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1492: Lorenzo de Medici, Savonarola & The Rise Of The “Culture Wars” In Florence

August 31, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

April 8: Lorenzo de’ Medici the Magnificent dies in Florence.

I had to read chapter 5 of Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s 1492: The Year The World Began several times to figure out why it was in the book. After all, in 1492 Florence was just one of a dozen or so long-dead republics, duchies, kingdoms, empires and statelets whose territories comprise modern-day Italy. And while Lorenzo de’ Medici was Florence’s unquestioned behind-the-scenes ruler (without ever holding public office in its baroquely complex republican government), what could his death have to do with global developments over the past five centuries?

I think it’s Fernández-Armesto’s question, too. In no small part, this chapter is his rebuttal to the history he was taught as a youth.

‘1494: Charles VIII invades Italy. Beginning of modern times.’ I can still recall the list of memorable dates my history teacher wrote on the blackboard when I was at my first school. The idea behind what at the time was a conventional way of dating the dawn of modernity was that until the French invasion, the Renaissance was confined to Italy. Charles unlocked it and took Italian arts and ideas back with him across the Alps, making it possible for the initiatives that made our world to spread around Europe.

No one still thinks anything of the sort. The Renaissance no longer looks like a new departure in the history of the world; rather, it was just more of the same, or an intensification of medieval traditions of humanistic learning and reverence for classical antiquity. New ideas were not all of Italian origin, and humanism and classicism had independent origins in other parts of Europe—especially in France, the Netherlands, and Spain. (pp. 141-42)

Fernández-Armesto argues that “1492 was at least as decisive as 1494 in the history of (Charles’) involvement in Italy for it was then that he made up his mind to invade.” (p. 142)

But that’s a minor point, and it pales beside two major points Fernández-Armesto makes—one about the Renaissance, the other about the Florentian who had a more lasting impact on the world that followed 1492.

“The Renaissance no longer looks unique. Historians detect revivals of antique values, tastes, ideas, and styles in almost every century from the fifth to the fifteenth. The West never lost touch with the heritage of Greece and Rome. Nor did Islam. The culture of classical antiquity and all its later revivals were in any case products of large-scale cultural interaction, spanning Eurasia, reflecting and mingling influences from eastern, southern, southwestern, and western Asia. Nor does the reality of the Renaissance match its reputation…. As a result, if you are a product mainstream Western education, almost everything you ever thought about the Renaissance is likely to be false.” (p. 122, emphasis added)

Fernández-Armesto then proceeds systematically to demolish—or at least diminish—the following historiographical myths: The Renaissance “ was revolutionary…secular…pagan…art for art’s sake….Its art was unprecedentedly realistic….(It) elevated the artist…dethroned scholasticism and inaugurated humanism…was Platonist and Hellenophile…rediscovered antiquity…discovered nature…was scientific…inaugurated modern times.” (pp. 122-23)

It is Lorenzo the Magnificent’s last great antagonist, Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola, whom Fernández-Armesto elevates and reclaims as a significant historical figure in shaping the post-1492 world. He first argues that “…Savonarola came to see Lorenzo’s death as a kind of showdown with  the values he hated and a kind of divine validation of his own views.” (p. 132) and then concludes with the following assessment of the radical preacher and his impact:

His addiction to millenarianism, his confidence in visions, his prophetic stridency, his hatred of art, and his mistrust of secular scholarship align him with aspects of the modern world most moderns reject: religious obscurantism, extreme fanaticism, irrational fundamentalism. In some ways, the conflicts he brought to a head—the confrontation of worldly and godly moralities, the uncomprehending debate between rational and subrational or suprarational mind-sets, the struggle for power in the state between the partisans of secularism and spirituality or of science and scripture—are timeless, universal features of history. Yet they are also, in their current intensity and ferocity, among the latest novelties of contemporary politics. The culture wars of our own time did not begin with Savonarola, but he embodied some of their most fearsome features….

Savonarola…brought unique force to the expression of some long-standing priorities of the reforming prophets of the late medieval Church: revulsion from the Church’s involvement in the world and the corrupting effects of wealth and secular power; denunciation of the overweening power of the popes over clergy and the clergy over laypeople; horror at the way pharisees seemed to have taken over the Church, binding and laming the search for salvation with obedience to formulaic rules and meaningless rituals. He was convinced that Scripture contained the whole of God’s message, universally accessible, and that readers of Scripture needed no other knowledge except of prayer and mortification. His condemnation of Roman excess—though perhaps not quite as colorfully insulting as Luther’s, with its rich language of the lavatory and the whorehouse—anticipated in tone and content the invective of the founder of Protestantism….

Savonarola prefigured Luther, too, in his insistence on the doctrine of salvation by the free grace of God which…became the slogan of the Reformation. (pp. 144-45)

Other posts in this series:


From → Books, History

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