A peep into the glorious annals of English literatureRenaissance: The genesis of the new age [Archives:2005/858/Education]

July 11 2005

The Hundred Years' War and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire were undoubtedly cataclysmic events that shook the very foundations of faith and threatened the existence of the medieval man. Interestingly that also marked the beginning of the Renaissance, or the Age of New Learning. Every historical epoch is marked by an upheaval that attributes it with a distinctive features, setting it apart from the existing socio-politico-religious milieu and giving it new traits, forging new ideas, genres and trends as a challenge to the prevailing ideology that no longer seems to be in tune with the times. The medieval tradition bred an assembly of unimaginative, narrow and fallow citizens enveloped in the obscurity of the dark Middle Ages when man was nothing but scum and God, a ruthless force, a fearful potency. Life in the Middle Ages was one long parenthesis between living and dying.

Literally meaning 'rebirth', the Renaissance was re-awakening not only from the literary point of view but also from human point of view. It heralded the reawakening of the human spirit, of enquiry, of truth. If today we are able to enjoy our status as cultured and freethinking, unbiased human beings, it's because of that radical change in the zeitgeist of the prejudiced medieval world. Vistas of new world hitherto unknown and never explored, unfolded before the eyes of the observer. The mood of the moment was an exploratory one. So the Renaissance actually refers to a complex literary and artistic movement stimulated by the study of studia humanitatis (classical literature and arts, logic, grammar, arithmetic) and artes liberaels (subjects conducive to the growth of a free human being). All these eventually lead to the evolution of the 'modern civilization'.

The Italian sculptor, architect and scholar Fillipo Brunelleschi initiated the idea on how the world should actually look to the eyes of the ordinary observer. Thus the sculptors Brunelleschi and Donatello and the artist Masaccio were the three musketeers of the era of revival. They revived the study of classical (Greco-Roman) art and literature with the aim of retracing the creative processes. They did not want to constrict their artistic inventiveness to mere imitation. Coupled with the unflinching reverence for past masters was the unwavering spirit of rational enquiry. Truth and nothing but the representation of truth was the primary concern. An accurate translation of the natural world and human actions, in pen and paper, on canvas or stone was deemed as vital. Thus the great dome of Saint Peter's Basilica and the Pantheon of Rome marked a definite break from the gothic style by presenting a new way of seeing things. Similarly Leonardo da Vinci's 'The Vitruvian Man' represented an innovative way of perceiving the human being as a proportionate and harmonious individual. Man was glorified and Nature was venerated. A holistic idea of man was born. Man was no longer an outcome of that unpardonable biblical sin. He was perceived in a new avatar- a well rounded personality with all his faculties harmoniously developed. He was now at the center of the scheme of things. Man's life was no longer at the mercy of a malevolent God. The axiomatic ideology 'from being to becoming' showed the paradigmatic shift from a theocentric universe to an anthropocentric one. The time was now ripe for the Humanists to occupy the center stage.

The German educator F.J. Niethammer coined the term 'humanism' in 1808 to form a separate group of study distinct from engineering and other sciences. But the first humanists were not educators. They were a classified group of people with independent means of livelihood or lawyers by profession. The humanists revived the scientific study of logic by doing away with Scholasticism that depended heavily on syllogism and Aristotelian dialectics. Learning by observing became their new slogan. By introducing the Active Sciences the humanists brought a sweeping change in the society. There was also the revival of classical Greek and Latin literature. It is believed that Frances Petrarch brought about the naissance of this movement and Coluccio Salutati, was its spokesperson. . The humanists stressed upon the rediscovery of lost Latin texts. The works of antiquity revived under the auspices of the humanists were those of Cicero and Quintilian. Petrarch's adherence to Augustine's Christian legacy gave a twist to the meaning of the revival. Augustine's tradition had been a strong one and it was accepted as vital and canonical in Europe in the Middle Ages before Scholasticism had obscured Augustine's philosophy into oblivion. This canon upheld the belief that one must engage in the proper study of oneself, look within and work out from within to gain salvation. This dictum later developed into the Renaissance viewpoint -'the dignity of humanity'. That humanity is something special in the creative scheme of God and it has a special relationship with Him; the humanists brought into the purview of ordinary men. Individualism, Skepticism and Secularism are the three pillars of the Humanistic edifice. The 'Renaissance Man' was the maker of his own destiny; he questioned tradition and authority and believed that life on earth is more important than life after death. Life is a blessing and it should be enjoyed. Humanism was not at all a philosophical movement; it was an edifying program for attaining deliverance, through the reading and realistic application of moral philosophy.

Protestant Reformation was one of the most influential religious movements of the Renaissance. It was a sagacious step towards revival in a multi-dimensional sense. Martin Luther championed the cause of this religious upheaval. It was his wish to establish 'truth' by contradicting the blasphemous workings of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther preached that salvation from sins could be achieved only through 'Sola gratis', the grace of God and 'Sola fides', or faith alone. The idea of buying piety was abhorred by him. Martin Luther was against the iniquity that had corrupted the Catholic Church. He wrote his famous Ninety-Five Theses as an opposition to the heresies of the Church. Posted on the doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church, these principles brought about the religious revival across Europe. They also questioned the intermediary position of the Pope as the via media between man and God.

The Renaissance was indeed an age of tumultuous transformations, anticipating modern trends and tendencies to a great extent. Be it science and technology, arts, literature, or fashion, the entire spectrum of life and living underwent an immense makeover. The Copernican Theory was a step forward in the field of astronomy. Nicolaus Copernicus's discovery influenced a lot of scientists like Galileo, Newton and Kepler. His observation that the sun is static and the earth revolves around it became the focal point of all future discoveries including Newton's Law of Gravity. The technical invention of the Renaissance began with the development of the movable type printing press. Johann Gutenberg had invented it in 1450. Other indigenous innovations of this era were the compass, cast-iron pipe, portable clock, rifle barrel, shotgun, screw-driver and wrench. The age of revival ushered in an age of thrilling adventures and explorations. Adventurers like Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Cartier, and Sir Walter Raleigh discovered new and exotic worlds hitherto unknown to the Europeans. But the grand explorer of this age was undoubtedly the Spaniard, Christopher Columbus. A learned man, Columbus knew that the earth was round. He conjectured that a ship could reach the Far East by traveling in the opposite direction. His journey by ship was the first of its kind and Columbus became the first navigator to cross the Atlantic and reach the Americas.

The artistic fervor in Renaissance reached its zenith with Da Vinci's masterpieces, such as 'The Last Supper' and 'The Mona Lisa'; Michelangelo's 'David', 'Pieta' and his epic frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican; Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus' and the works of a host of other painters, sculptors, glassworkers and carpenters. Masonry, woodworkings and lace making too gained a lot of popularity and patronage. Renaissance painting anticipated the pre-modern Impressionist cult to a great extent. The paintings show the subtle play of light and shade even in colour. The exquisite frescoes of Raphael and the expressively vibrant paintings of Titian epitomized High Renaissance. Renaissance literature was a happy mingling of aesthetics and social and political issues. The literary works of the period mirrored the society as they oscillated between the religious turmoil and the political scene of the times. Eminent litterateurs like Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare portrayed the existing ideals, people and locale with an earnest intensity. We find the 'Renaissance Man' come to life in Faustus the over-reacher. He flouts divinity, studies the damned art Necromancy, delights in hedonistic pleasures and sells his soul to the Devil. Dr.Faustus typically epitomizes the spirit of the new age. Renaissance drama in many ways is the ancestor of modern ideology. In the indecisive Hamlet and the ambitious Macbeth we find the germinating seeds of the inward thought processes, which sprouted in the 20th century as Freudian Psychoanalysis. Hamlet's “To be or not to be and his interior thinking about his own situation translates into Rene Descartes' “I am thinking, therefore I exist”. This was the first contemporary approach to the eradication of skepticism. Spenser's Faerie Queene is a fusion of romantic knight errantry, sophisticated allegory and enthusiastic Protestant moralism woven around a patriotic myth. The twin principles of human understanding and the divine spark that illumines each individual underline all Renaissance literature. It was the age of the 'Man and the Moment'.

What defines the flexibility of haute couture trends within any time frame is its mercurial nature. The Renaissance's affair with costumes lasted for about a 150 years. Every decade saw a new pattern, a new embellishment, a new fabric and new add-ons. The change from Gothic style to German in dress codes was spectacular. During the 1400s apparels exhibited medieval influences with shades of Italian Renaissance art. Women's dresses became more natural, exclusive of the lengthy trains. Flowing skirts gained popularity. The 'robe'- a dress with a bodice and a skirt attached to it, became known in the fashion scene. The 'corset', which is so much a rage in the 21st century, especially on the fashion ramp, was originally a Renaissance prototype. Rigid and long, it extended up to the waist in a conical way, so that it shaped into a 'V'. Men adopted the shortened doublet and the low-necked tunic and chemises for daily wear. The 'hose' characterized a well-dressed gentleman. In the 1500s there came an alteration in the mode of dressing. The Renaissance clothing came to be influenced by German trends. Simplicity became passe. Elaborate designs, horizontal lines and massive cuts were used to create clothes. Men's fashions became sophisticated and square in cut. Lengthy breeches, linen chemises decorated with lacy edges and frilly necks and sleeves were the order of the day. For women, it was the voluminous gown; so long the wear of characters in the domain of fairies only, became a part of the fashion statement. . The skirts were now heavily pleated with support from underneath by wire or wicker hoops. They were held in place by ribbons or tapes. This hoopskirt or 'farthingale' as it was popularly known, reached its maximum width when it was shaped like a drum or a cartwheel. Puffed sleeves and necklines decorated with lacy high standing collars and ruffs became the feminine fashion prerogative. Men too adopted something similar to suit their taste i.e. puffed trunk hose, balloon sleeves, padded doublets, and large ruff collars. As an articulate mode of flaunting individuality, Renaissance fashion reached its zenith around 1600.

Along with the classics of the Greeks and the Romans, their hair fashioning skills were also revived, reflecting the imaginative facet of the Renaissance. Women showed off their tresses, adorning them with precious stones, ribbons, pearls, glistening veils. Braiding the hair to form crowns around the head was a common style. Blonde or gold dyes were used to highlight the hair. Sometimes women amalgamated alum, soda, rhubarb and sulfur to form a type of hair dye. In Renaissance France, fashion conscious ladies pulverized flowers into a powder, which was mixed with a gluey substance. This concoction was applied to the hair. The intricate and whimsical taste in clothes during the revival gradually extended to coiffures too. Headdresses with a simple hood or a peaked one became a feminine fad and broad hats trimmed with gemstones agreed well with the men.

It is evident that a social, political and religious overhauling in the post-Medieval era led to the genesis of the Renaissance. A philosophical movement led to the dissemination of learning by challenging the intellectual monopoly of the ecclesiastical elite. The Renaissance became a secular weapon that fought the superiority myth of the Roman Catholic Church and broke the feudal cosmology replicated in the society. Niccolo Machiaveli in Italy, Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes in England, Rene Descartes in France were the architects of European Renaissance. Their philosophies paved the way for modern culture by eroding away the dilapidated power-structure of the clergy. The broad-spectrum of the society, man and nature became the focal point of contemporary life. Sophocles once remarked, “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life. That word is love.” But if seen from the pragmatic point of view it was in fact Renaissance that freed mankind from the bondage of a dreary existence.