At the end of volume V of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant sums up the Italian Renaissance by first listing charges against it and then presenting a closing argument for the defense. Whatever good came of the Renaissance movement, his indictment begins, was born on the backs of the oppressed. Republican governments generally fell to dictatorships. The Church and its leaders were corrupt and immoral. The painting, beautiful as it might be, was shallow. And the staid neoclassical architecture pinned the imagination to the earth and failed to express either the glory of the ancient past or the exuberance of the contemporary world. In rebuttal, however, Durant points out that the achievements of great cultures always depend on the labor of the masses, that the decadence of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy brought with it an intellectual freedom that we take for granted today, and that the architects at least produced the great domes of Florence and of St. Peter’s and provided space for the sublime work of Michelangelo.
Having lived in Tuscany, the epicenter of the Renaissance, for four months a few years ago, this juror casts his vote in favor of the defendant. I’m not saying the art was worth the moral devastation of the Church or the blood in the streets – much less the spilled blood in the cathedrals. But that highly regrettable side of the past cannot be prevented, no matter how much I swing my head in astonished shame. What I am saying is that the greater part of the legacy is undoubtedly very good.
I remember when I first experienced the Renaissance, not just as a style or as a chapter in a history book, but as a force and as a gift to succeeding ages: we were in a museum room of the Convento San Marco in Florence on a cold day in February. Nancy and I had gone to the Convento to see the frescos of Fra Angelico in the monks’ cells, but little did we know how many paintings by other artists we would see. Picture after stunning picture bore the inscription, “By an unknown brother of the fifteenth century.” And it occurred to me: get one genius into a community, and he can bring out the artist in everyone.
Gather any one hundred clergy in the United States today and ask them to paint or draw a picture, and the chances are overwhelmingly great that the best would look like a child’s scribbling next to the most routine example of one of the unknown brothers of San Marco. But no one in this country expects a Christian shepherd to be able to paint. No one expects him to have skills in mathematics. For that matter, based on my experience in many churches, a very, very few even expect our Christian speakers to use correct grammar. But put one hundred Florentine monks together with Fra Angelico and ask them to paint, and you end up with lasting and moving works of art, because in Fra Angelico’s Italy, everyone with any education at all was expected to be able to paint, and that expectation brought talent and creativity to the surface.
So where did the expectation come from? Was it something in the Tuscan water? Standing in that front room of the convent I started thinking about the torrent of world-changing ideas that came out of this small corner of the earth, especially two cities now just a one-hour train ride apart: Florence and Arezzo. We’ll start in eleventh-century Arezzo, where Guido invents musical notation. A quarter of a millennium later, Petrarch, also from Arezzo, concocts the idea of the Renaissance and even the greater idea of cultural history and change, and begins the wonder of poetry in modern languages. Hop on the train to Florence, and you see Giotto adding human emotion and individuality to painting. A hundred years later, Masaccio perfects the use of perspective. A few years after that, Donatello brings sculpture to vivid life. In the 1430s, Cosimo de’ Medici calls a council of clerics from East and West, and Greek scholarship seizes the Italian imagination. His descendants invent double-column bookkeeping. A century later and back in Arezzo again, Vasari writes a history of art and claims that it has a goal and purpose: Michelangelo. At the end of the sixteenth century, Bardi and his friends of the Florentine Camerata – including one Vincenzo Galileo – invent opera and the new texture of melody and accompaniment. And at the beginning of the next century, just across the Arno, Vincenzo’s son Galileo gives the world the scientific endeavor, guided by controlled experimentation and observation and expressed in numbers and formulas. There’s the modern world of music, art, literature, history, letters, accounting, science, and mathematics, all springing forth over a span of six hundred years in one small corner of the earth.
What was in the water? And how can we get our culture to start drinking from that fountain?