Friday, November 09, 2012

Reading the Renaissance

I don't suppose I'm alone among people who take an interest in poetry and poetics in being better read among Italian Renaissance poets than among the prose writers of the same era.  I'm a fair enough hand when it comes to the big names from Petrarch to Ariosto, given the fact that Italian doesn't feature in the slim portfolio of languages I can more-or-less read.  And I've read some of the big names of Italian fiction of the period (Boccaccio and company).  But I've always felt a bit of a gap when it came to the non-fiction prose of that time and place, so I made it a bit of a project to browse around a bit this fall, between reading other things for my seminars (a lot of English Romanticism), my research (Auden and his crew), and the mere hell of it (Tintin and sociology, mostly).  Here, for what it's worth, is what struck me most.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

I know I was supposed to read this as an undergraduate and, judging by the frayed nature of my old Penguin paperback, somebody must have read the thing — maybe even me.  But if I did manage to get through it, it made no impression whatsoever.  Coming to it now, I was struck mostly by how it failed to live up to its reputation as scandalous and wicked.  It seems more like a descriptive manual for how to keep order.  Of course it does include advice for how best to carry out the massacre of one's political enemies (all at once, not a few at a time). But even this advice seems weirdly innocent of the depths to which people will sink: Machiavelli says that no ruler could maintain his position if he kept on purging and purging enemies for years on end, and this, or course, is exactly what Stalin did, and he died in bed, not at the end of a noose.  In the end, The Prince reads less like a manual for seizing power than a strangely conservative book, one in which the preservation of civic order (even at the expense of liberty and tolerance) is the primary virtue.  "One should bear in mind," he writes, "that there is nothing more difficult to execute, nor more dangerous to administer than to introduce a new order of things..."

Francesco Guicciardini, The Ricordi

Guicciardini was an actual statesman, and he knew Machiavelli, who wasn't.  You won't be surprised to learn he didn't think much of bookish old Niccolo.  Where Machiavelli displays his knowledge of classical Greek and Roman civilization like some kind of exotic library peacock, Guicciardini says all knowledge comes from experience, and that there's no point in looking to history as a guide to politics, since no two sets of historical circumstances will be truly parallel.  He also scorns theory ("it is a great mistake to speak of worldly affairs indiscriminately and absolutely... for almost all of them are different and exceptional and cannot be grasped by one single measure") and has a very clear sense that even dazzling intellect is no substitute for experience.  He writes in maxims, which itself is a kind of argument against theory and intellectual abstraction: the form is inimical to argumentation, and lends itself to the presentation of the distilled results of long experience. Guicciardini is an appealing figure, not least because there's a touch of stoicism about him.  He says, for example, that like all men, he has "desired honor and profit," but notes, too, that "having obtained more of both than I had desired or hoped... I never found in them the satisfaction which I had imagined; a very powerful reason... for curbing the vain cupidity of men."

Giovani Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

The balls on this guy!  First, he reads everything on everything by everyone.  Then he writes nine hundred theses and he distributes them to a host of scholars and calls a conference in Rome where he's prepared to defend all of them against all comers.  But the Pope freaks, bans the conference, has his goons go through the theses and then condemns them for thirteen different heresies.  Pico has to skip town for the boonies (France), but he works his magic with Lorenzo de' Medici and manages to get back to civilization under that dodgy bastard's protection.  Anyway, the Oration was meant to be the keynote for the conference in Rome, and it is astonishing.  He invokes the medieval world view in the form of the great chain of being, and then claims that mankind has no fixed place in that scheme -- that alone of all beings, including the angels, we have the freedom to determine our own identity.  This is Jean-Paul Sartre's "existence precedes essence" 400 years before existentialism, and the implications are enormous for the freedom, the individualism, and the ideal of self-determination that we find later in the Renaissance.  And he has a wonderful idea about what this freedom can mean: "Let some holy ambition invade our souls," he writes, "so that, dissatisfied with mediocrity, we shall eagerly desire the highest things and shall toil with all our strength to attain them, since we may if we wish.  Let us disdain earthly things, despise heavenly things,  and, finally, esteeming less all the things of this world, hasten to that court beyond the world which is nearest to the Godhead.  There, as the sacred mysteries relate, Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones occupy the first places.  Let us emulate their dignity and glory, intolerant of a secondary position for ourselves and incapable of yielding to them the first.  If we have willed it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing."  This is no mean ambition: it combines a desire for enlightenment with a pride worthy of Milton's Satan.

Leon Battista Alberti, The Book of the Family

In contrast to Pico Della Mirandola, there's this shitheel.  On the one hand, the two men share a sense of freedom and possibility: both think that the individual chooses his own destiny, making them both precursors of bourgeois liberal individualism, with all its virtues and vices.  On the other hand, Alberti's so much more bourgeois that he ought to be outfitted with an anachronistic top hat and monocle and unleashed in a hedge maze that looks like the board from Monopoly.  I mean, he goes on about how one should marry for money and good breeding possibilities, how one should save one's pennies, how throwing the occasional party is a terrible expense but probably necessary if one wants to avoid the practical consequences of being seen as stingy, and so forth.  Pico Della Mirandola wants us to aspire to enlightenment.  Alberti just thinks we should use our freedom to make sure our 401(k)s are in good order.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks

When you look at da Vinci's sketchbooks, you marvel at the audacity of the man.  When you read his notebooks, you recoil a little at his insecurity and defensiveness.  He's defensive about being a painter, and makes a point of saying that people who despise paintings can't really love philosophy or nature (so there, you snobs!), and he's always drawing attention to what he thinks others may consider his shortcomings ("Even though I may not... be able to quote other authors...", say, or "I am fully conscious that, since I am not a literary man, certain presumptuous persons will think it proper to despise me, alleging that I am not a man of letters").  Maybe it's good to have one's sense of Leonardo's grandeur decreased a little, given how he's become something like a figure for genius itself.  Maybe not.  If you don't want to have that sense of grandeur decreased, though, I'd say stick to the sketchbooks.

Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

This is just great.  Not all the bits about how a courtier ought to know how to ride but not to juggle (the first impresses the peons with one's martial prowess, the second just makes one look too eager to please).  And not the bits about ladylike behavior or the how writers are greater than warriors because they make warriors' deeds immortal and therefore more real (a point Oscar Wilde steals for "The Critic as Artist").  Those are okay, and one gets, in the fine Platonic symposium of Castiglione's various characters, a sense of the man's wit, urbanity, and charm.  But the real jewel here is a grand speech near the end about the nature of love.  It's really a riff on what Dante had to say in the parts of the Vita Nuova where he describes meeting Beatrice, and feeling his earthly love climb higher to a kind of mystical love of the divine.  I want to quote about 2,000 words of the thing, but let's just go with this instead:

I say, then, that according to the definition of the ancient sages love is naught but a certain desire to enjoy beauty; and as desire longs only for things that are perceived,perception must needs always precede desire.... Therefore nature has so ordained that to every faculty of perception there is joined a certain faculty of appetite.... But speaking of the beauty we have in mind, which is that which is seen in bodies and especially in faces, and which excites this ardent desire that we call love, — we will say that it is an effluence of divine goodness, and that although it is diffused like the sun's light upon all created things, yet when it finds a face well proportioned and framed with a certain pleasant harmony of various colours embellished by lights and shadows and by an orderly distance and limit of outlines, it infuses itself therein and appears most beautiful... like a sunbeam falling upon a beautiful vase of polished gold set with precious gems. Thus it agreeably attracts the eyes of men, and entering thereby, it impresses itself upon the soul, and stirs and delights her with a new sweetness throughout, and by kindling her divine goodness excites in her a desire for its own self…. Love gives the soul a greater felicity; for just as from the particular beauty of one body it guides her to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection it guides her from the particular to the universal intellect. Hence the soul, kindled by the most sacred fire of true divine love, flies to unite herself with the angelic nature, and not only quite forsakes sense, but has no longer need of reason's discourse; for, changed into an angel, she understands all things intelligible, and without veil or cloud views the wide sea of pure divine beauty, and receives it into herself, and enjoys that supreme felicity of which the senses are incapable.

That's the stuff.  It captures the Renaissance's neoplatonic love of a transcendent divinity, and also the love of the physical world and its beauty, suddenly respected by those concerned with the intellectual and the spiritual.  Certainly there were some dubious things the Renaissance brought us—the self-serving acquisitiveness of Alberti, the preening insecurity of da Vinci, the shifty-eyed calculation of Machiavelli.  But it also gave us the worldliness and skepticism of Guicciaridi, the existential, spiritual ambition of Pico Della Mirandola, and this—the strange, poised balance of physical and spiritual love.