Saturday, 31 August 2013

The coolest man of the Renaissance

So here's a guy who inherits 179,000 florins and is the richest guy in Florence. By the time he dies, he makes 600,000 florins, of which he leaves 200,000 to his son - the rest he spends on making his city better.
Here's a guy who gets arrested because of the machinations of a rival family and escapes a death sentence by bribing his judge into exiling him. He goes away and then returns a year later and kicks out the Albizzis and the Strozzis, the two families that had joined up to get rid of him.
Here's a guy who - well - if not the founder - was one of the men who laid the foundations for a dynasty which produced four popes, two queens and any number of grand dukes.
And here's a guy - who was not the father of the renaissance(that honour goes to book maniac Petrarch) - but whom Durant calls its midwife - though personally, I think "Godfather" of the renaissance works better.
The guy, boys and girls, is Cosimo De Medici. Cosimo il Vecchio. Cosimo Pater Patriae.
Meet the coolest guy of the Renaissance.
Cosimo's dad, Giovanni Di Bicci de Medici was no slouch himself. The richest man in Florence, he endeared himself to the poor by supporting an annual income tax  which really pissed off the rich, who, up till that time were taxed at the same rate as the poor.
Giovanni Di Bicci popped in 1428, "bequeathing to his son Cosimo a good name and the largest fortune in Tuscany - 179,221 florins." (Durant values the florin at $25. the book was written in 1952-53 and according to, that would make a 1952 dollar worth 8.66 of todays dollars, setting Giovanni Di Bicci's fortune at $ 38.8 million).
Cosimo took over at the age of 39 - not exactly an impetuous youth. The De Medici businesses were already global. "They were not confined to banking; they included the management of extensive farms, the manufacture of silk and woolen goods, a varied trade that bound Russia and Spain, Scotland and Syria, Islam and Christendom. Cosimo, while building churches in Florence, saw no sin in making trade agreements, and exchanging costly presents, with Turkish sultans. The firm made a specialty of importing from the East articles of little bulk and great value, like spices, almonds and sugar, and sold these and other products at various European ports," writes Durant.
Cosimo handled his business with unostentatious skill. He also found time to dabble in politics.  As a leading member of the Dieci, the Florentine council of 10, he directed Florence to a victory against Lucca[1].
Cosimo's popularity with the masses came with its usual share of enemies. One of the Medici's rival families, resented Cosimo's successes. The Albizzis also dominated the parlamento and asked for the arrest of Cosimo - on charges that he was planning to overthrow the Republic. An unpopular idea - but Rinaldo Degli Albizzi was sure he could push it through. One noble they tried to convince, Nicolo Di Uzzano responded:" The justice of our cause is wholly founded upon our suspicion that Cosimo designs to make himself prince of the city. And although we entertain this suspicion and suppose it to be correct, others have it not; but what is worse, they charge us with the very design of which we accuse him. Those actions of Cosimo which lead us to suspect him are, that he lends money indiscriminately, and not to private persons only, but to the public; and not to Florentines only, but to the condottieri, the soldiers of fortune. Besides, he assists any citizen who requires magisterial aid; and, by the universal interest he possesses in the city, raises first one friend and then another to higher grades of honor. Therefore, to adduce our reasons for expelling him, would be to say that he is kind, generous, liberal, and beloved by all. Now tell me, what law is there which forbids, disapproves, or condemns men for being pious, liberal, and benevolent? And though they are all modes adopted by those who aim at sovereignty, they are not believed to be such, nor have we sufficient power to make them to be so esteemed; for our conduct has robbed us of confidence, and the city, naturally partial and (having always lived in faction) corrupt, cannot lend its attention to such charges. But even if we were successful in an attempt to expel him (which might easily happen under a favorable Signory), how could we (being surrounded by his innumerable friends, who would constantly reproach us, and ardently desire to see him again in the city) prevent his return? It would be impossible for they being so numerous, and having the good will of all upon their side, we should never be secure from them. And as many of his first discovered friends as you might expel, so many enemies would you make, so that in a short time he would return, and the result would be simply this, that we had driven him out a good man and he had returned to us a bad one." Still, Rinaldo persisted and was able to muster enough support to ask for Cosimo's imprisonment.
Cosimo surrendered himself. Everyone thought he was a moron, and the death sentence was inevitable. The Albizzis would make sure of it. But Cosimo was as cool as Tyrion Lannister and somehow, between imprisonment and sentence, Bernardo Guadagni, the gonfaloniere (standard bearer, equivalent to the city's judge) found himself richer by 1,000 ducats (a little over $ 100,000), and discovered mercy, exiling Cosimo instead of having him executed. He went to Venice, where his open handedness soon had the Venetian government lobbying for his return. Sure enough, in 1434, one year after his banishment, Cosimo is back in Florence.
After his return, Cosimo briefly served in the government of Florence, but soon gave up all official positions. He didn't need to stay in power to get his stuff done, everybody in power was a friend, or someone he had helped on the way. "To be elected to office is often prejudicial to the body and hurtful to the soul," he would say.
Cosimo used his money well. He gave loans to influential families to get their support. His gifts to the clergy made them Medici fanboys. And the loads of money he spent on the city had won him admirers among the citizens. "The Florentines had observed that the constitution of the Republic did not protect them from the aristocracy of wealth; the defeat of the Ciompi had burned this lesson into public memory. If the populace had to choose between the Albizzi, who favoured the rich, and the Medici, who favoured the middle classes and the poor, it could not long hesitate," writes Durant.
Cosimo was discreet and subtle, but wasn't exactly Gandhi. "Cities are not ruled by paternosters," he would say. People who opposed him hit the road fast, like the Albizzis, and sometimes with a heavy splat, like Baldaccio D'Anghiari. He replaced the fixed income tax with a sliding scale of levies which essentially drove his enemies out of the city. "Cosimo accepted their departure with equanimity, remarking that new aristocrats could be made with a few yards of scarlet cloth"
Cosimo understood the importance of stability, having personally experienced the problems caused by the Lucca war. It was not moral - unlike today, back then, war was bad for business. And Cosimo - and the other Florentines - were businessmen, more than anything else. So when Milan seemed to be destined for chaos after the fall of the Visconti in 1447, he made sure that it did not happen, by financing Francesco Sforza2, allowing him to take over as Duke of Milan. When the Bentivogli, the rulers of Bologna, seemed to be in danger of dying out, he found an illegitimate son of Ercole Bentivoglio, who was at that time an apprentice wool carder in Florence, and sent him to Bologna. Sante Bentivoglio never forgot Cosimo's kindness, and turned out to be one of the better rulers of Bologna. Sante later married into the Sforza family, tying Bologna with Milan and Florence against the other city states.
When Venice and Naples decided to band together to fuck with his city, Cosimo started calling in the loans he and his bank had made to various prominent Venetians and Neapolitans. Needless to say, the Venice+Naples plan got nowhere. [4]. And while Wikipedia attributes the Balance of Power policy to Sforza and Lorenzo De Medici, it is quite obvious that Cosimo was the real master of that game.

//OK, this post has gone on too long, but I will post a follow up, in the hope that someone is reading :)

1. OK, It wasn't a victory over Lucca, but Cosimo's conduct during the war that endeared him to the plebs and scared the nobles.
2.More on Milan later.
3.Yeah, yeah - the word Machiavellian gets thrown about a lot when talking about the Patrician, but there's a whole deal about Machiavelli that remains to be discussed. And while Nick's role model was supposed to be Cesare Borgia, it seems inconceivable that he was not aware of Cosimo's reputation.
4. The more I read about Cosimo, the more I'm convinced that Terry Pratchett modeled Lord Vetinari3 partly on him. There's a scene in Feet of Clay, describing Ankh Morpork's foreign policy - summed up as  "If you fight, we'll call in your mortgages. And incidentally that's my pike you're pointing at me. I paid for that shield you're holding. And take my helmet off when you speak to me, you horrible little debtor." Cosimo also hated actors and mimes, much like Vetinari, who had them thrown into scorpion pits. Cosimo dressed very simply, in the traditional red robes of the citizen and lived simply as well. People used to be shocked at the austerity of his private life, when compared to the feasts he threw as a public citizen.
And look - I was right! From an interview with Pratchett here
"On the other hand, a gag that no-one's ever said they've got is the Patrician's name, Lord Vetinari. I always think of the Patrician as a vaguely Florentine prince, a sort of Machiavelli and Robespierre rolled into one. And of course there was Medici. So I thought if you had the Medici then you would have the Dentistri and the Vetinari. The Discworld is full of things which don't look like gags but are gags if only you can work out what the intervening step is which I haven't given. "

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Renaissance - Book blogging

I'm reading Will Durant - something I always wanted to do for a long time, but the time was never right. A few days ago, at Blossoms, I stumbled on the series and bought two books - Our Oriental Heritage and The Renaissance. I started with the latter - my distaste for Indian history a fallout of having to swot up large chunks of it in school, I suppose. Plus, I value the time I spent in Italy a great deal, and so ...
The book is very well written, so much so that I would have loved it as a textbook. Take this sample, early on.
Robert the Wise had just died, and his granddaughter Joanna I had inherited his throne and dominions, including Provence and therefore Avignon. To please her father she had married her cousin Andrew, son of the king of Hungary. Andrew thought he should be king as well as consort;Joanna's brother, Louis of Taranto, slew him(1345) and married the Queen. Andrew's brother Louis, succeeding to the throne of Hungary, marched his army into Italy, and took Naples (1348). Joanna fled to Avignon, and sold that city to the papacy for 80,000 florins ($2,000,000?); Clement declared her innocent, sanctioned her marriage, and ordered the invader back to Hungary. King Louis ignored the order, but the Black Death (1348) so withered his army that he was compelled to withdraw. Joanna regained her throne (1352), and ruled in splendor and vice util deposed by Pope Urban VI (1380); a year later she was captured by Charles, Duke of Durazzo, and in 1382 she was put to death.
So there are so many stories in that little paragraph - tragedies and histories, love, murder, politics, bribery, passion, war and death, all in one paragraph about the life of one forgotten queen. Joanna is not mentioned again, but there are so many stories like hers.

There's Petrarch, pudgy and passionate; Boccaccio, earthy and amorous and Giotto, who Dante called "The lord of painting's field". There is Cola di Rienzo, the son of a tavern keeper and a washerwoman, elected Dictator of Rome, who administered the city state so well that the church and the Italian nobles conspired to over throw him. They succeeded but Rienzo made his return, only to be stabbed a hundred times by the same peasant's whose cause he had championed. His corpse was dragged through the streets and hung up like carrion at a butcher's stall. "It remained there for two days, a target for public contumely and urchin's stones," writes Durant.

Cola Di Rienzo
All this happens in just the first chapter, called "The Age of Petrarch and Boccaccio." There are stories of the writing of The Decameron, speculation on who Petrarch's Laura could have been, descriptions of the bubonic plague that was still doing its work, the manipulations of Pope Clement IV, the beginning of Florence's wealth and much more. And in the background, influencing and being influenced are Petrarch and Boccaccio, one wealthy and respected in his own time, all but forgotten now, the other immortalized because of The Decameron - which lives on through Chaucer and others, even finding new life as an Italian porn film (starring the amazingly endowed Sarah Young)
The book collector
One of the most endearing things about Petrarch is that he was crazy about books. He began his first book collection as a student in Bologna. Then his dad visited him and thought it would be a good idea to burn all the parchments that Petrarch had collected. His dad wanted Petie to become a lawyer and not muck about with books and parchments.
But Petrarch couldn't. When he wasn't writing besotted poems to a woman he never spoke to (why does that sound familiar?), he spent all his time and money collecting books. He was a great traveller, and wherever he went, he had to hire a retinue to carry his book collection. He would go foraging in Flemish monasteries and the back alleys of Paris and bemoan the fact that Brit and French merchants regularly plundered Rome of its books.
He would read while at the barber and at dinner, even while riding. I'm pretty sure he was the first great bathroom reader.
And in this world of blogs and self absorption, his words seem particularly appropriate: "All the world is taking up the writer's part, which ought to be confined to a few andthe number of the sick increases and the disease becomes daily more virulent...yet it might have been better to have been a labourer or a weaver at the loom. There are several kinds of melancholia: and some madmen will write books, just as others toss pebbles in their hands.As for literary fame, it is but a harvest of thin air and it is only fit for sailors to watch a breeze and to whistle for a wind."
Petrarch is the hero - so to speak of the first chapter. But he is also a character moving across the tapestry of the Italian city states. Siena, where the Palazzo Publico rose against a backdrop of nobles and peasantry uniting to fight against a corrupt and wealthy merchant class; Milan, under the Viscontis, "seldom scrupulous, often cruel, sometimes extravagant, never stupid"; Genoa, the birthplace of double entry bookkeeping and maritime insurance; Venice, Verona and so many others.
The second chapter is about the popes at Avignon - but more on them later. The third chapter is the best - so far - and it profiles one one of the coolest people I've ever read about. The chapter is called "Rise of the Medici," but the person the next post will be about is not called Lorenzo.

Friday, 2 August 2013


Just saw the film that's been making the rounds. Again. You know the one - with Anu, R, Padmini and several others saying how awesome BITS was. It's what? 25 years now? I suppose it is easy to go all sepia tone. And outside the campus, the place was pretty brown anyway.
I hated the place - not all the time, of course, but often enough. I was mixed up, a brat, too full of myself, a fool who desperately wanted to be cool. I remember bawling out my inadequacies to Natty and Premdas. I remember being deeply fucked up - a puritan tambram streak at odds with a natural inclination towards hedonism. I hated the fact that I was uniformly terrible at acads. I  think I only made 2 'A's in my time there - PS 1 and PS 2.  hated the fact that I could never find the courage to talk to a girl. I was perennially broke and piling on to others. And of course, the things I did there - the smoking, the phens and all the rest probably laid the foundations for a fucked up heart and perforated kidneys.
It wasn't the place of course. It was me.
There are times in your life when you only remember the bad stuff that happened - never the good. And there are times when you can remember only the good stuff.  Maybe it works differently for you, but that's the way things roll for me.
But here's the thing. With BITS, I have to work harder to remember the bad stuff. I know that it wasn't an idyll, lazy days and glorious nights, but even the bad stuff seems better than the other bad stuff.
The BITS film is well meaning, but fuck - who spent time in classes? Who fucking danced Bharatha Natyam in Shiv G? In those clothes? Where are the filthy rubber chappals? Where are the horrible bogs? Where the fuck is Pappu?
Yeah, yeah. The place has changed. It is now a global brand (oh how I HATE those words). The kids there talk knowledgeably about management and marketing. They're setting up their e-commerce companies even before they get their degrees. And that's all good, all right for this century, I suppose.
But for me, it was those luchcha sessions in the back wing of Ram, with Aavi and Micko and Gundu and Pettai looking thuggish in his vest and lungi. It was those rare occasions in Connaught with Midnight Beauties and fried Maggi - the day you got your draft and made the trip to UCO Bank, just off RP and came back flush with a few hundred rupees. It was cutting yourself on the barbed wire fence as you made your way from Ram to Krishna. It was in the names of the hostels - Ram, Budh, Malviya, Krishna, Gandhi, Shankar, Vyas, Viswakarma and Bhagirath, Rana Pratap and Ashok - and of course, in a different dimension altogether, Meera.
It was getting stoned for the first time, listening to Indian Summer. 2 js and 4 chis. Still remember tottering back to my room, after that, thinking I was walking through a time tunnel. It was stumbling out of bed at 3 in the afternoon, too late for lunch and making my way to Sky for that chai-cigarette. It was about sky - more than anything. Sitting on that curved stone bench with a bunch of others who hadnt seen the inside of a class for months. Standing under a waterspout on those strange days when there was rain. And it was also about classes. VPG and LinAl. Ghule like a rockstar, his classroom overflowing in the first week of the semester. Pulak Das and ceteris paribus. JP Varma and PD Chaturvedi. Guys moaning over Transport Phenomena. Looking at TSKV Iyer's Circuit Theory textbook and wondering why all that stuff that seemed to make such glorious sense while you read it stoned seemed to melt away on test day.

And it was about the music, the rages that swept the college each year. Tull. The Doors. Dylan. Cale. The Dead. Airplane. Natty playing "My object all sublime" from The Mikado.Listening to Freebird, stoned, for the first time. Kaustav and "Where do you go to my lovely." Bong and "Bobby Brown". Driving my backie crazy by playing Rock'n Roll Music non stop. Getting driven crazy by my backie playing 'Kashmiru loyalu Kanyakumarilu - O Santamama.' Fuck. I heard that song in my fresher sem, and will carry it with me till I die.
The kindness of seniors. Madan Babu taking me in hand in my first sem. Being ragged by Guru and Siddharth Kanoria in Budh's T-wing. Being quizzed on Wodehouse by Loki. KM - who nearly made me cry. Being woken up at 2:00 in the morning and sent to the bus stand to buy a guy called Negi two Esquires. The Gult gang - Suresh, Tra, Boobs and Guntax.

Movies at the Audi. Furiously wanking off into the Audi curtains gawking at Shilpa Shirodkar in Kishen Kanhaiya. Earthquake, which looked so bad, you'd think it had been through one. Michelle Pfeiffer in Tequila Sunrise and The Witches of Eastwick. Music Nights and VPK.
Reading Stephen King and Tolkein and The Magic Mountain and Eliot and Steinbeck. Fighting over Cherry's Penthouse. Human Digests. Sherlock and Tolkein. Fitzgerald and Thoreau.  
The nicknames: Vochak. Catprick. Muds. Gunds. Baldy. Kandaar. Mapper. Crypper. Chai. Of. Babban. My own -smelly/shit/woman. The words: abso/jhool/haloo/cracko/crash/chome/blown. The places: BC/Giridharis - the shack -  the first porn (Society Affairs, with Harry Reems) - Nagarji - The temple - finding JFK and Lenin sharing sacred space - and its lawns.
Architecture: Wings - T, front and back, new. Sideys and backies. ET/QT/Audi/Blocks M, C, IPC. Central  Lib and students lib.
Other places: Mad Max to Pahadi. Bhagode. Manikaran trips. Holi in the snow.
Stuff: Sampath and Gyanoo. Posat and op. The trips to Delhi. The loo at Nirulas. Flying past the fences.
The contests: Oasis. Apogee. T-Shirts. Casaram the camel. 333031. Jams. Connections. Quizzes. BoB. OHT. Chanty and Venky. Salmagundi. R making the connection to Professor Moriarty after one clue 'asteroid'.
Names to fear: Bond.
The long runners. Pat. Sangeeth. PV.
Saying goodbye. Goodbye Audi, goodbye Bhavans. Goodbye messes. Goodbye Blocks. Goodbye MB (I hardly knew ye). Goodbye Sky. Goodbye Pappu (thanks for that SPLENDID parting boozer you threw us). Feeling self-consciously nostalgic about it all.  Goodbye, Pilani, you strange petridish, you closed eco-system, you way of life.