Thursday, December 8, 2016

save our treasures of beauty - Thomas Mann's "Death in Florence"

Long, long ago, when Thomas Mann was a living writer and his status in English literature was at a peak, a 1936 collection titled Stories of Three Decades, introduced by Mann himself, was the way to read “Death in Venice” and much else.  Over time, Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations have been revised and replaced, and the stories republished in many (shorter) arrangements, often with the earlier stories neglected and the complex later, longer novellas pulled together.

What I wanted to know was if there was anything in Stories of Three Decades that later anthologists had ignored, anything that I had missed.  There is, and surprisingly it is a play, Fiorenza (1906), although likely a closet drama.  I think the last act would work on stage, but otherwise I have doubts.

Fiorenza a character in the play, the only woman, but also Florence – so this is another example of a German in Italy – in 1492, the day before Lorenzo de Medici dies.  The last act is a confrontation between the dying Lorenzo, a demonstrably great man, especially in contrast to the pale idiots who surround him, and Friar Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatic, a madman, but very much alive, and on the verge of taking over Florence.

Lorenzo is the representative of art, beauty, and the Classical spirit of the Renaissance.  He recognizes, unlike the pale idiots, including his useless sons, that the Renaissance values he embodies are too abstract and empty.  His sycophants flatter his poems – better than Dante! – and “divine origins.

LORENZO:  That is poesy, poesy, my friend!  That is beauty, beauty – but neither knowledge nor consolation!  (239)

Not what a dying man needs to hear, even though Lorenzo embodies these values himself, however corruptly.  Too corruptly.  Some of the emptiness is a pagan hedonism.

LORENZO:  I was the state.  The state was I.  Pericles himself took the public money unhesitatingly when he needed it.  And beauty is above law and virtue.  Enough.  But when they rave against it, then Piero [useless son], save our treasures of beauty.  Rescue them.  Let all else go, but protect them with your life.  This is my last will.  (250)

But Piero, the perfect courtier, is hardly the man for that job.  The impulse to destroy these values, to burn books and slash art, as advocated and enacted by Savonarola and his followers, will have its moment of triumph.  As I understood the last act, Mann is entirely on the side of Lorenzo, but suggests that the refusal to curb the excesses of the pursuit of beauty, the embrace of decadence, inevitably created the counter-reaction of Savonarola.  The bonfires are not Lorenzo’s fault, but he is to blame for failing to imagine them.

So, not such a surprise that Thomas Mann, in 1936, thought it a good idea to include this old curiosity among his other stories, whatever he had meant by it in 1906.  German art, literature, and learning, however extraordinary, were no defense against modern Savonarolas.  They instead needed to be defended.


  1. STORIES OF THREE DECADES, and its companion volume ESSAYS OF THREE DECADES, are two of my favorite books. And yet, somehow, I’ve never been able to drag myself straight through either one. Mann is delightful, but good lord is he tedious consumed in quantity.

    Unrelated question, if you don't mind: are you going to come back to Goethe's Italian Journeys? Your "introduction to the whole Goethe thing" and first Italian Journeys post got me unreasonably excited last month, and I've been briefly grumpy with each post since then for not being a continuation of the series...

  2. Yes, it is easy to understand how Stories of Three Decades has been divvied up and replaced.

    That was all I had on Goethe, I am afraid. It took that much throat-clearing just to write one post! How sad. I have threatened a big Goethe re-read project, but perhaps what I really want is for someone else to do it. Read Nicholas Boyle, read some big chunk of the Bollingen Goethe, etc. So much of what comes later in German literature, things that would have made no sense, are made clear - or, perhaps, badly distorted - by the way I see them through Goethe.

  3. Nicholas Boyle's biography: another book I very much like and have never succeeded in reading straight through. Germans, and those who write about Germans, I suppose...

    If you ever do this Goethe re-read, I'm on board. I'd join in eagerly. Eckermann's conversations, Poetry & Truth, and Boyle; then some proportion of the voluminous works. It would be great.

  4. Maybe when Boyle gets volume 3 published.

  5. Because of my curious fascination with connections between and among literary figures, your posting reminds me of a different location and a different time, involving Mann's children, which you can read about via this link:
    Once upon a time, oh so long ago, I was working with someone else on research for a book we planned to write about 7 Middagh Street. Alas, we lost momentum, distracted by other projects, and all of our work was trumped by another writer who published a book entitle _February House_. But all of that aside, the Mann family remains fascinating. I hope you enjoy the detour to 7 Middagh Street.

  6. That's a lot of famous people crossing paths. I had not known about that house.

  7. The linked article is the tip of the iceberg. _February House_, with the rest of the iceberg, and more famous names as guest and visitors, will blow your mind.

  8. It'll be a while before I get to 1941. I hope I remember about the book.