Long, long ago, when Thomas Mann was a living writer and his status in English literature was at a peak, a 1936 collection titled Stories of Three Decades, introduced by Mann himself, was the way to read “Death in Venice” and much else. Over time, Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations have been revised and replaced, and the stories republished in many (shorter) arrangements, often with the earlier stories neglected and the complex later, longer novellas pulled together.
What I wanted to know was if there was anything in Stories of Three Decades that later anthologists had ignored, anything that I had missed. There is, and surprisingly it is a play, Fiorenza (1906), although likely a closet drama. I think the last act would work on stage, but otherwise I have doubts.
Fiorenza a character in the play, the only woman, but also Florence – so this is another example of a German in Italy – in 1492, the day before Lorenzo de Medici dies. The last act is a confrontation between the dying Lorenzo, a demonstrably great man, especially in contrast to the pale idiots who surround him, and Friar Girolamo Savonarola, a fanatic, a madman, but very much alive, and on the verge of taking over Florence.
Lorenzo is the representative of art, beauty, and the Classical spirit of the Renaissance. He recognizes, unlike the pale idiots, including his useless sons, that the Renaissance values he embodies are too abstract and empty. His sycophants flatter his poems – better than Dante! – and “divine origins.
LORENZO: That is poesy, poesy, my friend! That is beauty, beauty – but neither knowledge nor consolation! (239)
Not what a dying man needs to hear, even though Lorenzo embodies these values himself, however corruptly. Too corruptly. Some of the emptiness is a pagan hedonism.
LORENZO: I was the state. The state was I. Pericles himself took the public money unhesitatingly when he needed it. And beauty is above law and virtue. Enough. But when they rave against it, then Piero [useless son], save our treasures of beauty. Rescue them. Let all else go, but protect them with your life. This is my last will. (250)
But Piero, the perfect courtier, is hardly the man for that job. The impulse to destroy these values, to burn books and slash art, as advocated and enacted by Savonarola and his followers, will have its moment of triumph. As I understood the last act, Mann is entirely on the side of Lorenzo, but suggests that the refusal to curb the excesses of the pursuit of beauty, the embrace of decadence, inevitably created the counter-reaction of Savonarola. The bonfires are not Lorenzo’s fault, but he is to blame for failing to imagine them.
So, not such a surprise that Thomas Mann, in 1936, thought it a good idea to include this old curiosity among his other stories, whatever he had meant by it in 1906. German art, literature, and learning, however extraordinary, were no defense against modern Savonarolas. They instead needed to be defended.