But the religious processions were not only mingled with secular accessories of all kinds, but were often replaced by processions of clerical masks. Their origin is perhaps to be found in the parties of actors who wound their way through the streets of the city to the place where they were about to act the mystery; but it is possible that at an early per;od the clerical procession may have constituted itself as a distinct species. Dante described the 'Trionfo' of Beatrice, with the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse, with the four mystical Beasts, with the three Christian and four Cardinal Virtues, and with Saint Luke, Saint Paul, and other Apostles, in a way which almost forces us to conclude that such processions actually occurred before his time. We are chiefly led to this conclusion by the chariot in which Beatrice drives, and which in the miraculous forest of the vision would have been unnecessary or rather out of place. It is possible, on the other hand, that Dante looked on the chariot as a symbol of victory and triumph, and that his poem rather served to give rise to these processions, the form of which was borrowed from the triumph of the Roman Emperors. However this may be, poetry and theology continued to make free use of the symbol. Savonarola in his 'Triumph of the Cross' represents Christ on a Chariot of Victory, above his head the shining sphere of the Trinity, in his left hand the Cross, in his right the Old and New Testaments; below him the Virgin Mary; on both sides the Martyrs and Doctors of the Church with open books; behind him all the multitude of the saved; and in the distance the countless host of his enemies—emperors, princes, philosophers, heretics—all vanquished, their idols broken, and their books burned. A great picture of Titian, which is known only as a woodcut, has a good deal in common with this description. The ninth and tenth of Sabellico's thirteen Elegies on the Mother of God contain a minute account of her triumph, richly adorned with allegories, and especially interesting from that matter-of-fact air which also characterizes the realistic painting of the fifteenth century.
Nevertheless, the secular 'Trionfi' were far more frequent than the religious. They were modelled on the procession of the Roman Imperator, as it was known from the old reliefs and the writings of ancient authors. The historical conceptions then prevalent in Italy, with which these shows were closely connected, have already been discussed.
We now and then read of the actual triumphal entrance of a victorious general, which was organized as far as possible on the ancient pattern, even against the will of the hero himself. Francesco Sforza had the courage (1450) to refuse the triumphal chariot which had been prepared for his return to Milan, on the ground that such things were monarchial superstitions. Alfonso the Great, on his entrance into Naples (1443), declined the wreath of laurel, which Napoleon did not disdain to wear at his coronation in Notre-Dame. For the rest, Alfonso's procession, which passed by a breach in the wall through the city to the cathedral, was a strange mixture of antique, allegorical, and purely comic elements. The car, drawn by four white horses, on which he sat enthroned, was lofty and covered with gilding; twenty patricians carried the poles of the canopy of cloth of gold which shaded his head. The part of the procession which the Florentines then present in Naples had undertaken was composed of elegant young cavaliers, skillfully brandishing their lances, of a chariot with the figure of Fortune, and of seven Virtues on horseback. The goddess herself, in accordance with the inexorable logic of allegory to which even the painters at that time conformed, wore hair only on the front part of her head, while the back part was bald, and the genius who sat on the lower steps of the car, and who symbolized the fugitive character of fortune, had his feet immersed in a basin of water Then followed, equipped by the same Florentines, a troop of horsemen in the costumes of various nations, dressed as foreign princes and nobles, and then, crowned with laurel and standing above a revolving globe, a Julius Caesar, who explained to the king in Italian verse the meaning of the allegories, and then took his place in the procession. Sixty Florentines, all in purple and scarlet, closed this splendid display of what their home could achieve. Then a band of Catalans advanced on foot, with lay figures of horses fastened on to them before and behind, and engaged in a mock combat with a body of Turks, as though in derision of the Florentine sentimentalism. Last of all came a gigantic tower, the door guarded by an angel with a drawn sword; on it stood four Virtues, who each addressed the king with a song. The rest of the show had nothing specially characteristic about it.
At the entrance of Louis XII into Milan in the year 1507 we find, besides the inevitable chariot with Virtues, a living group representing Jupiter, Mars, and a figure of Italy caught in a net. After which came a car laden with trophies, and so forth.
And when there were in reality no triumphs to celebrate, the poets found a compensation for themselves and their patrons. Petrarch and Boccaccio had described the representation of every sort of fame as attendants each of an allegorical figure; the celebrities of past ages were now made attendants of the prince. The poetess Cleofe Gabrielli of Gubbio paid this honour to Borso of Ferrara. She gave him seven queens- -the seven liberal arts—as his handmaids, with whom he mounted a chariot; further, a crowd of heroes, distinguished by names written on their foreheads; then followed all the famous poets; and after them the gods driving in their chariots. There is, in fact, at this time simply no end to the mythological and allegorical charioteering, and the most important work of art of Borso's time—the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia—shows us a whole frieze filled with these motives. Raphael, when he had to paint the Camera della Segnatura, found this mode of artistic thought completely vulgarized and worn out. The new and final consecration which he gave to it will remain a wonder to all ages.
The triumphal processions, strictly speaking, of victorious generals, formed the exception. But all the festive processions, whether they celebrated any special event or were mainly held for their own sakes, assumed more or less the character and nearly always the name of a 'Trionfo.' It is a wonder that funerals were not also treated in the same way.
It was the practice, both at the Carnival and on other occasions, to represent the triumphs of ancient Roman commanders, such as that of Paulus Aemilius under Lorenzo the Magnificent at Florence, and that of Camillus on the visit of Leo X. Both were conducted by the painter Francesco Granacci. In Rome, the first complete exhibition of this kind was the triumph of Augustus after the victory over Cleopatra, under Paul II, where, besides the comic and mythological masks, which, as a matter of fact, were not wanting in the ancient triumphs, all the other requisites were to be found—kings in chains, tablets with decrees of the senate and people, a senate clothed in the ancient costume, praetors, aediles, and quaestors, four chariots filled with singing masks, and, doubtless, cars laden with trophies. Other processions rather aimed at setting forth, in a general way, the universal empire of ancient Rome; and in answer to the very real danger which threatened Europe from the side of the Turks, a cavalcade of camels bearing masks representing Ottoman prisoners, appeared before the people. Later, at the Carnival of the year 1500, Cesare Borgia, with a bold allusion to himself, celebrated the triumph of Julius Caesar, with a procession of eleven magnificent chariots, doubtless to the scandal of the pilgrims who had come fm the Jubilee. Two 'Trionfi,' famous for their taste and beauty, were given by rival companies in Florence, on the election of Leo X to the Papacy. One of them represented the three Ages of Man, the other the Ages of the World, ingeniously set forth in five scenes of Roman history, and in two allegories of the golden age of Saturn and of its final return. The imagination displayed in the adornment of the chariots, when the great Florentine artists undertook the work, made the scene so impressive that such representations became in time a permanent element in the popular life. Hitherto the subject cities had been satisfied merely to present their symbolical gifts—costly stuffs and wax-candles— on the day when they annually did homage. The guild of merchants now built ten chariots, to which others were afterwards to be added, not so much to carry as to symbolize the tribute, and Andrea del Sarto, who painted some of them, no doubt did his work to perfection. These cars, whether used to hold tribute or trophies, now formed part of all such celebrations, even when there was not much money to be laid out. The Sienese announced, in 1477, the alliance between Ferrante and Sixtus IV, with which they themselves were associated, by driving a chariot round the city, with 'one clad as the goddess of peace standing on a hauberk and other arms.'
At the Venetian festivals the processions, not on land but on water, were marvelous in their fantastic splendor. The sailing of the Bucentaur to meet the Princesses of Ferrara in the year 1491 seems to have been something belonging to fairyland. Countless vessels with garlands and hangings, filled with the richly dressed youth of the city, moved in front; genii with attributes symbolizing the various gods, floated on machines hung in the air; below stood others grouped as tritons and nymphs; the air was filled with music, sweet odors, and the fluttering of embroidered banners. The Bucentaur was followed by such a crowd of boats of every sort that for a mile all round (octo stadia) the water could not be seen. With regard to the rest of the festivities, besides the pantomime mentioned above, we may notice as something new a boat-race of fifty powerful girls. In the sixteenth century the nobility were divided into corporations with a view to these festivals, whose most noteworthy feature was some extraordinary machine placed on a ship. So, for instance, in the year 1541, at the festival of the 'Sempiterni,' a round 'universe' floated along the Grand Canal, and a splendid ball was given inside it. The Carnival, too, in this city was famous for its dances, processions, and exhibitions of every kind. The Square of St. Mark was found to give space enough not only for tournaments, but for 'Trionfi,' similar to those common on the mainland. At a festival held on the conclusion of peace, the pious brotherhoods ('scuole') took each its part in the procession. There, among golden chandeliers with red candles, among crowds of musicians and winged boys with golden bowls and horns of plenty, was seen a car on which Noah and David sat together enthroned; then came Abigail, leading a camel laden with treasures, and a second car with a group of political figures- -Italy sitting be tween Venice and Liguria—and on a raised step three female symbolical figures with the arms of the allied princes. This was followed by a great globe with the constellations, as it seems, round it. The princes themselves, or rather their bodily representatives, appeared on other chariots with their servants and their coats of arms, if we have rightly interpreted our author.
The Carnival, properly so called, apart from these great triumphal marches, had nowhere, perhaps, in the fifteenth century so varied a character as in Rome. There were races of every kind—of horses, asses, buffaloes, old men, young men, Jews, and so on. Paul II entertained the people in crowds before the Palazzo di Venezia, in which he lived. The games in the Piazza Navona, which had probably never altogether ceased since the classical times, were remarkable for their warlike splendor. We read of a sham fight of cavalry, and a review of all the citizens in arms. The greatest freedom existed with regard to the use of masks, which were sometimes allowed for several months together. Sixtus IV ventured, in the most populous part of the city—at the Campofiore and near the Banchi —to make his way through crowds of masks, though he declined to receive them as visitors in the Vatican. Under Innocent VIII, a discreditable usage, which had already appeared among the Cardinals, attained its height. In the Carnival of 1491, they sent one another chariots full of splendid masks, of singers, and of buffoons, chanting scandalous verses. They were accompanied by men on horseback. Apart from the Carnival, the Romans seem to have been the first to discover the effect of a great procession by torchlight. When Pius II came back from the Congress of Mantua in 1459, the people waited on him with a squadron of horsemen bearing torches, who rode in shining circles before his palace. Sixtus IV, however, thought it better to decline a nocturnal visit of the people, who proposed to wait on him with torches and olive-branches.
But the Florentine Carnival surpassed the Roman in a certain class of processions, which have left their mark even in literature. Among a crowd of masks on foot and on horseback appeared some huge, fantastic chariots, and upon each an allegorical figure or group of figures with the proper accompaniments, such as Jealousy with four spectacled faces on one head; the four temperaments with the planets belonging to them; the three Fates; Prudence enthroned above Hope and Fear, which lay bound before her; the four Elements, Ages, Winds, Seasons, and so on; as well as the famous chariot of Death with the coffins, which presently opened. Sometimes we meet with a splendid scene from classical mythology—Bacchus and Ariadne, Paris and Helen, and others. Or else a chorus of figures forming some single class or category, as the beggars, the hunters and nymphs, the lost souls who in their lifetime were hardhearted women, the hermits, the astrologers, the vagabonds, the devils, the sellers of various kinds of wares, and even on one occasion 'il popolo,' the people as such, who all reviled one another in their songs. The songs, which still remain and have been collected, give the explanation of the masquerade sometimes pathetic, sometimes in a humorous, and sometimes in an excessively indecent tone. Some of the worst in this respect are attributed to Lorenzo the Magnificent, probably because the real author did not venture to declare himself. However this may be, we must certainly ascribe to him the beautiful song which accompanied the masque of Bacchus and Ariadne, whose refrain still echoes to us from the fifteenth century, like a regretful presentiment of the brief splendor of the Renaissance itself:
'Quanto bella giovinezza, Che si fugge tuttavia! Chi vuol esser lieto, sia: Di doman non c' certezza.'
MORALITY AND RELIGION
Morality and Judgement
The relation of the various peoples of the earth to the supreme interests of life, to God, virtue, and immortality, may be investigated up to a certain point, but can never be compared to one another with absolute strictness and certainty. The more plainly in these matters our evidence seems to speak, the more carefully must we refrain from unqualified assumptions and rash generalizations.
This remark is especially true with regard to our judgement on questions of morality. It may be possible to indicate many contrasts and shades of difference among different nations, but to strike the balance of the whole is not given to human insight. The ultimate truth with respect to the character, the conscience, and the guilt of a people remains for ever a secret; if only for the reason that its defects have another side, where they reappear as peculiarities or even as virtues. We must leave those who find pleasure in passing sweeping censures on whole nations, to do so as they like. The people of Europe can maltreat, but happily not judge one another. A great nation, interwoven by its civilization, its achievements, and its fortunes with the whole life of the modern world, can afford to ignore both its advocates and its accusers. It lives on with or without the approval of theorists.
Accordingly, what here follows is no judgement, but rather a string of marginal notes, suggested by a study of the Italian Renaissance extending over some years. The value to be attached to them is all the more qualified as they mostly touch on the life of the upper classes, with respect to which we are far better informed in Italy than in any other country in Europe at that period. But though both fame and infamy sound louder here than elsewhere, we are not helped thereby in forming an adequate moral estimate of the people.
What eye can pierce the depths in which the character and fate of nations are determined?—in which that which is inborn and that which has been experienced combine to form a new whole and a fresh nature?— in which even those intellectual capacities which at first sight we should take to be most original are in fact evolved late and slowly? Who can tell if the Italian before the thirteenth century possessed that flexible activity and certainty in his whole being—that play of power in shaping whatever subject he dealt with in word or in form, which was peculiar to him later? And if no answer can be found to these questions, how can we possibly judge of the infinite and infinitely intricate channels through which character and intellect are incessantly pouring their influence one upon the other. A tribunal there is for each one of us, whose voice is our conscience; but let us have done with these generalities about nations. For the people that seems to be most sick the cure may be at hand; and one that appears to be healthy may bear within it the ripening germs of death, which the hour of danger will bring forth from their hiding-place.
Morality and Immorality
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the civilization of the Renaissance had reached its highest pitch, and at the same time the political ruin of the nation seemed inevitable, there were not wanting serious thinkers who saw a connexion between this ruin and the prevalent immorality. It was not one .of those methodistical moralists who in every age think themselves called to declaim against the wickedness of the time, but it was Machiavelli, who, in one of his best-considered works, said openly: 'We Italians are irreligious and corrupt above others.' Another man would perhaps have said, 'We are individually highly developed; we have outgrown the limits of morality and religion which were natural to us in our undeveloped state, and we despise outward law, because our rulers are illegitimate, and their judges and officers wicked men.' Machiavelli adds, 'because the Church and her representatives set us the worst example.'
Shall we add also, 'because the influence exercised by antiquity was in this respect unfavorable'? The statement can only be received with many qualifications. It may possibly be true of the humanists, especially as regards the profligacy of their lives. Of the rest it may perhaps be said with some approach to accuracy that, after they became familiar with antiquity, they substituted for holiness—the Christian ideal of life—the cult of historical greatness. We can understand, therefore, how easily they would be tempted to consider those faults and vices to be matters of indifference, in spite of which their heroes were great. They were probably scarcely conscious of this themselves, for if we are summoned to quote any statement of doctrine on this subject, we are again forced to appeal to humanists like Paolo Giovio, who excuses the perjury of Giangaleazzo Visconti, through which he was enabled to found an empire, by the example of Julius Caesar. The great Florentine historians and statesmen never stoop to these slavish quotations, and what seems antique in their deeds and their judgements is so because the nature of their political life necessarily fostered in them a mode of thought which has some analogy with that of antiquity.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Italy at the beginning of the sixteenth century found itself in the midst of a grave moral crisis, out of which the best men saw hardly any escape.
Let us begin by saying a few words about that moral force which was then the strongest bulwark against evil. The highly gifted man of that day thought to find it in the sentiment of honour. This is that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egotism which often survives in the modern man after he has lost, whether by his own fault or not, faith, love, and hope. This sense of honour is compatible with much selfishness and great vices, and may be the victim of astonishing illusions; yet, nevertheless, all the noble elements that are left in the wreck of a character may gather around it, and from this fountain may draw new strength. It has become, in a far wider sense than is commonly believed, a decisive test of conduct in the minds of the cultivated Europeans of our own day, and many of those who yet hold faithfully by religion and morality are unconsciously guided by this feeling in the gravest decisions of their lives.
It lies without the limits of our task to show how the men of antiquity also experienced this feeling in a peculiar form, and how, afterwards, in the Middle Ages, a special sense of honour became the mark of a particular class. Nor can we here dispute with those who hold that conscience, rather than honour, is the motive power. It would indeed be better and nobler if it were so; but since it must be granted that even our worthier resolutions result from 'a conscience more or less dimmed by selfishness,' it is better to call the mixture by its right name. It is certainly not always easy, in treating of the Italian of this period, to distinguish this sense of honour from the passion for fame, into which, indeed, it easily passes. Yet the two sentiments are essentially different.
There is no lack of witnesses on this subject. One who speaks plainly may here be quoted as a representative of the rest. We read in the recently published 'Aphorisms' of Guicciardini: 'who esteems honour highly succeeds in all that he undertakes, since he fears neither trouble, danger, nor expense; I have found it so in my own case, and may say it and write it; vain and dead are the deeds of men which have not this as their motive.' It is necessary to add that, from what is known of the life of the writer, he can here be only speaking of honour and not of fame. Rabelais has put the matter more clearly than perhaps any Italian. We quote him, indeed, unwillingly in these pages. What the great, baroque Frenchman gives us is a picture of what the Renaissance would be without form and without beauty. But his description of an ideal state of things in the Thelemite monastery is decisive as historical evidence. In speaking of his gentlemen and ladies of the Order of Free Will, he tells us as follows:
'En leur reigle n'estoit que ceste clause: Fay ce que vouldras. Parce que gens liberes, bien nayz, bien instruictz, conversans en compaignies honnestes, ont par nature ung instinct et aguillon qui tousjours les poulse ... faictz tueux, et retire de vice: lequel ilz nommoyent honneur.'
This is that same faith in the goodness of human nature which inspired the men of the second half of the eighteenth century, and helped to prepare the way for the French Revolution. Among the Italians, too, each man appeals to this noble instinct within him, and though with regard to the people as a whole—chiefly in consequence of the national disasters— judgements of a more pessimistic sort became prevalent, the importance of this sense of honour must still be rated highly. If the boundless development of individuality, stronger than the will of the individual, be the work of a historical providence, not less so is the opposing force which then manifested itself in Italy. How often, and against what passionate attacks of selfishness it won the day, we cannot tell, and therefore no human judgement can estimate with certainty the absolute moral value of the nation.
A force which we must constantly take into account in judging of the morality of the more highly developed Italian of this period, is that of the imagination. It gives to his virtues and vices a peculiar color, and under its influence his unbridled egotism shows itself in its most terrible shape.
The force of his imagination explains, for example, the fact that he was the first gambler on a large scale in modern times. Pictures of future wealth and enjoyment rose in such lifelike colors before his eyes, that he was ready to hazard everything to reach them. The Mohammedan nations would doubtless have anticipated him in this respect, had not the Koran, from the beginning, set up the prohibition against gambling as a chief safeguard of public morals, and directed the imagination of its followers to the search after buried treasures. In Italy, the passion for play reached an intensity which often threatened or altogether broke up the existence of the gambler. Florence had already, at the end of the fourteenth century, its Casanova —a certain Buonaccorso Pitti, who, in the course of his incessant journeys as merchant, political agent, diplomatist and professional gambler, won and lost sums so enormous that none but princes like the Dukes of Brabant, Bavaria, and Savoy, were able to compete with him. That great lottery-bank, which was called the Court of Rome, accustomed people to a need of excitement, which found its satisfaction in games of hazard during the intervals between one intrigue and another. We read, for example, how Franceschetto Cibo, in two games with the Cardinal Raffaello Riario, lost no less than 14,000 ducats, and afterwards complained to the Pope that his opponent has cheated him. Italy has since that time been the home of the lottery.
It was to the imagination of the Italians that the peculiar character of their vengeance was due. The sense of justice was, indeed, one and the same throughout Europe, and any violation of it, so long as no punishment was inflicted, must have been felt in the same manner. But other nations, though they found it no easier to forgive, nevertheless forgot more easily, while the Italian imagination kept the picture of the wrong alive with frightful vividness. The fact that, according to the popular morality, the avenging of blood is a duty—a duty often performed in a way to make us shudder—gives to this passion a peculiar and still firmer basis. The government and the tribunals recognize its existence and justification, and only attempt to keep it within certain limits. Even among the peasantry, we read of Thyestean banquets and mutual assassination on the widest scale. Let us look at an instance.
In the district of Acquapendente three boys were watching cattle, and one of them said: 'Let us find out the way how people are hanged.' While one was sitting on the shoulders of the other, and the third, after fastening the rope round the neck of the first, was tying it to an oak, a wolf came, and the two who were free ran away and left the other hanging. Afterwards they found him dead, and buried him. On the Sunday his father came to bring him bread, and one of the two confessed what had happened, and showed him the grave. The old man then killed him with a knife, cut him up, brought away the liver, and entertained the boy's father with it at home. After dinner, he told him whose liver it was. Hereupon began a series of reciprocal murders between the two families, and within a month thirty-six persons were killed, women as well as men.
And such 'vendette,' handed down from father to son, and extending to friends and distant relations, were not limited to the lower classes, but reached to the highest. The chronicles and novels of the period are full of such instances, especially of vengeance taken for the violation of women. The classic land for these feuds was Romagna, where the 'vendetta' was interwoven with intrigues and party divisions of every conceivable sort. The popular legends present an awful picture of the savagery into which this brave and energetic people had relapsed. We are told, for instance, of a nobleman at Ravenna who had got all his enemies together in a tower, and might have burned them; instead of which he let them out, embraced them, and entertained them sumptuously; whereupon shame drove them mad, and they conspired against him. Pious and saintly monks exhorted unceasingly to reconciliation, but they can scarcely have done more than restrain to a certain extent the feuds already established; their influence hardly prevents the growth of new ones. The novelists sometimes describe to this effect of religion—how sentiments of generosity and forgiveness were suddenly awakened, and then again paralysed by the force of what had once been done and could never be un. done. The Pope himself was not always lucky as a peacemaker. Pope Paul II desired that the quarrel between Antonio Caffarello and the family of Alberino should cease, and ordered Giovanni Alberino and Antonio Caffarello to come before him bade them kiss one another, and threatened them with a fine of 2,000 ducats if they renewed this strife, and two days after Antonio was stabbed by the same Giacomo Alberino, son of Giovanni, who had wounded him once before; and the Pope was full of anger, and confiscated the goods of Alberino, and destroyed his houses, and banished father and son from Rome. The oaths and ceremonies by which reconciled enemies attempted to guard themselves against a relapse, are sometimes utterly horrible. When the parties of the 'Nove' and the 'Popolari' met and kissed one another by twos in the cathedral at Siena on New Year's Eve, 1494, an oath was read by which all salvation in time and eternity was denied to the future violator of the treaty—'an oath more astonishing and dreadful than had ever yet been heard.' The last consolations of religion in the hour of death were to turn to the damnation of the man who should break it. It is clear, however, that such a ceremony rather represents the despairing mood of the mediators than offers any real guarantee of peace, inasmuch as the truest reconciliation is just that one which has least need of it.
This personal need of vengeance felt by the cultivated and highly placed Italian, resting on the solid basis of an analogous popular custom, naturally displays itself under a thousand different aspects, and receives the unqualified approval of public opinion, as reflected in the works of the novelists. All are at one on the point that, in the case of those injuries and insults for which Italian justice offered no redress, and all the more in the case of those against which no human law can ever adequately provide, each man is free to take the law into his own hands. Only there must be art in the vengeance, and the satisfaction must be compounded of the material injury and moral humiliation of the offender. A mere brutal, clumsy triumph of force was held by public opinion to be no satisfaction. The whole man with his sense of fame and of scorn, not only his fist, must be victorious.
The Italian of that time shrank, it is true, from no dissimulation in order to attain his ends, but was wholly free from hypocrisy in matters of principle. In these he attempted to deceive neither himself nor others. Accordingly, revenge was declared with perfect frankness to be a necessity of human nature. Cool-headed people declared that it was then most worthy of praise when it was disengaged from passion, and worked simply from motives of expedience, 'in order that other men may learn to leave us unharmed.' Yet such instances must have formed only a small minority in comparison with those in which passion sought an outlet. This sort of revenge differs clearly from the avenging of blood, which has already been spoken of; while the latter keeps more or less within the limits of retaliation—the 'ius talionis'— the former necessarily goes much further, not only requiring the sanction of the sense of justice, but craving admiration, and even striving to get the laugh on its own side.
Here lies the reason why men were willing to wait so long for their revenge. A 'bella vendetta' demanded as a rule a combination of circumstances for which it was necessary to wait patiently. The gradual ripening of such opportunities is described by the novelists with heartfelt delight.
There is no need to discuss the morality of actions in which plaintiff and judge are one and the same person. If this Italian thirst for vengeance is to be palliated at all, it must be by proving the existence of a corresponding national virtue, namely gratitude. The same force of imagination which retains and magnifies wrong once suffered, might be expected also to keep alive the memory of kindness received. It is not possible, however, to prove this with regard to the nation as a whole, though traces of it may be seen in the Italian character of today. The gratitude shown by the inferior classes for kind treatment, and the good memory of the upper for politeness in social life, are instances of this.
This connexion between the imagination and the moral qualities of the Italian repeats itself continually. If, nevertheless, we find more cold calculation in cases where the Northerner rather follows his impulses, the reason is that individual development in Italy was not only more marked and earlier in point of time, but also far more frequent. Where this is the case in other countries, the results are also analogous. We find, for example, that the early emancipation of the young from domestic and paternal authority is common to North America with Italy. Later on, in the more generous natures, a tie of freer affection grows up between parents and children.
It is, in fact, a matter of extreme difficulty to judge fairly of other nations in the sphere of character and feeling. In these respects a people may be developed highly, and yet in a manner so strange that a foreigner is utterly unable to understand it. Perhaps all the nations of the West are in this point equally favored.
But where the imagination has exercised the most powerful and despotic influence on morals is in the illicit intercourse of the two sexes. It is well known that prostitution was freely practiced in the Middle Ages, before the appearance of syphilis. A discussion, however, on these questions does not belong to our present work. What seems characteristic of Italy at this time, is that here marriage and its rights were more often and more deliberately trampled underfoot than anywhere else. The girls of the higher classes were carefully secluded, and of them we do not speak. All passion was directed to the married women.
Under these circumstances it is remarkable that, so far as we know, there was no diminution in the number of marriages, and that family life by no means underwent that disorganization which a similar state of things would have produced in the North. Men wished to live as they pleased, but by no means to renounce the family, even when they were not sure that it was all their own. Nor did the race sink, either physically or mentally, on this account; for that apparent intellectual decline which showed itself towards the middle of the sixteenth century may be certainly accounted for by political and ecclesiastical causes, even if we are not to assume that the circle of achievements possible to the Renaissance had been completed. Notwithstanding their profligacy, the Italians continued to be, physically and mentally, one of the healthiest and best-born populations in Europe, and have retained this position, with improved morals, down to our own time.
When we come to look more closely at the ethics of love at the time of the Renaissance, we are struck by a remarkable Contrast. The novelists and comic poets give us to understand that love consists only in sensual enjoyment, and that to win this, all means, tragic or comic, are not only permitted, but are interesting in proportion to their audacity and unscrupulousness. But if we turn to the best of the lyric poets and writers of dialogues, we find in them a deep and spiritual passion of the noblest kind, whose last and highest expression is a revival of the ancient belief in an original unity of souls in the Divine Being. And both modes of feeling were then genuine, and could co-exist in the same individual. It is not exactly a matter of glory, but it is a fact, that, in the cultivated man of modern times, this sentiment can be not merely unconsciously present in both its highest and lowest stages, but may also manifest itself openly, and even artistically. The modern man, like the man of antiquity, is in this respect too a microcosm, which the medieval man was not and could not be.
To begin with the morality of the novelists. They treat chiefly, as we have said, of married women, and consequently of adultery.
The opinion mentioned above of the equality of the two sexes is of great importance in relation to this subject. The highly developed and cultivated woman disposes of herself with a freedom unknown in Northern countries; and her unfaithfulness does not break up her life in the same terrible manner, so long as no outward consequences follow from it. The husband's claim on her fidelity has not that firm foundation which it acquires in the North through the poetry and passion of courtship and betrothal. After the briefest acquaintance with her future husband, the young wife quits the convent or the paternal roof to enter upon a world in which her character begins rapidly to develop. The rights of the husband are for this reason conditional, and even the man who regards them in the light of a 'ius quaesitum' thinks only of the outward conditions of the contract, not of the affections. The beautiful young wife of an old man sends back the presents and letters of a youthful lover, in the firm resolve to keep her honour (onesta). 'But she rejoiced in the love of the youth for his great excellence; and she perceived that a noble woman may love a man of merit without loss to her honour.' But the way is short from such a distinction to a complete surrender.
The latter seems indeed as good as justified when there is unfaithfulness on the part of the husband. The woman, conscious of her own dignity, feels this not only as a pain, but also as a humiliation and deceit, and sets to work, often with the calmest consciousness of what she is about, to devise the vengeance which the husband deserves. Her tact must decide as to the measure of punishment which is suited to the particular case. The deepest wound, for example, may prepare the way for a reconciliation and a peaceful life in the future, if only it remain secret. The novelists, who themselves undergo such experiences or invent them according to the spirit of the age, are full of admiration when the vengeance is skillfully adapted to the particular case, in fact, when it is a work of art. As a matter of course, the husband never at bottom recognizes this right of retaliation, and only submits to it from fear or prudence. Where these motives are absent, where his wife's unfaithfulness exposes him or may expose him to the derision of outsiders, the affair becomes tragical, and not seldom ends in murder or other vengeance of a violent sort. It is characteristic of the real motive from which these deeds arise, that not only the husbands, but the brothers and the father of the woman feel themselves not only justified in taking vengeance, but bound to take it. Jealousy, therefore, has nothing to do with the matter, moral reprobation but little; the real reason is the wish to spoil the triumph of others. 'Nowadays,' says Bandello, 'we see a woman poison her husband to gratify her lusts, thinking that a widow may do whatever she desires. Another, fearing the discovery of an illicit amour, has her husband murdered by her lover. And though fathers, brothers, and husbands arise to extirpate the shame with poison, with the sword, and by every other means, women still continue to follow their passions, careless of their honour and their lives.' Another time, in milder strain, he exclaims: 'Would that we were not daily forced to hear that one man has murdered his wife because he suspected her of infidelity; that another has killed his daughter, on account of a secret marriage; that a third has caused his sister to be murdered, because she would not marry as he wished! It is great cruelty that we claim the right to do whatever we list, and will not suffer women to do the same. If they do anything which does not please us, there we are at once with cords and daggers and poison. What folly it is of men to suppose their own and their house's honour depend on the appetite of a woman. The tragedy in which such affairs commonly ended was so well known that the novelist looked on the threatened gallant as a dead man, even while he went about alive and merry. The physician and lute-player Antonio Bologna had made a secret marriage with the widowed Duchess of Amalfi, of the house of Aragon. Soon afterwards her brother succeeded in securing both her and her children, and murdered them in a castle. Antonio, ignorant of their fate, and still cherishing the hope of seeing them again, was staying at Milan, closely watched by hired assassins, and one day in the society of Ippolita Sforza sang to the lute the story of his misfortunes. A friend of the house, Delio, 'told the story up to this point to Scipione Atellano, and added that he would make it the subject of a novel, as he was sure that Antonio would be murdered.' The manner in which this took place, almost under the eyes of both Delio and Atellano, is movingly described by Bandello.
Nevertheless, the novelists habitually show a sympathy for all the ingenious, comic, and cunning features which may happen to attend adultery. They describe with delight how the lover manages to hide himself in the house, all the means and devices by which he communicates with his mistress, the boxes with cushions and sweetmeats in which he can be hidden and carried out of danger. The deceived husband is described sometimes as a fool to be laughed at, sometimes as a bloodthirsty avenger of his honour; there is no third situation except when the woman is painted as wicked and cruel, and the husband or lover is the innocent victim. It may be remarked, however, that narratives of the latter kind are not strictly speaking novels, but rather warning examples taken from real life.
When in the course of the sixteenth century Italian life fell more and more under Spanish influence, the violence of the means to which jealousy had recourse perhaps increased. But this new phase must be distinguished from the punishment of infidelity which existed before, and which was founded in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance itself. As the influence of Spain declined, these excesses of jealousy declined also, till towards the close of the seventeenth century they had wholly disappeared, and their place was taken by that indifference which regarded the 'Cicisbeo' as an indispensable figure in every household, and took no offence at one or two contemporary lovers ('Patiti').
But who can undertake to compare the vast sum of wickedness which all these facts imply, with what happened in other countries? Was the marriage-tie, for instance, really more sacred in France during the fifteenth century than in Italy? The 'fabliaux' and farces would lead us to doubt it, and rather incline us to think that unfaithfulness was equally common, though its tragic consequences were less frequent, because the individual was less developed and his claims were less consciously felt than in Italy. More evidence, however, in favour of the Germanic peoples lies in the fact of the social freedom enjoyed among them by girls and women, which impressed Italian travellers so pleasantly in England and in the Netherlands. And yet we must not attach too much importance to this fact. Unfaithfulness was doubtless very frequent, and in certain cases led to a sanguinary vengeance. We have only to remember how the northern princes of that time dealt with their wives on the first suspicion of infidelity.
But it was not merely the sensual desire, not merely the vulgar appetite of the ordinary man, which trespassed upon forbidden ground among the Italians of that day, but also the passion of the best and noblest; and this, not only because the unmarried girl did not appear in society, but also because the man, in proportion to the completeness of his own nature, felt himself most strongly attracted by the woman whom marriage had developed. These are the men who struck the loftiest notes of lyrical poetry, and who have attempted in their treatises and dialogues to give us an idealized image of the devouring passion— 'l'amor divino.' When they complain of the cruelty of the winged god, they are not only thinking of the coyness or hard-heartedness of the beloved one, but also of the unlawfulness of the passion itself. They seek to raise themselves above this painful consciousness by that spiritualization of love which found a support in the Platonic doctrine of the soul, and of which Pietro Bembo is the most famous representative. His thoughts on this subject are set forth by himself in the third book of the 'Asolani,' and indirectly by Castiglione, who puts in his mouth the splendid speech with which the fourth book of the 'Cortigiano' concludes. Neither of these writers was a stoic in his conduct, but at that time it meant something to be at once a famous and a good man, and this praise must be accorded to both of them; their contemporaries took what these men said to be a true expression of their feeling, and we have not the right to despise it as affectation. Those who take the trouble to study the speech in the 'Cortigiano' will see how poor an idea of it can be given by an extract. There were then living in Italy several distinguished women, who owed their celebrity chiefly to relations of this kind, such as Giulia Gonzaga, Veronica da Correggio, and, above all, Vittoria Colonna. The land of profligates and scoffers respected these women and this sort of love—and what more can be said in their favour? We cannot tell how far vanity had to do with the matter, how far Vittoria was flattered to hear around her the sublimated utterances of hopeless love from the most famous men in Italy. If the thing was here and there a fashion, it was still no trifling praise for Vittoria that she, as least, never went out of fashion, and in her latest years produced the most profound impressions. It was long before other countries had anything similar to show.
In the imagination then, which governed this people more than any other, lies one general reason why the course of every passion was violent, and why the means used for the gratification of passion were often criminal. There is a violence which cannot control itself because it is born of weakness; but in Italy we find what is the corruption of powerful natures. Sometimes this corruption assumes a colossal shape, and crime seems to acquire almost a personal existence of its own.
The restraints of which men were conscious were but few. Each individual, even among the lowest of the people, felt himself inwardly emancipated from the control of the State and its police, whose title to respect was illegitimate, and itself founded on violence; and no man believed any longer in the justice of the law. When a murder was committed, the sympathies of the people, before the circumstances of the case were known, ranged themselves instinctively on the side of the murderer. A proud, manly bearing before and at the execution excited such admiration that the narrator often forgets to tell us for what offence the criminal was put to death. But when we add to this inward contempt of law and to the countless grudges and enmities which called for satisfaction, the impunity which crime enjoyed during times of political disturbance, we can only wonder that the State and society were not utterly dissolved. Crises of this kind occurred at Naples, during the transition from the Aragonese to the French and Spanish rule, and at Milan, on the repeated expulsions and returns of the Sforzas; at such times those men who have never in their hearts recognized the bonds of law and society, come forward and give free play to their instincts of murder and rapine. Let us take, by way of example, a picture drawn from a humbler sphere.
When the Duchy of Milan was suffering from the disorders which followed the death of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, about the year 1480, all safety came to an end in the provincial cities. This was the case in Parma, where the Milanese Governor, terrified by threats of murder, consented to throw open the gaols and let loose the most abandoned criminals. Burglary, the demolition of houses, public assassination and murders, were events of everyday occurrence. At first the authors of these deeds prowled about singly, and masked; soon large gangs of armed men went to work every night without disguise. Threatening letters, satires, and scandalous jests circulated freely; and a sonnet in ridicule of the Government seems to have roused its indignation far more than the frightful condition of the city. In many churches the sacred vessels with the host were stolen, and this fact is characteristic of the temper which prompted these outrages. It is impossible to say what would happen now in any country of the world, if the government and police ceased to act, and yet hindered by their presence the establishment of a provisional authority; but what then occurred in Italy wears a character of its own, through the great share which the personal hatred and revenge had in it. The impression, indeed, which Italy at this period makes on us is, that even in quiet times great crimes were commoner than in other countries. We may, it is true, be misled by the fact that we have far fuller details on such matters here than elsewhere, and that the same force of imagination, which gives a special character to crimes actually committed, causes much to be invented which never really happened. The amount of violence was perhaps as great elsewhere. It is hard to say for certain, whether in the year 1500 men were any safer, whether human life was any better protected, in powerful, wealthy Germany, with its robber knights, extortionate beggars, and daring highwaymen. But one thing is certain, that premeditated crimes, committed professionally and for hire by third parties, occurred in Italy with great and appalling frequency.
So far as regards brigandage, Italy, especially in the more fortunate provinces, such as Tuscany, was certainly not more, and probably less, troubled than the countries of the North. But the figures which do meet us are characteristic of the country. It would be hard, for instance, to find elsewhere the case of a priest, gradually driven by passion from one excess to another, till at last he came to head a band of robbers. That age offers us this example among others. On August 12, 1495, the priest Don Niccolo de' Pelagati of Figarolo was shut up in an iron cage outside the tower of San Giuliano at Ferrara. He had twice celebrated his first mass; the first time he had the same day committed murder, but afterwards received absolution at Rome; he then killed four people and married two wives, with whom he travelled about. He afterwards took part in many assassinations, violated women, carried others away by force, plundered far and wide, and infested the territory of Ferrara with a band of followers in uniform, extorting food and shelter by every sort of violence. When we think of what all this implies, the mass of guilt on the head of this one man is something tremendous. The clergy and monks had many privileges and little supervision, and among them were doubtless plenty of murderers and other malefactors—but hardly a second Pelagati. It is another matter, though by no means creditable, when ruined characters sheltered themselves in the cowl in order to escape the arm of the law, like the corsair whom Masuccio knew in a convent at Naples. What the real truth was with regard to Pope John XXIII in this respect, is not known with certainty.
The age of the famous brigand chief did not begin till later, in the seventeenth century, when the political strife of Guelph and Ghibelline, of Frenchman and Spaniard, no longer agitated the country. The robber then took the place of the partisan.
In certain districts of Italy, where civilization had made little progress, the country people were disposed to murder any stranger who fell into their hands. This was especially the case in the more remote parts of the Kingdom of Naples, where the barbarism dated probably from the days of the Roman 'latifundia,' and when the stranger and the enemy ('hospes' and 'hostis') were in all good faith held to be one and the same. These people were far from being irreligious. A herdsman once appeared in great trouble at the confessional, avowing that, while making cheese during Lent, a few drops of milk had found their way into his mouth. The confessor, skilled in the customs of the country, discovered in the course of his examination that the penitent and his friends were in the practice of robbing and murdering travellers, but that, through the force of habit, this usage gave rise to no twinges of conscience within them. We have already mentioned to what a degree of barbarism the peasants elsewhere could sink in times of political confusion.
A worse symptom than brigandage of the morality of that time was the frequency of paid assassination. In that respect Naples was admitted to stand at the head of all the cities of Italy. 'Nothing,' says Pontano, 'is cheaper here than human life.' But other districts could also show a terrible list of these crimes. It is hard, of course, to classify them according to the motives by which they were prompted, since political expediency, personal hatred, party hostility, fear, and revenge, all play into one another. It is no small honour to the Florentines, the most highly developed people of Italy, that offenses of this kind occurred more rarely among them than anywhere else, perhaps because there was a justice at hand for legitimate grievances which was recognized by all, or because the higher culture of the individual gave him different views as to the right of men to interfere with the decrees of fate. In Florence, if anywhere, men were able to feel the incalculable consequences of a deed of blood, and to understand how uncertain the author of a so-called profitable crime is of any true and lasting gain. After the fall of Florentine liberty, assassination, especially by hired agents, seems to have rapidly increased, and continued till the government of Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici had attained such strength that the police were at last able to repress it.
Elsewhere in Italy paid crimes were probably more or less frequent in proportion to the number of powerful and solvent buyers. Impossible as it is to make any statistical estimate of their amount, yet if only a fraction of the deaths which public report attributed to violence were really murders, the crime must have been terribly frequent. The worst example of all was set by princes and governments, who without the faintest scruple reckoned murder as one of the instruments of their power. And this, without being in the same category with Cesare Borgia. The Sforzas, the Aragonese monarchs, and, later on, the agents of Charles V resorted to it whenever it suited their purpose. The imagination of the people at last became so accustomed to facts of this kind that the death of any powerful man was seldom or never attributed to natural causes. There were certainly absurd notions current with regard to the effect of various poisons. There may be some truth in the story of that terrible white powder used by the Borgias, which did its work at the end of a definite period, and it is possible that it was really a 'venenum atterminatum' which the Prince of Salerno handed to the Cardinal of Aragon, with the words: 'In a few days you will die, because your father, King Ferrante, wished to trample upon us all.' But the poisoned letter which Caterina Riario sent to Pope Alexander VI would hardly have caused his death even if he had read it; and when Alfonso the Great was warned by his physicians not to read in the Livy which Cosimo de' Medici had presented to him, he told them with justice not to talk like fools. Nor can that poison with which the secretary of Piccinino wished to anoint the sedan-chair of Pius II have affected any other organ than the imagination. The proportion which mineral and vegetable poisons bore to one another, cannot be ascertained precisely. The poison with which the painter Rosso Fiorentino destroyed himself (1541) was evidently a powerful acid, which it would have been impossible to administer to another person without his knowledge. The secret use of weapons, especially of the dagger, in the service of powerful individuals, was habitual in Milan, Naples, and other cities. Indeed, among the crowds of armed retainers who were necessary for the personal safety of the great, and who lived in idleness, it was natural that outbreaks of this mania for blood should from time to time occur. Many a deed of horror would never have been committed, had not the master known that he needed but to give a sign to one or other of his followers.
Among the means used for the secret destruction of others— so far, that is, as the intention goes—we find magic, practiced, however, sparingly. Where 'maleficii,' 'malie,' and so forth, are mentioned, they appear rather as a means of heaping up additional terror on the head of some hated enemy. At the courts of France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, magic, practiced with a view to the death of an opponent, plays a far more important part than in Italy. In this country, finally, where individuality of every sort attained its highest development, we find instances of that ideal and absolute wickedness which delights in crimes for their own sake, and not as means to an end, or at any rate as means to ends for which our psychology has no measure.
Among these appalling figures we may first notice certain of the 'Condottieri,' such as Braccio da Montone, Tiberto Brandolino, and that Werner von Urslingen whose silver hauberk bore the inscription: 'The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy.' This class of men offers us some of the earliest instances of criminals deliberately repudiating every moral restraint. Yet we shall be more reserved in our judgement of them when we remember that the worst part of their guilt—in the estimate of those who record it— lay in their defiance of spiritual threats and penalties, and that to this fact is due that air of horror with which they are represented as surrounded. In the case of Braccio, the hatred of the Church went so far that he was infuriated at the sight of monks at their psalms, and had them thrown down from the top of a tower; but at the same time 'he was loyal to his soldiers and a great general.' As a rule, the crimes of the 'Condottieri' were committed for the sake of some definite advantage, and must be attributed to a position in which men could not fail to be demoralized. Even their apparently gratuitous cruelty had commonly a purpose, if it were only to strike terror. The barbarities of the House of Aragon, as we have seen, were mainly due to fear and to the desire for vengeance. The thirst for blood on its own account, the devilish delight in destruction, is most clearly exemplified in the case of the Spaniard Cesare Borgia, whose cruelties were certainly out of all proportion to the end which he had in view. In Sigismondo Malatesta, tyrant of Rimini, the same disinterested love of evil may also be detected. It is not only the Court of Rome, but the verdict of history, which convicts him of murder, rape, adultery, incest, sacrilege, perjury and treason, committed not once but often. The most shocking crime of all—the unnatural attempt on his own son Roberto, who frustrated it with his drawn dagger—may have been the result not merely of moral corruption, but perhaps of some magical or astrological superstition. The same conjecture has been made to account for the rape of the Bishop of Fano by Pierluigi Farnese of Parma, son of Paul III.
If we now attempt to sum up the principal features in the Italian character of that time, as we know it from a study of the life of the upper classes, we shall obtain something like the following result. The fundamental vice of this character was at the same time a condition of its greatness, namely, excessive individualism. The individual first inwardly casts off the authority of a State which, as a fact, is in most cases tyrannical and illegitimate, and what he thinks and does is, rightly or wrongly, now called treason. The sight of victorious egotism in others drives him to defend his own right by his own arm. And, while thinking to restore his inward equilibrium, he falls, through the vengeance which he executes, into the hands of the powers of darkness. His love, too, turns mostly for satisfaction to another individuality equally developed, namely, to his neighbor's wife. In face of all objective facts, of laws and restraints of whatever kind, he retains the feeling of his own sovereignty, and in each single instance forms his decision independently, according as honour or interest, passion or calculation, revenge or renunciation, gain the upper hand in his own mind.
If therefore egotism in its wider as well as narrower sense is the root and fountain of all evil, the more highly developed Italian was for this reason more inclined to wickedness than the members of other nations of that time.
But this individual development did not through any fault of his own, but rather through necessity. It did not come upon him alone, but also, and chiefly, by means of Italian culture, upon the other nations of Europe, and has constituted since then the higher atmosphere which they breathe. In itself it is neither good nor bad, but necessary; within it has grown up a modern standard of good and evil— a sense of moral responsibility—which is essentially different from that which was familiar to the Middle Ages.
But the Italian of the Renaissance had to bear the first mighty surging of a new age. Through his gifts and his passions, he has become the most characteristic representative of all the heights and all the depths of his time. By the side of profound corruption appeared human personalities of the noblest harmony, and an artistic splendor which shed upon the life of man a lustre which neither antiquity nor medievalism could or would bestow upon it.
Religion in Daily Life
The morality of a people stands in the closest connection with its consciousness of God, that is to say, with its firmer or weaker faith in the divine government of the world, whether this faith looks on the world as destined to happiness or to misery and speedy destruction. The infidelity then prevalent in Italy is notorious, and whoever takes the trouble to look about for proofs, will find them by the hundred. Our present task, here as elsewhere, is to separate and discriminate; refraining from an absolute and final verdict.
The belief in God at earlier times had its source and chief support in Christianity and the outward symbol of Christianity, the Church. When the Church became corrupt, men ought to have drawn a distinction, and kept their religion in spite of all. But this is more easily said than done. It is not every people which is calm enough, or dull enough, to tolerate a lasting contradiction between a principle and its outward expression. But history does not record a heavier responsibility than that which rests upon the decaying Church. She set up as absolute truth, and by the most violent means, a doctrine which she had distorted to serve her own aggrandizement. Safe in the sense of her inviolability, she abandoned herself to the most scandalous profligacy, and, in order to maintain herself in this state, she levelled mortal blows against the conscience and the intellect of nations, and drove multitudes of the noblest spirits, whom she had inwardly estranged, into the arms of unbelief and despair.
Here we are met by the question: Why did not Italy, intellectually so great, react more energetically against the hierarchy; why did she not accomplish a reformation like that which occurred in Germany, and accomplish it at an earlier date?
A plausible answer has been Italian mind, we are told, never of the hierarchy, while the origin given to this question. The went further than the denial and the vigor of the German Reformation was due to its positive religious doctrines, most of all to the doctrines of justification by faith and of the inefficacy of good works.
It is certain that these doctrines only worked upon Italy through Germany, and this not till the power of Spain was sufficiently great to root them out without difficulty, partly by itself and partly by means of the Papacy, and its instruments.105 Nevertheless, in the earlier religious movements of Italy, from the Mystics of the thirteenth century down to Savonarola, there was a large amount of positive religious doctrine which, like the very definite Christianity of the Huguenots, failed to achieve success only because circumstances were against it. Mighty events like the Reformation elude, as respects their details, their outbreak and their development, the deductions of the philosophers, however clearly the necessity of them as a whole may be demonstrated. The movements of the human spirit, its sudden flashes, its expansions and its pauses, must for ever remain a mystery to our eyes, since we can but know this or that of the forces at work in it, never all of them together.
The feeling of the upper and middle classes in Italy with regard to the Church at the time when the Renaissance culminated, was compounded of deep and contemptuous aversion, of acquiescence in the outward ecclesiastical customs which entered into daily life, and of a sense of dependence on sacraments and ceremonies. The great personal influence of religious preachers may be added as a fact characteristic of Italy.
That hostility to the hierarchy, which displays itself more especially from the time of Dante onwards in Italian literature and history, has been fully treated by several writers. We have already said something of the attitude of public opinion with regard to the Papacy. Those who wish for the strongest evidence which the best authorities offer us, can find it in the famous passages of Machiavelli's 'Discorsi,' and in the unmutilated edition of Guicciardini. Outside the Roman Curia, some respect seems to have been felt for the best men among the bishops, and for many of the parochial clergy. On the other hand, the mere holders of benefices, the canons and the monks were held in almost universal suspicion, and were often the objects of the most scandalous aspersions, extending to the whole of their order.
It has been said that the monks were made the scapegoats for the whole clergy, for the reason that none but they could be ridiculed without danger. But this is certainly incorrect. They are introduced so frequently in the novels and comedies, because these forms of literature need fixed and well-known types where the imagination of the reader can easily fill up an outline. Besides which, the novelists do not as a fact spare the secular clergy. In the third place, we have abundant proof in the rest of Italian literature that men could speak boldly enough about the Papacy and the Court of Rome. In works of imagination we cannot expect to find criticism of this kind. Fourthly, the monks, when attacked, were sometimes able to take a terrible vengeance.
It is nevertheless true that the monks were the most unpopular class of all, and that they were reckoned a living proof of the worthlessness of conventual life, of the whole ecclesiastical organization, of the system of dogma, and of religion altogether, according as men pleased, rightly or wrongly, to draw their conclusions. We may also assume that Italy retained a clearer recollection of the origin of the two great mendicant orders than other countries, and had not forgotten that they were the chief agents in the reaction against what is called the heresy of the thirteenth century, that is to say, against an unruly and vigorous movement of the modern Italian spirit. And that spiritual police which was permanently entrusted to the Dominicans certainly never excited any other feeling than secret hatred and contempt.
After reading the 'Decameron' and the novels of Franco Sacchetti, we might imagine that the vocabulary of abuse directed at the monks and nuns was exhausted. But towards the time of the Reformation this abuse became still fiercer. To say nothing of Aretino, who in the 'Ragionamenti' uses conventual life merely as a pretext for giving free play to his own poisonous nature, we may quote one author as typical of the rest—Masuccio, in the first ten of his fifty novels. They are written in a tone of the deepest indignation, and with the purpose to make this indignation general; and are dedicated to men in the highest position, such as King Ferrante and Prince Alfonso of Naples. The stories are many of them old, and some of them familiar to readers of Boccaccio. But others reject, with a frightful realism, the actual state of things at Naples. The way in which the priests befool and plunder the people by means of spurious miracles, added to their own scandalous lives, is enough to drive any thoughtful observer to despair. We read of the Minorite friars who travelled to collect alms: 'They cheat, steal, and fornicate, and when they are at the end of their resources, they set up as saints and work miracles, one displaying the cloak of St. Vincent, another the handwriting of St. Bernardino, a third the bridle of Capistrano's donkey.' Others 'bring with them confederates who pretend to be blind or afflicted with some mortal disease, and after touching the hem of the monk's cowl, or the relics which he carries, are healed before the eyes of the multitude. All then shout "Misericordia," the bells are rung, and the miracle is recorded in a solemn protocol.' Or else the monk in the pulpit is denounced as a liar by another who stands below among the audience; the accuser is immediately possessed by the devil, and then healed by the preacher. The whole thing was a prearranged comedy, in which, however, the principal with his assistant made so much money that he was able to buy a bishopric from a Cardinal, on which the two confederates lived comfortably to the end of their days. Masuccio makes no great distinction between Franciscans and Dominicans, finding the one worth as much as the other. 'And yet the foolish people lets itself be drawn into their hatreds and divisions, and quarrels about them in public places, and calls itself "franceschino" or "domenichino." ' The nuns are the exclusive property of the monks. Those of the former who have anything to do with the laity, are prosecuted and put in prison, while others are wedded in due form to the monks, with the accompaniments of mass, a marriage-contract, and a liberal indulgence in food and wine. 'I myself,' says the author, 'have been there not once, but several times, and seen it all with my own eyes. The nuns afterwards bring forth pretty little monks or else use means to hinder that result. And if anyone charges me with falsehood, let him search the nunneries well, and he will find there as many little bores as in Bethlehem at Herod's time.' These things, and the like, are among the secrets of monastic life. The monks are by no means too strict with one another in the confessional, and impose a Paternoster in cases where they would refuse all absolution to a layman as if he were a heretic. 'Therefore may the earth open and swallow up the wretches alive, with those who protect them.' In another place Masuccio, speaking of the fact that the influence of the monks depends chiefly on the dread of another world, utters the following remarkable wish: 'The best punishment for them would be for God to abolish Purgatory; they would then receive no more alms, and would be forced to go back to their spades.'
If men were free to write, in the time of Ferrante, and to him, in this strain, the reason is perhaps to be found in the fact that the king himself had been incensed by a false miracle which had been palmed off on him. An attempt had been made to urge him to a persecution of the Jews, like that carried out in Spain and imitated by the Popes, by producing a tablet with an inscription bearing the name of St. Cataldus, said to have been buried at Taranto, and afterwards dug up again. When he discovered the fraud, the monks defied him. He had also managed to detect and expose a pretended instance of fasting, as his father, Alfonso, had done before him. The Court, certainly, was no accomplice in maintaining these blind superstitions.
We have been quoting from an author who wrote in earnest, and who by no means stands alone in his judgement. All the Italian literature of that time is full of ridicule and invective aimed at the begging friars. It can hardly be doubted that the Renaissance would soon have destroyed these two Orders, had it not been for the German Reformation and the Counter-Reformation which intervened. Their saints and popular preachers could hardly have saved them. It would only have been necessary to come to an understanding at a favourable moment with a Pope like Leo X, who despised the Mendicant Orders. If the spirit of the age found them ridiculous or repulsive? they could no longer be anything but an embarrassment to the Church. And who can say what fate was in store for the Papacy itself, if the Reformation had not saved it?
The influence which the Father Inquisitor of a Dominican monastery was able habitually to exercise in the city where it was situated, was in the latter part of the fifteenth century just considerable enough to hamper and irritate cultivated people, but not strong enough to extort any lasting fear or obedience. It was no longer possible to punish men for their thoughts, as it once was, and those whose tongues wagged most impudently against the clergy could easily keep clear of heretical doctrine. Except when some powerful party had an end to serve, as in the case of Savonarola, or when there was a question of the use of magical arts, as was often the case in the cities of North Italy, we seldom read at this time of men being burnt at the stake. The Inquisitors were in some instances satisfied with the most superficial retraction, in others it even happened that the victim was saved out of their hands on the way to the place of execution. In Bologna (1452) the priest Niccolo da Verona had been publicly degraded on a wooden scaffold in front of San Domenico as a wizard and profaner of the sacraments, and was about to be led away to the stake, when he was set free by a gang of armed men, sent by Achille Malvezzi, a noted friend of heretics and violator of nuns. The legate, Cardinal Bessarion, was only able to catch and hang one of the party; Malvezzi lived on in peace.
It deserves to be noticed that the higher monastic orders— e.g. Benedictines, with their many branches—were, notwithstanding their great wealth and easy lives, far less disliked than the mendicant friars. For ten novels which treat of 'frati' hardly one can be found in which a 'monaco' is the subject and the victim. It was no small advantage to these orders that they were founded earlier, and not as an instrument of police, and that they did not interfere with private life. They contained men of learning, wit, and piety, but the average has been described by a member of it, Firenzuola, who says: 'These well-fed gentlemen with the capacious cowls do not pass their time in barefooted journeys and in sermons, but sit in elegant slippers with their hands crossed over their paunches, in charming cells wainscoted with cyprus-wood. And when they are obliged to quit the house, they ride comfortably, as if for their amusement, on mules and sleek, quiet horses. They do not overstrain their minds with the study of many books, for fear lest knowledge might put the pride of Lucifer in the place of monkish simplicity.'
Those who are familiar with the literature of the time, will see that we have only brought forward what is absolutely necessary for the understanding of the subject. That the reputation attaching to the monks and the secular clergy must have shattered the faith of multitudes in all that is sacred is, of course, obvious.
And some of the judgements which we read are terrible; we will quote one of them in conclusion, which has been published only lately and is but little known. The historian Guicciardini who was for many years in the service of the Medicean Popes, says (1529) in his 'Aphorisms': 'No man is more disgusted than I am with the ambition, the avarice and the profligacy of the priests, not only because each of these vices is hateful in itself, but because each and all of them are most unbecoming in those who declare themselves to be men in special relations with God, and also because they are vices so opposed to one another, that they can only co-exist in very singular natures. Nevertheless, my position at the Court of several Popes forced me to desire their greatness for the sake of my own interest. But, had it not been for this, I should have loved Martin Luther as myself, not in order to free myself from the laws which Christianity, as generally understood and explained, lays upon us, but in order to see this swarm of scoundrels (questa caterva di scelerati) put back into their proper place, so that they may be forced to live either without vices or without power.'
The same Guicciardini is of opinion that we are in the dark as to all that is supernatural, that philosophers and theologians have nothing but nonsense to tell us about it, that miracles occur in every religion and prove the truth of none in particular, and that all of them may be explained as unknown phenomena of nature. The faith which moves mountains, then common among the followers of Savonarola, is mentioned by Guicciardini as a curious fact, but without any bitter remark.
Notwithstanding this hostile public opinion, the clergy and the monks had the great advantage that the people were used to them, and that their existence was interwoven with the everyday existence of all. This is the advantage which every old and powerful institution possesses. Everybody had some cowled or frocked relative, some prospect of assistance or future gain from the treasure of the Church; and in the centre of Italy stood the Court of Rome, where men sometimes became rich in a moment. Yet it must never be forgotten that all this did not hinder people from writing and speaking freely. The authors of the most scandalous satires were themselves mostly monks or beneficed priests. Poggio, who wrote theFacetiae, was a clergyman; Francesco Berni, the satirist, held a canonry; Teofilo Folengo, the author of theOrlandino, was a Benedictine, certainly by no means a faithful one; Matteo Bandello, who held up his own order to ridicule, was a Dominican, and nephew of a general of this order. Were they encouraged to write by the sense that they ran no risks. Or did they feel an inward need to clear themselves personally from the infamy which attached to their order? Or were they moved by that selfish pessimism which takes for its maxim, 'it will last our time'. Perhaps all of these motives were more or less at work. In the case of Folengo, the unmistakable influence of Lutheranism must be added.
The sense of dependence on rites and sacraments, which we have already touched upon in speaking of the Papacy, is not surprising among that part of the people which still believed in the Church. Among those who were more emancipated, it testifies to the strength of youthful impressions, and to the magical force of traditional symbols. The universal desire of dying men for priestly absolution shows that the last remnant of the dread of hell had not, even in the case of one like Vitellozzo, been altogether extinguished. It would hardly be possible to find a more instructive instance than this. The doctrine taught by the Church of the 'character indelibilis' of the priesthood, independently of the personality of the priest, had so far borne fruit that it was possible to loathe the individual and still desire his spiritual gifts. It is true, nevertheless, that there were defiant natures like Galeotto of Mirandola, who died unabsolved in 1499) after living for sixteen years under the ban of the Church. All this time the city lay under an interdict on his account, so that no mass was celebrated and no Christian burial took place.
A splendid contrast to all this is offered by the power exercised over the nation by its great Preachers of Repentance. Other countries of Europe were from time to time moved by the words of saintly monks, but only superficially, in comparison with the periodical upheaval of the Italian conscience. The only man, in fact, who produced a similar effect in Germany during the fifteenth century, was an Italian, born in the Abruzzi, named Giovanni Capistrano. Those natures which bear within them this religious vocation and this commanding earnestness, wore then in Northern countries an intuitive and mystical aspect. In the South they were practical and expansive, and shared in the national gift of oratorical skill. The North produced an 'Imitation of Christ,' which worked silently, at first only within the walls of the monastery, but worked for the ages; the South produced men who made on their fellows an immediate and mighty but passing impression.
This impression consisted chiefly in the awakening of the conscience. The sermons were moral exhortations free from abstract notions and full of practical application, rendered more impressive by the saintly and ascetic character of the preacher, and by the miracles which, even against his will, the inflamed imagination of the people attributed to him. The most powerful argument used was not the threat of Hell and Purgatory, but rather the living results of the 'maledizione,' the temporal ruin wrought on the individual by the curse which clings to wrong-doing. The grieving of Christ and the Saints has its consequences in this life. And only thus could men, sunk in passion and guilt, be brought to repentance and amendment—which was the chief object of these sermons.
Among these preachers were Bernardino da Siena, Alberto da Sarzana, Jacopo della Marca, Giovanni Capistrano, Roberto da Lecce and others j and finally, Girolamo Savonarola. No prejudice of the day was stronger than that against the mendicant friar, and this they overcame. They were criticized and ridiculed by a scornful humanism; but when they raised their voices, no one gave heed to the humanists. The thing was no novelty, and the scoffing Florentines had already in the fourteenth century learned to caricature it whenever it appeared in the pulpit. But no sooner did Savonarola come forward than he carried the people so triumphantly with him, that soon all their beloved art and culture melted away ill the furnace which he lighted. Even the grossest profanation done to the cause by hypocritical monks, who got up an effect in the audience by means of confederates, could not bring the thing itself into discredit. Men kept on laughing at the ordinary monkish sermons, with their spurious miracles and manufactured relics; but did not cease to honour the great and genuine preachers. These are a true speciality of the fifteenth century.
The Order—generally that of St. Francis, and more particularly the so- called Observantines—sent them out according as they were wanted. This was commonly the case when there was some important public or private feud in a city, or some alarming outbreak of violence, immorality, or disease. When once the reputation of a preacher was made, the cities were all anxious to hear him even without any special occasion. He went wherever his superiors sent him. A special form of this work was the preaching of a Crusade against the Turks; but here we have to speak more particularly of the exhortations to repentance.
The order of these, when they were treated methodically, seems to have followed the customary list of the deadly sins. The more pressing, however, the occasion is, the more directly does the preacher make for his main point. He begins perhaps in one of the great churches of the Order, or in the cathedral. Soon the largest piazza is too small for the crowds which throng from every side to hear him, and he himself can hardly move without risking his life. The sermon is commonly followed by a great procession; but the first magistrates of the city, who take him in their midst, can hardly save him from the multitude of women who throng to kiss his hands and feet, and cut off fragments from his cowl.