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Weaving Past, Present, and Future Together: Lessons from the Renaissance
Renaissance thinkers teach us how to value the past while creating a better future.
This month’s guest post is an essay by David Fideler.
David writes about how classical and Renaissance ideas can contribute to today’s world. He’s the author of a book on the Roman philosopher Seneca, published in sixteen languages. You can find him online at Living Ideas Journal. David is also the creator of an immersive, five-day educational program in Florence, Italy, and he’s currently writing a book about the Renaissance.
What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with the past, and how can we weave past, present, and future together in some meaningful way?
Renaissance thinkers have provided us with comprehensive answers. But these ideas have been largely forgotten because, in our modern age, real knowledge of the past has often been disdained and rejected.
This rejection of past knowledge is dangerous, threatening to crush human nature into a flat, sterile, and soulless “present,” lacking in beauty but steeped in dissatisfaction and numbness. It is this dissatisfaction and unrootedness in a real, living world that leads to endless dystopian dreams about the future: colonies on Mars, brain/machine interfaces, transhumanism, and economies run by artificial intelligence.
Yet beneath this chic modernism, our love for the past endures. Consider the allure that ancient cultural centers like Athens, Rome, and Florence hold for millions of visitors each year. In terms of human longing, delight, and appreciation, our inner love for the past never vanishes, and it offers a soothing antidote to mechanistic dreams of the future. Simply put, a part of the human soul revels in the particular, the historical, and the antique.
Our appreciation for classical forms of architecture further amplifies this sense of connectedness. Based on proportion, harmony, and beauty, traditional architecture makes us feel truly at home in the world. This sense of belonging is an effect that sterile steel and glass skyscrapers can never achieve. While skyscrapers might provide a momentary sense of exhilaration, becoming an eyeball hovering above the world as a spectator doesn’t translate into a feeling of being at home.
The Importance of Historical Awareness
Having a sense of history is crucial for several reasons. First, we all originate from somewhere, so learning about our intellectual and historical roots is vital. Additionally, studying history helps us to avoid repeating past mistakes. Aristotle’s introduction to his Politics encapsulates this well:
The society that loses its grip on the past is in danger, for it produces men who know nothing but the present, and who are not aware that life had been, and could be, different from what it is. Such men bear tyranny easily; for they have nothing with which to compare it.
Cicero took another approach: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by history.”
This idea of being woven into life is compelling. We don’t need to believe in anything special to realize that being woven into human life or bound to those who came before is very important—because if we don’t feel embedded in the world, we sense alienation instead.
While learning the lessons of history is certainly beneficial, feeling woven into the world, in response to historic architecture, can be a tangible experience.
As a former United States resident, I moved to Europe to escape modern architecture and homes clad with aluminum or vinyl siding. Now, I find joy in walking past classically inspired buildings and centuries-old architecture each day. These structures radiate a beauty that most modernist, purely “functional” buildings lack.
Architecture profoundly influences us, even if subconsciously. In my experience, residing in the historical part of a European city enhances my happiness. Much like the impact of the company we keep, buildings radiating harmony, beauty, and good proportion positively influence us. Outer harmony and beauty foster an inner sense of tranquility. By exposure to beautiful environments, we can elevate our minds and deepen our sense of connection with the world.
Recently, while walking through the old part of Perugia, Italy, I repeatedly noticed how newer buildings still incorporated patterns and imprints from the past, like a church with an ancient Gothic opening traced in its brickwork. In Perugia, where countless examples of this can be seen, remnants of the past blend seamlessly with more recent history.
But these organic developments never seem out of place, giving cities like Perugia their unique charm. Walking among these beautiful structures, we feel nestled in the past while joyously living in the present. Unlike modernist design, traditional architecture fosters a profound sense of being rooted and at home in the world. It allows us to embrace modernity and cultivate modern thoughts, but it also allows us to feel happier and more connected with the world in which we live. It gives our lives a depth and rootedness that stretches back into the past. Traditional architecture doesn't make us feel any less modern, but it does make us feel more human.
The Lost Art of Weaving Past, Present, and Future Together
During the Renaissance, the art of intertwining past, present, and future reached its apex. Now largely forgotten, it could be revived today.
Simply put, integrating past, present, and future is vital for our collective and individual well-being. With too much focus on the past, one could become backward-looking. With too much focus on the present, we risk becoming disconnected, trapped in the bubble of the instant, perhaps staring into a cell phone while walking down the street. With too much focus on the future, our minds could leave the Earth behind with dreams of colonizing the stars.
In short, to feel complete as human beings, we need to unite past, present, and future potential, while doing justice to each.
Renaissance thinkers mastered this art of integration, and we can learn valuable lessons by drawing on their insights today.
Learning from the Past
The Renaissance era sprang from the seeds sown by Francesco Petrarca (1304–74), today known simply as Petrarch. Petrarch was a classical scholar living in the 1300s, and he felt totally out of place in his own time. When he read the great classical authors of ancient Rome, Petrarch saw an age of light compared with his own dark era.
Petrarch admired ancient literature but lamented his era’s cultural, political, and spiritual corruption. Petrarch then reached a startling conclusion by comparing his time with the past. He realized that there had been a collapse of civilization between his time and the fall of Rome, and Petrarch invented the idea of “the Dark Ages” to explain it.
In the end, Petrarch concluded that the only way to restore civilization was to recreate the world of ancient Rome and Greece. This project also involved reviving the ancient world’s deepest values and moral philosophy. This idea was the ultimate seed from which the Renaissance arose, which was a conscious effort of Petrarch’s followers—the Renaissance humanists—to foster a genuine rebirth of ancient civilization. It was this effort that made the Renaissance truly a rebirth.
I’ve written elsewhere about how Roman Stoic philosophy inspired Petrarch and other humanists to draw upon ancient philosophy as a way to transform their corrupt society. But here, I want to focus on architecture’s role in this transformation.
As historian James Hankins has explained, in addition to reviving ancient virtue ethics (and what he calls “virtue politics”), Renaissance thinkers sought to create virtuous environments that would be contemplative settings, reminding them of the classical world and its wisdom. What this meant in practice was reviving the architecture of ancient Rome.
This architectural effort started in the birthplace of the Renaissance—Florence, Italy—where thinkers felt a strong kinship with the ancient Romans. Like the humanists, who wanted to recover the lost manuscripts and wisdom of the ancients, architects became obsessed with unlocking the secrets of Roman architecture from the past.
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the founder of Renaissance architecture, started this trend. According to his biographer, Brunelleschi traveled to Rome with his friend, the sculptor Donatello, to survey, sketch, and measure the remaining architectural remains of ancient Rome—most of which had been looted for materials and severely damaged over the centuries.
According to this report, Brunelleschi spent years, off and on, studying the buildings of Rome before creating his own masterpieces, including the magnificent dome on the cathedral of Florence (Santa Maria di Fiore).
Brunelleschi’s dome, built with over four million bricks, remains the largest masonry dome in the world today. When constructed, it was larger than the domes of the Pantheon in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Brunelleschi would have studied the Pantheon while in Rome. In fact, the Pantheon was the only masterpiece of Roman architecture that stood fully intact because it had been converted into a church and was preserved by its new Christian guardians.
In any case, Brunelleschi started a trend. Every prominent Renaissance architect to follow him made the same pilgrimage to Rome to study, sketch, and measure the ancient Roman buildings—or what remained of them.
Taking measurements was essential because ancient architecture was based on proportion and harmony—which gives rise to beauty—so having the exact measurements allowed Renaissance architects to reconstruct the correct proportions of ancient architecture. For example, one common proportion used in Renaissance doorways is the ratio of 1:2, the octave, which was rediscovered through the study of ancient specimens.
Surpassing the Ancients and Creating the Best Possible World
Petrarch, the catalyst for Renaissance humanism, had a somewhat pessimistic, backward-looking outlook. He viewed the works of ancient Latin writers like Cicero, Seneca, and Virgil as so exalted they might be impossible to surpass in quality.
But this attitude started to shift after Petrarch’s death, especially in the early 1400s, as the Renaissance began to emerge strongly in Florence. The prominent humanist Collucio Salutati (1331–1406), who followed in Petrarch’s footsteps, wrote, “I have always believed I must imitate antiquity not simply to reproduce it, but in order to produce something new.”
But the greatest spokesperson of Renaissance optimism and human achievement was the extraordinary “Renaissance man” Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), a learned humanist and classical scholar who was also an art theorist, practicing architect, mathematician, and the pioneer in publishing the secrets of linear perspective—the cornerstone of Renaissance painting.
Born into a family exiled from Florence, Alberti crafted the most iconic expression of Renaissance optimism: “Human beings can accomplish whatever they wish, if they have the will.”
If Alberti harbored any pessimism, it dissipated upon his return to Florence in 1434, when he witnessed the near completion of Brunelleschi’s dome, still the tallest structure in the city. Towering above the Florentine skyline and casting its shadow across the town, Brunelleschi’s dome was a profound human achievement, perhaps comparable to landing human beings on the moon today. Nothing like the dome had ever been created before on that scale, and it convinced Alberti and other Florentines that they could achieve anything if they only set their minds to it.
From that point on, Alberti realized it was not only possible to learn from the ancients—it was also possible to surpass them. In a message written to Brunelleschi, Alberti described a continual evolution in the arts and sciences, and he noted that the Florentines of his time had shown that it was possible to exceed the ancients.
This contagious optimism went on to permeate the entire Renaissance. It was manifested in various domains, such as architecture, sculpture, and painting, yielding unprecedented masterpieces like those of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Rafael.
Originally conceived to resurrect past knowledge and wisdom, the Renaissance quickly evolved into an era where anything seemed possible. Even in its original goal, Renaissance humanism aimed to draw upon the past to create a better world—both in the present and future. And as long as the Renaissance lasted, this goal was often achieved.
While Petrarch lamented the idea that he was living in a “Dark Age,” just a few decades later, writers in Florence were celebrating how they were living in a new Golden Age. That is a profound cultural transformation, to say the least, and was a triumph of Renaissance humanism.
We can also see the success of the Renaissance movement tangibly reflected in remarkable buildings, like the Palazzo Medici, since architecture like this didn’t even exist before the Renaissance. As you might recall, only ruins of ancient buildings remained in Rome. The dedicated work of Renaissance architects and scholars, studying the broken remains of Roman buildings, allowed masterpieces like this to be created.
How We Could Apply Renaissance Ideas Today
In the same way that Renaissance thinkers sought to identify and apply the best wisdom of the ancient world in their own time, we could do the same today. But in addition to classical writers, we can also draw upon the wisdom and knowledge of the Renaissance.
Discovering ways to draw on the wisdom of the past is a goal of the Renaissance Program, which doesn’t focus on just learning about past thinkers but on what we might learn from them.
In addition to offering a short course in Florence to introduce participants to the ideas that ignited and shaped the Renaissance, the Renaissance Program also looks at how these ideas were applied.
Exploring how these ideas were put into practice during the Renaissance can inform fields like education and architecture today, offering a way to blend past, present, and future to create a more humane, vibrant, and fulfilling world.
As the philosopher Edmund Burke noted in 1790, human civilization is a timeless partnership in all the arts and sciences. For this reason, he wrote, our human work spans generations, and thus society “becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
We could, for example, significantly apply Renaissance thought to modern architecture today—a field in which many architects gave up on the idea of beauty long ago. But in contrast to many moderns, Renaissance architects realized that beauty was an objective aspect of nature that could be studied, understood, and applied to create beautiful works.
The knowledge of how to create beautiful buildings was never entirely lost to architects—indeed, it still exists today if someone wants to seek it out. Instead, it became ignored, forgotten, and sometimes suppressed, like other forms of historical knowledge.
As scholar and historian Michael R.J. Bonner has pointed out, the Futurist Manifesto (1909) of the Italian poet and art theorist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti called for the legacy of the past not to be superseded but to be “wholly repudiated and destroyed.” He believed that the relics of the past needed obliteration to pave the way for a glorious future.
Marinetti advocated the eradication of antiquated museums, libraries, and books, seeing them as roadblocks to progress. In one of his most striking declarations, he encouraged his readers to “Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!”
While this is an extreme and insane vision, laced with violence, it’s not that much different from our typical, modern view that the past is worthless, since it has been superseded by “progress.” Of course, this destruction of the past is opposite to the worldview of the Renaissance humanists, who believed we could create a true partnership across time—weaving past, present, and future together—to create a much better world.
In conclusion, we still have much to learn from the Renaissance today, including how we could transform education and create a more beautiful and satisfying world.
The Renaissance reminds us that the past, tradition, and profound innovation are complementary forces rather than opposing ones. By weaving together these elements, we, too, can create lasting works of greatness to benefit our time and future generations.
Living Ideas Journal. An online journal edited by David Fideler on how the humanities can contribute to today’s world and deepen our experience of being alive.
The Renaissance Program in Florence. A five-day immersive course entitled Creating the Best Possible World: The Energizing Ideas of the Italian Renaissance.
In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present. An important book by Michael R.J. Bonner on why having a sense of the past is essential and how it has led to the renewal of civilization on various occasions and in different epochs.
Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy by James Hankins. A massive and comprehensive study by the foremost intellectual historian of the Renaissance about how the revival of classical ethical philosophy helped to inspire the emergence of the Renaissance and its social thought.
Leon Battista Alberti: The Chameleon’s Eye by Caspar Person. An engaging and recent biography of Alberti, the avatar of Renaissance optimism, which beautifully details the impact that Brunelleschi’s dome had on Alberti’s thought about human achievement.