The last of these, a patriotic or nationalist fervor, Baron attributed to the invasions of Florence by the belligerent Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. The year 1402 was the moment of crisis when it appeared for a few months that Giangaleazzo’s army was on the verge of conquering Florence and subjecting the city to the monarchical authority of Milan. Baron assumed rather uncritically that Giangaleazzo represented the forces of tyranny and that Florentines recognized this and saw not only their livelihoods at stake but, crucially, their brand of political liberty. For Baron, it was not only the wars of Giangaleazzo’s time but the “crisis” year, especially, that galvanized humanist scholars at Florence to connect their scholarly work to their public life. They theorized republican institutions only because republicanism was under immediate threat. Baron’s argument has been widely criticized in the half-century since it first appeared, although it remains one of the most influential conceptual models for understanding the connections between classical learning, humanists, and contemporary politics.
The entire scene, consisting of a single, stationary shot that lasts no more than fifty seconds, constitutes a true mise-en-abîme, encompassing the whole of the film. Our perspective is one that takes in the entirety of history, back to antiquity and up to the present day, and simultaneously one that is focused on one week in November of 1526 in a cold and foggy Italian marquisate. We are to witness, through a work of art, the death of a man, but also the death of an idea of the world, symbolized by the soldiers fitted out with medieval weapons and armor which were already obsolete, as evidenced by the very presence of the armor-clad cadaver. And yet, the one-track, fatalistic version of history suggested by the introductory flashforwards is complicated by the various flashbacks that are interspersed throughout the film. These analeptic moments bring us within the subjective mind of Giovanni: they are moments he recalls, or imagines, or both (at times it is difficult to tell which) as he lies on his sickbed contemplating his fate and suffering from his wounds. They represent bits of his own subjective history within the history of the film,5 and as the film progresses and Giovanni’s health deteriorates, he (and we with him) seems to start to confuse his own memories with reality. As his death approaches, time seems to be compacting for him so that past and present begin to merge. In contrast to this complicated, subjective experience of time, the rigorous historicity of the film, complete with dates and place-names, suggests a meticulous adherence to the historical record which indeed is the case for the most part (the major exceptions being some, though not all, of the subjective flashbacks). So the structure of history in this film is both objective and subjective, linear and circuitous.