Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Penguin book of the Renaissance, by J.H. Plumb (ed.)

£1.85 this paperback cost, when I purchased it in 1979, inspired by a trip to Italy. I wanted to learn more about the multi-faceted advances we now know at the Renaissance, having visited Florence, Venice, Milan and Padua. I then read several chapters of interest and found it was useful background to my degree studies. Later, in homage to this great era of learning, I ambitiously called my training company ‘Renaissance Training’.

This year, I picked it off the shelves again, having created the following thought experiment: I never buy another book in my life and rely solely on the existing contents of my bookshelves. I read all 17 chapters, and found it rewarding, since it brought together disparate and half-remembered bits of knowledge. I also had more experience of visiting Italy, seeing paintings and reading books about this era to build on.

Edited by the historian, Professor Plumb, it is a series of essays on different aspects, people and places in the Renaissance. The book is not a complete survey of the Renaissance – that would be impossible anyway – and it leaves certain aspects, such as the advance of mathematics, virtually untouched. However, the breadth of its coverage can be gathered from the titles of the essays:
• Introduction
• The dawn of the Renaissance
• The Prince and the state
• Machiavelli
• The arts
• The young Michelangelo
• Florence: Cradle of Humanism
• Lorenzo de Medici
• Milan: City of strife
• Leonardo da Vinci
• Rome: splendour and papacy
• Pope Pius II
• Venice: the golden years
• Doge Francesco Foscari
• The images of man (about Aretino and Castiglione)
• Federico da Montefeltro
• The spread of the Renaissance

Professor Plumb wrote ten of the essays himself, while the others came from famous writers such as Kenneth Clark, H.R. Trevor-Roper and J. Bronowski. He does an excellent job of tying together the potentially disparate essays into a whole; he must have given specific detailed guidance to the other writers, so good are the connections between the chapters. Profiling the four leading cities of the Renaissance is a highly successful move that forms a bonding cross-section across the other themes. As an introductory text for understanding the Renaissance and its achievements, this book is to be highly recommended.

From the riches of this book, I pick out the Bronowski chapter on Leonardo da Vinci for deeper comment. Leonardo was a failure. He was a man of immense, almost incomprehensible genius. Yet he completed so few of his projects. Admittedly, ‘The Mona Lisa’ remains as one of the most celebrated paintings in the world, yet the sum total of his completed works is pitiful compared with what he could have achieved, with more focus. Bronowski speculates that he was not put under enough commercial pressure to get things done, but was indulged for twenty years by the Duke of Milan, and his talents diverted into fripperies, such as ingenious displays for the frequent pageants the Duke liked to arrange.

When we think of Leonardo, we think of his sketches and notebooks, crammed with ideas and studies of endless variety. Leonardo had a burning curiosity, and he was given freedom of time and from monetary necessity by the Duke to follow every path that his polymathic genius led him, whether it was the flight mechanism of birds, the flow of water, the anatomy of man, engines of war, new painting techniques and so forth.

Late in his life, Leonardo apparently deeply regretted his dilettantism (if that is an appropriate word!) and lack of application. He once wrote: “O Time, thou that consumest all things! O envious age, thou destroyest all things and devourest all things with the hard teeth of the years, little by little, in slow death!”

However, Bronowski asserts Leonardo’s ultimate greatness and revolutionary thought by asserting three supreme achievements:

1) He pioneered modern scientific method through his “absorbed interest in the structure and mechanism of nature”, contrasting with the medieval “magical view” of casting spells and seeking miracles to get nature to “function in a way contrary to her own laws”. Leonardo perceived that, on the contrary, nature is only commanded when we understand her and enter into her processes.

2) He saw that the structure of nature reveals her processes. So he searched diligently for the strict mechanism by which living things move and act, instead of appealing in a lazy way to vital forces and spirits. In other words, he was empirical and scientific.

3) He understood that science is not a parade of grand theories of the kind that, say, Thomas Aquinas propounded, where the detail was not thought important, and discrepancies between theory and fact are shrugged off. Instead, he elevated the detail so that it became the crucial test of a scientific theory. By carrying out detailed studies, he was able to demonstrate how Aristotle, Galen, Aquinas etc were wrong.

Bronowski ascribes the last point to Leonardo’s training as a painter, for whom the precise shape of a flower or a waterfall is all important. This put him “at the opposite pole from the theorising scientists of his own age”. This interesting conjunction of art and science is a valuable nugget buried in this book, and Bronowski claims that Leonardo was the artist “who is the true pioneer of science as we practise it.”

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