The Loggia de’ Cerchi stood in the heart of old Florence, within a labyrinth of narrow streets behind the Badia, now rarely threaded by the stranger, unless in a dubious search for a certain severely simple doorplace, bearing this inscription:
Qui Nacque Il Divino Poeta.
To the ear of Dante, the same streets rang with the shout and clash of fierce battle between rival families; but in the fifteenth century, they were only noisy with the unhistorical quarrels and broad jests of woolcarders in the cloth-producing quarters of San Martino and Garbo.
Under this loggia, in the early morning of the 9th of April 1492, two men had their eyes fixed on each other: one was stooping slightly, and looking downward with the scrutiny of curiosity; the other, lying on the pavement, was looking upward with the startled gaze of a suddenly-awakened dreamer.
Summary: The tale opens with Tito Melema, a Greek-speaker from Southern Italy, coming to Florence after having been shipwrecked. Being handsome and charming and easy-going he quickly makes friends and, to find a way to pay his bills, meets Bardo de'Bardi -- a blind and increasingly poor aristocrat-scholar living on a dwindling legacy, but precisely because of that well informed about where Tito might sell his valuables in order to pay his bills and about who might have paying need for a scholar fluent in Latin and Greek. He also meets Romola, Bardo's beautiful daughter, who has spent her life taking care of him and thus has lived in an isolated bubble of Renaissance humanism -- nonreligious, academic and pedantic, and knowing very little of people, having never known any except those who operate within Bardo's tight little scholarly circle. Tito's entry into her narrow little ivory-tower world comes like a thunderbolt, particularly given that he turns out to be exceptionally good at interacting with her father, as he is at interacting with everyone else.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: Tito Melema is one of the great villains of English literature. We meet him in the beginning and are as charmed by him as everyone else -- but when we meet him he has already betrayed his foster father, and by the end of the work he has betrayed literally everyone in one way or another: his wife, his wife's father, his wife's godfather, both major political parties of Florence, the young peasant girl Tessa, and Florence itself. And the reason is that he is a talented, charming person who will not do what is hard and painful. Avoiding what seems difficult is the root of all treachery.
Standing over against Tito in Romola's life is the controversial Dominican, Girolamo Savonarola, who is also masterfully drawn. It is Savonarola who calls Romola's mind out of its greatness into recognizing that a person must not shirk the difficult duty merely because it is difficult; it is he who shows her that there is a world of people outside of what she has known, people in need of help. Romola will never sign on to all of Savonarola's piety, but it in fact serves as a necessary step for her -- it is only by his vision of the world, made grand and great by his religious views, that she is able to break out of the narrow and petty mental prison within which her skeptical, scholarly, humanist upbringing had raised her.
But Savonarola himself is flawed. A great man of great talents, with a great vision of reform and justice, he is too tempted by power, and the temptations of power will eventually catch him in a contradiction from which he cannot escape. Just as Tito's ever-compounding villainy is a result of precisely that which makes him sociable and able to put people at ease, so too Savonarola's downfall is the outgrowth of the very thing that made it possible for him to rise. Like Romola, George Eliot, an atheist, has little sympathy with Savonarola's piety in itself -- but, like Romola, she can see greatness and splendor through the flaws.
All of the evidence we have of the precise nature of George Eliot's atheism suggests that she is highly influenced by both Comte and Feuerbach, and one of the things that both have in common is the notion that religion, while based on error, is a necessary step in genuine intellectual progress. This is in fact how it functions in the course of Romola's life. Her move from humanist skepticism to being a follower of Savonarola is an improvement, one that shows her that even a life of difficulty can have meaning for one who devotes herself to helping others. But she must also in the end overcome the contradictions in Savonarola's own view, and, perhaps even more importantly, she must find a way to make sense of her life once she recognizes that Savonarola's views are not coherent, but are instead in the grip of his ambition to be an influencer of men.
Eliot is a very morally focused author, but she lacks the moral range of, say, Austen. The moral psychology of her characters can be splendidly complex -- she is second to none in being able to depict how people may do evil with the best of intentions -- but her ethics is always quite simple: pain and difficulty should not be avoided, indeed, must often be deliberately taken on, that we may find meaning through doing good to others. What makes moral integrity? Precisely being happy to suffer in the doing of good. What makes moral greatness? Precisely being willing to struggle against wrong. And it is the reverse that leads to the basest betrayals. As Romola herself says in diagnosing Tito's moral failing:
I believe, when I first knew him, he never thought of doing anything cruel or base. But because he tried to slip away from everything that was unpleasant, and cared for nothing else so much as his own safety, he came at last to commit some of the basest deeds—such as make men infamous.
Favorite Passage: Eliot's quite good at striking passages, but this one especially caught my attention this time around.
In Savonarola’s preaching there were strains that appealed to the very finest susceptibilities of men’s natures, and there were elements that gratified low egoism, tickled gossiping curiosity, and fascinated timorous superstition. His need of personal predominance, his labyrinthine allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, his enigmatic visions, and his false certitude about the Divine intentions, never ceased, in his own large soul, to be ennobled by that fervid piety, that passionate sense of the infinite, that active sympathy, that clear-sighted demand for the subjection of selfish interests to the general good, which he had in common with the greatest of mankind. But for the mass of his audience all the pregnancy of his preaching lay in his strong assertion of supernatural claims, in his denunciatory visions, in the false certitude which gave his sermons the interest of a political bulletin; and having once held that audience in his mastery, it was necessary to his nature—it was necessary for their welfare—that he should keep the mastery. The effect was inevitable. No man ever struggled to retain power over a mixed multitude without suffering vitiation; his standard must be their lower needs and not his own best insight.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.