LEONARDO DA VINCI AT THE BEACH.
espite prevailing gossip in the groves of academe, people still like their Renaissance, with its prancing nymphs, striplings in hose, and Venus on the half-shell, an endless Primavera with Lorenzo de' Medici presiding benignly over the pagan rites. The fact that this Renaissance is a myth gives them no pause whatsoever, nor should it: the Renaissance was always a myth, and also, on occasion, a chivalric lay or an instructive fable, depending on who told the story, why, and to whom. For Angelo Poliziano, currying the favor of Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano with superabundant talent, the Medici brothers posed as modern Arthurian knights in Stanze per la Giostra, or Verses for the Joust. Botticelli, in the same years, acted as the city's great mythographer, painting glossy riddles in tempera for a restless Medici cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. If Machiavelli sent it all up with masterful cynicism in The Prince, he did so believing in another myth of Florence, the city as free Etruscan republic. Whatever their individual cynicism or dashed hopes, they all persisted in regarding Florence as a divinely favored place, every one.
People today still like this Renaissance of Poliziano, Botticelli, and the brothers Medici, because it stands for an idea of civilization, no matter what the poststructuralists say, and in these strange times an idea of civilization is something we desperately need. The depths of that need can be judged from the tone--and the popularity--of thrillers otherwise as disparate as The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four, both of which take Renaissance Florence as their shining image of civility, and quite specifically of Western civility. In a world where a rich turbaned sheik takes aim at skyscrapers, discotheques, and train stations in the name of holy war, these books argue, with their genre's implicit conservatism, that the West has contributed something more to humanity than McDonald's, cowboy presidents, and the stock market. The extraordinary success of such pointedly cultural thrillers indicates a longing to take the Western heritage seriously, to accord it some degree of honor rather than subject it to yet another critique. This is not by any means a discouraging development.
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