Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Birth from trouble

The Italian Renaissance was born from pestilence and war, carried by a number of creative minds who wanted to explore the treasures of the past to be put to use in the presence, to offer hope and confidence in an atmosphere of decline and trouble. It is no coincidence that this new paradigm, which has since been understood as the birth of the modern world, emerged in Italy and not in the rich north of Europe: Flanders, the Low Countries, Ile de France, the German lands. Trade and culture were florishing there, and there was no need felt to change ways of thinking about the world. But because of the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in 1453, a great number of scholars fled to Italy, carrying with them the surviving literature and scientific and philosophic writings of Greek and Roman Antiquity, which quickly spread among the Italian intelligentia. This wealth of cultural material brought forth the movement of 'humanism' which was at the heart of the Renaissance and its culture. 

The faint reflection of a Golden Age in the past, together with the numerous ruins from the Roman Empire scattered all over the Italian lands, created the means with which artists could overcome the stagnation they felt, and create something new on the basis of a half-understood culture where they filled the gaps in their knowledge with their own personal inventions. The Italian 'revival idea' sparked so much enthusiasm that it soon spread all over Europe, where it found different variations and interpretations according to personal taste and local traditions.

But the longing for something better than the declining and troubling present had been shimmering already long before Byzantium fell. Already in 1341 the poet Petrarca wrote:

Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task. 1)


This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….

Such language may us, in 2020, strike as a bit naive, and as a rather quaint, nostalgic conservatism. But it was not, as history shows: such thinking set in motion one of the greatest and most fruitful cultural developments the West has ever seen, only to gradually erode from the 19th century onwards. 

In the early 14th century, Florence suffered a number of devastating disasters: trade collapsed, the banking system imploded, government sank under the weight of corruption scandals and internal quarrelling, crops were failing, and all of this was topped in 1348 by the plague which killed almost half of the population. It is not difficult to imagine the anxiety, the nihilism and pessimism that reigned at the time. But after this dark period, the longing of the surviving population for a more positive way of looking at the world created a need for a rebirth of the things that make life worth living again: civilised values, education, science, beauty, the arts - something which would stimulate the faculties which had been numbed for so long. And exactly in the city which suffered so much, the spirit of a rebirth was born and was to become the inspiration of the whole continent. 

There is a lesson here, and not merely for Europe or the West, and especially for today.

Taken from Andrew Balio's article on the website of the Future Symphony Institute:

Addendum 14/4/20:

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, author of the bestsellers 'Humankind' and 'Utopia for Realists', has something of value to say in his article about the corona crisis:

Also a notable article by young Indian scholar Aditya Dwarkesh:


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