Monday, May 31, 2010

Florence: The Preachers

Florence was the city that invented the Renaissance (and perhaps by extension modernity), but it was a medieval city. Medieval civilization did not die at all with the advent of the Renaissance. On the contrary, all the way through the 3 centuries of the Renaissance, and through all the life of the Florentine Republic, medieval culture lived and flourished. Historians throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century routinely described the Renaissance as a kind of pagan revival, as a revival of ancient Classical culture at the expense of the Christian religion. This would have been alarming news to just about everyone involved in the creation of the Renaissance and its humanist culture. People like Petrarch, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola would be very surprised and distressed to see themselves described as “pagan.” They considered themselves to be nothing of the sort. They saw themselves as loyal and faithful Christians who saw no conflict between what they were doing and the Christian religion. Perhaps the only Renaissance figures who might have happily embraced the term “pagan” were Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli, both of whom were hostile to the Christian religion, at least in their writings.

The emerging humanist culture of Florence, together with the city’s nascent capitalist economy, lived with the medieval city in a complex relationship. Many of the creators of Renaissance humanist culture were themselves ordained clergy and religious of the Church. Alberti was a priest. One of the pioneers of Florentine humanist painting was a Dominican friar, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico. The Florentine Neo-Platonist writer Agnolo Poliziano ended his days as a Dominican friar. It was Pico della Mirandola, the author of the famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” who brought Savonarola to Florence and enthusiastically recommended him. The Florentine textile and banking industries spent enormous sums of money on religious institutions and charities. The subject matter of the works of art made for the private homes of the growing Florentine business and professional classes was overwhelmingly religious.

The spiritual outlook of the medieval world is hard for us to recapture today, whether we are religious of not. The world of the spirit had an almost palpable reality for people of that time that is hard for us to imagine. To this day, there are shrines at street corners everywhere in Florence. The Christian saints were drafted into the roles played by the ancient gods, as protectors of crossroads.

Florentine street shrines from various ages

Everyone from learned humanist scholar to illiterate day laborer believed sincerely that angels, saints, and demons walked the streets of Florence together with mortals. In the much smaller medieval cosmos, it was easy to imagine that what happened in the streets, workshops, markets, halls, and private bedrooms of Florence had cosmic significance. This was a religious age, but not a particularly conscientious age. Everyone from saintly abbesses to highway robbers saw the world in religious terms. God was everywhere and always speaking, and yet church corruption was blatant and crime was rampant.

Religious participation in Florence was popular and enthusiastic throughout its history. The Florentines, like a lot of urban residents in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, organized themselves into confraternities, organizations of lay people dedicated to prayer and to good works. Great banking families like the Strozzi, the Ruccelai, and the Medici dominated the Confraternity of the Magi. The Company of the Magi staged elaborate religious processions through the streets of Florence during Epiphany. Those elaborate processions find their echo in Florentine paintings of the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. La Compagnia della Misericordia (The Company of Mercy) dedicated itself to taking care of the sick, the injured, orphans and widows, and to burying the dead.

Piero della Francesca, the Madonna della Misericordia, painted for the Misericordia of the artist's native town of San Sepolcro.

A detail from Piero's painting above showing a hooded member of the San Sepolcro Misericordia.

To comply with Christ’s demand that the “right hand not know what the left hand is doing,” that good works must be done in secret to remain good, members of the Misericordia were once required to conceal their identity under hoods and masks when making their rounds. They appear thus disguised occasionally in paintings. Today, the Florentine Misericordia still exists and runs the city’s ambulance and paramedic services.

The Loggia del Bigallo in Florence across from the Cathedral, the former headquarters of the Florence Misericordia.

The Madonna della Misericordia, an anonymous 14th century fresco in the Bigallo, Florence.

A Florentine ambulance, belonging to the Misericordia.

A major religious revolution played a large a role in the creation of Renaissance humanism. It played a role as large as the rise of the capitalist economy. That revolution was the creation of the mendicant orders, the preaching monks, in the early 13th century.

In the early Middle Ages, Christianity was an intellectual religion largely confined to monasteries and universities, to learned people literate in Latin. The Bible was inaccessible to most people. Making handwritten books was sometimes as large and expensive a project as building new buildings. The Bible was entirely in Latin or Greek, languages alien to most people at the time. What people knew about the Christian religion was what their parish priest told them. Usually that parish priest was barely more literate than the people in his congregation. What most people believed was a dimly understood Christianity usually passed on in the form of holy folk tales about Christ and the saints. Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend is the most famous collection of these pious popular tales. This was mixed together with vaguely remembered pre-Christian beliefs in magic, divination, demons, and protective spirits.

Cimabue, Saint Francis of Assisi

Francesco Bernadone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi, was one of the greatest religious revolutionaries in history. He popularized the Christian religion for the first time in almost a thousand years. He did so by speaking directly to people, a broad cross-section of people, in their own language and in terms of their own experience.
Francis decided at an early age to imitate the life of Christ as closely and as literally as he could. When his wealthy merchant father very dramatically and publicly disowned him, Francis returned everything his father ever gave him down to the clothes on his back. He said that from then on God was his father.

Circle of Giotto, Saint Francis Renounces His Father, fresco from the upper church, San Francesco, Assisi

Francis noticed that Christ and His disciples were very poor men dependent on the charity of others. When he heard the passage from the Gospel where Christ said that “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Francis decided that he too should have no permanent roof over his head.
Francis noticed the way Christ talked to people in the Gospels and who He talked to. Christ talked to people not in elaborate strings of syllogistic arguments, but in their own language using the items and experiences of everyday village life as metaphors. Christ talked to the poor, and tended to avoid the company of professional intellectuals. Francis decided to do likewise, taking the Gospel directly to people in the form of preaching and example.
In order for his project to succeed, Francis had to believe that popularizing the Gospel mattered. There certainly were those at the time who didn’t think so. He had to believe that people’s experiences of the world mattered. There were a lot of religious thinkers who didn’t think that they mattered at all. What mattered was the mind of God and our efforts to discern it, not our flawed experiences of a mortal world. Francis’s conviction that our experiences of the world do matter, and that they are all we have to find our way, opened the path to the revival of humanism.
This project had a revolutionary quality which Francis himself recognized. Francis and his followers put the Gospel back into the hands of ordinary people. They no longer depended on a paternalistic hierarchy to dole it out to them. Francis’s more radical followers, the Fraticelli, seized on the egalitarian implications of this popularization of the Gospel, and applied this to a broad rejection of the hierarchies of the Church, the feudal order, and emerging capitalism. Francis intended nothing quite so broadly radical, and made a special point of going to Rome to apply for papal recognition of his new order of wandering and preaching monks.

The Franciscans, the Friars Minor, were the first order of preaching monks. Their task was to take the Gospel directly to the people, and to preach to a broad cross-section of humanity.

Saint Bernardino of Siena preaching, early 15th century

The Franciscan preachers were very effective and tremendously popular. They would draw huge crowds of thousands of people. Cities like Florence would bring in Franciscan preachers and set up temporary outdoor pulpits and altars for them in central piazzas, especially during Lent. These sermons were not always serious exegetical meditations on Scripture. Frequently, they were great theater, and the most famous preachers were virtuoso performers holding their listeners spell-bound for 2 and 3 hours at a stretch. Preachers resorted to all kinds of dramatic devices from imaginary dialogues with the devil, certain saints, and with God, to the use of props, to bursting into tears and rending garments. Audiences loved this.

Saint Bernardino preaching in Siena before the Palazzo Publico. He is using a prop, a painting of the Name of Jesus inscribed in the Sun, a vision he claimed to have seen. Notice how the congregation is segregated between men and women. Early 15th century.

The congregation did not sit passively listening. Listeners frequently shouted and shrieked, publicly confessing sins, or announcing dramatic sudden conversions. It was all the drama and emotionalism of an evangelical tent revival, only the crowds were much bigger, and Mass always followed the sermon. Just as in some current revival meetings, miracles sometimes were reported to happen during these sermons: visions, healings, even reports of raising the dead.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Vincent Ferrer raising two dead with his preaching.

These preachers frequently played major roles as unofficial influential powers in Florence. Long before Savonarola’s famous regime, the preachers had enormous influence on the politics and culture of Florence. Saint Bernardino of Siena and Saint Antonine influenced popular opinion greatly across class lines, which in turn, shaped government policy. What was unique about Savonarola was his claim to prophetic powers, and his de facto rule of the Florentine Republic.

The preachers had their constituency, usually the middle class, the shopkeepers and lesser tradesmen who were shut out of the major policy making bodies of Florentine politics. The preachers sometimes gave voice to the anger and frustrations of Florence’s large and completely disenfranchised working class, especially in the textile industry. The preachers very effectively pointed out and condemned the abuses and exploitation of employees in the mills. They presciently criticized the tendency of Florence’s early capitalism to reduce all things to commodities, including people. Concealed beneath the extravagance of Florence’s mercantile nobility, the preachers told their congregations, were cruelty and a cold indifference to humanity. The preachers sometimes courageously took on the all-powerful banking industry (including that other great banking power, the Church) with sermons condemning the sin of usury.
More frequently, the preachers voiced the resentments of the middle class, especially their resentment of what they saw as the extravagance and decadence of the new banking nobility that built its greatness at the expense of everyone else. It was those articulated resentments that drove Florence’s episodes with sumptuary laws, regulating public displays of extravagant dress and jewelry, usually (though not exclusively) aimed at women. It was this resentment that sometimes drove the city to crack down on vice, on gambling, prostitution, and public drunkenness. The mendicant preachers enthusiastically played the role of morals police and prosecutors.

The preachers’ most frequent target for wrath and indignation was the descendants of Eve, women.

Domenico Ghiralandaio, Giovanna Tornabuoni, a young woman from a very rich and prominent Florentine banking family.

Women played the role of temptress, whore, witch, penitent sinner, and spotlessly pure virgin in the imaginations of religious men. They never played the role of equals. It was thought necessary to strictly regulate and police the lives of women for the sake of social health and civic stability. Women of most classes in Florence led very cloistered lives. Only those women at the bottom of society worked, and they did so out of necessity, in the textile industry, or as waitresses, laundresses, seamstresses, or as prostitutes. While opportunities opened up for men in the Renaissance, they dried up for women. Medieval women could learn trades, run businesses, and even become scholars in the much less settled and more chaotic world of early Medieval Florence. In the Renaissance, they were kept at home and frequently kept illiterate. As in most other Mediterranean cultures, women were the dependents of men in Florence.

An elaborate Florentine wedding cassone, 1472. These were very elaborate and expensive wedding gifts for a wealthy bride that contained her trousseau.

Marriages in Florence, as in most of Europe at the time, were matters of property and inheritance among all classes. Marriages for love were extremely rare and almost unheard of. Love was to be legitimately given to children, not to spouses. Love was to be shared illegitimately (and frequently) with mistresses and lovers, not with spouses. A marriage was the end result of months of negotiations between families. Betrothals were legally binding contracts between families. Breaking them risked law suits and civil penalties. The first duty of the newly married couple was to produce a male heir.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Birth of the Virgin, imagined as childbirth in the palazzo of a great Florentine family. Men were excluded from childbirth.

A Florentine birth tondo, or round picture, usually made to commemorate a successful childbirth for a great and wealthy family. Birth and death were public affairs in Florence. Note the trumpeters with the city stemma on the flags announcing the birth to the city at large. Also note that the only ones entering the birthing room are women.

Daughters were to be married off to good or better families, to secure business and political alliances. Youngest children of both sexes were usually destined for holy orders, sometimes against their will. Dating was unheard of. Young men and women usually had very little contact with each other until their betrothal. It is likely that for most people of both genders, marital sex was not a pleasure. It was a quick bodily function between two people who hardly knew each other, and may not have liked each other, to fulfill an obligation. Many husbands and wives looked elsewhere for sexual pleasure, and for romantic love. The love stories of the day (especially in Bocaccio’s tales, and even Dante’s famously unrequited infatuation with Beatrice Portinari) were all adulterous. As in many Mediterranean cultures, women were kept strictly segregated, so opportunities for sexual contact were few and difficult, but not impossible. Young men had little outlet for sexual activity except in prostitution, or with each other.

Sex between women is very rarely mentioned in the city’s records (though it certainly existed), but sex between men was talked about obsessively.

Filippino Lippi, Portrait of a Youth

Middle class resentment of the decadence of the city’s oligarchs drove the occasional crackdowns on the sin of sodomy. We usually identify sodomy today as anal sex between any 2 people. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it meant any sexual contact between two people of the same sex, especially men. Florence was famous for its tolerance of homosexual activity, as the preachers constantly reminded their Florentine congregations in order to shame them. Florence became synonymous with homosexual activity throughout Europe. The city’s large and rich homosexual culture was famous. Sex between men was the subject of numerous bawdy songs and serious poems praising it (some of them written by Lorenzo the Magnificent and other humanist writers). Same sexuality among men fills all levels of Florentine culture (something that is obvious to even the most casual of visitors to the city, but which historians largely ignored until recently). Humanist intellectuals praised the “philosopher’s love” of classical antiquity (especially the Neo-Platonists of the Careggi Academy). Examples of male beauty abound in Florentine art from all periods from the work of minor artists like Gozzoli to major masterpieces by Donatello and Michelangelo. Love affairs between masters and apprentices, scholars and students, and among apprentices and students were very common. Fashions, then as much as now, showcased the sexual appeal of young men with tight colored hose, loose shirts or short tunics, long hair, and conspicuous weapons. This was the street dress of choice for young men of all classes. Derived from the garb of mercenary soldiers, it was the right combination of sexuality and criminal glamor sought by young men in every age including our own.

detail from a painting by Benozzo Gozzoli

It was common for married men to keep male lovers as well as mistresses. As in most of the Mediterranean world, it was usually a sexual relation between an older man and a young boy that ended when the boy reached maturity. However, sexual relations between young men and boys of the same age were common in Florence. The vast majority of those arrested during the city’s periodic crackdowns on sodomy were young men and boys. While the upper classes were usually the object of the popular resentment causing the crackdown, Florentine police records from the 14th through the 16th centuries indicate that the vast majority of those arrested for sodomy were middle and working class young men and boys, usually apprentices and journeymen. Prostitution appears to have been very common among working class boys in Florence.

Sodomy was considered especially offensive to God. People believed that its presence put the city in peril. Preachers constantly reminded people of the fate of the namesake city of the practice. Laws against sodomy were severe calling for the death penalty for those convicted of the practice. In many cities in Italy and the rest of Europe, governments enforced these laws ruthlessly, hoping to avoid divine wrath. However, enforcement records in Florence tell a very different story. The Florentine criminal courts were usually very reluctant to fully enforce the law. They usually only did so in clear cases of rape. Most offenders were usually let off with a stern warning and a fine, even multiple offenders. The Florentine criminal magistrates understood that sodomy accusations had a long history as a way to settle scores with enemies, personal and political. They gave very little credence to anonymous depositions. Preachers always railed against this reluctance of the Florentine criminal courts to fully enforce anti-sodomy laws. The language of the preachers could be violent and downright bloodthirsty on this subject. In the 14th century, Bernardino of Siena condemned Florence’s reluctance to prosecute sodomy. In one of his sermons, he described in gory detail sodomites drawn and quartered in Verona, and burned alive in Genoa. “They don’t pardon the gentleman or the important citizen for sodomy,” he told his Florentine congregation, “but banish irrevocably even the greatest citizens.” He went on to urge the Florentines to build execution fires on every corner and to burn without mercy family and friends guilty of sodomy; “To the fire! They are all sodomites! You are in mortal sin if you try to help them!”

Execution of a Knight of Hohenburg and his page for sodomy outside of Zurich, 1482

The population of Florence, under Bernardino’s influence, pressured the Florentine government to harden its laws and enforcement against sodomy. In 1365, a fifteen-year-old boy named Giovanni di Giovanni was convicted and sentenced to death for repeatedly offering himself as a passive partner to numerous men. The city decided to make an example out of him to terrify the other youth of the city into compliance with the law. He was driven through the streets on the back of a donkey to a place outside the east wall of the city. He was publicly castrated and mutilated in the anus with a hot iron, and then burned to death. This kind of barbaric punishment for sodomy was never repeated in Florence, not even under the rule of Savonarola. Giovanni di Giovanni’s execution remained exceptional for its cruelty in a city that was not squeamish about violence. Capital punishment was routine in Florence, by beheading or hanging for all kinds of criminal offenses. Executions usually went unnoticed except by the clerk who entered them into the court records. That Giovanni’s execution was recorded and noted by the city’s many diarists and chroniclers indicates its exceptional nature, both its brutality and the age of its victim.
(Most of this material is based on Michael Rocke’s research in the Florentine civic archives published in Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence).

The Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence

The preachers not only profoundly influenced the politics and morals of Florence, they changed the architecture of the city. In the 13th century, a huge church rose on the east side of the city, the Church of Santa Croce (the Holy Cross). When finished, it was one of the biggest churches in the city. It was not the city’s cathedral. It was not a parish church, and it was far too big for the monastery attached to it. Santa Croce was a huge church built to accommodate enormous crowds for public preaching. It was a church built for preaching. When the crowds became too large for the church to hold, a huge piazza was cleared out of the slums on the city’s east side in front of the church.

Exterior of Santa Croce, Florence. The facade and bell tower are 19th century additions. The facade was designed by Niccolo Mata and completed in 1863, paid for by an English benefactor, Francis Sloane.

The Piazza Santa Croce, originally intended for the spill-over crowds from the church.

Saint Francis himself founded the Franciscan community of Santa Croce in Florence in 1211. Construction began on the present church about 1285, and was very controversial within the Franciscan order split between factions wanting to soften the original rule and those who wanted to keep the strict vow of poverty. The size and opulence of the church, the largest and most elaborate Franciscan church in Italy at the time, drew more outrage from within the order. Compounding the controversy were the close ties between Santa Croce and Florence’s leading banking families funding the construction of the new church, families such as the Bardi, the Peruzzi, and the Baroncelli. Santa Croce funded itself by offering masses for the dead for the price of a donation or a legacy to the monastery. As a result, the church filled with tombs and burials.

Floor tombs in Santa Croce

Family chapels in Santa Croce, the chapels of the Bardi and Peruzzi families.

The city’s wealthiest families acquired chapels in the church by granting legacies. Ten such chapels were built near the apse and in the transepts for just this purpose. Many members of the order, including residents of Santa Croce, viewed these arrangements with alarm and saw them as scandalous. They said that these arrangements compromised the independence of the community. What is more, many friars wondered what would Francis himself have thought, a man who insisted that his followers have no permanent roof over their heads, let alone a cloister attached to the largest church in town.

Santa Croce is the masterpiece of the great architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio.

Interior of Santa Croce

. It is a very conservative Italian version of Gothic architecture, an import from France. As in the much earlier church of San Miniato, the traditional wooden beam ceiling of the Early Christian basilican churches was kept. Arnolfo beautifully integrates it with a Gothic design that values proportion and clarity of form over the more traditional French taste for soaring height and complexity.

The bay arches in the nave, looking toward the entrance in Santa Croce

Instead of compound piers made of bundled colonettes of French and German Gothic, Arnolfo keeps the octagonal pillars of Italian Romanesque architecture. The arched bays are wide rather than high and make a smooth and easy transition to the simple clerestory of lancet widows between single flat pilasters to the open wooden beam ceiling. The composition remains based on flat wall planes and clear simple structural lines of pillars and pilasters. He limits round forms to the curves of the arches themselves. Instead of nave halls opening out into complexes of ambulatories and side chapels, Arnolfo gives us a very simple and clear plan of a five sided apse, transepts, and 7 equal bays to the entrance forming a single uninterrupted hall. This kind of modular carefully proportioned architecture looks forward to the work of Brunelleschi.

The apse and high altar of Santa Croce; note the abundance of painted imagery in the windows, on the walls, on the altar, and even hanging in mid-air in a painted cross.

Surviving fragments of a Last Judgment from the 14th century on the nave wall of Santa Croce.

Santa Croce was once richly painted inside. Fragments of the fresco work in the nave survive, once concealed underneath layers of Grand Ducal plaster and whitewash.
At the second bay down from the transepts, a screen separated the monks from the laity. In English speaking countries, this would be called a rood screen. In Italy, this feature is called a tramezzo or ponte. It was topped with a huge painted cross by Cimabue in the center. The tramezzo was removed in the 16th century, but the cross still survives.

Cimabue's great cross from the tramezzo of Santa Croce in its current state, badly damaged in the 1966 flood. It now hangs in the former refectory.

Aerial view of the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. The main railroad station built in the 1920s and 30s is behind this church. The Grand Hotel Minerva where Henry James once lived is next to the church's facade immediately to the left.

The church of Santa Maria Novella with Florence's only Renaissance church facade, designed by Leon Battista Alberti over an unfinished earlier structure.

Santa Croce was not the only, or the first preaching church in Florence. The rival Dominicans began building their great church of Santa Maria Novella earlier in 1275 on the west side of town. A Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, founded the Dominican Order at the same time Francis founded his order. He too wanted a preaching order. The Dominicans were founded specifically to combat heresy and to teach church doctrine.

The recently cleaned and restored interior of Santa Maria Novella. The striped patterns on the vault arches are ultimately derived from Islamic architecture (via French Romanesque at Vezelay). The black and white patterns recall the black and white habits of the Dominican friars. The nave bays are square toward the entrance, but narrow gradually toward the apse.

As in Santa Croce, the interior was once filled with painting, most of it removed by later changes in taste. Santa Maria Novella also had a tramezzo topped by a great painted cross, this one by Giotto, Cimabue’s famous pupil. The cross was recently cleaned, restored, and returned to its original position in the church. It now hangs where it once stood on the long vanished tramezzo.

Giotto's cross hanging inside Santa Maria Novella in its original position

Giotto's great painted cross at Santa Maria Novella with the apse and monk's choir behind. The walls of the apse are painted with scenes from the Life of the Virgin by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

These two great crosses remind us of the fundamental role the preaching orders played in making the visual arts among the greatest of all of Florence’s intellectual legacies. It is no accident that the preaching churches were filled with imagery. It was the preachers who created the demand for imagery, and who began the transformation of craftsmen who made imagery into artists who created original visions.


JCF said...

Another awesome post, Doug, w/ art to leave me drooling! (I mean, rapt in prayer ;-/) I'm way too busy MOVING (Blech!) to read it now, but I will.

[Ever desire a travel companion? If *I* gave you massages, I could ASSURE you they would be non-sexual! *LOL* ]

June Butler said...

Another wonderful tour de force, Doug. Thanks for the history lesson and the art lesson. Your students are very fortunate.

Counterlight said...

Thank you Grandmere.

I should say that I think that my most pointed political and religious commentary is in these posts, and not in my more topical rants.

June Butler said...

Doug, I noted that about your commentary. You say:

The world of the spirit had an almost palpable reality for people of that time that is hard for us to imagine.

Truly, it's not hard for me to imagine. When I visited the Convento di San Marco, I felt that I caught a glimpse of heaven. Not that angels, or Jesus, or Mary look like Fra Angelico's depictions, but it's one of the thin places for me.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Wondrous and wonderful!