The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, AUGUST 9, 1936
BOOK RE-PRINT REVIEW AND EDITORIAL
Sometimes They Eat 'Em Alive.
By W.J. Cash
Site ed. note: Cash hit it precisely right on the fate of "Signore" Mussolini who, of course, after summary execution in April 1945, was tossed like a football by a gleeful crowd in the streets of Milan and eventually hung up by the feet in the piazza. Some would argue, too, of course, that Cash's gloomy suggestion that even the United States might see a despot some day has already occurred. But then only those who voted for McGovern might agree and so we shall leave that one to future, more distant and objective, analysis.
IT IS probably old news to a great many people, but I have just discovered that the Modern Library has issued John Addington Symonds' "The Renaissance in Italy," in two of its giant novels to sell for $2. I think it is one of the most remarkable feats of book-making of which I have ever heard. Hitherto his work has been available only in seven volumes at, if memory serves me, $3.75 each. Yet, so far as I can tell, the new cheap addition is as easy to the eye as the original, and, if it is not as well manufactured, it is certainly well enough manufactured to meet the requirements of everybody who does not have to use the books daily. Some of the earlier Modern Library giants were pretty badly printed, and the bindings were apt to break down in short order. But since the addition of Carlyle's "French Revolution," the books have steadily improved in these regards, and this edition of Symonds' work is at once a stout and handsome book, or pair of books.
With the work available at this price, I hope it will come in now for the wide reading which it has always deserved and which it has never had. Pedantic modern scholars are sometimes inclined to sneer at Symonds in detail, but, on the whole, it is certainly the greatest survey of the birth of modernity which has ever been made--the most complete and satisfying account of what went on in the most important country of the western world in those crucial centuries: the 14th, 15th, and 16th. And, aside from Jacob Burckhardt's much shorter essay, it is the only genuinely readable one. Indeed, in both content and beauty of writing, the work may rightfully be compared with Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall."
Its publication in popular form is particularly timely just now, too. For Symonds makes it clear that this Italy of the Renaissance was a sort of microcosm of the whole modern world--that it contained within it in clearly defined form all the elements, all the ideas, which have been the stuff of modernity right on down to our own time, and that, in truth, it actually ran through the whole cycle of the thing in those centuries which now seem to us so remote. Thus the story of the great Italian towns in the time is essentially the story of the rise of popular self-assertion, a long struggle for democracy and expansion of the rights of the masses, of bitter opposition on the part of the old ruling classes and the rich burghers, of alternate liberalism and reaction, of mounting class-hatred, of riot and chaos and ruin, culminating at last in the assertion of the iron hand, of weary acceptance of tyranny as the only way out of interminable anarchy.
It is the story we have seen repeated in Italy in our own time. Signore Mussolini with his oppressive ways and his bluster and brag, likes to make himself out the successor of the Caesars. But in sober fact he is far more truly the heir of the old despots of Florence and Milan and Perguia and Siena and Bologna --say, a Sforza Attendola who has succeeded in realizing that dream which tanalized the ambition of Gian Galeazzo Visconti and Cesare Borgia: the dream of finally establishing a tyranny over all the Italian lands. Over all the Italian lands, I say, for Italy, of course, has never been one country but 100 countries. Not even Garibaldi could really change that fact, for the United Italy established in the '70s was united in name more than any fact. And it remains to be seen whether the Duce can really bring about true union.
It remains, indeed, to be seen whether the Duce can survive or not. It is no secret that northern Italy is seething with dissension today. Florentines and Milanese, all the inhabitants of those old northern towns which for centuries have been hotbeds to popular feeling and individualism, never change, says Symonds somewhere--never really lose their old "terrible fury" and their capricious and unstable ways. And if a thousand times they have elevated despots with loud huzzas, they have not ordinarily long tolerated them. Yesterday they were Mussolini's chief backers--these turbulent northerners. Tomorrow, if they follow historical parallels, they may sweep him to swift destruction. Certainly, his position is no happy one. For they do horrible things to dictators when they tire of them. As for instance at Todi in 1500 when they seized Altobello Datiri, bound him naked to a plank and killed him by piecemeal--either biting out his flesh with their teeth or slicing it off and selling it to be eaten! Or at Bologna somewhat earlier when Giovanni Bentivoglio was pounded to death in a wine-vat!
And on the other hand, if the Duce does survive, we shall probably see him or his successors plunging eventually into the excesses and the brutality of blood which aforetime distinguished such outright madmen as the Visconti, who used to feed their hounds on living human flesh, by way of intimidating the populace, or Ezzelino Romana, who on an occasion entrapped 11,000 men and tortured all but 200 of them to death, and when he captured Friola caused every man, woman, and child in the place to be deprived of eyes, nose, and legs, and to be thrown outside the walls of the town to make their way as best they might!
The Inevitable Horror
We shall probably see these things, I say. We shall probably see the populace on the one hand, the tyrants on the other, alternately striving to outdo each other at feats of horror. For the history of this Renaissance period in Italy, as Symonds tells it, points irresistibly to the conclusion that such things are the inevitable outcome of the kind of political conditions into which Italy has already gone. But I must not seem to confine it to Italy. For all the western world, maybe all the world east and west, seems to be going into the same political conditions--to be destined to repeat the cycle which the Italian towns displayed during the Renaissance. The struggle for power between rival ideas of fascism and communism is apparently upon us. And tomorrow we may even have a despot in the United States. And if we get a despot--recalling our already notable accomplishments in the fields of lynching and gangster crime, who shall say that we shall not out-Italianate the Italians at feats of blood and ferocity?
A gloomy prospect. Yes. But there is a ray of hope for the reader of Symonds' work. For the greater part of the story of the Renaissance is after all the story of Michaelngelo, of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, of Leonardo, of Politian and Poggio, of Giordano Bruno--of men who, while madness raged about them, quietly went on with the work of the mind and the spirit. Remembering that, we may find refuge from the fear that the ape and the tiger are after all the whole of man.
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