November 2, 2019
Boss Trump, or, Capitalism Gone Wild
by Curtis White
“Whom the gods would destroy, they make crazy first.” —Ancient Latin Adage
The idea that Donald Trump is some sort of mafia don—or “wannabe gangster,” as Robert DeNiro derisively put it—has become one of the media’s go-to tropes for our current president. But I think that if Trump is related to the Italian padrone, the father/boss, he is its final, debauched term. He is the Godfather in an abyss five centuries in the making.
My evidence for this outlandish claim is Andrea Mantegna’s fresco “The Gonzaga Family” (1465-1474), part of a series of frescoes in Federico Gonzaga’s private rooms in his Mantua palace, the so-called “Camera Picta,” or “Painted Room,” one of the most celebrated rooms in art history. In this room he met with civic leaders and diplomats from the region.
Gonzaga was the Marquis of Mantua, a city-state on the Lombard plains, a poor place compared to wealthy neighbors Florence, Milan, and Venice. (Mantua sits in the center of a triangle created by these three cities.) By profession, Gonzaga was a condottiere, the leader of a mercenary army in the service of allied states. Most of Gonzaga’s personal wealth and much of the prosperity of the city came from the retainers he was paid by his client city-states. These payments at times exceeded the income of the city itself.
But Gonzaga was something more than a mercenary because he had the benefit—revolutionary at the time—of a humanist education taken under Vittorino de Feltre, an enlightened teacher of ancient cultures and virtues. His goal was to produce homos universal, first among whom were Gonzaga and his wife Barbara of Brandenburg. (De Feltre is the grey haired eminence in black hat behind and between Gonzaga and his wife.)
Unlike most of the vicious and purely mercenary condottiere of the period (like Sigismondo Malatesta, the “wolf of Rimini”), Gonzaga valued literature and the arts and strove to attract leading artists of the era to Mantua. Among them were Mantegna, the most advanced painter of the time, and Leon Battista Alberti, the first master of perspective, entrusted with building the city’s churches and palaces.
But the thing that most strikes the modern viewer of this fresco is the implicit drama. Gonzaga has been interrupted by his consigliere, he of the hyper-hawk-like nose, who seems to have just rushed into the room so vivid is the sense of motion given to him by Mantegna. He has brought Gonzaga a letter of unknown but serious content. His wife looks on in knowing attention while the others wait, close-mouthed, eyes averted, aware that whatever is in this letter is the business of the Marquis alone, the head of family and state.
The figures behind the Marquis and his wife are not mere portraits, but parts of the dramatic scene. What seems clear is that their silence is the silence not of obedience but of trust. They are trusting and loyal. They are loyal to Gonzaga for a very existential reason: without him or someone like him—someone clever, a soldier, but capable of subtle diplomacy—the more powerful states would suck up Mantua like an oyster. The Marquis, in his turn, is committed not only to his family but to the city, to which he has brought prosperity, beautiful buildings, and, by draining the local swamps, some degree of health. (Pope Pius II: “All you could hear were the frogs.”)
Just as important, the Gonzagas valued art. Mantegna was, in their eyes, “an extraordinary painter, unequaled in our time.” Their assumption was that “a ruler becomes immortal by knowing how to honor great men.” Taken together, the virtues of statecraft and the beauties of art and architecture, the Gonzagas sought to create what de Feltre called “ca’zoiosa,” the House of Joy.
Gonzaga’s loyalty, generosity, and wisdom even allowed him to manage the bored and distracted courtiers on the fresco’s far right side. They were useful, no doubt, but also vain in their sexy tan-and-orange tights, and likely to go frenzied if left to themselves. So they can just cool their heels until the Marquis is ready for them.
This vast image is not, of course, how the Marquis was in reality (a warlord after all). Rather, the image displays how he wanted to be understood. There is nothing of vainglory or narcissism in his portrait or in the depictions of his sober and patient family. Unlike most portraits of famous men of the period, Gonzaga is not here idealized, puffed up, clothed in golden threads (although his wife appears to be). Rather, he is dressed modestly in a comfortable robe. His feet are bare in their slippers. His conversation is measured. Although he is a condottiere, he is a man of peace first (in that era, being a man of peace was easier if you were also a warlord).
But this is not only how Gonzaga wanted to be understood; more importantly, this was how Gonzaga wanted his subjects, the citizens of Mantua, to understand themselves. This is the heart of what Italians still call “campanilismo,” love for the city of birth. Love for Mantua was not like the “love of country” that Americans claim (USA! USA!). Our love of country is empty of rational and moral content; it’s a love best demonstrated in the bleachers. But, for the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, love was earned through the city’s virtues, first, as well as through the beauties of their specific culture at harmony with the countryside around it.
Still, from our point of view, five hundred years after the fact, the scene looks sinister, as if the Marquis were conducting some nasty business in a Cosa Nostra flic. Perhaps he’s saying, “This man is dead to me,” and it looks very much like this consigliore knows what to do about such a person. He bows, steps back, and summons the goon squad to take someone for a ride.
There probably is something of the Gonzagas in the cultural DNA of the Mafia don. But that capitan, that boss, is the inverse of Federico Gonzaga. The mafia don has no loyalty to city or state. The civic is for him just something to manipulate to his own advantage. Bribe a mayor who’s “mobbed up.” The don offers his community not protection but a protection racket. The only loyalty he is capable of is a veiled threat, omertà. The don’s virtues are reduced to a love for his immediate family (tough love, to be sure) and an uncle or two. La famiglia celebrates this unity of purpose over plates of spaghetti, chianti, and the only art that the don understands, the bathetic songs of old Naples: “Come Back to Sorrento!”
As for Trump: Loyalty? For Trump, everyone who comes near him is an a priori traitor to his wishes. He’s just waiting for them to show their hand by trying to “reason with him,” after which, as an astonishing number of White House staffers have learned, it’s under the bus. (Ask Rick Perry how that goes: “Not a lot of people know this but, I didn’t even want to make the call [to Ukraine president]. The only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to.” Thanks, Mr. President.) And trust? Fuhgeddaboudit. Art? His name in blazing golden lights on Trump Tower should satisfy all aesthetic need. Control the destructive impulses of his minions? The Stephen Millers and Rudy Giulianis of the world run amuck on Sunday talk shows and then threaten civil violence. Beyond that, if there is anything beyond that, Trump goes on shining and stinking “like rotten mackerel by moonlight” (John Randolph).
You might judge from this ignoble tradition—from less than holy emperors to carnal popes, mercenary dukes, and mafia dons—that Trump was the nadir, the zero degree of this long line of moral distortion. In the Impeachment Chamber they say that Trump is the worst person in the history of the country, none worse. And this might be true … if it weren’t for all the other people in the room! The Clintons and the McConnells, people who use political connections to enhance personal business interests, congressmen who turn lobbyist and vice versa, and people who profit from a distinguished name—Biden! They’re not as different from Trump as they’d like you to believe. They live under the motto: “Let the world perish so long as I survive.” Through them and the economic systems they sustain, human intelligence is reduced to anger and greed. The Nation-States that such people administer have but one task. In the words of the art critic John Berger, “The task of the Nation-States is to manage what is allotted to them, to protect the interest of the market’s mega-enterprises, and, above all, to control and police the redundant.”
This is Capitalism Gone Wild, unmoored to any ethical pillar. It is capitalism drunk, sated, uninhibited, and dancing on some Florida beach with it’s underpants around its ankles, free at last. Capitalism Gone Wild cares to know nothing beyond its own self-interested calculations. No humanist House of Joy, this. It has created a vast population of the “redundant”—the unneeded and unwanted—but its only plan for them is to put them into involuntary internal exile in a place where rents are cheap. Rural Texas, say. If they can’t do that, there’s plenty of OxyContin to go around.
The unhappy irony for the grey men and women in the Impeachment Chamber is that it was the redundant—the not needed for anything, ever—who elected Trump, who made the crucial difference in Rust Belt battleground states. They voted for Trump for the same reason that Central Americans persist in trying to enter the United States, because it’s do that or die where they stand.
This is not a world that can be fixed. Capitalism and the vainglorious few who prosper from it are not going to change. As far as they’re concerned, they’re on course even though the destination may be extinction. For us, the question is how to walk away from nation-states, their mega-enterprises, and their looming apocalypse. The question is how to refuse their killing structures in order to do something else, something life-giving, including doing nothing at all, reclaiming the right to be lazy.
Mantegna himself can help us in this project because Mantegna may have painted the Gonzagas, but he was not like them. He was different from his patrons. Mantegna was one of the first to know, like Byron’s Childe Harold, that he stood “among but not of them,” the rich and powerful, the bloody-minded. Mantegna was one of the first artists to know that he could do what he wanted. His unique talents, and his patron’s need for them, made him mostly immune to any form of inquisition. For the first time, artists did not need to be loyal or worshipful, they needed to be free.
For Mantegna, these frescos are about his delight in discoveries made possible by this new freedom. A new naturalism appears here, a new honesty in depicting the human face, a new willingness to express ambiguity rather than dogma, a new engagement with the natural world, a new way of seeing provided by his mastery of foreshortening and perspective, a new wonder in the spectacles of the secular world. The painting is as much about its novel use of earth-toned colors as it is about yet another boss. He was the beginning of the counter-tradition of artist anarchists in their self-made worlds apart. Durer. Michelangelo. Caravaggio.
But mostly Mantegna was playing, playing while the Marquis frowned. Just as famous as the frescos on the walls of the Camera Picta is the oculus (an opening to the sky) on the ceiling.
All of the architectural details of the oculus are illusionistic, a groundbreaking feat of trompe l’oeil. The cherubs, or putti, are a tour de force of foreshortening and perspective. They look down on us as if from the lip of a well. When viewers stand directly beneath this illusion, looking up dizzily, they join in Mantegna’s play. But does this play not also include a threatening note: the large potted plant perched precariously on the railing threatens the meaning of the courtly scenes below. It is a détournement, a highjacking of the room, denying the self-importance of the scenes on the walls. It is a piece of cultural anarchism. I can’t help thinking that Mantegna enjoyed the thought of the pot crashing to the floor. The idea that it could, and it really looks like it could, provokes not consular sobriety but laughter. “You pay me,” the artists says, “but you don’t own me.” Drunk on freedom and disdain for his masters, Mantegna anticipates the liberating social derangements of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python.
Through the oculus, Mantegna calls to us. “Come on up,” he says. “You never wanted to live with them anyway. Mr. Sourpuss the Marquis. Your problem-child The Donald. You live with them at your own risk. So join me. The weather is perfect, the putti are crazy fun, and the view is great! Women and children first! The last balloon is leaving!”
Curtis White is the author of many books, including the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, both from Melville House. His newest book, Living in a World That Can't Be Fixed, comes out 11/5/2019.