Lessons from the Renaissance

In 1503, the much awaited clash of the titans was to take place in the Salone dei Cinquecento, the imposing chamber of Palazzo Vecchio in Italy. Piero Soderini, an Italian statesman commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint Battle of Anghiari on one wall and Michelangelo Buonarotti, the Battle of Cascina, in the opposite wall. Even though the artists were contemporaries, they had never competed directly before. Both of them lived in Florence and had a strong dislike for each other and thus this contest was eagerly awaited for the people expected  this contest would push each artist to produce his best.

They worked on the initial drawings, but  both did not complete the task. Leonardo was known for not completing most of his projects and he turned his attention elsewhere. Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo   to Rome for an even more prestigious project – to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Thanks to the work of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Brunellesci, Donatello, and Rapahel and writers like Erasmus, Francois Rabelais, and Shakespeare, there was a resurgence in art, philosophy and literature from the late 13th century, which we  know as Renaissance.

Renaissance fostered an atmosphere in which value was placed on human excellence, demonstrated with real examples that  have set the standards for the modern age. While sitting through a lecture on Renaissance, the question in my mind was: Are there lessons we can learn from the 14th century Italians? Can we also achieve that level of greatness?

If you take a course in Western Civilization you will find that world history is divided into three periods – ancient, medieval and modern. The period we live, the modern period, starts with the Renaissance, which brings to our mind the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio, the Last Supper and La Gioconda of da Vinci, and The Last Judgement of Michelangelo. It was also the time when the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica was designed by Michelangelo and that of Santa Maria del Fiore by Brunelleschi and the time when sculptures like David, and  Pietà came to life.

This explosion of creativity was not restricted to paintings and sculpture, but happened in the intellectual field as well. There was the rise of humanism, a philosophical outlook which encompassed human dignity and potential. Francesco Petrarca‘s philosophy, which said that humans had vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to the fullest  led to the intellectual flowering of the Renaissance. According to the humanists, human excellence did not require divine intervention and was possible through education, with hard work, and skill.

The Renaissance was possible due to two chief factors: the patronage of wealthy people and the revival of ancient Greek and Roman learning and accomplishments.

Prosperous businessmen like Cosimo de’ Medici and Lorenzo de’ Medici played leading roles in the cultural life of the city and art served as a focus of civic pride. Isabella d’Este, the wife of Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, was a collector of Roman sculptures and commissioned many sculptures in antique style.  The upper class members competed for artists and encouraged competition among artists resulting in events like the contest between da Vinci and Michelangelo. The Popes also commissioned works of art and many artists rose to prominence.

Artists, thinkers and writers were influenced by the ancient learning of Greece and Rome. The Renaissance artists were fascinated with the cultural forms of ancient Greece and Rome and they were in favor of recovering and applying that learning in their own time. The ancient texts were originally considered lost, but were found preserved in monastic libraries and in the Islamic world as well. 

The Renaissance writers restored every Roman manuscript they could find. They read Homer and Plato  in the original. Petrarch, who was drawn to Cicero, was unsuccessful in learning Greek, but he encouraged his students to learn it and emphasized that education should be wisdom combined with eloquence. The works of Plato, Cicero, Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy provided new intellectual material for the Europeans.

In 1400s Brunelleschi and his friend Donatello visited Rome to see the ancient ruins. They undertook measurements of the Pantheon and other Roman buildings and incorporated some of that that  in their own designs. The ancient ideal of beauty was the nude, and for the first time since the fall of Rome, artists started studying anatomy resulting in David and The Dying Slave.

The Quattrocento artists incorporated the classical style thus abandoning the contemporary Byzanthine style. Ovid, Senecca, and Plutarch enriched Shakespeare’s mind and imagination and from Virgil he took stories, thoughts and similes and bought to life people of the classical period like Antony, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

The humanists did not want to take Greek and Roman culture and apply it directly in modern times. They were very clear that the literature was based on the values of those times. What they liked about the ancient literature was the clear and graceful style and insights into human nature. The ancient texts provided a guide to on how to live well and perform one’s duties and it was clear to the humanists that to write well and speak well, it was necessary to know the classics. They studied the texts in the ancient context and analyzed them critically.

The case in India is shows a completely opposite picture. Macaulay and the Evangelical gang had utter contempt for Indian culture and were convinced of Western superiority on a purely racist basis. These genes were inherited by  the enlightened natives who to this day consider disowning Indian culture as their mark of being  modern. The “eminent historians” remind us constantly that our spiritual heritage came from Aryans (who conveniently came from the West) and the natives created nothing worthwhile. Even when something great was done by the natives the credit went to the westerners.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “It is my firm opinion that no culture has treasures so rich as ours has. We have not known it, we have been made even to deprecate its study and depreciate its value. We have almost ceased to live it. If we do not follow our culture, we would be committing suicide as a people.” The first criterion for Renaissance — wealth, is currently being generated in India. We now need to decolonize our minds to appreciate our classics. That is one of the starting points for a true Indian renaissance, which according to Aurobindo will be, “a new age of an old culture transformed.”

  1. Published as part of Blog Bharti’s Spotlight Series
  2. Many thanks to Sandeep for his edits and valuable inputs

[1] Western Civilization Volume 1
[2] Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
[3] Biography – Michelangelo

[4] The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature

One thought on “Lessons from the Renaissance

  1. While I find your website very interesting and informative, I thought it worthwhile to draw your attention to a curious story I came across elsewhere on the net about St. Thomas the Apostle: – I quote :-
    The worship of Thondachan, a Hindu family deity, by a particular lineage of Nairs (native martial clan) of Malabar, Kerala, and especially the manner and ritual of this worship is noteworthy. Though a family deity, Thondachan is never worshipped within the Nair household. Nor has this deity been ever given a berth among the pantheon of Hindu gods at any of the Hindu temples presided over by the Brahman priests (called Namboodiris). Thondachan has a special altar built outside the Nair family compound, where non-Brahmin priests perform rituals. While Chaamundi, Vishnumoorthy, Pottan, Rakteshwari and Bhagavathi became the non-Aryan non-Brahmin deities for the village folk of Kolathunaad (an ancient province of North Kerala) along with other primitive spirits and folk-heroes, Thondachan has an even smaller following among a select Nair clan. It is believed, that up to the present day, altars for Thondachan’s worship exists in the Cherukunnu area in Kannur (Cannanore) district, especially in the lands surrounding old tharavad houses (ancestral mansions) of the Nairs.
    When Thomachan (the apostle St. Thomas, – achan, signifying ‘father’) came ashore, landing at Maliankara near Moothakunnam village in Paravoor Thaluk in AD 52, (this village located 5 kilometers from Cranganoor (Kodungallur), Muziris, on the coast of Kerala), some of his followers as well as other sailors and merchants were suffering from a severe form of scurvy. Thomachan himself suffered from a sore throat which he chose to ignore, and which grew steadily worse, until no voice emanated from his lips for many days. A local Jew named Matan took the weary travelers to a local Nair tharavad (locally known as Kambiam Vallapil), in the province of Kolathunaad, a territory comprising the present Cannanore District and Badagara Taluk of Kerala State.
    It is said that at the time of Thomachan’s arrival at the Nair tharavad, the Nair karnavar (landlord or head of family) lay injured from a grievous wound that had been inflicted upon him in a feudal duel. Upon seeing this, Thomachan sat beside the injured man and meditated, laying his hands on the man’s head, his throat, his chest and his groin. Immediately the karnavar felt relieved from pain, and his healing was hastened. Within a day he was up and about, his wounds nearly healed.
    In return, the Nair household offered shelter to the strangers and called upon their family physician to cure the scurvy that the travelers suffered from, as well as Thomachan’s severely infected throat. Nellikaya (Emblic Myrobalan or Indian Gooseberry) based potions prepared by the tharavad was used to cure the sea-worn voyagers. In an act of gratitude, Thomachan is said to have blessed them, and gave them four silver coins saying, ‘May these coins bestow my guru’s blessings upon you and your household, for take heed when I tell you that the money I pay you today is anointed with the blood of my guru’.
    This holy man, Thomachan, is believed to have related a curious story to the members of the tharavad, which has been passed down the ages.
    Before he set sail from a seaport in the region called ‘Sanai’ somewhere in the western seas, he had witnessed the persecution of his guru, who was tortured and nailed to a wooden cross and left to die. He spoke of how his guru returned from his ordeals three days later, fully cured. His guru handed him the silver coins saying, ‘my body was sold with these, and now they have been returned to me, all thirty pieces. Put them to good use, as I have. Though you shall choose to travel by sea, I shall meet you again in the mountains of the land where you will finally arrive.’
    The Nair tharavad later migrated further north to the Cherukunnu area of present day Kannur. They referred to the four silver pieces as ‘rakta velli’ (blood silver) or ‘parindhu velli’ (parindhu for eagle, as one face of all these four ancient coins bear the figure of an eagle). They also decided never to utilize the silver as it was the custom then not to part with the gift of a guest.
    Over time, and with the advent of Christianity, the significance of the four silver coins received by the tharavad was understood, but family history is still obscure as to whether Thomachan possessed, or what he did with the remaining twenty-six pieces of silver his guru gave him.
    This Nair family never converted to the Christian faith as did many others in that region. Subsequent migrations of Nair clans continued throughout history, but the story of the four rakta velli pieces was passed down the generations, as did their veneration for the holi sanyasi Thomachan, (later called Thondachan, a nickname perhaps coined from the story of his sore throat, -thonda for throat. Another story goes that the name Thondachan was adopted in the early 16th century to avoid persecution by the Portugese). Thus by a curious turn of events, the apostle St. Thomas was transformed into a Hindu deity for an ancient Nair clan of Kerala.
    A present day member of this family is still in possession of the four pieces of silver. i have seen the four pieces and have identified them as the Shekels of Tyre, a common coinage of Judea of the time of Christ.
    The link to this site is : http://www.fathersofthechurch.com/2007/05/21/hindu-traditions-of-st-thomas/
    Another link carrying the same story is :
    I hope you find the story interesting.On my part, I am only keen to locate and verify the existence of these coins.
    Warm Regards,
    Bjorn Lidwig

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