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Renaissance Entertainment

In their quest to gain popularity, providing entertainment for the people (as the Cesars of Rome had done centuries before), was one of the chief means adopted by the rulers during the Renaissance. Entertainment was heavily used as part of the "Games and Grain" strategy, as the history of Florence as well as of Rome teaches us.

Renaissance Entertainment: Free Distribution of Food
Free Distribution of Food-Woodcut,
Solemn Entry of Charles V. and Pope Clement VII. into Bologna, 1530

Connected with all the Florentine forms of pleasure was the universally-beloved music. Lorenzo de’ Medici and other celebrated men wrote songs to be sung with the street amusements of the day, and paid their share of the expenses of the great public entertainments which were devised for their benefit. Only a month after Savonarola’s death, on the festival of San Giovanni, the public were entertained in a very different manner; namely, by a set piece of fireworks representing a giant, a pig, and some dogs. These were the allegorical figures of Valori, the giant, a popular leader, brutally killed by two relatives of men who had been executed under his administration as gonfaloniere; the pig stood for Savonarola, who was often so denominated by his enemies; and the dogs were his followers, the so-called Piagnoni.

The number of holidays was high; for they celebrated not only the regular festivals of the Church, but each guild had also its patron saint, whose day was made one of hilarity for everybody connected with the guild. On the arrival of carnival time, there were few days of good eating, good drinking, and unlimited fun, before the decrees of the Church called for sobriety and repentance, as their drollery and extravagance knew no bounds.

In the second half of the 15th Century, and continuing in the 16th Century, the Renaissance entertainment became not only very costly but really magnificent. The greatest and most original feature of the Florentine carnival was the allegorical procession. The credit for the invention at least of the allegorical cars is given to Lorenzo de’ Medici; while Vasari says that to Piero di Cosimo, a well known painter of the day, the greatest improvements were due; and that the whole was but a natural development of the old carnival ideas. One thing is certain, that to Lorenzo is due the credit of improving the splendor of the displays; and many of the best songs for such occasions are attributed to his pen. These songs were either for solos, four parts, or for chorus; but in whatever way intended to be sung, they contributed greatly to the Renaissance entertainment. The cost of these carnival "Canti" as they were called, must have been enormous, if we judge their magnificence by the descriptions of the few which remain to us. On one occasion there were in the procession, accompanying the triumphal cars, 300 masked gentlemen superbly robed, each on horseback, and accompanied by six male servants bearing torches, with which the scene was illuminated.

As part of the Renaissance entertainment, the carnival processions generally represented the triumph of a conqueror, an act of chivalry, or symbolically the trades and professions. On the occasion of a member of the Medici family coming to the papal chair, the carnival was celebrated with especial magnificence. There were two processions, each of which alone would have done credit to the city, and have been sufficient in itself for an ordinary year.

The horse-races were as popular as in Roman times, taking place along the route from the Porta di Prato through the Borg' Ognissanti to the Porta Santa Croce. All the city of Florence gathered to witness the exciting event; the members of the signoria used to leave their quarters in a body and to proceed to the palace of the Lanzi, in the above-mentioned street, whence they viewed the spectacle. The prize for the winner was a splendid piece of cloth, either of the much prized red cloth of Florence, or of gold and silk brocade. This was called Palio; and from being at first only the name of the prize, the word palio gradually came to be employed for the race itself, as it is later found in general use. There were not only races in which the horses had riders, such as are familiar to us; but some of the races, called dei Barberi, were run by riderless horses, on which were fastened a certain kind of spurs which goaded them on, almost to madness; for the faster the horses ran the more the spurs were kept in activity.

Horse-racing formed a chief source of amusement also on other gala days. Lorenzo de' Medici was especially fond of the sport, and is said to have kept many horses which he entered for the prizes, and to have possessed a magnificent roan, which won every race for which he was entered. But whether or not the victory was aided by the sycophancy of the Florentines, Lorenzo’s biographer does not inform us.

With the incoming of the ducal regime, chariot racing becomes part of the Renaissance entertainment. Several paintings of that period, still preserved in the Ufizzi Gallery, represent such races, the chariots being great, lumbering, gilded vehicles. The members of the court occupy a grand stand at one end of the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, where these races took place; and the other spectators were accommodated upon platforms on the other sides of the square.

Continuing the Medieval tradition, the tournament remained one of the main forms of Renaissance entertainment. The Piazza Santa Croce was the principal place for the jousts, as it was for other outdoor sports; and here many a young Florentine won his first spurs, either in a single hand to hand contest or in a sham battle. And here also he could on occasion attend an entertainment, which was regarded as amusing even as late as the reign of Maria Theresa; namely, a ball on horseback. On this same square, Lorenzo de' Medici entered the lists as a young man, in a joust whose expenses of 10,000 florins were paid for by himself, which was given in honor of the marriage of a friend named Braccio Martello; and from which Lorenzo himself bore off the prize, an exquisite silver helmet surmounted by a figure of Mars. Here were held also similar entertainments in honor of his own wedding, of which one was a sham battle, the other representing the conquest of a country. Another magnificent joust, in which his younger brother took part, has been rendered famous by a poem founded on it, written by the learned friend of the Medici, Poliziano. The stanzas of this poem have been characterized as among the most beautiful in the Italian language, as they were the first of their peculiar kind. They are said to have melody without artificiality, and artistic rhythm, without neglect of sense; to possess indeed some harshness, but to be so perfect in form as never to have been surpassed by later writers in Italian, though Ariosto had greater variety and freedom of movement, and Tasso, more melody.

Renaissance Entertainment: Musicians
Musicians accompanying the dancing, 16th Century

The Florentines were capable of arranging entertainments in the most artistic manner; and this quality was displayed also when they desired to do honor to a public guest; the Florentine was always as jealous of the honor of his city, if not more so, than of his own personal reputation. Savonarola, at the height of his power, had predicted such great results to be gained from a visit of the French king, that when at last it was known that the king was really on his way, great expectations were aroused. In honor of his coming the great doors of the Porta San Frediano had been taken from their hinges, a part of the city wall itself thrown down, and the wide moat filled up. The streets through which Charles VIII. of France was to pass were strewn with sweet- smelling herbs; the houses along the route were hung with tapestries and rich stuffs; from their windows floated banners displaying the fleur-de-lys and mottoes in letters of gold, in honor of the king. On the church doors was displayed the inscription, "Rex, pax, restauratio libertatis." On the principal streets were erected stages on which actors and jugglers represented the mysteries of the Bible, and pleasant stories.

Of a very different nature was the entertainment which the city devised for the diversion of Pope Pius II. and Galeazzo Sforza, on the 2d of May, 1459. This was evidently an attempt to revive old Roman ideas; for they turned the Piazza della Signoria into a grand arena, closed all entrances to it, built platforms for the populace, on all sides, whence they might witness in safety the expected combat. There were then introduced into the arena numbers of horses, bulls, cows, calves, buffaloes, wild boars, wolves, and a giraffe, together with some of the pet lions of the city. Anticipation ran high for a magnificent show such as the Florentines had never witnessed; but the strange animals forming this motley assembly, were less sanguinary than the people who owned them; and after one or two mild encounters, all settled down so peacefully, that the show became a matter of ridicule, and something else had to be improvised for the entertainment of the distinguished guests.

Beside plays or mysteries, the Renaissance entertainment benefited from the revival of the ancient idea of the theatre. In 1418, Leon Battista Alberti, then but twenty years of age, wrote a comedy entitled Filodossio, which was a very successful imitation of the classical style. The revival of the the theatre, however, was due to the exertions of the Academy in Florence, through whose influence some of the comedies of Plautus were played in Latin in 1474; and in order to make them popular, they were afterwards translated into the vulgar tongue, so that the less cultured also might enjoy them. About the same time Galeazzo Maria Sforza visited Florence, and for his entertainment a series of religious plays was instituted; the Annunciation being given at the church of San Felice, the Ascension, at Santa Maria del Carmine, and the descent of Holy Ghost on the Apostles, at Santo Spirito. This last mystery was especially popular among the Florentines, and was given every year; but this time it resulted disastrously; for some of the fire used in the representation got beyond control, and igniting the neighboring woodwork of the church, the structure was entirely destroyed.

The brothers Pulci were very active in this field of literature, and many of their compositions yet remain to give an idea of the condition of the dramatic literature of the day. The pen of Bernardo produced religious dramas, such as the Death of St. Jerome, the Passion of Jesus Christ, the Vengeance of Jesus Christ by the hand of Vespasian, and Madonna Antonia. Luca Pulci also engaged in similar work, but seems not to have been so prolific, though one of his religious dramas is still remembered, namely, San Giulano. The third and most celebrated of the brothers was Luigi, from whose pen emanated the famous but much criticized poem of Morgante Maggiore, which he wrote for his own pleasure and for the delectation of Lorenzo de' Medici and his guests; and in which he brings the most sacred matters into derision, under the veil of fine irony.

The theatre became a main form of Renaissance entertainment, and with the introduction of song into the drama by Poliziano, a new direction was inaugurated.  This new direction was to produce the opera, and so Florence had added one more item to the debt of gratitude which the civilized world of today owes her.

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