The law of conservation was described for the first time in 1740 by Émilie du Châtelet, collaborator and romantic partner of Voltaire. However, four centuries earlier, the law of conservation was already in place. The Black Death was a catalyst phenomenon that transformed at hand an obsolete paradigm into a new fresh one. From the Feudal System to the Renaissance that settled a fractal of new movements (including the Enlightenment that Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire formed part of) and the civilized life that you are enjoying today.
Imagine for a minute that you have the ability to time travel to the spring of 1347, and land in medieval Europe just before the Black Death started. Once you arrived, you visit Florence, a city in Italy that Pope Boniface VIII had called “the fifth element”, because it was an economic powerhouse and possessed and incredibly dense population that exceeded 400,000 inhabitants.
Once you start exploring the city, you will get the opportunity to join in conversations with a Lord, a Knight, a Priest, a Monk, a Nun, some Peasants and some Serfs. To all of them you will proudly share your amazing last holiday experience, with the family on a cruise-ship to Bahamas, your recently acquired Tesla electric car that you bought to contribute to stop the climate change, and finally you will share the freedom that you feel being a citizen of a country with Democracy. And then you will share with them that they should shift their lifestyles to yours, the most advanced one available. Obviously, none of them will understand you ergo trust you. And probably you will end up being burned in a pile of fire in the middle of the beautiful Piazza della Signoria.
Probably if somebody from the future landed in Christmas 2019 and told you that the Neo-capitalist system was obsolete and a new one already being implemented in the future where the time-traveler came from, the answer of the 2019 you, could be something like “the system is too big to let it fall”, and that probably could trigger a big laugh for the time traveler, or at least a sniff and a compassionate face, who knows.
Both time traveler situations explain in a kinder-garden way, why chaos is necessary. Basically all the elements in one system have their comfort zone. Some have a more luxury life than others, there is a lot of problems, but at the end, when a system is working, mostly everybody prefers the already established system than any unknown.
The exception happens only when the higher elements of the established system put too much pressure on the lower elements of the base. Then you have revolutions powerful enough to put ends to a prosperous system like the Roman Empire. How awesome is the parody of the Monty Pythons about the Romans in the movie “Life of Bryan”, when the activists of People’s Front of Judea say: “All right, but apart from sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
So time to time this planet, in perfect harmony with astrology, experiences massive transformations that push civilizations thru black holes. There is no system or model of society that lasted forever. It’s nature. All is cycles. Just like in nature, and going back to the law of conservation, anything must dissolve into chaos before creating a new breakthrough. The Black Death empowered and pushed humanity into the world of today.
The Black Death was a plague caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis, which is carried by fleas, and the disease takes three really ugly main forms: pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic. The plague bacillus incubated in the marmot population of central Asian steppes and had been content to remain there for centuries. After the Silk Road connected the wealth of the eastern nations with the markets of the west, a large scale outbreak simply became a matter of time. From Central Asia it was carried east and west along the Silk Road by traders and Mongol armies.
By spring 1346 it was in the Caucasus and the Crimea. By 1347 it was in Constantinople and it hit Alexandria in autumn in that same year, and by spring 1348, a thousand people a day were dying. In el Cairo the count was seven times that. The disease travelled by ship as readily as by land. In October 1347, a Genoese merchants fleet spread the plague while feeling a Mongol attack on their trading post in Crimea and landed at Messina, Sicily, and by winter it was in Italy.
1348 was the worst of the plague years. In January the plague was in Marseille, had reached Paris in the spring, and England in September. Moving along the Rhine trade routes, the plague reached Germany and the Low Countries the same year. The progress of the plague very neatly defines the layout of the medieval trading routes.
However in Florence, the 1340s was a decade of crises even before the arrival of the plague; there was an epidemic in 1340, a war with the rival city state of Pisa in 1341, a groundswell of civil unrest in 1343 that culminated in the public murder of the chief of police and his son, flooding in 1345, a financial crisis in 1346, and famine in 1347. However, nothing struck to the core of the city quite like the plague of 1348.
In the summer of 1349, the poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca wrote: “Go, mortals, sweat, pant, toil, range the lands and the seas to pile up riches you cannot keep; glory that will not last. The life we lead is a sleep; whatever we do, dreams. Only death breaks the sleep and wakes us from dreaming. I wish I could have woken before this.”
Giovanni Boccaccio began composing Il Decameron almost immediately after the pestilence ended. Boccaccio’s Il Decameron did not focus on the cause for the plague, but rather emphasized the breakdown of social order that followed the pestilence.
Whereas many monastic chronicles stressed God punishing the people for their inequity, Boccaccio simply noted that no method of salvation worked, whether physical or spiritual: “no human wisdom or foresight was of any avail… the humble supplications, rendered not once but many times to God by pious people” failed to affect change. Faith was no more a safeguard than any of the other methods employed by the Florentine citizens.
Boccaccio noted that some abstained from rich food and drink in an effort to stay healthy, others gave in to gluttony of all sorts, a third type attempted temperance in living, and those with the ability to do so fled the city, but “not all of these who adopted these diverse opinions died, nor did they all escape with their lives.”
It quickly became apparent that those in positions of authority could do little to nothing to stop its spread, not least among them the doctors. Boccaccio stated, “nor a doctor’s advice nor the strength of medicine could do anything to cure this illness.”
The city of Florence attempted to contain the spread through administrative means, creating a magistracy that took over certain political powers for the duration of the sickness. They created laws that ensured that “quantities of filth were removed from the city… [and] many directives were issued concerning the maintenance of good health.”
In early April, the magistrate enacted a law that banned the entrance of those coming from areas affected by plague, including Pisa and Genoa, and made the sale of clothing belonging to the sick illegal. Last but not least, they also severely restricted mobility within the city.
The last guideline served to increase the severity of the plague rather than lessen it, which further disenfranchised the population of the city. People ceased to follow any rules, since death seemed imminent; Boccaccio supplied that “the revered authority of the laws, both divine and human, had fallen and almost completely disappeared for, like other men, the ministers and executors of the laws were either dead or sick” and those that survived could do nothing to stop the plague.
The medical community in the fourteenth century still subscribed to the theories of Hippocrates and Galen, the latter of who believed that illness was the result of miasma. While the doctors seemed to be blinded by their almost unwavering faith in corrupt air, the common people realized that there was something dangerous about coming into contact with the sick and the things that belonged to them. Indeed, Boccaccio mentioned that “almost without exception, [the healthy] took a single and very inhuman precaution, namely to avoid or run away from the sick and their belongings.”
Many witnesses to the plague noted that contact with the sick engendered further sickness. Boccaccio related an incident in which two pigs, after chewing on the clothes of a dead man, convulsed and died. Though he did not know that plague bacilli were the cause, he and many like him understood the effect of close contact with the sick and their possessions.
Many of the educated class, in contrast, often attributed illnesses, including the plague, to more ephemeral causes: the wrath of God was the favorite followed by astronomic coincidences, usually between Mars and Saturn. Giovanni Villani subscribed to this school of thought; in his New Chronicles he noted that “the plague…was foretold by the masters in astrology last March…the sign of Virgo and its master…Mercury…signif[y] death”.
Once plague actually struck, the doctors and surgeons of medieval Florence could offer no real help. Tommaso del Garbo, a Professor of Medicine in Perugia and friend of Petrarca, listed the following as effective in avoiding the plague in his book Consilio Contro alla Peste: “notaries, confessors, relations and doctors who visit the plague victims on entering their houses should open the windows…and wash their hands with vinegar and rose water and also their faces… it is also a good idea before entering the room to place in your mouth several cloves and eat two slices of bread soaked in the best wine and then drink the rest of the wine”, which only served to further emphasize the medical community’s preoccupation with the concept of polluted air. The ill were often bled in an attempt to balance their humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), but this only served to weaken them further and increase their susceptibility to the pestilence.
The pestilence brought those who had before been on high down into the squalor in which the masses lived. Gabriel De Mussis described it thusly: “you who enjoyed the world and upon whom pleasure and prosperity smiled, who mingled joys with follies, the same tomb receives you and you are handed over as food for worms”.
The poor received some benefits from the suddenly empty city. The rapid decrease in population freed up what resources were to be had, and the poor took advantage of it: “everyone felt he was doomed to die and, as a result, abandoned his property, so that most of the houses became common property, and any stranger, who came upon them used them as if he were their rightful owner”.
The elite of Florence had managed to consolidate the vast majority of Florence’s power in the hands of a few dozen families. For all the Florentine upper class, life was intrinsically bound up in coin, in property, and in titles. There was a clear divide between the rich and the poor, between nobility and peasantry, and the divide defined how one passed the sum of one’s years on earth. However, the pestilence cared not a bit for that divide and after its’ two year sojourn in the city, the divide itself was in many ways annihilated.
People were behaving with an absence of compassion for the dead and their belongings, and that blurred the lines of distinction between rich and poor. For an upper class Florentine, it would have been an extremely distressing inversion of the norm. The things which marked a man or a woman as upper class, their clothing and jewelry, the social circle in which they took part, could no longer be trusted as a true indication of their status. Furthermore, it cheapened the value of these signifiers that were possessed by those still in the upper class. How valuable could imported brocade be if the street urchins were wearing it, too? Simply put, the plague allowed for many to move up the social ladder, which severely distressed those still at the top.
One of the most visible effects was in wages. Matteo Villani complained, as the city picked up the pieces, that “serving girls… want at least 12 florins per year and the more arrogant among them 18 or 24 florins, and… minor artisans working with their hands want three times… the usual pay, and laborers on the land all want oxen and… seed, and want to work the best lands and abandon all others.”
The dramatic drecress on population allowed classes to ask for more pay for the same services, and as a well-to-do Florentine, similarly, the new working class expected more rights than they had before.
As a result, the lower and middle class could afford more luxury goods, and the goods that craftsmen produced cost more to purchase; the plague meant higher prices for food, higher prices for clothing and luxury goods, and an almost astronomical increase in the price of services, while the capital of old money families remained the same. The money of the rich suddenly could buy much less, and that fact did not sit well with the upper class.
Similarly, the extreme loss of human life left many spaces in society open which those who survived could fill. Matteo Villani griped, “the common people, by reason of the abundance and superfluity that they found, would no longer work at their accustomed trades; they wanted the dearest and most delicate foods… while children and common women clad themselves in all the fair and costly garments of the illustrious who had died.”
The Black Death was also an economic crisis as trade ceased because of fear of the spread of plague. As trade stagnated, businesses failed. The plague caused a complete social breakdown in many areas. Boccaccio in the Decameron, describes people abandoning their occupations, ignoring the sick and living lives of wild excess, as everyone expected to die; “Thus, doing exactly as they prescribed, they spent day and night moving from one tavern to the next, drinking without mode or measure, or doing the same thing in other people’s homes, engaging only in those activities that gave them pleasure… And they combined this bestial behavior with as complete an avoidance of the sick as they could manage.”
People’s reaction is always to blame somebody for the catastrophic event, and for the Black Death the europeans favorite scapegoat were the Jews. Acusations spread that Jews had caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells. This is likely because they were affected less than other people, since many Jews chose not to use common wells of towns and cities, and because Jews confessed to poisoning wells, under torture.
The first massacres directly related to the plague took place in April 1348 in Toulon, where the Jewish quarter was sacked, and forty Jews were murdered in their homes. The next occurred in Barcelona. In 1349 massacres and persecutions spread across Europe. 2000 Jews were burnt alive on the “Valentine’s Day” of 1349 in Strasbourg where the plague had not yet affected the city. While the ashes shouldered, Christian residents of Strasbourg sifted through and collected the valuable possessions of Jews burnt by the fires.
In the spring of 1349 the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main was annihilated. This was followed by the destruction of Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne. The 3,000 strong Jewish population of Mainz initially defended themselves and managed to hold off the Christian attackers. But the Christians managed to overwhelm the Jewish ghetto in the end and killed all of its Jews. At Speyer, Jewish corpses were disposed in wine casks and cast into the Rhine. Within 510 Jewish communities destroyed in this period, some members killed themselves to avoid persecutions.
Pope Clement VI tried to protect the Jewish communities issuing two papal bulls in 1348 saying that those who blamed the plague on the Jews had been “seducted by that liar, the Devil.” He went to emphasise that “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who never lived alongside them.”
Pope Clement VI urged clergy to take action to protect Jews and offered them papal protection in the city of Avignon. Clement’s efforts were in part undone by the newly elected Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor making property of Jews killed in riots forfeit, giving local authorities a financial incentive to turn the blind eye.
The world was absolutely turned upside down by the Black Death. The mental outlook of people changed dramatically. Previously, people assumed that the world was fixed and God-ordained. The Black Death overturned old certainties. The plague and its devastation undermined religious orthodoxy and beliefs. People at the time were no longer willing to accept the status quo. This change manifested in the numerous political revolts of the time.
The most famous of these, led by the poor workers and weavers called popularly the Ciompi, took place in Florence in 1378. For four years, the poor formed the government of the city. The revolt was one of several in Italy at the time. People were questioning the old ways of doing things and no longer accepted things just because they were sanctioned by tradition.
The Feudal system was a codependency system. The people in the bottom line were likely slaves of the Lords. When we talk about revolt against the rights of the Lords, I want to dip into one specific right of the Lords, that will illustrate how miserable the serfs and peasants life was, and what the empowerment through the Black Death, finally freed them of.
Le droit du seigneur,jus primae noctis or das recht des herrn (right of the first night), was an ancient tradition in the mediterranean, that ended up in a legal right in medieval Europe, allowing Feudal Lords to have sexual relations with subordinate women, in particular, on their wedding nights.
The Battle of Oranges is a festival in the Northern Italian city of Ivrea, which includes a tradition of throwing oranges – with considerable violence – between organized groups. It is the largest food fight in Italy and surrounding countries. The battle commemorates the city’s defiance against the city’s tyrant.
This tyrant attempted to rape a young commoner on the evening of her wedding, by exercising the droit of seigneur. The tyrant’s plan backfired when the young woman instead decapitated him, after which the populace stormed and burned the tyrant’s palace.
Every year, a young girl is chosen to play the part of Violetta, the defiant young woman. Teams of aranceri (orange handlers) on foot throw oranges (representing old weapons and stones) against aranceri riding in carts (representing the tyrant’s Lord ranks). The oranges used to symbolize the removed testicles of the tyrant. Originally beans were thrown, then apples. Later, in the 19th century, oranges, which is strange as oranges do not grow in the foothills of the Italian Alps and must be imported from Sicily.
Violetta’s courageous act against this evil right happened in 1194, way before the Black Death, and perhaps created a precedent in the area, but nobody knows certainly if that heroic act inspired more towns to revolt agains the Lords, or if it was just an isolated revolt.
Among the French Grande Jacquerie revolt of 1358 and the British serfs assault to London in 1381, I want to share what probably was the Black Death revolt that represented the tipping point and when the right of the first night started dissolving.
In the early 14th century, the rise of Catalan cities and the expansion of Catalan culture and the Aragonese Empire lead to a decline in the rural population, which declined still further due to Black Death. The nobility began to strictly enforce the evil customs tying peasants to the land: they also began a much stricter enforcement of seigniorial rights in general than had been the practice in recent centuries, including the right of the first night.
In 1462 the evil customs became one of the causes of the Rebellion of Remences that ended a decade later without definitive result. The Catalan term remença derives from the Latin redementia and emphasizes the possibility of redemption from servitude. The strongest support for open rebellion came from the poorest peasants. Those with more goods tried to appeal to the king for reforms and the end of the seigniorial abuses. Ferdinand II of Aragon finally resolved the conflict with the Sentencia Arbitral de Guadalupe in 1486, which scrapped the evil customs with a previous payment of 60 salaries per farm, but peasants were obliged to return all the castles that they had won from the lords during the rebellion.
The peasant maintained the useful domain of the farms, but they had to pay homage to the Feudal Lord and pay the Feudal rights, leaving a rural society that was still Feudal in character, but significantly reformed. The decree meant the beginning of a new phase in Catalonia: the right to freely contract emphyteutic agreements, which lead to general prosperity in the Catalonian countryside. By the 15th century, Catalan peasants already had a level of personal freedom and culture that the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and Europe was not to know before the 18th or 19th centuries.
The Black Death led to a great questioning of the old certainties. This led many, especially among the Italian urban elite to use reason to understand the world. They also increasingly turned to the classics to find answers to the problems of life. The new spirit of inquiry helped to ignite the Renaissance, especially in politics and philosophy.
However, that is not to say, that Italy rejected all traditions, it was still a very conservative society in many ways. However, those who questioned authority and the received wisdom, such as the poet and scholar Petrarca inspired the Humanist movement, which valued reason and critical thinking. The Humanist are essential in the development and progress of the Renaissance.
Initially, the Black Death led to a fascination with death among many Italians. The loss of life and the suffering led many to become obsessed with death. The Dance of Death was a popular motif in art and architecture at this time. The general mood was one of pessimism, and indeed many expected that sooner or later that the world would end.
Alongside this fear of death and the general mood of pessimism, there was a desire to experience the pleasures of life and to seize any happiness that was on offer. This contradictory impact of the Black Death on the culture of the time can be seen in the writings of two of the greatest figures in European literature, Petrarca and Boccaccio. These two writers at times wrote in despair about the human condition yet they also wrote about the joys of life and the beauties of nature.
This sense that life was fleeting and that every happiness should be seized, led many Italians to seek solace in art and literature and this was one of the factors in the development of the Renaissance. Many of the elite were eager to enjoy the pleasures of life, and this led them to patronize artists. It also resulted in a shift in the themes of artists. Religious topics remained popular, however, there was also a fascination with secular themes, especially from the classical world.
The plague disrupted society to an unprecedented state. It overturned the existing social structure. Previous, to the outbreak of the plague, Italy was a rigid and stratified society. In the period after the Black Death, because of the demographic disaster, an unprecedented amount of social mobility took place. Laborers became merchants and merchants become members of the nobility. No longer was a person’s destiny to be fixed by their birth. Previously, people assumed that one’s station was fixed at one’s birth and that one had to remain a member of the class you were born into. People believed that a peasant would always be a peasant, an aristocrat, an aristocrat. Italians, like other peoples in Europe, believed that one’s birth determined one’s future and that this was determined by God.
However, as social mobility became more widespread, many people, came to believe that a person’s merits or abilities were what mattered and not one’s birth. This led to a growing individualism in Italian society. This, in turn, encouraged people to strive and to develop their talents and achieve excellence or virtue. The belief in the individual was central to the Renaissance and it inspired many of the greatest artists, architects, sculptures and writers, the world have ever seen to create peerless works.
The demise of the traditional elite meant that a new elite came to the fore, composed of merchants and self-made men. This new elite often keen to patronize arts. They were very conscious of their lack of birth and humble origins. They were keen to use art and to patronize men of letters to compensate for lack of traditional authority. In order to appear the equal of the old aristocracy, they sought to sponsor artists who would win the esteem of the public.
This was one of the reasons for the lavish patronage of the de Medici’s in Florence. They were keen patrons of the arts, to justify their status in society and to impress the general population. This meant that the great artists had many patrons, who often competed for their talents and this allowed them to concentrate on their art and to produce some of the greatest art, ever known.
With individualism came also courage. People learnt that they must live in the now, long before Eckhart Tolle was able to publish “The Power of Now” – basically because Gutenberg’s printer was a Renaissance invention too. The awareness that you could die any time made planning a stupidity. The new life conditions created empowered and courageous beings, full of curiosity and without any fear to fail. It is time to introduce you my favorite remarkable Renaissance personages.
After the Black Death of 1348, Florence had successive waves of the plague; a second in 1363, a third in 1374, and a fourth wave in 1383. Filippo Brunelleschi was born in 1377 and for sure he was impacted by the fourth wave while he was a child.
Filippo was a son of a notary and ambassador. The family was well-off and the family’s palace of the Spini still exists in Florence. The young Filippo was given literary and mathematical education intended to enable him to follow in the footsteps of his father. Being artistically inclined, however, Filippo, at the age of twenty-two, was apprentice to the silk merchant’s guild, the wealthiest and most prestigious guild in Florence, which also included jewelers and metal craftsmen. In 1398 he became a master goldsmith and a sculptor working with cast bronze.
In 1400 the City of Florence decided to celebrate the end of the Black Death by creating new sculpted and gilded bronze doors for the Baptistry. A competition was held in 1401 for the design, which drew seven competitors, including Brunelleschi and another young sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti. The head of the jury was Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who later became an important patron of Brunelleschi. The jury selected Ghiberti, whose composition was simpler and more classical, but the work of Brunelleschi, with more dramatic movement, made a good impression. Brunelleschi did not like to be second at anything; he would eventually abandon sculpture and devote his attention entirely to architecture and optics.
Donatello was born around 1386, just after the fourth wave of the plague impacted Florence in 1383. In that time Brunelleschi was about 10 years old. Donatello was a son of a member of the Florentine wool guild. He received his early artistic training in a goldsmith’s workshop, and then worked briefly in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti.
“…he made a Crucifix of wood with extraordinary care; and when he had finished this, thinking that he had made a very rare work, he showed it to Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, who was very much his friend, wishing to have his opinion. Filippo, whom the words of Donato had led to expect something much better, smiled slightly on seeing it. Donato, perceiving this, besought him by all the friendship between them to tell him his opinion; whereupon Filippo, who was most obliging, replied that it appeared to him that Donato had placed a ploughman on the Cross, and not a body like that of Jesus Christ, which was most delicate and in all its parts the most perfect human form that was ever born. Donato, hearing himself censured, and that more sharply than he expected, when he was hoping to be praised, replied, “If it were as easy to make this figure as to judge it, my Christ would appear to thee to be Christ and not a ploughman; take wood, therefore, and try to make one thyself.” Filippo, without another word, returned home and set to work to make a Crucifix, without letting anyone know; and seeking to surpass Donato in order not to confound his own judgment, after many months he brought it to the height of perfection.
This done, he invited Donato one morning to dine with him, and Donato accepted the invitation. Whereupon, as they were going together to the house of Filippo, they came to the Mercato Vecchio, where Filippo bought some things and gave them to Donato, saying, “Do thou go with these things to the house and wait for me there, I am coming in a moment.” Donato, therefore, entering the house and going into the hall, saw the Crucifix of Filippo, placed in a good light; and stopping short to study it, he found it so perfectly finished, that, being overcome and full of amazement, like one distraught, he spread out his hands, which were holding up his apron; whereupon the eggs, the cheese, and all the other things fell to the ground, and everything was broken to pieces. But he was still marveling and standing like one possessed, when Filippo came up and said with a laugh, “What is thy intention, Donato, and what are we to have for dinner, now that thou hast upset everything?” “For my part,” answered Donato, “I have had my share for this morning: if thou must have thine, take it. But enough; it is thy work to make Christ and mine to make ploughmen.”
The crucifix of Donatello, son of a wool comber, always worried about poverty, represents a suffering man in a very realistic, violent sculpture. Instead, the crucifix of Brunelleschi, son of a notary and ambassador, rich, happy of his life and aware of his skills, represented an idealized King of Kings in a soft, fine sculpture.
The corpuses of the two crucifixes are not as unlike one another. The difference between them is most clearly expressed in the carving of the faces. Especially when seen from below, close to the cross, the features of the Donatello’s Christ, appear swollen about the upper lip, the cheekbones, brow and the top of the forehead. In the carving of this face, Donatello seems to have made manifest the violence to which Christ has been subjected.
Whilst its polychromed surface is similarly free from bruising, cuts and grazes, the carving of the face of the Brunelleschi’s Christ, by comparison with that of the Donatello, is delicate, even elegant. Not only does it show no sign of having been hit, but it gives every appearance of having been sculpted with a view to stressing its refinement and sensitivity, its obedient resignation to the will of God. The brows are sharply delineated, the nose narrow and the forehead and cheeks smooth and even.
The two statues reveal the double face of the Renaissance: realism and beauty. Both crucifix are still today in Florence: the crucifix by Donatello it is in the Santa Croce, and the crucifix by Brunelleschi in Santa Maria Novella.
Brunelleschi’s deception on the competition for the gilded bronze doors for the Baptistry, was the catalyst for a 2 years (1402-1404) shifting trip with Donatello to Rome. That deception, probably beyond any anger transformation or escapism, ended up being a turning point in history. The amygdala of Filippo was key for the Renaissance.
The amygdala is in charge of pleasure, and as important as pleasure, of your survival reactions of fly, fight or freeze. When the brain sends a potential danger situation to the amygdala, we escape, we fight, or we paralyze without knowing what to do. The amygdala saved humans since we walked with the dinosaurs, it is our most precious survival tool.
I am pretty sure that Brunelleschi’s amygdala was pretty standard. What was not standard at all, was that Filippo ignored what the amygdala was telling him about that trip.
At the turn of the 15th century, Rome had sunk to one of the lowest points in its long and illustrious history. Back in the 1st century C.E., as the capital of a great empire, the city had boasted a population approaching two million, making it by far the largest city in the Mediterranean world, and probably anywhere. But four centuries later, with the empire in steep decline, the population had dwindled to less than half that number. The barbarian invasions that followed, accompanied by the collapse of commerce throughout Western Europe in the early Middle Ages, saw the city’s population crash to a tiny fraction of its ancient heights. Even the revival of urban life in the 11th and 12th centuries, which saw ancient towns come to life and new ones spring up throughout Italy, did little to improve the fortunes of Rome.
While cities such as Florence and Venice grew into bustling centers of commerce and manufacture, the ancient imperial capital fell further and further behind. In time the popes of the Renaissance would rebuild and repopulate the city and make it a worthy capital of their spiritual empire. But in 1402, when Brunelleschi and Donato arrived, Rome was a poor and disease-ridden town of perhaps 30,000 souls, many of whom lived like vagabonds among the monumental ruins.
Rome in that time was about poverty and lack of security, and travel to Rome was a serious threat to life. Then, what could overcome that survival instinct? A higher excitement!
After the Black Death the coolest thing among the Italian urban elite was that they increasingly turned to the classics to find answers to the problems of life. Just before Brunelleschi was born, another duo already did their part rediscovering the classics. A duo with the same age difference between Brunelleschi and Donatello.
Petrarca and Boccaccio died in 1374 and 1375 respectively. That trailblazer duo really rocked Florence before and during the Black Death. They settled the bases of the Renaissance literature and the humanism movement that was key for all the Renaissance artists. Their fascination for the classics probably started when Petrarca acquired Cicero’s letters.
Petrarca studied law at the University of Montpellier and Bologna because his father was a notary. Petrarca, however, was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature and considered these seven years wasted. Additionally, he proclaimed that through legal manipulation his guardians robbed him of his small property inheritance in Florence, which only reinforced his dislike for the legal system. He protested, “I couldn’t face making a merchandise of my mind,” as he viewed the legal system as the art of selling justice.
Petrarca was a prolific letter writer and counted Boccaccio among his notable friends to whom he wrote often. After the death of his parents, Petrarch went to Avignon in France, where he worked in numerous clerical offices. This work gave him much time to devote to his writing. With his first large-scale work, Africa, an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, Petrarca emerged as a European celebrity. He became the second poet laureate since antiquity and was crowned by Roman Senatori on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.
Petrarca traveled widely in Europe, served as an ambassador, and because he traveled for pleasure, as with his famous ascent of Mont Ventoux, has been called “the first tourist”. Petrarca was a pioneer in travel in times where almost no maps where available. Take in account that until 1375, so a year later after his dead, it was not published The Catalan Atlas, the zenith of medieval map-work that contains the first compass rose depicted ever on a map.
During his travels, Petrarca collected crumbling Latin manuscripts and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. In 1345 he personally discovered a collection of Cicero‘s letters not previously known to have existed, the collection Epistulae ad Atticum, in the Chapter Library (Biblioteca Capitolare) of Verona Cathedral.
The Black Death that Brunelleschi and Donatello had experienced, and had also read about it from Petrarca and Boccaccio, left no space in their minds for any fear of death. They were all carpe diem, and full of excitement, so their amygdala had to surrender, for the sake of history. Probably this quote from the Roman philosopher Tacitus, another classic that was hype in that time, made the last push: “the desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.”
They moved to Rome, living like vagrants, digging among the ancient ruins, and learning about the great Roman accomplishments and technology, all the while leaving the locals to believe that they were mere opportunists, looking to find abandoned treasures. The great accomplishments of the Romans in design and technology had been condemned and discarded along with its unpopular pagan beliefs and practices. Nonetheless, Rome in the 15th century was filled with architectural remnants and structures; many that were relatively unspoiled.
Roman technology was superior to their predecessors, the Greeks, in many ways. In addition to great public buildings, they built an infrastructure that allowed Rome to become the largest city in the world. Roads and bridges were built to ease travel and increase trade. Aqueducts were built to supply the city with fresh water, and parts of them are still in use today. The primary use of the water was for the drinking fountains and the baths. However, a secondary use was to operate the most advanced sewer system in the world.
A remarkable invention that did not survive to the Renaissance was Roman concrete. The buildings built with concrete had endured over many centuries, and Filippo was fascinated with its physical properties and performance.
Filippo’s actual intentions at the time were unknown even to his friend Donatello. He did not reveal his true motives as they went about their work, and he recorded his discoveries by using cryptic symbols and Arabic numbers, concealing his findings to those around him. Remember, this was before the protection of patent and copyright laws, and the best way to protect intellectual property at that time was through disguise and concealment. Leonardo da Vinci used the same technique very effectively, guess from who he learned it.
One of the measurements that Filippo made were of the three architectural orders—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—invented by the Greeks and perfected by the Romans, whose proportions were governed by precise mathematical ratios. Filippo respected these disciplined design principles, and his mission in Rome was to study and investigate the ancient ruins to learn the intricacies of the great technology and accomplishments of the Roman Empire and how they could be applied to the modern technology of the 1400s.
Filippo was particularly interested in the accomplishments of the Romans in their construction of vaults. He was aware that a dome was planned for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and the Romans had successfully constructed many such structures.
Of significant interest was the Pantheon, the Emperor Hadrian’s monument to all gods, built around 120 A.D. The dome spanned 142 feet, with a height of 143 feet. After 1,300 years, it remained the largest dome in existence. The only reason that it was still around and had not been plundered was that it had been converted to a church, and it is now called Santa Maria dei Martiri.
In his studies of the Pantheon, Filippo apparently achieved great insight into its design and construction. The dome of the Pantheon was constructed in a precise design that allows it to support its own weight. Many tons of concrete form a dome with a span greater than any other in existence at that time. The Romans must have understood and resolved the forces of tension, compression, and dead load. They also understood the behavior of the building materials.
At the base of the dome the horizontal stress is greatest, and the lower walls of the structure are 23 feet thick. As the walls rise to the top of the dome, they decrease to 2 feet thick and open with an oculus in the center. Its physical presence is breathtaking.
The dome was constructed of Roman concrete, and 10 million pounds were placed by the Romans in horizontal lifts on formwork to create this magnificent structure. The similarities of concrete construction today, compared to ancient times, are actually very close. Rocks were used as aggregate, but, at the top, where the weight would be critical, lightweight materials such as pumice and empty clay bottles were used to lighten the dead load.
The astounding difference is that engineers today maintain that a concurrent design of unreinforced concrete used in the same configuration will not support its own weight. The Romans had apparently produced concrete with a tensile strength sufficient to accomplish this task.
This great edifice no doubt impressed Filippo with ideas for spanning the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. He spent much time studying and measuring the structure, and his knowledge gained would later prove to be helpful in creating his immaculate design solution for Il Duomo.
When we look back on Filippo’s odyssey in Rome, we try to imagine how it could relate to a young architect’s travels and explorations of today. In that time, he was liberated and unaccountable, like many young architects today who backpack across Europe during or after their coursework. Filippo had neither a wife nor children, neither did Donatello, and the two were at liberty to live their lives at will.
Together the two Florentines set to work surveying every structure they could find: they “made rough drawings of almost all the buildings in Rome . . . with measurements of the widths and heights as far as they were able to ascertain,” Manetti tells us. Since the structures were in ruins, and the original street level was buried deep in the ground, this was easier said than done. It often proved necessary to dig up the structures’ foundations in order to determine their original shape and true height. When the job was too great for the two of them, they hired laborers, and when measuring heights and distances directly was impractical, they relied on geometrical measurement techniques, using surveying rods and mirrors. To record the measurements “they drew the elevations on strips of parchment graphs with numbers and symbols that Filippo alone understood.” And so they surveyed house after house, and ruin after ruin, over the entire ancient city.
By surveying, measuring, and recording the heights, lengths, shapes, and distances of every ancient structure in Rome, he was hoping to uncover those hidden mathematical harmonies that guided the ancient builders of the Eternal City and had since been lost. In the hills of Rome others might see a haphazard and disorderly jumble of ruins in various stages of disrepair. Brunelleschi saw the outlines of a perfect, harmonious order that pervaded every structure—and the entire city.
As Brunelleschi biographer Vasari told it more than a century later, “his studies were so intense that his mind was capable of imagining how Rome once appeared even before the city fell into ruins.” If the humanists Petrarca and Boccaccio dream was to recover the intellectual world of Cicero, Seneca, and Tacitus, Brunelleschi’s was to recover their physical world—the streets they walked, the houses they inhabited, the temples in which they worshipped.
The Romans were adroit students of architecture and construction. The ancient Roman engineer, Vitruvius, wrote 10 books on architecture that miraculously survived into the Renaissance. One volume addresses the proportions of buildings, and Vitruvius believed that buildings should be based on human proportions. He believed that the human body was perfect, and he validated his belief by writing that a human’s arms and legs, when extended, related to the square and the circle, two pure geometric forms. This was graphically illustrated by Vitruvius; however a more famous illustration by Leonardo di Vinci prevails, known as The Vitruvian Man. Yes, the famous drawing from Leonardo is connected to Filippo, too.
De architectura ten books were dedicated to Vitruvius’ patron, the emperor Caesar Augustus, as a guide for building projects. The Vitruvius’ book was rediscovered in a Swiss monastery of the Abbey of Saint Gallen by Florentine scholar Poggio Bracciolini, and a copy of the book was brought to Florence in 1414. Brunelleschi used his measuring experience in Rome combined with the learnings and confirmations of the Vitruvius to develop his new idea of linear perspective, that was key to solve and build the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. But before arriving to the crucial Dome in Florence that represent the threshold of the Renaissance, we should do a final review into the Rome’s trip of Filippo and Donatello.
The two Florentines really found the classics in Rome. The remains of the great temples in the Forum; the seemingly indestructible roads, many still in use; the ruins of the massive aqueducts that had supplied water to the city of millions: the monumental public baths built by the emperor Diocletian around 300 C.E., renowned for their high, vaulted ceilings. They found mostly the same that you can still observe by walking by Rome as a curious tourist nowadays.
You have to take in account that that trip happened 620 years ago. Florence in comparison is a beautiful city, and it was beautiful already before the finishing of the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. But Rome is astonishing still today for the eyes of the modern humans. The coliseum is still beyond imagination compared with the stadiums that we build nowadays.
The key factor for me, is the superb beauty and perfection of the Pantheon that still provokes Stendhal syndrome today. What a marvelous joke by the way, to have Stendhal in the place who inspired the artist who provoked the syndrome on Stendhal himself.
Brunelleschi believed that the ancient architects designed their structures in accordance with perfect mathematical harmonies, which were responsible not only for the soundness of the buildings, but also for their beauty. The beauty that Filippo and Donatello found in Rome, was the most precious treasure and shifting factor for their lives. And beauty is inspiring because when we see beauty, we remember the beauty inside us.
Even while still spending most of his days as a Roman “treasure hunter,” Brunelleschi made regular visits to his native city, where he remained a familiar figure. And it was one of those visits, in or around 1413, on one morning when we find him walking briskly past the baptistery, site of painful memories, and toward the doors of the Duomo. He may well have been contemplating the great cathedral’s missing cupola, while nurturing a secret ambition that he would be the man to build it.
Yet the objects he was carrying that morning were not the tools of a goldsmith and caster of bronze, as one would expect of the master craftsman who had lost the competition for the baptistery’s doors by the slimmest of margins. Nor were they architectural designs or engineering plans, as later generations, who know him as the builder of “Il Cupolone,” might expect. A mirror and a painting with burnished silver and a hole in the middle are all that Brunelleschi held in his hand. In what must have been no more than a few hours, and using these simple objects, he forever transformed the way people perceive and experience the space around them.
Here’s what Brunelleschi did: First, he held the back of the painting to his face, placing the hole in its center before his eye. Manetti, who held the painting in his hands decades later, reported that the hole was “as tiny as a lentil bean on the painted side” and that it “widened conically” on the back side, reaching “the circumference of a ducat.” Brunelleschi pressed his eye to the cone and looked through the hole toward the baptistery. With his other hand he held up the mirror in front of the painting so that, instead of the actual octagonal structure, he saw its image in the painting reflected back at him. There was the baptistery and the buildings around it as he had painted them. There was the blue-gray sky, the drifting clouds, and passing birds captured in the burnished silver on the painting and now reflected from the mirror and back at Brunelleschi’s eye. From the peephole at the center of the painting, Brunelleschi was looking straight at the painting’s reflection in the mirror. The artificial image was almost indistinguishable from the view of the actual baptistery as seen from the same spot.
It was surely one of the most baffling scenes ever to take place before the ancient walls of the baptistery. From a distance it would have appeared that Brunelleschi was inexplicably covering his own face with the back of a painting; from close by, when the hole in the painting was revealed, it seemed that he was going to enormous lengths to see what was freely available to the naked eye—the octagonal outlines of the baptistery in the morning light. Why the painting, the peephole, the mirror, if the only purpose was to reproduce the exact scene that could be viewed without them? What, one might understandably wonder, was Brunelleschi up to?
The answer lies precisely in the bewildering identity of the natural view from the cathedral’s doorway and the artificial view of the painting and mirror that Brunelleschi worked hard to achieve. The whole purpose of the experiment, in fact, was to demonstrate that he had mastered the secret of the true representation of nature, one that differs not at all from the real thing. The more similar the mirror image of the baptistery—seen through the hole in the painting—is to the actual view from the Duomo’s doorway, the better. The best indication of the experiment’s success was if the mirror was suddenly yanked away, the view through the hole in the painting remained practically unchanged. Brunelleschi had succeeded in capturing a three-dimensional view of an object and then reproducing it from scratch on a flat canvas. Nothing like it had been accomplished before, but his contemporaries soon had a name for it: they called it perspective.
Today we take mirrors and their images so much for granted that we hardly think them worthy of comment. Yet there is magic here: without any human intervention, mirrors produce a perfect three-dimensional image on a flat surface, one that is practically indistinguishable from the original. How do they do it? And what does an artist, using all the skill and human artifice at his disposal, need to do to reproduce the effect? This seems to have been the question on Brunelleschi’s mind as he was designing his experiment. If he could reproduce a mirror-like sense of depth in his painting of the baptistery, then the image the flat painting reflected back at the observer would appear not flat at all but three-dimensional. For an observer, it would be as if they were looking directly at the baptistery.
Already in 1375, 2 years before Filippo was born, the construction of the Florence Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was completed, apart from the dome. Filippo lived in the shadow of the Santa Maria del Fiore, the largest cathedral in the world at that time. Life was not easy after the Black Death, plague waves were normalcy in that times. Florence most severe were in 1430, 1437-38, 1449-50, 1478-79, and 1527-31. But live flourished again and again after each plague wave.
In 1409, the group in charge of the construction of the cathedral asked Filppo’s opinion about how the dome (cupola) should be built. He offered several ideas based on his studies of ancient Roman domes, but to his frustration, none of them were implemented. Nine years later in 1418, the group announced that they were accepting new ideas for how to design the dome. While at first the competition was only open to local artists, the group eventually opened it up to artists all across Europe. Filippo submitted his name to be included and was eventually invited to participate.
The day of the presentation arrived. Master builders from all over Europe assembled in the unfinished cathedral. Each architect presented his solution in turn. Many ideas were presented. One thought the dome should be made of “spongestone” to keep the weight down. Another suggested that they put a giant pillar in the middle. Yet a third proposed that the dome be filled with earth mixed with money during the construction, and then once it was finished, that citizens be allowed to dig for the money, removing all of the dirt in the process.
Filippo was last to present. He was confident that he alone, based on his knowledge of ancient methods of dome creation had the answer. He verbally described his solution: a dome within a dome, octagonal in shape, capped by a lantern to let in light, all of which would be constructed without scaffolding. They were astonished by his claim and demanded to see his model. Fearing that the other architects would steal his design, or that (even worse) his design might be given to someone else to build, Filippo flatly refused.
Filippo then issued a challenge, saying that the commission to build the dome should be given to the man who could make an egg stand on end, as that man would have the skills required for the job. After the various architects tried in vain to accomplish it, Filippo took an egg, whacked it on its end and then placed it on the table where it stood upright and did not fall over. The other architects protested that they could have done that, too, to which Filippo replied that they could have built the dome, too, had they seen his model. Impressed, the judges awarded Filippo the commission to construct the dome.
Brunelleschi knew that there was not enough timber in Tuscany to build a scaffold inside the Cathedral, and the recipe for tensioned concrete had been lost since the fall of Rome. Brunelleschi instead came up with an ingenious and completely original theory. Brunelleschi employed a double shell, made of sandstone and marble. Brunelleschi would have to build the dome out of brick, due to its light weight compared to stone and being easier to form, and with nothing under it during construction. To illustrate his proposed structural plan, he constructed a wooden and brick model with the help of Donatello and Nanni di Banco, a model which is still displayed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The model served as a guide for the craftsmen, but was intentionally incomplete, so as to ensure Brunelleschi’s control over the construction. His plans showed an inner hemispherical dome within Florence cathedral’s octagonal drum. A second, ovoid brick dome was to be placed on top, and nine sandstone rings would then hold the structure together, like a barrel. To raise the bricks and sandstone beams several hundred feet in the air, Brunelleschi invented a fast and efficient hoist with the world’s first reverse gear, allowing an ox to raise or lower a load at the flick of a switch.
Brunelleschi had no formal training. The ideas he brought to building sites were completely new. Every day, he ensured workers remained sober by providing their lunch and watering down the wine. A safety net prevented workers from falling to their deaths, a chiming clock regulated their working hours and Brunelleschi had a canteen half way up the dome to reduce workers fatigue of going up and down. His methods seemed to work. Only three deaths were recorded during a 16-year construction period.
Brunelleschi’s ability to crown the dome with a lantern of the Duomo was questioned and he had to undergo another competition. He was declared again the winner over his competitor Lorenzo Ghiberti. Construction of the lantern was begun a few months before his death in 1446. The lantern was finally completed by Brunelleschi’s friend Michelozzo in 1461. The conical roof was crowned with a gilt copper ball and cross, containing holy relics in 1469.
The commission for this gilt copper ball (atop the lantern) went to the sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, in whose workshop there was at this time a young apprentice named Leonardo da Vinci. Fascinated by Filippo’s machines, which Verrocchio used to hoist the ball, Leonardo made a series of sketches of them and, as a result, is often given credit for their invention. Leonardo might have also participated in the design of the bronze ball, as stated in the G manuscript of Paris “Remember the way we soldered the ball of Santa Maria del Fiore.”
Leonardo Da Vinci was born in Vinci, a town between Pisa and Florence, in 1452. Just after another wave of plague and in the same year that the Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise were unveiled. At the age of 14 he began apprenticing under Verrocchio, who had studied under Donatello, and he served as official sculptor to the ruling Medici family. Verrocchio was not only a skilled artist but a skilled teacher, and Leonardo received training in all artistic genres, except for large wall murals and frescoes.
Leonardo as apprentice of Verrocchio got access to all the Brunelleschi secrets. Filippo rediscovered in the Vitruvius books the proportions of nature, and how to apply them in architecture and art, so Leonardo went deeper on that topic. He studied the movements as well as the skeletal structures and their muscles of animals like oxen, horses and birds.
He also had an obsession with the human body and how it worked. His studies of anatomy began when he began dissecting a 100 years old man who he witnessed passing away. He not only wanted to know how the body worked, but also where the emotions came from! To understand these things he dissected muscles, nerves, and vessels and recreated them within his drawings. This allowed him to understand how blood flowed throughout the body. To this day, some of his sketches are still being used in anatomy classes.
One example of this study of proportions is The Vitruvian Man. This drawing is the example of Leonardo’s study of process and his ability to render figures correctly and learn from those before him. It was created in 1487, and is surrounded by notes about the ideas and theories of Vitruvius.
The drawing depicts a male figure with superimposed positions with his arms and legs apart. The figures limbs are outstretched, touching the circumference of he circle and the edges of the square. The work changes perspective and is both static in its structure and dynamic in its presentation of a moving and living man. It is often referred to as a Cannon of Proportions because of its correlation with the ideal human proportions.
Leonardo’s depiction of Vitruvius was much different than the previous works because his male figure depicts two different positions within the same image. You can see that da Vinci cared about rendering the figure correctly because there are thin lines that show the significant points of the proportion theory. His goal with this drawing was to bring together the ideas of art, architecture, human anatomy and symmetry in one remarkable image.
Leonardo moved to from Florence to Milan, and while he was working on The Last Supper, the famous mathematician Fra Luca Pacioli came to stay in Milan. As an illegitimate child, Leonardo had been denied secondary education, and thus could not perform even simple algebra. However, he had always had an interest in numbers and math, and he eagerly learned from Pacioli, that for his part must have shared a mutual awe for his pupil. The two even collaborated on a book, De divina proportione about the golden ratio, Leonardo supplying the illustrations.
Verrocchio was not only the master of Leonardo, he was the most important figure in Renaissance art between Donatello and Michelangelo, making works of unprecedented technical accomplishment and breathtaking naturalism and beauty.
There are four fundamental Davids in sculpture history: three were made in the Renaissance period: Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria della Accademia and a replica placed at the Piazza della Signoria in Florence; Donatello and Verrocchio’s David both at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence; the other one, of Baroque period, the Bernini’s David at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Maybe the most famous is the one of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he accepted the challenge to sculpt a large scale David and worked constantly for over two years to create one of the most breathtaking masterpieces of Art History with Carrara marble. The perfection of this David, is because Michelangelo made his own research into human anatomy, dissected bodies, and drew from models till the human figure did not seem to hold any secrets for him. Once, he carved a polychrome wooden Crucifix, as a gift to the prior of the Florentine church of Santo Spirito, which had allowed him to do some anatomical studies of the corpses from the church’s hospital.
Michelangelo’s was born in 1475, and he was raised in Florence. During his mother’s later prolonged illness, and after her death (when he was six years old), Michelangelo lived with a nanny and her husband, a stonecutter, in the town of Settignano, where his father owned a marble quarry and a small farm. There he gained his love for marble. As Giorgio Vasari quotes him: “If there is some good in me, it is because I was born in the subtle atmosphere of your country of Arezzo. Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures.”
As a young boy, Michelangelo was sent to study grammar under the Humanist Francesco da Urbino. However, he showed no interest in his schooling, preferring to copy renaissance paintings from Florentine churches and seek the company of other painters.
Patronage started in the Ancient Rome, and was specially fertile the tandem of Gaius Maecenas and Augustus that brought inspiring beauty into the Roman Empire. As everything from the classics, patronage was rediscovered and reinvented in the Renaissance, specially by the Medici family as a way to prove their power. Leonardo Da Vinci was client of the Medicis and it was also his contemporary Michelangelo.
As a teenager Michelangelo was recommended for admission to a school for sculptors established by Lorenzo de’ Medici, one of the most prominent members of the dynasty (he was also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent). There, Lorenzo noticed the young artist’s burgeoning talent and invited him to live at the Palazzo Medici, where he was treated like a member of the family. Lorenzo even found employment for Michelangelo’s father, who initially opposed his son’s intention to become an artist. Michelangelo stayed at the Medici palace for four years.
Leonardo and Michelangelo had a rivalry as huge as their greatnesses. Although both worked for the top patrons of the moment, the Medici and the Roman Catholic Church, non of them felt satisfied working for their patrons. Leonardo not finished quite a lot of his orders, and he had few trials for the property of his creations. Michelangelo superb Sistine Chapel, his Pietà, and his orders from the popes only gave him dissatisfaction and losing most of his best years. Patronage was the way for the new art to flourish, but wasn’t probably an equal relation between patrons and clients as in Augustus times.
Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa are probably the most renowned masterpieces of the Renaissance for the popular culture, far beyond Brunelleschi’s Dome. All these unique artist and their out-of-the-box masterpieces in a really short period of time, were more than any war, rebellion, reformation, pope or king, the shifting movement that transmuted the Dark Ages.
Vasary, who was also consistently employed by members of the Medici family, and who also painted the frescos in the Brunelleschi’s Dome of Santa Maria Del Fiore, wrote Lives, a bibliographical book that was the first compilation of the Renaissance artist, and helped the spread their works. You can read the expense Vasary’s book in gutenberg.org, website which of course got the name from Gutenberg press, another Renaissance innovation.
Medici’s Renaissance patronage made possible incredible new things, including the world first (surviving) opera Euridice from Jacopo Peri, that was performed in Florence on 6th October 1600, at the Medici’s Palazzo Pitti, with Peri himself singing the role of Orfeo. But Medici’s patronage expanded beyond humanist arts, and touched humanism science and philosophy. Galileo Galilei is another member of the Vasari’s Lives involved with them.
In the early 1600s, Galileo, who was cash-strapped and had a family to provide for, took a job tutoring Cosimo II de Medici, the teenage son of Ferdinando I, grand duke of Tuscany. Galileo later was hired to tutor Ferdinando’s wife, who reportedly thought he was an astrologer rather than an astronomer and had him do the duke’s horoscope. In 1610, Galileo published The Starry Messenger, a work describing recent discoveries he’d made with a telescope, including the fact that Jupiter had moons, which he named after the Medici.
Galileo Galileo was born in Pisa in 1564, then part of the Duchy of Florence. The first of six children of Vincenzo Galilei, a lutenist, composer, and music theorist. Galileo became an accomplished lutenist himself and would have learned early from his father a scepticism for established authority, the value of well-measured or quantified experimentation, an appreciation for a periodic or musical measure of time or rhythm, as well as the results expected from a combination of mathematics and experiment.
Although Galileo seriously considered the priesthood as a young man, at his father’s urging he instead enrolled at the University of Pisa for a medical degree. When he was studying medicine, he noticed a swinging chandelier, which air currents shifted about to swing in larger and smaller arcs. To him, it seemed, by comparison with his heartbeat, that the chandelier took the same amount of time to swing back and forth, no matter how far it was swinging. When he returned home, he set up two pendulums of equal length and swung one with a large sweep and the other with a small sweep and found that they kept time together. It was not until the work of Christiaan Huygens, almost one hundred years later, that the tautochrone nature of a swinging pendulum was used to create an accurate timepiece.
Up to this point, Galileo had deliberately been kept away from mathematics, since a physician earned a higher income than a mathematician. However, after accidentally attending a lecture on geometry, he talked his reluctant father into letting him study mathematics and natural philosophy instead of medicine.
Galileo also studied disegno, a term encompassing fine art, and, he obtained the position of instructor in the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence, teaching Brunelleschi’s perspective and the art of chiaroscuro. Being inspired by the artistic tradition of the city and the works of the Renaissance artists, Galileo acquired an aesthetic mentality. Galileo was an astronomer, physicist and engineer, sometimes described as a polymath.
Galileo has been called the “father of observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, the “father of the scientific method”, and the “father of modern science”. That’s exactly the meaning of polymath, or a true renaissance man.
Galileo studied speed and velocity, gravity and free fall, the principle of relativity, inertia, projectile motion, and also worked in applied science and technology, describing the properties of pendulums and “hydrostatic balances”, inventing the thermoscope and various military compasses, and using the telescope for scientific observations of celestial objects. His contributions to observational astronomy include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the observation of the four largest satellites of Jupiter, the observation of Saturn’s rings, and the analysis of sunspots!
Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism and Copernicanism was controversial during his lifetime, when most subscribed to geocentric models such as the Tychonic system. He met with opposition from astronomers, who doubted heliocentrism.
The matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition, which concluded that heliocentrism was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”
Galileo later defended his views in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which appeared to attack Pope Urban VIII and thus alienated him and the Jesuits, who had both supported Galileo up until this point. He was tried by the Inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
While under house arrest, he lived the Italian plague of 1630, and he wrote Two New Sciences, in which he summarized work he had done some forty years earlier on the two sciences now called kinematics and strength of materials.
Galileo got the quintessence of the humanism: life is a self discovery journey that transforms the others by inspiration, and he summarized it in this quote:
“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.”