In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read an appreciation of Ernst Walser’s suggestion that, in order to better understand Italian Renaissance men, one should think of contemporary Italians (to a certain extent). We believe that, inversely, the same could be said of Italian Renaissance men. To better understand them one should think of the Ancients, namely the Greeks and the Romans (to a certain extent).
Ok, but don’t we have a greater distance between contemporary Italians and the Ancients? Of course, but nonetheless there are some amazing continuities, and these only interest us. Which are these continuities?
An Army of Don Juans
Narrowing our focus on the matter discussed in Sex and the city (of Rome) 1, 2, 3 and 4, we heard this sentence in a History Channel war documentary film: “An army of Don Juans was about to land…”. The film referred to an Italian military expedition sent by Mussolini to some place in the Mediterranean.
Now, I find this funny, and I am asking myself: is this the way many people from the English speaking countries consider us? A bunch of Don Juans lol? I know it was maybe only a boutade but if this is even just partly true, what is the reason for that?
Other associations in fact arise. Why Latin folks are considered sensual by many people in the United States? And why Casanova is Italian and Don Juan is Spanish? Why all American women went crazy for Elvis Presley (well, well, even more for Rodolfo Valentino) who came from the south of the USA, an area marked by some influence of the Spanish and the French? Was it only because he was a very handsome man and his voice was great?
Now the big question: isn’t it possible that we have here those long-period permanences or survivals French historian Braudel was talking about? I mean, aren’t we dealing here with the remnants of a different, pre-Christian, way of living one’s sexuality? Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral (think of Elvis the pelvis), but, for this same reason, irresistible?
It is not our intent to exhaust (or to applaud) the phenomenon of Don Juanism, which is a complicated topic (and has a few unpleasant aspects). Please understand that there is no self-indulgence by our side and that all we care about are the possible survivals of a far away past.
Let us then continue with our associative questions.
Why the North Europeans who came down to Rome during the Renaissance were both spellbound and disgusted? Is it because they perceived the Christian religion was not taken seriously by the Romans and by the Italians of that time? Can’t it be this was due to the fact that most of these northern people had started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, while we were already civilised one thousand years earlier? (magnificently civilized pls allow me readers: Italian Renaissance didn’t come out of a desert, read a moving page here)
Can’t it be that they are the true Christians while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left some (at times very deep) traces? (an overview from the MoR’s here). Can’t this be the reason (I know I am obsessive) why here the Christian religion was mainly felt as a political thing, namely a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not so dissimilar to the times when Rome was a ruler of folks and nations?
And why our cardinals and even numerous Popes had lovers? And why the great Polish Pope (who surely had no lovers) was more appreciated by the big politicians of the planet (who flocked to his funeral) and less by the spiritual gurus of our time? (Today the Vatican is perceived as a political – more than a spiritual – institution, I do not have many doubts about it; even in Germany the Dalai Lama is more popular – 44% – than the German Pope Benedict XVI – 42% -, a datum emerged from a poll published by Der Spiegel in July 2007.).
Why finally many British historians, when discussing until recently the Italian Renaissance, still show(ed) some kind of moral repulsion?
Let us listen to the words of Preserved Smith, a British historian of the Middle Ages, who wrote the Renaissance entry in the 1956 edition of the Britannica:
“A succession of worldly pontiffs brought the Church into flagrant discord with the principles of Christianity. Steeped in pagan learning, desirous of imitating the manners of the ancients, thinking and feeling in harmony with Ovid and Theocritus, and, at the same time rendered cynical by the corruption of papal Rome, the [Italian] educated classes lost their grasp upon morality …”
“The Christian virtues were scorned by the foremost actors and the ablest thinkers of the time … The Church saw no danger in encouraging a pseudo-pagan ideal of life, violating its own principle of existence … and outraging Christendom openly by its acts and utterances.”
Italian society – Preserved Smith continues – was hardly aware that the New Learning it had mostly contributed to create had provoked “an intellectual force of stupendous magnitude and incalculable explosive power …”. His conclusion is beautiful (though tragic for us):
“Why should not [Italian] established institutions proceed upon the customary and convenient methods of routine, while the delights of existence were augmented, manners polished, arts developed and a golden age of epicurean ease made decent by a state religion which no one cared to break with because no one was left to regard it seriously? This was the attitude of the Italians when the Renaissance, which they had initiated as a thing of beauty, began to operate as a thing of power beyond the Alps”.
And in fact Italy was soon to be overwhelmed by that same ‘power’ she had mostly contributed to create.
(Getting back to paganism, Gramsci argues in that same Notebook IV: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony”.)
So it seems we are often considered amoral and not true Christians. Are we amoral? Are we not true Christians? Are we decadent, rotten? Or maybe someone is simply not fully capable of understanding us?
I will finish this draft conclusion of Sex and the city (of Rome) with this interesting passage written by a British historian, C. P. Rodocanachi (probably of Greek descent), and dedicated to what he considers a potent factor of the Greek miracle (Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948). This text sheds light in our view on the Greek mind and, to a certain extent, on the Roman mind, plus on some aspects of Italian Renaissance men as well:
Life with no Pang of Conscience
Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit “of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city … They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart… [They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin. They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”
We had to erase some insulting comments to this post. They were written by some persons from the UK. I ask for pardon if I have offended anybody, it was not my aim, really, plus I do not really know why these people felt offended. My style is sometimes aggressive but I am fond of the British people. I wouldn’t have toiled so much to learn their language decently enough. The main idea behind this post (a bit hasty and in some parts obscure, I’ll admit) is the fact (an historical fact, no doubt) that the people in the Italian peninsula were civilized long before Christianity arrived. I mean by civilization something distinguished from other cultures by its high level of social complexity and by the presence of urbanisation.
This fact, the existence of this pre-Christian civilization, may have created some cultural differences (living until today) with people who reached this fully civilized stage mostly thanks to (and together with) the spread of the Christian religion. These differences can regard for example some survivals of the Roman religion in our country – traces of paganism which many scholars do recognize and which Protestants, it is well known, always condemned – but could also regard, why not, sexual behaviours as well. Did scholars try to research on this? We do not know so far, but we do not think so. See the comments area for further information on this point.