Generation 466, 1300-1320. The language of the heart

This generation saw the work of two towering figures of Italian culture, who in their fields paved the way for the Renaissance which reached its high point two centuries later. And even when it is not acknowledged, with the perspective of now we can see the genius of islam finding new expression in their work. In my view two Italians brought an extra dimension to that islamic clarity of insight: one of sentiment.

Giotto di Bondone was an artist and architect. His work was considered so important and innovative that the council of Florence took time out from its internal squabbles (which had escalated to civil war) to award him a salary. For inspiration he went back to the source – he drew from nature. Although his paintings portrayed christian themes that had been depicted many times before, he filled them with people we can identify with: people experiencing emotions which show on their faces.

640px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-31-_-_Kiss_of_Judas This panel from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua shows the moment of betrayal, when Judas kissed Jesus.

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-36-_-_Lamentation_(The_Mourning_of_Christ) And here is grief, even on the faces of the angels, as Jesus’s body is brought out of the tomb.

Although Giotto had antecedents, nobody had painted like this before. It speaks of individuality, of individual emotion. It set a new path for western art.

The Koran forbade depictions of the human form (as did the bible – an issue that resurfaced during the Reformation), so there are no direct inspirations from the islamic world for Giotto’s breakthrough. However, a case could be made that the spirit of enquiry that Giotto espoused can be traced back to the study of the created world, of learning from nature, that was such a strong theme in arabic learning.

The other towering Italian innovator of this generation was Dante Alighieri. He wrote a comedy (so-called not because it was funny, but because it was written in the Tuscan dialect rather than Latin), a poem describing his descent through the levels of hell, back through purgatory and heaven, guided by the poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, the lady he worshipped from afar. This theme can be traced more directly back to islamic culture. Mohammed’s night journey tells the story of his travels through the seven levels of heaven (hence the modern expression ‘in seventh heaven’) guided by the angel Gabriel. Alighieri’s mentor and guardian, Brunetto Latini, had been ambassador to Toledo, where the Kitab al Miraj had recently been translated into Latin as the Liber Scalae Machometi, “The Book of Muhammad’s Ladder”. A copy of this book was found in Dante’s library.

Dante-alighieri This portrait of Dante, heavily restored, is attributed to Giotto.

However, as with Giotto, Dante brought something else, something more. Mohammed was the prophet, a world-changer, the man the angel Gabriel communicated with. Dante was an exiled Florentine citizen, an ordinary person, someone like you and me. When he travelled through the layers of hell he met people he had known in his lifetime, including Brunetto Latini (who was in one of the circles of hell on account of his homosexuality) as well as characters from the past.

There is a theme of personal responsibility here that chimes with the personal emotions shown in Giotto’s paintings. Actions have consequences. If you do not want to end up in one of the circles of hell, take account of what you do.

There was another world-changing event that happened during this generation. The French king, Philip IV, was ambitious and short of funds. In 1306 he expelled the Jews from his lands, a heavy-handed way of cancelling the debts he owed to Jewish financiers. He also owed money to the Knights Templar. On Friday 13th October 1307 he had them all arrested on charges of heresy that were almost certainly fabricated. It is a measure of how shocking this event was that 700 years later, Friday 13th is still considered an unlucky date in the world where the Templars lived. And Philip didn’t even get his hands on their money. The pope, who was by this time in France and very much under Philip’s thumb, held out as long as he could before bringing the Templars to trial. When their order was dissolved, he bestowed all its property to another religious order of knights, the Hospitallers. There have been conspiracy theories and stories about this event ever since, but it reads to me like the actions of an unscrupulous politician: an opportunity to get rid of a threat to his power and maybe get hold of some money.

The background for this generation was that the climate was changing. In the spring of 1315 it hardly stopped raining in northern Europe. The summer continued cool and wet. There was no food to eat. The famine continued from the British Isles across to Poland over the next years too. It reached its nadir in 1317. People abandoned their children. The story of Hansel and Gretel, in which a woodcutter’s second wife abandons her stepchildren in the wood, may date from this time. Crop yields did not recover for ten years, until 1325. And a generation later there was the Great Pestilence, during which even more people died. The population of Europe, which stopped expanding at the time of the Great Famine, then started to decline dramatically.

Generation 468, 1340-1360. The plague years

For this generation, the civilised world centred around the Mediterranean Sea, from the kingdom of Granada in the west, through the city states of Italy to Constantinople and Damascus in the north and Cairo to the south. From there it stretched eastward through the islamic world to Baghdad and beyond to Persia, where the greatest astronomical observatory in the world, the Maragha observatory, had been in existence for a hundred years.

It was a world of fading glory, too. Granada in Spain was all that remained of the islamic kingdoms of al-Andalus, where a couple of hundred years  previously Corboba had been the largest and most vibrant city in Europe, attracting visitors from the barbarian lands  north of the Pyrenees to watch and marvel at the cultural mix of moslems, jews and christians there. Further east, the inhabitants of Constantinople still thought of themselves as Romans, inheritors of the empire from over a thousand years earlier. But the empire had gone and the city and a small area of land was all that remained. Further east still, Baghdad had been a centre of learning for many centuries, combining wisdom from India, Persia and Greece. It was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, and never really recovered.

New empires were rising, though. The Mameluke sultans in Cairo were descended from slaves from north of the Black  Sea who were brought in as soldiers and bodyguards. After halting the Mongol advance into Syria, one of them seized the throne to establish a new regime under which Cairo flourished. Ibn Khaldun was very impressed with it, as we saw in generation 469.

But the Mongols kept coming. In 1347 they attacked the trading posts north of the Black Sea. This area was controlled by traders from Genoa, and centred on the town of Caffa. From there they loaded grain and slaves for sale at ports in the Mediterranean. The Genoese traders fled to their galleys, taking with them some unintended cargo. Fleas in the bales of cloth and on the black rats in the holds of the escaping ships were infected with bubonic plague, which is endemic among rodents in some parts of the Mongol homeland.  The first city to feel the effect was Constantinople, after the ships docked at the Genoese port of Pera just outside the city, and the rats escaped. Many of the inhabitants who did not immediately succumb to the plague ran away, carrying the infection with them. A slave ship travelling from the Black Sea reached Alexandria, the port of Cairo, with most of its passengers dead of the plague when it arrived. Another Genoese ship  docked in Messina in Sicily, and brought the plague to the island. Within six years it had spread to most of Europe, from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. China had already felt the effects of it, when the Mongols invaded a generation earlier.

It was devastating. If you lived in a town or city you either had the disease yourself or your family and friends did. It was usually fatal. The population of Europe did not recover to pre-plague levels until over a century later. And Europe was a different place afterwards, in unexpected ways.

Take the clothes people wore, for example.  Before the plague most people wore linen hose or breeches, a tunic and a straight overgarment, hanging from the shoulders. People wore the clothes appropriate to their profession and station in life.


Here is an example from the years before the  plague.

After the plague we find the clothes are more shaped and tailored. Men’s tunics get shorter and shorter, until there are complaints from the older generation about the lack of decency. Mens’ shoes have longer and longer toes. Some people think that the concept of ‘fashion’starts here.


This book image is from the late 14th century, after the plague.

In Florence, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a book against the background of the plague. The Decameron is about a group of seven young women, most of whose families have died of the plague, who decide to escape from the city. They move to a house two miles away, with three young men as companions. While in the country house, they amuse themselves by taking turns to tell stories.

For example, one story is about a jewish man in Paris, whose christian friend urges him to convert. He decides to go to Rome to see for himself what the centre of christianity is like, before making a decision. The christian friend abandons hope on the spot, knowing the corruption and venality of the priesthood there. However, Abraham the jew has a different take on the situation after his trip. If christianity can flourish despite the moral morass of its representatives it is a powerful religion indeed. And so he converts.

The Decameron is the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a couple of generations later, but it is much less crude. These are educated young people, and their stories give a wry, knowing insight into their world. It was itself inspired by the arabic tradition of storytelling, with stories embedded within stories: one character tells a story in which another character tells another story – and so we go deeper and deeper. It is a tradition that we know through the A Thousand and One Nights, which was already centuries old at this time. But as we shall see, many European innovations can trace their inspiration to arabic civilisation.

And arabic civilisation was flourishing. Astronomers at the Maragha observatory in what is now northern Iran worked on a theory to explain observed movements of the heavenly bodies. Although the word ‘scientist’ had not been invented, these men were looking for a hypothesis to explain the observed facts and predict future celestial events. Maragha is between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Scholars from China and Constantinople came to work with the Arabic and Persian astronomers there.

Generation 471, 1400-1420. The 600-year mark

We have now travelled back through thirty generations and 600 years. Although many of the things we take for granted now have not even been thought of for this generation, there are some remarkable similarities. There were no printed books (although images are reproduced using woodcuts), so all books were hand-written and hand-copied. But one of those hand-written books was a self-help manual for women: a theme that has resonances with today. It explored moral dilemmas in a way that would not be out of place in a modern soap opera, and appealed to personal conscience as a way to resolve them.

Christine de Pisan wrote ‘The Treasure of the City of Ladies’ or ‘The book of the three virtues’ in 1405. Here is a page from the book, in which the three virtues (reason, rectitude and justice) won’t let her rest until she starts writing.
She was based at the French court, and the book starts with practical advice for the women there, before moving outwards in ever-increasing circles to include women of the aristocracy, women of the towns and ending with the urban and rural poor.

A moral dilemma for a lady-in-waiting at the court was: what to do if her princess embarks on an adulterous affair? She is torn between loyalty and duty to her princess and the knowledge that this course of action can only end in disaster. Shades of grey were not a feature of this world. There were two available options: virtuous christian behaviour or sin, evil. The punishment for adultery was hanging.

Christine’s advice to the lady-in-waiting whose princess refuses to listen to her is to ask to leave the court, saying she is sick and that it would be best for all if she was out of contact until she recovers.

Elsewhere, Christine advises a serving woman that if her mistress becomes pregnant by someone other than her husband, then the serving woman should announce that she is pregnant, and after the child is born take it as her own. That reminds me of a scene from the US TV soap opera ‘Frazier’, when Roz became pregnant. Frazier’s father declares, ‘When I was young we knew how to do things right. The girl went away to the country to stay with family and came back a few months later with a baby sister or brother!’ Not so different from Christine’s advice.

The context for this was the rigid social structure, with different rules for each rung in the hierarchical ladder. Christine railed against people who stepped out of their allotted role, such as merchants’ wives who dressed like princesses. But because so many had died from the plague and France was in a state of intermittent civil war among its elites, the social structure was weakening. Some people from the lower ranks, especially in the towns, were taking the opportunities for a life other than the one they were born into. Christine was defending a world that was already passing into memory.

Her values came from the teachings of the church. One can see from this book why the church was so influential. It gave people the moral compass to decide between right and wrong, how to proceed and what to avoid. It helped to make sense of the world. Christine targeted the vices of envy and pride as a particular danger for her readers. The princess who is so proud of her situation that she takes it for granted rather than seeing it as a function, a duty. The town-dweller who dresses like the nobility and risks stirring envy in the hearts of others.

Here, she reads from her book to a group of men, each of whose role is shown by the clothes they wear.

The church was also concerned with an unresolved issue that found expression in Prague. The papacy was in crisis, still in the Great Schism, with a pope in France and another in Italy. One of the popes authorised the sale of indulgences to finance a war against a supporter of his opponent. A priest and teacher at the Prague University, Jan Hus, wrote against this, like Luther a century later:
“One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.”

Also like Luther, Hus believed in predestination: a hard christian philosophy based on the idea of an omnipotent deity who has already determined who will be saved and who will be damned. There is nothing we can do to change it: we are either among the elect or we aren’t.

Hus’s ideas gathered wide support in central Europe, to the consternation of the ruling elite.

The Council of Constance was convened in 1414 to bring an end to the papal schism. It also examined the heretical ideas that had found their most recent champion in Prague. Hus was invited to the council with a promise of safe conduct from the king. But he was not one of the nobility, and honour applied only to one’s own rank and above, not to the lower orders. Once he was in Constance, the safe conduct was revoked and he was arrested on the grounds of heresy. He was convicted and burned at the stake in 1415. However, as we have seen, his ideas did not die with him.

There was an alternative to the hardline philosophy of Hus and his followers, or the authoritarian line of the established church. Humanism, a philosophy of education and of life, was finding expression in Italy. There is a refreshing optimism in the writings of humanist teachers and philosophers. They believed they could offer young people a rounded education that would nurture their enquiring minds so that they grew up to be well-adjusted citizens. Subjects to be taught included the study of history, philosophy, language (particularly latin and later, greek), composition in prose and poetry, how to present an argument in speech or writing. Other subjects were astronomy and mathematics. These were seen as human accomplishments: hence the title ‘humanities’ which was invented during this time.

Its inspiration could be traced back to the works of classical Roman and Greek authors, particularly Cicero and later to Plato. Its more recent revival went back to Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante in the preceding two centuries. It was regularly topped up as more and more ancient texts were rediscovered. Contributions were made during this generation by Manuel Chrysoloras (who travelled from Constantinople with yet another unsuccessful delegation asking for help from the west against the encroaching ottoman empire). He was invited to Florence, and travelled around Europe. He translated the works of Homer and Plato into Latin.

For example, here is an extract from a letter written by one of Chrysoloras’ students:
“Our name, our birthplace, are not of our own choice. Progress in learning, on the other hand, as in character, depends largely on ourselves, and brings with it its own abiding reward.” (From Concerning Character. Letter from Petrus Paulus Vergerius to his pupil Ubertino, son of Francesco Carrara, the Lord of Padua, 1404-5). None of the doom and gloom of predestination there.

Another of Chrysoloras’ students, Leonardo Bruni, devised the term ‘Renaissance’ (meaning ‘rebirth’) to describe the times they were living in, and ‘Middle Ages’ for the preceding period where the light of classical learning had not yet been rediscovered. Bruni also wrote a 12-volume history of the Florentine people, which is considered to be the first modern history book.

Thinkers like Bruni and his colleagues influenced the artists, too. Like the scholars, they took their inspiration from the classics, but did not follow them slavishly.
Here is a statue of St George by Donatello. St George looks as if he is ready to step off the plinth and make his own considered decision about what to do next. In comparison to the painting of Christine de Pisan at the top of this page, this statue breathes the air of a different world.

Generation 478, 1540-1560. Ideas updated and assimilated

This generation saw the appearance of the scientific revolution in three books, each epoch-making in its way.

The first was by Andries van Wezel from Flanders. As latin was the language of scholarship, he became known as Andreas Vesalius. During his studies in medicine at the universities of Padua and Bologna he became aware, as many had done before him, that the standard texts on anatomy were inaccurate. It is not surprising that they were, as they had been written over a millennium previously. Their author, Galen, had limited access to human bodies for study and so had made educated guesses from the dissection of animal bodies.

Galen had also stressed the need for continuing enquiry. Vesalius took him at his word and started doing dissections himself (already a revolutionary step. Previously the professor sat on a chair away from the smell of the decaying body and pointed out relevant features as someone else cut up the corpse). He then went a step further and drew diagrams of what he saw. Hundreds of detailed diagrams went into ‘De humani corporis fabrica’, ‘The structure of the human body’.

The second book was in the field of astronomy. A Polish churchman with the latinised name of Nicolaus Copernicus also went to study in Italy, although a generation earlier than Vesalius. His target was not Galen but another venerable text: Ptolemy’s Almagest. This was Ptolemy’s textbook of Mathematics and Astronomy, laying out what was known of these subjects at the time (around 150 AD). It describes the Earth as the still centre of the cosmos and charts the movements of the planets around it. However, as viewed from the Earth, the planets make some convoluted movements (because, as we now know, all of the planets including the one we live on circle around the Sun). Ptolemy devised a series of epicycles, circles within circles to accommodate this.

Copernicus came up with a simpler way to explain the data: why not think of the Sun as the centre with the planets revolving around it? He carried this idea with him for over twenty years, discussing it with others but not daring to publish it. However, he could not abandon the idea of perfect spheres for the movements of the heavenly bodies (they actually move in ellipses), and so his description was also inaccurate. ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was published in the year he died, 1543, in such a complicated book that the initial small print run did not sell out. But a breakthrough had been made, to be developed by subsequent generations.

He needn’t have worried about offending officialdom with his book. His church, the roman catholic church, was quite amenable to the idea. After all, it was just a theory. It was the protestants who condemned it as heresy, contradicting what was written in the bible.

The third book that set a new standard was ‘De re metallica’ (on the nature of metals) by Georg Pawer, latinised to Georgius Agricola. He also trained as a doctor in Italy before returning to a mining area in his native Germany. This book paid tribute to ancient authorities and then updated them from his own observations. It became the standard mining textbook for nearly two centuries.
One of the many illustrations from De Re Metallica

A common theme in the story of these three books is the confidence in one’s own perceptions. A lock had been broken. While credit could be given to the ancient authorities when it was due, each writer’s own insights also had validity. A huge step forward.

In relation to mining, another man’s ideas from the previous generation were taken up in this one. Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, who chose to be known as Paracelsus, developed a theory of occupational disease after observing the ailments that afflicted mineworkers. His self-confidence was as flamboyant as his name. ‘There are no incurable diseases, only ignorant physicians’, was one of his sayings. He was self-taught, and never qualified as a doctor himself. He outraged the establishment by lecturing in his native dialect rather than latin and by developing his own theories of disease. He rejected the ancients’ doctrine (which would treat mineworkers suffering from mercury poisoning by rebalancing the humours) in favour of a more pragmatic approach based on his own researches. The learned doctors prevented his writings from being published in his lifetime, but after his death it became clear that yet another lock had been broken.

A lock had also been broken in how people thought about religion. The Reformation was only a generation old. It had not faded away as the roman catholic church had hoped, but neither had it taken over the whole of christendom as many protestants believed was inevitable. Both sides had to deal with the new reality.

The roman catholic church convened a council at Trento in the north of Italy to discuss the future shape of the church. It was originally intended to be open to protestant and catholic alike, but no protestants came after they realised that they would effectively be treated as observers, without any authority to take decisions. Not many catholics came from outside Italy either, mainly for reasons of power politics. However, it was a defining moment for the church. The council clarified what their faith stood for, how they viewed the bible (let the church explain it to you) and protestantism (heresy), and attempted to clear up some of the worst abuses of its power, such as the sale of indulgences.

For the protestants, having broken the lock of Rome, they were then faced with the immense problem of what to replace it with. The most well-known of those thinkers today is John Calvin, who set up a church organisation in Geneva, from first principles. He was famous as a powerful and persuasive speaker. From the perspective of now, the church he set up looks as intolerant of dissent as the church it broke away from. Heretics were tried and burned at the stake just as happened with the Inquisition, which was also going strong during this generation. In both the catholic and protestant worlds there was a range of views from tolerant to hardline – and the hardliners tended to prevail.

This new thinking coincides with the virtual disappearance of the female gender from our story. An exception is this picture, one of the earliest family portraits to appear in England.

Generation 481, 1600-1620. The end of the world?

During this generation a world came to an end – and another one was born. The best-remembered midwife of  the new appearance was an instrument maker and Mathematics professor at Padua University in northern Italy, part of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. In 1609 Galileo Galilei heard that a man from Holland was offering a new optical instrument for sale in Venice. By looking through this device containing a concave and a convex lens, distant objects were magnified and easily visible. Galileo advised his patron to refuse the purchase, and set about making one himself. He duly made one with greater magnification, and offered it as a gift to the government of Venice. In return they renewed his university professorship, which was about to expire, and made the position permanent. For a seafaring nation like Venice, such an instrument (which became known as the telescope) was invaluable.

Galileo was probably not the first person to turn the telescope towards the sky, but he was the best placed to publicise his findings. He saw that the night sky contained far more stars than anyone had dreamed of, that the planets were spheres and the stars were points of light. He saw that the planet Jupiter had four satellites. And most significantly, he saw that the planet Venus had phases as our moon does. The logical explanation for the crescent and full Venus at different times was that it circled around the Sun, not planet Earth as previously believed.

Why did this mean the end of the world? The clues are still embedded in our language. Where is heaven? Above us. Where is hell? Below. When a sudden downpour happens, we say the heavens opened. Church art showed vivid depictions of the heavens above us on their high ceilings.


The Triumph of Divine Providence, ceiling fresco in Palazzo Barberini in Rome, celebrates the election of Pope Urban VIII in 1623. This pope presided over the trial which forced Galileo to recant his views.

The Ptolemaic system was the accepted view – literally. God is on high. Hell is beneath our feet. The Earth is the still centre of God’s creation.  The planets and stars revolve around it. A Polish canon had proposed in the previous century that it made more sense to think of the Sun as the centre around which the Earth and the other planets revolved. But this was just a theory, and so could be safely ignored. With his telescope, Galileo demonstrated that the Earth-centred system did not fit the observed facts.

This was revolutionary. A person might feel that their entire world view, their sense of reality, was being shaken. It was known that the Earth was round – the globe had been circumnavigated – but that did not invalidate the Earth-centric view. Intuitively, it was absurd to suggest that the Earth was in motion. It felt still! And most significant of all, it called into question the teachings of the church and its interpretation of the bible. No wonder the sense that the world was coming to an end was so pervasive during this generation. However, Galileo and his contemporaries probably felt that a new and more interesting one was appearing.

The world was in motion in other ways too. The rise of Protestantism in central and northern Europe forced the Roman church to revisit its values. What emerged was a celebration of the glory its leaders felt in their religion. The churches and palaces of Rome were lavishly decorated in the new style. The producers of such work started to innovate. Artists from the rest of Europe came to Rome to see what they did.


They came to see the works of Caravaggio in particular. He painted with a realism and use of light and dark that was quite new. This painting of the martyrdom of St Peter shows the saint as a struggling old man, not a semi-divine being. And who would have thought of painting a picture that shows an ordinary trouser-clad bottom so prominently!

One of the visitors was Peter Paul Rubens, from Flanders (now Belgium).

Clara Rubens

This lovely, tender, direct painting of his five-year old daughter Clara also shows a realism that had not been attempted before.