Are We In A Modern Renaissance?
The renaissance in Italy that took place in the 1300’s was an explosion of ideas and art. In a short period if time it seemed like a thousand things were happening that were new. Or at least that’s what the people that lived in Italy at this time thought. They were there to watch first-hand as politics, art, and science turned in a new direction. But was it really a new direction? Was it just coincidence that this was the exact time that the ancient Greek scripts were just beginning to filter back into society? Were the artists just copying previous Greek art in an attempt to make themselves known? And was the flare of new political ideas a new, genuinely Italian thing, or merely a reproduction of something old and originally Greek? I believe so. I think that the renaissance in Italy was simply a renewing of Greek culture, and nothing new.
The word “renaissance” means rebirth in French, and is used to describe a time in history when there is a rush of new ideas and a complete changing of a society. When looking back on this time period, we mostly see the things that have lasted through the ages. Art stands out in particular: the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and the statues of Michelangelo. But these were simply side notes to what was really happening, the overall picture of renaissance Italy. The focus of Italian society in 1350 – 1550 was humanism. First, what is humanism? My first reaction would be to whip out my dictionary and look it up. “A system of thought that centres on humans and their values, capacities, accomplishments and worth.” (1.) People wanted to talk about Rafael’s new masterpiece. The new political situation was focusing much more on the people of Italy instead of her idealisms, and this was the basis of Italian rebirth. Do you recognize any of this? It seems to me that I’ve heard it somewhere before…. Maybe it was in a book about the Ancient Greeks….
Ancient Greece was a major faucet of humanism, arguably the greatest one in all of history. Their art and philosophies were revered by their culture, their sports focused on human abilities, their political science focused on democracy… I could go on. Unfortunately, most of this was lost. When Greece was assimilated into the Roman Empire, most of the Greek scripts were translated to Latin and taken back to Rome. Then Rome fell to barbarians. The ancient scripts were not lost though, but taken to the Middle East and translated into the Arabic tongues. Years later, when the Muslims took control of the Iberian Peninsula they took their scriptures with them. It was in Iberia that the Muslim campaign was halted. There was a massive flow of Muslim scriptures passing into European hands, and the Greek scriptures came with them. They were translated from Arabic, Latin and Greek into many of the European tongues, Italian being one of them. They were then circulated throughout the European world. The time was approximately the 1300’s, only years before the Renaissance began in Italy. Was it a coincidence that these two events were so close together? I might be persuaded to say yes, except for the amazing explosion of demand for books that began in Italy at precisely this time. In response to this demand, a new method of printing was adapted. The result was a more literate populace and a stronger economy, but also a much greater spread of Greek philosophies and ideals into Italy.
The most glaring of these similarities is the resemblance of Italian art to the Greeks art. The paintings showed a resemblance to ancient Greek’s. In the Middle Ages that preludes the renaissance, the focus of all paintings was on religion. This changed when the renaissance began, as art began to drift more towards depictions of everyday human life. Ancient Greece showed much the same aspects in the fact that almost all of their paintings were based in humanist depictions. But paintings weren’t the only thing similar. Allow me to use the example of Michelangelo’s statue “David”. This was a clear copy of a statue made in ancient Greece by Praxiteles. The statue was of Hermes holding a baby Dionysus in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other. The statue was famous, and was taken to be the ancient symbol of Olympia. Both statues were completely naked, and both created with a disturbingly similar style. If both were put side by side, most people would say the same person made them. Is it a coincidence or a deliberate replica? I tend to side towards the later.
The political philosophies of Italy were also drastically changed by the renaissance – again, in a very Greek way. Rulers began to look towards their citizens more, and began to put more worth in their people, possibly due to the rise of the humanist ideology. This is, again, much akin to the Greek world in Athens. Ancient Greece was primarily democratic, and it was there that the word and idea was coined. Power to the people was a common thing in ancient Greece, and we see much of this in renaissance Italy.
It is easy to see that renaissance Italy was indeed a mirror image of ancient Greece. Though I would argue that some of the ideas found during the renaissance – such as the new method of printing literature – were indeed something new and Italian, most of what you see during that time period is just a replica of ancient Greece. The art was simply a copy, the political ideas were a duplicate, the humanist ideas were certainly a replica, and you can hardly pass off the fact that all of this began springing up at the time that the old Greek scripts were translated into Italian. In conclusion, the renaissance in Italy was simply a copy of ancient Greece.