The Power of the Past: Florence

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In a film by David Grubin, Bill Moyers tours the Renaissance legacy of Florence seeking sources of our common artistic, architectural and cultural heritage. Guided by historians, Florentine citizens and interviews with Umberto Eco and Franco Zeffirelli, Moyers explores the roots of key contemporary ideas, like the preeminence of the individual.


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BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] At an ancient crossroads in Italy you can feel the heartbeat of a modern city. The city of Florence. Florence is a 20th century city. Visitors come here from all over the world because there is another Florence. An old city with a message from the past. This very spot was once a meeting place for ideas and brought our modern world into being. Centuries later we are still grappling with the power of the ideas that flourished here. To come to Florence today is to confront a present of the past.

BILL MOYERS: What was — life like in the streets of Florence 500 years ago?

TIMOTHY BURTON: It wasn’t all that much different from the way you see it today. This was the commercial area. These shops would have been in harsh competition. They would have been open to the street. No glass, obviously. People’s wares on the street. Hawkers. Smells that you can’t believe. Sort of —

BILL MOYERS: Timothy Burton is a former Benedictine monk. Now a scholar and art historian whose specialty is the religious spirit of the Italian Renaissance. He teaches at Florida State University’s study center in Florence.

TIMOTHY BURTON: But also wonderful smells. Spice shops in the street that we just passed, the Via Del Espizziale (PH).

BILL MOYERS: That’s still the same.

TIMOTHY BURTON: That’s still the same. Today, goodness, you go into a cheese shop and it’s the feet of God, as they say. (LAUGH) Absolutely glorious aromas. But on these streets Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, later Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo would have had to hustle their way through the crowds —

BILL MOYERS: How long would it take us to walk across?

TIMOTHY BURTON: You could have walked from east to west or north to south, right across the city, in 15 minutes fast, 20 minutes if you were strolling.

BILL MOYERS: And see things like this?

TIMOTHY BURTON: You would have seen things like this. Not many. This is one of the greatest buildings, though, of the medieval city. It’s Orsanmichele. It’s the guild church. Florentines had a vision of themselves, like the ancient Romans who had founded this city originally, capable of creating a magnificent society. And they wanted the public buildings of this city to illustrate that. To absolutely gleam.

BILL MOYERS: So the art would go on these buildings, not in museums?

TIMOTHY BURTON: There’s no such thing as a museum. The art was made to communicate certain features, certain issues, certain characteristics of the society spontaneously. The man in the street.

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Renaissance Florence was a city state. It wrote its own laws and determined its own destiny. Besieged by enemies from abroad and (UNINTEL) with conspiracies at home, it was a quarreling, contentious society that saw the rise of an exuberant creativity.

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Certainly in this little spot of Earth that we call Tuscany, and more particularly in Florence, the 250 years from 1300 to roughly 1550, there was the most extraordinary flowering of talent and genius and great craft and art. And —

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Sidney Alexander has written widely on the Italian Renaissance, including three books on Michelangelo. He first came to Florence just after the Second World War and wound up living here for 30 years.

BILL MOYERS: And do you have a sense, living here those 30 years, of — of two worlds, the world of the past and the world of the present? Or do they so merge in Florence that you never bother to separate them?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Well, I did separate them but I think the past is so present that it ceases to be the past. Everything becomes the present. But the present has this rich, historical dimension which is so wonderful.

BILL MOYERS: If you and I had been sitting here 500 years ago — would we have been aware of these great works of art being produced in the midst of our daily lives?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Yes. I think you would have been aware of it. You wouldn’t have known that you were in the Renaissance. That is to say (CHUCKLE) a renaissance man didn’t know he a renaissance man. But they certainly knew about art. And the artists played a very great role in both civic life, religious life — the great rising merchant class employed them for their palaces.

It was a thriving, active city in which there were many inventions — quite — quite apart from art. For example, there was the invention of double entry bookkeeping (LAUGH) in the city of Florence. And you had this combination of piety and commerce when merchants would write on their account books as they began a new double entry account book, “In nomed di dio e guan guadanio.” In the name of God and good prophets. (LAUGHTER) God and good prophets would very well together —

BILL MOYERS: Very much for the modern world, right?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Absolutely. And the modern world, you may say, began here.

BILL MOYERS: What was unique about the art that came out of that period?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: What the Renaissance is all about is all about is the humanization of the divine. The Christ child became a bambino. Became everybody’s baby. The ma — Madonna — the Mary became one’s sweetheart. One’s wife. This holy iconography was here. Now. Honored. In flood.

BILL MOYERS: What brought this, though? Why did they s — become so possessed of the human —

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Well, that went together with a whole revolution of values. Of rediscovering the world. It was a rediscovery of the values of the world.

BILL MOYERS: The rediscovery of the human values at the heart of the Renaissance didn’t happen overnight. It evolved slowly out of another way of seeing and feeling. Out of another world. The world of the Middle Ages. One of the few buildings in Florence that survive from that time is the Baptistery. To gaze up at the mosaics on its ceiling is to enter the mind of the Middle Ages. Christ, for the last judgment. Hierarchy of saints and angels. Terrifying scenes of heaven and hell.

PIERO MORSELLI: Yes. All this is the Middle Ages in its great glory. There is the entire Christological cycle depicted here. And also there are scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, to whom this building is dedicated.

BILL MOYERS: Why has this building been so revered by the Florentines?

PIERO MORSELLI: All the Florentine were baptize here. Even Dante was baptize here.

BILL MOYERS: You’re a Florentine. Were you baptized here?

PIERO MORSELLI: Yes, I was lucky and honored to be baptize here. And so my son Lorenzo was also — lucky and had the privilege of being baptize here seven years ago. Now unfortunately this building doesn’t serve its original function any further.

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Piero Morselli has long taught the history of the art in his native city to students who come to Florence from Syracuse University.

BILL MOYERS: And what do you see of the themes of the Middle Ages here?

PIERO MORSELLI: Well — we have, first of all, this large monumental image of Christ who is overpowering all the other images surrounding him. It’s Christ the judge. He is the most important thing. Not the man, but Christ the God. This is typical of the Middle Ages.

BILL MOYERS: Look at the feet.

PIERO MORSELLI: Unarticulated.

BILL MOYERS: Yes.

PIERO MORSELLI: Unrealistic. It says is standardized according to the style of the time. Is — is fixed, frontally depicted. Flat. Without any kind of — volumetric image. You see?

BILL MOYERS: Nothing of the real anatomy.

PIERO MORSELLI: Exactly. It doesn’t count. What it counts is the message that it conveys by its great giant, by its — gesturing and by those great burning eyes is judging. You see the hands. Look at the left arm and the left hand. Is negating. Is pushing away. Is condemning all those souls of the damned who are being devoured by Satan, by those diabolic creatures. And on the other side is — is uprising the souls of the blessed. Of the good. And it’s welcome them to his world.

BILL MOYERS: And we know almost nothing about the artists who worked on this project.

PIERO MORSELLI: Absolutely nothing. The artist didn’t count. It was only hands of the service of the church. We are nothing. We just have to accept this message.

UMBERTO ECO: In the Middle Ages everybody knew that it was in the tradition of somebody else. The ruling idea was we are dwarves on the shoulders of giants.

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Umberto Eco wrote the bestselling novels The Name of The Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. He’s a renowned medieval scholar who teaches at the University of Bologna.

BILL MOYERS: You use the term “the medieval spirit.” What was it?

UMBERTO ECO: The world is a perfect organization in which everything has a place and every place — is — and every position is a role. Every role collaborating to the glory of God and the salvation of man. There was a precise form of the world.

And — the wisdom consisted in knowing where you were. Even socially — you were a king, you were a poor, you were a peasant, you were a warrior. But there was a place for everything. Nothing was out of place. It was impossible on the Middle Age to understand the concept so clear today, especially to an American, like, to make money.

In the Middle Ages you couldn’t make money. Either you have money, you were a king — or you we a poor. It was not our idea of making money in the sense of accumulating in order to change our social status. The Renaissance is a civilization made by merchants where the idea of making money — becomes — to be — to be understandable and interesting.

To make money means to transform — our social environment. Our work. And so you — you can see the — the relationship between this economical — new ideology and the — idea of transforming the world. That you cannot understand the people of the Renaissance if you don’t understand that they are engaging in transforming God better. They had the sensation that growing up as complete human beings, all the order of the universe would have been better and God with it. They were saving God. In the Middle Ages they were expecting that God saved them.

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Inside, mystery, faith and authority. Outside, on this same baptistery, a revolution. If the Florentine Renaissance could be assigned a beginning, many people would mark it by these panels on the doors of the baptistery. Perhaps the most famous doors in the world.

BILL MOYERS: Interesting to me these doors are — these doors are still used. They’re doors. (LAUGH) They’re not just —

PIERO MORSELLI: They’re quite heavy.

BILL MOYERS: — museum pieces. Yes. Wonder how heavy they are.

PIERO MORSELLI: Well, it takes about — two people normally to — close them. You know?

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Once these bronze panels were shiny and plated in gold. (BACKGROUND VOICES) Through centuries of wind, rain and grime they have remained an objective of study and admiration. Thirty-four panels adorn two sets of doors with scenes depicting stories from the Bible told with inspired detail.

Their creator was no anonymous artist. We know his name. And we know what he looks like, because he left his image sculpted there. He was Lorenzo Ghiberti. And in the new spirit of the age he won the commission to create the doors in a competition that has become a part of Renaissance lore.

PIERO MORSELLI: This is the panel which gave the victory to Ghiberti.

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Many artists competed for the prize. Each contestant submitted a model panel to the judges. You can still see the panels of the two finalists in the Bargello Museum.

PIERO MORSELLI: The challenge was to insert a very complex kind of subject matter, the sacrifice of Isaac, into a quatrefoil shape.

BILL MOYERS: And when you look closely you see that Abraham’s eyes are closed. The father cannot behold what he’s about to do.

PIERO MORSELLI: This is the famous — leap of faith. He’s being tested for his faith. And he has no other choice but then to believe that God will eventually stop the whole thing.

BILL MOYERS: How many artists per — participated in the contest?

PIERO MORSELLI: Seven of them. Coming not only from Florence but also from Sienna and other towns. So foreigners, we met say.

BILL MOYERS: And the finalists were?

PIERO MORSELLI: Two, Ghiberti the winner and Brunelleschi, the great loser.

BILL MOYERS: That — is a high standard for losing. That’s so striking.

PIERO MORSELLI: It has all the connotation of a modern work for art —

BILL MOYERS: And what’s —

PIERO MORSELLI: — for a strong realist and naturalist.

BILL MOYERS: Strong realism?

PIERO MORSELLI: Exactly. Look at the figure of the father who is actually holding firmly and strongly, almost suffocating, the neck of his son, while he’s plunging the knife into his neck. You see? And therefore the angel interesting case has to physically stop the father’s hand. See? So there is this very beautiful interaction between the three hands. This is a very strong — realistic panel. And I think these qualities disturbed the committee.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

PIERO MORSELLI: Well, I don’t think that they were ready for something so natural — naturalistic such as this. This brutal realism.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, the drama of the story, the human beings taking part in the story, are at the forefront.

PIERO MORSELLI: Exactly. Brunelleschi’s more interested in the drama that he’s tormenting the — the — the mind and the heart of — Abraham in this moment. This is one of the aspects, by the way, of the Renaissance, throughout the 15th century. Is the attention to man. To the human mind. Diminishing certain times the religious importance of the work of art.

BILL MOYERS: What — happened when — when the judges said — “Ghiberti wins. Brunelleschi loses.”

PIERO MORSELLI: Stories — tell us that — they have asked also Brunelleschi to participate, to collaborate with Ghiberti the creation of the doors, but Brunelleschi refused in anger. He say, “No. A genius cannot collaborate with another genius.”

BILL MOYERS [VOICE-OVER] Ghiberti worked over the next 50 years to complete the assignment. Many of the panels have now been restored to their original luster. It was said of them that they did not look as if they had been cast and polished, but rather as if they had been created by a breath.

FEMALE VOICE #1: You know, in these — panels, no part has more than three inches’ relief. And yet you see the beautiful depth. He made the door, he made the frame around it. Look how delicate (UNINTEL PHRASE) flower.

BILL MOYERS: Ghiberti began life a simple craftsman, a goldsmith. The doors made him famous. In his autobiography he wrote, “Few are the things of importance created in our country that have not been designed and carried out by my own hand.” Like many Florentines, Lorenzo Ghiberti was not a modest man.

BILL MOYERS: This is Ghiberti?

PIERO MORSELLI: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what does that tell us about it?

PIERO MORSELLI: Well, together with of the reading of the inscription there. Laurenti Cionis de Ghiberti, We have — a reflection of the artists’ — own dignity. And what he has become. Indeed the quote “artist” end of quote. Which is — the beginning of the whole story of the Renaissance which — eventually will lead us to our modern time.

BILL MOYERS: What did — what — right above this panel it says — what — what is that?

PIERO MORSELLI: Mira arte fabricato. There is also — an inscription which — which — tell us about the way the Ghiberti saw himself. “Look at this beautiful work which I have done.”

BILL MOYERS: That’s what that said?

PIERO MORSELLI: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: Look at the beautiful —

PIERO MORSELLI: The work —

BILL MOYERS: — look at this beautiful work that I have done.

PIERO MORSELLI: That —

BILL MOYERS: I have done.

PIERO MORSELLI: — I have done. You see? Michelangelo, who was also Florentine, as well know, in admiring this — doors, he described them as being indeed worthy of the doors of paradise.

BILL MOYERS: That’s one of the stunning things to me about the — the presence of the past today. Ghiberti did this. Michelangelo stood here 100 years later. How man —

BILL MOYERS: — and here we are right here, standing interesting same place, admiring the same art. You think Ghiberti knew he was creating something for the ages like that?

PIERO MORSELLI: I think he was very well aware of it. I think — that smile absolutely indicates that. (TRAFFIC)

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] The newfound pride of the artist matched the pride of the city. Florence had grown prosperous as a center of the cloth industry. Its rich families became bankers and traders, lending money to popes and kings and growing richer still. They took pride in financing public projects as well as their private palaces. This palazzo along the Arno is no museum. This is the home of the Capponi’s.

NICCOLO CAPPONI: After you.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you.

NICCOLO CAPPONI: This is the — the red room. The drapery was done in 17th century, end of the 17th century.

BILL MOYERS: Niccolo Capponi is the oldest son of an illustrious Florentine family. He and others of the family live interesting palazzo which they’ve owned from the 15th century when the Capponis were rich and powerful members of the ruling class. So well connected, they have their own private chapel for family worship.

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Well, this is the family treasure.

BILL MOYERS: What does this say up there?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: (Italian) Privileged altar for perpetuity. My privilege, because until the Vatican council I mean you couldn’t say mass where — where you wanted. You needed to have a special privilege, a special — I don’t know, document that said, “Okay, you can.” And this was given a privilege that you could say mass three times a week. It was not only an act of devotion. It was also an act of — power.

BILL MOYERS: To have a private chapel represented the power of the connection between the Capponis and the church?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Showed their social position.

BILL MOYERS: When you were a child were you brought into the private chapel here?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: I was baptized here.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, you were?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Yes, with a full — the fan panoply and everything else.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: I mean all the drapery and — everything else. I was draped in the family coat of arms and —

BILL MOYERS: When you were growing up did your family make a special effort to make you aware of that history? Of the renaissance, of the Capponis going back to the 14th century?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is — goes back to when I was seven. It was a Sunday in spring. And my father decided to take me around Florence and explain to me the whole of the history of Florence. I understood very little at the time, of course. He was saying at a certain part, “Here there start to be some houses.”

And — talking to — the present. You see? And I couldn’t understand because the houses were there. Had always been there. I mean (FOREIGN PHRASE). But I remember distinctively taking — he taking me in front of Palazzo Vecchio, pointing at it and saying, “You see those stones? We are like those stones. When we die one of those stones falls.” (CLICKING)

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] While the patronage of the merchant princes created opportunities for the artisans of Florence to bring those stones to life, the workers themselves were most often poor peasant boys. The workshops where they were apprenticed became the art schools of the Renaissance. Their skills, passed on from one generation to another and surviving today, were the basis then of the great achievements of the age.

BILL MOYERS: Workshops like this were all over the heart of old Florence.

TIMOTHY BURTON: Especially on this side of the Arno. The area that we’re in was thick with shops. Still is. Where these traditions of skill, this careful carving of humble materials, wood, here, has been carried on for centuries.

BILL MOYERS: Florence was certainly lucky in the presence of — so many manufacturers — with talent and — and artisans with skills, right?

TIMOTHY BURTON: The distinction between artist and artisan, which today seems like a great one, then was much less. Many of the greatest artists in fact began and continued through their careers fashioning these beautiful objects.

BILL MOYERS: What is Mr. Bartolozzi working on?

TIMOTHY BURTON: (translating for Mr. Bartolozzi)
In this replica of an 18th century vase has he been asked to create a display of fruit and flowers.

BILL MOYERS: How did he get started in the craft?

TIMOTHY BURTON: (translating for Mr. Bartolozzi)
From the time he was a small child he worked with a craftsman in his neighborhood—When he was 18 he was urged to enter a competition—

TIMOTHY BURTON: (translating for Mr. Bartolozzi)
It was a competition for young artisans in all fields — There were silversmiths. There were woodworkers. There were carvers. 150 in his category. He won. And it wasn’t merely that he brought an object he had made. The object had to be made right there and in two hours created a work of art that won the contest.

TIMOTHY BURTON: (translating for Mr. Bartolozzi)
It was like falling into a river in full state. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with commissions —
Shortly thereafter he decided to open his own shop which in fact we see around us. And he says that from that time he’s always had more work than he can handle.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Because they were bound to guild and patron, the artisans and craftsmen faced limited opportunities. Jewelers, goldsmiths, metal workers, wood cutters all would spend their lives in the obscurity of the workshop, decorating anything from a chapel to a shop sign. Unless and until they were touched by genius and great good luck it happened to a butcher’s son named Donatello.

MALE GUIDE #1: It really is splendid.

BILL MOYERS: Donatello.

MALE GUIDE #1: This is typical of his interest in the nude —

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Some of Donatello’s work is now displayed in the Bargello Museum.

MALE GUIDE #1: This is the early marble David made for the buttress of the cathedral and —

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Once his statutes stood on buildings and in public squares all across the city, proclaiming the beliefs and hopes of the Florentine people. Donatello apprenticed a a stone cutter. One of his first commissions was a marble David designed for high above the city on the great cathedral.

To Florentines continually assailed by neighboring states, David represented the courage of the underdog against looming enemy. With hammer and chisel Donatello infused inanimate matter with feeling, movement and life. His subject was always the same. Human beings with all their hopes and ambitions, their suffering and pride.

MALE GUIDE #1: One of the most impressive works in the room is this marble St. George made for the niche of the sword and armor makers on Orsanmichele.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the story that the statue tells?

MALE GUIDE #1: Well, the story in one sense is the conventional one of St. George. A Christian knight who came up on a pagan princess who was threatened by a dragon. He killed the dragon, freed her. Her father, in recognition, said, “I and my daughter and my kingdom will accept your religion.” But the real story here is the story of Florence in these first decades of the 15th century repeatedly besieged. And the Florentines want to see themselves as men called by God to defend sacred principles.

BILL MOYERS: Called by God, yes, but there’s something so human in that. The human form. The anatomy of — of George is — is that of a man, not a saint.

MALE GUIDE #1: Well, this is the great change from what is often called the gothic style, the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance. To think of saints, as John Ruskin somewhere says humorously, as “always having skinny legs,” (LAUGHTER) is not appropriate to the Renaissance. The Renaissance wants its saints to have flesh and blood. They want saints that look something like themselves but themselves as they might be if and when they rise to the full challenge of the occasion.

BILL MOYERS: The artist was saying, in a sense — “You too can do it, Florentines. If St. George can slay the dragon, you can slay the enemy.”

MALE GUIDE #1: That’s the message of much of this sculpture in these early years. Later Donatello changes but as a member of this society, as a Florentine himself in these tense decades he rises fully to the occasion and creates images that can bring others with him.

I think this would have been even more apparent when, unlike today, you didn’t come to a museum to admire ’em as a work of art, but as you went about your business your eye would wander, unbeknownst to yourself, up and suddenly you would be hit by the courage, the resolve that perhaps you yourself had had to muster for that occasion. You’re looking here at the rebirth of this dramatic statement of who we are and what we’re about. The Florentines in these years find it here.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Part of the Renaissance spoke to life because it was a part of life. It was civic art. Propaganda for the imagination. Even when it was to decorate the cathedral or the bell tower designed by Giotto, art’s purpose was to teach citizens the lessons of their public lives. Ambitious craftsmen like Donatello were called upon to instruct and inspire. You looked at those prophets and were reminded that God’s presence was here in man himself.

BILL MOYERS: Why do the Florentines call this statute ” Zuccone.”

MALE GUIDE #1: In Italian the word zuccha means squash. Zuccone means a big squash. He’s what we would call a pumpkin head. His baldness is given the nickname pumpkin head. Not only is that a realistic head — we can still on the streets of Florence in the working quarters see people with a kind of leathery, gnarled neck, with this statute we are told that as he carved it he looked at it and impricating (PH), said something like, “Dammit, speak to me,” because he himself felt how close to actual life he had come here.

BILL MOYERS: He’s almost speaking.

MALE GUIDE #1: He’s almost speaking. The mouth —

BILL MOYERS: But not quiet.

MALE GUIDE #1: — the mouth, so wide with the shadow. The chisel cutting up under the teeth so that the upper lip will cast that shadow that makes you feel words can come out.

BILL MOYERS: What does this say about Donatello’s growing sense of idea of and use of the body? The human body.

MALE GUIDE #1: If you consider that this statue is some 10 years after the St. George — the St. George, where even though he was able to show the hips thrust forward, the courage of the stance, he was using armor that protected Donatello from having to show off how little he actually knew about the anatomy of the body.

Here, only 10 years later, he is able to show us the powerful swell of a chest under this drapery. He has attained a brilliant understanding of the anatomy of the human body which can, perhaps, be seen more clearly in this figure, often thought of as somewhat later. It is the head of this figure that inspires Michelangelo’s David.

BILL MOYERS: What do you see when you look in — in that face?

MALE GUIDE #1: I see weariness. I see even resignation. And yet I see a grim resolve.

BILL MOYERS: It’s powerful close up but it’s even more powerful when you imagine looking up at it, which is how Donatello thought it would be seen. Is that right?

MALE GUIDE #1: Exactly. These figures can not be seen in the museum as they should be in reality, but if you get down on your knee, or better yet, actually recline on the pavement and look up at a sharply angled view, you get some notion of the dramatic lift of the figure. And, in this figure, the Jeremiah, the way that noble head seems slowly to rise and the gaze to carry out over the rooftops of the city.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] While Donatello inspired Florence with sculpture animated by human emotion, another artist of blazing originality was transforming painting. He too was attempting a new grasp of reality, showing human beings as they were in the streets of the city.

Inside the Church of Santa Maria Del Carmine is a small chapel named after the Brancacci, the Italian family that commissioned the frescoes decorating its walls. These frescoes are today perhaps the most important in all of Florence.

For centuries they were covered with dirt and soot, their original shapes and colors hidden from us. Now, the restorer’s genius has lifted away the layers of grime and the fig leaves added by an artist of a later, more prudish time. The man who painted these frescoes died before his 28th birthday. His name was Masaccio.

FREDERICO ZERI: One could speak about these frescoes for weeks. Incredible how many people studied — this — cycle. It was a sort of a textbook for the 15 and early 16th century. Then—

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Frederico Zeri is one of the world’s leading authorities on Italian painting. He has taught at Columbia and Harvard and is the author of dozens of books and catalogues for museum collections throughout the world.

BILL MOYERS: What are these stories telling us here?

FREDERICO ZERI: They’re telling — about — St. Peter. Like very much this one with — St. Peter healing poor people with his shadow walking through the streets. What is extraordinary is the dignity of the walk of St. Peter. You feel that he is walking as — someone supernatural. You feel that man is seeing something dignified. There is a sort of deep respect for the human mind in these frescoes.

And then I find it amazing that before 1428 someone should have painted that cripple for instance. That is something that must have been often seen in the streets of Florence. Then there is an old beggar almost naked. Masaccio is a man who had — seen with open eyes Florence, the inhabitants, the problems of Florence, the society.

This is what I — I admire in Masaccio. And this is why I find him so extraordinary. He doesn’t try to hide. Usually painters try to hide. They hide — an ugly face. They make it beautiful. Think of the thousands and thousands portraits painted in Italy during the 16th century. Very seldom you find an ugly face.

BILL MOYERS: We take it for granted today because it’s been around so long, but this reality, this discovery of reality, was new and radical for that time.

FREDERICO ZERI: Yes. Very radical. It — it is a sort of break with what we call the medieval world and the medieval culture. Complete — total break. In Masaccio it — you feel that the human body is seen as a structure with bones. It is painted after a careful study of the real body.

BILL MOYERS: How were they painting the body before?

FREDERICO ZERI: It’s a sort of cliché. You see that in Massolino’s frescoes of Adam and Eve before the fall. That there is no internal structure. There are no bones in the two bodies. The expression is very vague. The painter has a wish — to be kind. To be nice. In Masaccio there is nothing of this. Look at the fresco with the expulsion for paradise. The two bodies are — with bones. The light is very strong and comes from a definite origin.

BILL MOYERS: There’s pain.

FREDERICO ZERI: Oh, there is pain. Shame. In Adam there is shame. In Eve there is pain. They are even — disagreeable in their dramatic — moment — of — sorrow.

BILL MOYERS: Well, in no medieval art that I’ve — have seen, is there anything like this boy in the corner for Masaccio —

FREDERICO ZERI: No. No.

BILL MOYERS: — shivering. He’s cold.

FREDERICO ZERI: Yeah, he’s shivering. He’s shivering. That — figure that made an immense impression on contemporary outlookers.

BILL MOYERS: Why did it have such impact?

FREDERICO ZERI: Because it had never been seen. A human naked body shivering. It was never represented in painting. Perhaps — in the late ancient world, in the Hellenistic period, but not — surely not in Italy during — centur — during more than 1,000 years.

BILL MOYERS: What does that tell us about that particular time in both Florence and art? What were they discovering?

FREDERICO ZERI: But you see, the — the entire town started — a rational approach — to life — which is the modern approach. That is representing the world as — as it’s seen, as something objective and not subjective.

BILL MOYERS: So we can look at these paintings of Masaccio and learn something about Florence then?

FREDERICO ZERI: Yes. Yes. I tell you, the — the representation of the backgrounds, when buildings are seen, shows Florence as it was. You see here life represented as it is and not turned into a fairy tale. It’s — a real view of — a contemporary town. And then you see also something very curious in these frescoes. That the face of these various — saints and anonymous persons are real faces. They are not — taken from the (UNINTEL).

BILL MOYERS: Faces — faces — Florentine —

FREDERICO ZERI: Faces.

BILL MOYERS: — faces.

FREDERICO ZERI: Yeah, Florentine faces. Sometimes also ugly. Even disagreeable. There is never an attempt to — to sweeten the image. Here is the town — seen also in the tragic faces. A bit city’s always tragic. Can be very beautiful in certain moments, but very often it’s something tragic.

BILL MOYERS: And Masaccio found it?

FREDERICO ZERI: Yeah. He felt it. He’s one of the few painters who represented life as it is. I find it an incredible view, really, of some — of some aspects of everyday’s life. You think that life is always — nice. You find that — places where we live are always nice. I find them sometimes unbearable. And Masaccio discovers that face of life. You see Florence, it is not that — happy and brilliant town which is describe as — in novels or in — movies, but a sad town. I believe that Florence was a very —

BILL MOYERS: Sad —

FREDERICO ZERI: — sad —

BILL MOYERS: For what reason?

FREDERICO ZERI: No, for what reasons? Because there was an elite which was very rich and very wealthy. Then an enormous number of workers who were earning very little.

BILL MOYERS: And life in Florence in those days could be horrible —

FREDERICO ZERI: Yeah, it could be — must have been very hard for the majority of people. But also for the rich people, because they were always living in a sort of fright. You live — not well when — there is always the possibility of an upheaval.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] The favorite sport in Renaissance Florence was calcio, a fierce form of football that is played today as ruthlessly as ever. Violent and brutal, it mirrored the feuds and vendettas and malice and treachery of the ages. (CHEERING) Armed ruffians roamed the countryside. Cities attacked cities. Factions raged against faction. Families plotting to exterminate one another. Only the strong survived.

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: It’s been called an advance over fire and water. The Renaissance was, so to speak, a ballet of aesthetics over a violent political situation. The great production of art which was so colossal in all fields coexisted with a banking, commercial and highly politicalized city with a great deal of social distress and agitation.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] At the fiery center of Florentine politics were the Capponi. They sat on the highest councils of government and their banks stretched across Italy into France. The Capponis were members of that rising merchant class that was the financial backbone for the Florentine artistic and cultural revolution.

NERI CAPPONI: They — we come from We come from Perugia, where we already had a position. No, from Orvieto, sorry. But we already had a position.

BILL MOYERS: Neri Capponi, Niccolo’s father, is in ecclesiastical lawyer, specializing in Vatican law.

NERI CAPPONI: This is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It was built for Cosimo — the elder of the house of Medici.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] The Capponis were allied with the most powerful and ruthless family in Florence, the Medici. This was the Medici palace, built by the man who established the family fortune, Cosimo de Medici. One of the world’s richest men, Cosimo lavished his money on Florence, becoming one of the greatest collectors and patrons of art ever.

BILL MOYERS: How did it come about that your family intertwined with the — with the Medicis?

NERI CAPPONI: Shall we say those big families — who — control the city, and — we were amongst them. Therefore we — obviously hob nob with them because we were equals and therefore we — we met. (LAUGH) We met and we — we traded and we did business and we ruled the city together. That’s how we intertwined. And, shall I say this, that the Capponis were pretty powerful because they also knew, like other families, how to exploit the constitution.

BILL MOYERS: Well, your ancestors were part of that early rising merchant class that came to power in Florence. People who — who embraced the notion that man is the measure of all things.

NERI CAPPONI: They were definitely part of that merchant class which became the masters and lords of Florence. But — I mean man, the measure of all things — I think that is a notion that derives really from some of the great intellectuals of the Renaissance. We merchant — we merchant princes — listened to them and enjoyed what they said. Whether we considered that man was the measure of all things — perhaps yes. Perhaps no. Depending on the people.

BILL MOYERS: How did this family, how did the Medicis, become so powerful?

NERI CAPPONI: Banking. That — that gave them power. That gave them money and money was power in Florence. Of course — but not alone. You had to also (CHUCKLE) maneuver the constitution, which they were very able in doing.

BILL MOYERS: Maneuver the constitution?

NERI CAPPONI: Oh yeah. Maneuver the constitution.

BILL MOYERS: What does that mean now?

NERI CAPPONI: That means —

BILL MOYERS: They were clever politicians?

NERI CAPPONI: Clever politicians and — exploit — the — constitutional loopholes to push your power. My — you see — first of all, remember that in Florence you could not — stand — for office and be elected if you were in arrears in taxation. Or if you were bankrupt. Now, what the Medici did was to — pay people’s — arrears in taxation and they — they gathered friends who when they stood for office were on their side.

BILL MOYERS: Is it true that the Medicis — charged 200% interest at times? That they were usurers and that — and that one of the reasons Cosimo and his family were so generous is because the church said that unless you — that you can only be forgiven for usury if you in your lifetime have restored the amount of gain you achieved unrighteously I believe is the term.

NERI CAPPONI: The — the church based itself on the Bible, and therefore in the Bible it is said that lending money at interest is usury. So until it became an accepted thing that money is a commodity which has to be paid for, the idea of interest, was of course — not acceptable. That is one of the great boons which produced (LAUGHTER) the Renaissance. The fact that you had to give back the money whether they —

BILL MOYERS: Guilt?

NERI CAPPONI: Guilt.

BILL MOYERS: Not just charity —

NERI CAPPONI: One of — one of — no, no. Guilt, guilt. Thank God for the guilt complex.

BILL MOYERS: Yes. Now, I don’t wanna be unfair to the old man. He — he was genuinely interested in the arts, wasn’t he? How (UNINTEL) —

NERI CAPPONI: He was genuinely interested. He was — shall I say, an avid banker with a flair for — for beautiful things. He was a collector. And he had — he had a flair, like most Florentines have a flair for beautiful things. For simplicity. For beautiful simplicity.

BILL MOYERS: But it is unlikely — if I read you, it is unlikely that all of this would have happened if it hadn’t — if he hadn’t been a merchant with the money —

NERI CAPPONI: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: — and with the power of the church.

NERI CAPPONI: The power — no, the power of himself. Of his bank and his money and his political pull.

BILL MOYERS: What intrigues you about Cosimo as you look back?

NERI CAPPONI: Cosimo is the most unemotional man I’ve ever come across. So that I always feel sort of frozen (LAUGH) when I s — read about him. He’s a dry old stick. But he had this flair for money, he had this flair for politics and this flair for arts.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] It was Cosimo De Medici who commissioned a statue by the stonemason of whom he had become both patron and friend. Donatello. Cosimo wanted the work for his garden. When it was finished it was so radical that today we see it as transforming the history of art. Donatello’s David, the first free standing nude figure since the time of the Greeks and Romans.

MALE GUIDE #1: Donatello has finally broken completely free from the niche. It’s no longer statuary locked into an architectural setting, the way the St. George is, standing there in his niche, however bravely, still unable to really emerge from it. This is not the David of the first book of Samuel in the Bible who, filled with the courageous belief that God would give him strength, goes out and slays Goliath. This is anything but heroic.

BILL MOYERS: It’s almost — androgynous. Male and female.

MALE GUIDE #1: To some extent it is because Donatello himself has I think wanted to capture that delicate moment in adolescence when girls can look like boys, when boys can look a bit like girls. This dreamy adolescent lost in a kind of reverie as if immersed in the contemplation of his own beauty is as close as the Renaissance came to actually recreating the pagan sensuality, the love of physical beauty for its own sake, of classical antiquity. It’s an amazing shift from the Donatello of the first decades of the century.

BILL MOYERS: Would this have shocked the Florentines? Would this have been a scandalous —

MALE GUIDE #1: Without any question. Had it been exhibited to most Florentines it would have caused problems. This was made, though, for a private place. This is not like the St. George, the Jeremiah, the public works of the early years. This is a piece of luxury art aimed at a highly refined public that takes pleasure in knowing that it alone has the sophistication to really grasp what is going on. It’s displayed in the inner courtyard of a rich man’s palace. Only the privileged few get to see it.

BILL MOYERS: Did this mean that art had — had reached the stage of — of existing for its own sake? At for art’s sake?

MALE GUIDE #1: To some extent. Here in Donatello we come as close practically as the 15th century ever did to something that is like the mere celebration of beauty.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Near the end of his life Donatello sculpted a work far from the youthful spirit of the David. Mary Magdalene, the repentant sinner.

BILL MOYERS: This captures more of human desolation and tragedy than almost anything else I’ve seen in Florence.

MALE GUIDE #1: Of desolation, of tragedy, but also his understanding of the spirit of penitence to me is overwhelming here. She washed Jesus’ with her tears. She dried his feet with her hair. When after Jesus’ death she withdraws to the wilderness to live a life of repentance she lets go wild. We feel the oiliness of the snaky long locks that become her only clothing.

Donatello, who here is probably not young anymore, has transformed what could really be nothing more than a skinny old woman with long hair into an image of such divine aspiration. The parted lips, even with the grotesque single tooth. The delicacy of these beautiful hands as they come together. It’s observation of reality but observation that stems from within. From a spiritual transformation that one feels must have taken place in the man Donatello himself.

BILL MOYERS: There is — a profound sense of the holy. Of the sacred in this very — very human form.

MALE GUIDE #1: It is a beauty from within that wells up through those eyes. It is a beauty that has always been there. That in her youth appeared to be merely the beauty of the body, that now that the body is destroyed shines through with such astounding clarity as a beauty of the spirit. The beauty of hope. This woman whose sins were forgiven, the gospel says because she loved so much.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] When Donatello died in 1466 a whole city mourned his passing. He was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo, the Medici family church were Cosimo himself is buried. And near the great Medici lies the simple stonemason who had become the celebrated artist.

The Church of San Lorenzo was designed for the Medici by Donatello’s close friend, Filippo Brunelleschi. Still smarting from his defeat in the competition for the baptistery doors, Brunelleschi had gone to Rome to study the buildings and artifacts of antiquity. Two years later he returned to Florence and set to work, transforming the dark and mysterious shadows of gothic architecture with a new clarity and light.

PIERO MORSELLI: Brunelleschi created this architecture with the presence of man in mind. The space, the lighting and the architectural details themselves are done according to our scale.

BILL MOYERS: Our scale meaning that it — unlike the gothic church it doesn’t overwhelm you.

PIERO MORSELLI: No. Exactly. This is a humanistic aspect of this church. You are not — feeling claustrophobic as you walk inside the nave. Neither you feel overwhelm by the space above us. There is this beautiful interrelation between — us and God.

He does it using geometry and mathematical relationships. He uses two shapes. The so called perfect geometric forms. A circle, which is present in the arches above, and the square, which is the module chosen by Brunelleschi to develop the plan of the church. Rationality. The exploration of laws which exist but which were never studied fully and in detail as happens at the beginning of the 15th century.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] The cupola for the cathedral of Florence, the Duomo, was Brunelleschi’s greatest achievement and the architectural glory of both Florence and the Renaissance. Begun in the 13th century the cathedral was to be the most magnificent church Florentines could imagine.

A century later it stood almost complete, but for one stupifying problem. Where there should have been a mighty dome was a void, a gaping hole open to the sky. They had not anticipated the magnitude of the technological problems. So in typical Florentine fashion, they held a competition.

PIERO MORSELLI: Many, many architects arrived on the scene. Florentine architects and architects from other cities. Brunelleschi was one of the artists interested in getting this project which would have assured him fame through eternity.

BILL MOYERS: What happened?

PIERO MORSELLI: Well, it wasn’t easy. There were — a lot of problems involved. Brunelleschi wanted this commission desperately. I mean we could feel that. And he had to argue constantly with — the committee simply because Brunelleschi, when ask how he would cover the dome, was refraining from giving a clear answer.

BILL MOYERS: They would say, “Tell us how,” and he’d —

PIERO MORSELLI: Exactly. They wanted the hard reality. “Tell us how you will do it. Show us a model. Show us the technique.” And Brunelleschi did not want to do that. Brunelleschi was a very temperamental man. Full of passion. Typical Florentine we might say. When he was ask, as a matter of fact, how you’re gonna do it, he says, “This is none of your business. Give me the commission and I will do it.” (LAUGH) And also one must not forget that were the other architects envious of him who were trying to get this commission from under his feet.

BILL MOYERS: How did he get it then?

PIERO MORSELLI: There is a story narrated by Vasari, 16th century author on biographer of many important artists from Chotto onward — which tell us that — Brunelleschi says, “Okay, you should give the commission of this project to the architect who will know how to make an egg stand on a flat surface.”

BILL MOYERS: An egg stand on —

PIERO MORSELLI: An egg stand on a flat surface.

BILL MOYERS: On its end?

PIERO MORSELLI: On its end.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s impossible.

PIERO MORSELLI: Obviously everybody wanted to try it, so each architect, you know, did the miracles of equilibrium but obviously the egg wouldn’t stand on its own. So Brunelleschi just took the hand with his own hand and he says, “This is how you do it.” (smashes end of egg into table) (LAUGHTER) And he had the egg standing on a flat surface.

BILL MOYERS: But the other architects could have said, “Well, we could have done that.”

PIERO MORSELLI: That’s right. That’s what most likely they told him. He says, “Yes, you could do the Duomo too if I tell you how to.” (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: So if he told them the plans they’d say, “Well, we can do that too.”

PIERO MORSELLI: Because in a way for him it was rather simple. And according to the, say, tradition, to the legend we make of it, he got the commission just with this — stroke of genius.

BILL MOYERS: So when Brunelleschi got the job this was — he got a big hole with it, didn’t he?

PIERO MORSELLI: This is what he found. The job was to fill with — a roofing this huge void above us.

BILL MOYERS: That was a hole.

PIERO MORSELLI: That was a hole. And it was the largest hole, (LAUGH) actually, in Italy at that time, ’cause this was the largest building in Italy.

BILL MOYERS: Well, how big was the hole.

PIERO MORSELLI: We’re talking about — more or less about 130 feet diameter.

BILL MOYERS: How tall?

PIERO MORSELLI: It’s about 370 feet high. And you have to understand that this vault that we are looking at, you know, in a way, for medieval man and also for the Renaissance man, signifies the dome of heaven, where the god dwells.

BILL MOYERS: It must have been a mess in here with the largest cathedral in Italy and the largest hole above it.

PIERO MORSELLI: Yes, indeed. And — can you imagine the problem for the liturgy too. The main altar is set right where it is now and the priest had to say mass with pigeons flying around and experiencing bad weather. Rains. Hails. And most of all, no actually plans for completing the whole building until Brunelleschi arrived on the scene, actually.

BILL MOYERS: But he left no documents, no designs, no blueprints of what he did, did he?

PIERO MORSELLI: There are no drawings surviving from the building of this — dome.

BILL MOYERS: And we’ve not known all these years how he did it?

PIERO MORSELLI: And we’re still debating on the process used by him in order to center the whole geometric shape of the octagon above us.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] The mystery of how Brunelleschi actually did it is still the subject of debate among Italy’s engineers and architects. Florentine architect Massimo Ricci has spent the last 14 years trying to find the answer. With the help of his students he is constructing a model to prove his theories. It will stand 20 feet high and contain almost half a million bricks.

Ricci thinks he understands how Brunelleschi solved one of the biggest problems. The bricks had to form a gradual curve that would taper evenly at the top. Brunelleschi’s challenge was to find a way to make the curve of bricks self-supporting without the aid of wooden scaffolding, and it had to be done without the benefit of modern instruments.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
Very simple instruments are used. Three of them.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
This one, this kind of triangular shape.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
The cord.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
And the pendulum.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
Lead pendulum. As the cupola is being raised you raise the cord. And as you go up you fix the pendulum and you establish a fixed point.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
When you will build the cupola the bricks will have to be in line with that cord as they go up.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
So this rule helps the mason to lay the bricks according to the curvilinearity of the cupola.

BILL MOYERS: So Brunelleschi was thinking about his workmen, his craftsmen. The masons who had to go up and lay those bricks.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
Otherwise it would have been impossible, you see?

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
Otherwise he could not have been able to build a structure with, again, the technology available at that time.

PIERO MORSELLI: (TRANSLATING FOR ARCHITECT)
It may sound immodest, but in his 14 years of work he has the proof that he has found the technique used by the great master.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Florentines don’t say they get homesick. They say they get domesick. And that to be called a real Florentine they must have been born under the shadow of the dome.

BILL MOYERS: What did that dome do to the imagination of this city?

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI: Indeed, what it did to the imagination of mankind. But when the Florentines have seen it — I — I want —

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI: — I like to go there. When it was finished and they saw from below. Now here we see it’s — it’s closed. It’s — on our level.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] Franco Zeffirelli, the filmmaker and director, was born in Florence.

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI: When they saw it I’m sure man knew that there is no limit to man’s power and creativeness. Every man had pride of what he was doing. You — most humble — most humble worker was so proud of what — of himself. That’s why we achieve such incredible things. Otherwise they’re not conceivable.

It’s not because we had great artists necessarily. To begin with the great — the great artists were the top of the iceberg. You realize that Michelangelo was considered the best marble cutter in — in the world. Not the greatest genius. The greatest artist. He knew how to sculpt marble better than — anyone — one else.

The — he was paid for that. Not paid because, you know, he was Michelangelo. Only later in his life when — when he was about to die it was invented for him the word genius. No one was ever a genius before him. They were just very good and very skillful workers.

BILL MOYERS: How do you account for this striving for the perfect?

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI: The essence of Florence has always been the pride of being part of God and connected. It was what every Florentine feels with pride. That’s what make the Renaissance so extraordinary, because every man said, “I can do things because I’m God.” That’s humanism. That’s Renaissance.

That — people understand that clearly. It’s not Leonardo, Michelangelo or that which is the glorious conclusion of Renaissance. The beginning was these people who found out clearly what the essence of existence was. The pride of being part of God.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] “To man,” said one Florentine philosopher, “it is granted to have whatever he pleases. To be whatever he will.” It was an audacious aspiration and it summed up the spirit of the city and the age. The young Florentine sculptor caught that spirit at the beginning of the 16th century and embodied it in a statute commissioned to stand in front of the town hall. His name was Michelangelo.

BILL MOYERS: It must have been an awesome sight when they haul that 16 foot statue right here in this piazza?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Yes, it was — fantastic. They constructed a wooden cage in which the David, which is 14 feet — three inches, you’ll forgive me — (LAUGHTER) was suspended in this huge wooden cage so that it could swing a little but couldn’t — would be secure.

And a gang of men pushed it through the streets from a few blocks up there, from the Piazza Del Duomo to the Piazza Signoria. And just imagine this huge biancone (PH), as the Florentines call it, the huge white figure, floating, swinging in these. And being pushed. It took three days, three days to bring it three blocks.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the significance of it being here in the public center of Florence?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: This piazza is the civic center of Florence, as the Piazza Del Duomo is the religious center of Florence. This piazza’s filled with what we would call today almost patriotic art. Propaganda art. Not art for art’s sake. The Judith and Hall of Fairness right over here by Donatello, who cut off the head of the enemy. Hall of Fairness is the heroine of her people.

The David means the hero. The Florentines — took this as a great symbol of power on the part of what seemingly a weaker force against a greater force. So that throughout the 15th century there were many, many, many commissions for Davids. But this one has a — curious history too because it was commissioned — 60 years before Michelangelo got the work.

It was commissioned — the artist had this awkward block, 14 feet high. Nine bracha. They measured according to the bracha, this — what we called cubits in old English. From here to here. Nine bracha high. Narrow block. And a sculptor tried to work it, couldn’t get anywhere with it and abandoned it.

It lay in the workshop of the Duomo for 60 years. In 1501 they had a competition. And Michelangelo (BELLS) was in Rome at that time. His father wrote to him, “Come back. There’s a chance for a great work.” Michelangelo was then 26 years old. He came back. He was given the commission. He locked himself up in a workshop. He didn’t let anybody in, including his brothers. And over a period of about 18 months succeeded in doing this work.

BILL MOYERS: You think he looked at that block and saw the figure of David in it?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Yes, I think he did. Michelangelo believed that the statue preexists its appearance. That is to say within the block there is the David. And all that (BELLS) the sculptor does is remove the excess. But to reach that point, one must have (FOREIGN PHRASE). One must have the hand that obeys the intellect.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think when you look at that, Sidney?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: I try not to see the copy.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a copy?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: I — and that of course is a copy. And no copy, even those made with the most technological skill, is the original.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] The heroic ideal of David was the ultimate expression of Florentine optimism, their belief in their divinity of the human being. Created in the image of God, now man was creating images of himself. Contained in the marble was the mirror of the soul. We needed only to free it, as Michelangelo had liberated David from the block. But what does it bring, this gift of freedom? Certainly the ability to dream and the power to achieve. And perhaps, as Michelangelo had seen, it also leaves us standing alone to make and face our fate.

NICCOLO CAPPONI: This is the family archives.

BILL MOYERS: Going back how far?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Well, the earliest document is 1308. As my father says, the Capponis are like potatoes. The best part is under the Earth. (LAUGHTER)

BILL MOYERS: What’s kept it here?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Everything. Letters from various people. Letters from cardinals. From popes. From princes. Thank you letters. There’s — a whole file of letters with, “Thank you for the chestnuts.” “You’re welcome for the chestnuts.” (LAUGHTER) “I’m very thankful for the chestnuts. I would like to see your chestnut trees.” “Oh yes, you — come and see them.” “I’m very thankful.” For 10 letters.

BILL MOYERS: Did they keep everything like this?

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Everything.

BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at one.

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Let’s take this one out. Niccola Capponi. As she’s spelled with — in Florence with two C’s. Niccola. Like I am Niccolo with two C’s.

BILL MOYERS: And he was —

NICCOLO CAPPONI: A captain in the Garrison of St. Stephen under a (UNINTEL). As a matter of fact, what is interesting in here, we’ve found, something that’s rather a fair cry from chestnuts. He was — the politician. And it is — his political advice to his son.

And he talks about big men that made themselves important in the city. And said, “This one was beheaded. This other one was beheaded. And this one — other one went in exile.” So he says, “Be quiet. Live in the — in the side lights.” I mean work for the city, work — but it’s better to be considered a sheep than a lamb.

BILL MOYERS: The continuity between Florence then and Florence today is remarkable in documents like this. In histories of families like yours. The past is very much with us today here —

NERI CAPPONI: Very much with us. If we could sort of — without shaking it off, put it slightly on one side, we would be less obsessed by it. Weighed down by it.

BILL MOYERS: But this is — this is a universal city. Your art has decorated the Western world —

NERI CAPPONI: I know. But it has created a complex.

BILL MOYERS: Even today?

NERI CAPPONI: Even today. It’s created a complex —

BILL MOYERS: How does that reveal itself?

NERI CAPPONI: It reveals itself in the people that can’t — they can’t get rid of it. They can’t create something new. (LAUGH) They have to go on thinking those terms.

BILL MOYERS: Do you already feel that this is a burden, this great burst of creativity, on us? That we are prisoners of the past — ?

NERI CAPPONI: Well, not you, but the Florentines are. The Florentines have the — the — the father figure firmly on their shoulders.

BILL MOYERS: The great —

NERI CAPPONI: Or —

BILL MOYERS: — patriarch, both —

NERI CAPPONI: Well — well, I mean all — all these great artists, all these great people, are rather like father figures. Rather sort of — shadowing —

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Big brother is watching you.

NERI CAPPONI: No, not so much big brother. I’m talking of it in analytical terms. Which I —

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Orwellian terms.

NERI CAPPONI: — the father figure. (LAUGHTER) The father figure is — is — is — is there. Very much there. And that impedes the son from — having — producing all these possibilities. I think in these psychological terms it might be explained. I don’t think we have to get rid of it, but we have to somehow, as Freud says, kill the father. Unless you kill your father you — you — you — you go — you’re not autonomous. We have some how to kill the father and then make him resurrect. (BELL)

NICCOLO CAPPONI: Or at least knock him on the head.

MALE VOICE: I like to think of it as the monument to despair in Michelangelo’s life. As — as a great creation of pessimism. Of incapacity to act. I think it’s one of the magnificently saddest places I’ve ever been in.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] As Michelangelo’s fame grew it was no consolation for his knowledge that while freedom inspires great aspirations, great suffering also attends it. This genius who created godlike man also confronts us with the image of death.

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: This is a mausoleum for the Medici family. Eventually it wound up as the burial chapel of two most mediocre of the Medici, namely Duke Ginamore (PH). Married a French princess. Giuliano, the son of Lorenzo Magnifico. And over there — Lorenzo, the grandson of the great Lorenzo, the Duke of Orbino.

Michelangelo fulfilled a commission for the Medici and then proceeded to make it his own when he was criticized that this figure did not look like the real Giuliano de Medici, who had a beard, among (CHUCKLE) other things. Didn’t have a swan neck like that. (LAUGH) His reply, scornful, was, “Who will know or care what they look like in 100 years?”

BILL MOYERS: But he was right. He was right. (LAUGH) Because the artist was now more important than the patron.

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Yes. The artist is now not working for great lords but is himself a great lord. Michelangelo, for example, reached the stage when people would beg to have a sketch by his hand. What was the subject? The patron said, “Don’t matter the subject so long as it is by Michelangelo.”

BILL MOYERS: What does this say about the Renaissance to you? That — this ultimate triumph of the artist over everything else?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: It would say — a great human victory where it not for the fact — were — and this is, I think, crucial. Were not it for the fact that this great human victory of assertion of the self, expression of the self — coexist with terrible melancholy. Well, just look around at these figures.

The artist was expressing his deepest feelings about time, about death, about immortality. One of his poems has the line (FOREIGN PHRASE). I would want to want what I do not want. The Renaissance was a period of affirmation but with this undercurrent of negation. You — you hear it in Renaissance music, by the way. You hear it — almost all Renaissance music, even when it’s written allegro, supposed to be — happy music, sounds to our ears almost in a minor key. It has a sense of melancholy. There’s — a great strain of melancholy running through almost all Renaissance art.

BILL MOYERS: There was a sense of something lost?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Oh yes. A sense of moorings lost. Sense of the fixed scale of — not only of values but the fixed scale of where one belonged in the social scheme. After all, I would say it was easier for medieval man to — to — face death with the secure knowledge that he was either going to heaven or going to hell. But it’s more difficult to die and not know where you are going. That is to say doubt, ambiguity had entered the world. There’s much Hamlet here 100 years before Hamlet.

BILL MOYERS: To be or no to be — ?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: To be. To act or not to act. To believe or not to believe.

BILL MOYERS: [VOICE-OVER] At the end of his life when Michelangelo was an old man he began to work on a monument for his own tomb, this Pieta. Bearing the weight of the dead Christ in his arms is Nicodemus. Nicodemus, who had wanted to believe but was afraid. As the model for this central figure, the artist used himself. The face of Nicodemus is the face of Michelangelo.

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: When one looks at that face — I’ve looked at it for many, many years. The — one can almost see the — the — the mouth trembling in the beard. The eyes seem to be looking out and yet blind. One gets the feeling of great pity. And the astonishing thing is that instead of Christ pitying man, man is pitying the Christ. Man is at the apex of the triangle. Michelangelo is at the apex of the triangle and he’s saying, “I pity him. I pity the Christ.”

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t it put a great burden, though, on — on man in general and the artist in particular, to — to have to have pity for God? To be God’s bearer?

SIDNEY ALEXANDER: Yes, it’s a terrible burden.

This transcript was entered on May 13, 2015.

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