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When Italy’s Renaissance ended the Modern World began

Posted in Architecture, Art, Artist, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 29 September 2011

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This edited article about the Renaissance  originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Michelangelo, picture, image, illustration

Michelangelo – painter, sculptor, poet and genius

It was night, and as Niccolo Machiavelli accompanied Francesco Soderini into the tent he saw before him a noble figure sealed by a table. Machiavelli’s throat tightened. It was his first meeting with the monstrous Cesare Borgia. This monster proved to be as handsome as a Greek marble statue – but also just as cold and hard.

Their interview turned out to be far less dramatic than was their meeting. A little touch of theatrical lightning, plus Cesare’s appalling reputation, were normally quite enough to ensure that he got his way. This time Cesare led a Papal army and he was determined to terrorize Florence into “friendship” with Rome. It worked! That frightening meeting also convinced Machiavelli that this Borgia was the ideal tyrant – just what a wartorn, divided, invaded and pessimistic land like Italy needed. Later, Machiavelli wrote a book called The Prince that is still one of the greatest works on politics that has ever been written.

Italy at the end of the 15th century was in a mess. Spanish invaders were taking control of the south; French armies came and went in the north, while Swiss and German mercenaries ravaged the country in the pay of one or other petty prince. Only Venice seemed strong and independent, and for that reason found all others ganging up on her. In Rome it looked even worse, as the Borgia popes tried desperately to bring some order to their anarchic lands. Not surprisingly, the greatest building that Pope Alexander VI left on the banks of the river Tiber was a reconstructed Castel Sant’ Angelo fortress. New, deeper dungeons, carved from the rock beneath this grim castle made from a Roman Emperor’s tomb, were among Alexander’s improvements. Other building works were going ahead, of course, as a new Rome of domes and broad streets grew out of a medieval maze of towers and narrow, polluted alleyways.

This was an age of ghastly contrasts – contrasts summed up in the events of the end of the 15th century. In August, 1500, Cesare Borgia personally supervised the strangling of his brother-in-law, having first driven his sister, Lucrezia, from her wounded husband’s bedside. The victim’s previous wound was, in fact, a result of an earlier and less successful attempt by Cesare’s assassins. But in that same year the artist, Leonardo da Vinci, returned home to a hero’s welcome in his native Florence. With him he brought a huge drawing, the Madonna with St. John and St. Anne. More recently, this picture caused a lot of excitement in London’s National Gallery, but in 1500, in Florence, it caused even more. Leonardo’s drawing was so original and new that it amazed not only artists but also men and women from all over the city.

All this fuss annoyed another young Florentine artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti, who returned home just a few months later from Rome. He had also expected a hero’s welcome. Instead he was almost ignored.

Michelangelo had been little more than a boy when he had fled from Florence in 1494. Arriving in Rome he discovered that a cheating art dealer had sold one of his first statues to a cardinal as a genuine Ancient Roman antique! This cardinal was furious when he learned the truth, but he was also wise enough to ask Michelangelo to carve another, even finer, statue for him. This portrayed the drunken pagan god Bacchus, and it was the young sculptor’s first real masterpiece.

The cardinal who had been tricked had a cousin who was also a cardinal and an art patron. This turned out to be Michelangelo’s greatest stroke of luck, for eventually the second cardinal was elected as Pope Julius II.

Julius decided to outshine the hated Borgia clan in everything, especially in getting artists and architects to work for him. Pope Julius II was, of course, lucky in the men he chose – sculptors like Michelangelo, painters like Raphael, and architects such as Bramante who designed St. Peter’s in Rome. These were certainly the Giants of the Renaissance, but they were often also bitter rivals. Michelangelo, in fact, had a terrible reputation for feuding with his fellow artists. Not only was he irritated to find Florence full of praise for Leonardo da Vinci rather than for himself in 1500, but he also had a particular loathing for those two great men from the little town of Urbino – Bramante and Raphael.

In fact, Michelangelo was convinced that Bramante and his young friend were plotting to destroy his reputation. Raphael, however, was a gentle person and refused to fight back. Instead, he was quite happy to admit that Michelangelo’s world-famous frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel influenced his own great fresco, the School of Athens. Raphael even seems to have included a portrait of Michelangelo in that painting.

The Italian Renaissance at the start of the 16th century was just like Michelangelo’s sad and tortured mind. In art, Italy reached its highest point around the year 1500, but already doubts were creeping in. Michelangelo, for example, lacked confidence in almost everything – even the value of his own art.

Meanwhile, Machiavelli summed up the morality of the new age in his book The Prince. In the book he suggested that the ends really did justify the means. Not much of the fine old Florentine tradition of democracy there!

More and more of Italy’s most creative and ambitious men were now seeking their fortunes beyond the Alps to the north. This was sad for Italy, but very important for other countries. It meant that the civilisation that had been born in Florence was now finding a new home in the cities and palaces of Germany, Holland, France and England. The Italians thought that their Renaissance had been a rebirth of Ancient Civilisation, and perhaps in a way it was. On the other hand this Renaissance was certainly the birth of our Modern World, and its journey across the Alps into the rest of Europe was just the first step in its spread across the entire globe.

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