Theresa May has chosen an inspirational setting, Florence, for her Brexit speech on September 22. The British prime minister is not known for her flights of fancy, so what might link this storied Tuscan city, whose art and architecture draw millions of tourists annually, to the political project she seeks to promote?
Florence has served as a canvas for legions of writers in search of a backdrop to explore the enduring themes of love, conflict, creation and destruction. British novelists are no exception, so we might expect to hear May name-dropping E.M Forster. Or, if something more colourful is required, Robert Harris, the creator of cannibal killer Hannibal Lector (Harris attended the trial of the Monster of Florence).
A highbrow reference might be the once widely-read Romola, by George Elio. This complex historical novel is set in the time of Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican monk intent on purifying the city whose power reached its apogee during the bonfire of the vanities. Then again, the monk’s fanaticism recalls some of the worst rhetorical excesses of the Brexit debate, so perhaps that’s a subject best avoided.
Lessons from Florentine history
A favourite way to promote a positive vision of the UK without the EU is to point to the rich history of British involvement in European affairs. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, peppers his global Britain speeches with references to the British diaspora and its long history. A local case in point is John Hawkwood, an infamous mercenary whose service to Florence is commemorated in a famous fresco in Santa Maria del Fiore, better known on the tourist trail as the Duomo.
Hawkwood was contracted to wage war on behalf of Italian cities constantly at odds with their neighbours in medieval times. Florence itself secured many victories over its rivals, which enabled the civic government to flourish. That success is embodied in stone by the Palazzo Vecchio that dominates Piazza della Signoria (where Savonarola met his own fiery end).
But as with the UK as it embarks on departing the EU, Florentine politics always needed to take account of the world beyond. Quarrels between the Guelphs and Ghibellines – in effect the first modern political parties – were founded on questions of competing international allegiances since Italian cities were caught in a power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor.
There is another uncanny echo from the history of Florence’s struggles for self-government in the political writings of Machiavelli and Dante. These writers understood that the jealously guarded independence of city states such as Florence weakened Italy as a whole. The solution these thinkers promoted was Italian unity – just as 20th century Italian statesmen such as Altiero Spinelli advocated European integration to survive international power politics.
All hope abandon, ye who are about to listen?
Even if Dante’s political ideas would not further May’s agenda, she could find solace in the Divine Comedy, the masterpiece of Florence’s favourite son. The poet’s depiction of what he witnesses in his descent through the ten circles of hell is structured according to the logic of contrapasso. Sins are punished by the opposite action of the crime committed. Flatterers, therefore drown in a sea of their verbal diarrhoea made real. Nothing could please the pro-Brexit British tabloids more than to invoke the grotesque imagery of the Inferno to decry the EU’s demand for a multi-billion euro bill as punishment for daring to leave.
However, rumours are swirling that May will in fact concede ground on the payment dispute in order to boost the chances of securing a “special partnership” after Article 50 talks have concluded. This special partnership is a recurring theme in May’s Brexit rhetoric, just as the Madonna (for instance Giotto’s altar piece housed in the Uffizi) was a ubiquitous reference point in Renaissance art. Perhaps because both offer a beguiling vision of something pure and worthy of devotion.
Here the prime minister ought to heed the tale of Henry James’ short story, The Madonna of the Future. If she has not read it, she can find a copy in the British Institute, home to the library of Harold Acton – a personification of aristocratic free movement prior to the EU. Set in Florence, James’ story recounts the tribulations of an American artist who spends years working on a portrait of the ideal Madonna, a project he talks about incessantly. The painful climatic scene sees the narrator, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, barge his way into the artist’s studio, where he discovers a canvas “that was a mere dead blank, cracked and discoloured by time”. It’s a painful and telling lesson: the grander the setting and the more grandiloquent the discourse, the greater the potential for eventual disappointment when nothing of substance materialises.