What is a renaissance?

Exploring lessons from the Italian Renaissance, an exciting update about CR's online course, and an invitation to join my conversations with Niall Ferguson and VDH!

Gracious readers,

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community! I’m so grateful that you’re here. Today, we’re going to explore:

  • What is a renaissance? Lessons from Florence

  • An exciting update on the Civic Renaissance course!

  • Join my conversations with Niall Ferguson and VDH at the Classical Wisdom Symposium!

What is a renaissance? Lessons from Florence

The word renaissance derives from the word “re birth” in French, and has come to describes golden eras of human achievement across time and place. History shows again and again that recognizing human dignity, cultivating human potential, creating time for leisure, and investing in the creation cultural institutions such as art and education leads to a flourishing of human achievement.

There are many examples of renaissances across human history. The concept of renaissance is far too rich and important for us to limit to one era alone.

  • The Bronze Age (3000-800 BC) was followed by the renaissance of the Greek Archaic period, which produced the first Olympic Games, the first use of a Greek alphabet, and the creation of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. In fact, the word archaic itself means something similar to what we understand as renaissance: it comes from the greek work arkhē, meaning the beginning of something new.

  • Athens under Pericles’ rule is considered a “golden age” for the Greek city. Dated from roughly 480 to 404 BC, this period began after the end of the Persian wars and concluded with the death of Pericles during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. This roughly 75-year period is a remarkable testament to human ingenuity. In philosophy, this is the period in which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught and wrote. In theater, this era gave us the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—as well as the comedies of Aristophanes. In history, the athenian golden age gave us the historical analysis of Herodotus and Thucydides. In architecture, this epoch saw the construction (orchestrated by Pericles) of the beautiful Acropolis and Parthenon, which to this day symbolize the greatness of Athen’s culture, society, and way of life.

  • The Carolingian Renaissance was led by Charlemagne’s investment in culture and mass education.

  • There’s also the Bengali Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance—and so many others.

  • And finally, there’s the most famous renaissance: the e Florentine Renaissance, that connotes the age of Petrarch, Brunelleschi, DaVinci, Machiavelli, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael.

There are certainly more renaissances that just the Florentine one, but there is a reason that the Florentine Renaissance has captured the hearts, minds and imagination—including mine!—of people for hundreds of years.

Let’s explore some lessons we can learn about what a renaissance is from Florence’s example.

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Lessons from Florence’s Renaissance

We’ve explored Petrarch’s influence in starting the Florentine and Italian renaissance in his life in the 1300s by revving an interest and passion for the literature and ideas from classical Greece and Rome.

But it is several decades later—in 1401—that is often thought of as the date of the Florentine Renaissance’s beginning.

The Medici’s—a wealthy banking family whose influence on the Florentine renaissance we’ll explore shortly—held a contest for artists in Florence to create the doors of the baptistry of the Duomo in Florence. This contest is often dubbed as the event that ushered in the Florentine Renaissance.

An artist named Lorenzo Ghiberti, won the contest, and you can enjoy the magnificent fruits of his labor by viewing the doors even to this day if you visit Florence.

Another gentleman, named Filippo Brunelleschi, had also entered the contest, but did not win. Brunelleschi, however, went on to create another cornerstone work of art in the Florentine Renaissance: he created the magnificent dome atop the Florentine Duomo.

He did this by rediscovering architectural technology that had been lost to history for nearly a millennia. There had been no dome like the one Brunelleschi created for the Duomo since classical times. But—very much int he spirit of the renaissance of rebirth, revival and renewal of classical ideas and wisdom— Brunelleschi rediscovered and revived the ancient architectural technology that allowed for the Duomo’s dome, which had also commissioned by the Medici’s, to finally be completed.

Lessons from the Medici family

What are the ingredients for a renaissance? We’ve explored many of them here at Civic Renaissance.

  • Humanism—reclaiming the potential and possibilities of of the human person. The Florentine Renaissance wanted to re-claim life on earth, and validate the “here and now.” The renaissance rebelled against a defining tenet of the Middle Ages: its emphasis on the afterlife. It aimed to reclaim humanism, human dignity, and human potential, and invest in education and the arts to invest in cultivating the fullness of our humanity.

  • Human dignity—a recognition of the inherent worth of all persons as intrinsically morally equal and deserving equal respect and opportunity in life.

  • Leisure—or Dolce far niente, “the sweetness of doing nothing,” as the Italian saying goes. The the Greek word for leisure was scholē. This word describes a concept of leisure that was prized in Ancient Greece and was central to the unprecedented flourishing of human ingenuity in Periclean Athens. Scholē is also the origin of a modern word and concept that we are all familiar with: school.

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Another ingredient in creating a renaissance is patronage.

Across renaissances in history, we see the importance of elites investing in cultural institutions and in opportunities to help people cultivate their talents and ability through art and education.

The Medici family did this for Florence, and personally patronized and supported the work of a generation of artistic geniuses such as Michelangelo, Botticelli (who was basically a member of their family), Raphael, and many, many others.

(By the way, I loved the mini series on the Medici’s—called Medici— which used to be on Netflix. I highly recommend if you can find it!)

The good news is that, today, we all have the opportunity be patron of the arts and education. As a wonderful essay in The Economist observed, with platforms such as Patreon, Kickstarter, and even Substack, among many others, we are all the “new Medici’s” and have the chance to support the creators we care about investing in. This is an important part of creating a renaissance today.

Supporting creators used to be the purview of the elite.

Not anymore.

As we think about the ingredients for a Renaissance, I hope we can recognize that we each have a role in ushering in a new era of revival and rebirth today.

Civic Renaissance: Beyond nostalgia

Many nations have “golden eras” to which they harken back. But we cannot be content with nostalgia. This is why Civic Renaissance is explicitly present and forward thinking: reviving the best of the past to make our life here and now, and our future, better.

Civic Renaissance draws inspiration from the long tradition of civic humanism. Civic humanism emerged during the Italian Renaissance and extolled a high view of humanity while reviving the ideas of classical Greece and Rome.

The Civic humanists weren’t content with a contemplative life of reading and translation alone. They were inspired by human excellence and sought to cultivate the fullness of our human potential—through a pursuit of beauty, virtue, goodness, and truth—in every realm, particularly the public square.

And that is why I’m thrilled to share with you a special announcement about Civic Renaissance’s upcoming course!

An exciting update on the Civic Renaissance course!

Thanks so much for those of you who took the time to vote on the course ideas I’ve laid out in past issues! I’ve closed the poll, but it’s not too late for you to write to me with ideas for future courses…

I’m excited to share, however, that based on your feedback, I’ve selected the topic of the first course!

I’m working incredibly hard putting together the content of the course, as I want it to be meaningful for you.

I want to empower you with these the ideas from the wisdom of the past, and to share with you some of the books and insights that I think can help us all lead more meaningful lives. I want to explore these ideas and book along side you!

A classic is any book you get can return to and get soething new out of it. I’ve read these works and want to re-read them with you to gain new insights into the human condition, and the life well lived.

Stay tuned for future updates about the course launch later this month!

Join my conversations with Niall Ferguson and VDH at the Classical Wisdom Symposium!

I’d love to invite you to join my conversations with Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson on Aug 24th!

I’m thrilled to be moderating a discussion with these two prominent public intellectuals, Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson, in back to back conversations as part of Classical Wisdom’s Symposium this month. At Civic Renaissance, we care about engaging people and ideas even when we may disagree with them. This is because it’s often in these exchanges that we learn the most! What is there to learn from people already agree with entirely?

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I hope you feel the same way and consider joining us—even if you disagree with the ideas of these thinkers.

Learn more about the Symposium and how to join us here!

Below are the other speakers and moderators.