Modern renaissance

2020 will go down as a breaking point, a time when contemporary societies from all corners of the globe were rocked by a new crisis which challenged their beliefs and prompted fresh considerations on the complexity of the natural world.

At every historical juncture, people have turned to culture for answers and each age carries within itself the spirit of the past which, according to Hegel, re-actualises into a superior form while never fully overcoming it.

The concept of a universe which expresses a harmony that cannot be resolved in a predetermined order gained ground in western thought with the demise of cosmic determinism, in the vein of a secular ontological problem, governed at all stages by the constant striving to understand the world and by the fear of what is mysterious and unknown therein.

In his metaphysical musings on humans, the divine and substantial forms, Leibniz lucidly observed that “when a rule is too complex, what conforms to it appears to lack any rule”. The examination of the universe and its laws – amid intuition and dogma, generalisations and empirical approaches – has thus often trembled in the face of the unexpected “butterfly effect”, that flapping of wings able to trigger a tornado, suggesting that it is impossible to represent the order of things, and understand their interactions.

In Greek cosmology, chaos was the disordered and indeterminate whole of the elements that pre-dated the wonderfully organised cosmos.

It could be said that contemporary humans live in Cowan’s deterministic chaos, in systems that could be termed divergent and whose evolution over time is not linear and often so sensitive as to be, de facto, unpredictable.

In this context of more or less ordered disorder, Gianbattista Vico comes to mind, a man fundamentally always true to himself throughout changing situations, who without further questioning the meaning of life, was able to carve out a unique and authentic role with his “New Science” in the renaissance represented by humanism in the aftermath of the great torments and lacerations of the end of the 14th century.

Parallels with the mid-14th century epidemic that reached Europe via the Eastern trade routes, which wiped out one third of the population of the time, are hard to resist. That extremely challenging juncture nurtured a surprising richness of thought which presaged the great reawakening, expressed by intellectuals such as Petrarch drawing on the torment of their personal lives, in the new words expressed in their imaginary dialogues with the great writers of classical antiquity.

The personal reflections on life and death contained in Familiar Letters1, for instance, offer an ideal bridge with that posterity2 which gushed forth in the greatest period in the history of humankind, not only in the western world, which was the Renaissance.

The image that we have used to represent a unique juncture in the history of humankind, such as the one we are living through, is that of The Ideal City3, left to the Court of Urbino and humankind by an anonymous artist.

It provides an iconic representation of the urban ideal as that pursuit of stylistic, spiritual and social perfection emblematic of renaissance thought, a utopian purity, an ideal non-place which is at the same “pause, break, the destiny of the world”4). 

“When it rises, bearing a literary system, it opens the doors to what we call history. Its rebirth in Europe in the eleventh century marked the rise of the small continent; when it blossoms in Italy, it is the Renaissance. Thus ever has it been since cities have existed, from the city states of classical Greece, the medinas of the Muslim conquests, right through to the current time.”

The merging of antique art and modern spirit marked the advance of the Renaissance5, of which Boccaccio and Petrarch were emblematic, bearers of a new intellectual light in a reawakening world. Antiquity and modernity intermingled to open up a new historical period, with “a new spirit (…) to once again take flight, guided by the immortal geniuses of Greece and Rome, to give life to all great men and to all the works of the Renaissance”.

  1. Petrarch, Familiar Letters, 1345. 

  2. Petrarch, Letter to Posterity, from “Seniles”, 1367. 

  3. The Ideal City (Città Ideale), 1480 – 1490, attributed to various artists, from the Santa Chiara di Urbino Monastery, later (1861) held at the Urbino Istituto di belle Arti, which became the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche (1912). 

  4. Fernand Paul Achille Braudel, Il Secondo Rinascimento. Due secoli e tre Italie, Biblioteca di cultura storica, Turin, Einaudi, 1986. (translation of the translator 

  5. Adolfo Bartoli, (studio di), I Precursori del Rinascimento, Sansoni ed. Firenze, 1876.