost as if it had to be old, had to be found in earlier first times until the contrary was absolutely undeniable.
In this ongoing quest to find the old in the new a great deal of intellectual effort was invested, now largely forgotten because, from a modern perspective, it seems so clearly a dead end. Yet, in a way, for our history of the Rinascimento, this was yet another and major sign of the beginning of the end – an unavoidable rent in a vision of the world that saw the return to the past glories of the ancient world or first Christian times as the correct answer to every question. Finally a “new” had arrived that could not easily be assimilated, and it came with teeth, an economic, social, and political bite that would change the order of Italian and European society irrevocably. The Rinascimento was being transformed from a powerful movement of return to a perfect first time into merely a chimera. Such a drastic rupture in the shared primary culture of the day, however, took time to sink in fully, and in the interim the challenges of the new – not just in the New World but across the board – helped to create an extremely fertile ferment of ideas and dreams in that shared primary culture, for, of course, endings can be as fertile as beginnings.
A closer look at this discovery of a “New World” is in order, then, even if the most important events apparently happened far from the confines of Italy and the Italian Rinascimento. For not only did those discoveries undermine the Rinascimento, they also helped open a broader world to it. The basic events are well known and require only a quick review. In 1469 Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile, and the couple eventually inherited the two monarchies that had emerged from the conflicts of medieval Iberia, loosely uniting them. After many setbacks, the couple finished the physical reconquest (the famed Reconquista) of the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, conquering the kingdom of Granada in the first days of 1492, aided greatly in the last phases by divisions within the Muslim ruling family. But even before this success, they had been eyeing the northern coast of Africa as an area of potential expansion that would extend the powers that they already claimed in the central Mediterranean, most notably in Sicily and the south of Italy. This Mediterranean reach, as we have seen, had previously involved the new kingdom of Castile and Aragon in the Italian world, following in this a long Aragonese tradition.
Another important Mediterranean connection that was a significant factor in opening the Iberian peninsula to the Rinascimento was the role that the commercial and banking city of Genoa played in Spanish affairs. In fact, Genoese bankers and Genoese immigrants were deeply involved in the economic, political, and cultural life of the late fifteenth-century Iberian peninsula, a role that was to grow even more important across the sixteenth century as New World silver and gold flowed into Spain and Europe, radically changing the economic resources of European society. Although there is some debate on the matter, it appears that Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was one of these Genoese immigrants. For some time he had been trying to find support for his scheme to reach the spice-rich lands of the Far East by sailing to the west. Discounting the heroic myths of his trials in Spain seeking support, it appears that he actually found there a number of powerful patrons, including the queen’s treasurer, several religious leaders, and members of the king’s household, as well as the support of the powerful Genoese banker Francesco da Pinedo – all of whom were interested in his project.
With the support of these patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella were eventually convinced to sign an agreement with Columbus in April 1491 that divvied up the rights and responsibilities of both sides in the planned voyages and ordered the authorities at the port of Palos (Huelva) to provide the ships and supplies necessary. It appears, however, that the actual funding for his first voyage was largely provided by money raised in the Queen’s name by her minister Luis de Santangel and funds provided by Columbus himself, with the support of the Genoese community and the seafaring owners of two of the vessels that made the voyage, the Pinta and the Niña. The third vessel, the Santa Maria, was provided by the seafarer Juan de la Cosa and, as the largest, served as Columbus’s flagship. The ships sailed from Palos on August 3, 1492, and, aided by the favoring South Atlantic trade winds that still carry hurricanes from Africa to the Caribbean in the late summer and early fall, they made first landfall on October 12 on an island that Columbus called San Salvador. It is generally agreed that this was one of the islands that today make up the Bahamas, but there remains debate about which one. He explored the area, never actually touching the mainland of North or South America but visiting several islands, including what would become Haiti and Cuba.
In a famed letter to Santangel that described the “great victory” he had won on that first voyage, Columbus wrote,
As I know that you will be pleased at the great victory with which Our Lord has crowned my voyage, I write this to you, which will explain to you how … I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies…. And there I found many islands filled with innumerable people, and I have taken possession of them all for their highnesses, by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled and no opposition was offered to me. To the first island which I found, I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marvelously bestowed all this; the Indians call it ‘Guanahani.’ To the second, I gave the name Isla de Santa María de Concepción; to the third, Fernandina; to the fourth, Isabella … and so to each one I gave a new name.
Perhaps unwittingly like Adam in Genesis, taking his power from his Spanish monarchs and God, he named the world he encountered and, tellingly, renamed it with names of the old world, making it safely old.
In his rich analysis of this letter and the first encounters between Columbus and the inhabitants of the new world, Steven Greenblatt points out the many levels of cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding involved and stresses the trope of the marvelous and wondrous nature of the things and people encountered. But the Italian’s claims to ownership, also prominent in the letter, as Greenblatt suggests, were based on much more practical “realities.” For the letter reports Columbus’s “victory” (as if in battle) and how he took possession of the lands and peoples he encountered following regular juridical and ceremonial procedures: “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” While the subtleties of Greenblatt’s argument cannot be reproduced here, it is worth pointing out that underlying Columbus’s certainty that European legal forms applied and that his ceremonial deeds, along with God’s support, actually allowed him to claim these lands, was his conviction that this was not a “new” and different world, but merely the uncivilized far edge of the old world that was already known, where traditional rules of that old world still applied. Of course, the real Indies did not subscribe to European legal and ceremonial forms either, but European contacts with the real Indies tended to reveal similar assumptions that European cultural norms were universal and God-given from the original first times of humanity.
This attempt to deny the new is suggestively underlined by formal instructions given to another explorer in the service of Spain two decades later, when it had become clearer that the “New World” was actually not the “old” Indies. These new, more aggressive, and carefully constructed legal requirements seem to suggest that part of the process of claiming new lands was to first make them old and European:
The manner that you must have in the taking of new lands … is to be that you shall make before a notary public and the greatest possible number of witnesses … an act of possession in our name, cutting trees and boughs, and digging or making, if there be an opportunity, some small building, which should be in a part where there is some marked hill or a large tree … and you shall make a gallows there, and somebody bring a complaint upon you, and as our captain and judge you shall pronounce upon and determine it, so that in all, you shall take the said possession.
To take the land literally involved transforming it from something new and unmarked by European ways into a space organized by traditional European culture – trees are trimmed; the land is dug; a building is built; and, most tellingly, a gallows is constructed and, if possible, justice is carried out. A dangerously “new” natural order required transformation into a civilized European space; thus in the process it was incorporated into the old world order, safely becoming no longer new and dangerous. In a way these instructions seem an eerie echo of the early fourteenth-century Sienese frescoes on good government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico – and not by chance, for the Spanish conquerors were using the forms of Roman law developed by that much earlier first Rinascimento in their attempt to reduce the new to an ordered old and secure.
Returning to Columbus’s first voyage: after a little more than three month’s sailing in the region, early in 1493, he caught the winter trade winds that carried him back to Spain in a voyage of just slightly less than two months. There he claimed “victory” and to have successfully reached the eastern edges of Asia. Columbus made three more voyages – the last in 1502 – to a world that from the very start resisted being what he and his supporters wanted it to be. With each voyage it became clearer that what they had found was not the far reaches of Asia, but a land previously unknown to Europeans, a “New World,” at least from the perspective of the old. Columbus, however, died shortly after his fourth voyage, apparently still disappointed with his failure to find the riches of Asia. Some accounts report that in his last years he had become infatuated with his own central role in God’s plan for human history, seeing himself in terms that seemed to echo the prophecies of Joachim of Fiore, claiming that he was the prophesized leader bringing humanity into a new last age. In a rather strange way there was some truth to his claim, for his “discoveries” and the impressive series of “news” that came with them eventually did usher in what might be called a new age, although perhaps not the last, and certainly far distant from the one Joachim envisioned.
In 1497 another Italian, born in Genoa but a Venetian citizen, Giovanni Caboto (more generally recognized in the English-speaking world as John Cabot [c. 1450–c. 1498]), sought to find a shorter route to the East, sailing for the English. Reportedly encountering Columbus after his return from his first voyage and reflecting on accounts of the lands that the latter had discovered, he doubted that the explorer had actually reached Asia. In turn, correctly surmising that a round Earth would be more quickly traversed by sailing as close to the poles as possible, because the distance would be reduced by the Earth’s curvature, he offered the English king, Henry VII, a proposal to reach the East by sailing west via a shorter northern passage – something that presumably was attractive to the king because it would move England from the periphery of trade with the East to a central position. His proposal was supported by fishermen in the coastal city of Bristol, who had been sailing to the west in the North Atlantic for some time. Although they were secretive about the locations of the fishing areas discovered, it appears that they had been fishing off the coast of Iceland and perhaps Newfoundland, or even the coast of the future North America. Whether or not that was the case – and it has been used to suggest an earlier English discovery of the “New World” – it seems that they were ready to support Cabot. Thus, just five years after Columbus’s more famous voyage, Caboto sailed from Bristol with one small ship, the Matthew, named after his Venetian wife, Mattea, and a crew of eighteen to discover a northern passage to Asia. What he found was the large island of Newfoundland, which he understood was not his goal, given its size and its small, non-Asian population.
The next year a larger expedition of five vessels was authorized to push on to the trading centers of the East. Tragically, only one ship returned, having left Caboto and his fleet as it pressed further west and disappeared from history. Following this failure there is some debate about whether this Italian/English quest for a northern passage was taken up by his son, Sebastian, in 1507. He claimed that a voyage he led in that year actually found a passage blocked by ice. Whether or not that voyage actually occurred, shortly thereafter, following the accession to the English throne of Henry VIII, who did not share his father’s interest in exploration, Sebastian left England and managed to get himself appointed Spanish pilot major, thus continuing a Spanish/Italian connection in exploration that remained important for much of the sixteenth century. With that title the junior Caboto was responsible for training and approving a generation of navigators in the fleets that Spain sent to the “New World.” He also led an expedition to the Rio de la Plata region in what would become South America. Meanwhile, he maintained contact with his native city of Venice, reportedly attempting to sell the Venetians on the idea of financing further exploration for a northern passage. In addition, he corresponded with the Venetian writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio, who subsequently published one of the first collections of travelers’ accounts of the new discoveries that were changing the very nature of the world. Its popularity gave those discoveries and the explorers who made them, like the Cabotos, an important Italian dimension.
Much the same was true of the Portuguese exploration of the western coast of Africa, begun early in the fifteenth century. Early on they too had made use of Italian sailors and sailing techniques. In the 1450s, for example, under the auspices of Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), the Italians Antoniotto Usodimare, Alvise da Cà da Mosto, and Antonio da Noli led voyages that reached and explored Senegal, Gambia, and the Cape Verde islands. Although exploration of the African coast is often cited as Henry’s primary motivation for these expeditions, African slaves and gold made them profitable ventures. It has been estimated that in the second half of the century more than 17 metric tons of gold and some 150,000 African slaves were brought to Europe by the Portuguese, along with sugar, pepper, and ivory, with Genoese bankers serving as important middlemen in these transactions. Political and dynastic turmoil distracted Portuguese exploration for a time, but with the reign of John II (1455–1495; ruled 1477–1495; officially king 1481–1495) more aggressive exploration again became the order of the day. Even before John gained the throne, he had been put in charge of the exploitation of the African coastal territories that the Portuguese had opened with their voyages. Then, as king, he reinvigorated Portuguese exploration and pressed more aggressively to open a sea route to the Indies. Discoveries followed rapidly: 1482–83, the Congo and Cape Saint Mary; 1485, Cape Cross; and finally, in 1488, Bartholomew Diaz rounded what would later be called the Cape of Good Hope only to find another vast expanse of sea – almost 1,300 miles to be traversed before the East was actually reached. Once again political turmoil and the death of the king postponed what was becoming the inevitable, but finally, in 1498, Vasco di Gama succeeded where Columbus had failed, reaching the port of Calicut in India by sailing around Africa.
Even before this success, however, John had entered into negotiations with Spain over the division of the discoveries that Portugal and Spain were making. Spain, taking advantage of the fact that the pope at the time was a Borgia, Alexander VI, convinced him to issue a bull on May 4, 1493, that sidestepped the negotiations to Spain’s advantage, officially dividing new discoveries between Spain and Portugal on a vertical line drawn from the North to the South Pole. Portugal, realizing that they had been had by the Borgia pope, threatened war. But in the end compromise won out, and with the Treaty of Todesillas (1494), the two powers agreed to a more equitable division that gave the Portuguese what would become the actual sea route to the East and much of what would become Brazil as well, while Spain gained what they hoped would be a shorter and more profitable route to the riches of the East. That hope turned out to be in vain. But, of course, what they actually gained would become the “New World,” rich beyond belief with gold, silver, and a host of resources. In terms of gold and silver alone it has been estimated that these “new” lands supplied approximately 70 percent of the world supply of gold and 85 percent of its silver between the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. And within 60 years of Columbus’s discoveries at least 100 tons of gold and some 16,000 tons of silver had been carried back to Europe, often extracted at a devastating cost to the native populations who did the mining and refining.
As Spanish and Portuguese adventurers explored the lands that the Borgia pope had given them, one of the most controversial and unlikely fellow travelers was the Florentine, and one-time follower of the Medici, Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). He found himself on a diplomatic mission in Spain when the Medici fell from power in 1494 and stayed on there, building a career as a navigator for the Spanish crown. But his fame was made by a number of richly detailed letters back to the Medici and friends in Italy, which were widely translated and circulated in Europe and expanded freely upon by others, often in his name. Scholars have debated how many of his claimed eyewitness accounts of what he labeled early on the “new world” (mundus novus) were actually witnessed by him and how many were imaginative elaborations of the accounts of others.
Vespucci’s claims that he was the first person to actually set foot on the mainland of the Americas are merely the most highly contested. Still, in the letter titled Mundus Novus, supposedly written by him but existing only in a Latin copy from the first years of the sixteenth century, there is a clear statement that the world discovered was new and not old:
In the past I have written … about my return from those new regions which we searched for and discovered … and which can be called a new world, since our ancestors had no knowledge of them…. Indeed it surpasses the knowledge of our ancient authorities …. since I have discovered a continent in these southern regions that is inhabited by more numerous peoples and animals than in our Europe, Asia, or Africa. [italics mine]
Not one for modesty, Vespucci’s claim that he discovered this new world, from a Rinascimento perspective, pales before his allegation that the “ancient authorities” had erred, with its implicit assertion that returning to the classics meant completely ignoring new lands and peoples more numerous than those found in Europe. This “new” contradicted at the most fundamental level the authority of the classics and the very ideal of a Rinascimento.
His much-copied letters, and the fame he gained through his writings, led the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to name the new territories America in his world map of 1507, after the Florentine. And the name eventually won out, as if Vespucci’s claim that he had discovered a new world was actually true. Thus, ironically, the not-actually-new-worlds discovered by an Italian sailing for the Spanish, and an Italian sailing for the English, and an Italian self-promoter who claimed, probably falsely, to have beaten out his predecessors, was named by a German after the least likely of those Italians, from landlocked Florence, whose accounts may well have been largely imagined. Yet in a curious way this seeming chain of unlikely events with its unjust conclusion – naming continents that in the end were not really discovered at all for Amerigo Vespucci, who, even if he was not a fraud, was clearly not as important as he made himself out to be, suggests how even these events that occurred on the other side of a new, larger world were for many conceived in terms of Italy, Italians, and their leadership in the world. For even as the new was undermining it, the Rinascimento remained that world’s ultimate point of reference, and thus it seems queerly just that the Americas were named after a Florentine member of the popolo grosso who was particularly apt at self-promotion and self-glorification – an individual who became once again a self-fashioned and complexly negotiated work of art, giving his name to a new/old world.
In a way, 1492 marked the start of another series of travels of discovery, less recognized as such. For in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella, having driven out the last Muslim rulers of Granada, formally expelled the Jews from Spain. Actually, they required that all Jews convert to Christianity or leave; thus, in theory, Spain would become a society that was totally Catholic. Many officially converted to Christianity but continued to secretly follow their Jewish beliefs, which quickly contributed to a society deeply suspicious of false Catholics, eventually labeled Marranos. The paranoia and persecutions associated with this attempt to purify Spanish society had profound negative effects on early modern Spain. But it also created a significant “new,” especially for the Rinascimento in Italy, as many Jews from Spain migrated to Italy and literally discovered it – not surprisingly, as Italy, with its urban wealth and flourishing and apparently cosmopolitan culture, seemed a particularly attractive place. Moreover, most Italian cities already had a small but significant Jewish population, which eased the transition from Spanish intolerance to the discovery of what might be labeled an uneasy Italian coexistence with Italian Jews
Jews had long lived in the cities of Italy, providing services that Italians were unwilling or uncomfortable performing, and in many cases were fairly well integrated into their communities. In fact, some Jewish writers complained that they were much too well integrated. Perhaps the most important service they provided was making small-scale loans to the lower classes. In a society where many lived on the margins of subsistence, such loans were vital for getting through frequent moments of crisis, whether at the personal and family level or during more general times of economic dearth. The strategies discussed earlier for lending money at hidden rates of interest in order to avoid the sin of usury, such as letters of credit or exchange, really worked only for larger business ventures, not the small-scale needs of the poor. Without religious restrictions on lending money, Jews could and did provide small-scale loans to the lower classes.
And many urban governments had learned already in the thirteenth and fourteenth century how to take advantage of this situation. They allowed Jews to live in their cities and pay taxes on their economic activities, and periodically, when public unrest intensified over mounting debts and loan payments that burdened the lower classes, they garnered popular support by driving out the non-Christian moneylenders from their cities. Often these expulsions, encouraged by aggressive travelling preachers and tales of Jewish crimes and perverse religious rituals, were accompanied by violence. Here civic morality and the ideal of creating a Christian community became in a sense a civic immorality that made Jews the scapegoats for the endemic poverty that went hand in hand with an urban economy driven primarily with an eye to increasing the revenues of the rich and powerful. But, of course, the need for loans to the poor did not disappear with this scapegoating, and soon many were clamoring for the return of the Jews and their loans. Thus, usually after a short period of exile, Jews were invited back to perform once again the crucial services that they alone could provide.
In most cities the Jewish community made the best of a bad situation and adapted to this periodic repression. One result of this was that Jewish moneylenders calculated the periodic cancellation of the debts owed to them and the periodic disruptions and devastations of exile into the rates of interest they charged, once again making interest charges higher than they might have been in a society that did not make lending at interest so difficult and dangerous. Another result was that many Jews attempted to pass as Christians, creating a significant mixing of the Jewish and Christian communities that remained almost invisible from history, as people essentially attempting to go unnoticed rarely appear in the records of the day. But if one looks at cities like Venice, Florence, and Rome, while there were strict laws about intermarriage and social or sexual intermixing, the fact that such laws were passed repeatedly seems to indicate that they were frequently ignored. Occasionally, in fact, in criminal cases dealing with other matters a Jewish family or individual will emerge in passing living among Christian neighbors, practicing medicine or healing or a skill outside the normal guild structure of society, and virtually unremarked otherwise. How extensive such contacts were it is difficult to know.
But with the arrival of “new” Jews from the Iberian peninsula, this traditional coexistence was upset. On the positive side, Jews from Spain often brought a rich culture and wealth that had a significant impact on the Rinascimento. At times that Jewish wealth and culture were enhanced by contacts with other Jews who had fled Spain for the more welcoming and cosmopolitan Ottoman world in the eastern and southern Mediterranean, contacts that were of value to the Christian merchant community in Italy as well. On the negative side, Spanish Jews were seen as foreign and dangerous, not just by the Christian community, which was often not enthusiastic about Spanish influences anyway, but also by the established Jewish community in Italy, who often followed different religious traditions and who at times saw newcomers as upsetting the status quo in dangerous ways. Those fears were confirmed, for as more and more Spanish Jews immigrated to Italy, urban governments increased their surveillance and disciplining of all Jews. Eventually stricter restrictions resulted, and many cities set up special areas where Jews were required to live separately from the Christian community, often called ghettos, after the area in Venice first set apart for this purpose, as we shall see. Hand in hand with this went more aggressive programs to convert Jews to Christianity and to identify Jews passing as Christians. Essentially the impact of this was an attempt to create an increasingly “pure” Christian society even as the new in the form of new invaders, new religious confessions from the north of Europe, and greater contact with a broader world were making such purity less and less possible.
Syphilis a New Disease?
In 1494 the French troops invading Italy were struck by an extremely virulent disease that they associated with Italian camp followers and prostitutes and hence labeled “the Italian disease.” The Italians believed the disease had been brought to Italy by the French and, returning the favor, called it the French disease. Some in both camps decided to blame Spanish troops and thus named it the Spanish disease. While debates would long continue about who was responsible for the disease and deserved to have it named after them, a more significant debate developed over whether it was new, old, or suddenly reborn. Clearly conceptualizing the disease as an old one, reborn, fit well with the Rinascimento view of things. Even disease was better conceived as originating in earlier times, especially as at the moment Europe was working hard to incorporate a number of disconcertingly new things into old paradigms. The disfiguring nature of the disease, similar to the disfiguring symptoms associated with leprosy, allowed many to see it at first as a revival of that disease. Once the most dreaded disease of medieval Europe, leprosy had declined and become less severe during the Rinascimento; thus, its rebirth in a more virulent form seemed a likely explanation that made the disease safely old. Doctors also scoured the classical medical literature to find examples of earlier times when the disease had been more devastating, with some success.
But the uncomfortable idea that the disease was a new one slowly gained purchase. As early as 1497 the Italian medical writer Niccolò Leoniceno wrote: “The fact that there was not only uncertainty regarding the name of the disease, but also disagreement regarding its nature, led many to hypothesize that this illness was new … and thus the Greek and Arabic doctors had never spoken of it…. I absolutely cannot believe that this illness is born suddenly only now and has infected only our epoch.” Guicciardini, however, writing at the end of the 1530s in his History of Italy, accepted the idea that the disease was new and came from the New World:
It does not seem inappropriate to mention that [at that time 1494] … an illness began that was called the Neapolitan Disease (Male di Napoli)…. it was shown later that that illness had been transported from Spain to Naples. And it was not really from that nation, but brought there from those islands which … began to be known in our hemisphere because of the voyages of the Genovese Christopher Columbus.
Perhaps the most definite early account of the New World origins of the disease came from the Spanish physician Roderigo Diaz de Isla, in his Treatise on the Serpentine Disease which in Spain Is Called Bubas, written in 1539. There he described an early outbreak of the disease that he had treated in Barcelona in 1493, which he claimed had originated among Columbus’s sailors.
The debate still rages and in some suggestive ways has contours similar to the sixteenth-century debate. Medical historians examining skeletal remains from the ancient world seem to have discovered bone damage analogous to that caused by modern syphilis and evidence of a significant range of venereal diseases that might qualify as European precursors of the disease – bones in this case becoming the texts that modern science reads to support continuity and ancient origins. Equally telling, perhaps, is the fact that the disease appeared most devastatingly in Italy not in Spain and just a few months after Columbus’s return from the New World – too quickly, many would claim, to fit a New World origin. Still, the concept of a “Columbian Exchange” involving disease as well as plants and animals that literally transformed the biospheres of both Europe and the Americas seems curiously incomplete without New World diseases having had a significant impact on sixteenth-century Europe. It is also suggestive that while European diseases like smallpox and later the more complex case of yellow fever (which apparently moved from Africa to the Americas and then back to Europe) were devastating to the native populations of the New World, the diseases of the New World seem not to have had a similar impact on Europe.
Estimates vary, and there is some question about whether population losses are entirely due to European diseases, but it appears that there were at least twenty million inhabitants in what would become Mexico at first contact and only one million left by the beginning of the seventeenth century. Similarly, the native population of Peru over the course of the sixteenth century seems to have fallen from about nine million to less than 700,000. Also troubling is the fact that although Old World diseases raced through native populations with devastating effect, syphilis apparently did not have much impact in the Americas. Yet it too should have been carried to that unprotected population by European explorers and conquerors with a similarly devastating impact. All of which suggests that syphilis was not another new European disease in the New World attacking a population that had not adapted to it, but rather a New World disease to which the indigenous population was already more resistant than Europeans. Returning to bones, recent comparative studies of skeletal remains in Europe and the Americas before first contact have discovered syphilis-like lesions in bones from the New World, but not in bones from Europe, again suggesting a New World origin. The problem with this evidence, however, is that other diseases also produce syphilis-like bone lesions, so it remains more suggestive than conclusive.
The continuity theory has recently gained a sociomilitary dimension, with scholars arguing that the nearly constant warfare of sixteenth-century Europe created a unique biological engine of disease transmission. Armies of professional soldiers, followed by camp followers and prostitutes, incubated and then carried with them and disseminated a much more virulent form of older European venereal diseases that became known as syphilis. This is a seductive idea, but it requires ignoring the fact that Europe had been devastated a century earlier by the Hundred Years’ War between France and England and the Italian Hundred Years’ War. One thing is clear, however: in the sixteenth century armies and prostitutes were certainly associated with the disease and undoubtedly played a significant role in its rapid dissemination.
Old or new, the devastating impact of the disease on those it infected was immediately perceived as new and terrifying. Reports of deformed genitals, great pustules and sores all over the body, or flesh and bones literally being eaten away by the disease convey a fear and loathing that went beyond a fear of the suffering caused by the disease itself – quickly evoking a deeper fear of a new order of punishment for the sins of the flesh and the immoral order of the Rinascimento world. Actually the disease fairly rapidly became less deadly and less virulent in Europe. And by midcentury, if not sooner, the greatest fear was passing, and treatment of syphilis was becoming a regular part of the shared primary culture of the day. Some even came to see infection as a sign of mature masculinity and virility.
Unfortunately, the most prevalent and apparently most effective treatments, based on mercury, did not cure the disease, merely ameliorating the symptoms. In turn, such mercury cures were devastating, causing bone damage and slow poisoning, often followed by mental disorders. One wonders what the impact of even the less virulent form of the disease and its treatment had on the mental world of the day, with a large portion of the population infected with it, especially the upper classes. It might even be tempting to attribute the violent tenor of the period and its troubling brutality and inhumanity in the name of faith, religion, and morality to a form of mass madness induced by this disease and its cures. Certainly it would be a comforting excuse for a period that, in both the New World and the Old, demonstrated a truly dark side of what has been optimistically labeled Western civilization. Unfortunately, however, it would be a difficult thesis to sustain in the face of a troublingly consistent record of inhumanity and brutality, both before the advent of the disease and after its slow demise, thanks to penicillin, in the twentieth century, the century of Europe’s greatest wars and mass murder.
The Invention of the Courtesan
Perhaps one of the most important and most ignored (in traditional histories, at least) innovations of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries was the courtesan: a new player who emerged and captured center stage in the aristocratic imagination of the day. There has been much speculation about how, why, and where these high-class prostitutes developed and quickly became famed for their beauty, wit, wealth, and courtly manners and graces, not just in Italy but across Europe. One hypothesis suggests that they developed in the second half of the fifteenth century in Rome along with the more vibrant court life of the city associated with the return of the papacy. It seems logical that a court dominated by males, most of whom were unmarried, and where women of court were in short supply would be a perfect place to establish a parallel social hierarchy in which courtlike women became available. That they also offered sexual services was, for many, merely a plus. The rapid rise of an impressive group of famous courtesans in Venice might also give that cosmopolitan and aristocratic city a claim of primacy. But wherever courtesans originated, they soon flourished in the larger cities of Italy because they filled a number of sexual and social needs for an increasingly aristocratic society. By the early sixteenth century, they were a major part not just of the illicit world, but also of the licit – an important new facet of the satyr in the Rinascimento garden.
Matteo Bandello (1485–1561), most noted as a prolific writer of novelle, across a long career in several Italian courts wrote a number of tales that lamented the evil ways of courtesans and their pernicious effects on society. But even in his negative accounts one sees his recognition of how important and brilliant they could be. In one novella he writes of the Roman courtesan Imperia, whom he portrays as virtually the embodiment of everything refined and aristocratic that sixteenth-century Italy had to offer. Her home in Rome, highlighting her name, was virtually imperial. “Her house was furnished,” he wrote, “in a manner that was all carefully planned so that whichever foreigner entered seeing the furniture and the discipline of the servants would believe that here lived a princess.” The perfect match in grace, wit, and courtly ways for the aristocratic men who visited her, Bandello also presented her as the ultimate judge of their status. In this she was much like the ideal court lady who not only selected the best men, but also confirmed their superiority for the rest of society. Yet significantly, while court ladies did this largely in theory, at least some courtesans did so in fact.
The black humor of the conclusion of Imperia’s tale turns neatly on the power of this judging ability, as he portrays the discomfort of the Spanish ambassador to the pope in her imperial lodging and presence. Feeling the need to spit, this influential aristocrat could find no place to do so in the midst of so much finery and finally, saved by a suitably aristocratic inspiration, he turned and spit in the face of a servant. Then, once more with aristocratic manners and grace, he apologized to the youth: “I hope you don’t mind [young man], but your face is the most base thing here.” It was a perfect response and moment from the perspective of the patrician world of the day. Imperia measured men by judging their elegance, manners, grace, and virtù, and the Spanish ambassador lived up to her judging gaze. In a way, his spit and the servant’s face measured the distance between those on the bottom of society and aristocrats, even aristocratic prostitutes. Imperia imperiously thanked the ambassador for his thoughtful and courteous gesture and informed him that if he felt the need again, he could instead spit on her elegant carpets, which were there for exactly that purpose. Whether this actually occurred as Bandello claimed, it aptly elicits the judging power courtesans had over the powerful in the imagination of the day as well as what is perhaps an often forgotten use for carpets.
Not everyone passed the courtesan’s test of status. In another tale, Bandello relates the sad fate of a young Milanese aristocrat who travelled to Venice to enjoy the pleasures of one of that city’s famous courtesans. Visiting her again impressive quarters, Bandello reports, “She … seeing him richly dressed and looking like a man ready to spend, realized that he was a pigeon ready for plucking … began to play him making eyes at him and giving him many sweet looks.” Three months passed, three expensive months, as the youth courted her with presents and his best manners, with no reward beyond a kiss or two, as she reserved her favors for her more noble Venetian lovers. Finally, one day in desperation he threatened to kill himself by drinking poison if she did not yield to his pleas. She refused. He drank his poison. But he failed even in what should have been his dramatic moment, because the poison was slow-acting; thus the courtesan and her companions merely laughed at his futile gesture, and he fled back to his lodgings to die alone. For Bandello this was the ultimate tragedy, in a way more serious than the youth’s death – for even his attempt at a last heroic gesture failed. Dying in private, the death went totally unnoted and thus virtually did not exist for the consensus realities of the day. For our purposes, however, the point is clear: a courtesan’s judgment had its weight, and not every man, not even well-to-do aristocratic men, could count on one’s approval. Courtesans were an attractive novelty with a decidedly dangerous edge – once again the dark side of the new.
A courtesan’s power and success, like that of many scholars and intellectuals, however, usually hinged on the patronage and support of important men. They were necessary because they had the power to protect her when needed and to supply her with the regular income that allowed her to maintain the style and selectivity that being a courtesan required. With such protection the courtesan could escape the laws that hemmed in less elite prostitutes: circumvent sumptuary laws that limited the richness of their clothing and lodgings; avoid wearing the distinctive badges or articles of dress that were meant to identify prostitutes in most cities; move freely in areas normally forbidden to prostitutes; and, perhaps most importantly, bend the laws and courts to her advantage. In a way, this patronage was based on a symbiotic relationship: powerful patrons protected the courtesan, and a noted courtesan, by choosing to confer her favors on such men, confirmed their status and prestige.
The best courtesans provided even more. With their elegant lodgings and important patrons and clients, they provided a significant locus of male sociability, a minicourt or proto-salon where aristocratic males could meet and play in an illicit world that once again reinforced in many ways the licit. Gambling, sex, music, witty conversation, and even poetry were all ideally part of their aristocratic entertainments, each in its own way a form of elegant play that distinguished the mannered aristocratic world from the common. In fact, several of the most noted poets of the day were courtesans. Most famous, perhaps, were Veronica Franco (1546–1590) of Venice; Tullia d’Aragona (1510–1556), who worked in Florence; and Barbara Raffacani Salutati (b. c. 1500), a noted singer and composer of songs in Florence and a lover of Machiavelli in his later years.
Franco was, at least for a time, a star of the vibrant intellectual culture of Venice in the second half of the sixteenth century. She exchanged poems with some of the most important poets of the day, was lionized by a group of powerful Venetian nobles from the most important families in the city, and even had her portrait painted by Tintoretto. But perhaps her most famed moment was when the young future king of France, Henry III (1551–1589; ruled 1574–1589), on the way back to Paris to take up his crown in 1574, deserted the festivities the republic had organized for him to enjoy a few hours with her. Many of her poems were published in volumes of collected poetry with some of the other leading poets of the day. And in 1575 she published a collection of her own poetry,Terze Rime, which included verse that ranged widely, from love lyrics in the Petrarchan tradition to more personal and sensual poems that in many ways broke beyond the established canon, especially for women writers. In one of her better-known poems she wrote of her profession,
And yet if you call me a prostitute
Or might want to suggest that I am not
Or again that among them [prostitutes] some are praiseworthy
All that they have of the good
All that they have of the graceful and mannerly
The sound of your words describes in me.
Although she was ready to claim all the beauty and grace at the highest level of her trade as what set her apart, she was also acutely aware of the less glamorous reality of the profession, especially for those of lower status. In this context, as she grew older she worked to improve the condition of ex-prostitutes and also attacked the exploitation and inequities of a system that, as she pointed out, used up the bodies of women for the pleasures of men. For in reality few prostitutes joined the ranks of aristocratic courtesans, and even those few often ended up poor and broken when their beauty passed and they were forgotten by their former lovers, as Franco boldly reminded her aristocratic patrons.
New diseases, new aristocratic pleasures and victims, new books, new invaders and political realities, and ultimately new worlds that would render Italy peripheral and foundational at the same time – all these things undermined the very possibility of the Rinascimento. The new was breaking out all over, and in its growing undeniability the period was dissolving and morphing into something new and different in its own right, despite the valiant efforts of the best and brightest thinkers of the day. In fact, the clash between a new that could not be denied and an old whose certainty could not be given up, created an impressively creative period of cultural dissonance that in many ways was the fruitful conclusion of the Rinascimento in sixteenth-century Italy and the long-drawn-out dawning of a different society and age that has been labeled as the European Renaissance.