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Editors note. In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and guests discussed The Medici. As always the programme is available to listen to online or download to keep.

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Medici family, rulers of Renaissance Florence.


I think we chewed off more than we could bite in this one. Sometimes we deliberately go for a long haul, i.e. two or three hundred or, it has been known, a couple of thousand years, and try to pour a quart into a thimble, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it has a cohesion and an exhilaration which makes it worth doing.  The Medici seemed such a clan, a club, a closed little group that one can study in detail, that it was irresistible. Perhaps we should have concentrated on just one figure.  One of the Cosimos or Lorenzo the Magnificent. Still, I hope you gained a feel for this extraordinary, hydra-headed family, with its four popes and its rise from gentlemen farmers to Dukes of Florence and its, at the time, immeasurable wealth from the papacy, wars and states. And the decision taken very early on by Cosimo, the true founder of the clan, that the way to glory was through making their city glorious; in buildings, in objects, in the collection of classical manuscripts and the translation of the great ancient Greek culture into then contemporary Europe.

It took me back, I tell you, it took me back.  I did the Italian Renaissance as my special subject at Oxford in 1960. My tutor for this was a man called John Hale, well-known then and since as a great Renaissance scholar. One of the things about Oxford at that time was that you were taught one-to-one, sometimes by people who had written the definitive books on the subject, and so when they gave you reading lists they would nonchalantly add their book to the end of the list of three or four books and four or five articles, and you’d know that you should dive straight for it – for several reasons, not necessarily pure scholarship.

John Hale was a lovely man. He had the habit of jumping up when you said something that he doubted, pulling down a book and throwing it into your lap and saying “read me something in there that proves that”. Looking back, it was charming. At the time it was absolutely terrifying, because in these essays that we had to read three times a fortnight to extraordinary, intelligent and learned tutors, there had, perforce (it’s a very nice word to use), to be some sort of bluff, otherwise no normal human being could have got through it. He was ill at one stage and I was passed over to Sir Maurice Bowra, who was the Warden of my college, Wadham, and a famous, fearsome figure in his time. A man of great learning and many languages.  Obsessed by the Greeks, homosexual (although I was ignorant enough not to understand that at the time), a writer of scholarless, scandalous, scatological verses about his contemporaries… Oh, let’s leave it at that. He was a wonderful Warden.

In case Warden reminds you too much of a prison, it’s just one of the words they use at Oxford to describe the man who ran the place – in other colleges there are Presidents or Heads or Masters – but we had a Warden.  A nice little alliteration: the Warden of Wadham.

Anyway, John Hale fell ill and I had only one term to work on the Renaissance, for which I had to learn fourteenth/fifteenth century Italian to read Machiavelli and Castiglione. I made a botched job of it and then was horrified to realise that I had to get a grip on contemporary Italian to read the commentaries. Maurice Bowra took me for three tutorials. One of the problems was that he was deaf. Like many clever deaf people he got around his disability by not allowing anyone else to speak – which was fine by me because he spoke so well. But to cut to the chase. After our last tutorial, when John Hale, thank God, got better, he took a book down from his bookshelf and gave it to me. It was a collection of essays on the Italian Renaissance to which he had contributed.  “Have a look at that,” he said. I read it. They were wonderful essays.  A few days later I called round at his lodgings and handed it in. He happened to open the door in his burly, front-row-forward, rugby-fashion and growled something or other. I handed in the book and said “thank you”. “Keep it, keep it, dear boy,” he said, “keep it, keep it.” And I did. I still have it. It’s a lovely book.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by John Thompson

    on 7 Jan 2014 15:24

    Thanks IOT for bringing in a little more of the Godfather of philosophy,Plato,previously only mentioned in The Philosophy of Love programme,here given more substantial foot-room.It’s astounding how Plato is so 20th century in outlook,prefiguring Freud, modern mathematical physics,together with his great influence on Christianity.The effect of Socrates on Plato was for Plato to recreate his oral style in vivid dialogues after his death.

    The Symposium, paints the picture of a disappeared world,416BC. We are present at the convening of famous elders before their dissolution.Socrates will drink the poison, Alcibiades be banished,later murdered,Agathan fled. Plato implies do men capable of such speeches deserve such treatment?Socrates is depicted as a brave soldier in the field and not a corruptor of youth. Plato also has each successive speaker move further and further away from addressing sublunary, transient manifestations of love, and toward what he sees as its metaphysical truth, culminating, of course, in Socrates.

    In arguing for the immortality of the psyche,Socrates is arguing for his own immortality-in the Phaedo he believes he has proved that he will survive his death.In other words,Socrates ‘ psyche is the very same thing as Socrates:the one survives if and only if the other does. Plato,unlike many Christian thinkers,did not regard the person as a compound of body and soul,only one component of which can achieve immortality.My soul may be part of me;my psyche is me.For Plato the psyche centres on its role as a source of human behaviour,in particular of moral action.

    The Symposium is primarily of interest in depicting the way young men were educated.Adult males supervised and channelled their emotional energy and physical drives into productive and healthy relationships,social roles,positions and outlets,setting them up to be integrated as city leaders and marriageable grooms.Before this they were segregated from females,who were taught in tasks of household economy. Young Athenian boys had easy and constant contact with a wide assortment of older men who engaged and mentored their progress through life. Young protégés, who felt in turn gratitude, affection, and admiration for the men who guided them.Sometimes, these close relationships became erotically or sexually charged is due both to male social interdependence and to the admiration and affection they felt for each other. Remember, Alciabes’ love for Socrates is unrequited.Love should be sublimated into love of the Good.Alcibiades failed to climb the ladder of love,remaining rooted to the personal.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by All for All

    on 5 Jan 2014 05:48

    The power of the Medici - for good or ill - came from banking, more precisely from the need of others to be able to trade across borders and to save or attract capital for a mix of purposes, personal, commercial and political. While our Interest in the Medici naturally will turn to 'human stories', to intrigue and conflict, and to role in architectural, artistic and political development, we should spare a thought for money as servant or master in the direction of society today. Must our need of 'a strong state' dictate tolerance of inequality, making of any republicanism, any call to trust in 'constitutional monarchy', or any avowed hope of 'democracy', a sham?

    Thinking about the role of money for the health of human society, of the global economy and all sections of the economy, perhaps the most important provision - in sustained neglect made obvious too late to all - is one that in the short-term is easily overlooked or by narrower interests obstructed, namely the equalisation of our spending-power in order for democracy to work, in fact to exist. This basic need unavoidably raises questions against traditional forms of income distribution, from 'pay-bargains', 'electoral-bribes' , 'proceeds of usury' and other forms of gambling, not least the frankly blue-collar criminal or the subtle but worse white-collar, financial fraud or political false-prospectus.

    Interestingly, the same provision of spending-power equality is required to meet another critical need, that of money circulation - as obvious to many already - to sustain aggregate demand (preferably of stable pattern) in order to keep all of us either in gainful productivity or in supported dignity (in upbringing and education for the security of future productivity; or towards pensions and insurances for security of current productive focus). In whatever our government-agreed accounting period (perhaps a month or two or three), any 'excess unspent money' - above an agreed universal limit for the individual citizen-account - must leave the accounts of those who have over-received and / or under-spent, to be returned to circulation - in the next period - as part of the general equal distribution.

    That both political and economic imperatives point to our shared strong interest in genuine equal partnership (essentially in agreed equality of income-share and so of access to 'market direction' in our social production of 'goods and services', the political included), increasingly will provide incentive for the recognition as such - and then the sweeping away - of largely irrational current practices, and so for our liberation from the plethora of anomalous, distorting and destructive effects that cumulatively have dictated our long experience of fear and greed, boom and bust, conflict of interest and corruption, arms production and war, our overall misdirection toward species if not planetary oblivion.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by All for All

    on 3 Jan 2014 23:22

    Machiavelli might have raised a smile hearing the latest 'A Point of View', no improvement.

    John Gray tonight reflected "on the damage that can be caused by evangelical belief in a religion or in a political idea", omitting to examine the implications of meaning, of evangelism as sharing of 'good news'.

    The 'mistakes' of evangelism are relative to 'shareable good news' (ultimately the place of universal care, and of reason, in personal happiness and species survival), but Gray is led to blame straw-man absurdities - irrational 'belief in reason' and unhappy 'belief in belief' - rather than the errors of exclusivity (remediable) and ignorance (reducible).

    As an atheist not quite able to deliver the possibility of an eternal salvation, but using the same recount of perils as once thrilled many a congregation, Gray delivers comfort for some in the superiority of 'religion at its best', over a 'faith in reason' premised on 'politics at its worst'.

    A victim perhaps of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, so aware of 'Location in failure' with respect to the political and religious, past and present, Gray is made unable or unwilling to perceive - or to add new steer to - the Direction of what might be our progress.

    An agenda is perhaps inadvertently served of population control by confusion, the promise never seriously considered of agreed equal partnership, of a rational faith in existence and its sharing.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by John Thompson

    on 29 Dec 2013 17:27

    In the Third Man,meeting Holly Martins on the Ferris wheel,looking down on the people below from his vantage point,Harry Lime compares them to dots. Back on the ground, he notes:
    "You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."The quote was produced by Orson Welles(off script) to fill in a gap in time.It was not part of Graham Greene's script.

    This is not strictly chronologically accurate or true and it also should include the Medicis,who were around a lot longer than all other famous families.We get the impression of Popes,who commissioned a few masterpieces in between communal acts of murder.Lorenzo became effective ruler of Florence the year Machiavelli was born, 1469.The Medicis became richer by being the Papal bankers.Machiavelli was associated for his fortunes with the Medicis and his career rose and fell because of it.Machiavelli grew up under the ‘golden age’ of Florentine culture under Lorenzo.At the end of the 15th century the collapse of the Medici made a deep impression on him,where he was impressed by the instability of a government not based on the goodwill of the people.He realized the need for powerful government based on internal unity.

    He was obsessed with Florence having her own strong militia instead of relying on mercenary troops or the fluctuating help of allies.He was given some responsibities but was not too successful in this task.He became more famous at writing.However when the Republic was restored Machiavelli was identified with the Medici and was therefore suspected and ignored.His The Prince was a book written both for the Medicis and the Republicans.He wanted a strong state,capable of imposing its authority on a hopelessly divided Italy.He admonished Italian princes to respond to foreign ruthlessness with equal toughness.

    At about the same time the Republic commissioned the gigantic figure of David,the tyrant-slayer,from Michelangelo.Heroic,defiant.,ideal.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by All for All

    on 29 Dec 2013 12:31

    Thank you for the Medici.

    And for Oxford's "some sort of bluff".

    Speaking of which, today in 'A Point of View' cause for special concern was given again by the Oxford-trained political philosopher John Gray, offering "Two cheers for human rights'.

    In a brave attempt on the Medici, concern at its highest might be for opportunity-cost: but in the platform given to Gray's thought (Wikipedia: 'famous for its mobility') concern is more concrete, grave with respect at least to the young and the more vulnerable amongst 'seekers after truth' in the Radio-4 audience.

    The parties in a school debate might agree, for the sake of the exercise, to take an alien stance, but in Radio-4's opinion programme there is implicit promise of some honesty, and arguably of some clarity, of more than an exercise in the imputation to others of straw-man naivety, of more than mock-address in neglect of definition for critical terms, casual reference to 'democracy' the most egregious.

    John Gray's lack of precision in use of language is such as to render any honesty difficult to determine, any seriousness on such as 'human rights' apparently taking second place to the striking of 'attitude', to the filling of time, most worryingly to an agenda perhaps of confusion or desperation in the commissioning mind(s).

    Everyone should have the chance to serve, but not necessarily in the manner of their first choosing, or even as apparently welcomed by others. Looking back over the decades, we might claim more of surprise than misgiving in the Savilisation of pop-music, and then of charities and young dreams, given pride of place by the BBC. On Gray's 'political philosophy', misgiving and surprise are equal.

    No amount of quiet plausibility can make up for muddle in the use of language with respect to serious issues. The personal issue here is perhaps beyond the scope of "In Our Time". If my concern is shared it will behove the BBC to seek professional advice, at least from one such as AC Grayling, or Alain de Botton, practised in clear lines with spaces between.

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