In August of 1572, as the infamous slaughter known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre raged in France, in Lyon an Italian printer working in the city, Alessandro Marsigli, apparently took advantage of the uproar to murder an Italian merchant, Paolo Minutolo. Although the religiously driven massacres probably killed between ten and twenty thousand people, Paolo’s murder was not motivated by confessional differences. Rather, it seems that Alessandro hoped to use the murder of Minutolo, banned from Lucca, to win a pardon for his own crimes and to be allowed to return to Italy from exile. Alessandro’s hopes were apparently based on the fact that Italian governments regularly offered pardons to those who dispatched criminals who had fled and been placed under a ban. If that was Alessandro’s motivation, it was thwarted by the fact that the authorities in Lyon were not particularly enthusiastic about supporting Italian justice by overlooking murder in their city; for we know of his crime only because the authorities there prosecuted him, creating a trial record that Natalie Z. Davis cited in a footnote to her path-breaking book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France.
Suggestively, in her many studies of Lyon in the sixteenth century Davis often referred to the Italians who were living in the city: silk workers, who had played an important role in founding the industry there and sustaining it; printers, who were significant in establishing the city as an important center of printing; bankers, who had helped make the city a major financial center; along with merchants of all types, lawyers, bureaucrats, and ecclesiastics. Not surprisingly, she noted that these Italians brought with them their Rinascimento values, intellectual fascinations, and ways of living. Even in the first half of the century, she notes, one of the major figures in the attempts at reforming poor relief in the city was the Dominican Santo Paganini, also from Lucca. As a young man this Santo had been a protégé of the Medici in Florence, then briefly a follower of Savonarola, and later had taught Greek and Hebrew in Rome under Pope Leo X. With the death of Leo he joined an increasing tide of Italians seeking to escape the uncertainties of war-torn Italy and its shaky patronage for greener pastures. In his case, finding them in Lyon, he became a leading cultural figure and reformer there. Throughout Europe figures like Santo were transporting the values and culture of the Rinascimento to a broader world just as, on a more material level, Italian bankers, lawyers, bureaucrats, artisans, artists, and architects were doing much the same.
But this brief nod to Davis’s treatment of Italians in Lyon and a more general suggestion that Italians at all social levels were spreading the Rinascimento throughout Europe might leave an impression that Davis would certainly reject. For the Italians just described as bearers of what we might label a Rinascimento diaspora seem to be primarily males, and that misses the crucial role that women played in this dissemination of the Rinascimento. As Italy became more aristocratic and more dominated by powers from beyond the peninsula, local popolo grosso traditions of marrying within local elites were progressively dropped in favor of marrying daughters into the powerful aristocratic families of the invading powers. Often these wives, pawns in the bedroom diplomacy of the day, moved to their new families throughout Europe carrying with them Rinascimento ways of living, values, and expectations. Their arrival in their new homes and families was not always a happy one, but it was ubiquitous, and when it took place at an aristocratic level their manners and styles were often seen as enhancing elite status and frequently became the mode.
Returning to the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre murder leads back to one of the most powerful and important Italian women of the sixteenth century, Catherine de’ Medici (1519–1589), at the time widow of Henry II, king of France (1519–1559; ruled 1547–1559) and mother of the reigning ruler of France, Charles IX (1550–1574; ruled 1560–1574). She is often accused of having encouraged or even organized that massacre from behind the scenes in a Machiavellian fashion – an accusation that once again turned on the perception that Italians, and in this case an Italian wife, were exporting their political ways to a broader world – dangerous Machiavellian ways at that. Serious doubts have been raised about such accusations, but it is clear that her life and international career literally spanned, and at times dominated, much of the sixteenth century in France and were often seen, then as now, as playing a significant role in Italianizing upper-class French society and culture.
Once more her origins take us back to Florence and her famous family, the Medici. Her great grandfather was Lorenzo the Magnificent; the Medici pope, Clement VII, was an uncle; and even Pope Leo X was a distant relative, an uncle of her father, Lorenzo II de’ Medici. Both he and her mother, Madeline de la Tour d’Auvergne, died young in 1519 shortly after Catherine was born, victims of the plague, although some claim that Lorenzo died from a particularly virulent form of syphilis, then spreading devastatingly through the Italian upper classes. Be that as it may, as a child she was raised by her Medici relatives, primarily in Rome. And crucially, although her father had not lived long enough to have an impact on her upbringing, he left her, as his only heir, a large portion of the Medici family fortune, making her an extremely attractive object of marital desire and decidedly influencing the course of her life.
With her large inheritance and the support of her uncle, Pope Clement VII, she had considerably more to offer a young prince than that orphan of the seventeenth-century Italian fable, Cinderella; and her sixteenth-century prince – perhaps not all that charming – soon arrived. The royal family of France, strapped for cash to cover its burgeoning debts and anxious for a papal alliance in order to continue pursuing its claims in Italy, proposed a prince indeed: Henry, the son of Francis I, king of France, who became her husband in 1533, when both had reached the marriageable age of fourteen. He became Henry II, king of France, in 1547, and she became queen at twenty-eight. The couple’s teenage marriage may have created problems for Catherine, as her primary purpose from the perspective of her royal family, after providing a rich infusion of money into the royal coffers with her inheritance, was to produce royal heirs, and early on none was forthcoming. Nonetheless, over the course of those first years in France she developed from being a well-educated Italian novelty at court who attracted attention because of her overly refined manners – reportedly even using a fork to eat – and her stylish Italian retinue, who reputedly outshone the French nobility, into a savvy political player and cultural leader.
Her position improved significantly when, after more than ten years of childless marriage, Catherine finally produced a son, Francis (1544–1560), heir to the throne as Francis II (ruled 1559–1560). Although controversy swirled around her, enhanced by Henry’s interest in other favorites who competed with her for power at court and behind the scenes, especially Diane of Portier, once she began to produce heirs she continued at an impressive rate, guaranteeing herself an increasingly important role in the political world of the second half of the sixteenth century. Two other sons would rule France after Francis’s death, Charles IX and Henry III (1551–1589; ruled 1574–89), and it seemed to many that with each son Catherine’s power behind the throne became greater and more insidiously Italian. Elisabeth (1545–1568), her second-born, although she died young at twenty-three, lived long enough to be married at fifteen to Philip II (1527–1598), who not only ruled Spain (1556–1598) but was effectively ruler of much of Italy along with a major portion of the New World. The marriage was actually part of the negotiated settlement of the Treaty of Chateau-Cambrésis in 1559 and ended the on-again-off-again marital negotiations that Philip had pursued with Queen Elizabeth of England. Given the relatively short duration of the marriage, perhaps its most immediately significant ramification was the fact that it further confirmed what Philip had gained militarily, his status as the leading foreign power in Italy.
But it was through her daughter Margaret (1553–1615) and her complex and conflicted life that Medici and Italian influence continued in France at the highest levels of society, albeit in a rather convoluted way. For in 1572 Margaret reluctantly married a French Huguenot, Henry of Bourbon, who became in that same year king of Navarre. When the French royal line of the Valois died out in 1589, rule fell to the Bourbon family; Henry of Bourbon became king of France as Henry IV (1553–1610; ruled 1589–1610), and Margaret, the daughter of a Medici, became queen – albeit a strange one. Her marriage had started out badly as reportedly she was unenthusiastic about marrying the leader of the Huguenot opposition and apparently found Henry unattractive as well. For many years it continued unhappily, with both partners rather openly enjoying a series of lovers. Margaret was actually imprisoned for a time by her brother Henry III, accused of a series of misdeeds – political, religious, and sexual. Moreover, the couple was frequently divided physically and emotionally by the Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Their marriage’s turbulent course was cut short when in 1599 Henry repudiated his childless wife and queen. With a certain irony, he then married another Medici, Marie de’ Medici (1573–1642), daughter of the grand duke of Tuscany, Francesco I, in 1600. She produced six children and started the Bourbon family French royal line, becoming in the process the next Italian leading woman in France in the seventeenth century.
This quick summary of Catherine de’Medici’s children overlooks her complex machinations in the power struggles of the political world that swirled around her, her husband, and her three sons who became kings of France. And, in fact, her role behind the scenes from her own day up to the present has been the stuff of scholarly battles, with some arguing that for most of her life she was virtually the evil Italian Machiavellian manipulator working behind the throne, initiating complex plots that were central to much of the turmoil, religious and political, of her day, and even from time to time poisoning a relative or enemy to secure her goals – again, behavior widely associated with Italian women of the evil and wily type. Others have seen her as negotiating a complex path in order to survive as both a wife and a significant player over a long period of highly conflicted French history. But those debates about her actual role need not detain us here, as for the purposes of this discussion Catherine provides a particularly suggestive example of the way Italian women, especially aristocratic women, intermarried Rinascimento culture and social ways into the broader aristocratic world of Europe. To bedroom diplomacy we might well add the trope “bedroom culture” in order to highlight the way marriages between Italian aristocratic women and the scions of European aristocratic families created cultural alliances that spread the Rinascimento not just to France, but throughout Europe.
If anything, this “bedroom culture” was an even more central aspect of the Rinascimento’s close relationship with Spain, which in many ways was much more important for the diaspora than the Italian-French connection. As discussed in Chapter 6, although the first Aragonese king of the kingdom of Naples, Alfonso I, conquered the kingdom by defeating his French opponents, his claims to rule were family-based and dynastic – relying upon Aragonese family ties to the Hohenstaufen emperors of the thirteenth century and more immediate and questionable family ties to the queen of Naples, Joanna II, who had temporarily adopted him in order to protect her rule. From the kingdom of Naples there developed a long and increasingly close association between the Iberian peninsula and the Italian, which accelerated with the increasing domination of the north by Habsburg emperors in the sixteenth century, also predicated in many ways on Charles V’s marital alliances and dynastic power. This close relationship deeply influenced Spain, and through it, the broader world that Spain dominated. But, of course, the contact went both ways, with some even arguing that the sixteenth century was really the Spanish century in Italy. The relationship used to be characterized too neatly with the claim that while Spain dominated most of Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Italy dominated Spain culturally. Although in a general sense there is some truth to this, the reality is that there was a cross-fertilization, with both positive and negative results for both societies. In fact, to a degree the influence of Spanish styles and values played a significant role in the sixteenth century in dissolving the distinctive urban values of the Rinascimento into a broader European culture, along with the more visible and decried political and military triumphs that so disrupted Italy. But in many ways Italy and the Rinascimento became at the same time the measure of early modern Spain.
Many Spaniards were deeply influenced by the Rinascimento when they studied law at the major Italian universities or served as bureaucrats or diplomats in Italy. They returned to Spain with a strong bureaucratic and legal vision that was incorporated into Spanish legal reform and the country’s burgeoning bureaucracies, along with cultural experiences that contributed to Spain’s own Renaissance. Also crucial were the close ties with Genoese banks, which became stronger yet in the sixteenth century as that republic fell increasingly under the influence of Habsburg emperors. Those contacts brought the sophisticated culture of money developed in Italy to Spain, and it was that culture that handled much of the banking for the Spanish crown and the exploitation of “New World” resources. Money and the Rinascimento definitely went hand and hand in Spain. But more visible was the high cultural influence of the Rinascimento. Titian, who never actually traveled to Spain, as perhaps the favorite artist of Charles V literally dominated his collection of art, and an impressive list of Italian artists journeyed to the peninsula drawn by the rich patronage to be gained there, including Sofonisba Anguissola, Luca Cambiaso, Federico Zuccaro, Pellegrino Tibaldi, Bartolomé and Vicente Carducho, Giovan Battista Crescenzi, Francesco Rizi, and Luca Giordano; sculptors such as Pompeo Leoni; and architects and engineers ranging from Juanelo Turiano to Francesco Paciotti. Italian literature and theater were also quickly copied and extremely popular in Spain, although occasionally censored when deemed too threatening to the sterner Christian morality typical of the peninsula.
Once again marriage and wives played a crucial role in this diaspora of the Rinascimento in Spain. In fact, Spain even had its Medici connection, although at first it went in the opposite direction, with Eleonora of Toledo (1522–1562) marrying Cosimo I in 1539. She was the daughter of Pedro of Toledo, who ruled Naples as the viceroy and who, in an attempt to consolidate his power there, married his family into the most important noble houses of Italy. In turn, Cosimo needed the marriage to Eleonora to secure his alliance with the emperor, Charles V, whose support was crucial for his power in Florence. But perhaps more important were the dynastic policies favored by Charles himself, which over time helped to form family networks in Italy that definitively ended the tradition of city-state isolation from the dynastic politics of the rest of Europe. Aristocratic families from Florence, Parma, Ferrara, Mantua, Urbino, Turin, and even the republics of Genoa and Venice, along with those of the papal court and cardinals, all intermarried with the nobility of Spain, the Low Countries, and other Habsburg lands, often with Charles’s active support, and the Rinascimento went forth with the wives who left Italy to build these aristocratic networks.
Of course, not all Italian wives outside of Italy were queens or even aristocrats. As Davis noted for early modern Lyon, Italian artisans were ubiquitous there, especially printers and workers in the cloth industry, the latter aggressively recruited from Tuscany and other cloth-producing regions. Moreover, in the latter Italian women figured not just as wives, but also as skilled artisans in their own right, especially in the silk-producing industry. In fact, artisans of all types, both women and men, escaped the turmoil of sixteenth-century Italy or moved to what appeared to be more lucrative or promising locations throughout Europe, often riding on the reputation that Italian artisans enjoyed at least in part as a reflection of the glory and fame of the Rinascimento. More visible in this human diaspora were the famed artisans/artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini who were invited to the courts of Europe to glorify them with their artistry. But even they brought more than artistry. Cellini, perhaps in an attempt to belittle Leonardo or perhaps just honestly, noted, for example, that Leonardo actually accomplished little in the French king’s service, but spent a great deal of time with him discussing ideas. Cellini may not have seen this as very impressive, but it suggests the broader way in which artisans from another land with a reputation for being culturally superior disseminated that culture.
But artisans and artists also ventured beyond Europe. The Ottoman court was particularly interested in Western artisans and artists during periods when ongoing tensions abated enough to make contact easier. Already toward the end of the fifteenth century, as part of a temporary peace between Venice and the Turks, Gentile Bellini, of the famed Venetian family of artists, was sent at the request of Sultan Mehmed II – who had conquered Constantinople at midcentury – to paint his portrait and serve as a Venetian cultural ambassador to his court. Although there is some debate about whether he actually painted it, a painting of the sultan dated about 1480 and attributed to Bellini now hangs in the National Gallery in London. During his visit Bellini reportedly demonstrated his artistry for the sultan with numerous pictures and was in turn influenced by the Turkish world and artists.
Legends about the visit quickly grew up, especially as the Turks long continued to be the primary perceived threat to Italy and Europe. In fact, Bellini and his visit figured in one of the more negative legends that stressed the inhuman cruelty of the conqueror and of Turks in general. As reported by Carlo Ridolfi in Le maraviglie dell’arte, a mid-seventeenth-century series of biographies celebrating Venetian painters, Bellini had impressed the sultan with his lifelike paintings that virtually seemed to make the figures painted come alive. But ever ready to show his superior knowledge, the sultan pointed out that in a painting of the beheading of John the Baptist, the artist had incorrectly rendered the severed head. And to prove his point, he ordered one of his servants beheaded then and there to demonstrate what a beheading actually looked like, to the horror of the more “civilized” Westerner. Clearly apocryphal, the story illustrates well that contact could be used not just to disseminate culture but also, at times, to make further contact seem dangerous or impossible.
Be that as it may, between regular periods of open warfare, economic and cultural contacts continued. In fact, many of the soldiers and bureaucrats who served the sultan were actually Westerners captured as youths and pressed into his service, often as eunuchs. Many became important figures in the Turkish world, and although it is difficult to speculate about what they brought from Italy and Europe to the East, in some cases it may have been meaningful. Literary contacts, although often downplayed, were also clearly important. Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli in their recent book, The Age of the Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society, have presented a series of translations of Ottoman love poetry in a suggestive attempt to show that, in fact, in the early modern period there was a general circulation between the West and the East of ideas about love that created a common vision of ideal love throughout the region. It seems clear that for all the warfare and fear that separated the two worlds, there were significant cultural contacts between the Rinascimento and the East to go along with ongoing economic relations.
Actually, from the Eastern perspective, the Rinascimento could well seem merely a sidelight on a golden age of Ottoman power solidified during the long and impressive reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566; ruled 1520–1566). Suggestively, Suleiman’s remarkable rule and many successes, both culturally and militarily, overlapped almost perfectly with the last days of the Rinascimento, and much like the earlier and the considerably less magnificent Lorenzo the Magnificent, Suleiman was famed as a love poet, patron of the arts, and builder. Moreover, in the best style of the Rinascimento, he based his rule on one of the favorite tools of the popolo grosso, a revival of law; in his case his famed reordering and revising of the law code of his empire. Yet what is perhaps most striking, if one is seeking parallels, is Suleiman’s cultivation of glory for himself and his court, much in the tradition of the courts of Italy. He was not content with his conquests, which far outshone those of potential rivals like Charles V – conquests that won him much of eastern Europe and brought him to the gates of Europe at Vienna (in 1529) and gave him control of much of North Africa and the Mediterranean as well as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, thus creating an empire that rivaled that of Alexander the Great. To confirm his glory he attempted to attract to his court the greatest artists and writers of his day from throughout the world and to make Ottoman society and culture world leaders. Whether or not he accomplished those heady goals, in the process the culture of the Rinascimento seeped into the East.
Less visible to history, but perhaps even more important, were the highly permeable borders between the East and the West in the Balkans, where Ottoman lands and ways rubbed shoulders with lands that had been ruled by Venice or were at least deeply influenced by the Rinascimento. There and in Venice itself many moved quietly between societies and cultures. Over his long rule Suleiman also increasingly encouraged the Jewish populations who had been pushed out of Spain and Portugal to settle in his empire. Many had for a time lived in Italy, but as restrictions multiplied there and harassment from secular and ecclesiastical leaders worsened with reform initiatives, many moved on to live under Suleiman’s more protective and cosmopolitan rule, in the process also bringing with them the Rinascimento values, culture, and learning that they had picked up on their way, albeit often deeply colored by a rich Jewish heritage. Historians are just beginning to look more closely at these exchanges, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the Rinascimento travelled east in many ways, just as the East infiltrated the West, adding another set of new challenges. As Carlo Ginzburg noted with surprise more than a generation ago, even the humble Italian miller Menocchio, of The Cheese and the Worms, seemed to have garnered some of his most challenging ideas from a copy of the Koran that he had somehow read in rural Friuli. Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that Suleiman the Magnificent in many of his glorious accomplishments seemed to echo Rinascimento values in an Ottoman context.
Italian theater troupes that traversed Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were also visible sources of the Rinascimento diaspora. Early on they brought vernacular translations of ancient Roman comedies along with the first Italian comedies, known rather misleadingly as “erudite comedies.” Rather than erudite, they presented the urban world of the Rinascimento in a playful, rule-breaking way that intrigued Italian spectators and similarly caught the imagination of European ones, and of a broader European readership as well, for many were soon translated and rapidly revitalized the theater in Europe. One of the most successful was Gl’Ingannati (The Deceived), written collectively, it was claimed, by the Sienese academy known as the Intronati (Dazed), discussed earlier. Featuring a young girl in her teens cross-dressed as a male and courageously braving the streets of Modena to pursue her love and thwart her father’s plans to marry her to a much older man, the play presented a delicious and clever fantasy ofoverturning the power of patriarchs and arranged marriages in the name of love and pleasure. In the process it broke most of the taboos of the day with a smile and a wink, and as a result it was one of the most popular comedies of the day, spawning dozens of imitations in Italian and most European languages. Even Shakespeare, who was not averse to borrowing his plots from Italian sources, took the plot (probably from a translation) as the basis for his very popular Twelfth Night. Although the Rinascimento world depicted for the rest of Europe (and more broadly) in such comedies was to a degree a wish-fulfilling fantasy version of the Italian urban world, it nonetheless added to the attractiveness of Italian culture and things Italian, aiding in their diffusion throughout Europe and the world.
Perhaps the most famous travelling theater group in the second half of the sixteenth century was the Comici Gelosi (Jealous Comic/Players), led by the poet and actor Francesco Andreini (1548–1624) and his probably more famous wife, Isabella Andreini (1562–1604). Isabella was noted for her beauty, her poetry, and as one of the first great actresses; until midcentury most plays (in Italy and elsewhere) were performed with male actors playing female roles. The Comici Gelosi were also important pioneers in a newer form of comedy known as the commedia dell’arte. Although a literal translation appears to be “artistic comedy,” that is misleading as the name actually refers to stage improvisation by master players in the sense of guild (arte) masters rather than to artistry in the modern sense. In these comedies stock characters, working with just a plot line, developed the dialogue and action on stage, improvising as they went along. The stock characters – Arlecchino (Harlequin: a poor, witty counterculture survivor), Pantaleone (a rich, greedy merchant), Scaramouch (a clever, cowardly soldier/lover), Pucinella (a philosophical dreamer, sliding through life somehow), Zanni (Giovanni: a poor, ignorant everyman who was often clever in his own foolish way) and Il Dottore (The Doctor, a learned fool closely related to the earlier pedant/humanist character) – were so popular throughout Europe that they were regularly portrayed in art and served as stereotypical labels, in both literature and daily life, for the character traits with which they were associated. Significantly, these comedies once again were deeply imbued with the urban life of the late Rinascimento and its cultural world, often featuring its playful and racy illicit underside – the satyr in the garden once more. As such, they were particularly attractive to those who wished to imagine a more open and pleasure-oriented society than usually existed.
Of course, not all who left Italy brought with them artistry or play. Italian masters of the craft of war, condottieri, and more humble soldiers also travelled widely to ply their trade and often settled down, once again with Italian values and ways of life, in a larger world, not just in Europe but also in the “New World.” The latter offered many opportunities for the adventurous to move ahead rapidly by using their military skills and their virtù, in the more traditional sense of the term favored by Machiavelli. As noted earlier, many of the earlier explorers were Italians, and the “New World” was even named for the rather questionable Florentine adventurer Amerigo Vespucci. But there were other militants, fighters for the Catholic Church, who were at least equally important, especially the Jesuits. Although founded by a non-Italian group of students in Paris led by the Basque ex-soldier Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), the Jesuits were quickly recognized by the pope as a new order, in no small part because they pledged themselves to supporting the papacy and Roman leadership of the Church. They also made a name for themselves for their virtually military discipline and their strong support of the papacy’s vision of institutional reform. Their Italian credentials and close relationship to the papacy were also strengthened by the fact that their Superior General and administration were centered in Rome. After Trent, as we have seen, they were especially important for their educational reforms and missionary activity in Europe and around the world. Both were high priorities of the final reform agenda of Trent, and in both areas they virtually served as the front-line troops of a church militant that exported the Roman Catholic Church and its often Rinascimento values to the larger world.
Jesuit colleges were an immediate success. Shortly after Loyola’s death in 1556, close to 150 had opened their doors in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. By 1615 their number had more than doubled. In Europe and South America their colleges were especially important in educating the upper-class leaders of society, providing them with a curriculum that emphasized Latin, Greek, ancient literature, poetry, philosophy/theology, and natural sciences – virtually the educational ideal of the Rinascimento placed at the service of the Catholic Church and its goal of creating a Roman Catholic World. To a great degree, then, they helped to seed the Rinascimento in Europe and the New World. And “seeding” is a particularly apt term, for they planted the seeds of that culture in a foreign soil where, to continue the metaphor, the plants that grew were also deeply influenced by that local soil and climate, producing a cultural harvest that was never purely European or Rinascimento, but rather a hybrid, at times rich with creative potential, at times disturbingly deformed. For it is easy to overlook the fact that diasporas bring with them and often emphasize the deep problems of their culture along with more celebrated positive features. Moreover, diasporas are virtually never a one-way street. And, in fact, Jesuits and other travelers to foreign lands who returned to Italy and the Rinascimento often returned with new values and new visions that both enriched and changed, slowly but irrevocably, its complex cultural mix. In a very real way, in the process of its own diaspora the Rinascimento was dissolving into a larger series of new worlds.
The Jesuits and a few other competing mendicant orders in more isolated areas of Brazil and Paraguay went well beyond education and conversion, actually attempting to create ideal theocratic societies, known as Reducciones, on the local level. These attempts at Christian utopias, distant from European control, often developed in strange ways that troubled authorities both ecclesiastical and civil, although some of their reported excesses must be treated with a grain of salt, as both civil and ecclesiastical authorities were often ready to depict them in the worst possible light, seeing them as dangerous competitors for power. Sometimes Jesuits and other missionary orders were also seen as problematic because of their defense of native populations against the exploitation that often victimized them, including the virtually genocidal slavery associated with mining and certain types of agriculture. At the same time, however, almost everywhere they were active in forming a new Europeanized society in South America, even playing a leading role in founding cities such as Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro.
In Asia the Jesuits attempted to convert the upper classes with some initial success. Francis Xavier (1506–1552), one of the founders of the order, arrived in Portuguese-controlled Goa in what is today India in 1541 to convert and teach. By 1545 he was petitioning the pope to establish a branch of the Inquisition there. In Japan, after some initial success – actually being granted for a short time their own feudal state – the Jesuits were driven out as a dangerous outside influence. In China they had greater success, even establishing a Western-style university in the Portuguese-controlled territory of Macau; in fact, in the seventeenth century they eventually became powerful enough to be banned by Portuguese authorities from the territories they controlled in the East as a dangerous competitor for power. Although dreams of Christianizing the East remained illusory, they did strengthen a cultural contact with much of Asia that had never really disappeared across the Middle Ages. From the second half of the sixteenth century, however, slowly and with many reverses, that contact along with ongoing economic relations established a deeper awareness of yet another “new” world.
If the Jesuits and to a lesser degree the other mendicant orders of the Church that took up missionary and educational activities throughout the world were the warriors of Catholicism, the regular clergy who went out to serve as church leaders were the bureaucrats who followed those troops in an attempt to convert their “victories” into more stable control and discipline. And as the Church was still largely led from Rome, and Italian, many of those leaders had grown up, studied, and begun their careers in Italy and were deeply imbued with the ideals of the Rinascimento that they brought with them. They too, in turn, often returned to Italy with new ideas and new ways that contributed to dissolving the Rinascimento. It should be noted, however, that some, threatened by what they discovered abroad, returned more committed than ever to defend their traditional culture and values. But in the long run that culture was dissolving into the new and the broader worlds they encountered.
One of the most dangerous “news” encountered, however, was the one that had so troubled Vespasiano da Bisticci back in the mid-fifteenth century, the printed book. Little did he realize just how dangerous it would be for his Rinascimento world. Of course, as we have seen, in the early years of printing many were worried about the effect of making the knowledge contained in books more widely available. Knowledge was power, often dangerous power, and making it available to the masses threatened the aristocratic control of society and perhaps foreshadowed mob rule. For many, this had been confirmed in the radical religious reform movements that were often seen as having been spread by the printed word and by reading the Bible in the vernacular. The response was censorship and discipline, by both government and the Church. But the printed word was loose in the late Rinascimento, the genie was out of the bottle, and the results were dramatic and at times revolutionary.
Yet it might be argued that in the complex societies that had evolved across Europe since the end of the Middle Ages many controls had developed that made revolution or radical change difficult. Thus the profound changes that did occur were often the result of not seeing the broader implications of choices that seemed innocuous or of limited import. The shorter route to the East that Columbus promised had serious economic import, certainly, but it led to the totally unexpected “discovery” of “new” worlds, a revolutionary shift in the focus of the West, and a deep restructuring of the world as a whole. Those dangers were simply unimaginable at the time when his proposal was accepted and funded. By contrast, Copernicus’s placing of the sun at the center of the solar system and Galileo’s proofs that the heavens were not unchanging and not made up of a fifth perfect essence that made them eternal were rapidly seen for what they were, potentially revolutionary proposals that threatened the whole edifice of ancient knowledge, Church dogma, and the Rinascimento. Thus, although much more was involved, both were aggressively and harshly rejected and continued to be so until long after those theories had been well established and confirmed. The difference is clear. In one case the confrontation was unmistakable; in the other it was virtually unrecognized until its revolutionary potential could no longer be avoided.
In many ways the printed book represented an intermediate ground. Some realized that it presented a danger, but on the whole they were unaware of how wide-ranging that danger could be. Eventually, with the establishment of the Index of Printed Booksand local censorship offices, that deeper danger was at least partially recognized, but once again it was too little and too late to block its radical potential. From the perspective of the diaspora of the Rinascimento, much of that radical potential might seem positive, although in the receiving cultures at the time many saw the dissemination of Rinascimento values through the printed book as decidedly negative. The well-known diatribes against the political works of Machiavelli and Machiavellianism and against the erotically charged works of Aretino in England, France, and Spain are only the best examples. The amoral Machiavel and the pornographic Aretine in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came to represent all that was evil in the Italian version of a broader European Renaissance, while Castiglione’s manual for the ideal courtly aristocrat became an attractive ideal of upper-class sophistication. Italian comedies and novelle offered fantasies of an urban world of adventure and intrigue that was at once attractive, illicit, and fascinatingly dangerous. The list could easily be augmented. But the point is simply that the Rinascimento was disseminated throughout Europe and the world by that powerful new cultural force, the printed book, as well as by Italians. In fact, the literature of the Rinascimento in all its forms was quickly translated and circulated, reflecting at least to a degree the attractiveness of things Italian and Italy’s ongoing cultural leadership.
In turn, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the cities of Italy became the featured venue of the European Grand Tour, where aristocrats from around the continent and a few from the New World as well journeyed to that promised land of culture (and the illicit) that they and their peers had read about in order to gain the sophistication associated with that culture and society. In that Grand Tour the Rinascimento itself enjoyed a rebirth among the ruling classes of Europe in a ritual that is to a degree distantly reflected today at a more humble level, in the mass tourism that overruns Italy in the summer months and cities like Rome, Florence, and Venice year round.
Significantly, as the rest of Europe also sought precedents for their rapidly evolving nation-state governments and royal pretensions of absolute rule, much as the earlier Italian city-states had done, they turned to their own claims of ancient origins and classical political theory. But they also had, closer to hand and closer in time, another highly regarded model, the political order and political theories of the city-states of Italy. Their riches and evident success, becoming yet more apparent as European powers were busily despoiling them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, made them models that demanded and received respect. Venice, with its mythic claims of longevity and stability, won pride of place for its supposed perfect mixed government. But political theorists throughout Italy who described the success of their city-states by citing similar Aristotelian theories of an ideal mixed government were particularly attractive to political leaders and thinkers beyond Italy, especially those who dreamt of creating lasting republics. In the 1960s and early 1970s a series of exceptional historians – led by Felix Gilbert with his 1965 study, Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence; William Bouswma in his massive 1968 work, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation; and, perhaps most significantly, John Pocock in his seminal 1975 volume The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition – showed the deep ways in which European political thought and practice were rethought and remodeled on a Rinascimento vision deeply influenced by Italian thinkers such as Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Contarini, and their compatriots, based on the ideal and to a degree the reality of Italian city-states. One need only look at the Palladian architecture of Washington or the ideal mixed vision of government in the United States – with its president, representing one-man rule; its Senate, representing rule by the best; and its House of Representatives, representing rule by the popolo – to see Rinascimento echoes at the heart of modern government. And these examples could easily be multiplied.
Practice, of course, was another matter, but once again Rinascimento political writing was rich with practical advice, and historical works described, often in detail, the intricacies of effective governance. In turn, in areas where the Catholic Church remained dominant – perhaps the most powerful and tightly organized bureaucratic organization of the day – that Church provided a Roman/Italian model of bureaucratic control and discipline easily copied by governments who interacted with it daily and often relied on its leaders to serve as their own officials. In sum, across the board, from government to the humble folk on the grounds of a Shakespearean theater, from famous artists and artisans to silk workers in Lyon, from wives of kings to camp followers of the armies that traversed Europe, from slaves of the Ottoman sultan to Jesuits ruling theocratic utopias in Paraguay, from Spanish bureaucrats in Italy to Genoese bankers in Spain, the Rinascimento reached out to a broader world in a largely unrecognized and unquestioned diaspora. In turn, across the sixteenth century at home the great themes of the Rinascimento were changed irreversibly by a rapidly increasing deluge of the undeniably new and of a broader, richly diverse world. It might seem legitimate to claim, then, that the Rinascimento ended slowly, dissolving into a wider world that would find new ideals first in French, Spanish, and Habsburg aristocratic “civilizations” in a Spanish and Portuguese colonial world, then in English “bourgeois” “imperial rule,” and eventually in U.S. “democratic” “hegemony” over an Atlantic and world economy and a far more material culture. But this is not the place to make such claims.
And in the end, periods do not end. Obviously, it would be difficult to argue that a thing that does not exist has ceased to exist. For periods are merely useful heuristic devices for gathering together central aspects of the society and culture of particular times, and when those central aspects change, or at least when their importance wanes (or increases) and new factors enter and skew the mix, eventually the balance and weight of those things that were once central, change as well. Thus, slowly but surely, a period label no longer serves as a heuristic tool. In this case the major factors that made the Rinascimento such a significant and rich period did not disappear; rather, they dissolved into a broader European and developing Atlantic culture and society (for better and worse) which may at present be dissolving into a broader worldwide culture, sometimes quietly, sometimes painfully, with strife and bloody discord.
Once upon a time and not so long ago, in a more self-satisfied and decidedly less culturally aware European world, the great cultural successes and accomplishments of the Italian Renaissance were seen as foundational for Western civilization. Today a more measured claim might be that well beyond the notable cultural accomplishments of the day, the Rinascimento incorporated new ways of imagining and living with social hierarchy and conflict, political power, religious discipline, urban life, spiritual enthusiasms, and creativity across the social spectrum, which over and over again were legitimated by returning to the past and privileged first times with a success that has had a lasting impact on the West and the world. That impact has not always been positive, but rethinking the Rinascimento in such terms makes it a period whose successes and problems speak to us in ways that are suggestive for critically rethinking the past and the present, hopefully more subtly, usefully, and creatively.