The First Renaissance — 1

Sandro Botticelli: La nascita di Venere

The Renaissance – translated to English “rebirth” – is the progressive, intellectual, and cultural epoch in the 14th-17th century starting in North Italy and spreading out to countries in central Europe. As early as 1550 Giorgio Vasari [Vasari 1550] coined the term “Rinascità” later used to refer to this era.

“The Renaissance marks the rise of the individual, the awakening of a desire for beauty, a triumphal procession of joyful life, the intellectual conquest of physical realities, a renewal of the pagan pursuit of happiness, a dawning of consciousness of the relationship of the individual to the natural world around him.” [Huizinga 1920].

As you might expect, we do not intend to write about art history – so why do we concern ourselves with a period of our past about 500 years ago? And what does this mean for the challenges we face today? In this article we shall address the first question. The parallels and the lessons to be learnt will be addressed in another contribution in the future.

We can rephrase this first question as “what does the renaissance art ‘renewal’ have to do with something as technical as the Internet of Things?” Well, although the Renaissance has its roots in the arts and is about changes in art, we shall see that it is also about development of communication and other technological advances. Whenever new capabilities in communication coincide with advances in other technologies the potential for a significant advance of society exists. We look at the European Renaissance era to understand the patterns of change, from the individual to the society. We assume that similar patterns exist in other periods and geographical locations in human history. But we believe that the Renaissance offers the best starting point for our discussion.

Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon

It is important to understand that we are dealing with an era of very low levels of literacy. Schooling is very restricted and books – handwritten on parchment – are very expensive. Therefore, the impact of visual art as a “broadcasting medium” cannot be overestimated. Franciscan Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294) had already expressed concern that religious art did not match the societies needs in this respect and failed to communicate the bible’s message to the worshiper. Bacon’s work “Opus Majus” [Bacon 1267] influenced later popes to actively seek out advances in color, light, and perspective in religious art. The “new” or “reborn” competences of the artists of the early renaissance promised eliminate or at least reduce this deficiency. “New style artists” achieved prominence quickly. In 1334 Giotto — often described as the first renaissance artist — was appointed director of public works in Florence. But Bacon’s Opus Majus was much more than the starting point for improvement in art and visual communication. His fundamental work covers natural science, physics, grammar, logic, and philosophy. For example he studied Islamic works in optics and brought this knowledge to Europe.

Art and architecture are often the main focus when the Renaissance is being discussed today. This leaves other significant drivers influencing the development of society overlooked:

  • Humanism –  humans began to be seen as possessing a universal learning, all-round intellectual, and physical capacity. Education shifts from scholastic dominance to a broader base including the new middle class.
  • Urbanization – growing cities with growing merchant power and significant environmental pollution impacting life expectancy and agricultural production
  • Bubonic Plague – “Black Death” killed between 30% and 60%: “distinct clones of Yersinia Pestis caused the Black Death of the European population, taking the highest tolls in cities” [Haensch 2010.]
  • Ecology – increased travel, fueled by trade, caused many of the wooded areas of Europe to be completely denuded of trees.
  • Finance – the banking system collapsed when Edward IV, King of England, was unable to pay his debt.

More on the changes that happened will be presented in the The First Renaissance — 2: Changes in Society and Arts.

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