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Seduction by the Gods
The pagan divinities are a hardy breed. After being subverted by Homer, atomized by Lucretius, and toppled from their pedestals by the Christians, one would have thought them finished. There was certainly a long period of European history in which no one believed in the existence of Jupiter, Juno, and their Olympian court. "Believed," however, and "existence": these are loaded terms which do not always exclude their opposites. This book is about a state of mind and soul that arose in fifteenth-century Italy, spread through Europe along certain clearly-defined fault-lines, and persisted for about two hundred years, during which, although no one believed in the gods, many people acted as though they existed. Those privileged to create their own surroundings chose to have the gods painted on their furniture and walls, made statues of them, read and declaimed about them, and impersonated them in pageants and plays. A naïve visitor to a Renaissance palace or villa might well conclude that its owners were votaries of Apollo, Venus, Hercules, and a host of attendants in human and semihuman forms. Yet if he stepped into the chapel, a very different set of images would meet his eye, and he might wonder what exactly was going on.
The irruption of the pagan pantheon caused a bifurcation in the European psyche. Werner Gundersheimer, writing about the period of Ercole I d'Este (Duke of Ferrara from 1476–1505), sums up the situation with a certain wry cynicism:
For many rulers throughout European history at least, the gods simply had to receive their due mainly by means of ritual and ceremony. Their portion might be large, but once it had been provided, one could go on to other things. To be sure, one had to pay a small additional price for the privilege of compartmentalization, and that was the psychic cost of some measure of guilt [...] But religion itself even offers compartmentalized ways of coming to terms with one's guilt, and most people can live with a fair amount of it in any case. Such considerations help in understanding the almost jarringly "modern" juxtapositions of secular and religious, pagan and Christian, mystical and cynical, savage and civilized, comic and serious that characterize the Herculean period.
The "gods" of this quotation, who had to receive their ceremonial dues, were none other than the Holy Trinity and the Christian saints. The "other things" that one could go on to enjoy after duty was done, were the unchristian activities, ranging from killing one's neighbors to making images of heathen gods and delighting in them. We shall pay more attention to the latter: to the joy and expansion of soul, and the philosophical elevation of the intellect, that were the reward of this truant religion that was not a faith—being beyond belief—but which beguiled the imagination and engorged the senses.
I do not suppose that anyone in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries was a pagan, in the sense of rejecting Christianity and adopting a pre-Christian religion. As Lucien Febvre sternly put it, after 400 pages of irrefutable argument, "It is absurd and puerile, therefore, to think that the unbelief of men in the sixteenth century, insofar as it was a reality, was in any way comparable to our own. It is absurd, and it is anachronistic." What I do suggest is that some people during this period "dreamed" of being pagans. In their waking life they accepted the absurdities acknowledged as the essence and credenda of Christianity, all the while nurturing a longing for the world of antiquity and a secret affinity for the divinities of that world. No one confessed, no one described this urge, for it was never dragged beneath the searchlight of consciousness or the scrutiny of the Inquisition. It would have been suicidal, were it even possible, for anyone in Christian Europe to articulate it. But that was all the more reason for it to manifest in the favorite language of the unconscious, and of dreams: that of images.
This book sets out to show how the dream of an alternative, pagan cosmos entered the European imagination through the visual and performing arts. With the exception of the Hypnerotomachia I have steered away from the literary sources, for several reasons. First, the literary aspects of the pagan Renaissance have been all but fished dry by the historians of art and of ideas. The present work does not aspire to that illustrious company, but if readers are interested in sources and influences, they will know where to look. Second, the educated but non-specialized audience for whom this book is intended knows the Renaissance mainly as a visual, not a literary phenomenon. Any intimate contact with it is likely to be had through looking at works of art, traveling to cities, villas, gardens, etc., rather than through reading, especially since most of the sources remain in Latin or other non-English languages. Most importantly, this is a study of the Imagination, as we have to call it in English (the French call it l'imaginaire, or, following Henry Corbin, the mundus imaginalis): of archetypal images that reside in consciousness, prior to their verbal formulations. I am not offering theories or interpretations, merely drawing attention to these images and sketching something of the world into which they came and the people who cultivated and loved them. I invite the reader to explore these chambers, grottoes, and gardens, these pageants and operas in which the pagan gods and heroes took on a temporary reality; to enjoy the illusion of their presence, until the curtain falls and we return to the twenty-first century.
One day in 1434, in the north Italian town of Ferrara, a young humanist wrote to his brother about an entertainment he had just seen:
There was a festival today, a splendid celebration with dancing in the prince's hall. The dancers were masked, as the occasion and season demanded, and no novelty was lacking to delight the mind. This joyous and memorable affair was distinguished by the divine ingenuity of Marrasio. You will now see ranks of higher and lower beings taking over the Savior's place. [In Salvatoris locum accedere nunc superorum et inferorum cernes ordines.]
First of all came Apollo with his blazing rays; the gilded robe reaching to his heels was fit for the god himself; thus you would recognize him as Apollo. Then came Bacchus with lurching gait, as if "neither hand nor foot performed its office," as the comedian says [Terence, Eunuch 5.5.3], with long horns and holding a thyrsus in his hand; they said that Marrasio played this part. Hoary-bearded Aesculapius followed shortly behind. Then it was well worthwhile to see furious Mars with his drawn sword and flashing armor, marching along with Bellona. After these came Mercury with wings on his feet. When Priapus arrived, all the birds flew away in terror; there was a reed-pipe fixed on his head, by means of which he lured his companion to matrimony [?]. The fair form of Venus with her golden apple was not absent; Cupid followed his mother, no otherwise than as the poets depict him, shooting both leaden and golden arrows. Quite a few people were terrified by the raging Furies—Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos—who, if it is to be believed, weave the lives of men. Then there was Hercules, clad in his lionskin and grasping his club, who had Cerberus by the neck. And there were many others which it would be tedious to enumerate.
The 1430s were very early days for such a flamboyant display of pagan divinities, almost none of whom had been represented in painting or sculpture for a thousand years. Hercules had been an occasional interloper among the biblical figures of the Middle Ages, admitted on the grounds that he represented the virtue of Fortitude. No such excuse could be made for Venus, Dionysus, and, heaven forbid, Priapus.
Giovanni Marrasio, the impresario of the Ferrara pageant, would have had no visual models for his recreation of the gods and goddesses. Fie would have based their costumes and attributes on literary sources such as Boccaccio's Genealogy of the Gods, in which the fourteenth-century poet, novelist, and scholar had scoured the literature of (mostly late) antiquity for information on the pagan pantheon. As the fifteenth century proceeded, these figures would develop standardized appearances, and some of them would shed their symbolic costumes to become exemplars for the revived art form of the nude.
The nudity of pagan gods and goddesses is one of their essential qualities. In metaphysical terms it symbolizes perfection. Being free of mortal dross, the gods have nothing to be ashamed of, and no need for man-made garments. In the biblical context that would have escaped no one at the time, the nudity of the gods is like that of Adam and Eve before the Fall, before they knew that they were naked, and hid themselves (Genesis 3:10). This was Michelangelo's rationale for painting the inhabitants of heaven, restored to their prelapsarian wholeness, as a naturist assembly. But there is a third level, which no one can avoid noticing although not everyone admits or mentions it: that nude paintings and sculptures are erotic, and lascivious in their effects on both men and women. The naked body had occasionally been painted and even sculpted in Western Medieval art (almost never in Byzantium), but strictly for didactic and allegorical purposes, such as depicting the Creation and Fall. Only now did it become seductive.
As Kenneth Clark showed in his book The Nude, the now familiar nudes of Donatello, Pollaiuolo, Signorelli, etc., were by no means "natural" in the sense of having been copied from life. Like their Greco-Roman models, they obeyed a subtle canon of proportion and anatomy, and it was the rediscovery of this canon that made Renaissance nudes look so different from those of the Middle Ages. For instance, in the medieval female form, the distance between the breasts is about half of the distance from breasts to navel. The classical preference is to make these two distances equal. Few of us resemble canonical nudes when we take our clothes off, but to the Platonist this is no detriment to their realism. Their perfect proportions are not copied from us, but from the models of the human body "laid up in heaven," following pure mathematical laws as everything in the heavens is supposed to do.
The story has often been told of how a nude figure of Venus leaning on a dolphin was dug up in Siena in the year 1345. It was greatly admired and set up in the place of honor in the town square, but within two years the city fathers had misgivings. They feared that this reverence for a pagan idol was responsible for all the misfortunes and immorality of the town. So the Venus was taken down, and some say that she was smashed into little pieces and buried on the territory of Florence, Siena's rival state, exporting her evil influence. This instinctive admiration of, presumably, a Roman copy of a Greek original was a harbinger of things to come. Artificial or not, there was something about the proportions of classical sculptures that must have seemed attractive to fourteenth-century viewers, just as they do to us. In contrast to this, consider what happened in Augsburg about two hundred years later. A statue of Saint Ulrich was removed from the fountain in the Fish Market and replaced by a fine effigy of Neptune, the first life-size bronze nude in German art. In vain did the Bishop and Chapter complain to Emperor Charles V that their saint had been usurped by a pagan Abgott (anti-god). Their only comfort was to take it as proof of the iniquity of Protestantism.
Art historians have established the revival of antiquity in painting and sculpture required two things: the use of antique subject matter, which was easy, given the labors of the literati; and the recapturing of antique style, which was much more difficult. The first instances of the latter are isolated and rather mysterious. Among the lush, late Gothic foliage of the north door (Porta della Mandorla) of Florence Cathedral there stand two nude figures, hardly larger than a hand: Hercules (emblem of Fortitude) and a female figure interpreted as an allegory of Abundance. They were carved between 1391 and 1396 by an unknown artist who through some miracle, in the words of John Hunisak, "has penetrated the essence of classical art, not merely imitated aspects of its external appearance."
A few years later, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) set another puzzle for historians when he included an impeccable Greco-Roman torso in his competition panel, The Sacrifice of Isaac, for the eastern doors of the Florentine Baptistery (1402). Hunisak sees there "all of the swelling life, smoothness, and fluidity of transition from one anatomical part to another that we found in the Porta della Mandorla Hercules." But although Ghiberti won the competition, he did not develop this prototype any further, nor did any other artist seize on its implications.
Even more mysterious is the origin and intention of the first free-standing nude statue since antiquity: the celebrated bronze David of Donatello (1386–1466). Scholars have dated it variously from the mid-1420s to the 1460s, which only goes to show how isolated it is. There is no lineage of artistic development leading up to it, and no sign of its having been copied or emulated before the 1470s. Besides, this so-called David with his foot on the head of Goliath may possibly have been intended as a young Mercury, who has just killed the hundred-eyed giant Argos. That gives him a better excuse for his jaunty hat, his fashionably classical boots, and nothing in between. His smooth, androgynous body, on the other hand, has more than a little of Dionysus about it. He may have been called David simply to make him acceptable to a more conventionally-minded public, or to suit republican sentiments, which saw the city of Florence as battling the Goliath of whomever their current enemy was (Milan, the Emperor, the Medici, etc.). It is a pity that he has not ended up, as intended, standing upon the porphyry fountain in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, that sanctum of Hermetic ambiguity.
The bronze David is a landmark because it blatantly links the revival of the antique with seductiveness. Everyone senses the aura of sexuality, finding it attractive or repellent according to taste. The fascination of the Sienese for their antique Venus suggests that they felt it there, too, as no doubt did more discreet connoisseurs of classical sculpture. In the next chapter, which deals with the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, we will see how the erotic and the antique were blended to create a mood and an obsession that had never existed before in Europe. Underlying the process there must have been a profound evolution in the European unconscious, which first allowed and then embraced the new subject matter. As Clark put it, "How pleasure in the human body once more became a permissible subject of art is the unexplained miracle of the Italian Renaissance."
Part of the miracle was due to Plato, whose Symposium and Phaedrus, especially, exalt physical beauty and the eras it arouses as the first sprouting of wings that will lift the soul to the contemplation of universal beauty. Almost everything described in this book has a Platonic dimension to it, as an earthly symbol pointing to spiritual realities. One might say the same of Christian art, except that there are very different philosophies behind the Renaissance nude and, for example, the Byzantine icon. The purpose of the latter is to open a window for the soul, in conjunction with liturgy or prayer, so that the soul can pass through, or the divine grace descend. The icon is not an art-object, except in an age when museums have supplanted the churches, and spiritual horizons have been lowered to the aesthetic level. The icon of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint is a physical object whose existence—like that of the body itself—is justified only by its sacramental purpose. The same is true of the stained-glass windows in Gothic cathedrals, or of musical plainchant. One is not supposed to love them for themselves—indeed it was taught that merely sensuous enjoyment is a sin—but for the spiritual benefits that they facilitate.
The Renaissance paintings and sculptures, on the other hand, were admired as being beautiful in themselves. Their Platonic significance might have been the topic of discussion in the learned academies, but they had value also for those unable to make the philosophic ascent, who are the majority of art-lovers (in itself a novel concept). Renaissance art fosters a religion of incarnation that sees the divine presence in nature and in the body, rather than one of excarnation which yearns to be free from both. Even though incarnation is at the core of Christian doctrine, this development of it easily leads to heresy. There is the danger of pantheism, which holds that the world itself is God; of Pelagianism, which denies original sin and allows man to be his own savior; and even of polytheism.
Of course these are only "dangers" to those who are concerned with maintaining orthodoxy, i.e., ensuring that other people think and believe as they do. The Roman Catholic Church, in its universality, found room for both impulses. The moment of capitulation was the commission of the Neoplatonist Michelangelo to decorate the Sistine Chapel. From then onwards, all the resources of the new art, with its sensuality, its realism, and its immediacy, were enrolled in the Catholic cause, and would serve as psychological weapons of the Counter-Reformation against the beauty-hating Protestants. But there are those who insist that Rome had already surrendered her spiritual sovereignty, and that her embrace of a pagan aesthetic was just another stage of decadence, from which the Eastern churches have ever held aloof. The ghastliness of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the eyes of an Eastern Orthodox believer can barely be imagined by those who have been brought up to revere Michelangelo's labours.
Excerpted from THE PAGAN DREAM OF THE RENAISSANCE by Joscelyn Godwin. Copyright © 2002 Joscelyn Godwin. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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