Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

After a week in Florence, astonished all over again by the unsurpassed beauty of its painting and architecture from 1350-1550, I wonder about the odd mixture of features which characterises a high civilisation. This includes:

1. A respect for what appears to be 'useless'. Greek was barely known in the city until a teacher called Manuel Chrysoloras arrived at the university in the late 14th century, and even Latin was not commonplace. Someone somehow decided that learning what appeared to be dead would make people more alive. High learning was an innate good. This appears not to fit with . . .

2. Vulgarity. The unbelievable effusion of artistic display in Florence at that period was, among other things, a colossal form of showing off. In a celestial version of buying a charity plate in New York to sit next to the President of the United States, you could get yourself placed next to the Virgin Mary in a great painting if you had the power and money. A rich merchant called Giovanni Rucellai got Alberti to complete the enormous façade of Santa Maria Novella for him. It is truly beautiful, but almost its most prominent feature is an inscription dedicated to Rucellai by name, as if, say, the largest words on the front of Westminster Abbey were 'Philip Green' (it may yet happen).

3. Freedom. Florence was no democracy, but it was, for much of its great period, a republic, and its artistic and literary productions did not enforce the power of a single Sun King, but expressed the liberties of competing oligarchs. This freedom appears not to fit with . . .

4. Religious repression. The Inquisition existed, and heresy could be punished by death. Painters could be breathtakingly original in their treatment of religious subjects, but those were the subjects, in the main, which they had to treat, and their originality was strictly artistic, not theological.

So a great civilisation, it would seem, should be both exquisite and vulgar, both liberal and intolerant. It's mysterious.

In the Bargello, I was looking at the less well-known of the two Donatello Davids, the marble one with the stone lodged in the brow of Goliath's head. Three teenagers were standing next to me, collaborating in writing down what they had seen for some art history project. 'That, ' they agreed, 'is David killing Galileo.' Considering the temper of Renaissance Florence noted above, it is perhaps not such a bizarre idea.

One symptom of urban civilisation which probably hardly occurred to a 15thcentury Florentine is public transport. It was buses that got the civil rights movement going in the United States. Rosa Parks, who died last week, was a black woman who, in 1955, refused the bus driver's order to comply with the segregationist law in Montgomery, Alabama, and give up her seat to a white man. By persisting in this small act of defiance, she started something that changed society so much that 50 years later the President lays a wreath by her coffin. Public transport, whether privately or state-run, is a good test of how rulers see their citizens.

Itis a test which Ken Livingstone's London fails. As the chairman of the think-tank Policy Exchange, I have been impressed by the huge response to our new pamphlet attacking the abolition of the Routemaster buses (Replacing the Routemaster, Policy Exchange, £10), with their lovely freedom to jump on and off and the reassuring presence of conductors. …

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