Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Renaissance Papacy, Part 2: Catastrophe

This is the second part of this essay, and deals with the disaster that befell Rome and the Pope

After the death of Julius II, the next pope was Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, younger son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the great Florentine family, who now became Pope Leo X at only 37 years old. He had always been destined for the church, and was given the livings of various rich churches and monasteries from age of eight, and became a cardinal at just sixteen. He was undoubtedly a clever man, and it was hoped he would bring in more peaceful times after turbulence of Alexander VI and Julius II. Also it was probably suspected that he wouldn’t be there for long: the Medici tended to be short-lived, and indeed it proved so in his case, because he died aged only 46.

During Leo’s pontificate, the papacy rose to unprecedented heights of luxurious living. His main aims seemed to be to live a life of pleasure and to boost the careers of his relatives. “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”, he said. It was a time of unparalleled splendour in papal Rome. The are reports of banquets lasting four hours, of 65 courses featuring rare and costly food, such as peacock’s tongues, served to the accompaniment of music from the finest orchestras. A banker named Chigi once invited the Pope to his home, and when congratulated on his sumptuous dining-hall, replied, “Your Holiness, this is merely my stable!” The same man impressed his guests by throwing all the silverware out of the window into the river Tiber after each course - though it was said he had prudently hidden nets there to catch them!
Pope Leo did not get on with Michelangelo, but patronised Raphael, who now finished his frescoes in the Vatican apartments. The building of St. Peter’s continued.
There were problems to be dealt with. In 1517, the Pope was threatened with a plot to poison him, headed by two cardinals; but it was discovered in time. The conspirators were arrested and tortured in the dungeons of the Castel san Angelo: the two cardinals, who had powerful friends, were released after paying vast fines, but the lesser plotters were gruesomely executed and their bodies hanged on the San Angelo bridge.

Internationally, the Pope faced a new and ambitious king of France. Francis I was born in 1494, and in 1515 succeeded his second cousin, Louis XII, whose daughter Claude he married. He was the first great Renaissance king of France; a patron to Leonardo and Titian; a collector paintings, including the “Virgin of the rocks“, now in the Louvre; and a great builder, whose memorials include the palace of Fontainebleau and the Loire chateaux of Blois and Amboise.
Francis was hailed as a second Charlemagne, and was keen to renew French claims in Italy, especially Milan. But by now the Spaniards were strongly entrenched there; in full control of Naples and Sicily. The position was made more complicated by the dynastic marriages of the Habsburg family. The heir, Charles, was born in what is now Belgium in 1500, his father dying when he was six years old. Through his mother, Joanna “the Mad” he inherited the throne of Spain, through his paternal grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian, who died when Charles was nineteen, he was Archduke of Austria, and through his grandmother was Duke of Burgundy, which included the Netherlands. Charles became ruler of the Netherlands at fifteen, King of Spain (including much of southern Italy and the newly-discovered American lands) at sixteen, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes in 1520, aged nineteen. Not surprisingly, it was all to prove too much for one man. Charles was immediately sucked into war with the French, who had regained control of Milan. Pope Leo allied with Charles against the French.

As it happened, something that was to prove an even more serious problem for both the Empire and the Papacy was taking form back in Germany. The lavish expenditure of the church, and particularly the vast cost of the building of St. Peter’s, caused the Pope to fall back on the expedient of raising funds by licensing the sale of Indulgencies: documents promising release of souls from Purgatory in return for cash payment. This caused great theological distress to an Augustinian friar and university lecturer in Saxony, who was already undergoing a profound spiritual crisis. His name was Martin Luther. In 1517 he felt moved to make public protest; nailing his “95 Theses” against Indulgencies to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and going on t defend his point of view against papal delegates. The Emperor Charles ignored it at first, as a mere quarrel amongst monks, but the matter soon escalated, and in 1521 Luther summoned to a meeting of the Imperial Parliament, the memorably-named Diet of Worms, where he was ordered to recant his opinions, but refused to do so. Luther was outlawed, but since he had been promised a safe-conduct by the Emperor, was permitted to leave. Luther was taken by sympathetic nobles and hidden in the castle of Wartburg, where he translated the Bible into German and formulated the original Protestant theology.

By this time, Pope Leo no longer in position to care, because in 1521 he died, aged only 46. There now followed a hiatus in the Renaissance papacy. The young Emperor, justifiably unhappy at the lax state of the church, decided the right man to clean things up was his old tutor from Belgium, whom he now forced the cardinals to install as Pope Adrian VI. The high dignitaries looked on with horror as this austere old man slashed papal expenditure and spent only one ducat a day on food. His attempts to reform the papacy met with no success at all, since he died after less than two years in office, to sighs of relief from the College of cardinals. His demise was apparently caused by kidney failure, but poison was naturally suspected. (he was, incidentally, the last non-Italian Pope until John Paul II in our own time)

There was a return to normality with the election of Clement VII, at the age of just 45. He was formerly known as Cardinal Giulio de‘ Medici; though his precise Medici parentage is uncertain. What follows is a great moral tragedy of classical proportions: in the words of a contemporary, “How a great and respected cardinal became a small and contemptible Pope”, and brought appalling suffering upon thousands of his innocent subjects in the process. Not only did Clement make no progress in checking the growth of Protestantism, but he proved hopelessly at sea in politics.

There was war in northern Italy between King Francis and the Emperor Charles, and the Pope seemed unable to make up mind about what to do. He appeared to support first one side, then the other, and as a result became universally mistrusted. In 1525 the Emperor’s forces completely defeated the French at battle of Pavia, and King Francis himself was taken prisoner. Still Clement persisted in what seemed like double-dealing, thought it was probably only a fatal indecision. In spring 1527 a huge, ill-disciplined and virtually starving Imperial army of Germans, Spaniards and assorted mercenaries approached Rome. Charles was not with his army, because there were other problems confronting his vast empire. On May 6th, the attack on the virtually defenceless city of Rome began, with Pope Clement still paralysed with indecision. Just to create further confusion, the commanders of the Imperial army were killed early on, leaving their troops without any direction or restraint. Next day, the attackers burst in. Pope Clement barely had time to flee to the Castel Sant’ Angelo and pull up the drawbridge, leaving his city to face the most savage assault since the days of the Normans. Uncounted thousands were killed out of hand, or tortured to make them reveal their hidden treasure. Nuns were raped and churches pillaged. An unknown German soldier scratched the name of Martin Luther on one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican. Sant’ Angelo held out, with Benvenuto Cellini directing the defence (or so he tells us). Only when sheer shortage of food forced most of the soldiers to leave Rome was Clement able to escape in disguise and flee to Orvieto. Meanwhile Florence had once again risen in revolt and driven out the recently-restored Medici.

Clement survived, but for the remainder of his pontificate was little more than a prisoner of the Emperor. This proved to have the most crucial consequences for English history, because it was precisely at this time that Henry VIII requested the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. There had been doubts about the validity of this marriage 20 years earlier, when Henry had sought the then Pope’s permission to marry the widow of his dead brother; a union apparently forbidden in the Scriptures. Julius II had duly given the marriage his blessing, but Catherine’s failure to produce a son had led Henry to suspect this had been wrong. He therefore asked, not for a divorce, but an annulment: a Papal ruling that the marriage had never been valid in the first place, and that technically Henry and Catherine had been living in sin for two decades, and their daughter Mary was illegitimate. The tangle of dynastic marriages meant that Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt! There was no way that Charles would tolerate such an insult to his family. The unfortunate Pope could do nothing to help Henry, who had to seek other paths out of his difficulties. So a train of events was set leading to the Church of England breaking away for the Church of Rome.

Charles promised Pope Clement to restore to Medici to Florence, and sent a Spanish army of 40,000 to achieve this. Thanks to new fortifications designed by Michelangelo, the city withstood a siege of ten months before being driven by starvation to surrender in autumn 1530. Leading anti-Medicians were executed, tortured or exiled: the nineteen-year-old Alessandro de’ Medici was installed in power, and married to the Emperor’s even younger illegitimate daughter Margaret. In October 1533, the Pope himself conducted the marriage of the fourteen-year-old Catherine de’ Medici to Henry, second son of King Francis of France, but soon to be the heir.

In autumn 1534, Pope Clement died. Rome rejoiced. As the corpse lay in state, someone transfixed it with a sword. His official Latin superscription, “Clemens Pontifex Maximus” was altered to “Inclemens Pontifex Minimus”; rightly so, since he had been a complete failure.It was in the dark spirit of the times that Michelangelo returned to Rome to paint his terrifying Last Judgement in the Sinstine Chapel, with Christ hurling sinners down to hell. It was a fitting image of the disaster that befallen not just Rome, but much of Europe.

King Francis I died in 1547, by which time France was already being torn apart by religious divisions. His son now became king as Henry II, so Catherine de’ Medici was unexpectedly Queen of France. Later as a widow she continued to dominate the government of her three sons until her own death in 1589. Charles V ruled his vast empire till he abdicated in 1558. His own failure was due to having to take on too much: he won a dominant position in Italy, but could barely contain the spread of Protestantism in Germany and the Netherlands. He was also threatened from the east, because in 1526 the Turks, under the great Sultan Sulemain the Magnificent, advanced through the Balkans and annihilated the armies of Hungary at the battle of Mohacs. Soon Budapest fell and Turkish forces were swarming up to the gates of Vienna itself. This collapse left Charles’s brother Ferdinand as heir to what little remained of the Kingdom of Hungary, and also the Kingdom of Bohemia, through his wife. At his abdication Charles therefore divided his possessions, leaving the central European lands to Ferdinand, who was duly elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes, and Spain, plus the Netherlands, the Italian territories and the new American conquests, to his son Philip.

We can see the death of Clement as marking the end of the Renaissance papacy. The popes whose careers we have followed were great men in many ways; they were diplomats, administrators; soldiers, even; they were great builders and had impeccable artistic taste. But it cannot be said that any one of them was particularly pious. The Italy they tried to dominate acquired a European-wide reputation as a hotbed of treachery and murder. We can see in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries how it was assumed that this was the way people behaved in Italy. Soon the popes were obliged to be less blatantly pleasure-seeking and more serious-minded about religion: the popes of the Counter-Reformation. Everything would be different. Nevertheless, the terrible period we have covered, of little more than a single generation, witnessed the entire working career of Raphael and almost all the major work of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as well as many others of almost equal talent. Why this should be is one of the great debating-points of history.

A note on St. Peter’s.
The original basilica of St. Peter’s was built under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and after a thousand years it is unsurprising that it was found to be in a dangerous state. A complete demolition and rebuilding was first contemplated by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s, making the significant comment, “If the authority of the Holy See were visibly displayed in majestic buildings, all the world would revere it”. But it was only half a century later that Julius II decided to take such an irrevocable step of building an entirely new cathedral. The project was given to the great architect Bramante, who conceived the daring plan of “putting the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Maxentius”. Julius himself laid the foundation stone on April 28th 1506. Such an enormous work took many decades to complete. It is quite wrong to assume that when the plundering Imperial forces stormed into Rome in 1527 they would see anything like the present building. In fact, St. Peter’s would have been a vast building site: even the drum to support the dome was nowhere near completion. After Bramante’s death in 1514, he was succeeded as chief architect by Raphael, by Sangallo and by Michelangelo, who climbed the scaffolding for the last time just three days before his death in 1564. All of them made significant changes to the original plan. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII in 1626, but even after this changes continued to be made. The great Square of St. Peter with its colonnades was the work of Bernini in the 1660s. Only the would the cathedral be recognisable to modern eyes.
St. Peter’s is only the most spectacular part of the rebuilding of Rome that began in the 15th century, to produce the splendid city centre that we see now. This had one very unfortunate consequence. A visitor to the city today may wonder why so little remains of the huge palaces, temples and baths which would have dominated the city in the days of the Roman Empire. The answer is that they were cannibalised to provide convenient building stone for the new cathedrals and churches. The marble facings were even burnt to make lime for mortar! Although Bramante incorporated some old features into the new St. Peter’s, particularly tombs and monuments, it was said of him that “he destroyed more than he built”. The Coliseum survived only because the pope decided to preserve it as a memorial to the Christian martyrs who suffered there - though in fact most of the martyrdoms took place in the Circus Maximus, of which hardly any stonework survives. So a tourist who wonders what became of the imperial palaces on the Palatine hill could well find the answer in St. Peter’s!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Renaissance Papacy: Part 1: Glory

This essay will cover the glory and catastrophe that was the Renaissance papacy. This is Part One: the years of glory

In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia was chosen as the new pope, taking the name Alexander VI. He was a Spaniard, or more strictly a Catalan, from a line of minor gentry, born in 1431. His elevation was due to his uncle, who had risen to become Pope Calixtus III. During his brief pontificate (1455-58), Calixtus appointed his nephew a cardinal and then vice-chancellor of the Holy See at the age of just 26. Rodrigo Borgia rapidly became one of the richest and most influential men in the College of Cardinals, noted for his great intelligence and ability, and lived in enormous luxury. He fathered at least six children by several different women, the most famous being the sons Giovanni and Cesare and the daughter Lucrezia. At death of Pope Innocent VIII, he contrived to be chosen as the next Pope by means of intrigue and colossal bribery, to the fury of his great rival Cardinal Giuliano delle Rovere, who was backed by the French and was himself the nephew of the late Pope Sixtus IV.
The Rome he inherited was described by Lorenzo de’ Medici as “a sink of iniquity”. For the first half of the 14th century the popes had resided not in Rome but in Avignon, and were little more than puppets of the King of France. From 1378 there followed a disgraceful period known as the “Great Schism”, when there were two, or for a while even three rival Popes, all hurling anathema at each other. Only with the election of Martin V in 1417 had the papacy returned permanently to Rome, and in the remainder of the 15th century the once-great city had barely started to recover. The population had fallen to about 50,000. There were an estimated fourteen murders a day in the city, the killers not being deterred by the sight of the rotting corpses of criminals hanging from the Castel Sant’ Angelo, since it was easy, if sufficiently influential, to bribe one’s way to freedom. (A later Pope said, “The lord does not desire the death of a criminal, but that he should pay and go free!”) There were said to be 7,000 prostitutes working the city, many in brothels licensed by church, and very profitable! Resulting from this, a new disease was sweeping the city: syphilis: “Very common among priests!” noted Cellini, who caught it himself. The former papal territories in the hinterland of Rome, the so-called “Patrimony”, had descended into complete lawlessness and banditry.
Pope Alexander wished to rebuild the city, to restore order and regain papal territories, and not least to advance his children to wealth and power - but first he had very great peril to cope with.

There was a new king of France, Charles VIII, aged twenty; small, ugly, deformed, unable to speak clearly, but active and ambitious, and possessed of a large army. He was keen to rule an empire, and cast his eye on Naples, now under Spanish control, but where the French monarchy had a dynastic claim. When King Ferrante of Naples died in January 1494, Charles decided to invade. He was encouraged in this by the effective ruler of Milan, the sinister Lodovico Sforza, known as “Il Moro“. The Sforza family had been mere mercenary condottiore two generations earlier, but had risen to succeed the Visconti dynasty in Milan. The dreadful tyrant Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza had been murdered in 1476, leaving only a seven-year-old boy of feeble intellect, Gian Galeazzo, with the boy’s uncle Lodovico as regent; and, as with all wicked uncles, eager to seize power himself. (Despite the extreme brutality of the city’s politics, these were great days for art in Milan: Leonardo da Vinci came to the city in 1482, to paint the “Last Supper” and to plan a life-size equestrian statue of the late Duke, which he modelled in clay but never actually made)
In September 1494 a French army of 30,000 men, featuring the first fully mobile cannon-train to be seen in Italy, crossed the Alps, with Cardinal della Rovere providing spiritual support. They were welcomed at Milan by Lodovico, where the unfortunate young ducal heir conveniently died. Lodovico Sforza then arrested the remainder of the Visconti family and proclaimed himself Duke of Milan. The French army trundled on into Florentine territory, where Piero de’ Medici, the wholly inadequate heir to the great Lorenzo “the Magnificent”, acted with fatal indecision, first promising to support Naples and then proclaiming himself neutral. The French, unimpressed, seized the Florentine fortress of Fivizzano and slaughtered the entire garrison. For some time the Dominican friar Savonarola had been preaching fiery sermons prophesying the doom of Florence, as punishment for its sins, and now that doom had arrived!
In November 1494 Piero de’ Medici fled the city, and Medici rule collapsed. The family’s palace was pillaged by the mob, and Medici bank assets were seized. A republican government was set up, with Savonarola as its inspiration, though he held no office. King Charles and his army entered city, to be hailed by Savonarola as “minister of God”. There was little violence, and the French were promised a vast sum to persuade them move on. Savonarola’s sermons grew ever more apocalyptic, provoking Florentines to stage great “bonfires of the vanities”, publicly burning all their luxuries. On one such occasion, a visiting Venetian, seeing all the perfumes, robes and ornaments piled up ready to be burnt, offered a large sum for the lot. The Florentines showed what they thought of Venetian frivolity by quickly having his portrait sketched and placing it on top of the bonfire!
Meanwhile Charles marched on through Rome, where the Pope took refuge in the Castel Sant’ Angelo, and the French army took Naples without opposition. Charles stayed there for a while, but the Pope built up a coalition to oppose him: a Holy League of King Ferdinand of Spain, the Emperor Maximilian of Germany, Venice, and Milan, where Duke Lodovico changed sides - but not including Florence, which was now supporting the French. In July 1495 there was a great battle between the French and the forces of the Holy League under Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Despite heavy casualties the battle was inconclusive, but French were now greatly outnumbered and had to retreat from Italy leaving most of their baggage and plunder behind. King Charles died childless in 1498, and was succeeded by his distant cousin, Louis XII; but the French had no intention of abandoning their Italian ambitions.
Pope Alexander was now determined to deal with Savonarola, or at least to silence him. He tried first to buy him off with the promise to make him a cardinal, but without result. By summer 1497 Alexander had had enough, and excommunicated him. The Florentine economy now in a weak condition, Savonarola’s popularity was declining and his enemies began to make moves against him, especially the Franciscan friars, the rivals of Dominicans. A week before Easter 1498, Savonarola was challenged to prove his divine inspiration by a trial by ordeal, running between two huge bonfires. The spectacle was set up, then inexplicably called off. Riots followed, and Savonarola and his leading supporters were arrested. Savonarola was tortured to get him to confess to heresy and other crimes; he was hanged and burnt in the Piazza della Signoria and his ashes scattered to leave no relics. Florence continued as a republic without him. His reputation remains ambiguous: Michelangelo said that for the rest of his life he could always hear the voice of the Friar ringing in his head; and there have since been occasional moves to declare him a saint.

The Pope’s other great aim was to establish his children in power and wealth; so his son Giovanni became Duke of Gandia. The second son, Cesare, was destined for the church: he had become a priest at six years old and was now made a Cardinal at eighteen. The rest were married off, notably Lucrezia, who was married, at the age of just twelve, to Giovanni Sforza of Milan, and when this proved inconvenient, divorced and married to Alfonso, bastard son of king of Naples. But in June 1497, Giovanni, Duke of Gandia, was mysteriously murdered and his body dumped in Tiber. A local man testified that he saw several figures drop a body in at night: asked why he hadn’t informed the authorities, he said he had witnessed at least a hundred similar incidents! Cesare now renounced the priesthood and set out to conquer the Romagna (the region around Bologna) for the papacy and for himself; and proved notably successful, employing a mixture of military skill, treachery and assassination that was praised by Machiavelli. In 1500 Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered, possibly with the connivance of Cesare, and she then married Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara for political reasons. Alexander’s foreign policy was now moving closer to France. In 1498 the French were in Italy again, under their new king, Louis XII: this time to press a dynastic claim to Milan, with the aid of Venice and the Pope. Duke Lodovico raised a force of Swiss mercenaries to fight them, but he was no soldier: his army deserted him at the battle of Novaro, and he ended his days in prison in France; the last independent Duke of Milan, leaving his duchy to be contested between foreign powers.
Alexander was called upon to adjudicate on a new and unique question. This was the time of Columbus’s voyages across the Atlantic, and by the Treaty of Tordesillas in May 1493, Alexander allotted all the new lands just discovered. An imaginary line of longitude was drawn 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands: everywhere west of this was awarded to Spain, and east of it to Portugal (which is why Portuguese, rather than Spanish, is spoken in Brazil). But the treaty was soon being ignored by the English, French and Dutch.

In 1500 Alexander organised a Jubilee (a festival held every 50 years): the most grandiose one yet. By time of his death in 1503, Alexander had been successful politically, but the flagrant immorality of his family brought the papacy to new low in moral terms. Machiavelli commented, "The soul of the glorious Alexander was now borne among the choir of the blessed. Dancing attendance were his three devoted handmaidens: Cruelty, Simony and Lechery".

The next Pope, Pius III, lasted a mere three weeks before dying, and then the great enemy of the Borgia family, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, was elected Pope as Julius II. (This is his portrait, by Raphael)

He had been born in humble circumstances in 1443, and like Alexander, owed his rise through the hierarchy to the nepotism: literally so, since his uncle had become Pope Sixtus IV. Julius was famous as the soldier-Pope; telling Michelangelo, who was working on a memorial to him, “Do not show me with a book: I am no schoolman! Show me with a sword!” He was always happiest wearing armour. Despite his advanced age, he was often found leading the papal armies personally. One immediate result was the rapid collapse of Cesare Borgia’s power: he was arrested, then fled to Spain, where he died 1512. Julius now wished to recover papal territory encroached on by Venice, so he formed League of Cambrai in 1508, allying France, Spain and the Empire with the papacy against Venice. But his aim was not the destruction of the Venetian Republic, but a new balance of power in Italy; so once the Venetians had been defeated and driven back in 1510, Julius made peace and instead brought Venice into a new anti-French Holy League with Spain. The French were completely defeated and driven out of Italy. Julius allied with the Swiss, and created the original Swiss Guard for the Pope. He now turned his attention to reclaiming the lost cities papal cities in the Romagna. In 1506 he personally led troops to recapture Perugia, and Bologna then surrendered. Next Julius personally directed the siege of Mirandola in 1511, but failed to take Ferrara. He left the papal states in a strong position; but a fragmented Italy was unable to do much about the increasing intervention of the major powers; France, Spain and the Empire.

Florence had remained neutral in war against the French. She remained a republic, taking great pride in her independence. It was during these republican years that Michelangelo carved great statute of David. The leader of the city was the Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini; but he was overshadowed for posterity by a subordinate official, Niccolo Machiavelli, who tried to revive republican virtue by organising the defence of Florence by a citizens’ militia, mostly consisting of peasants from the countryside. But now the Pope decided to restore the Medici to power. A Spanish army was organised to attack Florence, and in August 1512 reached the town of Prato, 12 miles from Florence. Prato was an ancient walled city, defended by Machiavelli’s militia, but no sooner had Spanish forces made a small breach in the defences than the militia threw down their weapons and ran away. The Spaniards entered town and for two days staged an orgy of killing, raping, looting and torturing. The contemporary Florentine historian Guicciardini wrote “More than 2,000 men died, not fighting, for none fought, but fleeing or crying for mercy”. Women were only spared because Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who accompanied the troops, gave sanctuary within the cathedral and forbade the Spaniards to enter.
As the Cardinal calculated, the terrible example of Prato was sufficient to cause Florence to surrender without a fight. The Medici emblems were restored and all traces of the republic were removed from public display. Soderini fled, Machiavelli remained behind, to be later arrested and tortured before going into retirement and calling upon his experiences in writing his classic masterpiece of political thought, “The Prince”. The book is based on the career of Cesare Borgia.

Pope Julius died a few months later. As well as his political battles, his pontificate had been of enormous artistic importance. Not only did he employ Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael to paint the frescoes in the papal apartments, but he took the decision to demolish the old cathedral of St Peter’s and build a completely new one. The foundations were laid in 1506. But plans for an enormous tomb by Michelangelo had to be scaled down, and can now be found in the form of a statue of Moses in St Peter ad Vincula.
Julius was also vitally important, though unwittingly, for English history. He wished to be allied with the new king, Henry VIII, who came to the throne aged nineteen in 1509 and requested permission to marry Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the King and Queen of Spain. She had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur while both were teenagers, but Arthur had died shortly afterwards. Marriage to a dead brother’s widow appeared to be forbidden in the Bible, but England wished to continue the Spanish link. Julius duly gave the marriage his permission. Twenty years later, Henry wished to annul the marriage, and therefore attempted to persuade a later Pope to reverse Julius’s decision!

Guicciardini wrote of Julius, “He would have been a Pope worthy of the highest renown if the care and diligence he showed in glorifying the church in the temporal sphere and through the arts of war had been used to glorify it in the spiritual sphere”. Yes indeed: what more can one say?

(The next essay will describe the great disaster later suffered by the Renaissance Papacy)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Political Vocabulary

Having followed the course of the recent American congressional elections, I am struck how the same political terms mean quite different things on the different sides of the Atlantic. Take, for example, the word “Liberal”. In the USA it apparently means an extreme left-winger seeking to expand the powers of central government. In Britain it implies someone who is moderate, middle-of-the-road between Labour and Conservative. Many Americans would thus be surprised to learn (assuming they are at all interested in British politics, which is doubtful) that the Liberal and Conservative parties are now in a coalition government together. In economic terms, “liberalism” implies a belief in the free market; thus Mrs Thatcher was often described as a “neo-liberal”. In this context, I always find it mildly surprising that Churchill is so idolised by Conservatives. As a young politician before the First World War he was a leading member of a reforming Liberal government, during which time he was the subject of particularly virulent hatred by Conservatives, and even when he rejoined the Conservatives he was very much on the Left of the party on social issues. There is a nice story that Churchill, near the end of his political career, met a young M.P. whom he did not recognise and, learning that the man was in the Labour Party, told him, “I’m a Liberal. Always was!”
Then again, many Americans think Obama is a “socialist“. All I can say to that is that we in Britain haven’t had a socialist government since the days of Clement Attlee immediately after the Second World War. Certainly Messers. Blair and Brown were careful never to let slip the dreaded “s-word”, and the financial collapse was to a great extent due to their unjustified faith in the rationality of the market.

About 60 years ago, T. D. Weldon wrote a book, “The Vocabulary of Politics”, arguing that most political debate is intended not to convey information but to provoke audience reaction. He divided political vocabulary into “Hurrah-words”, (which would win audience approval) and “Hiss-words” (which would have the opposite effect). The clearest example of a “Hiss-word” is “Fascist”: it has no clearly defined meaning nowadays, and is employed merely as an adjective placed upon an exercise of power that you detest, and expect your audience to detest. By contrast, “Democratic” is a “Hurrah-word”: everyone nowadays professes to believe that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and even the most flagrant dictatorships style themselves "democratic". The American Founding Fathers, incidentally, never mentioned democracy: in those days the word was not in common usage; but they were, however, imbrued with 18th century ideals of liberty, particularly religious freedom and individual independence. In America today, “Liberal” has clearly become a “Hiss-word”, which has never been the case in Britain, except on the extreme left. (I came across an amusing example of this in the movie of John Le Carre’s spy-novel, “The Russia House”. Quoting from memory: two C.I.A. men are questioning an Englishman who appears to have important information, to check on whether he might be a plant. One of them asks him, “Would you say your family background was very Liberal?” “Certainly not!” the Englishman retorts, “My father was a Communist! He despised Liberals!”)

Republican voters in America appeared to want two things: firstly, a low-tax American state; and secondly, an America that could lead the world. But these two are not compatible. America can be a low-tax state if it has an isolationist foreign policy (as it had in the 1920s), or it can be a world-imperial, interventionist state, as it has been ever since the post-war Truman Doctrine. Obviously, America is free to make its choice. But it cannot be both. The two are simply not compatible.

One theme of the Tea Party movement was “Taking back our country” from the government in Washington. This could never be a theme in Britain, because it implies that the mass of the people did once control the country, and that was never the case over here. Until less than a century ago, Britain was very much under the control of the traditional landowning aristocracy, and the same applied throughout Europe. Indeed, with the first Old Etonian Prime Minister since 1964 now in office, it could be argued that Britain has indeed been “taken back” by its natural rulers: namely, the toffs! Did you know that between 1916 and 1945 not a single British Prime Minister went to Eton or to Oxford University? In the post-war period we have had no less than nine Prime Ministers from Oxford. Between 1955 and 1964 the Prime Ministers were all Etonians, but from then until this year we have been ruled by a succession of jumped-up scholarship-boys (or in Mrs Thatcher’s case, a scholarship-girl): “grammar-school twits”, in Alf Garnet’s memorable phrase. But now the upper classes are at long last back in the driving seat, as is only right and proper!

As a Cambridge man, I would start a different cry: why do we always have to be governed by Oxford graduates? Oxford’s a dump, a decaying motor-manufacturing town; a kind of Detroit with colleges! We haven’t had a Cambridge-educated Prime Minister since Stanley Baldwin! It’s high time for a change! End this discrimination NOW!!!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Clerihews: Jean-Paul Sartre, etc

In collections of the original Clerihews by E. C. Bentley, there is always a splendidly silly index. I have tried to enter into the spirit of this.


One Christmas, a friend of Sartre
Invited him to visit Chartres
But he preferred to spend the festive season
Writing "A Critique of Dialectical Reason"

(Index under:-
Windows, rose, failureto appreciate
Christmas, Bah! Humbug!)


At a cricket match, George Orwell
Neglected to keep the score well
But this brought him no reproof
From the ministry of Truth

(Index under:-
Wisden, inclusion in, unsuitability for)


Mahler's "Fruits of the Earth"
Had its premiere in Perth
But the audience of Diggers
Greeted it with sniggers

(Index under:-
Classicism, in music, Australian insistence on)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Lockerbie bomb

In 1988 I had gone to spend Christmas with my parents, who lived in Penrith in the Lake District, about 25 miles from the Scottish border. On December 21st we were watching the local television channel, Border TV, which was not something we usually did. Suddenly and without any prior warning, a message was flashed up across the screen: “Major air disaster. All medical personnel report to Dumfries infirmary”. Shortly afterwards, there was a police notice, telling us that certain roads across the border were closed until further notice. We wondered what on earth had been happening. It was, of course, the bomb that blew up the airliner over Lockerbie. The next day I met a man who had been on a train going south, which had pulled out of Lockerbie station moments before. He described how they heard an enormous roaring sound behind them, and it was only when the train reached Carlisle that they learnt what had happened. (For those unfamiliar with the geography; all trains coming up on the west coast route from London and Manchester run through Penrith and Carlisle and over the Scottish border. Lockerbie is the next major junction on the line, with the western branch of the line running to Glasgow and the eastern branch to Edinburgh. Incidentally, Penrith is very close to the flight path, and if the bomb had detonated minutes earlier, it could have landed on us.)

It was not long before all sorts of conspiracy theories were emerging, outlining all sorts of elaborate and often wildly improbably stories about who might have been responsible, and these have continued to circulate ever since. I have no personal knowledge as to who was responsible for the Lockerbie bomb, but did experience a few interesting

It is often forgotten that around Easter 1986 American bombers took off from British airbases to bomb Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in retaliation for a terrorist bombing against American troops in Germany. The raid managed to kill President Gaddafi’s little stepdaughter, amongst others, but it was denied that the intention was to kill Gaddafi himself (“Why not? Why kill his subjects but not him?” would be my reaction). I happened to be on a school visit to Athens at the time, and I was reading an account of the bombing raid in an English-language newspaper when a young American peered over my shoulder and exclaimed, “Oh, I just LOVE that!” He seemed surprised that we didn’t all share his enthusiasm. One of the boys asked him if this could serve as a precedent for bombing Dublin in retaliation for any future IRA atrocities, but he didn’t get the point. “I think you already do enough against the Irish”, he said. I felt that if that was his level of political perception, there was no point in arguing with him. From this moment on, I expected some kind of retaliation: perhaps an air hijacking. Athens airport early the next morning was surrounded by armoured cars and guards with automatic weapons, but fortunately nothing untoward happened. It is surprising that, in the debates over the Lockerbie bomb, everyone seemed to have forgotten the bombing raid on Libya.

In the summer of that year I went on a tour of Egypt. Our guide was a Tunisian; very erudite but also extremely cynical. He did not at all approve of Islamic fundamentalism, but his comments about the American bombing of Libya were worth remembering. “Reagan’s a genius!” he exclaimed. “Everybody knows the Iranians and the Syrians cause a lot more terrorist attacks, but Iran’s too sensitive a place to go for, and who’s ever heard of the Syrian leader? But everyone hates Gaddafi. So you bomb Libya. Then all the Americans cancel their holidays abroad for fear of reprisals, and you save millions of dollars. I tell you, the man’s a genius!” (The comment about Americans cancelling holidays was correct. My parents up in the Lake told me that American tourists had been afraid to visit Wordworth’s Dove Cottage, for fear of Libyan reprisals.) The Lockerbie bombing was only a couple of years away…….