Nicolae Ceaușescu, dictator of Romania, stood bewildered on the balcony of his palace listening to the growing din of popular disapproval that led, just three days later, to his popular (but controversial) execution. About the same time, half-way around the world, Alan García, civilian President of Peru, stood on his balcony on the Plaza de Armas giving a one-hour lesson on Peruvian history to a massive crowd who stood and listened, being educated in the most public way. That he was de-elected from office just a year later was merely evidence of the glorious and honourable democratic history he had been extolling. He stood down (and was elected again some years later).
Understanding political place and its characteristics is more than important for political leaders – it is a sine qua non.
Theresa May said that she had chosen Florence as the ‘place’ for her keynote speech on Brexit for its illustrious history in the intellectual and artistic leadership of Europe. She was, supposedly, paying homage to history. Florence was, in fact, one of the more successful warring city states that helped to prolong Italian fragmentation and delay its unification – which came long after the demise of this wonderful historical phenomenon.
But May walks over water on cigarette papers in her broader understanding of history. She, one of the architects of political and intellectual austerity, seeks out the singular example of a political place that vigorously sponsored intellectual independence and creativity. The Medici family, long-term ruling dynasty of Florence, ruled over a 200-year period. Over that time, their commitment to democracy waxed and waned with the character of the ascendant ruler at the time. They ranged from the skilful to the incompetent, from the socially committed to the self-indulgent. There were elements of typical city-state direct democracy throughout, but this varied with the times and did not include popular accountability. The Medicis veered from popular adoration to assassination.
Throughout, however, the family sustained a commitment to the arts, the sciences and to humanism – which were, mostly, bracketed together as seamless expressions of the same desire for advancement, discovery, rediscovery and refinement. Their crowning achievement was the Renaissance and, against the grain of papal authoritarianism and intolerance, the rebirth of humanism – a humanism more complex than that of Plato. This would include Medici dullards and drunks. They sought out and sponsored the finest expressions of humanistic ideals – often the disreputable (Galileo), the dissolute (Filippino Lippi), and the simply cantankerous (Michaelangelo, himself).
Of course, like all great social innovations the achievements had a far broader foundation than some powerful individuals. The Medici both helped to create and lived within a political and social culture that expressed public value in these terms. There was a readiness and a social change impetus, driven in part by economics, and the Medici fed off and nurtured this culture. The merchant classes travelled widely and in doing so learned, developed fine tastes, and acquired a healthy disregard for the status quo, together with a confidence that they did not rely upon it. When the great cathedral – the Duomo – was built throughout the 14th Century, and with breathtaking insouciance, the planning committees created a vast space to be covered by a dome which was, at that time, beyond the capabilities of architects and materials. Competitions awaited the genius of Brunelleschi whose extensive travels allowed him to theorise afresh about how to accomplish this feat of radical innovation. Both the result and the process are startling in their sophistication, their daring, their sheer effrontery.
For many, the building of the Dome stands as a metaphor for the renaissance movement – the confidence and the capacity to work in the vertiginous space of the unknown, the ability to forge new ways of seeing, the absolute assuredness of bypassing convention, and, above all, the celebration of being the economic agent of all these things.
How distant an imaginary is this from the mean-minded, shrunken vision of a society under persistent and grinding austerity that is shop-windowed by Theresa May. Savage cuts to the arts, a narrowed sponsorship of elite sports, the humiliating subjection of science and intellectualism to competition and commercialism – and all this with an anti-humanistic dismissal of moral obligation to the poor and the vulnerable. This choice of speaking venue betrays a casual ignorance of place and history that, alone, would have been met with derision by many Florentines who valued sophistication in their leaders. But, then, sophistication is no longer a job requirement for the British political classes.