The Pazzi Chapel hides in the cloister of Santa Croce in Florence. Compared with the memorials to the great in the basilica—Machiavelli, Alberti, indeed Michelangelo—and to Cimabue’s ravaged crucifix in the museum next door, the Pazzi is not prominently noted in today’s itineraries. Day tourists join the lines for David or the Duomo. It resides partly in shadow, after all, and it does not yield its wonders in a quick walk-by or look-in. Or rather, its lines and elements seem so clear and even obvious that its revolutionary nature is easily missed. Filippo Brunelleschi is no longer assumed to have designed the entire structure, and perhaps murky attribution has lessened its luster somehow. When I went to Florence, it was the one place I felt I had to see because of its reputation as the turning point of Renaissance architecture, an ode to the horizontal as much as to the vertical, a refashioning of classical design for a bold new age, the age of not only the Pazzi family who commissioned the building, but supremely of the Medici.
The Pazzi Chapel’s significance impressed itself upon me through a course in Western Thought I took long ago from an extraordinary scholar and teacher, Richard Emmerson. One of our texts was the William Fleming classic Arts and Ideas.
Here is what Fleming had to say about the classical elements of Brunelleschi’s design:
“The fruits of Brunelleschi’s studies of ancient Roman buildings are more in evidence here in the façade, and the break with the Gothic tradition is complete. The harmonious spacing of the columns of the porch, the treatment of the walls as flat surfaces, and the balance of horizontal and vertical elements make his design the prototype of the Renaissance humanist style.” (Fleming’s Arts and Ideas, seventh edition, 193).
Of the interior, Fleming remarks that the dome with its pilastered walls and its simple, open, and relatively unadorned design made it influential in the Renaissance church plans of Alberti, Bramanti, and Michelangelo. I spent as much time as I could in the Pazzi during our tour, marveling at just how cool and elegant a space it is, especially compared to so many other church interiors in Italy that had been reworked in a kind of insistent counter-reformation baroque in the centuries that followed. The Luca Della Robia terra cotta decorations in the inset roundels add both charm and color. I didn’t want to leave.
Fleming owed not a little to the nineteenth-century Swiss scholar Jacob Burckhardt, whose 1860 classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy did not by itself create the concept of the Renaissance as a retrospective name for an age seemingly set apart from the Middle Ages. But it did do the work of solidifying and entrenching the concept. Burckhardt writes surprisingly little in this work on art or architecture; he saved his considerable thoughts on these for other volumes. But as he articulated his notions of just what themes, ideas, and trends constituted his Renaissance, themes that floated free of chronology and ranged over roughly 300 years, he gave birth to the field of cultural history. The titles for his lengthy essays not only describe his project but remained the core themes in the study of the Renaissance for more than a century: “The Development of the Individual,” “The Revival of Antiquity,” “The Discovery of the World and of Man.” According to one of my graduate cultural history students who recently took a course in the Renaissance, they still are in some quarters.
Florence, in Burckhardt’s rendering, led Italy in the development of several themes, especially in the focus on the ancient world. Burckhardt describes Florentine scholars and the patrons—the Pazzi, for example—who supported them as “of particular significance during the period of transition at the beginning of the fifteenth century, since it was in them that humanism first showed itself practically as an element in daily life.” Social history had yet to be invented, so Burckhardt’s version of “daily life” is necessarily one that, sourced as it is by texts composed by elites, might not quite earn the name today. But as a way of seeing the world, and restaging it according to that envisioning, surely Burckhardt does not credit Renaissance humanism too much. The ideas are present in the structure of the Pazzi Chapel, and whether as a devotional or vainglorious act or both, the Pazzi contribution to Florence’s built environment had a traceable ripple effect.
Burckhardt wrote a subjective brand of history before the social sciences had really established themselves. He did for historical writing what the Italian Renaissance had done for what he called “civilization.” Just as Burkhardt understood his role in defining a new path for history, his Florentines understood themselves in relation to an inherited past. Burckhardt’s version of Florence was certainly alive and well one hundred years after he published his classic when a medium custom-built for subjectivity, film, took up the story. Director Roberto Rossellini staged the Renaissance in his Italian television film The Age of the Medici (1973), one of a series of openly didactic history films he created over the last two decades of his life. In Rossellini’s telling we see the rise of Cosimo de Medici from important Florentine merchant to ruler of the Republic. Burckhardt opened his book with an essay on “The State as a Work of Art,” and in the decentralized, nonhereditary ruling methods present in Florence and other peninsular realms, one can begin to see why Machiavelli’s how-to manual for the aspiring Prince was on point. The internecine conflicts involving first families, craft guilds, and various other points of allegiance roiled Florence for centuries. In Rossellini’s film, we see Cosimo grease political wheels with newly minted florins, play political possum when arrested and exiled, deal swiftly and surely with known threats upon his humble return, and top it all with patronage of learning and the arts. The occasional spiritual retreat to the San Marco monastery is a given.
It sounds like a rousing cinematic power play, but Rossellini, determined to teach through the mouths of his characters, throws dramatic convention to the winds, fashioning a meandering series of episodes without traditional narrative structure and with very little in the way of character development. In his efforts to give us the facts, though, he succeeds in a greater kind of subjectivity yet. Everyday life, which The Age of the Medici purports to portray, is not spoken in learned speeches to rapt listeners, and for many viewers, it may appear that the art of cinema—indeed, Rossellini’s own powers—have taken a step backward toward the primitive. Rossellini’s swift, sometimes ramshackle staging of action as punctuation marks in his neorealist classics is in very short supply here, and as Tag Gallagher, perhaps his finest interpreter, has reported, Rossellini disavowed pretensions to art in his didactic cinema. But this series of filmed speeches, this cinematic nave of self-contained frescoes, creates an unreal world that is, if not a clear representation of the Florentine Renaissance, a close document of what is important about that age to Roberto Rossellini.
By the third and final part of the film, Cosimo de Medici recedes into the background (where, after all, he has already spent much of the film) and Leon Battista Alberti, art theorist and nascent architect, takes over, and here the subjectivity described in Burckhardt, the self-awareness of historical change happening in real time, is most evident. Alberti has a ready speech for each stage of his long life, whether rescuing Rome’s built environment for a pope or designing Santa Maria Novella’s new façade. According to Fleming, the Pazzi Chapel “bore witness to the profound belief in the harmonic-mathematical basis of creation,” a theme Rossellini’s Alberti repeats to all within earshot. Art is and must be a science, he says. A painter must know geometry, and that is the future. In that future, an accomplished artist in film decided that ideas are more important than the conventions of his art. The Age of the Medici may disappoint our dramatic expectations, but its maker, like Jacob Burckhardt before him, surely could claim himself as a Renaissance man.
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Penguin).
Rossellini’s History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment (Eclipse DVD).