Last fall, Will Durant and I had lunch together quite often (I in person and he in the form of a book), and one day he told me a story I shall never forget: the Renaissance, when defined as the rediscovery of and renewed interest in ancient Greek culture by scholars of western Europe, began with a Christian conference. Yes, the art of the Renaissance incorporated nudity, the political philosophy embraced utility over virtue, the poetry recalled pagan mythology, and all of it tended to celebrate Man more than God. But these may have been accidental rather than essential features. Because Christians started it. Cosimo de’ Medici called an ecumenical council in 1438, inviting Greek-speaking clergy from the Orthodox Church to meet in Florence with Roman Catholic officials for the purpose of discussing ways to heal the Great Schism. The healing never came about, but the West learned that Plato had survived, and nothing has been the same since.
This year, Durant and I renewed our lunch meetings, and I recently heard the end of the story. And a sad story it is. Even after recovering from a “Babylonian captivity” in Avignon and then a schism in which two and sometimes three men held the post simultaneously, the Papacy still continued its strange, tragic descent. In his telling, Durant concentrated on the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, who brought incest and murder to the office (or at least the strongest suspicions of these crimes), then Julius II leading his army on horseback to attack fellow Christians over control of Italian towns, and then Leo X, who sold indulgences in order to build a cathedral but inspired a Reformation along the way. For a few brief months, Pope Adrian VI tried his own internal reformation of the Roman Church. “He put an end to simony and nepotism,” said Durant, but his housecleaning naturally made him unpopular, and his death was welcomed rather than mourned by his people. Perhaps the saddest statement in the whole sad tale: “It was a pity that Adrian could not understand the Renaissance; but it was a greater crime and folly that the Renaissance could not tolerate a Christian pope.”
Durant ended with the story of Clement VII, whose spiritual and political failures resulted in his capture in 1527 and the violent sack of Rome by the forces of the “Holy” “Roman” “Empire.” By the end of his life, both the Lutherans and Henry VIII had made clean breaks with Rome, “and Italy had submitted to a Spanish domination fatal to the free thought and life that had for good or evil marked the end of the Renaissance.”
I sat back when he had finished, and I heaved a sigh of wonder and regret. The story had all the mounting tragedy of Lear (another monarch who saw his realm fall to pieces before he died) but the extra edge of being actual history, not mostly legend. The Renaissance began with an attempt to restore the visible unity of the Church and ended with the further dissolution of the Church. That’s not a story I’d ever heard before. By this time next year, when Durant and I start getting together again, I will have recovered enough for him to go on, and I’ll be eager to hear his tale of the Reformation.