Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dark Ages Horizon

Few things are hotter than the Renaissance these days, it seems. In seeking to diagnose what ails us, pols and critics alike are looking back to those days of flourishing individualism and artistic (not to mention financial) innovation.

Over at The Guardian, Jonathan Jones connects the dots between Michelangelo et al.'s masterworks and banking innovations by his patrons the Medici:
The Medici are among the most renowned art patrons in history, and with good reason. But here's a fascinating thing: they are also among the architects of the modern economy. They were the greatest bankers of their age, and the Medici bank pioneered crucial aspects of modern finance. They were "foreign exchange dealers" who enacted a "transfiguration of finance", points out the financial historian Niall Ferguson. When we look at Botticelli's Venus, we are looking at money.
Let's make a note of that, for future reference: Renaissance art = money.

Jones goes on, though, to explain what the Florentines seem eventually to have forgotten:
It's a strange irony that Renaissance Florence was built by capitalist innovation, but went out of its way to make money invisible in its art. Politics, not money, dominated this city's culture. The ultimate beneficiary of Medici patronage was Michelangelo, who shared both the Medici instinct for making money and the Medici determination to ignore it. His Moses really has loftier things than money in mind.

The absence of financial imagery in Florentine Renaissance art may even explain why the city went into cultural decline after 1529. The later Medicis completed the change from merchants to aristocrats and even royals. As they made themselves Dukes of Tuscany and intermarried with European royal families, the art and architecture of Florence gradually lost its edge. The moral might be that if money makes art, snobbish disdain for money can kill it.

I'd venture the reverse is true as well. Disdain for art (for nurturing a truly creative, independent spirit) can kill the wider cultural dialog that leads to economic advances as well. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The Renaissance is a hot button topic in the political realm as well, as the LA Times' Christopher Knight explains:

The economy is not what ails us today. No, what ails Americans is what Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and their artistic spawn have wrought in the culture, starting 500 years ago. The Renaissance has dragged us all down.

Tea party queen and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is convinced that America is sinking into tyranny. Why? In a remarkable profile of the candidate appearing in the Aug. 15 issue of the New Yorker magazine, the artistic flowering of the Italian Renaissance takes a beating for having done away with the god-fearing Dark Ages.

Or as Knight neatly summarizes, Bachmann subscribes to the notion that "the [Renaissance] artist made the ungodly error of putting humanity at the center of time and space." With the implied lesson being that should that not happened, should God have remained at the center of time and space, life would be better.

There's plenty of historical evidence adherents to such ideas need to ignore to not have their heads explode, none the least of which is how the Renaissance opened up the dialog that would permit Martin Luther to, you know, actually create Bachmann's family's religion. Not to mention, as Knight snarks:
Darn that Enlightenment! Next thing you know it will be birthing truly dangerous ideas, like secular democracy.
But let's circle back to Jones' observation. Not only did the Enlightenment birth secular democracy, it birthed what I will submit is an even more sacred institution in the eyes of Bachmann and her backers: modernized means of making money.

Yet, even this assertion requires ignoring other historical evidence. As Stephen Greenblatt recently described in a brilliant piece he penned for The New Yorker (paywall), modern ideas about art and humanity were birthed well before the Renaissance:
Lucretius, who was born about a century before Christ, was emphatically not our contemporary. He thought that worms were spontaneously generated from wet soil, that earthquakes were the result of winds caught in underground caverns, that the sun circled the earth. But, at its heart, “On the Nature of Things” persuasively laid out what seemed to be a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder. Wonder did not depend on the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius, it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live—not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.
Fortunately, after being lost for centuries, Lucretius' poem was discovered in 1417 (yes, the dawn of the Enlightenment) by a monk named Poggius Florentinus (or Poggio the Florentine). As Stephen Greenblatt explains:
Even a quick glance at the first few pages of the manuscript would have convinced Poggio that he had discovered something remarkable. What he could not have grasped, without carefully reading through the work, was that he was unleashing something that threatened the whole structure of his intellectual universe. To people haunted by images of the bleeding Christ, gripped by a terror of Hell, and obsessed with escaping the purgatorial fires of the afterlife, Lucretius offered a vision of divine indifference. [emphasis mine]
So Bachmann needs to blame Lucretius for the pending, godless tyranny that that threatens us. Only, again, that would also indict the political system that produced his mind know, Democracy. Leaving serious questions to my mind about what Bachmann truly believes in.

Labels: Art and politics, renaissance


Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

Creativity in one field of endeavor spills over into others.

As for Bachman, she is conclusive proof that ignorance is not bliss.

8/11/2011 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

These are truly bat shit crazy times... nice history lesson Ed.

8/11/2011 04:37:00 PM  
Blogger Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

A post to ponder on for sure. Thanks, Ed

8/12/2011 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger findingfabulous said...

ditto for just about every type of website

8/13/2011 12:11:00 PM  

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