I here preview four different podcasts I’m working on at the moment. The most pressing is on Garibaldi, “The Man and the Monument,” and I hope to have it ready to go soon, but it’s a challenge, for his life was so full of action and his political views were so pleasing to the people but so annoying to the New Italian government. A second is simpler and is on the new statue in St. Peter’s Square, called Angels Unawares. A third asks how the Catholic Church raised the money to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica, which takes us directly to one of the main sparks that ignited the Protestant Reformation and split Europe. And the fourth will identify and discuss “presentism,” which is the approach to history which uses today’s standards to condemn the past.
I here sketch four subjects I’m working on for future podcasts. One concerns the way the Catholic Church paid for the building of St. Peter’s, just as I asked earlier how the Roman Empire paid for the Colosseum. Fundraising for the great Basilica is equally interesting and equally fraught with controversy, but it is even more remarkable for Rome was a tiny town in the Renaissance and Reformation, when the church was built. At about 50,000 inhabitants, it was the size of a small town or large university, and there were no large tax revenues from businesses to fund its projects.
Rome’s wealth in the Renaissance was the wealth of the Church, which flowed in from all over Europe. The most infamous way the Church kept it coming in was by selling indulgences, which promised anyone could release a deceased loved one from the torments of purgatory by paying a simple fee. I hope to clarify practices and their effects.
The most consequential effect was the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s initial complaint, from All Hallows Eve of 1517, was against the selling of indulgences, which did much to fund St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s thus changed the world not only by inspiring architectural innovations such as the US Capital, St. Paul’s in London, and other domes in St. Petersburg and Paris but also by sparking the Protestant Reformation.
A second topic is to pause a moment on the first new statue to have been added to St. Peter’s Square in centuries. It is a tiny topic as compared to the one just mentioned. Here the challenge is not on the same order as that of the Protestant Reformation, which rocked Europe for a couple of centuries and changed it forever; the challenge is that the statue was added just a year ago, in fall 2019, and there is very little written about it.
It is called Angels Unawares, and it is different first in its appearance from everything else in the piazza, and it seems to me to be different in meaning as well. That is, it seems more in keeping with the more liberalized Church under Pope Francis than, say, the Church under Pope Pius IX, which resisted the Risorgimento so doggedly.
Angels Unawares, a new bronze statue in St. Peter’s Square (my photo)
A third topic, which is the one that most preoccupies me at the moment, concerns Giuseppe Garibaldi and the monument built in his honor on the top of the Janiculum Hill.
I find the man utterly fascinating and completely colorful, and he was active in European revolutionary politics for forty years, so I’m struggling to find good ways to be as concise as possible when introducing him.
To give you a hint of the fullness of his life, consider these facts:
He was condemned to death at least once and arrested nine times. His arrests were carried out by Russian police in Crimea, by the French, by Argentinian police, by the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia, and by Uruguay. Most interestingly, the Italy he helped to create arrested him three times.
He was an officer in six or seven different countries: three in South America; three in different governments on the Italian peninsula; and by France in 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War.
He was a Member of Parliament in five countries: the Roman Republic, Italy, France, Uruguay, and Sardinia.
He was offered a command by Lincoln in US Civil War
In short, he was a fascinating man of great courage, gifts of leadership, and unwavering dedication to modern principles of liberty and equality.
As for his political views and his activities after the unification of Italy, these raise complicated and still vexed questions.
So he—and his statue on the Janiculum—are my main preoccupations at the moment.
Fourth, and always in at least the back of my mind, is the big question hovering over all these podcasts: What should our posture be toward the past and, in particular, the Western past?
A knee-jerk reverence for Western Civilization was once common, but now it is almost the opposite, at least in universities: Western Civilization is condemned as the home or perpetrator of imperialism, slavery, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars.
So here we face a bundle of huge and complex issues.
But at the moment, I’m just trying to think more clearly about something commonly called “Presentism,” which does the following:
It holds the past up to our current moral and political standards
It sees that it falls short
It condemns it!
I’ve so far made a few passing comments on this tendency, but I hope some day to tackle it a little more directly. At the moment, my main difficulties fall under two headings:
One is that Presentism presumes we know the standards by which to judge, whereas I’m still trying to learn what these should be. The second is that Presentism presumes we are the judges, when it might be more helpful to hear what the past has to say about our own thoughts and practices.
I’m seeking dialogue among the three Rome’s, so I can’t begin by assuming the present is best in all important respects. Dialogue would then be replaced by condemnation.
I am grateful every day for some of the great benefits that modern science and society have brought is, so I don’t doubt that the present is better in important respects. But history and civilization are equations with many variables, and what I’m trying to do in Get Ready for Rome is identify them, not judge and condemn.