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Connecting the Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period

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This print depicts famous Greek philosohphers

Raphael's "School of Athens" as a Bridge Between Classical Antiquity and Early Modern Europe

“The School of Athens” is considered by many as one of Raphael’s greatest artistic creations. Raphael was drawing on the rebirth of the analytical questioning of the classics and the works of the “ancient” peoples. In this image, Raphael paints some of the most significant people who contributed to Western thinking including, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and many others. Raphael paints Plato and Aristotle close together to signify their different camps of philosophy and to show their divergence in their philosophical beliefs. This painting was created around the time of many political changes such as the shift away from the church and more towards individual rulers. This would have caused many people to look towards the past and would have inspired many of them to write about it. This reexamining of the past would play an important role inspiring political commentators, such as Machiavelli, who argued against ideas presented by Aristotle about the role of ethics in politics (Harrison). It was necessary for a reemergence of “ancient ideas” in to take place to create a catalyst that would initiate an era of new thoughts.

“School of Athens’ was not an isolated painting that conveyed a political messages. Giotto di Bondone, arguably the individual who first developed renaissance techniques of art. This artwork would be used for political means to portray a sense of power from the Vatican and other Italian city states. The statue of David was “commissioned by the Florentine city council as a symbol of the city”, which portrays the significance of art as a political message (Weisner Hanks 154). Art represented a states wealth and security, which was why it was so heavily encouraged by the Italian city-states. It is impossible to distinguish between the artwork itself and the political nature of it.

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A portrait of Petrarch.

Petrarch and the Revitalization of Classical Antiquity

Known as the “Father of Humanism,” Francisco Petrarch (1304-1374) was one of the most influential facilitators in the revitalization of classical antiquity prior to the Renaissance, thus sparking an interest that—as the exhibit will show—endured throughout Early Modern Europe.

Born in Arezzo, Italy, Petrarch initially pursued legal studies at the behest of his father. However, he soon abandoned this path in favor of religious studies. Through this, he became thoroughly interested in classical texts deemed “lost” to the ages, searching monasteries across Europe for them. Having read an increasing amount of classical literature, he began to praise the values of Ancient Greece and Rome in his writings, glorifying their societies as civilized and refined. He lauded Aristotle’s approach to self-actualization, as well as the emphasis Plato placed on virtue. Simultaneously, he gained acclaim for his poetry (Whitfield).

The works of Petrarch and his translations of classical texts served as inspiration for future scholars and precipitated a veneration for the classics, laying the foundations for the Renaissance (discussed in week one of HIST 139).

Connections Between Classical and Early Modern Science

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A bust of Aristotle.

Aristotelian Astronomy

One legacy of Aristotle was that of his scientific theories. Aristotelian science was generally accepted as true until gradually refuted up to its near total rejection throughout the Scientific Revolution (discussed week five of HIST 139). One popular espousal of Aristotle’s thought appeared in astronomy. Believing the cosmos to be perfect, Aristotle proposed that all celestial bodies were flawless—even their movement was conducted in perfect circles. He also propagated a geocentric model. To understand the profound influence Aristotle exerted on Early Modern Europe, one can turn to Galileo’s trial by the Catholic Church. Using a telescope to discover that the planets were not perfect but instead marred on their surfaces, and supporting ideas of heliocentrism and elliptical orbit, Galileo opposed the Aristotelian world-view. In their prosecution of him, the Catholic Church explicitly voiced their discontent with the inconsistencies between his theories and that of Aristotle, whom they claimed was a great thinker and was thus right. Unwilling to acknowledge fault in Aristotle, the Church imprisoned Galileo (Wiesner-Hanks, p. 376-81).

The Classical Elements

Aristotle also contributed to the theory of the four elements, positing that everything was composed of water, earth, air, or fire. This was also generally accepted as truth until the discovery of the atom by Robert Boyle (Wiesner-Hanks, p. 374-5). Prior to that, however, the theory of the elements served as the foundation of other beliefs such as humoralism, which became based on the four elements.

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A page from a 16th century copy of the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of writings by Hippocrates and several others.

Hippocrates and Humoralism

"On the Nature of Man" established a concept of medicine that remained in prominence for much of European history until the Scientific Revolution, humoralism (discussed week four of HIST 139). The text proposes the existence of four humors in the body that affect appearance, temperament, and health--black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Each was associated with one of Aristotle's elements (black bile with earth, yellow bile with fire, phlegm with water, and blood with air) and certain emotional characteristics (black bile to melancholic, yellow bile to choleric, phlegm to phlegmatic, and blood to sanguine). Whenever an issue with health occurred, the problem was identified as an imbalance of humors. As such, practices such as bloodletting enabled patients to "restore balance." Furthermore, environmental factors could affect humoral balances as well, promoting the excess or deficiency of a certain humor (black bile is dry and cold, yellow bile is hot and dry, phlegm is wet and cold, and blood is hot and wet).

In her book The Body of the Conquistador, Rebecca Earle illustrates the political significance of humoralism. Having expanded into the Americas, the Spanish were encountering disease they had not developed immunities to. To explain the Spaniards’ sudden deterioration of health, scholars diagnosed an imbalance of humors due to the temperature/humidity changes of the new environment. As such, the Spanish invested significant amounts of money attempting to solve said imbalance through the transportation of traditional Spanish foods across the ocean. The consumption of a regular Spanish diet was supposed to restore balance to the humors.

Additionally, the Spanish utilized humoralism to account for the phenotypic and behavioral differences between themselves and Native Americans. Observing the environments in which the Native Americans lived and the food they ate, the Spanish theorized that while they were once white (as the Bible proclaimed that humanity shared an origin), their conditions affected the balance of their humors, which in turn manifested in darker skin, less facial hair, and diminished appetites. Through this, the Spanish believed that they could “cure” the Native Americans if their lifestyles were changed to that of the Spanish. However, this also meant that the Spanish could gradually become more Native American if they followed the Native Americans’ lifestyles. In making the Native Americans more Spanish and “civilized,” the Spanish justified their colonialism as humanitarian (discussed week four of HIST 139) (Earle).

The Revolutionary Era Through the Lens of Socrates

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Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Socrates," located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The painting to the left depicts the event that influenced Plato's conception of democracy, the execution of his master Socrates.

The Life of Socrates

As Socrates did not write anything down (or if he did, we no longer have it), most of our knowledge of him comes from his disciple Plato. Most notably, the manner in which Socrates practiced philosophy became known as the Socratic Method, or arriving at a conclusion via questioning. As such, he would often engage in conversation with his contemporaries, challenging their beliefs with round after round of inquiry. However, these "debates" often did not result in a concrete conclusion other than that the original belief was wrong, and in combination with his sharp tongue (as seen in Plato's depictions of him), this resulted in the citizens of Athens eventually viewing him as a nuisance. Finally, he was brought to trial by his enemies and executed. The democratic means by which this occurred deeply upset Plato, leading to Plato's disenchantment with democracy and the masses (Kraut).

Otherization and Revolution

Furthermore, the charges brought upon Socrates echo later sentiments during the Scientific Revolution (discussed fifth week). Spurned by his challenges toward the incumbent ideology of Greece, his accusers claimed that he did not believe, or made a mockery of, the gods. Galileo faced similar difficulties upon the introduction of his theories.

The painter, Jacques-Louis David, was witness to the French Revolution (discussed week ten of HIST 139). Through his paintings, David would often embody revolutionary values. In "The Death of Socrates," for example, themes of intellectual oppression are explored. As stated previously, Socrates was ostensibly (at least to David) executed due to others’ fear of philosophy and knowledge, and with it, social progress. Condemned by the conservatives of Athens for corrupting youth, Socrates was a revolutionary of sorts. Most notably, however, is Socrates’ inspired demeanor within the painting, implicitly offering support for dissidents. In spite of his impending death, Socrates does not display grief—rather, he embraces his cause to his grave. This belies a perception of martyrdom behind revolution on Jacques-Louis’ behalf, portraying the dignity of an honorable death.

Connecting the Classical Antiquity to the Early Modern Period