The High Renaissance in Italy

With the recent publication of the first volume of my Idols of History series, which covers the Italian High Renaissance, I want to take a moment to reflect on why studying this period–and studying it in a certain way–matters.

It has become cliche to say, with George Santayana, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  This is the obvious justification for throwing every student into a Social Studies classroom and handing him a 1000-plus page book which purports to explain what happened before he was born.  Such a process, we assume, will prevent him from holding adverse opinions–whatever that might mean–and will give him a proper set of values.  In essence, George Santayana’s quote is used as justification for a literal manifestation of insanity; for who in their right mind thinks a kid between the ages of 12 and 18 will want to sit down with a colorless and very long book and spend a single minute of their time reading it?  What kind of educator seriously believes that this is an adequate way to ensure that a kid can remember the past?

The truth is that in order to really learn from the past we need to look at what kind of people populated it–and that means looking at very specific people and very specific things that they did.  The importance of history as a guide to political, social, cultural, ethical, scientific, and technological challenges can only be served by looking in significant depth at the major political actors, the major theorists–political, scientific, and philosophical–and, in most ages, the major leaders of religious communities.  And this guide can only be accessed sufficiently by looking at history thematically; we must make certain abstractions about how and why these thoughts and people worked together.

The Renaissance, as it is taught in schools, is an artistic movement and nothing more than that; and it is a period so broad and so undefined that few students really understand what the Renaissance actually was.  As it is currently taught, it includes Dante and Petrarch, da Vinci and Michelangelo, Erasmus and Thomas More, Shakespeare and Milton.  These figures lived in a wide variety of places and over a hundred years apart.  How similar are any of us, living in 2016 in the United States, to someone who lived in 1900 in France?  How can we say that our best writer (which is probably me even though I am as yet unrecognized) is in any way influenced by the same things or reflective of the same values as the best French painter in 1900?  We can’t.  And that’s only when you consider Shakespeare and Michelangelo; consider Shakespeare and Dante, and you have a gap of 300 years, with a breach in religion added.  This is foolish.  Ideas and methods change over time.  To say that the Renaissance is a rebirth of classical antiquity and then to claim that it happened in Italy from the 13th to the 17th Centuries, in France in the 16th and 17th Centuries, in the Netherlands in the 16th Century, and in England in the 16th and 17th Centuries is to say something altogether meaningless.  If classical antiquity was reborn then it was reborn at a specific time and in a specific place, not in many places at many times.

So the first thing that needs to be done to start teaching kids about the Renaissance is to focus in on a specific portion of it.  I have chosen the High Renaissance, and I have sought to show that it was a localized movement, centered in northern Italy, especially Florence and Milan, and then extending to Rome and in a diluted form to France later; Shakespeare is not part of any Renaissance, and in my opinion there is no such thing as an English Renaissance.  It does not exist.  The legacy of antiquity had already been reborn by then; Shakespeare built on the rebirth, but was not a part of it.

But here there is another problem–some rebirth of Greco-Roman ideas took place starting in Italy as early as 1270, but the ideas were still being brought into Italy and reshaped and reformed as late as the 1520s; and I do not even see any way to put Dante and Michelangelo into the same group.  There are, therefore, two or more stages of the Renaissance.  It seems, upon looking at it, that the Renaissance sped up starting around the year 1453.  If before then there had been a handful of writers who recreated poetry and philosophy and theology, after the sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks there was a rapid explosion of such figures, as well as a revitalization of masters of visual artistic representation, such as painters, sculptors, and architects.

I therefore chose 1453 as the starting point for the High Renaissance; but what is it that changed as a result of the Ottoman conquest?  And if we describe the Renaissance as a rebirth of Greco-Roman ideas, then what ideas are we talking about? The answer is that Platonic ideas floated through the hands of Byzantine refugees into Florence, and clashed head-on with a different set of ideas that was also emerging at the same time, having been re-introduced into Italy in 1417, festered for a generation, and spread rapidly in the 1450s after the invention of the printing press.

The political world was dominated by these two sets of ideas.  On the one hand Plato’s theories emphasized the ability to create a perfect world if only the leader of the State would be a philosopher, too.  On the other the Epicurean philosophy expressed by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things emphasized the material world, without God and religion, dominated by mankind as brute animals in a desperate struggle for survival.  When Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered this book in a German monastery in 1417, and brought it back to Italy, he unleashed modernity in a single stroke.

To try to teach the Italian Renaissance–and specifically the Italian High Renaissance–without exploring these two sets of ideas, which are diametrically opposed to one another, is to teach nothing at all.  The Florentine society in which the arts thrived was ruled by the Medici; the Medici also sponsored a Platonic Academy; the greatest of the Medici, Lorenzo, was an aspiring philosopher whose family had gained control of the state by commercial finance.  On the other hand the Milanese society, right next door, was ruled by the Sforza family, who had gained control of the state through military enterprise–they were mercenary generals.  Milan is dominated by Lucretius; Florence by Plato.  Only if we look at these two sets of ideas can we see how politics, commerce, art, and philosophy work together as parts of one whole era; if we do not look at these two sets of ideas we see only isolated fragments.

Every move made by the Medici and the Sforza goes back to these two frameworks.  When the Medici favor peace at all costs, and buy it from the Popes, the Milanese, and the French, they do so because in Plato’s world this is justifiable.  When Ludovico ‘il Moro’ Sforza invites in the French to attack Naples, because the Neapolitan King has tried to undermine his rule in Milan, he does so because in Lucretius’s dog-eat-dog world this is how you get your revenge.

Ditto for the artists.  When Michelangelo paints the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel and shows man uncorrupted, with that most benevolent God creating him in his own image, he does so because he is inspired a Platonic conception of the Bible.  On the other hand when Leonardo da Vinci paints Jesus eating his last meal, and shows Judas Iscariot as cynical and unashamedly dishonest, he does so because that is how someone inspired by Lucretius would see the story of the betrayal of Jesus.  If only we could also add that da Vinci, who was perfectly at home in Milan, left Florence at the first available opportunity, and then, when Rome came under Medici rule, left it at the first available opportunity; and if we could add that da Vinci and Michelangelo didn’t much like each other personally, as though they were ruled by two opposite sets of ideas: could the story be any clearer?

But there is more to the study of these eras–all of them–than such thematic construction.  There is an even more serious aspect to it: that of weighing different narratives about the same people, and trying to figure out what really happened, who is telling the truth, and why someone else might be lying.  Our students are given a 1,000-page textbook; but they never learn this.  They are presented with one story.  The historians, they are told, have deemed this story accurate and true.  What historians?  Certainly no responsible historian would ever do such a thing!

There are two facets to this aspect of history.  The first is deconstructive literature, where such can be found.  In the High Renaissance such documents are few and far between; but I did manage to find Lorenzo Valla’s deconstruction of the Donation of Constantine, an infamous forgery which he exposes by a combination of linguistic, archaeological, and documentary deconstruction.

The second facet is competing narratives about specific individuals.  In the High Renaissance there are several ambiguous figures: Alexander Borgia; Savonarola; Caterina Sforza; Machiavelli; even da Vinci.  One historian describes Borgia as a murderer, while another claims that bishops died from malaria.  Who can tell?  Savonarola is either the earliest advocate of political freedom, or a precursor to 20th Century totalitarianism.  Who knows?  In order to make any reasonable estimate we must examine the evidence.  We cannot simply tell our kids that this Savonarola did something many years ago and it didn’t quite work out and he got killed.  That does them absolutely no good.

There is, finally, one last feature of a serious study of history–one which needs to go into the books.  That is a discussion of issues that remain unresolved, but were discussed in detail in an earlier era.  One of these issues that constantly recurs is the proper kind, role, and functions of government; but in this era, the Italian High Renaissance, the one that stood out to me was the discussion of the role of women in society.  If anyone doubts how relevant this is, all they need to do is look at Donald Trump’s comments on the subject.  Yet here we have a guide as to how other eras have perceived the same issue; and we might derive something from a study of that.

I believe that our kids deserve better than what they are getting; and I believe that it is my duty to give them that.  I have published these works to be used in classrooms, to be taught by teachers who care about something other than themselves–I realize this is asking a little much–and to be part of the common discourse.  Every high school student should be reading these books, and not handed a textbook they will never touch.  It is an investment our schools must make.  Excuses for not doing so should be considered as just that.

The only way to solve the issues we currently confront as a society is to teach men how to confront them, from the time when they are first realizing an adult understanding.  Let’s do this.