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Authors: Alexander Lee

Tags: #History, #Renaissance, #Social History, #Art

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BOOK: The Ugly Renaissance
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It was only narrowly that Michelangelo avoided seeing San Marco’s final transformation into the epicenter of religious revolution. Metamorphosing from moral campaigner into political scourge, Savonarola masterminded the overthrow of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son Piero and orchestrated the establishment of a short-lived but dramatic theocratic oligarchy from the convent. It was also at San Marco that Savonarola fell. While hundreds of worshippers were at prayer on Palm Sunday 1498,
an angry mob laid siege to San Marco, demanding the friar’s death. The church’s gates were set on fire while the besiegers surged into the cloisters and scaled the walls accompanied by the frenzied ringing of the bells. Hurling tiles from the roof and brandishing swords and crossbows, the defenders—both friars and laity alike—fought back in a bloody pitched battle that claimed dozens of lives and lasted well into the night. As with Michelangelo’s nose, however, the very violence that characterized San Marco’s experience on that dreadful spring night was a product of precisely the same tendencies that had led it to become such a center of Florentine learning and devotion.

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The peculiar mixture of elegance and brutality, culture and suffering, becomes more pronounced as we follow Michelangelo’s path deeper into the city.

Walking down the via Larga, he passed his temporary home at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Designed for
Cosimo de’ Medici by Michelozzo, it had been completed only thirty years before, and its stylishly massive structure was a visible testament to the wealth, power, and cultural clout of the young Michelangelo’s patrons. The street itself was, however, a different matter. Although broad and well proportioned by contemporary standards, the via Larga was unpaved and nothing if not filthy. Even close to the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the abundance of excrement thrown from windows, or deposited wherever people found a space, would have been hard to ignore. As Michelangelo wrote in a poem years later:

Around my door, I find huge piles of shit
since those who gorge on grapes or take a purge
could find no better place to void their guts in.

Despite the stink of effluence, the street thronged with people from every stratum of society, and the air buzzed with the sounds of city life. As horses and carts carrying bolts of cloth, barrels of wine, or cargoes of grain rattled noisily along, august merchants and notaries gathered to discuss business or politics in their fine black and red robes, young men in loose doublets and tight-fitting hose stood together gossiping, shopkeepers argued with customers, and priests, monks, and friars walked along with their heads bowed. Holding simple bowls or merely proffering their hands, beggars desperately called for alms, while the sick and the lame pleaded pathetically from the ground.

At the end of the crowded via Larga, the way opened out into the Piazza del Duomo. Towering above him was
the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore—the largest construction of its kind since antiquity—and the imposing structure of Giotto’s campanile (bell tower). In front of him stood the
Baptistery—erroneously thought to have been founded as a
Roman temple in antiquity—complete with the huge bronze doors that
Lorenzo Ghiberti had cast for the east entrance. It was Michelangelo himself who saluted the doors as being “
worthy of heaven” and thereby inadvertently dubbed them the “gates of paradise.”

Yet the square, too, was filled with people, activity, and noise. With the
feast of Saint John (June 24) only days away, preparations for the festival would have been in full swing. The greatest celebration in the Florentine calendar, the festival spanned several days and was always a vast exercise in civic pride. Already, workmen would have been busy erecting the huge gold-colored awning around the Baptistery that would play host to the “
of the riches” on the first day of the celebrations. There, beneath this colossal tent, the merchants of the city would display the very choicest of their wares: the richest jewels, the finest silks, the most exquisite garments; everything, in short, that was of the highest quality and the greatest value. It was an opportunity not for profit but for the city to revel in its own wealth, to take pride in its own enormous prosperity, and to shame those poor foreigners who happened to catch a glimpse of what was on show.

On subsequent days, the square would throng with processions. Arrayed in the most lavish and exorbitantly over-the-top vestments, hundreds of clergy would march through the city to the cathedral, accompanied by trumpeting, singing, and chanting, where they would ritually dedicate the citizenry’s riches to the city and to Saint John. Then processions of the citizen-soldiers beloved of Machiavelli, “moral” laymen—mostly merchants—and confraternities would display Florence’s wealth once again in glorious fashion. And finally, the communes subject to the city’s rule were compelled to march to the cathedral bearing symbolic gifts of candles and silks to do ritual homage to the very masters who had spent days rubbing their noses in their wealth and magnificence.

The festival was, however, also much more human and ended with a massive communal celebration. Much like its equivalent in Siena (which is still held annually today), the
was a vast horse race run through the streets of Florence. If anything, however, the Florentine
was more fun than its Sienese equivalent and was more a matter of winning bets than settling neighborhood scores. Starting in the meadows near the church of Ognissanti, the liveried jockeys spurred their horses
through the city, past Michelangelo’s stopping point in the Piazza del Duomo, and on to the finish line at the now mostly destroyed church of San Pier Maggiore. For most Florentines, this was the high point of the entire festival.

Although the prizes on offer were not especially impressive, men like Lorenzo de’ Medici often hired professional jockeys to scoop big wins on bets riding their ultraexpensive steeds. As the horses raced through the streets, the city came alive with the shouts of the crowd, the cries of fallen riders, and the incessant chatter of betting men swapping wagers. Writing to his friend
Bartolommeo Cederni, the Florentine
Francesco Caccini noted that in 1454, the weather had delayed the start of the race and even caused some to talk about cancellation, but by the time the race began at 7:00 p.m., “large quantities of money and all sorts of things” were gambled on the horses. The favorite,
Andrea della Stufa’s horse, Leardo, led for most of the
, accompanied by endless cheering, but Andrea fell off just short of the cathedral and came in last. There was much grumbling. As Caccini reported, “
Pandolfo lost eighteen florins, Pierfrancesco and Piero de’ Pazzi fifty florins … Because of the rain, Matteo Rinaldi lost eighty-four florins, and so did Pierleone, along with a lot of other people.” In the aftermath, the Piazza del Duomo resounded with shouts of laughter, arguments over bets, and endless singing, dancing, and drinking. By the end of the night, the Piazza del Duomo was very far from the peaceful and restrained arena for art that it has become today.

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Michelangelo’s path through the Piazza del Duomo would have gone past the base of the Onestà (the city’s prostitution control board) and down the via dei Calzaioli. This was the financial and commercial center of the city; here were Orsanmichele—initially a grain market, but by then a church—and the palaces of the
Arte della Lana and the
Arte della Seta (the wool and silk guilds), the headquarters of the guilds that controlled both trade and government for much of Florence’s history. Here, the crowds would have become thicker. Drawn to the shops that lined the streets, men and women elbowed their way through the throng to get at the best products, while tradesmen haggled over prices,
and guild officials argued over regulations. In streets much narrower than the via Larga, the stench and the noise of the massed bodies would have been oppressive.

Past this stretch lay the nexus of civic power: the Piazza della
Signoria. This elegant and well-appointed square was the heart of Florentine political life during the Renaissance. It presented an impressive sight that appeared to chime well with the grandeur of the festivities of Saint John the Baptist. Erected between the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries, at the time when
Dante Alighieri was active in civic government, the huge, Romanesque Palazzo Vecchio (also known as the Palazzo del Popolo) dominated the piazza. The home of the city’s legislative and executive organs, it was the seat of the priors—the city’s highest governing body—and the
gonfaloniere di giustizia
, the ultimate guardian of law and order. Fortresslike and austere, it was a powerful statement of Florence’s civic identity and determination to protect its liberty. Some years later, Michelangelo’s
(1501–4) would stand outside its door as an allegorical affirmation of the city’s resistance to external domination. Alongside the Palazzo Vecchio stood the equally impressive but lighter and airier Loggia dei Lanzi, which had been constructed between 1376 and 1382 by
Benci di Cione and
Simone di Francesco Talenti as a meeting place for Florence’s public assemblies. Consisting of three wide bays framed by Romanesque arches, its facade includes depictions of the cardinal virtues and is a reminder of the moral rectitude and openness with which Renaissance panegyrists wished to associate the Florentine Republic.

But the grand and imposing impression conveyed by the Piazza della Signoria conceals the dramas to which it played host and gives the lie to the impression conveyed by the celebrations in the Piazza del Duomo. This very public stage was the setting for scenes of violence and brutality that illustrate the nature of the social world in which Michelangelo was raised. It was here that Savonarola was burned after the siege of San Marco and the collapse of his theocratic regime. After weeks of brutal torture in the spring of 1498, he was burned at the stake in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, and his ashes were scattered in the Arno.

It was here, too, that the imbalances of wealth and political power burst forth in what became known as the
Ciompi Revolt in the long, hot summer of 1378. Fueled by frustration at the factionalism paralyzing
government, furious at their exclusion from the guilds, and angry at their poverty, skilled workers had joined with unskilled, propertyless laborers in rebellion, demanding access to the guilds and a greater say in city government. Attacking the
(fat cats), they took over the Pa- lazzo Vecchio and installed the wool carder
Michele di Lando at the head of a socially revolutionary regime in July. Although this popular regime was ultimately starved out of existence by a lockout, the revolt regained momentum in August, and violence once again filled the streets of the city. But they were no match for the
. Not to be outdone, the powerful oligarchs—in alliance with artisans frightened by the rebelliousness of their employees—reacted violently, and on August 31, 1378, a large crowd of rebels was cut to pieces in the Piazza della Signoria.

And it was here that Francesco Salviati, archbishop of Pisa, was hanged from a window of the Palazzo Vecchio by a lynch mob after the failure of the savage but abortive
Pazzi conspiracy, staged in 1478, three years after
Michelangelo’s birth. By the mid-fifteenth century, Michelangelo’s future patrons, the fabulously wealthy
Medici family, had already established themselves as the de facto rulers of Florence, but their dominance had begun to ruffle feathers in a city traditionally restive and unstable. Together with the Salviati, the Pazzi family—also successful and ambitious bankers—resolved to oust the Medici from power with the tacit support of the pope. On April 26, 1478, in front of a huge congregation,
Giuliano de’ Medici was stabbed to death by a gang of conspirators (including a priest) in the Duomo. His brother, Lorenzo—who later doted on the injured Michelangelo—fled for his life while bleeding profusely and hid with the humanist Poliziano. But the coup faltered. Getting wind of what was afoot, the Florentines were galvanized into action. One of the conspirators,
Jacopo de’ Pazzi, was hurled from a window, dragged naked through the streets, and thrown into the river. The Pazzi were immediately erased from Florentine history and forfeited everything. Francesco Salviati himself was summarily lynched, and the twenty-six-year-old
Leonardo da Vinci—then engaged in painting an altarpiece for the Palazzo Vecchio—sketched another conspirator,
Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, twisting in the wind after he was hanged. Later in life,
Michelangelo would tell Mi- niato Pitti of how he had been carried on his father’s shoulders to see the execution of the remaining conspirators on April 28.

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If San Marco, the Piazza del Duomo, and the Piazza della Signoria tell a story radically different from that told by
Coluccio Salutati and
Leonardo Bruni, the picture became even more vivid as Michelangelo left the square on his way toward the Ponte Vecchio, moving from the grand public buildings to the streets in which the drama of everyday social life was played out. A close look at
The Map of the Chain
Fig. 3
)—a panoramic view of Florence produced ca. 1471–82—reveals that beneath the massive structure of the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio lay a teeming mass of smaller and more modest buildings. Too numerous for the anonymous artist to depict in detail, they constituted a disorganized muddle, lacking any consistent style and bereft of any coherent sense of order. A mixture of houses, workshops, hostelries, and shops, their confused and cramped arrangement makes the buildings for which Florence is still famous look almost out of place.

BOOK: The Ugly Renaissance
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