Autodidact: self-taught

Jan
11
2015

Ugly Renaissance

by V. L. Craven

Ugly Renaissance The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty by Alexander Lee
-001- Florence constitutes the historical and spiritual ‘home’ of the Renaissance as a whole. Both contemporaries and modern historians have generally agreed that it was in Florence that the ‘Renaissance’–however we might wish to define it–began and grew to maturity.
-002- The chronological bounds I have chosen to use for this book–that is, the years between ca. 1300 and ca. 1550–is not intended to be either authoritative or definitive, but instead reflects the general sense of scholarly consensus…
-003- However tempting it may be to succumb to the temptation of viewing it as a period of cultural rebirth and artistic beauty during which men and women were impossibly civilized and sophisticated, the achievements of the Renaissance coexisted with the dark, dirty, and even diabolical realities. Corrupt bankers, greedy politicians, sex-crazed priests, religious conflicts, rampant disease, and lives of extravagance and excess were everywhere to be seen, and the most ghastly atrocities were perpetrated under the gaze of the statues and buildings that tourists today admire with such openmouthed adoration.
-004- At the level of historical accuracy, this tendency is unfortunate merely because it introduces a somewhat artificial separation between high culture and social realities. But at a much more human level, it is also unfortunate because it robs the period of its excitement, its vividness, and its true sense of wonder. For it is only by appreciating the seamier, grittier side of the Renaissance that the extent of its cultural achievements really becomes clear.
-005- Two hundred years earlier, it would have been unthinkable for any artist to have been honored in such a way. In the eyes of more contemporaries, a late-thirteenth- or early-fourteenth-century artist was not a creator but a craftsman. The practitioner of a merely mechanical art, he was largely restricted to the confines of a provincial bottega (workshop) that was subject to the often draconian regulations of guilds.
-006- From the mid-fourteenth century onward, however, the social world of art and the artist had gradually undergone a series of radical changes. In step with the growing popularity of classical themes and the naturalistic style, artists were progressively recognized as autonomous creative agents endowed with learning and skill that set them apart from mere mechanics.
-007- How could the same personality create such innovative, elevated art and indulge in such base habits? [re: Michelangelo]
-008- For some, the defining characteristic of Renaissance art from Giotto to Michelangelo lies in a pronounced sense of individualism. While the Middle Ages could be thought of as a period in which human consciousness ‘lay dreaming or half-awake beneath a common veil’ of ‘faith, illusion, and childish prepossession,’ the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt argued that the Renaissance was a time in which, for the first time, ‘man because a spiritual  individual, ‘ capable of defining himself in terms of his own unique excellence, free from the constraints of the corporation or community.
-009- Yet by far the most important and influential school of thought views the ‘Renaissance’ as a far more literal and even straightforward form of ‘rebirth’ and presents all other developments–individualism, naturalism, exuberance–as the prelude to or corollary of the comprehensive rediscovery of classical themes, models, and motifs that appears to be evidenced by the artful trickery of the the young Michelangelo’s lost  Head of a Faun.
-010- As a number of eminent scholars have observed, one of the merits of this interpretation of the Renaissance is that it is precisely how the leading intellectuals of the Renaissance saw their own times. The self-conscious writings of ‘the artistically-minded humanists and the humanistically-minded artists of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’ appear to betray a clear and unambiguous sense of living ina new period defined by the revival of the culture of classical antiquity.
-011- Giogio Vasari coined the word rinascita (rebirth, Renaissance)
-012- …the Renaissance can only really be understood when it is viewed as a whole–vicious brawls and all [this is a reference to a fight where Michelangelo had his nose broken]
-013- From a population of around thirty thousand in ca. 1350, Florence had grown to become one of Europe’s largest cities. As early as 1338, as the chronicler Giovanni Villani recorded, its inhabitants consumed more than seventy thousand quarts of wine each day, and around a hundred thousand sheep, goats, and pigs had to be slaughtered each year to keep pace with the city’s appetite. By the mid-sixteenth century, it boasted no fewer than fifty-nine thousand inhabitants and was rivaled in size only by Paris, Milan, Venice and Naples.
-014- …brothels were of much the same order as inns. Were it not for the rampant sex and even more rampant disease, it would, in fact, be comparatively hard to tell them apart from taverns.
-015- Despite the vogue for classical ideas in urban design, the homes of the poor were erected either in the absence of regulations or in defiance of occasional attempts at civic improvement and were consequently built in a ramshackle manner according to the limited resources available. Particularly in Oltr’Arno, these houses were narrow–with a frontage generally no more than fifteen feet–but deep and often very tall, regularly comprising up to four stories, and would typically be inhabited by a number of families renting a few cramped rooms for a few florins per year. Covered with a simple form of plaster, walls were commonly crisscrossed with threatening cracks and, lacking paint or decoration, presented a dull and forbidding appearance.
-016- Florentine merchant banking had originally emerged out of the massive explosion in trade that had occurred at the dawn of the fourteenth century as a means of facilitating commercial transactions across large distances.
-017- The overwhelming majority of the city’s inhabitants were colossally poor. In 1427, roughly 25 percent of the city’s total wealth was owned by 1 percent of households. Even more surprisingly, little more than 5 percent of the city’s capital was owned by the poorest 60 percent of the population. Most people listed in the commune’s tax records actually owned nothing at all.
-018- This nine-part moral allegory tells the story of Antonio Rinaldelschi, who was hanged in Florence on July 22,1501. By nature a pious man, Rinaldeschi is depicted as heving met his ruin at the Inn of the Fig.
-019- The Arte della Lana was just one of Florence’s twenty-one guilds. At its most basic, the guild was a highly exclusive self-preservation society for tradesmen. Within a particular trade, the guild regulated standards of workmanship, proficiency, and training and representing the interests of its members to the commune. But it was also much more than this.
-020- Florence’s twenty-one guilds covered virtually every aspect of skilled or specialized trade. There were guilds for butchers (Beccai), bakers (Fornai), woodworkers and furniture makers (Legnaioli), lawyers and notaries (Giudici e Notai), stoneworkers, carpenters, and brick makers (Maestri di Pietra e Legname), traders in leather, skins, and fur (Vaiai e Pellicciai), and blacksmiths and toolmakers (Fabbri).
-021- Michelangelo was every bit in thrall to the Florentine guilds as if he had been an active member of one himself. His monumental statue was commissioned by the city;s most powerful  arte ; his other patrons were key patrons were key players in the major guilds; his skilled assistants had their lives confined by guild regulations; and his unskilled workers were kept close to pverty by the guild structure. As an artist–even a  free (non-guild) artist–Michelangelo was subject to the guilds and tacitly obliged to perpetuate the norms that they laid down for Florence’s economic life.
-022- As Gregorio Dati observed some seventy years before, the Signoria was normally entrusted simply with the execution of the laws but had ‘unlimited power and authority’ and could do whatever it thought fit in times of emergency.
-023- Legislation, on the other hand, was handled differently. In Soderini’s time, the passing of laws belonged to the Consiglio Maggiore. Consisting of a staggering three thousand members, the  consiglio comprised roughly 20 percent of the adult male population over twenty-nine and was responsible for all decisions regarding the levying of taxes, the imposition of forced loans, and the conduct of foreign relations.
-024- Manipulating networks of business and patronage, ultra-wealthy guildsmen worked behind the scenes to influence the selection of officeholders by using a mixture of bribery, nepotism, and threats.
-025- The city was rent by factional conflict and violence, a fact that is attested to most eloquently by Dante’s exile at the hands of his factional rivals, the Black Guelfs, in 1302.

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