Genius and Cultural Kitchens: Savouring the Flavours of Renaissance Florence

[Editor’s note: We are very happy to welcome Stuart Patterson back to Toronto Pursuits. His seminar promises to be a literary and visual feast of the richness of Florence from the 14th through the 16th centuries. In true Renaissance spirit, it brings together works by four thinkers whose interests and thinking could not be contained in any one discipline. Discussions will be an opportunity to dig deeply into their major works and consider how each of them shaped and was shaped by his famous city.]


Renaissance Florence: Florence in the 1470s
Florence in the 1470s


How do places like Athens in the 5th century B.C.E., London in the 16th or Kolkata at the turn of the 20th centuries turn into history’s pivot points: intensely local and typically short-lived congeries of genius that make wide and lasting contributions to world culture? And how do such centres of genius acquire their distinctive characters, the larger profiles of cities and eras that transcend any one of the individuals with whom we typically identify them, be it Socrates or Pericles, Shakespeare or Bacon, Tagore or Chandra Bose?

In his Configurations of Culture Growth, a little known but magisterial volume on just this question, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (who happened to be Ursula K. LeGuin’s father), likened the matter to an ambitious chef in her kitchen. The more ingredients she has to work with, the more she can devise new and subtler flavours and textures, whole new ways of both nourishing ourselves and pleasing our palates. Inevitably, certain patterns set in and her pantry begins to rely on a few mainstays. Invention wanes and a new hot spot arises elsewhere, but we are all the richer for having had a few reliable dishes added to our common cultural (and culinary!) diet. In short, Kroeber saw both individual and collective genius (e.g., Pericles and Athenian democracy) as cooked up out of a rich mix of cultural ingredients: ideas, habits, technical knowledge and materials, social and economic imperatives, and a high density and fluidity of relationships. In the briefest terms, geniuses are baked, not born.

But how does a wealth of such ingredients come together? In The Geography of Genius, Eric Weiner elaborates Kroeber’s argument by comparing a historical series of such places. As his title (and background as an NPR foreign correspondent) would suggest, Weiner looks at their geographies and finds important similarities. Centres of genius tend to be crossroads, social and economic, high in both human and material traffic. With this traffic come both the ingredients and social dynamism to experiment with new mixtures that make for the effervescent cultural moments that continue to fascinate us.

Renaissance Florence: Study for Leoardo's fresco of the battle of Anghiari
Study for Leoardo’s fresco of the battle of Anghiari

What of the individual flavours that make each moment unique? This is one of the questions we’ll delve into in my seminar, The Birth of New Powers in Renaissance Florence. It will feature the four most familiar leading Renaissance-men-with-one-name: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. All four will stride through the foreground as we consider some of their greatest works. We’ll begin by looking at Leonardo’s anatomical studies and Michelangelo’s David, each of which will prove illuminating in our main study of the frescoes of the great Florentine battles of Anghiari and Cascina, by Leonardo and Michelangelo, respectively. Scenes of these battles once faced each other across the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s great town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio; though both are now gone, signs of their original glory survive in preparatory cartoons by both artists (and later studies by Peter Paul Rubens). Together, these scenes formed the centrepiece of a great artistic rivalry and bespeak the fierce civic pride in Florence during the city’s heyday, which we’ll explore through our discussion of The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance. We will get a further sense of Florence’s civic and historic pride through selections from Machiavelli’s History of Florence before we turn to his masterpiece, The Prince. In our reading of this epochal work of political thought, we will see deeply into the powerful new realism of the Renaissance not only in artistic imagination but in the study of society itself.

Renaissance Florence: Galileo shows the doge how to use his telescope
Bertini fresco of Galileo Galilei and Doge of Venice

Armed with this background on Florence’s great age of artistic and political development, we will turn to consider how the city’s social, economic and geographic situation primed the great scientific discoveries of Galileo one short century later. Of this master’s great works we will read short selections from astronomical studies, including his discovery of the mountains of our own moon and of Jupiter’s moons. But our main focus will be Galileo’s physical works, including short selections from the Two New Sciences, in which he lays the groundwork of all of modern physics. And though physics may seem an odd topic for a seminar, participants will find (as I have in the many seminars I have led on his works) that Galileo’s skill as a writer will prove an irresistible invitation into considering some of Nature’s most beautiful and deepest truths.

In this way, the insights one may glean from Kroeber’s and Weiner’s studies of epochal cities (the latter of which participants may well enjoy reading as background to the seminar) are the occasion for our seminar’s study of the relationships between four great heroes of Renaissance thought and those with whom they shared the cultural feast of their city’s great flourishing. Far from diminishing our four heroes as mere products of inscrutable social forces and the blind machinations of history, our discussions will help us see how such larger forces in human life are given shape by those fortunate and skilled enough to harness them into new forms of art, politics and science.

I hope you’ll join me for The Birth of New Powers in Florence

– Stuart


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