Few times in history has one generation been so packed with cultural and political dynamite as the late 1400’s and early 1500’s. And the city of Florence was its epicentre. Five of the most influential men in Western Civilization crossed paths in one city and at one time, leaving their indelible marks on Europe and the whole world. Each man was committed to his particular cause so absolutely that this cross section of history reads like fiction. Examining these biographies shows us the classic human appetites and the consequences of each.
Pope Leo X (a.k.a. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) – December 11, 1475 – December 1, 1521
Born into the Medici family, Giovanni was pope from 1513 until his death in 1521. The Medici family was a Florence-based ultra-wealthy banking family from the 1400’s to the 1700’s. They single-handedly paid for the majority of the Renaissance. Finding artisan and science talent ranging from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangleo to Botticelli, Raphael and Galileo, and putting it to work in Florence. Medici money paid for Brunelleschi to design and build the roof of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Solving a 100-plus year old engineering puzzle and placing what is still the largest free-standing brick dome in the world on top of Florence’s spiritual centre.
It was Giovanni’s family treasury that paved the way for his ascension to the papacy after a failed attempt by Machiavelli to thwart his rise. And within a year as Pope Leo X, Giovanni’s lavish parties and hunting expeditions bankrupted the entire Roman Church. So the Medici Pope lowered the prices of indulgences so that even poor farmers could afford instant forgiveness. Sales of catholic indulgences went through the roof, becoming the last straw on Martin Luther’s back and sparking the Reformation. Pope Leo X was a classic model of a liberal unbeliever in church clothes. Paul warned believers against such men in Jude:
What were these false teachers like? Paul compares them to Cain , who murdered his brother instead of simply taking God’s correction. Another example given is Balaam, who desired to put a curse on Israel in exchange for cold, hard cash. Power hungry Korah wanted to overthrow Moses as God’s chosen man. Self-willed men who want money and power. Martin Luther was quoted as saying: “I feel much freer now that I am certain the pope is the Antichrist.” Pope Leo X used money to attain the papacy and used the papacy to gain more money.
Savonarola – September 21, 1452 – May 23, 1498
Born in a rich family, Girolamo Savonarola became a devout student of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and the Bible. By 20 he’d penned the book “On the Downfall of the World” and by 23 another entitled “On the Downfall of the Clergy.” Eventually he was sent to Florence to preach and quickly became a public and charismatic figure. A common topic from his pulpit was a belief that the world was entering the Last Days. When the Medici family was expelled from Florence by the French in 1494, Savonarola emerged as the city’s new commander-in-chief. He quickly established Florence as a “Christian and Religious Republic.” He made sodomy punishable by death and lead a purge of Florence’s “vanity” by sending an army of men and boys door-to-door, collecting “articles of vanity” such as wigs, make-up, hand mirrors, nude paintings and pagan philosophy.
The town gathered in the city square and burned these items in what was dubbed “the Bonfire of the Vanities.” Interestingly, his most vocal opponent was a Franciscan preacher who challenged Savonarola publicly. Savonarola never accepted the duel and continued to preach simple and ascetic lifestyles for Florentines. The effect of which was to help throw the city into a deep recession. Savonarola troubled the Church of Rome by declaring himself to be a prophet. This and his public denouncing of corrupt Roman clergy landed him at the stake in 1498 where he was publicly burnt in the same square as his “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
His imaginative sermons predicted the looming of apocalyptic events and for a time captivated Florence. Savonarola’s devoted followers were known as the Weepers because of their propensity for public wailing.
Savonarola typifies legalistic Christianity. Although it is said that his written works inspired Michelangelo and Martin Luther, it cannot be said that all of his actions were biblical. It was the Pharisees who wanted to stone the adultress and it was Christ who forbade them. Would Christ have desired burning homosexuals at the stake?
Is it wise to turn a political state into a Church State? It has never proven to work. Should the church ban mirrors, make up and non-Christian books? Historically it did nothing to make Florence more pious and it is not prescribed by the bible nor by Christianity’s most influential preachers.
It is rumoured that Savonarolla was summoned to the deathbed of one of the Medici family members and refused to offer Christ’s mercy. Instead he guaranteed the man’s condemnation. Savonarola may have had beliefs in common with Martin Luther but he had overtly legalistic, superficially-focused practices. He can be accused of demonstrating far too much propensity for speaking truth and little to no aptitude for showing grace. Like taking the skin off a baby, it’s always an abberation to scalp God’s Grace from God’s Truth:Savonarola is another classic example of what happens when obedience is raised above love as the most desired fruit of the spirit : no one gets any holier, and sooner or later, you’re only spreading despair.
It is difficult to say whether or not Savonarola was a Christian. We have to realize that there is such a thing as unconverted fire and brimstone preachers. And it is not only the lascivious that are false, but the hyper-religious. Paul blasted the Judaizers for burdening believers with the Law of Moses. Christ and John the Baptist vented against the Pharisees, the hardest working religious Jews in town. In modern times, there are still false teachers in the church who, like perhaps Savonarola, represent the error of legalism. Well respected theologian A.W. Pink (1886-1952) spent the last 16 years of his life isolated in his home. According to him there were no “true” churches on planet earth so he abandoned all church membership and forsook all fellowship until he died:
“If there are any ‘churches’ which are scriptural in their membership, in their maintenance of discipline, in their preaching, and in all that concerns their public services, we do not know where to find them. We have traveled completely around the world, but there is no church known to us where we could hold membership.” – A.W. Pink
Leonard Ravenhill was preaching in the same country as A.W. Pink at that time. Was he not “biblical” enough for Pink? A.W. Tozer was still preaching in Chicago during Pink’s isolation years. Was his church “unspiritual?”
Was A.W. Pink a Judaizer? An uncoverted preacher? I don’t think so, but I believe he made a classic legalist’s mistake and was on the verge of apostasy. If no church was good enough for A.W. Pink what was Christ doing among His disciples? Was it more insufferable for Pink than for Christ? And whose example do we follow? It is sobering to see that even in our later years, legalism can grow instead of shrink. Spiritual maturity can leave instead of flourish, even in the most hard-working individual…
Leonardo da Vinci – April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519
At 14, Leonardo was sent to Florence to study art under master Verrocchio, whose workshop was fully funded for by the Medici family. His works are among the most famous art pieces in history. The Mona Lisa is the most parodied and recognizable portrait of all time. His “The Last Supper” mural is the most reproduced religious painting in history and his “Vitruvian Man” is one of the most well-known icons in Western Civilization.
The term “Renaissance Man” emerged partly from Leonardo’s generation. A time in which artists were trained scientifically and philosophically as well as artistically. Known as “polymaths” men such as Gallileo produced revolutionary works in math, astronomy, anatomy and philosophy. Michelangelo produced some of the most famous paintings, murals and sculptures. Leonardo crossed over from painting and dabbled in anatomical studies and engineering projects such as the diagrams of helicopters, tanks and even solar heating systems.
Despite the fact that most of the paintings attributed to Leonardo are religious in subject, there is no evidence to support that he personally held to a Christian worldview. Unlike Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal and other famous Christian scientists, Leonardo did not produce any theological writings in his private time. He is reputed to have been a vegetarian who bought animals only to set them free. The consensus amongst historians places Leonardo in the secular humanist camp. A classic example of an unbeliever peacefully working within a Christian context but never personally awakening to Christ.
Michelangelo – March 6, 1475 – February 18, 1564
The only man to truly rival Leonardo da Vinci as the greatest artist of all time was born to a government worker who moved the family to Florence where he owned a marble quarry. During his mother’s illness when he was just 6 years old, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, lived with a stone cutter. It therefore seems poetic that he produced some of the most well known sculptures in the history of art. Thinking himself a sculptor first and foremost, Michelangelo produced the Pieta and David before the age of 30 and disdained the “wasted time” on the Sistene Chapel ceiling and wall. He received much of his technical training at the Medici workshop and much of his early works were Medici family funded.
In regards to Michelangelo’s faith, most historians make a case for his Christianity. Much of the private poetry he wrote in his late years is Christian in theme. And these were personal works collected after his death, they were not public works. Michelangelo was also an avid reader of Dante, whose Divine Comedy is one the most famous Christian literary works of all time. There are no major details of his life which would contradict the notion that he was a genuine, penitent Christian. He typifies the working class believer who does not lead churchmen into battle, but holds the Christian worldview to be true. Most believers are not church leaders, but take Christian principles to work. Perhaps Michelangelo can be an inspiration to the believer who is called to excel outside the church instead of lead it from within.
Niccolò Machiavelli – May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527
Best known for his book “The Prince,” which serves as a “how-to” guide on ruthless rise to political power, Machiavelli’s name is now best remembered as an adjective: machiavellian. It is synonymous with treachery and ambition. Machiavelli lived out this lifestyle before sitting down to write about it, and his ambitions revolved around Florence and the Medici family empire.
At the turn of the century in 1500, the Medici family were in exile from Florence. Yet they were rumoured to be mounting a come back. Wealthy Florentian families hired Machiavelli to keep the Medicis out of Florentine power. He organized citizen militias from several neighbouring towns. Using his political wits and speaking ability, he mounted an impressive resistance against the Medici family. But alas, the deep Medician coffers had purchased professional Spanish mercenaries that eventually overthrew the Machiavellian resistance. True to form, once the Medicis had regained Florence, Machiavelli approached them asking for a job. He was subsequently tortured and sent into exile where he wrote “The Prince” as well as other books and popular plays.
Niccolò Machiavelli personifies selfish ambition and materialism. He never pretended to be Christian and was highly critical of the biblical worldview. He saw resting in God’s providence as “lazy” and taking control of one’s affairs as more virtuous. Machiavelli was a deeply carnal man who wanted results instead of ideals. Some have branded him as a forerunner to Nietzsche and the french existentialists.
Standing in sharp contrast to the “get paid now” philosophy of Machiavelli is Christ’s words in Mark chapter 8:
Machiavelli teaches that the soul does not exist and therefore this life is the only paradise that exists. So grab it. Christ compares this life to a bus stop. It is brief and unimportant compared to Eternity. Live life in light of eternity, not the here and now.
Niccolò Machiavelli represents a characteristic that underlies all humanity. Pride. It exists even in the Christian’s heart. Yet the Christian readily identifies it as evil and not good. And he fights against it. Our modern secular society may sneer at the undiluted selfish deceitfulness of a Machiavelli, but they secretly hold to his ethics: you come first, above everyone and everything else.
Modern secular man boast that man created God in his image. And having no further use for this Father Figure, has thrown Him away. You can see Machiavellian double lives in almost all levels of political power. People expect corruption in high office and see government as a grid lock of selfish ambition. We have forsaken the ideals of truth, freedom and honour and fully embraced the practical selfishness of Machiavelli. And we are test driving this political philosophy off a cliff. The reality is, proper ideals are not infantile but necessary. Personal ambition is poison to society and culture.
Martin Luther – November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546
Although not living in Florence, Martin Luther was influenced by the Medici family whose son ascended to the papacy as Leo X. And after running the Vatican bank dry with his lavish lifestyle, Pope Leo X sold tickets for instant forgiveness (i.e.: indulgences) so cheap that even peasants were purchasing them. Although not the only reason for Luther’s rebellion against Rome, it was the defining moment. Therefore not only is the Medici family and Florence the center of the largest cultural revolution in the past thousand years (i.e.: the Renaissance) it was at the epicenter of the largest social, political, philosophical and ideological revolution of the past 2,000 years: the Reformation.