Republican art rules OK


The royal wedding will showcase Westminster Abbey, but it is under republics, not monarchies, that artists flourish the most The cultural heritage of the British monarchy is about to go on display all over the world as screens glow with the architectural and sculptural grandeur of Westminster Abbey. Founded in the 10th century, loaded with new marvels down the ages of which the most sublime is surely the chapel of Henry VII with its filigree fan vaulting, this royal abbey church is the best example anyone could ever adduce to support the contention that British culture is profoundly beholden to and involved in the regal tradition.

But in the history of European art, monarchy cannot claim all the masterpieces. On the contrary, republics and republicans have created some of the most dynamic and brilliant works of art of all time.

There’s a clue to this fact in Westminster Abbey itself, in the Chapel of Henry VII. The setting is medieval in flavour and very English. But the tomb has putti that visibly come from Italy: it was created by the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who came to London from Florence. In fact, Torrigiano was trained in sculpture alongside Michelangelo, and broke his famous rival’s nose in a teenaged fight. In 16th-century Italy, he was notorious as the thug who disfigured Michelangelo. In Tudor Britain he was valued as someone who could give it a taste of the most modern, dynamic culture in Europe.

So the British royal family imported Italian Renaissance art to Westminster Abbey. But the civilisation of the Italian Renaissance that it coveted was, however, obsessed with republicanism. The Renaissance started in cities that freed themselves from outside rule in the middle ages. The ideal these cities believed in was republican self-rule. In practice, most of them fell prey to despots – but the most brilliant tried to be republics. Venice ruled itself as a republic until the age of Napoleon, and its art, from Tintoretto’s Paradise in the Doge’s Palace to Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan in the National Gallery, is profoundly coloured by the unique cultural politics of the Most Serene Republic.

Florence, where Torrigiano came from, had a much less stable history. Where Venetian republicanism endured the centuries, the politics of Florence were bloody. The Medici family established de facto rule over the Republic, but they were deposed in 1494, violently restored nearly two decades later, and overthrown again in 1527 only to crush their enemies with tens of thousands of deaths in the Siege of Florence in 1529-30.

It is the history of Florence that should give cultural conservatives pause for thought. In Florence, from Donatello’s Judith right through to Michelangelo’s David, the most influential masterpieces of the Renaissance expressed the ideal of republican citizenship. Not only that: after the Medici finally defeated this ideal and became quasi-monarchical dukes, art in the city went into decline. The later Medici let their city become an artistic backwater compared with its great days. The city’s artistic fire died with the Republic.

Artistic revolution happens in republics, you could reasonably conclude. The greatest artists flourish in free states far from the corruption of kings.

Meanwhile in Britain, the monarchical tradition has survived longer and more floridly than most other places. It is also a fact that of all the grandest European cultures we have the weakest tradition of visual art. In France, the Revolution inspired David. In Spain, the republican cause in the Civil War moved Picasso. Art does not flourish in monarchies, or to put it another way, in Italy they had republican ideals and they produced Donatello, Titian, the Renaissance. In Britain we’ve had thousands of years of hereditary monarchy and (since the Abbey) what has that produced? The souvenir mug.

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