Siena is almost entirely a city of the later Middle Ages. The days of glory—artistic as well as political—were the 13th and 14th centuries, and by the time the city was absorbed by the Medici empire in 1552, it was already a place of memories, whose people were ridiculed by the Florentines (in Dante’s phrase) as a vana gente—a silly and inconsequential people who wasted their efforts searching for a mysterious underground river that would bring prosperity to an arid land. Siena was hopelessly old-fashioned. If Florentine art looked forward to the sensuality and paganism of California, Siena was resolutely reactionary, lingering in a twilight of the Christian age, when an icon of Mary was still felt to be a photographic likeness.
Walking through Siena’s magnificent cathedral in March, I was asked to explain the presence of pagan Sibyls in the pavimento. I palmed off the usual answer that, in the Renaissance, the Sibyls were regarded as pagan prophets who foretold the coming of Christ. Fortunately, I was not asked why the spurious Sibylline literature was accepted as genuine, much less why there was also a tribute to Hermes Trismegistus that included a quotation from the Hermetic corpus. What, indeed, is this twaddle doing in a Christian church, especially here in Siena?
The writings that go under the name of Hermes Trismegistus (or Thoth Thrice-Great) were believed to go back to the age of the pharaohs. In some accounts, Hermes was a contemporary of Moses (in others, there are three incarnations of Hermes), but unlike the Hebrew author of the Pentateuch, the Egyptian not only foresaw the Incarnation but provided the inspiration for all Greek philosophy, from Pythagoras to Plato to Plotinus. The Christianized rhetorician Lactantius, writing in the Age of Constantine to reassure pagans that Christians were not so bizarre as they seemed, held up Hermes Trismegistus as the prime example of the convergence of pagan and Christian wisdom. Augustine, accepting the Hermetic texts at face value, believed that they were genuine prophecy—so genuine that they could only have been inspired by demons.
Augustine (true to his style of biblical exposition) was wrong on the facts but right on the interpretation. The Hermetic corpus, so far from being Egyptian wisdom handed down from the builders of the pyramids, was concocted by superstitious Greek writers of the second and third centuries A.D. The authors, with their smattering of Plato and Plotinus and their familiarity with translations of the Old Testament and the Gospels, had little difficulty in appearing to be the font of all wisdom. It is the dream of many an adolescent to go back in time, like Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. How fun it would be to pass myself off as a god who could invent electricity and predict the outcome of battles. With the benefit of hindsight, even the slow-witted authors of the Hermetic corpus could appear to be prescient or even wise.
Augustine, though wrong on the date, was close to the mark in assuming that the inspiration for such a work could only be demonic. On the surface, Hermes’ account of the Creation and Fall of man might sound like the Jewish and Christian story, but Frances Yates, in her magnificent book on Giordano Bruno, points out the stunning differences. The Egyptian Adam is divine, on a level with the demiurge or logos, and he falls from grace only because he falls in love with the earthly nature he has helped to create. Only a fool (such as Lactantius) or a liar (such as the Florentine “priest” Marsilio Ficino) could confuse this Gnostic babble with the sober poetry of Genesis.
The writers who composed the works of “Hermes Trismegistus” are part of a larger movement that represents one pagan response to the Christian challenge. The Neoplatonist Iamblichus betrays a similar obsession with pseudo-Egyptian mysteries and astrological gibberish, and the emperor Julian, who attempted to invent a formal pagan religion, made himself ridiculous with his proto-Masonic ceremonies in which he drenched himself with blood as if he were a common butcher. As time wore on, Neoplatonism would become synonymous with the ongoing effort of neopagans to come up with a substitute for a religion that claimed to have a monopoly on truth and imposed a rigid moral code that hedonists found intolerable.
We can see this neopaganism popping up from time to time, especially in the Byzantine Empire, where learned men could actually read the texts of Plato, Plotinus, and their degenerate successors, but in both sides of Christendom, the Church effectively squelched the conspiracy. In the West, Catholics were able to preserve their sanity by following “the solider Aristotle,” but even in the Byzantine East, with its marked preference for mysticism, theologians who preferred Plato were kept on the straight and narrow path by the restrictions of Orthodox theology. There were undoubtedly witches, magi, and neopagan intellectuals scattered throughout the Christian world, but we hear very little of them until the 15th century.
The revival of magic and superstition has many sources, but in the Middle Ages, the primary conduit was the Muslim world. Arabic scholars took a deep interest in both the Jewish cabala and the Hermetic corpus, and it is no accident that so many terms in alchemy and so many demons invoked by magi have Arabic names. In some sense the court of Frederick II in Sicily—with its Muslim, Jewish, and freethinking intellectuals—might be likened to an international congress of anti-Christian mystics. Small wonder that its cultural accomplishments are so often regarded as an anticipation of the Renaissance.
In the early 13th century, however, this imperial Stupor Mundi was definitely an exotic among the German barons and Ghibeline cities of Tuscany that supported him in his (legitimate) struggle with the pope. It was in the late 13th century that Siena’s city fathers built their palazzo pubblico and decided on a plan (which they did not execute) to triple the size of the cathedral that they had constructed between the 12th and the 14th centuries. The cathedral’s first façade was the work of the master of Pisan gothic art, Giovanni Pisano, who also carved the pulpit. Duccio’s great Maesta (the Virgin enthroned in glory) was the altarpiece, and Simone Martini painted many of his greatest masterpieces for the cathedral and other churches and pubic buildings in his hometown.
Simone is the most charming of the Sienese masters, and, while he was in Avignon, his painting won the heart of Petrarch, who asked him to paint a portrait of Laura and to do a cover for his magnificent folio of Vergil. Like Simone, Petrarch was a man in two worlds. His deep studies in Latin had given him a genuinely historical perspective on the ancient world, and his revulsion against the technicalities of scholastic philosophy set the tone for the entire humanist movement in the centuries to come, but unlike many later humanists, Petrarch was a devout Christian, and he displayed little interest in the ancient magical or mystical writings that were available in the late 13th century. Petrarch’s lack of interest in magic would also prove to be a typical attitude of later humanists who wished to put their skills in Latin, rhetoric, and rational inquiry at the service of the broader communities to which they belonged, whether Florence, England, or the Catholic Church. Humanists were often religious skeptics or, at least, critics of the Church, but neither Petrarch nor his successors evinced much enthusiasm for black magic, and it was Isaac Casaubon, one of the last of the great Renaissance humanists, who debunked the writings of Hermes Trismegistus as a late forgery.
Alongside this largely wholesome so-called “civic” humanism, however, there also grew up in Florence another tradition that used its training in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew not to serve the city or the Church but to advance the goals of what they sometimes called the prisca theologia, the ancient and original theology that supposedly antedates Christian and most Hebrew Scriptures. While it is just possible that Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and their Medici patrons remained (at least, in their own minds) Christian, they seem to have regarded Christianity as valid only insofar as it converged with Hermes, Iamblichus, and (in Pico’s case) the Jewish cabala.
Cosimo de Medici, the founder of the family’s empire over Florence, was a type familiar through the ages. Although he had devoted his life to business and politics and displayed no sign of literary talent or humane learning, he wanted to be more than just a patron of artists and writers. He wanted to be taken seriously as a man of learning and ideas. Such bourgeois gentlemen are always easy prey for the ideological confidence men who create and lead movements of every type. Cosimo’s big opportunity to carve out a niche for himself came during the Council of Florence in 1439, when he met the neopagan Greek philosopher George Gemistus Plethon and Plethon’s disciple Bessarion, later a cardinal in the Roman Church.
Plethon’s friends and disciples were not kept in the dark forever about his contempt for Christianity, and though intellectual historians have written as if neither Cosimo nor his protégé Ficino (nor even—and this is incredible—Bessarion) knew what the old boy was up to, there is no way they could not have known. Despite the evidence, few scholars have been willing to “come clean” on the Platonic Academy that Ficino set up under old Cosimo’s patronage. Despite Ficino’s perfunctory references to Christianity (and his fear of Savonarola), the Academy was nothing less than the first state-sponsored institution designed to overturn Christianity and replace it with a rationalist religion based on the pseudoplatonist mumbo jumbo that eventually became Freemasonry. It is unfortunate that some worthy successor to Dante could not have found the appropriate circle of Hell to put them all in, including Bessarion.
Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo kept up the tradition, and in reading the poetry of Lorenzo and his friends, you might think you were in Alexandria or Rome in the age of Catullus. But Catullus lived and wrote in ignorance of Christianity. The nymphs and goddesses of Florentine art and literature are not an evocation of the truly classical past, and if Botticelli’s Venus can be said to resemble his Madonnas, the reverse can also be said—and with greater truth. The little goat feet of the all those charming Pans and satyrs may hint at the identity of the god Lorenzo and his friends really worshiped.
By the 1480’s, when the pavimento in Siena was being constructed, all of Tuscany had fallen under Florentine and, therefore, neopagan influence. This neopaganism is everywhere on display in the frankly pagan sensuality of Lorenzo de Medici and his court, the obsession with erotic paintings; the famous lecture on the dignity of man delivered by Pico della Mirandola. This oration, which is universally treated as the highest expression of Renaissance idealism, begins with a quotation from Hermes Trismegistus and reeks of Pico’s obsession with black magic. From this perspective (and, let me be clear, there are others), it is not entirely unfair to regard the Medici’s cultural project as an attempt to transform Christian Florence into ancient Athens and the Catholic Church into an institution teaching Neoplatonist philosophy with the kind of “members-only” privileges that turned the Vatican, under the Medici pope Leo X, into a highbrow version of the Playboy Club. For them, the great Christian civilization of the 12th and 13th centuries—the age of Aquinas, Dante, and Gothic architecture—was not a Golden Age to be studied and admired but a barbaric Dark Age that was best forgotten.
The Florentine Renaissance was not a new beginning but the beginning of the end for our civilization. The Middle Ages might have flowered into a higher civilization that was both classical and Christian, but, instead, it was torn down by cultural vandals who, despite their pretensions, were neither. The Medici were unprincipled scoundrels who degenerated from one generation to another until their last representative, Gian Gastone, spent his career as grand duke wallowing drunk in bed and vicariously enjoying the obscene sexual antics of the young hoodlums with whom he surrounded himself. They destroyed the liberty of the Tuscan republics and fostered the degeneration of Italian art into the vivid debaucheries that are so admired by art historians. Pope Leo X could not take time away from his paintings and mistresses to curtail the abuses within the Church that were being denounced by a certain German Augustinian beginning to make a name for himself. It was in Medicean Florence (and in other great cities taken over by thugs) that the Christian civilization of the Middle Ages was overturned and that great movement of Western self-hatred was set in motion, when real Europe was displaced by the imaginary Egypt and, afterward, the imaginary Chinas, Africas, and Native Americas that have poisoned the West.