If you looked only at the luscious paintings by Fra Angelico and Botticelli, and if you listened only to the soaring ethereal voices of Palestrina and Byrd, you would think the Renaissance was a release of centuries of pent-up creativity. You would conclude, as was once fashionable, that when the Renaissance detonated in late 1300s Italy, it sprayed hope, colour, and sensuality into a monochrome and rigid medieval world grappling with a plague that had slain a third of Europe.
But you would be wrong for many reasons.
For starters, there was nothing monochrome about the medieval world. You need only look at the extraordinary renovations now under way at Chartres cathedral, where they are restoring the hulking grey walls and statues to their former brightly decorated brilliance, injecting a vibrancy that those who grew up with 1960s architecture can barely take in.
Equally as importantly, there was a lot the Renaissance, for all its splendour, left unchanged. It may have been a celebration of living rather than earthly preparation for an afterlife, but it did not immediately improve life for everyone. For example, as the oligarchs of the day splashed their immense wealth around, patronizing works and monuments to their eternal glory, the majority of the population remained bound to the unforgiving and harsh drudgery of subsistence level agricultural and artisanal life.
We sometimes have a slightly deluded view of the period, seeing it as the dawning of a civilised age of “high culture”, with an intense new focus on art, writing, and music – quite unlike anything that had gone before.
There is some truth in this idea, but two gory anniversaries this week remind us that the tone at the top remained largely unchanged. Away from the vibrant portraits of patrons and the glories of twelve-voice motets, the harsh narcissistic world of Renaissance rulers was as power obsessed, self-interested, paranoid and brutal as ever. And as we think of the widespread apathy surrounding the modern political process, we do well to remember how far we have come.
This week marks the anniversary of two spectacular examples of violent Renaissance powerlust: one in late 1400s Florence, the vibrant city at the epicentre of the Renaissance, where two men played out a struggle for the heart and soul of northern Italy — the other in late 1500s England, at the glittering court of Queen Elizabeth I, where two British women settled their political ambition with an axe.
Both of these anniversaries remind us of how violent politics always was, even in the “civilised” Renaissance.
First to Italy, where the proto-Renaissance arguably started with Francesco di Pietro di Bernadone (1181/2–1226), better known as St Francis of Assisi. His visionary idea, which the centuries have proved to be timeless, was to urge people to find beauty, inspiration, and meaning simply by looking around at the marvels of nature. Admittedly he had a head start, as he was preaching in Umbria and Tuscany, yet what he was saying found willing listeners from ever further afield.
But the Black Death soon chopped off the burgeoning interest in Francis’s refreshing approach, which was wholly at odds with the stern scholasticism of the cathedral schools. Painters such as Giotto captured it for a moment, but then it was gone, buried under millions of plague-ridden corpses. It would not resurface again until the 1400s – in Florence, where the city was surging to prominence under the Medici, its wealthy banker-merchant rulers. With their patronage of Brunelleschi, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and countless others, art began to fill the city, infusing whole areas with luxury and the fruits of affluence.
But as Renaissance alchemists and scientists could tell you, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Enter Girolamo Savonarola.
Although born in Ferrara in 1452, he soon made his way to the heart of the beast – to Florence.
Savonarola was Old School in every way. He came from a wealthy family, had a liberal arts education, was about to embark on a medical career, but entered the religious life as a Dominican friar instead. At first he was not very good at it. But he soon found his calling – as an angry hellfire and brimstone preacher, buoyed up by terrifying prophetic visions.
From Florence’s exquisitely chiselled pulpits, he railed at the decadence and sensuality everywhere around him. He lambasted the people for their hedonistic ways. He harangued them for their immorality. But most of all, he excoriated the churchmen. All society’s ills, he urged, started and ended with them. And he was not afraid to say that the Pope was the worst of them all.
To some degree, he had a point. Rodrigo Borgia wangled the pope’s Triple Crown in 1492 as Alexander VI, and went on to do for the reputation of the Church what the 2003 Dodgy Dossier has done for the integrity of modern British politicians.
Despite Savonarola’s intolerance of any human pleasures, swarms of Florentines flocked to his sermons.
When his popularity coincided with the temporary collapse of Medici rule in 1494, he rather implausibly became the city’s de facto ruler, while continuing to treat his audiences to firebrand sermons, and even running armies of street children to enforce his extremist vision.
This leads us to the first of our anniversaries.
On the 7th of February 1497, Savonarola organized the now infamous Falò della Vanità — the Bonfire of the Vanities.
The idea was simple, and there had been numerous similar burnings before. But this one was on an unprecedented scale, and has gone down in history. The city’s incomparable luxuries were dragged to the town square, where Savonarola torched them for the glory of God.
He targeted anything redolent of decadence or temptation to sin – sensual dresses, mirrors, make-up and cosmetics; un-Christian art, statues, and books; cards, dice, and gambling paraphernalia; and even musical scores and instruments. (It is likely that Botticelli, an unlikely supporter of Savonarola, threw a number of his canvasses onto the fire.)
Unsurprisingly, Savonarola’s hatred of the Spanish Borgia pope soon came to Rome’s attention, as did his new position as ruler of Florence, for which he was singularly ill equipped. When he failed to join the papacy and others in a Holy League against a French invasion from the North, he was unambiguously pitting himself against the papacy in ecclesiastical and now secular matters.
A lethal dance of power followed.
Alexander invited Savonarola to Rome to discuss his prophecies. Fearing a trap, Savonarola pleaded ill-health and shunned the invitation. A series of letters between the two then swiftly turned into a bare-knuckle fight. At one stage Alexander tried to give Savonarola a Cardinal’s red hat, to which he replied, “I want no hats, no mitres either. I want nothing but what God has given to his saints: death. A red hat, a hat of blood; that is what I want!”
Meanwhile, the stalwart Florentines had become bored of Savonarola’s moralising. He had pushed them further than they wanted to go, even imposing death sentences for crimes he deemed immoral. When a trial by fire to prove his sanctity ended in fiasco because his champion failed to show up, the townsfolk turned on him. With his position in the Church and city becoming increasingly untenable, the people seized him, and handed him over to his Florentine enemies.
In the time-honoured fashion, a kangaroo court was duly convened. Savonarola and his two most loyal fellow Dominican friars were first tried by civil judges, then by Church commissioners, although neither result was ever in doubt. As one of the judges noted before the trial, “We shall have a fine bonfire tonight.”
The three priests were quickly convicted, sentenced, stripped, walked over spikes, then hanged and burned in the central Piazza della Signoria. The once-adoring Florentines danced around the pyre, and the city’s children threw stones at the burning corpses.
It was Renaissance politics at its least subtle.
It is ironic that many Protestants have adopted Savonarola as an early dissenter: a pope-hater and proto-Protestant. He is even regularly depicted in images and statuary alongside Luther and Hus. But it is way wide of the mark. Savonarola would spin in his grave – if he had one – at the thought. In his own mind, he was a staunch and resolute defender of the Church, the office of the papacy, and all traditional teaching. He had no argument with the fabric of the Church or its doctrines. He just didn’t like its current leaders.
The year of his death was 1498 – the high point of the Italian Renaissance.
This week’s second bloody anniversary is a British one, from the court of Queen Elizabeth I, where Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Tallis, Byrd, Hilliard, and a raft of others were helping Renaissance England transition from a medieval to an early modern society.
But despite all the glitter, the politics were just as brutal and old-fashioned as in Savonarola’s Italy.
This second anniversary relates to Mary Stewart, who was born in Scotland’s Linlithgow Palace in 1542. When her father died within the week, she ascended the throne immediately as Scotland’s queen.
But her kingdom was fractious and unstable, riven by wars and religion. Allies were needed, and she was soon engaged to the dauphin of France. Aged five, leaving regents to rule for her, she set sail to be brought up at the French royal court.
As soon as she was 15, she was married to François at a sumptuous ceremony in Notre Dame cathedral. And within the year he inherited the throne, making her queen consort of France.
But she was never far from tragedy, and it struck again in less than two years, when her husband, the young king, died of a probable ear infection.
The 18-year-old who returned to Scotland (by sea, as Elizabeth would not give her passage through England) was clever and perceptive, charming and witty, spoke French as a first language, composed poetry in French and Latin, played numerous instruments, danced wonderfully, was an able horsewoman, and the favourite of most of the French court. She was also exceptionally tall – five feet eleven inches, redheaded, and universally acknowledged to be a striking beauty.
Returning to the poisonous politics of Scotland and England was arguably one of the two worst decisions she ever made.
Scotland was officially a Protestant country, and ruling it as a quasi-French Catholic required skill and diplomacy. She quickly showed that she had both in abundance. She kept her religion low key, and supported the country’s Protestants, even putting down a Catholic revolt. Most people assumed she was the natural successor to the childless Elizabeth I of England.
But powerful women in the period always collected enemies. Although they could not fault her handling of the kingdom, they finally managed to pull her down over her love life.
Her choice of second husband, Lord Darnley was not popular with the powerful pro-English lobby in Scotland. And it enraged Elizabeth I, because Darnley had a good claim to be third in line to the English throne, directly after Mary. Relations between the two women began to sour, as Melville recorded, “All ther sisterly famyliarite was cessit, and insted therof nathing bot jelousies, suspitions and hattrent.”
The marriage was, in fact, a disaster all round. Darnley turned out to be dim and a wastrel — no use to Mary at all in managing her vast responsibilities.
As plotting against her intensified, Darnley was targeted by agitators who implied his wife was having an affair with David Riccio, an Italian adviser. Darnley immediately led a gang which broke into a supper she was having with Riccio and others, and dragged him into the next room before stabbing him 56 times.
But within a year, Darnley was himself the victim of a violent death, strangled or suffocated after two gunpowder explosions had ripped through the house at Kirk’o’Field where he was staying.
Mary was adrift and depressed. She could see the scandal brewing. Imprudently, she married a man named Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, within three months.
Suspicion naturally fell on the newlyweds, although it was in fact all part of a meticulously orchestrated smear campaign. Forged letters were manufactured to ‘prove’ Mary and Bothwell were lovers. Even though the forgeries were laughably crude, they did the necessary damage.
It is quite likely that Bothwell was, in fact, involved in Darnley’s death. But he and Mary were not lovers. To the contrary. He wanted to marry Mary purely to boost his standing.
With Darnley dead, Bothwell seized Mary by force, and there is considerable suspicion he violated her. With no alternative, the couple were duly married, and entered upon a joyless domesticity.
This was all gold dust for Mary’s enemies. The scandal allowed them to capture her and offer her a stark choice: abdication or death. Mary duly signed away the crown, and then made perhaps her second greatest mistake, fleeing south to seek support from Elizabeth I, her English cousin.
Elizabeth seems to have been deeply conflicted over what to do about having Mary in her kingdom. On the one hand, Mary was a close relative, her cousin, a queen in her own right, and only nine years her junior. The two therefore had a lot in common. But there was realpolitik to consider. Mary had support from England’s Roman Catholics, and that made her a permanent danger to Elizabeth.
Mary earnestly sought (as she always had) Elizabeth’s friendship. And Elizabeth at one stage remarked that she wished both she and Mary could have been two milkmaids with pails upon their arms, away from all the politics, somewhere they could be friends. But Elizabeth was advised by hawks who saw Mary as a constant threat – a problem that would ultimately disappear with her death.
Although Elizabeth had no problem executing those she believed were against her, she baulked at the idea of killing a queen. Instead, she chose to imprison Mary. Although it would not stave off all plots, Elizabeth could console herself that any spies would first have to get past the gaolers.
The position between the cousins was at a stalemate. Mary was charged with no crime. So her imprisonment was illegal. But caught between the hawks among her advisers and her own periodic inclination for mercy, Elizabeth resorted to inaction.
As a result, Mary’s incarceration wore on interminably for 19 years.
Devoid of any responsibilities, Mary sank into a depression. With no one to advise her and no future to look forward to, she allowed herself to become involved in largely absurd and fantastist plots.
The end came when Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, set up a plot through his double agents. It was aimed precisely at entrapping Mary, and it worked, giving him all the evidence he needed to charge her with capital treason.
With the jubilant courtiers circling, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and gave it to Walsingham’s men, who carried it out immediately without consulting Elizabeth any further.
And this is the second bloody Renaissance anniversary falling this week – Mary’s beheading at Fotheringay Castle on the 8th of February 1587.
It was a tawdry affair. Mary was not permitted a priest of her religion, so said her own prayers quietly in Latin. She remained poised and calm. Among her last words, she forgave her executioner with all her heart because “now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”.
The first blow with the axe missed her neck and took off part of her head. The next was not hard enough. But the third finally severed her neck. Her dog, bloodied by the gore, lay between her head and shoulders, refusing to be parted from her. According to an eye witness, “her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off”.
As a final insult, her request to be buried in Rheims was overruled, and she was given a Protestant funeral in Peterborough.
The silent battle was over. Elizabeth’s inner circle had eliminated the threat.
So, for all the brilliance of Elizabeth’s Renaissance court, it was still a place where coteries of powerful advisors were willing to shore up their positions by engineering the death of anyone posing a potential threat. Self-preservation was paramount. And anyone who stood in their way – even an intelligent, fallible, slightly tragic queen – still paid the age-old price.
As a sign of how far things have come, these two anniversaries come in the week Buckingham Palace has announced an official visit by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to Pope Francis. And this single event throws the brutishness behind British Renaissance politics into even sharper relief.
Modern European democracy has many flaws. It inherently overpromises and underdelivers. Too often it smiles while lying, manipulating, and spinning. And frequently it depresses everyone with its predictably futility. That much would be familiar to both Savonarola and Queen Mary.
But it has largely taken absolute power out of the hands of those who guard it through terror and violence. And that is a significant achievement that the philosophers of the Renaissance would have welcomed. And so should we.