Monday, 6 August 2007

Stardust Memories

Five hundred and sixteen years ago, at the same time that the University of Padua was enriched by the arrival to the Chair of Mathematics of one Galileo Galilei, a man who would be one of the most controversial and enigmatic scholars in history, the local students started a spring-time of rioting.

A second and perhaps even more enigmatic academic also joined the University in this year (as the most famous, and the highest paid, professor in “Italy” – Padua had the largest budget of any Italian university at this time). His name was Cesare Cremonini. And he will be forever famous, thanks in part to Bertolt Brecht, as the man who wouldn’t look through Galileo’s telescope. And, so, symbolises the apparent blindness of late Renaissance/ early Baroque intellectual, religious and political “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” to the radical ideas of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler about our place in the grand scheme of the universe. He is something more than that, of course – once we go “betwixt”.

So too, the radical trio – but I’ll leave that to the new scholars.

First those riots: for almost three centuries the prestige of Padua’s university was unchallenged. It was the de facto university of buoyant Venice, ten miles away, but unlike many of the nascent city-universities of “Christendome” it gave no special preference to local scholars. It was a genuinely “pan-European” centre, not just a local Venetian university, one that welcomed scholars of all faiths and nationalities – even the English. By the 1530s it boasted the best medical faculty in Europe; it claimed the first professor of botany or pharmacology, the first botanical garden; the first clinical facility. Autopsy was invented here, pretty much. William Harvey was a post-graduate; Sir Henry Wootton, Ambassador at Venice in Tom’s time, learnt statecraft and spy-craft and, as we’ll see, the art of lying abroad.

Venice, coming shortly as I’ve written for too many days now, really was an interesting place: for it combined mercantile genius (waning just, by the time of Tom’s visit) with what can seem a glorious tolerance and patronage these days. Edmund Muir writes:

“The Venetian and their allies defended religious scepticism (even atheism), scientific experimentation, sexual liberty (Even pederasty), women’s rights to an education and freedom from parental tyranny, the presence of women on the stage, and the seductive power of the female voice in opera.”

(Here, in further context, I mention a favourite quote, over eighty years old itself, and I have no idea if modern scholarship has turned over its premise. A.N Whitehead wrote in “Science and the Modern World” in 1925: “In the year 1500 Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BC.”) It is a quote I ponder a lot on this trip thinking about how much we still know. Where too, the new creative Renaissance that should come with our – increasingly beleaguered – liberal tolerance? I guess it’s here, in modes of communication, in visual media, text and science, but I wish we knew a little more about it publicly, a little less La Lohan.

But if it can be said that late sixteenth century Padua specialised in any one idea - it had long led the way in medicine and law, and acted as a kind of diplomatic finishing school for politicians and ambassadors from all over Europe – that thing would be doubt. It was a kind of a condition of the times.

In his “The Waning of the Renaissance” the modern academic, William J Bouwsma, shows how from around 1550 to 1640 the cultural world of Europe was ‘full of contradictions’; how its thinkers constituted a ‘community of ambivalence’, and the creative freedom characteristic of the early Renaissance ‘was constantly shadowed by doubt and anxiety.’

And it is the conditions which bring about this ambivalence, shadow, doubt, contradiction and anxiety that is most pertinent to the riots in Padua, in 1591, and to the “Betwixt” modern era. To the now, where the punctured wheel of post-modernity can often seem perennially “repaired” only through either the accumulation of Gonzaga-style riches (or debts) or the adoption of absolutist (and radical) faith. Doubt we don’t do so well at the moment, despite the excellent sales for “The God Delusion”. Doubt is, it feels, for wimps; doesn’t look good on a PowerPoint; or play well in a “Shoot-Em-Up,” or political address (Obama just advocated strikes on Pakistan, if required, I note, sadly). Doubt seems like the purgatory of corporate, or born-again, culture; the playground of disengaged academia. Perhaps we just need to look at it through a telescope, rather than a bottom-line or election-booth, and see if it can help our confusing times.

Bouwsma writes of Tom’s era:
“…the hidden source of cultural change is anxiety, which in the case of the late Renaissance was produced by a surfeit of creative liberty that collapsed categories, blurred distinctions, and breached boundaries, the very bulwarks of cultural order that calm existential anxieties. By the late sixteenth century the creative freedom of the Renaissance had generated anxieties that became unendurable for many. They sought to cope by erecting new forms of order. The culture wars resulted from the tension between the desire for liberation and the need for order, between those who explored the limits of cultural tolerance under the protection of Venice and those, mostly outside Venice, who abhorred the emotional, intellectual and spiritual anarchy that resulted from such tolerance.”

To these eyes that reads as a very modern statement. Into the socio-cultural arena of late Sixteenth century Europe’s collapsing certainty came (as these things do today) the antithesis of doubt: came, in fact, The Word 2.0. In 1591 the local Jesuit college in Padua had grown from humble beginnings to offer serious competition to the University, its rapid expansion financially under-pinned and supported by many more conservative Paduan and Venetian families who grew increasingly concerned by the spiritual and moral “decline” of the university, which had been cast in the worst possible light in the Jesuit’s sermons.

The Jesuit faith was only fifty-seven years old (or fifty-one depending on the time-line) in 1591. The Jesuits’ mission was conversion to Catholicism – as “soldiers of God”; its sub-text was the prevention of the spread of Protestantism, though neither of these ideas was part of its founder’s initial plan; that came after Ignatius Loyola offered his services to the Pope, who could see rich earthly promise in the Jesuit’s world-view and took full advantage. Incorporating many of the ideas of Renaissance Humanism, the Jesuit approach is intellectual and emotional, looks to an inner sensitivity through meditation – to find God in all things. But theological advancement was not enough for some; the advances in post-Copernican science was creating ambivalence, shadow, doubt, contradiction and anxiety even if many of its chief proponents still believed in some kind of God, or at least didn’t publish things that would bring his existence into question.

During the spring of 1591, graffiti attacking the Jesuits appeared on the walls of their college in Padua, and then in July on two successive days Bovisti [Paduan students who took classes in the Palazzo Bo] surrounding the Jesuit college shot off guns, smashed windows, and painted more anti-Jesuit graffiti. The riots had begun. Were they based on thought or ignorance; ideological struggle or neighbourly jealousy? Every reading is possible.

“On July 12, a group of university students, including young Venetian patricians from prominent families, stripped off their clothes, dressed themselves in sheets, and marched on the Jesuit college, flashing women and children along the way. Once inside the college they threw off the sheets and ran around naked, shouting obscenities at the Jesuit fathers and the younger students. The ringleaders of this adolescent prank faced heavy fines, but the incident actually increased hostility toward the Jesuits in Padua.”

Edmund Muir writes.

But here the paradoxes shoot ahead of the prejudices (even Brecht’s), to paraphrase Rousseau. “All sides of the culture wars shared in the heritage of Renaissance humanism, particularly its emphasis on the historical appreciation of sources, a critical understanding of the thought of the ancients, the problems of imitating nature in science and the arts, the evocative capacity of language to persuade, and its fallible capacity to represent.” Muir writes. And so Padua in the riots of 1591 or the Galilean Revolution of 1610 cannot be seen as a dialectic or right and wrong, progress and intolerance, instead more of a Beirut of interests out of which epoch-defining ideas emerge.

For example, the man who soon took the lead in defending the anti-Jesuit students of his university (and winning on their behalf: the Jesuits were banished from the entire Venetian dominion between 1606 and 1657)…was its most popular Professor…. Not Galileo Galilei, but Cesare Cremonini, the man we think of as “denying” modern science.

Cremonini, like Galilei, is a subtlely betwixt character. His motto in Latin was: Intus ut libet, foris ut mores est. This is Latin for: “In private think what you wish, in public behave as the custom”. He was thought one of the best philosophers of his era, and I think he was close to coming of the Atheist closet through his rigorous reasoning – perhaps he was only held back by his motto. It is not that he single-handedly destroyed the idea of the immortality of the soul (though his ideas were highly influential within the slightly later Venetian “libertine” movement that – anonymously – went for God’s jugular) but that he guided so many later scholars in the direction of Reason and Logic – and Earthly Pleasures: they liked that a lot. Looked at another way his refusal to look through Galileo’s telescope can be seen as intellectually rigorous: “Cremonini was on the verge of making Descartes’s move [I think therefore I am] and one can see why he was unwilling to see – that is, through the telescope.” Muir writes. “The senses cannot be trusted unless logic is also applied.”

Meanwhile, the Jesuits – for a period the intellectual as well as, perhaps, the moral wing of the Catholic church – honoured Galileo in 1610, following the publication of the Starry Messenger (1616 was when the trouble started). As Arthur Koestler writes:

“They praised and fêted Galileo, whom they knew to be a Copernican, and they kept Kepler, the foremost exponent of Copernicanism, under their protection throughout his life.”

And Koestler goes further, naming different names in his book of shame, "The Sleepwalkers": “…the inertia of the human kind and its resistance to innovation are most clearly demonstrated not, as one might expect, by the ignorant mass – which is easily swayed once its imagination is caught – but by professionals with a vested interest in tradition and in the monopoly of learning.” He adds that Galilei’s strident character probably didn’t help – how often is it the personal?

“Galileo had a rare gift for provoking enmity…the cold, unrelenting hostility which genius plus arrogance minus humility creates among mediocrities…”

Koestler concludes: “The academic backwoodsmen have been the curse of genius from Aristarchus to Darwin and Freud; they stretch, a solid and hostile phalanx of pedantic mediocrities, across the centuries.”

I wonder in 100 years time which “academics”, think-tankers, pundits and theorists (of politics, economics, geology and physics - say) will escape a similar blanket description? Or to put it another way: will Richard Dawkins still be read in 2108? Will String Theory be proved? Or God’s existence? Global warming? How will stem-cell research be doing? And who’ll be quoting Ian McEwan? Or Rush Limbaugh?

And, how come Cesare Cremonini is still being written about? Because he thought interestingly, I suggest. Because he, no more or less than Galileo, was daring to be different with his (private) atheism, or something close. The inquisition investigated him just as much as Galileo – we discover from documents in the Vatican library discovered only a few years ago. Remember than witches were still being burnt alive at this time (Kepler’s mum was nearly fried because she was a little hideous and lippy, to paraphrase Koestler). Denying God wasn’t fun, not for anyone. And being the best-paid academic in Italy was probably quite fun. In so many ways being a modern politician is just like being a Renaissance and post-Renaissance thinker or scientist. So many questions are best unanswered. And the brightest are not always the best.

Later in "The Sleepwalkers" Koestler writes:
“Atheists were the exception among the pioneers of the scientific revolution. They were all devout men who did not want to banish deity from their universe, but could find no place for it – just as, quite literally, they were unable to reserve sites for Paradise and Hell….Theology and physics parted ways not in anger, but in sorrow, not because of Signor Galileo, but because they became bored with and had nothing more to say to each other.”

I return to another quote of A.N Whitehead from the middle of the twentieth century, it seems rather accurate even now, in a certain fundamental light: “The churches…have put forward aspects of religion which are expressed in terms either suited to the emotional reactions of bygone times or directed to excite modern emotional interests of non-religious character…”

Nearby me in the Scrovegni chapel here in Padua sits extraordinary restored religious art work by the fourteenth century painter, Giotto di Bondone that – I hope – is timeless, spiritual and effortlessly moving; is undoubtedly part of the “western canon”, and makes for excellent “real” postcards. “Giotto”, unlike “Galileo” whose ideas have been refined, augmented and turned into metaphor, can thus still mean something now. The genius of Galileo is effectively denied at prayer meets from The Beltway to Tora Bora every time the “vested interests” of backwoodsmen and “emotional interests of a non-religious character” slug it out around the world without ever a sight of a new Starry Messenger – with a secular face, or from on high – or the arrival of mass atheism.

Giotto, though he can be read and reread according to his times, and ours, remains a fixed point somehow in 2007, even if he’s less famous than Andy Warhol or Tracy Emin today. Galileo & his “logical” sometime mate, the probable atheist, Cesare Cremonini, seem as far away as the famous moons and planets which caused all the problems back in the day. If fact, they seem a lot further away than a God for whom the new world seems a very clear and present danger and battleground.

Whether he exists or not.

I am looking forward to Giotto di Bondone: perhaps he will simplify things, though not the God question. That’s already certain.

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