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Science and the Renaissance
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Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Feature Article
Science and the Renaissance(ESS15)

From Humanism to Renaissance to Modern Science

Written by...

"In all ages of the world, priests have been enemies of liberty."
-David Hume (1711 - 1776)

The Renaissance - What was it
History without context is a little like those pre-renaissance paintings. The characters just kind of float on the canvas. They don't seem to stand on anything or be connected to any kind of landscape. I guess that's why history often seems so dull and boring. If it simply becomes a series of barely connected facts, that exist in a kind of two-dimensional medieval canvas, its meaning is often hard to grasp.

The Renaissance is one of those historic events that needs to be understood not just for what it achieved but also for how it came to be in the first place. This is where context becomes vital. The events that are collectively called the Renaissance—the rebirth of art, literature, architecture and intellectual debate that began in Northern Italy in the 15th century—are pretty well known.

Most people are aware that especially in Florence there was a virtual explosion of a new more realistic painting and sculpture, architectural marvels, prose and poetry, new approaches to math and geometry in fact of almost every kind of human expression. The Renaissance gave birth to the age of exploration, think of the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus and of those that followed.

The Renaissance spawned the likes of a Michelangelo, a Leonardo da Vinci, a Nicolo Machiavelli, a Dante. Even the Reformation was an indirect result of the new spirit of discovery questioning the status quo. Galileo Galilei was a product, though he lived a good hundred years later. His birthplace, Pisa was right in the thick of things.

So we know that something pretty special happened in Florence beginning early in the 14th century. It is in fact generally agreed that this was the beginning of the modern age and the end of the period of intellectual stagnation called the dark ages. For example applying greater realism to sculpture and painting—the latter helped by the newly discovered power of perspective—had the effect of people taking a greater interest in the here and now as opposed to the hereafter.

Why did it happen
The Renaissance has been thoroughly dissected by historians of every stripe. As a result there's a lot of material and you might want read some of it. There is often a sense that it just sort of happened although attempts are made to determine why. Then there is the sense that it was mainly a rebirth of man's artistic soul. That was true to a point but in the process something else happened.

Let's listen to what H.G.Wells writes in The Outline Of History:

"And now there began in Italy, and especially at Florence, a strictly scientific research into the artifices of realistic representation. It cannot be too strongly emphasized, because nothing is more steadfastly ignored in books about art, that the essence in the changes in art and sculpture that were happening in Europe in the Renaissance period was an abandonment of aesthetic for scientific considerations.

"In the place of design and patterning, formal, abstract and lovely, there was a research for reality that was at best bold and splendid and often harsh and brutal. The swing and sway of the crude human body that Saracenic art had suppressed and Byzantine frozen, came back upon wall and stone. Life returned to art and was presently sweating and gesticulating.

"The problems of perspective were studied and solved, and for the first time painters began with assurance to represent depth in the picture. Anatomy was acutely and minutely investigated. Art was for a time intoxicated with representation. There was a close, veracious rendering of details—flowers and jewels, folds of fabrics, and reflections in transparent objects. A phase of extreme decorative beauty was attained and passed."

So you see, viewing the Renaissance simply as a flowering of art and literature is missing the point. The Renaissance had a distinctly revolutionary flavor. It wasn't simply the fact that art improved or that man rediscovered his classical roots in literature, there was a sense that he could break free from a form of bondage under which he had been living.

Mind Control
When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, control of Europe had essentially devolved to the Christian Church. The church of Rome was the only institution with enough of an infrastructure to maintain some semblance of order. To be sure there was the Holy Roman Empire which in theory was supposed to be the secular arm of this arrangement but in truth it was never much of a presence in Italy and the so-called Papal States.

While the secular control of the Church was far from complete, the spiritual influence was profound. Slowly but surely as she matured, the Church in various encyclicals, councils and creeds had laid down an ever more pervasive code of conduct and beliefs. This process had already begun when the Christian Church was born. In spite of the Roman church's emphasis on the Apostle Peter as founding father, in truth the church was predominately founded by the Apostle Paul.

This is significant in a subtle sort of way. Again we quote Wells:

"[The Apostle] Paul had never seen Jesus. His knowledge of Jesus and his teaching must have been derived from the hearsay of the original disciples. It is clear that he apprehended much of the spirit of Jesus and his doctrine of a new birth, but he built this into a theological system, a very subtle and ingenious system, whose appeal to this day is chiefly intellectual. And it is clear that the faith of the Nazarenes, which he found as a doctrine of motive and a way of living, he made into a doctrine of belief. He found the Nazarenes with a spirit and hope, and he left them Christians with the beginning of a creed."

This then was the foundation of the Church. Small wonder that she more and more took onto herself the role of thought police. It is not completely clear why some Italian city states like Venice but especially the Florentines became emboldened to change the temporal existence of the intellect from a church-sanctioned mediocrity to a man-centered celebration of life. Perhaps they didn't even know they were doing it.

For the artists, sculptors and witers there was certainly plenty of encouragement. The various members of the Medici Family which ran the place at this time provided not only an almost unlimited amount of cash, they also provided a lot of "moral" support. Cosimo de Medici is reported to have said: "One must treat these people of extraordinary genius as if they were celestial spirits, and not like beasts of burden."

That was actually quite a change in the life of the typical artist of the day. They may not have been "beasts of burden" but they were not held in especially high esteem and were essentially tradesmen and hacks cranking out one religious icon after another at so much per hour. By the end of the 16th century as their status changed from that of craftsman to that of genius their lifestyle changed accordingly.

In any event the Renaissance ushered in a golden age for Florence. This had already started in 1228 when the Florentines replaced feudalism with a form of free enterprise and introduced a new republican constitution. In addition the city government engaged in a program of urban renewal, replacing the congestion of dank, flimsy tenements with more open architecture, stone-paved streets, and a new city wall by 1299.

In addition they began to commission art on a scale previously unheard of. In the first thirty years of the fourteenth century, thirty-four statues of saints and prophets went up in squares and public buildings, all carved with the kind of skill that had not been seen in a millennium. Above everything else rose a new cathedral, begun in 1296 and completed in 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi. The cathedral's red dome, Brunelleschi's crowning achievement, became the symbol of Florence then, as it is today

Ironic really. The very revolution against the church's spiritual rule over temporal life was celebrated with all kinds of religious symbols. But make no mistake, it was a revolution, a fact not lost on a pious monk by name of Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola did not approve of the wordly atmosphere spawned by the humanism that by now pervaded much of Florentine culture. After Lorenzo's de Medici's death, in 1492, he managed to turf out the Medici's and turn Florence into a "Christian commonwealth".

Here we go again
This would prove to be the pattern over the next several centuries. On one hand a free-wheeling humanist inspired quest for truth in art, literature and science but on the other, the kind of repressive church rule that for example would burn at the stake, a Gordiano Bruno for believing that "the universe is infinite, that God is the universal world-soul, and that all particular material things are manifestations of the one infinite principle", and then almost doing the same thing to Galileo Galilei.

Certainly the Renaissance was a seminal event that transformed intellectual life for good. Through the efforts of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton we learned a new way to look at our universe. Empiricists like John Locke taught us to trust our senses when trying to understand nature. Charles Darwin gave us a more plausible explanation for how our world came to be and today our probes are reaching for the stars.

And yet there are vast numbers of people who still find it perfectly acceptable, indeed necessary, to enforce a collective ignorance. Through force of arms, and other means they stand ready to defend their omnipotent gods. Young men and women are pursuaded to give their lives as martyrs in defense of the indefensible.

There is still an ever-present desire to turn back the clock and impose a religion-sanctioned straightjacket on the minds of those who make an honest attempt to understand our universe. History tells us the Renaissance happened 600 years ago. For some it seems, that's not long enough.

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