I can hardly believe what I am experiencing at this exact moment as I write this article.
I am at Cafe Gilli in Florence, the oldest cafe in the city, having been founded in 1733 during the peak of the Italian Baroque era. And my headphones are playing Vivaldi, the Italian genius of the very same era. He could very well have sat in this cafe to sip the same coffee I’ve just had. The interior decoration is similar to that of Cafe Sacher or Cafe Central in Vienna. There are high ceilings with elaborate ornaments, wooden wall coverings, arched vaults, and big windows overlooking the Republic Square. The refined atmosphere provides such serenity that it takes almost no effort to do some grounding work, even among our fellow Mediterranean neighbors who like to talk a lot and loudly so.
I let myself to be engulfed by the immense amount of art and history that the city has hosted for 800 years. It has always amazed me how humanity ensured, albeit more subconsciously than intentionally, the continuation of wisdom and enlightenment. It is a relay race that has been taking place since the beginning of human existence, through the Sumerians, Babylonians, Ancient Egyptians, first settlers of the Indus Valley, Ancient Chinese, Mayans, Incas and their predecessors, Native Americans, Polynesians, Luwians, Hittites, Etruscans, Celts, Minoans, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Latins, Middle Eastern societies during the Golden Era of Islam, and the Western Europeans during the Renaissance and Modern Age, to name but a few, as well as the Lemurians and Atlanteans before them. Maybe with a degree of decrement, humanity managed to pass along its accumulated wisdom to the next civilization that survived. Maybe that civilization only survived and flourished because it embraced the enlightenment accumulated by preceding civilizations, and thankfully so, so we did not need to reinvent the wheel and rediscover fire each time a civilization disappeared.
As I am in Florence, in the native city of the Renaissance, I cannot help but think how seemingly opposing concepts acted as consecutive parts of a mechanism and created a wave that changed the world. Inheriting the Hellenistic and Anatolian wisdom, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a golden age between the 7th and 11th centuries. As the cultural recession approached the Byzantines, the Middle Eastern states embarked on a golden era of Islamic intellectualism, so they picked up the flag and continued the artistic, philosophical, and scientific development. In the east, they were also in touch with the Chinese, Persian, and Indian marvels. In Europe, meanwhile, there was little space for a secular interpretation of the world. Power and money was centered around the Catholic Church, and food and freedom for the mind was limited. Life was about survival, and art was basically confined to church decorations in order to communicate Christian teachings and educate crowds through paintings. It’s still worth noting, however, that the Catholic Church was home to some extraordinary artists and scientists who challenged mainstream ideas and paved the way, little by little, for the forthcoming freedom of spirit and mind.
The gold of the Middle East, both literally and figuratively, attracted European rulers, and so the Crusades began. As tragic as they were, those interactions reminded Europeans that prosperity lay in scientific and philosophical reflection, while a good life lay in aesthetics and artistic expression. After all, the sources that the “Saracens” used were mostly translated, further-developed versions of the classical world of the Ancient Greeks. It was now their turn to enjoy and suffer the tides of change that freedom of mind and spirit would bring. Thanks to the Arabic and Persian translations of the Classical thinkers and scientists—and thanks to Middle Eastern and Andalusian Muslims’ and Jews’ own contributions to astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy—Europe inherited an enhanced version of the antiquated wisdom. But the Crusades were not the only factor behind the rise of Europe. Among others, there was one particular event, or rather a series of events, that drastically changed Europe’s population, economic structure, and relationship with God and the Church. It was the Black Death, the great plague. Again, like the Crusades, as tragic as it was, the plague also enabled dogmatic thinking to be challenged by more people. Some went all the way down to radicalization and started beating themselves to earn God’s mercy, so he would spare their city from the plague. They tried to pay for their sins, because they at first believed it was God’s punishment. It didn’t work, of course. Even monks in monasteries, who had supposedly washed away their sins, also fell victim to the plague, so maybe it wasn’t a punishment from God after all? They tried to scare off bad spirits by ringing church bells, and this also didn’t work. They tried to infuse the streets with perfumed flowers because they thought the bad smell was the cause, and this again didn’t work. Slowly they drew a connection between rats, sick people, contamination, people who got sick but survived, and those who never got sick at all. Curious people who were determined to never let this happen again embarked on a study that finally prioritized science over religious excuses. During the 13th and early 14th century, European states, particularly the cities, were densely populated. After the strongest epidemic wave hit in 1348, one third of the European population was gone. There were less people to work the fields and mills, hence lower production, but there were much less people to consume the resources, so economic production per capita rose.
Kings and members of aristocracy, at least the ones who survived the Crusades and the Black Death, started to sponsor technological improvements through science to secure their positions of the day and artistic endeavors to secure their image for the future. Their desire to leave a trace in the world could be likened to the heroes from the Bible or Ancient Greece. Their effort to build symbolic messages of their political power pushed artists to rediscover the old ways. Donatello’s bronze David was thus the first free-standing work of bronze cast during the Renaissance, and the first freestanding nude male sculpture made since antiquity. David was commissioned by the Medici family to symbolize the freedom of Florence from the surrounding powers. As the biblical figure David, the witty little boy, defeated, with his intelligence, the vain giant Goliath, which represents brute force, and freed his people. Imagine this statue and its like being displayed in public. Imagine how it then becomes a race for other artists to make a better one, and for aristocrats to sponsor more works of greater magnificence. It led to Michelangelo’s David, one of humanity’s miracles, to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, to Leonardo’s Annunciation and Mona Lisa, and to Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow, and so on.
Virtues of the classical world and the Christian era are personified and represented over and over again through masterpieces of painting and sculpture. They are associated with certain symbols, pushing the observers to consider and weigh their importance in life. They become highly aesthetic works of the time, perfect tools to convey artistic expression and messages via a series of symbols. More and more, with an evaluation of the artist’s way and the observer’s eye, art becomes more abstract. There is more to the mind and heart than the eye. It is left to the understanding of the observer and to the brilliance of the artist to create meaning from art. Nevertheless, art has maintained its important position alongside science and philosophy. It has stood as a solid proof of unsolid tastes and ideas.
I hope that the next holder of the relay baton succeeds in protecting the accumulated art and ideas and keeps contributing with its own most recent developments in science and art, as well as the big trends that shape people’s spirituality during particular phases. After all, without art, science, and spirituality, the race is already over, leaving everything to deep a darkness where life is less worth living.