THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICESHIP
Florence, c. 1450–1491 Ú Launching the quest for “honour and fame”
Heroism and villainy shade into each other. So do salesmanship and sorcery. Amerigo Vespucci was both hero and villain—but I expect readers of this book already know that. My purpose is to show that he was also both salesman and sorcerer. He was a merchant who became a magus.
This book tells the story of how that strange mutation happened and tries to help readers understand why. The naming of America was a by- product of the story: a measure of the success of Amerigo’s self- salesmanship, an effect of the spellbinding nature of his sorcery. Salesmanship and sorcery require some of the same qualities: quicksilver tongue, featherlight fingers, infectious self-confidence. Vespucci began to acquire those qualities in the city of his birth and education. In Renaissance Florence, where life was fast-paced, flashy, competitive, consumerist, and violent, prestidigitators’ skills came easily. That was just as well, because you needed them to survive.
The Magical City
In this city of forty thousand people, as much wealth was concentrated as in any spot in Europe. Florentine prosperity was a triumph against the odds, a classic response to a challenging environment. The city became a great riverside manufactory of fine wools and silks, despite having an unreliable river that habitually ran dry in summer. Florence became a great international trading state, with its own fleets, despite its location fifty miles from the sea, where enemies could easily control outlets and approaches. Fifteenth-century Florentines took pride in their peculiarity: They retained a republican constitution in an age of encroaching monarchies. The elite were unashamed oligarchs who celebrated the nobility of wealth rather than birth. In Florence, a prince could be a merchant without derogation.
In an age that worshipped antiquity, Florence had no historic pedigree, but most Florentines nourished their identity with myths: Their city was a sister of Rome, founded by Trojans. Closer to the truth was the origins narrative that Florence’s historians proposed: Florence was a “daughter” of Rome, founded by Romans, “of the same stuff,” only more faithful to republican traditions.1 Florentines asserted their superiority over older, self-proclaimedly nobler neighbors by investing in civic pride: an ampler dome than any rival cathedral’s, more public statuary, higher towers, costlier paintings, richer charities, grander churches, more sumptuous palaces, more eloquent poets. They claimed Petrarch as their own because he had Florentine parents, even though he hardly ever visited the city.
In consequence, Florence valued genius and was prepared to pay for it. Like classical Athens or fin de siècle Vienna or the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment or the Paris of the philosophes, the city seemed to breed talent, nurture genius, and deserve renown. The greatest age was over by the mid–fifteenth century, at about the time of Amerigo Vespucci’s birth. The generation of Brunelleschi (d. 1446), Ghiberti (d. 1455), Fra Angelico (d. 1455), Donatello (d. 1466), Alberti (d. 1472), and Michelozzo (d. 1472) was aging, dead, or dying. The institutions of the republic had fallen under the control of a single dynasty, the Medici. But the tradition of excellence in arts and learning lived on. The sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio rented his home from one of Amerigo’s cousins. Sandro Botticelli lived next door to the house where Amerigo Vespucci was born. In Amerigo’s parish church, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio worked on commissions from his own family. At the time Machiavelli was an unknown twentysomething. Machiavelli’s rival as an historian and diplomat, Francesco Guicciardini, was a small boy. Florence’s fertility in the production of genius seemed inexhaustible. By the time Amerigo left the city in 1491, Leonardo da Vinci had already departed for Milan, and the revolution that was to overthrow the Medici in 1494 caused a temporary loss of opportunities for patronage. But the careers of the next generation—including that of Michelangelo, who was Ghirlandaio’s apprentice—were already under way.
Could any of the greatness with which he was surrounded have rubbed off on young Amerigo? The opportunity was certainly there. His tutor was his uncle Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, who was one of the city’s best-connected scholars.2 From the mid-1470s at the latest, Giorgio Antonio belonged to a group of students and patrons who called themselves the “family of Plato.” They made a kind of cult of the philosopher’s memory, reenacting his symposia and burning a never- extinguished light before his bust. The group included the effective ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent himself. Its focal leader —“father” of the “family”—was Marsilio Ficino, who was also priest and physician to the Medici. He called Giorgio Antonio “dearest of friends” and in letters to him used the language of “divine love” that was privy to the members of the circle.3 Other members were with Luigi Pulci, Florence’s most renowned poet at the time; Agnolo Poliziano, the leading scholar and no mean versifier; Pico della Mirandola, expert in the esoteric and even the occult; and Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the geographer who helped to inspire Columbus.
This atmosphere clearly had some—albeit slight—effect on Amerigo. The subject of one of the drafts jotted into his schoolboy exercise book is a letter explaining that the student has bought a text of Plato’s for ten florins, as a present for his tutor; the writer begs pardon for the expense, as the book was worth only three florins.4 Plato can hardly be said to have taken hold of Amerigo’s young mind, which was not particularly well adapted to academic work. And the allusion in the notebook occurs in what may be an exercise rather than a real incident. It would be rash to infer that Vespucci ever read a line of Plato, but the mention places his education in the context of the intellectual interests common in his uncle’s circle.
Because of the extraordinary constellation of talent in the city, which contributed so much to subsequent ways of looking at and thinking about the world, Renaissance Florence evokes sympathy and, in turn, a range of misleading assumptions in people who think back to it today. The city’s popular image is as a place of enlightenment where antiquity was revived and modernity anticipated with classical taste, secular priorities, humanist habits of mind, and a high place for science and reason in the system of values. But every generation likes to spotlight its own modernity against the darkness of the past. We scan the past for signs of Europe’s awakening to progress, prosperity, and values that we can recognize as our own. So we respond to the excitement with which Western writers around 1500 anticipated the dawn of a new golden age. As a result, if you are a product of mainstream Western education, almost everything you ever thought about the Renaissance is likely to be false.
“It inaugurated modern times.” No: Every generation has its own modernity, which grows out of the whole of the past. “It was revolutionary.” No: Scholarship has detected half a dozen prior renaissances. “It was secular” or “It was pagan.” Not entirely: The Church remained the patron of most art and scholarship. “It was art for art’s sake.” No: It was manipulated by plutocrats and politicians. “Its art was unprecedentedly realistic.” Not altogether: Perspective was a new technique, but you can find emotional and anatomical realism in much pre-Renaissance art. “The Renaissance elevated the artist.” No: Medieval artists might achieve sainthood; wealth and titles were derogatory by comparison. “It dethroned scholasticism and inaugurated humanism.” No: It grew out of medieval “scholastic humanism.” “It was Platonist and Hellenophile.” No: There were patches of Platonism, as there had been before, and few scholars did more than dabble in Greek. “It rediscovered lost antiquity.” Not really: Antiquity was never lost, and classical inspiration never withered (though there was an upsurge of interest in the fifteenth century). “The Renaissance discovered nature.” Hardly: There was no pure landscape painting in Europe previously, but nature got cult status in the thirteenth century, when St. Francis of Assisi discovered God outdoors. “It was scientific.” No: For every scientist there was a sorcerer.
Even in Florence, the Renaissance was a minority taste. Brunelleschi’s designs for the Baptistery doors—the project widely held to have inaugurated the Renaissance in 1400—were rejected as too advanced. Masaccio, the revolutionary painter who introduced perspective and sculptural realism into his work for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the 1430s, was only ever the assistant on the project, supervised by a reactionary master. The most popular Italian painters of the age were the most conservative: Pinturicchio, Baldovinetti, and Gozzoli, whose work resembles the glories of medieval miniaturists—brilliant with gold leaf and bright, costly pigments. Michelangelo’s design for the main square of the city —which would have encased the space in a classical colonnade—was never implemented. Much of the supposedly classical art that inspired fifteenth-century Florentines was bogus: The Baptistery was a sixth- or seventh-century building. The church of San Miniato, which the cognoscenti mistook for a Roman temple, was actually no earlier than eleventh-century.
So Florence was not really classical. Some readers may think that is too easy to say. After all, one could claim by similar logic that classical Athens was not classical, for most people there had other values. They worshipped Orphic mysteries, clung to irrational myths, ostracized or condemned some of their most progressive thinkers and writers, and favored social institutions and political strategies similar to those of today’s silent majority: straitlaced, straight- backed family values. The plays of Aristophanes, with their lampoons of louche aristocratic habits, are a better guide to Greek morality than the Ethics of Aristotle.5 Florence, too, had its silent majority, whose voice was heard at about the time Vespucci left the city, in the blood-and-thunder sermons of the reforming friar Girolamo Savonarola, and in the bloodcurdling cries of the street revolutionaries his words helped to stir a few years later. They made a bonfire of Medici vanities and outlawed the pagan sensuality of classical taste. After the revolution, even Botticelli gave up painting erotic commissions and reverted to old-fashioned piety.
Savonarola’s Florence was not classical but medieval. Amerigo’s was not classical but magical. I use the word advisedly, to mean a place where magic was practiced. There were two kinds of magic. Florence, like everywhere else in the world at the time, as far as we know, was full of popular spells and superstitions. Three nights before the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent, lightning struck the cathedral, sending stones from the famous dome crashing to the street. People said Lorenzo had a demon trapped in his ring and had released it as he sensed his impending death. In 1478, when Jacopo de’ Pazzi was hanged for his part in a conspiracy against Medici rule, heavy rains threatened the survival of the cereal crop. Popular wisdom was that it was Jacopo’s fault: His burial in consecrated ground had offended God and disjointed nature. He was dug up and dragged stinking through the streets, while rioters battered his remains before flinging them into the Arno.6
Superstition was not just a vulgar error. There was learned magic, too. The notion that nature could be controlled by human agency was a perfectly rational one. Promising approaches included techniques we now classify as scientific, such as observation, experiment, and the exercise of reason. Astrology, alchemy, conjuration, and sorcery had not yet proved to be false leads. As occultists in Renaissance Florence acknowledged, the difference between magic and science is narrower than most people think today. Both are attempts to explain and therefore to control nature. Western science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries grew, in part, out of magic. The vocations of scientists overlapped with those of magi—wielders of magical techniques for mastering nature. In the circles in which young Amerigo moved, magic was a common passion.
One of the long-abandoned or dormant notions the Renaissance recovered was that ancient people had possessed magic formulae that worked. In pharaonic Egypt, priests had supposedly brought statues to life with arcane talismans. At the dawn of Greece, Orpheus had written incantations that could cure the sick. The ancient Jews had a method of manipulating signs—the kabbalah—to invoke powers normally reserved to God. Renaissance research inspired these claims by supposedly unearthing magical texts from antiquity, which the piety of the Middle Ages had condemned as nonsensical or demonic. Marsilio Ficino argued that magic was good if it was used for healing or for gaining knowledge of nature. Some ancient magical texts, he contended, were lawful reading for Christians.
The most influential text of all was the work supposedly written by an ancient Egyptian known as Hermes Trismegistus, though actually
it was composed by an unidentified Byzantine forger. It arrived in
Florence in about 1460 among a consignment of books bought from Macedonia for the Medici library. It caused a sensation; the translator, who was a devotee of Plato, even gave it priority over the job of translating Plato’s works.7 Renaissance magi felt inspired to pursue “Egyptian” wisdom in search of an alternative to the austere rationalism of classical learning—a fount of older and supposedly purer knowledge than could be had from the Greeks or Romans. The distinction between magic and science as means of attempting to control nature almost vanished in the shadow of Hermes’s influence.
As well as astrology, or instead of it, Florentine magi believed in and practiced astral magic—an attempt to control the stars and therefore to manipulate astrological influences. They also engaged in alchemy and conjuration with numbers. Pico della Mirandola added techniques based on the kabbalah, invoking divine power through spells with numbers. Astrology and astronomy were inseparable disciplines, commonly confused. When Pico turned against astrology in 1495, he had to begin by pointing out the difference between “the reading of forecoming events by the stars” and “the mathematical measurement of stellar sizes and motions.”8 Letters to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Amerigo’s schoolboy companion and future patron, are full of stellar imagery. Ficino wrote him characteristically gushing, faintly homoerotic professions of love, strewn with allusions to the young man’s horoscope. “For anyone who contemplates the heavens, nothing he sets his eyes upon seems immense, but the heavens themselves.”9
Ficino wrote a follow-up letter on the same subject to Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, urging him to explain that the influence of the stars works alongside free will—“the stars within us.”10 An astrolabe, an instrument Amerigo Vespucci later used, or at least brandished, as a navigator, hangs in the background of a painting of St. Augustine that Giorgio Antonio commissioned from Botticelli.11 Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, who influenced Vespucci’s geographical ideas, was a believer in astrology.12 The study of the secrets of the world, the mathematical order of the universe, the relationship between the earth and the stars: These were the common ground of cosmography and magic. Magical thinking and practices surrounded young Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo’s education was, in a sense, the making of a magus.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Amerigo by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Copyright © 2007 by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.