A very dear friend of mine wrote a comment of encouragement to me after my last blog post. In it he wrote, ‘may you discover the raw meat, the deepest bloodline of your soul, spilled out on paper, carved through your fingernails, the bone flint in clay and mud with all that is, made whole.” (http://mokalightpoetry.wordpress.com) I wish to thank him for his wonderfully gritty and evocative poetic verse, and for the reminder that no matter how low and uninspired I may become, it is through artistic works that I can rise again, and carry on.
How easy it is to forget this! To forget that there are other precious humans in the world who are also struggling with life’s burdens, with burn-out, exhaustion, dismay, disappointment, disillusionment. That not everyone is blissed out 24-7, including those who claim they are. That now, like in times of old, humans everywhere are overwhelmed, overworked, overburdened, underpaid, underestimated, under others’ thumbs. We may well have entered the fifth dimension and begun a new world in the past little while, but as a whole we are still utterly mired in third dimensional muck, and it is a long road toward salvation, methinks.
Just to put a broader perspective on human cultural life on planet Earth, I would like to share with you some excerpts from the wonderful and enlightening book The Renaissance in Europe, by Margaret King. First, she introduces the reader to various conceptions of what the Renaissance actually was, and then goes on to explain her own concept of it:
“The Renaissance emerges because of the very special circumstances present in Italy from the twelfth century. Those circumstances encouraged a large number of artists and thinkers to integrate into the medieval culture they inherited, grounded in Christian values (themselves rooted in ancient Judaism), the values of classical antiquity. This was the second and final moment in the history of the West when the Judeo-Christian and classical traditions would coalesce. The first was in late antiquity, as Christianity spread and became integrated with classical civilization before the collapse of the western zone of the Roman empire.
This second and definitive reintegration of two ancient cultural traditions permitted European civilization to develop into its modern form. That civilization remained dominant until, in the 20th century, it was challenged by modernism, and then post-modernism, which called for the repudiation of both its classical and Christian pasts. Before that denouement, it was the civilization of the Renaissance, extending and evolving through the Enlightenment and into the 19th century, with its ancient past unforgotten, which characterized Western civilization at its height– the civilization that yielded the liberal ideals of the democratic West.” (pp. Xiii, introduction)
King describes the decline of Rome from its height (around 200 c.e.) until its decline over the following centuries as follows:
“As successor to the empires of the ancient Mediterranean world, Rome was the hub of a great commercial network. Grains, oil and wine wer the most basic commodities and these, together with the ceramics that held them, passed through all the ancient centers. Rome herself was at the time a huge city of between one to two million inhabitants, and fed by the peasant farmers of Sicily, Egypt and the Black Sea. From the edges of the empire came slaves from Africa and Europe, metals from Britain and Spain, and from further east, exotic goods– gems, perfumes, spices and especially silks carried along central Asia’s Silk Road. From the ports to the inland towns and cities, goods and money circulated, spreading and creating wealth.
This commercial system began to suffer disruption during the 3rd century, especially from reforms that the emperor Diocletian (284-305 c.e.) instituted during his critically important reign. He raised taxes, attempting to derive the maximum possible profit from the agricultural sector, but the result was the resentment of a peasant population already pressed to the limit.
Certainly, the Roman economy in the Western Empire descended into chaos during the next two centuries, as the empire languished and failed. Invasion and war contributed to already serious difficulties, commerce stagnated and withered, and the standard of living plummeted with it. The material conditions of life sank to those of a much earlier, pre-imperial ear. Many people fled the cities. Coins, especially the valuable gold coins, fled the west for the east. In the west, people either used small denominations of silver coins or else bartered for goods and services. Italy, which had known a flourishing city life during the empire, deurbanized. Many of the cities withered and nearly ceased to be urban. Rome itself shrank from between one and two million occupants to about 90,000 during the 7th century, down to its low of 35,000 by the start of the 12th century. “ (pp. 18-19)
As Rome declined, Italy’s more northern lands became more prosperous, and by the 11th and 12th centuries had created “a new social stratum: a citizen elite, composed of wealthy merchants and urbanized nobles, bound together by bonds of mutual self-interest and marriage alliances. This new group launched a “communal revolution’ which transformed the political map of Italy and had huge implications for the later development of Europe. Nowhere else in Europe did this hybrid phenomenon emerge. The nobles were not great landowners but the vassals of vassals. Their profession was violence and their aspirations were as great as their status was low. They moved into the cities, and within a generation or two, they had built fortified urban palaces for themselves. They came to be known as the ‘magnates,’ or great men of the city.” (pp. 22-23)
“From the late 1000s until the 1130s, these magnates joined together as a sworn brotherhood to seize power and jointly rule what they now called their ‘communes.’ These communes were governed as a kind of republic, with an elected council, assemblies of the people, councils and committees, secretaries, minor bureaucrats, notaries and servants. Power was decentralized, no longer in the hands of an emperor or Pope. The communal revolution attempted to replace the rule of bishops and their imperial overlords by self-rule by self-appointed leading citizens. Within a century of the first stirrings of dissident communes, there emerged another social group which launched a second, even more radical revolution. The merchants and artisans who had become enriched by the communal system wanted to have a voice in the political system as well. They called themselves the “Popolo” meaning The People. It suggests a humbler social group, the ordinary people, as opposed to a group of the rich and powerful. This group, the Popolo, was the first truly revolutionary class in modern history.” (pp. 24-25)
Of course we are only up to the earliest chapters in the story of the Renaissance by now. But I present it to you today, dear Readers, as background for what happens next: over the course of the next few centuries, these communes in northern Italy (and eventually Rome, of course) will flourish in all the arts and humanities, experiencing a rebirth of culture never experienced before or after. This rebirth and consequently creation of the greatest works of architecture, art and writing, music, leading thoughts and discoveries of science, and philosophies concerning being a human being, all happened in a highly concentrated style during the next three centuries, giving rise to the modern western world as we know it today.
For those of you who already know all of this, (and most likely got A’s in European history class in high school) excuse my extremely concise snapshot of this era. Why is it important to know about and understand how the Renaissance came about, and even more, what the Renaissance actually was?
This is a complicated question, without a satisfying answer that says it all. In my opinion, knowing about and understanding where our common ancestors came from, what life was like during those times, and how humans developed their capacity for creativity, artistic vision, genius, and the value of being human itself (known as humanism) is invaluable for those of us who wish to understand these qualities in ourselves in our times. “Know thyself” is one of the basic requisites for developing as a human being, and one cannot truly know oneself if one is unaware of one’s history.
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” –Leonardo da Vinci
“The true work of art is but a shadow of the Divine perfection.” –Michelangelo
“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” –Galileo Galilei
Not only that, but when we study the works of the artists who created the masterpieces of Renaissance Italy during the 14th through 16th centuries, it is impossible not to be astounded. How did he do it, I asked myself as I stared at the paintings on the walls of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. Their faces, their expressions, their hands, the gold paint employed to create an unmistakable magic on the surface of Lippi’s paintings, down to the minutest detail, the ornate carvings in marble, in wood… the imagination of these human beings was utterly astounding. What would it take to have another renaissance of humanity of the sort that would allow that degree of genius to flourish once again on Earth, I wonder. I know I would really love to live in that world, as opposed to the one currently available. Perhaps, as my friend wrote, it could happen through digging to find the profoundly deepest blood of ones’ soul, carved through the fingernails, and through using the finest,sharpest instruments at one’s disposal and bleeding more than one ever thought they possibly could.
[footnote: all excerpts taken from The Renaissance in Europe, Margaret L. King, Laurence King Publishing 2003]
- A leaderless Rome with no pope, no government (rappler.com)
- Happy Birthday Rome 2013 (vinoconvistablog.me)