We can start on the eastern edge of Tuscany, visited in September by Tracy Chapman and Pope John Paul II. Tracy is playing Cortona, for the new version of the Italian Communist Party. John Paul is rededicating Piero della Francesca's frescoes in the Franciscan church in Arezzo, 50 miles north of Tracy. They aren't our villains, but Piero might be.
The frescoes are astonishing. They form a massive cycle entitled 'The History of the True Cross'. It begins with the death of Adam, buried with a seed under his tongue, which grows into the tree that provides the wood for the Cross. Half the series shows various adventures in pursuit of the Cross after its loss to the Church. One section tells the story of Constantine's mother, Helena. She traces the Cross to Jerusalem, and drags the secret out of a local by half-drowning him. This episode looms large on the church wall, and is known as 'The Torture of the Jew'. Pretty odd in a church, you might think - even odder for the Pope to be rededicating it.
The series moves on to a later mislaying of the Cross, this time to the Persians. But the story has a happy ending - the Cross is recovered by the Emperor Herakleios in a mighty battle. This painting is truly haunting. The figures, like most of Piero's, have that strange, detached sense, as if they weren't really there, but watching it on television - quite astonishing in one of the most compelling battle-scenes ever painted. But Piero is not our villain. Indeed he is our hero. He signals down the ages the real nature of the tragedy that began to unfold in 1492, the year of his death. He shows us that European Christian culture at something like its best, never mind its worst, had a savage nature that it seemed perfectly proper to celebrate in a Franciscan church.
And in 1492, the savagery all happened together: the conquest of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the persecution of the remaining Muslims, the unleashing of the Inquisition. Columbus, hawking his wares from Henry VIII to Lorenzo the Magnificent, struck lucky with Ferdinand and Isabella. But they are not the villains either. It is a Belgian, Charles of Ghent.
This may seem a bit hard. Charles wasn't even born till 1500. But by 1520 something quite extraordinary had happened to him. He had become Charles I of Spain, and Charles V of pretty well everywhere else. From one set of grandparents - Ferdinand and Isabella - he inherited most of Iberia, all of European America except Brazil, and most of Italy. From his Habsburg grandfather, he got the Austrian Empire, including the Netherlands, Burgundy, and the chance to run against Henry VIII for the elected position of Holy Roman Emperor. (Henry came third.)
It is hard to see how such a ramshackle set-up could be defended against England, France and the turbulence of the Reformation. But it was just possible, given the total sacrifice of humanity, political sense and foresight - and given American silver. This was the beginning of European imperial fever, which wracked Europe as well as America.
It is astonishing to look at old prints and to see the fearful symmetry between the Spanish slaughter in Cuzco in 1533, and in Antwerp in 1576. Most horrific of all is Charles's assault on Rome in 1529, employing, in the crazy politics of the day, many German Protestant troops. Rome suffered horribly. The Pope escaped under parole to Charles. Arriving in Orvieto, he discovered Henry VIII's otherwise reasonable request to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon - who unfortunately happened to be Charles's aunt.
The influx of American silver into a traditional European economy threatened to destroy it. In the next century, the unfolding imperial logic spread horrendous destruction throughout Europe, especially east of the Rhine. But by 1648 the Habsburg hegemony was essentially at an end, and Europe struggled through to the Enlightenment, and the supposed abolition of the superstitious cruelties so sharply depicted by Piero. The imperial urge, however, continued in secular uniform, through Napoleon, the Royal Navy, latestarting Germany and the rest.
A year ago, all this could be looked back on as somebody else's history, a terrifying force that extinguished itself in 1945. But Europe is beginning to have that ramshackle, curling-up and smoking-at-the-edges feel that you sense in the early Habsburg days. In the early stages of that disaster, Christian conviction led us, though it was inseparable from cruelty and greed. In the post- Enlightenment age, the conviction departed from a Europe which none the less remained rapacious on a scale far greater than before.
So it is a moot point whether at any particular moment imperial Europe was inflicting more cruelty on itself than on its empires. But the crucial difference is that Europe developed the capacity to heal its wounds. In much of Africa and Latin America, the hurt has been cumulative. No longer harmed by our direct cruelty, it is our version of modernity that is difficult to endure. We appear to have been saved by liberal democracy - no such democracies have yet gone seriously to war against one another.
It's embarrassing, however, to recall how little the official churches have contributed to this transformation from empire to republic. The papal record is clearest, but there is also the early Methodist leader Jabez Bunting's outburst 'Methodism hates democracy as it hates sin]'
Where do we go from here? We might, though fearfully, take our lead from the Tuscan Two, John Paul and Tracy Chapman. The Pope wants to rechristianise Europe. This project is already raising hackles among Protestants and Orthodox, never mind the European Community's 10 million Muslims. Even so, a Europe that has no conviction other than in its own prosperity is a menace to itself and ultimately to the rest of the world. Ernest Gellner has called us by our name - 'The Consumerist Unbelievers' International'.
Chapman's songs enchant us into regarding a world we would otherwise ignore - the exclusion from the prosperity that we so value of millions within our own borders, and worldwide. But her presence on a Communist Party platform reminds us that outrage against injustice has enslaved more people in this century than all the empires in history.
It may be a bizarre prospect, tentatively to follow John Paul and Tracy, hand in hand into a troubled future, in search of a gracious rather than a conquering God, and seeking how to be universal neighbours. But no more odd, and much more promising, than to blame anything much on Christopher Columbus.Reuse content