Isaacson attributes much of Florence's success in this era, when it was politically and culturally far more prominent than its size and wealth would suggest, to its tolerance of characters like Leonardo and Michelangelo. And maybe that is partly true. Which makes me wonder, why was this society so tolerant of sexual and other deviants? Why did even the popes regularly employ gay, heretical, or otherwise compromised artists, writers, and philosophers?
However it happened, Italy in this period was dominated by a noble class that was radically insecure, and as a result they seized on every available means to enhance their status and position. This included striving for prominence in culture. What we call Renaissance humanism arose from a competition in Latin rhetoric, as any ambitious aristocrat hired a secretary who could write letters in a style approximating that of Cicero or Livy. The truly ambitious leaders -- the Medici, the d'Estes, the Sforzas -- built up whole courts of intellectuals who would do the secretarial work and also stage festivals, design buildings, write poetry dedicated to their patrons, debate philosophy, and generally set a high tone. Most relevant for our purposes, this ambition included the promotion of art. And not just the usual old sort of art, but something new and exciting, something that would make waves and spread the fame of both the artist and his patron. Full of their own self-importance, they proclaimed this intellectual movement the "rebirth" of ancient art and learning.
One of the noble clans that entered this competition, trying to enhance their questionable status through the promotion of new-style art and pagan-inspired philosophy, was the Popes. Even under the most dubious of Renaissance popes the papacy was more than just another Italian principality, but in many ways it did act as one. The popes of this era were almost all Italians and they took their ideas about how a grand man should act from the Renaissance milieu. They thought that to enhance the papacy's prestige, impress the kings and emperors with whom they negotiated, regain control of the land around Rome that they thought should belong to them, and promote Christianity around the world, they should act like the Medici and Sforzas: dress sumptuously, stage elaborate festivals, create courts full of humanist intellectuals, and hire the most brilliant artists to create paintings, sculptures and buildings in the glorious new style.
In 1494, well before Luther nailed his theses to the church door, Florence itself was convulsed by a revolt against the Medici and the rest of the city's intellectual and cultural elite. The revolt was led by a friar named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola preached against luxury, corruption, and immorality, and he got the citizens of Florence to stage "bonfires of the vanities" in which they burned lavish clothes and other symbols of frivolous wealth. He also denounced the exploitation of the poor by the rich and called for a Republic of virtue rather than a state dominated by rich nobles and their hangers on. Savonarola's reign was brief and in 1498 he fell from power and was burned at the stake, but in his aftermath the politics of Florence changed. Before him Florence had been a Republic ruled by councils, which the Medici and allied families had dominated behind the scenes. After Savonarola's fall the Medici had themselves made Dukes, and for the next century Florence's politics saw a struggle of the Dukes and their worldly court against the Piagnoni, the people who wanted a return to the Republic in its highly religious, highly virtuous form. The artists were all on the side of the Dukes.
Famous painting by Leonard of the Duke of Milan's Mistress
The world within which gay artists and other outlandish Renaissance characters flourished was aristocratic and corrupt, with little concern for morality. (Well, except for that of young women from good families, who were subject to the usual Mediterranean restrictions.) This society worshiped money, power, and glory, however gotten. It was notably tolerant of new ideas, provided they could be dressed up in Roman clothes, and loved experiment in art, architecture, science, and other realms. It impossible to imagine that an oddball fop like Leonardo could have amounted to anything in a more moralistic society, or that he could have risen from a notary's illegitimate son to intimate companion of dukes and kings in one more devoted to tradition.
The temptation to transpose these ideas to our own time is irresistible, at least for me. We, too, have a cultural elite that is devoted to freedom and creativity, worships success, and has little regard for traditional morality. We, too, have a populace that sometimes calls for a more fair and more moral society. In our world the rich signal their arrival by allying with that cultural elite, spending their vast fortunes on paintings by Basquiat or photographs by Andy Warhol. The question of where political virtue lies is a hard one. Does it lie with the elite that extracts an unfair share of the wealth but tolerates gay artists and other nonconformists and promotes exciting new art and science? Or with the exploited masses, who long for justice but would send the gay artists to jail if they could?
It is simply never true that all the things you like are allied together against the things you hate, not matter what the basis of your politics. The world is simply not like that, and never has been.