Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Basic Education ...

The Modern Era


Renaissance means rebirth. The term was coined by Giorgio Vasari in
1550, who used it in his book describing the lives of major Italian
artists. What he meant by this word was the revival of pagan
culture of classical antiquity after the long sleep of the Middle
Ages. This Renaissance found its expression in architecture,
sculpture and painting and created the magnificent Italian cities
we still admire today.

This was no coincidence: the vibrant cultural awakening was about
pleasure on earth, a celebration of sensuality, colors, light, the
beauty of the human body. It was man returning from the heavens to
discover paradise on earth. It was a paradise of shapes and colors.
And this discovery set off a fever of sorts. The Renaissance
celebrated itself, as overthe- top and excessive and sought
expression wherever the senses mattered: in architecture and
painting. What timeframe are we talking about? Usually the
Renaissance is described as having lasted about 130 years from 1400
to 1530.

What set off this celebratory awakening?

This was the beginning of modern economy pushing out feudalism with
the following outcome: Instead of becoming a feudal kingdom, Italy
developed into a network of city-states. So where did the money
come from? The trade routes to the Orient run through Italy.
Artisans and the textile industry too could benefit from the
capital that was thus amassed and which created an influential

The taxes levied on Christian Europe by the church pour
continuously into Rome where the popes begin to expand the city as
of 1450 and in the process employ more artists than any other
previous era. Attempts to tap and completely drain the Christian
hemisphere in order to build St. Peter.s Basilica unleash the
Reformation (1517).

Due to this explosive growth of the money economy, Italy becomes
the cradle of the banking and credit business (many expressions
used in banking are of Italian origin such as account, bankrupt,
credit etc.). The banking capital is Florence. The family that owns
the largest bank also becomes the ruling family in Florence: the

As the Medici steered the city's affairs, Florence grew to become
the new Athens and was the cradle of the Renaissance. The literary
precursors of the Renaissance came from Florence and Arezzo
respectively. They created literary Italian and assured that
Italian is today's language in Florence: Dante, Petrarch and
Bocaccio Dante offered a synthesis of the concept of the world for
the Middle Ages. With his description of Hell, Purgatory and
Paradise in his Divine Comedy he created a cosmology with a moral
order in which every reward and punishment held its proper place.

With his Sonnets to Laura, Petrarch invented modern love poetry
Bocaccio and his Decameron created the example for the novella and
set a standard for the sexual freedoms characteristic of the

In 1439 a council was assembled in Florence to unify the Catholic
and the Greek Orthodox churches, which brought a large number of
Greek scholars to Florence. When the Turks conquered Byzantium and
crushed the Eastern Empire, many Greek scholars escaped to
Florence. And that added to Florence becoming engulfed in a fever
of humanism. Humanists were scholars who topped each other in their
passion for the Greek and Latin texts of antiquity. And thus the
literature of classical antiquity grew to become the new ideal
style. This in turn led to the following rediscoveries:

Seneca on tragedy

Plautus and Tarrant on comedy

the Greek and Roman historians from Herodotus and Thucydides to
Livy and Sallust in poetry Horace, Catull and Ovid

in philosophy mainly Plato (Aristotle had already reigned in the
Middle Ages). Florence experienced a Platonian Renaissance and a
Platonic Academy was re-founded. The concept of platonic love was
seen as having major importance. (®Socrates;®Botticelli)

Before the Medici came to power in Florence there had been a
quasi-democracy with parties stuck in constant quarrels and
struggles. Because of that heritage, it was thought that it help
those seeking powers if they to assured the goodwill of the
citizenry through various lavish expenditures , arts patronage and
commissioning and to secure power by contracting large public
projects. That led to

--the Medici becoming the greatest arts patrons in all of history
and this activity triggered the Renaissance in Florence;

--the fact that most of the artists first came from Florence;

--the situation that other rulers realized that their insecure
posts of power could be legitimized by general displays of
splendor, by commissioning public buildings, and setting up
symbolic state theaters.

After many wars and conquests a group of five city-states emerged
that were more powerful than the others. In each of these regions
illegitimate leaders had putsched themselves into power with the
help of cunning, malice and money. The normal course of affairs was
to ascertain political support through presents of various sums of
money and nepotism. That created, just as in today's parties, large
networks of clientele (of cliques and connections of various types)
that permitted the rulers to stabilize their regimes and grow their
dynasties. The five most powerful city-states were:

--Florence: the Medici were in power here.

--Milan: where the Sforza were in control.

--the Papal States: where the popes reigned supreme; but their
methods to obtain power were the same as elsewhere: If you wanted
to be elected Pope you had to blackmail the Cardinals who elected
him. One pope from the Borgia family (his daughter was Lucrezia
Borgia) was quite the family man and tried building a dynasty of
this kind of his own.

--Venice: there was no dynasty here but an oligarchy (a governance
of a few). A number of senatorial families created a council that
elected a doge as the ruler (Venetian for Duce=leader). The
government set up a very efficient secret police; and thus Venice
became one of Italy's most stable powers (and most wealthy) and
survived long after the others had crumbled.

--Naples became an urban kingdom that included all of southern
Italy. The French House of Anjou and the Aragons fought over it.
That led the way for the foreign involvement in Italy (France,
Spain, the Emperor), the fall of the free city-states (with the
exception of Venice) and the end of the Renaissance in the 16th
century. Naples actually played a minor role in all of these

The centers were Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan. And then there
were small sub-centers such as Ferrara, where the Este family
ruled, Mantua with the Da Feltres and the court of Urbino where a
certain Baldassare Castiglione wrote an influential book on
etiquette, with good behavior recommendations for the courtier of
the Renaissance: Il Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier). This
book held great sway throughout Europe.

These city-states became what you could essentially call a 150-year
long art contest. The contestants were: Sandro Botticelli of
Florence (1444-1510)

He received his commissions from the Medici. Two of his paintings
have become modern icons (works of cult status). The first one is
The Birth of Venus: The Goddess rises out of the frothy sea
standing on a shell and clothed only by her long blond hair. The
other painting is an allegorical vision (allegory=a visual
representation of a concept), called La Primavera, or spring. Since
Florence is the city of Platonism, La Primavera is an allegory of
platonic love. Here is a bit of an interpretation. Zephyr, the
wind, nears from the right as he exales the breath of a god; and
hugs the nymph Clori and fills her with spirit in a copulatory act.
This causes Clori to transform herself into the figure next to her:
Flora who in turn refers to the central figure who has given the
painting its name: Primavera. In its entirety this is also a love
painting. The sky passionately turns its attention toward the earth
and brings on spring. In contrast to that, on the left side of the
painting, Mercury, the mediator between Heaven and Earth, directs
his attention toward the skies. Between him and the central figure
of Primavera are the three Graces, Venus, Juno and Athena who
represent beauty, harmony and wisdom. They have joined their hands
to either float above their heads or join together lower, across
their thighs and yet the ones in the center garner attention and
they are placed exactly at eye level. Together , the linked hands
symbolize the path of the spirit. This is the platonic cycle of the
spirit flooding the earth and returning to the heavens creating a
kind of cosmological eroticism. All of this makes you realize that
in order to understand the paintings of the Renaissance you need to
know Greek mythology, philosophy and of course the personnel of

Leonardo da Vinci of Vinci (near Empolia, 1452-1519)

He probably painted the world's most famous painting, the Mona Lisa
(which is on display in the Louvre in Paris). He most clearly
embodied the ideal of the Renaissance man, a universal genius. He
was an architect, an inventor of devices and weapons, an accomplis
hed draftsman, a tireless natural scientist, an engineer full of
ideas and an ingenious painter. He designed costumes and jewelry,
painted frescoes and portraits, laid out aqueducts for the city,
devised bathrooms, painted horse stables and also created images of
the Virgin Mary as well as altars. In Milan he painted one of his
most famous works: The Last Supper. It shows the apostles in the
moment when Christ says to them, "One of you will betray me today."
Then Leonardo traveled on to Florence and where he accepted a
contest against his rival Michelangelo. Leonardo painted a fresco
on one wall of a large room and Michelangelo painted on the other.
Leonardo lost the bet because his colors ran. He spent three years
(1503-1506) with the wife of Francesco del Giocondo coming to his
studio in order for him to capture her woeful smile and the
puzzling facial expression on his canvas. He requested musicians
attend these sessions as well who appeared to have increased her
woefulness. And he thus managed to paint the most famous smile in
art history. People have shot themselves in fits of hysteria in
front of this painting. Oxford scholar Walter Pater thought that
her face mirrors humanity's entire experience. Maybe the Gioconda,
who has become more popular under the name Mona Lisa, was smiling
with irony about one of the painter's secrets: He was homosexual
and had a quirk that Freud was extremely interested in: he was
unable to finish a painting. He kept the Mona Lisa under the
pretext that she was not finished. Leonardo was a man of great
strength, he could bend a horseshoe with his bare hands, knew how
to ride and to fight with his sword, clothed himself elegantly,
wrote in a special way from right to left, loved curiosities and
was himself an eternally curious man. In his observations, he
remained detached and could thus capture the grotesque, the ugly
and the beautiful. All dynamic phenomena held great fascination for
him, eddies in the water, clouds, mountains, rocks, creeper plants,
emotions and air currents. He was always preoccupied with the idea
of flying. He designed or constructed various flying machines,
parachutes, a roller, a universal screwdriver, a mortar gun, a
submarine and a steam-powered gun. He studied thermodynamics,
acoustics, optics, mechanics and hydraulics, compared human and
animal anatomy and completed countless drawings of the inner
organs, blood vessels and nerve fibers. He was one of the most
universally talented people to ever have lived and is perhaps only
comparable to Leibniz or Goethe.

Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475-1564)

Michelangelo's decisive career leap was most dramatic. As an
apprentice he was chiseling away at a faun when Lorenzo Medici
passed by and critically inquired how such an elderly faun could
have such a perfect set of teeth. Michelangelo banged at the faun's
mouth with a hammer and struck out a single tooth. Lorenzo was
enthusiastic about this combination of hot-blooded nature and skill
and he invited him into his household. Michelangelo got into a
fight there and got his nose broken in the process. After that he
went to Padua and Rome where he created the marble Pietà (a
grieving Mary holds the dead Christ across her lap), returned to
Florence where he struggled with a block of marble from which he
liberated the sculpture of David (there is a copy in front of the
Palazzo Vecchio and the original is at the Academy of the Arts in
Florence - a must see) and then Pope Julius II requested he paint
the Sistine Chapel. Lying on his back supported by a scaffold he
drew the famous scenes from the Old Testament, the Creation of
Adam, as the Father stretches out his right hand, and creates Adam
as he touches his limp finger; the Temptation and Fall of Adam and
Eve; Noah's drunkenness; and many more Old Testament subjects which
he renders not only prophetically, artistically but as a painting
with the quality of a sculpture. Michelangelo infuses into his
rendition of the Book of Genesis the energy of his own creative
power, dynamism, the forces that lead to the birth of the world and
the passions that are expressed in the bodies of the people he
painted. There are approximately 50 female and male nudes in the
Sistine Chapel but there are no landscapes and no plants.
Everything is the expression of athletic power; Michelangelo's
muscular bodies are not only sensual but also powerful. As a
painter he was a sculptor and as a sculptor he was a painter. For
four years Michelangelo worked on the ceiling painting in constant
dispute with the Pope who always pressured him to show him the work
or he would dismantle the scaffold. When he refused, the Pope
threatened to have him thrown him off the scaffold. When he finally
did see it, he gave himself permission to die. He had seen the most
magnificent work of art ever created. Michelangelo did without
picturesque elements, anything decorative, or ornamental, the
landscapes, the arabesques, architectural backdrops and
concentrated just on the human bodies. His images breathed the
spirit of the Old Testament or of the new Protestantism. They are
foreboding figures, untypical for the Renaissance, which is why
Michelangelo became one of that era's most famous artists. When he
worked, he was possessed with the task at hand. He neglected
himself, slept fully clothed. After completing the Sistine Chapel
he had aged prematurely. He still lived to be almost 90 years old.

Titian (1477 or around 1487/90-1576)

He perhaps grew to be even older than that, perhaps close to 100
years old, but his date of birth is uncertain. He resided not in
Florence but Venice. In general he was Michelangelo's complete
opposite. He was perhaps the most representative painter of the
Renaissance. His specialty was the portrayal of female beauty--he
painted many Venuses and Aphrodites and the Virgin Mary as if she
wereVenus. In his work you see nothing of Michelangelo's protest
against the world and nothing about the darker sides of life.
Everything is color, light and sensual pleasure. He was the
unsurpassed master of nuance in coloring and portrayal of light.
Besides women, his second specialty was painting splendid
portraits. Because of the steely quality of his paintings he was
commissioned to paint the great leaders of the world and painted
kings (Charles V), popes, dukes and doges. When he died, Venice
paid him the honor of a state funeral. He is buried in the church
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Friari.

Raphael (actually Raffaello Santi; 1483-1520)

He was born in Urbino but traveled from Perugia and Florence to
Rome where he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the room
in which the Holy Father signs the papal pardons (Stanza della
Signatura). The motifs of this monumental work almost seem to jump
right out of the art program of the Renaissance: it shows the
harmonization of religion and philosophy, of Christianity and
antiquity and of church and state. The church is represented by the
trinity, the apostles and the church fathers, philosophy is
represented by the group of three of philosophers and listeners:
Plato, the idealist, points toward Heaven, Aristotle, the realist,
points down to the ground, Socrates ticks off his arguments on his
fingers and Alcibades listens enraptured. The group also includes
other philosophers as well as the half-naked Diogenes, Archimedes
with his circles, Pythagoras with a harmony table, Heraclit
creating puzzles and among the listening students is a man who
looks like Raphael. Raphael's work shows this reconciliation most
prominently in his numerous paintings of the Virgin Mary where he
unifies the grace of antiquity with Christian religiousness. The
sweetness of his Virgin Mary paintings is unsurpassed. In this
synthesis he also incorporates other painters such as Leonardo,
Giorgione or Michelangelo. His most famous Mother of God, the
Sistine Madonna, has become the mother of all Mothers of God. In a
classic pyramidal arrangement her blue cape blows in the wind of
the Heavens and her red undergarments peek out. Her face is rosy
and she looks upon the world in a sad and surprised kind of way
holding in her arm the innocent child as the curtain opens behind
her opening the view to paradise. This is the most favorite Virgin
Mary in Christianity and is the model for innumerable devotional
objects, reproductions and postcards. Raphael was the jolliest of
all the artists. With him you do not feel the birthing pains
inherent to creating art, you cannot detect puzzles as in the case
of Leonardo and you are not scared by the demonic energies in
Michelangelo's work (which is why an English school of art found
him too superficial and consequently called themselves
"pre-raphaelites.). With Raphael there is no gap between body and
spirit or between feeling and intellect. His lover was probably the
model for the Sistine Madonna. As Vasari reports, he dove into
amorous adventures with abandon so that he one day "oversteppped
his borders" and died of overexertion when he was only 37.

The cities

These artists, along with countless architects, craftspeople and
master builders, built the treasure chest of Italy and then filled
it with so many pieces of art that the country is now the Mecca of
anyone who is educated in art or thirsty for the company of
beautiful objects. The cities of Italy were turned into luminous
islands of lavishness. The popes converted the ruins of antiquity
to a new baroque Rome of magnificence around St. Peter's Basilica,
the largest church of Christendom. Florence adored the dome of
their cathedral which Brunelleschi had erected and which defied the
laws of gravity and the millionaires like the Medici and the Pitti
filled their palaces on both sides of the Arno with the works that
were leaving the ateliers and workshops of Florentine artists by
the hundreds. In Pisa on any given day one could admire the victory
of the marble tower against the forces of gravity right up until
Galileo and his experiments unveiled the physical secrets behind it
all. Palladio decorated Vicenza and surroundings with his palaces
and villas built in the style of antiquity and which became the
model for all English country homes, the column -decorated palaces
in the US South and the White House in Washington. The coronation
of this era and the ones to follow was this very Fata Morgana over
the water, which took the shape of golden domes and palaces and
went by the name of Venice. With its singular backdrop the city on
the lagoon was the magical place that writers continued to pick to
stage their work: from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice to
Thomas Mann's Death in Venice right up to the mysteries by Donna

The long blossoming of this city set the stage for a culture of
celebration and which spread Venice's reputation throughout Europe:
the election of a new doge, celebration of women's day--the
Garanghelo--the birthday of a patron saint, St. Mark, and the
largest festival of the year, the Sposalazio del Mar, Venice's
ceremonial marriage with the sea: All of that offered the
opportunity for regattas with thousands of boats covered with
pennants and gondolas on the Grand Canal and in the sea facing
Piazza San Marco and the oriental fassade of St. Mark's Basilica
and Doge's Palace. Venice's carnival became legendary. And as time
wore on and Venice lasted, the city grew to become the city of
poetry, of yearning and of honeymoons. Venice was also responsible
for inventing a dubious urban construct: the Jewish ghetto, named
after the Italian word for foundry which is getto--and which lent
all ghettos around the world its name.

From the late 17th century onward these Italian cities were sought
out by young men eager to further their education. And these types
of trips can still be recommended today. If you want to educate
your eye and sense of taste you should leave the beaches of Rimini
and travel to Venice, Florence or Rome since Raphael's and Titian's
women are still more beautiful than the bikini girls in the colony
of Wanne-Eikel and Bottrop. Dietrich Schwanitz, All You Have to
Know © Eichborn AG, Frankfurt am Main, 1999

The end of the Renaissance

And why did the springs with all this beauty cease to flow after
130 years? Because an Italian and a German squelched them.

--In 1492, the Genoan Cristoforo Colombo discovered America and the
Portuguese found the sea route to India.

Henceforth, the merchants of northwest Europe chose to import and
export their goods via Antwerp and Lisbon. The Dutch inherited
Italy's role.

--In 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther nails 95 theses to the
door of the Wittenberg Castle Church which lent a public voice to
the widespread and latent (subliminal) dissatisfaction with the
church. What begins as a trickle of dissatisfaction quickly becomes
a dam-breaking torrent and split the church for good. When the
waters began to recede, the floods had left three separate camps.

--The Catholics. They remained loyal to the Roman Church or were
brought to their senses with interrogations of the less gentle
sort. This took place mainly in Spain, Italy, France, Poland and

--The Lutherans and the Anglicans. The Lutherans followed the
teachings of Martin Luther and created churches closely tied to the
governing princes. The Anglican Church was loyal to the King of
England but they combined Catholic liturgy (the form of worship)
with the Calvinist teachings of predetermination (God has
preordained the fate of every soul).

--The Calvinists and Puritans. The name Calvinists is based on the
reformer Calvin who set up a fundamentalist church state in Geneva;
in England the radical Protestants were called Puritans who mainly
sought to purge the liturgy of all Catholic remnants. Both of these
groups did not like the idea of a central church with priests and
bishops as Luther had also organized. They preferred the democratic
ideals of a free commune without priests or prelates: everyone was
to be their own pastor. Thus they split up into a myriad of sects,
which compensated their colorful diversity with fundamentalist
determination. They were active mainly in Switzerland, Holland,
Scotland, and England and then were pretty much undisturbed in
America. These are also the countries that invented democracy. The
Lutherans were the most loyal to the state, a characteristic that
was to have quite negative consequences as history unfolded. But
for Italy the break from the church mainly meant that the flow of
money from countless taxes and fees and which had fertilized Italy
in so many ways, dried up.

Because of the discovery of America and the Reformation Italy lost
two of its most important sources of revenue. The country never did
recuperate from that. Instead the central focal point of Europe
followed the sun and traveled west.

Doc: sample translation by Vivien Marx,

For further information on international rights for this title
please contact rights@eichborn.de

This excerpt is presented for informational purposes only.- Any use
or copying for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited.

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