(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance

“Comparisons are odious”*…

… but sometimes instructive in the very ways that they fail…

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the European Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Doug Jones, on what the remarkable story of the Song Dynasty can and can’t tell us about other periods…

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why…

On the ways in which history doesn’t repeat itself: “A cycle of Cathay,” from @logarithmic_h.

* Proverb


As we listen for the rhyme, we might recall that today is Schicksalstag (“Day of Fate”) in Germany. On this date five momentous events took place: Robert Blum, a leader in the Vienna revolts, was executed in 1848; Kaiser Wilhelm II resigned, marking the end of German monarchies in 1918; the Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch failed in 1923; Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and the Nazi antisemitic pogroms raged in 1938; and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

East and West Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 (source)

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November 9, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable”*…

Tower Bridge in London, England, is one of the most famous structures in the Gothic Revival style. Its spires echo Islamic architecture’s minarets, pointing to the ancient exchange of cultural ideas between the West and the Middle East.

There’s more to Gothic architecture and Gothic style than we might imagine. Roger Luckhurst explains…

When fire devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in April 2019, the architectural historian Diana Darke noted in a Twitter post that of course everyone knew the famous twin tower and rose window of France’s finest Gothic cathedral were copied from a Syrian church in Qalb Loze, built in the fifth century. The post went viral: amplified or rebutted, triumphed or tossed.

Darke was surprised at the reaction to what historians have established as a well-known path of influence: the East-West trade in architectural ideas. It was argued centuries ago that key defining elements of the Gothic style were borrowed from the Islamic architecture of the Middle East. The soaring pinnacles of the Palace of Westminster in London, the pointed arches of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and the rose windows of Notre Dame all point to the influence of Islamic design.

But from early in the 19th century, these contributions were forgotten, and Gothic became celebrated as an intrinsically Northern European style. In Britain, it was only in the revival of this medieval style of architecture that it started to be called “Gothic.” The Revivalists no longer dismissed the Gothic as a crude or barbarous form, and instead repurposed it as a national, patriotic style.

By knowing this deeper history of some of Europe’s most iconic buildings, travelers can approach these well-known attractions with new eyes and can appreciate that the “East-West divide” isn’t as deep as we are often led to think…

Hidden in the architecture of some of the world’s most famous buildings is a cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East: “What is ‘Gothic’? It’s more complicated than you think,” from @TheProfRog in @NatGeo.

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge


As we esteem exchange, we might send well-designed birthday greetings to Arduino Cantafora; he was born on this date in 1945. An architect, painter, and writer, he became a postmodernist (in the mode of his teacher/mentor Aldo Rosi), creating designs and paintings that reached back to the Renaissance revival of Gothic themes.


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November 8, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The medieval principles led up to Raphael, and the modern principles lead down from him”*…

Raphael, “The Madonna of the Pinks” (“La Madonna dei Garofani”) (c. 1506-7)

On the occasion of a major National Gallery show in London, Michael Glover on Raphael…

… he was born a mere man, a citizen of Urbino in the Marche, the son of a court painter, who was orphaned very young and raised by an uncle who also happened to be a priest. Perhaps the reverence is due to his talents, which were superabundant, and moved in so many directions at once. He was a painter, printmaker, architect, designer, sculptor, and much else. His industriousness, and the consistent quality of his output, were superhuman. That is undeniable.

Raphael painted relatively few portraits… during his short lifetime, and even fewer in which he could be said to have painted them in order to please himself, because he was always so much in demand by immensely rich and powerful male patrons for the kinds of things that they wanted him to do. They wanted him to beautify public (and private) spaces, all the greater to reflect their own power and importance — beneath the ever-watchful eye of the Christian God, their chief sponsor, in whose revered name they splashed all this cash. 

Raphael was the very well remunerated servant of these rich masters, and this was entirely a matter of choice. He was boundlessly ambitious and intimidatingly energetic (he was already running a studio by the age of 17), charming, good-looking (though not to an excessive degree), diplomatic, and utterly opportunistic. Michelangelo loathed him because, though much younger, Raphael seemed to sweep all before him. What a break for the irascible, prickly Michelangelo that his young rival died, quite unexpectedly, of a fever, when he did, leaving him unchallenged for decades!

And Raphael, the name, the work, the style, has resonated and resonated across the centuries…

On the Renaissance painter described by Vasari, his first biographer, as the universal artist: “Raphael Between Heaven and Earth,” in @hyperallergic.

Raphael paints wisdom, Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakespeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

John Ruskin


As we appreciate art, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver; he died two days later. A post-impressionist painter, he was not commercially successful in his lifetime and, struggling with severe depression and poverty, committed suicide at the age of 37. But he subsequently became, with Raphael, one of the most famous and influential figures in Western art history.

Self-Portrait, 1887


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July 27, 2022 at 1:00 am

“There’s no idea in economics more beautiful than Arrow’s impossibility theorem”*…

Tim Harford unpack’s Kenneth Arrow‘s Impossibility Theorem (which feels a bit like a socio-economic “Monty Hall Problem“) and considers it’s implications…

… if any group of voters gets to decide one thing, that group gets to decide everything, and we prove that any group of decisive voters can be pared down until there’s only one person in it. That person is the dictator. Our perfect constitution is in tatters.

That’s Arrow’s impossibility theorem. But what does it really tell us? One lesson is to abandon the search for a perfect voting system. Another is to question his requirements for a good constitution, and to look for alternatives. For example, we could have a system that allows people to register the strength of their feeling. What about the person who has a mild preference for profiteroles over ice cream but who loathes cheese? In Arrow’s constitution there’s no room for strong or weak desires, only for a ranking of outcomes. Maybe that’s the problem.

Arrow’s impossibility theorem is usually described as being about the flaws in voting systems. But there’s a deeper lesson under its surface. Voting systems are supposed to reveal what societies really want. But can a society really want anything coherent at all? Arrow’s theorem drives a stake through the heart of the very idea. People might have coherent preferences, but societies cannot…

On choice, law, and the paradox at the heart of voting: “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem,” from @TimHarford in @WhyInteresting. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Tim Harford


As we contemplate collective choice, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the man who “wrote the book” on perspective, Leon Battista Alberti; he was born on this date in 1404.  The archetypical Renaissance humanist polymath, Alberti was an author, artist, architect, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cartographer, and cryptographer.  He collaborated with Toscanelli on the maps used by Columbus on his first voyage, and he published the the first book on cryptography that contained a frequency table.

But he is surely best remembered as the author of the first general treatise– Della Pictura (1434)– on the the laws of perspective, which built on and extended Brunelleschi’s work to describe the approach and technique that established the science of projective geometry… and fueled the progress of painting, sculpture, and architecture from the Greek- and Arabic-influenced formalism of the High Middle Ages to the more naturalistic (and Latinate) styles of Renaissance.

from Della Pictura



“In every grain of sand there is the story of the earth”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before (see here and here) at sand as a critical ingredient in the stuff of modern life. Today’s post features Steven Connor on the metaphorical power of sand…

Sand belongs to the great, diffuse class, undeclared, rarely described, but insistent and insinuating, of what may be called quasi-choate matters — among them mist, smoke, dust, snow, sugar, cinders, sleet, soap, syrup, mud, toffee, grit. Such pseudo-substances hover, drift, and ooze between consistency and dissolution, holding together even as they come apart from themselves. And, of all of these dishesive matters, sand is surely the most untrustworthy, the most shifting and shifty.

Nobody would seriously consider taking a stand on a cloud, but sand has betrayed many an architect and edifice. Sand is at once architectural and archiclastic. An eighteenth-century continuation of Baron Munchausen’s adventures describes how the Baron and his party survive a whirlwind of sand by scooping an igloo-style sand-chamber in which to shelter from the storm, and then digging a tunnel from their bunker back out into the light. Sand has the capacity to engulf and inundate, blearing contours, eroding and erasing every edge and eminence. As such it is the ultimate mockery of the permanence of stone, for it is no more than one of stone’s own moods, the manner in which stone, atomised, consumes itself. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” imagines the monumental statue of Rameses the Great dismembered on the Egyptian sands. The shattered chunks of head, legs, and pedestal portend a further, finer comminution, after the membra disjecta themselves will have been milled away into flatness: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Sand is reversible. Only utter desiccation can attain to this pouring, milk-smooth liquefaction. Sand-baths were used in the ancient world both to draw out the damp ague of rheumatism and as a kind of sauna, to promote perspiration. Sand is the product of abrasion, but is also itself abrasive, used in sand-blasting to etch and burnish. Pliny tells us of the use of sand under a saw edge to make a clean cut in marble, and to polish it after it has been carved.

Sand signifies neutrality, indifference, and uniformity; yet it also has hairtrigger sensitivity and responsiveness. A grain of sand (in actual fact often a tiny parasite) is the irritant that provokes in the oyster the nacreous secretions that build into a pearl. Sand has a favoured relation to sound, putting a hoarse rattle in the throat of the wind, and is itself all ears. In 1787, the German physicist Ernst Chladni showed how drawing a violin bow over a metal plate could induce in the fine sand sprinkled on it hierophantic figurings of the sound, in quivering mandalas and ripple-fingered arpeggios. Though sand can disfigure and obliterate, it can also disclose the ghost wrist of wind and the perturbations of the earth. It is a detection and reception mechanism, forming ridged isobars, shivering musculature, oscilloscape of the air’s sculpting shoves and gusts.

Sand participates in dream and vision. The Sandman brings sleep by throwing or blowing sand into the eyes of children. But the sand does more than merely seal the eyes, for in many versions of this nursery tale, it is the very stuff that dreams are made on, the numb matter of sleep, swirling, particulate, that the sandman carries in his sack. The somnolence of sand is redoubled when in Top Hat (1935) Fred Astaire soothes Ginger Rogers to sleep in the hotel room below him by spreading sand on the floor and hush-dancing a susurrous soft-shoe shuffle. The origins of moon-walking are to be found in the novelty slides and scrapes across a sanded stage by music-hall acts like Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Specious it may be, but sand is also the secret stuff of omen and auspice, in the practice of divination through tossing and scrying handfuls of sand, known in Arabic as ilm al-raml, the science of the sand, or what might have been its Greek equivalent, psammomancy.

Sand is not only temporary, it is also the most temporised form of matter. It is the image or allegory of time, shifting, yet unshiftable. It seems a compiling of the minced, mounded years that go into its making, and grains of sand imitate the elementary atoms of time, moment upon pattering moment. Sand is featureless, without joints or divisions, even though it is nothing but division all the way down. Yet it is this very feature that makes it useful in the measurement of time, for, unlike other materials, sand will flow easily and regularly, even as its volume diminishes. Sand-glasses came into use in part because of the need to measure time at sea, far from any landmark; speed would be measured by counting the number of knots in a rope paid out from the back of the ship in the time it took for the sand to run through a half-minute glass. A half-hour period of watch, known as a “glass”, was also measured in this way. Grains of sand, in the form of quartz crystals, with their precise oscillations, still micro-regulate our time. In fact, the sand of hourglasses was often not quartz sand at all, but powdered marble, or eggshell. But we find it hard to give up the idea of the affinity of sand and the glass through which it runs, since silicates of sand are still the most important source of glass. George Herbert imagines this interfusion when he writes that “flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust/That measures all our time; which also shall/Be crumbled into dust”, while for Gerard Manley Hopkins the soul itself is “soft sift/In an hourglass – at the wall/Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,/And it crowds and it combs to the fall”…

From the mythical Sandman, through the grains in an hourglass, to an irritating mote lodged in the beachgoer’s eye, sand harbors unappreciated power: “The Dust That Measures All Our Time.”

Rachel Carson


As we muse on metaphor, we might send ideal birthday greetings to Marsilio Ficino; he was born on this date in 1433.  An Italian scholar and Catholic priest, he was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance.  The first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin, he was important in the revival of Neoplatonism, and was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day. His Florentine Academy was an attempt to revive Plato’s Academy, and influenced both the direction and the tenor of the Italian Renaissance and thus the development of European philosophy.

Ficino was also an astrologer, and is credited with having inspired the Tarot card deck– the Tarot of Marseilles– that was the pattern from which many subsequent tarot decks derive.

Marsilio Ficino, from a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence


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