فصل 26

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فصل 26

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Have you ever come across an old school exercise book, or something else you once wrote and, on leafing through it, been amazed at how much you have changed in such a short time? Amazed by your mistakes, but also by the good things you had written? Yet at the time you hadn’t noticed that you were changing. Well, the history of the world is just the same.

How nice it would be if, suddenly, heralds were to ride through the streets crying: ‘Attention please! A new age is beginning!’ But things aren’t like that: people change their opinions without even noticing. And then all of a sudden they become aware of it, as you do when you look at your old school books. Then they announce with pride: ‘We are the new age.’ And they often add: ‘People used to be so stupid!’

Something of the sort happened after 1400 in the cities of Italy. Especially in the large and prosperous cities of central Italy, and in Florence in particular. They had guilds there too, and had built a great cathedral. But Florence had none of the noble knights that were to be found in France and Germany. For a long time Florentine burghers had ignored the commands of their German emperors, and by now they were as free and independent as the citizens of ancient Athens. And as the years went by these free and prosperous burghers, shopkeepers and craftsmen had come to care about entirely different things from those that had mattered to the knights and craftsmen of the Middle Ages.

To be a warrior or a craftsman and dedicate one’s life to the service and glory of God was no longer every man’s aim. What mattered was to be someone in your own right, to have a head on your shoulders and know how to use it. To think and judge for yourself. To act on your own authority, without the need to consult others. And, rather than resorting to old books to find out how things were done in the past, to use your own eyes and act accordingly. That’s what it really came down to: using your eyes and acting accordingly. Independence, ability, intellect, knowledge and skill were what counted. People no longer asked first about your rank, your profession, your religion or what country you came from. They said: tell us what you can do.

And suddenly, in about 1420, the Florentines noticed that they were no longer the people they had been in the Middle Ages. They had different concerns. They found different things beautiful. To them the old cathedrals and paintings seemed gloomy and rigid, the old traditions irksome. And, in their search for something more to their liking, something free, independent and unconstrained, they discovered antiquity. And I mean literally discovered. It mattered little to them that the people of those times had been heathens. What astonished them was what those people could do. How they had freely and openly debated and discussed, with arguments and counter-arguments, everything in nature and the world. How everything interested them. These people were to serve as their models.

A great search for books written in Latin began, and people strove to write Latin that was as clear and as precise as that of the ancient Romans. They also learnt Greek and so discovered the wonderful works of the Athenians of the time of Pericles. Soon people were more interested in Themistocles and Alexander, in Caesar and in Augustus than in Charlemagne or Barbarossa. It was as if the entire period since antiquity had been nothing but a dream, as if the free city of Florence were about to become an Athens or a Rome. People suddenly felt they were witnessing a rebirth of the ancient, long-gone era of Greek and Roman culture. They themselves felt born again through the discovery of these ancient works. And this is why this period in history came to be known in Italy as the Rinascimento, or as we know it from the French, the Renaissance ­ the re-birth. Everything that had happened in between they blamed on the barbarian Germanic tribes who had destroyed the empire. The Florentines were determined to do all they could to revive the spirit of antiquity.

They were enthusiasts for everything Roman, for the superb statues and the magnificent and imposing buildings whose ruins lay all over Italy. Previously dismissed as ‘heathen ruins’, these had been shunned and feared. Now people suddenly rediscovered their beauty. And the Florentines once more began to build with columns.

But people didn’t just seek out old things. They looked at nature again, this time with the fresh and unprejudiced eyes of the Athenians, two thousand years before them. And when they did so they discovered a new beauty in the world, in the sky and trees, in human beings, flowers and animals. They painted these things as they saw them. The solemn grandeur and spirituality of the illustrations to sacred texts in monks’ books and cathedral windows now gave way to a style that was natural and spontaneous, full of colour and vitality, yet accurate and true to life as they intended. Using your eyes and acting accordingly also made for the best art. Which might explain why the greatest painters and sculptors were to be found in Florence at this time.

Nor did these painters merely sit down before their paintings like good craftsmen and represent what they saw. They wanted to understand what it was that they were painting. In Florence there was one artist in particular for whom painting good paintings was not enough, no matter how beautiful they might be. And his were far and away the finest. He wanted to have a perfect understanding of all the things he painted and how they related to each other. This painter’s name was Leonardo da Vinci. He lived from 1452 to 1519 and was the son of a farm servant-girl. He wanted to know how a person looked when they cried and when they laughed, and also what the inside of a human body was like ­ the muscles, bones and sinews. So he asked hospitals to give him the bodies of people who had died, which he then dissected and explored. This was something quite unheard of at the time. And he did not stop there. He also looked at plants and animals in a new way and puzzled over what makes birds able to fly. This led him to think about whether people, too, might not be able to fly. He was the first person to carry out an accurate and precise investigation into the possibility of constructing an artificial bird or flying machine. And he was convinced that one day it would be done. He was interested in everything in nature. Nor did he limit himself to the writings of Aristotle and the Arab thinkers. He always wanted to know if what he read was really true. So, above all, he used his eyes, and with those eyes he saw more than anyone had ever seen before, because he was always asking himself questions about what he observed. Whenever he wanted to know about something ­ for example, why whirlpools happen or why hot air rises ­ he did an experiment. He had little time for the learned writings of his contemporaries and was the first person to investigate the secrets of nature by means of experiments. He made sketches and noted down his observations on scraps of paper and in a vast accumulation of notebooks. Leafing through his jottings today, one is constantly amazed that a single human being could investigate and analyse so many different things, things about which nothing was known at the time and few cared to know about.

Yet few of his contemporaries had any inkling of the many discoveries that this famous painter was making, or knew of his novel ideas. He was left-handed and wrote in minuscule mirrorwriting, a reversed script, which is far from easy to read. This was probably intentional, for in those days it was not always safe to hold independent opinions. Among his notes we find the sentence: ‘The sun does not move.’ No more than that. But enough to tell us that Leonardo knew that the earth goes round the sun, and that the sun does not circle the earth each day, as had been believed for thousands of years. Perhaps Leonardo limited himself to this one sentence because he knew it didn’t say so in the Bible, and that many people believed that what the Bible had to say about nature must never be contradicted, even though the ideas it contained were those of Jews who had lived two thousand years earlier, when the Bible was first written down.

But it wasn’t only the fear of being thought a heretic that led Leonardo to keep all his wonderful discoveries to himself. He understood human nature all too well and knew that people would only use them to kill each other. Elsewhere there is a note in Leonardo’s handwriting which reads: ‘I know how one can stay under water and survive a long time without food. But I will not publish this or reveal it to anyone. For men are wicked and would use it to kill, even at the bottom of the sea. They would make holes in the hulls of ships and sink them with all the people in them.’ Sadly, the inventors who came after him were not all great men like Leonardo da Vinci, and people have long known what he was unwilling to show them.

In Leonardo’s time there lived in Florence a family that was exceptionally rich and powerful. They were wool merchants and bankers, and their name was Medici. Like Pericles in ancient Athens, it was they who, through their advice and influence, dictated the course of the history of Florence throughout virtually the whole period between 1400 and 1500. Foremost among them was Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as ‘the Magnificent’ because he made such wonderful use of his great wealth, and gave his support and protection to so many artists and scholars. Whenever he came across a gifted young man he instantly took him into his household and had him educated. A description of the customs of Lorenzo’s household gives you an idea of how people thought at the time. There was no seating order at table. Instead of the eldest and most respected sitting at the top of the table above the rest, it was the first to arrive who sat with Lorenzo de’ Medici, even if he were no more than a young painter’s apprentice. And even an ambassador, if he came last, took his place at the foot of the table.

This entirely new delight in the world, in talented people and beautiful things, in the ruins and books of the Greeks and Romans, soon spread out from Florence in all directions, for people are always quick to learn about new discoveries. Great artists were summoned to the pope’s court ­ which was by now once more in Rome ­ to build palaces and churches in the new style and to adorn them with paintings and statues. This was especially the case when rich prelates from the Medici family became pope. They then brought Italy’s greatest artists to Rome, where they created their most important works. To be sure, this totally new way of looking at things did not always sit comfortably with the old piety. Popes of this period were not so much priests and guardians of the souls of Christendom as magnificent princes, intent on the conquest of the whole of Italy, who meanwhile lavished colossal sums of money on glorious works of art for their capital city.

This sense of a rebirth of pagan antiquity gradually spread to the cities of Germany, France and England. There, too, people began to take an interest in the new ideas and forms, and to read the new Latin books. This had become much easier and cheaper since 1450. For in that year a German made a great invention, one no less extraordinary than the invention of letters by the Phoenicians. This was the art of printing. It had long been known in China and for some decades in Europe that you could rub black ink on carved wood and then press it on paper. But Gutenberg’s invention was different. Instead of printing from whole blocks of wood, he made single letters out of metal, which could be lined up and held in a frame and then printed from as many times as one wished. When the desired number of copies of a page had been made, the frame could be undone and the letters used again in a different order. It was simple and it was cheap. And of course much simpler and much cheaper than when people spent long years laboriously copying books by hand, as Roman and Greek slaves and the monks had had to do. Soon a whole host of printers had sprung up in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and printed books, Bibles and other writings were eagerly bought and read, not just in Europe’s cities, but in the countryside as well.

However, another invention of the time was to have an even greater impact on the world. This was gunpowder. Once again, the Chinese had probably known about it for a long time, but they mostly used it to make fireworks. It was in Europe, from 1300 onwards, that people began to use it in cannons for shooting at fortresses and men. And before long, soldiers were carrying massive and cumbersome guns in their hands. Bows and arrows were still much faster and more effective. A good English bowman could release 180 arrows in fifteen minutes, which was roughly the time it took for a soldier to load his thunderbox, set a slow-match to the charge and fire it once. Despite this, guns and cannons were already in evidence during the Hundred Years War, and after 1400 their use became widespread.

But such weapons were not for knights. There was nothing chivalrous about firing a bullet into a man’s body from a distance. As you know, what knights did was to gallop towards one another and try to knock each other out of the saddle. Now, to protect themselves against the bullets, they had to abandon their chain mail in favour of increasingly heavy and solid armour. Dressed in this from top to toe they looked like iron men and must have been a fearsome sight. But the armour was unbearably hot and impractical and the knights could hardly move. For this reason, no matter how bravely they fought, they were no longer so intimidating. In 1476 a famous, warlike knight and prince of the Duchy of Burgundy ­ known as Charles the Bold on account of his fearlessness ­ led an army of knights in armour to conquer Switzerland. But when they got there the free peasants and burghers of Murten surprised them and, fighting on foot, simply knocked all the knights off their horses and clubbed them to death. They then made off with all the magnificent and valuable tents and rugs that the knights had brought with them on their campaign of conquest. You can see these today in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Switzerland remained free, and the knights had had their day.

This is why the German emperor who was ruling around 1500 is known as the Last Knight. His name was Maximilian, and he was a member of the Habsburg family, whose might and wealth had grown steadily since the time of King Rudolf. Since 1438 their power had spread beyond their own country of Austria, and such was their influence that all the German emperors who had been elected since then had been Habsburgs. Nevertheless, the German noblemen and princes gave most of them a good deal of trouble, and Maximilian the Last Knight was no exception. They exercised almost unlimited power over their fiefdoms and had become increasingly reluctant to accompany their emperor into battle when he commanded them to do so.

With the arrival of money and cities and gunpowder, the granting of land with bonded peasants in return for military service had become as outdated as chivalry. Which is why, when Maximilian went to fight the French king for his Italian possessions, he took paid soldiers instead of his vassals. Soldiers like these were called mercenaries. They were rough, rapacious brutes who strutted about in outlandish costumes and thought of little but plunder. And since they fought for money rather than for their country, they went to the person who paid them most. This cost the emperor a great deal of money that he didn’t have, so he was forced to borrow from rich merchants in the towns. And this in its turn meant that he had to keep on good terms with the towns, which upset the knights who felt increasingly unwanted and unneeded.

Such problems gave Maximilian a headache. Like the knights of old he would far rather have ridden in tournaments and composed fine verses about his adventures to present to his beloved. He was a strange mixture of the old and the new. For he was very taken with the new art, and was always asking the great German painter, Albrecht Dürer ­ who had learnt a lot from the Italians, but had taught himself even more ­ to make paintings and engravings in his honour. Through these wonderful portrait paintings by the first of the new German artists, we can actually see what the Last Knight looked like. These works, together with the paintings and buildings of the great Italian artists, are in fact the ‘heralds’ who cried: ‘Attention please! A new age has begun!’

And if we called the Middle Ages a starry night, we should look upon this new, wide-awake time, which began in Florence, as a bright, new dawn.

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