Three Golden Ages: Discovering the Creative Secrets of Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, and America's Founding

Three Golden Ages: Discovering the Creative Secrets of Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, and America's Founding

by Alf J. Mapp

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In this intriguing book, best-selling author Alf Mapp, Jr. explores three periods in Western history that exploded with creativity: Elizabethan England, Renaissance Florence, and America's founding. What enabled these societies to make staggering jumps in scientific knowledge, develop new political structures, or create timeless works of art?


In this intriguing book, best-selling author Alf Mapp, Jr. explores three periods in Western history that exploded with creativity: Elizabethan England, Renaissance Florence, and America's founding. What enabled these societies to make staggering jumps in scientific knowledge, develop new political structures, or create timeless works of art?

Editorial Reviews

Using three periods in Western civilization as his launching point, the author examines characteristics of extremely creative societies and explores the facets which link them. After identifying key elements (e.g., a steady economy, recognized intellectual leaders, and tension between tradition and experimentation), he discusses the implications that knowledge of these elements could have on contemporary American thought. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
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6.48(w) x 9.44(h) x 1.61(d)

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Chapter One


WAS THE OLD MAN dangerous or only harmlessly crazy? Like many other fifteenth-century Italian merchants, Ciriaco was an itinerant, ranging far from his native town of Ancona. But his travels were more extensive than those of most of his counterparts. He wandered through Greece and even through Egypt and the Middle East. Was he some sort of spy? Probably not. He seemed to spend most of his time around ancient monuments. He purchased gems and statuettes, and that was understandable. But he was more eager in the collection of old manuscripts and the copying of hundreds of inscriptions from old stones and bronzes. His interest was not likely to be scholarly. He did not have the formal education of a well-trained churchman. He labored in the flawed Latin and Greek that he had taught himself.

    Was he seeking esoteric formulas amid the records of magic practiced in forgotten times? Many of his fellow merchants, though they could spare little time for such speculations, were not disposed to dispute the existence of arts of necromancy by which the satanically inclined could control their fellows. More likely, though, Ciriaco was simply insane, foolishly dreaming that he could exercise powers that were God's alone. What better evidence than his own words? When asked why he pursued such unusual interests, he said, "To wake the dead."

    Verification of his claim came in the six volumes of copyings and commentary that were deposited in the Sforza Library in Pesaro after his own death. He had indeed been waking the dead, in the sensethat he was enabling them to speak again through the writings that he preserved and made available to scholars. But as one of the most active Italians of his time in bringing to light forgotten writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, he was also helping to wake the living. He was a founder of the Italian Renaissance, one of the liveliest and most fruitful cultures that the world has ever known.

    Ciriaco has been overshadowed by later Renaissance figures, including such giants as Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Correggio, Michelangelo, Verrocchio, Giordano Bruno, and Machiavelli. But Ciriaco was sowing some seeds of the Renaissance before these people cultivated it as their garden. And he was so much in the vanguard that his death in 1452 preceded by one year the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, which was once considered the beginning of the Renaissance. More commonly cited now is 1440, the approximate time of the invention of printing. The familiar argument for 1440 could be strengthened a little by citing the fact that it was also the date of the founding of the Platonic Academy in Florence. Of course, ages are not conveniently partitioned in easily recognizable fashion. One might as well attempt to demarcate with straight lines the beginnings and ends of currents of air and water. But there is an appropriateness in Ciriaco's primacy or near primacy. The Renaissance was not simply the creation of professional scholars, artists, patrons, and statesmen. The Renaissance was an ethos to which many elements contributed. The vitality of a society can never be only a prescription promulgated by intellectuals or a priority project of the governing.

    Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), commonly known as Petrarch, is usually hailed as father of the Renaissance. And certainly this poet, scholar, lawyer, ecclesiastic, diplomat, and reviver of classical learning so exemplified the spirit of his age and so energetically gave it impetus that he deserves a special place in any account of the period. A little later, Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), also called Aretino, gave form and substance to the inspiration of the Renaissance. Through his elegant Latin translations from Demosthenes, Xenophon, and particularly Plato and Aristotle, he made the Greek classics accessible to many of his countrymen. His biographies of Dante and Petrarch helped Florentines to appreciate their own Italian heritage, as did his work as a historian. A true exemplar of Renaissance versatility, he was for seventeen years Chancellor of the Florentine Republic.

    But actually the Renaissance had many progenitors--artists, philosophers, business people, politicians, many of them playing more than one of these roles. The age had not only many fathers but also some notable mothers. Witness those who graced the faculty of the very progressive University of Bologna, which in the fourteenth century became the first institution of higher learning to offer classes in anatomy, a fitting symbol of its human-centered curriculum. Novella d'Andrea became one of the leading lights of this great center of learning. And she did not trade on her beauty. Indeed, tradition asserts that it was a handicap. According to an unverified, but persistent, account she had to wear a veil while lecturing so as not to hinder the male students' concentration on her words.

    When one talks about periods of unusual cultural fruitfulness, the Italian Renaissance always springs to mind. The suddenness of the burgeoning is sometimes exaggerated because of a mistaken notion that the Middle Ages were barren. But, even allowing for the continuity of medieval influences, it must be admitted that Italy in the Renaissance affords an almost unparalleled example of vigor in almost every field of cultural creativity.

    Though Daniel J. Boorstin wittily calls the "Age of the Renaissance" a mid-nineteenth-century invention, he seems to be intentionally hyperbolizing to counter overly enthusiastic interpretations that have made the period the matrix of everything modern. Admittedly, Jules Michelet's Renaissance in 1855 and, even more, Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860, together with other works inspired by these, first made educated westerners conscious of the Renaissance as a defined entity. But the two great nineteenth-century historians found abundant evidence to distinguish the period not only from the Middle Ages but from most other eras. And, within the narrow compass of the Italian city-states, this zenith of creativity was illustrated not only by the domed magnificence of Saint Peter's, the gold, crimson, and cerulean treasures of the Uffizi, the muscular saints and sibyls guarding sarcophagi, and the populous heavens of the Sistine ceiling; the multifold magic of polyphony and the modern musical notations that allowed the eye to speak to the ear; and the poetry whose harmonies rivaled those of music itself. It was marked not only by the beginnings of modern historical scholarship, the revolutionizing of the study of anatomy after twelve centuries of stagnation, and the simultaneously liberating and enthralling advent of what became Newtonian science. Creativity was also signalized by such more mundane changes as the development of cursive writing, the birth of banking and the holding company, and the start of statistical science.

    The Renaissance stands apart in other ways. It furnishes one of history's most convincing illustrations of the political institutions of a society reflecting the cultural ethos. For the particular purposes of our investigation, it offers special advantages; there is perhaps no more dramatic revelation of the simultaneous operations of tradition and experiment. In Renaissance Italy are written large the same factors essential to the vitality of any society. If we can discover why the combination of this time and this place presents such a dramatic surge of vitality, we shall have obtained valuable clues that can be applied in the consideration of other societies.

    It is fitting that use of Renaissance as a proper noun, beginning in continental Europe in the fifteenth century and entering English in the 1840's and in isolated instances in the 1830's, should have given currency to its use in the 1870's and ever since as a common noun. It is not that one period of rebirth should have been memorable enough to separate it from others by capitalization but rather that one period so designated should be so preeminent as an age of renascence as to lead to lowercase applications to other eras sharing some of its characteristics.

    Of course, the Renaissance was played out on a larger stage than Italy. All of western Europe was the scene. As Eugene F. Rice, Jr., has cogently observed, "The most remarkable technological innovations of the Renaissance were printing with movable metal type, the use of gunpowder to propel cannonballs and bullets, and important advances in shipbuilding and navigation. In none of these was the contribution of Italy indisputably central." There was a brisk traffic in ideas as well as commerce between northern and southern Europe early in the fourteenth century, and it is impossible to assign sole responsibility for many important creations of the period. Nevertheless, the relative compactness of the Italian theater of developments and the intensive scholarship devoted to them make the Italian Renaissance an almost ideal subject for the study of a burgeoning culture. Besides, it can be argued convincingly that, although northern Europe was then as fruitful technologically as the Mediterranean peninsula, its artistic efflorescence was surpassed by Italy's.

    Though the Renaissance reached much of Europe as late as the fifteenth century and continued in England until the middle of the seventeenth century, it began in Italy in the mid-fourteenth century and flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth, fading rapidly with the dawn of the seventeenth century. Of course, no single factor can account for this extraordinary period of two and a half centuries in Italian history. Scholars have suggested a variety of causes--economic, political, and cultural.

    It was once fashionable to ascribe the inception of Italy's Renaissance as much to economic expansion as to any other factor, but this view now seems an overstatement. Eugene Rice has cited this very epoch as an illustration of the fact that "a generalized prosperity is not always" one of "the conditions that nourish periods of cultural brilliance." He and others have pointed out that the bubonic and pneumonic plagues, between 1348 and 1377, "halted more than two centuries of European demographic and economic growth" at the very time that the Renaissance was being born. A sharply diminished population and a decline in markets and production made even the fifteenth century largely a period of economic retreats and rear-guard actions.

    So much for the theory that prosperity pushed the Italian states into the Renaissance! But to admit that this was not the case is not to dismiss economic factors. They were quite important and, as is so often true, were inextricably interwoven with the political and cultural.

    The old argument frequently ran that, with the formation of well-based governments in the city-states, a period of relative political stability succeeded one of near chaos. This stability, it was said, made possible a flourishing economy that nurtured arts and scholarship. There is a substantial measure of truth in this oversimplified accounting.

    Italy was so infested with cruel petty tyrants in the fourteenth century that this period in its history might be called the "Era of the Despicable Despots." Unlike France, Spain, and England, in each of which the feudal system evolved into a centralized monarchy, Italy became a seething mass of independent states--some principalities and some republics--obeying the decrees of the Holy Roman Emperor in spirit only when it suited their own purposes and to the letter only when it might injure their rivals. As Burckhardt said, "The Papacy, with its creatures and allies, was strong enough to hinder national unity in the future, but not strong enough itself to bring about that unity."

    Absolute power in civilized societies is a fiction. In any large and complex organization the leader, though perhaps not limited by constitutional provisions, is nevertheless dependent upon the cooperation of some individuals, not all of whom can be coerced through fear. Concessions, even though unstated, must be made by the ruler as well as the subjects. The reign of Louis XIV of France is often cited as a supreme example of absolute monarchy, but an examination of the record reveals that even the Sun King could not always have all that he wanted whenever he wanted it. Nevertheless, when one talks about new approaches to complete autocracy, some of the Italian states of the fourteenth century must be high on the list. And the record does nothing to refute Lord Acton's famous maxim about absolute power tending to corrupt absolutely. The cruelty of the little dictators persisted, in some cases, into the fifteenth century and was whetted by the reverses pushing them to extinction. When the last tyrant of Padua was surrounded by his enemies in 1405, his guards heard him quite literally call upon the Devil as his most likely ally. In 1409 Giovanni Maria, tyrant of Milan and soon to be assassinated, had two hundred of his subjects executed for pleading for peace. He forbade anyone to utter the word; even Catholic priests were required to substitute tranquillitatem for pace in the regular forms of worship. Such conduct is not especially surprising from a man who kept dogs for sport--not for hunting, but rather for the pleasure of seeing them tear apart the bodies of his enemies. Behavior of rulers in some major states was no less cruel and bizarre. Ferrante of Naples had many of his opponents murdered, some while dining as his guests. But he feared no Banquo's ghost at the dinner table. He had his favorite victims embalmed and kept them, arranged in the clothing they had last worn, as his permanent guests.

    Popular revulsion against some of the rulers, together with a struggle for aggrandizement among rival states, resulted in the deaths of some states and annexation of others. New governments emerged from class conflicts of byzantine intricacy. At last there remained only five large and strong political entities: the Papacy, the Kingdom of Naples, the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, and the Republic of Florence. The old savage tyranny survived in such cities as Rimini, Urbino, Mantua, and Ferrara, independent domains of warlords strong enough to ravage the countryside but too weak to do more than annoy their stronger neighbors.

    The pope was honored in his domain as the viceroy of God. But the rulers of the other four great city-states had a more mundane origin. Victors of many years of class strife, they were merchant-princes. The regal accoutrements of successive generations invested them with the aura of aristocracy, but they long remained close to their beginnings in trade. And it was well for their countrymen that they did. Their imaginative concepts of commerce made a far better basis for cultural advancement than an adolescent predilection for unnecessary combat. They were no strangers to the egoism that had sent their predecessors forth to hunt for trophies on the battlefield, but they collected status symbols of another sort, becoming patrons of the arts. They sponsored paintings, sculptures, and works of literature that became their advertisements of achievement in life and their monuments in death. Furthermore, their resourceful response to the problems of dwindling commerce assured the cosmopolitanism of the culture they supported. They encouraged merchant-citizens to seek out new trade routes, to find customers in the whole Mediterranean world, and to bring back to their own people the artifacts of Eastern culture. Ultimately, the exchange of ideas became even more important than the barter of goods.

    Though the concept of balance of power among sovereign states may not have found precise expression before the sixteenth century, it was a reality among the Italian city-states early in the Renaissance. The situation was one in which some artists and scholars suffered professionally and personally for unwise transfers of allegiance from one ruler to another but the bonds of diplomacy were sufficient to make such changes possible for many and advantageous for some. New learning and new techniques traveled rapidly among the political communities of the peninsula.

    One consequence of contacts with the Arabs in the search for new products and new markets was the rediscovery of Western classics long neglected in the Christian society of Europe. The church, in many ways the most conspicuous institution of medieval times, had preserved some of the great Greek and Latin writings, especially those that could be interpreted as prophecies of the Messiah or otherwise precursors of the New Testament. But Arab scholars had preserved some that the patient copyists of the monasteries had never seen. Thus the continued study of classical literature as part of a medieval tradition was given new impetus by association with the Arabs. As this process involved viewing a familiar heritage through the eyes of another culture, the effect was simultaneously to nurture Italian society through a long tradition and to stimulate it with new adventures of esthetics and intellect.

    The Italian Renaissance owed its existence to four principal factors: the rise of city-states ruled by merchant-princes; the necessity and the stimulus for seeking distant markets, which furnished new ideas as well as new products (particularly those derived from the Arab countries); the enthusiastic rediscovery of classical writings; and the inclination of the chiefs of state to become patrons of art and scholarship.

    This last factor is important not only because it increased opportunities for artists and scholars but also because it added secular sponsorship to the patronage of the church. The church had kept art and learning alive in the Middle Ages despite the indifference of many and the invasions of barbarian landsmen and Viking raiders. Though the constructive role of the church in the preservation and promotion of culture far outweighed any negative aspects, its censorship was in many instances inhibiting. The secular princes of the Renaissance also insisted that their preferences be honored, but at least they brought a change of criteria and did not maintain across political borders that uniformity of criteria often so efficiently enforced by the Holy Catholic Church. For these reasons, the change in sponsorship was liberating.

    No one should underestimate the creative strengths of the Middle Ages. They not only produced important paintings and sculpture but soared to remarkable heights in the illumination of manuscripts and the astonishing glories of Gothic architecture. But whereas the medieval scholar or illuminator was almost always a tonsured monk bent over his task in a cell in monastery or university, his Renaissance counterpart was more likely to be a layman and was quite as likely to be found in his own study or studio as in any monastic chamber or papal palace. Some were civil servants of highest rank. Their dependence in so many instances upon the patronage of merchant-princes may have allied them more often than was desirable with the rich and powerful, but the system nevertheless fostered a great deal of individuality.

    The transition of the Renaissance, however, was not a severance from the Middle Ages. Typical Renaissance humanists were not in rebellion again religion. They were quite prepared to echo the sentiments of the Hebrew psalmist: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge." They wished to read the scroll of the heavens and to study with every device of God-given intellect the greatest work of the Deity--humankind.

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