Archive for category Italy
I am half way through the book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly. It is a fascinating look both at the rise of the Huns and Attila, as well as the fall of the Roman Empire. In the late 300s and early 400 its fascinating to see how the Roman Empire — it’s western center by then in Ravenna, while the eastern empire was more secure in Constantinople (now Istanbul) — was dealing with the geopolitics of the era.
At this point in time Rome appears to be every bit an empire as ever, albeit dividing administrative functions between two capitals. Yet in many ways Rome had already fallen. Even as the Emperors and Generals of East and West tried to deal with various attacks by the “Barbarians” – Goths, Vandels, and of course Huns – they did so with the idea that they were protecting civilization from something dark and foreboding.
The book begins in 370, long before Attila, when the Huns first came upon the European scene. They probably were from the steppes of Kazakhstan, moving westward and encountering Gothic tribes first. Early on they seemed loosely organized, and often were willing mercenaries for the Goths and even the Romans. In 376 a Goth leader of the Tervingi named Fritigern headed to the Danube river fleeing the Huns and asking the Romans for asylum. They received it, but later rebelled in response to Roman mistreatment — with the help of Hun mercenaries. The Roman borders had been breached, and soon the Emperors were making more deals, allowing outside tribes to have land in the Empire as long as they converted to Christianity.
The Empire was not what it used to be. It was Christian, and the late Roman Emperors saw themselves in a pious role as defending Christianity. Rome had been the most successful experiment in multiculturalism in human history, absorbing numerous ideas and cultures. Now defining itself as Christian the goal was not just to defend the empire, but also support the faith. Yet beyond that Rome was a shadow of its former self. Once honor and virtue defined Roman life. It was brutal; we’d call it inhumane. What today would count as atrocities were everyday occurrences. But such was the stuff of the people who conquered Europe, northern Africa and much of the Mideast bordering on Persia.
In 400 Roman citizens were used to the good life; wars were distant campaigns waged by professional soldiers. Moreover, the good life was no longer defined by advances in science, technology, philosophy and architecture — by 400 the great works had been completed, save the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople, built in the early 400s by Theodosius II. But this exception tells the story — the great architectural triumph of the 400s was a defensive fortress of the capital of the Eastern Empire!
Still, emperors like Theodosius II in the East, and Valentinian (and his mother Galla Placidia) in the West managed to do a fairly competent job of keeping the peace through negotiated deals with the various tribes of the Goths, Huns and Vandels. When necessary they fought, and constantly had to worry about conflicts with more than one front (and, of course, their enemies would see opportunity when that occurred). Rome was still the great power, but it was buckling, trying to hang on to territory and control. Slowly the tribes settled in land that had been part of the empire, usually negotiating deals with the Romans. The Huns began their own empire, centered in the steppes of Hungary getting payments from the Goths (what Kelly describes as more a large protection racket than an empire of the Roman sort).
At this stage in the book — after Attila’s forces attack into the territory of the Eastern Empire but retreat before threatening Constantinople in 442, I want to reflect on what to think of this look at the late Roman Empire (recognizing, of course, that the eastern empire would persist for nearly another 1000 years in some form).
In hindsight, of course, it was in its last days. The deals and maneuvers to protect personal and imperial power were doomed to failure as the “barbarian” tribes grew in number and strength. Rome’s internal strength was depleted, the empire was stagnating from within. Yet while it was happening the idea that the western empire was doomed was not a foregone conclusion.
Within a century of the defeat in 378 of Eastern Emperor Valens’ forces at Adrianople (where he died as well), the once mighty empire would crack. The Western empire would be besieged from all sides and the various barbarian forces would claim the land. Constantinople and the eastern Empire would survive, but as a shadow of the once mighty Rome.
Some people wonder if we’re facing a crisis like that of Rome. Early in the 400s, it was still plausible to posit Rome as the dominant world power, needing to protect civilization from the barbarians. For us, despite debt ceiling crises, recession, and difficult and strength draining wars in the Mideast, the US still appears the dominant power. And for all the fear people have of Muslims coming and “imposing Shiria law” (eyes rolling) or Mexicans taking over, it’s a pretty safe bet that Washington DC isn’t going to be sacked and New York won’t fall to invading hordes.
Our problem is economic rather than military threats. We are still the economic power house, but our economy is weakened by debt, over consumption and a lack of competitiveness. Among the newcomers are China, India, and Brazil, slowly gaining wealth, market share and status. Even the EU looks to mount a comeback most dismissed when Europe was seen as “yesterday’s empire” a few years ago. To be sure, terrorism remains an uncertain military aspect of all this, but economic decline isn’t as horrible as sacks and conquests. It’s also probably easier to turn around.
What strikes me so far in this book is that great power decline isn’t so obvious while it’s happening — both the East and West Empires were still the bastions of civilization and had powerful armies. They knew they had vulnerabilities, but worked reasonably competently to deal with them. I’ll reflect more on the Huns and the “fall of empire” after I finish the book (likely tomorrow!)
Today was a perfect Roman day. This whole trip has had blue skies, warm temperatures and the only time it rained slightly it actually felt good and didn’t require umbrellas. Tomorrow it’s over, we fly home on Iberian airlines. This will be a short entry as I have to pack and get ready to head home!
The students, following us closely in Venice, have now become independent and adept at handling Rome’s complex city landscape. Quiet students are talking more, and in all this has been an excellent trip with a delightful and diverse set of students. I’ll miss them. We’ll keep in contact, some will become facebook friends, we’ll share pictures, but we’ll never have the intense time together as a community of travelers and learners like we did the last two weeks. I had memorized all 42 names and faces by the second day, and tried to spend some time with everyone.
Today we held no seminars. We were going to have my missed Vico seminar and a wrap up in the evening, but the students wanted a final day in Rome and had developed their own plans and itineraries. Some wanted to go to mass (there was a pope sighting yesterday), and it was clear that we have succeeded at one of our goals: helping the students become confident independent travelers. So we made a deal that if they’d be back reasonably early (the bus to the airport leaves at 7:00 AM Monday) and do some work on their journals they could have the final day free.
I did redo my “Angels and Demons” walking tour. Five people went along, and it was both a beautiful walk through Rome and an enjoyable time on the last day.
At Piazza del Popolo it was a sea of pink as the fans of the Palermo soccer team were in town en masse for what must have been an important game. The team colors are pink and black and fans with pink tea shirts were everywhere.
At del Popolo after a flare was fired there was a massive explosion. It hurt our ears and we thought something went wrong. It was just fireworks, apparently, from exuberant soccer fans.
After spending some time at Santa Maria del Popolo we headed to Castel Sant’Angelo.
All of this took most of the afternoon, but it was a great way to spend the last dayin Rome.
I lived in Italy for a year in the eighties, and I’m amazed at how much the country has changed. Besides having a new political system, Italy has become cleaner, more efficient, and easy to navigate. In the eighties the games played often crossed the line to corruption and cons, now that has faded. Yet while in some ways Italy has become more like northern Europe, it still retains it’s unique character.
First, everyone agrees that fruit and vegetables are much better here. I have trouble at home getting my kids to eat veggies because, frankly, I don’t find them all that appealing. Here I love them. The flavor is intense and delicious. They have fewer chemicals, less transportation of food, and more freshness – fresh is important in Italy. I’ll miss the flavors.
Italians also have a sense of living that we could learn from. Americans tend to be task and goal oriented, often to the point of ignoring the bigger question of whether or not we’re enjoying the process of living and are connecting with others. We go from one task to another, often isolated, hurried, and finding false satisfaction in the feeling of “a job well done.” Then the next job comes.
In Italy there is a sense that life should be enjoyed — the flavors, the friends, the sights and the sounds. Most of the time there is no need to hurry, living in the moment is more important than crossing off things on a “to do” list (and Americans have a weird obsession with ‘to do’ lists! – I’d be surprised if Italians even have the concept).
In Rome the majesty of the city remains etched on my mind. Grand buildings, a mixture of the ancient with the modern, the city teeming with pedestrians out and about. Some students found that intimidating compared to rural Maine, but I find invigorating. I also know my way around — after so many trips I find Rome surprisingly easy to navigate and rarely have I used my maps at all this trip (never in Venice or Florence). My roots may be in Germany and Norway, but I truly love Italy.
So now it’s time to pack and get ready for a bright and early rendezvous with the bus for the trip to the airport tomorrow. Home is good. I miss my family loads. But this has been a very successful and enjoyable trip.
And the demons won, at least logistically. We had a busy day planned. I was to do an Angels and Demons tour at 1:00, and a seminar on Vico at the Colosseum at 7:00. Some students went to a concert designed to mix the art of Caravaggio and the music of his era, exploring the connections between music and art. Others had a seminar on Catullus and Roman poetry. Those went very well, and the Caravaggio + music concert was combined with a lecture in English that fit perfectly with the themes of this course; Steve and the students who went were enthused.
For me, the day just didn’t work out. I didn’t realize that the main churches on my tour were closed between noon and 3:00, and thus we couldn’t go in and see the art work. When I got to the Colosseum at 6:40 to scope out a seminar space only two showed up. They reported others were interested, but were scattered in Rome. We decided to reschedule and they left. As I was leaving four others showed up, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want the two punctual ones to miss out. So basically my stuff flopped today. I am going to do the Angels and Demons walking tour again tomorrow at 3:30, and work Vico into a final seminar tomorrow evening.
I will describe the walking tour today, but I may get better pictures when I repeat the walk tomorrow.
Angels and Demons is a novel by Dan Brown later made into the movie. In that film a group called the Illuminati are alleged to have kidnapped four Cardinals just as the College of Cardinals was about to go into conclave to elect a new Pope. The four were the top candidates for the job and in the story they are assassinated one by one in holy sites around Rome, with Tom Hanks following clues to try to stop the killing and ultimately save the Church. The tour was to use the connection students have with the film or book to help them learn more about the people and history behind these places.
The first stop (based on the fact our hotel is near Termini) was at Santa Maria della Vittoria, where the Bernini sculpture “St. Teresa in Ecstasy” is located. This statue was inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic who was part of the counter-reformation. She emphasized the importance of a contemplative life mystically connected with God through constant mental prayer (as opposed to ritual spoken prayer, which was the norm those days). Once while ill she described an emotional experience of becoming one with God during her prayers, feeling “excessive” and “sweet” pain, on fire with the love of God, after having a gold spear thrust into her.
Due to her life of works she was canonized in 1622 and in 1970 Pope Paul VI made her a “Doctor of the Church.” The language St. Teresa uses to describe her experience can be read as akin to a sexual encounter, and many thought that Bernini tried to capture not just the ecstasy of God’s love but Theresa in the throes of an orgasm. This made the sculpture at times controversial, and of course fed into the Angels and Demons story.
Next we took the subway to Flaminio, where the church Santa Maria del Popolo is located. Named for the poplar trees that used to stand there, it’s a beautiful little church and a piazza defined by a large obelisk. Inside on the left is the Chigi chapel. (Again, we’ll have to come back Sunday to visit it) The chapel was designed by Raphael (1483-1520), completed later by Bernini (1598-1680), who also supplied sculpture. A beautiful high renaissance work, the chapel’s design, involving pyramids, signs of the zodiac and other things that seem odd for a Christian church now, lends itself to Dan Brown’s story.
Both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, our next stops, were parts of ancient Rome. Piazza Navona was called Circus Agonalis (the name seems to have evolved from agone to navone and finally navona), where games were held. Its centerpiece is the famouns Bernini sculpture “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.” In the story the final candidate for Pope was rescued from drowning in that fountain. We discussed how both the Pantheon and Piazza Navona have changed through time, but help bridge the gap between ancient and present. Rome’s personality is still shaped by the attributes from ancient Rome.
We also viewed Castel Sant’Angelo. It was the mausoleum for Hadrian and was constructed by 139 AD, about the same time the Pantheon was built. As Rome declined it was transformed into a military fortress in 410. Popes would often take refuge there in the tumult after the fall of Rome, and Pope Nicolas III had a pathway built between the fort and the papal apartments to make it easier for the Pope to flee to the safety of this gigantic fortress. Connecting to past seminars, the pathway was built during the time of Aquinas (1200s), Dante had Nicolas III condemned to the third Bolgia of the Eighth circle of hell for bribery, and the pathway was used during the sack of Rome in 1527, just after Machiavelli’s death.
We also discussed a bit about the story line of the book/film, namely the role of the Illuminati. There was a group with that name founded in Ingolstadt, Germany in 1776, clearly long after Raphael, Galileo and Bernini were dead. We shifted the discussion away from conspiracy theories to the lingering and yet unresolved tension between the secular and the sacred.
What gives Brown such fodder for his stories is that in that era intellectuals were starting to discover a world that couldn’t be explained completely by church doctrine. For artists and scholars the real, material, human world was becoming more important, yielding a quiet rebellion against church authority in the Catholic world. After 1517 there would be a century of open rebellion and war from the protestants.
The intellectuals didn’t doubt the existence of God — how could a world like this come into existence without a creator? The question of ‘where did God come from’ was brushed aside because only in the material world do you need an act of creation. Yet they were questioning key tenets of Christian faith and recognizing corruption and hypocrisy in the Church.
Fears of punishment during the counter-reformation and concern about just staying employed meant that doubts and dissent had to be quiet, often in small secret societies that could meet and talk about things in private that could have led to severe consequences of made public. They may even have had hidden messages and small conspiracies, but probably nothing too dramatic. After all, even in Brown’s story the Illuminati are ultimately not the villains, and may not be real.
Still, I find Angels and Demons to be a useful book and film in opening the door to get students to think about the sites in Rome differently, to want to learn more about them, and to discuss the tension between the sacred and secular that persists to this day. One can quibble about errors and the license he uses to make the story interesting, but anything that can engage people with the past and want to learn more is very welcome!
Today most of the students headed to Pompei, where Sarah holds a seminar on the art and archeology there, a highlight of the trip for many students. I had to stay in Rome to try to arrange an inexpensive bus trip to the airport on Monday (I succeeded). Steve remained behind too, as Luann and Sarah led the group to Pompei. I did go last time we went, and did a short blog entry on that in 2009.
Steve and I took a walk through Rome to plan an assessment of this trip, involving both current students and alumni from the five previous trips abroad we led. We also scouted around for a place for the second student seminar (perhaps Circo Massimo) and plotted the final two days of the course, going over the lessons learned so far. At about 3:00 we were very, very hot and decided to take a two hour break and meet at 5:30 to continue.
We had planned a nice long calorie burning walk, but once we reached an area that appeared to be the university section we got seduced into having pastries and Cafe Macchiato at this wonderful bakery. They had a wide variety of breads and pastries and we enjoyed a delicious treat.
Then, not more than 20 steps away, we found a pizzeria. We ordered pizza and wine and chatted two hours. It was productive — we now have an assessment plan for this course (not just this one but the series of travel courses) and need to get IRB approval. We really believe we’re accomplishing something very difficult here, bringing together a truly interdisciplinary experience with whole life lessons that we hope students will take into their futures. It’s exciting, invigorating, and far more than just travel in Italy. Our next goal is to demonstrate that by assessing the experience.
So after a leisurely meal on a warm but pleasant Roman evening, we got up to head towards the station to meet the Pompei folk on their return. En route we had another pastry and cafe. So much for the calorie burning walk! Still, we’re in Rome, and tonight we enjoyed the evening in a Roman manner with food and drink.
The train from Napoli was on time, and the students on board. They were sunburned, enthusiastic and very hungry. They’d taken the “slow” train for 21 Euro round trip (2.5 hours from Napoli to Roma — the high speed train does it in half the time — but 90 Euros round trip), and had been rushing to catch the train.
Two more full days in Rome then we head home.
Today we offered a diverse set of seminars and excursions as students choose what they wanted to learn about with more depth. I held an evening seminar near the Vatican with students who had just visited the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel.
Earlier a large group of students went with me to see the Colosseo, which now includes a museum covering that part of Rome before it became the spot for the Colosseum. Being in the center of Rome it had palaces and even a human made lake. Only after the fire of 64 AD destroyed the region could a grand Colosseum be built. This a definite a case of turning a crisis into an opportunity.
Originally the Colosseum held brutal sporting events, including the gladiators, hunts, executions and a variety of violent entertainment. When the grounds got too bloody, a layer of sand would be added. 55,000 spectators could come, most in shade provided by awning over the top (something we would have liked to have had today).
Many know that Christians were martyred here, but the relationship between early Christians and the Church is complex. Despite some bouts of persecution, Christianity was usually tolerated even while banned. Women were more likely than men to convert to Christianity, in part because Roman customs made women clear second class citizens. Starting slowly, Christianity grew as the empire headed for decay. Ultimately the empire fell as the church rose.
The roots of the rise of the Church go all the way back to how Paul settled a dispute early on. Did one have to convert to Judaism to become Christian? If so one would have to follow Jewish laws, men would have to get circumsized (that might dissuade some would be converts), and the religion would have the identity as being a sect within Judaism. Paul, looking back to the story of Abraham, said “no,” meaning that anyone could convert without having to worry about Jewish law. This turned Jews off to what had been a Jewish sect, and it quickly became appealing to non-Jews — and the Romans.
As the faith grew in numbers, Christianity was tolerated. The catacombs started as secret burial grounds, but in time it didn’t matter. There were so many Christians and Rome had a history of tolerating diversity (given the size of the empire) that any persecution faded.
Finally the emperor Constantine (272-337) lifted the ban on Christianity and himself converted. After his death Christianity was made the religion of the empire. This wasn’t just a spiritual choice, but a practical one. The empire was cracking and Romans were less willing to go into the military then ever before — they preferred a comfortable life. Many refused because of their religion — early Christianity was a pacifist religion. Christ didn’t fight back, he knew that the real world was the spiritual world. Better to suffer or die in the material world than to risk your eternal spiritual soul by breaking God’s commandments.
Now the Romans had put the Christians in a quandary: Do you let the now Christian empire collapse so the pagans take over? Or do you fight to save Christianity? Augustine (354-430) answers that you can fight — but only if it is a just war. That wouldn’t be enough. In 476 Romulus Augustulus was deposed as the last Emperor (though the eastern Byzantine Empire would continue) The Barbarians may have defeated the Roman Empire, but they ultimately converted to Rome’s new religion.
As the world fell apart, Augustine espoused a spiritual theology that distrusted the material world. The material world tempted humans to break God’s commands, and thus should not be the focus of our life. With that other-worldly view, Europeans quickly lost the knowledge held by the Romans and life became local and defined by tradition. The idea of progress was non-existent. Better technology was in the past; this life was to simply get through so one could move on to eternal joy.
While some blame the Church for stifling creativity, the charge is unfair. The world was changing in a way that would have destroyed Roman knowledge anyway. What the Church did was actually preserve as much as they could, taking books and other artifacts up into monasteries where Roman knowledge was protected, even if it was also ignored. Without Christianity we may not have had the renaissance because there may not have been enough knowledge to rediscover.
Augustine’s theology also linked the Christian world with Greek thought, particularly Plato’s idealism. Many said God sent Plato to Greece to prepare the way for Christianity. That idealism — the turning away from the material realm to focus on the spiritual — led to a world where tradition would dominate and change was extremely slow.
Fast forward to the 1200s. Information and texts had been seeping into Europe from the Islamic world, generating a new interest in old Roman ideas and knowledge. In 1066 the first modern university opened in Bologna. By the 1200s Islamic rationalist scholars like Averroes and Avicenna were read in Christian Europe, creating an intellectual wave of dissent.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) would stand out as the figure who pushed the church into accepting Aristotle and making progress and a focus on the material as well as the spiritual acceptable. This set in motion the process we’ve been discussing whereby humanism and ultimately a belief in abstract reason and the laws of nature would push aside religious authority. The church tried to make Aristotle an authority not to be question, but as we’ve seen, Galileo and others would themselves read Aristotle and recognize that his philosophy went against unquestioning obedience to authority in intellectual matters.
While the ideas had been growing well before the 1200s, and change would have come to Europe even if Thomas had not been born in Napoli in 1225, he functions along with Augustine as convenient bookends for the a broad view of the history of western civilization. From Augustine on the Church prevents a total collapse of Roman knowledge and civilization, and provides an other-worldly theology that supports a generally peaceful if stagnate feudalism.
With Aquinas the process begins for the West to take off with unprecedented progress and change. We saw it start with Giotti, whose work was just 30 years after Aquinas died, through Galileo, and now the globalized world of smart phones and materialism dominant.
On to Rome! Today we took a break from our formal seminars because getting the students acquainted with Rome is a job in and of itself. Moreover, it was a bit wild getting settled here.
After an uneventful train ride we headed to the hotel, with the students dragging suitcases up six flights of stairs. Then we were told to stop and go down, we had been moved to another hotel. The students then went down, crossed over to another hotel, and took their suitcases up one flight of stairs. They checked in, and five of us (including myself) were set up in the original hotel. Tired and hungry the students got food and then we met at 3:00 for our walking tour.
The air was cool and a slight rain fell as we made our way from Termini (the rail station) to our first stop, the Spanish steps. No one complained about the rain, given how hot and sticky we had been. After the Spanish steps it stopped, and soon the sun came back out. From there we headed down to the Trevi fountain, a popular tourist attraction.
From Trevi it was over the Pantheon, perhaps my favorite spot in Rome. The students were excited to see this because they had already heard that it helped inspire the solution for Brunelleschi’s dome. The Pantheon is impressive outside:
From there we went to Piazza Navona, famous for its Bernini sculptures and fountains. We let students loose to get food and then met back at the Pantheon at 7:30 for the final leg of the excursion. We headed towards the Forum and Colosseum, with the night lighting just turning on as we got there. Students were awed by both sights. One student has wanted to see the Colosseum since she was eight years old, and she was had tears in her eyes when it finally came into view. All students had put aside the irritation of the hotel check in problems and were amazed by Rome, a city no one can truly be prepared for. The ancient alongside the modern, grand buildings, wild traffic and superb food combine to make this a gem. A few students avoided attempted pick pockets, and one got scammed out of five Euros. But they know to be diligent!
We got back to the hotel after 10:00. Students were tired, but buzzing about the city. Tomorrow it’s back to seminars and excursions, and trying to get the most out of our four days left in Italy — hoping to tie up the themes of the course and convince students that being tourists is not what they want to do. They don’t want to schlepp from sight to sight with a guide book telling them all they know about what they are visiting. They want to understand the history, feel the presence of the past in what they are seeing, and understand the importance and relevance of what Rome or any place one might visit represents. As I noted in my 2009 Itay trip blog, we want students to be travelers, not tourists.
A quick blog post today, as its late and we head to Rome tomorrow.
Today about thirty students made the trek to Siena, while a few others had things they wanted to investigate in Florence. The high light of Siena was the cathedral museum Santa Maria della Scala, and the famous Piazza del Campo.
Unfortunately I ended up missing a lot of the art seminar because a student got ill after lunch and I assisted her back to the train station. I ended up leaving early as well, doing some logistics for the Rome trip tomorrow.
Tonight I had my Galileo seminar, which I’ll probably redo in Rome for those who didn’t get back from Siena in time. In 2009 I blogged about Galileo during the last Italy trip, you can get more details from that post. Much of what we covered two years ago we hit on today. But this seminar more overtly built on two themes.
1. The move from humanism towards reason. Instead of humans being the center of the universe, our ability to use reason to understand nature becomes primary. While Petrarch and Dante dealt with love, and Boccaccio with lust and death, for Galileo the language of God was math. The world was not to be felt or emoted but to be understood and analyzed.
To be sure, the humanists started the move in this direction. They advanced realism and emphasized the material alongside the spiritual. With Galileo the focus now is on the abstract, seeking to use the mind to find laws of nature. Discovering the power of mathematics, Galileo and others of his era reckoned that math was the key to unlocking God’s true meaning, which was exhibited in the workings of nature.
Galileo and his contemporaries like Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler found a contradiction in the church’s embrace of Aristotle as an authority. For nearly 300 years Aristotelian scholasticism put forth both Aristotle and the church as authorities. If you got an education, it started by accepting their authority, and learning within a framework designed to support and not contradict existing knowledge.
The problem, as Galileo noted, is that Aristotle said you are to question authority and experiment for yourself. He believed he was more true to Aristotle than the church was. This leads to the second theme:
2. Authorities no longer could control information and conventional belief. Galileo was dangerous not because he thought the earth orbited the sun — most high up in the Church knew he was right. He was a threat because he was willing to say so and take it upon his own authority to follow what the science says rather than leaving it to the clerics.
These two shifts would change western civilization forever. Galileo didn’t cause them, the same sorts of ideas were sweeping Europe. Being close to Rome where the Church had power, Galileo was more vulnerable. If he’d been in Germany, Great Britain or even still in Padova he’d probably had been fine.
At this point, the age of reason overturns the age of faith. Nature becomes something outside of humans, to be understood and potentially controlled using the scientific method to understand the laws of nature — the mind of God. Galileo would die the same year Isaac Newton was born, and Newton would take the project a step further to present a model of a “clockwork universe,” where everything can be predicted and explained (if you have enough data).
This shift away from church authority and both humanism and spiritualism pushes us towards the enlightenment. It has propelled us to progress, to build capitalist economies, to advance medical science, create new industries, and have technological devices that allow me to blog from Italy to whoever has a computer and types in my web page.
But this shift has also given us pollution, chemcials in and around us, potentially poisoning us and risking the planet’s capacity to sustain human life. We’ve wasted resources and have seen mass atrocities and abuse of this technology.
This intensifies the dilemma noted a couple days ago with Machiavelli. By emphasizing the abstract and material over the human, we’ve increasingly mastered our material world, but without really thinking of the values and consequences of our actions. By rejecting external authority we set up intense conflicts of values and ideals with no clear way to settle them.
This is also true of music, Steve pointed out, noting that in 1600 in Florence a completely new form of music emerged called opera. Important in bolting from tradition and using reason to rethink tonality was Vincenzo Galilei, the father of Galileo.
Steve also has been pre-occupied about the 1300s this trip, a period of tumult and transition. He wonders if maybe we don’t have a lot to learn by reflecting on the world in that era, even if it seems so distant. He has a point. Steve suggested that we’re increasingly distrusting reason as a primary tool, in part because it can’t handle values. Reason is a tool, but it is value free – it can serve evil, it can serve good. Perhaps what we’ve lost is that focus on the human that figures like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio provided. Perhaps in this era of crisis and transition, we need to re-discover human values, not just more cleverly use reason.
This evening on a very warm day in Florence we headed to a park on via Nazionale to give students a chance to discuss the course so far in groups, and then craft a 15 group minute presentation. It went very well, save a couple bits of drama. First, part way through the discussions we heard a loud crash, and looked to find that a van had smashed into a Vespa, which then crashed into the hood of another car. The driver of the Vespa leapt up screaming (in pain, not anger) holding his arm. Amazingly, he later appeared dazed but OK. The driver that hit him ran to him right away to help, obviously worried and upset. The woman whose car the man landed in front of seemed dazed. It all ended fine, but this shows that the chaos of Italian driving can be dangerous.
Later, as we gathered the students after they’d had an hour to discuss their presentations, one student left his back pack unattended for two minutes, and then found it missing. He had nothing of value in there except for one thing: his passport. A guy with a beer had been sitting nearby the whole time and he was also gone. Sigh.
The discussions were really invigorating; each of us spent ten to fifteen minutes with each group, circulating and trying to help them make connections between seminars and experiences. They were encouraged to bring information from other courses they’ve had into the discussion too. Then the four faculty went for an espresso at a nearby cafe as the students planned their presentations.
In all, despite the Vespa accident and passport incident, it was a positive experience. Then tonight the drama continued as a few of our students ended up in a pizzeria where Jersey Shore folk were eating. Our students got free pizza and signed releases to appear on the show. Jersey Shore, Vespa accident, a stolen passport…some mid-trip drama.
Still, the students tonight did well putting on extemporaneous presentations on a complex theme. They got some things wrong, but that’s good. They were talking, discussing, listening and putting themselves out there. They made the attempt to engage the material and find the links between themes and disciplines. Most importantly, they recognize that the point of the course is not to learn about people and dates (though knowing names and dates is good), but to understand themes and how the world was changing. Many integrated all this into the present and my “Italy today” seminar. They are thinking unconventionally across space-time, yet connecting their concrete experiences in Italy with the material. This is an impressive group of students, and I think we have a well designed course here!
The works of Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio in the 1300s foreshadowed the dramatic change western civilization was about to undergo and revolutionized literature even before the development of the printing press. This was an essential part of the cultural and intellectual transformation sweeping Europe.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) managed to live to the age of 62 in a century which saw many lives shortened by the plague. His home of Florence lost as much as 70% of its population in the worst outbreaks. Francesco Petrarca (Petrach) lived from 1304 to 1374, also avoiding the plague. He was almost always traveling, gaining the label of the “first tourist” because he did what many then considered odd — he traveled for pleasure. Both were influenced by the work of Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321). Dante had Beatrice as his muse, Petrarch had Laura. Dante had 100 cantos, Boccaccio’s Decameron contains 100 stories.
Dante’s Divine Comedy was published around 1317, meaning it was about a decade after Giotto’s work in Padova. Dante started working on it sometime after his exile from Florence in 1301, thanks to a shift in the Florentine political winds. In fact Dante knew Scrovegni and Giotto, living in Padova for awhile himself. Some believe Dante assisted Giotto in at least some aspects of his work. Dante and Giotto each reconciled their humanism with devotion to the Catholic Church. For all it’s imagery and moments of revenge as he placed personal enemies in various parts of hell, Dante’s Divine Comedy does not contradict Catholic theology. The punishments fit the crimes, and Paradiso is true love through union with God, deeper any human or romantic love.
But Dante wrote in Italian, not Latin. He poked fun at authorities and people in the church, even if he remained true to church teachings. He used over 600 expressing authentic human emotions, and wrote a work that is among the greatest literary accomplishments of European history.
Petrarch and Boccaccio were of the next generation, and were friends who wrote each other frequently. Petrarch has been called the “father of humanism” thanks to his profound and moving poetry, and both Boccaccio and Petrarch led the way to rediscovering the work of the Romans and the Greeks. They were scholars, admiring the humanism of the ancients and determined to bring it into their world.
Their impact should not be understated. The Italian language used today was based on the literature of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante — Italy was divided until 1861 and had dialects so diverse that people in Naples once thought a northern Italian was from Great Britain, his language seemed so bizarre.
However, their most profound impact is how they helped influence the rebirth of knowledge Europe was beginning to experience. Who we are as a culture — how we think and what we value — was influenced by these three men. Images of hell held by both the religious faithful and rebellious teens often come straight from Dante’s Inferno. Dante originally called it Commedia; Boccaccio added Divina. All three have influenced poets and writers for centuries.
But while Dante railed against those who had been unjust and corrupt, Petrarch went deeper through introspection and his belief that God gave humans intellect and creativity for each person to use to improve their experience of life. He remained a devout Catholic, but his shift of focus from the Church to the Greeks and Romans and their humanism helped begin a process that ultimately would undermine the church.
The story line of Boccaccio’s Decameron shows one reason everything was about to change . The plague would wipe out huge chunks of Europe in its multiple recurrences in the 1300s, obliterating many old traditional power structures and creating new opportunities. This also put the Church in crisis, evidenced by its growing corruption and the split Papacy. Their emphasis on humanism came just as the old order was severely weakened by an external event.
Boccaccio’s stories and language were often lewd and risque. Yet the story tellers — the real people fleeing Florence to Fiesole to avoid the plague — are proper and moral. Like his friend Petrarch, Boccaccio did not see any contradiction between his faith and humanism. His literature nonetheless broke with traditional forms, even as his stories were based on old folk tales.
Through them Florence emerged from the plague ridden 1300s with a new sense of respect for the Greeks and the Romans, brushing aside the old focus on just the church. They can’t be given causal credit, of course. They were part of a cultural change that was sweeping Europe. Perhaps more important was how Aquinas injected Aristotle into both European thought and the church in the 1200s, as well as the increased knowledge coming into Italy from the more progressive and advanced Islamic world. The rise of Florence would have as much to do with the Medici’s accounting methods making them the bankers to Europe as the legacy of the literature of the 1300s.
And that’s what makes this travel course so exciting to teach. We work through how the world was changing and help students move away from simplistic “Petrarch changed the world through his poetry” or “Dante revolutionized literature” claims to a more nuanced recognition that change was coming on multiple levels in art, literature, music and politics. Something was awaking in Italy, especially Florence, as we get towards the 1400s. Rather than a force of nature, this was a social force of culture and knowledge. It expressed itself through individuls, but can’t be explained just by looking at individuals.
What is it? What was going on? How do we make sense of it? The answer may be like Boccaccio’s stories. Many of them have lessons or morals, but they don’t create a coherent moral code, and some seem to contradict. We have multiple perspectives, but there is no overarching narrative or causal pattern. Petrarch’s introspection illustrates the power of reflection as being as important as external forces and patterns. There is no one way to look at this and explain it. But as the students come to see, knowing about this, reading the literature, seeing the art, and learning about the past not only shows us something about who we are, but enhances ones’ experience of life itself. I think that would please Dante, Boccaccio and especially Petrarch.
Florence had risen rapidly from the 1300s to near 1500, thanks in large part to the strength of the Medici family whose revolution in accounting made them bankers to Europe, brought wealth to Florence and financed the great renaissance art and architecture we see in the city today. Today’s two seminars involved two men – Niccolo Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola – and two churches – Santa Croce and San Marco.
Savonarola took power in 1494 when the French invaded Italy and overthrew the Medicis. He played to the emotion of the peoples’ resentment of Medici opulence and wealth which he derided as unchristian at a time when so many in Italy were in poverty. So powerful was his religious fervor that even the great Botticelli is said to have thrown many of his paintings in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” that Savonarola held — great fires where people burnt material objects that were not godly. This foreshadowed later book burnings.
Gaining a following, Savonarola vowed to cleanse Florence. Homosexuality had been tolerated, Savonarola made it a capital offense under new “sodomy laws.” People were forced to take a more puritan life style. He attacked the Medicis, especially Pope Alexander VI (who, to be sure, was a nasty immoral jerk to put it nicely). Yet while he rode resentment of the wealth of the ruling class to power, the public didn’t like his puritanism. By 1497 bars started to serve wine and liquor again, and in 1498 he was excommunicated and hung in Piazza della Signora.
We visited San Marco where the monks including Savonarola had their cells, and Sarah explained the importance of the art work there, reflecting those times. After Savonarola’s death, Florence had a brief period of Republican rule. One of its leaders was a man named Niccolo Machiavelli.
I had the students read a talk I gave a few years ago about Machiavelli, linked here. I’m not going deep into Machiavelli’s thought for this blog entry (no time!), but that link has quotes and examples of his pragmatic realism. The short version is that after the Florentine Republic fell Machiavelli was exiled and published The Prince, a practical how to book on politics.
Some consider him the first political scientist because Machiavelli makes clear that he is not worried about what ought to be, but what actually is. And the world around him — Italy fragmented, divided and insecure, the public being seduced for awhile by a religious extremist like Savonarola, and the demise of the Florentine Republic — did not reflect anyone’s conception of an ideal society. Rather than follow the philosophers in trying to determine what the “good” should be, Machiavelli said its more important to figure out how the world works — how to play the game and win.
As I noted in a blog entry from the last Italy trip, Machiavelli is no Hitler (that blog goes into the details of his thinking more). He wanted a Republic where people could have peace and prosperity. To get that, however, Italy had to first gain security and develop a strong state. He saw that if Italy didn’t unify and develop a stable state, the fragmented divided statelets of the peninsula would fall into stagnate squabbling while the rest of Europe would rise ahead. But to get security you needed a strong leader who wouldn’t let morality get in the way of achieving the end of having a secure state. In that Machiavelli makes a clear consequentialist “the ends justify the means” argument.
Again, read the links above for more on Machiavelli’s specific thought. In this post I just want to reflect on how Savonarola and Machiavelli foreshadow the darkside of the growing humanism that Giotto’s work represented the start of. Savonarola was a reaction to the increasing distance between the new humanist ethos of the renaissance and old strict ways of the Church. Tradition was being challenged, change and diversity were accepted. The good side was that this meant more freedom, as reflected in the issue of homosexuality. The bad side was that this meant more class division and a pre-occupation on the material, as reflected by church corruption and the power of the Medicis.
Humanism embraced realism. Just as the art and sculpture became more realistic, Machiavelli’s guide to politics reflected a desire to do what would work, even if were not right by moral standards. In Machiavelli we see an overt move to relativism, as a Prince has to navigate the waters he finds rather than try to create an ideal polity.
Savonarola and Machiavelli are extremes that show divisions with us to this day. I couldn’t help but think of Osama Bin Laden as a Muslim Savonarola, with authoritarian governments like the Saudis using Machiavelli’s methods. One is a desire not to give up the old and in fact react to change by embracing an extremist and reactionary world view. The other is to try to protect the new order by using any means necessary, fearing chaos and disarray. The relativism in Machiavelli also reflects a dark side of this change — there is no new moral standard replacing tradition.
The students seem drawn to Machiavelli’s thought, it has the kind of pragmatic approach that has defined US politics and foreign policy for generations. This shows me that despite 500 years of development since those early days of the pre-enlightenment, we still haven’t found a new moral code. Reason alone can’t provide one, nor is there any proof of there existing an ethical code that can be derived from nature. Those who claim there is one are rarely able to put up an argument to defend their position – they dance and weave a lot. That leaves the door open for new Savonarola’s, like perhaps a younger Pat Robertson type.
This brings the conversation to the present. We’re not just looking at historical figures dealing with 500 year old problems. These are dilemmas we’re still working to solve, as relevant today as they were then.
I’m learning more, for instance, about a show I never saw before, Jersey Shore. Apparently they are right around the corner from us, and one of our students actually talked to them and was on camera — she didn’t sign a waiver though, so they won’t use that footage. I also got this picture — students say it’s a guy called ‘the Situation’ who “picked up two Italian bimbos.” One wonders what Savonarola would say about these guys:
Though after a long hot day of art, politics, and 13 miles of walking, we ended with the best Gelato in the world, from Gelateria dei Neri. Buona Notte!