Returning to Rome
Classicism is the reiteration of classical themes, literature, and arts from ancient Greece and Rome, and this cultural discipleship to an ancient western era has a lifespan beyond ancient civilizations and Renaissance culture and manifests within our modern society. The antiquity that classicism draws upon refers to the ancient western past, or the era that preceded the Middle Ages in Europe. In language and across time, the Middle Ages were those years that stretched between the ancient and Renaissance worlds, and the ideas, figures, and events that populated the centuries of transition into the Italian Renaissance were not only the first iterations of a new culture but were the bridge between antiquity and Renaissance as Italians looked to their past to construct their future.
On the precipice of the mature Renaissance, classical history, literature, philosophy, art, and politics proliferated in northern and central Italy. However, unlike the ever-expansive Roman Empire, the medieval Italian peninsula was no stranger to disunion and disorganization. Faced with unstable development and a weak sense of identity within and across city-state borders, Italians turned to Roman history in order to construct their own historical narratives (Beneš, 13). Despite over a millennium of distance from the classical past, the ideals and precedents set by the Roman republic echoed through the centuries that joined the ancient and Renaissance worlds. As 14th and 15th-century civic and intellectual leaders emerged from a transitional period of conflict and rapid political development, their return to the survived classical ideals would reshape their future.
The Florentine Republic
Before its illustrious term as the predominant host of the Italian Renaissance, 13th and 14th-century Florence turned to trace its roots back to Rome in an effort to both associate the republic with the civic grandeur of its geographical predecessor and to oppose encroaching monarchy. In the 13th century, an inscription (Figure A) on the Florentine palace of the Bargello (podestà) remarked upon the city’s similarity to ancient Rome. Beyond the official correspondence of Florentine leadership, Cino Rinuccini’s Risponsiva is among the first writings of private citizens that present a republican interpretation of ancient Roman and Florentine history (Witt, 133). Fifty years after the inscription on the Bargello Palace and representative of the growing regard among Florentine citizens, in his chronicle on Florence, Giovanni Villani writes, “Considering that our city of Florence, the daughter and creature of Rome, was rising and had great things before her, whilst Rome was declining, it seemed to me fitting to collect in this volume and new chronicle all deeds and beginnings of the city of Florence” (9.36). Villani’s Florentine association to Rome as its natural descendant is only one of several of the city-state’s conditional claims to antiquity, a bond that hinged upon the distinction between Roman republic and dictatorial rule.
In 1403-1404’s Laudatio florentinae urbis, Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) continues the argument that the foundation of Florence took place before the effects of the tyrannical rule that corrupted the Roman people and led to the collapse of their civilization, proposing that “this colony was conducted hither when the city of Rome saw her power, liberty, gifted minds, and the fame of her citizens in their greatest flower” (Baron, 61). Bruni continues the retrospective distinction between the republican and tyrannical rule of Rome. The Laudatio florentinae urbis further defines the civic qualities of liberty and citizenry to which Florence preferred to consider itself akin. The literature and writing that developed in the years leading into the turn of the 15th century illustrated a newly republican view of history- one in which the Florentine republic defined civic success in opposition to tyrannical failure, which would become the city-state’s civic manifesto in both philosophy and in action as the political climate across the Italian peninsula grew more and more tumultuous.
In the year 1390, the Florentine republic joined the resistance against the Visconti monarchy of Milan. With the republic determined to defend its own freedom from tyranny and monarchy as well as to reestablish liberty in regions under the Visconti’s rule, one Florentine proclamation explained, “Ours is a commonwealth not of noblemen (popularis civitas), one totally dedicated to trade, but free– the most hateful and abominable thing to the Duke; a commonwealth accustomed not only to respect liberty at home, but also to maintain it beyond our borders” (Baron, 28). The Florentine struggle to maintain and expand freedom against a larger peninsular climate less accustomed to the republic’s civic ideals on the verge of the new century reveals the cultural foundations for the civic values that would develop further throughout the Renaissance. The Florentine-Milanese conflict during the dawn of the 14th century saw a republic city pit against a spreading monarchy, and the success of Florence in this contest signified the republic’s pursuit of a course different from that of the rest of Italy. Amidst strengthened Florentine civic pride and purpose, the Florentine-Milanese conflict established that the course of history remained open to the civic freedom and city-state independence that would characterize the Italian Renaissance (Baron, 45). Upon the end of the contest between republic and monarchy, the significance of independence and liberty- whether in practice in Florentine republic or in the past in the Roman republic- emerged in a new light, ready to be received by a new culture.
Dante and Caesar
Are we to believe that Dante, the most learned man of his age, did not know in what manner Caesar achieved his dominion?Leonardo Bruni
As Florentines looked to the Roman past, the cultural and historical identity of the republic encountered a contextual challenge beyond the tangible conflict around the city-state’s borders. Born in 1265, the work of Dante Alighieri was bound to come under scrutiny from later-century Florentine intellectuals when the republic initiated its introspective search backwards through history to the classics of the ancient world. As a man devoted to his civic duty in Florence, much in adherence to the republic’s later matured cultural pillars, Dante’s political and literary lives often overlapped. He served in elected and appointed offices and was exiled for those positions when Florence fell under military occupation. As a result of his saturated life and lifestyle, the political issues that dominate his work are the roles of the empire and the church in secular government, the relationship between independent city-states and the empire, the corruption of the papacy, and the ideal of ancient Rome (Ferrante, 181).
Perhaps his most influential work, Dante’s Divine Comedy served as a site of civic contention as the late author placed Brutus and Cassius, who delivered ancient Rome from the rule of Julius Caesar, in the grips of Lucifer (Figure C) among the perpetrators of history’s greatest betrayals (Canto XXXIV). New century Florentines, so diametrically opposed to tyrannical rule, found fault with Dante’s condemnation of Caesar’s political foes. However, in the Dialoghi of this same critical era, Leonardo Bruni advocates for Dante’s civic loyalty by proposing that his prophecy for Brutus and Cassius is more a revelation of the author’s occupation with poetic imagination rather than of his true political allegiances or perspectives (Baron, 49). “Or are we to believe that Dante, the most learned man of his age, did not know in what manner Caesar achieved dominion…?” Bruni asks challengers of the Inferno. “Do you believe he did not know what virtus Brutus possessed in the judgement of all historical tradition?” (Dialoghi). Instead of a battle between civic justice and tyrannical rule, Bruni repositions Dante’s fates for Brutus and Caesar as a commentary upon crime and inevitable punishment. Bruni’s interpretation is one of many reigning perspectives that although Dante was just to punish Brutus and Cassius, their punishment in the Inferno is not Dante’s inherent condemnation of their actions.
This new way of conceptualizing the historical events of ancient Rome and Dante’s reflection upon them achieved two purposes: Dante could maintain his political and cultural validity, and a new set of values and framework for interpreting the past could reign over Italians’ conception of antiquity. In the latter half of the 1400s, Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498) extended Bruni’s argument in his composition of the basic Dante commentary of the Florentine Renaissance, explaining that Brutus and the Roman senators killed Caesar not out of malice over his victories, but because he maintained that success by depriving the nation of its liberty (Baron, 50). Bruni, Landino, and their contemporaries insisted that Dante’s Caesar did not represent his historical counterpart but rather symbolized the figurative “Empire” of the entire world, and therefore Brutus was likewise the figurative assassin of one such universal ruler (Baron, 50). In this updated interpretation of both Dante’s work and the practical events of classical history that inspired it, the intellectual leaders of the early Florentine Renaissance reveal the definitions of the city-states civic impetus across historical and literary contexts as an effort to oppose monarchical and oppressive rule and to defend liberty in both the present and the past on a theoretical level as well as a practical level. As attention turned toward the work of the famed Florentine Dante and the classical past before it, 15th-century reinterpretation was a multi-step reflection upon antiquity and the history that bridged the classical past with the emerging Renaissance present, ushering the birth of a new civic climate and cultural regard for the past as Florentines redefined their past to define the terms of their future.
Classical Past, Renaissance Future
Whether within physical conflicts or philosophical contests, civic leaders turned to the classical past to inform how the earliest Italian republics might emerge from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Although early Renaissance Florentines addressed antiquity from the lens of chronological distance, separated by several medieval centuries, and seemed to claim and reject otherwise entangled elements of antiquity as they constructed their historical identity, much of the Roman republic fed into the foundations of the Renaissance city-states. For example, when communes first developed in the late 11th and 12th centuries, they almost universally adopted the same consul system that had existed in the Roman republic, and Middle Age city councils frequently became recognized officially as senatus, likewise reminiscent of the bygone republic (Beneš, 169). In the mid-14th century, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Siena council hall frescoes of The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (Figure D) exemplify a communal fixation upon civic honor, both a remnant of the ancient Roman republic and a precursor to the devoted ideals that would define the Renaissance across Italy. Even before early Renaissance civic leaders sought guidance and reason from antiquity for their contemporary conflicts, the natural fundamentals of liberty and civic duty around which their identities developed were of Roman genealogy.
With Florence on the precipice of a new Renaissance era, the overlap of political and intellectual spheres in and around the republic prompted the utilization of classical history to further ideological goals (Beneš, 169). This phenomenon of reflection and reinterpretation met a receptive culture, wherein the progression through antiquity and the Middle Ages had cultivated a culture structured around common civic principles. The political and intellectual upheaval that marked the 14th and 15th centuries throughout the Italian city-states produced refined examples of civic ideology, and the adoption of the legends of antiquity helped to cement the republican pillars of liberty, independence, and civic honor. As Florentine civic leaders reframed the classical past, simultaneously restructuring their conceptions of their own eras, they bridged the emerging Renaissance present with an antiquity that was just as adapted to the changing peninsula as the Renaissance itself.
Alighieri, Dante. 1265-1321. The Divine Comedy : the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. New York, Pantheon Books, 1948.
Baron, Hans. Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966.
Benes, Carrie E. Urban Legends (Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250–1350). Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.
Bruni, Leonardo. Dialoghi de’ giorni che Dante consumò nel cercare l’Inferno e ‘l Purgatorio; discovered and first published as late as 1859; critical edition by D. Redig de Campos (“Raccolta di Fonti per la Storia dell’ Arte,” vol. II, Florence, 1939).
Ferrante, Joan M. “Dante and Politics.” Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Amilcare A. Iannucci, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 1997, pp. 181–194. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442673717.14.
Villani, Giovanni. “Considerando che la nostra città di Firenze, figliuola e fattura di Roma, era nel suo montare e a seguire grandi cose, sì come Roma nel suo calare, mi parve convenevole di recare in questo volume e nuova cronica tutti i fatti e cominciamenti della città di Firenze.” Nuova cronica 9.36, ed. Porta, 2:58.
Witt, Ronald. “Cino Rinuccini’s Risponsiva Alla Invettiva Di Messer Antonio Lusco.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2, 1970, pp. 133–149. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2858842.