HISTORY OF IDEAS - The Renaissance

HISTORY OF IDEAS - The Renaissance

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the phenomenon known as the Renaissance is one of the standard stops on any tour through the history of Western culture it encompasses a roughly 300 year period in Europe we're architects poets and philosophers reconnected with the style and ambitions of ancient Greek and Roman civilization the reasons for studying the Renaissance nowadays are often left a bit unclear to the high-minded and respectful the rationale may seem utterly obvious or to the more impatient or
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technologically focused the exercise can equally well appear a complete waste of time we believe that the main reason to study history is to rescue certain good provocative and inspiring ideas that have been lost in the past in order to put them to use in relation to the dilemmas and problems of our own times our tour of the renaissance while seemingly about some old long dead guys will hence really be about us florence italy 1469 a 20 year old nobleman from
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one of the grandest families of florence lorenzo de medici takes over the family business the Medici bank that's been going since 1397 and is the most respected financial institution in Europe with flourishing branches in Florence Venice Rome and Geneva Lorenzo like his uncles and his father before him has a great gift for business during his lifetime the bank will open new outposts in Basel Bruges Avenue and Pisa and lend significant sums of money to Royal cords aristocrats and entrepreneurs Lorenzo and his family are
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typical of the Florentine upper classes of his age in honoring the business of making money without any of the traditional suspicion of trade found in most Christian societies but not only are the Medicis interested in making money they are also extremely ambitious about how to spend money they believe that the express purpose of what we would now call philanthropy is to promote beauty truth and wisdom in the world Lorenzo de Medicis grandfather had started the collection of books that became known as the Medici library and
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Lorenzo now expanded it decisively with his searchers scouring europe's monasteries courts and libraries for lost or overlooked texts from antiquity Lorenzo was a patron of many philosophers including motsi Leo fechino Paulo Tiano and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola under his guidance these philosophers undertook pioneering researches into Greek philosophy they absorbed the ideas of Epicurus sino and Aristotle and try to harmonize plato's theories with Christianity Lorenzo is perhaps best known as a patron of art his court
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artists included Pharaoh Keough Leonardo Botticelli Joel and IO and Michelangelo the patronage was extremely intimate and involved Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo and his family for five years dining at his table and participating in discussions led by marci Leo Fujino although the Medici were quite rich by modern standards their fortune was a relatively moderate one across four crucial decades from the 1430 to the 1470s it's estimated that the Medici family spent the equivalent of around half a billion u.s. dollars on
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intellectual patronage architecture and artworks which is a huge sum by comparison with average incomes but it's not very substantial by comparison with the wealth of the richest people today the Medici family resources would be roughly those of Rosetta Calf errata whose wealth from a fisheries business in Peru is around 1.5 billion u.s. dollars she's at present the thousand 200th richest person in the world Lorenzo would seem economically unimpressive next to Giorgio Armani 8.5 billion and a nonentity next to Bill
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Gates 79 billion money was important to what Lorenzo and his family achieved no doubt so in that respect the world is amazingly well placed to continue in his footsteps there's no shortage of money to do the sorts of things he did but what's holding us back today is a shortage of vision for the price of this yacht Lorenzo fueled the Renaissance for 30 years a secret to the Medicis impact was that they didn't see themselves as they're simply to hand over the cash to allow artists architects and scholars to do whatever they wanted the Medicis had
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a vision a mission for the Arts and for philosophy and were extremely direct and didactic in putting it forward usefully so guided by his philosopher friend Fujino Lorenzo thought of art as a kind education under his patronage artists were there for us to illustrate key philosophical truths about say the importance of kindness and compassion they promoted serenity and glorified the best qualities of the state and of good leadership the Renaissance would never be remembered if its leading members had
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simply made piles of cash no one cares about that for any length of time the real source of its glory was the imagination and intelligence with which its great bankers and financiers set about spending their money Monastery of folder' Germany January 14 17 an Italian scholar and humanist Biagio Brett Shalini is on a tour of Germany in Switzerland looking for lost Greek and Roman manuscripts he is spending a few weeks in a Benedictine monastery hunting around the dusty shells of its great library when in a forgotten nook he
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makes one of the great discoveries of the whole Renaissance he comes across what still remains the only surviving manuscript of Lucretius de rerum Natura on the nature of things which gives us the most complete account we possess of the philosophy and worldview of the Greek philosopher Epicurus broccolini and his circle are astonished Epicurus has hugely valuable ideas about the human passions happiness religion communal life and science this is only the highlight of a career spent rescuing lost manuscripts in time Brad Shalini is
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to go on to discover key texts by cicero quintillion and Vitruvius when he couldn't by text he wasn't averse to a little skullduggery to get what he wanted he famously bribed a monk to abstract a copy of Livy the Roman historian from the library Herzfeld Abbe in Germany Brescia Leaney was hugely interested in classical texts but he was not a scholar as we would understand the term that is someone who wants to investigate the past for its own sake and respects the inherent nobility of old books the Renaissance attitude to history and philosophy was very
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different its intellectual leaders took a relentlessly practical view of things they wanted first and foremost to run their societies successfully to make their people wise and to build magnificent cities the epicurean philosophy broccolini dug up with his emphasis on friendship simplicity and the acceptance of limitations wasn't exciting to him because it was old but because its wisdom was still needed he wasn't looking for age idea so he could fill in missing details about how the past used to be perhaps in order to gain a professorship in a
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university broccolini was urgently searching for help in creating better ways of thinking for the present central Florence 1484 michelotto de batalla Mayo one of Cosimo de Medicis favorite architects completes the family home the palazzo medici just near the city's new cathedral michelotto has studied Roman antiquities closely and the building's tripartite elevation beautifully expresses the characteristic Renaissance spirit of rationality order and harmony this is a golden age of construction in
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Florence Leon Battista Alberti has done the facade of the Church of Santa Maria Novella Brunelleschi has put up the speed a little in eternity and the city's new cathedral dome and many less well-known names are completing squares fountains and thoroughfares the same is true for the other great Renaissance cities of Siena Venice Abbey no band over in Rome city fathers across the Italian peninsula have fallen in love with a remarkable new idea that their cities should be the focus of an unparalleled attention to beauty it's slightly embarrassing to contrast these efforts
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with our own mess a sentimental view says that the Renaissance city fathers made nice places because they were lucky they didn't need to plan for cars they didn't have zoning laws and they happen to have access to good quality building materials like lovely stone you can get from quarries outside Florence however successful urbanism is never an accident for the Renaissance it was a philosophical mission the Renaissance built such great cities because of an idea that we are to a large extent shaped by the character of the buildings around us making sure that the public
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realm conveys dignity and calm is more than a luxury it can help to ensure the sanity vigor and happiness of a whole population what's more the Urbanists and architects believed in rules they didn't think it was chance that a city looked good they wrote volumes codifying what works and what must be avoided in their efforts to systematize and in their careful thinking about what makes a good street corner pavement or bench they put our own efforts at urbanism to shame they believed in ideal dimensions for squares that a square should be small enough that a mother can call from an
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upper window to her child playing at the other side they thought that all good squares should have large elaborate fountains in the middle but that the surrounding buildings should mostly be fairly plain they knew that buildings should be around five storeys in height and there should be graceful covered arcades so that citizens could amble in all kinds of weather Renaissance leaders like the Medici were marked by the views of the ancient Roman historian Sallust who'd been deeply hostile to a situation that had developed in the decadent periods of Rome where there had been in his words public check against us prevent him or
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pawlenty a public squalor and private opulence Sallust believed and the renaissance leaders hugely embraced his idea that in a healthy society the public sphere itself should be opulent that is beautiful refined and appealing that way the richer people in society will never be tempted to withdraw and concentrate exclusively on their own private estates and comforts and all citizens will be uplifted by a pleasing vision of communal life it's a tribute to these efforts that there are still very few cities on earth nicer than
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those created over a few hundred years on the Italian peninsula but it's also testimony to our desperate lack of ambition and vision that we can count on one hand the number of cities constructed since the Renaissance that are prettier than say Florence or Venice ideally we wouldn't have to be so impressed by Renaissance cities we'd be inspired to arrival and equal their achievements in the architectural idiom of our own times ferrari church venice 1488 a 58 year old Venetian painter
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Giovanni Bellini completes a triptych featuring in the central panel baby Jesus and his mother Christian artists have been painting this scene for many centuries but things have only become this powerful and convincing in the last hundred or so years here the two Mary and her little boy have looked stiff often gaunt and wooden but with Bellini Jesus is just like a real little boy a kind we might see looking at seagulls on the Lido down to his stocky legs slightly swollen tummy and searching eyes Mary feels equally alive vibrant and deeply attractive and interesting we
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can imagine her melancholy thoughts and Intuit her kind sympathetic and dignified nature if there was some child care available it might be lovely to invite her out to the gelée Grum just a few steps away from the fiery church it's often been remarked how odd and wondrous it is that so many geniuses of art came to the fore in such a short period in one place Renaissance Italy gave world civilization Donatello Frangelica with cello Masaccio Filippo Lippi Leonardo Michelangelo fail Titian and so on how did it happen how do you
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get so much talent in one go it's arguable at every age has roughly similar amounts of latent talent among its artists what makes certain ages extraordinary one thinks of the Golden Age of Athens Holland 19th century France or 1960s America is that they know what to do with the talent they give artists a mission they have a clear sense of what art is for and they therefore reward and invest in artists properly or distinguishes the Renaissance is not therefore a freakish preponderance of artistic skill it's an intensely clear
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vision of what art should be for the Renaissance could be described as a heroic age of advertising yet the focus was not on selling consumer goods it was on selling beauty truth and wisdom the energy we still feel behind their art arose from a coherent ideological programme the Renaissance wanted to put painting in the service of ideas and to make these ideas palpable effective and life-changing one thing the Renaissance was constantly advertising his philosophy philosophers were in the minds of many then as now rather
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abstract and remote figures so the Renaissance got one of its most talented artists Raphael to lend them a bit of life on the walls of the Vatican to show us Aristotle and Plato and others as belonging to a group of glamorous fascinating individuals for his part Titian was employed to convey a central philosophical message about the brevity of life in his three ages of man existence is depicted as desperately fleeting the child is soon an adult in the adult soon ages and in retrospect it all seems to have occurred incredibly fast which makes it essential that we
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use our time properly that we forgive one another for our frailties and focus on our potential while there is still time but Titian and his patrons knew that most people don't care to think about how brief life is that's where art comes in and has the huge advantage over philosophy Titian starts with things that everyone the Renaissance already liked sexy couples and cute baby angels the picture is designed to take you without you even noticing it's happening into an interest in philosophy so that you naturally start to engage with matters of life and
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death the move is a bit like that made by the best adverts of today that hope to get you subliminally interested in buying a chocolate bar or an SUV while charming you with a beautiful couple or a sublime landscape only in the Renaissance the philosophical end goal of art was worth the effort the Renaissance concept of art as advertising for the great truths was underpinned by an ideology worked out by the philosopher ma Sileo Fujino the figure who taught Lorenzo de Medici and spoke to Michelangelo at dinner every
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day for many years Pacino argued that we are all creatures who love and love is attracted first to beauty so whatever we wish people to love we must first make beautiful and beauty is first encountered as sexiness so the path to the highest possible human ideals tends to go down a complex route first to sex then to beauty and then to love with such a theory to hand and its impact on the art of the Renaissance
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cannot be overestimated Pacino was able to use what we might term sexiness lust glamour and celebrity to serve the most noble and high-minded intellectual ambitions rather than being relegated as they often are in our own times to selling handbags or mobile phones never before or since have so many big ideas been so beautifully and often sexually treated by great artists Fujino and Lorenzo de Medici were fascinated by the idea of getting Botticelli to engage our sexuality in order to excite us about
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ideas that they thought were most useful to humanity that's why there are an awful lot of very cute people in Botticelli's work the hugely alluring figures in his Primavera are for example thoughtful kind and serious and sometimes rather sad they're filled with tenderness towards human sorrows and failings and a keen to remind us of the need to appreciate the cycle of life they're also highly seductive you don't have to believe in the virtues to want to be like them but because you instinctively want to be
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like them you will therefore aspire to be virtuous this genius move shared by philosophers like Pacino rich political leaders like Lorenzo and artists like Botticelli was to line up our basic desire on the side of the good so that we become kinder and sweeter and more intellectually ambitious not because we've rejected all the charms of the world which hardly anyone ever can but with the help of all the charms of the world instead of abandoning beauty and sexiness to vanity and silliness the leaders of the Renaissance deeply
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scholarly and earnest people seize these and use them to their own ends it's this move above all that helps to give the art of the Renaissance its mission drive and coherence and means the art is still so charming to us today in our society the Renaissance has a lot of prestige we think we're being true to it by going around its main cities memorizing dates and ticking off key works but this isn't really what paying tribute to the Renaissance should mean it's not about looking at their world through our eyes
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it's about using their eyes to look at our world we should be trying to generate a renaissance in our own societies with the help of these geniuses learning lessons from them about how to spend big money perhaps aren't in finance wisely how to use the humanities to improve our lives rather than to impress a scholarly community how to devote proper energy to creating livable beautiful cities and how to harness the power of art so as to make the good things in the world attractive and desirable if rather than being just
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dutiful tourists we learn to absorb the ambitions of Renaissance leaders we might come away from a study of the Renaissance ready as all the great Renaissance figures would have wanted us to be to do the thing that really matters try to change our world for the better you

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