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The parallels between Michelangelo’s era and our own are giant, and striking.Columbus’s voyages of discovery, the fall of the Berlin Wall – both events highlighted the breakdown of longstanding barriers of ignorance and myth, and heralded fresh, planet-wide systems of political and economic exchange.
Lest we forget, now is also the best time in history to be alive.
In early 1497, as a public act of moral purification, he directed his cohorts to gather up all the tangible evidence of this strange new age they could lay their hands on – immoral books, heretical texts, lewd paintings and sculptures – and set fire to the lot in an event that became known to history as the Bonfire of the Vanities.
We can learn a lot about contemporary extremist movements from the ashes of that historic bonfire.
The Gutenberg press, the internet – both shifted the whole of human communication to a new normal The crises that pervade our present world can seem overwhelming.
But step back, take a deep breath and realise: we’ve been here before. If Michelangelo (1475-1564) were alive today, he might find many of the big anxieties that plague our present moment – Isis, Trumpism, resurgent xenophobia – familiar.
In the 1490s, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a mid-level friar from Ferrara, exploded from obscurity to enthrall the population of Michelangelo’s own Florence with an apocalyptic message that blamed corrupt spiritual and temporal leaders for the world’s rising iniquities.
A second Flood was nigh and only in the spiritual Ark that he himself would build could people be spared.
His world was tangling together in a way it had never done before, thanks to Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press (1450s), Columbus’s discovery of the New World (1492) and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to Asia’s riches (1497).
Genius flourished under these conditions, but risk flourished, too.
Savonarola’s power, completely out of proportion to his social position, took reigning authorities by surprise, and within a few years he and his zealous supporters seized effective control of the city.
He ran it as a strict theocracy, with Christ as its king, and with gangs of radicalized youth enforcing his moral dictates in the streets.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) leveraged the new power of print to broadcast blistering condemnations of the Catholic Church, igniting religious violence continent-wide.