Post-classical history

Retreat: The Great Social Divide and the End of the Rinascimento (c. 1525–c. 1575)

From Spiritual to Political Reform: Prophets of Reestablished Italian Glory

Reformers and reform sentiment were abroad in the sixteenth century and pressing for change well beyond the religious arena. In fact, many of the same people who were concerned with the spiritual reform of the Church were also profoundly concerned with reforming the political world of the Italian city-states in order to revitalize the traditional political order of the peninsula in the face of invasions and a deplored loss of political autonomy. As we have seen, these were crucial issues for the important political thinkers and social critics of the first decades of the century, like Machiavelli and Castiglione, and were deeply embedded in the apparently less political writings of writers like Ariosto, Aretino, Bembo, Gambara, and Colonna. They remained crucial even in the years of the Council of Trent and after, in fact, for the rest of the premodern period.

Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542), whom we have already met as a religious reformer, provides a good example of the way in which church reforming ideology and state reform often intermixed in fertile ways. Although he rejected for himself the spiritual withdrawal from the world of his fellow Venetians Vicenzo Querini and Tommaso Giustiniani, he remained committed to religious reform even as he became a major figure in the crucial political events of the day. Thus he played an important role in Venetian politics, serving as a diplomat representing Venice in the negotiations forming the League of Cognac, and after the Sack of Rome helping to reestablish peace between the emperor and Clement VII. At the same time, however, he gained a reputation for his Christian reforming ideals and was appointed a cardinal in 1535 at the age of fifty-two.

In that capacity he became a leader of a more moderate group of reformers and was widely recognized as one of the few Church leaders still hopeful that a reconciliation with Luther and his followers might be worked out. Given his views on salvation as expressed in his correspondence with Querini and Giustiniani, discussed earlier, where he had leaned toward a form of justification by faith rather than works, he certainly had a position on that vexed issue that might have made reconciliation possible. Pope Paul III, Cellini’s nemesis, may have hoped to take advantage of Contarini’s noted diplomatic skills and reputation as a moderate to divide the followers of Luther at the Diet of Regensburg in 1541, called in an attempt to reunite Christianity, where he sent him as papal legate. But Contarini’s desire for compromise was severely limited by the pope’s instructions, which restricted what he could propose; thus his more moderate stance went largely unexpressed and the council failed, as had earlier attempts at compromise and reunification.

In the political realm, however, Contarini’s vision of reform had a more lasting impact. As a political figure, not only did he serve on numerous important diplomatic missions before he became a cardinal, he also held some of the most important offices in Venetian government, serving as senator and even head of the famed Council of Ten, often seen as the small committee that dominated the government of the city in the sixteenth century. He also wrote a famous political treatise, De magistratibus et republica Venetorum (On the Commonwealth and Republic of Venice), that presented Venice and its government as the ideal mixed republic that implicitly might serve as a model for the reform of Italian city-state governments in the face of the political crisis of the day. In the spirit of the Rinascimento, Contarini claimed to look to the first times of Venice to discover what had enabled the republic to endure so long and so successfully. What he found expressed repeatedly in the chronicles of the city were the basic components of the myth of Venice – a myth that stressed the unusual virtù of the city’s merchant elite, who wisely had been willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the broader welfare and well-being of the republic.

In turn, building on a vision of the ideal republic based on medieval and ultimately Aristotelian ideals of mixed government, he argued that the Venetian republic had long been a virtually perfect expression of that ideal. Essentially, in Venice a self-effacing closed nobility ruled in the general interest of the commonwealth with a mix of princely power (in the form of the doge, the city’s chief executive and ritual figurehead), aristocratic power (in the form of the Senate, the elite council representing the best men of the city), and democratic power (in the form of the Great Council, representing the popolo of the city). All this was maintained by a well-established tradition of law that kept Venetians virtuous and moral, and those laws were in turn followed by virtuous Venetians – guaranteeing Venice’s own superior civic morality. These ideas were hardly new. Not only were they sprinkled generously through the Venetian chronicle tradition of the early Rinascimento and the city’s self-representation and civic rituals, they were much more widely accepted – even grudgingly countenanced by political thinkers such as Machiavelli, as we have seen. But, of course, the fact that they were not new, that they were already a part of the shared primary culture of the day, only made them more attractive for the Rinascimento.

Unfortunately, however, they were not particularly accurate, as Contarini must have been aware, having actually served in the government and experienced on a daily basis the much more complex reality of the messy business and corruption of Venetian politics. In fact, the Venetians of his day even had a technical term in the local dialect for the corruption that they felt actually made their government function, broglio – a term that, although seldom used today, actually made it into English as a name for political corruption. Yet here once again reality was in many ways less important than appearances, as Machiavelli would have argued. For to contemporaries it was clear that Venice was, in fact, unusual in its longevity, peacefulness, prosperity, and well-ordered success, and Contarini’s treatise simply explained why, without novel claims or dangerous innovations. In fact, his recipe for successful governing was point by point satisfyingly old and traditional, based on claims (also untrue) that the city had endured as a virtually unchanging republic for a thousand years. From the perspective of this imagined reality, others who sought success and stability could argue that reform and rebirth on the Venetian model offered the answer.

Significantly, Contarini’s work was so convincing that it was quickly translated from Latin into Italian, French, and English and thus had a much wider impact. Most notably, perhaps, it had a profound influence on English and American political thinkers, as the masterful studies of J. G. A. Pocock and William Bouswma have shown from slightly different perspectives. In fact, the subsequent history of Venice only heightened the attractiveness of Contarini’s presentation of the Venetian myth. That story does not belong here, but events like the Venetian surprise victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the writings of later Venetian political thinkers like Paolo Paruta, at the end of the century, and Paolo Sarpi, early in the seventeenth century – thinkers who tied the myth of mixed politics and civic morality into a richly suggestive package that also advocated resistance to the claims of power by religious institutions – made the Venetian model particularly attractive. That potent mix, promising stable government, peace, and civic morality, prepared the ground for political ideologies that could argue for the separation of church and state without being open to charges of supporting an immoral secular order or dangerously new ideas. And it had a profound impact on political thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, who had clearly read his Contarini and Sarpi along with Machiavelli and who, at times, could see the new country he was involved in founding as not so new after all, but rather a reassuring rebirth modeled on the successes of the Rinascimento.

Returning to Italy, however, and looking back at 1494 from the mid-1520s, Machiavelli’s younger friend and correspondent Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) described in his Dialogo del Reggimento di Firenze (Dialogue on the Government of Florence) another, more pragmatic vision of potential political reform. The work, set in 1494 just after the fall of the Medici, presented a supposed discussion between a group advocating reestablishing the old Florentine republic and a wise old supporter of the Medici, Bernardo del Nero, who agreed reluctantly with their proposal and suggested reforming the city’s old institutions in order to create a more ideal republic. The republicans, represented by actual historical figures who had played major roles in the renewed republic (1494–1512), were won over by del Nero’s logic, which cleverly displayed Guicciardini’s own famed “realism” and “anti-theoretical” approach to politics. Del Nero argued that while republican forms of government had more problems and defects than one-man rule, given the particular circumstances of the moment, a return to such rule under the Medici was not possible. Thus particular circumstances, not historical rules or ideals of returning to first times, forced del Nero to opt for a new republic, and, not surprisingly, it was very similar to the mixed republican government advocated by Machiavelli in the Discourses and later by Contarini. This neatly allowed Guicciardini to defend what he saw as a better form of republican government that might have been established in an imaginary past without stepping on the toes of the current Medici rulers of his city.

Giucciardini, unlike Machiavelli, was born into one of the major old aristocratic families in Florence with deep and illustrious roots in the city’s history. After studying law and the classics both in Florence and at the University of Padua, he married Maria Salviati in his mid-twenties, apparently without the consent of his family. Their lack of enthusiasm for the match seems to have been due to the fact that even if her family was old and prominent, it was temporarily out of power during the revived republic (1494–1512), given its Medicean sympathies. His marriage and political career became considerably happier and more prosperous, however, with the return of the Medici in 1512. After working briefly in their restored government, he entered the service of the papacy and spent most of the papacies of Leo X and Clement VII working for them. In that capacity he played a significant role in the illfated League of Cognac and as papal governor in various cities of the Papal States. With the death of Clement in 1534 and the papacy of Paul III, however, Guicciardini found his favor waning in Rome. Unfortunately for him, the same was true in Florence, where the new Medici duke, Cosimo I, found the ex-papal official with his anti-imperial reputation a problem for his rule, which was heavily reliant on the emperor, Charles V.

Given the political climate, Guicciardini opted, much like Machiavelli, to retire to his Tuscan villa near Arcetri in 1537, devoting his last years to his historical writings and his practical reflections on life in a work known as Ricordi (Records orMemories).Ricordi had long been popular among Florentines: beginning as annotated account books, they slowly developed into diarylike works with the addition of progressively more personal detail. It appears that Guicciardini’s Ricordi were written early in his career in this typical chronological form, but late in life he reorganized them so that they appeared more like short aphorisms on his vision on life. Although not published until much later, they provide a revealing critique and rejection of the Rinascimento. The idea of a return or rebirth of first times, he argued, was an empty dream; moreover, there were no models, ancient or modern, for living a good life. Instead, one needed to use “discrezione”: the ability to distinguish the nature of each situation and decide what needed to be done case by case. Not surprisingly, then, he was also unenthusiastic about the Church and its reforms, arguing that religion made the world “effeminate” – once again that gendered value judgment – and was best kept separate from politics and the pragmatic decisions that mattered.

Much the same vision can be found in his major history, still unfinished at his death, the Storia d’Italia (History of Italy). A multivolume work that carefully detailed the history of the peninsula from 1492 to 1534, it focused on the events and individuals that Guicciardini saw as critical for the crisis that Italy faced. And in many ways it can still be read as a political history of that period from the perspective of the ruling elites of Italy. In fact, with its reliance on documents and a close, often personal knowledge of events and diplomatic maneuvers, it is frequently referred to as one of the first truly modern histories in the Western tradition. Firsts, of course, are notoriously temporary, enduring only until someone finds a newer first; and first “moderns,” if anything, tend to be very short-lived. Yet there is much in his history that makes it read differently than most other histories of his day, even if it wrestles with the same big question that troubled everyone, the apparent demise of the Rinascimento. He too related the events and the context of what were seen at the time as the disasters that had ruined Italy, from the invasion of the French King Charles VIII in 1494 through the Sack of Rome in 1527, along with the wars that had wracked the peninsula between the French kings and the Habsburg emperors, and on to the eventual dominance of Charles V.

But, significantly, he relates these events without an evident overall theoretical frame or classical model. Rather, he provides a close individual analysis on a case-by-case basis without offering lessons or a general overview of history itself; thus Guicciardini’s tale tends to turn on the deeds of individual actors motivated by human emotions and historically particular factors. In sharp contrast with Machiavelli’s historical reflections in his histories and in his Discourses and The Prince, Guicciardini’s past offers no rules, aside from the very significant rule that history offers no rules. In this, then, Guicciardini rejects one of the basic underpinnings of the Rinascimento, for one cannot return to the past to find lessons, rules, or models for living in the present in an historical past where none exists. In the end, history is too complex, and historical events involve too many individual conjunctures, meaning that the past is absolutely unrepeatable. Reform and rebirth in the deep sense of the Rinascimento were ultimately chimeras.

Guicciardini had developed similar ideas in his Considerazioni intorno ai Discorsi di Machiavelli sulla prima Deca di Tito Livio (Considerations on the Discourses of Machiavelli), written earlier in 1529, shortly after the death of his friend Machiavelli. In that work, echoing the letters the two had exchanged, Guicciardini argued that Machiavelli’s analysis was actually driven by a deeper theoretical vision, rejecting his claims that he was merely analyzing things as they were and as they worked. Most notably, he pointed out that Machiavelli believed that the Roman past actually provided ongoing rules that could be discovered for the way events and histories developed rules that could be applied in the present. Once again Guicciardini argued that such rules simply did not exist. Machiavelli, because he did not realize this, missed the real trees for an imagined theoretical forest, even as he denied that he was doing so.

Perhaps most indicative of Guicciardini’s distance from Machiavelli, however, was his discussion of the relationship between Fortuna and virtù, developed most fully in the Ricordi. Given the impressive power most thinkers attributed to virtù in human affairs and in the very organization of society, fortune’s widely recognized ability to overturn virtù was a perennial subject of reflection. Machiavelli’s worries about Fortuna are merely among the best known, but Guicciardini’s reflections on the subject may be read as a rejection of what he saw as his friend’s overly optimistic conclusions on the subject. For although Machiavelli gave fortune great power, in the end he claimed that the truly virtù-ous could control it. As we have seen, he argued that while fortune was like a flood that swept all before it, the virtù-ous person could be wise enough to carefully plan ahead and build the necessary dikes and canals to control the force of that flood, thus avoiding the worst of its destructive power. Guicciardini countered that the best-laid plans were often simply overwhelmed by fortune, and given that the past never repeated itself, virtù was incapable of using the past to foretell where fortune would strike. In this pessimistic vision, another lynchpin of the Rinascimento primary culture, virtù, was once again undermined. In the end one had to judge each situation on its own and accept that even this approach would not always be enough to overcome fortune. In all this Guicciardini might be seen as anticipating the modern world and is often presented in that light. But perhaps it would be better to see him in the terms of his time, for in many ways he was more a disillusioned aristocrat, who, like many of his peers, had lost faith in some of the most important givens of the Rinascimento, without, however, actually being able to leave that world and culture behind.

As an aristocrat and conservative, Guicciardini’s vision of the ideal society was strongly conditioned by a measured rationality intermingled with nostalgia for a past that he ruefully realized could not return or be recreated. Yet for all its unrepeatability, it was at the heart of the future he hoped for, even as he doubted it would arrive. Telling in this regard is his often-cited hope for the future of Italy: “I wish to see three things before I die, but I doubt that … I will see any of them: a well ordered republican life in our city, Italy liberated from all the barbarians, and the world freed from the tyranny of those priests.” His first two wishes actually seem to imply a return to the glories of the Rinascimento, even if he had argued cogently that they could not return. His last fit well with his suspicion of religion and its negative impact on society. And to a degree it seemed to echo the more radical reformers of his day, who called for divesting the Church of its material wealth and political power, even if he would probably have been uncomfortable in their company.

In contrast to Machiavelli’s call for a strong leader with the virtù to unite Italy and drive the barbarians from the peninsula, Guicciardini seemed to desire merely a continuation of the city-states of Italy. Each, led by aristocratic elites made up of men like himself, would follow its own local political and cultural path, a diversity that promised continued greatness and leadership, culturally and politically. To overcome the barbarians, the only hope was for city-states to band together to drive them out of Italy and at the sametime to divest the papacy of its temporal powers, thus eliminating once and for all its continuing destabilizing maneuvering with powers from outside the peninsula. Guicciardini presented what was ultimately a fairly traditional vision as merely the result of a careful analysis of things as they were, even if paradoxically, in its own way it was a call for a return to an imagined past that had been lost with the invasions. In all of this Guicciardini seems symptomatic of a period of transition. He rejected many of the key concepts of the shared primary culture of the Rinascimento: virtù, optimism, reform, return, and ultimately the very possibility of a rebirth of the ancient world or even of the immediate past, while ultimately hoping to return to an imagined better past. And at the very heart of his way of seeing the world, there lurked that most scary of all the fears of the period – the new, which in his pessimistic vision seemed to be destroying the world in which he lived.

The Great Social Divide: Aristocrats and Academies

In his firm belief that the Italian aristocracy as it had developed across the Rinascimento offered the ideal leaders to overcome the crisis Italy faced, Guicciardini may not have been entirely correct, but he was on target about who the major players would be. For in many ways the middle years of the century in Italy were ones that formalized what we have labeled the Great Social Divide. Of course, from the first days of the Rinascimento – and well before, for that matter – there had been a strong sense of social hierarchy in the cities of Italy. But, as we have seen, in that urban world of relatively rapid social change there had been considerable uncertainty and competition about who the most important people actually should be. Eventually the question was settled in favor of a mixed group of merchants, bankers, and owners of larger artisanal enterprises such as the great cloth producers of Florence, along with a liberal dash of the old nobility who joined their ranks – the popolo grosso. This new elite, with its claim to be re-founding the glories of ancient Rome, along with the way of life of the ancient world based on their own virtù and ideals as rediscovered in ancient texts, both classical and Christian, asserted that they were definitely not new. In fact, they presented themselves as safely and successfully the best of the old, leading a rebirth of ancient society and virtù – a Rinascimento.

Across the fifteenth century we have seen how this elite became progressively more aristocratic. In turn, the series of crises of the sixteenth century accentuated this process. With a greater emphasis on bloodline and family tradition; with increasing competition from the rest of Europe in banking, trade, and neoindustrial production; with a New World and a developing world economy that threatened to transform the Mediterranean from center to periphery; with a renewed emphasis on the Church, warfare, and the land as the most secure economic motors for the upper classes; and with tighter and tighter marriage strategies within class, the gateway to elite status was becoming narrower and narrower. Moreover, at the highest level of the aristocracy, the best families of the most important cities and courts were increasingly breaking away from the custom of marrying locally, or at least with other Italian aristocrats, and rediscovering the prestige and power that came with marrying into powerful European noble families, a tendency encouraged by the new political realities of the peninsula, where foreign families like the Habsburgs and countries like Spain dominated. Those few below this more narrow and powerful aristocracy who managed to gain the wealth or the power and visibility to join their ranks faced a long and often fruitless struggle to actually be allowed in – in essence, a divide that had long existed was becoming a yawning chasm in Italy. To a great extent that Great Social Divide was the last piece of the puzzle that aligned Italy once more with the dynamic of the rest of Europe and prepared it to follow on the path to a new European order, becoming a part of a more general European Renaissance already under way and eventually developing into what would be labeled the ancien régime.

One area where this growing divide seemed to be eased somewhat was in the rapid growth of academies dedicated to learning and intellectual play in the sixteenth century. Informal groupings of intellectuals drawn from the upper classes, scholars, and even an occasional artisan/artist noted for his virtù had long been a part of the cultural life of Italy. One thinks of the circle of scholar/bureaucrats and upper-class intellectuals that Coluccio Salutati and his protégé Leonardo Bruni gathered around themselves at the turn of the fifteenth century; the group that gathered around Marsilio Ficino; or the so-called Roman Academy led by Pomponio Leto that incurred the suspicious displeasure of Pope Paul II, which he broke up in 1468. Even Machiavelli was associated with an informal group that met in the Rucellai Gardens to discuss ideas and politics, where he read to his fellows parts of the Discourses as they were being written. His Art of War was actually set as a dialogue that took place in those same gardens. Examples could easily be multiplied in virtually every cultural center of Italy. What changed as the sixteenth century progressed, however, was that an increasing number of these groups transformed themselves from informal gatherings that met outside universities or courts, into formal academies that elected members, met regularly, and had officers and rules – in essence attempting to create their own urban pseudo-courts without a prince for what was increasingly a self-styled intellectual elite. The aristocratic, elitist nature of most academies was clearly one reason for their rapid proliferation across the sixteenth century. It has been estimated that in 1530 there were probably about a dozen or so formal academies in Italy. By 1600 the number had ballooned to almost 400, and it continued to grow to at least 1,000 by 1700, with virtually every major population center having at least one academy and larger cities usually having several.

Status, both social and intellectual, was clearly an important aspect of the academies, yet it is unclear just where they actually fit in the social hierarchy of the day. Although their pretensions often aimed at elite status, many did not match up with the unquestioned social superiority of the high aristocracy who frequented the important courts of the day or often even of the most powerful aristocrats of formally noncourtly cities like Venice and Genoa. And clearly there were numerous academies, especially in smaller cities or at a second-tier level in larger ones, where most of the members were on the wrong side of the growing Great Social Divide. It may well be, however, that this rather unclear social placement fit well with the increasingly strict social divisions that typified the second half of the sixteenth century. In their way, the academies, perhaps in a largely unrecognized manner, provided an apparent softening of that divide, offering a type of elite status to those who socially and in terms of power no longer would find a real place among what was now a new, much more aristocratic elite with a growing European reach and visibility.

In essence the academies created a slightly less elite social environment that ran parallel to the courts of the day, rewarding, at least in theory, the more traditional virtù associated with accomplishment, usually intellectual. There was some crossover, of course, with some more intellectually accomplished notables joining or patronizing academies and a few of the most impressive members of academies adding their luster to the most important courts. Significantly, although real power and status seemed to go first to the courts and their increasingly notable notables, in ways perhaps unrecognized at the time, this gave a different, less visible power to the academies. Without the necessity of serving a prince or competing for his favor or moving in international circles, the gaming and play of academies could focus more easily on scholarship and the intellectual play that would provide the basis for intellectual innovation, especially in areas like the natural and mechanical sciences.

With time, a hierarchy of academies developed, with the greatest offering their members a badge of high status and lesser ones at the least marking a person out as an aristocrat locally. In a few, notable local artists, and even an occasional artisan respected for his skills, mixed with intellectuals and aristocrats, sharing interests in natural philosophy or more practical learning to create a rich blending of ideas across social distinctions. But more often these academies reflected the virtually unquestioned assumption that both gender (masculine) and class (aristocratic) determined who the truly virtù-ous were. This aristocratic tone was reflected in the playful titles and names given to these groups – the Ardenti (Impassioned Ones) in Naples; the Addormentati (Sleeping Ones) in Genoa; the Gelati (Frozen, Frigid Ones) in Bologna; the Confusi (Confused Ones) in Viterbo; the Infiammati (Burning Ones) in Padua; the Innominati (Unnamed Ones) in Parma; and the Intronati (Dazed Ones) in Siena – for even the exchange of ideas and intellectual pursuits were seen by the upper classes as aristocratic play or games, not work. Work was for the lower classes, and thus, in order to be truly aristocratic, intellectual activities virtually by definition had to be at least playful. In fact, the association of play, games, and what would become scientific investigation made what is often labeled early science a very different project than the modern, both socially and intellectually.

With time, however, the most successful academies became more serious, and as they did, they tended to reinforce the Great Social Divide with a series of significant intellectual divides. The Accademia della Crusca (The Academy of the Chaff) in Florence, founded officially in 1583, provides a telling example. It grew out of an informal group that referred to itself as the Brigata dei Crusconi (The Bad Chaff Chums), from the term cruscate, which referred both to a playful form of lecture that seemed to wander around a topic without openly coming to a conclusion and to the chaff left over when grain was milled, crusca. This Brigata had begun to meet as a more playful alternative to the Florentine Academy patronized by the grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, which they saw as too serious and pedantic. Thus, they sought to wear their learning lightly, something indicated by the names the group took for themselves, most of which played upon references to food and, more specifically, flour and grain.

The most famous founding member, Anton Francesco Grazzini (1503–1584), noted for his racy and humorous poems, his comedies, and his collection of novelle, Le cene (The Dinners), which followed in the tradition of Boccaccio, took the name Il Lasca, a small freshwater fish noted for being difficult to eat because of its many spiny bones, probably to suggest his notoriously difficult character. This name might seem to go against the grain of naming members after foods with a grain dimension, but as Lasca himself pointed out, in order to be eaten this fish had to be dusted in flour and fried. In fact, Lasca had a reputation for being hard to swallow on his own, as in 1540 he had been one of the founders of an earlier academy in Florence, the Umidi (the Damp or Sweaty). But he was expelled in 1547 as his irreverent and more popular style of humor, especially with its mocking of the Latin and Greek classics, made him unpopular with the increasingly disciplinary approach of the humanists who progressively dominated that academy. The first days of the Accademia della Crusca were more amenable to his playful erudition and his preference for writing in a rich and inventive Tuscan rather than in Latin.

But it was Leonardo Salviati, known as the Infarinato (Coated with Flour), who led the academy in a commitment to promulgate Tuscan as a full-fledged literary language, Italian, on a par with Latin – in the process making it less common and more aristocratic. Early on it republished the great writers of that dialect, such as Dante and Boccaccio, and focused discussions on their use of the language and its rich potential for creating a high literature. Before long their discussions became less humorous and more disciplinary in nature, a process that was accelerated early in the seventeenth century with the publication of the first edition of their Vocabulario della Lingua Italiana (Dictionary of the Italian Language, 1612). In the title lay a program, for the work claimed to be not a dictionary of one dialect of Italian, Tuscan, but the dictionary of the language of all of Italy. Although that clearly was not the case, the claim involved the academy in what might be termed a linguistic crusade to make Tuscan the formal, learned language of Italy – the modern equivalent of ancient Latin. For that it needed a formal dictionary to discipline usage and spelling, along with recognized models of fine writing and a literary tradition, all of which the academy aggressively promoted, following in this the lead of earlier defenders of Tuscan like Pietro Bembo.

This was also reflected in a rethinking of what the name of the academy itself meant. No longer were they self-effacing chaff; rather, they began to claim that they were the academy that winnowed the chaff from the grain, separating out the pure flour of a great language; thus they adopted a motto freely adapted from Petrarch, “il più bel fior ne coglie” (“the most beautiful flower is chosen”). The most beautiful flowers of the Italian language were chosen by the academy to make the fine flour of a pure language, and the chaff was left behind. And the flowers chosen, crucially, were also social, as lower-class would-be intellectuals were winnowed out as well, while the academy, like most others, accepted only the flower of the intellectual elite – yet another reflection of the hardening Great Social Divide. One imagines the irreverent Lasca turning over in his grave at the new linguistic discipline that he had helped to create and the increasingly pedantic academy that he had helped to found. In this program, however, the academy itself flourished, maintaining itself as the self-appointed arbiter of the Italian language down to the twentieth century, reprinting and updating their dictionary many times and serving as a model for similar language-disciplining efforts such as the Dictionnaire de l’Acadèmie française.

The disciplining of language was not without a social agenda as well. Printing had created a dangerous blurring of the lines of social division, making the book, its learning, and its access to culture available to a much wider public. From the first printing had its critics, who focused on just this socially promiscuous nature of the printed book. Scholars with aristocratic pretensions lamented this sharing of knowledge with a wider public, complaining that even artisans could play at being learned with the aid of printed books. The religious enthusiasms that disrupted Italy and Europe in the sixteenth century, encouraged in part by printed religious works in the vernacular, merely confirmed the danger in the minds of many. “Vernacular,” however, is the key word here, for one significant factor that limited the spread of ideas, even after printing, was that the most important intellectual works were printed in classical languages. Without a university training – largely limited to the upper classes – most were unable to read works printed in those languages even if they could buy them. Moreover, humanists and their new lingual discipline, with its emphasis not just on any form of Latin, but on the elegant Latin of Cicero and a few other chosen classical authors, made the writing of those who copied those styles once again less available to a wider public, even those who were able to read the everyday Latin of business. In this way humanists and their disciplining of Latin contributed, along with the academies, to strengthening the Great Social Divide in the cultural realm.

But it might well be argued that the creation of a formal disciplined vernacular based on the Tuscan dialect had a similar impact and that the rules and canonical texts of the academies played a notable role as well. Significantly, from this perspective, as authors felt more and more compelled to write in “correct” Tuscan Italian, abandoning their local dialects, writing and reading in that “high” vernacular became more difficult. In fact, even writers like Ariosto and Castiglione felt the need to apologize for their non-Tuscan usage and hired editors to correct their attempts at Tuscan Italian. For a time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that version of Italian became the learned language par excellence among elites at court and the sophisticated across Europe. At the same time, writings in other local dialects tended to assume a lower, often more bawdy, register and intellectual tone – suitable only for “popular” literature, in the value-laden sense of that term, from the perspective of the aristocratic sixteenth century. In this way onestrain of the vernacular, Tuscan, became a learned language, and printed texts in the refined forms encouraged by academies became less available to a general public, thus reinforcing social divisions even as printed texts became more and more widely available.

The Intronati (Dazed) of Siena was one of the earliest academies to formally organize (between 1525 and 1527) as well as one of the most visible and successful to recognize the complex importance of the vernacular. Their name referred to their claim that dazed by the confusion of the rapidly changing world around them; they had decided to withdraw to a life of literary pursuits and wooing the women of their city. The registers of the academy claim that the original founders were six of the leading literary figures in Siena: the Archbishop Francesco Bandini Piccolomini, Marcantonio Piccolomini, Antonio Vignali, Francesco Sozzi, Giovan Francesco Franceschi, and Alessandro Marsi. The two Piccolomini stressed the aristocratic nature of the group, as they were scions of one of the oldest and most important families in the city, who could trace their literary fame back at least as far as the fifteenth-century scholar and pope, Pius II, Aneas Silvius Piccolomini. Vignali was undoubtedly the most controversial, and soon was forced to flee the city because of his outrageous satire, La Cazzaria (The Book of the Prick), published in Italian by the academy shortly after it was formed. The work had something to upset virtually everyone as it defended sodomy, both philosophically and in immediate graphic detail, and at the same time managed to use those graphic details as metaphors for the political conflicts of Siena, which were critiqued bitterly. Recently translated and published with an important introduction by Ian Moulton, with this work we are definitely back in the playful world of the satyr in the garden of the late Rinascimento, where the play had a serious bite on several levels.

The Intronati minus Vignali, however, won fame for their production of literature in Italian; their salonlike gatherings (called in local dialect veglie); and their proclaimed interest in supporting the intellectual endeavors of women. They were perhaps most famous, however, for the comedies they wrote and produced. In fact, the comedy that they officially wrote as a group shortly after Vignali fled the city and performed in 1532, Gl’ingannati (The Deceived), became one of the most successful and influential comedies of the sixteenth century. The intriguing plot stars a cross-dressed young woman, Lelia, serving the man she loves, Flamminio, as his male page. She roams the streets passing as a young man, and even successfully courting another woman and in the process performs as a more-than-passable male lover. All this questionable behavior notwithstanding, she eventually wins Flamminio’s love, in no small part due to her virtù-ous lack of traditional feminine virtue. In the end Lelia marries, and everything may seem to reconfirm with that happy ending that a quite wayward young woman has been safely returned to her correct place, securely under the yoke of matrimony. But, as Laura Giannetti points out in her study, Lelia’s Kiss, that may be just the last and biggest deception of the The Deceived, for throughout the comedy a young woman breaks most of the rules that kept women subservient to men and in their secondary roles in society, and in the end her plotting, along with a bit of luck, brings her, against the wishes and plans of her father, her desire – marriage to the man she loves.

And, crucially, the women of the audience have seen in the play of the play her successes and tasted her dangerously delicious freedom – imaginatively, at least. At the same time, the comedy barely hides behind its fast-paced action and humor a critique of a number of things that restricted upper-class women at the time, most notably arranged marriages in pursuit of family goals, restrictions on their movements outside the home, and a lack of concern for their feelings and desires. That people enjoyed the comedy, and enjoyed imagining its more challenging moments, is indicated by the fact that it was widely performed and imitated, spawning a slew of Italian comedies that borrowed large portions of its plot. It was also quickly taken up in other countries, especially Spain, where it served as a model for a number of successful comedies and ultimately became, either directly or indirectly, the basis for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. All this seems to suggest a deep, uncomfortable awareness that the traditional restrictions on women were not without their problems, not just for women but also for men and for society as a whole.

Such successes helped to focus the Intronati’s activities on the literary, and across the sixteenth century they continued to write and produce a number of popular comedies. They also continued with their theme of supporting women and their intellectual interests. Right from the start, one of their focuses had been on providing literature written in Italian, claiming that such literature was more available to women than literature written in Latin, as few women had been exposed to that classical language at a level that allowed them to appreciate its literature. One response was translating the Latin classics into Italian, but equally important was creating a literature in Italian that was great in its own right and worthy of upper-class aristocratic women. Some modern scholars have expressed doubts about just how serious these claims were, and certainly works like Vignali’s La Cazzaria, which in many ways demeaned women, add to that doubt. Still, behind the misogynist topoi of some members, and the more playful sexual courting and wordplay of others, there was a definite strain of writing produced by male members of the academy that supported a more significant role for aristocratic women, at least, in the intellectual life of the day and the academies themselves. But it should be remembered that this support of learning for women was strictly intended for an elite of aristocratic women at the top of society. Thus it reflected in its own way the hardening social divisions of the day and their crucial gendered dimension; nonelite women were on the wrong side of the divide and therefore too insignificant to really matter.

At another level the Intronati, like other academies, also had a less apparent political agenda, for as the real power of government fell more and more into the hands of tighter oligarchies, absolutist local princes, and foreign powers, especially Spain and the Habsburgs, the old ideal of an active life in service to the state became an increasingly empty dream. In the case of Siena and the Intronati, the city fell in 1555 to its perennial enemy Florence, which in turn was a client state of the Habsburg emperors; thus, although local government continued under the watchful eyes of Florence and its more distant Habsburg supporters, it was clearly no longer the feisty preserve of local aristocrats exercising their power over their community. In that context, academies in many no-longer-independent cities, with their meetings, rules, and debates, offered a form of civil institution parallel to government where one could not only engage in civil conversation and make decisions in a pseudo-republican setting, but even do so in the name of influencing the life of one’s city. In fact, the organization of academies is sometimes compared to that of guild organization, although it might be more accurate to claim merely that virtually all cooperate bodies that restricted membership to a select group – whether that was masters of a craft, the citizens that mattered in a city-state, or a select group of intellectuals and scholars – followed much the same organizational model. Thus an academy could seem to mirror guild structures for a select upper-class membership at the same time that it functioned like a republic of letters or ideas in world where republics were largely a thing of the past.

Actually, the way academies seemed to parallel courts and offer to some degree the civil life that was less available in the more closed government and society of the day provides a necessary qualification against overestimating the increasing strictness of the Great Social Divide. It was becoming more real and more definitive, certainly. But while true aristocratic status on a European level was becoming increasingly difficult to gain unless one was from an established major family, there was still a lively economic life that allowed a few to gain riches and a certain status. This was especially true in the second half of the sixteenth century, when Spanish rule over much of the peninsula during a relatively peaceful period allowed the economy of many cities to flourish. Moreover, in many rural areas a more capital-intensive agriculture apparently provided a more secure balance to the wealth of the upper classes in general, allowing a significant number of the newer rich to adopt a more rural lifestyle consonant with the more aristocratic ideals that were shared across Europe. But few with new wealth were capable of jumping to true aristocratic status or true political power, and in that situation academies offered a significant opportunity to claim status and exercise power.

Divide and Discipline

At more humble levels, the hardening social divisions and an increasing concern with social discipline in a more strictly divided society were also stimulating an increasing concern with problems that had long troubled the cities of the Rinascimento, and often the rest of Europe as well. One of the most important was the question of poverty and the poor. There was a time when scholars argued that the Protestant Reformation created a new attitude toward poverty. To simplify greatly, the argument ran that in Catholic lands where good works were required for salvation, charity for the poor was one of the primary good works that guaranteed salvation. Thus, before the Reformation and in Catholic lands after it, the poor were an accepted part of society who, as members of the community, offered the necessary opportunity to those who were better-off to win salvation through charitable works. By contrast, in Protestant lands, where new confessions held that salvation was through faith and the grace of God alone, the poor lost this positive dimension and, rather than being seen as necessary members of society, were increasingly seen as people who did not belong, requiring discipline or even expulsion.

In Protestant lands, as a result, government took over from private charity the newly perceived problem of dealing with the poor, setting up programs of poor relief – especially in urban areas, where they were increasingly seen as a major problem. While these programs tended to be styled “relief,” they attacked the problem primarily by dividing those labeled “the deserving poor” from those who were not, aiding the former and disciplining the latter. The deserving poor were those viewed as regular, hard-working members of the community who had merely fallen on hard times and required temporary assistance until they could get back on their feet and return to being productive members of society. The rest of the poor comprised a more diverse group who shared the unfortunate characteristic of being perceived as unwilling to work and largely outsiders, either because they lacked a true work ethic or because they were from somewhere else and had joined the community in the hope of taking advantage of its poor relief. Needless to say, those poor people came to be considered outsiders who did not deserve the community’s charity, and numerous disciplinary schemes were developed to force them to work or drive them away.

While this dichotomy between Catholic lands and Protestant lands has a certain logic, actual historical developments in neither area fit it well. And, in fact, the last generation of research on the subject has demonstrated that much of the governmental poor relief in northern Europe was actually based upon programs developed in the cities of Catholic Italy. Natalie Davis, for example, in a classic study on poor relief in Lyon, was actually able to show how an influential Italian immigrant working in Lyon played a crucial role in setting up poor relief there on Italian models. And, in a magisterial work based on massive archival research, Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice, Brian Pullan demonstrated in detail how that Catholic city developed a complex system of poor relief, if not in anticipation of Protestant lands, at least in much the same time frame. In reality, given the turbulent life of Rinascimento cities and the long-term desire to create a more peaceful and secure urban environment, it is not surprising that the poor were an issue that concerned governments in Italy early on.

As we have seen, in the fourteenth century, if not earlier, most cities created grain offices that attempted to provide grain for the poor during periods of dearth in order to avoid the disorders associated with hard times and famine. In the fifteenth century, many also created dowry funds to aid poor young girls whose families did not have the wealth to supply them with dowries and thus allow them to get married. Ideally, this was to help them set up families and live a more secure life that would save them from destitution or prostitution. Such governmental initiatives, however, were supplemented by nongovernmental practices that better fit the charity model of helping the poor, with confraternities playing an important role in distributing charity in times of need; guilds setting up funds to support poor people working in their crafts and professions; and many wills, especially those of richer women, bequeathing money to allow poor young girls and orphans to marry. Hospitals, usually funded by individual donors, confraternities, or even occasionally guilds, also provided poor relief, sometimes directly in the form of handouts to the poor or taking in the destitute until they could productively return to society. In the vision of the day the “male” (meaning both illness and evil) of illness was seen as in many ways sliding easily into the “male” of poverty, making hospitals much more all-purpose institutions that dealt both with the sick and the indigent.

These initiatives were supplemented by others that mixed governmental and nongovernmental projects, such as foundling homes, often supported by government, as well as by donors, which grew in importance from the fifteenth century on, providing a form of poor relief not always recognized as such; for one of the primary purposes of such homes was to raise the offspring of the poor, who were not able to feed their children because of their poverty. In a similar vein, the numerous sixteenth-century institutions discussed earlier to protect poor women and keep them from being forced into prostitution, supported by both donors and by government, also aimed at ameliorating the problems of poor women. And finally, the Church provided charity to the poor as well. This mixing makes more sense when one remembers that we are dealing not so much with a distinction between private charity and governmental charity, but rather, as argued earlier, with a situation where government was still regularly seen as one corporate fictive individual competing for power and control with a series of other corporate fictive individuals, such as guilds, confraternities, the Church, and individual donors.

To a degree, then, well before the sixteenth century most urban governments in Italy were beginning to rethink the nature of poverty and their role in dealing with it. And in the process they began to take into account the growing perception of a distinction between those poor people who were seen as members of the community who had fallen on hard times and those who were seen as merely unwilling to work and living off the charity of others. But in the sixteenth century this distinction became more widely accepted and prompted more aggressive action and disciplining of the poor by government. Obviously, the crisis of the early decades of the century and the dislocation and disruption that accompanied it helped to make the problem increasingly visible and a matter of concern. But clearly more was involved. A larger and more complex government with a stronger sense of its mandate to discipline society and control social disorder certainly played a part as well. The desire for a more decorous society better suited to a more aristocratic urban life may also have contributed to increasing pressure to remove beggars and the unsightly poor from the streets and squares of cities. And more traditional values such as civic morality, accentuated by the spiritual enthusiasms and reform sentiments that were the order of the day, also encouraged such governmental action in the name of reform. Finally, most difficult to gauge was a growing sense among the upper classes that the lower classes were meant to work and that those who escaped that imperative endangered the proper order of society and its underlying social hierarchy, literally as a disease and disease-carrying group (a male), that threatened to infect society, both morally and physically.

In fact, such reforming zeal, combined with an increasingly strong sense of who belonged in the moral community and who did not, contributed to an ongoing series of attempts by government to weed out, or at least to divide out from their urban world, all those deemed to be unworthy or outsiders. Thus, for example, going hand in hand with an increasing emphasis on the negative stereotypes associated with those considered foreigners, most particularly Spaniards and Germans, governments made every effort to isolate, where possible, at least the nonaristocratic members of such groups. Obviously that was not entirely possible in cities that were governed by or closely aligned with Spanish or Germans rulers, but in such cities, what government could not do the populace attempted to enforce with insults and violence. Isolation was perhaps more effectively deployed for those groups who were not Catholic, such as Protestant or Muslim merchants in trading cities like Venice, who were more strictly confined to special enclaves. The same was true for the Jewish populations of the peninsula, which had noticeably increased after the 1490s following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal.

Once again Venice took the lead in this movement to divide and discipline, creating what would become known as the ghetto, where Jews were forced to live in isolation from the larger community on a series of islands that had once served as an isolated area for iron foundries and their dangerous forges. The entrances to the group of islands that made up the area were fortified, and Jews were required to retire within the locked gates and walls that isolated their lodgings and their family life from those of the Christian community. The insistence on such division and isolation suggests the way in which the opposite was becoming increasingly true: Italian society was becoming more European, with more and more “outsiders” – merchants, refugees, conquerors, and even tourists – changing the nature of its cities and its once distinctive civiltà. For, of course, the technology of governance was not up to the task of enforcing such isolation, and prejudice and slurs were not entirely up to the task either; thus it appears that such isolation and division was never entirely successful. As a result, some Jews, Protestants, and even Muslims managed to live outside their enclaves and interact more regularly with local communities that, for all the resistance, were becoming theirs as well. And, of course, for all the slurs and insults, foreigners governed much of Italy and along with their foreign bureaucrats and courtiers they were gradually setting a different tone for upper-class society. For, in a way, the Rinascimento as an Italian phenomenon was coming to an end, to be replaced by a Renaissance that would be European and eventually worldwide.

In a similar attempt at division, although usually with even less success, communities attempted to limit prostitution by means of stricter laws and once again to divide it from licit society, both by legally restricting the areas where prostitutes could practice and often by moving the municipal house of prostitution outside the walls of the city or closing it down entirely. Moreover, most governments, as part of theoretically charitable initiatives to deal with poor prostitutes and women forced into prostitution by poverty, created a series of institutions meant to protect such women. But, significantly, these institutions also isolated them from the community until they had mastered the discipline that was deemed necessary to be recovered as moral members of society. For many, that meant becoming virtual prisoners of those institutions until they had reformed, or at least until they had convinced their “benefactors” that they had done so. And in the process, such institutions became an often-overlooked precursor of the modern idea of penal institutions that are supposed to discipline and reform criminals, changing them from dangerous outsiders into productive members of the community.

More generally, sexuality was also more strictly monitored and disciplined. In most cities penalties for sodomy were made stricter – even in Florence, famed for its more relaxed attitude toward the range of practices associated with the “sin.” At the same time, however, it appears that for the upper classes the ancient pedigree of male love gave it a classical and aristocratic veneer that allowed some at the top of society to claim superiority to such laws. In fact, aristocrats were often protected by their status from the sterner strictures on sexual behavior more generally. Of course, different treatment before the law had a long tradition for the upper classes, but the upper-class rake and sexual predator victimizing lower-class women seemed to be gaining ground even as such activities were being more severely condemned more generally, not just by harsher laws, but also by a growing ideal that adult male patriarchs should confine their sexuality to marriage. As we have seen, even Machiavelli ruefully defended this ideal in his comedyClizia, perhaps at his own expense. Suggestively, in much literature and especially in comedies and novelle, male sexuality outside of marriage was increasingly associated with low or base characters who were either laughable or sorry, more ruined by their passions than rewarded, or with virtually heroic aristocratic characters, masters of upper-class perversions beyond the ken of those who lacked their status. When aristocrats and lower-class characters mixed in literature, it was usually with the lower serving as the obvious victims of their betters. Once again the illicit world mirrored licit society and in this case its increasingly strict social divisions, at least imaginatively.

Even language followed this disciplining and dividing drive with an eye to creating a truly moral society and civic world. Attempts to transform the Tuscan dialect of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio into a literary language following the dictates of Bembo and other sixteenth century lingual disciplinarians, as noted earlier, both uplifted it into a superior language capable of competing with Latin and made its use the mark of a true intellectual elite. In the realm of poetry we see how this could take on a sexual dimension, with those writing in the Petrarchian tradition, often in the refined Tuscan Italian, squaring off against those who wrote ostentatiously in a lower register in their local dialects, extolling the more sensual and physical pleasures increasingly associated with the baser instincts of the lower classes. Often depicted as exaggeratedly gross and bawdy, such poetry, however, did not always demean the lower classes and their passions. In fact, in an increasingly mannered and disciplined aristocratic society, it and a sizeable portion of vernacular literature in a similar “low” register enjoyed a popularity even in the face of censorship that attempted to curtail its reach – perhaps as an escape, perhaps simply as a celebration of the more earthy pleasures required to give the satyr – still lurking in what was left of the ever more disciplined Rinascimento garden – his due.

Be that as it may, even at the level of everyday speech, restrictions and discipline also increased in the sixteenth century. The dangerous violent power of words had long been respected in the urban world of the Rinascimento, and most cities had laws not only against seditious speech, but also against the kind of violent speech that seemed to encourage vendetta or require private retribution. Governments, by stepping in to formally restrict such speech, apparently hoped to limit the escalation of insults into violence and vendetta by punishing insults in court rather than leaving matters in the hands of the individuals and families insulted. In the sixteenth century, however, these laws were reinforced with the creation of magistracies specifically concerned with punishing blasphemy and words that were deemed to threaten the civic morality and moral order of the city. Those who would swear or insult were no longer fit to be members of the community, and that was especially true of those who swore at or insulted their social betters, once again hardening the social divisions lurking behind such moral imperatives. The formalization of the Index of Prohibited Books by the Church in 1559, when added to local efforts at the disciplining of words, was merely the frosting on a much more substantial cake – a range of disciplinary drives that officially sought to create a moral society that divided the local community into the pure and deserving and eliminated those deemed to threaten that unity and purity.

Not to be ignored, an increased emphasis on what might be called the rituals of polite speech and politeness itself also played a significant role in disciplining society and reinforcing stricter social divisions. Anyone who has read letters or other documents from the sixteenth century will have been impressed by the proliferation of titles and the honorific superlatives of polite address. Long past were the days when a simple “messer” was enough of a title to express respect and status. The important had become “Onorato,” “Egregio,” “Illustre,” “Spectabile,” and often what we might label “issimo-ized” (most-ified), as in “Onoratissimo, Egregissimo, Illustrissimo, and Spectabilissimo” often elaborately combined to reach the airy heights of verbal display to fit the occasion or convey the social respect deemed necessary. Politeness at upper-class levels also required a greater attention to social rituals of personal interaction. Perhaps to a degree growing out of and reinforcing the rituals of court, all levels of social interaction increasingly developed rituals that coded and disciplined conduct.

This increasingly important aspect of life, however, was a much broader and deeper phenomenon that has too easily been dismissed as merely strange or a curious obsession of the age. The studies of Norbert Elias and many historians of court have begun to seriously challenge such dismissals, but it seems clear that this development of what seems an extreme attention to etiquette and the rituals of life, requires more study that moves beyond the court and the aristocracy of sixteenth-century Italy. And it should not be forgotten that in transforming the practices of everyday life into rituals governed by an increasingly demanding etiquette, we are encountering another form of discipline that attempted to organize and control life. Virtually every form of social interaction, from eating to playing, developed its etiquette and its disciplining rituals, and a plethora of manuals followed in the footsteps of these developments – manuals for courtly behavior, polite conversation, table manners, playing games correctly, and even for being violent, with manuals for dueling. In fact, in all these areas and in the manuals that codified such behavior, Italians and their manuals, although challenged by the Spanish and French, long remained the gold standard.

Obviously, not all subscribed to these programs, and resistance, often enlivened by mockery, was widespread and frequently rich in its creative inventiveness, both in the realm of literature and in everyday life. But, suggestively, even this aided in reifying the Great Social Divide, for at the level of the aristocratic upper classes, increasingly beyond the reach of the law and beyond the “common herd,” resistance or simple flouting was relatively easy. For a few, in fact, it was virtually the order of the day, at least when compliance was not enforced by peers, as in the case of etiquette and the rituals of polite language. Lower-class denizens of the city and the increasingly controlled countryside were less able to ignore these disciplining drives, although even at that level attempts at discipline were limited by the inability of institutions like government and Church to actually implement the controls that they saw as necessary.

Still, as the ideal of a moral and disciplined society gained purchase and support among a wide swath of the community, these same values, even eventually a more humble form of politeness, were also policed by society itself in a process largely invisible to history because it produced few records. At the edge of criminal and inquisitional cases from the second half of the sixteenth century, however, one does see an increasing attention to these matters on the part of the everyday people who appear as witnesses – a tendency to measure others with comments about their goodness or neighborliness that reveal who were insiders and belonged in the community and who were not. Obviously, such anecdotal information does not prove the case; yet in the face of the numerous disciplining drives of the century in Italy and the stricter divides the separated the best from the rest, both socially and morally, it seems that rethinking the sixteenth century as one of discipline and division has merit.

Beyond the Great Social Divide: Michelangelo

A few intellectuals and artisans/artists from more humble backgrounds did create challenges for the stricter social divides of sixteenth-century society and the patronage system that still controlled their lives and, to a degree, their accomplishments. But even for outstanding individuals who claimed to be artists or exceptional intellects and thus warranted a higher status, real status became harder and harder to achieve. More and more they found themselves placed in a sort of limbo outside the regular social hierarchy that would eventually be reserved for that rarest of breeds, the genius. Superior, but not truly to be numbered among the aristocratic elite of society, they were in fact often portrayed as notably different from the rest of society, and especially from the true elite, in their behavior and manners. Eccentric, disorderly, and lacking the required bloodline and politeness of true aristocrats, they were well on the way to becoming the stereotypic undisciplined and disorderly creative personality allowed to live beyond the social order of the day – the genius. In fact, again much like works of art, they were carefully negotiated and constructed in the imagination of their society as special, but safely unequal. And although we could consider numerous examples of artisan/artists who were marked out as special and increasingly beyond the normal social order – such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Pontormo, Bronzino, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Titian – the first half of the sixteenth century saw one figure who represents the apogee of this phenomenon: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).

Michelangelo made his reputation as an artisan and at the same time as a difficult and troubled character on his thorny path to being recognized as an exceptional artist. Sculptor, painter, architect, and more, he was first known primarily as a sculptor, a profession that in many ways was harder to liberate from the label of artisanal labor, as it required heavy physical work that made it seem more like manual toil than art. William Wallace, whose studies of Michelangelo and his workshop have transformed how we look at the man and the artist, pointed out how the critic Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), who in many ways established the first canon of Rinascimento “artists,” tried to represent his physical labor as something sublime and ennobling when he described the sculptor “liberating” a figure from a block of marble or “peeling away” stone to discover the form within. Yet, as Wallace pointed out, carving a large statue was hard work requiring “tens of thousands” of blows, precisely directed, with one mistake capable of destroying in a moment weeks of work and a valuable piece of marble. Whether or not Michelangelo was actually Vasari’s ethereal intellectual contemplating the inner forms lurking in a block of marble, he was a workman whose trade required heavy manual labor, which made it a difficult task to convince aristocratic elites that he might share their status. They definitely did not work with their hands and carefully avoided heavy labor. From their special superior social position they knew that artisans were at best skilled hands at work, while they themselves were ideally graceful minds at play.

Key in Michelangelo’s transformation into something more was the young craftsman’s being taken up by Lorenzo de’ Medici and joining the circle of intellectuals and artists that made up his unofficial court. It is not clear how Michelangelo came to Lorenzo’s attention, but after a period of apprenticeship with the workshop of the noted Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, at fifteen he left to join Lorenzo’s household for the last two years of the latter’s life. Much has been made of his association there with intellectuals like Ficino and Poliziano, the painters Botticelli and Luca Signorelli, the architect Giuliano da Sangallo, and the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. But equally important may have been his relationship with future patrons: Lorenzo’s son Giovanni, who would become Pope Leo X, and his nephew Giulio, the future Pope Clement VII. After the fall of the Medici in 1494, he went to Bologna for a short time, further honing his skills as a sculptor. When he returned to Florence, the city had fallen under the sway of the prophet Savonarola, and it appears that his fiery preaching deeply influenced and troubled the young man.

During this period Michelangelo reportedly became skilled enough to pass off as an ancient statue a Sleeping Cupid that he had carved. Its adventures evoke the world that the sculptor, just turning twenty, was about to serve and impress in his rise to fame. Sold to Cardinal Riario in Rome as a Roman original, it then passed to the noted condottiere and collector of antiquities Guidobaldo, duke of Urbino, from whom it was stolen as part of the loot taken when Cesare Borgia sacked that city. In turn, as we have seen, when Isabella d’Este realized that Cesare had taken it, she instructed her contacts in Rome to ask him for it, noting that Cesare was not interested in such fine things anyway. Cesare, apparently confirming her opinion, gave her the statue. In sum, cardinals,condottieri, a pope’s son, and finally one of the cultural icons of the day all appreciated the young craftsman’s artistry. He was well on the way to becoming an artist for those whose opinions mattered and literally made artists out of artisans.

Riario invited Michelangelo to join him in Rome, reportedly curious to meet such a talented young man and become his patron. Rome, as it would do repeatedly over the course of his long career, confirmed both his promise and his artistry. There, amid the ruins of the ancient world, a wider public came to see him as truly extraordinary as he carved some of his greatest masterpieces. The most famous was his Pietà, which depicts a full-grown Christ taken down from the Cross and lying in the Virgin Mary’s lap (Illustration 11.1). In the contract for the work Michelangelo promised to produce the most beautiful statue in Rome, and many would argue that he delivered. The potentially ungainly composition of a grown man lying in a woman’s lap is portrayed with a grace that captures the grief of the moment with a technical virtuosity that seemed to take sculpture to a new level. Or, to be more accurate, it seemed to take it to a new/old level, rivaling the greatest sculptures of the ancients and the remains of their work found in Rome. The erotically charged body of the dead Christ makes it fully clear – with its lifelike flesh, veins, and muscles showing through, along with its highly polished surfaces – that Christ was fully God and fully man – a powerful Christian message that Michelangelo’s sculpture conveyed not so much in spite of, but rather because of, its erotic charge.

11.1. Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498–99, St. Peter’s, Rome. Photo: Alinari/Art Resource, New York.

Returning to Florence in 1499 after the fall of Savonarola, he was given in 1501 the commission to do a large statue of David by the wool guild, as part of a major program of reappropriating for the new republic civic iconography that had been co-opted by the Medici (Illustration 11.2). David had long been a popular theme of Florentine painting and sculpture, as it evoked a powerful vision of the virtù-ous youthful David defeating the evil giant Goliath and, in turn, the virtù-ous republican Florence defeating the evil tyrants who had so often threatened the city. Reportedly his task was made more difficult by the fact that the massive block of marble he was given had been partially worked already and had internal flaws limiting what he could do with it. Once again the finished carving was such a success that it has become virtually iconic, so much so that it is very difficult to see its originality or even to appreciate it today. It is also difficult to see today because its surface polish, which was once much like that of the Pietà, has been lost due to years of weathering standing before the Palazzo della Signoria, a problem compounded by unfortunate nineteenth-century restoration attempts.

11.2. Michelangelo, David, 1501–1504, Accademia, Florence. Photo: Alinari/Art Resource, New York.

At three times life size and with a powerful masculine body that gives little suggestion of being boyish, time, weather, and familiarity have not undercut the fact that Michelangelo created a dominating male figure that seems quite unlike the biblical David. Some critics have actually suggested that it was supposed to be a classical Hercules, which Michelangelo refigured at the last minute as David. Also curious is the way the hands and the head of the figure seem out of proportion, too large for the rest of the body. Both apparent anomalies have given rise to debate about what Michelangelo was actually trying to do with the sculpture. At least we know that although the statue was originally commissioned to be placed on the cathedral along with a number of other statues by great Florentines sculptors, it was so impressive that it was moved to guard the entrance of the Palazzo della Signoria, reminding all who entered of the masculine power of the city. And once again in that public setting it confirmed for a discerning Florentine public, not just the male-gendered power and stature of the republic, but the stature and power of the sculptor. Not only was Michelangelo, who worked with his hands in a dusty and dirty craft becoming an artist, he was becoming a great Florentine artist.

It was during this period of growing recognition that we also have his first attempts at poetry, both profane and religious, which would occupy more and more of his creative energies as he grew older and once again demonstrate to his aristocratic contemporaries that he could play with words as well as work with stone. But soon it was Rome that commanded Michelangelo’s attention and the new Pope Julius II, with an aggressive program for aggrandizing his capital and himself. Given Julius’s high sense of self-esteem, as a powerful patron he challenged the young man to create an exceptional monumental tomb for himself. Michelangelo, as an artist with a strong sense of his own value, accepted, countering with a challenge of his own – offering an extraordinary plan for a massive project that would include over forty major pieces of sculpture and require years of work. Less a case of patron commanding client, the moment seemed more like one of great individuals squaring off to see who would dominate in the production of a monument that was originally conceptualized as glorifying its patron but was in danger of becoming a monument to the artist who created it. Nonetheless, the pope accepted the project, and Michelangelo, as was his wont, headed off to the marble quarries at Carrara to oversee the quarrying of the marble that he would use. On his return to Rome, the pope’s visits to his workshop, which had originally been frequent, slowly decreased. Michelangelo interpreted this as a sign that enemies in Rome had turned the pope against him and his ambitious project. He feared what he saw as the machinations of the architect Donato Bramante, who was working on the new Church of Saint Peter’s for the pope, as well as the young painter Raphael (1483–1520), also a papal favorite. Unlike Michelangelo, however, Raphael’s presumed machinations and competition for artistic glory were short-lived, at least as a living artist, for he died at thirty-seven, leaving Michelangelo to live on in increasing fame to almost ninety.

At the time, however, apparently suspecting the worse, in a huff Michelangelo closed his shop, deserted his patron, and returned to Florence in 1506. While Julius may have lost some enthusiasm for the willful sculptor who clearly lacked the humility of an artisan, he still wanted his tomb and wanted to keep Michelangelo in his stable of courtiers. Thus, shortly thereafter, when he retook Bologna with his usual impetuosity (much to Machiavelli’s distress), he pressed the government of Florence to make Michelangelo return to his service. A reconciliation was worked out, but not without a certain humbling of the artist, perhaps required from the perspective of traditional elites, and almost certainly from that of the strong-willed pope. Thus Julius ordered hisartisan Michelangelo to cast a bronze statue of him, celebrating his conquest of Bologna – in one blow apparently reestablishing the correct order of things. Michelangelo was to be the obedient hand and the pope the celebrated leader and patron. But Michelangelo found artistic glory even in this papal humbling, for many doubted that the statue that he planned could actually be successfully cast in bronze, especially by someone who was inexperienced working with that tricky medium. In the end, however, Michelangelo triumphed, producing an impressive work that was placed over the door of the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna as a memorial of the pope’s conquest of the city. Neither the pope nor Michelangelo enjoyed their respective triumphs for long, however, for in 1511 the papal occupying forces were thrown out of the city, and the bronze figure was removed to be melted down and recast as a cannon, which reportedly was mockingly named Giulia after the pope.

Meanwhile, the pope and the sculptor had moved on to new tests of will. In 1508 the pope ordered Michelangelo to put aside his work on his tomb in order to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo objected that he was a sculptor, not a painter, and apparently feared once again that the task had been suggested to the pope by his enemies, Raphael and Bramante, in an attempt to ruin his reputation. The pope insisted, and the artist demurred, but once more in a way that marked his own independence and glory in the face of his patron’s demands. Essentially he rejected the original plan for the ceiling and substituted his own, much more complex and ambitious one, promising to depict the history of humanity’s relationship with God from the creation to the moment when Moses received the Ten Commandments. In this way his ceiling completed the program of the side wall paintings done in the 1480s that portrayed Moses receiving the commandments and the life of Christ. And, neatly, it literally and figuratively overarched them (Illustration 11.3).

11.3. Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508–12, Sistine Chapel, Rome. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

The central panels of the ceiling begin with God the Father checking the darkness with His light at the beginning of creation, followed by Him imperiously creating the planets, and then separating land from water. There follows the famous and often reproduced image of God creating and empowering Adam with knowledge as he reaches out from Heaven to touch the beautiful figure of man – in a scene that seems to hauntingly echo the vision of creation that Ficino found in the pagan Egyptian Genesis of Hermes Trismegistus (Illustration 11.4). Next, the creation of Eve rising from Adam’s side leads inexorably to original sin and the expulsion from Eden. After the Fall human history begins with sin and suffering, which means that the last three central panels represent that tragic reality with the sacrifice of Abel, the Flood, and the drunkenness of Noah. But that is just the start of his design, for the central panels are bordered by lunettes and inserts between the lunettes that portray the pagan and Jewish prophets, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had played a crucial role in preparing the world for the coming of Christ.

11.4. Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, 1508–12, Sistine Chapel, Rome. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

When at the end of October 1512 the work was revealed to the public, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, even as many worried about the nudity of the figures portrayed, especially the male bodies. Those nudes notwithstanding, if Michelangelo’s enemies had pressed the pope to give him the project in order to damage his reputation, he had turned the tables on them; for he had created an impressive masterpiece that trumpeted his reputation as an exceptional painter as well as sculptor. Yet despite the extraordinary success of his painting, Michelangelo became increasingly worried about those in the papal court who he feared were jealous of his success and trying to undercut him with his powerful patron. Whether that jealousy and the plots against him were real or paranoia, his desire to proceed with the tomb project for Julius was blocked once more, this time by the death of Julius in 1513. His new patron became Leo X, the first Medici pope, whom Michelangelo had known briefly when both were youths in the household of Lorenzo the Magnificent. And Leo had new plans for him, Medici plans.

Even before he had become pope, Leo had been instrumental in the overthrow of the republican government in Florence and saw Michelangelo as being more useful to his family there, recreating the visual ideology of Medici rule. There followed almost two decades of on-again-off-again work in Florence, much of it concerned with glorifying the main church associated with the Medici, San Lorenzo. The first project Leo ordered was a glorious marble façade for it, but for reasons that are unclear the pope lost interest in the project in 1520 and cancelled it. In fact, a marble façade was never added, and the church still lacks one today. Whether it was his slow pace, his always feared enemies, or his own grandiose and costly vision of the project, Michelangelo lost years working on it and in the end Leo’s patronage as well. Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, the pope’s cousin and the future Pope Clement VII, however, soon hired him and asked him to design a new sacristy for that same church with a series of Medici tombs to memorialize the family’s glory. Michelangelo’s impressive plans again were never completed, perhaps because they were once more too costly and time-consuming to finish. Nonetheless, shortly after Clement became pope he commissioned Michelangelo to design a library next to San Lorenzo that was actually completed. The Laurentian Library, as it was called, added to his creative reputation, in this case as an architect.

With the Sack of Rome in 1527, Florence threw out the Medici one more time and momentarily instituted a renewed republic, disrupting Michelangelo’s not always happy relationship with his Medici patrons. He sided with the republic against his Medici patrons, even helping to design the fortifications to defend the city against the imperial troops who, supporting the Medici, lay siege to the city in 1530. But Florence soon fell to the besieging armies of the Emperor Charles V, who shortly thereafter returned it to the Medici. They in turn forgave Michelangelo and encouraged him to continue his work on the sacristy of San Lorenzo, but when Clement died in 1434 he left Florence, never to return. Soon back in Rome, Michelangelo hoped that the new pope, Paul III (1468–1549; pope 1534–1549) – the same pope who had imprisoned Cellini – would support his resumption of work on the tomb of Julius II. But a new pope meant a new patron and new plans for the artist yet again. Thus in 1435 he gave Michelangelo the title of official sculptor, painter, and architect of the Vatican, with a substantial salary of 1,200 scudi a year and set him to painting on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel his Last Judgment (Illustration 11.5).

11.5. Michelangelo, Last Judgment, 1534–41, Sistine Chapel, Rome. Photo: The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York.

Unlike the masterpiece that Michelangelo had earlier painted on the ceiling, this vast panorama of Christ separating the saved from the damned – the ultimate division and discipline, one might point out – lacks an architectural frame, seeming to open the altar wall of the chapel to an infinite space and the end of time. Moreover, the twisted and tormented nudes seem to reflect a spiritual unease, rather distant from his earlier, apparently more confident ceiling depicting humanity’s special relationship with God. Instead, his Last Judgment seems to roil with the terror and fear about salvation and damnation that typified the debates about Christianity and reform at the time and Michelangelo’s concerns about both. In fact, these were issues that he returned to insistently in his deeply spiritual and troubled poetry written during the same period. Interestingly, although the formal structure of the work is perhaps one of the most traditional that Michelangelo ever adopted, with figures arranged hierarchically in a vertical space and identified both by size and by a generally familiar iconography, the painting is so powerful that once again it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and the artist as extraordinary.

Once again many were troubled, however, by the artist’s depiction of nudity and by the whirling bodies, some of whose positions seemed questionable. Saint Catherine of Siena, for example, below and to the right of Christ, now safely sporting a green dress, was originally painted nude, with a Saint Blaise hovering behind her and looking down at her in a way and in a position that could easily be misread. A student of Michelangelo a few years later repainted this scene, turning Saint Blaise’s gaze away from the crouching, naked Catherine, safely upward toward Christ, and clothing her. Various genitals were also covered with loin cloths and remain so today, even after recent restorations. Some were also scandalized by two men kissing on the lips, placed safely among the saved. This was not “corrected,” perhaps because it could be viewed as a kiss of peace or celebration at being saved.

That kiss and Michelangelo’s fascination with male nudes, along with his quite well-known passions for a series of young men, have led critics to speculate about his “homosexuality” and have served to make him in some circles today, if anything, even more of a hero than he was in his time. While most scholars now are convinced that Michelangelo’s letters, poems, and paintings confirm his fascination with the male body and attraction to and desire for a series of young men, debate rages about whether or not he acted on those desires or expressed them in his art. There seems little room for doubt, however, that he saw the male body with great clarity and was able to represent it with impressive intensity and feeling. Critics have frequently pointed out that even his female figures seem to have male bodies, vaguely feminized with breasts and feminine hair styles, but much too muscular and thick to create a comfortable recognition of them as women (at least for those critics). Yet recent scholarship has raised some interesting questions about a too-easy association of his fascination with nude male bodies in his art and his sexual interests. Most notably, as we have seen, male/male sexual desire and practice were culturally constructed during the period in ways that are different from what is generally seen as homosexuality in the modern world; thus, finding modern sexual desires in his work is potentially more anachronistic than accurate.

Most people at the time saw same-sex desire and sexual activities as belonging to adolescence or youth, a period that stretched from the early teens to about thirty for the courtly upper classes in which Michelangelo tried to move. And the objects of those adolescent desires were youths in their early to midteens, idealized as slim, feminine, and passive, as discussed earlier. What creates the greatest problem for those who would see Michelangelo’s sexual interests driving his depiction of male bodies, then, is the fact that the male form to which he returned over and over in his art was not the teenage body of the ideal sexual partner for an older male or, for that matter, the body type of the younger men with whom he corresponded and for whom he expressed desire in his poetry and letters. There is nary a Donatello-style youthful, feminine David, or Ganymede, in any of his works. His males are adult, well-muscled, and very masculine – just the kind of men he apparently was not attracted to in his personal life. Have scholars, then, been wrong in identifying his interest in the male nude body in his art with his sexual interests? Or was he perhaps so anxious not to reveal what to contemporaries would have been his questionable continuing sexual interest in young men that he carefully avoided depicting them in his art? Or might it be suggested that he was fascinated by his vision of his own mature body, imagining it as an ideal, which he hoped would be attractive to young men? Such speculation makes for fascinating conjectures. But what remains are the impressive and deeply troubled bodies of his Last Judgment.

His letters to the young men who attracted his desire and his poetry do seem to indicate that, while Michelangelo was willing, and even eager, to express his desire in writing, he was also concerned to place it on a less sexual and physical plane – attempting, it seems, to ennoble it by associating it with the platonic ideals of Ficino, Bembo, and others. Such writers, following in the footsteps of Petrarch and Dante, had used an ennobling ideal of love to detach it from dangerous associations with adultery and sodomy, transforming it into a desire for beauty, truth, and ultimately God. This was an association that, while it had strong classical precedents, was also attractive to an aristocratic elite interested in male/male love and anxious to separate it from the increasingly strictly punished common crime of sodomy, as we have seen. Still, his spiritual turmoil and deep concerns about salvation, which swirl through his later poetry and his Last Judgment like an open wound, seem to suggest that his worries about his own personal fate after death were driven by a concern with salvation akin to some of the most troubled meditations of contemporary religious thinkers. Perhaps adding to his concerns was the fact that sodomy, beyond the disciplining drive of government, was coming to be considered one of the most damning sins of the day, and whether Michelangelo was a sodomite in deed or merely in thought, he seems to have worried that his desires placed his salvation in serious jeopardy.

The troubling story of one of his last works may suggest the tragic depth of his anxiety. In his seventies he began work on a statue that for once did not involve a demanding patron, as it was to adorn his own tomb. It depicted Christ as he was being taken down from the Cross, The Deposition (Illustration 11.6). In traditional representations of this crucial moment in Christian iconography, the Virgin is usually in the center of the scene, but Michelangelo moved her to the right side of the collapsing body of Christ. Behind the body and supporting Christ is the hooded figure of Nicodemus, who, according to the Bible, helped with his burial and, perhaps more importantly, also supported him secretly during his life, hiding his own belief in order to live safely in a society that denied his teachings. Nicodemus’s face looks down sadly on Christ. And, hauntingly, it is Michelangelo’s own.

11.6. Michelangelo, Deposition, c. 1546–55, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Photo: Alinari/Art Resource, New York.

Christ in Christian theology, of course, died to save all of sinning mankind, and one wonders if Michelangelo saw himself in the guise of Nicodemus as the ultimate sinner, who hid his true beliefs and desires, hoping he would be saved by Christ’s sacrifice. Beyond his sexual beliefs and desires it has been suggested that the use of Nicodemus also signals the artist’s secret acceptance of the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone, something that he kept secret, not unlike the biblical figure, in order to live successfully in his more strictly disciplined Catholic society that held such beliefs to be heretical. There certainly are indications in his poetry that his deeper spiritual anxieties often turned to the question of the role of grace and works in salvation. Whether those concerns are at the heart of the work or not, his relationship with the sculpture was a troubled one, for in 1555, before it was finished, he took a hammer to it and smashed it.

Was the work too evident an admission of his personal beliefs or doubts? Was it too troubling to countenance for a worried old man? Was it too audacious a self-representation, even for an extremely famous sculptor, celebrated by all and immortalized as the greatest artist of his day? Or was it simply that the marble was too flawed, and he was not satisfied with it? Once again we do not know. In the end, however, one of Michelangelo’s pupils pieced the statue together from the fragments and finished the carving, although the face of Mary and a number of details remain unfinished. In a way, that makes it a perfect metaphor for Michelangelo’s fame, life, and his salvation, at least in an historical sense. For although his spiritual uncertainties in many ways paralleled the spiritual enthusiasms and turmoil of the day and perhaps its more disciplined moral climate, as a creative artist, even in the face of ongoing conflicts with demanding aristocratic patrons, he was so successful and so widely recognized for such a wide range of work that generations of scholars and enthusiasts have repeatedly rebuilt his reputation and guaranteed his salvation, at least as a great artist and genius. Yet, for all that, the real Michelangelo will probably always remain a mystery, wrapped in his myths and the evocative nature of his accomplishments, much like the Rinascimento itself.

In his sixteenth-century myth, Michelangelo was portrayed by Vasari as realizing the rebirth (rinascita is the term he uses) of ancient art and at the same time surpassing it. In his enthusiasm, it may well be that Vasari did not fully realize that with that compliment he was denying the very rinascita that he celebrated, for his claim implied that in surpassing the ancients Michelangelo had created works of art that were both new and better. Exceptional artists like Michelangelo, then, were new and ultimately made returning to earlier first times no longer the measure of true artistry; new artists and their superiority implied ultimately that the new and novel could be better, as they were in Michelangelo’s case. And they were a novelty with a future, as the eccentric, creative artistic genius who created a special status for himself outside traditional social categories – even the Great Social Divide – would come to be celebrated and cultivated by the most elite circles of society without really having to conform to or accept their values. Certainly many were not happy with this novelty, as it seemed to overthrow the proper relationship between patron and client, gentleman/noble and artisan, refined/courtly and manual/unmannerly, as even Michelangelo learned in his relationships with Julius II and the Medici. But Italy and its social and cultural worlds were changing. And although mythic artists like Michelangelo rode those changes with a mix of angst and success, the Rinascimento as a period and a movement was coming to an end, to be replaced by a more disciplined and aristocratic Italy whose trajectory of development fit more and more easily into the general trajectory of a European Renaissance.

An Ending and a Beginning: Carnival and Lent

But in history every ending is a beginning. And while the ending of our Rinascimento was in many ways a beginning in terms of the macro changes discussed, it was also, of course, significant in the virtually infinite number of small micro events of everyday life, each rich with implications of change and continuity.

The evening was just beginning on one of the last days of carnival, Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) in Venice in 1571. The weather was good, and it was the season of license still dedicated to celebrating the satyr in the garden of the Rinasimento and the pleasures of the senses, especially their illicit variety; for carnival was the period when passions and the flesh ruled, before Lent arrived with its traditional period of fasting and penance that led up to Easter and the yearly celebration of the Christ’s self-sacrifice for humanity and the yearly renewal of Christian society. In theory carnival was a time when everything could be laughed at and the licit world was turned on its head.

Much in that vein, two young men dressed as priests were enjoying themselves, lustily singing their way through the streets near Saint Mark’s Square, the ceremonial center of the city where during carnival large crowds gathered to frolic in costume. Masked, they accosted passersby making obscene gestures with a broom and parodying the mass. One outraged priest reported that he heard the youths chanting what sounded at first like a priest’s words at mass, but actually went, “Who will be that devoted soul who will give herself to me to be screwed one time? Who will be that soul of God who will give herself to me to be screwed for the love of God?” This was certainly a refrain that evoked the irreverence and illicit erotic atmosphere that carnival traditionally unleashed. In fact, continuing the theme, one of the pair actually admitted that his friend in the priest costume went through the streets with “a broom in his hands and when we encountered other people dressed in masks he said making [an obscene gesture] with the broom, ‘Lord sprinkle me’ [Asperges me Domini].” Clearly these youths were displaying some of the most irreverent themes of carnival.

But worse was yet to come. For as they wound their way through the crowds of other maskers crowding the streets, the youths apparently had a new idea for increasing their evening’s pleasures. One of the revelers, Giacomo Zorzi, scion of a powerful noble Venetian family, suggested to his friend Zaccaria Lombardini, a young lawyer and minor official, that they seek out the wife of a certain Antonio Banchini, Letitia, who had recently been his mistress. Both men were in their early twenties, and although Zaccaria was recently married, he came from a non-noble family with little in the way of aristocratic pretensions; and when powerful young nobles of high status suggested a plan, young men with a desire to advance in life listened. Thus the two stopped their playful wandering through the streets and moved with a purpose to the nearby house of Letitia, in campo San Luca barely a five-minute walk away.

Before the house where she lived they continued in their singing ways, serenading her beneath her window. When she heard their voices she came out onto her balcony and greeted Zorzi as the old “friend” that he was, asking “Zorzi, do you want to come to the festivities with me?” Evidently ex-mistresses, even if they had been left by their upper-class aristocratic lovers, saw a certain value in continuing to cultivate them. Zorzi answered with a simple “sure,” and Letitia went inside, apparently to prepare for the evening. It looked like the evening of the young men was about to take off, as it should during the last days of carnival. And from obscene priests they were about to become the partners of a young woman of free morals who might well change their obscene songs into deeds.

But events, as Guicciardini noted, seldom follow rules, and the rules of both aristocratic power and carnival were about to be momentarily overturned by a young woman of the lower classes. For after a few minutes inside, Letitia reappeared on her balcony to say rather lamely that she had decided to go to bed rather than join the youthful revelers. Apparently Zorzi considered that excuse as unlikely then as it seems today, more than four and a half centuries later. Thus they moved off to a nearby square to join the festivities there, but also to keep an eye on her house to see what might happen next. Their suspicions were rewarded when shortly thereafter Letitia emerged from her front door with four masked youths and headed out to enjoy carnival. Zorzi and Zaccaria followed, at first discreetly, but eventually their anger won out and they began to display their aristocratic aggression outside a mask shop where Letitia had stopped with her friends to allow them to buy her a mask. Her jilted ex-lover and his friend outside loudly sang obscene songs and insulted passersby with lewd remarks and gestures in a manner that suggested worse was to follow.

Letitia and her friends fled the shop and headed for Saint Mark’s Square where presumably the large crowds that gathered there on Giovedì Grasso might have offered them some protection or perhaps even the opportunity to escape the unwanted and increasingly unpleasant attentions of Zorzi and Zaccaria. If that was their plan, it did not work, for in the square they noted that their two followers had picked up four armed ruffians. At that point it appears that Letitia decided that home and bed were as attractive as she had originally claimed, and she and her friends hurriedly left the square to head back to San Luca and her home. Things quickly unraveled. For as soon as they left behind the crowds of the square, they were set upon by their followers with arms drawn, crying, not too promisingly, “Kill! Kill!”

Her masked companions did the politic if not the gentlemanly thing by fleeing as Letitia was bustled into an alley with a knife at her throat. After considering acting on their threats and dispatching their despairing prey, calmer heads prevailed, and Zorzi and Zaccharia eventually opted to return a badly shaken Letitia home. That was probably a sound decision, for while the aristocratic upper classes were increasingly free to act beyond the laws in the sixteenth century, murder committed in the public streets was not so easily ignored, even during carnival. Thus Letitia perhaps lived to reconsider her unwise decision to cross a powerful noble ex-lover like Zorzi and to show more respect for the social divide that set such men on top of society, and definitely on top of young women of limited status and power. Her Giovedì Grasso was over, and she was probably happy to snuggle in her bed and anticipate the last days of carnival and the coming of Lent.

What Zorzi and Zaccharia did with the rest of their carnival is not recorded, but their Lent almost certainly brought at least some repentance for their violent acts of prepotency. For within a few days, as Lent began, they were called in by the disciplining powers of Venetian government to answer for their deeds. It is unlikely that Letitia or her husband would have complained to the authorities; they were probably happy to have escaped the ire of Zorzi so easily. But one of her masked friends turned out to be the son of a minor official in government and he decided, perhaps unwisely, to file a complaint against the pair for their assault. Thus the two were called in to explain their actions, but it appears that Zorzi’s noble status and powerful family did the trick – a minor carnival assault without blood drawn was not serious enough to warrant prosecution of such powerful men, and the matter was quietly dropped. One wonders if Zorzi and his family treated the minor official who had accused him of assault with the same moderation.

But perhaps they were distracted from seeking retribution by larger problems that soon raised their dangerous heads. For a few days later Zorzi and his friend found themselves before the Holy Office of Venice – a special branch of the renewed Inquisition that Pope Paul III had reformed in 1542. Venice, concerned about allowing a non-Venetian disciplining body like the Inquisition to operate in its territory, had worked out a compromise with the papacy that created a special local court, the Holy Office, to act in the name of the Inquisition in its territories. Thus in 1547 the doge and the Collegio (the top executive committee of Venice) appointed three nobles called the Savii sopra l’Eresia (the Wise Men Overseeing Heresy) to work with the papal nuncio to the city, the patriarch of Venice, and an inquisitor appointed by the Church to act as the Inquisition in Venetian territories. Known as the Holy Office, it was a unique institution, Venice’s own Inquisition. By 1571 this institution, like the regular Inquisition, had largely reined in the threat of Protestant “heresy” in Italy and gone on to become an important arm of a more militant and disciplining Church, aggressively investigating a wide range of activities and spiritual enthusiasms that church leaders perceived as dangerous or merely incorrect.

In that context even the rowdy conduct of a powerful noble during carnival, with its admittedly blasphemous implications, was seen as warranting the attention of the Holy Office. As a result, Zorzi and Zaccharia found themselves explaining their hijinks before a decidedly less sympathetic disciplining body. The Holy Office framed their case with a troubling accusation that the two had dishonored the Church, God, and religion – honor once again raising its disciplining head – by “putting behind them the fear of the Divine Lord and the justice of the world, dressed with the surplices of priests, they went about screaming the litany with most evil and dishonest words dishonoring the saints of heaven and doing other things against the honor of God and religion.” Their carnival was definitely over, then, when at the beginning of March 1571 they responded nervously to their accusers. In fact, Zaccharia quickly attempted to dissociate himself from his powerful friend, testifying that the really blasphemous and obscene acts were carried out by Zorzi. He participated by merely following in the footsteps of his powerful friend – an excuse for his deeds that almost certainly made sense to the powerful men who heard his testimony.

It has been suggested that, in the sterner disciplining climate of the last years of the sixteenth century in Italy, carnival was coming to an end and Lent beginning for the Rinascimento with the closing down of its lively and creative society. And certainly there is much to support this position, as we have seen, but history refuses to be neat, and while carnival was more and more limited – both in the literal sense, to one period of the year, and in the more general sense that there were many and wide-ranging attempts to discipline and close down those areas of life that were seen as illicit, immoral, socially incorrect, or merely new and dangerous – even discipline and newer, more powerful institutions to enforce it reached only so far. To put it simply, carnival, both literally and metaphorically, continued even as discipline seemed to dominate the day. And the case of Zorzi and Zaccharia not quite neatly, but actually rather messily, symbolizes that well.

For while the first people called in to testify about the sacrilegious carnival pranks spoke with outrage and an evident desire to see such practices eliminated even from carnival’s special season, as time passed their disciplining passions cooled. Witnesses, who had proclaimed that they would tell the whole truth without fear about the horrible blasphemies that they had seen, slowly remembered less and less and were pressed by their interrogators less and less aggressively to remember. With the passage of time, the Holy Office found few who were willing to stick to their guns and support their earlier claims against the two. Perhaps even the feared inquisitional discipline of the Holy Office lost some of its enthusiasm for defending the honor of “God and Religion,” at least when a powerful noble was involved, and blasphemy morphed gradually into harmless carnival pranks.

Finally, as Lent dissolved into spring as it regularly does still today, the case against the two was quietly dropped. It appears that the power of the nobility and the Great Social Divide won out in the end, along with the more ubiquitous business-as-usual and avoiding unnecessary conflict. In a much larger historical frame, carnival survived as well, never truly replaced by Lent. It did so, however, in a more disciplined society politically, socially, and internally that increasingly looked more and more like the rest of Europe. And in the process the Rinascimento dissolved into a more general European Renaissance and what would eventually be labeled, rather misleadingly, the Ancient Regime. Thus in the end the Rinascimento really did not end – rather, it seeded a series of new beginnings and new histories, perhaps the final irony for an age that feared and rejected the new. And we today are still harvesting its fruits, both sweet and bitter.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!