THE ART AND THE RELIGION OF FLORENCE.*
MRS. OLIPHANT has chosen for the subject of her new book one of the most fascinating themes in all the range of civic history. Florence was to the mediteval time what Athens was to the ancient world, and what Paris is, in some sense, to our own time. Rome was, no doubt, a grander historical stage even in the most degraded days of the Papacy, and the chief business of the world was never transacted in the Tuscan capital. But Flo- rence produced so many men of consummate genius—poets, masters of prose, painters, preachers, statesmen—that it has scarcely had an intellectual peer since the time of Athenian Greece ; and the pulsea of life beat so strongly in its society that, although smaller than the Edinburgh of to-day, it might seem to have clasped a whole greatc-country within its walls. Indeed, it is difficult to scan its achievements without now and again think- ing of Florence as if it were some mighty State, and the same delusion took a grandly practical form in the mind of its citizens. They acted as if Florence were the first of cities. Into its pitiless strifes they threw as passionate a fervour as the Revolution awoke in France. The Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradise were peopled by the greatest of its poets with the citizens of Florence, as if the tenure of its crimes and glories should last beyond the grave ; and its towers and churches were fashioned with as laborious a beauty and solidity as if Floreuce were to live until the Judgment Day. The very smallness of the city and the adjoining territory helped to quicken the intensity of its life, and in less degree the same process went on in all the other cities of northern Italy. They were usually cut off from each other by rivalries or feuds. In a barbarous time the consequences would have been perpetual wars, until some military dictator would have put all of them under his own sway. But after the thirteenth century, Florence and some of the other Italian cities had developed an intellectual culture which rivalled in fineness and subtlety that of Athenian Greece. Even before the days of Lorenzo de Medici an average merchant of Florence was an incomparably more polished man than an ordinary city man of our day. The spirit of our School-Board elections, or even of our "National Conferences," is bite the mildly amiable gossip of the tea-table in comparison with the passionate fierceness of the strifes into which such a trader was flung ; and the temper of a statesman was developed in him by the constant necessity of sending , embassies to nego- tiate with the other turbulent centres of Italian life, and with the grasping Court of Rome. Amid all this commotion, in- tellectual culture was sharpened by an idolatrous study of those ancient classics which the art of printing had by that time placed within the reach even of the poor. A race of secular scholars was beginning to rival and surpass the monkish students ; and, as George Eliot has shown in her great romance, the gossip of the libraries descended even into the streets. A general regard for intellectual things freed commerce from that vulgarising influence of which it is not innocent even in this favoured land. Florence also lived through both the spring-time and the harvest of Art. The Italian people displayed that marvellous perception of the beautiful which, by generating a high standard of criticism, forbade their painters to sink into the trivialities and the vulgarities of Northern art. Florence was essentially a city of traders, and the Medici themselves were only a beatified race of Roths- childs ; but the love of beautiful things was as natural to a merchant of the Tuscan capital as a power of handling the multi- plication-table. It is the combination of fierce, sanguinary strife with consummate culture, and with imperishable monuments of poetry and art, that gives Florence her peculiar fascination. Her fineness and even fastidiousness of taste helped no doubt to bring her ruin. By hastening the decay of the rougher, manlier civic virtues, it tended to make craft take the place of hardihood. Acting on a mind endowed with a genius for the application of casuistry to political life, the same influence gave the world Machiavelli. In time it killed the public spirit of that middle-class which was the best safeguard against tyranny, and it enabled a subtle race of rulers to repeat a familiar chapter of history by gaining despotic power through the blind favour of a turbulent democracy. Ages before the Bonapartes brought their Italian craft to France, the Medici had anticipated the machinery of
* The Makers of Florence: Dante, Giotto, Savonarola, and their City. By Mrs. Oliphant. London : Macmillan and Co. 1876.
pl4biseites. Florence had its universal suffrage. Summoned by the great bell of the city, the mob rushed to the square of the Duomo to elect the rulers of the city, and they were usually but too ready to choose by acclamation any list of men that should be set before them by the hidden oligarchy. Augustus, the Medici, the Bonapartes, and the wire-pullers of the American, caucuses have all an uncomfortable likeness to each other.
Mrs. Oliphant has sought to give a picture of the life in old Florence by sketching the career Of the mein whom she styles ita "Makers." Dante, among its poets ; Giotto, Ghiberti, Brunel- leschi, and Donatello, among "the Cathedral-builders ; " Fra Angelico, as the type of saintly painters ; Savonarola, the chief flower of its moral life ; Michael Angelo, the crowning glory of its artistic genius, — such a list of representative men it would be difficult to find in any other city. Yet they do not sufficiently represent the many-sided life of Florence. Mrs. Oliphant would have done well to sketch some personal specimen of the intensely secular, political, and even sceptical spirit which is rendered with incomparable wealth of detail in the pages of Remota. We should gladly have bartered some eloquent pages on so familiar a theme as the life of Michael Angelo for a description of Machiavelli's character. Such a chapter would have been the more welcome, because Macaulay's essay, although a very brilliant piece of rhetoric, and in some ways a masterly analysis of a depraved morality, is profoundly inadequate. It does not bring us near to the mysterious character of the subtle Repub- lican who taught kings the secrets of their craft, such as it would. have been understood by men who, at the bidding of convenience, displayed a serene unconsciousness of the moral law. Mrs. Oliphant might have examined Macaulay'a paradox that Machia- velli, in spite of his depraved casuistry, was better than his age instead of worse, and that he simply wrote out in lines: of scientific accuracy the ethics of Italian society. Macau. lay does not seem to have been acquainted with an explanatory letter which the great Florentine statesman wrote to a friend about the time that he dedicated the Prince to the second Lorenzo de Medici. That epistle gave a hint of the motives which led a Republican to pay homage to the man who had inherited the lost liberties of Florence. Machia- velli was poor, in exile, and unemployed, when he composed the guilty book, and in his epistle he hinted that he had so written as to win the favour of Lorenzo and the restoration to hislost offices. That explanation cancels the need for some of the. subtle theories by which Macaulay sought to explain the ethics' of this Prince. Mrs. Oliphant excuses her neglect of Machia- velli by saying that his great intellect had a small share in the guidance of his age. We cannot agree with her. A man who united consummate practical to consummate speculative sagacity, who was the statesman of the Commonwealth, and the most trusted of its ambassadors, whose writings alone would' have given him an imperishable name, and who, above all, re- flected, as in a magnifying-mirror, the tortuous political instincta of his country and his time,—such a man would be an inexplicable anomaly, if he had not been a "maker" of his age, as well as of his city.
We are none the less grateful to Mrs. Oliphant for her eloquent and beautiful sketches of Dante, Fra Angelico, and Savonarola. They are picturesque, full of life, and rich in'detail ; and they are charmingly illustrated by the art of the engraver. On other occasions she has shown how generously and finely she can inter- pret very different phases of religious nature. Her Life of St. Francis d'Assisi had already displayed her power of appre- ciating a peculiar form of Italian sanctity, and some of her sketches in the present volume are finer, if slighter, pieces of work. Dante is the theme of a beautiful essay, marred
here and there by vagueness ; the story of "the Cathedral- builders" is charmingly told ; and the life of Savonarola
is written with glow and fire. It will be read with pleasure, even by those who are familiar with Dean Milman's masterly essay, and with Villari's admirable biography. It will also suggest some interesting comparisons with the vivid and changing pictures of the Reformer in Romola, and it is the more welcome because the world has rendered but tardy justice to Savonarola. Only in our own day has the load of calumny and'
misrepresentation and prejudice been lifted off the memory of the noblest moral nature among all the citizens of Florence, and
the greatest man of his time. We cannot measure his real stature without looking to the degradation of his age. It was one of the saddest periods in the history of the Church._ The Papal Court was the most profligate and by far the
most sceptical in Europe. When a Pope and an Arch- bishop could plan the murder of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, when it could be agreed that the two brothers should be assassinated in church at the signal of the raising of the Host, and when it was found necessary to get priests to execute a crime which horrified even hardened laymen, the Papacy and the Italian hierarchy had manifestly sunk as low as the worst de- pravities of decaying Rome. The last touch of infamy was given by the accession of Roderic Borgia to the throne of St. Peter through the divine grace of bribes. Nothing more powerfully illustrates the immense depth to which the Roman Church had struck its roots, than the fact that the Papal Chair survived the published crimes and the nameless infamies of Alexander VL Such was the state of the Church during the years of Savonarola's life at the Convent of San Marco. But he had given proof of a pro- foundly spiritual nature from the time when he left the house of his father to become a Dominican. His early austerities, his rapt devotion, his craving for monastic rigour, and his power of con- tinuous study, recall the youthful days of a still greater man,— the chief of the German Reformers. Savonarola set himself from the first to effect the moral regeneration of his Order and his adopted city. Intellectually he was highly qualified to impress the most polished community in Europe, for he had profoundly studied the scholastic philosophy, and his own writings give Villari some right to style him the most original metaphysical thinker of his day. But the very fervour of his earnestness unfitted him at first to calm his style into unity with the serene Sadduceeism of Florence, and for a while nobody listened to his rough, impetuous speech. As he gradually gained a mastery over his hidden powers of eloquence, the unlettered crowd was drawn to him, however, by a resistless fascination ; and then came polished scholars, and then the fastidious minds who dared not read St. Paul's Greek lest it should corrupt their style ; and at last the whole of Florentine society. Politan, Machia- velli, and Lorenzo himself were all swept along by the current which flowed to the Duomo. They might sneer at the preacher's prophecies or denounce the violence of his appeals to the mob, in the spirit which we find revealed in Romola ; but they had all to admit that his eloquence had brought a new and over- mastering force into the life of Florence. History can pre- sent few parallels to his influence. Not only did he make his own convent a model of rigour, and so famed for sanctity that rich and famous men craved admission into its brotherhood, but he transformed the wealthy, dissolute, polished pagan Florence into something like a theocracy. We cannot measure his influence, unless we remember what such a city must have been when the art of printing was still in its infancy, when the nearest approach to our newspapers was the brief placards posted on the walls, and when human speech was still the sovereign weapon of power. At times Savonarola preached every day in the Duomo, to crowds drawn from the neighbouring country, as well as from every part of the city. Three thick volumes of his sermons were published every year, and the subjects of them were often as secular as the themes of leading articles in the Times. The Government of Florence, and the pernicious system of submitting the choice of the rulers to an unorganised mob , were discussed in those discourses, as well as the sins of the city and of Italy, the riotous vices of the clergy, and the judgments which God should pour out upon the guilty land. By the practical sagacity of his guidance, and the tremendous force of his conviction, he made himself the moral dictator of the Tuscan capital. The people rushed to the Duomo for guidance when Charles of Anjou—the Cyrus of his pre- dictions—descended upon Italy. The preacher was the chief of the ambassadors sent to the king. He it was whose prophetic denun- ciations made Charles quit the city ; and it was from him that Florence received a reformed Constitution, which won the homage of practical support, as well as of verbal admiration, from the bitterest of his enemies. According to the admitsion of the same foes, he made a marvellous change in the moral life of his fellow- citizens. Dishonest gains were restored ; many of the rich laid aside their luxury of apparel ; scholars were not ashamed to abandon their pagan indifference to religion ; the disorders of the streets were removed ; and the most cultivated, licentious, and riot-loving of cities was persuaded to burn, in a bonfire of vanities, books, pictures, and statues to which our own age looks back wistfully, in spite of their pagan freedom. Much of all these achieiements is admirably told by Mrs. Oliphant.
Yet Savonarola's life was a tragic failure, in so far at least as it ended in martyrdom. We wish that Mrs. Oliphant had more rnim' utely explained why his influence declined, and why the mob of Florence at last turned against him, so that he was finally murdered by one of the foulest in the long list even of Italian conspiracies. For such an explanation there are ample materials in the records of his time, aad a minute statement of it would have been the more welcome because George Eliot has, we believe,. done grave injustice to Savonarola. Guided less by documentary evidence than by a favourite Comtist theory—the theory that has caused her to make a hero in Daniel Deronda of a consum- mate intellectual prig—she has insinuated that Savonarola dimmed the purity of his motives by contact with the civic life of Florence. The " spiritual " and the " temporal " powers—by which Comtism means, not the theological rendering of these phrases, but speculative and practical activity—must, it is said, be separated, and Savonarola sank below himself by uniting both. He ought to have kept serenely aloof from the rough, grimy, trivial fights of every-day life. We should say, on the contrary, that the very noblest part of his career was, not his cloister seclusion, but his binning determination to translate the precepts of the Gospel, into the facts of daily Florentine existence. It was a grand, if an impracticable, idea, to make Christ the King of Florence. In spite of George Eliot's insinuation in one memorable scene, there is no evidence that he ever condescended to take part in the merely personal intrigues of the Government. It is also said that Savonarola fell because his pretensions to be endowed with miraculous and especially prophetic power was the secret of his influence, and, hence that the mob flung off his moral yoke when, at the scene of the ordeal by fire, they erroneously thought that it was he, instead of the Franciscans and the Signory, who prevented his colleague, Fra Domenico, from passing through the flames. Undoubtedly, Savonarola's prophetic pretensions were the weak part of his character, although they belonged to a form of delusion common among the scholars as well as the- Churchmen of his time. There need npt be a doubt that he be- lieved that God had given him the power to foretell the judg- ments of Heaven. His predictions were absolutely believed, and some of them wonderfully verified. Although they were only the moral anticipations of a thoughtful and observant mind, really in close harmony with the Providence of history, such an expla- nation could have occurred neither to himself nor to his disciples. Still, we repeat, the large space which he gave to his prophetic claims was the weak part of his otherwise healthy and manly nature, and no doubt they helped to ruin him when the sangui- nary appetites of the mob were disappointed of the ordeal by fire.. Those were also the claims that gave way under the agony of that torture to which his enemies subjected his sensitive frame. But it is not true that they were the real secret either of his influence or of his death. His power mainly rested on the transparent. nobleness of his personal character, the splendour of his genius,. and such force of nature as only once or twice in centuries is given to the children of men. Nor need we to look far to find the secret of his fall. He had enraged that part of Florentine society which sought to restore an oligarchy, and that part which lived only for the satisfaction of its appetites. Above all, he had maddened the worst man in the world, Alexander VI., by denouncing his vices, and by calling on the Christian Princes- to summon a General Council, in order to reform the Church and dethrone that vilest of all the Pontiffs. Those powerful enemies compassed his ruin, and the fickle mob of Florence allowed him to be put to death in a spirit which terribly recalls the popular clamours at a greater and holier tragedy. But the best people of Florence passionately mourned the death of Savonarola, and in the better days of the Catholic Church he may yet find a place in the calendar of her saints and martyrs.