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November 06, 2007

David Wootton extols the virtue of a little book on a big subject and asks, was Cremonini the Leo Strauss of his day? The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance - Edward Muir

Posted by David Wootton

The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera
by Edward Muir
Pp. 192. Harvard University Press, 2007
Hardback, 16.95

The best books are short. If you asked me to name my favourite non-fiction books they would all be little books on big subjects: Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty - 176 pages; Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions - 172 pages in the first edition; Cipolla's Miasmas and Disease - 101 pages. Cipolla, of course, is my hero: Penguin put two of his books, Guns and Sails and Clocks and Culture, together and they still added up to only 201 pages.

I lose sympathy with an enterprise when I learn it is directed towards writing an enormous book - J. G. A. Pocock, for example, is one of the greatest historians of our age, but he is currently writing a multi-volume book on Gibbon which is longer than the Decline and Fall. Even books with which I profoundly disagree (The Whig Interpretation of History - 132 pages; Liberty Before Liberalism - 156 pages) I admire when they are succinct.

So let me start by saying that this book, which is essentially an expanded version of three lectures, has the great merit of being a little book on a big subject. That subject is libertinism in Venice between 1591 and 1657. This is the period when Venice kept the Counter Reformation at bay: in 1591 the University of Padua forced the closure of the Jesuit College in Padua; 1657 is the year in which the Jesuits, who had been expelled from Venice's territories during the Interdict of 1606, were allowed to return. During these years there was more freedom of expression in Venice than anywhere else in Europe: more, arguably, than in Holland.

The three lectures focus on two authors and an opera. The two authors are Cremonini (1550-1631), who was famous for attacking belief in the immortality of the soul and was long the most highly-paid philosopher at the University of Padua, and Ferrante Pallavicino (1618-1644), executed by the Papacy in Avignon for writing books such as The Celestial Divorce (1643) in which Christ divorces his spouse, the Catholic Church (he had been tricked into crossing onto papal territory by a papal agent - he thought that he was on the road to Paris, not the scaffold); the opera is Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (1642).

What all these three have in common is a rejection of Christian values. What made all three possible is an environment which encouraged opposition to religious orthodoxy: Cremonini, who was repeatedly investigated by the Inquisition, was offered unconditional support by both the University of Padua and the Venetian government; Pallavicino was fairly safe so long as he stayed in Venice, where he was protected by the Accademia degli Incogniti (the Academy of the Unknowns - it existed to support authors who needed to conceal their identity and its motto was "the known from the unknown"); and opera was an extension of Carnival, when the normal rules ceased to apply.

Underlying this assault on Christianity was the peculiar place of sex in Venetian society during the first half of the seventeenth century. Some two-thirds of men and women in the aristocracy never married in order to avoid dividing the family estate (this was a world of partible inheritance). The women were forced into nunneries; the men turned openly to prostitution and to keeping mistresses - in Poppea Nero repudiates his wife and marries his mistress, making her empress. Filling the boxes of the theatre when it was first performed would have been noblemen accompanied not by their wives but their mistresses.

Did this decadent world, which gave birth to opera, have a lasting impact on the intellectual life of Europe? Robert Darnton's The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995) has taught us that in France Enlightenment philosophy and pornography were intertwined, and the big question left unanswered by Muir's book is whether there is a direct line of descent from Pallavicino to Voltaire.

Did it give birth to modern science? Galileo was Cremonini's daily companion, and William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, his student. This book invites us to rethink the world of Galileo - another of his close companions was Paolo Sarpi, state theologian and materialist atheist. A recent discovery in the archives in Rome has given new support to Pietro Redondi's thesis that Galileo came under attack by the Church because he was suspected of sharing these views. Of course, had Galileo stayed in Venice he would have been able to publish unmolested (even after he had been condemned there were still hopes of publishing his Two New Sciences there).

Did it give birth, in the writings of the reluctant nun, Arcangela Tarabotti, author of Women are No Less Rational than Men (1651) and of Convent Life as Hell (a work unpublished in her lifetime), to modern feminism? (I missed any reference in Muir's book to Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent.)

The title of Muir's book refers to the contemporary culture wars in the USA between Christians and "liberals". Muir thinks of Cremonini, we may suspect (he never comes out and says it) as the Leo Strauss of his day - a man who never said exactly what he thought, but whose unspoken thoughts had an enormous effect on the intellectual culture and political life of his day. The difference of course is that the Straussians, for all their unbelief, are the allies of the religious fundamentalists and not their opponents.

Muir's little book marks a revolution in our own historical culture: twenty-five years ago the orthodox view in the historical profession was that even people like Cremonini were believing Christians. It invites us to think again about the origins of freedom of the press, of the Enlightenment, of feminism, of the scientific revolution, and, of course, of opera. All in less than 150 pages. Wonderful!

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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