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Italy - Life During The Renaissance

( Originally Published 1913 )

Benvenuto Cellini, in his autobiography, presents a graphic picture of the times; and what we know of life in other European countries at that epoch justifies us in taking that picture as fairly typical. He and the Italians of his century killed their rivals in the streets by day; they girded on their daggers when they went into a court of justice; they sickened to the death with disappointed vengeance or unhappy love; they dragged a faithless mistress by the hair about their rooms; they murdered an adulterous wife with their own hands, and hired assassins to pursue her paramour; lying for months in prison accused or uncondemned, in daily dread of poison, they read the Bible and the sermons of Savonarola, and made their dungeons echo with psalm-singing; they broke their fetters, dropped from castle-walls, swam moats and rivers, dreamed that angels had been sent to rescue them; they carved Madonna and Adonis on the self-same shrine, paying indiscriminate devotion to Ganymede and Aphrodite; they confused the mythology of Olympus with the mysteries of Sinai and Calvary, the oracles of necromancers with the voice of prophets, the authority of pagan poets with the inspiration of Isaiah and St. Paul; they prayed in one breath for vengeance on their enemies, for favour with the women whom they loved, for succour in their homicidal acts, for Paradise in the life to come; they flung defiance at popes, and trembled for absolution before a barefoot friar; they watched salamanders playing in flames, saw aureoles of light reflected from their heads upon the morning dew, turned dross to gold with alchemists, raised spirits in the ruins of deserted amphitheatres; they passed men dying on the road, and durst not pity them, because a cardinal had left them there to perish; they took the Sacrament from hands of prelates whom they had guarded with drawn swords at doors of infamy and riot. The wildest passions, the grossest superstitions, the most fervent faith, the coldest cynicism, the gravest learning, the darkest lusts, the most delicate sense of beauty, met. in the same persons, and were fused into one wayward, glittering humanity. Ficino, who revealed Plato to Europe, pondered on the occult virtue of amulets. Cardan, a pioneer of physical science, wrote volumes of predictions gathered from the buzzing of a wasp, and died in order to fulfil his horoscope. Bembo, a priest of the Church, warned hopeful scholars against reading the Bible lest they should contaminate their style. Aretino, the byword of obscenity and impudence, penned lives of saints, and won the praise of women like Vittoria Colonna. A pope, to please the Sultan, poisoned a Turkish prince, and was rewarded by the present of Christ's seamless coat. A Duke of Urbino poignarded a cardinal in the streets of Bologna. Alexander VI, regaled his daughter in the Vatican with naked bullets, and dragged the young lord of Faenza, before killing him, through outrages for which there is no language. Every student of Renaissance Italy and France can multiply these instances. It is enough to have suggested how, and with what salience of unmasked appetite, the springs of life were opened in that age of splendor; how the most heterogeneous elements of character and the most incongruous motives of action displayed themselves in a carnival medley of intensely vivid life. -Symonds

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