TCS Daily

A Renaissance Revival?

By Waldemar Ingdahl - July 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Today, fine art and engineering are about as far apart as two disciplines can get. One is all about aesthetics and beauty; the other is all about functionality and measurement.


Those few people who try and bridge the gap between the two are looked on as crankish: the painter who paints pictures of steam trains, architects who put heating ducts on the outsides of buildings, science writers who wax poetic, and of course the artists who just looks at technology by only integrating a new technical media (as all of those "installations" in the 1990s showed). Most people on either side regard these efforts as futile and messy. But all of this would sound like complete gibberish to an educated child of the Renaissance.


In that era, art and science were intimately mixed. Leonardo da Vinci was a genius, but his studies of painting, mechanics and military engineering were seen as a natural set of concerns for a practical scholar. Plenty of lesser professionals moved comfortably from planning the prince's portrait to casting the prince's cannons.


Sure, this was partially because people were still laying the groundwork. It is no good to create a portrait if you can't get hold of the pigment you want, so artists studied practical chemistry. It is impossible to build beautiful buildings unless you know what will stay up, so architects were also engineers. It is hopeless to understand and shape the world if you don't look at it closely.


The old ideas that facts were all to be found in ancient texts collapsed under its own impracticality; you really have to check them for yourself.


So scientists looked about them with the eyes of artists. In another couple of centuries, the basic work was thought to have been done and the spirit of the Renaissance was drowned under narrowly compartmentalized specialization, even falling down into the hideous trap of scientism in the 20th century (as described in F.A. Hayek's book The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason). Yet the spirit of the Renaissance was also an aesthetic. Humanistic philosophy holds that all arts empower those who study them, and that the complete, refined human being should have a broad education.


The master was not a nerdish monomaniac, but a master of all the arts and sciences. The Roman writer Vitruvius said, in his De Architectura, that an architect should be "a man of letters, a skilful draftsman, a mathematician, familiar with historical studies, a diligent student of philosophy, acquainted with music; not ignorant of medicine, learned in the responses of expert lawyers, familiar with astronomical calculations..." The Renaissance took this as the picture of the true master.


Further, creation was the key -- it is what marks mankind from the beasts. The art of the age reflected this belief. In order to make art more perfect, a better depiction of reality, the artist studied a range of sciences: mathematics to perfect perspective and proportions, anatomy to understand the noblest subject matter of all, geology and chemistry to improve the choice of materials, and so on.


Today we are in many ways in the same seat of the Renaissance; the old canons are breaking down. But the old ideas of technocracy and scientism are still among us. We create gadgets, but without the spirit of the Renaissance. And we have difficulty understanding their meaning properly.


These scientific disciplines are not interesting in themselves. It is when we give them the meaning of humanism -- when we put them in perspective with ourselves -- that they gain value to us, just like the people of the Renaissance did with science and art in humanism.


We Europeans certainly do have a proud heritage to revive; too bad it was not one of the main priorities of the EU's Lisbon strategy.

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