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15 October 2017

Book Review: The Medici

The Medici: Godfathers of the RenaissanceThe Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We are living overseas in a place where books in English are not easy to find.

We bought book this at a train station in Florence after we had been traveling in Tuscany and Rome. We also bought The Agony and the Ecstasy. We looked at SPQR and passed it up this time; it was too thick and heavy to fit in our luggage.

I have always been intrigued by the Medici family. My degrees in music have encouraged more than a passing interest in these patrons of the arts.

However, this book didn't do very much to enlighten me further. It DID re-emphasize why the family is important, but I found the whole thing an oxymoronic combination of tedious and vague.

The family tree at the beginning was useful; putting all the Cosimos and Lorenzos and Pietros into some semblance of era.

There were a couple of anecdotes I hadn't heard before. Like when Brunelleschi was being hounded to reveal how he was going to build the dome, he refused to reveal his plan. Instead, I took out an egg and asked the committee how they could make it stand up on its end. When no one could come up with an answer, he slammed the egg on the table so that the end was crushed flat, making it able to stand. The committee rolled their eyes and said that anyone could have done that. Brunelleschi replied, "Yes, but you would say the same if I told you how I intended to build the dome."

I also had never made the connection between the Medici fortune and the alum trade; before alum was discovered in Italy, Europe was beholden to the Muslim Ottoman empire for alum (which was used for dying clothes beautiful colors). Europe hated being beholden to the Ottomans. When alum was discovered in Italy, the pope made it illegal to buy alum from the Turks, thus giving whoever had rights to the Italian alum a monopoly. Who had the rights? The Medici.

Strathern's perhaps over-simplified explanation of the conflict between Da Vinci and Michelangelo may not be accurate, but made the concept of how much having the "Renaissance" mindset made one an outlier; "Leonardo simply detested Michelangelo, and made no secret of it. He saw himself as a cool-headed scientist with no need for God; Michelangelo, on the other hand, was obsessed with God. Leonardo wished to record the precise and subtle nature of what he saw and understood, while Michelangelo sought to record humanity's spiritual struggle. To Leonardo, Michelangelo had a medieval mind; others have seen his work as the epitome of the Renaissance spirit--the embodiment of the humanist ideal struggling and suffering in its attempt to realise itself."

The Machiavellian concept of virtu and fortuna means not virtue and fortune but power and destiny. Kind of like that concept I've seen best described in Eat, Pray, Love; "We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses--one foot is on the horse called "fate," the other on the horse called "free will." And the question you have to ask every day is--which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it's not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?"

About 3/4ths of the way through the book, it became useful to me. It solidified certain concepts of history that had only been rattling around before. Like the fact that Leo X was a Medici pope and he was trying to finance the building of St. Peter's so he increased the selling of indulgences, which finally pushed Martin Luther over the edge and led Europe into the Reformation and, eventually, the Counter Reformation.

Luther wasn't against the church. He was against the power of the papacy. More specifically, the power of the current Medici pope, Leo, who may not have even believed in God, his position in the church being more of a political move for his family. Luther was also protected from the wrath of the powerful church by the politics of the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of Europe. And, behold, there are now a myriad of Protestant denominations. Because Leo X was an agnostic Medic and Luther, who found powerful friends, got mad.

Of course, the papacy didn't work if it wasn't political. After Leo X died, his cousin Guilio, also a Medici, tried to ascend to the power. In the attempt, he put forth a name, Adrian Dedel, a deeply spiritual man. His assumption was that no one would want that and Guilio would be elected without competition. It backfired. Pope Adrian VI was in power for two years. He lived on a florin a day, ate only thin gruel, and ordered all the cardinals and archbishops to leave Rome and go serve the dioceses they represented directly (many of them had never laid eyes on their dioceses before). Arts patronage dried up. Rome sunk into a fiscal depression. Then Adrian died unexpectedly (likely poison) and the world welcomed a Medici pope, Guilio, who became Clement VII, with open arms.

Though this book was tedious, I had a little a-ha moment whilst reading it. It's amazing to me that, despite how well-read I am, and despite the fact that I've taught history for several years, there are some things I just have never really understood; words I hear bandied about that I don't fully comprehend. Concepts that are fuzzy. This is one that was made clear in a moment by Strathern's words; "Galileo's ideas on the close relationship between mathematics and physics led him to make a distinction between two different qualities of objects. First there were those physical qualities that could be measured, such as length, weight and so forth; these belonged to the objects themselves. Then there were qualities that could not be measured, such as the small of an object, its colour and its taste; these did not belong to the objects themselves, but were the impressions caused by the objects on the people who observed them. This crucial distinction would later be taken up by the English philosopher John Locke, and would form the basis of his philosophy of empiricism, the first genuinely scientific philosophy, which stated that all truth must be based on experience."

Also, a page later, this; "With hindsight, the conflict between the Church and science can be seen in context: it was both historically inevitable and in an intellectual sense utterly unnecessary. Its origins lay in the part Christianity had played in preserving Western civilization. During the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire, ancient knowledge had survived only in remote Christian communities. With the coming of more settled times in the medieval era, this knowledge had spread throughout the countries of western Europe, but had remained the preserve of the Church. This process had reached its apotheosis in the comparative intellectual stasis of the high medieval era, when the Church had still regarded all philosophy, all knowledge, all learning as its own: knowledge and the teachings of the Church were one. With the revival of intellectual enquiry prompted by the Renaissance, the Church found itself in a difficult position. Unwilling to relinquish its monopoly on knowledge, the Church decreed that any new knowledge must agree with its teachings, which meant paradoxically that the new discoveries of science were acceptable to the Church only when they were the same as what was already known."

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