Turn Left at the Renaissance

Siena is almost entirely a city of the later Middle Ages.  The days of glory—artistic as well as political—were the 13th and 14th centuries, and by the time the city was absorbed by the Medici empire in 1552, it was already a place of memories, whose people were ridiculed by the Florentines (in Dante’s phrase) as a vana gente—a silly and inconsequential people who wasted their efforts searching for a mysterious underground river that would bring prosperity to an arid land.  Siena was hopelessly old-fashioned.  If Florentine art looked forward to the sensuality and paganism of California, Siena was resolutely reactionary, lingering in a twilight of the Christian age, when an icon of Mary was still felt to be a photographic likeness.

Walking through Siena’s magnificent cathedral in March, I was asked to explain the presence of pagan Sibyls in the pavimento.  I palmed off the usual answer that, in the Renaissance, the Sibyls were regarded as pagan prophets who foretold the coming of Christ.  Fortunately, I was not asked why the spurious Sibylline literature was accepted as genuine, much less why there was also a tribute to Hermes Trismegistus that included a quotation from the Hermetic corpus.  What, indeed, is this twaddle doing in a Christian church, especially here in Siena?

The writings that go under the name of Hermes Trismegistus (or...

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