Sunday, October 03, 2010

Majanlahti on Rome

Here's one so self-evidently compelling on its face that you can't imagine why nobody thought of it before.  It's Anthony Majanlahti, The Families Who Made Rome, subtitlted "A History and a Guide."  Think about it: you atour the ancient parts of Rome, you operate in terms of political figures: here Augustus, here Trajan, here Constantine.  When you do the much more extensive Renaissance elements, you're usually working in terms of the artists--Bernini, Bramante and suchlike.   But all those Renaissance piles have a political history behind them, not least in the sense that somebody had to stump up the money.  Here the sources get there due: the Colonna, Della Rovere, Fernese, Borghese, Barberini, Pamphlij, Chigi and suchlike who provided the gold to make it go.

Majanlahti has structured it as a tour guide.  I haven't had the opportunity to use it that way yet but I must say that it works pretty well as an informal general of the age.   In crude summary, then: what we have here is an odd sort of hybrid government perhaps like nothing so much as the Roman republic, where a network of rich and powerful clans jockey for position so they can line their private pockets with public wealth--and for "private pockets," read "lavish public display." 

The standard pattern has an almost tedious regularity: get one of your clan elected pope; let him cooperate with his "nipote"--the "nephews" (sometimes, actually nephews)--and set the family up for life.   Oddly enough, you didn't get a second short (the della Rovere were an exception)--but properly engineered, one was as good as forever.

It occurs to me also that we see a grand tradition unveil itself here.  We boring northerners sometimes make fun of their Italians for their skill at turning public resources to the service of private greed.  I think in particular of Ed Banfield's superb Moral Basis of a Backward Society where he displayed the physical and spiritual poverty of a "community" (if you can call it that) without any sense of civic virtue (here's a review I wrote of Banfield's book a while back).   The interesting modifier here is "backward;" read Majanlahti for an account of the same kind of self-serving in a society that is  not "backward" by any conventional definition.


chrismealy said...

Did you ever hear about the follow up?

Buce said...

Most interesting and instructive, Chris, and many thanks. I have Samefacts in my aggregator but I had missed all of this.

I must say--though I don't think I've ever been to Banfield's own town, I have traveled a good deal in Southern Italy (and Sicily)--and it still seems fairly low in civic virtue to me.