This is probably my last letter from Florence, and I must say that it is with somewhat mixed feelings that I turn my back on the treasury of the Renaissance. Oh, sure, I tried to like living here. I tried it the way the French writer Andre Gide tried to like living in Stalin’s Moscow, reasonably confident that he would not have to live there forever, but nonetheless winding up his stay with a dirty rotten slanderous expose. In his case, if memory serves, revelation came at the sight of a fellow’s badly mangled fingers which, he suddenly realized, had been crushed in the vice of doctrine. In my case, it was the umpteenth glimpse, in a souvenir-shop window, of Leonardo’s flying machine, coupled with the sudden realization that the damn thing didn’t fly.
Is there anyone out there who has not, at one time or another in the course of a wretched life poisoned by Enlightenment myths, looked with cowardly reverence at that absurd drawing? Medici’s Florence and Stalin’s Moscow have much in common. Both were designed for propaganda purposes, and each in its own way retains the power to intimidate the skeptic. It has taken me several months to see that the silly contraption didn’t fly, never flew, and would probably be more likely to fly if it were designed by a lunatic on the run from a mental asylum, by a marauding Rumanian soldier the morning after he pilfered a substantial wine cellar, or by Fred Flintstone in one of his less practical moods. And the catapult! At least Stalin’s weapons were the best of their kind, while Leonardo’s catapult would not hurt a Luccan fly, and not because of how big them flies grow out there in Lucca. Yet every gift shop in Florence can offer you, at the price of about $200 U.S., a miniature replica of this pacifist dream made of handsomely varnished mahogany.
At first, I reasoned away the awkward realization the way one usually reasons away such realizations, by analogy. If Uccello’s “Rout of San Romano,” say, or Michelangelo’s “David,” were the equivalents of IS-8 (the heavy tank “Iosif Stalin,” later known as T-10) or of a MiG (the fighter designed for Stalin by Mikoyan and Gurevich), then the flying machine and the catapult were something like Stalinist architecture, or the gigantic effigy of “The Worker and the Peasant Woman” at the Exposition of the Achievements of the People’s Industry in Moscow. While I was reading the technical specifications of the T-IO, in a Jane’s Defence chart comparing it with the main tanks of the West, the analogy held. But then, looking at the “David,” with its bovine neck, its outsize hands, and its spirit of arrogant hyper-realism, it occurred to me that this humanist masterpiece was too literally like “The Worker and the Peasant Woman” for the analogy to support itself And straight away all around me the past of Florence began crashing into the world’s present, in a scene from a Hollywood movie about Atlantis starring Kirk Douglas and a volcano of bosomy blondes.
Modern propaganda is a lot like modern art, in the sense that both sell dysfunctional versions of ordinary things, including food and clothing, to a culturally intimidated audience that never dares to ask why the representation is not labeled accordingly. If you see an electric iron that irons shirts, this is an iron; if you see an electric iron that does not iron shirts (especially when it is 100 feet high and stands in front of an office building with an address like 1000 Federal Plaza), this is a work of contemporary sculpture. Similarly, liberty is often a good thing, equality has its uses, and in the context of Christian morality a place for fraternity can obviously be found; but “liberty, equality, fraternity” is political propaganda designed to deceive and to mislead (and to hide the reality of broken fingers from visiting Frenchmen). There was an old Soviet joke about a shopper who asks for a kilo of hunter’s sausage, and is told that this is the display. “No hunter’s? All right, I’ll have a kilo of the display,” he murmurs with habitual resignation. The point is that it was in Medici’s Florence that modern propaganda was born.
It had to have been born here because, although in name a republic since 1293, by the middle of the 15th century, Florence was being ruled by Cosimo de’ Medici, and after his death by his son and grandson, as by “a King in all but name.” This “name” business is at the very heart of the matter. Thus we note that the Tornabuoni, Florentine grandees who gave their daughter Lucrezia in marriage to Cosimo’s son and dynastic successor Piero, had changed their name from Tornaquinci, having so altered their coat of arms as “to evade the disadvantages attaching to their birth.” In other words, the blatantly gaping cleavage between reality and appearance, in a place where noblemen had to change names and renounce their aristocratic past before being eligible for participation in public life, had to be camouflaged, and camouflaged well. It was republican art that introduced perspective into painting, and made verisimilitude its aesthetic aim. And it was republican politics that produced political propaganda as the panacea for the ills of oligarchic dictatorship.
The parallel between the “master of the country,” as Aeneas Silvius de’ Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, alternatively called him, and Stalin goes well beyond Cosimo’s legendary self-effacing modesty (he held office for a total of 90 days during his 50 years in power) and his famously acerbic, indeed rather Caucasian, sense of humor (asked to introduce a law forbidding priests to gamble, he said that it would be better to begin by forbidding them loaded dice), both necessary qualities for coming to power, as they both did, through the imperceptibly gradual subordination of an existing political apparat. There is their total unscrupulousness, in all things great and small: Stalin, a Great Russian chauvinist of his own making, entrusted the design of his fighter plane to the team of an Armenian and a Jew, while Cosimo, who piously “emblazoned even the monks’ privies” with his heraldic balls, did not hesitate to embrace the “whoremonger and scrounger” Fra Filippo Lippi. There is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the bastard condottiere Francesco Sforza, whom Cosimo had shrewdly fostered long before his takeover of Milan was consummated in the marriage to Bianca Visconti, just as Stalin had secretly supported the National Socialists over the communists in Weimar Germany. There is even Molotov himself, in the figure of Cosimo’s sidekick Puccio Pucci, and if one looks hard enough one can just make out Trotsky in the “tiresome, vain and cantankerous” agitator, partisan of the exiled Albizzi, Francesco Filelfo.
But the key to the parallel is found in the power of the legitimized lie which Florence’s Pater Patriae and our own Father of the Peoples have created, and perpetuated, in their epoch-specific, yet kindred, ways. The constitutional reform framed by Pucci in the wake of the rout of the Albizzi in 1434 was, like Stalin’s constitution, a gateway to the new era of virtual tyranny disguised as virtual democracy. According to an historian of the period,
the Grandi were now all declared Popolani which gratified the nobles, who were thus theoretically rendered eligible for election to office, while pleasing the popolo minuto who chose to interpret the measure as commendably democratic. The people were given greater satisfaction when it was seen that the most talented amongst them, despite their humble origins, were now considered, for the first time in the history of Florence, worthy of holding official positions in the State.
Stalin’s constitution, it must be borne in mind, allowed for ballot boxes to be delivered to the bedside of the sick on election day. And yet, the historian continues,
of the 159 newly qualified citizens from the Santa Maria Novella quarter whose names were placed in the horse in 1453, no less than 145 were sons, grandsons or brothers of men who had been considered eligible for office in 1449.
In other words, what the Italians would these days call una grossa fregatura. A great swindle, which required great art to cover it up. And, great art aside, from here to the restructured new democratic Russia—or, if you prefer, to the American bumper stickers that read I LOVE MY COUNTRY BUT I FEAR MY GOVERNMENT-it is but a short step.
And so I confess that as I leave Florence, this treasury of the Renaissance to which I bid farewell seems almost a part of my childhood, not unlike the enclave of Stalin’s writers and artists where I was raised. Yet these grandiose monuments to the sleight of hand known since the days of the Medici as modern democracy are now at the heart of world culture. Can one really ever leave Florence, any more than Gide could leave Stalin’s Moscow?