Its Causes and Some Results.
The words Renaissance, Rinascimento, Renascence mean more than any plain English word will connote. The Renaissance was not only a revival of learning, and a religious reformation, and a revival of the arts, but it also stood for a complete rebirth of the human spirit, a complete change of attitude towards all the problems of life and time, and especially towards the problem of the government of the universe.
The revival has been attributed to five main events - the invention of printing in 1444, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, with the diffusion over Europe of the Oriental learning, the discovery of America by Columbus and Vespucci in 1492, the Protestant Reformation (1517), and the publication of the Copernican theory in 1543. Copernicus had written his book 36 years previously, but had kept it back from fear of the Church. A dignity of the Church, Cardinal Schomberg, had urged him to publish the book, but when it appeared it had the same stormy reception which was accorded to Galileo’s discoveries later in the day. The Inquisition condemned the book as heretical, and in a decree prohibiting it, the compilers of the ‘Index Expurgatorius’ denounced the views of Copernicus as ‘that false Pythagorean doctrine utterly contrary to the Holy Scriptures.’
The view which had obtained up to that time was the Ptolemaic theory that the earth was fixed in space. If the earth were in motion, as the Pythagorean system claimed, Ptolemy argued that it would leave the air and other light bodies behind it. He therefore not only gave the earth a fixed position, but placed it in the centre of a system, the Sun, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn revolving round our planet, with the fixed stars lying beyond the orbit of Saturn. Copernicus established the fact that the earth was a mere point in the heavens, that it revolved, that the sun, moon, and heavenly bodies exercised the force of gravity. Copernicus anticipated some of the discoveries of Newton and other later astronomers, and although his theories were not all equally accurate, his book fully deserved its name ‘De Revolutionibus.’ It displaced the earth as the great centre of the cosmic scheme, to which all the other luminaries existed only as servants or subordinates, to give light by day or by night. The revolutionary speculations of Copernicus were supplemented ere long by those of Galileo, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), and Kepler (1571-163o); and the invention of the telescope by Hans Lippershey in 1608 enabled the later star-gazers to verify Copernicus where he was right and to correct him where he was in error.
The Fall of Constantinople.
But it was the fall of Constantinople, the great capital of Christendom, that broke the restrictive power of the Church of Rome, and rendered inevitable the diffusion of Arabian learning. Previous to the date of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 the Church had dominated the world, and all civilization had to filter through her, or, as often happened, had to be crushed and kept back. The Roman Church had patriarchs (bishops) in Alexandria, Rome, and Jerusalem, as well as Constantinople; but these cities had fallen one after the other before the all-conquering hordes of the Khalifs. The hosts which overthrew the Roman power by the conquest, finally, of Constantinople were very largely a rabble. Gibbon’s chapter dealing with the siege of Constantinople showed that the chief cause of the downfall of that ancient city was the devotion born of absolute conviction on the part of the Mahometans that they had the true faith and the message that would alone redeem the world.
The fall of the great Christian cities went far to destroy the prestige and power of the Church in civil affairs. The Church had pretended to be able to work miracles, to hold the powers of life and death, of heaven and hell; and when the common people saw that she could not even save herself from the rabble armies of fanatical Mahometans their faith in her pretensions to possess larger powers received a death-blow.
The clergy of the Church of Rome, sufficiently corrupt before the downfall of the Western Empire, became even more cynically faithless after that event. Pope Leo the Tenth, the pontiff of the period, himself said: ‘What profit has not the fable of Christ brought us!’
Mahomet had learned his theology from the Nestorian Christians, whose teachings were Pantheistic and entirely free from the idolatry that characterised Christianity at the time.
Mahomet’s teaching was unitarian, and the Mahometans utterly condemned the idea that God shared his power with Jesus or the Virgin Mary. They fulminated against the worship of saints and images, and a conquering Khalif rode his horse into the sea after passing triumphantly across Northern Africa, and solemnly declared to God that but for the ocean he would have carried the faith in the unity of God into whatever lands there might be to the westward. This was centuries before the voyages of Columbus and Vespucci and Vasco di Gama and Magellan had proved the rotundity of the earth and the existence of a western hemisphere.
The New Learning.
What was this new learning which the fall of Constantinople and the waning authority of the Church of Rome liberated over Christendom?
Originally the Saracenic followers of Mahomet had been contentedly, even determinedly ignorant. It was an early head of the Saracenic Empire, the Khalif Omar, who, when asked what was to be done with the remainder of the great library of Alexandria, said: ‘If the books agree with the Koran, the word of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree with it they are pernicious. Let them be destroyed.’ And the furnaces of the baths at Alexandria were, it is said, kept going for six months with the wisdom of the ancients.
But there came a time when all this zealotry against enlightenment gave place to its opposite. Within a hundred years of the death of Mahomet translations of the classical philosophers into Arabic began to be made. Even the ‘Odyssey’ and the ‘Iliad,’ despite their pagan allusions, were rendered in Syriac for the benefit of the learned. From 753, when Almansor transferred the seat of the Khalifate to Bagdad, the Saracens devoted immense and increasing attention to literature and science. And this taste for knowledge persisted long after the division of the Saracenic Empire into three parts. In Asia, in Egypt, in Spain the Khalifs so cultivated the finer pursuits of life that when Catholicism once again secured the ascendancy in Spain Cardinal Ximenes could deliver to the flames in the squares of Granada no fewer than eighty thousand Arabic manuscripts, many of them translations of Greek and Roman authors. At Tripoli the Crusaders burned a library fancifully stated to have contained three million volumes.
The Saracens boasted that they had produced more poets than all other nations combined. Probably none of the poets of antiquity has had so great a popular vogue as the wonderfully modern Omar Khayyam, who had many fellows in all parts of the widespread Mahometan empire, which extended from the Great Wall of China to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Science they cultivated after the manner of the Alexandrian Greeks - by observation of Nature and practical experiment, not by barren speculation. Using the mathematical sciences, they wrote on trigonometry, hydrostatics, optics, mechanics. They founded chemistry and devised many of the appliances still used in distillation, filtration, sublimation, and fusion. They invented algebra. They adopted the Indian numerals. They compiled tables of specific gravities and of astronomical observations. Quadratic equations were invented by Mohammed Ben Musa; cubic equations by Omar Ben Ibrahim. Sines were devised to take the place of chords in trigonometry. They named the stars and measured their distances. They fixed the length of the year and verified the precession of the equinoxes. The recorded astronomical observations of Ibn Junis, astronomer of the Egyptian Khalif, Hakem, A.D. 1000, were found by the modern Laplace to be of great scientific value, bearing as they did on eclipses, conjunctions of planets, and occultations of stars. They invented the clock pendulum as one of their many novelties in clockwork, and they devoted themselves to the construction and improvement of astronomical instruments. Applying chemistry to medicine, they were the first to publish pharmacopœias. In optics they corrected the Greek theory that the ray proceeds from the eye and touches the object seen, substituting the hypothesis that the ray passes from the object to the eye.
The Fatimite library at Cairo contained one hundred thousand volumes, elegantly written, illuminated, and bound. Among these were 6500 books on astronomy and medicine alone, and the books in this library were lent to outside readers. In this library were two geographical globes, one of massive silver constructed at a cost of 3000 golden crowns; the other of brass, said to have been made for Ptolemy himself. The 600,000 volumes in the library of the Spanish khalifs represented only one of the many large Moorish collections in Spain. Andalusia is reported to have had seventy public libraries; and private libraries were often so large that a doctor refused to enter the service of the Sultan of Bokhara because the carriage of his books would have required four hundred camels.
Every khalif had his historian. There were histories, not only of illustrious men and of notable events, but even of great horses and camels. ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ was only one of the many works of imagination which the followers of Mahomet produced. Statistics, law, geography, medicine were all the subject of treatises. An ‘Encyclopædic Dictionary of All the Sciences,’ by Mohammed Abu Abdallah, existed centuries before such a work was dreamt of in Christian Europe. Colleges were dotted all over the Saracenic Empire. The mosque had its school when the church had none. The first medical college in the world was that established by the Saracens at Salerno in Italy; the first astronomical observatory was that founded by them at Seville in Spain.
The great Khalif Al-Mamun had declared that ‘they are the elect of God, his best and most useful servants, whose lives are devoted to the improvement of their rational faculties,’ and that ‘the teachers of wisdom are the true luminaries and legislators of this world, which, without their aid, would again sink into ignorance and barbarism.’
This spirit profoundly affected the arts of life. Under the Saracens agriculture showed improvements in irrigation, the employment of manures, the breeding of cattle and horses, the introduction of the culture of rice, of sugar, and of coffee. In manufactures they extended the production of silk, cotton, and woollens; they were expert in the treatment of leather, as the words cordovan and morocco still attest. The Toledo blade is only one example of their skill in mining, forging, and metallurgy generally.
The lighter side of life also bears enduring marks of their genius. They invented the game of chess; they excelled in music; they were fond of the improvising genius of the story-teller, the poet, and the minstrel.
The civilization which the Spaniards overturned was in some respects a civilization of more than twentieth century elegance. Their streets were well paved and lighted. Their houses were frescoed, carpeted, warmed in winter by furnaces, and cooled in summer with perfumed air brought in pipes underground from flower beds.
At a time when all the rest of Europe was both gluttonous and drunken, the Moors were abstemious as regards food, while wine was forbidden by their religion and avoided as a matter of instinct. But baths were everywhere, and when the overthrow of the Moorish power came, the Catholics who venerated matted hair, long beards, and dirty nails, revelled in the destruction of the appliances of cleanliness.
The overthrow of Mahometanism in Spain was the triumph of a lower civilization over a higher.
Mahometan Speculation in Religion.
As regards the government of the universe, the Mahometans were fatalists in a degree, but only because they believed that the course of natural law was never broken. While the Catholic believed in miracles, in constant interpositions of Providence, and was continually asking the Saints or the Madonna for favours, Islam believed the will of God to be unchangeable. When he prayed it was to give thanks for past favours. To whatever might come he was resigned. He had no conception of any outside interference with the sequence of events. Cause naturally produced effect, and the effect was in turn a cause of something else. The wounded and the sick could indeed be tended, since there was a law of recovery as well as of death. But there was no idea of interfering with the natural sequence of events by the invocation of miracle or the suspension of natural law. What must be must be, and though the event could not be prejudged, God knew what was best, and nought was done without His will.
In the rest of Europe the worship of relics, holy wells, and the pictures and images of saints was among the daily observances of life. Even schoolmen discussed how many angels could dance on the point of a needle, and the tendency of air or water to rush in to fill a depression was explained on the theory that Nature abhorred a vacuum. The humanities of ancient Greece and Rome were unknown to the people. Artists painted gospel subjects and gospel figures. Rooms were decorated with ‘the story of St. Margaret, Virgin, and four Evangelists,’ or ‘a Mary with her child,’ or ‘the figures of the guards of the bed of Solomon,’ or ‘the history of Dives and Lazarus.’ These are extracts from specifications of mural paintings as ordered to be executed by artists of the thirteenth century. Dante could deal with no subjects more momentous than Paradise, Purgatory, and the Inferno. The absorption in scriptural subjects was natural with a people whose only literary teaching consisted of the expositions of Biblical topics which they heard from the pulpit. To-day we decorate our rooms with pictures of natural sights or scenes, a stag drinking from a lake, with a background of blue mountain, brown heath, green grass, or russet trees; portraits of relatives, kings, or generals; perhaps a few pieces of statuary which, even if they be only plaster casts, show the swift grace of a pursuing Diana, a bold pose of a defiant Ajax, the pathetic beauty of a Venus of Milo, the muscular repose of a resting Hermes, the debonnair aplomb of a Venus Genetrix. If our natures take colour from the objects by which we are surrounded these are better company than the guards of the bed of Solomon or the swarthy and bearded fishermen evangelists, though these also have their place in art.
Ruskin is delighted with the rejoicings of the people in the Santa Maria Novella of Florence over the acquisition of a new picture to their church, and points out that these were so often renewed that the district became known as the Joyful Quarter. The dark side of the picture is that these same people even to this day have a horror of the Evil Eye, and break into frenzied violence against the sanitary officials who seek to stamp out epidemic disease.
Even the rude drama of pre-Renaissance days was concerned with scriptural subjects, because these were the only literary themes which found a place in the minds of the people.
The Return to Nature.
With the Renaissance came a return to Nature in all the arts. The consequences of this return have not all of them been good, nor was the blight of a Manichean theology lifted all at once. But the leaven was and still is working. It tended to make the world a more cheerful and desirable place to live in. It tended to make man think of himself less as an intruder in the world than as a wonderful creature with a miraculous brain and ten fingers who could plan and execute great works in the world and enjoy much legitimate happiness.
In the year 1000, when the Arabs were busy with their science and their applied arts, all Christendom lay under a cloud because the Crack of Doom, the end of the world, was expected. The fields lay uncultivated, the sick untended, the dead unburied.
The sense of human unworthiness which gave rise to these superstitions did not make men more virtuous. Drunkenness, fierce street-fights, brutality to wives and children, sanguinary massacres at the end of battle or siege were the rule. The sense of being hopeless sinners seemed to reconcile men to being what it was said they must be. They were under a wrath and curse no matter what they did. And they behaved exactly as might have been expected.
The Renaissance was at least the beginnings of a movement, painfully slow in its filtration downwards, whose tendency was to persuade man to think well of himself and to see to it that he was worthy of his own self-respect. Needless to say, the Renaissance is not yet complete.
Italy was the first theatre of the great change. It produced painters such as Raphael, Titian, Correggio; sculptors such as Donatello and Michael Angelo; poets such as Ariosto and Petrarch; philosophers like Machiavelli, Bruno, Telesio, and Campanella, whose ‘City of the Sun’ still finds a place alongside More’s ‘Utopia’ as a picture of an ideal commonwealth.
The Italian gentleman of the time was a man of taste and literary knowledge, a very much finer man than the rude soldiers and chieftains of Northern Europe. But the authority of the Church having been discredited, the Italians seemed to think they could get along without any moral code whatsoever, and some of the nobility and gentry actually did so.
The Renaissance produced better men in Germany. In Art Germany had its Albert Durer and its Holbein (who later came to England). It had its witty Erasmus, its humorous Ulrich von Hutten, its learned Paracelsus, Melanchthon, and Reuchlin. But the Germans of the Renaissance were more concerned about domineering over the priests and nobles who had domineered over them before the change came than they were about personal moral or æsthetic perfection. Luther, with his pugnacity, was the most typical German of the Renaissance.
The lack of printed books at first gave a great vogue to oral teaching. The family of the Aldines during three generations were the great printers of the Renaissance. Printing probably had more to do with the great revival than any other agency whatsoever. These early printers were writers and translators as well as printers, and they opened up the humanistic literature of antiquity, especially that of the Greeks.
The Renaissance, take it as a whole, was a movement towards Reality in life. Its literature dealt with man, not with the supernatural, the necromantic. Its painters no longer painted imps and angels, but men and women and landscapes. Its doctors did not try to cure with exorcisms, or adder’s blood, or incantations pronounced when the moon was at the full.
The spirit of the Renaissance is very well expressed in the words of Denis, the French soldier in the great novel of the Renaissance: ‘En avant! Courage, tout le monde; le diable est mort’ (Let us advance! Courage, all the world; the Devil is dead). The Renaissance, such as it was in the fifteenth century, marked the beginning of the world-movement whose outcome it is to make more and more plain that man is master of his own fate if he will but be humble and willing to learn; that there are no supernatural interferences with the orderly course of cosmic law, nothing to prevent mankind in the mass from believing that they have control of their own destiny.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.