Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Familial Exploits of the d’Hauteville Brothers

We are all familiar with the illustrious exploits of William, Duke of Normandy, who conquered the main Island of Britain in 1066. But before their conquest of England, the Normans had already established themselves as a dynamic and mobile force in 11th century Europe. One family in particular distinguished themselves as leaders, explorers and conquerors, they were the d’Hautevilles. The custom of primogeniture was not kind to the eleven younger sons of Tancred d’Hauteville. His petty estate was left to the eldest son and the younger brothers were obliged to look abroad in order to secure their fortune. The first to leave France was William, one of the older brothers. He was enticed by news that the Byzantine Empire was planning the recapture of the Island of Sicily. He took part in the campaign, leading a contingent of Normans to fight alongside the Byzantines. He proved himself in battle and gained the nickname Ironside for his massive strength. The exploits of William Ironside encouraged his brothers and other Normans to seek their fortunes in the central Mediterranean. Eventually Robert, called Guiscard for his craftiness, was able to conquer the whole of southern Italy with a capital at Naples. He harbored ambitions for the conquest of the Byzantine Empire itself, but was foiled in these plans when the Byzantines paid the Venetians to destroy his naval capacity. Despite this setback, the conquests continued. Upon the death of Robert Guiscard, his brother Roger attempted the conquest of Sicily. The aborted Byzantine campaign left the Island in chaos and ripe for conquest. Roger was able to subdue the island and was granted the title “King of the two Sicilies” by the Pope. Robert Guiscard’s son Bohomond found himself cheated out of an inheritance, so he continued the familial practice of conquest abroad. He ended up joining the first crusade to Jerusalem and in the process swore allegiance to the same Emperor his father had warred against. He eventually captured the Biblical city of Antioch and founded his own principality. Thus the d’Hautevilles had spread their legacy from Normandy to Sicily, Naples, Constantinople, and Antioch. It is a wonder that one family could have shaped the setting of Medieval Mediterranean politics, but they did. It is perhaps a testimony of the confusion of the times and a tribute to the Norman strength of arms. The legacy of the d’Hauteville brothers doesn’t directly affect us today, but Medieval Europe was certainly altered by their dynamic ambitions.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Florence, Birthplace of the Renaissance

The Mona Lisa, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Birth of Venus, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.  All these great works of art and architecture remind us of the Renaissance. Their forms and beauty speak of an older age when tradition was shaken off and ancient ideas were being reborn to form new thoughts. Surprisingly, these pieces all have one thing in common, which is Florence, Italy. Whether a native artist or architect, or a structure that still graces the city, Florence has left its mark on the Renaissance. Why Florence? What forces of nature or chance or Providence selected this city in the heart of Tuscany to be where greatness occurred?
The Gates of Paradise

Florence, like many of the other Italian city-states, benefited from the struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Neither faction could bear to see northern Italy in the other’s control, so the cities in Tuscany and the Po River Valley were able to develop independently.  They formed city-state republics not unlike the ancient Greek polis. Florence was, like the other cities, a textile and trade center. Raw materials came in from the east or north and then were processed by the skilled artisans and craftsmen into fashionable cloth, tools, etc. This economic climate fostered a banking industry that was controlled by a few powerful families. The wealthiest of these families, the Medici, was headed by one of the central political figures of the early Renaissance, Lorenzo deMedici. Lorenzo, in addition to having an interest in politics and finance, had an eye for the fine arts. He built an art studio in one of his palace and patronized some of the leading names of the age, such as da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. It was to the patronage of Lorenzo and others like him that such great artists owed their gratitude.

 The crowning splendor of Florence is the orange dome that tops the Cathedral. At the time of its design, the dome was considered a mathematical impossibility, but its secret was mastered by the architect Brunelleschi. Compelled by the city authorities to solve the problem of the dome, Brunelleschi traveled south to study one of the Caesars’ lasting legacies, the Pantheon of Rome. Wrapped in mystery, the Pantheon taunted Brunelleschi to discover the secret of its design. Eventually, Brunelleschi determined that in order to construct a dome of this size, each layer had to be artificially propped up by wooden scaffolds until a keystone ring could be placed at the top to assume the stress. Once this was done, the stress of each layer could be handed down to the next and finally to the base. Although his competitors mocked his efforts, Brunelleschi’s solution was ingenious.

While the focus of the Renaissance eventually shifted to Rome, Florence remained proud of its achievements and its sons. The way that Michelangelo and da’Vinci changed art from two dimensional to three dimensional in both painting and sculpting broke the Medieval patterns and started a new path for future artists. Today, thousands flock to see the marvelous works that still grace the city, and Florence remains one of Italy’s most treasured centers of attraction.