By Mary Lou Beatty
“I think that the pull, the attraction of history, is in our human nature,” writer David McCullough says. “What makes us tick? Why do we do what we do?”
In this issue of Humanities he talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the art of history as storytelling. McCullough, whose book John Adams recently won the Pulitzer Prize, warns against the misperceptions that can arise when delving into another time. He mentions Adams and his colleagues of the eighteenth century: “We see them in paintings in their frilled shirts and their satin pants and the powdered hair and they look like fops. They look like softies. Nothing doing. They were tough. And life was tough.” Nobody, he reminds us, has ever lived in the past. For them it is the present, and no one knows how it will turn out.
From our own fledgling democracy, we travel further back to a different world: the realm of the Medicis. Our journey begins in the darkness of Florence at the time of the plague and emerges in the glories of Michelangelo’s Renaissance. The values and ideas of Italian society are illuminated in unexpected ways by the storytellers of the Decameron and the gossips of the Medici court. The thousands of letters in the Medici archives tell us about much more than governing: a delicious note from Duke Cosimo tsk-tsks the reputation the family has for poisoning its rivals. “In regard to that man who offered to poison Piero Strozzi’s water or wine, impelling you to send a courier here to obtain a recipe from us, we inform you that we have never looked into such matters nor authorized others to do so.” Adds the duke, “we find such matters excessively horrid.”
The Medicis, the appearance of power was as important as the exercise of it. They built chapels; their palazzos filled with decorative art; their cardinals and popes were memorialized in Michelangelo’s sculptures. And the family thrived for two hundred years. Their plans were on a grand scale and some went unfinished, but they left a cultural inheritance to the next generation of Florentines and much of the Western world.
The links between a society’s values and its culture have been debated in the centuries since. In this issue, we examine the fabric of our own culture by honoring some exemplary people of today.
We profile seven people and an institution that have added to the richness of present-day America. They are the winners of the 2001 National Humanities Medal, which is awarded for work in the public humanities. They include a doctor who applies the humanities to psychiatry and law, an advocate for literacy, an artist who captures history in pen and ink, a biographer of twentieth-century heroes, a chronicler of our vanities, an author of young adult books, a scholar of African American music, and last, an institution, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is committed to protecting the irreplaceable buildings and spaces in our lives.