One of my adolescent and early adulthood fascinations was the phenomenon of rapid rise of fortunes of the Western world in the 17th-18th centuries onwards. We learn from our history and civic textbooks that it was incident to development of science and technology and the subsequent European colonisation of the rest of the world. But the big question still lingering was why science and technology did not develop in India and other older civilisations the way it flourished in the West.
In the late 1990, just after my final MBBS examination, I scouted libraries in my home town Calicut for answers. It was pre-Wikipedia era and answers were not really forthcoming. I browsed through multiple reference books in our central library, and finally got a reasonable answer from the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica-the story of European Renaissance.
Renaissance is literally translated as ‘rebirth’. It is considered the rebirth of the ethos of the antiquity of Greece and Rome. The story is that Europe had plunged into a dark period of the Middle Ages from 5th century to 15th century, when the Church had dominated Europe, and in the Renaissance, Europe ‘rediscovered’ the ethos of ancient Greece and Rome. This set up a sequence of events that lead to the development of major cultural and political changes, including the rapid development of science and technology. The fruits of science and technology gave the European powers the motivation and edge for global exploration and colonization.
In other words, Renaissance was a sort of a ‘rupture’ that set in course events that led to the divergence in the fortunes of the West from the Rest of the world.
I have seen this narrative recanted in many popular science portals and history books. The word is used liberally in multiple other contexts. We see the word ‘Renaissance’ used for the cultural awakening in Bengal in early 20th century. The state of Oman has a Renaissance day, marking the coming of power of the reformer Sultan, Quboos bin Said. Kerala’s social reformation in the late 19th century and early 20th century is sometimes called a ‘Renaissance’. It is obvious that all these adapations comes from the coinage of the era called the Renaissance in Europe. But are all these the same? Is the wide spread adaptation of this term for all sorts of social reform movements conceptually correct?
British-American right wing historian Niall Ferguson had discussed the nuances of this ‘divergence’ in wider detail in his book “Civilization: The West and the Rest”. I have done an annotated review of the book, rereading the material presented in the book taking out the biases that come from his disposition as an American imperialist.
Stripped off his biases, it is a nice documentation of the forces that operated in effecting the divergence that shaped the political, cultural and economic landscape of the world we live in.
When I visited Rome last month, I took a detour to have a closer look at the stuff of European Renaissance.
Florence is a small city in Italy. But the importance in the history of the western world far exceeds its size. It is considered
the cradle of European Renaissance. Historians who coined the term consider European Renaissance as an era when the western world ‘rediscovered’ the ethos of the Grecian and Roman antiquity. Inbuilt in the terminology is the reference to a ‘Middle-Ages’ that was dark and stagnant. The Renaissance apologists called the period as the ‘Dark Ages’.
In late 1200s, Medici, a family in Florence who made a fortune by trading in wool and later in banking, gained prominence in the public affairs. The head of the family, Ardingo de’ Medici become the Gonfaloneir, a post equivalent to that of civic magistrate. The Medici family dominated the financial and political landscape of the city-state for the next 300 years. Among many others, the Medici bank is credited with the development of the double entry book keeping system that made large-scale bank accounting seamless.2 Medici had a special relation with the Pope and handled the finances of the church. They also lent money to many warring European nations. At the zenith of the history of the family, the Medici family was the wealthiest in the whole Europe. The family made conjugal relationship with many ruling families in Europe and by 1531 transformed the Republic into a monarchy by establishing the Dukedom of the Florentine republic.1
In the early stage of the Florentine republic it was customary for business houses to fund public services for gaining prestige and privilege. The Medici family was prolific in this regard. They funded numerous artists and craftsman and built an array of landmark constructions. The signature dome in Cathedral di Santa Maria dei Fiore was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith by profession who designed the Dome by studying the ancient constructions in Rome. The interior of the dome was frescoed by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccarri. The Medicis’ financed Micheangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Rapheal who would define the European art of the era and beyond.
In 1453, Constantinople ( present day Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman, Empire fell to the Ottoman Turk invasion. This was the culmination of a campaign that spanned decades. The Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire, was not in talking terms with the Italian reigns because of a theological dispute dating back to the eleventh century. The main language of the Italian reigns was Latin, while the Eastern Roman Empire had preserved Greek as the language of scholarly communication. The conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Roman Empire almost created a scholarly embargo on many ancient Greek texts preserved with the Byzantine Empire. The threat of Ottoman invasions and eventual fall of Constantinople led to an exodus of scholars of ancient Greek from the Eastern Roman Empire. Many of these scholars settled in Florence and were patronized by the Medici family. Prior to this, Lorenzo de’ Medici had commissioned a delegation to Oriental countries to collect Greek manuscripts. The Medici family also invested in collecting scientific and measuring equipment from across Europe and the Orient.
In 1657, Leopaldo de’ Medici, the brother of Ferdinando II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, founded the “Academy del Cimento” to pursue his interest in ‘natural philosophy’. Its motto was Provando e reprovando (“by testing and retesting”) with an emphatic focus on performing scientific experiments. This is one of the first dedicated scientific societies in Europe. The members of the society studied on a wide range of items, ranging from astronomy and mathematics to anatomy, and development of measuring equipment like barometer and thermometer. Of most importance, Medici would invite Galileo Galilei to Florence and remained his patron throughout his tumultuous career. The Academy del Cimento was one of the first voluntary associations of ‘natural philosophers’ devoted to experimental investigation of nature.3
In the 12th century, as the Arabs who had occupied Europe were pushed back, there was a flurry of Latin translations of Arabic versions of the ancient Greek works especially those of logic, mathematics and natural philosophy. These Latin texts were used in the early European universities for developing their curriculum on theology, philosophy and mathematics. The biblical stories were admixed with philosophy of the ancient Greeks and a body of literature was developed for University education. The bedrock of Christian theology was the Latinized texts of Greek philosopher Aristotle. Formal education was centered on the study of various interpretation of the amalgamation of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology. The highest form of education in the Universities of the Middle Ages was theology. Most of the intellectual exercises in the Universities were interpretation and reinterpretation of the Latinized theological and philosophical texts that was in currency. This kind of curriculum practiced in the medieval universities of Europe is roughly dubbed as ‘Scholasticism’. ( for more on Scholasticism, refer to the entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Scholasticism)
Artistole’s worldview, indeed, was a common-sense interpretation of things around. It conceived of a spherical universe centered on a static earth. The planets and stars were stuck in the orbits of an onion layered-like spheres orbiting the earth (Figure ). Bodies fall to the earth because earth was the center of the universe. Heavy objects fall faster than lighter objects, and heavenly bodies- planets and stars- behave different from the objects below the moon (named as ‘sublunar’ objects) because of the ‘inherit’ tendency of heavenly objects (supralunar objects) to spin around in various layers of the heavens.
After the Turk conquest of Constantinople, the Italian scholars became increasingly exposed to the original ancient Greek texts. Independent scholars who examined these texts found errors and additions in the Latin translation taught in the Universities. They found ancient Greek works ‘human-centric’ and mostly devoid of the supernatural fanfare of the Latin versions that were available in the university curriculum. Many works like that of Plato, Pythagorus and Protogorus were discovered anew. Pythogean mathematics enhanced the status of mathematics as a discipline. Protogorus is said to have the originator of the slogan “Man is the measure of all things”, a dictum popularised later in the European Enlightenment movement, but initially scorned by his contemporaries as an argument for ’relativism’. Interests in the works of the antiquity kindled engineering projects inspired by the ancient construction in Rome and Greece.
The ‘humanism’ that emerged in the Renaissance era should not be confused with the ‘secular humanism’ of the 19th and 20th centuries that demanded separation of the church and the state.3 The word ‘humanism’ of the Renaissance era is actually a corruption of the word ‘humanists’. It just meant a group of scholars interested in the study of works of humanities of the antiquity (mainly grammar, history, poetry and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome). The Jesuits scholars were deeply involved in the process. Many Popes who reigned during the period were themselves considered ‘humanists’. They commissioned massive art works that depicted the new found fascination on ancient humanities. Neventheless, exposure to the pagan philosophies of the Greece made visible changes in the Scholasticism prevalent until then.
In 1514 Nicholas Copernicus, an administrator in a Church in present-day Poland, came up with a model with the sun in the centre and the earth rotating in its axis and revolving around the sun. This elegantly explained the issue of retrograde motion of planets ( see Figure below). The Copernicus’ model was also much simpler than the complicated Ptolemy’s model that made several subsidiary assumptions to the Aristotles’s geocentric one ( Figure above). Circulated as a manuscript, Copernicus was wary of publishing it, probably because of his apprehension about the response of the Church on the matter (as it apparently contradicted the Biblical passage that earth was essentially static).
When the Copernicus’ model was presented to the Pope Clement VII and his cardinals by one of Pope’s officials, it prompted the Cardinal of Capua, Nicholas Schonberg, to write to Copernicus to publish it as a book. Hesitant still, Copernicus chose to publish the model only towards his death. The book, “On Revolutions of Heavenly Orbs”, was available in print only when Copernicus was dead. But the book did not stir major controversies as the scholar who wrote its foreword, a clergy named Andreas Osiander, presented it as a hypothesis. The Church thought that it would remain as a hypothesis that is unlikely to be verified. Indeed, there were no known methods to verify what Copernicus postulated about the nature of the earth and the heavens. It remained an unverified hypothesis until our next character emerged.
Galelio Galilei, joined as a professor of Mathematics in the University of Padua roughly fifty years after Copernicus published his book on the heliocentric model. Although Galileo was acquainted with the Copernican model, he did not consider teaching it in his university course.
In 1608, the telescope was invented in the Netherlands. Galileo worked on the device and improved it sufficiently enough to use it for astronomical observations. His observations of the heavenly bodies would provide him with the proofs that were needed to revisit the Copernican model. Galileo found that moon’s surface is similar to that of the earth- with mountains and valleys; that Jupiter has four moons orbiting it; and Venus has phases like that of the Moon. The phases of Venus virtually disproved the Ptolemy’s model of planets.4
In the Ptolemy’s model, Venus was between the sun and the earth. Full and crescent Venus proves that it is sometimes between the sun and the earth, and sometimes on the far side of the sun, away from Earth. If it was between earth and the sun, as in geocentric model, it would always be a crescent or lesser, but not a full Venus. Galileo also found the phenomenon of waxing and waning of the brightness and size of Mars predicted by the Copernican model.
In 1610, Galileo published his discoveries in the book titled “Starry Messenger”. He dispatched copies of the book along with telescopes to rulers across Europe. The discoveries brought Galileo many endorsements including followers from the Jesuit community. Eminent scholars in astronomy and mathematics wrote in his favour.3 Soon the geostatic theory of Aristotle and Ptolemy lost support from the point of view of evidence.4 However, there were growing discontent against the geokinetic model from the theological community. There were few biblical passages that clearly stated that Earth is static. And as far as the Church is concerned the biblical passages were sacrosanct.
As the debate on Starry Messenger were creating a stir in the social circles, Galileo wrote a long letter addressing the issues concerning the alleged Bibilical objections to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, mother of his patron Cosimo II de Medici. The Duchess had raised the issue of scriptural objections to the geokinetic model to a friend of Galilio, Father Benedetto Castelli in a dinner party, which she had hosted. Castelli reported this incident to Galileo, and Galileo thought that it would be prudent that he write a detailed letter to the Duchess explaining his position on the matter. In this letter Galileo argued quoting many influential Christian theologians that scriptures need not be interpreted literally, and that nature as reveled through observation should be given precedence over what is written in the texts. He went on to state that a ‘truly demonstrated physical observations’ do not have to be modified in the light of the Bible, but rather the scripture need to be reinterpreted in the light of new evidence.6,7
This letter was circulated widely and irked the traditionalists who thought it as an arrogant affront to their theological authority. In 1614 a monk in Florence named Tommaso Caccini held a Sunday sermon against Galileo. Another monk, Niccolo Lorini, filed a complaint against Galileo with the Inquisition, the infamous office of the Catholic Church that is deputed with the task of investigating and punishing heresy. The Church constituted a committee, and in 1616 reported that Copernicanism was untenable and should be considered as heresy. It directed Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Galileo’s friend and an influential theologian, to deliver a private warning to Galileo against defending geokinetic views. The committee added censorship to Copernicus’ book and other books supporting the Copernican model. Galileo apparently promised the Cardinal Bellarmine that he would obey the Church’s dictates. The committee wrapped up the proceeding without publically naming Galelio.4
Galileo maintained his promise for almost a decade. In 1623 a Florentine Cardinal named Maffeo Barberini was elected as Pope Urban VIII. Urban was in friendly terms with Galelio. In 1616, Barberini was instrumental in preventing formal condemnation of Galelio. He was an admirer of Galileo. Galileo dedicated his book on comets titled to the Pope. The Pope was pleased and in 1624, Galileo was given an extended audience to Galileo stayed in Rome for a period of 6 weeks when he was allowed weekly meeting with the Pope. During these meetings, Galileo seems to have ascertained Pope’s opinion on the scope of the 1616 decree on the Copernican model. It appeared to Galileo that Pope was of the opinion that a hypothetical discussion of Copernicanism is harmless.
After his meeting with the Pope at Rome, Galelio started to work on his next book. He wrote the book as a dialogue between three people- one representing Copernican position, another representing the traditional geostatic view, and yet third person as an educated spectator. The book titled “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemic and Copernican”, was published in Florence with dedication to Galileo’s Medici sponsor, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.5
Although the book was well received in the scholarly circles, complaints started to pour from the religious circles. The main issue was that the tone of the book, though written as an equivocal dialogue between two sides, sided towards establishing Copernican system as the correct model. In fact, the character who advanced the side of the geostatic model was called ’Simplicio’, which many believed rhymed as ’simpleton’. Critics said that the whole exercise was to ridicule the traditional view points.
The Pope who was at that time embroiled in a major political and religious upheavals incident to the Third Years War and the Protestant reformist movement did not take the case lightly. After a commission of inquiry, the case was referred to the notorious body of Inquisition. Despite much manoeuvring by the Tuscany government, Galileo was given an ultimatum by December 1632 to appear for the probe by January 1633. In June 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy, and was put under house arrest until his death in 1642 at the age of 77.
The Medici continued to support Galileo even after the verdict of the Inquisition. Galileo pursued his experimental work during his house arrest. He completed his book, “Two Science” during this period. This volume is considered the most important contribution of Galileo. He established by means of experiment that all bodies fall at a same rate regardless of their weight. He further deduced that while a ball rolled up a slope slows down and that down the slope paces up, a ball in flat surface should theoretically move eternally unless acted upon by something. He put forth the principle of inertia, and explained the eternal motion of the planets around the sun as a fundamental property of constant motion. Here Galileo thwarted the need for separate explanation for the almost perpetual motion of the heavenly objects as in the Aristotle’s model of Universe. This was the dawn of the modern principles of mechanics. Significantly he started to use mathematics in the study of motion – an application that would revolutionize the subject-matter of physics in the centuries to come. Here, Galileo expanded the techniques used by an Italian engineer Niccole Tartaglia (1499-1557). Tartaglia was the first to use mathematics to study the projectiles of canon balls. He translated the works of Archimedes and Euclid to Italian, and applied Euclidean geometry to predict the trajectory of projectiles, building the basics of ballistics used in military sciences. Galileo adapted the methodology of Tartaglia in the study of falling bodies.3
Galileo’s concept of inertia and the constant motion of objects would be advanced by Newton after Galileo’s death. Newton synthesized his idea of gravity upon ‘magnetism’ like forces acting at a distance postulated by Johannes Kepler, another 16th century astronomer-mathematician. Soon, mathematical reasoning in physics would assume a a life of its own. This would remain as the singular most important phenomenon that revolutionised the methods of science.
In Florence there is a museum commemorating Galileo called Museo Galileo. The museum’s manual claims the collection of the scientific instruments preserved in it as one of the most important in the world.8 It exhibits the scientific equipment collected by the Medici family and the Lorraine family who ruled Florence. Unfortunately it is one of the most low profile museums in Florence. It is barely mentioned in the travel recommendation to Florence. It does not come in the itinerary of most of the guided tours. I came to know about the museum from a tour advertised in New Scientist magazine many years back. This tour titled the Science of Renaissance features Florence as the key centre of Renaissance Science. Two of the three science museums mentioned in the tour is closed down, and Museo Galileo is the saving grace of the science of the Renaissance.
To conclude, the Renaissance-era Florence did not show an abrupt ‘rupture’ from the Middle Ages as is widely claimed in the popular literature. The agents of the Middle Ages, the Church, the Popes and the aristocracy were very much part of the proud exhibits of the Renaissance movement. What is indeed revolutionary, is the works of physicist-mathematicians like Galileo and Kepler who brought observational investigations of the physical world into a solid platform of mathematics as a means of theoretical reasoning. This slowly weaned away the habits of Scholasticism that had encroached Western Universities from the time they were established. Discovery of ancient Greek ideas of philosophy on the importance human agency and ancient Roman ideas of exercise of political power inspired political ideology on republicanism in places and times as distant as in American independence movement Jefferson quoted Roman senator Cicero’s speech when he wrote the charter of American independence. Many of the American seats of power were inspired by the Roman architecture. The Capitol, the seat of US Congress, is modelled after Roman pantheon. Probably the policies of the American statecraft that demonstrate strong tendencies of ‘exceptionalism’ are modeled on the policies by which the Rome Empire wielded power. Renaissance-era political theorist Niccole Machiavelli used the ancient Rome examples of duplicitous exercise of power as the model by which rulers should work to preserve the integrity of the monarchy or the Republic. Machiavelli’s political philosophy has close resemblance to the practice of politics of the American state.
Renaissance in many ways is a mixed bag. Its a steady transition lasting for hundreds of years where the Europeans started to discover ideas which they have not been exposed during the Middle Ages. For the non-Europeans it’s an important transition period to understand, and serves to connect the dotted lines in their cultural history that is missing before ‘modernity’ was imported by Europeans as a colonial buy-one-get-two package.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Drs Sasikumar Kurup, Sabish Balan and Dhanya Jayaraj for their inputs on this entry. Our visit to Museo Galileo would have been futile without the curation of Martina whom we met at the last minute. Martina helped up to understand the provenance and the historicity of equipment displaced in the museum.
1. Hibbert C. The Medici : the rise and fall. New York: Morrow; 1975.
2. Ferguson N. The Ascent of Money. Penguin Books Ltd; 2012.
3. Principe L. The scientific revolution : a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press; 2011.
4. Finocchiaro MA, Galileo Galilei. The Galileo affair : a documentary history. Berkeley, Calif.: University Of California; 1989.
5. Galileo Galilei, Finocchiaro MA, Netlibrary I. Galileo on the world systems : a new abridged translation and guide. Berkeley: University Of California Press; 1997.
6.Galilei, Galileo. 1957. Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany concerning the use of biblical quotations in maters of science (1615). Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. 175-216.
7. Moss, Jean Dietz. 1983. Galileo’s Letter to Christina: Some Rhetorical Consideration. Renaissance Quarterly. 36: 547-576.
8. Camerota, Filippo. 2010. Museo Galileo: masterpieces of science. Firenze: Giunti.