"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

26 April 2018


If we put the last century;s notions of “old” and “new” in a broader historic perspective, it becomes clear how short-sighted these notions were and how wrong it was to give them an aura of absoluteness, since these notions are, by their very nature, relative and flexible, and dependent upon context. When the painter, architect and theorist Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Great Artists (1568), a collection of biographies of Italian artists, he had to explain when discussing Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo what he meant by “modern,” since he knew that his audience would have questions about the “strange” idea that artists explored subjects and aesthetic forms which were a thousand years old and presented them as “new.” The rediscovery of the culture of antiquity as a source of inspiration and as a standard of quality was felt, in Renaissance times, as something new and dynamic. The influence of the culture of antiquity can be traced back to the 12th century when conditions favoured a more refined and sophisticated civilisation. This was not the first wave of Renaissance thinking, for Charlemagne had already stimulated interest in antiquity in the early 9th century, in a spirit of constructive reform, after the worst of the barbarism of the 7th and 8th centuries had subsided. Later on, in the medieval world, Italy’s culture was dominated by northern and eastern influences and for many people at that time, “modern” meant the latest developments of medieval culture imported from the prosperous north, especially Flanders. The concept of a “modernity” based upon ideas from ages ago was still controversial, but for the intelligentsia the works of poetry, science, and the visual arts of the Greco-Roman world were all superior to anything produced by contemporary culture, and the presence of Roman monuments, mostly ruined, reminded the Italians of a glorious past and inspired them to dream of a possibly comparable future.

The Renaissance interest in antiquity as a civilising influence is something fundamentally different from modern thinking. In the 20th century, progress was understood as a confident leap into the future: a projected utopia, only made possible by a drastic break with the past. The Past stood for Reaction, and the Future for Progress. By comparison, the ideas of the artists of the Italian Renaissance gives us an opposite picture. Although the relatively immediate past – the Middle Ages (also known as the Dark Ages) – was felt to be stagnant, the future held the possibility of recreating a distant past from a mythological era, which had already profoundly influenced the European intelligentsia. This potential recreation was considered something much better than the art of the Dark Ages, when the arts and crafts of Antiquity had eroded and their secrets were lost.

Assuming that Vasari’s view upon the developments he describes reflected a broader consensus among the intellectual and artistic elite of his time, it is clear that the driving force behind the changes in the arts and architecture from the beginning of the Renaissance onwards, was an urge to do things better than before, not to be more advanced in the sense of being “more modern” and for that reason “better.” Vasari clearly sees “early” artists like Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini as still rather awkward, trying their best, and achieving the best that was possible in their time, but beginning an upward line through Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Sandro Botticelli to the “perfection” of his own time with brilliant people like Michelangelo, Tiziano, and Raphael. So, in Renaissance time, being modern was the result of being better, while in the 20th century being better was the result of being modern – it may be clear that the latter idea is nonsensical because it rests upon an assumed historical position, while in the Renaissance “being better” was achieved through artistic quality, an attitude which was not incompatible with “looking back” if in earlier times sources of inspiration and great examples could be found. An expression like Arthur Rimbaud’s “Il faut être absolument moderne” would be unthinkable in the 16th century, because of expressing a historicist intention prior to the creation of the work of art.

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