Christopher Columbus, we are told, had “reddish hair and ruddy checks” and a “highly colored personality.” Leonardo da Vinci was a taciturn perfectionist. Michelangelo, although “lean and muscular,” supposedly “never bathed.” Caravaggio was “the real deal,” an artist who wanted his models “the funkier the better.” His bathing habits go unreported. Martin Luther had notorious problems not just with papal authority but with constipation. (Perhaps there’s a connection!) The pious may be shaken to learn that Ignatius Loyola, a fearless soldier and libertine before a religious awakening led him to found the Jesuits, “had been deeply in love with his own organ of generation.” On the other hand, John Calvin seemed predestined to be “a difficult man to love,” and sex had little to do with it. Henry VIII turned egotism into an inconstant national, religious and marital policy. As everyone knows, sex had a lot to do with it.

These juicy tidbits concern just a few of the better-known “personalities” Thomas Cahill uses to illuminate the religious, political and social dynamics of the Renaissance and Reformation. Or as he blithely puts it, “In their day they would all have made obvious candidates for cover stories in People magazine.”

The dead, it appears, are to be spared no indignity.

“Heretics and Heroes” is the latest volume in Cahill’s best-selling Hinges of History series. The project began with “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” a publishing phenomenon, and has continued through books covering the emergence of Judaism, the origins of Christianity, the foundational contributions of Greek civilization and the conundrums of the Middle Ages. One more volume is planned. Presumably, it will bring readers up to the modern day. Cahill’s ambition is to trace the “patrimony of the West” by focusing on the personalities of what he calls “gift-givers,” those who have contributed in a singular way to the development of the unique values and sensibility of Western civilization. In “Heretics and Heroes,” he celebrates the appearance of the modern individual, the man (almost all are men) of conscience and courage who stands up against the dead hand of the past and the even deadlier hand of corrupt religious and political authority.

Cahill is a felicitous writer, if an often hectoring polemicist. He has a weakness for interrogatory asides (“Oh, really?” “That’s it, isn’t it?”) and colloquial flourishes (“wham-bam,” “control freak.”) Still, his erudition is impressive and engaging. No reader will doubt his enthusiasm for or knowledge of great Renaissance masters such as Donatello, Masaccio and Botticelli, as well as the freakishly talented Leonardo and that ruffian Caravaggio. Almost as important, “Heretics and Heroes” is illustrated in a lavish and handsome fashion. Anyone looking for a refresher on Renaissance art — what Cahill calls the book’s “quick, morning-bus-tour glance” — or on Reformation conflicts and the subsequent wars of religion could do far worse than to pick up this breezy but reliable guide.

“Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World” by Thomas Cahill. (Nan A. Talese)

Of course, the story Cahill tells should be familiar to anyone who took a course on modern European history. Nor is he especially good at explaining why people believed the strange things they did or why they acted in often brutal and seemingly irrational ways all those centuries ago. He leaves the reader with the impression that one can understand all of history just by keeping in mind the adage about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. No doubt those who have power rarely give it up out of concern for justice or peace. But social and political authority, even in autocratic kingdoms, is always a transaction, always a balancing of competing forces and interests. You get little sense of this complexity from reading Cahill.

Cahill also has a penchant for drawing anachronistic comparisons between modern-day events or people and his supposedly benighted historical subjects. For instance, he compares the outrage of Florence’s burghers over the nudity of Donatello’s statue of David to the protests by Sen. Jesse Helms over Robert Mapplethorpe’s allegedly pornographic photography. But this pairing has more to do with Cahill’s own liberal politics than with the fig leaf at hand. Can the prudery of 15th-century Florence — a world far more intimate with bodily functions and vulnerabilities than ours — really be equated with the calculated outrage of a reactionary 20th-century North Carolina politician?

The past, as the saying goes, really is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Yet Cahill seems to think that those unfortunate enough to have come before us tolerant and peace-loving moderns — “Today, in a way, we are all Quakers” — were merely unevolved, not different in any revealing way. He rarely gives the reader a sense of how disorienting, and thereby how surprising and reorienting, a visit to the past can be. Instead, he harps on the ignorance, violence and hypocrisy of those who fought for what we all now know were foolish beliefs. Very little in this book would cause a reader to consider that we enlightened moderns might be morally blinkered in our own ways — ways that might alarm past and future generations.

“Heretics and Heroes” concludes with two short homilies, one titled “Human Love: How to Live on This Earth” and the other “Postlude: Hope and Regret.” In the first, Cahill proposes that the violent turmoil of the Reformation has taught us to abandon doctrinal concerns and instead embrace “the Religion of the Good Heart.” The religious world, Cahill maintains, has long been divided between “excluders” and “includers.” Those who exclude have a propensity for violence, while those who embrace others simply as fellow human beings are the creators of peace, harmony and justice.

In the concluding chapter, he points to three representative modern “includers.” One is an Episcopalian woman who ran a church soup kitchen in Manhattan; the other two are Pope John XXIII, a reformer, and the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis. As Cahill acknowledges, Bonhoeffer was killed because of his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. In other words, Bonhoeffer was a deeply committed Christian who, like his Reformation forebears, took up arms out of religious conviction, although Cahill is careful not to put it that way. Bonhoeffer’s faith was as traditionally Christ-centered as Luther’s and as personally fierce as Loyola’s. Truth be told, little about Bonhoeffer’s beliefs conforms to Cahill’s unadulterated “Religion of the Good Heart.” Rather, it was the fierceness of his orthodox Christian faith that compelled him to act as he did.

Yes, history cautions us about the senseless violence sometimes committed in the name of religion. But it also warns us that something more than a good heart, unencumbered by religious zeal, may be required to resist great evil.

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.


How Renaissance Artists
and Reformation Priests
Created Our World

By Thomas Cahill

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 341 pp. $29.95