Sex and the city (of Rome). A conclusion

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), an Italian early Renaissance painter

The Birth of Venus (1486) by Sandro Botticelli, an Italian early Renaissance painter. Detail of Venus’ face. Click to enlarge a bit

Italian version

Amazing Continuities

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.)

ψ

OK. But don’t we have a greater distance between contemporary Italians and the Ancients?

We do. Nonetheless there are amazing continuities, and these only interest us. Which are these continuities?

An Army of Don Juans

Narrowing our focus on the themes discussed in Sex and the city (of Rome) 1, 2, 3 and 4, we’ve just 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 somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Elvis Presley. Public domain

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 perhaps a boutade but if this is even just partly true, what is the reason for that?

ψ

Other associations in fact arise.

Why Latin folks are considered sensual (or sensualists) by many people in the United States and in the UK?
Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan Spanish? And why all American women went crazy for Elvis Presley (or even more for Rodolfo Valentino) who came from the south of the USA, an area marked by some Spanish & French influence ? Was it only because he was just handsome and his voice great?

Now the BIG question: is it possible we’re facing here some of those long-period permanences or survivals French historian Fernand Braudel built his historical method upon?

I mean, aren’t we dealing here with remnants of ‘alien’, pre-Christian, ways of living one’s sexuality?

Isn’t this what is so seductive, though felt as sinful and almost amoral, but, for this same reason, irresistible?

ψ

It is not our intent to exhaust (or to applaud) the phenomenon of Don Juanism, a complicated topic with a few unpleasant aspects (you might like this post on Julius Caesar’s Don Juanism). No self-indulgence here, pls, all we care about being the possible survivals of a far away past.

ψ

Let us thus continue with our associative questions.

Amoral Pagans

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538.

Venus of Urbino (Venere di Urbino) by Titian, painted in 1538. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence. Click for a much better and larger picture

How come 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 started to be really civilised only with the spread of Christianity, eg with Christianisation, while we were already civilised one thousand years earlier?
[highly civilized during ancient Roman times: Italian Renaissance didn't come out of a desert, read a moving page here]

Can’t it be that they are the true Christians (culturally, at least, so no matter if believers or not) while in us paganism (and behaviours attached to it) has left some (or many) traces?
[ See an overview of the MoR's blog main themes]

Sandro Botticelli. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85

Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), painter of the Florentine school. Portrait of a Young Woman: 1480-85. Click for credits and for other paintings by Botticelli

Can’t it be the reason (I am obsessive, I know) why the Christian religion was here felt mainly as a political thing, eg a way of governing the minds and the spirits of men, in ways not dissimilar to when ancient Rome was governor of nations?

Why our cardinals and even numerous Popes had lovers? Why the great Polish Pope (who surely had no lovers) was appreciated more 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 don't have many doubts about it; even in Germany the Dalai Lama is more popular - 44% - than the German Pope Benedict XVI - 42% -, data emerged from a poll published by Der Spiegel in July 2007]

Why in the end many British and American historians, when discussing the Italian Renaissance, show(ed) until recently some kind of moral repulsion?

Saint Peter Cathedral in Rome. Public domain

Let us therefore listen to the words of Preserved Smith, an American 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”.

Madonna and child by Raphael, Italian High renaissance. Public domain

And in fact Italy was soon to be colonised by that same ‘power’ she had mostly contributed to bring into being.

[Speaking of 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?

Life with no Pang of Conscience

Sandro Botticelli. Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

Sandro Botticelli’s Magnificat Madonna. Uffizzi, Florence. Religious and non religious themes alike were painted with eroticism. Click to zoom in

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 (of Greek descent, probably), 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:

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.”

Botticelli. Youth

ψ

Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini reveals papal Rome’s pagan nature)

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4


“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna (comments section)

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

PS. I had to erase a few insulting comments to this post. They were written by some commentators from the UK. I ask for pardon if I have offended somebody, it was not my aim, really.

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.

ψ

The main idea behind this post is the fact (an historical fact, no doubt) that the people from the Italian peninsula (and elsewhere) were civilized long before Christianity arrived.

By civilization we refer to something distinguished from culture (see a discussion on it) for the reason of a higher level of complexity, a larger geographic locus, the presence of sophisticated urbanisation etc.

This fact, the existence of a pre-Christian high-level civilization – the Greco-Roman – may have engendered cultural differences (alive yet today) vis-a-vis  cultures who mostly reached a ‘fully civilized’ stage together with (and thanks to) Christianity.

Such differences may regard survivals of the Roman religion in Italy and elsewhere – traces which scholars recognize and which Protestants, it is known, always tried to eradicate. They may also regard, why not, sexual behaviours as well.

Did scholars research on these difference? If so, how far they went? We do not know, our research on roman-ness being a knowledge journey.

See the comments area for further information.

ψ

As for the expansion of the Greco-Roman ‘civilization’ toward North-West Europe:

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

 

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Man of Roma: I don’t think one can get much out of considerations in which such broad concepts as “the Ancients” and “the Renaissance” and “Italians” and “Christian” are used, since none of those mean anything very definite. Michelangelo was nothing like Cellini and Vasari was a kind of moralist–and they were all alive in that Renaissance. What about Savonarola?–he didn’t come from The North. Which Greeks do you mean? Socrates was a kind of monk. Plutarch hardly walked around with his fly open.
    And tracing modern Italian sexual mores back to Ancient Greece (the good old days?) and skipping the two thousand years of Christianity which Italy itself has captained–well, that is blind in one eye. Yet I think I know what you mean and I might agree to a certain point. But we would have to nail things down a little better.

  2. @100swallows

    Two things seem not correct or not useful to you 1) the use of broad concepts such as “the Ancients”, “the Renaissance” “Italians” and “Christian” and 2) a possible connection between contemporary sexual behaviours in the Italian peninsula and ancient Greco-Roman sexual behaviours, “skipping the two thousand years of Christianity which Italy itself has captained”.

    1) As far as the first point, and admitting I was a bit hasty in this post, the Greeks mentioned by Rodocanachi were of course the educated Athenians of the 5th century, the Ancients mentioned by me were the Ancient Greeks and Romans set against contemporary Westerners, “Italians” were of course people who are not German or British, Latin countries were countries which are not Scandinavian or Chinese … etc.

    Useless wide abstractions? I do not agree. They are actually used a) in everyday talk and b) in historical discussion when they are of course useful, and sometimes they are, when for example they can define large-scale social change (or its contrary, permanences) over long periods of time.

    I’ll explain. a) Is it useless to say, for example, that most “Europeans” are not religious while most “Americans” (people from the US) are religious? Far from being useless, I think it is useful. b) I am no pro historian but let us imagine a cathegory like … “Athens”. Could it encompass something starting from the VI and even VII centuries BC and culminating into tsarist Russia and the Christian orthodox areas? I think it could, and it might be worthwhile trying to identify what these diverse social and cultural entities can have in common, in such a long period of historical time. Braudel in fact makes use of this concept: Athens, or he talks about Islam, or Chartage, with the same intent.
    In abstractions (concepts), after all, we usually omit the differences of the things we encompass, in order to focus on what these things have in common – this is why it makes sense in my view to talk about Italian Renaissance men, even though Cellini, Michelangelo and Vasari were different.

    2) Social and behavioural changes and permanences over long periods of time also apply to sexual behaviours, why not. Despite the fact that Italy was the spreading centre of Christianity, we still have many survivals of the Roman religion in our country and elsewhere – a lot of maquillage was done by the Church in order to introduce the Christian religion; a lot of work has been done on this topic; Survivals of Roman Religion by US historian Gordon J. Laing, for example, is a very good book on that.

    It is then not so unreasonable to think of similar permanences in a vital sphere such as sexual habits. Strangely enough, such a research has not been tried yet, as far as I know ;-) … and I am not the one capable of carrying it out, being just a man of the street of Rome. But since Rome is the centre of our western roots, and being born and being raised here I believe is not without consequences, all I can do is just trying to shoot some fragments of this identity for discussion.

    This is why I also would have liked from you some contribution on that “I know what you mean and I might agree to a certain point” …

    All the best

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