Saturday, July 25, 2015

Travelogue: Renaissance humanism

The Laurentian Library, attached to the cloister of San Lorenzo, was designed in part by Michelangelo for the last of the Medici popes, Clement VII.  Though not mobbed by tourists, it is nevertheless a popular Florentine destination and a timely reminder of the literary side of the Renaissance.  I had seen photographs in the past, and had often wondered, "Where are the bookshelves?"  The answer can be seen above:  the books lay on the shelf below the tilted reading desk, with their titles listed on the yellow strips running vertically up the ends of the desks.

At the time of our visit there was an exhibition in an adjoining room of antique books and manuscripts, from a first century papyrus page of Xenophon's Hellenica to more recent hand-lettered-and-illuminated manuscripts.  It was a reminder of the labor involved in making books prior to the printing press and their value.

It goes without saying that the Renaissance was a complex phenomenon.  "Renaissance" is our word, not theirs.  They no more thought of themselves as "Renaissance Men" than crusaders thought of themselves as "medieval."  I think it was Vasari who first talked about a "rebirth" of painting in his series of lives of the artists.  Michelet and Burckhardt probably cemented in place the notion of a "renaissance" in early modern Italy, but that, in turn, led others to point out the regularity with which different epochs re-discover the past.  Arguably the twelfth century, with its rediscovery of Aristotle and Roman law, was as much a re-birth of classical antiquity as developments in fifteenth century Florence.

"Humanism," too, is a term of maddening fluidity.  Nowadays it is almost a synonym for secularity.  Yet the Renaissance "turn to man" was decidedly a mixed bag when it came to religion.  More and Erasmus, two great northern humanists, were deeply religious.  Machiavelli's Principe, on the other hand, counsels irreligion coupled with the appearance of devotion, and the cortegiano of Castiglione, if not impious, is most at home, not in the cloister, or the university, but at court.

I mention the sixteenth century humanists deliberately because I have hitherto had only limited exposure to the pioneering humanists of the fifteenth century, the quatrocento.  Since my return I have acquired a couple of new books to remedy that omission.

One is a new publication from the I Tatti Renaissance Library, Giovanni Pontano's On Married Love and Eridanus.  Like the other humanists of the fourteenth century, Pontano was more interested in reviving a purified classical Latin than developing the vernacular.  Born in the Duchy of Spoleto, Pontano's reputation for learning led to his early patronage by the King of Naples, and he eventually rose to become second man in the kingdom.  On Married Love unusually celebrates the love between husband and wife, erotic and affectionate expressions leading, rather naturally, to the addition of paternal and familial love.  If nothing else it questions the common contemporary conviction that before the nineteenth century marriage was only a matter of convenience and property.

I also came across a text, translation and commentary on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man from Cambridge University Press (I Tatti has been promising a Pico volume for quite some time, but it's nowhere in sight).  Here is the passage most commonly quoted, the passage often taken as the epitome of Renaissance thought, spoken by God to the newly-created Adam:

«Nec certam sedem, nec propriam faciem, nec munus ullum peculiare tibi dedimus, o Adam, ut quam sedem, quam faciem, quae munera tute optaveris, ea, pro voto, pro tua sententia, habeas et possideas. Definita caeteris natura intra praescriptas a nobis leges cohercetur.  Tu, nullis angustiis cohercitus, pro tuo arbitrio, in cuius manu te posui, tibi illam prefinies.  Medium te mundi posui, ut circumspiceres inde commodius quidquid est in mundo.  Nec te celestem neque terrenum, neque mortalem neque immortalem fecimus, ut tui ipsius quasi arbitrarius honorariusque plastes in quam malueris tute formam effingas.  Poteris in inferiora quae sunt bruta degenerare; poteris in superiora quae sunt divina ex tui animi sententia regenerari».

There is no doubting the great hierarchical chain of being in creation.  But man alone is given no fixed place on it.  Set in the center of the world he may choose to ascend or descend, sink to brutality or rise to divinity.  It is a vision of God-given dignity, an assertion of divine freedom which can bring with heavenly or hellish consequences.

Pico is best known from his Oration.  He was widely admired; one of Thomas More's first productions was a translation of a Life of Pico.  His Oration was composed as the introduction to a great debate he planned in Rome on some nine hundred theses.  But he ran into some trouble.  On the way down to Rome he apparently abducted the wife of a distant Medici relative, and this plainly took some trouble to sort out.  Then Innocent VIII got to reviewing the theses and found some of them wanting in orthodoxy.  He cancelled the debate, and Pico thought it prudent to retreat to a sympathetic court in France.  He did eventually return to Italy, to Florence, but died rather young and, surprisingly, a partisan of Savonarola.

The nine hundred theses are not included in the Cambridge edition of the Oration.  I think that they will be published in the I Tatti edition.  From what I know of them, second hand, they cover an extraordinarily wide range of philosophical and religious propositions with the aim of synthesizing them.  In this Pico can be compared to his great contemporary Marsilio Ficino, whose great work, in addition to reviving the work of Plato, was to reconcile Platonism with Christianity.  Pico seems to have wanted to go further, to synthesize not only the noble pagans (whom even Dante gave a peaceful repose), but the Egyptians, the Persians, the Arabs, and anyone and everyone whose take on God and the universe had made it to fifteenth century Europe.

And that brings us back to libraries.  The very idea of a library almost demands synthesis.  The books, the philosophies, the reflections of diverse peoples in diverse civilizations from all times since the dawn of civilization suggest the possibility of a reconciling concept, a found or imposed unity among the collection.  Pico thought it there for the finding, given enough civilized discussion.  We are still looking for it, wondering if it is there, still eluding our grasp, or an illusion of the bookshelf.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Travelogue: Unreliable memories

This was not my first visit to Italy.  In fact I spent a few weeks there when I was twenty, doing the backpack-and-youth-hostel tour on about ten dollars per day. It was a very different trip, and, since this was my wife's first trip to Italy, I made quite a nuisance of myself comparing the way things were forty years ago with the way we found them this spring.

But on occasion I had to wonder.

The day we visited the Pantheon had been a long one.  We took the Metro to the Colosseum, strolled through the ruins of the Forum, hiked up and over the Victor Emmanuel  Monument, past the Gesu (and an art supply store, G. Poggi, my wife wanted to visit) before finally arriving at the Pantheon.  I was recounting, as we drew closer, how I had actually stumbled by accident on the Pantheon, those forty years back, while looking for something else, how it was late afternoon, the piazza in front deserted, and, one memory which particularly stuck in my mind, a homeless man (though no one used the term then) asleep, alone, on the steps of the Pantheon.  The point was to paint a picture much at odds with the bustle and crowds we were making our way through.

But, curiously, when we arrived, I saw at once that the Pantheon has no steps.  Its interior flooring is practically on the same level as that of the piazza in front.

I have no earthly idea what I was remembering, when I remembered that man asleep on the its steps.  But, I assure you, I still remember him.  I can call up the memory even now.

So you may well be justified in thinking, with A.P. Herbert's fictional Lord Chief Justice Light, in the misleading case of Rex v. Haddock, that my memory was "like the thirteenth stroke of a crazy clock, which not only is itself discredited, but casts a shade of doubt over all previous assertions."  I will therefore plead guilty, with the mitigation of age, and the long passage of time, and the rationale behind all statutes of limitation.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Travelogue: Andante Florentine

Walking the streets of Florence it's hard to avoid the presence of Dante Alighieri.  His life straddled the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and his work is both a harbinger of the Italian Renaissance and a summation of the medieval spirit.  Strolling at random through the city that exiled him we find a Dante museum close by to where his house is thought to have stood.  Around a corner is his old parish church, a tiny, windowless sanctuary on a narrow street.  His stern visage is everywhere-- on the 2-euro piece (see above), in the painting by Domenico di Michelino prominently displayed in the Duomo, in a cenotaph at Santa Croce (though the bulk of his relics remain in Ravenna, whose citizens gave him his final refuge).  Even just buying a scarf I am proudly assured that the walls of the shop go back to Dante.

Because I was trying to travel light, I took along only one book for reading--that is, aside from the guide books and the phrase books--and that book was a compact edition of the Commedia.  The coin rests on the cover in the photo above.  I wanted to read it in Florence, in Dante's Tuscan, and I managed a canto or two; there was not, admittedly, much time or left-over energy for reading.

Dante was an exile, a displaced person.  He knew very well the distress in the "dark wood" which opens the Commedia:

   Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
   Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
   Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;

Everyone knows that the Divine Comedy is a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and that accounts for most everyone's interest in the poem--especially the journey through Hell.   But in a real sense the Comedy is less about an afterlife than this one.  The souls in the realm of the dead mainly tell stories, stories about their life on earth, their crimes, their weaknesses, their temptations, their triumphs.  In that light the great allegory is as much about this world as the next.  The three realms from this point of view constitute a sort of lens for viewing life here and now, reflecting the transitory sins and virtues of earthly man under the aspect of eternity.  There is a great symmetry in its architecture.  As Heraclitus says, the road up and the road down are the same road.

And I kept coming back to that idea of exile.  You may be familiar with Puccini's Gianni Schicci.  The opera's Florentine protagonist manages to snatch a friend's inheritance from his rapacious relatives, keeping them in check by first making them accessories to a scheme to alter the will, then reminding them that their being implicated will result in the worst possible sentence for a Florentine:  exile.  At key moments he reminds them of this with a little ditty:

Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino,
io ti saluto con questo moncherino,
e vo randagio come un Ghibellino!

Through the ages, exile, for a Florentine, has been a death-in-life, the deprivation of an attachment that we who relocate at the drop of a hat can hardly imagine.  It happened to Dante.  It happened to Petrarca's father at about the same time.  And perhaps it was that unjustly imposed  uprootedness that moved Dante to tell his stories in the tripartite scheme of retribution, penance and reward.

I have no idea whether Gianni Schicci got away with his imposture.  Dante, in Canto XXX of the Inferno, puts him in the eighth circle of hell.  But not to end on too somber a note, I'll give the last word to the operatic, rather than the infernal, Gianni, and his plea for mitigation:

Per questa bizzarria m'han cacciato all'inferno...
e così sia;
ma con licenza del gran padre Dante,
se stasera vì siete divertiti,
concedetemi voi...

Monday, July 6, 2015

Pericles' Funeral Oration, paragraph 4

'Καὶ μὴν καὶ τῶν πόνων πλείστας ἀναπαύλας τῇ γνώμῃ ἐπορισάμεθα, ἀγῶσι μέν γε καὶ θυσίαις διετησίοις νομίζοντες, ἰδίαις δὲ κατασκευαῖς εὐπρεπέσιν, ὧν καθ' ἡμέραν ἡ τέρψις τὸ λυπηρὸν ἐκπλήσσει. ἐπεσέρχεται δὲ διὰ μέγεθος τῆς πόλεως ἐκ πάσης γῆς τὰ πάντα, καὶ ξυμβαίνει ἡμῖν μηδὲν οἰκειοτέρᾳ τῇ ἀπολαύσει τὰ αὐτοῦ ἀγαθὰ γιγνόμενα καρποῦσθαι ἢ καὶ τὰ τῶν ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων.

"Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

In this short paragraph the delights of the city of Athens are set out.  "πόνων" is here rendered, "business" but the word also carries the connotation of distress, even suffering.  Athens, like any city, is a place of toil and stress, but it's not without compensations that are finer and greater than those found elsewhere. 

The pairing of "games and sacrifices," "ἀγῶσι μέν γε καὶ θυσίαις" reminds us that the religious activities of the ancient world provided entertainment for the citizens as well as propitiation of the gods.  Ancient drama (like modern drama) arose out of religious ceremonies.  It brings to mind the opening words of Plato's Republic, where Socrates registers his approval of the beauty and high pomp of a festival where he has been making his prayers.   And for Pericles these are matters for pride.

There is also the elegance of private life and the advantages of a dominance that brings abundant goods and luxuries.  I have heard it said that the Athenian of the classical age combined  a severely modest private life with a luxurious public one.  But Pericles, here, is as boastful about "private elegance," as public. And he has no compunction about Athens taking "the fruits of other countries."  Neither for Pericles, nor for any other Greek I can think of, does Democracy preclude empire, or exploitation.

The image that tops this posting comes from my recent trip.  It's a bust from the Vatican Museum--though I don't recall whether it's old enough for Pericles to have sat for it.  I know I should have checked, and it is indeed magnificent, but there are limits to human appreciation, and I must admit, my first impression was, "Oh, no, another giant room full of statues!"


Friday, July 3, 2015

A word from our sponsor

There's a new show at the Corrales Bosque Gallery.  This is one of my wife Jeanine's newer landscapes.  Please take a look if you find yourself between Albuquerque and Bernalillo this summer.

.Here in Santa Fe Jeanine is represented by the GiacobbeFritz Gallery, on Canyon Road, where her animal paintings are featured.