What are the seductions of Italy? Myriad, no doubt.
The food, the culture, the history, the effortless style of the Italian people, the grace, charm and sophistication of built, urban environment and the simple charms of the Italian countryside from whence comes the pleasure of the table and the wine glass. The mystical draw of the heart of the Catholic world provides an equally alluring metaphysical counterbalance to the materiality of the the more worldly pleasures that Belle Italia charms us with. What ties these together is the expression of both the metaphysical and the material, the spiritual and the worldly that finds its expression in the painting, sculpture and architecture that is everywhere the eye can see when traveling through the peninsula. Knowledge of the artists, of their lives, their styles illustrates a sophistication while the connection with their subject matter so often expressed in religious tones and terms transcends worldliness and plunges one in the contemplation of the spiritual.
This is Renaissance artistic expression and we are all familiar with the names of the great ones – Raphael, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bernini, the list is as long as it is impressive. Typically we pause here and ask about the men themselves . . . how did such genius come to be? What spark, perhaps of the divine, ignited into the fire of creation and invention that propelled the period to such a degree that is became such a significant turning point in Western history? Our minds drift, as they often do, towards individual achievement, a genius that only a few possess but those who do inescapably find a way to express it and perhaps put a dent in the universe, as the late Steve Jobs had said.
This answer, that genius expresses itself at certain times in a few lucky people is an easy one and it fits well with an understanding of people and society through the lens of individualism. But in fact it seldom works that way. The rebirth of interest in Greek and Roman literature, art, laws, engineering and governance arose not by the good fortune of a collection of gifted people, but rather because of set of circumstances that produced a tidal change in Western society. The Renaissance was enabled by trade, finance and the accumulation of wealth.
It is surprising how much the Renaissance is still with us. We see it in our government, in the organization of our universities, in the our understanding of what constitutes a cultured person, in “a vision of human excellent that still lies at the heart of the Western tradition.” (Plumb, 2001) So much was altered by the thoughts, ideas and actions that occurred during this time and place that Western society was forever changed in ways that are deep, complex and still not fully understood. Perhaps it was an inevitable evolution of human thought, though I am skeptical of this. At the root were human beings with their desires, aspirations, jealousies, curiosities and creative impulses. And motivating all of them was, and remains, choice. But the question remains unanswered: how is the Renaissance and its incalculable impact the result of trade and finance? How was the sublime enabled by the profane? In part two I will dive into this further.