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Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance

“History may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly, and what appears not to move at all.”*…

Out of Italy was Braudel’s attempt to… explain a historical flash in the pan: the Italian Renaissance.

For Braudel, history was a struggle to see connections across the high walls of academic disciplines. This kind of approach to the past, showing that all ‘civilisations have their feet on the ground’, is Braudel and the Annales school’s most important legacy: the value of interdisciplinary research, as exemplified by their radical programme, is now so tacitly accepted as to be hardly worth mentioning.

If Italy’s rise must be explained, so, Braudel thought, must its decline. Today, historians are not so concerned with questions of cultural supremacy and decay; they don’t view culture as a vital force that can be ‘concentrated and exhausted’ in a couple of centuries. But the explanation for the fizzling out of this creative energy in the mid-17th century vexed Braudel. He saw the seeds of Italy’s decline within its greatness, borrowing Léon Brunschvicg’s image for ancient Greece’s influence (which Brunschvicg in turn had taken from Hegel): the owl of Athena takes flight only at nightfall. ‘Rightly or wrongly,’ Braudel wrote, ‘it seems to me that there must be a kind of nightfall preceding, and determining, almost every case of cultural greatness. It is the darkness that provokes a multitude of lights.’ The catastrophes of the Italian Wars (1494-1559) and a declining economy were the shadows that prompted the brilliance of Renaissance art and culture; it was peace and economic tranquillity that ‘spread like treacle through Italian life’ after the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Greatness (and influence) was born in darkness.

To make his point Braudel asks us to imagine conversations with three Baroque architects: with Agostino Barelli (from Bologna), standing outside his Theatine Church in Munich in 1660; with Carlo Antonio Carlone (from Como), as he began work on his Church of the Nine Angelic Choirs in Vienna in 1663; and with Andrea Pozzo (from Trento), while he oversaw the construction of his Jesuit Church in Vienna in 1701. Three Italians, three major building projects outside Italy. They would have been surprised to learn that Italy was on the path to decline…

How could cultures as vibrant as Baroque Italy or interwar Europe have been so radically diminished? Italy’s economic dominance would be supplanted first by the capitalist burghers of the Netherlands and then by English industrialists….

Braudel’s writing also sought to confront the inability of even the greatest historians to predict what would happen next. In this light, his pessimism about human time and human stories can be hard to face… And yet Braudel is optimistic about human civilisations:

Mortal perhaps are their ephemeral blooms, the intricate and short-lived creations of an age, their economic triumphs and their social trials, in the short term. But their foundations remain. They are not indestructible, but they are many times more solid than one might imagine. They have withstood a thousand supposed deaths, their massive bulk unmoved by the monotonous pounding of the centuries.

Nothing changes, and individual lives barely leave an imprint. But this is not tragic determinism. It is an unshakeable belief in the persistence of human history through time. ‘A Renaissance,’ Braudel writes, ‘is always possible.’

On Fernand Braudel‘s Out of Italy, and an appreciation of its insightful author, a leader of the Annales school of history: “Down with Occurrences.”

* Fernand Braudel

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As we think in time, we might recall that it was on this date in 1803 that Spanish representatives in New Orleans executed documents ceding sovereignty over the Louisiana Territory to France. Twenty days later, France transferred the Territory to the United States.

The U.S. gained possession of 828,000 square miles of territory (an area that includes all or part of 15 current U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces).  Americans had originally sought to purchase only the port city of New Orleans and its adjacent coastal lands; but Napoleon, cash-strapped by his war with England, offered the (much) larger parcel– and the U.S. quickly agreed.

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The modern continental United States, with the Louisiana Purchase overlaid

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Written by LW

November 30, 2020 at 1:01 am

“To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys, “I wish I had known this some time ago”*…

 

irony

 

“Irony” is a term that everyone uses and seems to understand. It is also a concept that is notoriously difficult to define. Much like Winona Ryder’s character in the 1994 rom-com “Reality Bites,” whose inability to describe irony costs her a job interview, we know it when we see it, but nonetheless have trouble articulating it. Even worse, it seems as if the same term is used to describe very different things. And following your mother’s advice — to look it up in the dictionary — is liable to leave you even more confused than before.

Uncertainty about irony can be found almost everywhere. An American president posts a tweet containing the phrase “Isn’t it ironic?” and is derided for misusing the term. A North Korean dictator bans sarcasm directed at him and his regime because he fears that people are only agreeing with him ironically. A song about irony is mocked because its lyrics contain non-ironic examples. The term has been applied to a number of different phenomena over time, and as a label, it has been stretched to accommodate a number of new senses. But exactly how does irony differ from related concepts like coincidence, paradox, satire, and parody?…

A handy guide to distinguishing the notoriously slippery concept of irony from its distant cousins coincidence, satire, parody, and paradox: “What Irony is Not,” excerpted from Irony and Sarcasm, by Roger Kreuz.

* Roger Zelazny, Sign of the Unicorn

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As we choose our words, we might recall that it was on this date in 1483 that Pope Sixtus IV consecrated the Sistine Chapel (which takes its name from his) in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City.  Originally known as the Cappella Magna (Great Chapel), Sixtus had renovated it, enlisting a team of Renaissance painters that included Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli to create a series of frescos depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ, offset by papal portraits above and trompe-l’œil drapery below.  Michelangelo’s famous ceiling was painted from 1508 to 1512; and his equally-remarkable altarpiece, The Last Judgement, from 1536 to 1541.

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“When I see a white piece of paper, I feel I’ve got to draw”*…

 

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The Nuremberg paper mill, the building complex at the lower right corner, in 1493

 

Paper made its first appearance in Europe in the 11th century, but was expensive and suffered from poor quality.  By the 15th century, it was inexpensive and of good quality– and that dramatically boosted the level of Renaissance art:

Paper created a monumental shift in European art. … Drawing is a primal urge, … but drawing only became a standard art form when paper became available. In the case of Europe, this occurred dur­ing the Renaissance, when paper was still a new idea on the Continent. Previously, there had been very little informal use of parchment for art because it was too expensive and too difficult to erase. At first, European paper was also too expensive to be used to dash off a quick sketch and had too low a standing to be used for serious art. But by the late fifteenth century, this had all changed. Paper opened up the possibility of the sketch. Renaissance artists sketched out their work before they drew, painted, or sculpted it — or, in the case of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, carved it. This new ability to not only plan but toy with ideas raised their art to a level not known in the Middle Ages…

Sixteenth-century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is the leading source of biographical information on the Italian Renaissance artists [see here], tells the story of a sketch by Michelangelo that was displayed in the Palazzo Medici for art students to copy. Since the sheet, like most of Michelan­gelo’s sheets, had a variety of sketches on it, students started tearing off pieces of it, and they became ‘scattered over many places.’ According to Vasari, those fortunate students who ended up with a remnant treasured it and regarded it as something ‘more divine than human.’

Michelangelo used a great deal of paper, [and] … almost any piece of paper he used contained a few sketches. A few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up, with notes about the banal ephemera of everyday life jotted on the reverse side. …

Michelangelo may have been among the first to jot down quick ideas for himself. Some 2,000 letters from and to Michelangelo have also been collected. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper…

Leonardo da Vinci was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to complete projects. … Fortunately, there was paper, on which Leonardo could capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind thirty bound notebooks. Unlike Michel­angelo, he did want people to see this work on paper, including the notes he made in his mirror-image script — a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kind of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and, most of all nature….

Leonardo also left behind four thousand sheets of drawings of stag­gering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo’s work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Artists have been trained on paper ever since.”

More at “Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Paper,” an excerpt from Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com.

For more on the enabling technologies of art, see “Primary Sources: A Natural History of the Artist’s Palette.”

* Ellsworth Kelly

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As we sketch, we might spare a thought for Joseph Severn; he died on this date in 1879.  A painter of portraits and literary and biblical subjects, he was a close friend and traveling companion of John Keats.  His works hang in museums including The (British) National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tate Britain.

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Severn’s portrait of Keats

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J.Severn.2

Self-portrait

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Written by LW

August 3, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Study the past if you would define the future”*…

 

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A segment of Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, late 15th century

 

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

• This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”

• This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.

• This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.

• And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard…

University of Chicago historian, novelist, and composer Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer): “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.”

* Conficius

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As we look back, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to al-Ghazali; (he was born (as nearly a scholars can figure) on this date in 1057.  One of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam, he published prolifically– perhaps most notably here, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”), a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advanced the critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th-century Europe.  Indeed, al-Ghazali has been credited with kicking off what has been called “the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy.”

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Written by LW

July 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“It is necessary to keep one’s compass in one’s eyes”*…

 

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A “compass rose” is a graphic device found on maps and nautical charts (as well as on the faces of compasses and some monuments) that displays the orientation of the cardinal directions (north, east, south, and west) and their intermediate points.

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And as these examples from the collection of the The American Geographical Society Library demonstrate, they can also be fascinating– and beautiful– graphic elements in their own right.

See more at the AGSL’s Compass Rose Flickr page.  Browse the Library’s full digital collection here.

* Michelangelo

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As we find our way, we might spare a pining thought for Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca); it was on this date in 1327, after he’d given up his vocation as a priest, that he first set eyes on “Laura” in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon– an encounter that awoke in him a passion that spawned the 366 poems in Il Canzoniere (“Song Book”).

Considered by many to have been “the Father of Humanism,” and reputed to have coined the term “Renaissance,” Petrarch was most famous in his time for his paeans to his idealized lover (who was, many scholars believe, Laura de Noves, the wife of Hugues de Sade).  But Petrarch’s more fundamental and lasting contribution to culture came via Pietro Bembo who created the model for the modern Italian language in the 16th century largely based on the works of Petrarch (and to a lesser degree, those of Dante and Boccaccio).

Laura de Noves died on this date in 1348.

Lura de Noves

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Petrarch

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