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In Our Time - The Medici

Melvyn Bragg

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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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