Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City by Paul Strathern (2015)

We went to Italy in 2013, and spent two days in Florence.  It was not enough.  I can't ever decide which city in Italy was my favorite - Rome, Sienna, Pisa, Lucca, Colodi - but Florence was the place I did not want to leave; if I had been a younger man, I don't think I would have ever come home.  I'm certain I was enmeshed in the tourist trap, but I also suddenly understood the appeal of Italy.  I've been hooked ever since.

Which brings me to six weeks of reading the same book about Florence in the Renaissance.  Death in Florence is a good book, with many details, particularly towards the end of the book.  Strathern has taken a slice of time, the birth of the Florentine Renaissance (and hence the rest of the movement throughout Europe) and the backlash to it that was Savonarola and his literal and figurative Bonfire of the Vanities, and created a detailed narrative that includes all of the players and their actions, both major and minor.  This minutiae can be both interesting and overwhelming.  As books go, I may have given this up because of that overwhelming feelings of too much information packed into one book - but see above.  I love Florence.  I love reading about Florence. I love the history and art and people of Florence.  So six weeks of reading - a long time for me to read any book, let alone a relatively short one like this (371 pages!), and I'm finished.  To give some perspective, I've reading/or listened to 9 books of fiction in that same time.  

Strathern does best when he's talking about the Medicis; he should, as he's written an entire book about them before this.  I've put that book on my list; Lorenzo in particular sounds like a fascinating figure that I want to know more about.  I know the name of course, but I have to admit, I didn't know many details.  He's a fascinating man - poet, strongman, democrat, bisexual, man of learning, man of religion, patron of the arts.  It seems silly and trite to refer to him as a "true Renaissance man" but that is exactly what he was.  He also seems quite attractive too; a historical character I would have liked to have met in person.

The Borgia pope, Alexander VI, makes several appearances in the book, and his sinister machinations and political dark magic are fascinating; I had never thought of the Borgias as particularly interesting; I always thought they were some sort of folkloric cross between urban legend and a historical thriller/horror novel, akin to someone like Lizzie Borden or Jeffery Daumer, larger than life in true crime sort of way; I won't make that mistake again.  They are as fascinating as the Medicis.

It's when Savonarola enters the picture that, for me, the book bogs down.  In a larger sense, and a political sense, he's quite interesting.  He appears to have led the first, true cultural revolution, the same type of revolutions led in later centuries, particularly the 20th century, by Mao and Stalin and Hitler.  He was a cultish figure, who inspired devotion, but couldn't create enough momentum to sweep the world.  Imagine a Savonarola with a radio audience, a televised audience, an Internet audience.  Savonarola is ISIS, and North Korea.  Savonarola is (maybe) Donald Trump.  

But the many smaller details of Savonarola and his followers during this time, spread throughout many chapters; Strathern draws the narrative thin.  What could have been distilled into several exciting chapters instead is half of the book.  Obviously this isn't a novel, but there were too many characters without enough distinguishing characteristics.  The narrative rose an fell during the latter half of the book; never quite plummeting into pure boredom and reference-book-land (where good ideas for nonfiction books go to die), butalso always drawing the mind's eye back to the minutiae away from the action.  That's a problem for many nonfiction books for me; a good story - and Strathern is a really good writer - is spread too thin.  

A word about the Bonfire of the Vanities, the most famous incident to come out of the life and times of Savonarola.  All revolutionaries, no matter how twisted and evil, have some sort of intent that they think is for the greater good.  The Cultural Revolution was supposed to purge unsavory elements out of the Chinese communist party; Lenin was purging the aristocratic excesses out of Russia; even Hitler thought he was doing something good for his people.  Savonarola was no Hitler; his intentions were really quite noble.  He saw a corrupt government and church which he thought needed to be changed.  The Renaissance is a bridge between medieval thought and the Enlightenment; Savonarola was a Renaissance man in the sense that he lived and thought on that bridge, a believer in both angels and prophecies and democracy (in a sense) and the common man. Don't all revolutions have some sort of bonfire of the vanities ?  One one hand, you can admire Savonarola (and pity him) but so many revolutions burn out in the same way - a tyrant appears, in this case a moral tyrant (but aren't they all?).  To replace one form of tyranny with another, does that ever work? 

That said, the common folk didn't really turn again Savonarola, and if he had truly been able to find inroads in other parts of Italy, then perhaps he could have swept Italy and then Europe with a revolutionary purging of the church and state - something Martin Luther did more successfully a few years later, right?  The downfall of Savonarola was not that his followers lost faith in him, but that the powers that be - the pope above all - still were stronger, and once they started flexing their muscles, Savonarola didn't stand a chance.


Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonorola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance CityDeath in Florence: The Medici, Savonorola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City by Paul Strathern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strathern's historical narrative of "the battle for the soul" of Florence certainly has modern parallels. Strathern intricately covers Savonrola's will to power, his seductive messaging, his cult of personality, and his political abilities to sway one class of people against another; the reader is definitely able to draw a neat line from Savonrola's Bonfire of the Vanities up through various other revolutions, including those of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Isis, North Korea - maybe even Donald Trump. Strathern's account is very comprehensive to a fault; he's actually at his best when writing about the Medici. The book bogs down at some points, under the weight of names and details. The narrative rose an fell during the latter half of the book; never quite plummeting into pure boredom and reference-book-land (where good ideas for nonfiction books go to die), but also always drawing the mind's eye back to the minutiae away from the action. That's a problem for many nonfiction books for me; a good story - and Strathern is a really good writer - is spread too thin.


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