Ah, the Renaissance! Ah, Florence! Along with Classical Athens, one of the most romanticized times and places in history. Don’t expect to find a comprehensive history of the period here–there are any number of fine accounts available beginning with Jacob Burkhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and they make for fascinating reading (and viewing–the explosion in the visual arts is the feature still most associated with the Renaissance). We will be concentrating here on the events most relevant to the “rebirth” of the knowledge of the Ideal.
But first: what is this Renaissance thing anyway? It has over the years become a catchall term applied to a number of different artistic movements and activities that began in about the 14th century and continued through the 16th. It was to a large extent a reaction against the frozen and rigid religious and social systems of the Middle Ages, exemplified by the stony, expressionless statues of saints found in medieval cathedrals. In broad terms, it had to do with the rediscovery of ancient art forms and schools of thought, but it also carried with it an implicit empowerment of human beings, including the possibility of becoming godlike themselves.
But weren’t these frozen statues and social systems exemplars of Plato’s eternal and unchanging forms? Wouldn’t he have approved of the power of the church/state to limit the access of people to “bad” influences and encourage them to concentrate on the unseen world of “spirit?” Well, of course I can’t pretend to speak for Plato, but my own feeling is that I think not. The church at this time had become extremely self-serving, determined to increase its own power by using fear and intimidation as tools. One need only look at a typical painting of the Middle Ages showing the torments of the sinners down in Hell, contrasted with the positioning of the churchmen and saints to get the not-so-subtle message that devotion to the church was the only way to escape eternal suffering. So I think that Plato (as well as Plotinus), who believed that each human carried the spark of the divine, would have railed against this view that access to the godlike nature is open only to a few.
But back to the events at hand. Despite being 2000 years apart, there are a number of similarities between this age and Plato’s. As mentioned before, Italy was strewn throughout with reminders of “the glory that was Rome,” in the form of ruins, sculptures, roads, aqueducts, stadiums, as well as the Latin language itself, which was still used for scholarly (read church) and legal writing. As Italy at this time began to wake up to the significance of its past, it also began to realize that it was capable of recreating this glory.
Also as in ancient Greece, Italy was divided into a number of city-states, and most were ruled by an oligarchy of old and powerful families. The papacy also controlled its own lands, which comprised a large swath of central and northern Italy, as well as its own army. Florence was actually the most democratic, with some provision for representation by the various trade guilds–weavers, dyers, and others in the textile industry, which was the basis of the Florentine economy. And as with Greece, there was almost constant conflict among the city-states, with shifting political alliances, as well as within them, with Montague-and-Capulet-worthy street fights among different families. Power was sought wherever it could be found, from arranged marriages to producing sons who could become highly placed in the Church hierarchy.
The family that would dominate Florentine politics and cultural life in the Renaissance was the Medici. Relatively nouveau riche by Florentine standards, they made their money through a vast international banking enterprise, which also helped make Florence’s coinage, the florin, the de facto currency for all of Europe. The Pater Patriae was Cosimo de Medici whose influence touched everything that happened in Florence from 1434, when he returned from a year’s exile in Venice, until his death in 1464. Personally unassuming–he often walked the streets of Florence without a bodyguard–he nonetheless used his great wealth to support many civic and artistic projects that would assure his role in history. Not the least of these was his financing of the famous dome created by Brunelleschi on the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, which was to Florence what the Parthenon was to Athens.
Cosimo also had a natural affinity for philosophy, and used his agents in European capitals to help rediscover philosophical texts that had been lost since the fall of the Empire. One can only imagine the wonder and excitement that reading these manuscripts must have engendered. In addition to long-forgotten books retrieved from monasteries, Cosimo also obtained many from parts of the Eastern Empire which had been preserved by Islamic and Jewish scholars. Among these were works of Hermes Trismagistus, believed at this time to have been an ancient figure who gave his wisdom to both Eastern and Western traditions.
The real coup of Cosimo’s collecting began in the year 1439 when he agreed to sponsor the church’s council which was charged with seeking to reunite the Western and Eastern churches. This council had been meeting in Basel and then in Ferrara when Cosimo agreed to sponsor it (and also allow its participants to escape the plague which was afflicting Ferrara). Although it ultimately failed to repair the schism, it did reintroduce to the West a more complete corpus of the works of Plato than had been available. In attendance was a representative of the Greek Orthodox church named Georgius Gemistus, later also known by the nickname Pletho, who brought many Platonic dialogs in Greek, and who also gave lectures on “Idealism” to Cosimo and other Florentine intellectuals. Such was the effect of these lectures that they gave him the title of “the second Plato,” and established their own Accademmia Platonica. The task of translating the manuscripts from the Greek was given to the young Marsilio Ficino, about whom much more later.
It would be satisfying to say that once Plato was reintroduced to the West, his inspiration ushered in a new age of creativity and devotion to the Ideal. In fact, the artistic achievements which we associate with the Renaissance were well under way, but the Accademmia did give inspiration to a new generation of artists–among them Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli¹–as well as a new visual vocabulary which included Greek gods and myths. Raphael, although born in Urbino, spent a number of years in Florence, and his study of Plato and his philosophical lineage is evident in the painting “The School of Athens.”
Cosimo died in 1464, and his responsibilities passed to his son Piero, who had an advanced case of gout and did not live long. His premature death in 1469 passed the leadership of Florence to his son Lorenzo, to be known as The Magnificent, when Lorenzo was only twenty. He had lived a privileged and self-indulgent life, but when the call came he answered it with great dedication. Although he did not have Cosimo’s business sense (and the bank suffered during his tenure), his diplomatic skills saw the republic through a number of crises during his lifetime. The most extreme of these was the Pazzi conspiracy, orchestrated by the Florentine family of that name with the complicity of Pope Sixtus IV, which attempted to murder Lorenzo during high mass at the Cathedral, and did in fact kill his younger brother Giuliano. Sixtus was eager to conquer Florence to add to his own power, and when the assassination failed, he entered into war with Florence for a number of years.
The end of the 15th century saw a rise in religious fundamentalism embodied in the person of
Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar who condemned what he saw as the immorality of much of the art being produced, and the luxuriousness of the lifestyles of the rich Florentines. He was also a severe critic of the corruption in the church, castigating Medici and popes alike. He espoused an austere way of life and is famous (or infamous) for promoting the “bonfire of the vanities,” at which citizens would bring (or have brought for them) worldly possession such as books, paintings, clothing, furniture or anything else deemed to be immoral. Ostensibly the priest for the Medici family, it is said that he refused last rites to Lorenzo when he died in 1492.
Savonarola managed to use the presence of various natural calamities in Florence as evidence that its citizens were being punished by God for their worldliness. He counted among his followers the former humanists Pico della Mirandola and Sandro Botticelli, who burned a number of his own paintings on the bonfires. When the promised relief from plagues and famine did not materialize, the city turned against Savonarola. In 1498 he was excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, and after weeks of torture, he was burned to death in the Piazza della Signoria.
But Florence would not recover its prior glory. Savonarola had exiled the Medici and their prize artist Michelangelo, who would go to Rome and produce his most famous works. With Ficino’s death in 1499, there was no heir to the Accademmia. While the influence of the Ideal was not forgotten as completely as it was in the millennium before, it did recede into the background and into the universities as the religious conflicts of the Reformation broke out. In the next episode we will see how it burned brightly in the lives of two adopted Florentines, Pico della Mirandola and especially Marsilio Ficino.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Graphics are not copyrighted and are believed to be in the public domain. Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.
¹Of Sandro Botticelli, Maurice Rowdon says, “Like Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino he was looking for a certain enchanted stillness, the food of all religious experience, the common principle of all theologies.” Maurice Rowdon, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Henry Regnery, 1974