HistoryBits: Renaissance

HistoryBits: Renaissance

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Renaissance

The long night of the Dark Ages had accumulated an enormous wealth of pent-up talent and creative energy that very nearly compensated for the previous thousand years of torpor. Against the tempestuous background of the Reformation, the Renaissance offered the sort of wonderfully lawless and chaotic time that artists best thrive in. Complacency dulls the creative edge, while chaos, like Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, is itself a creative masterpiece that brings out both the worst and the best in man.

Society/Education

The schools of the Middle Ages transformed the system of education dramatically. The rudimentary liberal arts curriculum conceived by Charlemagne in Paris provided a regimen of study that would serve as a model for education throughout Europe. Aquinas would further revolutionize learning by developing a wide curriculum set in a Christian context. But Renaissance humanism upended the halls of academe, and its underlying premise that the world was made for man required not just a leap of faith, but a leap away from faith as well. Our modern creed of human rights and creative fulfillment would not have been possible had not man disowned an unknowable and inaccessible God in favor of the God that lies within.

Society/Women

The view that women should marry well, be loyal to their husbands, and have boys was largely of a piece with the custom of political marriage that set the standard of romance (such as it was) amongst the High and Mighty in the Renaissance. In most cases, love counted for little, and when a young woman asked about her upcoming marriage, she was frequently reprimanded by her mother and told to mind her own business! Courtship was but a curiosity, and marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded. Renaissance women who were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring marriages between dynasties were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues. But thanks to the personal example of women like Isabella d’Este and Laura Cereta, the idea that women too should rightly subscribe to the Renaissance ideal of education and cultural grace began to make sense (though like most ideologies associated with the general awakening of social consciousness, it proved premature). But you’ve got to start somewhere, and social activism without the concomitant of personal example is a sterile proposition. On a more subtle level, the power of personal example is at least as compelling as political harangue, and probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality.

Science/Women/Margaret Cavendish

Much as Margaret Cavendish would have liked to affiliate herself with the high-minded stripes of Cartesian and neo-Platonist thinking, her more immediate problem was getting past the Neanderthals who asserted that women—by virtue of their outsized pelvises and undersized craniums—were better suited as subjects of science than as its torchbearers. The cause of women’s rights didn’t begin to gel until the general advance of liberalism in the mid-19th century, but you’ve got to start somewhere; the power of personal example is at least as compelling as political harangue, and Margaret Cavendish probably contributed more than we’ll know to the gathering tide of gender equality and scientific enlightenment.

Culture


Culture/Science/Exploration/Magellan

The lust for the legendary lucre of the East impelled Magellan—as it had Christopher Columbus—to search in vain for a way to Asia through the Americas. After many months of pressing along an endless coastline and pushing the envelope of starvation, Magellan managed by dint of daft hopes and deft assurances to forestall the mutiny that would have turned his ships back to Europe… just in time to stumble into what would become known as the Straits of Magellan. Here was his long-awaited passageway to the Pacific, which by Magellan’s reckoning would require but a few weeks’ more sailing to at last gain the gilded shores of China. Little did he appreciate the vastness of the watery void that stretched before him–more than 9,000 miles of empty ocean awaited, as did unspeakable privation that would reduce his crew to scraping by on the most meager of rations augmented by sail canvas, rat droppings, and boot leather. But at great length Magellan and his desperate crew reached Guam and then the Philippines where, predictably, the men at once set about satiating their carnal appetites in ill-advised dalliances with the local ladies. Just as predictably, their amorous predations aroused the antipathy of the chieftains thereabouts, and the whole business came to a head in a nasty scuffle that took the lives of Magellan and many of his crew. It would not be the last time that the indomitable spirit of discovery would come to grief on the treacherous shoals of sexual indiscretion; Captain James Cook– England’s Great Navigator and master of several expeditions that plumbed the farthest reaches of the earth’s oceans—met with his demise in similar circumstances at Kealakekua Bay on the Island of Hawaii in 1779. It seems that the spirit of curiosity that animates man’s boldest and most innovative ventures is at last no match for his most timeless and base proclivities.

Culture/Science/Mathematics/Fibonacci

Fibonacci’s work abounded with the mathematical ratios found in nature, as did that of Kepler, whose universe resonated with the “music of the spheres,” Pascal and his “odds of God,” and even Isaac Newton and his embrace of the Hermetic ethos in the formulation of his universal Clockwork Mechanism. Both ancients and moderns understood mathematics to be the language of magic, and astronomy the symphony of the heavens.

Culture/Art

Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Pre-Renaissance art had little mastery of perspective, and the technical legerdemain of space organization, tonal quality, lighting, coloration, and subject placement, and most of it came across as something out of a House of Mirrors. Somebody had to actually sit down and figure out how to make it all seem real and refined, and in so doing, they came to the awkward realization that artistic inspiration only went so far. But if you don’t mind me going off the deep end for a moment, I submit that all this is emblematic of the timeless struggle between Right Brain and Left Brain. While it’s true that artistic inspiration only goes so far, technology and logic (and perspective) have their limits as well. Technology and logic are tools, and we need to employ them to look beyond what our senses are telling us.

Culture/Art/Filippo Brunelleschi

Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration… and I’m quite sure that Filippo Brunelleschi must have expended copious quantities of the latter in developing a design for the dome of the Florence Cathedral that would defy the force of gravity. But then again, Brunelleschi had shown the way in artistic perspective as well: pre-Renaissance art had little mastery of perspective and the technical legerdemain of space organization, tonal quality, lighting, coloration, and subject placement, and most of it came across as something out of a House of Mirrors. I submit that all this is emblematic of the timeless struggle between Right Brain and Left Brain, since while it’s true that artistic inspiration only goes so far, technology and logic (and perspective) have their limits as well. Technology and logic are tools, and Brunelleschi was able—in a way that few others at the time were–to place these tools of the trade in the service of artistic inspiration.

Culture/Art/Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci straddled the Great Divide of science and art with amazing dexterity. Ordinarily, one doesn’t encounter both right-brain and left-brain creative genius beneath the same head of hair, but da Vinci’s artistic masterpieces were paralleled by a commensurate mind-boggling talent for engineering and design. Surely there is no better embodiment of the spirit of the Renaissance that exalted the virtues of humanism, whose underlying premise that the world was made for man required not just a leap of faith, but a leap away from faith as well. Our modern creed of human rights and creative fulfillment would not have been possible had not man disowned an unknowable and inaccessible God in favor of the God that lies within… and Leonardo pointed the way.

Culture/Art/Michelangelo

Much as he excelled as an artist, Michelangelo was also a creature of the poisonous politics of the times. Upon the death of his patron Lorenzo de Medici, Florence fell into sectarian feuding, and its creative climate darkened with the smoke of Savonarola’s bonfires of books and priceless works of art. Sent packing to Rome, Michelangelo’s talents would flourish in his sculptures of the Pieta and David, and with his paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Last Judgment, and more. Whether Michelangelo and his contemporaries prospered in spite of the political turbulence of Renaissance Italy, or because of it, is worth considering. Against the tempestuous background of the Reformation, the Renaissance offered the sort of wonderfully lawless and chaotic time that artists best thrive in. Complacency dulls the creative edge, while chaos, like Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, is itself a creative masterpiece that brings out both the worst and the best in man.

Culture/Science/Navigation

The development of navigation in scientific and traditional societies gives us a pretty good example of the Great Divide between the two. Europeans favored technology—the compass, the lateen sail, the chronometer, and maps, while the ancient Hawaiians, for example, relied upon their knowledge of the stars, the winds and currents, the patterns of ocean swells, and their observation of birds, fish, and the seaweed and stuff they found floating in the ocean to find their way—with uncanny accuracy–across an imponderable vastness of open ocean. This reminds me of the annual comings and goings of the kolea bird, which flies back and forth from Alaska to Hawaii (and sometimes on to New Zealand) to the exact same patch of ground year after year—all without the benefit of instrumentation of course. Yet seemingly, they’re tuned into something, perhaps in much the same way that the early Hawaiians were so sensitively attuned to their environment. It all makes me wonder: has science and technology brought us down the right path… and taken us away from an ancient and intimate understanding that might provide us with much-needed spiritual moorings in the modern day?

Culture/Science/Nicholas Oresme

Consider Hipparchus, whose world abounded with the mathematical ratios found in nature, and Kepler, whose universe resonated with the “music of the spheres.” In a more modern vein, the work of Nicholas Oresme anticipated the spirit of Pascal’s “odds of God” and even Isaac Newton’s embrace of the Hermetic ethos in the formulation of his universal Clockwork Mechanism. Both ancients and moderns understood mathematics to be the language of magic, and astronomy the symphony of the heavens.

Culture/Science/Science and the Church

Reason, logic, and the five senses are just tools for us to use in contending with physical reality. Given how inadequate they are in contending with matters of faith (consider how Blaise Pascal tried to mathematically prove the existence of God!), it’s not surprising that it took a great deal of courage for people like Galileo and Copernicus to stand up to the Church and explain themselves.

Religion

Religion/Pope Leo X

One could be forgiven for wondering how the papacy under Leo X became such an overblown affair. But the Church had come a long ways from propagating Christianity by the power of personal example, as the apostles had done, and as Western civilization matured politically, religion itself became less a matter of spirituality and goodwill among men… and more of a naked political force.

Power


Power/Women

The custom of political marriage set the standard of romance (such as it was) amongst the High and Mighty in the Renaissance. In most cases, love counted for little, and when a young man asked about his upcoming marriage, he was frequently reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Courtship was but a curiosity, and marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded. But that’s how statecraft was conducted back in those days. In addition to sustaining all the usual indignities, Renaissance women were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring marriages between dynasties… and were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues.


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