Circa 15th century to 16th century
The Turks’ invasion of Constantinople (the capital of the Church in the East) coincided with the diminishing authority of the popes over people’s lives. The papacy was in no position to control a population more than ready to embrace a culture that preached moderation, compared to the outrageous lifestyle of the popes and their entourage. The Greek revival reached all of Europe, influencing artists, architects, writers, intellectuals, doctors and scientists.
Traders in the port towns of Venice and Genova as well as the merchants in Florence made fortunes off goods that came from the East, for example the de' Medici family who also owned one of the biggest banks in Europe. The merchant class became a powerful third party along with the popes and the kings. The de' Medici hired translators and mentored scholars to study the Greek philosophers. They solicited artists to paint portraits and mythological scenes, independent of the canons of the church. For the most part Greek texts had been saved from oblivion by the Arabs and the Persians, and qualified translators were well paid celebrities (they mostly worked in teams). Many were from Spain as the country had been occupied by the Arabs for centuries. Pierre le Vulnerable translated the Coran into Latin. “Know your enemy,” he said.
The healthy economy of the period was also due to the Black Plague, apparently originating from rats off boats anchored in Marseille that killed Europe’s poor. Good labor was in demand and the prosperity that followed brought about a new social structure with a strong middle class. To protect their interests the liberal professions formed guilds, similar to unions. Banks were set up in Florence (starting with the de' Medici's bank) that loaned money to the Church and to nobility alike and financed excursions to new worlds.
The sudden opulence had some people thinking God must only love the rich.
Painters of the late Renaissance, such as Michelangelo and Botticelli, had religious misgivings and returned to religious compositions epitomized by Raffaello's "triangle" rule. Botticelli destroyed his paintings representing Greeek themes, only a few survived. Michelangelo scorned the rules set by the Academy and experimented by deforming his subjects. His work inspired other young artists. The academics said they had an attitude and were called Mannerists. Mannerism was a turning point in art history where emphasis is on the object rather than the subject matter: art for art. With this new concept came the profile of the tormented artist searching for ways to express his emotions.
The Renaissance - from the French word re-birth from the original Italian Rinascimento - lasted less than a hundred years and went through three stages: Early, Middle, and Late. It appeared at the end of the Crusades and after a plague that decimated Europe's poor. All of a sudden skilled labor was in demand which gave birth to the middle class, and capitalism.
The early Renaissance was the discovery stage prompted by the humanists of the 14th and 15th centuries who encouraged the study of the classics. The most important early figures were St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. The major contributors in the 1400s were Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and Erasmus. After the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople, Byzantine scholars migrated to Europe which prompted Ficino to set up the Platonic Academy in Florence.
After Ficino's death Cosimo de’ Medici kept the academy open but the initial passionate drive of the classic revival, which caused one scholar to commit suicide after fire from a candle destroyed his work, would become an attempt to put the classics in a box with strictly enforced rules. Towards the end, in a fit of religious superstition, artists gravitated back to religious themes.
Avicenna and Averroes
Two scholars are mainly responsible for bringing Aristotle back from his medieval grave. Avicenna, or Ibn Sina (born 980) from Persia, who traveled to Spain with Aristotle’s books on medicine and the natural sciences, and Averroes, or Ibn Rushid (born 1126) a physician, lawyer and philosopher from Cordoba, Spain.
The scholastics of the 11th century had attempted to adapt Hellenic rationalism to Catholic faith but they were fundamentally dogma-oriented. Church repression of anything that even remotely questioned Christian doctrine was severe and, when push came to shove, it was best not to fool with it. The heavy hand of the Inquisition was everywhere. Roger Bacon went to prison ten years for his mathematical observations.
Bacon’s work was labeled as a heresy by Pope Nicholas IV but internal divisions in the Church, continued antagonisms with the kings and the fiasco of the Crusades had weakened the papacy. By the 14th century more and more people were questioning the Church leaders’ motives and lifestyle.
The Egyptian Plotinus (born 205 AD), most likely inspired by sects in India and Persia, had taken Plato’s theories to an even higher esoteric level. After studying philosophy in Alexandria, Plotinus opened a school in Rome where he taught the values of meditative thought and the importance of giving to those in need. He preached a virtuous life as the way to fulfill man’s true nature.
Plotinus believed that self-realization was not possible through the thought process, but something that happened in the soul when a person was ready to let go of the material world. He described the phenomena as Emanation, where a Divine Mind containing all intelligence sends off rays. Below the Divine Mind - or Logos - is the Soul World, linking the intellect to the physical.
Following Plato’s Theory of the Cavern the more we turn our attention towards the Logos, the stronger the energy towards the divine mind (awareness.) On the other hand, if we focus on temporal wealth the stronger the pull towards the decaying material world. Purification, study, and the release of physical constraints are the means by which we can draw ourselves ever closer to the redeeming light.
If Plotinus was inclined towards the metaphysical his method was based on the rational conclusions of the earlier Greek philosophers who believed in the existence of one, indivisible, primary source. After Plotinus died his student Lamblichus left Rome and opened neoplatonic centers in Syria, Athens and Alexandria. The proximity of the East and its esoteric cults brought Neoplatonism even closer to mysticism.
In 529 Emperor Justinian closed the academy in Athens. The Alexandrian school was less inclined to mysticism than the Athenian and Syrian academies, and taught Aristotle as well as Plato. The only woman philosopher mathematician we know of, Hypatia, was in this school.
Aurelius Augustinus was born in the mid 5th century in Algeria under Roman rule. His mother (Saint) Helen, a devout Christian did her best to influence his decision to embrace Catholicism. Helen, from certain accounts, was the archetype Mediterranean woman who threw herself into her religion as a consolation for all the suffering she had to bear as a wife. However, her greatest grief was her only son who would not embrace Christianity. A negligent husband and a pagan son were too much for her failing heart.
As a young man Augustine had been seduced by the writings of Cicero and the Manichean religion in Persia. His initial attraction to the Manichaean theory of duality was replaced by a Platonic view of the universe and he ended by adopting neo-platonic philosophy.
Distancing himself from the Manis’ belief in the equal forces of good and evil, Augustine sided with the neoplatonic concept of goodness as a unique, primal source, delegating evil to the material world of contradictory emotions and perceptions. In his book The City of God, citizens live in two communities. One community is ruled by God, unchanging and based on virtuous values. The second community, ruled by men, is unstable and irrational.
Augustine was instrumental in saving Plato’s works from the same fate as the other Greek philosophers during the Middle Ages, and adapted many of Plato’s concepts to Christian dogma.
School of Athens by Raffaello, 1510
The phenomenal artistic and intellectual surge that defined the Renaissance put an end to the totalitarian atmosphere enforced by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. The era of the Crusades had opened Europe to ancient Greek culture which had been labeled by the popes as heretic. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 the Vatican went through a serious identity crisis, and was not in a position to stop the flow of knowledge.
If the initial purpose of the Crusades was to protect Constantinople and Christian pilgrims from the Muslims, the underlying strategy was to overpower the Ottoman stronghold in Jerusalem. In the last crusades the spiritual pretense was abandoned altogether as European nobility seized cities along the Mediterranean towards Asia Minor. Products from the East were in demand and Italian port towns prospered.