The Medici and the heresy of beauty
(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, February 17, 2004.)
Surprise, surprise. In addition to the occasional commercial featuring a plus-size model, there is at least one program on television right now that is actually worth watching.
From the good people at PBS comes The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, a series examining several centuries of European history though the perspective of one of Italy's most influential dynasties.
The term "Godfathers" in the title refers to exactly what you think it does. The program uses the conventions of a staple of popular culture--the "mafia family" film--to raise viewers' interest in a historical subject. But, as anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with European history knows, the exploits of fictional families like the Corleones pale in comparison to the real-life accomplishments of the great Medici dynasty, and the historical events that are covered by this series are far more thrilling, and bloody, than anything that one might find in a Coppola film.
So what does this series have to do with the topic of this forum? Everything. We have often likened the growing appreciation for timeless feminine beauty in today's culture to the Renaissance of Classical art that originated in Florence in the 15th century. And this television series illustrates, in an entertaining and accessible way, the vital role played by the Medici in bringing about that period of cultural rebirth.
The second episode in the series chronicles how Lorenzo de Medici, the family's greatest son, became the patron of Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, and encouraged those masters to initiate a great revival of Classicism through the recovery of the beauty ideal of Antiquity. Readers of this forum who are puzzled by the emphasis that we often place on the companies that sponsor advertising campaigns which bring timeless beauty to the contemporary world would do well to remember that without the financial backing of the Medici, the Renaissance would never have existed.
But even more pertinent to our discussions is the series's characterization of the infamous monk Savonarola, a repressive fanatic who appears in the midst of the sunlit world of Lorenzo's Florence like a spectre of Death, inveighing against the secular humanism of the Medici, and denouncing the entire Renaissance project as insupportable heresy.
As the program vividly dramatizes, Savonarola's tirades sweep up the population of Florence in a hysteria of guilt and recrimination, and even prompt Lorenzo himself to renounce his own cultural achievements. In Savonarola's notorious "Bonfire of the Vanities," some of the greatest artworks of the Renaissance (even paintings by Botticelli himself) are immolated, depriving posterity of untold artistic masterpieces.
It takes but little effort to see in this grim, chastising figure of Savonarola the very likeness of the typical modern weight-control zealot, who finds it insupportable that women might allow themselves to enjoy food, and life, and beauty. Just as Savonarola (a "Dr. Phil" with no sense of humour) was certain of his right to be the moral arbiter of his society, so do today's self-appointed "weight experts" feel no compunction in sentencing women to starvation and physical punishment, aided and abetted in their mission by a compliant press corps, which spreads their dogma far and wide.
In asking ourselves the question, "Why does society continue to resist plus-size beauty?" we must also consider why, throughout the ages, humanity has produced "despisers of the body" (as Nietzsche termed them)--sullen ideologues who abhor the notion of life lived for joy, and espouse ideologies meant to suppress this possibility--and moreover, why so many people follow their doctrines. The modern media campaign against full-figured women is merely the latest example of the kind of mass moralistic crusade that includes movements as diverse as the "Witch Scare," Prohibition, and the political nightmare that covered Eastern Europe in shadow for the latter half of the 20th century. Perhaps the more significant question is not, "Why are there Savonarolas?" but rather, "Why do so many people follow them?"
But just as darkness ever precedes the dawn, so do we have every faith that our own aesthetic restoration will defy all attempts to suppress it.
Botticelli's Birth of Venus--as heretically beautiful now, as the day that it was painted:
- "The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance"
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