Saturday, April 5, 2014

Italian Exceptionalism?

First in a series of blogs that I started during my trip to Italy:

The Italian peninsula  has twice been the apex of human civilization – in two different eras and cultures, over a thousand years apart.
 First the Roman Empire, and then the Renaissance. 

We think the pace of change in our modern world would be incomprehensible to anyone born before 1900, but imagine being a young Florentine coming of age in 1490.  Lorenzo de Medici was still in power.  Italy was still the center of the western world, largely because everyone in Europe – including Spain, which was just completing its liberation from 700 years of Muslim Moorish rule – was Catholic, and owed allegiance to the Pope in Rome.  

Thanks to Marco Polo two centuries earlier, Italy controlled Europe’s trade with the Orient.  In science (Galileo, da Vinci), art (Michaelangelo, Rafael, etc.), and politics, (the de Medicis, the Borgias, Macchiavelli), the leaders of the age came from Italy.    If anything, the fact that Constantinople had finally fallen to the Turks fifty years earlier, after seven centuries of keeping Islam out of southeastern Europe while carrying on the legacy of the Roman Empire, only made Italy’s role as the final heir to Rome more obvious.

Most educated people understood by then that the world was round, but it wasn’t until an Italian, Christopher Columbus, convinced the Spanish king and queen to fund an expedition that it was proven feasible to cross the ocean and return.   That voyage and those that followed proved that there were two whole new continents in the world – but it was the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch that explored and colonized them.  Maybe none of the Italian city-states of the period could have mustered the resources to build, maintain and leverage an overseas empire – but who would have figured Portugal could?  Perhaps Italy was still too preoccupied with maintaining its pre-eminence in Europe. 

But in 1520, up in the northern regions of what had been known for a thousand years as the Holy Roman Empire, a German priest named Martin Luther, began to protest many of the positions of the church in Rome.   A German inventor named Guttenberg invented the printing press and within a very few years people were translating and distributing copies of The Holy Bible from Latin into local languages.  By 1540 – within one adult lifetime  –  many of the German principalities and most of England had left the orbit of the Vatican, and Holland, Switzerland, and Scandinavia were well on the way to following.  At least Spain, the early leader in the European effort to colonize the world, was still Catholic. 

Who would have guessed that Spain’s time as a world power was a mere 50 years away from peaking?   
Despite spreading the Spanish language and the Catholic  faith to half of the New World, Spain’s influence on the continent started declining shortly after the loss of the Spanish Armada.  Italy’s decline was a century underway by then.  I wonder if anyone was aware of it?

One could argue that the Florentine who was born in 1470 and reached his 70s by 1540 saw the world change in more fundamental ways than anyone born in 1890 who saw the automobile, the airplane, radio and television, and nuclear power come into existence.    I wonder who was more conscious of the change?

How intentionally did Italy resist or  ignore the changes in the world?   As the rest of feudal Europe coalesced into modern nation-states, did the Italian leadership – or even public – intentionally refuse to adopt such changes?   And was a sense of “Italian Exceptionalism” a reason why?  

I’m sure there has been a great deal of scholarship on this question, and I’ll probably look some of it up.  It was just interesting being in Italy, amidst such epic six-century-old grandeur, and wondering about it.  

I’m sure some national sense of “catching up” (modern Italy wasn’t united until 1871) and “reclaiming our rightful place as a leading power” explains Mussolini – although our guide spoke with embarrassment about that era; very little fascist architecture remains; and Rome still quietly marks the “liberation”  by the Allies from the Axis (the 70th anniversary occurred while we there). When I think of modern Italy, I think of food, film, fashion, sports cars, and the Azzurri national soccer team.  It’s still the ninth largest economy in the world.  Not bad things to be known for.