Paul Strathern (2011)
A well-paced and diverse account of a critical piece of European political and intellectual history.
The subject of the book is the clash of ideas between modernism and fundamentalism, as respectively represented by Lorenzo de’ Medici and Girolamo Savonarola. Florence and Italy more widely provide a stage set with a range of characters, both those intent on their own betterment and those devoted to higher causes. The book manages to navigate a path between the ideas in play and the sometimes squalid and violent means with which these ends were pursued.
There are enormous ironies in these ends, too. Savonarola was a fundamentalist who wanted to introduce more democratic forms, and which gave rise to many modern ideas of governance – but abhorred the freedoms that such democratic ideas brought with them. Lorenzo kept tight political control but allowed great freedoms to the citizens, whilst being unable to distinguish between what was good for Florence and what was good for the Medici – and recalled Savonarola to Florence to be both a moral force and an ornament to the city’s greatness, laying the foundations for the end of Medici rule.
As in his other book on Mediaeval Italy, The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped, Strathern shows an well-balanced sense of character and an ability to juggle a range of sources of variable trustworthiness. He also has a keen eye for anecdotes: my two favourites are the shock that the arrival of French armies trained in full-on Northern European warfare caused for Italian armies used to a far more civilised form of warfare in which few people er actually got killed; and how the phrase esperimento del fuoco (trial by fire) gave rise to the word “experiment”, a trial to which some facet of the world was subjected. He deftly manages the difficult task of making clear the bewildering changes of political alliances that were characteristic of Italian politics of the period. And he sets the clash of ideas into the broader context of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and both Luther’s debt to Savonarola and the fact that Savonarola would have hated all Luther stood for: another paradox in a complex man.
It’s easy to see the parallels with the modern world and the struggle between democracy and fundamentalist religion, but Strathern is too goo a historian to avoid the complexities that history beings to this comparison. Savonarola the fundamentalist was also Savonarola the democrat; Lorenzo the autocrat was also a committed and in many ways conservative religious figure. The modern concepts and dualities don’t translate back to the fifteenth century, much as many might like them to, and this book is an important guide to the ways in which ideas mutate over time.
5/5. Finished Saturday 30 May, 2015.
(Originally published on Goodreads.)