Renaissance in Italy, Volume 1 (of 7)
by John Addington Symonds
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The inherent feebleness of Italy in this respect proceeded from an intellectual apathy toward religious questions, produced partly by the stigma attaching to unorthodoxy, partly by the absorbing interests of secular culture, partly by the worldliness of the Renaissance, partly by the infamy of the ecclesiastics, and partly by the enervating influence of tyrannies. However bold a man might be, he dread of heretic; the term paterino, originally applied to religious innovators, had become synonymous in common phraseology with rogue. It was a point of good society and refined taste to support the Church. Again, the mental faculties of Italy had for three centuries been taxed to the utmost in studies wide apart from the field of religious faith. Art, scholarship, philosophy, and meditation upon politics had given a definite direction to the minds of thinking men, so that little energy was left for those instinctive movements of the spirit which produced the German Reformation. The great work of Italy had been the genesis of the Renaissance, the development of modern culture. And the tendencies of the Renaissance were worldly: its ideal of human life left no room for a pure, and ardent intuition into spiritual truth. Scholars occupied with the interpretation of classic authors, artists bent upon investing current notions with the form of beauty, could hardly be expected to exclaim: 'The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding.'[1] Materialism ruled the speculations no less than the conduct of the age. Pamponazzo preached an atheistic doctrine, with the plausible reservation of Salva Fide, which then covered all. The more delicate thinkers, Pico and Ficino, sought to reconcile irreconcilables by fusing philosophy and theology, while they distinguished truths of science from truths of revelation. It seems meanwhile to have occurred to no one in Italy that the liberation of the reason necessitated an abrupt departure from Catholicism. They did not perceive that a power antagonistic to mediaeval orthodoxy had been generated. This was in great measure due to indifference; for the Church herself had taught her children by example to regard her dogmas and her discipline as a convenient convention. It required all the scourges of the Inquisition to flog the nation back, not to lively faith, but to hypocrisy. Furthermore, the political conditions of Italy were highly unfavorable to a profound religious revolution. The thirst for national liberty which inspired England in the sixteenth century, impelling the despotic Tudors to cast off the yoke of Rome, arming Howard the Catholic against the holy fleet of Philip, and joining prince and people in one aspiration after freedom, was impossible in Italy. The tone of Machiavelli's Principe, the whole tenor of Castiglione's Cortigiano, prove this without the need of further demonstration.

[1] It is well known that Savonarola's objection to classical culture was based upon his perception of its worldliness. It is very remarkable to note the feeling on this point of some of the greatest northern scholars. Erasmus, for example, writes: 'unus adhuc scrupulus habet animum meum, ne sub obtentu priscae literaturae renascentis caput erigere conetur Paganismus, ut sunt inter Christianos qui titulo paene duntaxat Christum agnoscunt, ceterum intus Gentilitatem spirant'—Letter 207 (quoted by Milman in his Quarterly article on Erasmus). Ascham and Melanchthon passed similar judgments upon the Italian scholars. The nations of the north had the Italians at a disadvantage, for they entered into their labors, and all the dangerous work of sympathy with the ancient world, upon which modern scholarship was based, had been done in Italy before Germany and England came into the field.

Few things are more difficult than to estimate the exact condition of a people at any given period with regard to morality and religion. And this difficulty is increased tenfold when the age presents such rapid transitions and such bewildering complexities as mark the Renaissance. Yet we cannot omit to notice the attitude of the Italians at large in relation to the Church, and to determine in some degree the character of their national morality. Against the corruption of Rome one cry of hatred and contempt arises from a crowd of witnesses. Dante's fiery denunciations, Jacopone's threats, the fierce invectives of Petrarch, and the thundering prophecies of Joachim lead the chorus. Boccaccio follows with his scathing irony. 'Send the most obstinate Jew to Rome,' he says, 'and the profligacy of the Papal Court will not fail to convert him to the faith that can resist such obloquy.'[1] Another glaring scandal was the condition of the convents. All novelists combine in painting the depravity of the religious houses as a patent fact in social life. Boccaccio, Sacchetti, Bandello, and Masuccio may be mentioned in particular for their familiar delineation of a profligacy which was interwoven with the national existence.[2] The comic poets take the same course, and delight in ridiculing the gross manners of the clergy. Nor do the ecclesiasties spare themselves. Poggio, the author of the Facetiae, held benefices and places at the Papal Court. Bandello was a Dominican and nephew of the General of his order. Folengo was a Benedictine. Bibbiena became a cardinal. Berni received a Canonry in the Cathedral of Florence. Such was the open and acknowledged immorality of the priests in Rome that more than one Papal edict was issued forbidding them to keep houses of bad repute or to act as panders.[3] Among the aphorisms of Pius II. is recorded the saying that if there were good reasons for enjoining celibacy on the clergy, there were far better and stronger arguments for insisting on their marriage.[4]

[1] We may compare this Umbrian Rispetto for the opposite view.

A Roma Santa ce so gito anch'io, E ho visto co'miei occhi il fatto mio: E quando a Roma ce s'e posto il piede, Resta la rabbia e se ne va la fede.

[2] It may not be out of place to collect some passages from Masuccio's Novelle on the Clergy, premising that what he writes with the fierceness of indignation is repeated with the cynicism of indulgence by contemporary novelists. Speaking of the Popes, he says (ed, Napoli, Morano, 1874): 'me tacero non solo de loro scelesti ed enormissimi vizi e pubblici e occulti adoperati, e de li officii, de beneficil, prelature, i vermigli cappelli, che all' incanto per loro morte vendono, ma del camauro del principe San Pietro che ne e gia stato latto partuito baratto non faro alcuna mentione.' Descending to prelates, he uses similar language (p. 64): 'non possa mai pervenire ad alcun grado di prelatura se non col favore del maestro della zecca, e quelle conviensela comprare all' incanto come si fa dei cavalli in fiera.' A priest is (p. 31) 'il venerabile lupo.' The members of religious orders are (p. 534) 'ministri de satanasso ... soldati del gran diavolo: (p. 25) 'piu facilmente tra cento soldati se ne trovarebbero la meta buoni, che tra tutto un capitolo de frati ne fosse uno senza bruttissima macchia.' It is perilous to hold any communication with them (p. 39): 'Con loro non altri che usurai, fornicatori, e omini di mala sorte conversare si vedeno.' Their sins against nature (p. 65), the secret marriages of monks and nuns (p. 83), the 'fetide cioache oi monache,' choked with the fruits of infanticide (p. 81), not to mention their avarice (p. 55) and gross impiety (p. 52), are described with a naked sincerity that bears upon its face the stamp of truth.

[3] A famous passage from Agrippa (De Vanitate Scientiarum) deserves a place here. After alluding to Sixtus IV, he says that many state officers 'in civitatibus suis lupanaria construunt foventque, non nihil ex meretricio questu etiam aerario suo accumulantes emolumenti; quod quidem in Italia non rarum est, ubi etiam Romana scorta in singulas hebdomadas Julium pendent Pontifici, qui census annuus nonnunquam viginti millia ducatos excedit, adeoque Ecclesiae procerum id munus est, ut una cum Ecclesiarum proventibus etiam lenociniorum numerent mercedem. Sic enim ego illos supputantes aliquando audivi: Habet, inquientes, ille duo beneficia, unum curaturn aureorum viginti, alterum prioratum ducatorum quadraginta, el tres putanas in burdello, quae reddunt singulis hebdomadibus Julios Viginti.'

[4] Very few ecclesiastics of high rank escaped the contagion of Roman society. It was fashionable for men like Bembo and La Casa to form connections with women of the demi-monde and to recognize their children, whose legitimation they frequently procured. The Capitoli of the burlesque poets show that this laxity of conduct was pardonable, when compared with other laughingly avowed and all but universal indulgences. Once more, compare Guidiccioni's letter to M. Giamb. Bernardi Opp. vol. i. p. 102.

Some of the contempt and hatred expressed by the Italian satirists for the two great orders of S. Francis and S. Dominic may perhaps be due to an ancient grudge against them as a Papal police founded in the interests of orthodoxy. But the chief point aimed at is the mixture of hypocrisy with immorality, which rendered them odious to all classes of society. At the same time the Franciscans embraced among their lay brethren nearly all the population of Italy, and to die in the habit of the order was thought the safest way of cheating the devil of his due. Corruption had gone so far and deep that it was universally recognized and treated with the sarcasm of levity. It roused no sincere reaction, and stimulated no persistent indignation. Every one acknowledged it; yet every one continued to live indolently according to the fashion of his forefathers, acting up to Ovid's maxim—

Pro magna parte vetustas Creditur; acceptam parce movere fidem.

It is only this incurable indifference that renders Machiavelli's comic portraits of Fra Alberigo and Fra Timoteo at all intelligible. They are neither satires nor caricatures, but simple pictures drawn for the amusement of contemporaries and the stupefaction of posterity.

The criticism of the Italian writers, so far as we have yet followed it, was directed against two separate evils—the vicious worldliness of Rome, and the demoralization of the clergy both in their dealings with the people and in their conventual life. Contempt for false miracles and spurious reliques, and the horror of the traffic in indulgences, swelled the storm of discontent among the more enlightened. But the people continued to make saints, to adore wonder-working shrines, and to profit by the spiritual advantages which could be bought. Pius II., mindful of the honor of his native city, canonized S. Bernardine and S. Catherine of Siena. Innocent VIII consecrated a chapel for the Lance of Longinus, which he had received from the Turk as part-payment for the guardianship of Djem. The Venetian Senate offered 10,000 ducats for the seamless coat of Christ (1455). The whole of Italy was agitated by the news that S. Andrew's head had arrived from Patras (1462). The Pope and his Cardinals went forth to meet it near the Milvian bridge. There Pius II. pronounced a Latin speech of welcome, while Bessarion delivered an oration when the precious member was deposited in S. Peter's. In this passion for reliques two different sentiments seem to have been combined—the merely superstitious belief in the efficacy of charms, which caused the Venetians to guard the body of S. Mark so jealously, and the Neapolitans to watch the liqifaction of the blood of S. Januarius with a frenzy of excitement—and that nobler respect for the persons of the mighty dead which induced Sigismondo Malatesta to transport the body of Gemistus Pletho to Rimini, and which rendered the supposed coffin of Aristotle at Palermo an object of admiration to Mussulman and Christian alike. The bones of Virgil, it will be remembered, had been built into the walls of Naples, while those of Livy were honored with splendid sepulture at Padua.

Owing to the separation between religion and morality which existed in Italy under the influence of Papal and monastic profligacy, the Italians saw no reason why spiritual benefits should not be purchased from a notoriously rapacious Pontiff, or why the penalty of hell should not depend upon the mere word of a consecrated monster. The Pope as successor of S. Peter, and the Pope as Roman sovereign, were two separate beings. Many curious indications of the mixed feeling of the people upon this point, and of the advantage which the Pope derived from his anomalous position, may be gathered from the historians of the period. Machiavelli, in his narrative of the massacre at Sinigaglia, relates that Vitellozzo Vitelli, while being strangled by Cesare Borgia's assassin, begged hard that the father of his murderer, the horrible Alexander, might be entreated to pronounce his absolution. The same Alexander was nearly suffocated in the Vatican by the French soldiers who crowded round to kiss his mantle, and who had made him tremble for his life a few days previously. Cellini on his knees implored Pope Clement to absolve him from the guilt of homicide and theft, yet spoke of him as 'transformed to a savage beast' by a sudden access of fury. At one time he trembled before the awful Majesty of Christ's Vicar, revealed in Paul III.; at another he reviled him as a man 'who neither believed in God nor in any other article of religion. A mysterious sanctity environed the person of the Pontiff. When Gianpaolo Baglioni held Julius II. in his power in Perugia, he respected the Pope's freedom, though he knew that Julius would overthrow his tyranny. Machiavelli condemns this as cowardice, but it was wholly consistent with the sentiment of the age. 'It cannot have been goodness or conscience which restrained him,' writes the philosopher of Florence, 'for the heart of a man who cohabited with his sister, and had massacred his cousins and his nephews, could not have harbored any piety. We must conclude that men know not how to be either guilty in a noble manner, or entirely good. Although crime may have a certain grandeur of its own, or at least a mixture of more generous motives, they do not attain to this. Gianpaolo, careless though he was about incest and parricide, could not, or dared not, on a just occasion, achieve an exploit for which the whole world would have admired his spirit, and by which he would have won immortal glory: for he would have been the first to show how little prelates, living and ruling as they do, deserve to be esteemed, and would have done a deed superior in its greatness to all the infamy, to all the peril, that it might have brought with it.'[1] It is difficult to know which to admire most, the superstition of Gianpaolo, or the cynicism of the commentary, the spurious piety which made the tyrant miss his opportunity, or the false standard of moral sublimity by which the half-ironical critic measures his mistake. In combination they produce a lively impression of the truth of what I have attempted to establish—that in Italy at this period religion survived as superstition even among the most depraved, and that the crimes of the Church had produced a schism between this superstition and morality.

[1] Discorsi, i. 27. This episode in Gianpaolo Baglioni's life may be illustrated by the curious story told about Gabrino Fondulo, the tyrant of Cremona. The Emperor Sigismund and Pope John XXIII. were his guests together in the year 1414. Part of their entertainment consisted in visiting the sights of Cremona with their host, who took them up the great Tower (396 feet high) without any escort. They all three returned safely, but when Gabrino was executed at Milan in 1425, he remarked that he only regretted one thing in the course of his life—namely, that he had not pitched Pope and Emperor together from the Torazzo. What a golden opportunity to have let slip! The story is told by Antonio Campo, Historia di Cremona (Milan, 1645), p. 114.

While the Church was thus gradually deviating more and more directly from the Christian ideal, and was exhibiting to Italy an ensample of worldliness and evil living, the Italians, earlier than any other European nation, had become imbued with the spirit of the ancient world. Instead of the Gospel and the Lives of the Saints, men studied Plutarch and Livy with avidity. The tyrannicides of Greece and the suicides of the Roman Empire, patriots like Harmodius and Brutus, philosophers like Seneca and Paetus Thrasea, seemed to the humanists of the fifteenth century more admirable than the martyrs and confessors of the faith. Pagan virtues were strangely mingled with confused and ill-assimilated precepts of the Christian Church, while pagan vices wore a halo borrowed from the luster of the newly found and passionately welcomed poets of antiquity. Blending the visionary intuitions of the Middle Ages with the positive and mundane ethics of the ancients, the Italians of the Renaissance strove to adopt the sentiments and customs of an age long dead and not to be resuscitated. At the same time the rhetorical taste of the nation inclined the more adventurous and passionate natures to seek glory by dramatic exhibitions of personal heroism. The Greek ideal of [Greek: to ealon], the Roman conception of Virtus, agitated the imagination of a people who had been powerfully influenced by professors of eloquence, by public orators, by men of letters, masters in the arts of style and of parade. Painting and sculpture, and that magnificence of public life which characterized the fifteenth century, contributed to the substitution of aesthetic for moral or religious standards. Actions were estimated by the effect which they produced; and to sin against the laws of culture was of more moment than to transgress the code of Christianity. Still, the men of the Renaissance could not forget the creed which they had drawn in with their mothers' milk, but which the Church had not adjusted to the new conditions of the growing age. The result was a wild phantasmagoric chaos of confused and clashing influences.

Of this peculiar moral condition the records of the numerous tyrannicides supply many interesting examples.[1] Girolamo Olgiati offered prayers to S. Ambrose for protection before he stabbed the Duke of Milan in S. Stephen's Church.[2] The Pazzi conspirators, intimidated by the sanctity of the Florentine Duomo, had to employ a priest to wield the sacrilegious dagger.[3] Pietro Paolo Boscoli's last confession, after the failure of his attempt to assassinate the Medici in 1513, adds further details in illustration of the mixture of religious feeling with patriotic paganism. Luca della Robbia, the nephew of the great sculptor of that name, and himself no mean artist, visited his friend Boscoli on the night of his execution, and wrote a minute account of their interview. Both of these men were members of the Confraternita de' Neri, who assumed the duty of comforting condemned prisoners with spiritual counsel, prayer, and exhortation. The narrative, dictated in the choicest vernacular Tuscan, by an artist whose charity and beauty of soul transpire in every line in contrast with the fiercer fortitude of Boscoli, is one of the most valuable original documents for this period which we possess.[4] What is most striking is the combination of deeply rooted and almost infantine piety with antique heroism in the young patriot. He is greatly concerned because, ignorant of his approaching end, he had eaten a hearty supper: 'Son troppo carico di cibo, et ho mangiatccose insalate; in modo che non mi pare poter unir Io spirito a Dio ... Iddio abbi di me misericordia, che costoro m' hanno carico di cibo. Oh indiscrezione!'[5] Then he expresses a vehement desire for the services of a learned confessor, to resolve his intellectual doubts, pleading with all the earnestness of desperate conviction that the salvation of his soul must depend upon his orthodoxy at the last. He complains that he ought to have been allowed at least a month's seclusion with good friars before he was brought face to face with death. At another time he is chiefly anxious to free himself from classic memories: 'Deh! Luca, cavatemi della testa quel Bruto, accio ch' io faccia questo passo interamente da Cristiano'.[6] Then again it grieves him that the tears of compunction, which he has been taught to regard as the true sign of a soul at one with God, will not flow. About the mere fact of dying he has no anxiety. The philosophers have strengthened him upon that point. He is only eager to die piously. When he tries to pray, he can barely remember the Paternoster and the Ave Maria. That reminds him how easy it would have been to have spent his time better, and he bids Luca remember that the mind a man makes for himself in life, will be with him in death. When they bring him a picture of Christ, he asks whether he needs that to fix his soul upon his Saviour. Throughout this long contention of so many varying thoughts, he never questions the morality of the act for which he is condemned to die. Luca, however, has his doubts, and privately asks the confessor whether S. Thomas Aquinas had not discountenanced tyrannicide. 'Yes,' answers the monk, 'in case the people have elected their own tyrant, but not when he has imposed himself on them by force.' This casuistical answer satisfies Luca that his friend may reasonably be held blameless. After confessing, Boscoli received the sacrament with great piety, and died bravely. The confessor told Luca, weeping, that he was sure the young man's soul had gone straight to Paradise, and that he might be reckoned a real martyr. His head after death was like that of an angel; and Luca was, we know, a connoisseur in angels' heads. Boscoli was only thirty-two years of age; he had light hair, and was short-sighted.

[1] For the Italian ethics of tyrannicide, see back, pp. 169, 170.

[2] See p. 166.

[3] See p. 398.

[4] It is printed in Arch. Stor, vol. i.

[5] 'I am over-burdened with food, and I have eaten salt meats; so that I do not seem able to join my spirit to God.... God have pity on me, for they have burdened me with food. Oh, how thoughtless of them!' His words cannot be translated. Naif in the extreme, they become ludicrous in English.

[6] 'Ah, Luca, turn that Brutus out of my head, in order that I may take this last step wholly as a Christian man!'

To this narrative might be added the apology written by Lorenzino de' Medici, after the murder of his cousin Alessandro in 1536.[1] He relies for his defense entirely upon arguments borrowed from Pagan ethics, and by his treatment of the subject vindicates for himself that name of Brutus with which Filippo Strozzi in person at Venice, and Varchi and Molsa in Latin epigrams, saluted him. There is no trace of Christian feeling in this strong and splendid display of rhetorical ability; nor does any document of the age more forcibly exhibit the extent to which classical studies had influenced the morality of the Renaissance. Lorenzino, however, when he wrote it, was not, like Boscoli, upon the point of dying.

[1] It is printed at the end of the third volume of Varchi, pp. 283-95; compare p. 210. A medal in honor of Lorenzino's tyrannicide was struck with a profile copied from Michael Angelo's bust of Brutus.

The last thing to perish in a nation is its faith. The whole history of the world proves that no anomalies are so glaring, no inconsistencies so paradoxical, as to sap the credit of a religious system which has once been firmly rooted in the habits, instincts, and traditions of a race: and what remains longest is often the least rational portion. Religions from the first are not the product of logical reflection or experiment, but of sentiment and aspiration. They come into being as simple intuitions, and afterwards invade the province of the reason and assimilate the thought of centuries to their own conceptions. This is the secret of their strength as well as the source of their weakness. It is only a stronger enthusiasm, a new intuition, a fresh outburst of emotional vitality, that can supplant the old:—

'Cotal rimedio ha questo aspro furore, Tale acqua suole spegner questo fuoco, Come d'asse si trae chiodo con chiodo.'

Criticism from without, internal corruption, patent absurdity, are comparatively powerless to destroy those habits of belief which once have taken hold upon the fancy and the feeling of a nation. The work of dissolution proceeds in silence and in secret. But the established order subsists until the moment comes for a new synthesis. And in the sixteenth century the necessary impulse of regeneration was to come, not from Italy, satisfied with the serenity of her art, preoccupied with her culture, and hardened to the infamy of her corruption, but from the Germany of the barbarians she despised.

These considerations will help to explain how it was that the Church, in spite of its corruption, stood its ground and retained the respect of the people in Italy. We must moreover bear in mind that, bad as it was, it still to some extent maintained the Christian verity. Apart from the Roman Curia and the Convents, there existed a hierarchy of able and God-fearing men, who by the sanctity of their lives, by the gravity of their doctrine, by the eloquence of their preaching, by their ministration to the sick, by the relief of the poor, by the maintenance of hospitals, Monti di Pieta, schools and orphanages, kept alive in the people of Italy the ideal at least of a religion pure and undefiled before God.[1] In the tottering statue of the Church some true metal might be found between the pinchbeck at the summit and the clay of the foundation.

[1] See the life of S. Antonino, the good Archbishop of Florence.

It must also be remembered how far the worldly interests and domestic sympathies of the Italians were engaged in the maintenance of their Church system. The fibers of the Church were intertwined with the very heartstrings of the people. Few families could not show one or more members who had chosen the clerical career, and who looked to Rome for patronage, employment, and perhaps advancement to the highest honors. The whole nation felt a pride in the Eternal City: patriotic vanity and personal interest were alike involved in the maintenance of the metropolis of Christendom, which drew the suites of ambassadors, multitudes of pilgrims, and the religious traffic of the whole of Europe to the shores of Italy. It was easy for Germans and Englishmen to reason calmly about dethroning the Papal hierarchy. Italians, however they might loathe the temporal power, could not willingly forego the spiritual primacy of the civilized world.

Moreover, the sacraments of the Church, the absolutions, consecrations, and benedictions which priests dispensed or withheld at pleasure, had by no means lost their power. To what extent even the nations of the north still clung to them is proved by our own Liturgy, framed in the tumult of war with Rome, yet so worded as to leave the utmost resemblance to the old ritual consistent with the spirit of the Reformation. Far more imposing were they in their effect upon the imagination of Italians, who had never dreamed of actual rebellion, who possessed the fountain of Apostolical privileges in the person of the Pope, and whose southern temperament inclined them to a more sensuous and less metaphysical conception of Christianity than the Germans or the English. The dread of the Papal Interdict was still a reality. Though the clergy of Florence, roused to retaliative fury, might fling back in the teeth of Sixtus such words as leno matris suae, adulterorum minister, diaboli vicarius, yet the people could not long endure 'the niggardly and imperfect rites, the baptism sparingly administered, the extreme unction or the last sacrament coldly vouchsafed to the chosen few, the churchyard closed against the dead,' which, to quote the energetic language of Dean Milman,[1] were the proper fruits of the Papal ban, however unjustly issued and however manfully resisted.

[1] Latin Christianity, vol. vi. p. 361.

The history of the despots and the Popes, together with the analysis of Machiavelli's political ethics, prove the demoralization of a society in which crimes so extravagant could have their origin, and cynicism so deliberate could be accepted as a system. Yet it remains in estimating the general character of Italian morality to record the judgment passed upon it by foreign nations of a different complexion. The morality of races, as of individuals, is rarely otherwise than mixed—virtue balancing vice and evil vitiating goodness. Still the impression produced by Renaissance Italy upon observers from the North was almost wholly bad. Our own ancestors returned from their Italian travels either horrified with what they had witnessed, or else contaminated. Ascham writes:[1] 'I was once in Italy myself; but I thank God my abode there was but nine days; and yet I saw in that little time, in one city, more liberty to sin than ever I heard tell of in our noble City of London in nine years. I saw it was there as free to sin, not only without all punishment, but also without any man's marking, as it is free in the City of London to choose without all blame whether a man lust to wear shoe or pantocle.' Robert Greene, who did so much to introduce the novels of Italy into England, confesses that during his youthful travels in the south he 'saw and practiced such villany as it is abominable to declare.'[2] The whole of our dramatic literature corroborates these witnesses, while the proverb, Inglese Italianato e un diavolo incarnato, quoted by Sidney, Howell, Parker, Ascham, shows how pernicious to the coarser natures of the north were the refined vices of the south. What principally struck our ancestors in the morality of the Italians was the license allowed in sensual indulgences, and the bad faith which tainted all public and private dealings. In respect to the latter point, what has already been said about Machiavelli is enough.[3] Loyalty was a virtue but little esteemed in Italy: engagements seemed made to be broken; even the crime of violence was aggravated by the crime of perfidy, a bravo's stiletto or a slow poison being reckoned among the legitimate means for ridding men of rivals or for revenging a slight. Yet it must not be forgotten that the commercial integrity of the Italians ranked high. In all countries of Europe they carried on the banking business of monarchs, cities, and private persons.

[1] The Schoolmaster; edn. 1863, p. 87. The whole discourse on Italian traveling and Italian influence is very curious, when we reflect that at this time contact with Italy was forming the chief culture of the English in literature and social manners. The ninth satire in Marston's Scourge of Villanie contains much interesting matter on the same point. Howell's Instructions for forreine Travell furnishes the following illustration: 'And being in Italy, that great limbique of working braines, he must be very circumspect in his carriage, for she is able to turne a Saint into a devill, and deprave the best natures, if one will abandon himself, and become a prey to dissolute courses and wantonnesse.'

[2] The Repentance of Robert Greene, quoted in the memoir to Dyce's edition of his Dramatic Works.

[3] See chapter v.

With reference to carnal vice, it cannot be denied that the corruption of Italy was shameful. Putting aside the profligacy of the convents, the City of Rome in 1490 is reported to have held as many as 6,800 public prostitutes, besides those who practiced their trade under the cloak of concubinage.[1] These women were accompanied by confederate ruffians, ready to stab, poison, and extort money; thus violence and lust went hand in hand, and to this profligate lower stratum of society may be ascribed the crimes of lawlessness which rendered Rome under Innocent VIII. almost uninhabitable. Venice, praised for its piety by De Comines,[2] was the resort of all the debauchees of Europe who could afford the time and money to visit this modern Corinth. Tom Coryat, the eccentric English traveler, gives a curious account of the splendor and refinement displayed by the demi-monde of the lagoons, and Marston describes Venice as a school of luxury in which the monstrous Aretine played professor.[3] Of the state of morals in Florence Savonarola's sermons give the best picture.

[1] Infessura, p. 1997. He adds: 'Consideratur modo qualiter vivatur Romae ubi caput fidei est.' From what Parent Duchatelet (Prostitution dans la Ville de Paris, p. 27) has noted concerning the tendency to exaggerate the numbers of prostitutes in any given town, we have every reason to regard the estimate of Infessura as excessive. In Paris, in 1854, there were only 4,206 registered 'filles publiques,' when the population of the city numbered 1,500,000 persons; while those who exercised their calling clandestinely were variously computed at 20,000 or 40,000 and upwards to 60,000. Accurate statistics relating to the population of any Italian city in the fifteenth century do not, unfortunately, exist.

[2] Memoirs, lib. vii. 'C'est la plus triomphante cite que j'ai jamais vue, et qui plus fait d'honneur a ambassadeurs et etrangers, et qui plus sagement se gouverne, et ou le service de Dieu est le plus solemnellement faict.' The prostitutes of Venice were computed to number 11,654 so far back as the end of the 14th century. See Filiasi, quoted by Mutinelli in his Annali urbani di Venezia.

[3] Satires, ii.

But the characteristic vice of the Italian was not coarse sensuality. He required the fascination of the fancy to be added to the allurement of the senses.[1] It is this which makes the Capitoli of the burlesque poets, of men of note like Berni, La Casa, Varchi, Mauro, Molsa, Dolce, Bembo, Firenzuola, Bronzino, Aretino, and de' Medici, so amazing. The crudest forms of debauchery receive the most refined and highly finished treatment in poems which are as remarkable for their wit as for their cynicism. A like vein of elaborate innuendo runs through the Canti Carnascialeschi of Florence, proving that however profligate the people might have been, they were not contented with grossness unless seasoned with wit. The same excitement of the fancy, playing freely in the lawlessness of sensual self-indulgence and heightening the consciousness of personal force in the agent, rendered the exercise of ingenuity or the avoidance of peril an enhancement of pleasure to the Italians. This is perhaps one of the reasons why all the imaginative compositions of the Renaissance, especially the Novelle, turn upon adultery. Judging by the majority of these romances, by the comedies of the time, and by the poetry of Ariosto, we are compelled to believe that such illicit love was merely sensual, and owed its principal attractions to the scope it afforded for whimsical adventures. Yet Bembo's Asolani, Castiglione's panegyric of Platonic Love, and much of the lyrical poetry in vogue warn us to be cautious. The old romantic sentiment expressed by the Florentines of the thirteenth century still survived to some extent, adding a sort of dignity in form at least to these affections.

[1] Much might be written about the play of the imagination which gave a peculiar complexion to the profligacy, the jealousy, and the vengeance of the Italians. I shall have occasion elsewhere to maintain that in their literature at least the Italians were not a highly imaginative race; nor were they subject to those highly wrought conditions of the brooding fancy, termed by the northern nations Melancholy, which Duerer has personified in his celebrated etching, and Burton has described in his Anatomy. But in their love and hatred, their lust and their cruelty, the Italians required an intellectual element which brought the imaginative faculty into play.

It was due again in a great measure to their demand for imaginative excitement in all matters of the sense, to their desire for the extravagant and extraordinary as a seasoning of pleasure, that the Italians came to deserve so terrible a name among the nations for unnatural passions.[1] This is a subject which can hardly be touched in passing: yet the opinion may be recorded that it belongs rather to the science of psychopathy than to the chronicle of vulgar lusts. English poets have given us the right key to the Italian temperament, on this as on so many other points. Shelley in his portrait of Francesco Cenci has drawn a man in whom cruelty and incest have become appetites of the distempered soul; the love of Giovanni and Annabella in Ford's tragedy is rightly depicted as more imaginative than sensual. It is no excuse for the Italians to say that they had spiritualized abominable vices. What this really means is that their immorality was nearer that of devils than of beasts. But in seeking to distinguish its true character, we must take notice of the highly wrought fantasy which seasoned both their luxury and their jealousy, their vengeance and their lust.

[1] Italian literature is loud-voiced on this topic. The concluding stanzas of Poliziano's Orfeo, recited before the Cardinal of Mantua, the Capitoli of Berni, Bronzino, La Casa, and some of the Canti Carnasialeschi, might be cited. We might add Varchi's express testimony as to the morals of Filippo Strozzi, Lorenzino de' Medici, Pier Luigi Farnese, and Clement VII. What Segni (lib. x. p. 409) tells us about the brave Giovanni Bandini is also very significant. In the Life of San Bernardino of Siena, Vespasiano (Vite di Illustri Uomini, p. 186) writes: 'L'Italia, ch' era piena di queste tenebre, e aveva lasciata ogni norma di buoni costumi, e non era piu chi conoscesse Iddio. Tanto erano sommersi e sepulti ne' maladetti e abbominevoli vizi nefandi! Gli avevano in modo messi in uso, che non temevano ne Iddio ne l'onore del mondo. Maladetta cecita! In tanto eccesso era venuto ogni cosa, che gli scellerati ed enormi vizi non era piu chi gli stimasse, per lo maladetto uso che n'avevano fatto ... massime il maladetto e abominando e detestando peccato della sodomia. Erano in modo stracorsi in questa cecita, che bisognava che l'onnipotente Iddio facesse un' altra volta piovere dal cielo zolfo e fuoco come egli fece a Sodoma e Gomorra.' Compare Savonarola passim, the inductions to the Sacre Rappresentazioni, the familiar letters of Machiavelli, and the statute of Cosimo against this vice (year 1542, Sabellii Summa. Venice, 1715; vol. v. p. 287).

The same is to some extent true of their cruelty. The really cruel nation of the Renaissance was Spain, not Italy.[1] The Italians, as a rule, were gentle and humane, especially in warfare.[2] No Italian army would systematically have tortured the whole population of a captured city day after day for months, as the Spaniards did in Rome and Milan, to satisfy their avarice and glut their stolid appetite for blood. Their respect for human life again was higher than that of the French or Swiss. They gave quarter to their foes upon the battle-field, and were horrified with the massacres in cold blood perpetrated at Fivizzano and Rapallo by the army of Charles VIII. But when the demon of cruelty possessed the imagination of an Italian, when, like Gian Maria Visconti, he came to relish the sight of torment for its own sake, or when he sought to inspire fear by the spectacle of pain, then no Spaniard surpassed him in the ingenuity of his devices. In gratifying his thirst for vengeance he was never contented with mere murder. To obtain a personal triumph at the expense of his enemy by the display of superior cunning, by rendering him ridiculous, by exposing him to mental as well as physical anguish, by wounding him through his affections or his sense of honor, was the end which he pursued. This is why so many acts of violence in Italy assumed fantastic forms. Even the country folk showed an infernal art in the execution of their vendette. To serve the flesh of children up to their fathers at a meal of courtesy is mentioned, for example, as one mode of wreaking vengeance in country villages. Thus the high culture and aesthetic temperament of the Italians gave an intellectual quality to their vices. Crude lust and bloodshed were insipid to their palates: they required the pungent sauce of a melodramatic catastrophe.

[1] Those who wish to gain a lively notion of Spanish cruelty in Italy should read, besides the accounts of the Sacco di Roma by Guicciardini and Buonaparte, the narrative of the Sacco di Prato in the Archivio Storico Italiano, vol. i., and Cagnola's account of the Spanish occupation of Milan, ib. vol. iii.

[2] De Comines more than once notices the humanity shown by the Italian peasants to the French army.

The drunkenness and gluttony of northern nations for a like reason found no favor in Italy. It disgusted the Romans beyond measure to witness the swinish excesses of the Germans. Their own sensuality prompted them to a refined Epicureanism in food and drink; on this point, however, it must be admitted that the prelates, here as elsewhere foremost in profligacy, disgraced the age of Leo with banquets worthy of Vitellius.[1] We trace the same play of the fancy, the same promptitude to quicken and intensify the immediate sense of personality at any cost of after-suffering, in another characteristic vice of the Italians. Gambling among them was carried further and produced more harm than it did in the transalpine cities. This we gather from Savonarola's denunciations, from the animated pictures drawn by Alberti in his Trattato della Famiglia and Cena della Famiglia and also from the inductions to many of the Sacre Rappresentazioni.[2]

[1] See Gregorovius, Stadt Rom, vol. viii. p. 225: 'E li cardinali comenzarono a vomitar e cussi li altri,' quoted from Sanudo.

[2] One of the excellent characteristics of Alfonso the Great (Vespasiano, p. 49) was his abhorrence of gambling.

Another point which struck a northern visitor in Italy was the frequency of private and domestic murders.[1] The Italians had and deserved a bad reputation for poisoning and assassination. To refer to the deeds of violence in the history of a single family, the Baglioni of Perugia, as recorded by their chronicler Matarazzo; to cite the passages in which Varchi relates the deaths by poison of Luisa Strozzi, Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici, and Sanga; or to translate the pages of annalists, who describe the palaces of nobles swarming with bravi, would be a very easy task.[2] But the sketch of Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography, which will form part of my third volume, gives so lively a picture of this aspect of Italian life, that there is no reason to enlarge upon the topic now. It is enough to observe that, in their employment of poison and of paid assassins, the Italians were guided by those habits of calculation which distinguished their character.[3] They thought nothing of removing an enemy by craft or violence: but they took no pleasure in murder for its own sake.[4] The object which they had in view prompted them to take a man's life; the mere delight in brawls and bloodshed of Switzers, Germans, and Spaniards offended their taste.

[1] See Guicc. St. Il. vol. i. p. 101, for the impression produced upon the army of Charles by the murder by poison of Gian Galeazzo Sforza.

[2] A vivid illustration of the method adopted by hired assassins in tracking and hunting down their victims is presented by Francesco Bibboni's narrative of his murder of Lorenzino de' Medici at Venice. It casts much curious light, moreover, on the relations between paid bravi and their employers, the esteem in which professional cutthroats were held, and their connection with the police of the Italian towns. It is published in a tract concerning Lorenzino, Milano, Daelli, 1862.

[3] See the instructions given by the Venetian government to their agents for the purchase of poison and the hiring of secret murderers. See also the Maxims laid down by Sarpi.

[4] This at least was accounted eccentric and barbarous in the extreme. See Pontano, de Immanitate, vol. i. p. 326, concerning Niccolo Fortibraccio, Antonio, Pontadera, and the Riccio Montechiaro, who stabbed and strangled for the pleasure of seeing men die. I have already discussed the blood-madness of some of the despots.

While the imagination played so important a part in the morality of the Italians, it must be remembered that they were deficient in that which is the highest imaginative safeguard against vice, a scrupulous sense of honor. It is true that the Italian authors talk much about Onore. Pandolfini tells his sons that Onore is one of the qualities which require the greatest thrift in keeping, and Machiavelli asserts that it is almost as dangerous to attack men in their Onore as in their property. But when we come to analyze the word, we find that it means something different from that mixture of conscience, pride, and self-respect which makes a man true to a high ideal in all the possible circumstances of life. The Italian Onore consisted partly of the credit attaching to public distinction, and partly of a reputation for Virtu, understanding that word in its Machiavellian usage, as force, courage, ability, virility. It was not incompatible with craft and dissimulation, or with the indulgence of sensual vices. Statesmen like Guicciardini, who, by the way, has written a fine paragraph upon the very word in question,[1] did not think it unworthy of their honor to traffic in affairs of state for private profit. Machiavelli not only recommended breaches of political faith, but sacrificed his principles to his pecuniary interests with the Medici. It would be curious to inquire how far the obtuse sensibility of the Italians on this point was due to their freedom from vanity.[2] No nation is perhaps less influenced by mere opinion, less inclined to value men by their adventitious advantages: the Italian has the courage and the independence of his personality. It is, however, more important to take notice that Chivalry never took a firm root in Italy; and honor, as distinguished from vanity, amour propre, and credit, draws its life from that ideal of the knightly character which Chivalry established. The true knight was equally sensitive upon the point of honor, in all that concerned the maintenance of an unsullied self, whether he found himself in a king's court or a robber's den. Chivalry, as epitomized in the celebrated oath imposed by Arthur on his peers of the Round Table, was a northern, a Teutonic, institution. The sense of honor which formed its very essence was further developed by the social atmosphere of a monarch's court. It became the virtue of the nobly born and chivalrously nurtured, as appears very remarkably in this passage from Rabelais[3]: 'En leur reigle n'estoit que ceste clause: Fay ce que vouldras. Parce que gens liberes, bien nayz, bien instruictz, conversans en compaignies honnesties, ont par nature ung instinct et aguillon qui toujours les poulse a faitctz vertueux, et retire de vice: lequel ils nommoyent honneur.' Now in Italy not only was Chivalry as an institution weak; but the feudal courts in which it produced its fairest flower, the knightly sense of honor, did not exist.[4] Instead of a circle of peers gathered from all quarters of the kingdom round the font of honor in the person of the sovereign, commercial republics, forceful tyrannies, and the Papal Curia gave the tone to society. In every part of the peninsula rich bankers who bought and sold cities, adventurers who grasped at principalities by violence or intrigue, and priests who sought the aggrandizement of a sacerdotal corporation, were brought together in the meshes of diplomacy. The few noble families which claimed a feudal origin carried on wars for pay by contract in the interest of burghers, popes, or despots. Of these conditions not one was conducive to the sense of honor as conceived in France or England. Taken altogether and in combination, they could not fail to be eminently unfavorable to its development. In such a society Bayard and Sir Walter Manny would have been out of place: the motto noblesse oblige would have had but little meaning.[5] Instead of Honor, Virtu ruled the world in Italy. The moral atmosphere again was critical and highly intellectualized. Mental ability combined with personal daring gave rank. But the very subtlety and force of mind which formed the strength of the Italians proved hostile to any delicate sentiment of honor. Analysis enfeebles the tact and spontaneity of feeling which constitute its strongest safeguard. All this is obvious in the ethics of the Principe. What most astounds us in that treatise is the assumption that no men will be bound by laws of honor when utility or the object in view require their sacrifice. In conclusion; although the Italians were not lacking in integrity, honesty, probity, or pride, their positive and highly analytical genius was but little influenced by that chivalrous honor which was an enthusiasm and a religion to the feudal nations, surviving the decay of chivalry as a preservative instinct more undefinable than absolute morality. Honor with the northern gentry was subjective; with the Italians Onore was objective—an addition conferred from without, in the shape of reputation, glory, titles of distinction, or offices of trust.[6]

[1] Ricordi politici e civili, No. 118, Op. Ined. vol. i.

[2] See De Stendhal, Histoire de la peinture en Italie, pp. 285-91, for a curious catalogue of examples. The modern sense of honor is based, no doubt, to some extent on a delicate amour propre, which makes a man desirous of winning the esteem of his neighbors for its own sake. Granting that conscience, pride, vanity, and self-respect are all constituents of honor, we may, perhaps, find more pride in the Spanish, more amour propre in the French, and more conscience in the English.

[3] Gargantua, lib. 1. ch. 57.

[4] See, however, what I have already said about Castiglione and his ideal of the courtier in Chapter III. We must remember that he represents a late period of the Renaissance.

[5] It is curious to compare, for example, the part played by Italians, especially by Venice, Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi, as contractors and merchants in the Crusades, with the enthusiasm of the northern nations.

[6] In confirmation of this view I may call attention to Giannotti's critique of the Florentine constitution (Florence, 1850, vol. i. pp. 15 and 156), and to what Machiavelli says about Gianpaolo Baglioni (Disc. i. 27), 'Gli uomini non sanno essere onorevolmente tristi'; men know not how to be bad with credit to themselves. The context proves that Gianpaolo failed to win the honor of a signal crime. Compare the use of the word onore in Lorinzino de' Medici's 'Apologia.'

With the Italian conception of Onore we may compare their view of Onesta in the female sex. This is set forth plainly by Piccolomini in La Bella Creanza delle Donne.[1] As in the case of Onore, we have here to deal, not with an exquisite personal ideal, but with something far more material and external. The onesta of a married woman is compatible with secret infidelity, provided she does not expose herself to ridicule and censure by letting her amour be known. Here again, therefore, the proper translation of the word seems to be credit. Finally, we may allude to the invective against honor which Tasso puts into the mouths of his shepherds in Aminta[2] Though at this period the influence of France and Spain had communicated to aristocratic society in Italy an exotic sense of honor, yet a court poet dared to condemn it as unworthy of the Bell' eta dell' oro, because it interfered with pleasure and introduced disagreeable duties into life. Such a tirade would not have been endured in the London of Elizabeth or in the Paris of Louis XIV. Tasso himself, it may be said in passing, was almost feverishly punctilious in matters that touched his reputation.

[1] La Raffaella, ovvero Delia bella Creanza delle Donne (Milano, Daelli). Compare the statement of the author in his preface, p. 4, where he speaks in his own person, with the definition of Onore given by Raffaella, pp. 50 and 51 of the Dialogue: 'l'onore non e riposto in altro, se non nella stimazione appresso agli uomini ... l'onor della donna non consiste, come t'ho detto, nel fare o non fare, che questo importa poco, ma nel credersi o non credersi.'

[2] This invective might be paralleled from one ot Masuccio's Novelle (ed. Napoli, pp. 389, 390), in which he almost cynically exposes the inconvenience of self-respect and delicacy. The situation of two friends, who agree that honor is a nuisance and share their wives in common, is a favorite of the Novelists.

An important consideration, affecting the whole question of Italian immorality, is this. Whereas the northern races had hitherto remained in a state of comparative poverty and barbarism, distributed through villages and country districts, the people of Italy had enjoyed centuries of wealth and civilization in great cities. Their towns were the centers of luxurious life. The superfluous income of the rich was spent in pleasure, nor had modern decorum taught them to conceal the vices of advanced culture beneath the cloak of propriety. They were at the same time both indifferent to opinion and self-conscious in a high degree. The very worst of them was seen at a glance and recorded with minute particularity. The depravity of less cultivated races remained unnoticed because no one took the trouble to describe mere barbarism.[1] Vices of the same sort, but less widely dispersed, perhaps, throughout the people, were notorious in Italy, because they were combined with so much that was beautiful and splendid. In a word, the faults of the Italians were such as belong to a highly intellectualized society, as yet but imperfectly penetrated with culture, raised above the brutishness of barbarians, but not advanced to the self-control of civilization, hampered by the corruption of a Church that trafficked in crime, tainted by uncritical contact with pagan art and literature, and emasculated by political despotism. Their vices, bad as they were in reality, seemed still worse because they attacked the imagination instead of merely exercising the senses. As a correlative to their depravity, we find a sobriety of appetite, a courtesy of behavior, a mildness and cheerfulness of disposition, a widely diffused refinement of sentiment and manners, a liberal spirit of toleration, which can nowhere else be paralleled in, Europe at that period. It was no small mark of superiority to be less ignorant and gross than England, less brutal and stolid than Germany, less rapacious than Switzerland, less cruel than Spain, less vain and inconsequent than France.

[1] Read, however, the Saxon Chronicles or the annals of Ireland in Froude.

Italy again was the land of emancipated individuality. What Mill in his Essay on Liberty desired, what seems every day more unattainable in modern life, was enjoyed by the Italians. There was no check to the growth of personality, no grinding of men down to match the average. If great vices emerged more openly than they did elsewhere in Europe, great qualities also had the opportunity of free development in heroes like Ferrucci, in saints like Savonarola, in artists like Michael Angelo. While the social atmosphere of the Papal and despotic courts was unfavorable to the highest type of character, we find at least no external engine of repression, no omnipotent inquisition, no overpowering aristocracy.[1] False political systems and a corrupt Church created a malaria, which poisoned the noble spirits of Machiavelli, Ariosto, Guicciardini, Giuliano della Rovere. It does not, however, follow therefore that the humanities of the race at large, in spite of superstition and bad government, were vitiated.

[1] I am of course speaking of the Renaissance as distinguished from that new phase of Italian history which followed the Council of Trent and the Spanish despotism.

We have positive proofs to the contrary in the art of the Italians. The April freshness of Giotto, the piety of Fra Angelico, the virginal purity of the young Raphael, the sweet gravity of John Bellini, the philosophic depth of Da Vinci, the sublime elevation of Michael Angelo, the suavity of Fra Bartolommeo, the delicacy of the Della Robbia, the restrained fervor of Rosellini, the rapture of the Sienese and the reverence of the Umbrian masters, Francia's pathos, Mantegna's dignity, and Luini's divine simplicity, were qualities which belonged not only to these artists but also to the people of Italy from whom they sprang. If men not few of whom were born in cottages and educated in workshops could feel and think and fashion as they did, we cannot doubt that their mothers and their friends were pure and pious, and that the race which gave them to the world was not depraved. Painting in Italy, it must be remembered, was nearer to the people than literature: it was less a matter of education than instinct, a product of temperament rather than of culture.

Italian art alone suffices to prove to my mind that the immorality of the age descended from the upper stratum of society downwards. Selfish despots and luxurious priests were the ruin of Italy; and the bad qualities of the princes, secular and ecclesiastical, found expression in the literature of poets and humanists, their parasites. But in what other nation of the fifteenth century can we show the same of social urbanity and intellectual light diffused throughout all classes from the highest to the lowest? It is true that the sixteenth century cast a blight upon their luster. But it was not until Italian taste had been impaired by the vices of Papal Rome and by contact with the Spaniards that the arts became either coarse or sensual. Giulio Romano (1492-1546) and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-70) mark the beginning of the change. In Riberia, a Spaniard, in Caravaggio, and in the whole school of Bologna, it was accomplished. Yet never at any period did the native Italian masters learn to love ugliness with the devotion that reveals innate grossness. It remained for Duerer, Rembrandt, and Hogarth to elevate the grotesque into the region of high art, for Rubens to achieve the apotheosis of pure animalism, for Teniers to devote distinguished genius to the service of the commonplace.

In any review of Italian religion and morality, however fragmentary it may be, as this indeed is, one feature which distinguishes the acute sensibility of the race ought not to be omitted. Deficient in profound intellectual convictions, incapable of a fixed and radical determination towards national holiness, devoid of those passionate and imaginative intuitions into the mysteries of the world which generate religions and philosophies, the Italians were at the same time keenly susceptible to the beauty of the Christian faith revealed to them by inspired orators. What we call Revivalism was an institution in Italy, which the Church was too wise to discountenance or to suppress, although the preachers of repentance were often insubordinate and sometimes even hostile to the Papal system. The names of Arnold of Brescia, San Bernardino of Siena, John of Vicenza, Jacopo Bussolari, Alberto da Lecce, Giovanni Capistrano, Jacopo della Marca, Girolamo Savonarola, bring before the memory of those who are acquainted with Italian history innumerable pictures of multitudes commoved to tears, of tyrannies destroyed and constitutions founded by tumultuous assemblies, of hostile parties and vindictive nobles locked in fraternal embraces, of cities clothed in sackcloth for their sins, of exhortations to peace echoing by the banks of rivers swollen with blood, of squares and hillsides resonant with sobs, of Lenten nights illuminated with bonfires of Vanity.[1] In the midst of these melodramatic scenes towers the single form of a Dominican or Franciscan friar: while one voice thundering woe or pleading peace dominates the crowd. Of the temporary effects produced by these preachers there can be no question. The changes which they wrought in states and cities prove that the enthusiasm they aroused was more than merely hysterical. Savonarola, the greatest of his class, founded not only a transient commonwealth in Florence, but also a political party of importance, and left his lasting impress on the greatest soul of the sixteenth century in Italy—Michael Angelo Buonarroti. There was a real religious vigor in the people corresponding to the preacher's zeal. But the action of this earnest mood was intermittent and spasmodic. It coexisted with too much superstition and with passions too vehemently restless to form a settled tone of character. In this respect the Italian nation stands not extravagantly pictured in the life of Cellini, whose violence, self-indulgence, keen sense of pleasure, and pagan delight in physical beauty were interrupted at intervals by inexplicable interludes of repentance, Bible-reading, psalm-singing, and visions. To delineate Cellini will be the business of a distant chapter. The form of the greatest of Italian preachers must occupy the foreground of the next.

[1] I have thrown into an appendix some of the principal passages from the chronicles about revivals in mediaeval Italy.

Before closing the imperfect and scattered notices collected in this chapter, it will be well to attempt some recapitulation of the points already suggested. Without committing ourselves to the dogmatism of a theory, we are led to certain general conclusions on the subject of Italian society in the sixteenth century. The fierce party quarrels which closed the Middle Ages had accustomed the population to violence, and this violence survived in the too frequent occurrence of brutal crimes. The artificial sovereignty of the despots being grounded upon perfidy, it followed that guile and fraud came to be recognized in private no less than public life. With the emergence of the bourgeois classes a self-satisfied positivism, vividly portrayed in the person of Cosimo de' Medici, superseded the passions and enthusiasms of a previous age. Thus force, craft, and practical materialism formed the basis of Italian immorality. Vehement contention in the sphere of politics, restless speculation, together with the loosening of every tie that bound society together in the Middle Ages, emancipated personality and substituted the freedom of self-centered vigor and virility (Virtu) for the prescriptions of civil or religions order. In the nation that had shaken off both Papal and Imperial authority no conception of law remained to control caprice. Instead of law men obeyed the instincts of their several characters, swayed by artistic taste or tyrannous appetite, or by the splendid heroism of extinct antiquity. The Church had alienated the people from true piety. Yet no new form of religious belief arose; and partly through respect for the past, partly through the convenience of clinging to existing institutions, Catholicism was indulgently tolerated. At the same time the humanists introduced an ideal antagonistic to Christianity of the monastic type. Without abruptly severing themselves from the communion of the Church, and while in form at least observing all its ordinances, they thought, wrote, spoke, felt, and acted like Pagans. To the hypocrisies of obsolete asceticism were added the affectations of anachronistic license. Meanwhile, the national genius for art attained its fullest development, simultaneously with the decay of faith, the extinction of political liberty, and the anarchy of ethics. So strong was the aesthetic impulse that it seemed for a while capable of drawing all the forces of the nation to itself. A society that rested upon force and fraud, corroded with cynicism, cankered with hypocrisy recognizing no standard apart from success in action and beauty in form, so conscious of its own corruption that it produced no satirist among the many who laughed lightly at its vices, wore the external aspect of exquisite refinement, and was delicately sensitive to every discord. Those who understood the contradictions of the age most deeply were the least capable of rising above them Consequently we obtain in Machiavelli's works the ideal picture of personal character, moving to calculated ends by scientifically selected means, none of which are sanctioned by the unwritten code of law that governs human progress. Cosimo's positivism is reduced to theory. Fraud becomes a rule of conduct. Force is advocated, when the dagger or the poisoned draught or the extermination of a city may lead the individual straight forward to his object. Religion is shown to be a political engine. Hypocrisy is a mask that must be worn. The sanctities of ancient use and custom controlling appetite have no place assigned them in the system. Action is analyzed as a branch of the fine arts; and the spirit of the age, of which the philosopher makes himself the hierophant, compels him to portray it as a sinister and evil art.

In the civilization of Italy, carried prematurely beyond the conditions of the Middle Ages, before the institutions of mediaevalism had been destroyed or its prejudices had been overcome, we everywhere discern the want of a co-ordinating principle. The old religion has died; but there is no new faith. The Communes have been proved inadequate; but there is no nationality. Practical positivism has obliterated the virtues of a chivalrous and feudal past; but science has not yet been born. Scholarship floods the world with the learning of antiquity; but this knowledge is still undigested. Art triumphs; but the aesthetic instinct has invaded the regions of politics and ethics, owing to defective analysis in theory, and in practice to over-confident reliance on personal ability. The individual has attained to freedom; but he has not learned the necessity of submitting his volition to law. At all points the development of the Italians strikes us as precocious, with the weakness of precocity scarcely distinguishable from the decay of old age. A transition from the point attained in the Renaissance to some firmer and more solid ground was imperatively demanded. But the fatality of events precluded the Italians from making it. Their evolution, checked in mid career by the brilliant ambition of France and the cautious reactionary despotism of Spain, remained suspended. Students are left, face to face with the sixteenth century, to decipher an inscription that lacks its leading verb, to puzzle over a riddle whereof the solution is hidden from us by the ruin of a people. It must ever be an undecided question whether the Italians, undisturbed by foreign interference, could have passed beyond the artificial and exceptional stage of the Renaissance to a sounder and more substantial phase of national vitality; or whether, as their inner conscience seems to have assured them, their disengagement from moral obligation and their mental ferment foreboded an inevitable catastrophe.



The Attitude of Savonarola toward the Renaissance—His Parentage, Birth, and Childhood at Ferrara—His Poem on the Ruin of the World—Joins the Dominicans at Bologna—Letter to his Father—Poem on the Ruin of the Church—Begins to preach in 1482—First Visit to Florence—San Gemignano—His Prophecy—Brescia in 1486—Personal Appearance and Style of Oratory—Effect on his audience—The three Conclusions—His Visions—Savonarola's Shortcomings as a patriotic Statesman—His sincere Belief in his prophetic Calling—Friendship with Pico della Mirandola—Settles in Florence, 1490—Convent of San Marco—Savonarola's Relation to Lorenzo de' Medici—The death of Lorenzo—Sermons of 1493 and 1494—the Constitution of 1495—Theocracy in Florence—Piagnoni, Bigi, and Arrabbiati—War between Savonarola and Alexander VI.—The Signory suspends him from preaching in the Duomo in 1498—Attempts to call a Council—The Ordeal by Fire—San Marco stormed by the Mob—Trial and Execution of Savonarola.

Nothing is more characteristic of the sharp contrasts of the Italian Renaissance than the emergence not only from the same society, but also from the bosom of the same Church, of two men so diverse as the Pope Alexander VI. and the Prophet Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola has been claimed as a precursor of the Lutheran Reformers, and as an inspired exponent of the spirit of the fifteenth century. In reality he neither shared the revolutionary genius of Luther, which gave a new vitality to the faiths of Christendom, nor did he sympathize with that free movement of the modern mind which found its first expression in the arts and humanistic studies of Renaissance Italy. Both toward Renaissance and Reform he preserved the attitude of a monk, showing on the one hand an austere mistrust of pagan culture, and on the other no desire to alter either the creeds or the traditions of the Romish Church. Yet the history of Savonarola is not to be dissociated from that of the Italian Renaissance. He more clearly than any other man discerned the moral and political situation of his country. When all the states of Italy seemed sunk in peace and cradled in prosperity, he predicted war, and felt the imminence of overwhelming calamity. The purification of customs which he preached was demanded by the flagrant vices of the Popes and by the wickedness of the tyrants. The scourge which he prophesied did in fact descend upon Italy. In addition to this clairvoyance by right of which we call him prophet, the hold he took on Florence at a critical moment of Italian history is alone enough to entitle him to more than merely passing notice.

Girolamo Savonarola was born at Ferrara in 1452.[1] His grandfather Michele, a Paduan of noble family, had removed to the capital of the Este princes at the beginning of the fifteenth century. There he held the office of court physician; and Girolamo was intended for the same profession. But early in his boyhood the future prophet showed signs of disinclination for a worldly life, and an invincible dislike of the court. Under the House of Este, Ferrara was famous throughout Italy for its gayety and splendor. No city enjoyed more brilliant and more frequent public shows. Nowhere did the aristocracy maintain so much of feudal magnificence and chivalrous enjoyment. The square castle of red brick, which still stands in the middle of the town, was thronged with poets, players, fools who enjoyed an almost European reputation, court flatterers, knights, pages, scholars and fair ladies. But beneath its cube of solid masonry, on a level with the moat, shut out from daylight by a sevenfold series of iron bars, lay dungeons in which the objects of the Duke's displeasure clanked chains and sighed their lives away.[2] Within the precincts of this palace the young Savonarola learned to hate alike the worldly vices and the despotic cruelty against which in after-life he prophesied and fought unto the death.

[1] In this chapter on Savonarola I have made use of Villari's Life (translated by Leonard Horner, Longmans, 1863, 2 vols.), Michelet's Histoire de France, vol. vii., Milman's article on Savonarola (John Murray, 1870), Nardi's Istoria Fiorentina, book ii., and the Memoirs of De Comines.

[2] See p. 424.

Of his boyhood we know but little. His biographers only tell us that he was grave and solitary, frequenting churches, praying with passionate persistence, obstinately refusing, though otherwise docile, to join his father in his visits to the court. Aristotle and S. Thomas Aquinas seem to have been the favorite masters of his study. In fact he refused the new lights of the humanists, and adhered to the ecclesiastical training of the schoolmen. Already at the age of twenty we find him composing a poem in Italian on the Ruin of the World, in which he cries: 'The whole world is in confusion: all virtue is extinguished, and all good manners; I find no living light abroad, nor one who blushes for his vices.' His point of departure had been taken, and the keynote of his life had been struck. The sense of intolerable sin that came upon him in Ferrara haunted him through manhood, set his hand against the Popes and despots of Italy, and gave peculiar tone to his prophetic utterances.

The attractions of the cloister, as a refuge from the storms of the world, and as a rest from the torments of the sins of others, now began to sway his mind.[1] But he communicated his desire to no one. It would have grieved his father and his mother to find that their son, who was, they hoped, to be a shining light at the court of Ferrara, had determined to assume the cowl. At length, however, came the time at which he felt that leave the world he must. 'It was on the 23d of April 1475,' says Villari; 'he was sitting with his lute and playing a sad melody; his mother, as if moved by a spirit of divination, turned suddenly round to him, and exclaimed mournfully, My son, that is a sign we are soon to part. He roused himself, and continued, but with a trembling hand, to touch the strings of the lute, without raising his eyes from the ground.' This would make a picture: spring twilight in the quaint Italian room, with perhaps a branch of fig-tree or of bay across the open window; the mother looking up with anxious face from her needlework; the youth, with those terrible eyes and tense lips and dilated nostrils of the future prophet, not yet worn by years of care, but strongly marked and unmistakable, bending over the melancholy chords of the lute, dressed almost for the last time in secular attire.

[1] Often in later life Savonarola cried that he had sought the cloister to find rest, but that God had chosen, instead of bringing him into calm waters, to cast him on a tempest-swollen sea. See the Sermon quoted by Villari, vol. i. p. 298.

On the very next day Girolamo left Ferrara in secret and journeyed to Bologna. There he entered the order of S. Dominic, the order of the Preachers, the order of his master S. Thomas, the order too, let us remember, of inquisitorial crusades. The letter written to his father after taking this step is memorable. In it he says: 'The motives by which I have been led to enter into a religious life are these: the great misery of the world; the iniquities of men, their rapes, adulteries, robberies, their pride, idolatry, and fearful blasphemies: so that things have come to such a pass that no one can be found acting righteously. Many times a day have I repeated with tears the verse:

Heu, fuge crudeles terras, fuge littus avarum!

I could not endure the enormous wickedness of the blinded people of Italy; and the more so because I saw everywhere virtue despised and vice honored.' We see clearly that Savonarola's vocation took its origin in a deep sense of the wickedness of the world. It was the same spirit as that which drove the early Christians of Alexandria into the Thebaid. Austere and haggard, consumed with the zeal of the Lord, he had moved long enough among the Ferrarese holiday-makers. Those elegant young men in tight hose and particolored jackets, with oaths upon their lips and deeds of violence and lust within their hearts, were no associates for him. It is touching, however, to note that no text of Ezekiel or Jeremiah, but Virgil's musical hexameter, sounded through his soul the warning to depart.

In this year Savonarola composed another poem, this time on the Ruin of the Church. In his boyhood he had witnessed the pompous shows which greeted AEneas Sylvius, more like a Roman general than a new-made Pope, on his entrance into Ferrara. Since then he had seen the monster Sixtus mount the Papal throne. No wonder if he, who had fled from the world to the Church for purity and peace, should need to vent his passion in a song. 'Where,' he cries, 'are the doctors of old times, the saints, the learning, charity, chastity of the past?' The Church answers by displaying her rent raiment and wounded body, and by pointing to the cavern in which she has to make her home. 'Who,' exclaims the poet, 'has wrought this wrong?' Una fallace, superba meretrice—Rome! Then indeed the passion of the novice breaks in fire:—

Deh! per Dio, donna, Se romper si potria quelle grandi ale!

The Church replies:—

Tu piangi e taci: e questo meglio parmi.

No other answer could be given to Savonarola's impatient yearnings even by his own hot heart, while he yet remained a young and unknown monk in Bologna. Nor, strive as he might strive through all his life, was it granted to him to break those outspread wings of arrogant Rome.

The career of Savonarola as a preacher began in 1482, when he was sent first to Ferrara and then to Florence on missions by his superiors. But at neither place did he find acceptance. A prophet has no honor in his own country; and for pagan-hearted Florence, though destined to be the theater of his life-drama, Savonarola had as yet no thundrous burden of invective to utter. Besides, his voice was sharp and thin; his face and person were not prepossessing. The style of his discourse was adapted to cloisteral disputations, and overloaded with scholastic distinctions. The great orator had not yet arisen in him. The friar, with all his dryness and severity, was but too apparent. With what strange feelings must the youth have trodden the streets of Florence! In after-days he used to say that he foreknew those streets and squares were destined to be the scene of his labors. But then, voiceless, powerless, without control of his own genius, without the consciousness of his prophetic mission, he brooded alone and out of harmony with the beautiful and mundane city. The charm of the hills and gardens of Valdarno, the loveliness of Giotto's tower, the amplitude of Brunelleschi's dome—these may have sunk deep into his soul. And the subtle temper of the Florentine intellect must have attracted his own keen spirit by a secret sympathy. For Florence erelong became the city of his love, the first-born of his yearnings.

In the cloisters of San Marco, enriched with splendid libraries by the liberality of the Medicean princes, he was at peace. The walls of that convent had recently been decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico, even as a man might crowd the leaves of a missal with illuminations. Among these Savonarola meditated and was happy. But in the pulpit and in contact with the holiday folk of Florence he was ill at ease. Lorenzo de' Medici overshadowed the whole city. Lorenzo, in whom the pagan spirit of the Renaissance, the spirit of free culture, found a proper incarnation, was the very opposite of Savonarola, who had already judged the classical revival by its fruits, and had conceived a spiritual resurrection for his country. At Florence a passionate love of art and learning—the enthusiasm which prompted men to spend their fortunes upon MSS. and statues, the sensibility to beauty which produced the masterworks of Donatello and Ghiberti, the thirst for knowledge which burned in Pico and Poliziano and Ficino—existed side by side with impudent immorality, religious deadness, cold contempt for truth, and cynical admiration of successful villainy. Both the good and the evil which flourished on this fertile soil so luxuriantly were combined in the versatile genius of the merchant prince, whose policy it was to stifle freedom by caressing the follies, vices, and intellectual tastes of his people.

The young Savonarola was as yet no match for Lorenzo. And whither could he look for help? The reform of morals he so ardently desired was not to be expected from the Church. Florence well knew that Sixtus had plotted to murder the Medici before the altar at the moment of the elevation of the Host. Excommunicated for a deed of justice after the failure of this Popish plot, the city had long been at war with the pontiff. If anywhere it was in the cells of the philosophers, in that retreat where Ficino burned his lamp to Plato, in that hall where the Academy crowned their master's bust with laurels, that the more sober-minded citizens found ghostly comfort and advice. But from this philosophy the fervent soul of Savonarola turned with no less loathing, and with more contempt, than from the Canti Carnascialeschi and Aristophanic pageants of Lorenzo, which made Florence at Carnival time affect the fashions of Athens during the Dionysia. It is true that Italy owed much to the elevated theism developed by Platonic students. While the humanists were exalting pagan license, and while the Church was teaching the worst kinds of immorality, the philosophers kept alive in cultivated minds a sense of God.

But the monk, nourished on the Bible and S. Thomas, valued this confusion of spirits and creeds in a chaos of indiscriminate erudition, at a small price. He had the courage in the fifteenth century at Florence to proclaim that the philosophers were in hell, and that an old woman knew more of saving faith than Plato. Savonarola and Lorenzo were opposed as champions of two hostile principles alike emergent from the very life of the Renaissance: paganism reborn in the one, the spirit of the gospel in the other. Both were essentially modern; for it was the function of the Renaissance to restore to the soul of man its double heritage of the classic past and Christian liberty, freeing it from the fetters which the Middle Ages had forged. Not yet, however, were Lorenzo and Savonarola destined to clash. The obscure friar at this time was preaching to an audience of some thirty persons in San Lorenzo, while Poliziano and all the fashion of the town crowded to the sermons of Fra Mariano da Genezzano in Santo Spirito. This man flattered the taste of the moment by composing orations on the model of Ficino's addresses to the Academy, and by complimenting Christianity upon its similarity to Platonism. Who could then have guessed that beneath the cowl of the harsh-voiced Dominican, his rival, burned thoughts that in a few years would inflame Florence with a conflagration powerful enough to destroy the fabric of the Medicean despotism?

From Florence, where he had met with no success, Savonarola was sent to San Gemignano, a little town on the top of a high hill between Florence and Siena. We now visit San Gemignano in order to study some fading frescoes of Gozzoli and Ghirlandajo, or else for the sake of its strange feudal towers, tall pillars of brown stone, crowded together within the narrow circle of the town walls. Very beautiful is the prospect from these ramparts on a spring morning, when the song of nightingales and the scent of acacia flowers ascend together from the groves upon the slopes beneath. The gray Tuscan landscape for scores and scores of miles all round melts into blueness, like the blueness of the sky, flecked here and there with wandering cloud-shadows. Let those who pace the grass-grown streets of the hushed city remember that here the first flash of authentic genius kindled in Savonarola's soul. Here for the first time he prophesied: 'The church will be scourged, then regenerated, and this quickly.' These are the celebrated three conclusions, the three points to which Savonarola in all his prophetic utterances adhered.

But not yet had he fully entered on his vocation. His voice was weak; his style uncertain; his soul, we may believe, still wavering between strange dread and awful joy, as he beheld, through many a backward rolling mist of doubt, the mantle of the prophets descend upon him. Already he had abandoned the schoolmen for the Bible. Already he had learned by heart each verse of the Old and New Testaments. Pondering on their texts, he had discovered four separate interpretations for every suggestion of Sacred Writ. For some of the pregnant utterances of the prophets he found hundreds, pouring forth metaphor and illustration in wild and dazzling profusion of audacious, uncouth imagery. The flame which began to smoulder in him at San Gemignano burst forth into a blaze at Brescia, in 1486. Savonarola was now aged thirty-four. 'Midway upon the path of life' he opened the Book of Revelation: he figured to the people of Brescia the four-and-twenty elders rising to denounce the sins of Italy, and to declare the calamities that must ensue. He pictured to them their city flowing with blood. His voice, which now became the interpreter of his soul, in its resonance and earnestness and piercing shrillness, thrilled his hearers with strange terror. Already they believed his prophecy; and twenty-six years later, when the soldiers of Gaston de Foix slaughtered six thousand souls in the streets of Brescia, her citizens recalled the Apocalyptic warnings of the Dominican monk.

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