Scrolling through the annals of recorded history, one would be hard pressed to not land on a page filled with the products of human contradiction — the chaos it sows, the progress it engenders. As a society, we work hard to create idols that exemplify an idealized set of beliefs, though it goes without saying that the influential individuals of our cultural heritage are rarely free of moral blemishes; the paths they travel are far from straight, serene, or wholly righteous. One person’s “truth” is often another’s conspiracy; one culture’s norms is often another’s insanity.
We only need to look at the so-called era of Enlightenment to understand that this period, so often applauded for its intellectual and artistic achievements, is steeped in blood, injustice, and magical thinking. Fueled by the ambitions of wealthy elites and religious zealots (sound familiar?), is it any wonder that one of the brightest minds of the time, Voltaire, suggested in his most famous work that we’d all do best to retreat from the world of politics and focus on “tending one’s own garden”?
To better understand the tenor of early 16th century western Europe, telescope into the life of Charles d’Amboise, of the prestigious House of Amboise, one of the oldest families of the French nobility. A governor of Paris, a Duchy of Milan, a seignory of Genoa, from his privileged perch Amboise embraced the perils of art and war. He befriended and supported Leonardo da Vinci; he also thrilled at the prospect of war, jumping head first into The Italian Wars in an attempt to prevent the papacy from consolidating territory.
Da Vinci was himself a bundle of contradictions: best known as the artist responsible for the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper," the avid pseudo-scientist and philosopher who advocated for animal rights also designed innumerous war instruments such as tanks, catapults, submarines, machine guns, and other weapons. It would seem humanism and hypocrisy are not mutually exclusive.
In the case of d’Amboise, the nobleman would meet multiple defeats at the hands of Pope Julius II, who personally led his armed forces at the Siege of Mirandola, and subsequently forced the French out of Italy in alliance with Switzerland and the Holy Roman Empire. Clearly, Julius II was no joke. Nicknamed the Warrior Pope, it’s said that he chose his papal name not in honor of Pope Julius I but in emulation of Julius Caesar! As if the idea of a Pope warring on behalf of a peaceful deity wasn’t confusing enough, consider that Pope Julius II is as responsible for the devastating catholicization (read: colonization) of Latin America, as he is for commissioning the Raphael Rooms and Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel, two cornerstones of the western art tradition.
How can we reconcile these individuals’ flagrant devaluing of life with their vital, enriching achievements? How can we resolve the multifaceted nature of man if not by recognizing the thousand shades of gray that paint each individual action? These Renaissance figures are but a few examples of the interplay between morality and depravity. Civilization has since continued its march, seemingly from one age of empire into the next. And the world turns as it has for thousands of years, a rich agar cultivating complex specters of virulence and vitality.
Written by Andrew Pogany.
Hi there. We are currently away from the computer at the moment. Leave a message & we will promptly reply.
An error occured, please make sure you entered a valid email and message.