The sense of the past

February 23, 2013

In the art of narrating history, few can compete with the Baron Corvo for flair. In a masterful attempt at rehabilitating the reputations of the Borgia clan, he juggles rationalizations on necessity for possible misdeeds right alongside exhaustive catalogs of exculpatory evidence, on the logic that redundancy is the secret to thoroughness.

Corvo was the pseudonym of Frederick William Rolfe, son of a piano manufacturer, dubbed “baron” by one Duchess Sforza Cesarini while living as an indigent freelance writer and tutor in Venice. His history of the Borgia pope’s career in nepotism would not necessarily be considered an authoritative one, but his diligence in shoehorning the available evidence into firm conclusions is not truly unusual.

Take C.V. Wedgewood’s assessment of Machiavelli’s legacy in The Sense of the Past (1960): “It has sometimes been said that the divorce of politics from ethics begins with Machiavelli. This was not true in practice; politics and ethics have been through a series of marriages and divorces since the beginning of recorded history. Machiavelli happened to live at a time and in a country where this divorce appeared to be absolute; his observations rested on this assumption.”


“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Then Wedgewood corrects Machiavelli for his pretense of objectivity in the study of politics, arguing that in truth he favored flattering the politics of antiquity, and discounted most evidence he encountered of agreement between moral policies and pragmatism, out of “his natural taste for subtlety, and his admiration for cleverness and force” (exemplified in the personalities of contemporaries like Cesare Borgia).

You can find Corvo’s sense of humor in the voices of more circumspect historians. These are the masters of good poise, presenting compromised source material to a skeptical readership with good humor and not too many apologies for its questionable nature.

He updated in style the reputation of a political crime family as colorful as a Caravaggio, just in time to capture the Victorian era’s passing discomfiture with what a contemporary audience forgets to blush at.

Tip their mouths open to the sky. Turquoise, amber, the deep green with fluted handle, pitcher the size of two thumbs, tiny lip and graceful waist.

Here we place the smallest flower which could have lived invisibly in loose soil beside the road, sprig of succulent rosemary, bowing mint.

They grow deeper in the center of the table.

Here we entrust the small life, thread, fragment, breath. And it bends. It waits all day. …

But the child of Hebron sleeps with the thud of her brothers falling and the long sorrow of the color red.


Of course, if like an ambitious politician he is full of rhetorical intensity but “trained in the art of inexactitude,” the narrator’s blind spots will come at a price. Some significant omissions in our history conceal from us what we still need to learn about ourselves.

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