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.
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.
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.