Saturday, November 26, 2016

Communication, syphilis, Este and culture.

Some years ago at the Porta Portese market in Rome (though not quite as long ago as the engraving here might suggest) I bought a version of Ptolemy's map of 'Southeast' Asia which had been a fold out frontispiece of the French edition of this history by the Scots historian William Robertson, name too long to type. The original published in Edinburgh in 1791, the French edition in 1792. I liked the map, for itself, but also found it intriguing that in a moment when France was busy with the guillotine and Britain and France were going to war knowledge, wisdom, academic literature moved so swiftly.
We don't hear about Robertson but "Robertson was a founder member of Edinburgh’s Select Society in 1754 along with David Hume, Adam Smith and Allan Ramsay and supported the establishment of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783." [source]

source Amazon

Now, in reading Rita Castagna Mantua, History and Art, Firenze 1979 pages 24 and 26, I read that Francisco II and his son Federico II Gonzaga, Marquesses of Mantova, both died of syphilis.

Wikipedia reports that too, alleging also that the entirely philanderous Francesco contracted it from prostitutes while the son 'inherited it from his father'. [source] [source]  Were Francesco here he would probably sue Wikipedia for suggesting he had to pay.

Lucrezia Borgia, blamed for everything in those years that could not be precisely pinned on her brother Cesare and her dad Pope Alex 6, died aged 39, also in 1519, the record showing death caused by childbirth difficulties. But the record also shows that inter alia Francesco and Lucrezia had a long term raging affair.

Come back to them in a moment. First I want to note that the dominant theory is that syphilis entered Europe with the return of Columbus in March 1493 from his first voyage to the Caribbean.

Then, quick as you can publish a French translation of a history published in Scotland three hundred years later, the armies of Charles VIII of France carried syphilis to Italy and most notoriously to Naples. But as that last link indicates he stopped along the way with quite a bit of customary rape and pillage. That link also brings into focus all the families of the period in Rome and northern Italy. There is mention in particular of the Sforza family, ruling in Milan. I wrote earlier of Caterina Sforza of Forli, bastard child of her role model the dreaded Gian Galleazo Sforza.

source wikipedia
His younger brother Ludovico Sforza was in charge by the time Charles VIII came by, ally in one direction, not in the other, check how the wind blows from Rome. Interesting how these families alternate raging monsters with cultured people with imagination. Ludovico and his sister married a brother and sister Este, from Ferrara, in a joint ceremony orchestrated by Leonardo da Vinci. Leo also splashed some fresco on the wall adjacent to Ludo's dad Francesco's tomb. Not many people go to see Frank's tomb but a crush of people go to see the Ultima Cena - Last Supper. The historical context is often lost in the tourist rush for Big Things.

Easily distracted ... my point was to draw attention to the turmoil of the times and this other dimension of the times, not only a proliferation of printing presses in Italy but also of syphilis. But it seems ridiculous to pin the rampaging, soldiering Francesco Gonzaga's syphilis on the sex industry when he was an archetype of the rape and pillage industry. Nobody of course (or that I've seen) writes about same sex lifestyles of the armies of the renaissance. Though at court there must have been a bit and one suspects that the great idealised poet Torquato Tasso, tolerated especially in Ferrara, may have been a bit queer.

For more on sex in the renaissance try this search.

source wikipedia
Francesco Gonzaga married Isabella d'Este, the Ferrara family of culture and style. I mentioned the Este court in Ferrara before as an end note to discussing the Gonzagas at Mantova. Now I realise that in both courts, the great civilising and artistic patrons were Alfonso II and his sister Isabella, the Estes. Though I earlier suggested that Alfonso's wife Lucrezia Borgia may have been influential in the shaping of Italian language, not least as while known for her affair with Frank Gonzaga, she also carried on some horizontal correspondence with the towering figure of Italian literature Pietro Bembo an owned administrator at the Este court of Ferrara.

Isabella outlived Francesco II Gonzaga by twenty years, dying the same year as her beloved, sensitive, artistic and not-very-good-at-obligatory-war-stuff son Federico. Of whose death wikipedia claims he 'inherited' syphilis from his father. It's not genetic, of course, it's sexually transmitted. Isabella showed no signs. Dad must have introduced his son to it some other ways, perhaps in shared experience, perhaps more directly? I have no background as a historian, but if people are going to leave around such nonsenses as the prostitute and inherited claims, surely I can raise questions.

I commend to you Rita Castagna's book Mantua, History and Art which led me on this expedition through the wild side of the renaissance.

Makes you realise how tame Shakespeare's take on Italy is. Perhaps he had to keep it tame to stay out of prison in fusty England. I note Anthony Burgess's speculations on Shakespeare's syphilis.

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