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Sunday, 4 March 2018

World History: Renaissance and Scientific Revolution

Michelangelo's David
The Renaissance and Scientific Revolution have endeared themselves into the public image. Two great events which fought against the darkness of the Middle Ages bringing culture, art, and knowledge back to Europe after the collapse of Rome. Figures like da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo revolutionizing the way we think bringing Europe from backwards religious dogma to secular and rational modernity. However, these viewpoints have been regularly challenged by historians with cultural and intellectual historian William Bouwsma arguing 'The venerable Renaissance label has become little more than an administrative convenience, a kind of blanket under which we huddle together less out of mutual attraction than because, for certain purposes, we have nowhere to go'. Meanwhile, in the introduction to his book The Scientific Revolution Steven Shapin argues 'There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this book is about it'. Today we'll look at both of these events to see just how much they are a 'blanket' for us 'huddle together'.

Origins of the Renaissance
'The great ruler of Heaven looked down' and upon seeing 'the presumptuous opinion of man more removed from truth than light from darkness, send to earth a genius universal in each that the world should marvel at the singular eminence of his life and works and all his actions, seeming rather divine than earthly.' This is what Italian author, artist and architect Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) said about renowned Michelangelo Buonarotti in his 1550 biographies of artists Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It was Vasari who coined the word Renaissance from the word rinascita ('reborn' in Italian). Figures like Vasari looked to the Roman past which he thought had been swept away following the collapse of Rome, and later the Byzantines, which him and his contemporaries were bringing back. Vasari saw his contemporaries as 'rare men of genius' who made 'art' compared to the 'craft' of everyone else. Even before Vasari several artists saw themselves as breaking away from the present to focus on the glamour of the past and reinvigorating it. Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch, wrote in a poem about Scipio Africanus in 1338 which showed this view quite well:
The sleep of forgetfulness will not long continue in the years to come. Once the darkness has been broken, our descendants will perhaps be able to return to the pure, pristine radiance.
From the fourteenth-century until the seventeenth-century we have the period generally known as the Renaissance. Originally it was used to describe solely the art and architecture of this period before expanding to become a general period. This thinking has greatly influenced how people look back on not only the Renaissance itself but also history before and after it. Nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in 1861 argued that the Italian Renaissance marked the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the modern world. In fact, we even use the term Middle Ages as it lies between the 'Renaissance' and the fall of Rome, or the 'Dark Ages' to show the supposed lack of culture and art (something influenced by Renaissance thinkers themselves). 

Why Italy?
The Sistine Chapel, another Renaissance feature
Although the Renaissance has been commonly believed to be an Italian exclusive movement in reality it encompassed most of Europe - after all one of the most renowned Renaissance writer is England's William Shakespeare and according to myth Leonardo da Vinci died in the arms of his close friend the French king. However, most figures associated with the Renaissance - da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli - were Italian. Why was this? Burckhardt argued that from the fourteenth-century the communes - Italian city-state republics - emerged which resembled the political structure of Rome, and this gave culture breathing room outside the repressive nature of monarchical rule. This argument has been largely refuted due to the Italian signori who came to power from 1250-1325 being now seen as conservative monarchs in every way bar name. We do not have a central reason why the Renaissance originated in Italy. Aspects of Burckhardt's theory does offer some explanation - although de facto conservative monarchs the signori were not feudal lords. As we shall discuss later the Middle East offered a great source of inspiration for the Renaissance which, as we discussed when looking at the Mediterranean trade, Italy was the main focal point of. The Black Death has also been cited as a factor. Italy was ravaged by the plague causing a wave of piety and pondering on the afterlife. Religion, death, and afterlife (sometimes all three) were heavily prominent in Renaissance works - such as Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, (important to note as well is how Dante is escorted through the afterlife by Roman poet Virgil).

Humanism of the Renaissance differed greatly to that of modern humanism - based on humane, secular values. A humanist of the fifteenth-century was someone who studied the humanities - something which would become important for the Scientific Revolution. Grammar, poetry, philosophy, and history were just some of the things studied, and all of these were made easier by the publishing boom. Books, manuscripts, and plays were easily distributed thanks to the creation of Gutenberg's printing press allowing humanists to get hold of everything from treaties to porn. One part of humanism was the focus on antiquity (the ancient world). Virgil escorts Dante through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory meeting various figures of antiquity; Cicero's (143-03 BCE) speeches were distributed to show good Latin style; and of course we have some of the most famous paintings including Botticelli's Birth of Venus. At times humanists tried to look for the 'truth'. By looking and studying poetry, history and other humanities the 'truth' of the world could be found and humanists eagerly sought to find it. One notable example is Lorenzo Valla discovering that the Declaration of Constantine was a fake in 1440. The Declaration was supposedly from Constantine the Great declaring that sovereignty of the Western Roman Empire to the Pope which the Papacy had since used to justify itself - Valla discovered that it was a forgery.
Religion was extremely important in the Renaissance as well - the most famous sculpture is perhaps Michelangelo's David after all. Religion and antiquity often came together in humanist thought. One example is that of Niccolo Machiavelli and his most famous text Il Principe (1553). Machiavelli was from Florence which often was torn between rival factions with the Medici family being one of the main ones. Inspired by the life of Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) and Florentine power struggles. Machiavelli rejected Aristotle but championed Plato's call in Republic for rule by enlightened single individuals. Machiavelli argued that if a ruler must exhibit virtu - the ability to shape the world to their whim - and bring stability to rule effectively. To preserve a state the leader had to use subterfuge, manipulation, and brutality while using religion to bring stability and unite the citizens. However, Machiavelli argued that a ruler should not be needlessly cruel. 'It is much safer for the prince to be feared than loved but he ought to avoid making himself hated'. Machiavellianism became part of the discourse 40 years after his death and he was received in different ways. His calls for harsh reactions and brutality was seen as unacceptable to many and intense anti-Italian hysteria in Europe greatly influenced this also - after all Mary Queen of Scots' Italian adviser was stabbed to death by angry Protestants in 1566. Meanwhile, those who saw themselves as being pragmatists and being logical praised Machiavelli. Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning (1605) praised Machiavelli for his pragmatism. 

Women and the Renaissance
The Mona Lisa. Were Women actors or subjects?
Despite featuring prominently in the art and literature of the Renaissance women had very little direct input in it. Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting of all time, was painted by a man after all, Leonardo da Vinci (as a side note records indicate that he might have been homosexual). Women were at times very prominent in Shakespeare's plays with Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and Cordelia are just some of the prominent women in his writing. Although until 1660 all female roles were played by men. Some women in the Renaissance did exercise great amounts of power, both direct and indirect, despite the overwhelming patriarchal society. At times this became so prevalent that men directly criticized it, such as John Knox in The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) and Jean Bodin in The Six Books of the Republic (1576). There were several women who exercised direct power during this period including Mary and Elizabeth I of England, Catherine of Aragon, and Mary Queen of Scots to name a few. Women could also exercise rule via their male relatives with Lucrezia Borgia being a prime example. Married several times and the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia, who would become Pope Alexander VI, she was also well-educated, fluent in several languages, and was a keen administrator. At times she even controlled Vatican affairs. Her power was so much was that her enemies accused her of mass poisoning, murder, and incest; something which continues to dog her image to this day. Her sister-in-law Isabella d'Este at times even ruled the Mantua court when her husband was away and her son was not of age. She oversaw the development of the textile and clothing industries as well as heavily patronizing the arts. Da Vinci painted a portrait of her and one theory alleges that she was the model for the Mona Lisa. Her letters show a deep and interesting interaction with her peers whom she showed favors for to earn their trust.
Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci
It should be emphasized that of course these were elite women. Poor or peasant women, and for that matter men, could not be educated or engage in the arts. This is the main reason why historians reject the notion of using the Renaissance to periodize this section of European history. Although the arts, books, and sculptures would greatly influence thought in the future, and definitely influenced the thought of the elite, but most people did not take part in it. Life did change for people during this time although it was not as drastic as images of the Renaissance have portrayed it. Meanwhile, gender relations were complex in early modern Europe where even peasant women could become powerful. In the strange tale of Martin Guerre in the mid-sixteenth-century where a man came back from war claiming to be him his wife, Bertrande, played a big role in the court case. Divorce and annulment could at times occur, although it was easier in some areas, and it was possible for especially urban widows to run their own businesses. Of course there was always reaction against established gender relations; in France the charivari parade would publicly mock 'hen-pecked' or impotent men. Homosexuality was both persecuted and tolerated depending who you were. Women were free to engage in homosexual activities (as it was seen as 'playful') whereas men who engaged in homosexuality were persecuted. In 1476 da Vinci was arrested on charges of 'sodomy' and didn't appear again until 1478. I use the term 'homosexual' and 'homosexuality' here to make explanation easier; attitudes to sexuality have never been set in stone so applying today's terms is an anachronism.

A Global Renaissance?
There have been other debates on the Renaissance ranging from whether it was actually the first European Renaissance - historians such as √Čtienne Gilson have argued that during the Medieval period 'Renaissances' did occur let in the twelfth-century and under the reign of Charlemagne. Other Renaissances existed throughout history outside of Europe - we have one under Heian Japan or the later Genroku period (1688-1703), a contemporary one under the Ottomans, one under the late Ming (1550-1644), and of course the Harlem Renaissance. Ming China even had similar laws to Europe called sumptuary laws - laws which forbade lower class people from wearing the clothes of higher classes and vice versa. Furthermore, the Renaissance had large amounts of influence from the Islamic world. As mentioned earlier Italian trade brought them into contact with the Ottoman Empire and Mamluks, and through them India and China. Italy and Spain both had a significant Arab and black African population - just look at albeit an Orientalist depiction of Moors in Shakespeare's Othello. Slavery also was widespread. Isabelle d'Este mentions purchasing two black slaves. Meanwhile, ideas and cultures disseminated through Europe from the Middle East. The Palazzo Priuli at San Severo, Venice from the 1300s shows clear Islamic inspiration, the Piazza San Marco shows clear inspiration from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and several portraits (like that of Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini, 1501) clearly is inspired by the portraits of Ottoman sultans like Mehmet II.

Scientific Revolution or Evolution?
A German Wunderkammer
Now time to move onto the second half of our post: the Scientific Revolution. Steven Sharpin argues that instead of a revolution we actually saw an evolution. We see many similarities to the historiography of the Renaissance: new historical knowledge has been placed on the Medieval period not really being a time of backwardness. Sharpin has argued that it was evolution for two reasons: no coherent entity called 'science' emerged and many scholars viewed their findings as 'rediscovering' lost knowledge. Nicolaus Copernicus and Andreas Vesalius were just two who viewed their work as bringing back the knowledge which the Greeks and Romans once held. Influence from the Islamic world once again played a role in this. Muslim scholars preserved many of the Roman and Greek texts, and had studied them so soon their writings spread to Europe. Copernicus even mentioned Islamic scholars developing heliocentism in his writings. Furthermore, many supposed 'heroes' never made mention to science itself using the term 'natural philosophies' instead. In contrast, other historians have defended the idea of a Scientific Revolution. Definitely by the 1600s what we would call scientists definitely saw themselves as doing something 'new'. In 1620 Francis Bacon wrote New Organon (the second part of his writings) detailing what can be called science whose cover had a ship sailing off to a new world. Galileo Galilei in 1638 also wrote a text entitled Two New Sciences. New ideas and ways of study emerged where a teleological approach gave way to a mathematical one where first-hand evidence outweighed human testimony. We had Vesalius' extremely detailed On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543) detailing the anatomy of the human body to Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1663) having detailed diagrams of things Hooke had seen through a microscope, like a flea. We also saw the rise of the antiquarian (collector of antiquities and unique items) who collected rare and exotic items in order to study, or admire, them. German antiquarians even developed a name for their collections, Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities. Some of Europe's first museums emerged from these private collections. The revolution-evolution debate still goes on strong.

Heliocentrism, Copernicus, and Galileo are perhaps the best known aspects of the Scientific Revolution. Quite often it is portrayed as knowledge and rationality against religious intolerance and dogmatism. However, the reality is far more nuanced. Copernicus (1473-1543) was a priest and astronomer who had studied mathematics for years. For centuries the Ptolemaic theory, based on Artistotle's findings, had been most widely accepted which involved geocentrism - where the sun orbited the Earth. Copernicus saw discrepancies between his findings and Ptolemy's so proposed a system which had been periodically proposed since antiquity. In 1543 he presented his hypothesis, dedicated to Pope Paul III, in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies which advocated for heliocentrism (where the Earth orbits the sun). Copernicus' hypothesis was challenged by both secular and religious authorities. For one, Copernicus' model was flawed and had many issues such as if the Earth orbited the sun why did an object when thrown upward not land to the west of where they were thrown? And why did objects fall if Earth was not the center of everything? Meanwhile, Christian officials, both Catholic and Protestant, criticized heliocentrism from a religious point of view. Martin Luther even accused him of trying to make a quick name for himself. The reason why Christian officials opposed heliocentrism was because of a line in the Bible. Joshua 10.13 said 'And the sun stood still' where the reasoning was that if the sun never moved how then could it stop? It should be noted that at this time the Bible was seen as the source of logic so if it went against the Bible it was therefore illogical, (and to an extent sinful).
Galileo's The Starry Messenger
Since 1543 geocentrism had slowly started to be widely challenged. In the 1570s Tycho Brahe measured a supernova and comet concluding that they must be beyond the moon, and therefore that the heavens did indeed change. Later, in 1609 Johannes Kepler used Brahe's findings and his own proposed that heliocentrism was right but in a different way to what Copernicus had argued. He argued that the planets moved in elliptical orbits around the sun at different speeds depending on distance from the sun. This would influence an Italian who used the newly invented telescope, Galileo Galilei. He was professor at Pisa and Padua, and had used a telescope to look to the stars. In 1610 he wrote The Starry Messenger detailing his findings, such as Jupiter having several moons (he only spotted four) showing that Earth was not the only center of rotation. Galileo was a forceful personality and eager for recognition; he even wrote to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615 arguing that heliocentrism was in line with biblical teaching. The following year the Roman Inquisition declared heliocentrism heretical - some have argued that this was due to weakening of Catholicism thanks to the entrenching of Protestantism. People forget that it took over 70 years for Revolutions to be added to the Index of Prohibited Books. In 1632 Galileo decided to defend heliocentrism after 15 years of being banned in Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican. To avoid censors Galileo wrote his book as a dialogue between two people subscribing to different ideas; promotion of heliocentrism would be hidden under a veil of an open dialogue. However, censors saw through his plan - partially because Galileo named the character supporting geocentrism 'Simplicio'. He was arrested, forced to recant and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. It has been argued that the reason why the Church came so hard down on Galileo compared to Copernicus was due to pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor. The Thirty Years' War was threatening Catholic rule in Europe and a popular book refuting a Christian teaching could also undermine the Papacy further. Even then Galileo was persecuted so heavily was because of his insistence that Copernicanism was a truth not a hypothesis, widely distributed his writings in vernacular Italian, and said the Book of Nature was equal to that of the Bible. Copernicanism even had large support in the Church but Galileo's supporters had to back off due to his intransigence. As the decades went on support for heliocentrism slowly grew, especially after Isaac Newton published Principa Mathematica explaining gravity, until the Catholic Church formally accepted heliocentrism in 1822, and even then the Index of Prohibited Books continued to have heliocentric texts on it until the twentieth-century.

Religion and Science
As the previous section has shown although science and religion were at loggerheads it was not as intense as normally believed. A large part of this was due to the debates surrounding evolution in the late 1800s which greatly influenced how the Scientific Revolution was seen. Many of the natural philosophers did not see what they were doing as opposing religion - after all Copernicus was a priest who dedicated Revolutions to the pope! Galileo in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina wrote 'the Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how heaven goes' explaining his view. To him, and many other philosophers, the Bible spoke of the spiritual world and only referred to the natural world through metaphor. Humanist and theologian Erasmus (1466-1536) toed the line between Luther and Catholicism during the Reformation and held a view similar to Galileo. Erasmus religion as being a philosophy of life instead of being an exclusive prescription of salvation and saw interpretational dogma as being inhibitory. Most natural philosophers agreed with this view or saw their branch of science as aiding religion. Francis Bacon wrote that natural philosophy was the 'handmaid' of religion while Robert Boyle argued that natural philosophy as a 'reasonable worship' of God which was 'the first act of worship'.

We see a paradox with the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. Only a select few managed to actively take part in both and even then they were largely Christian men as women, Jews, and Muslims were barred from positions which would allow them to engage in it. However, they greatly shaped how we think and view the world in Europe. It is no wonder that many intellectual historians focus on this time period. By straying from traditional view of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution we see a more nuanced view of these periods and creates a more interesting view on the past. Although we got beautiful paintings and fabulous sculptures there are more to look at with the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution.

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Next time we will go to Japan and see how it reunified and how this would greatly influence Japanese history. The sources I have used are as follows:
-William Bouwsma, 'The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History', American Historical Review, 84:1, (1979), 1-15
-Mary Beth Rose (ed.), Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, (New York, 1986)
-Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, (Cambridge, 2006)
-Thomas Munck, Seventeenth-Century Europe: State, Conflict and the Social Order in Europe, 1598-1700, Second Edition, (Hampshire, 2005)
-Beat Kumin (ed.), The European World 1500-1800: An Introduction to Early Modern History, (London, 2009)
-Richard Mackenney, Renaissances: The Cultures of Italy, c.1300-c.1600, (Hampshire, 2005)
-Galileo Galilei: Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615:
-Steven Sharpin, The Scientific Revolution, (Chicago, 1996)
-Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (1860)
-Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, (Cambridge, 1983)

For other World History posts please see our page. For future blog updates please see our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.

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