Today’s episode of Conversations with Tyler with the historian of the Renaissance Ada Palmer shoots straight to the top of this year’s best-of list for any podcast. Here is a long excerpt to whet your appetite:
Imagine for a moment that you are the French ambassador, and you’re on your way to Rome to meet with the pope because the French king always needs this. Now, if you’re an ambassador, you’re, at minimum, the son of a count because only aristocracy can be ambassadors. On your way south, you’re stopping off in different cities, including Florence.
Now, you already have a terrible opinion of Florence because Florence is a pit of merchants, scum, and villainy. Florence, in order to prevent noblemen from taking over the republic, literally executed everyone in this city who had a drop of royal blood or noble blood. So, it’s just commoners. There’s not a single person in this city who is of sufficient right to be worthy to talk to you. In addition, Florence has such a terrible reputation for sodomy, homosexuality, and perversion that the verb to Florentine is literally the word for anal sex in five different European countries, including in France.
So, you’re on your way to this city, and it’s full of merchant scum and they’re all perverts and there isn’t even anyone there who’s worthy to host you on the way. You’re going to stay with your dad’s banker because he’s the only Florentine whose address you’ve got. You show up in the city, and you reach the city, and suddenly, wait a minute, it’s full of these gorgeous ancient Roman bronzes. Wait a minute, they can’t be ancient Roman bronzes. They look like they’re new, but that technology doesn’t exist. That technology was lost centuries ago.
Then you go to the banker’s house, and he greets you humbly at the door saying, “I’m sorry, my house is unworthy to host your excellency,” and he invites you inside, and you look around the courtyard, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, with these round circular arches that let enormous amounts of light shine in on the gardens and the statues. You’ve never seen this before. Wait, you have seen this before. It looks like the ruins of the Roman villa in the backyard of your father’s castle where you grew up, but that doesn’t exist anymore. Those arts were lost.
In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a gorgeous statue, an ancient Roman statue of Bacchus or Dionysius, and next to it, there’s a brand-new statue that’s obviously new because it hasn’t even turned green yet. The bronze is still ruddy. But that technology, you know, doesn’t exist.
In the corner, there are some men dressed in strange robes speaking a language you’ve never heard, and you say, “What language are they speaking?” The banker says, “Oh, they’re speaking Ancient Greek. They’re Plato scholars.” And you say, “But Ancient Greek is lost, and Plato is lost. How do you have this?” “Oh, we have lots of Ancient Greek here. Look, here’s my grandson, Lorenzo. He’s just written a sonnet in Ancient Greek about the three parts of the soul.” And then, here’s a little boy reciting a sonnet to you about the nature of the soul in Ancient Greek.
You’re like, “Where am I? All of this stuff is impossible.” And that’s the moment that your host, Cosimo de’ Medici, turns to you and says, “Would France like to make an alliance with Florence?”
You should listen to any podcast with attention to get the most out of it, but this one actually does deserve your fullest attention. Pull to the side of the road if you have to, or else just read the transcript.
And she writes Hugo-nominated science fiction? Ada Palmer is the Renaissance woman.
Update: Of course that she would have a blog: Ex Urbe. Though points deducted for not having posted anything in almost a year.