History Repeating

This week, I’ve been thinking about the Medici family, the elected rulers of Florence in Renaissance Italy. In a way, we have the Medicis to thank for the Renaissance, with their patronage of artists who turned out to be some of the greatest of the Western world – Brunelleschi (who discovered the technique for perspective in art and was also an unparalleled architectural genius), Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Later, the Medicis also were the patrons of scientist Galileo Galilei, who tutored more than one of the Medici princes. Without the Medici, there quite simply would have been no Italian Renaissance (at least not as we know it), and Florence would not have become the cultural and artistic center of Italy to give birth to that Renaissance.

Aside from all this, I was thinking about the Medicis in the context of why we value what we value, and how what we value shifts over time and place. We, of course, imbue things and ideas with value ourselves. Value is a product of our own minds. Not long ago, gold became valued at over a thousand dollars an ounce; but gold in itself carries no “intrinsic” value at all. If we as people did not desire gleaming jewelry, gold would be worth almost nothing. Similarly, if there were an overabundance of gold, such that some could be found in almost everyone’s backyard, it would not be worth more than quartz, monetarily. Ideas, no less than objects, are also subject to the same vagaries of value assigned by the human mind.

The Medicis valued power, make no mistake; but, particularly in the earlier stages of their dynasty, they also valued art and free thinking. The city’s mood was ripe for this, for it coincided with the changing spirit of the times. For a while, under their auspices, Florence flourished into a haven for cutting-edge painting, sculpture, and even architecture (Brunelleschi engineered Il Duomo based solely on extrapolation from classical Roman domes, which no one remembered anymore how to build). Artists under the auspices of the Medici had free rein, and even encouragement, to explore artistic subjects outside merely Christian religious art, which until this time had had a monopoly. Particularly under Lorenzo dei Medici, Florentine art schools burgeoned; and it was Lorenzo who spotted the extraordinary talent of a 10-year-old named Michelangelo Buonarotti, and took him into the Medici household.

But in time, there was a conservative religious backlash, driven by the extremist monk Savonarola, who preached damnation on what he thought was a hedonistic city that valued “pagan” art and ideas more than the Holy Church. He saved his most vicious commentary for the Medici family, whom he preached were damned for sponsoring un-Christian and immodest art. Savonarola was able to whip the populace into such a frenzy that the Medici were (temporarily) ousted into exile, the art and ideas that they had helped foster no longer valued by the people at all. Now feared as irreverent tools of the devil, extraordinary works of art were thrown onto bonfires, along with books, jewels, and cosmetics. This was a kind of temporary reign of terror, in which all that had been a source of pride and valued so highly by the city suddenly possessed no value at all. Even Botticelli, who had taken pride in his daring art, was struck by the fear of God and threw his own work onto the great fire.

That particular religious backlash would pass, but the Church as a whole still retained the highest power — and value — in European society. That would be slow to change. Martin Luther and the subsequent Protestant revolution set in motion a gradual chipping away of the Church’s power. But before much of that power was gone, it was the Church that determined what was to be valued by the people. The Inquisition created the Index of banned books, which included works by the classical writers as well as modern works of science. Galileo, who had been supported by the Medici, was not spared the Inquisition, and was forced under pain of death to recant his published theories that the planets and the moon were not perfect heavenly spheres, and that the Earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could protect Galileo anymore. While the society was thirsty for new ideas and discoveries, and while these were gaining value in much popular view, even the Medici could not trump the pope.

Fast-forwarding to the modern day, we have a situation that is nearly the complete reverse. As a society, on the whole we value the discoveries and the methodology of science more than the input of religion in the public sphere. We value national freedom, while once we valued the “divine right of kings.” We value individual freedom and self-expression, while for a long time we valued conformity. We value all people as equal, while once we valued only some and enslaved others, then degraded them for a hundred years after their slavery ended. We value the contributions of women outside the home now, while once we thought there was no such value. We value natural, even organic food, while once we were enthralled with artificial ingredients and pre-processing. We value religious freedom, while once the Puritans executed people and cast others into exile, despite having been persecuted themselves in their ancestral countries. Some of us are valuing more and more the civil rights of gay people, while once we told them that such an identity was no valid identity at all. There are hundreds of other examples, some of which continue to take shape on a daily basis. This is not to say that all these changes in values are uniformly held by all members of our society, but there has certainly been a sea change from the past in many ways.

I was sitting in a cafe this morning eating my breakfast while reading, and the waitress ruminated as she gazed out the window that she used to live in California and loved it, but also liked it here, so she wished that she could go back and forth between the two, maybe have two homes. I’d guess she was in her 50’s. Then she looked at me with quick certainty and said, “I will someday. I will.” And I’ll tell you I didn’t doubt her. To her, that kind of joyful back-and-forth was something she valued so much that she would tell it to a new customer even before she asked my name. Yet I know someone else who feels that the best thing a person can do is stay in the area in which they grew up. Neither of these lifestyles has intrinsically more value than the other — only the value that is perceived by the advocates of each.

We are at a point in our society where we are assessing what we value. Elections are approaching, and the country is divided politically and ideologically. People are fighting about which of our national values are more important, and even which are valid at all. The only certainty is that the dispute over which ideas and philosophies have more value than others is  history repeating itself of the first order. Just as in the days of the Medici.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010


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