As I wrote in I Like Mike (Michelangelo), I’ve been a bit obsessed lately by 15th century Florence, Italy. I just finished my latest read, The House of the Medici, Its Rise and Fall, by Christopher Hibbert. This is a good, basic history of this fascinating family from the 1400’s to the 1700’s. These folks were right there in the middle of the Renaissance, one of the greatest flowerings of human thought and artistry in history. The book spends a great deal of time on the two most famous of the family, Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464), perhaps the richest man in the world, and Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) sometimes called Il Magnifico. Think of them as the Bill Gates’s of their time. They were the pope’s bankers at a time when the Catholic Church was absolutely the bee’s knees. You didn’t sneeze without first getting the pope’s approval.
The ins and outs, trials and tribulations, of this family make for interesting reading. There were successes, failures, victories, betrayals, assassinations, bravery and folly. It was a soap opera writ large on the world scene of the time.
In addition to all that, there were two items that really struck me. The first was a casual description of one individual: “Alfonso Petrucci, the handsome, arrogant, dissolute, twenty-two-year-old cardinal”. Clearly they’re not talking about the Catholic Church that I grew up in. There were all these twenty year old cardinals running around. And they were as obnoxious as you’d expect twenty year old rich kids to be. Yes, a few had some spiritual leanings. But many were just like this Petrucci character – out for a good time. The book describes some of the goings on in Florence and especially in Rome. These were serious party animals. And if all their eating and whoring meant they had to have servants to help them move their obese bodies around, so be it. It was no surprise when the protestant reformation broke out at this time. There’s a great description of Martin Luther’s reactions when he first visited Rome.
The second items were the casual descriptions of offhand cruelty that permeated life in this period. There’s a pope who laughs when one of his servants is gored and killed by a wild bore during an arranged hunt. There are criminals routinely tortured on the rack. And there are all these armies roaming around Italy at this time. France, Spain, Switzerland, not to mention the home grown Italian armies, all fighting for control of the various cities and city-states throughout Italy. It was a rough time.
It makes me think that our current civilized Europe and America are not that old. Yes, people are treating each other roughly in the middle east right now. But it wasn’t that long ago that exactly the same things were happening in Europe. We are a dangerous and violent species. I don’t know what it’s going to take to pacify us. I just hope we calm down someday soon.