Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Are you a Republican or a Medicean?

‘I am all in favour of a single ruler if that ruler can be a Lorenzo de’ Medici,’ he said at last. ‘But there are few men like him. Even his own son had none of his quality. So in general, yes, I’m now a republican.’

That’s what Michelangelo says to Gabriele, the hero of my book. And I think that’s what I believe too. I’m not in principle against the idea of a single unelected ruler, though it strikes me as dangerous, but democratically elected rulers can be terrible too. And it is possible to have a just and charismatic unelected ruler if you are lucky.

I must admit to having a bit of a crush on Lorenzo the Magnificent, the de’ Medici who was Michelangelo’s first patron. Yes, he was both ugly and unfaithful to his wife and he took a hideous and violent revenge on the conspirators who killed his brother and nearly killed him at High Mass in the cathedral in 1478. But he was the very personification of Renaissance Man – he could equally well write poetry as fence, ride a horse, talk to a philosopher ... How many monarchs or politicians are like that today? And he loved art and valued it and commissioned great works, like Botticelli’s Primavera and the Birth of Venus, as well as Michelangelo’s early marble reliefs.

The Republicans in my book are opposed on principle to families ruling a city just because they are the richest men around and I can sympathise with them too. For some of them – the frateschi – the great alternative to that kind of Plutocracy (= rule by the rich) was the teaching of Savonarola. He was a fiery preacher and Dominican friar, who held the city in thrall for four years with his passionate sermons and austere convictions.

I part company with him over the Bonfire of the Vanities though. All Florentines were encouraged to throw fripperies like jewellery and personal items of adornment into the flames, along with books, combs, mirrors and anything else that distracted them from the worship of God and encouraged personal vanity. But among these were what might have been great paintings and that I can’t forgive.

Just a few years afterwards, Savonarola himself was burned in the same spot, after being tortured and hanged. His followers in David are still mourning that event and it makes them dangerously fanatical. Trust Gabriele to get involved with them! When Michelangelo tells him what he thinks about politics in the passage quoted above, Gabriele says that he is a Republican too and although the sculptor says he has to think for himself, it is one of the themes of the book that you have to know what side you are on in Florence.

Gabriele ends up on both sides in a way and it is very nearly his undoing.

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