What is Florence? Part 2: Art/Power
“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” ~ Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The Medici, the Renaissance, and their power permeate the city. It is indeed fascinating to consider the political economy of Florence at the zenith of its power in the Italian city-state system in the 15th/16th century: a classic case of a social order where the economic is political, but is also religious, and…artistic. The Medici economic power brought to them political power consolidated by military success, and finally through the election of one of them to the papacy (Leo X) – nothing surprising in this narrative so far. Yet, it is amazing to consider how all this intertwined with a golden age for the arts in Florence as the Medici sought to bring every major artist, from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci to work in their stronghold. Morgenthau’s policy of prestige? Maybe. The political economic incentives similar to the waqf institution in the Islamic world? Perhaps. But the artistic artefacts they financed were not (generally) large imposing buildings and palaces or portraits to establish their authority (though there were plenty of large panels commemorating military victories over Pisa or Siena) – but fine art. Think Botticelli for example – why did he paint his famous Venus in Florence?
Going through Florence, one is constantly reminded of the Renaissance – but Florence is also an ideal reminder that the Re-naissance, this central reference point for the Enlightenment project, was a rebirth, a repetition, an emulation of the rediscovered Roman-Greek ideal following the interlude of the Dark Ages if not necessarily its full imitation. Going through the Uffizi one sees very clearly the evolution: from the religious imagery of Giotto and 12th and 13th century triptychs, to Raphael, da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio…Homer’s heroes and Hercules’ adventures start to feature more and more prominently; Bacchus, Medusa, Perseus all rival the Adoration of the Magi. The religious imagery and topics are still central – the Madonna is often there – but we have now gone from art as instrument of religion to religion as inspiration for art; the paintings are bold in their techniques, sometimes provocative in their subjects, but always with at least a faint nod to Greece - accentuated significantly in the numerous sculptures reaching its apotheosis in Michelangelo David.
Let me be clear – I have never particularly enjoyed sculpture. However, I can only describe Michelangelo’s David as breathless; indeed, this single statue is about the best Platonic form of the concept of art I have ever seen. Mind you, it’s not perfection – it’s just art. There is plenty of perfection though, as the Greek ideal of beauty was as simple as it was artificial – pure symmetry. And, ironically, pure symmetry required distortions – David was supposed to be only one of 12 statues to be seen from afar decorating a cathedral; therefore some of his proportions were deliberately disproportionate, notably the head and the arms. And yet, and yet, there is perfection, attention to detail, as you can literally see the veins on his arms, and you can almost imagine the blood flowing through them…There is also something else about David, something in his very poise, something so relaxed and yet so firm that somehow it fits perfectly with the marble. Indeed, David is surrounded aptly by many other statues, half-carved from marble, as if frozen at the very moment of their emergence from the formless block and into life. With them, however, you are painfully aware of their nature of statue…not so much with David, who one easily starts to humanize. He’s tense, yet calm, and his gaze seems distracted. His posture is admirable yet he seems completely oblivious to any admirers as he is concentrating on something in his mind. You can almost hear him breathing. It’s only when, after having admired the confluence of physical, and, by association and Greek tradition, spiritual beauty, you finally get close enough and move around to actually look at his face that you are suddenly reminded who David actually was and you realize that what he holds is a slingshot. In the split of a second, the obliviousness of David to everything around him is thrust into sharp relief – this is a person who has taken a decision which he is preparing to execute. He is worried, anxious, but no one can talk him out of his own mind. No wonder it was taken as a symbol to the whole of Firenze, a small city state perceiving itself as always fighting against various Goliaths. It’s only fitting that the town has dedicated a separate Gallery to this masterpiece.
Yet, one needs to visit the Pallazo Vechio to get a real feeling of what political power entailed in Renaissance Italy. If you are expecting large Versailles-esque castles, forget it. Power was never quite as centralized, or quite as pompous, or self-confident as in France. Compared to the Uffizi, the Pallazo Vechio seemed almost like a let-down, until I stopped looking for aesthetic beauty. It’s a palace which generations of Medici have shaped in their own fashion, creating small rooms, separating rooms, and breaking down walls again. It’s claustrophobic, and actually when you are getting lost in its convoluted staircases you find the word: it’s serpentine. Suddenly, you can easily imagine how Niccolo Machiavelli must have navigated in paranoiac fashion these very halls six centuries earlier. Suddenly, the status anxiety, the insecurity, and pretence of renaissance diplomacy all make sense in a world of intrigue. Yet, it is remarkable how little this produced in terms of ostentatious displays of power – indeed using art in this time was a better way to hint at one’s power without revealing it. Furthermore, as you discover how rooms dedicated to deities are literally just above and superimposed on the rooms dedicated to distinguished members of the Medici family, you suddenly start to grasp the crucial political significance of art. Art, with its emphasis on the divine, was the link between St Augustine’s two cities, it was the thread which brought together and legitimized Florence’s rulers’ claims on divine right, though in a completely different way than its direct appropriation in France or the Holy Roman Empire. The relationship was reversed – the king did not ‘attach’ the spiritual title, but instead the king left its earthly title and became the very spiritual embodiment, Pope Leo X.