Seeing Things As They Really Are in Renaissance Florence

We at Classical Pursuits are excited to welcome back Stuart Patterson to Toronto in July 2018. In 2016, Stuart led a seminar on Ovid’s Metamorphoses in painting, music and poetry. He recently spoke with us about his upcoming seminar, The Birth of New Powers in Florence. Participants in Stuart’s seminar will tap into the extraordinary energy of Renaissance Florence, where four world-making figures made huge strides in art, science and politics.

Melanie Blake: You’ve had a varied academic career. Would you tell us more about yourself and your work?

Stuart Patterson

Stuart Patterson: I’ve spent most of my academic career at Shimer College, which last summer became the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. With our curriculum based on the old program at the University of Chicago, my teaching and research have indeed been quite varied. By my fifth year at Shimer, I had taught the entire curriculum (sixteen different courses). This wasn’t really a goal until I had the last course in view, but I was just asked to teach all around the college’s three main academic areas: the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. It’s these three areas I wanted to bring together in my seminar for Classical Pursuits 2018 in Toronto with Leonardo and Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. Turns out the Italian Renaissance exemplifies the kind of integration of academic areas in Shimer’s curriculum!

I have a special leg up on the arts aspect of this seminar as I started my college career at art school, and on the social sciences as that is the area in which I did my graduate work (on the New Deal in the U. S. and race relations). I studied the natural sciences in college after I left art school, so I have some familiarity with those topics as well. My main research interest at present is the history and phenomenology of reading, a subject I’ve become quite familiar with at Shimer as well.

MB: Your seminar is called “The Birth of New Powers in Florence.” In your view, what are the new powers that came into being in the Florentine city-state during the Renaissance?

Niccolò Machiavelli

SP: The overarching “power” I see exemplified in the Florentine Renaissance has to do with seeing things as they really are, not as we would have them be. This is what Machiavelli says directly about his work in The Prince, and Galileo says as much in his work as well, notably the Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. Probably Leonardo and Michelangelo are still transitional figures in this respect, which will make them a good place to start our week’s discussions.

MB: Were there other Florentines you wanted to include in the seminar but did not have room for?

SP: The other truly great Florentine before those in my seminar is of course Dante Alighieri. He comes from a prior era, though for that matter, one can speak of a “renaissance” across Europe beginning even in the 12th century (marked by the rise of “high gothic” culture). It might have been possible to include some of his work, but he really deserves a seminar (or three or four!) to himself. Other Florentines of note that we may touch on in discussion are the architect Filippo Brunelleschi; sculptor Donatello; and the groundbreaking scholar of Plato Marsilio Ficino (who had a big influence on Michelangelo), among other artists and humanistic thinkers. There are also many outsize historical figures in Renaissance Florence, including the Medici, of course, but also the figure of Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly chased the Medici themselves from power, as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli all three looked on.

MB: What would you say to a potential participant who is intrigued by the seminar topic but has not studied physics in years or even decades?

Galileo Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories
at the University of Padua
by Félix Parra

SP: The physics material and discussions are designed to recapture something of the feeling a participant might have had as a child on first really grappling with big questions, such as how far away are the stars, and how does gravity work? We won’t be getting into Galileo’s math (which is mostly geometry and some simple counting) but we will look at how he comes to see one of the most beautiful proportions in all of nature, and his great contribution to physics: the relationship between time and distance in natural free fall, which comes to be known as the law of gravity based on how Isaac Newton reframes it as a universal principle governing the planets as well as falling rocks. What’s nice is that Galileo is also the one that Einstein refers to in his “principle of relativity” in offering a correction of Newton’s laws. Really, Galileo kicked off the whole project of modern physics, and we’ll see how.

MB: Today hyper-specialization seems prevalent in industry, business, science, research, and academia. Do you think increasing specialization has any effect on the cross-disciplinary energy needed for a place like Renaissance Florence to come into being?

SP: That’s a very good question that I don’t think I have an answer for. It seems to me that a place like Silicon Valley, or Seattle, has exemplified a certain kind of intensive social creativity we find in Florence, at least on the scientific or technical end of things (though Pixar movies seem to me a good candidate for rounding out that picture a bit). And despite the hyper-specialization of so much of the work in a place like Silicon Valley, it happens in large teams, so it’s almost by definition the kind of place that one incubates creative social ferment.

MB: If you could go back to any other period of great cultural achievement and dynamism, which would you choose and why?

SP: Probably Hangzhou, China, which became an intense center of creative activity in the 12th century in the Song dynasty. I don’t know it well, but I’ve recently become quite interested in Chinese thought and literature, and I would appreciate getting a glimpse of such a place, purportedly visited by both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta in their travels.

MB: Thank you to Stuart for his time and thoughts. We invite you to explore more deeply the topics discussed here in Stuart’s seminar The Birth of New Powers in Florence


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