Amid violence and dishonesty, and the boisterous life of university students, and the rough humor and kindliness of peasant and proletaire, good manners grew as one of the arts of the Renaissance. Italy now led Europe in personal and social hygiene, dress, table manners, cooking, conversation, and recreations; and in all of these except dress Florence claimed to lead Italy. Florence patriotically mourned the filth of other cities, and Italians made Tedesco, German, a synonym for coarseness of language and life.88 The old Roman habit of frequent bathing continued in the educated classes; the well-to-do displayed their finery and “took the waters” at various spas, and drank sulphurous streams as an annual penance to purge digestive sins. Male dress was as ornate as female, except for jewelry: tight sleeves and colored hose, and such wondrous baggy bonnets as Raphael caught on Castiglione. Hose ran up the legs to the loins, splitting men into prancing absurdities; but above the hips a man could be elegant in velvet tunic and silk frills and ruffles of lace; even gloves and shoes sported wisps of lace. At a tournament given by Lorenzo de’ Medici his brother Giuliano wore garments costing 8000 ducats.89

A revolution in table manners came in the fifteenth century with the increasing substitution of a fork for the fingers in carrying food to the mouth. Thomas Coryat, touring Italy about 1600, was struck by the novel custom, “which,” he wrote, “is not used in any other country that I saw in my travels”; and he shared in introducing the idea into England.90 Knives, forks, and spoons were of brass, sometimes of silver—which was lent out to neighbors preparing banquets. Meals were modest except on such outstanding occasions or at state functions; then excess was compulsory. Spices—pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, juniper, ginger, etc.—were used in abundance to flavor food and stimulate thirst; hence every host offered his guests a variety of wines. The reign of garlic in Italy can be traced back to 1548, but doubtless had begun long before. There was very little drunkenness or gluttony; the Italians of the Renaissance, like the later French, were gourmets, not gourmands. When men ate apart from the women of their families they might invite a courtesan or two, as Aretino did when he entertained Titian. More careful people would grace the meal with music, poetic improvisations, and educated conversation.

The art of conversation—bel parlare—to speak with intelligence, urbanity, courtesy, clarity, and wit—was reinvented by the Renaissance. Greece and Rome had known it, and here and there in medieval Italy—as at the courts of Frederick II and Innocent III—it had been kept precariously alive. Now in Lorenzo’s Florence, in Elisabetta’s Urbino, in Leo’s Rome, it flourished again: nobles and their ladies, poets and philosophers, generals and scholars, artists and musicians met in the companionship of minds, quoted famous authors, made an occasional obeisance to religion, graced their language with a light fantastic touch, and basked in one another’s audience. Such conversation was so admired that many essays and treatises were cast in dialogue form to appropriate its elegance. In the end the game was carried to excess; language and thought became too precious and refined; an enervating dilettantism softened manliness. Urbino became Rambouillet in France, and Molière attacked les précieuses ridicules just in time to save the art of good converse for France.

Despite the preciosity of a few, Italian speech enjoyed a freedom of subject and epithet that would not be allowed by social manners today. Since general conversation was rarely heard by unmarried women of good character, it was assumed that sex might be openly discussed. But beyond this, and even in the highest male circles, there was a looseness of sexual jest, a gay freedom in poetry, a coarse obscenity in drama, that seem to us now among the less presentable aspects of the Renaissance. Educated men could scribble lewd verses on statuary, the refined Bembo wrote in praise of Priapus.91 Youths competed in obscenity and profanity to prove their maturity. Men of all classes swore great oaths and curses, often involving blasphemy of the most sacred names in the Christian faith. And yet the phrases of courtesy had never been so flowery, forms of address had never been so gracious; women kissed the hand of any intimate male friend on meeting or leaving him, and men kissed the hand of a woman; presents were ever passing from friend to friend; and tact of word and deed reached a development that seemed unattainable in northern Europe. Italian manuals of manners became favored texts beyond the Alps.

The same was true of Italian handbooks of dancing, fencing, and other recreations; in recreation, as in conversation and profanity, Italy led the Christian world. On summer evenings girls danced in the squares of Florence, and the most graceful won a silver garland; in the villages young men and women danced on the green. In homes and at formal balls women danced with women or men, and men with men or women; in any case the aim was grace. In the Renaissance the ballet flourished; the poetry of motion was added to the arts.

Cardplaying was even more popular than dancing; in the fifteenth century it became a mania in all classes; Leo X was an addict. Often it involved gambling; recall how Cardinal Raffaello Riario won 14,000 ducats in two games with the son of Innocent VIII. Men gambled also with dice, and sometimes loaded them.92 This too became a passion, which legislation vainly sought to moderate. In Venice gambling ruined so many noble families that the Council of Ten twice forbade the sale of cards or dice, and called upon servants to report masters violating these ordinances.93 The monte di pietà established by Savonarola in 1495 required of borrowers a pledge to avoid gambling at least till the loan had been paid.94 Sedate people brooded over chess, and fondled expensive sets; Giacomo Loredano at Venice had chessmen valued at 5000 ducats.

Young men had their special games, mostly in the open air. The upperclass Italian was trained to ride, wield sword and lance, and tilt in tournaments. For such contests the towns, on certain holidays, roped off space in a square, usually convenient to windows and balconies whence the ladies could encourage their knights. As these combats proved insufficiently mortal, some rash youths, in the Roman Colosseum in 1332, introduced the bullfight, with a man on foot armed only with a spear; on that occasion eighteen knights, all of old Roman families, were killed, and only eleven bulls.95 Such contests were occasionally repeated in Rome and Siena, but never caught the Italian taste. Horse racing was more popular, and aroused the enthusiasm of Romans, Sienese, and Florentines alike. Hunting, falconry, foot races, boat regattas, tennis, and boxing rounded out the sports, and kept the Italians individually in form, while collectively the defense of the cities was left to mercenary aliens.

All in all it was a gay life despite its toils and risks, its natural and supernatural terrors. City folk had the pleasure of walking or riding out to the countryside, to the banks of the rivers or the shores of the sea; they cultivated flowers to adorn their homes and persons, and, by their villas, carved stately gardens into geometrical forms. The Church was generous with holydays, and the state added holidays of its own. Water festivals were held on the Venetian lagoons, on the Arno at Venice, the Mincio at Mantua, the Ticino at Milan. Or, on special days, great processions moved down the city streets, with floats and banners designed for the guilds by artists of international renown; bands played, pretty girls sang and danced, dignitaries marched; and in the evening fireworks shot their evanescent wonder into the sky. On Holy Saturday, in Florence, three flints brought from the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem lit a taper that lit a candle that-carried along a wire by a mechanical dove—reached and set off the fireworks in the Carro or emblematic car of state in the piazza before the cathedral. On Corpus Christi the parade would be halted to hear a cantata sung by a choir of girls and boys, or see an episode of Scriptural history or pagan mythology enacted by some confraternity. If a great dignitary came to town he might be received with a trionfo, a procession arranged with chariots in the manner of a Roman triumph for a victorious general. When Leo X visited his beloved Florence in 1513, all the city turned out to watch his triumphal car—decorated and painted by Pontormo—pass under great arches that spanned the central street; seven other chariots moved in that cavalcade, bearing impersonations of famous figures in Roman history; on the last a naked boy, covered with gilt, represented the coming, with Leo, of the Golden Age; but the boy died shortly afterward from the effect of the gilt.96

At carnival time the processional floats in Florence might symbolize some idea like Prudence, Hope, Fear, Death, or the elements, the winds, the seasons, or tell in pantomime a story like Paris and Helen, or Bacchus and Ariadne, with songs appropriate to each scene; for such a “masque” Lorenzo wrote his famous ode to youth and joy. On those carnival nights everyone from urchins to cardinals wore masks, played pranks, and made love, with a freedom that revenged itself in advance for the restraints of Lent. In 1512, when Florence seemed still prosperous, but unsuspected misfortunes were only a few months away, Piero di Cosimo and Francesco Granacci designed for a carnival pageant a “Masque of the Triumph of Death”: an enormous triumphal car, drawn by black buffaloes, was covered with a black cloth on which were painted skeletons and white crosses; in the car stood a colossal figure of Death with a scythe in his hand; around him were tombs, and lugubrious figures on whose black robes were painted white bones gleaming in the dark; and behind the car masked figures walked, whose black hoods were painted with death heads both in front and behind. From the tombs on the cars rose other figures, painted to seem only bones; and these skeletons chanted a song reminding men that all must die. Before and after the car came a cavalcade of decrepit horses, bearing the bodies of dead men.97 So, at the height of carnival, Piero di Cosimo, echoing Savonarola, pronounced his judgment on the pleasures of Italy, and his prophecy of the doom to come.

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