Lecture 1: Renaissance Portraits
The IDEA OF THE RENAISSANCE is complicated and full of problems of interpretation and definition. The expression "Renaissance" is a value-charged expression because it carries with it a whole series of connotations that go beyond just the simple meaning of "rebirth." The expression "Dark Ages" is also value-charged. The fact that certain individuals decided to call the period from roughly 500 to 1350 an age of darkness shows that they obviously thought their own period was one of light.
Sometime in 1492, the Italian philosopher, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), wrote a letter to his friend Paul of Middleburg. The letter is instructive for what it says about Ficino's attitude toward his own age as well as an age that has passed. Ficino writes:
Historians working on the problem of the Renaissance have never been able to decide when the period began, or even when it ended, although they all admit that a Renaissance did indeed occur. Some see its beginning in the 12th century, while others, in the 14th century. An even larger question looms: if there was such a thing as the Renaissance, regardless of when it began or ended, for whom was the Renaissance, a Renaissance? Did it affect all people at the same time? Or, was its impact felt only on a relatively small number of people in Northern Italian city-states, France, England and Holland?
And these questions naturally raise other questions of interpretation. Did the Renaissance give birth to modern man? If so, what is modern man? Did individualism make its first appearance during the Renaissance? Was humanism the hallmark of this period of rebirth? How do we reconcile an outburst of religious enthusiasm during this period, alongside an intense focus on things more worldly. Was the Renaissance "good"? Why did Renaissance humanists, scholars and artists need to go back in time in order to justify their present? Were they suffering some kind of collective identity crisis? Does the fact that the humanist had to go back to the past to find models for the present and future lessen our regard for the Renaissance? So many questions.
In 1860, the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) published his two volume masterpiece, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. It was Burckhardt who presented his 19th century audience with what has been regarded as the classic interpretation of the Renaissance by arguing that the 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the birth of modern man. For Burckhardt, it was in the city-states of northern Italy during this time that a secular concept of the state first appeared, a state in all respects modern (modern, of course, for Burckhardt). He also identified the code of chivalry and maintained that this code of honor and decorum was indicative of the development of the individual. Lastly, he argued that it was in the Renaissance that man was discovered.
Italian society was characterized by a revival of antiquity -- specifically the classical world of Greece and Rome -- as much as by the recognition that people now lived in a world of intense violence, doubt and skepticism. For Burckhardt, the Renaissance was characterized by newness and novelty -- as a sudden flowering of European civilization. This is how Burckhardt stated his case:
This lecture will examine four representative figures of the Renaissance in order to construct a composite picture of this age. We shall treat their lives as windows into the past in order to see how much light they might shed on our understanding of the Renaissance as a whole. These four men, all humanists, are:
Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
As you can see, all four men were contemporaries of one another. They appear at the end of the Renaissance, the High Renaissance if you will. Their lives coincide with the Age of Discovery (see Lecture 2) as well as that great upheaval of European civilization -- the Protestant Reformation (see Lecture 3).
LEONARDO DA VINCI was born near the small town of Vinci in 1452. Vinci lies between Pisa and Florence in northern Italy. His father, Ser Piero, was a 25 year old notary. His mother was a peasant girl by the name of Caterina. Leonardo's father did not marry his mother -- instead, he married into a wealthy Florentine family. This marriage was childless, as were two other marriages. Only in his last marriage did Leonardo's father have more children -- twelve of them! I mention this quite deliberately. Illegitimacy was quite common at the time. Men like Leonardo were proud of making their own way in the world and boasted that they were born out of wedlock. As Burckhardt himself tells us: "The fitness of the individual, his worth and capacity, were of more weight than all the laws and usages which prevailed elsewhere in the west."
In 1465, the 14 year old Leonardo was taken to Florence where his father apprenticed him to the distinguished artist, Andrea del Verrochio (1435-1488). At the time, Florence was ruled by the wealthy banking family of the de Medici. Verrochio was a second-rate artist and sculptor whose best work was executed in gold and silver. However, he was wealthy, had the right connections and was well-known. His studio was really a workshop of sorts -- tableware, ornaments, monuments and metalwork were produced alongside painting and sculpture. When Leonardo finished his apprenticeship in 1472, he had become the leading painter in Verrochio's studio. Verrochio ultimately gave up painting altogether -- once recognizing the genius of Leonardo, he perhaps figured there wasn't much left he could do. In 1481, Verrochio left Florence for Venice to work on a great statue. Leonardo decided to leave Florence as well and so he wrote letter of introduction to Lodovico Sforza (1451-1508), the prince of Milan. In this letter, Leonardo outlined some of his inventions. He wrote about light and transportable bridges, rudimentary water pumps, mortars to fling stones, covered chariots, catapults and lastly, he wrote that "I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, , be he who he may." The list of inventions was accepted by Sforza and so Leonardo moved to the court of Milan where he remained until 1499, when the treacherous Sforza was forcibly deposed.
Leonardo left Florence for many reasons. Other painters such as Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) had already left for Rome to paint competitively in the Sistine Chapel. He may have left for the simple reason that he wanted to execute a sculpture of Sforza's father on horseback. But there was a deeper reason. Florence had become a city of entrenched traditions. It was in Florence that the classic Renaissance took place. It had its beautiful libraries with hundreds of Greek and Roman manuscripts. The de Medicis had even re-created Plato's Academy, a school which had been located in Athens and closed by Justinian in the 7th century. In general, Florence had become backward-looking.
Leonardo was a transitional figure in that he had a thirst for what was new and innovative. He wanted to grasp man and nature through his senses and not through books or reflection of philosophical displays of talent. With this in mind, he moved to Milan, a city of self-made men and the center of the new painting in Italy. Leonardo was as forward-looking as was the city of Milan and there, he turned his attention toward mathematics and experimentation -- qualities and fields of study that would become instrumental to an astronomer like Copernicus as much as Galileo and Isaac Newton.
It's been said that Leonardo had a camera-eye for detail and it was with this spirit that he observed the world around him. He wanted to observe, discover and invent. And at Milan he was free to follow his interest in science wherever it might take him. So, he studied anatomy and made drawings of the blood vessels. What he looked for when he drew the human figure, animals and plants, was structure -- this was how nature revealed its meaning to mankind. Purpose was expressed in structure. And like the scientific revolutionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries, Leonardo was looking for the mechanism which moved the creature. Of course, it was a short step indeed from these sorts of concerns to the invention of a flying machine, which he called the orinthopter. But there were other machines as well: machines to grind lenses and cut screws and files (why might such machines be important?). He also drew up plans for lathes, conveyors, excavators, water pumps, bridges and a rolling mill. (For more examples, see Leonardo's Manuscripts.)
Leonardo fled Milan when the French deposed Sforza in 1499. His life seemed to fall apart. In 1502, he became a military engineer for Cesare Borgia (c.1476-1507). He eventually moved back to Florence where he and his young rival, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), had been commissioned by the city to paint two patriotic pictures, neither of which were ever finished. Leonardo spent the period 1503-1506 painting the wife of an obscure Florentine merchant (Francesco del Giocondo)-- the Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda. In 1513, Leonardo was invited to Rome where Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo were now painting, and was offered a commission. In 1516, he was invited to the royal court in France and there he remained until his death three years later.
Leonardo kept numerous notebooks throughout his life (see, for example, the Codex Leicester). One curious detail is that the handwriting is backwards, that is, to read them correctly they must be viewed in a mirror. This might tell us something about Leonardo. Of greater importance, however, is that Leonardo included the comment "Tell me if anything at all was done" on page after page of these notebooks. Although he considered himself a failure, his contemporaries did not think so. He was first, a boy genius -- a teenager who entered the illustrious studio of Verrochio and immediately surpassed the master's work. Leonardo embodied the Renaissance idea that every individual has unlimited potential and requires not the monastic life, but a proper environment in which, like a flower, he can unfold. Leonardo was also a man of the people -- what he saw he saw for himself and the benefit of his society. He took little interest in the supposed wisdom of the ancients. The Greek and Roman texts told him nothing -- everything could be discovered in Nature itself and it was in Nature that Leonardo discovered meaning. He discovered that Nature speaks to man in detail and through detail and structure, we can uncover Nature's grand design, an ideal which would eventually become associated with the Scientific Revolution to come (see Lecture 10).
Before Copernicus, Leonardo accepted a sun-centered universe. He though of sound in terms of waves. He understood, before Galileo, that perpetual motion was an impossibility. He read the rings in trees and understood the antiquity of the fossil record. He left fewer than twenty paintings, no statue, no machine, no book. What he did leave behind were 5000 pages of notes and drawings which remained unnoticed until the 18th century when they were discovered. His way of painting had lasting influence -- his machines perhaps none. Raphael learned from him, he was the friend of Machiavelli and contemporary of both Martin Luther and Columbus. For the 15th century, he was the prototype of the explorer of the unknown, a genius who gazed at what seemed to be a new world.
When we turn our attention from Leonardo to NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI (1469-1527), we enter a decidedly different world. Machiavelli was born in Florence and there he remained his entire life. His fame rests on the publication of one of the most important texts in the history of political theory, The Prince. He wrote The Prince in 1505 and dedicated it to Lorenzo de Medici, who neglected the text, and it was only published in 1532, five years after Machiavelli's death.
The Prince is a short work that Machiavelli intended as a guide to political power. However, unlike political philosophers of the past, he did not argue his case from the standpoint of what should be but instead described what is. In other words, The Prince is no blueprint for a future society. He did not describe the best way for a prince to behave, but rather, the way society is run and how people do behave. I suppose you could say he was in the business of "telling it like it is." As Machiavelli himself put it:
With this in mind, Machiavelli believed that man's nature was both good and evil, but for the purposes of discussing politics, he argued that human nature was essentially evil. Perhaps this says something to us? After all, he was discussing human behavior in the here and now, not in some future state of affairs.
Machiavelli introduced a secular concept of the state -- a state divorced from its theological implications. He was not anti-religious but he was anti-clerical. He regarded the Church as a social force, thus neglecting its spiritual force. Machiavelli would have agreed with Karl Marx when he wrote that "religion is the opiate of the people." Napoleon would have agreed as well. The Church hindered the strong by preaching to them to be meek and mild.
Machiavelli turned away from morality, religion and the papacy and believed that the state was a work of art -- the deliberate artistic creation of men. In advising the prince, Machiavelli believed that he was also advising the state since the interests of the prince are the same as the interests of the state. For Machiavelli, this secular belief showed that the intervention of God or Providence as the decisive factor in history was completely unfounded. It was real men, men such as the prince, who were the truly decisive factors in human history. The state and the prince, furthermore, were conceived to be one and the same thing. The essence of any state is power and the maintenance of the power. Since the state is synonymous with the prince, then power is to be maintained at all times.
And so Machiavelli's book advised the prince how to make his country maintain power at all costs. Because the prince is identified with the state, the ordinary principles of morality do not apply to him. Anything may be done, in other words, if it promotes the common good by maintaining the power of the prince. For Machiavelli, the existence of the state and its acquisition of power, were ends in themselves. In other words, power is an end in itself. Or, as Machiavelli would have it, "the end justifies the means. A prince must be entitled to do whatever he wants provided it is for he satisfaction of the community as a whole and not for personal gain. A corollary of this way of thinking is the idea that in war, the chief aim is the complete destruction of the enemy -- and to realize that aim, anything is possible.
The prince should not hesitate to fool and deceive his people. Above all, the prince ought to be a good propagandist. People are easily fooled -- it is to the prince's advantage to spread false doctrines among the people. Why? Because these lies and deceptions preserve the state from upheaval and insure tranquility and stability. Just the same, Machiavelli argued that the prince should not commit himself to useless cruelty -- useful cruelty, I suppose, was okay. In general, the prince ought to be feared rather than loved -- feared, but not hated. This would avoid conspiracies. He also cautioned the prince to respect women and property -- attacks on either would decrease popular support for the prince.
Machiavelli was a practicing politician and a diplomat as well. He understood the nature of Florentine politics extremely well. But, he was also a humanist and this made him think of politics as a secular affair, divorced from religious or theological implications. After all, religion meant little more to him than the cement which held society together. Finally, he was also a scientist -- the first political scientist.
The world of SIR THOMAS MORE was decidedly different from that of either Leonardo or Machiavelli. He was educated in law at Oxford, served as sheriff and Member of Parliament for London, treasurer under Henry VIII, speaker of the House of Commons, and in 1529 became Lord Chancellor of England, a position second only to that of the king. He was also a statesman with vast experience in the everyday political life of the English nation. And, he was a humanist -- a man of many talents who lived life to the fullest. Unlike Machiavelli, however, More's sympathies were with the common man, despite his vast income. Contrary to Machiavelli, he advanced the strange notion that the state exists for the common good of its subjects and not the power of the prince.
Unlike either Leonardo or Machiavelli, Thomas More was a profoundly religious man. His most famous book Utopia was inspired by the Sermon on the Mount. In Utopia More writes of an island in which all goods are held in common, there is no money and people spend their days doing good deeds for one another. But More's Utopia was something more than just wishful thinking, the sort that Machiavelli condemned in The Prince. More found the cause of social evil not in God, fate or Original Sin. Man was not by nature evil. On the other hand, More located evil in the social structures created by man. He wanted to construct a city of man on earth, a city he believed would be pleasing in the eyes of God. The Utopia was written at the same time as Machiavelli's Prince and was composed in Latin and later translated into English in 1556, years after More's death in 1535. Utopia was inspired by More's chance meeting with a Portuguese sailor who had sailed with Amerigo Vespucci on the last of three of his four voyages. Utopia is a short book in two parts. In the first part, More describes the current state of England -- a sad kingdom void of Christian fellowship. In part two, More shows us an ideal commonwealth in which the problems posed in part one have been addressed and corrected. Utopia is a description of an island called Utopia, which exists "nowhere" and it relates how people lived in this ideal state.
Utopia was also written in response to England's sever economic problems. More wrote with an urgent sense that the world around him, the end of the medieval world, was crumbling. And it was. A new kind of economic organization seemed to be invading England and More was very much afraid of it. "Is not this an unjust and unkind public weal," More wrote,
More writes of the English enclosure movement in which the peasant's land -- given to them in common by the grace of God -- has been taken away by the lords so that they may cultivate a new cash crop: sheep. And the sheep, formerly meek and tame, "now eat up and swallow down the very men themselves." Against the new economics of enclosure, commerce and the exploitation of the poor for the benefit of the rich, More proposed his Utopia. Taking literally the maxim that "the love of money is the root of all evil," More eradicated gold from his ideal community.
As a man, More was a devout Catholic with a strong ascetic bent. Even after he had established himself as a successful lawyer and statesman, he continued to wear a hair shirt and slept on a plank with a log for a pillow. But, he eventually married (twice) and had an intelligent daughter from his first marriage. Rather than enter monastic orders, More treated the world as his monastery. He sought to fulfill God's purpose by doing good works in this world -- in this way he foreshadowed the Puritans of the 17th century.
In his Utopia, More criticized his own world. What bothered him the most, I suppose, was that the Christian ideals that were supposedly the foundation of his age, were in fact absent. For More, Utopia became an egalitarian society in which everyone works, prays and studies. There were no artisans, warriors or scholars for there was no longer any division of labor. The New World discoveries had a strong influence on More and More's Utopia, as already noted, was based on a factual account of Vespucci's travels published in 1507. More also had a brother-in-law who had set out for the New World late in 1516 and this, I imagine, added to his interest in lands which lay to the west of the Atlantic.
In 1516, while More was writing Utopia, he was invited to enter government service as an advisor to Henry VIII (1491-1547, r. 1509-1547). More flatly refused. He knew that a king and a philosopher could never work together. In the end, however, More entered the government feeling he could better carry out justice as a judge. This was in 1517 or 1518. He served as speaker for the House of Commons in 1523 and found himself, quite unwillingly, deeply involved in the government. He also found himself in the midst of a struggle that would cost him his life.
Henry had married Catherine who, through successive attempts, produced one stillborn child after another. There was no male heir to the throne of England. Henry wished to divorce Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), who was his deceased brother's wife, and marry the court mistress, Anne Boleyn (c.1500-1536). However, the Church at Rome would not grant a divorce. Henry got around this problem by petitioning all the universities of England and Europe to argue for a divorce. The Archbishop of Canterbury was also petitioned. Eventually, Henry solved the problem by breaking away from Rome, himself thus becoming the head of the Church of England. All lords of the realm were asked to sign an oath swearing that Anne Boleyn was Henry's lawful queen and that any male child would become the heir to the throne. More accepted the fact that any male child would have the legal right to the throne but he refused to accept Anne as queen. After a lengthy trial, in which More was locked up in the Tower of London, Sir Thomas More was found guilty of treason and was beheaded.
More has come to represent the symbol of the intellectual who holds fast to his beliefs rather than succumb to more powerful forces. More was a Renaissance scholar devoted to the New Learning. He was also a successful lawyer who emerged from the rising middle class. Caught between the currents of his own time, More entered the service of the state while retaining his old Christian loyalties. He perished at the hands of his executioner, a symbol of the triumph of stronger and more brutal ideas than his own.
More was also close friends with DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (1466-1536) and more than any other man, Erasmus was the symbol of northern Renaissance humanism. He was born in Holland in 1466 but his mind was cosmopolitan. Like Abelard in the 12th century or Voltaire and Ben Franklin in the 18th century, everyone knew Erasmus. One of his friends once confessed, "I am pointed out in public as the man who has received a letters from Erasmus." Like Sir Thomas More, Erasmus was paid attention to by princes. However, in 1517, Europe entered a period of division and conflict. The Reformation, set in motion by Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, split Europe into two camps, one Protestant, the other Catholic. Erasmus fell helpless in this dispute and his death in 1536, at the age of 70, was marked, like that of Leonardo before him, by his own sense of grand failure.
As a humanist, Erasmus embraced an interest in the pagan literature of classical Greece and Rome -- a literature which illustrated man's wider love for man and for nature. Humanism was also a pagan movement. It had little patience with asceticism and did not find issues of the flesh evil. The humanists went on to deny the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Instead, their central doctrine became the notion that man's nature was essentially good. And despite the criticism the humanists heaped upon the Church for its corruption, apathy, sloth and immorality, the humanists also tried to show that virtue in the classical sense and the Christian sense were one and the same. Humanism also attacked the false doctrines imposed by Christianity, especially the virtues associated with the monastic life.
The work which made Erasmus' fame, the Moriae Encomium or The Praise of Folly (1509), mocked the monastic life, indulgences and other abuses of the Church. And what Erasmus had said about the Church in jest, Luther soon said in seriousness, and with much greater implications.
Like Leonardo, Erasmus was an illegitimate child -- he too felt the pressures of being both unwanted and left to his own making. In 1480, his father fell victim to the plagues. In 1487 and at the age of 21, Erasmus reluctantly became a monk and began to see the connections between classical and Christian virtues. Five years later he was ordained and in 1495 he found himself at the University of Paris, where he encountered a disappointing theology. There was too much attention to fine points of Aristotelian logic. There was no life! The school of theology at Paris was too far removed from the religion of daily life. So Erasmus thought. In 1499, Erasmus went to London and there met Sir Thomas More and other English humanists. The visit changed his life. Among the English, Erasmus felt, Christianity was truly an expression of the classical spirit -- the search for truth seemed genuine and faith was more than superstition.
For Erasmus, the classics seemed to be a natural gospel. He was literally carried away when, after reading Cicero, he wrote:
When he returned to Paris in 1500, Erasmus learned Greek and then started collecting and translating the classics. He read St. Jerome and St. Augustine. He translated the Old and New Testaments into both Greek and Latin (Greek on one side, Latin on the other -- why?) In 1509, his English friends invited him back to their country where he might find favor with Henry VIII. On his way, he resolved to write a satire on monastic life, a satire which became The Praise of Folly. The work was written in one week at the home of Thomas More and was published in 1511. In The Praise of Folly, Erasmus attacked the formalism of the Church, the stupidity of the monks, the contentious behavior of the philosophers and the avarice of the merchants. "The merchants are the biggest fools of all," he wrote,
Erasmus was speaking and writing about the discontent and hypocrisy of his own age. The monks and theologians had ceased to be an intellectual or spiritual force in the lives of the flock. They no longer reached the minds or hearts of their audience. Instead, Erasmus mocks them for their attention to shoe laces. In The Praise of Folly and in his other works, Erasmus hoped to introduce a more rational conception of Christian doctrine and to emancipate man's mind from the frivolous methods of the theologians. He tried to make Christianity more human. Luther knew his Erasmus well, but the situation in Germany was quite different from More's London or the world of Erasmus. As has often been remarked, Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.
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Since the 1860s when Burckhardt published his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, it has been the fashion to regard the essence of the Renaissance as "the rediscovery of the world and of the natural man." Those are Burckhardt's words. This is far too simple, I think -- the reason being that any semi-intensive study of the period known as the Renaissance reveals numerous intellectual and cultural cross-currents that defy our penchant for pigeon-holing. Humanistic values, Thomism, Augustinianism, paganism, mysticism and the new science exist side by side with one another. But, I think the one value all these currents perhaps share is an increasing individualism, an increasing impatience with the older medieval forms of social organization. This individualism was perhaps a natural reflex of an economy bursting forth from its medieval limitations. Feudalism, at least in northern and western Europe, sealed its own fate by its very existence. And the guild system, as I've already mentioned, seemed to have dug its own grave. In the wake of economic and social changes came changes in the way the individual thought about the world.
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Copyright © 2002 Steven Kreis