Friday, February 24, 2012
Florence: The Rise of Humanism
Luca Della Robbia, Rhetoric (Plato and Aristotle), relief panel from the Campanile, Florence
Luca Della Robbia, Grammar (Priscian), relief from the Campanile, Florence
Humanism is a loaded word in today’s extremely polarized USA. It can be a fighting word. To some, it is a brilliant light banishing away the darkness of superstition and bigotry. To others, it is the evil spawn of Satan, the source of so much error that leads souls to perdition. Like so many historic words (“conservative” and “liberal” for example), its meaning gets lost as factions use it to score points off of each other. We now automatically (more like unthinkingly) associate humanism with atheism and secularism no matter which side of the religious versus secular fight we come down upon. And yet, there are very deeply religious people who consider themselves to be fully humanist (Thomas Merton for example), and there are atheists who want nothing to do with the word or the concept (Michel Foucault was no humanist).
Secular humanist protesters
Anti-secularist protesters against the removal of a Christmas creche scene
A poster that's appearing in the New York City subway stations
An anti-secularist billboard in West Virginia
What did the word mean to those who first began to use it in Renaissance Florence? Might their understanding of its meaning shed light on our current predicament? Today, we understand the word as designating a set of convictions about the value of humanity and human experience. In the Renaissance, it was understood as a field of study coming out of a new set of convictions in contrast to the dominant ideas of the Medieval world.
The Renaissance was one of the few eras to name itself. Old Kingdom Egyptians didn’t call their age “The Old Kingdom.” We do out of convenience. They called their age something like “now.” It was the Florentines who coined the term Rinasciamento, which French and English turned into “Renaissance,” rebirth --- the rebirth of what? --- the rebirth of the ancient Classical culture of Greece and Rome, and of the humanism at the heart of it all.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, it was commonplace to call the Renaissance a rebirth of “paganism.” This would have been a huge surprise to people living at the time, especially to the humanist scholars and artists who made the age. They thought of themselves as sincere, loyal, and even devout Christians. Some, like Agnolo Poliziano, would enter holy orders. Many, like Leon Batista Alberti, were already ordained clergy. One humanist scholar from Siena who wrote under the very classicizing name of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini would become Pope Pius II. It was Pico della Mirandola, the author of the famous Essay on Man who brought Savonarola to Florence and recommended him highly. Perhaps only Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci would happily identify as pagans reborn.
As I pointed out in earlier posts, Medieval civilization was far from dying in Florence throughout the whole period of the Renaissance. It was very much alive and flourishing, manifesting itself in everything from popular pious beliefs and practices to major works of art by artists such as Donatello and Fra Angelico. What makes Florence so fascinating is that a whole new culture that we would eventually call “modern” grew up in the midst of this deeply Medieval city. All of the city’s humanist scholars and writers kept a very complex and conflicted relationship with its Medieval culture.
On April 26, 1336, the son of an exiled Florentine notary in Avignon, Francesco Petrarcha, better known to English speakers as Petrarch, climbed Mt. Ventoux in southern France with his brother Gherardo.
Mt. Ventoux in southern France
The view from Mt. Ventoux
Though he claimed to be the first to climb the mountain, he most certainly wasn’t. He climbed for no other reason than the satisfaction of climbing it and to enjoy the view. And he did enjoy it very much, scanning the Valley of the Rhone. He hoped to see the Pyrenees, but they are 200 miles away. While enjoying the view, he opened a small copy of Saint Augustine and came upon this passage: "Men go to admire the high mountains and the great flood of the seas and the wide-rolling rivers and the ring of Ocean and the movement of the stars; and they forget themselves." Petrarch fell silent on the descent. He wrote his account of this mountain climb more than 10 years after the fact in a letter to his confessor Dionigi di Borgo San Sepulcro.
In this poignant moment, a new world struggling to be born met a still powerful Medieval world. Doing things for their own sake was the modern way in its infancy, but it was not the Medieval way. According to the Medieval view of life, we have but one purpose in life, and that is salvation. Everything else is a distraction or worse, a temptation from the straight and narrow path to the Celestial Jerusalem. Petrarch on that April day had one foot in the past and with the other tentatively stepped into an unknown future. He climbed a mountain like Sir Edmund Hillary “because it is there,” and to enjoy the view. I don’t know Sir Edmund Hillary’s religious views, but I seriously doubt that he carried a copy of St. Augustine or anything like that to the top of Everest. Sir Hillary told his story of his climb to an eager press and public. A sad and remorseful Petrarch recounted his climb to his confessor vowing never to do it again.
Today, people climb Mt. Ventoux all the time. It is very popular with mountain and racing bikers. I doubt any since Petrarch felt his remorse.
Bicycle racing on Mt, Ventoux
In Petrarch’s time, Dante dominated Florentine letters, and indeed all of Italian literature.
Dante in Domenico Michelino's painting that hangs in the Cathedral of Florence
Dante was the last and greatest poet of the Medieval world. Dante loved that world and believed in it with all the fervor of a convert, which he was. Dante was no monk. He was a son of Florentine nobility once deeply loyal to Florence’s republican cause against the imperial and aristocratic ambitions of hostile neighboring cities like Siena and Pisa. Dante began as a very loyal Guelph and a Florentine patriot who fought in the battle of Campaldino, Florence’s great victory over its Ghibelline rivals. When the Guelphs assumed unchallenged power in Florence they promptly split into warring factions in true Florentine fashion, the Blacks versus the Whites. The Whites prevailed and the Blacks were marked for destruction (the idea of “loyal opposition” belongs to the 18th century). Dante found himself on a proscription list marked for death, and fled Florence never to return. He spent the rest of his life a wandering and impoverished aristocrat, one of many such uprooted by the ascent of Florence’s new banking and industrial aristocracy in the 13th century. He died in Ravenna and remains buried there.
His treatment at the hands of his fellow Florentine Guelphs was a bitterly disillusioning experience for Dante. He discarded his old republican convictions and eagerly embraced the autocracy of the absolute monarchy personified in the German Emperor. Only such a surrender of the will to absolute power and legitimate authority could guarantee peace and safety. Only a king or an emperor could save Florence from itself, from its endless and bloody factional strife. In true Medieval fashion, Dante saw this ideal hierarchy as a reflection of the hierarchies of Heaven. Dante enthusiastically shared the Medieval political ideal, that Emperor and Pope work together for human salvation.
Dante would never have climbed a mountain, at least not a literal one, and certainly not for its own sake. In the Divine Comedy, he climbed the Mountain of Purgatory, not for the view, but to reach Paradise, and to prepare himself on the way. Dante saw no point in climbing Mt. Ventoux or any mountain.
Entire libraries of commentary over many centuries have been written about Dante’s great poem La Comedia Divina, and this small blog post will not pretend to add to any of that. Few great poems could be more unclassical, or unmodern than The Divine Comedy. It is a completely original work that brilliantly transforms liturgical usage and dry Medieval scholastic argument into epic poetry. It beautifully integrates entire systems of symbolism into a spiritual journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven taking place over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter. Like so much of Medieval art and literature, it is meant to be read allegorically. Dante’s journey is really through his own soul.
From a series of remarkable drawings by Botticelli for an unfinished project to illustrate The Divine Comedy
Centaurs and the Damned from The Inferno
The Titans in The Inferno
The Celestial Cart of Beatrice from The Purgatorio
Beatrice and Dante enter Paradise
Dante and Beatrice before the Sun from The Paradiso
The once commonplace Medieval idea that what happens here on earth, no matter how small or local, has cosmic implications fills the pages of The Divine Comedy. Dante catches up with old Florentine and Tuscan neighbors and settles scores with his old native city in the midst of talking to demons and angels, ancient classical philosophers, and saints. This is hard for us living in a greatly expanded cosmos where earth is no longer in the center to grasp. The world of the spirit and this world of the concrete and local remain far separated for us.
To the Medieval mind, the very small and the very particular were indeed bound up with larger cosmic matters. Nothing existed for its own sake. Everything played its role, no matter how small, in the vast scheme of divine salvation. Like the jamb statues on a Gothic cathedral, characters appear vividly in Dante’s great poem, but they remain thoroughly integrated into the poem’s much larger structures as jamb statues remain integrated into the larger design of a cathedral no matter how dramatic and individualized they are. Everyone and everything has their proper place and plays their role.
Dante’s literary achievement towered over Florence for centuries after his death. All writers and poets in that city since worked under his formidable shadow, even when they tried to emerge out from under his shade.
We remember Petrarch primarily as the creator of the sonnet form of poetry, and for his sonnets to his beloved Laura, whoever she was.
Petrarch probably drawn from life by Altichiero
But probably his most important legacy is as a scholar of the distant Classical past. Petrarch began the long Renaissance project to recover and restore ancient Classical literature.
Virgil in Dante’s great poem is a perfect illustration of the Medieval treatment of the Classical past. Dante enlists Virgil to play a role, that of a guide through the realm of the dead. Dante very cleverly has the ancient Roman poet play the role Virgil assigned to the Cumaean Sybil in the Aeneid as Aeneas’ guide to the Underworld. Virgil will guide Dante through Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory. Dante presents Virgil as a summit of worldly knowledge, virtue, and poetic virtuosity. Virgil plays the role of symbol. The actual Virgil from the time of the reign of Augustus, and the role he and the Aeneid played in Augustan Rome are simply beside the point.
The scriptoria of the Church were filled with Classical Latin literature (Greek literature would return by way of the Muslim world via the translation school in Toledo, and through scholarly Greek exiles after the fall of Constantinople in 1453). Monks from Ireland to Sicily had available to them volumes of Livy, Virgil, Tacitus, Juvenal, Lucian, etc. They even had before their celibate eyes the erotic poetry in Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, and the lewd gutter language of Catullus.
These texts were supposed to be read for style, for their superior command of Latin prose and verse, not for content. Indeed, content was deflected by “moralizing” so much of this literature. Elaborate glosses were written into the margins of works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses explaining them in terms of Christian allegory.
An illustrated edition of The Aeneid ("The Vatican Virgil") from the 4th century, the oldest surviving complete manuscript of any Classical text
The texts of these Latin authors that the monks read were all corrupted copies of fragments. There are precious few original manuscripts left from ancient times. The preservative qualities of the Egyptian desert still yield up tantalizing papyrus fragments, but by far the bulk of the ancient originals are forever lost, and would be whether or not the Alexandrian Library burned. Large portions of Livy’s and Tacitus’ histories are forever lost. We know that ancient artists and architects wrote books about their work, but we only know about these because they are mentioned in other surviving texts. Polykleitos’ book on sculptural proportion and Iktinos’ book on the building of the Parthenon are forever lost to us.
Most of the Classical literature we have is from copies; and copies of copies of copies, made by monks toiling in scriptoria. Exhausted men working in cold damp rooms with stiff aching fingers are bound to make mistakes, and they did. Most of them are accidental misunderstandings. A few are willful corruptions of the texts.
Beginning with Petrarch, Renaissance scholars made it their task to recover these ancient texts, to cull through the many Medieval copies purging out the accumulated mistakes, corruptions, and moralizations to get to something like the original voice and meaning of the texts. Far from reviving the greatness of Antiquity, these scholars saw their task as rescuing tantalizing fragments from oblivion (in this I agree with Mary Beard in her wonderful recent essay on the durability of Classical culture).
In recovering this literature through elaborate projects of textual archaeology, scholars made discoveries, sometimes unsettling that caused them to reconsider much of what they long took for granted. A case in point is Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero.
Petrarch discovered and revived Cicero’s letters, and that discovery deeply disturbed Petrarch. Cicero’s letters revealed a man of conscience as well as superb Latin style. Conscience was the monopoly of Christians in the 14th century when Petrarch lived. All others were in Satan’s thrall either in ignorance of the Gospel or in rebellion against it. And yet, Cicero, a man who lived before the Gospel, spoke about ideas of selflessness and moral courage with as much conviction as any Christian saint, and with greater eloquence. Could it be that Christianity did not have a monopoly on virtue? Could it be that sometimes those living outside the Gospel might even be of superior virtue?
Petrarch was the first scholar to take up the task of reviving the original form (or something like it) of the ancient Latin language.
Sienese artist Simone Martini's frontispiece to Petrarch's copy of the poems of Virgil
For centuries Latin was bent and stretched and tweaked to accommodate Christian liturgy and scholastic dialectics (David Kaplan’s father was a high school Latin teacher and used to refer to “Church Latin” with contempt). Petrarch wanted to restore to Latin something of the epic grandeur of Virgil, the complex lyricism of Ovid, and the descriptive power of writers like Tacitus, Pliny, and Livy. This involved persistent searching out of multiple copies of ancient texts and comparing them, using skillful criticism and editing based on knowledge and experience to purge out later corruptions and to restore something like the original text.
Why set out on such project in the first place, and why should the Italians do so?
The Italians never forgot that they lived in the homeland of the Roman Empire. They always claimed descent from the original Romans (many Italian noble families claimed to be able to trace their lineages back to particular ancient Romans). What is more, even during the darkest of the “Dark Ages” (a term coined by Petrarch), Italy remained a mostly urban society. Medieval civilization throughout the rest of Europe was primarily rural. The Italians felt a tangible sense of continuity with that ancient urban culture.
As I said at the beginning of these posts, Florence was probably history’s first boomtown, its first truly modern city. Florence started out at the beginning of the 13th century as a small backwater town on the Arno River overawed by greater and more illustrious neighboring cities like Pisa and Lucca. By the end of the 13th century, it was among the largest cities in Europe and becoming the dominant power in Tuscany. Commerce and industry made Florence so very great very fast. Florence was the first city in the world made great by business, by early capitalism. After the mid 13th century success in this world meant a lot to a wide and growing portion of the city’s population. It certainly meant a lot to the city’s ruling banking and industrial oligarchy. It meant a lot to the city’s merchants, its shopkeepers, and its tradesmen. It even meant a lot to the city’s huge population of toiling poor. The rising brightness of the city’s worldly glory inspired the Ciompi Rebellion, the short-lived takeover of the Florentine Republic by the city’s brutalized textile workers, as much as any appeal to Christian teachings about social justice. The focus and ambitions of the newly great city became ever more this worldly. It became natural for Florentines to turn for inspiration to another ancient this worldly culture that was also native to their country.
This set the stage for conflict with the city’s Medieval culture, and conflict came. Conservative scholastics aggressively challenged this new worldliness and the new interest in a Classical past seen on its own terms, and not through the filter of religious moralizing. The great defender of humanistic studies was Giovanni Boccaccio, a very close friend of Petrarch.
Boccaccio painted by Andrea da Castagno long after the author's death
He continued and expanded Petrarch’s textual archaeology, and defended it eloquently against its many critics. He wrote guidebooks to and encyclopedic compilations of classical studies which successive generations of students and scholars used for centuries.
The textual archaeology of the humanists was no small matter of pedantry. This reconstructing of ancient texts and sorting out what was authentic from what was corrupted could have major consequences. The Church for generations regarded as genuine a document known as The Donation of Constantine in which the first Christian Emperor of Rome supposedly cedes sovereignty to the Bishop of Rome. This was a central document in the Church’s claim to absolute authority in the Western world. By the 14th century, many considered the document suspect. Lorenzo Valla demonstrated conclusively that the document was a fraud in the 15th century.
When scholars in northern Europe began applying these same techniques of philology to the central texts of the Christian religion, the results were explosive.
Boccaccio reminds us of the great strength, and of the weakness of this new field of study. Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote most of their work in Latin consciously trying out ancient prose and verse styles. And yet, they are best remembered for their work in Italian, and rightly so. Petrarch’s scholarly and philosophical work is of central historic importance, but only scholars read it these days. The broader public reads his verse in Italian such as the Canzoniere and the Triomphi. These are all works that still speak directly to us about human experience. Boccaccio’s famous Decameron, his book of 100 stories told over a fortnight by 10 young Florentine nobles on the run from the Black Death remains a masterful exploration of the complexities and paradoxes of human nature that still startles us with its candor (even us besotted and jaded post-moderns).
A woodcut illustration from a 15th century edition of Boccaccio's Decameron illustrating the Sixth Tale of the 3rd Day
Boccaccio's sharp satires of clerical corruption and hypocrisy remain fresh in every age of pious sanctimony. His appeals for toleration of other faiths, and his remarkable sympathy for women and the injustices that they suffered in the 14th century still speak to us today. Boccaccio may well be the first writer since ancient times to try to recreate on the page how people actually speak. These are the sorts of tales that young people tell each other in every age, especially the downright pornographic tales that so disturb the high-minded and provoke the censors to this day.
Alas, this great expansion of the literary greatness of Italian was not to be pursued by subsequent Renaissance writers. Later generations of Florentine humanists spent their literary energies writing pastiches of ancient Latin verse and prose. These works are thorough in their erudition and otherwise of interest only to other scholars. They remind me of literature in Heian Japan, long complex pastiches of Chinese poetry that no one reads anymore. What we read from the Heian court now is a book written in Japanese to pass the time by one of the court ladies, The Tale of Genji, perhaps the first novel and still a masterpiece.
The great creation of the Renaissance and its humanists is individualism, self-consciousness. In this I completely agree with the great 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt. Petrarch discovered the value of seeing things for one’s self according to one’s own lights. And so did the artists. The direct personal engagement with the world, with our experience of it, drives the work of the Pisani, of Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers, and so many more in the 14th century, and in the 15th century to come in these posts. What changed in the Renaissance was not religion or philosophy. Petrarch and Boccaccio and all their successors died believing Christians who eagerly read Scripture and the Church Fathers. The artists too used their talents consciously in the service of the Christian religion. On strictly religious and doctrinal terms, the humanist scholars were probably not much different from their conservative critics.
The Renaissance Florentines would not have understood or appreciated the right wing American concept of absolute individualism, the idea of the individual as completely isolated and self-sufficient, forming a sovereign state, society, and culture of only one. The Florentine individual certainly felt conscious of herself in distinction to the rest of the world, but she felt that the family, the clan, the guild, the parish, the confraternity, and the city to which she belonged also formed part of her. The city with all of its many groups and subgroups formed the setting that made her individuality possible and meaningful, a much more Classical concept of individuality. The American idea of the brave individual alone in the wilderness (natural or man-made) would have horrified the Florentines.
What changed was the point of view.
Medieval scholasticism thought of the world in vast abstract universal terms, as a great complex cosmic scheme of salvation. They viewed the world from the standpoint of the universal and only gradually worked their way down through the ranked hierarchies to the local and particular. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance began with the local and particular, with the world that stood right in front of them and with their experience of it, and worked their way back up through the ranked hierarchies to the universal. It was not the Renaissance that ended this Medieval view of the world, but the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution together. But, it was the Renaissance that laid the groundwork for those revolutions.
There is a remarkable and wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum now on 15th century portraiture in Italy. The exhibit begins with this amazing object by Donatello that shows so magnificently the very change I’m talking about.
Donatello, Reliquary of San Rossore
This is a reliquary, a religious vessel containing portions of the skull of Saint Rossore, a local Pisan saint invoked in times of plague. It is a religious object with a sacramental function. In basic form, it is similar to many head reliquaries from the 12th and 13th centuries. It also resembles, not accidentally, a Roman portrait bust.
This reliquary bust has a singularity about it that is beyond either the medieval reliquary head or the Roman portrait bust. The historic particularities of any individual did not concern the Medieval world much. Earlier reliquary heads have a very generalized quality about them that is supposed to show the saint as he is now in heaven, not the historic individual in the past.
Reliquary of St. Eustace, 13th century
The Roman bust records the features of a revered family ancestor, and sometimes something of their personality, but they remain records ultimately.
A Roman patrician from the reign of Augustus, 1st century
Donatello’s San Rossore presents us with a sense of the individual that is completely new, the self as a realm of conflict and drama, beyond the simple record of personal traits. That more complex sense of the self set over and against the larger world gives what was originally a liturgical object about a type of spiritual being a new and original depth. What is more remarkable is that though this figure looks so very specific, he’s not a portrait of any actual individual. Donatello lived long after Saint Rossore and could not possibly have known what he looked like or was like. This likeness is entirely a product of Donatello’s imagination with perhaps the assistance of one or more models. Saint Rossore is a spiritual being, a saint now in the realms of light. He is also unmistakably an individual whose face calls to mind the long winding road to sanctity of one very particular life.
Donatello, Reliquary of San Rossore detail
This new field of study, humanism, would play a central role in the creation of Florence’s political identity as a republic, an identity shaped in war and disaster.
The 15th century Florentines brought back the portrait. In Medieval civilization, portraiture was the privilege of Christ, the saints, the king, and the nobility. Now the business oligarchy and mercantile class of Florence desired enduring likenesses of themselves and their families. Whereas the earlier Medieval portraits were either icons to be adored, or imitations of Roman medallion portraits, Florentine portraits tried to make the sitter seem to live again. These portraits have a quality described by the 15th century Florentines as prontezza which translates awkwardly as "readiness,' a kind of alert expectancy.
Portrait of a young man, once attributed to Masaccio
Portrait of a young man by Andrea da Castagno
Portrait of a child by Desiderio da Settignano
Portrait of a young woman by Alessio Baldovinetti
Terra cotta bust of Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto Maiano
An old man with his grandson painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio
Giovanna Tournabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio
A young man with a saint's medallion by Botticelli
Posted by Counterlight at Friday, February 24, 2012