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Lessons from the Renaissance


Published by kuffir January 6th, 2008 in History, Art, Spotlight Series, Poetry, Business, Culture, India, Music and Literature.

[This is Essay #12 in our Spotlight Series. Click here for archives.]

Lessons from the Renaissance


In 1503, the much awaited clash of the titans was to take place in the Salone dei Cinquecento, the imposing chamber of Palazzo Vecchio in Italy. Piero Soderini, an Italian statesman commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint Battle of Anghiari on one wall and Michelangelo Buonarotti, the Battle of Cascina, in the opposite wall. Even though the artists were contemporaries, they had never competed directly before. Both of them lived in Florence and had a strong dislike for each other and thus this contest was eagerly awaited for the people expected this contest would push each artist to produce his best.

They worked on the initial drawings, but both did not complete the task. Leonardo was known for not completing most of his projects and he turned his attention elsewhere. Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome for an even more prestigious project - to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Thanks to the work of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Brunellesci, Donatello, and Rapahel and writers like Erasmus, Francois Rabelais, and Shakespeare, there was a resurgence in art, philosophy and literature from the late 13th century, which we know as Renaissance.

Renaissance fostered an atmosphere in which value was placed on human excellence, demonstrated with real examples that have set the standards for the modern age. While sitting through a lecture on Renaissance, the question in my mind was: Are there lessons we can learn from the 14th century Italians? Can we also achieve that level of greatness?

If you take a course in Western Civilization you will find that world history is divided into three periods - ancient, medieval and modern. The period we live, the modern period, starts with the Renaissance, which brings to our mind the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio, the Last Supper and La Gioconda of da Vinci, and The Last Judgement of Michelangelo. It was also the time when the dome of the St. Peter痴 Basilica was designed by Michelangelo and that of Santa Maria del Fiore by Brunelleschi and the time when sculptures like David, and Piet came to life.

This explosion of creativity was not restricted to paintings and sculpture, but happened in the intellectual field as well. There was the rise of humanism, a philosophical outlook which encompassed human dignity and potential. Francesco Petrarca痴 philosophy, which said that humans had vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to the fullest led to the intellectual flowering of the Renaissance. According to the humanists, human excellence did not require divine intervention and was possible through education, with hard work, and skill.

The Renaissance was possible due to two chief factors: the patronage of wealthy people and the revival of ancient Greek and Roman learning and accomplishments..

Prosperous businessmen like Cosimo de Medici and Lorenzo de Medici played leading roles in the cultural life of the city and art served as a focus of civic pride. Isabella d脱ste, the wife of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, was a collector of Roman sculptures and commissioned many sculptures in antique style. The upper class members competed for artists and encouraged competition among artists resulting in events like the contest between da Vinci and Michelangelo. The Popes also commissioned works of art and many artists rose to prominence.

Artists, thinkers and writers were influenced by the ancient learning of Greece and Rome. The Renaissance artists were fascinated with the cultural forms of ancient Greece and Rome and they were in favor of recovering and applying that learning in their own time. The ancient texts were originally considered lost, but were found preserved in monastic libraries and in the Islamic world as well. The Renaissance writers restored every Roman manuscript they could find. They read Homer and Plato in the original. Petrarch, who was drawn to Cicero, was unsuccessful in learning Greek, but he encouraged his students to learn it and emphasized that education should be wisdom combined with eloquence. The works of Plato, Cicero, Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy provided new intellectual material for the Europeans.

In 1400s Brunelleschi and his friend Donatello visited Rome to see the ancient ruins. They undertook measurements of the Pantheon and other Roman buildings and incorporated some of that that in their own designs. The ancient ideal of beauty was the nude, and for the first time since the fall of Rome, artists started studying anatomy resulting in David and The Dying Slave. The Quattrocento artists incorporated the classical style thus abandoning the contemporary Byzanthine style. Ovid, Senecca, and Plutarch enriched Shakespeare痴 mind and imagination and from Virgil he took stories, thoughts and similes and bought to life people of the classical period like Antony, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

The humanists did not want to take Greek and Roman culture and apply it directly in modern times. They were very clear that the literature was based on the values of those times. What they liked about the ancient literature was the clear and graceful style and insights into human nature. The ancient texts provided a guide to on how to live well and perform one痴 duties and it was clear to the humanists that to write well and speak well, it was necessary to know the classics. They studied the texts in the ancient context and analyzed them critically.

The case in India is shows a completely opposite picture. Macaulay and the Evangelical gang had utter contempt for Indian culture and were convinced of Western superiority on a purely racist basis. These genes were inherited by the enlightened natives who to this day consider disowning Indian culture as their mark of being modern. The 兎minent historians remind us constantly that our spiritual heritage came from Aryans (who conveniently came from the West) and the natives created nothing worthwhile. Even when something great was done by the natives the credit went to the westerners.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, It is my firm opinion that no culture has treasures so rich as ours has. We have not known it, we have been made even to deprecate its study and depreciate its value. We have almost ceased to live it. If we do not follow our culture, we would be committing suicide as a people. The first criterion for Renaissance wealth, is currently being generated in India. We now need to decolonize our minds to appreciate our classics. That is one of the starting points for a true Indian renaissance, which according to Aurobindo will be, a new age of an old culture transformed.

[1] Western Civilization Volume 1
[2] Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
[3] Biography - Michelangelo
[4] The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature


JK writes about history, archaeology and current affairs at varnam

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