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E-mail to Granddaughter in Florence

Hi Eva:

Please excuse your grandfather’s latest meanderings:  the history of the world in three pages.  I’m just kidding.  Nonetheless, I thought you might be interested in my take about the role of Florence and more generally the Renaissance.

It all started with the Greeks.  Around 400 B.C., the Greek city states (there were hundreds of them, some with thousands of inhabitants, others with less than 100) initiated and expanded the arts.  They developed the concept of democracy and logic.  They produced great philosophers, poets, playwrights, mathematicians, military strategists, artists, sculptors, etc.  Perhaps no more than 300-500 citizens did it all.  They argued, debated, developed theories of “virtue” and beauty.

They developed legal systems and scientific concepts.  These city states also fought wars amongst themselves (Athens vs. Sparta) and, at times they rejected democracy for dictators.  For about 300 years they had power.  But they expanded too fast and lost much of their power after inter-city wars, wars against the Persians, wars against Macedonia (Alexander the Great).  Finally, around 100 B.C. they were squashed by the Romans.  Unlike the Romans, the Greeks had no central authority.  They were fragmented.  But they left a huge legacy for the Romans – both tangible and intangible.

The Romans copied the Greeks; they expanded what the Greeks had started.  They controlled much more land than Greece with military force.  They occupied land masses as far north as Great Britain, south to Africa and East as far as India.  They idolized the Greeks.  They expanded, nuanced and wrote about what the Greeks had done.  But they expanded their empire too far and lost control.  After 400 years of expansion, by the 5th century A.D. (476 A.D.) the Roman Empire collapsed.  The so-called “barbarians” – the Goths and Visigoths (from Asia) defeated the far flung Roman interests.  They destroyed the great Roman aqueducts, roads, bridges and infrastructure.  The Roman Empire was in ruins – a wasteland with no rule of law.  Disease, hunger and pestilence wiped out huge numbers.  For about 600 years Western Europe had little economic growth.  Poverty was everywhere.  There was little cultural development.  As a result for almost 600 years (the so-called Dark Ages), nothing other than religious tracts, was written.  No plays, poems, no painting to speak of, no sculptures.  Little literacy.  Much starvation.

In the absence of armies, legal systems, rulers and kings, religion began to take hold during that period as the Church starting with the 4th century A.D. filled the emotional needs of Europe.  The Catholic Church (there was no such thing as “Protestantism” then) became quite powerful.  Then, somewhere around the 12th century, partly because of trade in the Far East (India and China), and for many other reasons, the Europeans  awakened an interest in writing, the arts, philosophy and the great civilizations of Greece and Rome – their heritage.  The center of that re-awakening, obviously as you know, is called the Renaissance.  Its center was Florence.  Italy flourished – a tremendous explosion of literature and sculpture and painting.  Much of it was financed and encouraged by the Catholic Church which supported the great artisans, primarily building great churches.  This “reawakening” occurred not just in Florence but also in Venice, Sienna, Lombardy, and then into France, Belgium and Holland.  There was no other center of power or wealth at that time outside of Italy – the locus of the Popes and the Church.  England was barely literate.  What Italy produced was carried on in the arts, literature, design, style, and into France, Belgium, Holland, Spain and all of Europe for hundreds of years.  Quite miraculous.

You may ask what happened to Greece?  After their beginnings and collapse, Greece became completely moribund.   It produced practically nothing for 2,000 years.  After the Dark Ages, unlike Italy, they were under control of the Ottoman Empire (Islam) which competed with the Catholic Church which, of course, had its center in Italy – not Greece.  The Muslim world, in part to show how different it was from Christianity, considered images – paintings or sculpture and even secular writing – as forbidden.  Poor Greece was under that control, believe it or not, until almost the 20th century.

Two asides here:

  • It is said by some that “the Irish saved civilization.”  That is because throughout the Dark Ages (500 – 1100 A.D.), Christianity was being attacked by the Goths from Asia.  As a result some religious leaders (Catholic monks) fled to far-off lands – particularly to Ireland which was surrounded by sea and therefore relatively safe.  There, for 500 years, they copied and re-copied, not just the Bible, but the secular works, plays, poems, philosophical writings, and histories written by the Greeks and Romans.  Then, about in the 10th and 11th centuries A.D., they brought these writings back into the cities and churches of Western Europe.  Some historians think that formed the basis and beginning of the Renaissance.
  • The second “aside” is the Jews.  They were constantly being persecuted (as non-believers) and were expelled forcibly or burned at the stake if they did not convert.  They were expelled from England and France in the 11th and 12th centuries, and from Spain in the 15th century – the Inquisition.  They went primarily to Turkey (it was Muslim and therefore more accepting of non-Christians), the Caribbean or Russia. 

Now, back to the story.

At the time that the Church was supporting the arts in Italy (notice the emphasis on religious themes in the arts) and building phenomenal churches, the great Italian sea traders and those of Spain, Portugal, Holland, began to trade with each other and the rest of the world.  That had to be financed.  That was the beginning of “capitalism” – which also started in the Renaissance.  Wealthy merchants in Italy and elsewhere began to subsidize the arts and accumulate it along with the Church.  Italy and Holland also became the center of the Banking Industry which facilitated trade and expanded Italy’s influence.  A three-way battle for power (and for control) developed during the Renaissance and thereafter: (a) the Church, (b) the wealthy private merchant class, and (c) self-proclaimed kings and emperors, who claimed the right to govern by “divine right” and who also had large armies.  While each competed for power against each other, all supported the arts.  Another aside:   (All are still competing for power and influence – except the kings and emperors who today have either been overthrown by revolution, democracy or war and today have minimal influence.)

There were, of course, later major significant developments which, though they did not displace the Renaissance, have had enormous effects on our lives.  The Renaissance, was followed by the “Age of Enlightenment” with its emphasis on science and rational thinking.  That threatened the Church, which already was beset with troubles from (a) the kings and emperors, (b) from the rising merchant class, (c) from the rising world of Islam, and (d) the growing popularity of “Protestantism” – which, while Christian, rejected the authority of the Papacy.  The “Age of Enlightenment” was followed in the 17th and 18th centuries by revolutions to displace the traditional sources of power with “democracy.”  Another aside:  By the beginning of the First World War the kings and emperors (monarchies) had been very much weakened in favor of movements toward some form of democracy and the influence of the private sector.  By the end of World War I (1918), the Empires of Austria/Hungary; Germany; the Ottomans; Russia, all collapsed/resigned and lost all power and authority.  Back to the chronology.

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution further shifted power away from the Church and monarchies to the private sector.  Then, in the late 19th century the advent of Socialism expressed the need for a social contract which emphasized the rights of workers and ordinary people who deserved a piece of the pie.  Then, globalization which spread information, technology, resources, and people throughout the world.  China became the buyer of the Great Works of the Renaissance!

Through it all, people like Freud, Galileo, and Darwin made the point that we are not the center of the universe; that we are not all that special; that things often are out of an individual’s or leader’s control.  And that the individuals therefore should be more modest in their expectations of their place and influence in the world.

Well, that’s my simple-minded version.

Love you,