spoils to the facade of their great cathedral. Defeated bynGenoa in 1284, Pisa was subjugated by Florence in 1406, butneven under the Florentine yoke, Pisan merchants continued tonprosper in the levant trade.nThe Eastern empire had been the cynosure of the maritimenrepublics, Genoa, Venice, Amalfi, and Pisa. By the 15th century,nonly Venice and Genoa were in a position to help thencity, whose capture spelled ultimate ruin for the merchantnrepublics that depended upon the Eastern trade. The influx ofnByzantine exiles, before and after the conquest, helped to inspirenthat rebirth of classical literature, languages, and art wencall the Renaissance, and on a deeper level, the dwindlingnand demise of the city, in breaking the links with the past,nset the Italian mind free to invent a mythical and glorious ancientnworld, an equally mythical Dark Age, and a futurenrestoration of classical antiquity. Such was the dream of Petrarchnand his disciples. Elaborate plans were drawn up for rebuildingnRome, “just as it was,” and these dreams of restoringnthe empire were to inspire every would-be world ruler down tonHitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. In fact, the great political mythnof the Russians is that they are the real successors to the ByzantinenEmpire and that Moscow is the Third Rome.nBut if the fall of Constantinople served to liberate Italiannculture, it also closed the Eastern frontier that had attracted sonmany hardy and rebellious spirits. A city might in principle bengoverned by an emperor’s vassal, by a handful of merchantnoligarchs, or by a Machiavellian prince like Castruccio Castracani,nbut the seas were free. On their voyages, the merchantsnof Genoa and Pisa enforced their own laws, carriednout their own foreign policy, made alliances and conductednwars as if they lived in a state of nature.nIn the four centuries (roughly 1000-1400) when Pisa, Lucca,nFlorence, and Siena were busily beating each other’s brains outnfor predominance in their part of Tuscany—a region smallernthan Vermont—their peoples were acquiring liberty for themselvesnand creating a civilization that the world has been livingnoff ever since. It was the second great creative age of thenWest, and it was a period of unremitting competition, strife,nand carnage.nLittle Pisa, with a population and area smaller than Rockford,nIllinois, was willing to take on the world. A nationalnnews program, describing the structural problems of thenLeaning Tower, commented that if not for the Tower, no onenwould go to Pisa. It is true that we did our best to bomb thenCampo Santo into Detroit, but the cluster of buildings aroundnthe Cathedral of Santa Maria may be the most impressive urbannscene devised by man.nAs my friend Leo Raditsa once pointed out to me, you canndate the Florentine conquest of a Tuscan town by its art history.nOnce Pisa and Siena were absorbed into greater Florence,nthey ceased to be creative and the cityscape is fossilizednin its period of independence. Florence grew at the expense ofnSiena as Venice gradually sucked the vitality out of Verona.nWhen I explain all this to my teenage son, he wonders whynI worry so much about books and paintings. I tell him that poetrynand art, important as they are in themselves, are also thenvital signs of culture, an index to their more general creativity,na measure of their success as human beings engaged in what isnultimately a tragic and futile struggle to make sense of theirnlives. I became a localist, years ago in school, when I began tonrealize the cultural significance of jerkwater places like Sicyonnand Ceos and Greenville, Mississippi.nBy the end of the 15 th century, however, the social andnpolitical structure of Italy had hardened. Naples (and Sicily)nwere already in the hands of the Spanish, and before long Milannwould fall under the same yoke. The Florentines, undernthe gangster dynasty of the Medici, maintained only an externalnindependence—autonomy but not liberty. Cut off fromnthe East, the Italian states became increasingly provincial, indolent,ningrown. The patchwork of feudal loyalties and commercialncommuni had slowly been recast into a more orderlynpattern of regional empires: Florence, Venice, Milan, the papalnstates, and Naples all held sway not only over their own contadonbut also over dozens of subjugated communes and principalities.nIn the civilized arts, however, the Italians continued tondominate throughout the next century, but the poetry andnthe painting—magnificent as they are—seem less fresh, morenmannered. (Compare Botticelli or Signorelli with, for example,nCaravaggio; Dante and Boccaccio with Tasso). Of course,nit is only in the later Renaissance that Italy became knownnpreeminently for its music, an art in which Italians were tondominate until the end of the 18th century and in which theyncontinued to excel until the early 20th century, when musicnwas, for the most part, abandoned as a serious art form.nApart from The Magic Flute, Mozart’s great operas are allnwritten to Italian librettos, the best of them by a good-lookingnconfidence man, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who immortalized hisnremarkable career in a memoir marked by a mixture of dishonestynand simplicity that is almost unparalleled. After beingnbooted out of Venice, Vienna, Paris, and London, he madenhis way—like so many misfits—to our shores, and after a briefncareer as a traveling salesman and saltimbanco he became thenfirst professor of Italian literature at Columbia.nIn the centuries when Italy was slowly subsiding into antourist attraction, reckless Europeans were looking westward.nThe inexperienced and down-at-heels Genoese sailor whondiscovered the New World sought the patronage first of Portugalnand then of Spain. He may even have thought of England,nbut not of the great maritime power that gave him hisnbirth. Cristoforo Colombo was far from being the only Italiannsailor to make Atlantic voyages. The Cabots, sailing for England,nexplored the Northern coasts of North America, whilenVerrazano under the French flag made his way down the coastnfrom New York to North Carolina.nBy the mid-16th century, however, we hear only of Spanish,nFrench, Dutch, and English explorers, colonists, and conquerors.nThe Italians, become the pawns of Austrians andnSpaniards, continue to compose operas and paint pictures,nand the tough and ruthless people who started “all this” turnninto stock characters in Northern European farce. (Conrad’snNostromo and Wilkie Collins’ Count Fosco are two of thennnOCTOBER 1992/11n