Republics and popular governments grow and flourish, but they also decline, weaken and perish. The decline is often not obvious to the untrained eye. All of the trappings of republican glory and values can continue, and yet, behind the public rhetoric, an entirely new form of autocratic rule may be taking form. It happened in Rome. It happened in Florence. It has happened to modern democracies as well.
This seminar explores one such crisis, brilliant and memorable because it gave birth, for the first time, to modern secular ideas, values and images about politics. The place? Florence, Italy. The time? The Renaissance ca. 1500-50, a time of crisis and turmoil for the Florentine Republic. The witnesses? Astute observers of politics: Niccolò Machiavelli, civil servant, writer, playwright and his friend, Francesco Guicciardini, diplomat, nobleman, and historian. They were joined by artists: Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, Leon Batista Alberti, Donatello, Cellini, Giambologna, among others. The key powerbrokers? The Medici family, bankers, rulers, patrons of the arts, and popes. The issues? How to save a republic and how to use art and literature to engage the crisis of the republic.
The course begins with historical background about Florence at the time of the Renaissance, including the republican tradition in Florence, the rise of the Medici and the end of the republic in the early sixteenth century. Then we read three great works of Machiavelli: The Prince, The Discourses, and his ribald comedy, The Mandragola. Machiavelli may confront us with startling reflections on human nature, fortune, personal will, situational politics, morality and leadership, Christianity, and the prospects of keeping republican values in a time of corruption and raw power politics. In the second part we study selected—and now famous—works of Renaissance art intensely charged with political symbolism, such as Michelangelo’s David, Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, or the Pitti Palace, the Medici dukes’ grand residence in Florence. At the end we turn to Machiavelli’s contemporary and friend, the brilliant Francesco Guicciardini, for mature reflections on finding consolation, guidance, meaning and understanding when living in a time of disappointment, danger and changing values. We will read parts of Guicciardini’s magisterial History of Italy and his private reflections on life, The Maxims and Reflections. Requirements will include several short essays.
The aim of the course is for students to develop an understanding of these Renaissance thinkers and artists through encounters with their works. Along the way, we will confront the inevitable question: Do these Renaissance writers, artists and powerbrokers have something to teach us about the challenges facing our western republics today?