Judging from the size and makeup of the crowds in Florence I saw during a visit in September, Americans are mad for Renaissance art. Try to get a close look at Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna at the Uffizi, and you’ll see only the heads of college juniors holding their phones high to get a long-distance shot of just a slice of the fourteenth-century painting that gave the first hint of the genius about to bloom throughout this part of northern Italy. Go to the rear wall of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, about the oldest church in this very old city that became the favorite of the Medicis; there, tour guides—dozens hourly—meet up with travelers in shorts and T-shirts or cutoffs and cropped shirts, or with the white hair and sturdy walking shoes of older Yanks. As for the Duomo, forget it. If you try to ponder Brunelleschi’s wondrous dome, you’ll probably find yourself flattened against the wall of a café across the square looking at the necks of other gawking visitors.
The invasion of art fans, so many of them young, is something of a puzzle. As I watched them snake through the lines for the Ponte Vecchio, only a few hours away Woody Allen was being hounded by protesters at the Venice Film Festival, demanding that the event’s sponsors “take the spotlight off rapists.” Other powerful males and their patrons, of course, have faced such protests in recent years. Why are they ripe for cancellation, while tourists throng the Uffizi room that holds the work of the tempestuous prodigy Caravaggio, who murdered a man?
Bad men, great art. My Florentine tour guides understand this perennial paradox in a way that often seems lost on many Americans today. The young woman leading my group as we clawed through the swarm toward the David at the Accademia said drily in her Italian accent: “My art history teacher once said Michelangelo was an asshole.” It’s testament to some lingering urge for the transcendent that this doesn’t stop people from staring in awe at the heart-stopping beauty of the asshole’s statue, miraculously carved out of a single gigantic block of marble.
Perhaps Michelangelo and Caravaggio lived so long ago that their sins seem more legend than moral transgression. One lesson of a great city like Florence is that cruelty, greed, and depravity often coexist with civilization’s finest achievements. It’s a lesson personified by Florence’s premier family, the infamous Medicis, who made the city the marvel that it is. With the help of various popes, some also named Medici, they earned a fortune in ways both ingenious and unsavory. They became the Vatican’s bank and established bank offices around Europe. They enriched themselves but also the culture and beauty of their city, immeasurably. They built the Uffizi, notable chapels, the loggia at Piazza della Signoria, and numerous palazzi. Who remembers that they often dislocated tenement-dwelling masses?
One of the first and most dynamic of this history-making family, Cosimo Medici, was generous, ambitious, and wily. He was a humanist—a student of Greek philosophy who founded an academy of Platonic studies and started a classical library at the convent San Marco, the first such library in Europe. With his fortune, he also indulged his taste for art. His beneficiaries included Donatello, Fra Angelico, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who blessed Florence with the exquisite bronze doors of the Brunelleschi baptistery; Michelangelo, another Medici discovery, pronounced them “fit to be the gates of Paradise.” Also on the payroll was sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, creator of Perseus with the Head of Medusa, now in the Piazza della Signoria. Cosimo surely knew that Cellini was a rapist and murderer.
For all his learning, Cosimo began the process of weakening the relatively enlightened constitutional Republic of Florence. Like other powerful men, he took advantage of low-status women. He fathered a child with one of the slaves who lived in his palazzo. His grandson also would have an illegitimate child, whom the Medicis were able to install as Pope Clement VII. Clement had his own illegitimate son, Alessandro, who became the first Duke of Florence, sealing the fate of the Republic.
History and art: not for the small-minded.
Photos: Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images (left) / Robert Alexander/Getty Images (right)