Our Michelangelo moment: how to protect the legacy of our own Renaissance
The authors of a new book draw parallels with the Renaissance to argue progress and reaction have always coexisted but we must protect our achievements from extremists
The parallels between Michelangelo’s era and our own are giant, and striking. Columbus’s voyages of discovery, the fall of the Berlin Wall – both events highlighted the breakdown of longstanding barriers of ignorance and myth, and heralded fresh, planet-wide systems of political and economic exchange. The Gutenberg press, the internet – both shifted the whole of human communication to a new normal
The crises that pervade our present world can seem overwhelming. But step back, take a deep breath and realise: we’ve been here before. With courage, we can thrive again.
If Michelangelo (1475-1564) were alive today, he might find many of the big anxieties that plague our present moment – Isis, Trumpism, resurgent xenophobia – familiar.
Contrary to popular imagination, the Renaissance he inhabited 500 years ago was not some magical moment of universal beauty. It was, rather, a tumultuous Age of Discovery – marked by historic milestones and voyages, yes, but also wrenching shocks. His world was tangling together in a way it had never done before, thanks to Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press (1450s), Columbus’s discovery of the New World (1492) and Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to Asia’s riches (1497).
Genius flourished under these conditions, but risk flourished, too. Terrifying new diseases spread like wildfire on both sides of the now-connected Atlantic. The Ottoman Turks – backed by a new weapon, gunpowder – conquered the eastern Mediterranean for Islam in a stunning series of land and naval victories that cast a threatening gloom over all of Europe. Martin Luther (1483-1546) leveraged the new power of print to broadcast blistering condemnations of the Catholic Church, igniting religious violence continent-wide. The church, Europe’s ultimate establishment power, had endured many prior challenges to its authority. It split permanently under this latest strain.
The parallels between Michelangelo’s era and our own are giant, and striking. Columbus’s voyages of discovery, the fall of the Berlin Wall – both events highlighted the breakdown of long-standing barriers of ignorance and myth, and heralded fresh, planet-wide systems of political and economic exchange. The Gutenberg press, the internet – both shifted the whole of human communication to a new normal: information abundance, cheap distribution, radical variety and wide participation.
The present is not a repeat of the past, but nor does humanity reinvent itself with each new generation. Circumstances change; technologies change; but human nature remains more stable, and that is why we can peer back into history and bring back many vital lessons for the present.
One of the most urgent is how to understand and respond to extremist movements, both terrorist (Isis) and political (Trumpism, Brexit, the rise of the AfD in Germany), that are suddenly, shockingly tearing apart the threads of our tangled world.
Fervent prophets, empowered by new technologies, terrorised the Renaissance, too. In the 1490s, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a mid-level friar from Ferrara, exploded from obscurity to enthrall the population of Michelangelo’s own Florence with an apocalyptic message that blamed corrupt spiritual and temporal leaders for the world’s rising iniquities. A second Flood was nigh and only in the spiritual Ark that he himself would build could people be spared.
Savonarola’s power, completely out of proportion to his social position, took reigning authorities by surprise, and within a few years he and his zealous supporters seized effective control of the city. He ran it as a strict theocracy, with Christ as its king, and with gangs of radicalized youth enforcing his moral dictates in the streets. In early 1497, as a public act of moral purification, he directed his cohorts to gather up all the tangible evidence of this strange new age they could lay their hands on – immoral books, heretical texts, lewd paintings and sculptures – and set fire to the lot in an event that became known to history as the Bonfire of the Vanities.
We can learn a lot about contemporary extremist movements from the ashes of that historic bonfire. And we need to, urgently, because these movements threaten to reverse the leap forward that humanity is just now making. Lest we forget, now is also the best time in history to be alive. A person born in 1970 has seen the world’s population double and aggregate per-person wellbeing increase some 40 per cent in his lifetime. There are twice as many of us, and we’re all better off: for any civilization, that’s a giant win. Meanwhile, our medicine has increased average life expectancy by more in the past 50 years than in the previous 1,000. Our engineering is beginning to scale up the uncanny phenomena of the quantum realm and package them into transformational computing and sensing technologies. Our astronomy may someday soon make the most significant discovery in human history: life (in at least microbial form) on other planets.
These are all history-in-the-making achievements. And they are all fragile. Powerful as our present-day scientific and creative efforts may seem, they are social phenomena, heavily dependent on an open global exchange of merchandise, capital, people and ideas – and that means we can end them. When the political far right gains a popular mandate to reverse society’s opening up to immigrants and global responsibilities, or when the far left persuades the public to reverse society’s opening up to trade and private enterprise, we all risk falling far short of the possibilities that the present moment invites.
In the last Renaissance, flourishing genius coexisted with sudden catastrophes and new conflicts people did not know how to solve. But people persisted, and in the midst of such ugliness they built beauty and achieved breakthroughs that we still know and celebrate, 500 years later. It is their vital legacy to future generations.
We are, right now, navigating similar storms. What will our legacy be?
Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, is published by Bloomsbury