Sunday, January 13, 2019

Gay Renaissance Artists, Worldly Churchmen, Corruption, Tolerance, Aristocracy, Populism, Art, and Life

I've just finished Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and I'll be posting a full review later. But the thing that stirs my mind most right now is the relationship between da Vinci's success and the society that produced him and so many other famous artists.

Two of the greatest artists of the era, da Vinci and Michelangelo, were gay. This isn't one of those guessing games people sometimes play about famous figures of the past, but is copiously well documented. It is well documented because in Florence around 1500 people within the charmed circle where art intersected with money and power wrote quite openly about it. The two artists were, incidentally, gay in quite different ways. Leonardo was heterodox in his religious beliefs (see his famous painting of Saint John the Baptist above, which fuses spirituality with androgynous sexuality) and a cheerful person besides, and he seems to have been quite happy with his identity.

Michelangelo was a devout and much more conventional Catholic who suffered from inner torment throughout his life, which some people think he channeled into his astonishing portrayals of the male form. He was famously ascetic and may have died a virgin, but he poured out his feelings in thousands of lines of passionate verse, all about men. He was also a famous grouch who hated almost everything, including everything by Leonardo.

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?

I have the impression that Renaissance Italy was as devoted to worldly success as any society that has ever existed. There is an old historical idea, going back to the nineteenth century, that this came about because once the German emperors effectively withdrew from the peninsula in the 14th century all authority was illegitimate. Some of the noble families had only recently risen from the merchant class, and even those who could trace their pedigrees back to Charlemagne could not rely on that but had to prove themselves in a chaotic world of constant competition. I suspect there is something to this. No city except maybe Venice was strong enough for its independence to be assured, and the others were always trying to conquer each other. The map above shows the situation in 1494, but a map from twenty years earlier or later would show a quite different arrangement of polities.

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.

To a remarkable degree in Christian Europe, this Renaissance was inspired by paganism. For ideas and forms of art that would distinguish them from the national kingdoms of France, Spain, and so on, and from the recent past, the Humanists reached back to the classical world. Not that there was anything new about turning to the Romans for inspiration, which was a constant theme across the Middle Ages, but these Italians pushed it farther. They created artistic masterpieces based on pagan stories in a style they copied from surviving Roman forms, and even painted some of these in their churches.

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.

To fund their lavish lifestyles, and this burst of architectural and artistic creativity, they used the revenues of the church. Their peers within the Italian aristocracy and intellectual elite saw nothing wrong with this; that's what they were doing with any money they could lay their hands on by means fair or foul. But other people did object, most notably Martin Luther. They saw the Pope's spending on art and culture as simple corruption, and their rebellion against the Renaissance church often had the tone that we would call populism. They dismissed intellectual theology and said that anyone could read the Bible and understand its obvious truths; they decried spending on art; they called for a much sterner morality.

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?

Obviously every society is a lot more complex than that, and many other factors were at work both then and now. But this contrast between a corrupt, creative aristocracy and a populist revolt calling for fairness and morality keeps reappearing in history. It was one of the dominant themes in the era of the American and French Revolutions. It confounds the contemporary art world, where many people long to be on the side both of the nonconforming artists and the masses, not noticing that it is the elite who sustain original artists the people would scorn.

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.


pootrsox said...

A tiny caveat to your lucid and interesting discussion:

The term "Renaissance" for the period of rebirth of secular culture at the end of the Middle Ages did not come into general use (or, so far as I can find, even into existence, at least in English) until the 19th century.

Please, if you have a source for the Italians themselves calling it the Renaissance, share it with me :) I will let the folks now teaching the Humanities course I used to teach know, so they can update their materials.

G. Verloren said...


Certain details do come to my mind in reading and pondering this post.

The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 is one, sending Byzantine refugees fleeing to all corners of Europe, but notably to Italy, due not only to simple proximity, but also to the fact that both Venice and Genoa had substantial access to, and traffic with, the Black Sea region and Constantinople itself. If you were anyone of genuine skill or knowledge fleeing the Turkish conquest, odds are very good you ended up in Italy.

The Byzantines, of course, never called themselves "Byzantines" - they thought of themselves as Romans. And in their flight to the West, I can only imagine they brought that identity with them, along with a powerful desire and need to double down and reinforce it in the wake of the terrible blow they had been dealt.

They had lost so much of the foundation of their identity and their world. Their once glorious emperors and aristocracy had failed them utterly; their Orthodox faith had not brought them salvation against the infidel, and now only served to mark them as strangers and outsiders in a Catholic world; but their Romanitas - their "Roman-ness" - remained intact, and now they found themselves back in the Roman heartland of old, surrounded by the incredible ruins of that ancient Empire.

And it in this time period that Italy just so happens to become virtually obsessed with the lost splendor of ancient Greece and Rome? Surely that has to be more than just a coincidence, no? Especially given that there wasn't, for example, a sudden surge of interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, or Byzantine Imperial governance, or any other major aspect of Byzantine culture following the absorption of all those Byzantine refugees?

G. Verloren said...


There's also the economic situation to consider. Italy at this time (and during the centuries leading up to this point) was doing quite well for itself compared to much of Europe, in terms of both domestic production and foreign trade. The Venetians and the Genoese in particular were remarkably wealthy in large part because of their willingness to trade across cultural and religious barriers that others might hesitate to cross - most notably trading with the ascendant Muslim empires of the east.

And yet, where we might have seen a great surge in interest toward the "Oriental" cultures of the rich and powerful Mamluks and Ottomans due to all this trading, we instead see the aforementioned fascination with ancient Greek and Roman culture. And it's not that the West at this time was simply resistant to adopting Islamic cultural elements from their infidel rivals, who sometimes seemed to be an existential threat, carving a bloody path of conquest further and further into Europe. After all, this was a time when Arabic terms were flooding into Europe, but most especially into the Italian languages, and most often directly relating to concepts of trade and technology, with a particular focus on industry and production. Coincidence?

The general prosperity of Italy at the time also had other effects.

For one thing, it helped ensure that the intelligentsia fleeing from Byzantium settled down to stay for good, rather than simply passing through and moving on to other realms. If they had instead found Italy to be a poor and undesirable region to resettle in, they would have likely gone further afield to places like France, Iberia, or the Holy Roman Empire - all of which would have been far less receptive toward them and their culture, enforcing a far greater degree of assimilation and conformity.

For another thing, Italy's prosperity at this time also largely made it possible for the region to stand independent of other, larger European powers such as France and the Holy Roman Empire. Had Italy been poorer and less able to resist foreign influence, they might never have developed the streak of independence that would become a hallmark of Italian culture. (A streak which is perhaps most evident in the fragmentation of the region into so many small, competing city-states, which despite their constant infighting did not make for easy conquests by outsiders.)

Without that sense of independence, without that drive to consider themselves separate from larger foreign powers and cultures, would the Italians have so strongly embraced a sense of Romanitas and Renaissance? Or would they instead have embraced whichever external influence took greatest hold over them? If still subject to the Holy Roman Empire, or having fallen under the sway of the French or the Ottomans, surely they would not have been nearly as receptive to long lost pagan culture, and would instead have drifted more in line with the cultural values of whichever foreign empire held them under the greatest sway?

David said...

Two quibbles, one perhaps significant, one probably not.

Between Savonarola's fall in 1498 and the rise of the duchy in 1512 there was a significant period of republican rule in Florence. It was in service to this republic that Machiavelli got most of his political experience, including the interviews with French dignitaries that he cites in The Prince. It was after the republic's fall that Machiavelli was first imprisoned and tortured, then exiled. The bitterness that one might detect beneath the irony and machismo in his writings--especially his hostility to Fernando el Catolico--comes out of this experience (I get this idea from Sebastian de Grazia's wonderful Machiavelli in Hell).

I've seen an interpretation that characterizes Michelangelo's David as a heroic homage to the republic and its gonfaloniere, Soderini. But I've always studied this period in reference to politics, not art, so I have no idea if that's legitimate, or not.

The minor quibble is that Alexander VI was at least born in Spain; he was archbishop of Valencia and passed that on to his son Cesare, though whether either ever set foot in Valencia as archbishop I do not know. Did he and Cesare and Lucretia speak Catalan to each other, or Italian, or a witty mix of several languages? No idea. But I have a memory that at least some of his Italian enemies used to slag him as a Spaniard. Politically, of course, he was typically allied with the French against the Spanish.

John said...

I suppose I should have spent more time on the historical part of this, since it fails to satisfy my discerning critics. I was just racing through to get to the question of whether a corrupt, creative tolerant aristocratic society is better or worse than an intolerant, moralistic populism.

David said...


On the tolerant aristos vs. intolerant populists thing, I was thinking of the possibility of an intermediate position, signaled by Michelangelo's potential relationship with the Soderini republic--that's partly why I brought it up.

I think the Medici becoming dukes may have actually signaled a bit of a decline in Florence's premier cultural position. Leonardo ended up in France, Michelangelo in Rome, etc., etc. So there's even that further wrinkle. You would know more about this than I.

One could cite the further example of the Spanish Golden Age, which produced first rank art and literature in an environment that was neither tolerant nor populist.

G. Verloren said...


On the topic of a tolerant but corrupt aristocracy vs an intolerant moralistic populism, isn't it enough to note they're both fundamentally flawed?

It's hard to answer which one is better, because obviously that depends entirely individual details and circumstances. The Sforzas and the Medicis, for example, were notorious for being utter monsters who could and did get away with rape, murder, et cetera, waged wars on a whim over petty squabbles, and generally were happy to condemn the poor to lives of drudgery and misery while they luxuriated in both their comfort and their cruelty. But is that better or worse than an intolerant populace gleefully handing over dissidents and nonconformists to an Inquisition to see them burned at the stake, along with piles of priceless books and cultural artifacts?

If we're allowed to compare to the modern day, I'm tempted to look to Iraq, where Saddam may have been an utter monster who destroyed countless lives, but at least he was better than ISIS going around beheading people and blowing up priceless antiquity sites like Palmyra.

A corrupt but permissive system at least has a certain flexibility inside it, and most people can simply go about their lives and navigate the corruption by learning how to bribe officials and play the system, et cetera. But an intolerant and zealous populism lacks that flexibility, and seems to generally be harder to live within if you're not part of the in-group. In both systems, you either conform (or convincingly pretend to conform), or you get tortured or killed. But at least in the former, it seems like you don't need to keep youy head quite so far down? And it seems as if positive societal change is easier to achieve in the former as well?

John said...

@David -- the Spanish Golden Age raises another interesting contrast, between a society that is tolerant partly because it is financially corrupt and one with crusading zeal. The government of Venice gave only limited support to the Inquisition or other witch-burning because they thought it was a waste of money. The Spanish crown had very different ideas, and from their perspective that made them more moral and virtuous.

As G says, corruption can be a means to freedom, or at least a way to limit the rigors of tyranny. In the awful witch panics of central Europe, between 1550 and 1650, you knew things were getting really bad when the courts stopped letting middle class people bribe their way in to see their jailed relations. To the persecutors, this was a sign of their uprightness, godliness, and determination to fight Satan. Really it was a sign that all normal relations between neighbors and other limits on official behavior had been suspended, sometimes with awful results.

There is an old Japanese saying, which I thing actually comes from an ancient Chinese source, that goes something like "If the pond is clear, the fish will not thrive, but if you provide plants for the fish to hide among, they will prosper. So it is with people; if you expose all their acts to public scrutiny they will wither, so you need to look away from what they do and let them have some shade." I have strong ambivalent feelings about this. On the one hand it can be read as a straight-up excuse for corruption. On the other it seems to be true that a state that strives for perfect virtue ends up in dysfunction and cruelty.

Hence my fascination with the space for artistic freedom created by Renaissance corruption.

Michael said...

I read Isaacson's bio several months ago and it was superb. I am reading "Nixonland" now at you suggestion. I am too young (60) to have known of that era via experience - it is an eye-opener to be sure. Thank for the suggestion.

David said...


On corruption, in terms of bribery, skimming, and similar stuff, I've never heard that Spain before about 1650 was any more corrupt than other Renaissance monarchies--and venality of office, in the technical sense, was less of an issue in Spain than France. Spain was, of course, less "governed" than it is now, so in that sense people could get away with more--there were plenty of plants for the fish to hide in--but again, that doesn't distinguish it from any other early modern country, as far as I can tell.

The money system did become "corrupt" in the sense that the monarchy kept going bankrupt and began relying on devaluation to pay its bills.

The Spanish government was famously cumbersome and slow in its operations, obsessed with questions of precedence, jurisdiction, and local privilege, officials constantly bickering and calling for investigation into each other, perhaps moreso than some other European monarchies. But in early modern Europe, moralistic populism tended to approve of these things, seeing efforts to smooth out jurisdiction or tax collection as tyranny.

On the inquisition, it's a quibble, but my impression is that, in the historiography at least, the Inquisition is taken to reflect more real paranoia--at first about judaizing conversos, after 1560 or so about luteranos--than a sense of self-congratulation. The tendency toward vaunting Spain's catholicity comes, I think, more out of the reconquest and the 15th-century reform associated with the Hieronymite movement.

Incidentally, the story of the rise of the Inquisition in the 15th century has some of that element of moralistic populism vs. the corrupt, tolerant court.

David said...

I suppose my point was that Golden Age Spain--say from the time of Philip II to that of Olivares--presented an interesting third model in the scheme you were drawing. Its ruling class was famously dour and parochial, not at all cosmopolitan and not especially tolerant of deviance, not much given either to worldliness on the model of the Medici, or to the incandescent populism of Savonarola or the iconoclasts of the Protestant north. It represents, so to speak, a solemn and authoritarian cultural third way. And it produced Cervantes, El Greco, and Velazquez.

David said...

Ah, rereading your comment, I see that you meant *Florence* was financially corrupt. Sorry about that. I shouldn't write comments before my nap.

Was Medici Florence financially corrupt? In what sense? I know very little about the great days of Lorenzo and next to nothing about Leonardo or Michelangelo--I just know about Machiavelli, and he says next to nothing about finance.

John said...

@David: indeed the national kingdoms of France, Spain, and England (the only ones I know much about) do present a different model of governance and culture. In all of them tradition was a huge weight, and this limited things in many ways: it limited arbitrary rule, as even supposedly extraordinary, beyond-the-rules courts (the Star Chamber, the Inquisition) found themselves hobbled by precedence, procedure, and so on. It limited social mobility. (Which did happen, as the case of Thomas Cromwell shows best, just not very much.) It also seems to have limited artistic creativity; the centers of new art in Europe were places without the weight of tradition, viz., the Low Countries and the Italian city states.

This is part of why I find the comparison of Florence to us so interesting; because it shows the political forces unleashed when tradition ceases to be such a powerful force.

By "corruption" I mean essentially that in Florence or Milan money could buy anything, regardless of where you got it. Cesare Borgia made himself prince of a chunk of central Italy by a combination of money and violence, never mind that he was the illegitimate son of a foreign churchman. It is hard to imagine happening in Spain or France, where things like birth and connections mattered a whole lot and just money would only take you so far.

David said...


"It also seems to have limited artistic creativity; the centers of new art in Europe were places without the weight of tradition, viz., the Low Countries and the Italian city states."

That describes the situation in the period of, say, 1480-1520. But the situation was very different in the period, say, 1570-1620. I guess I'll mention them again: Cervantes, Velazquez, El Greco.

I suppose my objection is it seems to me you're taking a fairly specific situation in Italy around 1500 and trying to draw larger truths about social development out of it--almost, a "theory of golden ages"--while ignoring cultural flowerings that occurred in very different situations.