da vinci and brunelleschi failed — 9/14/15

Today’s selection — from The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. As great as it was, Renaissance Florence failed as a republic — as most Italian cities eventually did — and reverted to the control of the Medici family. One problem was military incompetence, and even Filippo Brunelleschi, builder of the legendary Duomo, and the great Leonardo da Vinci failed in their attempts to contribute to military efforts:

“The republic [of Florence] never managed to solve the problem of factionalism, endemic to all city-states except Venice. Ideal theoretical systems were incapable of preventing feuding between groups of powerful families. Thus the republic was usually in a precarious position, and in the 1430s it effectively succumbed to the Medici, as later republics did in 1512, and again in 1530. The humanists despaired at the extinction of their hopes for what seemed so irrational a reason as factionalism. …

Brunelleschi’s Dome

“One reason for the republic’s failure was its military incompetence. While its various wars against Milan may have been defensive ones, the campaigns against its Tuscan rivals were aggressive and, as it, turned out, often farcical. Humiliated repeatedly on medieval battlefields by armies from Pisa, Siena and Lucca, the republic later employed its artist-scientists to combine with its soldiers to defeat the enemy by means of ingenious engineering. Already famous for his as yet uncompleted dome, Brunelleschi was dispatched in 1430 to Lucca, where he began to divert the River Serchio so as to flood the land around the city and force it to surrender. The still more ingenious Lucchesi, however, sallied out and breached Brunelleschi’s new canal, flooding the plain in an unexpected way so that it demolished a dam built by the architect and swamped the Florentine camp. Seventy years later, a new republic tried a similar tactic, although this time the plan was to divert the River Arno away from Pisa so as to leave that city without water. The engineer employed to design the project was Leonardo da Vinci, an even more versatile figure than Brunelleschi, but his miscalculations with his canal were as embarrassing as his predecessor’s. On this occasion the waterway was destroyed not by the defenders but by a storm which collapsed its walls.

Mona Lisa

“Whatever they might say about being the heirs of Romulus, the Florentines knew they were not very good at warfare. They were too prosperous to want to fight and perhaps too individualistic to form a disciplined militia of citizens. As a result they entrusted their defense to foreign protectors (usually Neapolitan) or hired mercenaries, who were mostly brutal, expensive and unreliable. The Florentine hierarchy had a different explanation for the city’s lack of virility the rifeness of sodomy which, it claimed, corrupted and enfeebled its manhood and resulted in a low birth rate. Florence was indeed so notorious for this propensity that Florenzer became a German word for pederast. In response, the government encouraged anonymous denunciations of suspected pederasts and created special magistrates, ‘Officials of the Night’, to enforce new laws against the vice. Niccolo Machiavelli was one of those accused of sodomy, though in his case with a woman, a prostitute known as ‘Curly’.”

The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples

Author: David Gilmour
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 2011 by David Gilmour
Pages 79-80
All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.
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