Revue “Les Florentins”: Where art and business met
Being Florentine gives an Italian a distinction unmatched by a residence in no other city. The distinction may not be deserved, but it is being felt, for better or for worse. Yet Florentines, and Tuscans in general, do not enjoy a reputation for sociability. Other Italians commonly accuse them of being too intellectual, brooding, withdrawn, even cunning. Years ago, a Neapolitan taxi driver cheerfully assured me that Florentines were “snakes.”
Journalist Curzio Malaparte, himself a Tuscan, wrote a book in the 1950s titled “These Damned Tuscan”. The idea was to play on the dissonance between the supposed slyness of these ultra-sophisticated people and their exceptional creativity. Of these two traits, there is much evidence in Paul Strathern’s “The Florentines”, a thought-provoking re-examination of the great Florentine Renaissance artists, scientists and business wizards. Mr Strathern is a renowned British cultural historian, and his claim, in layman’s terms, is that the Florentines of the 1300-1650 period, many of whom were from elsewhere in Tuscany, invented the state of mind we call modernity today.
By Paul Strathern
Pegasus, 371 pages, $ 28.95
This claim may seem too obvious to many of us to be interesting – the Italian Renaissance has long been seen as the melting pot of modern science and the genre of art based on realistic representation. But Mr. Strathern’s book is a diffusion book, a popular introduction to his subject. It may not be original research, but it does offer its author the opportunity to recast an entire field of study in a somewhat unexpected way, as if viewed from a changed perspective. And while there is nothing very new here about Florentine art or political history, Mr. Strathern has an engaging habit of dwelling on the close connection in the Florentine cultural sphere between the art and money, issues rarely so intimately juxtaposed. One of its chapter titles sets the tone: “Those Who Paid the Bills”.
The Florentines discussed by Mr. Strathern include Dante, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Petrarch, Botticelli, Uccello, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Leonardo and Galileo. Inevitably, some public figures, such as the banker Cosimo de Medici and the rowdy clergy Savonarola, are also represented. The book describes a pervasive mathematical or at least pro-mathematical perspective among Florentine Renaissance artists, and although it is impossible here to explain every example, the cases of Brunelleschi, Uccello and Leonardo, all dazzled by geometry, give nerve to the argument.
What underpinned this perspective, according to Strathern, was an approach to artistic creation that was quite different from previous approaches and surprisingly different from our own. This was of course seen as an expressive act, but not only, as there was an intrinsic belief that drawing was also a way of grasping and knowing – knowing how the recession in space, or the pressure of weight, where the shape of a shadow explained the structure and function of things. Understanding the articulation was at the heart of this evolving quest. What were the parts of a knee or an eye, a tree, a watermill? How did these parties play together? Some of these artists were also engineers.
In keeping with his insistence on the primacy of mathematics, Strathern introduces his account with a discussion of the arrival in West Latin of Arabic numerals and the concept of zero, believed to be of Indian origin. The growing interest in figures and their manipulation, aided by the invention, around 1300, of double-entry bookkeeping (later systematized by Luca Pacioli), led to the accumulation of capital by a small group of banks. family, especially those of Bardi, Peruzzi and Acciaiuoli. Without these banks, later replaced by the House of the Medici, the expansion of the arts and sciences would have been impossible in Florence.
Large projects like the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore required funding, as did countless small businesses. Without access to loans, it would be difficult to develop a business; and without some legal means of compelling a borrower to service his debt, no lender had a reliable means of collecting interest. But such institutional authority did not yet exist in the middle of the fourteenth century, partly because Christian doctrine prohibited the imposition of usury and partly because the Florentine Republic had no body capable of obliging the debt refund.
It was there that the struggle of primitive capitalism was to be born, inevitably accompanied by workarounds that could be described today as money laundering. One example was the collection of royalties owed to the papacy by Medici agents in Bruges, a busy commercial center in the Netherlands. These duties could be paid in goods, which were then sold on the open market, followed by a letter of credit to Rome. There was, presumably, a disparity between the amount disclosed to the Vatican and the amount actually raised by the sale.
It must be said that many key personalities and innovations are not covered by Mr. Strathern. Masaccio, a giant of Renaissance art, is absent, as is any serious treatment of Michelangelo’s astonishing contribution to architecture. We feel that the author’s choice of subjects has been largely guided by personal enthusiasm, and if this imposes something of a disadvantage on him, it also allows him moments of lively excitement. Mr. Strathern’s students — he taught at Kingston University, London — would no doubt be delighted to hear the kind of language he uses here about anything that really thrills him. It is not uncommon for his prose to shine with the spark of rekindled discovery.
Here he is, for example, talking about Uccello’s painting “The Night Hunting” (1470), which shows a group of hunters, with drummers and dogs, vanishing into the darkness of a forest. “These characters (both human and animal) are informed of a colorful life – prancing, running, jumping. In Gothic fashion, they achieve their dynamism through color and pageantry, rather than any classical realism. Yet at the same time they are unmistakably placed within the framework of a Renaissance perspective. . . . The hunt remains what it is, and at the same time a metaphorical quest lost in obscurity. The initial, natural, and human perspective suggests a goal, but it only points to darkness, night, and impenetrable trees. . . . The image is imbued with a mystery which soon begins to take on psychological resonance. Simply put, the obscurity and rigidity of the medieval is placed within a framework of Renaissance clarity. In the author’s opinion, the “mysterious, almost secret” quality of the painting reflects a mind trained in modern spatial concepts, essentially mathematical, but always pierced by the memory of medieval shadows and terrors.
While Mr. Strathern’s main theme is the growing freedom of family banking and the concomitant growth of fine and liberal arts, there is an obscure sub-theme lurking beneath his main narrative. It is the presence of mutual antagonisms or internal contradictions within the mentality of the Florentine Renaissance. He does not insist on these antinomies, but they are still there. One, as we have already noted, is the conflict between the religious prohibition of usury and its economic necessity. Another is the clash between the supposed moral authority of the papacy and the crude fact that so many people, foremost among them Dante, tended to revile this or that pope.
And there are still deeper cracks. In Song XX of “Hell”, Dante, speaking of sinners in hell, writes: “Here, pity only lives when it is dead like stone. It is not, as so many commentators have argued, a mere warning against forgiveness to those who do not repent of their crimes; this is a paradox, for the poet insists that forgiveness somehow lives only on the fact that it is inanimate – that the very ability of a person to have pity, to breathe forgiveness, can depend on allowing the pity to be dead under certain circumstances. A whole world of the Renaissance to come, a world of turmoil and confusion over justice, retribution, and mercy – over the abrasion between the ethics of the Gospels and the exercise of power – flourishes in that single sentence.
Mr. Strathern seems a little out of breath towards the end. He considers Leonardo’s mechanical inventions, drawn in his notebooks, as a kind of proto-Jules Verne fantasy. But actual machines, as made a few decades ago in Vinci, the artist’s hometown, by the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Florence, are often wonderfully prescient and seem to lack just one thing: a source of energy. And strangely, the author neglects to discuss Michelangelo’s self-exile from Florence, from 1534 to his death in 1564: the quintessential Florentine never set foot in the city again, in part to protest against the transformation of the republic into a sort of dictatorship of the Medici. . And about Machiavelli, who might appear to embody the supposed Tuscan traits of intellectual brilliance and willful duplicity, the author suggests that the great philosopher and historian was by no means as divided as many believed. But it is certain that this shrewd insight, suggesting that Machiavelli’s ethics was not as elastic or adjustable as it might appear, required further elucidation.
By 1527, the speculative approach of so many Tuscan artists, the idea that creating images was, among other things, a kind of cognitive research into the exact representation of the perceived world, had given way to imagery. troubled and uncomfortable about the intentionally expressive expression. painters like Pontormo or Rosso Fiorentino. Yet, over time, a deeper contradiction in Florentine intellectual life has become increasingly evident. He divided medieval Aristotelianism – which relied on the writings of the Greek philosopher and Scripture, as well as observation, to understand nature – from the resurgent Platonism of those who viewed nature as ruled by laws. global and immutable.
The final rupture occurs in 1616, when Cardinal Robert Bellarmine summons Galileo to Rome. Bellarmine, a brilliant and scholarly theologian, was fascinated by Galileo’s ideas, but he could not accept that Galileo’s heliocentrism, this curious notion that the Earth revolved around the sun, was conclusive. The assertion seemed to conflict with the scriptures. Couldn’t the mathematician continue to theorize, suggested Bellarmine, without insisting that his argument could be proven?
This inability to grasp the truth of a modern scientific theory, demonstrable by mathematics and logic although still eluding empirical verification, sounded the death knell for the Florentine Renaissance. Like Dante, like Machiavelli, Galileo will soon be banished from Florence. In any case, the city had long ceased to be a republic to become a “grand duchy”, a mini-tyranny, a satellite of princes enthroned elsewhere.
-Mr. Hofstadter is the author of “Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples” and other books.
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