Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Renaissance Man Versus the Industrial Machine

In my continuing research for my novel, Rosaria of Venice, and its sequels, I came across an interesting book. It is titled, simply and appropriately, The Italian Renaissance, and is authored by J.H. Plumb. So far, it is at once the most concise and comprehensive resource I have found on the time period.

I find its description of the forces behind the Renaissance’s flowering of art especially interesting. Several factors, apparently, contributed to the rise of the artist in Renaissance Italy. The rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman works, and the technique behind them, is an obvious one. Likewise, the spread of education played a role. But one of the most important factors was wealth, including that of newly successful merchants.

“By 1400,” writes Plumb, “ there were hundreds of merchants in Italy, and in Burgundy, who could afford the artistic elegance that had once been the prerogative of the country’s aristocracy. And these merchants were city-born; […] their civic pride was as strong as chivalry[.]” The patronage of aristocrats, princes of the Church, and merchants cultivated the arts in every respect, and especially those which glorified the powers with which the patron was aligned. That meant aristocratic families, cities, and God.

But what is most remarkable about this period is the character this art assumed. “The circumstances of the Renaissance,” continues Plumb, “encouraged the cultivation of individual style.” Access to the arts led to a glut of artists, who had to make a name for themselves. This individualistic flair, however, did not extend only to the Michelangelos of the world. The need to incorporate an artistic flair permeated every level of society, down to the folding of pastries.

As I processed this knowledge, wondering how I might incorporate these elements with the other half of Rosaria of Venice’s setting, the Industrial Revolution, an epiphany gave me pause. I realized that the values of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution are almost completely incompatible.

Automation, standardization and economy of scale define the Industrial Revolution. The insight that a task can be broken into discrete steps and performed, with the aid of machines, by unskilled workers led to the factory and the juggernaut of mass production. The ideal of the factory renders every element of production replaceable—including the people. The goal of industry is not to create unique, unparalleled works: it is to create endless copies of a single design. Industry abhors the individual, whereas the Renaissance reveled in a panoply of them.

This inherent incompatibility between these value systems became apparent at the start of the Industrial Revolution. As factories replaced artisans, these skilled laborers protested and sabotaged industrial workshops. Indeed, it is from these people we have the word sabotage, and the word Luddite. I suspect this transition has left us with a schizoid culture. We pride ourselves on our individualism in the West, and we show that pride by wearing a nice pair of brand-name shoes nobody else has bothered to buy yet. Individuality is cheap, and you can always save big on it on Black Friday.

The face of science has changed as well, thanks to industry. Today, we see science portrayed as a cold, calculating field which robs us of our special place in the universe. Is this the aftershock of Gallileo’s championing of heliocentric theory? I think not. We tend to think of science in that fashion today because we see science go hand in hand with industry. Science and technology made industrialization possible. We simply project industrialization’s disregard for the unique role of the individual, its disregard for aesthetics, and its amoral pursuit of “progress” onto science as a consequence. In the Renaissance, on the other hand, the artist and the scientist were the same person. When Renaissance men practiced science in personal quests for the truth, it had a far more romantic feel to it.

Of course, technology has progressed so far that the Renaissance flair could return. While, on the face of it, automation makes human involvement unnecessary, it can augment human creativity when it exceeds a certain level. E-publishing, for example, has made self-publishing a viable market, and threatens large publishing houses. Yet again, the resources to learn and practice the arts are available to a broad audience. The digital age allows us to “print” books at little to no physical or monetary cost. I suspect we will have to struggle with both our warring uniformist and individualist tendencies for a while yet. Nonetheless, we may indeed be approaching a second Renaissance.


J. H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance, (Mariner Books, 2001).

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