Catégorie : Etudes Renaissance

 

Raphael 1520-2020: What Humanity can learn from « The School of Athens »

On the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of the Italian painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), several exhibitions are honoring this artist, notably in Rome, Milan, Urbino, Belgrade, Washington, Pasadena, London, and Chantilly in France.

The master is honored, but what do we really know about the intention and meaning of his work?


Introduction

Raphael, portrait of a young boy.

There is no doubt that in the collective mind of the West, Raphael, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, appears as one of the most brilliant artists and even as the best embodiment of the « Italian Renaissance”.

Although he died at the age of 37, Raphael was able to reveal his immense talent to the world, in particular by giving birth, between 1509 and 1511, to several monumental frescoes in the Vatican, the most famous of which, 7.7 meters long and 5 meters high, is known as The School of Athens.

The viewer finds himself inside a building that brings together the thoughts of all mankind: united in a timeless space, fifty philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers of all ages meet to discuss their vision of man and nature.

French National Assembly.


The image of this fresco embodies so powerfully the « ideal » of a democratic republic, that in France, during the February 1848 revolution, the painting representing Louis Philippe (till then hanging behind the President of the National Assembly) was taken down and replaced by a representation of Raphael’s fresco, in the form of a tapestry from the Manufacture des Gobelins, produced between 1683 and 1688 at the request of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the founder of the French Academy of Sciences.

Then, in France, arrived the idea that Raphael, being « the Prince of painters », embodied « the ultimate artist ». Superior to Rubens or Titian, Raphael was thought to have achieved the subtle « synthesis » between the « divine grace » of a Leonardo da Vinci and the « silent strength » of a Michelangelo. What more can be said ? A true observation as long as one looks only at the purity of the « forms » and thus of the « style ». Adored or hated, Raphael was erected in France as a model to be imitated by every young talent attending our Academies of Fine Arts.

Hence, for five centuries, artists, historians and connoisseurs have not ceased to comment and often to confront each other, not on the intention or the meaning of the artist’s works, but on his style! In a way akin to some of our contemporaries who adore Star Wars and its special effects without paying attention to the ideology that, underhandedly, this TV series conveys…

For this brand of historians, « iconography », that branch of art history which is interested in the subjects represented, in the possible interpretations of the compositions or particular details, is only really useful to appreciate the « more primitive » paintings, that is to say that of the « Northern Schools »…

One knows well, especially in France, that once the « form » takes the appearance of perfection, it does not matter what the content is! This or that writer tells abject horrors, but « it is so well written! »

The good news is that in the last twenty years or so, a handful of leading historians and especially female art historians, have undertaken and published in depth new research.

I am thanking in particular of Marcia Hall (Temple University), Ingrid D. Rowland (University of Chicago), Reverend Timothy Verdon (Florence and Stanford), Jesuit historian John William O’Malley, and especially Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier.

The latter’s book Raphael’s Stanza della Signatura, Meaning and Invention (Cambridge University Press, 2002), which I was able to read (thanks to the pandemic lockdown), allowed me to adjust some of the leads and intuitions I had summarized in 2000 in, let’s be honest, a rather messy note.

If my work had consisted in trying to give some coherence to what is in the public domain, through their assiduous archival work in the Vatican and elsewhere, these historians, for whom neither Latin nor Greek have any secrets, have largely contributed to shed new light on the political, philosophical, cultural and religious context that contributed to the genesis of Raphael’s work.

Enriched by these readings, I have tried here, in a methodical way, to « make readable » what is rightly considered Raphael’s major work, The School of Athens.

Instead of identifying and commenting from the outset on the figures we see in the Stanza della Segnatura (« Room of the Segnatura” of the Vatican in Rome), I have chosen first to sketch a few backgrounds that serve as “eye-openers” to penetrate this work. For, in order to detect the painter’s intentions, actions and feelings, it is essential to penetrate the spirit of the epoch that engendered the artist’s: those days political and economic challenges, the cultural heritage of Rome and the Church, a close-up on the pope who commissioned the work, the philosophical convictions of the advisors who dictated the theme of the work, etc.

However, if all this seems too tedious for you dear reader, or if you are just eager to familiarize yourself with the work, nothing prevents you from going back and forth between the deciphering of the frescoes at the end of this article (Guided visit) and the contextualization that precedes them.

Cleaning our eyeglasses

General view of two of Raphael’s four frescoes decorating the Chamber of the Signature.


To see the world as it is, let’s wipe our glasses and stop looking at the tint of our glasses. For as is often the case, what « prevents » the viewer from penetrating a work, from seeing its intention and meaning, is not what his eyes see as such, but the preconceived ideas that prevents him from looking at the outside world. Learning to see usually starts by challenging some of our preconceptions.

1. It’s not a easel painting! Since the 16th century, we Europeans have been thinking in terms of « easel paintings » (as opposed to mural). The artist paints on a support, a wooden panel or a canvas, which the client then hangs on the wall. However, The School of Athens, as such, is not a « painting » of this type, but simply, in the strict sense, a part or a « detail » of what we would call today, « an installation ». I explain myself. What constitutes the work here is the whole of the frescoes and decorations covering the ceiling, the floor and the four walls of the room! We will explain them to you. The viewer is, in a way, inside a cube that the artist has tried to make appear as a sphere. So, to « explain » the meaning of The School of Athens, in isolation from the rest and without demonstrating the thematic and symbolic interconnections with the iconography of the other walls, the ceiling and the floor, is not only an exercise in futility but utter incompetence.

2. Error of title! Neither at the time of its commission, nor at the time of its realization or in the words of Raphael, the fresco carried the name “School of Athens”! That name was given later. Everything indicates that the entire room covered with frescoes was to express a divine harmony uniting Philosophy (The School of Athens), Theology (on the opposite side), Poetry (on its right side) and Justice (on its left side). We will come back to that.

3. The theme is not the artist’s choice!
The only person who met both Raphael and Pope Julius II during his lifetime was the physician Paolo Giovio (1483-1552) who arrived in Rome in 1512, a year before the death of Julius II. According to Giovio, it was the pontiff himself who, as early as 1506, that is, two years before Raphael’s arrival, conceived the contents of the « Signing Chamber ». This is logical, since it was the place where he installed his personal library, a collection of some 270 books, arranged on shelves below the frescoes and classified according to the themes of each wall decoration (Philosophy, Theology, Poetry and Justice). However, given the complexity of the themes, and given Julius II’s poor literary culture, historians agree that the intellectual authorship of the frescoes was attributed to the pope’s advisors and especially to the one who would have been able to synthesize them, his chief librarian, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516).

Raphael, who seems to have constantly modified his preparatory drawings according to the feedback and comments he received from the commissioners, was able to translate this theme and program into images with his vast talent. In short, if you like the images, congratulate Raphael; if you like or don’t like the content, talk to the « boss ».

On the far right side of The School of Athens, Raphael and Il Sodoma seem to co-sign the fresco.

4. Painted by several people? What remains to be clarified is that, according to Vatican accounts, the entire decoration of the room was entrusted in mid-1508 to the talented fresco artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), six years older than Raphael and known as Il Sodoma. He appears to be the only person to have received any money for this work. Raphael does not appear in these accounts until 1513…

However, as the cycle of frescoes on the life of St. Benedict in the territorial abbey of Santa Maria in Monte Oliveto Maggiore testifies, Sodoma also had considerable talent, and above all, an incomparable know-how in fresco technique. Although he has never been honored, his style is so similar to Raphael’s that it is hard to mistake him.

Portrait of Pietro Aretino by the Venetian painter Titian.

It should also be noted that Sodoma, who came to Rome at the request of the pope’s banker Agostino Chigi (1466-1520), was asked to decorate the latter’s villa in 1508, which would have given Raphael free rein in the Vatican before joining him on the same site.

According to the french historian Bernard Levergeois, the sulphurous Pietro Aretino (1495-1556), a pornographic pamphleteer, before becoming the protégé and « cultural agent » of the banker Chigi in Rome, spent many years in Perugia.

There he took interest in the young pupils of Pietro Perugino (c. 1448-1523), Raphael’s master, and, says Levergeois, it was there that he

met the most prestigious painters of the day: Raphael, Sebastiano del Piombo, Julius Romano, Giovanni da Udine, Giovan Francesco Penni and Sodoma, all of whom took turns decorating the magnificent villa (the Farnesina) that Chigi had built in Rome. Some of them also worked on the no less famous Villa Madam (for pope Julius II), a grandiose project that was never completed.

Aretino as he appears in Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

As seen in the portrait painted by Titian, Aretino, nicknamed « the scourge of Princes », was a powerful, possessive and tyrannical character. A blackmailer, a flamboyant pansexual and well-informed about what was going on in the alcoves of the elites, he worked himself up, like FBI boss Edgar Hoover in the Kennedy era, as a king-maker, a power above power. Historians report that both Raphael and Michelangelo, before showing their works to the public, felt compelled to seek the advice of this pervert Aretino.

And in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo depicts St. Bartolomeo in the guise of the Aretino. The artist must have thought that the traditional attribute of the martyr flayed alive was a perfect fit for the one who was bullying him: he is wearing the remains of his own skin and holding in his hand the large knife that was used for the torture…

It is therefore tempting to think that it was Aretino, the favorite of the Pope’s banker, and not necessarily Renaissance architect Donato Bramante, as is commonly accepted, who may have played the role of intermediary in bringing both Sodoma and Raphael to Rome in order to revive the glory of his patron and the oligarchy that held the Eternal City in contempt.

To my knowledge, Raphael, neither in his own letters nor in the statements reported by his entourage, would have commented on the theme and intention of his work. Strange modesty. Did he consider himself a simple « decorative painter »?

Finally, if Sodoma‘s participation in the realization of the School of Athens remains to be clarified, his portrait does appear. He is in the foreground on the far right, standing side by side to a rather sad Raphael (both on the side of the Aristotelians). A double signature?

This makes the question arise: Can one continue to speak of the frescoes as painted « by Raphael »? Are they not rather the frescoes of the four men team composed of Julius II, Inghirami, Sodoma and Raphael?

An unusual patron, « the warrior pope » Julius II

Medal with the effigy of Julius II the « Ligurian » (Genoese). On the back, the project of reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.

Before talking about these famous « impresarios of the Renaissance » and understanding their motivations, it is necessary to explore the character of future pope Julius II: Giuliano della Rovere (1443-1513). He was appointed bishop of Carpentras by Pope Sixtus IV, his uncle. He was also successively archbishop of Avignon and cardinal-bishop of Ostia.

On October 31, 1503, 37 of the 38 cardinals composing the Sacred College, make him the head of the Western Church, under the name of Julius II, until its death in 1513, a moment Giuliano had been waiting for 20 years.

Before him, others had made their way. In fact, in 1492, his personal enemy, the Spanish Rodrigo de Borgia (1431-1503), succeeded in getting himself elected as pope Alexander VI. True to the legendary corruption of the Borgia dynasty, he was one of the most corrupt popes in the history of the Church. Jealous and angry at his own failure, Giuliano accused the new pope of having bought a number of votes. Fearing for his life, he leaves for France to the court of King Charles VIII, whom he convinces to lead a military campaign in Italy, in order to depose Alexander VI and to recover the Kingdom of Naples… Accompanying the young French king in his Italian expedition, he enters Rome with him at the end of 1494 and prepares to launch a council to investigate the pope’s actions. But Alexander VI managed to circumvent the machinations of his enemy and preserved his pontificate until his death in 1503.

Medal with the effigy of the pope Alexander VI Borgia.

From the moment of his accession, Giuliano della Rovere confessed that he had chosen his name as pope, Julius II, not after Pope Julius I, but in reference to the bloodthirsty Roman dictator Julius Caesar. He asserts from the start his firm will to restore the political power of the popes in Italy. For him, Rome must once again become the capital of an Empire much larger than the Roman Empire of the past.

When Julius II took office, decadence and corruption had brought the Church to the brink. The territories that would later become Italy were a vast battlefield where Italian condottieri, French kings, German emperors and Spanish nobles came to fight. The ancient city of Rome was nothing more than a vast heap of ruins systematically plundered by rapacious entrepreneurs in the service of princes, bishops and popes, each one seeking to monopolize the smallest column or architrave likely to come and decorate their palace or church. Reportedly, out of the 50,000 inhabitants of the city, there were 10,000 prostitutes and courtesans…

Obviously, Julius II was the pope chosen by the oligarchy to restore a minimum of order in the house. For, particularly since 1492, the extension of Catholicism in the New World and then in the East, required a « rebirth », not of « Christian humanism », as during the Renaissance of the early 15th century, but of the authority of the Church.

The spread of printing and humanism in Europe.

For us today, the word « Renaissance » evokes the heyday of Italian culture. However, for the powerful oligarchs of Raphael’s time, it was a matter of resurrecting the splendor of Greco-Roman antiquity, embodied in the glory of the Roman « Republic », mistakenly idealized as a great and well-administered state, thanks to efficient laws, capable civil servants possessing a great culture, based on the assiduous study of Greek and Latin texts.

And it is well to this rebirth of the Roman authority that Julius II is going to dedicate himself. In first place by the sword. In less than three years (1503-1506), the rebellious César Borgia is reduced to impotence. He was the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI who, at the head of an army of mercenaries, waged war in the country and terrorized the Papal States,

In 1506, Julius II, quickly nicknamed « the warrior pope » at the head of his troops, took back Perugia and Bologna.

As the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1537), who was present in Italy and was an eyewitness to the sacking of Bologna by the papal troops, reproached him, Julius II preferred the helmet to the tiara. Questioned by Michelangelo in charge of immortalizing him with a bronze statue, to know if he did not wish to be represented with a book in his hand to underline his high degree of culture, Julius II answers:

Why a book? Rather, show me a sword in hand.

Originally from the region of Genoa (Liguria), Julius II undertook to chase the Venetians, whom he abhorred, out of Romagna, which they occupied. « I will reduce your Venice to the state of hamlet of fishermen from which it left, » had said one day the Ligurian pope to the ambassador Pisani, to which the proud patrician did not fail to retort:

And we, Holy Father, we will make of you a small village priest,
if you are not reasonable…

This language gives the measure of the bitterness to which one had arrived on both sides. In the bull of excommunication launched shortly afterwards (April 27, 1509) against the Venetians, these were accused of « uniting the habit of the wolf with the ferocity of the lion, and of flaying the skin by pulling out the hairs… ».

The League of Cambrai

Italy at the time of the Ligue of Cambrai.

Against the rapacious practices of Venice, on December 10, 1508, in Cambrai, Julius II officially rallies to the « League of Cambrai », a group of powers (including the French King Louis XII, the regent of the Netherlands Margaret of Austria, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and the German Emperor Maximilian I).

For Julius II, the happiness is total because Louis XII comes in person to expel the Venetians of the States of the Church. Better still, on May 14, 1509, after its defeat by the League of Cambrai at the battle of Agnadel, the Republic of Venice agonizes and finds itself at the mercy of an invasion. However, at that juncture, Julius II, fearing that the French would establish their influence on the country, made a spectacular turnaround. He organized, from one day to the next, the survival of Venice!

His treasurer general, the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi (a Sienese billionaire close to the Borgias, to whom he had lent colossal sums of money and later Raphael’s patron), set the conditions:

  • In order to pay for the Swiss mercenaries capable of repelling the attackers of the Ligue of Cambrai, Chigi granted the Venetians a substantial loan.
  • In exchange, the Serenissima agreed to give up its monopoly on the trade of alum that it imported from Constantinople. At the time, alum, an irreplaceable mineral used to fix fabric dyes, represented a real « strategic » issue.
  • Once Venice stopped importing alum, the entire Mediterranean world was forced, from one day to the next, to obtain supplies, not from Venice, but from the Vatican, that is to say, from Chigi, who was in charge of exploiting the « alum of Rome » for the Papacy, located in the mines of the Tolfa mountains, northwest of Rome in the heart of the Papal States.
  • Aware that its very survival was at stake, and for lack of an alternative, Venice grudgingly accepted the golden deal.

In his biography on Jules II, french historian Ivan Cloulas specifies:

Above all stands out Agostino Chigi, the banker from Siena, farmer of the pontifical mines of alum of Tolfa since the reign of Alexander VI. The favor that this character enjoyed with Julius II is surprising, since he was a banker who had long served Caesar Borgia. The pontiff, according to the tradition, conferred at the time of his accession the load of ‘depositary’ to one of his Genoese compatriots, Paolo Sauli, charged to carry out all the financial transactions of the Holy See in connection with the cardinal camerlingue Raffaelo Sansoni-Riario. But Chigi did not suffer disgrace, because he advanced Julian della Rovere considerable sums of money to buy electors [cardinal members of the Sacred College], and he made the exploitation and export of alum extracted from the pontifical mines a success. The experience and value of the Sienese made him a partner of the various bankers of the papacy, notably the Sauli and the Fugger, who gained new wealth as the fruitful trade in indulgences developed in Germany.

Hence, now in alliance with Venice, Julius II, in what appears to the naive as a spectacular « reversal of alliance », set up the « Holy League » to « expel from Italy the Barbarians » (Fuori i Barbari!). A coalition in which he made enter the Swiss, Venice, the kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Henri VIII of England, and finally, the emperor Maximilian. This league will then drive out the French out of Italy. Julius II said with irony:

If Venice had not existed,
it would have been necessary to invent it.

In response, Louis XII, the King of France, attempted to transpose the struggle into the spiritual realm. Thus, a national council, meeting in Orleans in 1510, he declared France exempt from the obedience of Julius II. A second council was convened in Italy itself, in Pisa, then in Milan (1512) trying to depose the pope. Julius II opposed to the King of France the Vth ecumenical council of the Lateran (1512) where he will welcome warmly those who abandoned that of Milan…

Maritime Empires

Julius II was determined to re-establish his authority both on land and on the oceans. A bit like in ancient Greece, Italy experienced a rather particular phenomenon, that of the emergence of « maritime republics ». If the « Republic of Venice » is famous, the maritime republics of Pisa, Ragusa (Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast), Amalfi (near Naples) and Genoa are less known.

In each case, operating from a port, a local oligarchy built a maritime empire and above all poisoned its competitors. However, maritime activity, by its very nature, implies taking risks over time. Hence the need for skillful, robust and forward-looking finance, offering insurance and purchase options on future assets and profits. It is therefore no coincidence that most financial empires developed in symbiosis with maritime empires, notably the Dutch and British, and with the West and East India Companies.

At the end of the 15th century, it was essentially Genoa and Venice that were fighting for control of the seas. On the one hand, Venice, historically the bridgehead of the Byzantine Empire and its capital Constantinople (Istanbul), was by far the largest city in the Mediterranean world in 1500 with 200,000 inhabitants. Since its heyday in the 13th century, the Serenissima has defended tooth and nail its status as a key intermediary on the Silk Road to the West. On the other hand, Genoa, which, after having established itself in the Levant thanks to the crusades, by taking control of Portugal, financed all the Portuguese colonial expeditions to West Africa from where it brought back gold and slaves.

Two maritime achievements will exacerbate this rivalry a little more:

  • 1488. Although the works of the Persian scholar Al Biruni (11th century) and old maps, including that of the Venetion monk Fra Mauro, made it possible to foresee the bypassing of the African continent by the Atlantic Ocean to reach India, it was not until 1488 that Portuguese sailors passed the Cape of Good Hope. Thus, Genoa, without any intermediary, could directly load its ships in Asia and bring its goods back to Europe;
  • 1492. Seeking to open a direct trade route to Asia without having to deal with the Venetians or the Portuguese (Genoese), Spain sent the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus west in 1492. More than a new route to Asia, Columbus discovered a new continent that would be the object of covetousness.
The imperial sharing of the entire world among the Spanish (Venice) and the Portuguese (Genoa),
as signed on by Pope Alexander VI Borgia with the treaty of Tordesillas in 1494

Two years later, on June 7, 1494, the Portuguese and Spanish signed the Treaty of Tordesillas to divide the entire world between them. Basically, all of the New World for Spain, all of the old one (from the Azores to Macao) for Portugal. To delimit their empires, they drew an imaginary line, which Pope Alexander VI Borgia set in 1493 at 100 leagues west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands.

Later, the line was extended, at the request of the Portuguese, to 370 leagues. Any land discovered to the east of this line was to belong to Portugal; to the west, to Spain. At the same time, any other Western maritime power was denied access to the new continent. However, in 1500, to the horror of the Spaniards, it was a Portuguese who discovered Brazil. And given its geographical position, to the west of the famous line, this country fell under the control of the Portuguese Empire!

Julius II, a child of Liguria (region of Genoa, therefore linked to Portugal) and vomiting Alexander VI Borgia (Spanish), in 1506, takes great pleasure in confirming, by the bull Inter Cætera, the treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 allowing to fix the dioceses of the New World, obviously to the advantage of the Portuguese and therefore to his own.

The ultimate weapon, culture

On the « spiritual » and « cultural » level, if Julius II spent most of his time at war, posterity retains essentially the image of « one of the great popes of the Renaissance » as a great protector and patron of the arts.

Indeed, to re-establish the prestige (the French word for soft power) and therefore the authority of Rome and its Empire, culture was considered a weapon as formidable as the sword. To begin with, Julius II opened new arteries in Rome, including the Via Giulia. He placed in the Belvedere courtyard the antiques he had acquired, in particular, the « Apollo of Belvedere » and the « Laocoon », discovered in 1506 in the ruins of Nero’s Imperial Palace.

Portrait of Julius II by Raphael, and his tomb by Michelangelo.

In the same year, that is to say six years before the end of the military operations, Julius II also launched great projects, some of which were only partially or entirely completed after his death:

  • The reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica, a task entrusted to the architect and painter Donato Bramante (1444-1514) ;
  • The tomb of Julius II, which the sculptor Michelangelo was entrusted with in the apse of the new basilica and of which his famous statue of Moses, one of the 48 bronze statues and bas-reliefs originally planned, should have been part;
  • The decoration of the vault of the Sistine Chapel built by Pope Sixtus IV, the uncle of Julius II, was also entrusted to Michelangelo. Julius II let himself be carried away by the creative spirit of the sculptor. Together, they worked on ever more grandiose projects for the decoration of the Chapel. The artist gave free rein to his imagination, in a different artistic genre that did not please the pope. Until October 31, 1512, Michelangelo painted more than 300 figures on the vault;
  • The frescoes decorating the personal library of the pope will be entrusted to the painter Raphael, called to Rome in 1508, probably at the suggestion of Chigi, Aretino or Bramante. The Stanza was the place where the pope signed his briefs and bulls. This room later became the private library of the pontiff Julius II, then the room of the Tribunal of Apostolic Signatures of Grace and Justice and later, that of the Supreme instance of appeal and cassation. Before the arrival of Julius II, this room and « the room of Heliodorus », were covered with frescoes by Piero della Francesca (1417-1492), a painter protected by the great Renaissance genius cardinal philosopher Nicolaus of Cusa (1401-1464), immortalizing the great ecumenical council of Florence (1438). Decorations by Lucas Signorelli and Sodoma were added later. Following his election, Julius II, anxious to mark his presence in history, and to re-establish the authority of the oligarchy and the Church, had the frescoes of the Council of Florence covered with new ones. Convinced by his advisors, the pope agreed to entrust the direction of the work to Raphael. Officially, it is said that Raphael spared some of the frescoes on the ceiling, notably those executed by Sodoma, so as not to antagonize him entirely. But, as we have said, the content, the very elaborate theme and part of the iconography of the frescoes were decided upon as early as 1506, even before Raphael’s arrival in 1508;
  • To modernize the city of Rome. Julius II, undoubtedly advised by the architect Bramante, singularly transformed the road system of Rome. In order for all the roads to converge towards St. Peter’s Basilica, he ordered the Via Giulia to be pierced on the left bank and the Lungara, the paths that meandered along the river on the right bank, to be transformed into a real street. His death interrupted the great works he had planned, in particular the construction of a monumental avenue leading to St. Peter’s and that of a new bridge to relieve the congestion of the bridge over St. Angelo, to which he had also facilitated access by widening the street leading to it. The extent of the work undertaken poses the problem of materials; although it was, in principle, forbidden to attack the ancient monuments, the reality was quite different. Ruinante, became the nickname of Bramante.
Drawing of the entrance door to the Vatican, circa 1530.

These major construction projects, patronage and military expenses drained the Holy See’s revenues. To remedy this, Julius II multiplied the sale of ecclesiastical benefits, dispensations and indulgences.

In the twelfth century, the Roman Catholic Church established the rules for the trade of « indulgences » (from the Latin indulgere, to grant) through papal decrees. They provided a framework for the total or partial remission before God of a sin, notably by promising, in exchange for a given amount of money, a reduction in the time spent in purgatory to the generous faithful after their death. In the course of time, this practice, essentially exploiting a form of religious superstition, turned into a business so lucrative that the Church could no longer do without it.

In northern Europe, particularly in Germany, the Fugger bankers of Augsburg were directly involved in organizing this trade. This practice was strongly denounced and fought against by the humanists, in particular by Erasmus, before Luther made it an essential part of the famous 95 theses that he posted, in 1517, on the doors of the church in Wittenberg.

In his book Erasmus and Italy, french historain Augustin Renaudet writes that Erasmus, after having met the highest authorities of the Vatican, was not fooled:

He was not long in understanding that apart from the Holy See, the services of the Curia and the Chancellery, apart from the cardinals, the innumerable prelates on mission and in charge, apart from a motley crowd of civil servants and scribes, who populated the administrative or financial offices and the courts, there was nothing in Rome. In all the cities he had known, in Brussels, in Paris, in London, in Milan, in Florence, and recently in Venice, an active economy, fed by industry, commerce, and finance, supported a strong urban bourgeoisie, or as in Venice, an aristocracy of shipowners. In Rome, all the economy, all the trade, all the finance, were in the hands of foreigners: Florentine or Genoese merchants, Florentine or Genoese bankers. These foreigners held in their dependence a people of small merchants, of small craftsmen who sold in the back room, of money changers and Jewish traffickers. Very little industry, the Roman population lived at the service of the Curia, the prelates and the convents. Erasmus marveled at the pride with which the descendants of the people-king pretended to maintain their ancient majesty.
The word of the Roman people was no longer an empty word; Erasmus was to write one day that, in the modern world, a Roman citizen counted less than a burgher of Basel.

Historians André Chastel and Robert Klein, in L’Humanisme, l’Europe de la Renaissance, share this observation:

Another trend, favorable to Caesar and Augustus, had emerged: Rome becoming again more and more the ‘imperial’ capital of all the powerful borrowed or sought to borrow a style from it.

This new style associates besides more and more arma and litterae, the sword and the book.

(…) Rich or poor, any sovereign of the Renaissance will occupy the artists and the scholars insofar as he needs prestige: the greatest patrons of the Renaissance were the ambitious and the warriors, Maximilian, Julius II, Henry VIII, François I, Charles V.

Raphael’s « impresarios »

If, from a contemporary point of view, it seems close to unthinkable for an artist to be « dictated » the theme of his work, this was not the case at the time of the Renaissance and even less so in the Middle Ages. For example, although he was a high-level diplomat of the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (, one of the first painters to sign his works with his name, was advised on theology by the Duke’s confessor, the erudite Dionysus the Cartusian (1401-1471), a close friend of Cardinal Nicolaus of Cusa. And no one will dare say that Van Eyck « did not paint » his masterpiece The Mystic Lamb.

Raphael’s position was more delicate. In his time, painters still had the status of craftsmen. Including Leonardo da Vinci, who was known for his superior intelligence, declared himself to be a « man without letters », that is to say, unable to read Latin or Greek. Raphael could read and write Italian, but was in the same condition. And when, towards the end of his short life, he was asked to work on architecture (St. Peter’s Basilica) and urban planning (Roman antiquities), he asked a friend to translate the Ten Books of the Roman architect Vitruvius into Italian. Now, any visitor to the « Chambers of the Signature » is immediately struck by the great harmony uniting several dozen philosophers, jurists, poets and theologians whose existence was virtually unknown to Raphael before his arrival in Rome in 1508.

In The Marriage of the Virgin, Perugino (left) starts with a geometric harmony between a rectangle, an isosceles triangle and a circle whose center serves as the vanishing point of the perspective. His pupil Raphael took up the process, but starting from the square.

Moreover, with the exception of The Marriage of the Virgin, painted in 1504 at the age of 21, based on the way his master Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Pietro Perugino (c. 1448-1523) had treated the same subject, Raphael had not yet had to meet the kind of challenge that the Stanza would pose to him.

As we have already said, the cartoons and other preparatory drawings, sometimes quite different from the final result, also suggest that, following the « commission, » discussions with one or more impresarios led the artist to modify, improve or change the iconography to arrive at the final result.

As for the theme, as we have already mentioned, the ideas and concepts seem to have emerged during a long period of maturation and were undoubtedly the result of multiple exchanges between Pope Julius II and several of his advisors, librarians, and « orators » of the papal court.

According to historian Ingrid D. Rowlands, the archival documents unquestionably indicate the decisive contribution of three very different personalities of the time:

  • Battista Casali ;
  • Giles of Viterbo;
  • Tommaso « Fedra » Inghirami.

The thorough investigation of the historian Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier has established the predominant role of Inghirami. He was the only one in a position, and in a position, as the pope’s chief librarian, to set the program of the rooms. Raphael, will be his enthusiastic collaborator and will undoubtedly end up being « recruited » to the orientations and vision of his commissionners. This is evidenced by the fact that he demanded to be buried in the Roman Pantheon, considered the most Pythagorean, and believed to be the most neo-Platonic, temple of the Roman era.

Battista Casali

As documented by the Jesuit historian John William O’Malley, it was on January 1, 1508, the year of his appointment to St. John Lateran, a few months before Raphael’s arrival in Rome, that Battista Casali (1473-1525), a professor at the University of Rome, evoked the image of The School of Athens in an oration delivered in the Sistine Chapel in the presence of Julius II:

One day (… ) the beauty of Athens inspired a contest between the gods, where humanity, learning, religion, primacies, jurisprudence and law came into being before being distributed in every country, where the Athenaeum and so many other gymnasiums were founded, where so many princes of knowledge trained their youth and taught them virtue, fortitude, temperance and justice – all of this destroyed in the whirlwind of the Mohaematan war machine… ) However, just as [your illustrious uncle Pope] Sixtus IV [who ordered the construction of the Sistine Chapel], in a way, laid the foundations of education, you laid the cornice. Here is the Vatican library which he erected as if it had come from Athens itself, gathering the books he was able to save from the wreckage, and created in the image of the Academy. You, now, Julius II, supreme pontiff, have founded a new Athens when you invoke the downtrodden world of letters as if it were rising from the dead, and order it, surrounded by threats of suspended work, that Athens, its stadiums, its theaters and its Athenaeums, be restored.

Giles of Viterbo

Giles of Viterbo.

Another major influence on the theme, Giles of Viterbo (1469-1532) of which we will say more below.

  • An outstanding orator, he was called to Rome in 1497 by Pope Alexander VI Borgia ;
  • In 1503, he became the Superior General of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine; with 8000 members, it was the most powerful order of its time;
  • He is known for the boldness and seriousness of the speech he gave at the opening of the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512;
  • He severely criticized the bellicose policy of Julius II and urged him to triumph by culture rather than by the sword;
  • After the death of the latter, he became the preacher and theologian of Pope Leo X who appointed him cardinal in 1517.

Tommaso Inghirami

Tommaso Inghirami, Pope Julius II‘s chief librarian and Raphael’s true impresario for the frescoes decorating the Signing Room. Here is his portrait, painted by Raphael in 1510..

Finally, the prelate Tommaso Inghirami (1470-1516), who spoke both Latin and Greek, was also a formidable orator. The man owed his fortune to Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492).

Educated by the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo the Magnificent was the patron of both Botticelli and Michelangelo who lived with him for three years.

Born in Volterra, Inghirami was also taken in by the Magnificent after the sacking of that city. He carefully supervised his studies and later sent him to Rome where Alexander VI Borgia welcomed him. Inghirami was a handsome and well-dressed man.

At 16, Inghirami earned the nickname « Phaedra » after brilliantly playing the role of the queen who commits suicide in a Seneca tragedy performed in a small circle at the residence of the influential Cardinal Raphael Riario, cousin of Julius II or nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and therefore cousin of Julius II. Thereafter, Phaedra, bon vivant and for whom the celestial and terrestrial pleasures were happily completed, gained in political and especially… physical weight.

  • In 1475, he accompanied the nuncio of Pope Alexander VI to the court of Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire, who named him Count Palatine and poet laureate;
  • On January 16, 1498, Inghirami delivered an oration in the Spanish Church of Rome in honor of the Infant Don Juan, the murdered son of the King of Spain. Inghirami, in the name of Alexander VI Borgia, fully endorsed the Spanish policy of the time: to extend Christianity as well as imperial looting into the New World, to drive the Moors out of Europe and to strengthen the colonial plunder of Africa. If Julius II hated Alexander VI, he will continue this policy;
  • In 1508, Julius II nominates Inghirami to head the Library of the Vatican to be installed in the Stanza;
  • In 1509, while he was heavily involved in the realization of the frescoes of the Stanza, Raphael made his portrait. Raphael shows us a man suffering from divergent strabismus who seems to turn his gaze towards the sky in order to signify where this « humanist » drew his inspiration from;
  • In 1510, the Pope appointed him Bishop of Ragusa;
  • Finally, in 1513, he became papal secretary and at the urgent request of the dying pope, Inghirami delivered his funeral oration: « Good God! What a mind this man had, what sense, what ability to manage and administer the Empire! What a supreme and unshakable strength! »

Inghirami soon served as secretary to the conclave electing Pope Leo X (John of Medici, second son of Lorenzo de Medici, also a great protector of neo-Platonists and « culture »), another pope whose portrait Raphael will paint.

In 1509, eager to reform the Catholic church on the basis of the study of the three languages (Latin-Greek-Hebrew) to settle the religious conflicts which were looming and announced the religious wars to come, Erasmus of Rotterdam meets Inghirami in Rome. The latter exposes to him the imposing cultural building sites which he directed. Erasmus does not say a word about it.

However, a long time after the death of Inghirami, Erasmus complained that the Vatican and the oligarchy recruited among the humanists. He notably fingerpointed the sect of “the Ciceronians”, omnipresent in the Roman Curia and of which Inghirami was one of the leaders.

Thus, in 1528, in a pamphlet titled The Ciceronians, Erasmus quoted Inghirami’s oration on Good Friday of 1509. He denounced the fact that the members of this sect, on the grounds of the elegance of the Latin language, only used Latin words that appeared as they were in the works of Cicero! As a result, all the new language of evangelical Christianity, enshrined in the Council of Florence, which Erasmus wished to promote, was either banned or « re-translated » into pagan terms and words of the Roman era! For example, in his sermon, Inghirami had presented Christ on the cross as a pagan god sacrificing himself heroically rather than as a redeemer.

Finally, shortly after Raphael’s death, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) wrote a treatise on philosophy in which Inghirami (meanwhile tragically deceased) defended rhetoric and denied the value of philosophy, his main argument being that everything written was already contained in the mystical and mythological texts of Orpheus and his followers…

Plato and Aristotle, the impossible synthesis

The Triumph of Saint Thomas of Aquinas (detail), here reconciling Aristotle (left) and Plato (right). Painting by Benozzo Gozzoli, Louvre, Paris.

Now, in order to be able to « read » the theme deployed by Raphael in the « Chamber of the Signature, » let us examine this Florentine « neo-Platonism » that animated both Giles of Viterbo and Tommaso Inghirami.

The approach of these two orators consisted above all in putting their « neo-Platonism » and their imagination at the service of a cause: that of asserting with force that Julius II, the pontifex maximus at the head of a triumphant Church, embodied the ultimate outcome of a vast line of philosophers, theologians, poets and humanists. At the origin of a civilizational and theological « big bang » presumed to lead to the immeasurable lustre of the Catholic Church under Julius II, not only Plato and Aristotle themselves, but those who had preceded them including Apollo, Moses and especially Pythagoras.

From 1506 onwards, Giles de Viterbo, in an exercise that can be described as « beyond” impossible, wrote a text entitled Sententia ad mentem Platonis (« Sentences with the mind of Plato »). In it, he tried to combine into one ideology the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1096-1160), the scholastic text par excellence of the 13th century and the starting point for the commentaries of the Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) for his Summa Theologica, and the esoteric Florentine neo-Platonism of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) * of whom Giles de Viterbe was a follower.

All this could only please a pope who, in order to establish his authority on earthly and spiritual matters, warmly welcomed this agreement between Faith and Reason defended by Thomas Aquinas who says that “the Truth being one”, reason’s only role is to confirm faith’s superiority.

The very idea to present the wedding of Aristotelian scholasticism (logic presented as « reason ») with Florentine neo-Platonism (Plotinus’ emanationism dressed as « faith ») as a source of poetry and justice as « The Signing Room » does, comes from this.

Let us recall that in the middle of the 13th century, two mendicant Orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, were contesting the drift of a Church that had become, above all, the simple manager of its earthly possessions. The one who would later be called St. Thomas Aquinas, opposed on this point (his competitor) St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), founding figure of the Franciscan Order.

For his part, Aquinas relies on Aristotle, whom Albert the Great (1200-1280), whose disciple he was in Cologne, had made known to him, to establish the primacy of « reason ». For the man who was nicknamed « the dumb ox », faith and human reason, each managing their own domain, had to move forward together, hand in hand while of course, the Church had the last word.

The Triumph of Saint Thomas of Aquinas, ca. 1470, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli, Louvre, Paris.

Several paintings (the great fresco of 1366 in the Spanish chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence; the painting by Filippino Lippi of 1488 in the Carafa chapel in Rome; or the painting by Benozzo Gozzoli (1421-1497), painted around 1470, in the Louvre in Paris), have immortalized the “Triumph of Thomas Aquinas”.

Gozzoli’s painting in the Louvre is of particular importance because several elements prefigure the iconography of the Signing Chamber, notably the three levels found in Theology (Trinity, Evangelists and religious leaders) as well as the couple Plato and Aristotle found in Philosophy.

In Gozzoli’s painting, we see Aquinas, standing between Plato and Aristotle, throwing down before him the Arab philosopher Averroes (1126-1198) (Ibn-Rushd of Cordoba) expelled for having denied the immortality and the thought of the individual soul, in favor of a « Single Intellect » for all men that activates in us the intelligible ideas.

In the West, before the arrival of Greek delegations in Italy to attend the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438, if several works of Plato, including the Timaeus, were known to a handful of scholars, such as those of the School of Chartres or Italians as Leonardo Bruni in Florence, most of the West’s knowledge of Greek thought came down to the works of Aristotle.

For the Aristotelians, who became dominant in the Catholic Church with Aquinas, Plato had to be considered as incompatible with Christianity.

On the other hand, for the Platonists, including Augustine, Jerome and especially Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus, who honored and adorned him that Erasmus called « Saint Socrates », Plato was to be venerated by Christians: he was monotheistic, believed in the immortality of the soul and venerated, in the form of the Pythagorean triad, the mystery of the Trinity.

John Bessarion, by Justius of Ghent, Louvre, Paris.

In the 15th century, for lack of epistemological clarity and some confusion on the authorship of certain manuscripts, some humanists, in particular Nicolaus of Cusa‘s friend and close collaborator Cardinal John Bessarion (1403-1472), one of the key organizers of the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches, presented Plato as the « equal » of Aristotle, the latter’s disciple, with the sole purpose of making Plato « as acceptable as possible » to the Catholic Church.

Hence Bessarion‘s now famous phrase « Colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem » (I cultivate and venerate Aristotle, I love Plato) which appears in his In Calumniatorem Platonis (republished in 1503), a rejoinder to the virulent charge against Plato elaborated by the Greek Georges Trébizond.

Thus, in the School of Athens painted by Raphael, Plato and Aristotle appear side by side, not confronting each other but complementing the other with their respective wisdom : the first holding his book the Timaeus (on the creation of the universe) in one hand, and with the other, pointing to the sky (To the One, to God), the second holding his Ethics (the science of the good in personal life) in one hand, and raising the other arm horizontally to indicate the earthly realm (Physics).

If the commissioners had wanted to underscore the opposition of both philosophers, Plato would have rather been portrayed with his Parmenides (On Ideas) and Aristotle with his Physics (On natural sciences). That is clearly not the case.

Giles de Viterbo in his Sententia ad mentem Platonis will mobilize extreme sophism to erase the irreconcilable and very real oppositions (see box below) between the Platonic thought and that of Aristotle.


Why Plato and Aristotle are not complementary

By Christine Bierre

Logic (Aristotle) versus Dialectic (Plato). Bas-relief by Luca della Robbia.

The fundamental concepts that gave birth to our European civilization can be traced back to classical Greece, and through it, to Egypt and other even more ancient civilizations.

Among the Greek thinkers, Plato (-428/-347 B.C.) and Aristotle (-385/-323 B.C.) asked all the great questions that interest our humanity: who are we, what are our characteristics, how do we live, where are we situated in the universe, how can we know it?

The accounts that have come down to us from this distant period speak of the disagreements that led Aristotle to leave Plato’s Academy, of which he had been a disciple. History then bears witness to the violence of the oppositions between the disciples of the one and the other. During the Renaissance, the most reactionary Catholic currents, the Council of Trent in particular, were inspired by Aristotle, whereas Plato reigned supreme in the camp of humanism, in the hands of some of the greatest, such as Erasmus and Rabelais.

There were various attempts, however, to make them complementary, as discussed in this article by Karel Vereycken. If Plato represents the world of Ideas, Aristotle represents the world of matter. Impossible to build a world without both, we are told. It seems so obvious!

The Greek philosopher, Plato.

Bust of Plato.

All this starts, however, from a false idea opposing these two characters. For Plato, we are told, reality is found in the existence of ideas, universal concepts which represent, in an abstract way, all the things which participate of this concept. For example, the general concept of man contains the concept of particular men such as Peter, Paul and Mary; similarly for good, which includes all good things whatever they are. For Aristotle, on the contrary, reality is located in matter, as such.

What is false in this reasoning is the concept that the Platonic Ideas are abstractions. The Platonic Ideas are, on the contrary, dynamic entities that generate and transform reality. In the myth of the cave in The Republic, Socrates says that at the origin of things is the sovereign Good. In The Phaedo, he explains that it is through « Ideas » that this sovereign Good has generated the world.

In the myth of the cave, Socrates uses an offspring of the idea of the good, the Sun, to help us understand what the sovereign Good is. The Good, he says, has generated the Sun, which is, in the visible world, in relation to sight and objects of sight, what the Good is in the intelligible world in relation to intelligence and intelligible objects. The prisoners in the cave saw only the shadows of reality, and then, on coming out, they saw, thanks to the Sun, the real objects, the firmament and the Sun. After this, they will come to the conclusion about the Sun, that it is he who produces the seasons and the years, that he governs everything in the visible world and that he is in some way the cause of all those things that he and his companions saw in the cave.

The Sun not only gives objects the ability to be seen, but is also the cause of their genesis and development. In the same way for the knowable objects, they hold from the Good the faculty to be known but, in addition, they owe him their existence and their essence. The idea of the Good is thus for Plato the dynamic cause of the things: material and immaterial and not dead universals.

Aristotle’s splintered « One »

Bust of Aristotle.

For Aristotle, as for all the empiricist current which followed him, reality is situated at the level of the objects knowable by the senses. Nature sends us its signals that we decode with our mental faculties. Ideas are only abstractions of the sensible universe which constitutes reality. For him the universals have no real existence: man « in general », does not generate anything. It is only an abstraction of all the men in particular. The particular man is generated by the particular man; Peter is generated by Paul.

It is also said of Aristotle that he « exploded » Plato’s One. There are two ways of conceiving the One. One can think of it either as an absolute One (God or first cause), depending on whether one is a religious person or a philosopher, a purely intelligible principle but a dynamic cause that has generated all things; or one can think of it as the number « one » that determines each particular thing: the number one when we say: a man, a chair, an apple.

Aristotle‘s One simply becomes a particular unity, characteristic of all things that participate in unity. It is not the cause of what « is » but only the predicate of all the elements that are found in all the categories. The Being and the One, he will say, are the most universal of predicates. The One, he will say again, represents a definite nature in each kind but never the nature of the One will be the One in itself. And the Ideas are not the cause of change.

What is the point of all this?

Does this discussion make more sense than all the never-ending debates about the sexes of angels that gave scholasticism such a bad name in the Middle Ages? The One or the many, what does it matter in our daily lives?

This point is however essential. The fact of being able to go back to the intelligible causes of all that exists, puts the human species in a privileged situation in the universe. Unlike other species, it can not only understand the laws of the universe, but also be inspired by them, in order to improve human society. This is why, in history, it is the « Platonic » current that was at the origin of the great scientific, technological and cultural breakthroughs in astronomy, geometry, mechanics, architecture, but also the discovery of proportions that allow the expression of beauty in music, painting, poetry and dance.

As for Aristotle, it must be said that his conceptions of man and knowledge only led him to establish categories defining a dozen possible states of being. Aristotle was also the founder of formal logic, a system of thought that does not claim to know the truth, but only to define the rules of a correct reasoning. Logic is so little interested in the search for truth that one can consider that a judgment that is totally false in relation to reality can be said to be right if all the rules of « good reasoning » of logic have been used.

Woman riding Aristotle. Humanists have long since put their finger on a domain that totally escaped Aristotle‘s logical thinking: desire… A 13th century fable summarizes the story. Aristotle, whose pupil was Alexander the Great, reproached the latter for letting himself be distracted from his royal duties by the courtesan Phyllis, with whom he was madly in love. Obedient, the brave king of Macedonia thus ceases to frequent the damsel and returns to treat the business of the State. Learning the reasons of its abandonment, the lady decides to be avenged of the old philosopher and tries to seduce him by strutting under his windows in light dress. Aristotle falls under her charm ! Phyllis then announces to the wise man that if he wants to possess her, he will have to give himself up to a small caprice and, saddled and bridled, to let himself be ridden by the beautiful. The eminent bearded man accepts this game without suspecting the trick that is being played on him. In saddle and go ! here is Phyllis who rides Aristotle‘s back in the gardens of the king, whipping him to make him advanc

Suite

To begin with, Giles de Viterbo underlines that Aristotle is a « pupil » of Plato and that the « two princes of philosophy » could be reconciled. Very much imbued with the neo-Pythagorean spirit, and for whom Plato was only one of the greatest disciples of Pythagoras, the author argues that both philosophers agree that, contrary to the pagan pantheon, the « One » is the ultimate expression of the divine. Clearly, they were both monotheists and thus their convictions anticipated those of Christianity.

Giles of Viterbo:

Philosophy, which traces and examines all things, judges that all number and multiplicity are absent from God, as Plato and his pupil Aristotle say. Humanity has as its goal the understanding of divine things, as even Aristotle admits in his Ethics.
Thus, if it is necessary to pursue this goal, it is necessary to arrive at the understanding of God.

And he continues:

Now these princes of Philosophy [Plato and Aristotle] can be reconciled, and no matter how much they disagree about creation, the Ideas, or the goal of the Good, these points [of agreement] can be identified and demonstrated (…) [Then], they appear not to disagree with each other at all (…) These great princes can be reconciled if we postulate the double nature of things, one which is free from matter and the other which is within matter (…) Plato follows the first, Aristotle the second, and because of this, these two great leaders of philosophy hardly differ from each other. If you think that we are making this up, listen to them yourselves. For if we speak of humanity, after all the subject of our conversation, then Plato says the same thing, he says humanity is the soul, in the (First) Alcibiades; and in the Timaeus, he says that humanity has two natures, and we know one of these natures by means of the senses, and the other by means of reason. Also, in the same book, he teaches us that each part in us does not exist in isolation from the other, that each nature is concerned with the other nature. Aristotle, in the tenth book of his Ethics, calls humanity Understanding. So you can know that each philosopher (Plato and Aristotle) feels the same way, no matter how much it seems to you that they are not saying the same thing.

Pico della Mirandola the Neo-Platonist

Medal with the effigy of Pico della Mirandola. On the reverse, a deviation from the Platonic theme of the Three Graces (Beauty, Love, Pleasure), an image taken identically from a Roman fresco in Pompeii, which Raphael would in turn take up in his work on the same subject.

Giles of Viterbo, like Tommaso Ingharimi, seems to have taken up the gauntlet thrown to them by John Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), the young disciple of Ficino.

A precocious scholar, a protégé of Lorenzo de’ Medici (like Inghirami), this man of omniscience was fearless. Thus, in 1485, at the age of 23, he announced his project to gather, at his own expense, in the eternal city and capital of Christianity, the greatest scholars of the world to debate the mysteries of theology, philosophy and foreign doctrines. The objective was to go back from scholasticism to Zoroaster, passing by the Arabs, the Kabbalah, Aristotle and Plato, to expose to the eyes of all, the concordance of wisdom. The affair failed. His initiative, which reserved an important place for magic, could only arouse distrust. For the Vatican, all this could only smell of sulfur, and the initiative was discarded at the time.

However, it will mark the minds of a generation. For his Oratio de hominis dignitate, his inaugural speech written in an elegant and almost Ciceronian style, intended for the presentation of his nine hundred theses, published together after his death, was a great success, especially among young scholars like… Inghirami.

Pico’s achievement, which was not well received by the authorities, was to give humanistic studies (studia humanitatis) a new purpose: to seek the concordance of doctrines and define the dignity of the human being. The aim was, by bringing out what unites them despite their differences, to discover their common ground and, by a coincidence of opposites, to have them meet in a unity that transcends them.

Pico della Mirandola:

That is why, not content with having added to the common doctrines a quantity of remarks on the primitive theology of Mercury Trismegistus, on the teachings of the Chaldeans and Pythagoras, on the most secret mysteries of the Jews, we have also proposed for discussion a certain number of discoveries and conceptions of our own in the physical and theological fields. First of all, we have argued that Plato and Aristotle agree: many have thought so before us, no one has proved it sufficiently. Among the Latins, Boethius had promised himself to do so, but there is no indication that he ever realized what was always his project. Among the Greeks, Simplicius had given himself the same program: heaven forbid that he should have lived up to his intentions! Augustine himself, in his work Against the Academicians, writes that many authors have conceived, with great finesse in argumentation, the project of establishing this same point, namely that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are one. Thus John the Grammarian [The Hellenist John Lascarus] affirms well that only those who do not hear the words of Plato believe him to be in disagreement with Aristotle, but it is to his successors that he left the care of the demonstration. We have also added various developments where the concordance between the opinions – reputedly discordant – of Scotus and Thomas on the one hand, of Averroes and Avicenna on the other hand, is affirmed. Secondly, our considerations on Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy have been enriched by seventy-two new physical and metaphysical propositions: by making them one’s own, if I am not mistaken (and I will soon be sure of this), one will be able to solve any problem of a natural or theological nature, according to a philosophical method which is quite different from the one taught orally in schools and which is in honor among the doctors of our time.

In a manuscript found unfinished at the time of his death in 1494 and entitled Concordia Platonis et Aristotelis, Pico della Mirandola explicitly mentions Plato’s Timaeus and Aristotle‘s Ethics, precisely the two books that appear as attributes of their authors in Raphael’s fresco.

Then, in his Heptaplus, a work he completed in 1489, Pico della Mirandola asserted that the writings of Moses and the Mosaic Law, according to him the foundation of all wisdom, were the basis of Greek civilization before becoming that of the Church of Rome. The Timaeus, the major work of Plato, says Pico, demonstrates that its author was an “attic Moses” (from Athens).

Cicero the Neo-platonist

For Inghirami, fascinated by the eloquence and the style of Cicero (-106/-43 BC) of whom he believed himself the reincarnation, the challenge launched by Pico della Mirandola to reconcile Apollo, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, appeared almost as a divine test and the frescoes of Raphael decorating the Stanza will be above all his answer.

In addition, Cicero himself claimed to be a neo-Platonist. In the first volume of his work, the Academica, after condemning Socrates for continually asking questions without ever « laying the foundations of a system of thought », Cicero asserts, several centuries before Pico della Mirandola, that the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, in essence, « had the same principles »:

In the shadow of Plato’s genius, a fertile, varied, universal genius, a unique philosophy was established under the double banner of the academicians and the peripatetics, who, agreeing on things, differed only on the terms. For Plato, who had made Speusippus, son of his sister, the heir of his philosophy, also left two disciples of great talent and rare science, Xenocrates of Chalcedony and Aristotle of Stagire: those who followed Aristotle, were named peripatetics, because they discussed while walking in the Lyceum; whereas those who, according to the institution of Plato, held their assemblies and disserted in the Academy, the other gymnasium of Athens, received from this place the name of Academicians. But both of them, all penetrated by Plato’s fertile genius, formulated philosophy into a certain complete and finished system, and abandoned the universal doubt of Socrates, and his habit of discussing everything without affirming anything. There was then what Socrates entirely disapproved of, a philosophical science, with regular divisions and a whole methodical apparatus. This philosophy, as I have said, under a double name, was one; for between the doctrine of the peripatetic [Aristotle] and the ancient Academy [Plato] there was no difference. Aristotle prevailed, in my opinion, by the richness of his genius; but the one and the other had the same principles, and judged the goods and the evils in the same way.

Royal Portal of Chartres. In the center, Pythagoras with above him the Quadrivium (the sciences: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music). To his right, a disciple, with above him the Trivium (the humanities: grammar, rhetoric and logic).

Inghirami was also strengthened by the reading of countless Christian authors in this sense, such as the Frenchman, Bernard of Chartres (12th century), a Neoplatonist philosopher who played a fundamental role in the Chartres school, which he founded. He was appointed master (1112) and then became chancellor (1119) responsible for the teaching of the cathedral school.

You wonder the sculptures of Pythagoras and Aristotle appear side by side on the western portal of the cathedral?

Historian Etienne Gilson writes:

Bernard of Chartres was first of all influenced by Boethius, whose Platonism he adapts. He then set out to reconcile Plato’s thought with that of Aristotle, which made him the greatest Aristotelian and Platonic thinker of the 12th century. John of Salisbury affirmed, in the most formal terms, that Bernard of Chartres and his disciples did not believe that they were simply expounding Plato’s thought by explaining in this way the relation of ideas to things, but that they had the pretension of putting Aristotle in agreement with Plato. That the trouble they took was wasted, is what John of Salisbury clearly states. With a very British humor he notes that these philosophers arrived too late and that they worked uselessly to reconcile dead men who had been arguing all their lives.

Inghirami will have read St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), one of the founders of the Franciscan order, who pointed out that Plato and Aristotle each excelled in their own field:

And so it appears that among philosophers, Plato’s gift is to speak of wisdom, Aristotle‘s of science.

Or the Florentine Marsilio Ficino, this neo-Platonic philosopher of the XVth century whose « Platonic Academy » had put in saddle Pico della Mirandola. Ficino, had he not written in his Platonic Theology that

Plato treats natural things divinely while Aristotle treats even divine things naturally.

In the preface he wrote for The Fable of Orpheus, a play written by his disciple Poliziano (1454-1494), Ficino, referring to Saint Augustine, makes the mythical Hermes Trismegistus (Mercury) the first of the theologians: his teaching would have been transmitted successively to Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos and finally Plato.

Thereafter, Ficino will place Zoroaster at the head of these prisci theologi, to finally attribute to Zoroaster and Mercury an identical role in the genesis of the ancient wisdom: Zoroaster teaches this one among the Persians at the same time as Trismegistus taught it among the Egyptians.

Preceding Plato, Pythagoras

The great pre-Socratic thinker, Pythagoras of Samo

In Raphael’s School of Athens, the figure of Pythagoras of Samos (580-495 B.C.), surrounded by a group of admirers, takes a major place. He is clearly identifiable by a tablet on which the musical chords and the famous Tetraktys appear, which we will discuss here.

While historians have so far mainly explored the influence of the Platonic and Neo-Platonic currents on the Italian Renaissance, historian Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, in her book Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe, has highlighted the extent to which the ideas of the great pre-Socratic thinker Pythagoras influenced the thought and art of the Renaissance.

Geometry (Thales of Miletus?) and Arithmetic (Pythagoras?), bas-relief by Luca della Robbia, Campanile, Florence.

In art, Pythagoras inspired the Roman architect Vitruvius (90-15 BC), and later such theorists of the golden mean such as the Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli (1445-1517), whose treatise, De Divina Proportiona, illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci, appeared in Venice in 1509.

However, if a theorem, probably from India, bears his name (attributed to Pythagoras by Vitruvius), little is known of his life. Just like Confucius, Socrates and Christ, if we are sure that he really existed, no writing from his hand has come down to us.

By necessity, Pythagoras

became a living legend, and even very active during the Renaissance, so much so that most people saw Plato as a mere « disciple » of the « divine Pythagoras ».

Arabic and Chinese texts demonstrating the theorem attributed in the West to Pythagoras.

Born in the first half of the 6th century B.C. on the island of Samos in Asia Minor, Pythagoras was probably in contact with the school of geometer’s founded by Thales of Miletus (-625/-548 B.C.).

Around the age of 40, he left for Crotone in southern Italy to found a society of friends, both philosophical, political and religious, whose chapters were to multiply.

For Pythagoras, the issue is to build a bridge between man and the divine and on this basis to transform society and the city. When asked about his knowledge, Pythagoras, before Socrates and Cusa, asserted that he knew nothing, but that he sherished « the love of wisdom ». The word philo-sophy would have thus been born.

No Christian humanist, reading Saint Jerome (347-420), one of the Fathers of the Catholic Church, could escape the praise that the latter gives to Pythagoras.

In his polemic Apology against the Books of Rufinus, Jerome, in order to evoke an exemplary behavior, quotes what two disciples of Pythagoras would have said:

We must by all possible means avoid softness of the body, ignorance of the spirit, intemperance, civil dissensions, domestic dissensions and in general excess in all things.

And Jerome invokes the « Precepts of Pythagoras » :

Everything must be common among friends; a friend is another ourselves. We must consider two periods in life, the morning and the evening, that is, what we have done and what we must do. After God, we must seek the truth, which alone can bring men closer to the Creator.”

Secondly, Jerome believes that Pythagoras, in affirming the concept of the immortality of the soul, preceded Christianity:

Listen to what Pythagoras was the first to find in Greece, Jerome says: That souls are immortal, that they pass from one body into another, and, it is Virgil himself who tells us in the sixth book of the Aeneid: When they have made a revolution of a thousand years, God calls them in great numbers to the banks of the river Lethe, so that they may undoubtedly see again the heaven they no longer remember; it is then that they begin again to revive a new body, which first was Euphorbus, then Calide, then Hermoticus, then Perhius and finally Pythagoras ; and that after a certain time what has existed begins to be born again, that there is nothing new in the world, that philosophy is a collection of meditations on death, that every day it strives to free the soul from the chains that bind it to the body and to give it back its freedom. Plato communicates many other ideas in his writings, especially in the Phaedo and in the Timaeus.

The hidden geometry of numbers

For Pythagoras « the beginning is half of everything ». According to Theon of Smyrna (v. 70/v. 135), for the philosopher, « numbers are, so to speak, the principle, the source and the root of all things ».

Aristotle, in his Metaphysics reports:

The Pythagoreans first applied themselves to mathematics… Finding that things [including musical sounds] model their nature mainly on the set of numbers and that numbers are the first principles of the whole of nature, the Pythagoreans concluded that the elements of numbers are also the elements of everything that exists, and they made the world a harmony and a number.

And as Cleinias of Tarantum (4th century BC), a Pythagorean friend of Plato, said:

When these things, therefore, are at rest, they give birth to mathematics and geometry, when they are in motion to the harmonica and astronomy.

The idea of the « monad », a dynamic unity participating in the One, perfected several centuries later by the philosopher and scientist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) in his « Monadology« , comes to us from this period. Etymologically meaning « unity » (monas), it is the supreme unity (the One, God, the principle of numbers) which, while being at the same time the minimal unity, reflects in the microcosm the same dynamic activity that the One represents in the macrocosm.

Already, just the name of Apollo (a god considered as « the father » of Pythagoras) means, as Plato, Plutarch and other ancient authors point out: free of all multiplicity (Pollo = multiplicity; a-pollo = non-multiple).

Xenophanes of Colophones (born around 580 BC), asserts the existence of a unique God governing all things by the power of his intelligence. It is about a god not similar to the men, because eternal, incorporeal and spherical.

The triangular numbers: 1, 3, 6 and 10. Note the presence of a hexagon inside the number 10, the famous Tetraktys of Pythagoras.

As much as this conception of a dynamic One has sometimes provoked an explosion of esoteric interpretations, it has stimulated the most creative minds and terrorized the formalists of thought.

When speaking about simple things, arithmetic numbers, Pythagoras uses the terms of one, two, three, four, five, ten…, while to evoke ideal numbers and their power, he speaks about: monad, dyad, triad, tetrad, decad, etc. Thus, by conceiving numbers in a non-linear but figurative way, he offers an arithmetic applicable to astronomy, music and architecture. By arranging these numbers, like marbles, in a particular way, Pythagoras discovered the famous « geometry of numbers ». For example, in the case of triangular numbers, three points form a triangular surface. If we add three points below, we find the number 6, but it is still a triangle. And if we add four more points, we get the number 10, still a triangular number.

The Patriarch of Constantinople Photius (810-893) confirms that :

The Pythagoreans proclaimed that the complete number is ten.
The number ten, is a compound of the first four numbers that we count in their order. That is why they called Tetraktys the whole constituted by this number.

Besides the plane and triangular numbers (1, 3, 6, 10, etc.), Pythagoras explored the square numbers (1, 4, 9, 16, …), rectangular, cubic, pyramidal, star-shaped, etc. In doing so, Aristoxenus said, Pythagoras had « raised arithmetic above the needs of merchants ». This approach, that of seeing harmony above and within the multiple, has inspired many scientists throughout history. One thinks of Mendeleev for the elaboration of his table of elements or of Einstein.

The power of numbers was also well understood by the cardinal-philosopher Nicolaus of Cusa, who evokes Pythagoras in the first chapter of his treatise De Docta Ignorantia (1440), when he states that :

All those who search, judge the uncertain by comparing it to a certain presupposition by a system of proportions. All research is therefore comparative, and uses the means of proportion: if the object of research can be compared to the presupposition by a small proportional reduction, the judgment of apprehension is easy; but if we need many intermediaries, then difficulty and pain arise. This is well known in mathematics: the first propositions are easily brought back to the first principles which are very well known, whereas the following ones, because they need the intermediary of the first ones, have more difficulty. Therefore, all research consists of a comparative proportion, easy or difficult, and this is why the infinite, which escapes, as infinite, from all proportion, is unknown. Now, the proportion which expresses agreement in a thing on the one hand and otherness on the other hand, cannot be understood without the number. This is why the number encloses all that is susceptible of proportions. Therefore, it does not create a proportion in quantity only, but in everything that, in some way, by substance or by accident, can agree and differ. Therefore, Pythagoras strongly believed that everything was constituted and understood by the power of numbers. Now, the precision of combinations in material things and the exact adaptation of the known to the unknown are so far above human reason that Socrates considered that he knew nothing but his ignorance; at the same time as the very wise Solomon affirms that all things are difficult and that language cannot explain them.

The Geometry of numbers,
the secret of mental calculations

Here is a simple example.

One day, in Göttingen, the teacher of the young German mathematician Carl Gauss (1777-1855) asked his students to calculate the sum of all the numbers from one to one hundred. The students did so and began to add the numbers 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5, etc.

The young Gauss raises his hand and, following a mental calculation, announces the result of the operation: « 5050, Sir! »

The teacher, surprised, asks him how he arrived at the result so quickly. The young Gauss explains: to see if there is a geometry in the number 100, I added the first digit (1) with the last (100). This gives 101. Now, if I add the second digit (2) with the second to last one (99), it also makes 101. I concluded that within the number 100 there are fifty pairs of even and odd numbers whose sum is 101 each time. Thus, by multiplying 101 by the number of couples (50), I immediately arrive at 5050.

From Pythagoras to Plato

For Pythagoras, the most perfect surface is the circle and the ideal volume is the sphere since regular polyhedra can be inscribed. According to one of his disciples, the Italian Philolaus of Croton (-470/-390 BC), Pythagoras would have been the first to define the five regular polyhedrons:

  • the cube,
  • the tetrahedron (a pyramid with 4 triangular faces),
  • the octahedron (composed of 8 triangles),
  • the icosahedron (64 triangles) and
  • the dodecahedron (composed of 12 pentagons).

Since Plato describes them in his work, the Timaeus, these regular polyhedra took the name of « Platonic solids ». Let’s recall that Plato went to Italy several times, notably to meet his close friend, the great Pythagorean scientist, astronomer, musical theorist and political leader, Archytas of Tarantum (-428/-387), considered today as « the father of robotics ».

A direct disciple of Philolaos, Archytas became the mathematics teacher of the brilliant Greek astronomer and physician Eudoxus of Cnidus (-408/-355).

A geometrical vision of numbers allows to see how their power increases. For example, by going from the number 3 to the number 4, one goes from the second dimension to the third.

Starting with Archytas, the Pythagoreans associate the 1 to the point, the 2 to the line, the 3 to the surface (the two-dimensional geometrical figure: circle, triangle, square…), the 4 to the solid (the three-dimensional geometrical figure: tetrahedron, cube, sphere, etc.).

Let’s add that in the Timaeus, one of Plato’s last dialogues, after a brief exchange with Socrates, Critias and Hermocrates, the Pythagorean philosopher Timaeus of Locri (5th century BC) exposes a reflection on the origin and the nature of the physical world and of the human soul seen as the works of a demiurge while addressing the questions of scientific knowledge and the place of mathematics in the explanation of the world.

Cicero (Republic, I, X, 16) specifies that Timaeus of Locri was an intimate of Plato:

No doubt you have learned, Tuberon, that after the death of Socrates, Plato went first to Egypt to learn, then to Italy and Sicily, in order to learn all about the discoveries of Pythagoras.
There he lived for a long time in the intimacy of Archytas of Taranto and Timaeus of Locri, and had the chance to obtain the Commentaries of Philolaos.

The music of the spheres

Luca della Robbia: Pythagoras discovering harmony.

A magnificent bas-relief on the campanile of the Florence cathedral reflects what the early Italian humanists knew about Pythagoras.

Luca della Robbia (1399-1482), the sculptor working on the instructions of the humanist chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), shows Pythagoras, a large hammer in one hand, a small hammer in the other, striking an anvil and concentrating his mind on the difference in the sounds he produces.

Pythagoras among the blacksmiths.

According to the legend, Pythagoras was walking near a forge when his attention was caught by the sound of hammers striking the anvil. He discerned in his ear the same consonances as those he could produce with his lyre. His intuition led to a fundamental discovery: musical sounds are governed by numbers.

This is how Guido d’Arezzo (992-1050), the Benedictine monk who created the system of musical notation still in use, relates the event in the last chapter (XX) of his book Micrologus around 1026:

A certain Pythagoras, a great philosopher, was traveling adventurously; he came to a workshop where an anvil was being struck with five hammers. Amazed by the pleasant harmony [concordiam] they produced, our philosopher approached them and, believing at first that the quality of sound and harmony [modulationis] lay in the different hands, he interchanged the hammers. When this was done, each hammer retained its own sound. After having removed one that was dissonant, he weighed the others, and, admirably, by the grace of God, the first weighed twelve, the second nine, the third eight, the fourth six of I don’t know what unit of weight. He thus knew that the science [scientiam] of music resided in the proportion and ratio of numbers [in numerorum proportione et collatione] […] What can we say about the science of music? […] What more can be said? By arranging the notes according to the intervals mentioned above, the illustrious Pythagoras was the first to perfect the monochord. As it is not lasciviousness that one finds there, but a fast revelation of the knowledge of our art, it met a general assent among the scholars. And this art has gradually been affirmed and developed to this day, for the Master himself always illuminates the human darkness and his supreme Wisdom endures for all centuries. Amen.

Here, the diagram (found on a slate placed at the feet of Pythagoras in Raphael’s fresco), which visualizes the musical harmonies obtained by dividing a string. Dividing it in two gives the octave, in three the fifth and in four the fourth. Finally, epogdoon (from the prefix epi- meaning above and ogdoon meaning the eighth) translates the interval of 9/8, which here corresponds to the tone.

IMAGE

The diagram (visible on the slate placed at the feet of Pythagoras in Raphael’s fresco), which visualizes the musical harmonies that are obtained by dividing a string. Dividing it in two gives the octave, in three the fifth and in four the fourth. Finally, epogdoon (from the prefix epi- meaning above and ogdoon meaning the eighth) translates the interval of 9/8, which corresponds here to the tone.

Let’s go back to the harmonic ratios that Pythagoras discovered from the weights of the hammers: 12, 9, 8 and 6.

  • The ratio between 12 and 6 is the half and corresponds to the octave (diapason). It is found on a musical instrument by vibrating half a string;
  • The ratio between 12 and 8 is a ratio of two thirds, which corresponds to the fifth (diapente);
  • The ratio between 8 and 6, is a ratio of three quarters, which corresponds to the fourth (diatessaron);
  • Finally, the ratio between 8 and 9 gives the interval of a tone (epogdoon, the prefix epi- meaning above and ogdoon meaning the eighth).
Illustration from the treatise Theorica musiche (1480, Naples), by the theorist and composer Franchini Gaffurio (1451-1522), a friend and colleague of Leonardo da Vinci at the Sforza court in Milan.

Later, the Pythagoreans transposed the same proportions to other objects, including volumes of water in glasses, the size of bells as well as bronze disks or the length of strings of musical instruments or flutes. For Pythagoras, this experience is fundamental because it corroborates the basic intuition of his philosophy: everything that exists is number, including phenomena as immaterial as musical intervals. In a famous passage of the Timaeus (35-36), Plato describes the fabrication of the proportions of the World Soul by the Demiurge. This passage is based on the numerical series 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, 27, which corresponds to the fusion of the series of the first powers of 2 (2, 4, 8) and the series of the first powers of 3 (3, 9, 27). Now, from this series, we can derive the numerical relationships on which the musical intervals are based.

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle also notes :

The Pythagoreans noticed that the whole of the modes of musical harmony and the relations which compose it are resolved in proportional numbers.

With the French philosopher Pierre Magnard, we would rather say:

If to know is to measure, music is the art of pursuing measurement beyond the threshold of incommensurability. When numerical, metric and weight standards are no longer capable of establishing proportions between natural realities, harmony comes to the rescue of its own scales – diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic – and of its intervals – fifth, fourth, third, octave – to make up for the lack of calculation.

Finally, as the Roman musicologist Theon of Smyrna (70-135) stated:

The Pythagoreans assert that music is a harmonic combination of opposites, a unification of multiples and an agreement of opposites.

In addition, for the Pythagoreans, music also had an ethical and medical value:

He started education with music, using certain melodies and rhythms, thanks to which he healed the character traits and passions of men, and brought harmony between the faculties of the soul.

All this made Pythagoras the incarnation of a cosmic and universal harmony**. Moreover, he would have been the first to have used the word « cosmos » (perfection, order).

A page from The Harmony of the World by Johannes Kepler.

Pythagoras, praised by the first true astrophysicist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), is said to have been the first to coin the concept of « the music of the spheres » or « the harmony of the spheres ».

For, as Sextus Empiricus (towards the end of the second century) states in his Pyrrhonian sketches, Pythagoras would have noted that the distances between the orbits of the Sun, the Moon and the fixed stars correspond to the proportions regulating the intervals of the octave, the fifth and the fourth. In the Republic, Plato states that astronomy and music are « sister sciences ».

A page of the Harmony of the World where the astronomer Johannes Kepler evokes the music of the spheres.

Copernicus admits that the work of the Pythagoreans inspired his own research:

Others think that the Earth moves. Thus, Philolaos the Pythagorean says that the Earth moves around the Fire in an oblique circle, as do the Sun and the Moon. Heraclitus of Pontus and Ecphantos the Pythagorean do not, it is true, give the Earth a translational motion [motion around the Sun, heliocentrism]… Starting from this, I too began to think of the mobility of the Earth

(Copernicus, letter to Pope Paul III, preface to De revolutionibus orbium caestium [On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs], 1543).

The name Pythagoras (etymologically, Pyth-agoras: « he who was announced by the Pythia », the goddess), derives from the announcement of his birth made by the oracle to his father during a trip to Delphi. However, legend has it that Pythagoras was the son of Apollo, the god of light, poetry and music.

According to the oldest pre-Socratic traditions, Apollo had conceived a plan to control the universe. This plan was revealed in « the music of the spheres » under the wise supervision of Apollo, the sun god and god of music; a Greek god who passed to the Romans without changing his name. Apollo is represented with a crown of laurels and a lyre, surrounded by the nine muses.


GUIDED TOUR

After reviewing the political situation of the time, the motivations of Pope Julius II and his advisors seeking to re-establish the authority of a « Triumphant Church, » the ultimate culmination for centuries to come of a culture that goes back to Apollo, Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero and their disciples, the viewer now has some solid « keys » (the « codes ») in hand that will allow him or her to « read » Raphael’s frescoes adorning the Stanza.

Without Raphael’s account of his work, this reading remains an obstacle course. For example, the identification of the figures remains uncertain, since, with a few rare exceptions, no tablet tells us this. The idea, in any case, is that the spectator, by analyzing the appearance and gestures of each one, discovers for himself who is represented.

As we said, when entering the room, the viewer is immediately asked to appreciate each fresco not in isolation, but as an expression of a coherent whole.

When entering the Stanza, as if inside a painted cube, one immediately realizes that one is facing a theatrical setting. For the great vaults that the spectator discovers are only painted images and do not respond to any structural reality of the building. Inghirami was a speaker, an actor and a director who knew who should appear where, with what attitude and dressed in what way. Thanks to this imagination, a room that was at first sight rectangular and boring, was transformed into a spherical cube because the corners of the room were « rounded » with stucco.


A. THE CEILING

The ceiling of the Signing Chamber: at the centre, the coat of arms of Julius II (A). Then four circles with Philosophy (B), Theology (C ), Poetry (D) and Justice (E).

From the thematic point of view, the visual path, as one might expect, begins on the ceiling and ends on the floor. In the center of the ceiling, a small circle with the coat of arms of Julius II. Around it, an octagon surrounded by four circles connected by four rectangles. Each of the four circles touches the top of one of the four vaults painted on the four walls and shows an allegorical figure and a text announcing the theme of the large frescoes below.

Each time, it is a question of emphasizing the harmony uniting all the opposing (circle, square) parts. While the real incompatibilities are left to the checkroom, the oppositions and the formal differences will even be strongly emphasized, but exclusively to show that one can accommodate them by submitting them to a higher design.

The four circular frescoes decorating the ceiling of the Signature Chamber. Starting at the top left and going clockwise: Theology, Philosophy, Justice and Poetry.

Thus two double themes (2 x 2) are articulated:

  • Philosophy (the true accessible by reason), nicknamed The School of Athens, and Theology (the Truth accessible by divine revelation), nicknamed since the Council of Trent, the « Dispute of the Holy Sacrament »; a theme common to Aquinas and the neo-Platonists.
  • Poetry and music (the Beautiful), and Justice (the Just), a theme of Ciceronian origin.
  • Above the theme Philosophy, in one of the four circles, is represented by a woman wearing a dress with each of the four colors symbolizing the four elements evoked by a motif: blue illustrates the stars, red the tongues of fire, green the fish and golden brown the plants. Philosophy holds two books entitled « Morality » and « Nature », while two small genius (geniuses) carry tablets on which one can read « CAUSARUM » and « COGNITO », read together meaning « To know the causes ». Clearly, the aim of moral and natural philosophy is to know the causes, that is to say to go back to God.
  • Above Theology, a woman dressed in red and green, colors of the theological virtues. In her left hand, she holds a book, her right hand points to the fresco below. Two geniuses carry tablets saying « DIVINAR.RER » and « NOTITIA », « The revelation of sacred things ».
  • Above Poetry, the winged figure of the Poetry carrying lyre and crown of laurels. Two putti (cherubs) present us with tablets on which are inscribed the words of Virgil: « Inspired by the spirit » (NVMINE AFFLATVR). Since we are dealing with puttis and not geniuses, there is a clear reference to the Christian spirit that inspires the arts.
  • Finally, above the last fresco, Justice, a woman holds the attributes of justice: the scales and the sword. Two putti carry tablets with the words of the Emperor Justinian: « IVS SVVM VNICUMQUE », that is, « to each his just punishment ».

Then, still on the ceiling, as we have indicated, there are four rectangular frescoes connecting the four circles whose theme we have just specified. Again, these are two pairs that complement each other.

In the four squares: A. Wisdom, the first mover; B. The Fall with Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise; C. The Judgment of Salomon; D. The triumph of Apollo over Marsyas in the fight for the lyre.

A. A first rectangular fresco, linking Philosophy with Poetry, shows us a woman (wisdom, the first mover) here as the first cause and setting a celestial globe in motion and thus the universe in action. It may be the mythical Sibyl mentioned by Heraclitus, a superhuman incarnation of the prophetic voice. Philosophically, it is an allegory of the creation of the universe (or Astronomy). The constellation that appears on the globe has been identified. It corresponds to the sky map of the night of October 31, 1503, the date of the election of Julius II… which of course the date he became the “prime mover” of the universe.

B. The second rectangle, diametrically opposed to the first one and linking Justice to Theology, represents « Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise ». Considered as the beginning of theology, « The Fall of Man », will be repaired by the « redemption » that the Church and Pope Julius II will bring, embodied by the creative wisdom putting the universe back into motion.

C. The third rectangle, linking Philosophy and Justice, represents « The Judgment of Solomon, » a scene showing King Solomon’s wise judgment when two mothers claimed the same child.

D. And finally, the fourth, at the other end of the diagonal, connecting Poetry and Theology, represents, not « The Flogging of Marsyas » as has been claimed, but another rather rare scene, « The Triumph of Apollo over Marsyas » in the struggle for the lyre. The latter receives a crown of laurels. The two judgments are based on different bases for their mutual appreciation. While King Solomon, representing the Old Testament, judges on the basis of the divine law, Apollo, who represents antiquity here, prevails thanks to the rules of the pagan pantheon, his will power.


B. THEOLOGY

(THE DISPUTE OF THE HOLY SACRAMENT)

Theology (Dispute of the Holy Sacrament)

*In the upper (celestial) register :
A. God the Father, B. Jesus Christ, C. Mary, D. St. John the Baptist, E. Apostle Peter, F. Adam, G. St. John the Evangelist, H. King David, I. St. Lawrence, J. Judas Maccabaeus, K. St. Stephen, L. St. Stephen, M. Moses, N. James the Greater, O. Abraham, P. St. Paul, SE. Holy Spirit.


*In the lower (earthly) register:
1. Fra Angelico, 2. ?, 3. Donato Bramente, 4. ?, 5. ?, 6. Pico della Mirandola, 7. ?, 8. ?, 9. ?, 10. Saint Gregory, 11. Saint Jerome, 12. ?, 13. ?, 14. ?, 15. ?, 16. Saint Ambrose, 17. Saint Augustine, 18. Saint Thomas of Aquinas, 19. pope Innocent III, 20. Saint Bonaventure, 21. pope Sixtus IV, 22. Dante Alighieri, 23. ?, 24. ?; 25. a mason, 26. ?, 27. ?

Historians tell us that it was the first fresco to be made. The core subject here is the Trinity and « transubstantiation », a supernatural phenomenon signifying the conversion of one substance into another, in the case of Christians, the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist under the action of the Holy Spirit. This meant a « real presence » of God at mass and thus a major attraction to attract the faithful and a precondition to obtain « indulgences » from him. For some humanists, such as the Swiss Protestant Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), any doctrine of the real presence is idolatry because it would be tantamount to worshiping bread and wine as if it were God.

Erasmus, for whom the performance of rituals should never be a substitute for true faith, explains that when Christ said to his disciples, in offering them bread, « this is my body » and « this is my blood, » in offering them wine, he was in reality talking metaphorically, not of bread and wine, but of his disciples (his body) and his teaching (his blood).

The idea of the composition is to show the triumph of the unity of the Church in Christ in all its complexities and diversities. The scene takes place on two levels, one celestial and the other terrestrial, lining up, as in a theater, a vast variety of actors presenting themselves to the public.

Above, in the celestial register, the heart of the subject, « the Trinity » with God the Father (A) blessing enthroned above a Christ (C) surrounded by Mary (B) (the New Testament) on his right and St. John the Baptist (D) (the Old Testament) on his left, themselves appearing above a dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit (SE).

Around them, to match the architecture of the School of Athens opposite, sit peacefully on a semi-circular cloud bench, the remarkable figures of the Church Triumphant, accompanied by their traditional attributes and dressed in colorful garments specific to each.

At the ends of the semicircle, two apostles: the Apostle Peter (E), representing the Jews, and the Apostle Paul (P), representing the Gentiles, face each other, as if they were the outer guards of the triumphant Church, the custodians of both the key and the letter of it. The Old Testament is represented by Adam (F) facing Abraham (O), and Moses (M) facing King David (H) with his harp in hand. The New Testament is also represented by St. John (G) facing St. Matthew (N) (two authors of the Gospel), by St. Lawrence (I) and St. Stephen (L) (both martyred saints).

At the bottom, in the terrestrial register, there is an enormous altar (Y) on which is written (in the middle) « IV LI VS » (Julius). A golden monstrance (X) with a host in its center proclaims the presence of Christ in the mystery of transubstantiation. Next to it, the Doctors of the Church of the early days of Christianity: on the left (under the features of Julius II) St. Gregory (No. 10), the great reformer of the ritual and the chant of the Mass, next to St. Jerome (No. 11), the most profound scholar of Christianity), accompanied by his lion. On his right Saint Augustine (N° 17) and Saint Ambrose (N° 16). These four doctors are, unlike the other figures, seated, which already brings them closer to the figures in the heavens; we can also distinguish two later doctors who are St. Thomas Aquinas (No. 18), a Dominican; and St. Bonaventure (No. 20), a Franciscan.

The historian Konrad Oberhuber, adds that these last two,

embody two tendencies of the Church: one that sees its essence of Christianity in ritual and devout adoration (the dimension of feeling), the other that defends the importance of theology (the dimension of thought).

Only two figures appear twince in Raphael’s frescoes: Dante Aleghieri and Pico della Mirandola. The latter, here on the left, dressed in white, in Philosophy, on the right, dressed in yellow in Theology.

Then, Popes Innocent III (1160-1216) (N° 19), the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages who established the political independence of Rome) and Sixtus IV (1414-1471) (N° 21, Francesco della Rovere by name) rub shoulders with religious figures such as the Dominican Savonarola (instigator in 1494 in Florence of a political revolution (return to the Republic) and moral revolution (rechristianization) or, the painter Fra Angelico (N° 1), contemporary of Savonarola, admired for his frescoes and his sublime paintings, accompanied by Dante Alighieri (N° 20), whose Divine Comedy (with hell, purgatory and paradise) had an influence on theology in the Middle Ages, Donato Bramante (N° 3), the famous architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, not forgetting Pico della Mirandola (N° 6), (mistaken for Francesco Maria della Rovere) who, with his hair blowing in the wind, is pointing towards the Trinity in a light and graceful wiggle. On the right, masons (N° 22), who build churches, bend forward. If on the right, behind the figures, the white marble foundations (Z), allude to the new St. Peter’s Basilica whose reconstruction Julius II has just launched, on the left, a village church (Q) reminds us that Christianity must penetrate the daily life of the humble.


C. PHILOSOPHY

(“SCHOOL OF ATHENS”)

A beautiful central view perspective shows a get together of 58 Greek and other thinkers in an ideal temple. No chiaroscuro effect disturbs the balance of the colors and the clarity of the composition.

The American thinker Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019), during his visit to the Vatican, marveled at the graceful harmony that radiates from this work. It could not help but resonate with a concept LaRouche developed throughout his life: that of the « simultaneity of eternity »; the poetic idea that « immortal » ideas continue their dialogue in a place beyond material time and space.

According to historians, Raphael, faced with the Herculean task of creating this series of portraits, and lacking reliable visual data about the figures to be portrayed, sent one of his assistants to Greece to collect indications and provide him with documentation to meet the challenge.

Small detail: the event doesn’t take place in Athens or Greece, but in Rome. The architecture is clearly inspired by the church of Sant’Andrea of Mantua, renovated shortly before his death by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) and by Bramante‘s plans for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is Rome set to become the new Athens.

Nave of the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, built in 1473 by the architect Leon Battista Alberti.

Although the steps can be found in the preparatory drawings, the large arches with their coffered vaults, typical of the dome of the Roman Pantheon, do not appear. Another probable source of inspiration is the arches, also with coffered vaults, the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, built in Rome at the beginning of the 4th century to reaffirm the power of the beauty of the Eternal City.

It is not excluded that Bramante himself, who had made a tromp-l’oeil using this type of pattern in the apse of the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Milan, designed them in person. With three arches (tetrad) and seven rows of caissons, Pythagorean numerology is never far away.

Visually, the ensemble is divided in two. The audience is on the same level as the foreground, a paved parterre behind which a very wide staircase leads to a raised forecourt. For the viewer, a slightly cavalier perspective reinforces the monumental dimension of the figures on the upper level. This setting is inevitably reminiscent of a theater stage.

The actors, arriving from the old world, can enter the stage on one side, under the statue of the Greek god Apollo (A), god of light, and leave on the other, towards the new world, under the statue of Pallas Athena (B), which became Minerva in Roman times, protector of the Arts, to exchange ideas with each other, address the audience or climb the stairs and leave through the back.

In the center of the square and in the center of a perspective with a central point of view, Plato (N° 9) and Aristotle (N° 10) don’t confront each other but move forward, side by side, towards the viewers (and the Triumphant Church on the opposing wall).

The first one, with the Timaeus in his hand, points a finger towards the sky, meaning that beyond the visible, a higher principle exists. The second one extends his arm and his hand horizontally underlining that all truth comes to us from the testimony of the senses, while carrying the Ethics with the other arm.

Strangely, these are the only two books in the stanza whose names appear in Italian (Timeo, Etica) and not in Latin. As the art critic Eugenio Battisti (1924-1989) observed:

If we (…) examine the titles of the works respectively held by Plato and Aristotle, we see the philosopher of the Academy holding the Timaeus, that is to say the most Aristotelian and the most systematic of his works and the Stagirite, the Nicomachean Ethics, that is to say the most Platonic of his works.

Even the choice of the colors of the clothes emphasizes complementarity: Plato is dressed in red (fire) and purple (ether); Aristotle in blue (water) and yellow (earth).

The colors of the clothes of the two philosophers symbolize the four elements: Plato is dressed in red (fire) and purple (ether); Aristotle in blue (water) and yellow (earth).

If the whole fresco cuts the world in two between Platonists and Aristotelians, both walk together towards what is in front of them and behind the spectator who looks: towards the fresco of Theology with the Trinity in the center without forgetting the monstrance and the imposing altar on which is marked « JV-LI-VS PON TI CUS ». How generous of the Church to welcome so many pagans into its midst!

Plato and Aristote walk toward this alter in front of them, on which one can read twice (in the center and on the top): « Julius »

Raphael however communicates a great sense of movement. In the same way that the Dutch painter Rembrandt, in his 17th century masterpiece The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, known as The Night Watch, broke with the formal representations of the dignitaries of the city guilds, Raphael here drew a line under the frozen and static representations of the series of « great men » often decorating the palaces and libraries of the great princes and lords in the style of his master Perugino.

His fresco, like Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan, is organized as a sequence of small groups of three or four people conversing with a great thinker or each other, never out of sync with what is happening around them. In this sense, Raphael translated into images, and thus made accessible to the eyes of the spectators, that harmonic unity transcending the multiple so sought after by the commissioners.

Raphael and Inghirami did not hesitate to use portraits of people living in their time to represent historical figures. In addition to themselves, there are their patrons, colleagues and other personalities whom they hoped to please or charm.

In the foreground, four groups are shown.

Raphael’s impresario, the Pope’s chief librarian, Tommaso Inghirami as Epicurus in Raphael’s fresco. He wears not a laurel wreath, but oak leaves, the coat of arms of Pope Julius II.

On the left, Epicurus (N° 25), here with the features of Inghirami writing the setting of the play. Born in Samos like Pythagoras, he wears here, not a crown of laurels, reward given to great orators, but a crown of oak leaves, symbols that we find in the coat of arms of pope Julius II.

Some historians believe that Inghirami was a Dionysian follower of Orphism, another pre-Socratic current. Dionysus is indeed the brother of Apollo and according to some, their teachings are one and the same.

As mentioned above, shortly after Raphael’s death (1520), Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto published a treatise in which Inghirami defends rhetoric and denies any value of philosophy, his main argument being that everything written is already in the mystical and mythological texts of Orpheus and his followers.

In Rome, the scholars of the time knew Epicurus mainly through their readings of Cicero for whom Epicurus was not a debauchee but someone who sought the noblest pleasure. Cicero had a friendship with an Epicurean philosopher, a certain Phaedrus, as it happens the nickname of Inghirami…

Finally, on the extreme left, there is an old bearded man, the Greek thinker Metrodorus (N° 26), disciple of Anaxagoras and for whom it is « the acting spirit » that organized the World. In front of him, a newborn baby. Together they could symbolize the birth of truth (the child) and wisdom (the old man) and experience.

Pythagoras of Samos, in The Philosophy. On the slate, at the bottom, the famous Tetraktys, at the top, the harmonic ratios of the musical scale.

Next to him, a little more in the center, the imposing figure of Pythagoras (N° 22) (whom the Italian historian Georgio Vasari mistook for the evangelist Saint Matthew), seated with a book, an inkwell and a pencil, writing surrounded by visibly intrigued people. Behind him, seated on the left, an old man, representing Boethius (N° 23), Roman author, in the sixth century, of a treatise on music, the first part of which evokes « the harmony of the spheres », tries to look at what he is writing in his book. Without capturing a moment of potential transformation, as Leonardo knew how to do, the scene is obviously inspired by his unfinished painting, the Adoration of the Magi.

At his feet, a black slate with the famous Tetraktys and a diagram of musical intervals (see our section in this article on Pythagoras).

Since it is totally unthinkable that it is Averroes (banned from the Church, as said, by Aquinas), the turbaned man who seems to admire him could be Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (N° 24). This Persian physician, influenced by the thought of both Hippocrates and Galen, in his Qanûn (of Medecine), operates a vast medico-philosophical synthesis of Aristotle‘s logic (which he corrects) and neo-Platonism, compatible with monotheism.

It could also be Al Fârâbi (872-950), another Arab scientist and musician who sought to reconcile faith, reason and science with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, whose translations from Greek into Arabic he had made. Avicenna admired him and the title of one of Al Fârâbî’s works leaves no ambiguity: The Harmony of the Opinions of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle.

Moreover, given his position on the side of the Platonists, although he wears a white turban, it is totally excluded that he is Averroes (Ibn Rushd), an author struck down by Aquinas (see the paintings showing The Triumph of Saint Thomas) and then by the Neoplatonists of Florence for having denied the immortality of the individual soul.

More in the center of the fresco, two isolated figures immersed in their thoughts. The first, on the left, appears to have been added later by Raphael and is not in his drawing. The man is dozing on a cube, a Pythagorean volume par excellence. It is thought to be Heraclitus of Ephesus (No. 19) (an Ionian pre-Socratic for whom « there is nothing permanent but change ») with the features of Michelangelo. This sculptor fascinated Raphael, not only for his gifts in drawing, anatomy and architecture, but also for his spirit of independence from a pope he considered tyrannical.

It should be noted that the Moses that Michelangelo sculpted for the tomb of Julius II is said to be looking at him with anger because the artist captured the moment when Moses, coming down from Mount Sinai with the Tables of the Law, noticed that the Hebrew people had returned to worshiping idols, such as « the Golden Calf ». Irritated by this return to idolatry, Moses broke the Tables of the Law.

From Pythagoras to Plato.
One detail raises questions: Anaximander of Miletus places his right foot on a cubic block of marble whose volume seems to be eight times smaller than the one on which Heraclitus of Ephesus rests. However, to solve the problem of Delos (the duplication of the volume of the cube) it is necessary to wait for the Pythagorean and friend of Plato, Archytas of Taranto.

Anaximander of Miletus (N° 20) (and not Parmenides), also a representative of the Ionian school, stands behind Heraclitus and seems to contest the demonstration of Pythagoras (representative of the so-called « Italian » school). Behind him, a young man with long hair, looks at the spectator. Dressed in a white toga, an attribute of the Pythagoreans, he is once again Pico della Mirandola (N° 21), triumphant and surrounded by Pythagoras and two of his disciples. Legend has it that Raphael portrayed Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370-415), a mathematician who headed the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria. When one of the cardinals examined the painting and knew that the woman depicted was Hypatia, he is said to have ordered that she be removed from it. Raphael is said to have obeyed, but replaced her with the effeminate figure of a nephew of Pope Julius II, Francesco Maria Della Rovere, future Duke of Urbino…

If this is really Pico della Mirandola, it would be a superb piece of praise, for appearing in both Philosophy and Theology, the two images of Pico, reminiscent of the kneeling angel looking at the viewer while pointing at St. John the Baptist in Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks, can contemplate each other!

The second isolated figure, nonchalantly spread out on the stairs, is the cynical and hedonistic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (N° 18), here presented as an ascetic, but in the Aristotelian tradition.

The geometer (Hippocrates of Chios?).
Slate of the geometer.

Then, in the center right, an inspiring group of young people, amazed by their discoveries and exchanging their complicit glances with their comrades, around a surveyor who is examining or drawing with a compass parallel lines inside a hexagonal star on a slate laid on the ground.

This is an illustration of a theorem that neither Euclid (an Aristotelian) nor Archimedes mentioned, although the identity of one or the other is attributed to this figure in the guise of the architect Donato Bramante.

It could be, it is my conviction, the geometer Hippocrates of Chios (N° 17) of which Aristotle speaks in great good. He wrote the first mathematics textbook, entitled The Elements of Geometry. This work precedes Euclid’s Elements by a century. Unless we are talking about the architect Leon Battista Alberti, whose church in Mantua may have inspired Bramante and after all, author, in 1435, of De Pictura, a treatise (of Aristotelian spirit) on perspective.

However, in 1485, in his treatise on architecture De re Aedificatoria, Alberti, in a passage (IX, 5) that may have been of interest to the author of the fresco, stressed that:

“Beauty consists in a harmony and in an agreement of the parts with the whole, in accordance with determinations of number, proportionality and order such as the harmony requires it, that is to say the absolute and sovereign law of the nature.”

On the edge of the tunic: R.V.S.M. (Raphael Vrbinas Sua Manu, meaning: « By the Hand of Raphael of Urbino »).

Finally, to add to the mystery, on the collar of the tunic of this figure can be read: « R.V.S.M. » (Raphael Vrbinas Sua Manu), meaning « By the Hand of Raphael of Urbino »).

For what the surveyor is addressing on the slate is the role played by the diagonals of the hexagon. The answer is provided by the geometrical composition, in the form of a hexagon, which underlies the entire construction of the perspective of the fresco.

The diagonals show a beautiful complementarity between the arithmetic mean and the harmonic mean (see authors diagram below).

It is a masterly demonstration in the field of the visible, of the concept structuring the whole theme of the work: complementarity, the foundation of universal harmony.

By tracing the horizon line and the lines of escape of the perspective from the bottom of the cornices of each arch, the isosceles triangle OAB appears. By inscribing it in a circle whose center is the central vanishing point (O), we obtain a hexagon. By tracing the diagonals (XB) of this hexagon, we obtain both the arithmetic mean (Y) and the harmonic mean (Z). The trick is done! For their complementarity illustrates marvelously the guiding motif of the whole Signature Chamber: the universal harmony that orders the beauty of the proportions of the universe.
Credit: Karel Vereycken

On the right, the geographers Ptolemy (No. 16) and Strabo (No. 15) (in the guise of Baldassare Castiglione, the head of the Pope’s army and a friend of Raphael’s?), who is identified without real evidence with Zoroaster but to whom Pico della Mirandola indeed refers, stand face to face. The first shows the Earth as a sphere, the second a globe of the Heavens.

Finally, on the far right of the first register, with the features of Raphael, the legendary painter of the court of Alexander the Great, Apelles of Cos (N° 13). It should be remembered that, during his lifetime, Raphael was nicknamed « the Apelles of his time ». Next to him, his rival, the Greek painter Protogenes (N° 14) in the guise of Raphael’s colleague, the sulfurous but virtuoso fresco artist Sodoma. Coming from the world of the craftsmen, it is a question here of marking the entry of two painters-decorators into « the court of the big guys » and making their first steps in the world of philosophy.

Raphael, preparatory drawing for Plato and Aristotle. In the final version, their respective sizes have been equalized. Note the absence of the titles of the books.

On the steps, the central subject, as we have said, Plato and Aristotle. Plato‘s features in the fresco have nothing to do with any supposed portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was born in 1452 and was only 56 years old when the fresco was painted. Raphael is said to have used the image of a bust of Plato discovered in Athens in the ruins of the ancient academy. In reality, the famous drawing of an old man (Turin), supposed to be a self-portrait of Leonardo and resembling the image of Plato in the School of Athens, has been proven to date from the 19th Century.

In the crowd to the left of Plato is Socrates (no. 6), his teacher, whose face was known to everyone from Roman statues. The identification of the other figures remains largely hypothetical. One thinks of the speakers of Plato‘s dialogues. Close to Socrates, his old friend Crito (N° 4). Behind Socrates, the Athenian intellectual Isocrates (N° 7) who had withdrawn from political life and although close to Socrates, set himself up as Plato‘s rival. Close to the latter, the five interlocutors of Plato‘s dialogue, Parmenides. Among them, Parmenides (N° 8), considered at the origin of the concept of the One and the multiple, and the pre-Socratic thinker Zeno of Elaea, known for his philosophical paradoxes.

The Athenian general (here dressed as a Roman soldier) Alcibiades (N° 3) and the young man in blue could be Phaedo of Elis (N° 5) or Xenophon, both listening to Socrates counting on his fingers, a gesture suggesting his famous dialectic.

All around the Greek thinkers, other figures are stirring. Behind general Alcibiades, a figure (perhaps a librarian) holds back another running figure, begging him not to disturb the ongoing exchanges between philosophers and scientists.

At the far left, a man with a hat enters the stage. It could be Plotinus (N° 2), a founding figure of Neoplatonism admired by cardinal Bessarion, accompanied by Porphyry (N° 1), another Neoplatonist who brought his biography of Pythagoras as a messenger from the ancient world.

In the Renaissance, the realization of a fresco (painted on fresh plaster) was no longer linked to the position of the scaffolding (bridges) but to the decision of the workers and artists as to the surface to be realized in a day (giornata) of work. Generally it was a surface between 1 and 4 m2.
Here the giornata of the School of Athens.

D. JUSTICE

Justice
A. Fortitude, B. Prudence and C. Temperance.
1. Justinian, 2. Tribonian, 3. pope Paul III, 4. Antonio Del Monte,

5. pope Leo X, 6. pope Gregory IX (Julius II), 7. pope Clement VII.

On top, in the lunette (half moon), the three virtues represented would be Fortitude (A), Prudence (B) and Temperance (C). Together with Justice, they constitute the four cardinal (profane) virtues. The central female figure, holding a mirror, refers to Prudence. On the left, Fortitude holds an oak branch, an allusion to the della Rovere family from which Julius II, the pope who commissioned the frescoes, descended.

Below, once again, complementarity is at work. On the left, painted by Lorenzo Lotto, the Roman emperor Justinian I (N° 1) receives the Pandects (the civil law) from the Byzantine jurist Tribonian (N° 2).

On the right, in the guise of Julius II, Pope Gregory IX (N° 6) promulgates the Decretals; a masterly sum of canon law which he had ordered to be compiled and published in 1234.

On his right (thus on the left of the spectator), one sees a cardinal, in purple dress, having the features of the cardinal Jean de Médicis, future pope Leo X (N° 5). The two other cardinals behind him would be Alessandro Farnese, the future pope Paul III (N° 3), and Antonio Del Monte (N° 4). And to his left (right for the viewer) a cardinal representing Cardinal Julius de Medici, the future Pope Clement VII (N° 7). With your image immortalized on a fresco in the right place, your career to become pope would seem to be better engaged!

The fact that Julius II is represented wearing a beard allows to date the fresco beyond June 1511. Indeed, the pontiff, who left Rome beardless to wage war, then let his beard grow and vowed not to shave it off until he had liberated Italy. He returned to Rome in June. Historians point out that the prominence of the pope’s portrait indicates how the theme of the decoration of the Chambers was transformed, around 1511, into that of the glorification of the papacy. Hence, in this way “Justice” becomes the right of Julius II to impose « his » justice.


E. POETRY

(« PARNASSUS”)

Poetry (“Parnassus”).

The poets:
1. Alcaeus of Mytilene, 2. Corinna, 3. Petrarch, 4. Anacreon, 5. Sappho, 6. Ennius, 7. Dante, 8. Homer, 9. Virgil, 10. Statius (Poliziano), 11. Apollo, 12. Tebaldeo, 13. Boccaccio, 14. Tibullus, 15. Ariosto,

16. Propertius, 17. Ovid, 18. Sannazaro, 19. Pindar.

The nine muses:
A. Thalia, B. Clio, C. Euterpe, D. Calliope, E. Polyhymnia, F. Melpomene, G. Terpsichore, H. Urania.
I. Erato.

A window reduces the space available for the fresco to a large lunette where the characters are divided into small groups on a semi-circular line.

The underlying idea here, taken from St. Thomas, is that truth is made accessible to man, either by Revelation (Theology) or by Reason (Philosophy). For the Neoplatonic school, this truth manifests itself to our senses through Beauty (poetry and music).

The scene painted here takes place near Delphi, at the top of Parnassus, the sacred mountain of Apollo and home of the Muses of Greek mythology.

The large window around which the fresco is organized offers a view, beyond the cortile (small circular temple) of Bramante, on the hill of Belvedere (Mons Vaticanus), where shows were given and where, in ancient times, Apollo was honored, which earned him the name of Apolinis.

Apollo is the patron of musicians: « It is through the Muses and the archer Apollo that there are singers and citharists », says Hesiod. He even inspires nature: when he passes by, « the nightingales, swallows and cicadas sing ». His music soothes the wild animals and moves the stones. For the Greeks, music and dance are not only entertainments: they allow to heal men by tuning the discords that eat away at their souls and thus to bear the misery of their condition.

At the top of the hill, seven laurels. Near the Castalia spring, Apollo (N° 11), crowned with laurel leaves and in the center of the composition, is tuning around him the nine muses (A to I) playing on his lyre.

On the left side Calliope (D), the one « who has a beautiful voice » and represents the epic poetry, and on the right, Erato (I), « the lovable one » who represents the lyric and erotic poetry as well as the nuptial song. Each presides over the tuning of the other’s chorus: on the left, behind Calliope, Thalia (A) (« the flourishing, the abundant »), Clio (B) (« who is famous » and represents history) and Euterpe (C) (« the joyful » who represents music). Finally, just behind Erato, Polyhymnia (E) (« the one who says many hymns » and represents rhetoric, eloquence and pantomime), Melpomene (F) (« the singer » who represents tragedy and song); Terpsichore (G) (« the charming dancer ») and Urania (H) (« the celestial one » who represents astronomy).

And you don’t have to be Pythagoras to count 7 laurels on the mountain and remember that nine muses plus Apollo make… ten.

As one of the square frescoes on the ceiling reminds us, Apollo had triumphed over Marsyas in a fight to seize the lyre, considered as the divine instrument capable of leading souls to heaven, better than the flute which only excites the lower passions. By detaching the man from his immediate material concerns, the victorious lyre allowed to arouse the divine love in men. In addition, the Romans knew of a seven-stringed lyre, a Pythagorean legacy, the number seven referring to the seven heavenly bodies orbiting the central fire.

For the Pythagoreans and also Heraclitus, the imitation of the « harmony of the spheres », thanks to the harmonies produced by the seven strings, allows the purification of the souls.
Apollo at Mount Parnassus, woodcut by Hans von Kulmbach, published in 1502.

However, strangely enough, Apollo is not holding a traditional four-stringed lyre, but a lira da braccio. If Apollo plays here the lyre with arms, the muses Calliope, Erato and the sibyl Sappho hold lyres identical to those of the sarcophagus known as « of the Muses » of the Museo delle Terme in Rome.

In many representations of the 16th century, the lyre is played by a group of angels or mythological characters, such as Orpheus and Apollo, but also King David, Homer or the Muses. Among its interpreters, we can count Leonardo da Vinci. The instrument is essentially designed like a violin, but with a wider fingerboard and a flat bridge that allows for chordal playing. The lyre generally has seven strings: four like a violin, augmented by an additional low string (making five), and two strings beyond the fingerboard, which are not played but serve as a drone and resonate in the octave. Now, Raphael, in order to create a perfect harmony with the number of muses around Apollo, will increase the number of strings from seven to nine, that is to say seven adjustable plus two drones. This detail concerning the lyre seems to have been modified in time. Indeed, an engraved reproduction, from 1517, probably from drawings prior to the fresco, or from its preliminary project, by Marcantonio Raimondi, reveals a state quite different from what we see today.

Marcantonio Raimondi, engraving (ca. 1517) after Raphael’s Mount Parnassus in the Signing Chamber.

The composition is less dense and highlights, like the School of Athens, several groups of three figures each. What is striking at first is that the ancient lyre played by Apollo with his fingers rests on his thigh, while in the present version, Apollo vibrates the strings of his lira da braccio with a bow, while looking up to the sky, in accordance with the fresco on the ceiling where are inscribed the words of Virgil: « Inspired by the spirit » (NVMINE AFFLATVR).

All around, eighteen poets are divided into several groups. The identification of some is unequivocal, that of others more doubtful. They are all chained to each other by gestures and looks, forming a kind of continuous crescent.

At the top left, the father of Latin poetry Ennius (N° 6), seated, listens raptly to the song of Homer (N° 8), while Dante (N° 7), further back, looks at Virgil (N° 9) who turns towards him, the Roman poet Statius (N° 10), in the guise of Poliziano, at his side. The latter was a disciple of the florentine Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino. To represent the historical figures, Raphael drew inspiration from Roman statuary. For the face of Homer, for example, he adopted the dramatic expression of the Laocoon, which he had found in Rome in 1506.

At the bottom left are the Greek poet Alcaeus of Mytilene (N°1), the Greek poetess Corinna (N° 2), Petrarch (N° 3) as well as the Greek poet Anacréon (N° 4). In the final version, two characters who leave the frame came to enrich the composition. On the left, the sibyl Sappho (N° 5) as indicated by a tablet. Considered the first poetess of ancient Greece, she lived in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. According to the Homeric Hymns, it is her who would have built the first lyre to accompany the poetic recitation. The only woman in entire fresco is painted with a monumentality that is reminiscent of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Sappho is the counterpart of Pindar (N° 19), and not Horace as is claimed, considered one of the greatest lyric poets of Greece and for whom Apollo was the symbol of civilization. Pindar is here in conversation with the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro (N° 18), dressed in blue and standing, and above them Ovid (N° 17).

On the right, on the side of the mount, besides Pindar, Sannazaro and Ovid, five other poets and orators : Antonio Tebaldeo (N° 12), with his back turned towards Apollo and under the features of Baldassare Castiglione ? ), Boccaccio (N° 13), behind, Tibullus (N° 14), Ariosto (N° 15), Propertius (N° 16), under the features of the cardinal poet very « Petrarquist » Pietro Bembo, a friend of Inghirami and enemy of Erasmus, and at his sides two unknown poets said « poets of the future judging the past ».

The identification of these characters remains largely hypothetical and controversial. To arrive at satisfactory results, it would be necessary according to the historian Albert Chastel, to find precise correspondences between the nine muses, nine classic poets and nine modern, in addition to the grouping by poetic genre.

After the death of Julius II, Pope Leo X made the Stanza della signatura his music room, replacing the books of his predecessor (which were moved to the large library on the lower floor) with intarsiae. Leo X will also have the pavement completed.


F. THE MOSAIC ON THE FLOOR

Mosaic of the Chamber of the signature:
A. Coat of arms of the pope, B. Spiral arm, C. Star of David, reference to the Jewish heritage.
Detail of the mosaic of the Chamber of Signature. We can read IVLIUS II PONT MAX.

The mosaic decorating the floor is said to be « cosmatesque », after the name of Cosmati, an old family of craftsmen and specialized in mosaics with four colors. Some materials come from Roman ruins, the green marble of the Peloponnese in Greece, the porphyry of Aswan in Egypt, and the yellow marble of North Africa. The white marble comes from the famous marble quarries of Carrara where Michelangelo chose his materials.

As on the ceiling, in the center of the room the coat of arms of the pope (A), this time inside a square (his earthly reign) inscribed in a circle (his theological mission). This first circle is surrounded by four spiral arms, each of which creates a new circular motif (B). This pattern is believed to be of Jewish origin. The Star of David (C) appears several times in this creation vortex. The doctrine of the four worlds, described in cabalistic cosmology, underlines their dynamic unity.

After all, for Giles de Viterbe, the recent discovery of Jewish mystical writings was of the same importance as the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Let us recall that for Julius II, like Plato and Pythagoras, Moses, whom Michelangelo sculpted for his tomb, already announced the later triumph of the Church of Rome which would, under his direction, synthesize them.

Conclusion

Thus, the whole theme of the « Chamber of the Signature » finds its full coherence with the idea of harmony and concordance. But when we look more closely, we see that it is only a question of « complementarity » at the level of forms and in the service of a temporal power disguised as a divine mission. Raphael, a talented painter, submitted to this by providing the product for which he was paid. He would end up painting things increasingly decadent by submitting to the pagan whims of the papal banker Agostino Chigi for the decoration of his villa, the Farnesina.

With the « Chamber of the Signature », we are far from the famous « coincidence of opposites » dear to Pythagoras, Plato, Nicholas of Cues and today Schiller Institute’s President Helga Zepp-LaRouche, which allows, in an uncompromising search for truth and for the love of humanity, to overcome paradoxes and solve a great number of problems from a higher point of view.

By piling up allegories and symbols, if it impresses, this masterly work ends up suffocating us. By the rules of its composition, it can only sink into the theatrical and the didactic. In a universe purged of the slightest irony or surprise, no real metaphor will be able to awaken us. And although Raphael tried to bring some life into it, the spectator is fatally left with a vast sediment of fossilized ideas, as dead as the most glorious ruins of the Roman Empire.

Brief bibliography:

  • Julius II, Ivan Cloulas, Fayard, Paris 1990;
  • Léon X et son siècle, Gonzague Truc, Grasset, Paris, 1941;
  • Une histoire des empires maritimes, Cyrille P. Coutensais, CNRS, 2013;
  • L’Humanisme, l’Europe de la Renaissance, André Chastel and Robert Klein, Editions Skira, Geneva, 1995;
  • L’Arétin ou l’insolence du plaisir, Bertrand Levergeois, Fayard, Paris, 1999;
  • Giorgio Vasari, l’homme des Médicis, Grasset, Paris, 1995;
  • Marsile Ficin et l’Art, André Chastel, Droz, Geneva, 1996 ;
  • Raphael and the Pope’s librarian, Nathaniel Silver, Ingrid Rowland, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019;
  • Raphael’s Stanza della Signatura, Meaning and Invention, Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Cambridge University Press, 2002;
  • Pythagoras and Renaissance Europe, Finding Heaven, Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Cambridge University Press, 2009;
  • Raphael, Stephanie Buck and Peter Hohenstatt, Könemann, 1998;
  • The Intellectual Background of the School of Athens: Tracking Divine Wisdom in the Rome of Julius II, Ingrid D. Rowland, 1996;
  • Pagans in the Church: The School of Athens in Religious Contex, Timothy Verdon, 1996;
  • Raphael’s School of Athens, Marcia Hall, Cambridge University Press, 1997;
  • Raphael, Konrad Oberhuber, Editions du Regard, Paris, 1999;
  • L’énigme de la Segnatura, Raphael and Sodoma, André-Charles Coppier, Paris, 1928;
  • Raphael, John Pope-Hennessy, Harper & Row, London, 1970;
  • Who was Raphael, Nello Ponente, Editions Skira, Geneva, 1967:
  • Lives and doctrines of the illustrious philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius, La pochothèque, Paris, 1999;
  • Erasmus and Italy, Augustin Renaudet, Editions Droz, Paris, 2000 ;
  • Erasmus among us, Léon Halkin, Fayard, 1987 ;
  • Comment la folie d’Erasme sauva notre civilisation, Karel Vereycken, 2005 ;
  • The egg without shadow of Piero della Francesca, Karel Vereycken, 2007;
  • Albrecht Dürer against neo-platonic melancholy, Karel Vereycken, 2007.

NOTES:

* For an in-depth treatment of the subject, see Karel Vereycken, Albrecht Dürer against Neo-Platonic Melancholy, 2007.

**We can see here where certain sects, notably Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophists, draw their inspiration. Some still insist on demonstrating that Pythagoras, who believed in the transmigration of souls and therefore their possible reincarnation in animals or plants, was a vegetarian. Diogenes Laertius tells us that one day, « passing by someone who was mistreating his dog, it is said that he [Pythagoras, in a joking tone] was moved by compassion and addressed the individual with these words: ‘Stop and do not strike again, for it is the soul of a man who was my friend, and I recognized him by hearing the sound of his voice’ « . A whole series of authors ended up falling into numerology and irrational esoteric mumbo-jubo, in particular Francesco Zorzi, Agrippa of Nettesheim and Paracelsus.

Merci de partager !

Omar Merzoug: Avicenne ou l’islam des lumières

En avril 2022, Karel Vereycken s’est entretenu avec Omar Merzoug, docteur en philosophie et spécialiste de la pensée au Moyen Âge. Il a publié en 2018 Existe-t-il une philosophie islamique ? (Cahiers de l’Islam). Pendant sept ans, il a enseigné la philosophie et la civilisation islamique à l’Institut Al-Ghazâli de la Grande Mosquée de Paris.

Karel Vereycken : Monsieur Merzoug, bonjour. Après sept ans de recherches, d’études et de vérification de documents historiques, vous venez de publier en 2021, chez Flammarion, une biographie enthousiaste et fouillée d’Avicenne (980-1037). Qui était ce personnage et pourquoi avoir publié ce livre maintenant ?

Avicenne ou l’islam des lumières, Omar Merzoug, Flammarion, mars 2021, 416 pages, 25 euros.

Omar Merzoug : Il s’agit de l’illustre Ali Ibn Sînâ (que l’Occident nomme Avicenne), savant, médecin, philosophe et homme d’Etat, qui a eu une vie passionnante et fort mouvementée, et dont l’influence sur les penseurs chrétiens du Moyen Âge, de l’avis même des spécialistes les plus autorisés, fut considérable. Ce ne fut pas, comme on a tendance à le croire, un commentateur, mais c’était un penseur qui a créé tout un système s’inspirant d’Aristote, mais qui l’enrichit, le contredit.

Un penseur indépendant, par conséquent. Il fut lu comme philosophe jusqu’au XVIIe siècle et l’on retrouve dans les écrits des philosophes des Temps modernes, Malebranche, Leibniz et Spinoza, des échos de son œuvre. Comme médecin, ses travaux furent longtemps au programme des universités européennes. C’est donc une figure fort intéressante en tant que savant, mais aussi en tant qu’homme.

Publier ce livre maintenant, c’est d’abord saluer cette figure éminente du monde musulman à l’heure où, il faut bien le dire, l’islam n’a pas bonne presse. Le rationalisme d’Avicenne, sa curiosité intellectuelle, sa capacité à assimiler toutes sortes de savoir, son esprit encyclopédique et son inventivité philosophique sont autant de traits qui pourraient contribuer à une renaissance de la véritable culture philosophique dans le monde musulman, culture philosophique qui est bien malmenée aujourd’hui.

De père afghan, né en Ouzbékistan et d’éducation perse, de nombreux pays (qui n’existaient pas à son époque dans leurs frontières actuelles) se réclament les héritiers de sa gloire. Qui a raison ?

On ne prête qu’aux riches. Plus sérieusement, Avicenne est un persan d’Ouzbékistan. Tout l’indique, mais cela ne saurait empêcher Turcs, Arabes et Européens de se réclamer de lui, de le lire et même de le critiquer, et c’est d’ailleurs ce qui s’est produit.

La deuxième partie du titre de votre livre, L’islam des lumières, sous-entend qu’il y aurait plusieurs islams…

Il n’y a certes pas plusieurs islams, mais il y a des lectures et des approches différentes, et même contradictoires, de l’islam. Et cela ne date pas d’aujourd’hui. Il y a, pour résumer, une lecture littérale des textes fondamentaux de l’islam et il y a des lectures plus subtiles, plus soucieuses de faire prévaloir l’esprit sur la lettre. Au reste, le Coran lui-même autorise cette disparité des lectures (Sourate III, verset 7).

Comment Avicenne a-t-il concilié théologie et philosophie ?

Comme tous les grands penseurs du Moyen Âge et même des Temps modernes, Avicenne s’est attaqué à ce problème essentiel et inévitable du rapport entre la théologie et la philosophie. Il ne s’est pas tant agi de concilier la raison avec la foi, mais plutôt la Loi religieuse et la raison. Sur ce point, Avicenne présente notamment sa théorie de l’émanation comme la seule interprétation véritable de la création. Partant du principe qu’il ne faut pas prendre à la lettre les récits, les allégories, les métaphores et toute la symbolique du Coran, il conclut qu’il faut l’interpréter à l’aune des principes de la raison. C’est en définitive la raison qui garde la primauté en matière d’interprétation des textes religieux.

A son époque, Avicenne était-il apprécié pour son travail en médecine ou pour ses idées philosophiques ?

Sur ce point, les spécialistes d’Avicenne ne sont pas tous d’accord. En Orient on l’estime beaucoup plus comme médecin que comme philosophe. En Occident, on a plutôt tendance à le considérer comme philosophe, d’autant que sa médecine n’a plus, compte tenu des progrès de la science, qu’un intérêt historique.

Néo-platoniciens, aristotéliciens et thomistes se prétendent souvent disciples d’Avicenne, mais en le lisant, on constate que ce dernier n’entre dans aucune case. Quelle qualité faut-il donc avoir pour pouvoir se dire disciple d’Avicenne ?

Être disciple d’Avicenne aujourd’hui voudrait signifier être rationaliste, pas au sens d’une sorte d’agnosticisme ou d’athéisme, mais au sens où la raison a qualité pour examiner toutes choses, que peu de domaines sont soustraits à son empire. Bien entendu, dans sa mystique qui est intellectualiste, Avicenne ménage une transition vers un au-delà de la raison, qui ne peut être atteint que par une sorte d’illumination. C’est bien la raison pour laquelle certains penseurs chrétiens du Moyen Âge ont pu établir un lien entre saint Augustin et Avicenne.

Sans avoir vécu à Bagdad et né après la grande période des Abbassides, sous Al-Mamoun et ses Maisons de la sagesse réunissant penseurs arabes, juifs et chrétiens nestoriens pour traduire l’héritage grec et syriaque, voyez-vous en Avicenne un héritier de la démarche mutazilite qui fit la grandeur de Bagdad ?

Avicenne est certainement plus proche des Mu’tazila que des partisans de l’approche littéraliste et anthropomorphiste. Les Mu’tazila combattaient pour la liberté de l’esprit et c’est, à peu de chose près, le combat d’Avicenne, convaincu que tout outrage à ce principe serait catastrophique. S’il n’y a pas de débat, de controverse, de libre dialogue et de recherche indépendante, il ne saurait y avoir au bout du compte qu’un recul de la pensée. La grandeur de la civilisation de Bagdad a été précisément, sous Al-Ma’mûn et ses successeurs immédiats, de permettre, par une politique délibérée et réfléchie, ce bouillonnement culturel, cette effervescence intellectuelle extraordinaire qu’on n’a pas revue depuis dans le monde musulman.

En lisant votre biographie d’Avicenne, qui nous introduit à lui en partant de sa vie quotidienne, on découvre qu’il n’avait rien d’un intellectuel de salon. Activement engagé pour le bien commun et la santé de tous, sa vie est loin d’être une sinécure et on le voit souvent contraint de s’exiler. Pourquoi ?

Se situant dans la tradition platonicienne qui voulait que les philosophes gouvernent les Etats parce qu’ils sont les plus savants, Avicenne a directement exercé les responsabilités du pouvoir. A deux reprises, il a géré un Etat et cela a failli lui coûter la vie. Introduisant les réformes indispensables et luttant contre les privilèges qu’il estimait indus de l’armée, il a déclenché une mutinerie des prétoriens. Oui, s’engager dans la cité pour des causes méritoires, c’est être d’une certaine manière avicennien. Comme Platon, il a échoué dans son entreprise, mais elle méritait d’être tentée, comme elle le mérite toujours.

Pourquoi le Canon de la médecine d’Avicenne a-t-il permis tant de progrès en médecine ?

C’est un livre fort intéressant sous plusieurs angles. C’est une somme du savoir médical, qui a d’ailleurs, en tant que telle, une postérité exceptionnelle. Dans cet ouvrage, il y a plusieurs avancées intéressantes. C’est un livre fort bien composé et qui est fondé de part en part sur les règles et les principes de la logique. Il a été de surcroît conçu dans une perspective pédagogique. Des fragments entiers du Canon sont rédigés sous forme d’abrégés pour permettre une assimilation plus rapide du savoir médical.

Avicenne estime qu’on ne saurait comprendre la maladie et donc lui trouver un remède que si on établit des liens de causalité. Reprenant la théorie des quatre causes d’Aristote, il les adapte à sa recherche médicale et juge qu’on n’atteint la pleine connaissance d’une maladie que si on en recherche les causes, écartant ainsi une approche strictement empirique.

A ses yeux, il y a une unité entre les organes et les fonctions du corps, de la même manière qu’il établit un rapport entre l’organisme et le monde extérieur. C’est d’ailleurs pour cela qu’il accordait, en tant que médecin, une importance essentielle aux mesures prophylactiques et à l’environnement.

Autre chose à signaler, Avicenne fut certainement le premier à proposer une approche de l’anatomie de l’œil, à émettre le diagnostic de la pleurésie et de la pneumonie, à distinguer la méningite infectieuse des autres infections aiguës.

D’autre part, il accordait une importance primordiale aux exercices physiques. C’est sans doute le premier, dix siècles avant Freud, à avoir insisté sur l’importance de la sexualité et de son rôle dans l’équilibre psychologique de la personne. Enfin, il fut sans doute l’un des pionniers de la médecine psychosomatique. En témoigne le cas de l’amoureux transi que je rapporte dans ma biographie.

Estimant sa personnalité hors du commun capable d’inspirer le meilleur de la civilisation islamique, Mme Helga Zepp-LaRouche, la fondatrice de l’Institut Schiller, a lancé une grande « initiative Ibn Sînâ » pour reconstruire l’Afghanistan et de son système de santé. Comment voyez-vous cette démarche ?

C’est sans doute une initiative extrêmement louable qui réintègre Avicenne dans son milieu (son père était afghan) et qui, sous deux perspectives, la santé et la grandeur de sa gloire, lui rend hommage.

Les raisons du succès de votre livre ?

C’est toujours délicat pour un auteur de dire quelles sont les raisons qui expliquent le succès, relatif dans mon cas, d’un livre. Je l’attribue d’abord au genre biographique qui s’apparente un peu au roman – au reste, la vie d’Avicenne est très romanesque. Ensuite, à l’effort pédagogique qui rend accessible la présentation de cette éminente figure du savoir, et peut-être aussi, à un style littéraire agréable et délié.

On connaît bien, d’Avicenne, ses travaux en médecine et maintenant, grâce à votre biographie, sa vie. A quand un nouveau livre dédié plus spécifiquement à ses idées philosophiques ?

Il n’existe pas sur le marché d’exposé systématique de la pensée d’Avicenne. Ce qui existe, fruit du travail de certains universitaires travaillant dans le champ avicennien, ce sont des monographies sur des thèmes ou des concepts avicenniens.

C’est de toute façon un travail d’une tout autre nature que la biographie et pour un tout autre public, plus restreint. Je me laisserai peut-être tenté par un tel projet, qui sait ?

Merci de partager !

Avicenne et Ghiberti, leur rôle dans l’invention de la perspective à la Renaissance

This article, in EN

Tout visiteur du centre historique de Florence pose fatalement, à un moment donné, son regard sur les portes richement décorées du Baptistère, cet édifice roman faisant face à la cathédrale Santa Maria del Fiore, coiffée par Filippo Brunelleschi de sa magnifique coupole.

Dans cet article, Karel Vereycken apporte un éclairage nouveau sur les apports arabes à la science et le rôle crucial de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans l’invention de la perspective à la Renaissance.

Le Baptistère et ses portes.

Le Baptistère, que la plupart des Florentins pensaient être construit sur l’emplacement d’un temple romain dédié à Mars, le dieu tutélaire de l’ancienne Florence, est l’un des plus anciens bâtiments de la ville, construit entre 1059 et 1128 dans le style roman local. Le poète italien Dante Alighieri et de nombreuses autres personnalités de la Renaissance, dont des membres de la famille Médicis, y furent baptisés.

A la Renaissance, à Florence, les corporations et les guildes se disputaient le premier rôle à coup de réalisations artistiques toutes aussi prestigieuses les unes que les autres. Alors que l’Arte dei Lana (Corporation des producteurs de laine) finançait les Œuvres (Opera) du Duomo et donc la construction de sa coupole géante, l’Arte dei Mercatanti o di Calimala (Guilde des marchands d’étoffes étrangères) s’occupait du Baptistère et finançait l’embellissement des portes.

Les portes du Paradis

Le bâtiment octogonal possède quatre entrées, dont trois ont acquis une renommée artistique mondiale avec des portes ornées de bas-reliefs en bronze, recouverts entièrement ou en partie d’une fine couche d’or. Trois dates marquent les travaux : 1339, 1401 et 1424.

  • En 1329, sur recommandation du peintre Giotto, la Calimala commande à Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) la décoration de la porte sud (initialement installée à l’est mais déplacée par la suite). Celle-ci se compose de 28 panneaux quadrilobés, un motif en forme de trèfle tiré des vitraux gothiques. 20 panneaux supérieurs représentent des scènes de la vie de saint Jean-Baptiste (le patron de l’édifice). Les 8 panneaux inférieurs représentent les 8 vertus (espérance, foi, charité, humilité, force d’âme, tempérance, justice et prudence), louées par Platon dans sa République et représentées au XVIe siècle par le peintre humaniste flamand et lecteur de Pétrarque, Pierre Bruegel l’Ancien.
Andrea Pisano. Portail en bronze du Baptistère (commencé en 1329),
détail : baptême de Jésus (à gauche) et de ses disciples (à droite).

Autoportrait de Lorenzo Ghiberti sur la porte du Nord (1401-1423)
  • En 1401, après avoir emporté de justesse le concours de sélection face à Brunelleschi, le jeune orfèvre Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), alors âgé de 23 ans et inexpérimenté, est mandaté par la Calimala pour décorer les vantaux de la porte nord. Autoportrait de Lorenzo Ghiberti sur la porte du Nord (1401-1423) Avec l’aide de son père, il va réaliser son ouvrage en utilisant une technique connue sous le nom de « fonte à la cire perdue », technique qu’il a dû entièrement réinventer car perdue depuis la chute de l’Empire romain. L’une des raisons pour lesquelles Ghiberti a remporté le concours est le simple fait que sa technique était si avancée qu’elle nécessitait 20 % de métal en moins (7 kg par panneau) que celle de ses concurrents, le bronze étant un matériau onéreux, bien plus coûteux que le marbre. Sa technique, appliquée à l’ensemble de la décoration de la porte Nord, par rapport à celle de son concurrent, aurait permis d’économiser environ 100 kg de bronze. Or, en 1401, avec la peste qui harcelait régulièrement Florence, les conditions économiques étaient déclinantes, si fait que la riche Calimala surveillait de près le coût du programme.

    Pendant de l’œuvre de son prédécesseur, les bronzes de la porte nord comprennent eux aussi 28 panneaux, dont 20 représentent la vie du Christ d’après le Nouveau Testament. Les 8 panneaux inférieurs représentent les quatre évangélistes et les Pères de l’Église, saint Ambroise, saint Jérôme, saint Grégoire et saint Augustin.
Thèmes du Nouveau Testament figurés par Ghiberti pour la Porte Nord.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porte nord (commencée en 1401), lors d’une récente restauration.
  • En 1424, Ghiberti, alors âgé de 46 ans, se voit confier (exceptionnellement, sans concours préalable) la tâche de réaliser également la porte est. Ce n’est qu’en 1452, à 70 ans, qu’il accroche les derniers panneaux de bronze, la construction ayant duré 27 ans !

    Selon les Vies des artistes de Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) les jugera plus tard « si belles qu’elles orneraient l’entrée du Paradis ».
Lorenzo Ghiberti, « Portes du Paradis »
(commencées en 1424, terminées en 1452).

Dessin, sculpture, anatomie, perspective, travail des métaux, architecture, etc., en deux générations, le grand chantier des Portes permit à une myriade d’assistants et d’élèves bien payés d’accéder à une formation hors pair.

Parmi eux, plusieurs artistes exceptionnels tels que Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio et les fils de Ghiberti, Vittore et Tommaso. Au fil du temps, ces portes de bronze pesant trois tonnes et hautes de 5,06 mètres sont devenues une icône de la Renaissance, l’une des œuvres d’art les plus célèbres au monde.

En 1880, le sculpteur français Auguste Rodin s’en inspira pour ses propres Portes de l’Enfer, sur lesquelles il travailla pendant 38 ans.

La révolution

L’autoportrait de Lorenzo Ghiberti, tout comme ses panneaux, fier d’émerger de la surface plane. Buste en bronze de la Porte du Paradis (réalisées entre 1424 et 1452).

Le changement radical de conception de la sculpture en bronze, intervenu entre la Porte du nord et la Porte orientale, est essentiel pour notre discussion ici, car il reflète la façon dont l’artiste et ses mécènes ont voulu partager avec le public leurs nouvelles idées, inventions et découvertes.

Les thèmes du portail nord de 1401 s’inspiraient de scènes du Nouveau Testament, excluant de facto le panneau réalisé par Ghiberti, Le Sacrifice d’Isaac, qui lui avait valu de remporter le concours la même année. Pour compléter l’ensemble, il était donc tout à fait logique que la porte orientale de 1424 reprenne les thèmes de l’Ancien Testament.

A l’origine, c’est l’érudit et ancien chancelier de Florence Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) qui avait programmé une iconographie assez semblable aux deux portes précédentes. Après des discussions animées, sa proposition fut écartée pour quelque chose de radicalement nouveau. En effet, au lieu de prévoir 28 panneaux, on décida, pour des raisons esthétiques, d’en réduire le nombre à seulement 10 reliefs carrés beaucoup plus grands, entre des bordures contenant des statuettes dans des niches et des médaillons avec des bustes.

Ainsi, chacun des 10 chapitres de l’Ancien Testament contient, pour ainsi dire, plusieurs événements, de sorte que le nombre net de scènes est passé de 20 à 37, et en plus, toutes apparaissent en perspective :

  1. Adam et Eve ;
  2. Caïn et Abel ;
  3. Noé ;
  4. Abraham ;
  5. Isaac, Jacob et Ésaü ;
  6. Joseph ;
  7. Moïse ;
  8. Josué ;
  9. David ;
  10. Salomon et la Reine de Saba.

Le thème général est celui du salut à partir de la tradition patristique latine et grecque. Après les trois premiers panneaux, centrés sur le thème du péché, Ghiberti commence à mettre plus clairement en évidence le rôle du Dieu sauveur et la préfiguration de la venue du Christ. Les panneaux ultérieurs sont plus faciles à comprendre. C’est le cas du panneau Isaac, Jacob et Esaü, où les personnages se fondent dans une perspective de telle sorte que l’œil est guidé vers la scène principale.

La plupart des sources de ces scènes étant écrites en grec ancien, dont la maîtrise n’était pas si courante à l’époque, on pense que Ghiberti aurait eu pour conseiller théologique Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), avec qui il était en constante relation. Traversari était un proche de Nicolas de Cues (1401-1464), protecteur de Piero della Francesca (1412-1492) et organisateur actif du Conseil œcuménique de Florence de 1438-39, qui tenta de mettre fin au schisme séparant les Églises d’Orient et d’Occident.

Perspective

Les reliefs en bronze, connus pour leur vive illusion d’espace, sont l’un des événements révolutionnaires qui incarnent la Renaissance. On y voit de façon spectaculaire des figures passer d’une surface plane à toute la plénitude d’une existence en trois dimensions ! Techniquement parlant, on passe du stiacciato (développé à la perfection par Donatello)* à la ronde bosse, en passant par le bas-relief et le haut relief. Ghiberti avait bien conscience de son exploit, comme en témoigne son autoportrait sur la porte, la tête sortant d’une médaille de bronze, regardant avec satisfaction les spectateurs admirant son œuvre. L’artiste souhaitait bien plus qu’une perspective, il cherchait un espace de respiration !

Cette approche nouvelle influencera Léonard de Vinci (1452-1517). Comme le souligne l’historien d’art Daniel Arasse :

c’est en rapport avec la pratique du bas-relief florentin, celui de Ghiberti à la Porte du Paradis (…) que Léonard invente sa manière de peindre. Comme le déclarera bien plus tard le Manuscrit G (folio 23b), ’le champ sur lequel on peint un objet est une chose capitale en peinture. (…) Le but du peintre est de faire que ses figures paraissent se détacher du champ’ — et non pas, pourrait-on ajouter, de fonder son art sur la transparence prétendue de ce même champ. C’est par la science des ombres et des lumières que le peintre peut obtenir un effet de surgissement depuis le champ, un effet de relief, et non par celle de la perspective linéaire.

Le Festin d’Hérode (1423-1427), bas-relief de Donatello, Sienne.

Au début du XVe siècle, plusieurs approches théoriques s’opposent. Vers 1423-1427, Donatello, un jeune collaborateur de Ghiberti réalisa son Festin d’Hérode, un bas relief selon la technique du stiacciato réalisé pour les fonts baptismaux du baptistère de Sienne.

Dans cette œuvre, le sculpteur déploie une perspective harmonieuse à point de fuite centrale. Vers la même époque, le peintre Massacchio (1401-1428) a utilisé une construction semblable dans sa fresque La Trinité.

Comme nous allons le voir, Ghiberti, partant de l’anatomie de l’œil, s’oppose aussi bien dans ses œuvres que dans ses écrits à cette approche abstraite et travaille, dès 1401, sur d’autres modèles géométriques, dites binoculaires. (voir plus bas).

Vers 1407, Brunelleschi a lui aussi mené plusieurs expériences sur cette question, très probablement sur la base d’idées développées par un autre ami de Nicolas de Cues, l’astronome italien Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482), dans son traité Della prospettiva, aujourd’hui perdu. Ce que l’on sait, c’est que Brunelleschi cherchait avant tout à démontrer que toute perspective n’est qu’illusion optique.

Diagramme de Léonard de Vinci, dite des trois colonnes (Codex Madrid, II). Alors que les colonnes extérieures sont plus éloignées du spectateur, leurs largeurs, sur le plan qui coupe l’angle visuel, apparaissent plus grandes que celle de la colonne centrale, à l’opposé de la grandeur des angles et l’image qu’on peut obtenir sur une surface curviligne comme la rétine.

En 1435, l’architecte humaniste Leon Baptista Alberti (1406-1472), dans son traité Della Pictura, tentera, sur la base de l’approche de Donatello, de théoriser la représentation d’un espace tridimensionnel harmonieux et unifié sur une surface plane.

Malheureusement, au désespoir de bien des artistes, le traité d’Alberti, entièrement théorique, ne contient aucun diagramme ni illustration…

Sept ans plus tôt, le peintre Massacchio (1401-1428) avait utilisé, du moins en partie, une construction semblable dans sa fresque La Trinité.

Enfin, Léonard, qui avait lu et étudié les écrits de Ghiberti, utilisa ses arguments pour souligner les limites et même démontrer le dysfonctionnement de la construction de la perspective « parfaite » d’Alberti, surtout lorsqu’elle dépasse le cadre d’un angle de 30 degrés.

Dans le Codex Madrid, II, 15 v. de Vinci se rend à l’évidence qu’« en soi, la perspective offerte par une paroi rectiligne est fausse à moins d’être corrigée (…) »

Perspectiva artificialis versus perspectiva naturalis

Condition anatomique de base pour se servir de la perspective d’Alberti.

La perspectiva articifialis d’Alberti n’est autre qu’une abstraction qui se veut nécessaire et utile pour représenter une organisation rationnelle de l’espace. Sans cette abstraction, nous dit-on, il est quasiment impossible de définir avec une précision mathématique les relations entre l’apparition des objets et le recul de leurs différentes proportions sur un écran plat : largeur, hauteur et profondeur.

A partir du moment où une image donnée sur un écran plat a été pensée comme la coupe transversale d’un cône ou d’une pyramide, une méthode a émergé pour ce qui est considéré, à tort, comme une représentation objective de l’espace tridimensionnel réel, alors qu’il ne s’agit que d’une anamorphose, c’est-à-dire un trompe-l’œil ou une illusion optique.

Ce qui est fâcheux, c’est que cette construction fait totalement abstraction de la réalité physique de notre appareil perceptif, en prétendant :

  • que l’homme est un cyclope (avec un seul œil) ;
  • que la vision émane d’un point unique, le sommet de la pyramide visuelle ;
  • que l’œil est immobile ;
  • que l’image, au mieux, est projetée sur un écran plat plutôt que sur une rétine incurvée.

Calomnies et ragots

Pour des raisons qui restent à élucider, le rôle crucial de Ghiberti a été soit ignoré soit minimisé. Par exemple, les Commentarii, un manuscrit en trois volumes où Ghiberti retrace sa vie, son approche artistique et ses recherches sur l’optique et la perspective, n’a jamais été traduit en anglais ni en français. Et l’édition italienne ne date que de 1998.

Au XVIe siècle, Giorgio Vasari, qui fit souvent office d’agent de relations publiques pour le clan des Médicis, et dont l’ouvrage Les Vies des artistes est devenu l’alpha et l’oméga des historiens d’art, signale avec condescendance, mais sans évoquer une once de son contenu, que Ghiberti a écrit « un ouvrage en langue vernaculaire dans lequel il a traité de nombreux sujets différents, mais les a disposés de telle manière que l’on ne peut guère tirer profit de sa lecture ».

Qu’il ait pu exister des tensions entre humanistes, certes. Après tout, ces artisans autodidactes, tels que Ghiberti passionnés de progrès techniques, d’une part, et les héritiers de riches marchands de laine, tel le bibliophile Niccoli d’autre part, venaient de mondes totalement différents. D’après une anecdote racontée par Guarino Veronese, en 1413, Niccoli rencontre un jour Filippo et le salue de manière hautaine en ces termes : « Ô philosophe sans livres », à quoi Filippo lui aurait répliqué en souriant : « Ô livres sans philosophe… »

A cela s’ajoute que comme le stipulait le contrat, Ghiberti a accordé l’œuvre commandée en 1401 avec l’œuvre de Pisano d’inspiration gothique. Du coup, certains en déduisent que Ghiberti n’appartenait pas réellement à la Renaissance. Pour preuve, selon ses détracteurs, « son souci du détail et ses figures aux lignes ondulées et élégantes, ainsi que la variété des plantes et des animaux représentés… »

Les humanistes

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Les Portes du Paradis, histoire de la reine de Saba rendant visite au roi Salomon. On y voit une foule de gens se pressant pour saisir l’union entre les Églises orientale et occidentale,
symbolisée ici par la rencontre entre ces deux personnages royaux.
On pense que cette scène a été créée à la demande d’Ambrogio Traversari, présent dans la foule et instigateur du Conseil œcuménique de Florence de 1438.

Certes, les Commentarii ne sont pas rédigés selon les règles rhétoriques de l’époque. Écrits à la fin de sa vie, ils pourraient même avoir été dictés par l’artiste vieillissant à un clerc mal formé, faisant quantité de fautes d’orthographe.

Cependant, les propos de Ghiberti révèlent un auteur instruit, ayant une connaissance approfondie de nombreux penseurs classiques grecs et arabes. Il n’était pas seulement un brillant artisan, mais bien un « homme de la Renaissance » typique. En dialogue permanent avec Bruni, Traversari et le « chasseur de manuscrits » Niccolo Niccoli, Ghiberti, qui ne savait pas lire le grec mais connaissait bien le latin, était manifestement au courant de cette redécouverte de la science grecque et arabe.

Cette ambition était portée par les membres du Cercle San Spirito fondé par Boccace et Salutati, et dont les invités (parmi lesquels Bruni, Traversari, Cues, Niccoli, Côme de Médicis, etc.) se réuniront par la suite au couvent Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Ghiberti échange d’ailleurs avec Giovanni Aurispa, ce collaborateur de Traversari qui ramena, avant Bessarion, l’ensemble des oeuvres de Platon en Occident.

Amy R. Bloch, dans son étude très documentée Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Humanism, History, and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance (2016), note que « Traversari et Niccoli peuvent être liés directement aux origines du projet des Portes et étaient clairement intéressés par les commandes de sculptures prévues pour le Baptistère « .

« Le 21 juin 1424, après que la Calima ait demandé à Bruni son programme pour les portes, Traversari écrit à Niccoli en reconnaissant, en termes seulement généraux, les idées de Niccoli pour les histoires à inclure et en mentionnant, sans désapprobation évidente, que la guilde s’était plutôt tournée vers Bruni pour obtenir des conseils.« 

Palla Strozzi

Ghiberti se lie également d’amitié avec Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), qui, en plus d’être l’homme le plus riche de Florence avec une fortune imposable de 162 925 florins en 1427, comprenant 54 fermes, 30 maisons, une entreprise bancaire au capital de 45 000 florins et des obligations communales, était aussi un homme politique, un écrivain, un philosophe et un philologue.

Tout comme Ambrogio Traversari, Paolo Rossi et Leonardo Bruni, Palla Strozzi a étudié le grec sous la direction de l’érudit byzantin Manuel Chrysoloras, invité à Florence par Salutati pour y enseigner le grec. A noter, le fait que Strozzi prit à sa charge une partie du traitement de Chrysoloras et fit venir de Constantinople et de Grèce les livres nécessaires à l’enseignement nouveau. La relation étroite de Ghiberti avec Palla Strozzi, écrit Bloch, « lui donnait accès à ses manuscrits et, ce qui est tout aussi important, à la connaissance qu’en avait Strozzi. « 

Ce n’était pas tout, car « la relation entre Ghiberti et Palla Strozzi était si étroite que, lorsque Palla se rendit à Venise en 1424 comme l’un des deux ambassadeurs florentins chargés de négocier une alliance avec les Vénitiens, Ghiberti l’accompagna dans sa suite. »

Strozzi était connu comme un véritable humaniste, cherchant toujours à préserver la paix tout en s’opposant fermement au pouvoir oligarchique, tant à Florence qu’à Venise.

En fait, c’est Palla Strozzi, et non Cosimo de’ Medici, qui a été le premier à lancer les plans de la première bibliothèque publique de Florence, et il avait l’intention de faire de la sacristie de Santa Trinita son entrée. Si la bibliothèque de Palla n’a jamais été réalisée en raison du conflit politique dramatique connu sous le nom de Coup des Albizzi qui a conduit Strozzi à son exil en 1434, Cosimo, qui a eu les coudées franches pour régner sur Florence, fera sien le projet de bibliothèque.

Un constat audacieux

Tout d’abord, Lorenzo Ghiberti fait un constat audacieux, pour un chrétien dans un monde chrétien, sur la façon dont l’art de l’Antiquité a été perdu :

La foi chrétienne était victorieuse à l’époque de l’empereur Constantin et du pape Sylvestre. L’idolâtrie a été persécutée de telle sorte que toutes les statues et les images d’une telle noblesse, d’une telle antiquité et d’une telle perfection ont été détruites et brisées en morceaux. Et avec les statues et les images, les écrits théoriques, les commentaires, les dessins et les règles d’enseignement de ces arts nobles et éminents furent détruits.

Formation de l’artiste.

Ghiberti comprenait l’importance de la multidisciplinarité pour la formation de l’artiste.

Selon lui, « la sculpture et la peinture sont des sciences de plusieurs disciplines nourries par des enseignements différents ».

Dans le livre I de ses Commentarii, Ghiberti donne une liste des 10 arts libéraux que le sculpteur et le peintre doivent maîtriser : philosophie, histoire, grammaire, arithmétique, astronomie, géométrie, perspective, théorie du dessin, anatomie et médecine et souligne la nécessité pour un artiste d’assister aux dissections anatomiques.

Comme le souligne Amy Bloch, alors qu’il travaillait sur les Portes, dans le processus intense de visualisation des histoires de la formation du monde par Dieu et de ses habitants vivants, l’engagement de Ghiberti « a stimulé en lui un intérêt pour l’exploration de tous les types de créativité – non seulement celle de Dieu, mais aussi celle de la nature et des humains – et l’a conduit à présenter dans le panneau d’ouverture de la Porte du Paradis (La création d’Adam et Eve) une vision grandiose de l’émergence de la création divine, naturelle et artistique. »

Ghiberti, Portes du Paradis,
création d’Adam, création d’Eve, la tentation et enfin, expulsion du Jardin d’Eden.


L’inclusion de détails évoquant le savoir-faire de Dieu, dit Bloch, « rappelle les images qui comparent Dieu, en tant que créateur du monde, à un architecte, ou, dans son rôle de créateur d’Adam, à un sculpteur ou à un peintre. Cette comparaison, qui dérive finalement de l’architecte-démiurge qui crée le monde dans le Timée de Platon, apparaît couramment dans l’exégèse médiévale juive et chrétienne ».

Philon d’Alexandrie a écrit que l’homme a été modelé « comme par un potier » et Ambroise a métaphoriquement appelé Dieu un « artisan (artifex) et un peintre (pictor) ».

Par conséquent, si l’homme est « l’image vivant du créateur » comme le dit Augustin et le modèle de « l’homo faber – homme producteur de choses », alors, soulignait l’humaniste Coluccio Salutati, « l’organisation des affaires humaines doit avoir une similitude avec celle des affaires divines ».

Ghiberti portait une attention particulière au fonctionnement de la vision :

Moi, ô très excellent lecteur, je n’ai pas eu à obéir à l’argent, mais je me suis donné à l’étude de l’art, que depuis mon enfance j’ai toujours poursuivie avec beaucoup de zèle et de dévouement. Afin de maîtriser les principes de base, j’ai cherché à étudier la manière dont la nature fonctionne dans l’art ; et afin de pouvoir l’approcher, comment les images viennent à l’œil, comment fonctionne le pouvoir de la vision, comment viennent les [images] visuelles, et de quelle manière la théorie de la sculpture et de la peinture doit être établie.

Ainsi, tout chercheur honnête, qui a épluché les Carnets de Léonard après avoir lu les Commentarii de Ghiberti, se rend immédiatement à l’évidence que bien des observations de Léonard, dont le caractère génial est incontestable, font écho aux problématiques soulevées par Ghiberti, notamment en ce qui concerne la nature de la lumière et l’optique en général. L’état d’esprit créatif de Léonard était en partie le fruit de cette continuité, comme conséquence heureuse de la vision stimulante du monde de Ghiberti.

La composition de l’œil

Au Moyen-Âge, trois génies font autorité en matière de science médicale : Galien, Avicenne et Hippocrate.

Dans son Commentario 3, 6, qui traite de l’optique, de la vision et de la perspective, s’opposant à ceux pour qui la vision ne peut être expliquée que par une abstraction purement mathématique, Ghiberti écrit que « pour qu’aucun doute ne subsiste dans les choses qui suivent, il est nécessaire de considérer la constitution de l’œil, car sans cela, on ne peut rien savoir sur comment fonctionne la vision ». Selon lui, ceux qui écrivent sur la perspective ne tiennent aucun compte de « la composition de l’œil », sous prétexte que trop d’auteurs se contredisent.

Alhazen, Avicenne et Constantine

Il regrette aussi que, bien que des « philosophes de la nature » tels que Thalès, Démocrite, Anaxagore ou Xénophane, aient examiné le sujet avec d’autres s’intéressant à la santé humaine, tels qu’Hippocrate, Galien et Avicenne, trop de choses restent confuses et incomprises.

C’est pourquoi, dit Ghiberti, « parler de cette matière est obscur et incompris si l’on n’a pas recours aux lois de la nature, car elles démontrent cette question de manière plus complète et plus abondante ».

Par conséquent, poursuit Ghiberti,

Il est nécessaire d’affirmer quelque chose qui ne se trouve pas inclus dans le modèle perspectif, car il est trop difficile de certifier ces choses et j’essaie de les clarifier. Mais pour ne pas traiter de façon superflue les principes qui fondent toutes, je traiterai de la composition de l’œil particulièrement selon les opinions de trois auteurs, Avicenne (Ibn Sina), dans ses livres, Alhazen (Ibn al Haytham) dans le premier de sa perspective (Optique)’, et Constantin (nom latin du savant et médecin arabe Qusta ibn Luqa) dans le ‘Premier livre sur l’œil’ ; car ces auteurs suffisent et traitent avec plus de certitude des choses qui nous intéressent.

Arrêtons-nous un instant sur ce passage qui nous dit tant de choses. Voici Ghiberti, un, ou plutôt « le » personnage central, fondateur de la Renaissance italienne et européenne et de son grand apport en termes de perspective, qui affirme que pour avoir une idée du fonctionnement de la vision, il faut étudier trois scientifiques arabes : Ibn Sina, Ibn al Haytham et Qusta ibn Luqa ! L’eurocentrisme culturel pourrait peut-être expliquer pourquoi les écrits de Ghiberti ont été ignorés et restent quasiment au placard.

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) a apporté d’importantes contributions à l’ophtalmologie. Dans son Traité d’optique (1021, en arabe Kitab al-Manazir (كِتَابُ المَنَاظِر ), en latin De Aspectibus ou Opticae Thesaurus: Alhazeni Arabis), il a amélioré les conceptions antérieures des processus impliqués dans la vision et la perception visuelle. Au cours de ses travaux sur la camera oscura (chambre noire), il fut également le premier à imaginer que la rétine (une surface incurvée), et non plus la pupille (un point), pouvait être impliquée dans le processus de formation des images. Avicenne, dans le Canon de la médecine (vers 1025), décrit la vue et utilise le mot rétine (du latin rete qui signifie réseau) pour désigner l’organe de la vision. Plus tard, dans son Colliget (encyclopédie médicale), Averroès (1126-1198) est le premier à attribuer à la rétine les propriétés d’un photorécepteur.

Si les écrits d’Avicenne sur l’anatomie et la science médicale avaient été traduits et circulaient en Europe dès le XIIIe siècle, le traité d’optique d’Alhazen, que Ghiberti cite abondamment, venait d’être traduit en italien sous le titre De li Aspecti.

Vitellion : analyse de la formation de l’image visuel dans l’esprit humain grâce à une vision binoculaire.

Il est désormais reconnu qu’Andrea del Verrocchio, dont l’élève le plus célèbre fut Léonard de Vinci (1452-1517), était lui-même un élève de Ghiberti. Contrairement à ce dernier, qui maîtrisait le latin, ni Verrocchio ni Léonard ne maîtrisaient de langue étrangère. Ainsi, c’est en étudiant les Commentarii de Ghiberti que Léonard eut accès à la traduction en italien de citations originales de l’architecte romain Vitruve et aux apports de scientifiques arabes tels qu’Avicenne, Alhazen ou Averroès, de scientifiques européens ayant étudié l’optique arabe, notamment les franciscains d’Oxford, Roger Bacon, John Pecham, ainsi que le moine polonais travaillant à Padoue, Erazmus Ciolek Witelo (Vitellion, 1230-1275).

Comme le souligne le Pr Domnique Raynaud, Vitellion introduit le principe de la vision binoculaire par des considérations géométriques.

Il donne une figure où l’on voit les deux yeux (a, b) recevant des images différentes provenant d’un même plan. Or, chaque œil, lorsqu’il observe par exemple le segment gf, le voit avec un angle différent, puisque l’œil a est plus proche que l’œil b du segment observé (l’angle de grf n’est pas le même que l’angle gtf). Il faut donc qu’à un moment donné ces images soient réunies en une seule. Où se produit cette jonction ?

Vitellion répond :

Les deux formes, qui pénètrent en deux points homologues de la surface des deux yeux, parviennent au même point de la concavité du nerf commun, et se superposent en ce point
pour ne faire plus qu’une.

La fusion des images est donc un produit de l’activité mentale et nerveuse interne.

Le grand astronome Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) utilisera les découvertes d’Alhazen repris par Witelo pour développer sa propre contribution à l’optique et à la perspective.

Ce qui est en apparence, une construction perspective « erronée », dite en « arrête de poisson » (à gauche), est en réalité la mise en œuvre d’une perspective binoculaire, basée sur les découvertes scientifiques arabes.
Jan van Eyck, Le chanoine Van der Paele, tableau au Groeningemuseum, Bruges. Ce qui apparaît à première vue comme une « perspective en arête de poisson » (à gauche) (dixit Panofsky), s’explique par une méthode perspectiviste « binoculaire » inspirée des savants naturalistes arabes.

« Bien que jusqu’à présent l’image [visuelle] ait été [comprise comme] une construction de la raison », observe Kepler dans le cinquième chapitre de son ouvrage Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), « désormais, les représentations des objets doivent être considérées comme des peintures qui sont effectivement projetées sur du papier ou sur un autre écran. »

Kepler fut le premier à constater que notre rétine capte l’image sous forme renversée, avant que notre cerveau ne la remette à l’endroit.

A partir de là, Ghiberti, Uccello, de même que le peintre flamand Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), en contact avec les Italiens, construiront, comme alternative à la perspective abstraite, des formes de perspective « binoculaire », tandis que Léonard et Jean Fouquet, le peintre de la cour de Louis XI, tenteront de développer des représentations de l’espace curviligne et sphérique.

En Chine, sous l’influence éventuelle des percées de la science optique arabe, des formes de perspective non-linéaire, intégrant la mobilité de l’œil, feront également leur apparition sous la dynastie Song.

La lumière, une autre dimension

Ghiberti ajoutera une autre dimension à la perspective : la lumière. L’un des apports majeurs d’Alhazen est l’affirmation, dans son Livre sur l’optique, que les objets opaques frappés par la lumière deviennent eux-mêmes des corps lumineux et peuvent rayonner une lumière secondaire, une théorie que Léonard exploitera dans ses tableaux, y compris dans ses portraits.

Déjà Ghiberti, dans la façon dont il traite le sujet d’Isaac, Jacob et Ésaü, nous donne une démonstration étonnante de la façon dont on peut exploiter ce principe physique théorisé par Alhazen.

La lumière réfléchie par le panneau de bronze diffère fortement selon l’angle d’incidence des rayons lumineux qui arrivent. Arrivant soit du côté gauche, soit du côté droit, dans les deux cas, le relief en bronze de Ghiberti a été modelé de telle façon qu’il renforce magnifiquement l’effet de profondeur de la scène !

Conclusion

Les historiens d’art, en particulier les néo-kantiens comme Erwin Panofsky ou Hans Belting, qui affirment que ces peintres étaient des primitifs parce qu’ils appliquaient « le mauvais modèle » de perspective, s’avèrent en réalité incapables de concevoir que ces artistes qu’ils méprisent exploraient un domaine nettement supérieur à la pure abstraction mathématique promue par les grands prêtres de la science post-Leibniz, pour qui le dogme Newton-Galilée-Descartes sera l’évangile ultime.

Bien des sujets devront être exposés plus amplement que le résumé que j’en ai fait ici. En attendant, disons simplement que la meilleure façon d’honorer notre dette envers les contributions scientifiques arabes et les artistes de la Renaissance, serait de donner au monde entier, qui aurait dû en profiter bien plus tôt, la récompense d’un avenir meilleur bénéfique pour tous.

Il n’est pas trop tôt pour ouvrir toutes grandes les « Portes du Paradis ».

Regarder toutes les œuvres de Ghiberti sur la GALERIE D’ART WEB

Biographie sommaire

  • Raynaud, Dominique, L’hypothèse d’Oxford, essai sur les origines de la perspective, PUF, 1998, Paris ;
  • Raynaud, Dominique, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision : a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 13, pp. 79-99 ;
  • Raynaud, Dominique, Perspective curviligne et vision binoculaire. Sciences et techniques en perspective, Université de Nantes, Equipe de recherche : Sciences, Techniques, et Sociétés, 1998, 2 (1), pp.3-23 ;
  • Kepler, Johannes, Paralipomènes à Vitellion, 1604, Vrin, 1980, Paris;
  • Arasse, Daniel, Léonard de Vinci, Hazan, 2011;
  • Butterfield, Andrew, Verrocchio, Sculptor and painter of Renaissance Florence, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020 ;
  • Pope-Hennessy, John, Donatello, Abbeville Press, 1993 ;
  • Borso, Franco et Stefano, Uccello, Hazan, Paris, 2004 ;
  • Amy R. Bloch, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise; Humanism, History and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance, Cambridge University Press, 2016, New York;
  • Krautheimer, Richard et Trude, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1990 ;
  • Walker, Paul Robert, The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance, How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti changed the World, HarperCollins, 2002 ;
  • Dubourg-Glatigny, Pascal, Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26 ;
  • Avery, Charles, La Sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Livre de poche, 1996, Paris ;
  • Roshi Rashed, Geometric Optics, in Histoire des sciences arabes, sous la direction de Roshi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathématiques et physique, Seuil, Paris, 1997. ;
  • Belting, Hans, Florence & Bagdad, art de la Renaissance et science arabe, Harvard University Press, 2011 ;
  • Vereycken, Karel, entretien avec le Quotidien du peuple : La « Joconde » de Léonard de Vinci en résonance avec la peinture traditionnelle chinoise ;
  • Vereycken, Karel, Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio et l’art du commandement militaire, 2022 ;
  • Vereycken, Karel, L’invention de la perspective, Fusion, 1995 ;
  • Vereycken, Karel, Van Eyck, un peintre flamand dans l’optique arabe, 1998 ;
  • Martens, Maximiliaan, La révolution optique de Jan van Eyck, dans Van Eyck, Une révolution optique, Hannibal – MSK Gent, 2020.
  • Vereycken Karel, Mutazilisme et astronomie arabe, deux étoiles brillantes dans notre firmament, 2021.

[1] Le relief aplati, relief écrasé ou stiacciato (de l’italien schiacciato, « écrasé »), est un terme qui désigne une technique sculpturale située entre le relief méplat et le bas-relief, permettant de réaliser sur une surface plane un relief de très faible épaisseur obéissant aux règles de la représentation en perspective. L’impression de profondeur par effet d’optique (plusieurs plans perspectifs) est donnée par une façon de sculpter graduellement en « relief écrasé », quelquefois sur une épaisseur de seulement quelques millimètres, du premier plan jusqu’à un point de fuite souvent central. Cette technique a été utilisée surtout aux XVe et XVIe siècles et Donatello en fut le principal initiateur.

Merci de partager !

Avicenna and Ghiberti’s role in the invention of perspective during the Renaissance

By Karel Vereycken, Paris, France.

Same article in FR, même article en FR.

No visitor to Florence can miss the gilded bronze reliefs decorating the Porta del Paradiso (Gates of Paradise), the main gate of the Baptistery of Florence right in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore surmounted by Filippo Brunelleschi’s splendid cupola.

In this article, Karel Vereycken sheds new light on the contribution of Arab science and Ghiberti’s crucial role in giving birth to the Renaissance.

Florentine Baptistery with its bronze doors. On the right, the eastern gates, on the left, the southern ones.

Historical context

The Baptistery, erected on what most Florentines thought to be the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the Roman God of Mars, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128 in the Florentine Romanesque style. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri and many other notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family, were baptized in this baptistery.

During the Renaissance, in Florence, corporations and guilds competed for the leading role in design and construction of great projects with illustrious artistic creations.

While the Arte dei Lana (corporation of wool producers) financed the Works (Opera) of the Duomo and the construction of its cupola, the Arte dei Mercantoni di Calimala (the guild of merchants dealing in buying foreign cloth for finishing and export), took care of the Baptistery and financed the embellishment of its doors.

The Gates of Paradise

The Baptistry, an octagonal building, has four entrances (East, West, North and South) of which only three (South, North and East) have sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. Three dates are key : 1329, 1401 and 1424.

  • In 1329, the Calimala Guild, on Giotto‘s recommendation, ordered Andrea Pisano (1290-1348) to decorate a first set of doors (initialy installed as the East doors, i.e. seen when one leaves the Cathedral, but today South). These consist of 28 quatrefoil (clover-shaped) panels, with the 20 top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist (the patron of the edifice). The 8 lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence, praised by Plato in his Republic and represented during the XVIth century by the Flemish humanist painter and reader of Petrarch, Peter Brueghel the Elder. Construction took 8 years, from 1330 till 1338.
Andrea Pisano, South Gate of the Baptistery (started in 1329), details. Right: baptism of Jesus. Left : Baptism of the multitude.
  • In 1401, after having narrowly won the competition with Brunelleschi, the 23 year old and inexperienced young goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), is commissioned by the Calima Guild to decorate the doors which are today the North Gate. Ghiberti cast the bronze high reliefs using a method known as lost-wax casting, a technique that he had to reinvent entirely since it was lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the reasons Ghiberti won the contest, was that his technique was so advanced that it required 20 % less (7 kg per panel) bronze than that of his competitors, bronze being a dense material far more costly than marble. His technique, applied to the entire decoration of the North Gate, as compared to his competitors, would save some estimated 100 kg of bronze. And since in 1401, with the plague regularly hitting Florence, economic conditions were poor, even the wealthy Calimala took into account the total costs of the program.

    The bronze doors are comprised of 28 panels, with 20 panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The 8 lower panels show the four Evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine. The construction took 24 years.
Ghiberti’s North Gate
Lorenzo Ghiberti, North gate (started in 1401) during recent restoration.
  • In 1424, Ghiberti, at age 46, was given—unusually, with no competition—the task of also creating the East Gate. Only in 1452 did Ghiberti, then seventy-four years old, install the last bronze panels, since construction lasted this time 27 years! According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) later judged them « so beautiful they would grace the entrance to Paradise ».
Lorenzo Ghiberti, « Gates of Paradise » (started in 1424, finished in 1452)

Over two generations, a bevy of well paid assistants and pupils were trained by Ghiberti, including exceptional artists, such as Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Verrocchio and Ghiberti’s sons, Vittore and Tommaso. And over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of the Renaissance, one of the most famous works of art in the world.

In 1880, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin was inspired by it for his own Gates of Hell on which he worked for 38 year

Revolution

Lorenzo Ghiberti’s self-portrait, like his panels, proud to emerge out of a flat surface. Bronze bust of the Gates of Paradise.

Of utmost interest for our discussion here is the dramatic shift in conception and design of the bronze relief sculptures that occurred between the North and the East Gates, because it reflects how bot the artist as well as his patrons used the occasion to share with the broader public their newest ideas, inventions and exciting discoveries.

The themes of the North Gate of 1401 were inspired by scenes from the New Testament, except for the panel made by Ghiberti, « The Sacrifice of Isaac », which had won him the selection competition the same year. To complete the ensemble, it was therefore only logical that the East Gate of 1424 would take up the themes of the Old Testament.

Originally, it was the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) who planned an iconography quite similar to the two previous doors. But, after heated discussions, his proposal was rejected for something radically new. Instead of realizing 28 panels, it was decided, for aesthetic reasons, to reduce the number of panels to only 10 much larger square reliefs, between borders containing statuettes in niches and medallions with busts.

Order of the panels.

Hence, since each of the 10 chapters of the Old Testament contains several events, the total number of scenes illustrated, within the 10 panels has risen to 37 and all appear in perspective :

  1. Adam and Eve (The Creation of Man)
  2. Cain and Abel (Jalousie is the origin of Sin)
  3. Noah (God’s punishment)
  4. Abraham and Isaac (God is just)
  5. Jacob and Esau
  6. Joseph
  7. Moses
  8. Joshua
  9. David (Good commandor)
  10. Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

The general theme is that of salvation based on Latin and Greek patristic tradition. Very shocking for the time, Ghiberti places in the center of the first panel the creation of Eve, that of Adam appearing at the bottom left.

After the first three panels, focusing on the theme of sin, Ghiberti began to highlight more clearly the role of God the Savior and the foreshadowing of Christ’s coming. Subsequent panels are easier to understand. One example is the panel with Isaac, Jacob and Esau where the figures are merged with the surrounding landscape so that the eye is led toward the main scene represented in the top right.

Many of the sources for these scenes were written in ancient Greek, and since knowledge of Greek at that time was not so common, it appears that Ghiberti’s “theological advisor” was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), with whom he had many exchanges.

Traversari was a close friend of Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), a protector of Piero della Francesca (1412-1492) and a key organizer of the Ecumenical Council of Florence of 1438-1439, which attempted to put an end to the schism separating the Church of the East from that of the West.

Perspective

The bronze reliefs, known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief, are one of the revolutionary events that epitomize the Renaissance. In the foreground are figures in high relief, which gradually become less protruding thereby exploiting the full illusionistic potential of the stiacciato technique later brought to its high point by Donatello. Using this form of “inbetweenness”, they integrate in one single image, what appears both as a painting, a low relief as well as a high relief. Or maybe one has to look at it another way: these are flat images traveling gradually from a surface into the full three dimensions of life, just as Ghiberti, in one of the first self-portraits of art history, reaches his head out of a bronze medal to look down on the viewers. The artist desired much more than perspective, he wanted breathing space!

This new approach will influence Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1517). As art historian Daniel Arasse points out :

(…) It was in connection with the practice of Florentine bas-relief, that of Ghiberti at the Gate of Paradise (…) that Leonardo invented his way of painting. As Manuscript G (folio 23b) would much later state, ‘the field on which an object is painted is a capital thing in painting. (…) The painter’s aim is to make his figures appear to stand out from the field’ – and not, one might add, to base his art on the alleged transparency of that same field. It is by the science of shadow and light that the painter can obtain an effect of emergence from the field, an effect of relief, and not by that of the linear perspective.

Donatello

Herod’s Banquet, bas relief of Donatello, Sienna.

At the beginning of the 15th century, several theoretical approaches existed and eventuall contradicted each other. Around 1423-1427, the talentful sculptor Donatello, a young collaborator of Ghiberti, created his Herod’s Banquet, a bas-relief in the stiacciato technique for the baptismal font of the Siena Baptistery.

In this work, the sculptor deploys a harmonious perspective with a single central vanishing point. Around the same time, in Florence, the painter Massacchio (1401-1428) used a similar construction in his fresco The Trinity.

As we will see, Ghiberti, starting from the anatomy of the eye, opposed such an abstract approach in his works as well as in his writings and explored, as early as 1401, other geometrical models, called « binocular ». (see below).

Then, as far as our knowledge reaches, in 1407, Brunelleschi had conducted several experiments on this question, most likely based on the ideas presented by another friend of Cusa, the Italian astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482), in the latter’s now lost treaty Della Prospettiva. What we do know is that Brunelleschi sought above all to demonstrate that all perspective is an optical illusion.

Finally, it was in 1435, that the humanist architect Leon Baptista Alberti (1406-1472), in his treatise Della Pictura, attempted, on the basis of Donatello’s approach, to theorize single vanishing point perspective as a representation of a harmonious and unified three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Noteworthy but frustrating for us today is the fact that Alberti’s treatise doesn’t contain any illustrations.

In the Codex Madrid II, Leonardo demonstrated the limits and principled dysfunctionality of Alberti’s perspective.

However, Leonardo, who read and studied Ghiberti’s writings on, would use the latter’s arguments to indicate the limits and even demonstrate the dysfunctionality of Alberti’s “perfect” perspective construction especially when one goes beyond a 30 degres angle.

In the Codex Madrid, II, 15 v. da Vinci realizes that « as such, the perspective offered by a rectilinear wall is false unless it is corrected (…) ».

Perspectiva artificialis versus perspectiva naturalis

The minimum anatomical precondition to use Alberti’s abstract perspective model.

Alberti’s “perspectiva artificialis” is nothing but an abstraction, necessary and useful to represent a rational organization of space. Without this abstraction, it is fairly impossible to define with mathematical precision the relationships between the appearance of objects and the receding of their various proportions on a flat screen: width, height and depth.

From the moment that a given image on a flat screen was thought about as the intersection of a plane cutting a cone or pyramid, a method emerged for what was mistakenly considered as an “objective” representation of “real” three dimensional space, though it is nothing but an “anamorphosis”, i.e. a tromp-l’oeil or visual illusion.

What has to be underscored, is that this construction does away with the physical reality of human existence since it is based on an abstract construct pretending:

  • that man is a single eyed cyclops;
  • that vision emanates from one single point, the apex of the visual pyramid;
  • that the eye is immobile;
  • that the image is projected on a flat screen rather than on a curved retina.

Slanders and gossip

The crucial role of Ghiberti, an artist which “Ghiberti expert” Richard Krautheimer mistakenly presents as a follower of Alberti’s perspectiva artificialis, has been either ignored or downplayed.

Ghiberti’s unique manuscript, the three volumes of the Commentarii, which include his autobiography and which established him as the first modern historian of the fine arts, is not even fully translated into English or French and was only published in Italian in 1998.

Today, because of his attention to minute detail and figures « sculpted » with wavy and elegant lines, as well as the variety of plants and animals depicted, Ghiberti is generally presented as “Gothic-minded”, and therefore “not really” a Renaissance artist!

Giorgio Vasari, often acting as the paid PR man of the Medici clan, slanders Ghiberti by saying he wrote « a work in the vernacular in which he treated many different topics but arranged them in such a fashion that little can be gained from reading it. »

Admittedly, tension among humanists, was not uncommon. Self-educated craftsmen, such as Ghiberti and Brunelleschi on the one side, and heirs of wealthy wool merchants, such as Niccoli on the other side, came from entirely different worlds. For example, according to a story told by Guarino Veronese in 1413, Niccoli greeted Filippo Brunelleschi haughtily: « O philosopher without books, » to which Filippo replied with his legendary irony: « O books without philosopher ».

For sure, the Commentarii, are not written according to the rhetorical rules of those days. Written at the end of Ghiberti’s life, they may have simply been dictated to a poorly trained clerk who made dozens of spelling errors.

The humanists

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, the story of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon. There is a lively crowd of people jostling to catch a glimpse casual of the symbolic bonding of Eastern and Western churches, via the meeting of Solomon and the Queen. It is believed that this scene represents the meeting on July 9, 1439 on the steps of Il Duomo in Florence, and was created at the demand of Ambrogio Traversari, the driving force behind the Ecumenical Council if Florence.

The Commentarii does reveal a highly educated author and a thinker having profound knowledge of many classical Greek and Arab thinkers. Ghiberti was not just some brilliant handcraft artisan but a typical “Renaissance man”.

In dialogue with Bruni, Traversari and the “manuscript hunter” Niccolo Niccoli, Ghiberti, who couldn’t read Greek but definitely knew Latin, was clearly familiar with the rediscovery of Greek and Arab science, a task undertaken by Boccaccio’s and Salutati’s “San Spirito Circle” whose guests (including Bruni, Traversari, Cusa, Niccoli, Cosimo di Medici, etc.) later would convene every week at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent. Ghiberti exchanges moreover with Giovanni Aurispa, a collaborator of Traversari who brought back from Byzantium, years before Bessarion, the whole of Plato’s works to the West.

Amy R. Bloch, in her well researched study Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Humanism, History, and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance (2016), writes that « Traverari and Niccoli can be tied directly to the origins of the project for the Gates and were clearly interested in sculptural commissions being planned for the Baptistery. On June 21, 1424, after the Calima requested from Bruni his program for the doors, Traversari wrote to Niccoli acknowledging, in only general terms, Niccoli’s ideas for the stories to be included and mentioning, without evident disapproval, that the guild had instead turned to Bruni for advice. »

Palla Strozzi

Ghiberti’s patron, sometimes advisor, and close associate was Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), who, besides being the the richest man in Florence with a gross taxable assets of 162,925 florins in 1427, including 54 farms, 30 houses, a banking firm with a capital of 45,000 florins, and communal bonds, was also a politician, a writer, a philosopher and a philologist whose library contained close to 370 volumes in 1462.

Just as Traversari and Bruni, Strozzi learned Latin and studied Greek under the direction of the Byzantine scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, invited to Florence by Salutati.

Ghiberti’s close relationship with Strozzi, writes Bloch, « gave him access to his manuscripts and, as importantly, to Strozzi’s knowledge of them. »

But there was more. « The relationship between Ghiberti and Palla Strozzi was so close that, when Palla went to Venice in 1424 as one of two Florentine ambassadors charged with negociating an alliance with the Venetians, Ghiberti accompanied him in his retinue. »

Strozzi was known as a real humanist, always looking to preserve peace while strongly opposing oligarchical rule, both in Florence as in Venice.

In fact it was Palla Strozzi, not Cosimo de’ Medici, who first set in motion plans for the first public library in Florence, and he intended for the sacristy of Santa Trinita to serve as its entryway. While Palla’s library was never realized due to the dramatic political conflict knows as the Albizzi Coup that led to his exile in 1434, Cosimo who got a free hand to rule over Florence, would make the library project his own.

A bold statement

Ghiberti begins the Commentarii with a bold and daring statement for a Christian man in a Christian world, about how the art of antiquity came to be lost:

The Christian faith was victorious in the time of Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester. Idolatry was persecuted to such an extent that all the statues and pictures of such nobility, antiquity an perfection were destroyed and broken in to pieces. And with the statues and pictures, the theoretical writings, the commentaries, the drawing and the rules for teaching such eminent and noble arts were destroyed.

Ghiberti understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him, “sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings”.

In book I of his Commentarii, Ghiberti gives a list of the 10 liberal arts that the sculptor and the painter should master : philosophy, history, grammar, arithmic, astronomy, geometry, perspective, theory of drawing, anatomy and medecine and underlines that the necessity for an artist to assist at anatomical dissections.

As Amy Bloch underscores, while working on the Gates, in the intense process of visualizing the stories of God’s formation of the world and its living inhabitants, Ghiberti’s engagement « stimulated in him an interest in exploring all types of creativity — not only that of God, but also that of nature and of humans — and led him to present in the opening panel of the Gates of Paradise (The creation of Adam and Eve) a grand vision of the emergence of divine, natural, and artistic creation. »

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, Adam and Eve (The Creation of Man).

The inclusion of details evoking God’s craftmanship, says Bloch, « recalls similes that liken God, as the maker of the world, to an architect, or, in his role as creator of Adam, to a sculptor or painter. Teh comparison, which ultimately derives from the architect-demiurge who creates the world in Plato’s Timaeus, appears commonly in medieval Jewish and Christian exegesis. »

Philo of Alexandria wrote that man was modeled « as by a potter » and Ambrose metaphorically called God a « craftsman (artifex) and a painter (pictor) ». Consequently, if man is « the image of God » as says Augustine and the model of the « homo faber – man producer of things », then, according to Salutati, « human affairs have a similarity to divine ones ».

The power of vision and the composition of the Eye

Concerning vision, Ghiberti writes:

I, O most excellent reader, did not have to obey to money, but gave myself to the study of art, which since my childhood I have always pursued with great zeal and devotion. In order to master the basic principles I have sought to investigate the way nature functions in art; and in order that I might be able to approach her, how images come to the eye, how the power of vision functions, how visual [images] come, and in what way the theory of sculpture and painting should be established.

Now, any serious scholar, having worked through Leonardo’s Notebooks, who then reads Ghiberti’s I Commentarii, immediately realizes that most of Da Vinci’s writings were basically comments and contributions about things said or answers to issues raised by Ghiberti, especially respecting the nature of light and optics in general. Leonardo’s creative mindset was a direct outgrowth of Ghiberti’s challenging world outlook.

In the Middle Ages, three geniuses were the sources of medical science: Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates.

In Commentario 3, 6, which deals with optics, vision and perspective, Ghiberti, opposing those for whom vision can only be explained by a purely mathematical abstraction, writes that “In order that no doubt remains in the things that follow, it is necessary to consider the composition of the eye, because without this one cannot know anything about the way of seeing.” He then says, that those who write about perspective don’t take into account “the eye’s composition”, under the pretext that many authors would disagree.

Ghiberti regrets that despite the fact that many “natural philosophers” such as Thales, Democritus, Anaxagoras and Xenophanes have examined the subject along with others devoted to human health such as “Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna”, there is still so much confusion.

Indeed, he says, “speaking about this matter is obscure and not understood, if one does not have recourse to the laws of nature, because more fully and more copiously they demonstrate this matter.”


Avicenna, Alhazen and Constantine

Therefore, says Ghiberti:

it is necessary to affirm some things that are not included in the perspective model, because it is very difficult to ascertain these things but I will try to clarify them. In order not to deal superficially with the principles that underlie all of this, I will deal with the composition of the eye according to the writings of three authors, Avicenna (Ibn Sina), in his books, Alhazen (Ibn al Haytham) in his first volume on perspective (Optics), and Constantine (the Latin name of the Arab scholar and physician Qusta ibn Luqa) in his ‘First book on the Eye’; for these authors suffice and deal with much certainty in these subjects that are of interest to us.

This is quite a statement! Here we have “the” leading, founding figure of the Italian and European Renaissance with its great contribution of perspective, saying that to get any idea about how vision functions, one has to study three Arab scientists: Ibn Sina, Ibn al Haytham and Qusta ibn Luqa ! Cultural Eurocentrism might be one reason why Ghiberti’s writings were kept in the dark.

Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) made important contributions to opthalmology and improved upon earlier conceptions of the processes involved in vision and visual perception in his Treatise on Optics (1021), which is known in Europe as the Opticae Thesaurus. Following his work on the camera oscura (darkroom) he was also the first to imagine that the retina (a curved surface), and not the pupil (a point) could be involved in the process of image formation.

Avicenna, in the Canon of Medicine (ca. 1025), describes sight and uses the word retina (from the Latin word rete meaning network) to designate the organ of vision.

Later, in his Colliget (medical encyclopedia), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) was the first to attribute to the retina the properties of a photoreceptor.

Avicenna’s writings on anatomy and medical science were translated and circulating in Europe since the XIIIth century, Alhazen’s treatise on optics, which Ghiberti quotes extensively, had just been translated into Italian under the title De li Aspecti.

It is now recognized that Andrea del Verrocchio, whose best known pupil was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1517) was himself one of Ghiberti’s pupils. Unlike Ghiberti, who mastered Latin, neither Verrocchio nor Leonardo mastered a foreign language.

What is known is that while studying Ghiberti’s Commentarii, Leonardo had access in Italian to a series of original quotations from the Roman architect Vitruvius and from Arab scientists such as Avicenna, Alhazen, Averroes and from those European scientists who studied Arab optics, notably the Oxford Fransciscans Roger Bacon (1214-1294), John Pecham (1230-1292) and the Polish monk working in Padua, Erazmus Ciolek Witelo (1230-1275), known by his Latin name Vitellion.

Vitellion’s diagram of binocular vision

As stressed by Professor Dominque Raynaud, Vitellion introduces the principle of binocular vision for geometric considerations.

He gives a figure where we see the two eyes (a, b) receiving the images of points located at equal distance from the hd axis.

He explains that the images received by the eyes are different, since, taken from the same side, the angle grf (in red) is larger than the angle gtf (in blue). It is necessary that these two images are united at a certain point in one image (Diagram).

Where does this junction occur? Witelo says: « The two forms, which penetrate in two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed in this point to become one ».

The fusion of the images is thus a product of the internal mental and nervous activity.

The great astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) will use Alhazen’s and Witelo’s discoveries to develop his own contribution to optics and perspective. “Although up to now the [visual] image has been [understood as] a construct of reason,” Kepler observes in the fifth chapter of his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604), “henceforth the representations of objects should be considered as paintings that are actually projected on paper or some other screen.” Kepler was the first to observe that our retina captures an image in an inverted form before our brain turns it right side up.

Out of this Ghiberti, Uccello and also the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, in contact with the Italians, will construct as an alternative to one cyclopic single eye perspective revolutionary forms of “binocular” perspective while Leonardo and Louis XI’ court painter Jean Fouquet will attempt to develop curvilinear and spherical space representations.

What « appears » as a construction « error » of a central vanishing point perspective, is in realty a « binocular » perspective construction.
Jan van Eyck, The Canon Van der Paele, Groeningemuseum, Bruges. What appears at first glance to be a « fishbone perspective » (left) (dixit Panofsky), is explained by a binocular perspectivist method inspired by Arabic natural scientists.

In China, eventually influenced by Arab optical science breakthrough’s, forms of non-linear perspective, that integrate the mobility of the eye, will also make their appearance during the Song Dynasty.

Light

Ghiberti will add another dimension to perspective: light. One major contribution of Alhazen was his affirmation, in his Book of Optics, that opaque objects struck with light become luminous bodies themselves and can radiate secondary light, a theory that Leonardo will exploit in his paintings, including in his portraits.

Already Ghiberti, in the way he treats the subject of Isaac, Jacob and Esau (Figure), gives us an astonishing demonstration of how one can exploit that physical principle theorized by Alhazen. The light reflected by the bronze panel, will strongly differ according to the angle of incidence of the arriving rays of light. Arriving either from the left of from the right side, in both cases, the Ghiberti’s bronze relief has been modeled in such a way that it magnificently strengthens the overall depth effect !

While the experts, especially the neo-Kantians such as Erwin Panofsky or Hans Belting, say that these artists were “primitives” because applying the “wrong” perspective model, they can’t grasp the fact that they were in reality exploring a far “higher domain” than the mere pure mathematical abstraction promoted by the Newton-Galileo cult that became the modern priesthood ruling over “science”.

Much more about all of this can and should be said. Today, the best way to pay off the European debt to “Arab” scientific contributions, is to reward not just the Arab world but all future generations with a better future by opening to them the “Gates of Paradise”.

See all of Ghiberti’s works at the WEB GALLERY OF ART

Short Biography

  • Arasse, Daniel, Léonard de Vinci, Hazan, 2011;
  • Avery, Charles, La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Livre de poche, 1996, Paris;
  • Belting, Hans, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011;
  • Bloch, Amy R., Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise; Humanism, History and Artistic Philosophy in the Italian Renaissance, Cambridge University Press, 2016, New York;
  • Borso, Franco et Stefano, Uccello, Hazan, Paris, 2004 ;
  • Butterfield, Andrew, Verrocchio, Sculptor and painter of Renaissance Florence, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020 ;
  • Butterfield, Andrew, Art and Innovation in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, High Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2007;
  • Kepler, Johannes, Paralipomènes à Vitellion, 1604, Vrin, 1980, Paris;
  • Krautheimer, Richard and Trude, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1990;
  • Martens, Maximiliaan, La révolution optique de Jan van Eyck, dans Van Eyck, Une révolution optique, Hannibal – MSK Gent, 2020.
  • Pope-Hennessy, John, Donatello, Abbeville Press, 1993 ;
  • Radke, Gary M., Lorenzo Ghiberti: Master Collaborator; The Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece, High Museum of Atlanta and Yale University Press, 2007;
  • Rashed, Roshi, Geometric Optics, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathematics and physics, Seuil, Paris, 1997.
  • Raynaud, Dominique, L’hypothèse d’Oxford, essai sur les origines de la perspective, PUF, 1998, Paris.
  • Raynaud, Dominique, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99.
  • Raynaud, Dominique, Perspective curviligne et vision binoculaire. Sciences et techniques en perspective, Université de Nantes, Equipe de recherche: Sciences, Techniques, et Sociétés, 1998, 2 (1), pp.3-23.;
  • Vereycken, Karel, interview with People’s Daily: Leonardo Da Vinci’s « Mona Lisa » resonates with time and space with traditional Chinese painting, 2019.
  • Vereycken, Karel, Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command, 2022.
  • Vereycken, Karel, The Invention of Perspective, Fidelio, 1998.
  • Vereycken, Karel, Van Eyck, un peintre flamand dans l’optique arabe, 1998.
  • Vereycken, Karel, Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament, 2021.
  • Walker, Paul Robert, The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance, How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti changed the World, HarperCollins, 2002.
Merci de partager !

La paix de Westphalie, une réorganisation financière mondiale

par Karel Vereycken, Paris, France.

Signature de l’accord de paix, en 1648 à Münster. Tableau de Gerard Van der Borch.

En 1648, après cinq ans de négociations, conduites notamment par le diplomate français Abel Servien sur les instructions du Cardinal Mazarin, était signée la « Paix de Westphalie » mettant fin à la guerre de Trente Ans. Bien avant la charte de l’ONU, 1648 fera de la souveraineté nationale, du respect mutuel et du principe de non-ingérence les fondements du droit international. La République des Pays-Bas et la Confédération helvétique sont reconnues et de nombreux traités bilatéraux de paix mettent fin aux conflits.

Mais ce n’est pas tout. Un lecteur attentif de ces traités de paix découvre que l’engagement de chacune des parties, qui consiste à prendre en considération « l’avantage d’autrui » autant, sinon plus, que le sien, se traduit par des actes concrets jetant les bases d’un nouvel ordre financier et économique international.

L’article 1 énonce le principe philosophique fondamental sur lequel repose la paix :

Qu’il y ait une paix chrétienne et universelle, et une amitié perpétuelle, vraie et sincère, entre [liste des parties renonçant au combat] ; et que cette paix et cette amitié soient observées et promues avec une telle sincérité et un tel zèle, que chaque partie s’efforce de procurer le bénéfice, l’honneur et l’avantage d’autrui ; et qu’ainsi, de tous côtés, ils puissent voir cette paix et cette amitié dans l’Empire romain, et le Royaume de France prospérer, en entretenant un bon et fidèle voisinage.

L’article 2 décrit ensuite le type de « réinitialisation » dont nous avons si urgemment besoin aujourd’hui :

Il y aura d’un côté et de l’autre un oubli, une amnistie ou un pardon perpétuel de tout ce qui a été commis depuis le début de ces troubles, en quelque lieu ou de quelque manière que les hostilités aient été pratiquées, de telle sorte qu’aucun acteur, sous quelque prétexte que ce soit, ne puisse pratiquer aucun acte d’hostilité, entretenir aucune inimitié ou causer aucun trouble ; (…) tout ce qui s’est passé d’un côté et de l’autre, aussi bien avant que pendant la guerre, en paroles, écrits et actions outrageantes, en violences, hostilités, dommages et dépenses, sans aucun respect pour les personnes ou les choses, sera entièrement aboli de telle sorte que tout ce qui pourrait être exigé ou prétendu par l’un et l’autre à ce sujet sera enseveli dans un oubli éternel.

Pendant des décennies, la plupart des belligérants de la guerre de Trente Ans se sont mutuellement infligés des dommages inouïs, essentiellement pour pouvoir rembourser leurs dettes avec le butin de leurs pillages et de leurs conquêtes, afin de satisfaire une minuscule oligarchie financière qui prêtait aussi généreusement aux uns qu’aux autres. C’est cet asservissement par la dette que le traité propose d’« ensevelir dans un oubli éternel ».

Ainsi, avant même de régler les disputes et les revendications territoriales, le traité s’attelle à créer les conditions mettant fin à la ruine financière dans laquelle tous se trouvaient plongés.

Les dettes, intérêts, obligations, rentes et créances financières impayables, insoutenables et illégitimes, explicitement identifiés comme alimentant une dynamique de guerre perpétuelle, sont examinés, triés et réorganisés, le plus souvent par l’annulation des dettes (articles 13 et 35, 37, 38 et 39), par des moratoires ou un rééchelonnement selon des échéanciers précis (article 69).

L’article 40 conclut que ces annulations s’appliqueront « à la réserve toutefois des sommes de deniers, qui durant la guerre ont été fournies de bon cœur et à bonne intention pour d’autres, afin de détourner les plus grands périls et dommages dont ils étoient menacez. » (Impliquant que ces dettes devront être honorées.)

Enfin, regardant vers l’avenir et pour faire en sorte que « le commerce refleurisse », le traité abolit de nombreux péages et octrois « inusités » et « privés », obstacles aux échanges des biens physiques et des savoirs-faire et donc du développement mutuel. (Art. 69).

Dans le texte :

  • Art. 13 : « Le Seigneur Électeur de Bavière renoncera entièrement pour lui, ses héritiers et successeurs à la dette de treize millions, et à toute prétention sur la haute Autriche, et incontinent après la publication de la paix donnera à sa Majesté Impériale les actes obtenus sur cela pour être cassez et annullez. »
  • Art. 35 : « La pension annuelle que le bas Marquisat avoit accoutumé de payer au haut Marquisat, soit en vertu du présent Traité entièrement supprimée, abolie et annullée, sans que doresnavant on puisse prétendre ou exiger pour ce sujet aucune chose, ni pour le passé, ni pour l’avenir. »
  • Art. 37 : « Que les contracts, échanges, transactions, obligations, et promesses illicitement extorquez par force ou par menaces des États ou des sujets, (…) comme aussi les actions rachetées et cédées soient abolies et annullées ; en sorte qu’il ne sera permis à personne d’intenter aucun procès ou actions pour ce sujet. »
  • Art. 38 : « Que si les débiteurs ont extorqué des créanciers par force ou par crainte les actes de leurs obligations, tous ces actes seront restituez, les actions sur ce demeurant en leur entier. »
  • Art. 39 : « Que si l’une ou l’autre des parties qui sont en guerre, ont extorqué par violence, en haine des créanciers, des dettes causées pour achat, pour vente, pour revenus annuels, ou pour quelqu’autre cause que ce soit, il ne sera décerné aucune exécution contre les débiteurs qui allégueront, et s’offriront de prouver qu’on leur aura véritablement fait violence, et qu’ils ont payé réellement et de fait, si non après que ces exceptions auront été décidées en pleine connoissance de cause. Que le procès qui sera sur ce commencé, sera fini dans l’espace de deux ans à compter dez la publication de la paix, faute de quoi il sera imposé perpétuel silence aux débiteurs contumax. »
  • Art. 40 : « Mais les procès qui ont été jusques-ici intentés contre eux de cette sorte ; ensemble les transactions, et les promesses faites pour la restitution future des créanciers, seront abolies et annullez ; à la réserve toutefois des sommes de deniers, qui durant la guerre ont été fournies de bon cœur et à bonne intention pour d’autres, afin de détourner les plus grands périls et dommages dont ils étoient menacez. »
  • Art. 68 : « Quant à la recherche d’un moyen équitable et convenable, par lequel la poursuite des actions contre les débiteurs ruinez par les calamitez de la guerre, ou chargez d’un trop grand amas d’intérêts, puisse être terminée avec modération, pour obvier à de plus grans inconveniens qui en pourroient naître, et qui seroient nuisibles à la tranquillité publique, Sa Majesté Imperiale aura soin (…) »
  • Art. 69 : « Et d’autant qu’il importe au public que la paix étant faite, le commerce refleurisse de toutes parts on est convenu à cette fin que les tributs, et péages, comme aussi les abus de la bulle Brabantine et les représailles et arrêts qui s’en seront ensuivis, avec les certifications étrangères, les exactions, les détentions, de même les frais excessifs des postes, et toutes autres charges, et empêchemens inusitez du commerce et de la navigation qui ont été nouvellement introduits à son préjudice et contre l’utilité publique çà et là dans l’Empire, à l’occasion de la guerre, par une authorité privée, contre tous droits et privilèges, sans le consentement de l’Empereur et des Électeurs de l’Empire, seront tout-à-fait ôtez ; en sorte que l’ancienne sûreté, la jurisdiction et l’usage tels qu’ils ont été longtemps avant ces guerres, y soient rétablis et inviolablement conservez aux Provinces, aux ports et aux rivières. »

Source des citations (texte du traité de Paix) :
https://mjp.univ-perp.fr/traites/1648westphalie.htm

Merci de partager !

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, a worldwide financial reorganization

Cet article en PDF

Signing of the Peace of Westphalia, in Münster 1648, painting by Gerard Ter Borch.


In 1648, after five years of negotiations, led by the French diplomat Abel Servien on the instructions of Cardinal Mazarin, the “Peace of Westphalia” was signed, putting an end to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Long before the UN Charter, 1648 made national sovereignty, mutual respect and the principle of non-interference the foundations of international law.

The Republic of the Netherlands and the Helvetian Confederation were recognized and numerous bilateral peace treaties put an end to many conflicts.



But that is not all. A careful reader of these treaties discovers that the commitment of all parties to take into account “the advantage of others” as much, if not more, than their own, is translated into concrete acts laying the foundations of a new international financial and economic order.

Article 1 states the fundamental philosophical principle upon which peace rests:



“That there shall be a Christian and Universal Peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere Amity, between [list of parties renouncing combat]; That this Peace and Amity be observ’d and cultivated with such a Sincerity and Zeal, that each Party shall endeavour to procure the Benefit, Honour and Advantage of the other; that thus on all sides they may see this Peace and Friendship in the Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of France flourish, by entertaining a good and faithful Neighbourhood.”

Article 2 goes on to describe the kind of « Global Reset » so urgently needed today:

“That there shall be on the one side and the other a perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty, or Pardon of all that has been committed since the beginning of these Troubles, in what place, or what manner soever the Hostilitys have been practis’d, in such a manner, that no body, under any pretext whatsoever, shall practice any Acts of Hostility, entertain any Enmity, or cause any Trouble to each other; (…) all that has pass’d on the one side, and the other, as well before as during the War, in Words, Writings, and Outrageous Actions, in Violences, Hostilitys, Damages and Expences, without any respect to Persons or Things, shall be entirely abolish’d in such a manner that all that might be demanded of, or pretended to, by each other on that behalf, shall be bury’d in eternal Oblivion.”


For decades, most of the belligerents in the Thirty Years’ War inflicted terrible damage on each other, mainly in order to pay off their debts with the spoils of their plunder and conquests, essentially to satisfy a tiny financial oligarchy that lent as generously to one as to another. It is precisely this “enslavement by debt” that the treaty proposes to “bury in eternal oblivion”.

Hence, even before settling disputes and territorial claims, the treaty sets out to create the conditions that will put an end to the financial ruin into which all were descending.

As in the case of other rare “Debt Jubilee”, unpayable, unsustainable and illegitimate debts, interests, bonds, annuities and financial claims, explicitly identified as fueling a dynamic of perpetual war, were examined, sorted out and reorganized, most often through the cancellation of debts (articles 13 and 35, 37, 38 and 39), through moratoria or debt rescheduling according to specific timetables (article 69).

Article 40 concludes that debt cancellations will apply in most cases, “and yet the Sums of Money, which during the War have been exacted bona fide, and with a good intent, by way of Contributions, to prevent greater Evils by the Contributors, are not comprehended herein. » (Implying that these debts would have to be honored.)

Finally, looking to the future, for Commerce to be “reestablished”, the treaty abolished many tolls and customs established by “private” authorities for they were obstacles to the exchange of physical goods and know-how and hence to mutual development. (Art. 69 and 70).

In the text:

Art. 13:
Reciprocally, the Elector of Bavaria renounces entirely for himself and his Heirs and Successors the Debt of Thirteen Millions, as also all his Pretensions in Upper Austria; and shall deliver to his Imperial Majesty immediately after the Publication of the Peace, all Acts and Arrests obtain’d for that end, in order to be made void and null.”

Art. 35:
That the Annual Pension of the Lower Marquisate, payable to the Upper Marquisate, according to former Custom, shall by virtue of the present Treaty be intirely taken away and annihilated; and that for the future nothing shall be pretended or demanded on that account, either for the time past or to come.”

Art. 37:
That the Contracts, Exchanges, Transactions, Obligations, Treatys, made by Constraint or Threats, and extorted illegally from States or Subjects (…) shall be so annull’d and abolish’d, that no more Enquiry shall be made after them.”

Art. 38:
That if Debtors have by force got some Bonds from their Creditors, the same shall be restor’d, but not with prejudice to their Rights.”

Art. 39:
“That the Debts either by Purchase, Sale, Revenues, or by what other name they may be call’d, if they have been violently extorted by one of the Partys in War, and if the Debtors alledge and offer to prove there has been a real Payment, they shall be no more prosecuted, before these Exceptions be first adjusted. That the Debtors shall be oblig’d to produce their Exceptions within the term of two years after the Publication of the Peace, upon pain of being afterwards condemn’d to perpetual Silence.”

Art. 40:
“That Processes which have been hitherto enter’d on this Account, together with the Transactions and Promises made for the Restitution of Debts, shall be look’d upon as void; and yet the Sums of Money, which during the War have been exacted bona fide, and with a good intent, by way of Contributions, to prevent greater Evils by the Contributors, are not comprehended herein.”

Art. 68:
“As for the finding out of equitable and expedient means, whereby the Prosecution of Actions against Debtors, ruin’d by the Calamitys of the War, or charg’d with too great Interests, and whereby these Matters may be terminated with moderation, to obviate greater inconveniences which might arise, and to provide for the publick Tranquillity; His Imperial Majesty shall take care to hearken as well to the Advices of his Privy Council, as of the Imperial Chamber, and the States which are to be assembled, to the end that certain firm and invariable Constitutions may be made about this Matter (…)”.

Art. 69 :
“And since it much concerns the Publick, that upon the Conclusion of the Peace, Commerce be re-establish’d, for that end it has been agreed, that the Tolls, Customs, as also the Abuses of the Bull of Brabant, and the Reprisals and Arrests, which proceeded from thence, together with foreign Certifications, Exactions, Detensions; Item, The immoderate Expences and Charges of Posts, and other Obstacles to Commerce and Navigation introduc’d to its Prejudice, contrary to the Publick Benefit here and there, in the Empire on occasion of the War, and of late by a private Authority against its Rights and Privileges, without the Emperor’s and Princes of the Empire’s consent, shall be fully remov’d; and the antient Security, Jurisdiction and Custom, such as have been long before these Wars in use, shall be re-establish’d and inviolably maintain’d in the Provinces, Ports and Rivers. ”

Full texte of the quotes and the Treaty

Click on this link

https://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/westphal.asp

Merci de partager !

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio et l’art du commandement militaire

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio et l’art du commandement militaire. Enquête et réflexions sur les événements clés et les réalisations artistiques qui ont fait la Renaissance. Par Karel Vereycken, Paris.

Prologue

Livre-catalogue de l’exposition de 2019, National Gallery, Washington.

S’il y a encore beaucoup à dire, à écrire et à apprendre sur les grands génies de la Renaissance européenne, il est temps aussi de s’intéresser à ceux que l’historien Georgio Vasari appela avec condescendance des « figures de transition ».

Comment mesurer l’apport de Pieter Bruegel l’Ancien sans connaître Pieter Coecke van Aelst ? Comment apprécier l’œuvre de Rembrandt sans connaître Pieter Lastman ? En quoi Raphaello Sanzio a-t-il innové par rapport à son maître Le Pérugin ?

En 2019, une exposition remarquable consacrée à Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), à la National Gallery de Washington, a mis en lumière ses grandes réalisations, fulgurances étonnantes d’une beauté inouïe que son élève Léonard de Vinci (1452-1519) a su théoriser et mettre à profit.

Le sfumato de Léonard ? Verrocchio en est le pionnier, notamment dans ses portraits de femmes, exécutés aux traits estompés combinant le crayon, la craie et la gouache.

Andrea del Verrocchio, tête de femme, 1475, technique mixte (crayon, craie et gouache).

Une découverte

En feuilletant le catalogue de cette exposition, ma joie fut grande en découvrant (et à ma connaissance, personne avant moi ne semble l’avoir remarqué) que l’image de l’ange énigmatique qui rencontre l’œil du spectateur dans le tableau de Léonard intitulé La Vierge aux rochers (1483-1486) (Louvre, Paris), à part sa posture plus posée, n’est grosso modo qu’une « citation visuelle » d’un haut-relief en terre cuite (Louvre, Paris) réalisé, nous dit-on, par « Verrocchio et un assistant ».

L’hypothèse qu’il s’agisse de Léonard en personne est plus que tentante, étant donné sa présence comme apprenti auprès du maître !

Bien d’autres ont fait leurs débuts dans l’atelier de Verrocchio, notamment Lorenzo de Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Piero Perugino (maître de Raphaël) et Domenico Ghirlandaio (maître de Michel-Ange).

S’inscrivant dans la tradition des grands chantiers lancés à Florence par le grand mécène de la Renaissance Côme de Medicis pour la réalisation des « portes du Baptistère » et l’achèvement de la coupole de Florence par Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Verrocchio conçoit son atelier comme une véritable école « polytechnique ».

A Florence, pour les artistes, les commandes affluent. Afin de pouvoir répondre à toutes les demandes, Verrocchio, ayant lui-même reçu une formation d’orfèvre, forme ses élèves comme artisans-ingénieurs-artistes : dessin, anatomie, perspective, géologie, sculpture, travail des métaux, de la pierre et du bois, architecture, décoration intérieure, poésie, musique et enfin, peinture. Un niveau de liberté et une exigence de créativité malheureusement disparus depuis longtemps.

En peinture, Verrocchio aurait fait ses débuts chez le peintre Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). Quant au métier de fondeur de bronze, il aurait été, comme Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello et Pollaiuolo, l’un des apprentis recrutés par Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) dont l’atelier, à partir de 1401 et pendant plus de quarante ans, est chargé de concevoir et de réaliser les bas-reliefs en bronze de deux des immenses portes du Baptistère de Florence.

D’autres suggèrent que Verrocchio aurait été formé par Michelozzo, l’ancien compagnon de Ghiberti devenu par la suite l’associé en affaires de Donatello. Adolescent, ce dernier avait accompagné Brunelleschi lorsqu’il se rendait à Rome pour y étudier l’héritage de l’art grec et romain, et pas seulement au niveau architectural.

L’héritage humaniste de Ghiberti

Portrait de Ghiberti, bronze, portes du Baptistère, Florence.

En réalité, Verrocchio n’a fait que faire sienne l’approche de l’atelier « polytechnique » de Ghiberti, avec qui il avait appris le métier.

Excellent artisan qu’on accuse à tort d’être resté accroché au « style gothique », lui aussi est orfèvre, collectionneur d’art, musicien, lettré humaniste et historien.

Son génie, c’est d’avoir compris l’importance de la pluridisciplinarité pour les artistes. Selon lui « la sculpture et la peinture sont des sciences de plusieurs disciplines agrémentées de différents enseignements. »

Les dix disciplines qu’il juge important pour former les artistes sont la grammaire, la philosophie, l’histoire. Suivent ensuite la perspective, la géométrie, le dessin, l’astronomie, l’arithmétique, la médecine et l’anatomie.

On ne peut découvrir, pense Ghiberti, que lorsqu’on est parvenu à isoler l’objet de sa recherche de facteurs interférant, et on ne peut trouver qu’en se détachant d’un système dogmatique ;

comme la nature des choses le veut, les sciences cachées sous des artifices ne sont pas constituées afin que les hommes aux poitrines étroites les puissent juger.

Anticipant le type de biomimétisme qui va caractériser Léonard par la suite, Ghiberti affirme qu’il a cherché

à découvrir comment la nature fonctionnait et comment il pouvait s’en rapprocher pour savoir comment les objets viennent à l’oeil, comment fonctionne la vue et de quelle manière on devait pratiquer la statuaire et la peinture.

Ghiberti, qui fréquente le cercle des humanistes animé par Ambrogio Traversari, a le souci de s’appuyer sur l’autorité des textes anciens, en particulier arabes :

Mais pour ne pas répéter de façon superficielle et superflue les principes qui fondent toutes les opinions, je traiterai la composition de l’œil particulièrement selon les opinions de trois auteurs, c’est-à-dire Avicenne (Ibn Sina), dans ses livres, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytam), dans le premier livre de sa perspective, et Constantin (Qusta ibn Luqa) dans le premier livre sur l’œil ; car ces auteurs suffisent et traitent avec plus de certitude des choses qui nous intéressent.

Bien que volontairement ignoré et calomnié par Vasari, le livre des Commentaires de Ghiberti constitue un véritable manuel pour les artistes, écrit par un artiste. C’est d’ailleurs en lisant ce manuscrit que Léonard de Vinci se familiarise avec d’importantes contributions arabes à la science, en particulier l’œuvre remarquable d’Alhazen, dont le traité d’optique venait d’être traduit du latin en italien sous le titre De li Aspecti, œuvre longuement citée par Ghiberti dans son Commentario terzo. Saint Jean-Baptiste, bronze réalisé par Ghiberti, Orsanmichele, Florence.

Dans ce manuscrit, les apports de Ghiberti sont modestes. Cependant, pour les élèves de son élève Verrocchio, comme Léonard, qui ne maîtrisaient aucune langue étrangère, le livre de Ghiberti mettait à leur disposition en italien une série de citations originales de l’architecte romain Vitruve, de scientifiques et de polymathes arabes comme Alhazen, Avicenne, Averroès et de scientifiques européens ayant étudié l’optique arabe, tels que les franciscains d’Oxford Roger Bacon et John Pecham ou encore le moine polonais Witelo (Vitellion) à Padou.

Ce qui fait dire à l’historien A. Mark Smith que, par l’intermédiaire de Ghiberti, le Livre d’optique d’Alhazen

pourrait bien avoir joué un rôle central dans le développement de la perspective artificielle dans la peinture italienne du début de la Renaissance.

Enfin, en 1412, tout en coordonnant les travaux de la porte du Baptistère, Ghiberti est aussi, avec son Saint Jean-Baptiste, le premier sculpteur de la Renaissance à couler une statue en bronze d’une hauteur de 255 cm pour décorer Orsanmichele, la maison des Corporations à Florence.

La fonte « à la cire perdue »

Pour réaliser des bronzes d’une telle taille, vu le prix du métal, les artistes font appel à la technique dite de « fonte à la cire perdue ».

Technique à la cire perdue, phases de réalisation.

Andrea del Verrocchio, David, bronze, hauteur 126 cm.

Elle consiste à confectionner d’abord un modèle en terre réfractaire (A), recouvert d’une épaisseur de cire correspondant à l’épaisseur de bronze recherchée (B). Ce modèle est ensuite recouvert d’une épaisse couche de plâtre qui, en se solidifiant, forme un moule extérieur. En pénétrant dans ce moule par des tiges prévues à cet effet (J), le bronze en fusion va se substituer à la cire. Enfin, une fois le métal solidifié, on brise le revêtement (K). Reste alors à affûter les détails et polir l’ensemble selon le choix de l’artiste (L).

Cette technique s’avérera par la suite fort utile pour fabriquer des canons et des cloches. Si elle semble avoir été parfaitement maîtrisée en Afrique, notamment à Ifé dès le XIIe siècle, en Europe, ce n’est qu’à la Renaissance, avec les commandes reçues par Ghiberti et Donatello, qu’elle sera entièrement réinventée.

En 1466, à la mort de Donatello, c’est Verrocchio qui devient à son tour le sculpteur en titre des Médicis pour lesquels il réalise une série d’œuvres, notamment, après Donatello, son propre David en bronze (musée national du Bargello, Florence).

Si, avec cette promotion, son ascendance sociale est certaine, Verrocchio se trouve devant le plus grand défi qu’un artiste de la Renaissance ait pu imaginer : comment égaler, voire dépasser Donatello, un artiste dont on n’a jamais assez loué le génie ?

L’art équestre

Le décor ainsi planté, abordons maintenant le sujet de l’art du commandement militaire en comparant quatre monuments équestres :
A) l’empereur romain Marc-Aurèle, sur la place du Capitole à Rome (175 après J.-C.) ;
B) la fresque de John Hawkwood par Paolo Uccello, dans l’église de Santa Maria del Fiore à Florence (1436) ;
C) Erasmo da Narni, dit « Gattamelata » (1446-1450), réalisé par Donatello à Padoue ;
D) Bartolomeo Colleoni par Andrea del Verrocchio à Venise (1480-1488).

Les statues équestres sont apparues en Grèce au milieu du VIe siècle avant J.-C. pour honorer les cavaliers victorieux d’une course. À partir de l’époque hellénistique, elles sont réservées aux plus hauts personnages de l’État, souverains, généraux victorieux et magistrats. À Rome, sur le forum, elles constituaient un honneur suprême, soumis à l’approbation du Sénat. Réalisées en bronze, ces statues équestres se dressent le plus souvent à l’endroit où les troupes ont combattu. Si chaque statue rappelle l’importance du commandement militaire et politique, la manière d’exercer cette responsabilité est bien différente.

A. Marc Aurèle à Rome

Marc Aurèle, copie de la statue en bronze, Place du Capitol, Rome. (340 × 230 × 410 cm).

Marc Aurèle est né à Rome en 121 après J.-C., dans une famille noble d’origine espagnole. A la mort de son père, son oncle l’empereur Hadrien confie l’enfant à son successeur Antonin. Ce dernier l’adopte et lui donne une excellente éducation. Il est initié très tôt à la philosophie par son maître Diognetus. Intéressé par les stoïciens, il adopte un temps leur mode de vie, dormant à même le sol, portant une tunique rêche, avant d’en être dissuadé par sa mère.

En 175, il se rend à Athènes où il se met à encourager la philosophie. Il aide financièrement les philosophes et les rhétoriciens en leur accordant un salaire fixe. Partisan du pluralisme, il soutient l’Académie platonicienne, le Lycée d’Aristote, le Jardin d’Épicure et le Portique stoïcien.

En revanche, sous son règne, les persécutions contre les chrétiens sont nombreuses. Il les considère comme des fauteurs de troubles, du fait qu’ils refusent de reconnaître les dieux romains, et comme des fanatiques.

Érigée en 175 après J.-C., la statue était entièrement dorée. Si on ignore son emplacement dans l’Antiquité, au Moyen Âge, elle se trouvait devant la basilique Saint-Jean-de-Latran, érigée par Constantin, et le palais du Latran, alors résidence papale. En 1538, le pape Paul III fait transférer le monument de Marc Aurèle au Capitole, siège du gouvernement de la ville. Michel-Ange restaure la statue et redessine la place qui l’entoure.

C’est sans doute la statue équestre la plus célèbre, et surtout la seule datant de la Rome antique qui ait survécu, les autres ayant été fondues pour fabriquer des pièces de monnaie ou des armes… Si la statue a survécu, c’est grâce à un malentendu : on pensait qu’elle représentait Constantin, le premier empereur romain à s’être converti au christianisme au début du IVe siècle, et il était hors de question de détruire l’image d’un souverain chrétien.

Marc Aurèle, statue originale, bronze doré, Rome.

Mais la présence d’un ennemi vaincu sous la jambe avant droite du cheval (présence attestée par des témoignages médiévaux, et disparue depuis), le geste de l’empereur et la forme du tapis de selle, inhabituelle dans le monde romain, suggèrent que la statue commémorait les victoires de Marc Aurèle, peut-être à l’occasion de son triomphe à Rome en 176, ou même après sa mort. En effet, son règne (161-180) a été marqué par des guerres incessantes pour contrer les incursions de peuples germaniques ou orientaux aux frontières d’un Empire désormais menacé et sur la défensive.

Le cheval, qui n’est pas très grand mais semble puissant, a été sculpté très soigneusement et avec réalisme. Ses naseaux sont fortement dilatés, ses lèvres tirées par le mors laissent apparaître ses dents et sa langue. La jambe levée, il vient d’être arrêté par son cavalier, qui tient les rênes de la main gauche. Comme lui, le cheval tourne légèrement la tête vers la droite, signe que la statue a été conçue pour être vue de ce côté. Une partie de son harnais est conservée, mais les rênes ont disparu.

L’athlétique cavalier domine néanmoins par sa taille celle de ce puissant cheval, qu’il monte sans étriers (accessoires inconnus des Romains). Il est vêtu d’une tunique courte ceinturée à la taille et d’un manteau d’apparat agrafé sur l’épaule droite. Il s’agit d’un vêtement civil et non militaire, adapté à un contexte pacifique. Il porte des chaussures en cuir maintenues par des lanières entrelacées.

La statue frappe par sa taille (424 cm de haut incluant le socle) et la majesté qu’elle dégage. Sans armure ni arme, les yeux grands ouverts et sans émotion, l’empereur lève le bras droit. Son autorité découle avant tout de la fonction qu’il incarne : il est l’Empereur qui protège son Empire et son peuple en punissant ses ennemis sans pitié.

B. La fresque de Paolo Uccello à Florence

Paolo Uccello, fresque d’un monument équestre en honneur de John Hawkwood (1536), dôme de Florence. 732 × 404 cm.

En 1436, à la demande de Côme de Médicis, Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) est chargé de réaliser une fresque (732 × 404 cm) représentant John Hawkwood (1323-1394), fils d’un tanneur anglais devenu chef de guerre pendant la guerre de Cent Ans en France et dont le nom sera italianisé en Giovanno Acuto. Au service du plus offrant, notamment de villes italiennes rivales, la compagnie de mercenaires de Hawkwood, sanguinaires, inspire la terreur car elle ne fait pas de quartiers.

A Florence, même si cela peut paraître paradoxal, c’est le chancelier humaniste Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) qui met Hawkwood à la tête d’une armée régulière au service de la Signoria.

Cette démarche n’est pas sans rappeler celle du roi Louis XI qui, pour contrôler les écorcheurs et autres égorgeurs qui ravageaient alors la France, parvint à les discipliner en les incorporant dans une armée permanente, la nouvelle armée royale.

Les humanistes de la Renaissance, notamment Leonardo Bruni (1370-1440) dans son De Militia (1420), sont conscients du fléau que représente l’utilisation de mercenaires dans les conflits. Seule une armée permanente, pensent-ils, formée de professionnels et mieux encore, de citoyens, et entretenue par un Etat ou une ville, peut garantir une paix durable.

Paolo Uccello, portrait présumé, Louvre.

Bien que Hawkwood ait fidèlement protégé la ville pendant 18 ans, son « professionnalisme » de mercenaire était loin de faire l’unanimité, au point d’inspirer le proverbe « Inglese italianato è un diavolo Incarnato » (« Un Anglais italianisé est un diable incarné »). Pétrarque le dénonce, Boccace tente en vain de monter une offensive diplomatique contre lui, sainte Catherine de Sienne le supplie de quitter l’Italie, Chaucer le rencontre et, sans doute, l’utilise comme modèle pour The Knight’s Tale (Les Canterbury Tales).

Tout cela n’empêchera pas Côme, membre de la conspiration humaniste et grand mécène, de vouloir l’honorer lorsqu’il rentre d’exil. Mais à défaut d’une statue équestre en bronze, Florence n’offrira au mercenaire qu’une fresque dans la nef de Santa Maria del Fiore, c’est-à-dire sous la coupole du Duomo.

Image ultraviolet de la fresque d’Uccello.

Dès le début, la fresque de Paolo Uccello a clairement suscité la controverse. Un dessin préparatoire conservé dans les collections du musée des Offices de Florence le montre casqué, plus armé, plus grand et, avec son cheval, dans une position plus militaire. Uccello avait initialement représenté Hawkwood comme « plus menaçant », avec son bâton levé et son cheval « prêt à foncer ».

Une étude récente aux ultraviolets confirme que le peintre avait initialement représenté le condottiere armé de la tête aux pieds. Dans la version définitive, il porte une veste sans manches, la giornea, et un manteau ; seuls ses jambes et ses pieds sont protégés par une pièce d’armure. Enfin, la version finale présente un cavalier moins imposant, moins guerrier, plus humain et plus individualisé.

Dans la dispute, ce n’est pas Uccello qui est blâmé mais ses commanditaires. D’ailleurs, le peintre est rapidement chargé de refaire la fresque d’une façon jugée « plus appropriée ».

John Hawkwood, fresque de Paolo Uccello, détail, cathédrale de Florence.

Malheureusement, il n’existe aucune trace des débats qui ont dû faire rage au sein du conseil de fabrique de la cathédrale (Opera Del Duomo). Ce qui est certain, c’est que dans la version actuelle, le condottiere est passé du statut de chef de guerre dirigeant une bande de mercenaires, à l’image d’un « roi-philosophe » dont la seule arme est son bâton de commandement. Au bas de la fresque, on peut lire en latin : « Giovanno Acuto, chevalier britannique, qui fut en son temps tenu pour un général très prudent et très expert en affaires militaires. »

Par ailleurs, la position du cheval et la perspective du sarcophage ont été modifiées, passant d’un simple profil à une vue di sotto in su.

Si cette perspective est quelque peu surréaliste et la pose du cheval, levant les deux jambes du même côté, tout simplement impossible, il n’en demeure pas moins que la fresque d’Uccello va fixer les normes de l’image idéale et impassible de la vertu et du commandement que doit incarner le héros de la Renaissance : son but n’est plus de « gagner » la guerre (objectif du mercenaire), mais de préserver la paix en prévenant tout conflit (objectif d’un roi-philosophe ou simplement d’un chef d’État avisé, pour qui la prospérité du royaume se mesure en termes du nombre de ses sujets et de leur prospérité).

Changement de paradigme

A ce titre, loin d’être une simple curiosité artistique, la fresque d’Uccello est le marqueur d’un nouveau paradigme, instituant la fin de l’ère des guerres féodales perpétuelles et donc le début de la Renaissance, où s’organise la concorde entre Etats-nations souverains dont la sécurité est indivisible, la sécurité de l’un garantissant celle de l’autre, paradigme encore plus rigoureusement défini lors de la Paix de Westphalie de 1648, lorsqu’elle fait de la notion du respect de « l’avantage d’autrui » la condition même de son succès.

Un historien suggère que les modifications imposées à la fresque d’Uccello faisaient partie de la rénovation de la cathédrale Santa Maria del Fiore voulue en 1436, date de la commande de la fresque, par le pape humaniste Eugène IV, déterminé à convaincre les Églises d’Orient et d’Occident de surmonter pacifiquement leur schisme et de se réunifier, comme cela fut tenté lors du Concile de Florence de 1437-1438 et pour lequel le Duomo était central.

Il est intéressant de noter que la fresque d’Uccello apparaît à peu près à la même époque où, en France, Yolande d’Aragon et Jacques Cœur, dont les relations avec l’Italie sont documentées, ont convaincu le roi Charles VII de mettre fin à la guerre de Cent Ans en créant une armée permanente. En 1445, par ordonnance, il se résout à discipliner et rationaliser l’armée sous la forme d’unités de cavalerie regroupées en Compagnies d’Ordonnances, la première armée permanente à la disposition du Roi de France plutôt que de la noblesse.

C. Le Gattamelata de Donatello (1447-1453) à Padoue

Gattamelata, Donatello, Padoue. Taille : 340 sur 400 cm.

Donatello, portrait présumé, Louvre.

Ce n’est que quelques années plus tard, à Padoue, entre 1447 et 1453, que Donatello (1386-1466) travaillera à la statue d’Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443), un condottiere de la Renaissance, c’est-à-dire le chef d’une armée de métier au service de la République de Venise, qui régnait alors sur la ville de Padoue.

Détail important, Erasmo était surnommé « il Gattamelata ». En français, « faire la chattemite » signifie affecter un faux air de douceur pour tromper ou séduire… qualité qui peut s’avérer fort utile en temps de guerre. D’autres avancent que son surnom de « chat miellé » lui vient de sa mère, Melania Gattelli, ou du cimier (casque) en forme de chat couleur miel qu’il portait au combat…

Né en Ombrie vers 1370, l’homme est d’origine modeste, fils de boulanger. Il apprend le maniement des armes auprès de Ceccolo Broglio, seigneur d’Assise, puis, à l’âge de trente ans, auprès du capitaine Braccio da Montone, connu pour recruter les meilleurs combattants.

En 1427, Erasmo, qui a la confiance de Côme de Médicis, signe un contrat de sept ans avec le pape humaniste Martin V, qui souhaite renforcer un corps d’armée fidèle à sa cause dans le but de mettre au pas les seigneurs d’Émilie, de Romagne et d’Ombrie rebelles à l’autorité papale. Il a acheté une solide armure pour renforcer sa haute stature.

Gattamelata n’était pas un combattant impétueux, mais un maître de la guerre de siège, ce qui l’obligeait à agir lentement, de manière réfléchie et progressive. Il épie longuement sa proie avant de la piéger. En 1432, il s’empare de la forteresse de Villafranca près d’Imola par la seule ruse et sans combat. L’année suivante, il fait de même pour s’emparer de la ville fortifiée de Castelfranco, épargnant ainsi ses soldats et son trésor. Incapables de comprendre sa tactique, certains l’accusaient de lâcheté pour avoir « fui » la ligne de front, sans se rendre compte que cela faisait partie de sa stratégie gagnante.

C’était un capitaine prudent, à la tête d’une troupe parfaitement disciplinée, et soucieux d’entretenir de bonnes relations avec les magistrats des villes qui l’employaient. Il obtient le grade de capitaine général de l’armée de la République de Venise lors de la quatrième guerre contre le duc de Milan en 1438 et meurt à Padoue en 1443.

A sa mort, la République de Venise lui rend les honneurs et Giacoma della Leonessa, sa veuve, passe commande d’une sculpture en l’honneur de son défunt mari pour 1650 ducats. La statue, qui représente le condottiere grandeur nature, sur son cheval, en armure de style antique et tête nue, tenant son bâton de commandement dans sa main droite levée, a été réalisée selon la méthode de la fonte « à la cire perdue ».

Dès 1447, Donatello réalise les modèles pour le moulage du cheval et du condottiere. Les travaux avançant très rapidement, l’œuvre est achevée en 1453 et placée sur son piédestal, dans le cimetière qui jouxte la basilique de Padoue.

Brillant par sa ruse et son astuce, Gattamelata était un combattant réfléchi et efficace dans l’action, le type de chef recommandé par Machiavel dans Le Prince, et qui apparaît au XVIe siècle chez François Rabelais dans son récit des « guerres picrocholines ». Non pas la puissance brute des armes, mais la ruse et l’intelligence seront les qualités majeures que Donatello fera apparaître avec force dans son œuvre.

Contrairement à Marc Aurèle, ce n’est pas son statut social qui confère au commandant son autorité, mais son intelligence et sa créativité dans le gouvernement de la cité et l’art de la guerre. Donatello avait le sens du détail. En regardant le cheval, nous voyons que c’est un animal massif mais loin d’être statique. Il a une démarche lente et déterminée, sans la moindre hésitation.

Gattamelata, détail de la statue en bronze réalisée par Donatello à Padoue. Taille : 340 sur 400 cm.

Mais ce n’est pas tout. Une analyse rigoureuse montre que les proportions du cheval sont d’un ordre supérieur à celles du condottiere. Donatello s’est-il trompé en faisant Erasmo trop petit et son cheval trop grand ? Non, le sculpteur a fait ce choix pour souligner la valeur de Gattamelata qui, grâce à ses compétences, est capable de dompter des animaux d’une taille impressionnante. En outre, les yeux du cheval le suggèrent sauvage et indomptable.

En le regardant, on pourrait penser qu’il est impossible de le monter, mais Gattamelata y parvient sans effort, car en regardant les rênes dans les mains du protagoniste, on remarque qu’il les tient en toute tranquillité. C’est un autre détail qui met en évidence la ruse puissante et l’ingéniosité d’Erasmo.

En outre, avez-vous remarqué que l’un des sabots du cheval est délicatement posé sur une sphère ? Si cette sphère (qui pourrait aussi être un boulet de canon, puisqu’Erasmo était un guerrier) sert à donner de la stabilité à l’ensemble de la composition, elle indique aussi comment cet animal à la force gigantesque (symbolisant ici la violence guerrière), une fois apprivoisé et habilement utilisé, permet de tenir le globe (le règne terrestre) en équilibre.

La ruse

Donatello, détail du Gattamelata, Padoue.

Après le cheval, venons-en maintenant au condottiere. Son expression est fière et déterminée. Il tient en main le bâton de commandement. Il ne s’agit pas seulement d’un objet symbolique ; il pourrait l’avoir reçu en 1438 de la République de Venise.

Contrairement à la fresque d’Uccello, Gattamelata n’est pas habillé comme un prince de son époque, mais bien comme une figure au-delà du temps incarnant le passé, le présent et le futur. Pour capter cela, attentif à chaque détail, Donatello a repris un modèle ancien et l’a modernisé avec un résultat incroyable. Les détails de l’armure du protagoniste comprennent des motifs purement classiques tels que la tête de Méduse (reprise du Marc Aurèle), l’une des trois gorgones de la mythologie grecque, dont les yeux ont le pouvoir de pétrifier tout mortel qui croise son regard.

Bien que le casque de Gattamelata aurait permis de l’identifier immédiatement, Donatello a écarté cette option. Ainsi casqué, il aurait symbolisé un guerrier assoiffé de sang plutôt qu’un homme rusé. En revanche, l’absence de casque permet à l’artiste de nous montrer le regard fixe d’Erasmo, et donc la détermination gravée sur son visage.

En le représentant le visage légèrement incliné et les jambes tendues, l’épée au fourreau placée de biais à son côté, Donatello donne l’illusion d’un déséquilibre, qui renforce dans l’esprit du spectateur l’idée que le cheval avance avec force.

L’historien d’art John Pope-Hennessy est formel :

Les différences fondamentales qui séparent le Gattamelata du Marc Aurèle sautent aux yeux. L’empereur se tient passivement assis sur son cheval, jambes ballantes. Au XVe siècle, en revanche, l’art de l’équitation suppose le recours à des éperons. L’impression d’autorité qui se dégage du monument conçu par Donatello provient de la domination totale du condottiere sur sa monture. (…) Les plantes des pieds sont exactement parallèles à la surface du piédestal, ainsi que les grands éperons à six pointes, étirés jusqu’au milieu du flanc de l’animal.

Ainsi, Gattamelata n’est pas la sculpture classique, grecque ou romaine, d’un héros au physique sculpté, mais une sorte d’homme nouveau qui réussit par la raison.

Le fait que la statue ait un piédestal aussi haut a aussi sa raison d’être. A cette hauteur, le Gattamelata ne partage pas notre propre espace. Il est dans une autre dimension, éternelle et hors du temps.

D. Le Bartolomeo Colleoni de Verrocchio à Venise

Une trentaine d’années plus tard, entre 1480 et 1488, à l’issue d’un concours, Andrea del Verrocchio est sélectionné pour réaliser une grande statue équestre (400 × 380 cm) en bronze d’un autre condottiere italien, Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475).

Mercenaire impitoyable, travaillant tel jour pour un mécène et pour son rival le lendemain, à partir de 1454, il sert la République de Venise avec le titre de général en chef (capitano generale). Il meurt en 1475 en laissant un testament dans lequel il lègue une partie de sa fortune à Venise en échange de l’engagement d’ériger une statue de bronze en son honneur sur la place Saint-Marc.

Le Sénat vénitien accepte d’élever un monument équestre à sa mémoire, tout en mettant les frais à la charge de la veuve du défunt…

En outre, le Sénat refuse de l’ériger sur la place Saint-Marc, qui constitue, avec la basilique consacrée, le cœur vivant de la ville. Le Sénat décide donc d’interpréter les conditions posées par Colleoni dans son testament sans les contredire, en choisissant d’ériger sa statue en 1479, non pas sur la place Saint-Marc, mais dans une zone plus éloignée du centre de la ville, devant la Scuola San Marco, sur le campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Bien que Verrocchio ait commencé à y travailler dès 1482, ce projet reste inachevé à sa mort, en 1488. Et c’est, non pas comme le souhaitait Verrocchio, son héritier Lorenzo di Credi qui coulera la statue, mais le vénitien Alessandro Leopardi (qui avait perdu le concours face à Verrocchio), qui n’hésitera pas à la signer de son nom !

Les quatre chevaux du quadrige de la Basilique Saint-Marc de Venise. Statuaire grecque rapportée de Constantinople au XIIIe siècle par les croisées.

Si le cheval est conforme à la typologie des magnifiques chevaux composant le quadrige dominant la basilique Saint-Marc de Venise (statuaire grecque du IVe siècle avant J.-C., ramenée par les croisés de Constantinople à Venise en 1204) et du cheval de Marc Aurèle, sa musculature est plus nerveusement soulignée et tracée. Objectivement, cette statue est idéalement plus proportionnée. Les détails sont également plus fins, grâce aux nouvelles techniques de pré-sculpture, ce qui rend l’œuvre captivante et réaliste.

La sculpture déborde de son piédestal. Selon André Suarès (cité dans La majesté des centaures) : 

Colleone à cheval marche dans les airs, il ne tombera pas.
Il ne peut choir. Il mène sa terre avec lui. Son socle le suit […] Il a toute la force et tout le calme. Marc Aurèle, à Rome, est trop paisible. Il ne parle pas et ne commande pas. Colleone est l’ordre de la force, à cheval. La force est juste, l’homme est accompli. Il va un amble magnifique. Sa forte bête, à la tête fine, est un cheval de bataille ; il ne court pas, mais ni lent ni hâtif, ce pas nerveux ignore la fatigue. Le condottiere fait corps avec le glorieux animal : c’est le héros en armes.

Son bâton de commandement se retrouve même métamorphosé en matraque ! Mais vu que ce n’est pas Verrocchio qui a fondu cette œuvre, ne le blâmons pas pour la fureur guerrière qui en émane.

Andrea del Verrocchio, statue équestre de Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venise. Taille : 400 × 380 cm.

Il est clair qu’ici, Venise, ce vicieux empire financier et maritime esclavagiste se présentant, à l’instar de Gènes, comme une « République », s’est vengée de la belle conception développée à la Renaissance d’un roi philosophe défendant l’Etat-nation. Andrea dell Verrocchio, détail du visage, statue équestre de Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venise.

Sur le plan esthétique, ce mercenaire sent l’animal. En bon observateur, Léonard nous avait prévenus : lorsqu’un artiste représente un personnage prisonnier d’une seule émotion (joie, rage, tristesse, etc.), il finit par peindre quelque chose qui nous éloigne de l’âme véritablement humaine. C’est ce que nous voyons dans cette statue équestre.

S’il montre, au contraire, un visage animé de différentes émotions, l’aspect humain sera mis en valeur. C’est le cas, comme nous l’avons vu, du Gattamelata de Donatello, incarnant ruse, détermination et prudence pour vaincre la peur face à la menace.

Le projet de Léonard de Vinci d’un gigantesque cheval en bronze, auquel il travailla pendant des années, élaborant de nouvelles techniques de fonte du bronze, ne fut malheureusement jamais construit, vu le contexte particulièrement mouvementé de l’époque.

Enfin, au-delà de toutes les interprétations, admirons le savoir-faire de ces artistes. En termes d’artisanat et d’habileté, il fallait généralement toute une vie pour être capable de réaliser des œuvres aussi monumentales, sans parler de la patience infinie et surtout de la passion requise.

A nous de les faire revivre !

Bibliographie :

  • Verrocchio, Sculptor and painter of Renaissance Florence, Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020 ;
  • Lorenzo Ghiberti, Richard and Trude Krautheimer, Princeton University Press, 1982;
  • Uccello, Franco et Stefano Borsi, Hazan, 2004 ;
  • Donatello, John Pope-Hennessy, Abbeville Press, 1993 ;
  • Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26 ;
  • Monumento Equestre al Gattamelata di Donatello : la Statua del Guerriero Astuto, blog de Dario Mastromattei, mars 2020 ;
  • La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Charles Avery, Livre de poche, 1996 ;
  • La sculpture de la Renaissance au XXe siècle, Taschen, 1999 ;
  • Ateliers de la Renaissance, Zodiaque-Desclée de Brouwer, 1998 ;
  • Rabelais et l’art de la guerre, Christine Bierre, 2007 ;
  • La révolution du grec ancien, Platon et la Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, jan. 2021;
  • Avicenne et Ghiberti, leur rôle dans l’invention de la perspective à la Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, mars 2022.
Merci de partager !

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command

Uccello, Donatello, Verrocchio and the art of military command. An inquiry into the key events and artistic achievements that created the Renaissance. By Karel Vereycken, Paris.

Prologue

Catalogue of the 2019 Exhibition in Washington.

If there is still a lot to say, write and learn about the great geniuses of the European Renaissance, it is also time to take an interest in those whom the historian Georgio Vasari condescendingly called « transitional figures ».

How can one measure the contributions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder without knowing Pieter Coecke van Aelst? How can we value Rembrandt’s work without knowing Pieter Lastman? How did Raphaelo Sanzio innovate in relation to his master Perugino?

In 2019, an exceptional exhibition on Andrea Del Verrocchio (1435-1488), at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., highlighted his great achievements, truly inspiring outbursts of great beauty that his pupil Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) would theorize and put to his greatest advantage.

The sfumato of Leonardo ? Verrochio is the pioneer, especially in the blurred features of portraits of women made with mixed techniques (pencil, chalk and gouache).

Andrea del Verrocchio, head of a woman, mixte technique (pencil, charcoal, gouache, etc.), 1475-1478.

The joy of discovery

Leafing through the catalog of this exhibition, my joy got immense when I discovered (and to my knowledgne nobody else seems to have made this observation before me) that the enigmatic angel the viewer’s eye meets in Leonardo’s painting titled The Virgin on the Rocks (1483-1486) (Louvre, Paris), besides the movement of the body, is grosso modo a visual “quote” of the image of a terra cotta high relief (Louvre, Paris) attributed to Verrochio and “one of his assistants”, possibly even Leonardo himself, since the latter was training with the master as early as age seventeen ! The finesse of its execution and drapery also reminds us of the only known statue of Da Vinci, The Virgin with the laughing Child.

Many others made their beginnings in Verrocchio’s workshop, notably Lorenzo de Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Piero Perugino (Raphael’s teacher) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher).

Coming out of the tradition of the great building sites launched in Florence by the great patron of the Renaissance, Cosimo de Medici for the realization of the doors of the Baptistery and the completion of the dome of Florence by Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Verrocchio conceived his studio as a true “polytechnic” school.

In Florence, for the artists, the orders flowed in. In order to be able to respond to all requests, Verrocchio, initially trained as a goldsmith, trained his students as craftsman-engineer-artists: drawing, calculation, interior decoration, sculpture, geology, anatomy, metal and woodworking, perspective, architecture, poetry, music and painting. A level of freedom and a demand for creativity that has unfortunately long since disappeared.

The Ghiberti legacy

Self-portrait of Ghiberti, bronze Gates of the Baptistry of Florence.

In painting, Verrocchio is said to have begun with the painter Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). As for the bronze casting trade, he would have been, like Donatello, Masolino, Michelozzo, Uccello and Pollaiuolo, one of the apprentices recruited by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) whose workshop, starting from 1401, over forty years, will be in charge of casting the bronze bas-reliefs of two of the huge doors of the Baptistery of Florence.

Others suggest that Verrocchio was most likely trained by Michelozzo, the former companion of Ghiberti who said up shop with Donatello. As a teenager, Donatello had accompanied Brunelleschi on their joint expeditions to Rome to investigate the legacy of Greek and Roman art, and not only the architectural legacy.

In reality, Verrocchio only perpetuated and developed the model of Ghiberti’s « polytechnic » studio, where he learned the art. An excellent craftsman, Ghiberti was also goldsmith, art collector, musician and humanist scolar and historian.

His genius is to have understood the importance of multidisciplinarity for artists. According to him « sculpture and painting are sciences of several disciplines nourished by different teachings ».

The ten disciplines that he considered important to train artists are grammar, philosophy, history, followed by perspective, geometry, drawing, astronomy, arithmetic, medicine and anatomy.

You can discover, says Ghiberti, only when you managed to isolate the object of your research from interfering factors, and you can discover by detaching oneself from a dogmatic system;

as the nature of things want it, the sciences hidden under artifices are not constituted so that the men with narrow chests can judge them.

Anticipating the type of biomimicry that will characterize Leonardo thereafter, Ghiberti affirms that he sought:

to discover how nature functioned and how he could approach it to know how the objects come to the eye, how the sight functions and in which way one has to practice sculpture and painting.

Ghiberti, who was familiar with some of the leading members of the circle of humanists led by Salutati and Traversari, based his own reflexions on optics on the authority of ancient texts, especially Arabic. He wrote:

But in order not to repeat in a superficial and superfluous way the principles that found all opinions, I will treat the composition of the eye particularly according to the opinions of three authors, namely Avicenna [Ibn Sina], in his books, Alhazen [Ibn al Haytam], in the first book of his perspective, and Constantine [Qusta ibn Luqa] in the first book on the eye; for these authors are sufficient and treat with more certainty the things that interest us.

Deliberately ignored (but copied) by Vasari, Ghiberti’s Commentaries are a real manuel for artists, written by an artist. Most interestingly, it is by reading Ghiberti’s Commentaries that Leonardo da Vinci became familiar with important Arab contributions to science, in particular the outstanding work of Ibn al Haytam (Alhazen) whose treatise on optics had just been translated from Latin into Italian under the title De li Aspecti, and is quoted at length by Ghiberti in his Commentario Terzio. Author A. Mark Smith suggests that, through Ghiberti, Alhazen’s Book of Optics

may well have played a central role in the development of artificial perspective in early Renaissance Italian painting.

Ghiberti, Saint John the Baptist, bronze, Orsanmichele, Florence.

Ghiberti’s comments are not extensive. However, for the pupils of his pupil Verrocchio, such as Leonardo, who didn’t command any foreign language, Ghiberti’s book did make available in italian a series of original quotes from the roman architect Vitruvius, arab scientists such as Alhazen), Avicenna, Averroes and those european scientists having studied arab optics, notably the Oxford fransciscans Roger Bacon, John Pecham and the Polish monk working in Padua, Witelo.

Finally, in 1412, Ghiberti, while busy coordinating all the works on the Gates of the Baptistry, was also the first Renaissance sculptor to cast a life-size statue in bronze, his Saint John the Baptist, to decorate Orsanmichele, the house of the Corporations in Florence.

Lost wax casting

However, in order to cast bronzes of such a size, the artists, considering the price of metal, would use the technique known as “lost wax casting”.

This technique consists of first making a model in refractory clay (A), covered with a thickness of wax corresponding to the thickness of the bronze thought necessary.

The model is then covered with a thick layer of wet plaster (B) which, as it solidifies, forms an outer mold. Finally, the very hot molten bronze, pored into the mold it penetrates by rods (J) provided for this purpose, will replace the wax.

Verrocchio’s David, for which it is thought he used his young pupil Leonardo as a model.

Finally, once the metal has solidified, the coating is broken. The details of the bronze (K) are then adjusted and polished (L) according to the artist’s choice.

This technique would become crucial for the manufacture of bells and cannons. While it was commonly used in Ifé in Africa in the 12th century for statuary, in Europe it was only during the Renaissance, with the orders received by Ghiberti and Donatello, that it was entirely reinvented.

In 1466, after the death of Donatello, it was Verrocchio’s turn to become the Medici’s sculptor in title for whom he produced a whole series of works, notably, after Donatello, his own David in bronze (Bargello National Museum, Florence).

If with this promotion his social ascendancy is certain, Verrocchio found himself facing the greatest challenge that any artist of the Renaissance could have imagined: how to equal or even surpass Donatello, an artist whose genius has never been praised enough?

Equestrian art

This being said, let us now approach the subject of the art of military command by comparing four equestrian monuments:

  • Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline square in Rome (175 AD) ;
  • Paolo Uccello’s fresco of John Hawkwood in the church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (1436);
  • Erasmo da Narni, known as “Gattamelata” (1446-1450), casted by Donatello in Padua.
  • Bartolomeo Colleoni by Andrea del Verrocchio in Venice (1480-1488).

Equestrian statues appeared in Greece in the middle of the 6th century B.C. to honor the victorious riders in a race. From the Hellenistic period onward, they were reserved for the highest state figures, sovereigns, victorious generals and magistrates. In Rome, on the forum, they constituted a supreme honor, subject to the approval of the Senate. Apart from being bronze equestrian statues, each one is placed in a place where their troops fought.

While each statue is a reminder of the importance of military and political command, the way in which this responsibility is exercised is quite different.

Marcus Aurelius in Rome

Copy of the Marcus Aurelius statue in Rome (175 AD).

Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 A.D., into a noble family of Spanish origin. He was the nephew of the emperor Hadrian. After the death of Marcus Aurelius’ father, Hadrian entrusted him to his successor Antonin. The latter adopts and gives him an excellent education. He was initiated early in philosophy by his master Diognetus.

Interested in the stoics, he adopted for a while their lifestyle, sleeping on the ground, wearing a rough tunic, before he was dissuaded by his mother.

He went to Athens in 175 A.D. and became a promotor of philosophy. He helps financially the philosophers and the rhetoricians by granting them a fixed salary. Concerned with pluralism, he supported the Platonic Academy, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Garden of Epicurus and the Stoic Portico.

On the other hand, during his reign, persecutions against Christians were numerous. He saw them as troublemakers – since they refused to recognize the Roman gods, and as fanatics.

Marcus Aurelius, original in the Museum.

Erected in 175 A.D., the statue was entirely gilded. Its location in antiquity is unknown, but in the Middle Ages it stood in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine, and the Lateran Palace, then the papal residence.

In 1538, Pope Paul III had the monument of Marcus Aurelius transferred to the Capitol, the seat of the city’s government. Michelangelo restored the statue and redesigned the square around it, one of the fanciest in Rome. It is undoubtedly the most famous equestrian statue, and above all the only one dating back to ancient Rome that has survived, the others having been melted down into coins or weapons…

If the statue survived, it is thanks to a misunderstanding: it was thought that it represented Constantine, the first Roman emperor to have converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century, and it was out of the question to destroy the image of a Christian ruler.

Neither the date nor the circumstances of the commission are known.

But the presence of a defeated enemy under the right foreleg of the horse (attested by medieval testimonies and since lost), the emperor’s gesture and the shape of the saddle cloth, unusual in the Roman world, make us to belief that the statue commemorated Marcus Aurelius’ victories, perhaps on the occasion of his triumph in Rome in 176, or even after his death. Indeed, his reign (161-180) was marked by incessant wars to counter the incursions of Germanic or Eastern peoples on the borders of an Empire that was now threatened and on the defensive.

The horse, while not that large, but looking powerful, has been sculpted with great care and represented with realism. Its nostrils are strongly dilated, its lips pulled by the bit reveal its teeth and tongue.

One leg raised, he has just been stopped by his rider, who holds the reins with his left hand. Like him, the horse turns his head slightly to the right, a sign that the statue was made to be seen from that side. Part of his harness is preserved, but the reins have disappeared.

The size of the athletic rider nevertheless dominates that of a powerful horse that he rides without stirrups (accessories unknown to the Romans). He is dressed in a short tunic belted at the waist and a ceremonial cloak stapled on the right shoulder. It is a civil and not a military garment, adapted to a peaceful context. He is wearing leather shoes held together by intertwined straps.

The statue is striking for its size (424 cm high) and for the majesty it exudes. Without armor or weapons, eyes wide open and without emotion, the emperor raises his right arm. His authority derives above all from the function he embodies: he is the Emperor who protects his Empire and his people by punishing their enemies without mercy.

The fresco by Paolo Uccello

Paolo Uccello, fresque en honneur de John Hawkwood (1436), Dôme de Florence.

In 1436, at the request of Cosimo de’ Medici, the young Paolo Uccello was commissioned to paint a fresco depicting John Hawkwood (1323-1394), the son of an English tanner who had become a warlord during the Hundred Years’ War in France and whose name would be Italicized into Giovanno Acuto.

Serving the highest bidder, especially rival Italian cities, Hawkwood’s company of mercenaries was no slouch.

In Florence, although it may seem paradoxical, it was the humanist chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406) who put Hawkwood at the head of a regular army in the service of the Signoria.

This approach is not unlike that of Louis XI in France, who, in order to control the skinners and other cutthroats who were ravaging the nation, did not hesitate to discipline them by incorporating them into a standing army, the new royal army.

The humanists of the Renaissance, notably Leonardo Bruni (1370-1440) in his De Militia (1420), became aware of the curse of using mercenaries in conflicts and of the fact that only standing army, i.e. a permanent army formed of professionals and even better by citizens and maintained by a state or a city could guarantee a lasting peace.

Although Hawkwood faithfully protected the city for 18 years, his ugly “professionalism” as a mercenary was not unanimously accepted, to the point of inspiring the proverb “Inglese italianato è un diavolo Incarnato” (« An Italianized Englishman is a devil incarnate »).

Petrarch denounced him, Boccaccio tried in vain to mount a diplomatic offensive against him, St. Catherine of Sienna begged him to leave Italy, Chaucer met him and, no doubt, used him as a model for The Knight’s Tale (The Canterbury Tales).

All this will not prevent Cosimo, a member of the humanist conspiracy and a great patron of the arts, returning from exile, from wanting to honor him. But in the absence of the bronze equestrian statue (which had been promised to him…), Florence, will only offer him a fresco in the nave of Santa Maria del Fiore, that is to say under right under the cupola of the Duomo.

UV study of Uccello’s fresco showing condottiere with helm.

From the very beginning, Paolo Uccello’s fresco seems to have stirred quite a controversy. A preparatory drawing in the collections of Florence’s Uffizi Museum indicates the commander, more armed, taller, and, with his horse in a more military position. Uccello had originally depicted Hawkwood as « more threatening », with his baton raised and horse « at the ready ».

A recent ultraviolet study confirms the fact that the painter had originally depicted the condottiere armed from head to toe. In the final version, he wears a sleeveless jacket, the giornea, and a coat; only his legs and feet are protected by a piece of armor. The final version presents a less imposing rider, less warlike, more human and more individualized

In the dispute, it was not Uccello who was considered faulty, but his sponsors. Moreover, the painter was quickly given the task of redoing the fresco in a way deemed “more appropriate”.

John Hawkwood par Uccello, détail.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the debates that must have raged among the officials of the church fabric (Opera Del Domo). What is certain is the fact that in the final version, visible today, the condottiere has been transformed from a warlord running a gang of mercenaries, into the image of philosopher-king whose only weapon is his commanding staff. At the bottom of the fresco, we can read in Latin: “Giovanno Acuto, British knight, who was in his time held as a very prudent general and very expert in military affairs.”

The position of the horse and the perspective of the sarcophagus have been changed from a simple profile to a di sotto in su view.

If this perspective is somewhat surrealistic and the pose of the horse, raising both legs on the same side, simply impossible, it remains a fact that Uccello’s fresco will set “the standards” of the ideal and impassive image of virtue and command that must embody the hero of the Renaissance: his goal is no longer to “win” a war (the objective of the mercenary), but to preserve the peace by preventing it (the objective of a philosopher-king or simply a wise head of state).

Paradigm shift

As such, one might say that Uccello’s fresco announces the “paradigm shift” marking the end of the age of perpetual feudal wars, to that of the Renaissance, that is to say to that of a necessary concord between sovereign nation-states whose security is indivisible, the security of one being the guarantee of the security of the other, a paradigm even more rigorously defined in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, when it made the agapic notion of the “advantage of the other” the basis of its success.

One historian suggests that the recommissioning of Uccello’s fresco was part of the « refurbishing » of the cathedral associated with its rededication as Santa Maria del Fiore by the humanist Pope Eugene IV in March 1436, determined to convince the Eastern and Western Churches to peacefully overcome their divisions and réunite as was attempted at the Council of Florence of 1437-1438 and for which the Duomo was central.

Interesting is the fact that Uccello’s fresco appeared at around the same time that Yolande d’Aragon and Jacques Coeur, who had his Italian connections, persuaded the French king Charles VII to put an end to the Hundred Years’ War by setting up a permanent, standing army.

In 1445, an ordinance was passed to discipline and rationalize the army in the form of cavalry units grouped into Compagnies d’Ordonnances, the first permanent army at the disposal, not of warlords or aristocrats, but of the King of France.

Donatello’s “Gattamelata” (1447-1453)

Donatello, statue équestre d’Erasmo da Narni, dit Gattamelata, 1447-1453, Padua.

It was only some years later, in Padua, between 1447 and 1453, that Donatello would work on the statue of Erasmo da Narni (1370-1443), a Renaissance condottiere, i.e. the leader of a professional army in the service of the Republic of Venice, which at the time ruled the city of Padua. An important detail is that Erasmo was nicknamed “il Gattamelata”.

In French, « faire la chattemite » means to affect a false air of sweetness to deceive or seduce… Others explain that his nickname of “honeyed cat” comes from the fact that his mother was called Melania Gattelli or that he wore a crest (a helmet) in the shape of a honey-colored cat in battle…

The man was of humble origin, the son of a baker, born in Umbria around 1370. He learned to handle weapons from Ceccolo Broglio, lord of Assisi, and then, when he was in his thirties, from the captains of Braccio da Montone, who was known for recruiting the best fighters.

In 1427, Erasmo, who had the confidence of Cosimo de’ Medici, signed a seven-year contract with the humanist Pope Martin V, who wished to strengthen an army corps loyal to his cause with the aim of bringing to heel the lords of Emilia, Romagna and Umbria who were rebellious against papal authority.

Donatello: Gattemelata (detail).

He bought a huge suit of armor to reinforce his high stature. He was not an impetuous fighter, but a master of siege warfare, which forced him to take slow, thoughtful and progressive action. He spied on his prey for a long time before trapping it.

In 1432, he captured the fortress of Villafranca near Imola by cunning alone and without fighting. The following year he did the same to capture the fortified town of Castelfranco, thus sparing his soldiers and his treasure.

Those who were unable to grasp his tactics, accused him of being a coward for “running away” from the front-line, not realizing, that on a given moment, this was part of the tactics of his winning strategy.

He was a prudent captain, with a very well-mannered troop, and he was careful to maintain good relations with the magistrates of the towns that employed him. He obtained the rank of captain-general of the army of the Republic of Venice during the fourth war against the Duke of Milan in 1438 and died in Padua in 1443. Following his death, the Venetian Republic gave him full honors and Giacoma della Leonessa, his widow, commissioned a sculpture in honor of her late husband for 1650 ducats.

The statue, which represents the life-size condottiere, in antique-style armor and bareheaded, holding his commanding staff in his raised right hand, on his horse, was made by the lost-wax method. As early as 1447, Donatello made the models for the casting of the horse and the condottiere. The work progresses at full speed and the work is completed in 1453 and placed on its pedestal in the cemetery that adjoins the Basilica of Padua.

Donatello, Gattemelata, détail du visage.

Brilliant for his cunning and guile, Gattamelata was a thoughtful and effective fighter in action, the type of leader recommended by Machiavelli in The Prince, and which appears in the sixteenth century by François Rabelais in his account of the “Picrocholine wars”.

Not the brute power of weapons, but the cunning and the intelligence will be the major qualities that Donatello will make appear powerfully in his work.

Contrary to Marcus Aurelius, it is not his social status that gives the commander his authority, but his intelligence and his creativity in the government of the city and the art of war. Donatello had an eye for detail. Looking at the horse, we see that it is a massive animal but far from static. It has a slow and determined gait, without any hesitation.

But that’s not all. A rigorous analysis shows that the proportions of the horse are of a “higher order” than those of the condottiere. Did Donatello make a mistake and make Erasmo too small and the horse too large? No, the sculptor made this choice to emphasize the value of Gattamelata who, thanks to his skills, is able to tame even wild and gigantic animals. In addition, the horse’s eyes show him as wild and untameable. Looking at him, one could say that it is impossible to ride him, but Gattamelata manages it with ease and without effort.

Because if you look at the reins in the hands of the protagonist, you will notice that he holds them in complete tranquility. This is another detail that highlights Erasmus’ powerful cunning and ingenuity.

Next, did you notice that one of the horse’s legs rests on a sphere? If this sphere (which could also be a cannonball, since Erasmus was a warrior) serves to give stability to Donatello’s composition as a whole, it also indicates how this animal of gigantic strength (symbolizing here warlike violence), once tamed and well used, allows the globe (the earthly kingdom) to be kept in balance.

Having told you about the horse, it is time to know more about the condottiere.

He has a proud and determined expression. The baton of command, which he holds in his hand, delicately touches the horse’s mane. The baton is not just a symbolic object; he may have received it in 1438 from the Republic of Venice.

Unlike Uccello’s fresco, Gattamelata is not dressed as a contemporary prince of commander, but as a figure beyond time embodying both the past, the present and the future. To capture this, Donatello, who takes care of every detail, has taken an ancient model and modernized it with incredible results. The details of the protagonist’s armor include purely classical motifs such as the head of Medusa, taken from Marcus Aurelius, in Greek mythology one of the three gorgons whose eyes had the power to petrify any mortal who crossed her gaze.

Although the helmet of Gattamelata would have allowed to identify him at eyesight, Donatello has discarded this option. With a helmet on his head, he would have been the symbol of a bloodthirsty warrior, rather than a cunning man. Even better, the absence of a helmet allows the artist to show us a fearless commander whose fixed gaze shows his determination. With the figure slightly bowed and legs extended, the sword in its scabbard placed at an angle, Donatello gives the illusion of an “imbalance” that reinforces in the viewer’s mind the idea that the horse is advancing with full strength.

Art historian John Pope-Hennessy is emphatic:

The fundamental differences between the Gattamelata and Marcus Aurelius are obvious. The (roman) emperor sits passively on his horse, legs dangling. In the fifteenth century, on the other hand, the art of riding implies the use of spurs. The impression of authority that emanates from the monument designed by Donatello comes from the total domination of the condottiere over his horse. (…) The soles of the feet are exactly parallel to the surface of the pedestal, as are the large six-pointed spurs, stretched to the middle of the animal’s flank.

As a result, Gattamelata is not a remake of the “classical Greek or Roman sculpture” of a hero with a sculpted physique, but a kind of new man who succeeds through reason. The fact that the statue has such a high pedestal also has its reason. Placed at such a height, the Gattamelata does not “share” our own space. It is in another dimension, eternal and out of time.

Verrocchio’s Colleoni

Verrocchio’s Colleoni.

Some thirty years later, between 1480 and 1488, Andrea del Verrocchio, after a contest, was selected to make a large bronze equestrian statue of another Italian condottiere named Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475).

A ruthless mercenary, working for a patron one day and his rival the next day, he served from 1454 the Republic of Venice with the title of general-in-chief (capitano generale). He died in 1475 leaving a will in which he bequeathed part of his fortune to Venice in exchange for the commitment to erect a bronze statue to his honor in St. Mark’s Square.

The Venetian Senate agreed to erect an equestrian monument to his memory, while charging the costs to the widow of the deceased…

In addition, the Senate refused to erect it in St. Mark’s Square, which was, along with St. Mark’s Basilica, at the heart of the city’s life. The Senate therefore decided to interpret the conditions set by Colleoni in his last will and testament without contradicting them, choosing to erect his statue in 1479, not in St. Mark’s Square, but in an area further from the city center in front of the Scuola San Marco, on the campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Although Verrocchio had started working on the project since 1482, it remained unfinished at his death in 1488. And it is, not as Verrocchio wished, his heir Lorenzo di Credi who will cast the statue, but the Venetian Alessandro Leopardi (who lost the contest to Verrocchio), who will not hesitate to sign it!

The four horses of the Triumphal Quadriga overseeing the Basilica of Saint Marc in Venice.

If the horse is in conformity with the typology of the magnificent horses composing the quadriga overseeing the Basilica of Saint Mark of Venice (Greek statuary of the IVth century BC brought back by the crusaders from Constantinople to Venice in 1204) and of the horse of Marcus Aurelius, its musculature is more nervously underlined and traced. Objectively, this statue is ideally more proportionate. There is also more fine detail, a result of new pre-sculpture techniques, making the work captivating and realistic to look at.

Andrea del Verrocchio, statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.

The sculpture overflows its pedestal. According to André Suarès quoted in The Majesty of Centaurs:

Colleone on horseback walks in the air, he will not fall. He cannot fall. He leads his earth with him. His base follows him […] He has all the strength and all the calm. Marcus Aurelius, in Rome, is too peaceful. He does not speak and does not command. Colleone is the order of the force, on horseback. The force is right, the man is accomplished. He goes a magnificent amble. His strong beast, with the fine head, is a battle horse; he does not run, but neither slow nor hasty, this nervous step ignores the fatigue. The condottiere is one with the glorious animal: he is the hero in arms.

Verrocchio’s Colleoni (détail).

His baton of command is even metamorphosed into a bludgeon! But since it is not Verrocchio who finished this work, let us not blame the latter for the warlike fury that emanates from this statue.

Venice, a vicious slave-trading financial and maritime Empire fronting as a “Republic”, clearly took its revenge here on the beautiful conception developed during the Renaissance of a philosopher-king defending the nation-state.

On the aesthetic level, this mercenary smells like an animal. As a good observer, Leonardo warned us: when an artist represents a man entirely imprisoned by a single emotion (joy, rage, sadness, etc.), he ends up painting something that takes us away from the truly human soul. This is what we see in this equestrian statue.

If, on the contrary, the artist shows several emotions running through the figure represented, the human aspect will be emphasized. This is the case, as we have seen, with Donatello’s Gattamelata, uniting cunning, determination and prudence to overcome fear the face of threat.

Leonardo’s own, gigantic project to erect a gigantic bronze horse, on which he worked for years and developed new bronze casting techniques, unfortunately was never build, seen the hectic circumstances.

Da Vinci’s gigantic project.

Finally, beyond all the interpretations, let us admire the admirable know-how of these artists. In terms of craft and skill, it generally took an entire life to become able to realize such great works, not even mentioning the patience and boundless passion required.

Up to us to bring it back to life !

Bibliography:

  • Verrocchio, Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery, Princeton University Press, 2020;
  • Donatello, John Pope-Hennessy, Abbeville Press, 1993;
  • Uccello, Franco and Stefano Borsi, Hazan, 2004;
  • Les Commentaires de Lorenzo Ghiberti dans la culture florentine du Quattrocento, Pascal Dubourg-Glatigny, Histoire de l’Art, N° 23, 1993, Varia, pp. 15-26;
  • Monumento Equestre al Gattamelata di Donatello: la Statua del Guerriero Astuto, blog de Dario Mastromattei, mars 2020;
  • La sculpture florentine de la Renaissance, Charles Avery, Livre de poche, 1996 ;
  • La sculpture de la Renaissance au XXe siècle, Taschen, 1999;
  • Ateliers de la Renaissance, Zodiaque-Desclée de Brouwer, 1998;
  • Rabelais et l’art de la guerre, Christine Bierre, 2007.
  • The Greek language project, Plato and the Renaissance, Karel Vereycken, jan. 2021.
Merci de partager !

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Op 10 september 2011, gaf Karel Vereycken van het Schiller Institute, de volgende presentatie voor een kleine groep vrienden van de LaRouche Studiegroep Nederland.

Het huidige globale financiële systeem is failliet en zal in elkaar zakken over de komende dagen, weken en maanden, als er niets gedaan wordt om het rotte economische paradigma van vrijhandel, globalisatie en monetarisme te verdelgen.

De weg uit de crisis betekent onmiddellijk brugpensioen voor Obama et de splitsing van banken (Glass-Steagall Act) als hefboom om terug een echt krediet systeem op te bouwen, in tegenstelling tot een geldsysteem. Het gaat erom echte investeringen te bemiddelen in de schepping van fysieke en menselijke rijkdom via grootschalige infrastructuur projecten en de creatie van hooggekwalificeerde en welbetaalde banen.

Kan dat gedaan worden? Ja, dat kan, maar de grootste uitdaging is niet de politieke uitdaging. De echte uitdaging die ons toekomt, is het leggen van de grondvesten van een nieuwe renaissance, een fundamentele wending, weg van het groene en malthusiaanse pessimisme, naar een cultuur die er naar streeft de creatieve vermogens van elke persoon, hier, in Afrika en elders, volledig te doen opbloeien.

Was dat ooit gedaan in verleden? Ja, en vooral vanwaar ik hier spreek, beroerd door een grote emotie. Misschien omdat ik het privilege heb een zeker inzicht te bezitten over de rol van enkele leidende figuren die in de XIVde eeuw Zwolle tot “neuronenversneller” van de Europese cultuur hebben gemaakt.

Vergun me het plezier om hier in het kort de geschiedenis te schetsen van een beweging van lekenbroeders en onderwijzers, de Broeders en Zusters van het Gemene Leven, die in feite de peetvaders zijn van onze geliefde Erasmus van Rotterdam.

Zoals heel dikwijls, begint alles met een persoon die beslist een einde te maken aan zijn eigen tekortkomingen, en daarom oprijst als een natuurlijke leider. Je wilt een leidinggevende persoon worden? Begin met je eigen boel op te kuisen vooraleer je gaat preken bij anderen!

Geert Groote, de stichter

Geert Groote, de stichter.

De geestelijke vader van de Broeders is Geert Groote, geboren in 1340 als zoon van een rijke textielhandelaar van Deventer, in die tijd, zoals Zwolle, Kampen en Roermond, een rijke handelsstad van de Hanze liga.

In 1345, na de internationale financiële krach, woekert de pest over heel Europa en bereikt onze gewesten in 1449-50. Meer dan 50 % van de bevolking verliest het leven en Groote, volgens sommige bronnen, verliest beide ouders.

Groote walgde voor de schijnheiligheid van de hordes van flagellanten die door de straten trekken. In plaats van openlijke zelfkastijding meent hij dat innerlijke boetedoening belangrijker is.

Groote heeft aanleg voor studeren en wordt snel naar Parijs gestuurd. Als hij 18 is, geeft men hem de titel van Magister Artium normaal alleen maar toereikbaar aan studenten ouder dan 20. Hij blijft acht jaar in Parijs maar maakt waarschijnlijk enkele uitstapjes naar Keulen en Praag.

Gedurende die periode assimileert hij alles wat men weten moest en kon op het gebied van Wijsbegeerte, Theologie, Geneeskunst, Kerkelijk Recht en Astronomie. Volgens sommigen leert hij Grieks, Latijns en Hebreeuws en beschouwd als een van de meest erudiete personen van zijn tijd.

Vervolgens krijgt hij een prebende van de kapittels van Aken (1368) en Utrecht (1371-1374). Op zevenentwintigjarige leeftijd wordt hij als diplomaat naar Keulen en naar het hof in Avignon in Frankrijk gestuurd om met paus Urbanus V een verschil te regelen tussen Deventer en de bisschop van Utrecht.

Groote’s hoofd, vol met kennis en successen, wordt groter en groter. Zijn beste vrienden, bewust van zijn talenten, zeggen hem vriendelijk op te passen en zich los te werken van de obsessie van het aardse paradijs. De eerste is Guillaume de Salvarvilla, de koormeester van Notre Dame in Parijs. De andere is Heinrich Eger von Kalkar (1328-1408) met wie hij studeerde in Parijs en die nu de nieuwe prior was van het Kartuizerklooster van Monnikshuizen bij Arnhem.

In 1372 is Groote doodziek, maar de priester van Deventer weigert hem, zolang hij niet afstand doet van zijn boeken over zwarte kunst, de laatste sacramenten toe te dienen. Vrezend voor zijn leven, verbrandt Groote koortsig al deze boeken op de markplaats van Deventer. Nu voelt hij zich stukken beter en begint te genezen. Hij beslist ook afscheid te nemen van het luxe leventje met erebanen waar hij weinig voor hoefde te doen en die hem veel geld opleverde.

Na deze bekering neemt Groote keiharde resoluties. In zijn Besluiten en voornemens schrijft hij:

Mijn leven wil ik ordenen op de eer en verheerlijking en de dienst van God en op het heil van mijn ziel. Geen enkel tijdelijk goed: noch zingenot, noch eer, noch tijdelijke goederen, noch wetenschap zal ik stellen boven het heil van mijn ziel… Mijn eerste voornemen is niet langer mijn hoop te vestigen in, of in de toekomst naar het verlangen van aardse winst; want hoe meer ik zal bezitten des te hebzuchtiger ik zal worden; en in tweede instantie, volgens de regels van de primitieve kerk, kan men niet tegelijkertijd winst halen uit meerdere voordelen [zowel uit het wereldlijke als het geestelijke]… Onder de wetenschappen van de heidenen, dient hun morele filosofie het minst vermeden te worden – want ze is dikwijls van groot nut en voordelig voor eigen studie en om anderen te beleren. Dat is zo omdat de wijste onder hen, zoals Socrates en Plato, alle filosofie doortrokken tot morele beschouwingen, en wanneer zij diepe onderwerpen aanspraken deden zij dat op figuurlijke en lichte wijze, met een klemtoon op hun moreel aspect…

Hij trekt zich terug bij de Kartuizers in Monnikshuizen. Maar na drie jaar zegt zijn voormalige schoolkameraad en vriend, de prior Eger van Kalkar aan Groote: “U kunt veel meer goeds doen door in de wereld te gaan preken, waarvoor God U groot talent heeft gegeven, dan hier te blijven in het klooster”.

Vooraleer aan de slag te gaan, doet Groote in 1378 een laatste reis naar Parijs om daar de boeken te kopen die hij nodig heeft. Volgens Pomerius maakte Groote die reis met zijn vriend van Zwolle, de toen al vermaarde schoolmeester Joan Cele (circa 1350-1417).

Jan van Ruusbroec, bron van inspiratie

De Vlaamse mystieker Jan van Ruusbroec

Onderweg bezoeken ze Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381), de Vlaamse mystieker en prior van Groenendaal, een kluis aan de rand van het Zoniënwoud bij Brussel. Groote trachtte eerst diens originele geschriften “te verbeteren” maar schreef later in een brief: “Voor tijd en eeuwigheid zou ik ‘des priors voetschabel’ willen zijn, zo sterk is mijn ziel in liefde en eerbied met hem verenigd”. (Nota 1)

Terug in Deventer, spits Groote zich toe op studeren en preken. Eerst meld hij zich in 1379 bij zijn bisschop om tot diaken te worden gewijd. Als diaken krijgt hij het recht te prediken in heel het bisdom Utrecht (ruwweg het huidige Nederland boven de grote rivieren, met uitzondering van de Groningse Ommelanden).

Grote gaat al predikend rond door de Nederlanden en verzamelt vele volgelingen om zich heen. Zijn roem spreidt zich snel over de Lage landen en van overal komt men naar hem luisteren. Hij preekt eerst in Deventer, dan in Zwolle, Kampen, Zutphen en later in Amsterdam, Haarlem, Gouda, Delft en verder. Zijn succes was zo groot dat er binnen de kerk wel wat jaloersheid ontstond. Anderzijds is het ook begrijpelijk dat de wanorde binnen de westerse kerk, namelijk grote schisma tussen 1378 en 1417, Groote’s inspanningen bewerkstelligden.

Al vanaf 1374, schenkt hij het huis van zijn ouders aan een groep arme vrouwen die er samen willen gaan wonen en voorziet hen van een reglement: het eerste zusterhuis van de ???? is in Deventer geboren. Hij noemt hen de Zusters van het Gemene Leven, een concept ontwikkeld door Ruusbroec in verschillende van zijn werken zoals in de slotparagraaf van Vanden Blinckenden Steen:

Die mensche die ute deser hoocheit van Gode neder-ghesent wert inde werelt, hi es volder waerheit, ende rijcke van allen doechden. Ende hi en soeket sijns niet, maer Des-gheens eere diene ghesonden heeft. Ende daer-omme es hi gherecht ende warechtich in alle dinghen. Ende hi heeft eenen rijcken melden [milden] gront, die ghefondeert es inde rijcheit Gods. Ende daeromme moet hi altoes vloeyen in alle die-ghene die sijns behoeven; want die levende fonteyne des Heilich Gheests die es sine rijcheit diemen niet versceppen en mach. Ende hi es een levende willich instrument Gods daar Gode mede werct wt Hi wilt ende hoe Hi wilt; ende des en dreecht hi hem nit ane, maar hi gheeft Gode die eere. Ende daarom blijft hi willich ende ghereet alles te doene dat God ghebiedt; ende sterc ende ghenendich alt te dogene ende te verdraghene dat God op hem gestaedt. Ende hier-omme heeft hi een ghemeyn leven; want hem es scouwen [contemplatie] ende werken even ghereet, ende in beiden is hi volcomen.

Florens Radewijns, de doener

Latijnse School (Houtsnede van de XVIde eeuw)

Gedurende een van zijn eerste preken, rekruteert Groote Florens Radewijns (1350-1400). Geboren in Utrecht, studeerde deze in Praag waar ook hij Magister Artium werd op achttienjarige leeftijd. Groote stuurt hem eerst naar Worms om daar tot priester gewijd te worden.

In 1380 neemt Groote zelf met een groepje van tien leerlingen zijn intrek in het huis van Radewijns in Deventer. Dit huis zou later als ‘Heer Florenshuis’ of ‘Rijke Fratershuis’ bekend komen te staan: het eerste broederhuis. Het werd de uitvalsbasis van veel van Geert Groote’s activiteiten.

Wanneer Groote sterft in 1384 van de pest beslist Radewijns, de beweging die Groote uit te bouwen tot de Broeders en Zusters van het Gemene leven.

Al snel noemen ze zich de Devotio Moderna (Moderne Devotie).

Boeken en begijnhoven

Begijnhof van Kortrijk.
Kantklossen.

Een aantal sterke overeenkomsten bestaan er met de Begijnen die in het begin van de XIIIde eeuw ontstonden. (Nota 2)

De eerste begijnen waren onafhankelijke, alleenwonende, geestelijk diepbewogen vrouwen (zonder man noch regel) die in de wereld het geweldige avontuur aandurfden van een persoonlijke verhouding met God. (Nota 3)

Ze verlangden geen geloften, geen klooster en geen speciale band met de hiërarchie. Ze leefden niet van aalmoezen maar werkten zelf voor hun dagelijkse kost.

Nog meer dan voor de Begijnen staan boeken centraal in alle activiteiten van de Broeders en Zusters van het Gemene Leven.

Het overschrijven en maken van boeken is een voorname bron van inkomsten die tegelijkertijd het goede woord aan de grote massa kan brengen.

De Broeder- en Zusterhuizen spitsen zich toe op onderwijs en hun priesters of preken. Dankzij hun scriptorium en drukkerijen zal hun geestelijke literatuur en ook hun muziek zich ver verspreiden.

Congregatie van Windesheim

Om de beweging tegen ongerechte kritiek te beschermen, richt Radewijns een klooster op van reguliere kanunniken die de regel volgen van Augustinus. In Windesheim, tussen Zwolle en Deventer, op een stukje land van Berthold ten Hove, een van hun leden, wordt een klooster opgebouwd. Een tweede klooster, ditmaal voor vrouwen, komt er in Diepenveen bij Arnhem. De bouw van Windesheim nam meerdere jaren tijd in beslag en verschillende broeders leefden daar tijdelijk in hutten op de werf.

Toen in 1399 Johannes van Kempen, die ook bij Groote had gewoond in Deventer, de eerste prior werd van het klooster Agnietenberg bij Zwolle, kreeg de beweging een nieuw elan. Van Zwolle, Deventer en Windesheim, zwermde de nieuwe leden uit over de lage landen en de rest van noord-Europa om overal nieuwe godshuizen te vestigen.

Uitstraling van de Moderne Devotie via de Congregatie van Windesheim.

In 1412 kende de congregatie 16 kloosters en hun aantal rees tot 97 in 1500: 84 mannen- en 13 vrouwenpriorijen. Bovendien bestonden er talrijke kloosters van kanunnikessen, die niet formeel tot het kapittel van Windesheim behoorden, maar die een Windesheimer als rector hadden. Groenendaal en vele andere kloosters maakten vanaf 1394 deel uit van de Congregatie van Windesheim, slechts erkend door de bisschop van Utrecht in 1423.

A Kempis, Cusanus en Erasmus

Standbeeld van Thomas a Kempis in the English Convent van Brugge.
Sommigen geloven dat dit schilderij van Petrus Christus Cusanus’ vriend Dionysius de Kartuizer voorstelt. De vlieg op de rand van het kader is hier een symbool van de vergankelijkheid van het menselijk bestaan.

Johannes van Kempen was natuurlijk de broer van de wereldberoemde Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471) die, na lange jaren leiding van de Broeders van het Gemene Leven, op 92 jarige leeftijd stierf in het klooster Agnietenberg van Zwolle. Behalve een relaas over het leven van Groote en de opkomst van de beweging schreef hij de Imitatione Christi (In navolging Christus), na de Bijbel, het meest gelezen boek ter wereld.

Zowel Rudolf Agricola (1444-1485) als Alexander Hegius (1433-1498), twee markante professors van Erasmus van Rotterdam en onvergelijkbare meesters van het Latijn, het Grieks en het Hebreeuws, werden in Deventer door de Broeders opgeleid en in Zwolle door Thomas a Kempis.

Ook Nicolaus Cusanus (1401-1464), die Agricola beschermde en na zijn dood, via een Bursa Cusana geld gaf om wezen en arme studenten op te leiden, werd mogelijkerwijs door de Broeders opgeleid. Wanneer Cusanus in 1451 naar de Nederlanden reist om daar de scheefgegroeide situaties recht te trekken, bezoekt hij de streek met Dionysius de Karthuizer (van Rykel) (1402-1471), een volgeling van Ruusbroec aan wie hij de opdracht geeft deze taak af te ronden. Geboren in Limburg, volgde ook Dionysius de Karthuizer school in Zwolle. (Nota 4)

Wessel Ganzevoort

Wessel Ganzevoort.

Een andere uitzonderlijke figuur was Wessel Ganzevoort (1419-1489) die samenwerkte met de Griekse kardinaal Bessarion, zelf een intieme medewerker van Cusanus voor het Oecumenische concilie van Ferrare-Firenze.

Gansfoort werd opgeleid in de door de Broeders geleide Sint Maartensschool van Groningen alvorens verder te studeren aan de Latijnse School van Groote’s vriend Joan Cele in Zwolle. Ook de eerste Nederlandse paus, Adrianus VI, werd opgeleid aan de Zwolse Latijnse school alvorens te studeren onder Hegius in Deventer. Vooraleer hij naar Rome ging, stond deze paus open voor de ideeën van Erasmus.

In een brief verzonden van Deventer schrijft Hegius aan Ganzevoort, wie hij de Lux Mundi (het licht der wereld) noemt:

Ik stuur U, zeer eerwaarde heer, de Homiliën van Johannes Crysostomus. Ik hoop dat hun lectuur U mag behagen. Gezien gouden woorden U altijd meer plezier deden dan gouden geldstukken. Ik ben, zoals u weet, in Cusanus’s bibliotheek geweest. Daar vond ik veel boeken die me helemaal onbekend waren… (…) Vaarwel, en als U wilt dat ik voor U iets doe, geef me een teken en beschouw de zaak als gedaan.

Rembrandt van Ryn

Rembrandt van Ryn, een talentvolle student van de Latijnse School.

Een blik op de vorming van Rembrandt bewijst dat ook hij een later product was van al deze inspanningen. In 1609 gaat Rembrandt, amper drie jaar oud, naar de basisschool waar jongens en meisjes leren lezen, schrijven en rekenen.

In de zomer beginnen de lessen om zes uur ’s morgens en om zeven in de winter. De lessen worden beëindigd om zeven uur ’s avonds. De lessen beginnen met bidden, het bespreken van passages uit de Bijbel en het zingen van psalmen. Het is daar dat Rembrandt een elegant handschrift ontwikkelt en meer dan een basisbegrip krijgt over godsdienst.

Gedurende die jaren trachten de Nederlanden te overleven. Het twaalfjarige bestand wordt gebruikt om het algemene goed to ontwikkelen en Nederland wordt één van de eerste landen waar iedereen de kans krijgt om te leren lezen, schrijven en rekenen.

Deze universele educatie voor zowel rijk als arm, zij het met enige tekortkomingen, was het geheim van de “Gouden Eeuw” en de belezenheid van Nederlandse immigranten in Amerika zal een eeuw later ook een voorname rol spelen gedurende de Amerikaanse revolutie.

Hoewel de meeste kinderen het secundair onderwijs aanpakten op twaalfjarige leeftijd, begon Rembrandt zijn opleiding op de Latijnse School van Leiden op zevenjarige leeftijd!

Daar leerde men, buiten retorica, logica en kalligrafie, niet alleen Grieks en Latijns maar ook Engels, Frans, Spaans of Portugees. In 1620, wanneer Rembrandt veertien jaar oud is, schrijft hij in als student aan de universiteit gezien toen geen wet jonge talenten kon weerhouden.

Als vak kiest hij niet Theologie, Rechten, Wetenschap of Geneeskunst, maar… Literatuur. Wilde Rembrandt Griekse en Hebreeuwse filologie en misschien Koptisch of Arabisch aan zijn brede cultuur toevoegen?

Men beseft dus, dat de Nederlanden, België inbegrepen, met Ruusbroec en Groote en later met Erasmus en Rembrandt, in een niet zo ver verleden, een bakermat was voor het soort humanisme dat de mensheid tot de grootste mogelijkheden kan verheffen. Hier falen om onze beweging uit te breiden is dus onmogelijk.

Karel Vereycken bij een bezoek aan het graf van Thomas a Kempis op de Agnietenberg bij Zwolle.

VOETNOTEN:

1. Geert Groote vertaalde in het Latijn op zijn minst drie van Ruusbroec’s werken die hij waarschijnlijk in Monnikshuizen voor het eerst had ontdekt. Hij stuurde het boek over het Tabernakel naar de cisterciënzers van Altencamp en naar zijn vrienden in Amsterdam. Toen de Brulocht werd aangevallen, nam hij persoonlijk de verdediging op van Ruusbroec. Dankzij het gezag van Groote werden de werken van Ruusbroec overvloedig gekopieerd en zorgvuldig bewaard. Ruusbroec’s leer werd gevulgariseerd in de geschriften van de Moderne Devotie en vooral in de Navolging van Christus.

2. In het begin van de XIIIde eeuw werden de begijnen beschuldigd van ketterij en vervolgd, behalve in de Bourgondische Nederlanden. In Vlaanderen werden ze vrijgesproken en kregen ze een officieel statuut. In feite genoten zij de bescherming van twee belangrijke vrouwen: Johanna en Margareta van Constantinopel, gravinnen van Vlaanderen. Zij organiseerden de stichting van de begijnhoven van Leuven (1232), Gent (1234), Antwerpen (1234), Kortrijk (1238), Ieper (1240), Rijsel (1240), Zoutleeuw (1240), Brugge (1243), Douai (1245), Geraardsbergen (1245), Hasselt (1245), Bergen (1248), Anderlecht (1252), Breda (1252), Diest (1253), Lier (1258), Tongeren (1257), Mechelen (1258), Haarlem (1262) en in 1271 deponeerde Jan I, graaf van Vlaanderen, persoonlijk de statuten van het Groot Begijnhof van Brussel. In 1321 schatte de Paus het aantal begijnen op 200.000.

3. Het poëtisch Platonisme van de Antwerpse begijn Hadewijch heeft een onmiskenbare invloed gehad op Jan van Ruusbroec.

4. Het eerste boek gedrukt in Vlaanderen door Erasmus’ vriend Dirk Martens, was Dionysius’ werk Een spiegel van de bekering van de zondaars in 1473.

Merci de partager !

Rembrandt’s oil painting is back… in China?

« Xiaogang, The Night Of November 24, 1978 » oilpainting by Wang Shaolun (1999)

While in the West, “modern” artistic expression has degenerated into vibrant eulogies on the “Eros/Thanatos” theme (sex/death), Chinese artists have been encouraged to revive the most uplifting forms of art, often combining classical universal geniuses with their own historic traditions.

A case in point is Wang Shaolun (born 1968), whose “realistic” paintings, including beautiful portraits of women, are rejected by western critiques as remnants of “social realism”. It is true that, even when the country is rapidly becoming an industrial giant and urban residents become richer and richer, this young artist continues depicting farmers.

Following his graduation from the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts, Shaolin, sponsored by the Chinese government, could finish his training at the world famous Repin Art Academy of Saint-Petersburg. Recently, Shaolin was commissioned by the Chinese government to paint several life-size oil paintings for museums in major cities, as well as for national celebratory events.

On Nov. 18, CGTN, presented Shaolun’s 1999 work titled: « Xiaogang, The Night Of November 24, 1978 » depicting a night scene in a rural farming village in Anhui Province. “That evening, 18 farmers signed an agreement that would change the course of agriculture in China.” writes CGTN. Before 1978, China practiced collective farming. But food shortages due to drought, lack of incentives and other challenges were persistent.

The historical accord was called « The Household Responsibility System (HRS)” and for the first time all allowed individual households to contract land and machinery to produce their own yields. With this new procedure, “Each household sold the government their grain at an official price. But any leftover grain could be sold on the open market at a much higher price.” The new system was one of the key reforms of Deng Xiaoping and a key step of pulling millions out of extreme poverty. As a result, between 1978 and 1984, agricultural output in China almost doubled. The HRS resolved the food scarcity crisis and elevated incomes.

The painting is clearly inspired by Rembrandt’s 1661 oil painting called the “Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” with the light literately emanating out of the table and illuminating a group of peasants intensively concentrating on accomplishing an act that’s going to change the course of history.

Merci de partager !

Persian Qanâts and the Civilization of Hidden Waters


By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

World Day of handwashing, UNICEF.

By Karel Vereycken, July 2021.

At a time when old diseases make their return and new ones emerge worldwide, the tragic vulnerability of much of humanity poses an immense challenge.

One wonders whether to laugh or cry when international authorities trumpet without further clarification that to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, “all you have to do” is “wash your hands with soap and water”!

They forget one small detail: 3 billion people do not have facilities to wash their hands at home and 1.4 billion have no access to either water or soap!

Yet, since the dawn of time, mankind has demonstrated its capacity to mobilize its creative genius to make water available in the most remote places.

Here is a short presentation of a marvel of such human genius, the “qanâts”, an underground water conveyance system dating from the Iron Age. Probably of Egyptian origin, it was deployed on a large scale in Persia from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC.



The qanât or underground aqueduct

Typical cross-section of a qanât.

Sometimes called “horizontal drilling”, the qanât is an underground aqueduct employed to draw water from a water table and convey it by simple gravitational effect to urban settlements and farmland. The word qanât is an old Semitic word, probably Accadian, derived from a root qanat (reed) from which come canna and canal.

This “drainage gallery”, cut into the rock or built by man, is certainly one of the earliest and most ingenious inventions for irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions. The technique offers a significant advantage: by conveying water through an underground conduit, contrary to open air canals, not a single drop of water is wasted by evaporation.

Oases’ are NOT natural phenomena. All known oases are man-made. It is the qanât technique that allows man, in a given geographic configuration, to create oases in the middle of the desert, when a water table is close enough to the ground level or at a site close to the bed of a river lost in the sands of the desert.

From Mexico till China, diffusion of qanât technique.

Copied and expanded by the Romans, the qanât technique was carried across the Atlantic to the New World by the Spaniards, where many such underground canals still function in Peru and Chile. In fact, there are even Persian qanâts in western Mexico.


While today this three thousand year old technique may not be appropriate everywhere to solve current water scarcity problems in arid and semi-arid regions, it has much to inspire us as a demonstration of human genius at its best, that is, capable of doing a lot with a little.


The oases of Egypt

Egyptian man-made oasis of Dakhleh.



Today, 95% of the Egyptian population prospers on only 5% of its territory, mainly around the Nile delta. Hence, from the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, irrigation and water storage techniques for the Nile floods were developed in order to conserve this silty, nutrient-rich water for use throughout the year.

The river water was diverted and transported by canals to the fields by gravity. Since water from the Nile did not reach the oases, the Egyptians used the gushing water from the springs, which came from the large aquifer reserves of the western desert, and conveyed it to the fields by irrigation canals.

One of the fruits of this attempt to “conquer the desert” was a sustained habitation of the Dakhleh oasis throughout the Pharaonic period, explicable not only by a commercial interest on the part of the Egyptian state, but also by the new agricultural perspectives it offered.



Roman aqueducts

With its 170 km, 106 of which are underground, the Qanat of Gadara (now in Jordan) is the largest aqueduct of antiquity. It starts from a mountain water source held back by a dam (right) to supply a series of cities east of the Jordan River, in particular Gadara, near Lake Tiberias.
The Qanât Fi’raun, or aqueduct of Gadara, in Jordan.

Closer to us in time, the Qanât Fir’aun (The Watercourse of the Pharaoh) also known as the aqueduct of Gadara, a city today in Jordan. As far as we know, this 170 km long structure, depending on the geography, combines several bridge-aqueducts (of the same type as the Gard aqueduct in France) and 106 km of underground canals using the Persian qanât technique. It is not only the longest but also the most sophisticated aqueduct of antiquity, and the fruit of a years of hydraulic engineering.

In reality, the Romans, hiring persian water experts, did nothing more than terminate in the 2nd century an ancient project designed to supply water to the “Decapolis”, a collaborative group of ten cities founded by Greek and Macedonian settlers under the Seleucid king Antiochos III (223 – 187 BC), one of the successors of Alexander the Great.

These ten cities were located on the eastern border of the Roman Empire (now in Syria, Jordan and Israel), united by language, culture and political status, each with a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Its capital, Gadara, was home to more than 50,000 people and known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, its own university attracting scholars, writers, artists, philosophers and poets. But this rich city lacked something existential : an abundance of water.

The Gadara qanat made the difference. “In the capital alone, there were thousands of fountains, watering holes and baths. Wealthy senators cooled themselves in private pools and decorated their gardens with cooling caves. The result was a record daily consumption of more than 500 liters of water per capita,” explains Matthias Schulz, author of a report on the aqueduct in Spiegel Online.

Entrance of the Gardara qanât, Jordan.



Persia

The Shahzadeh Garden in Iran, an oasis built with the age-old technique of qanats.
Maintenance



We all admire the roman aqueducts. But few of us are aware that the Romans only adapted the technique of the qanâts developed much earlier in Persia.

Indeed, it was under the Achaemenid Empire (around 559 – 330 BC.), that this technique spread slowly from Persia to the east and the west. Many qanâts can be found in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Libya), in the South East Asia (Iran, Oman, Iraq) and further east, in Central Asia, from Afghanistan to China (Xinjiang), via India.

The development of these “draining galleries” is attested in different regions of the world under various names: qanât and kareez in Iran, Syria and Egypt, kariz, kehriz in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aflaj in Oman, galeria in Spain, kahn in Balochistan, kanerjing in China, foggara in North Africa, khettara in Morocco, ngruttati in Sicily, bottini of Siena, etc.

Historically, the majority of the populations of Iran and other arid regions of Asia or North Africa depended on the water provided by the qanâts; their construction lifted entire areas to a higher “economic platform”, made deserts habitable and opened new land for agriculture. The map of demographic expansion followed the trail of the development of this new higher platform.


In his article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât » (From natural rhythm to human rhythm: the life and death of a traditional technique, the qanât), Pierre Lombard, a researcher at the French CNRS, points out that this is not an artisanal and marginal process:

Until a few years ago, the importance of the ancestral technique of qanât was sometimes ignored in Central Asia, Iran, Syria, and even in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. For example, the Public Authority for Water Resources of the Sultanate of Oman estimated in 1982 that all the qanâts still in operation conveyed more than 70 % of the total water used in that country and irrigated nearly 55% of the cereal lands. Oman was still one of the few states in the Middle East to maintain and sometimes even develop its qanât network; this situation, apart from its longevity, does not appear to be exceptional. If one turns to the edges of the Iranian Plateau, one can note with Wulff (1968) the obvious discrepancy between the relative aridity of this area (between 100 and 250 mm of annual precipitation) and its non-negligible agricultural production, and explain it by one of the densest networks of qanâts in the Middle East. It can also be recalled that until the construction of the Karaj dam in the early 1960s, the two million inhabitants of Tehran at that time consumed exclusively the water brought from the Elbourz foothills by several dozen regularly maintained qanâts. Finally, we can mention the case of some major oases in the Near and Middle East (Kharga in Egypt, Layla in Saudi Arabia, Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, etc.) or in Central Asia (Turfan, in Chinese Turkestan) that owe their vast development, if not their very existence, to this remarkable technique.”

On the website ArchéOrient, the French archaeologist Rémy Boucharlat, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS, an Iran expert, explains:

“Whatever the origin of the water, deep or not, the technique of construction of the gallery is the same. First, the issue is to identify the presence of water, either its going underground near a river, or the presence of a water table under a foothill, which requires the science and experience of specialists. A motherwell will be dug to reach the top of the water table, indicating at which depth the [horizontal] gallery should be drilled. It’s slope must be very small, less than 2‰, so that the flow of water is calm and regular, and conduct the water gradually to the surface area, according to a gradient much lower than the slope of the foothill.

“The gallery is then dug, not starting from the mother well because it would be immediately flooded, but from downstream, from the point of arrival. The conduct is first dug in an open trench, then covered, and finally gradually sinks into the ground in a tunnel. For the evacuation of soil and ventilation during excavation, as well as to identify the direction of the gallery, shafts are dug from the surface at regular intervals, between 5 and 30 m depending on the nature of the land ».

Aireal view of persian qanât system.

In April 1973, Lyndon LaRouche’s friend, the French-Iranian professor and historian Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), published his translation from Arab into French of “The Civilization of Hidden Waters”, a treatise on the exploitation of underground waters composed in the year 1017 by the Persian hydrologist Mohammed Al-Karaji, who lived in Baghdad. (Translated in English in 2011)

After an introduction and general considerations on geography, natural phenomena, the water cycle, the study of terrain and the instruments of the hydrologist, Al-Karaji gives a highly precise technical outline of the construction and maintenance of qanâts, as well as legal considerations respecting their management and maintenance.

Commentary on the qanâts in the treatise of Al-Karaji (11th century).

In his introduction to Al-Karji’s treatise, Professor Mazaheri emphasizes the role of the Iranian city of Merv (now in Turkmenistan). This ancient city, he says, was part of

“the long series of oases extending at the foot of the northern slope of the Iranian plateau, from the Caspian to the first foothills of the Pamirs. There, between the geological extension of the Caspian towards the East, there is a strip of arable land, more or less wide, but very fertile. Now, to exploit it, a lot of ingenuity is needed: where, for example in Merv, a big river, such as the Marghab, coming from the glaciers of the central East-Iranian massif, crosses the chain, it is necessary to establish dams, above the strip of arable land, without which, the ‘river’, divided into several dozens of arms, rushes under the sands. Elsewhere, and it is almost all along the northern slope of the chain, one can create artificial oases, by bringing the water by underground aqueducts.” (p. 44)

The construction of dams and underground aqueducts are among the most interesting legacies of their (the ancient Persians) irrigation techniques (…) Long before Islam, the Persian hydrologists had built thousands of aqueducts, allowing the creation of hundreds of villages, dozens of cities previously unknown. And very often, even where there was a river, because of the insufficiency of this one, the hydronomists had brought to light many aqueducts allowing the extension of the culture and the development of the city. Naishabur was such a city. Under the Sassanids, and later under the Caliphs, an important network of aqueducts had been created there, so that the inhabitants could afford the luxury of owning a ‘’bathing room’ in the basement, at the level of the aqueduct serving the house.”

Water room of a qanat in the basement of the Water Museum in Yadz, Iran.

Let us recall that most Persian scholars, including the famous mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, not suffering from today’s hyper-specialization that tends to curb creative thinking, excelled in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and medicine as well as in hydrology.

Mazaheri confirms that this “civilization of underground waters” spread well beyond the Iranian borders:

“Already, under the [Umayyad] Caliph Hisham (723-42), Persian hydronomists built aqueducts between Damascus and Mecca (…) Later, Mecca suffering from lack of water, Zubayda, the wife of Hâroun Al-Rachîd, sent Persian hydronomists there who endowed the city with a large underground aqueduct. And each time the latter was silted up, a new team left Persia to restore the network: such repairs took place periodically under Al-Muqtadir (908-32), under Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), under Al-Naçir (1180-1226) and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, under the Mongol prince Emir Tchoban. We would say the same of Medina and the stages on the pilgrimage route, between Baghdad and Mecca, wherever it was possible to do so, hydronomic works were undertaken and ‘underground aqueducts’ were created.

Hydronomy is a highly demanding skill. To practice it, it is not enough to have mathematical knowledge: decadal calculus, algebra, trigonometry, etc., it is necessary to spend long hours in the galleries at the risk of dying by flooding, landslide or lack of air. It is necessary to have an ancestral instinct of ‘dowser’.”

The annual rainfall in Iran is 273 mm, which is less than one third of the world’s average annual precipitation.

The temporal and spatial distribution of precipitation is not uniform; about 75% occurs in a small area, mainly on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, while the rest of the country does not receive sufficient rainfall. On the temporal scale, only 25% of the precipitation occurs during the plant growing season.

7,7 x the circonférence of the Earth

Still in use today in Iran, qanâts currently supply about 7.6 billion m3 of water, close to 15% of the country’s total water needs.

Considering that the average length of each qanât is 6 km in most parts of the country, the total length of the 30,000 qanât systems (potentially exploitable today) is about 310,800 km, which is about 7.7 times the circumference of the Earth or 6/7th of the Earth-Moon distance!

This shows the enormous amount of work and energy applied to build the qanâts. In fact, while more than 38,000 qanâts were in operation in Iran till 1966, its number dropped to 20,000 in 1998 and is currently estimated at 18,000. According to the Iranian daily Tehran Times, historically, over 120,000 qanat sites are documented.

Moreover, while in 1965, 30-50% of Iran’s total water needs were met by qanats, this figure has dropped to 15% in recent decades.

According to the Face Iran website:

The water flow of qanâts is estimated between 500 and 750 cubic meters per second. As land aridity tends to vary according to the abundance of rains in each region, this quantity of water is used as a more or less important supplement. This makes it possible to use good land that would otherwise be barren. The importance of the impact on the desert can be summarized in one figure: about 3 million hectares. In seven centuries of hard work, the Dutch conquered 1.5 million hectares from the marshes or the sea. In three millennia, the Iranians have conquered twice as much on the desert.

Indeed, to each new qanât corresponded a new village, new lands. From where a new human group absorbed the demographic surplus. Little by little the Iranian landscape was constituted. At the end of the qanat, is the house of the chief, often with one floor. It is surrounded by the villagers’ houses, animal shelters, gardens and market gardens.

The distribution of land and the days of irrigation of the plots were regulated by the chief of the villages. Thus, a qanat imposed a solidarity between the inhabitants.”

If each qanât is “invented” and supervised by a mirab (dowser-hydrologist and discoverer), the realization of a qanât is a collective task that requires several months or years, even for medium-sized qanâts, not to mention works of record dimensions (a 300 m deep mother-well, a 70 km long gallery classified in 2016 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, in northeast Iran).

Each undertaking is carried out by a village or a group of villages. The absolute necessity of a collective investment in the infrastructure and its maintenance requires a higher notion of the common good, an indispensable complement to the notion of private property that rains and rivers do not take in account.

In the Maghreb, the management of water distributed by a khettara (the local name for qanâts) follows traditional distribution norms called “water rights”. Originally, the volume of water granted per user was proportional to the work contributed to build the khettara, translated into an irrigation time during which the beneficiary had access to the entire flow of the khettara for his fields. Even today, when the khettara has not dried up, this rule of the right to water persists and a share can be sold or bought. Because it is also necessary to take into account the surface area of the fields to be irrigated by each family.

The causes of the decline of the qanâts are numerous. Without endorsing the catastrophist theses of an anti-human ecology, it must be noted that in the face of the increasing urban population, the random construction of dams and the digging of deep wells equipped with electric pumps have disturbed and often depleted the aquifers and water tables.

A neoliberal ideology, falsely described as “modern”, also prefers the individualistic “manager” of a well to a collective management organized among neighbors and villages. A passive State authority has done the rest. In the absence of more thoughtful reflection on its future, the age-old system of qanâts is on the verge of extinction as a result.

In the meantime, the Iranian population has grown from 40 to over 82 million in 40 years. Instead of living off oil, the country is seeking to prosper through agriculture and industry. As a result, the need for water has increased substantially. To cope with rising demands, Iran is desalinating sea water at great cost. Its civilian nuclear program will be the key factor to provide water at a reasonable cost.

Beyond political and religious divisions, closer cooperation between all the countries in the region (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.) with a perspective to improve, develop, manage and share water resources, will be beneficial to each and all.

Presented as an “Oasis Plan” and promoted for decades by the American thinker and economist Lyndon LaRouche, such a policy, translating word into action, is the only basis of a true peace policy.

Bibliography :

  • Remy Boucharlat, The falaj or qanât, a polycentric and multi-period invention, ArcheOrient – Le Blog, September 2015 ;
  • Pierre Lombard, Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanat, Persée, 1991 ;
  • Aly Mazaheri, La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, Persée, 1973 ;
  • Hassan Ahmadi, Arash Malekian, Aliakbar Nazari Samani, The Qanat: A Living History in Iran, January 2010;
  • Evelyne Ferron, Egyptians, Persians and Romans: the interests and stakes of the development of Egyptian oasis environments.

NOTE:

[1] The ten cities forming the Decapolis were: 1) Damascus in Syria, much further north, sometimes considered an honorary member of the Decapolis; 2) Philadelphia (Amman in Jordan); 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras in Jordan); 4) Scythopolis (Baysan or Beit-Shean in Israel), which is said to be its capital; It is the only city west of the Jordan River; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis in Jordan); 6) Hippos (Hippus or Sussita, in Israel); 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari in Syria); 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil in Jordan); 9) Gerasa (Jerash in Jordan) and 10) Canatha (Qanawat in Syria)

Merci de partager !

Qanâts perses et Civilisation des eaux cachées

aqueduc souterrain
Journée internationale du lavage des mains, organisée par UNICEF.

Par Karel Vereycken, juillet 2021.

A une époque où d’anciennes maladies reviennent et où de nouvelles émergent à l’échelle mondiale, la vulnérabilité tragique d’une grande partie de l’humanité pose un immense défi.

On se demande s’il faut rire ou pleurer quand les autorités internationales claironnent sans plus de précisions que pour enrayer la pandémie de Covid-19, il « suffit » de bien se laver les mains à l’eau et au savon !

Ils oublient un petit détail : 3 milliards de personnes ne disposent pas d’installations pour se laver les mains chez elles et 1,4 milliard n’ont aucun accès, ni à l’eau, ni au savon !

Pourtant, depuis la nuit des temps, l’homme a su rendre l’eau disponible dans les endroits les plus reculés.

Voici un aperçu d’une merveille du génie humain, les qanâts perses, une technique de canalisations souterraines datant de l’âge de fer. Sans doute d’origine égyptienne, elle fut mise en œuvre à grande échelle en Perse à partir du début du 1er millénaire avant notre ère.

Le qanât ou aqueduc souterrain

Parfois appelé « forage horizontal », le qanât est un aqueduc souterrain servant à puiser dans une nappe phréatique pour l’acheminer par simple effet de gravitation vers des lieux d’habitation et de cultures. Certains qanâts comprennent des aires de repos pour les travailleurs, des réservoirs d’eau, des salles d’eau souterraines et même des moulins à eau. Le mot qanâts, vieux mot sémitique, probablement accadien, dérivé d’une racine qanat (roseau) d’où viennent canna et canal.

Cette « galerie drainante », taillée dans la roche ou construite par l’homme, est certainement l’une des inventions les plus ingénieuses pour l’irrigation dans les régions arides et semi-arides. La technique offre un avantage non négligeable : se déplaçant dans un conduit souterrain, pas une goutte d’eau ne se perd par évaporation.

Diffusion de la technique des qanâts perses dans le monde.

C’est cette technique qui permet à l’homme de créer des oasis en plein désert, lorsqu’une nappe phréatique est suffisamment proche de la surface du sol ou parfois sur le lit d’une rivière venant se perdre dans le désert.

Copiée et utilisée par les Romains, la technique des qanâts a été transportée par les Espagnols de l’autre côté de l’Atlantique vers le nouveau monde, où de nombreux canaux souterrains de ce type fonctionnent encore au Pérou et au Chili. En fait, il existe même des qanâts perses dans l’ouest du Mexique.

Si aujourd’hui, ce système triplement millénaire n’est pas forcément applicable partout pour résoudre les problèmes de pénurie d’eau dans les régions arides et semi-arides, il a de quoi nous inspirer en tant que démonstration du génie humain dans ce qu’il a de meilleur, c’est-à-dire capable de faire beaucoup avec peu.

Les oasis d’Égypte

Le génie de l’homme à l’œuvre : l’oasis de Dakhleh, en plein désert égyptien, alimenté par des qanâts.

Dès les balbutiements de la civilisation égyptienne, des techniques d’irrigation et de stockage de l’eau des crues du Nil furent développées afin de conserver cette eau limoneuse, riche en nutriments, pour l’utiliser tout au long de l’année. L’eau du fleuve était déviée et transportée par canaux vers les champs grâce à la gravité. Puisque l’eau du Nil ne parvenait pas dans les oasis, les Égyptiens utilisèrent l’eau jaillissante des sources, provenant des grandes réserves aquifères du désert de l’Ouest, et acheminée vers les terres par des canaux d’irrigation.

Le résultat de cette tentative de conquête du désert fut une habitation soutenue de l’oasis de Dakhleh tout au long de l’époque pharaonique, explicable non seulement par un intérêt commercial de la part de l’État égyptien, mais aussi par de nouvelles possibilités agricoles.

Aqueducs Romains

Avec ses 170 km, dont 106 en souterrain, le qanât de Gadara (actuellement en Jordanie) est le plus grand aqueduc de l’Antiquité. Il part d’une source d’eau de montagne retenue par un barrage (à droite) pour alimenter une série de villes à l’Est du Jourdain, en particulier Gadara, proche du lac Tibériade.
Le Qanât Fi’raun, ou aqueduc de Gadara, en Jordanie.

Plus proche de nous, le Qanât Fir’aun (Le cours d’eau du Pharaon) également connu comme l’aqueduc de Gadara, aujourd’hui en Jordanie.

En l’état actuel de nos connaissances, cet édifice de 170 kilomètres, qui alterne, en fonction de la géographie, plusieurs pont-aqueducs (du même type que celui du Gard en France) et 106 km de canaux souterrains utilisant la technique des qanâts perses.

Il est aussi le plus long aqueduc de l’Antiquité, et surtout le plus complexe et le fruit d’un long travail d’ingénierie hydraulique.

En réalité, les Romains ont achevé au IIe siècle un vieux projet visant à approvisionner en eau la Décapole, un ensemble de dix villes fondées par des colons grecs et macédoniens sous le roi séleucide Antiochos III (223 – 187 av. JC), un des successeurs d’Alexandre le Grand.

La Décapole était un groupe de dix villes [*] situées à la frontière orientale de l’Empire romain (aujourd’hui en Syrie, en Jordanie et en Israël), regroupées en raison de leur langue, de leur culture, de leur emplacement et de leur statut politique, chacune possédant un certain degré d’autonomie et d’autogestion.

Sa capitale, Gadara, abritait plus de 50 000 personnes et se distinguait par son atmosphère cosmopolite, sa propre université avec des érudits, attirant écrivains, artistes, philosophes et poètes.

Mais il manquait quelque chose à cette ville riche : une abondance d’eau.

Entrée du qanât à Gadara, Jordanie.

Le qanât de Gadara a changé tout cela. « Rien que dans la capitale, il y avait des milliers de fontaines, d’abreuvoirs et de thermes. Les riches sénateurs se rafraîchissaient dans des piscines privées et décoraient leurs jardins de grottes rafraîchissantes. Il en résultait une consommation quotidienne record de plus de 500 litres d’eau par habitant », explique Matthias Schulz, auteur d’un reportage sur l’aqueduc dans Spiegel Online.

La Perse

Le Jardin de Shahzadeh en Iran, un oasis construit grâce à la technique millénaire des qanâts.

Travaux de maintenance d’un qanât.

La technique des qanâts, reprise et mise en œuvre par les Romains, leur était parvenue de Perse.

En effet, c’est sous L’Empire des Achéménides (vers 559 – 330 av. JC.), que cette technique se serait répandue lentement depuis la Perse vers l’est et l’ouest.

On trouve ainsi de nombreux qanâts en Afrique du Nord (Maroc, Algérie, Libye), au Moyen-Orient (Iran, Oman, Irak) et plus à l’est, en Asie centrale, de l’Afghanistan jusqu’en Chine (Xinjiang) en passant par l’Inde.

Ces galeries drainantes ou galeries de captage émergentes sont attestées dans différentes régions du monde sous des noms divers : qanât et kareez en Iran, Syrie et Égypte, kariz, kehriz au Pakistan et en Afghanistan, aflaj à Oman, galeria en Espagne, kahn au Baloutchistan, kanerjing en Chine, foggara en Afrique du Nord, khettara au Maroc, ngruttati en Sicile, bottini à Sienne, etc.).

Historiquement, la majorité des populations d’Iran et d’autres régions arides d’Asie ou d’Afrique du Nord dépendait de l’eau fournie par les qanâts ; les espaces de peuplement correspondaient ainsi aux lieux où leur construction était possible.

Dans son article « Du rythme naturel au rythme humain : vie et mort d’une technique traditionnelle, le qanât », Pierre Lombard, chercheur au CNRS, relève qu’il ne s’agit pas d’un procédé artisanal et marginal :

La technique ancestrale du qanât revêtait il y a quelques années encore une importance parfois méconnue en Asie centrale, en Iran, en Syrie, ou encore dans les pays de la péninsule arabique. A titre d’exemple, la Public Authority for Water Ressources du Sultanat d’Oman estimait en 1982 que l’ensemble des qanâts encore en activité convoyaient plus de 70 % du total de l’eau utilisée dans ce pays et irriguaient près de 55 % des terres à céréales. L’Oman demeurait certes alors l’un des rares Etats du Moyen-Orient à entretenir et parfois même développer son réseau de qanâts ; cette situation, hormis sa longévité, n’apparaît pourtant en rien exceptionnelle. Si l’on se tourne vers les bordures du Plateau iranien, on peut constater avec Wulff (1968) le décalage évident entre la relative aridité de cette zone (entre 100 et 250 mm de précipitations annuelles) et ses productions agricoles non négligeables, et l’expliquer par l’un des plus denses réseaux de qanâts du Moyen-Orient. On peut aussi rappeler que jusqu’à la construction du barrage du Karaj au début des années 60, les deux millions d’habitants que comptait alors Téhéran consommaient exclusivement l’eau apportée depuis le piémont de l’Elbourz par plusieurs dizaines de qanâts régulièrement entretenus. On peut enfin évoquer le cas de quelques oasis majeures du Proche et Moyen-Orient (Kharga en Egypte, Layla en Arabie saoudite, Al Ain aux Émirats arabes unis, etc.) ou d’Asie centrale (Turfan, dans le Turkestan chinois,) qui doivent leur vaste développement, sinon leur existence même à cette technique remarquable.

Sur le site ArchéOrient, l’archéologue Rémy Boucharlat, directeur de Recherche émérite au CNRS, spécialiste de l’Iran, explique :

Quelle que soit l’origine de l’eau, profonde ou non, la technique de construction de la galerie est la même. Il s’agit d’abord de repérer la présence de l’eau, soit son sous-écoulement à proximité d’un cours d’eau, soit la présence d’une nappe plus profonde sur un piémont, ce qui nécessite la science et l’expérience de spécialistes. Un puits-mère atteint la partie supérieure de cette couche ou nappe d’eau, qui indique à quelle profondeur devra être creusée la galerie. La pente de celle-ci doit être très faible, moins de 2‰, afin que l’écoulement de l’eau soit calme et régulier, et pour conduire peu à peu l’eau vers la surface, selon un gradient bien inférieur à la pente du piémont.

La galerie est ensuite creusée, non pas depuis le puits-mère car elle serait immédiatement inondée, mais depuis l’aval, à partir du point d’arrivée. Le conduit est d’abord creusé en tranchée ouverte, puis couverte, pour enfin s’enfoncer peu à peu dans le sol en tunnel. Pour l’évacuation des terres et la ventilation pendant le creusement, ainsi que pour repérer la direction de la galerie, des puits sont creusés depuis la surface à intervalles réguliers, entre 5 et 30 m selon la nature du terrain.

Qanâts iraniens, vue du ciel sur les puits d’aération et de service.

En avril 1973, notre ami, le professeur et historien franco-iranien Aly Mazahéri (1914-1991), publia sa traduction de La civilisation des eaux cachées, un traité de l’exploitation des eaux souterraines composé en 1017 par l’hydrologue perse Mohammed Al-Karaji, qui vécut à Bagdad.

Après une introduction et des considérations générales sur la géographie du globe, les phénomènes naturels, le cycle de l’eau, l’étude des terrains et les instruments de l’hydronome, Al-Karaji donne une description technique de la construction et de l’entretien des qanâts, ainsi que des considérations juridiques sur la gestion des puits et des conduites.

Dans son introduction au traité d’Al-Karji, le professeur Aly Mazahéri souligne le rôle de la ville iranienne de Merv (aujourd’hui au Turkménistan).

Cette ville antique faisait partie de

la longue série d’oasis s’étendant au pied du versant nord du plateau iranien, de la Caspienne aux premiers contreforts des Pamirs. Là, entre l’extension géologique de la Caspienne vers l’Est, se trouve une bande de terre arable, plus ou moins large, mais fort riche. Or, pour l’exploiter, il faut énormément d’ingéniosité : là où, par exemple à Merv, un grand cours d’eau, tel le Marghab, issu des glaciers du massif central est-iranien, franchit la chaîne, il faut établir des barrages, au-dessus de la bande de terre arable, sans quoi, le ’fleuve’ divisé en plusieurs dizaines de bras se précipite sous les sables. Ailleurs, et c’est presque tout au long du versant nord de la chaîne, on peut créer des oasis artificielles, en amenant l’eau par des aqueducs souterrains. (p. 44)

Commentaire sur les qanâts dans le traité d’Al-Karaji (XIe siècle).

La construction de barrages et celle d’aqueducs souterrains sont parmi les legs les plus intéressants de leurs techniques d’irrigation (…) Bien avant l’islam, les hydronomes perses avaient construit des milliers d’aqueducs, permettant la création de centaines de villages, de dizaines de villes auparavant inconnues. Et très souvent, là même où il y avait une rivière, en raison de l’insuffisance de celle-ci, les hydronomes avaient mis au jour nombre d’aqueducs permettant l’extension de la culture et le développement de la ville. Naishabur était une ville de ce genre. Sous les Sassanides, puis sous les califes, un important réseau d’aqueducs y avait été créé, de sorte que les habitants pouvaient s’offrir le luxe de posséder chacun une ‘salle d’eau’ au sous-sol, au niveau de l’aqueduc desservant la maison.

Salle d’eau d’un qanât au sous-sol du Musée de l’eau à Yadz, Iran.

Rappelons que la plupart des savants perses, notamment le fameux mathématicien Al-Khwarizmi, ne souffrant pas de l’hyper spécialisation qui tend à brider la pensée créatrice, excellaient aussi bien en mathématique, en géométrie, en astronomie et en médecine qu’en hydrologie.

Mazaheri confirme que cette « civilisation des eaux souterraines » s’est répandue bien au-delà des frontières iraniennes :

Déjà, sous le calife Hisham (723-42), des hydronomes persans construisirent entre Damas et La Mecque des aqueducs (…) Plus tard, La Mecque souffrant du manque d’eau, Zubayda, l’épouse de Hâroun Al-Rachîd, y envoya des hydronomes persans qui dotèrent la ville d’un grand aqueduc souterrain. Et chaque fois que celui-ci venait à être ensablé, une nouvelle équipe partait de Perse pour y restaurer le réseau : de telles réfections eurent lieu périodiquement sous Al-Muqtadir (908-32), sous Al-Qa’im (1031-1075), sous Al-Naçir (1180-1226) et, au début du XIVe siècle, sous le prince mongol l’émir Tchoban. Nous dirions autant de Médine et des étapes sur la route du pèlerinage, entre Bagdad et La Mecque, partout où il était possible de le faire, des travaux hydronomiques furent entrepris et des ‘aqueducs souterrains’ furent créés.

« L’hydronomie est un art pénible. Il ne suffisait pas, pour l’exercer, de posséder des connaissances mathématiques : calcul décadique, algèbre, trigonométrie, etc., il fallait passer de longues heures dans les galeries au risque d’y mourir par inondation, éboulement ou manque d’air. Il fallait posséder un instinct ancestral de ‘sourcier’. 

Les précipitations annuelles en Iran sont de 273 mm, soit moins d’un tiers des précipitations annuelles moyennes mondiales.

La distribution temporelle et spatiale des précipitations n’est pas uniforme ; environ 75 % concernent une petite zone, principalement sur la côte sud de la mer Caspienne, alors que le reste du pays ne reçoit pas de précipitations suffisantes. À l’échelle temporelle, seulement 25 % des précipitations ont lieu pendant la saison de croissance des plantes.

Les qanâts iraniens : 7,7 x la circonférence de la Terre

Toujours utilisés aujourd’hui, les qanâts sont construits comme une série de tunnels souterrains et de puits qui amènent les eaux souterraines à la surface. Aujourd’hui, en Iran, ils fournissent environ 7,6 milliards de m3, soit 15 % du total des besoins en eau du pays.

Si l’on considère que la longueur moyenne de chaque qanât est de 6 km dans la plupart des régions du pays, la longueur totale des 30 000 systèmes de qanât (potentiellement exploitables aujourd’hui) est d’environ 310 800 km, soit environ 7,7 fois la circonférence de la Terre ou 6/7 de la distance Terre-Lune !

Cela montre l’énorme travail et l’énergie utilisés pour la construction des qanâts. En fait, alors que plus de 38 000 qanats étaient en activité en Iran jusqu’en 1966, ce nombre est tombé à 20 000 en 1998 et est actuellement estimé à 18 000. Selon le quotidien iranien Tehran Times, plus de 120 000 sites de qanâts sont documentés.

De plus, alors qu’en 1965, 30 à 50 % des besoins totaux en eau de l’Iran étaient couverts par les qanâts, ce chiffre est tombé à 15 % au cours des dernières décennies.

Comme le précise le site Face Iran :

Le débit des qanâts est estimé entre 500 et 750 mètres-cubes seconde. Comme l’aridité n’est pas totale, cette quantité sert d’appoint plus ou moins important suivant l’abondance des pluies de chaque région. Ceci permet d’utiliser de bonnes terres qui seraient autrement stériles. L’importance de l’emiètement ainsi réalisé sur le désert se résume en un chiffre : environ 3 millions d’hectares. En sept siècles de travail acharné, les Hollandais conquirent sur les marais ou sur la mer 1,5 million d’hectares. En trois millénaires, les Iraniens ont conquis le double sur le désert.

En effet, à chaque nouveau qanât correspondait un nouveau village, de nouvelles terres. D’où un nouveau groupe humain absorbait les excédents démographiques. Peu à peu se constituait le paysage iranien. Au débouché du qanât, se trouve la maison du chef, souvent à un étage. Elle est entouré des maisons des villageois, des abris des animaux, de jardins et de cultures maraichères.

La distribution des terrains et les jours d’irrigation des parcelles étaient réglés par le chef des villages. Ainsi un qanât imposait une solidarité entre les habitants.

Si chaque qanât est conçu et surveillé par un mirab (sourcier-hydrologue et découvreur), réaliser un qanât est un travail collectif qui demande plusieurs mois ou années, même pour les qanâts de dimensions moyennes, sans même parler des ouvrages aux dimensions records (puits-mère de 300 m de profondeur, galerie longue de 70 km classée en 2016 au Patrimoine mondial de l’humanité par l’UNESCO, dans le nord-est de l’Iran).

L’entreprise est réalisée par un village ou un groupe de villages. La nécessité absolue d’un investissement collectif dans l’infrastructure et sa maintenance nécessite une notion supérieure du bien commun, complément indispensable à la notion de propriété privée que les pluies et les fleuves n’ont guère l’habitude de respecter.

Au Maghreb, la gestion des eaux distribuées par une khettara (nom local des qanâts) obéit à des normes traditionnelles de répartition appelées « droit d’eau ». À l’origine, le volume d’eau octroyé par usager était proportionnel aux travaux fournis lors de l’édification de la khettara et se traduisait en un temps d’irrigation durant lequel le bénéficiaire disposait de l’ensemble du débit de la khettara pour ses champs. Encore aujourd’hui, lorsque la khettara n’est pas tarie, cette règle du droit d’eau perdure et une part peut se vendre ou s’acheter. Car il faut aussi prendre en compte la superficie des champs à irriguer de chaque famille.

Le déclin

Les causes du déclin des qanâts sont multiples. Sans endosser les thèses catastrophistes d’une écologie anti-humaine, force est de constater que face à l’augmentation de la population urbaine, la construction irréfléchie de barrages et le creusement de puits profonds équipés de pompes électriques, ont perturbé et souvent épuisé les nappes phréatiques.

Une idéologie néolibérale, faussement qualifiée de « moderne », préfère également le « manager » d’un puits à une gestion collective entre voisins et villages. Un Etat absent a fait le reste. Faute d’une réflexion plus réfléchie sur son avenir, le système millénaire des qanâts est en voie de disparition.

Entretemps, la population iranienne est passé de 40 à plus de 82 millions d’habitants en 40 ans. Au lieu de vivre de la rente pétrolière, le pays cherche à prospérer grâce à son agriculture et son industrie. Du coup, les besoins en eau explosent. Pour y faire face, l’Iran procède au dessalement de l’eau de mer. Son programme nucléaire civil sera la clé pour en réduire le coût.

Au-delà des divisions politiques et religieuses, une coopération resserrée entre tous les pays de la région (Turquie, Syrie, Irak, Israël, Egypte, Jordanie, etc.) en vue de l’amélioration, du partage et de la gestion des ressources hydriques, sera forcément bénéfique à chacun.

Présentée comme un « Plan Oasis » et promue depuis des décennies par le penseur et économiste américain Lyndon LaRouche, une telle politique, bien mieux que milles traités et autant de paroles, est la base même d’une véritable politique de paix.

Sites de qanâts en Syrie

Bibliographie :


[*] Les dix villes formant la Décapole étaient : 1) Damas en Syrie, bien plus au nord, parfois considérée comme un membre honorifique de la Décapole ; 2) Philadelphia (Amman en Jordanie) ; 3) Rhaphana (Capitolias, Bayt Ras en Jordanie) ; 4) Scythopolis (Baysan ou Beït-Shéan en Israël), qui en serait la capitale ; c’est la seule ville à se trouver à l’ouest du Jourdain ; 5) Gadara (Umm Qeis en Jordanie) ; 6) Hippos (Hippus ou Sussita, en Israël) ; 7) Dion (Tell al-Ashari en Syrie) ; 8) Pella (Tabaqat Fahil en Jordanie) ; 9) Gerasa (Jerash en Jordanie) et 10) Canatha (Qanawat en Syrie).

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Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament

By Karel Vereycken

(texte original en français)

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave.”
“Seek knowledge even as far as China.”

Sayings (Hadith) most often attributed to the Prophet.

PROLOGUE

We live in a time of cruel stupidity. While the history of civilization is characterized by multiple cultural contributions allowing an infinite and magnificent mutual enrichment, everything is done to dehumanize us.

By dint of media coverage of the most extreme crimes, notably by claiming that such and such an abject or barbaric act has been committed « in the name » of such and such a belief or religion, everything is done to set us against each other. If we do not react, the famous thesis of a « Clash of Civilizations », concocted by the British Islamologist Bernard Lewis (Henry Kissinger’s, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s and Samuel Huntington’s mentor) as an evil tool of geopolitical manipulation, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

INTRODUCTION

In order to combat prejudices and dangerous misunderstandings about “Islam” (with 1.6 billion believers a non-negligible part of the world’s population), here follows a brief overview of the major contributions of the Arab-Muslim civilization.

By recalling two major contributions of the “Golden Age” of Islam, notably Arab astronomy and mutazilism, what is at stake here is the recognition that –just like Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, Athens and Rome– Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were major crucibles of a universal civilization which is ours today.

While Europe has come to recognize that the invention of printing took place in China long before Gutenberg, and that America was visited way before Christopher Columbus, consensus and group think keeps repeating that the Arabs contributed nothing to the progress of science.

In the 1300 years separating the Greek astronomer from Alexandria, Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100-178 AD) from the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), they pretend, nothing but “a black hole”.

In 1958, in his book The Sleepwalkers, British Hungarian writer Alfred Koestler, who helped Sydney Hook to co-found the CIA’s cultural cold war front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, epitomized western arrogance, writing:

the Arabs had merely been the go-betweens, preservers and transmitters of the heritage. They had little scientific originality and creativeness of their own. During the centuries when they were the sole keepers of the treasure, they did little to put it to use. (…) and by the fifteenth century, the scientific heritage of Islam had largely been taken over by the Portuguese Jews. But the Jews, too, were no more than go-betweens, a branch of the devious Gulf-stream which brought back to Europe its Greek and Alexandrine heritage, enriched by Indian and Persian additions.

Nothing is more false. Definitely, one must be born on the right spot to be allowed to have a seat in the train of history…

Copernicus himself, unlike Koestler, was perfectly familiar with Arab astronomy. In 1543, in his De Revolutionibus, he quotes several Arab scientists, more precisely Al-Battani, al-Bitruji, al-Zarqallu, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Thabit ibn Qurra. Copernicus also refers to al-Battani in his Commentariolus, a manuscript published posthumously. Later, the great Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) would also refer to Ibn Al-Haytam in his work on optics.

In reality, Copernicus and even more Kepler, whose creative genius cannot be overrated, came up with answers to questions raised by several generations of Arab astronomers preceding them and whose contribution remains largely ignored and even worse, unexplored. To this day, with about 10,000 manuscripts preserved throughout the world, a large part of which has still not been the subject of a bibliographic inventory, the Arab astronomical corpus constitutes one of the best preserved components of medieval scientific literature waiting to be rediscovered.

Science and religion versus slavery

Miniature of emancipated slave Bilal, Islams first Muezzin.

Before examining the contributions of Arab astronomy, a few words about the intimate link between Islam and the development of science.

According to tradition, it was in 622 AD that the Prophet Muhammad and his companions left Mecca and set out for a simple oasis that would become the city of Medina.

If this event is known as the “Hegira”, an Arabic word for emigration, break-up or exile, it is also because Mohammad broke with a societal model based on blood ties (clan organization), in favor of a model of a shared destiny based on belief. In this new religious and societal model, where each person is supposed to be a “brother,” it is no longer permissible to abandon the poor or the weak as was the case before.

The powerful clans in Mecca did everything they could to eliminate this new form of society, which diminished their influence.

The “Medina Constitution” allegedly proclaimed equality among all believers, whether they were free men or slaves, Arabs or non-Arabs.

The Koran advocates strict equality between Arabs and non-Arabs in accordance with the Prophet, who said, in his farewell address:

“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”

(Reported by Al-Bayhaqi and authenticated by Shaykh Albani in Silsila Sahiha no. 2700).

Hence, if after the Prophet’s passing away, slavery and slave trade became a common practice in close to all Muslim countries, he cannot be held accountable. Zayd Ibn Harithah, according to tradition, after having been the slave of Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, was freed and even adopted by Muhammad as his own son.

For his part, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s companion and successor as the first Caliph (Arab word for “successor”), also freed Bilal ibn-Raba, the son of a former Abyssinian princess who had been enslaved. Bilal, who had a magnificent voice, was even appointed the first muezzin, that is to say the one who calls for prayer five times a day from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province, Afghanistan.

Among the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad one finds :

Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous,
Who taught by the pen — Taught man that which he knew not.”

(Surat 96).

The Prophet also states,

The best among you (Muslims) are those who learn the Koran and teach it.”

Other sayings, often attributed to the Prophet, clearly invite Muslims to seek knowledge and cherish science :

The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave”.
Seek knowledge even as far as China”.

Historical center of Samarkand (Ouzbekistan). The Registan and its three madrasahs.
Astronomical and mathematical notations. Manuscript page from Timbuktu.

The mosque is therefore much more than a place of worship, it is a school of all sciences, where scholars are trained. It serves as a social and educational institution: it may be completed with a madrassa (Koranic school), a library, a training center, or even a university.

As in most religions, in Islam, practices and rituals are punctuated by astronomical events (years, seasons, months, days, hours). Every worshipper must pray five times a day at times that vary depending on where he or she is on Earth: at sunrise (Ajr), when the sun is at its zenith (Dhohr), in the afternoon (Asr), at sunset (Magrib) and at the beginning of the night (Icha). Astronomy, as a spiritual occasion to fine-tune one’s earthly existence according to the harmony of the Heavens, is omnipresent.

As an example, to underscore its importance, July 16, 622 AD, the first day of the lunar year, was declared the first day of the Hegira calendar. And during the eclipse of the sun, mosques host a special prayer.

Islam encourages Muslims to guide themselves by the stars. The Koran states :

And He is the One who made the stars for you
to guide you with them in darkness of the land and the sea”.

With such an incentive, early Muslims could not but feel compelled to perfect astronomical and navigational instruments. As a result, today more than half of the stars used for navigation bear Arabic names. It was only natural that the faithful constantly tried to improve astronomical calculations and observations.

The first reason to do so is that during the Muslim prayer, the worshipper has to prostrate himself in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, so he has to know how to find this direction wherever he is on Earth. And the construction of a mosque will be decided according to the same data.

The second reason is the Muslim calendar. The Koran states :

The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)-
so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth;
of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage.”

Clearly, the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar months, which are approximately 29.5 days long. But 12 times 29.5 days is only 345 days in the year. This is far from the 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds that measure the duration of the rotation of the Earth around the Sun…

Finally, a last challenge was posed by the interpretation of the lunar movement. The months, in the Muslim religion, do not begin with the astronomical new moon, defined as the moment when the moon has the same ecliptic longitude as the sun (it is therefore invisible, drowned in the solar albedo); the months begin when the lunar crescent starts to appear at dusk.

The Koran says: “(Muhammad), they ask you about the different phases of the moon. Tell them that they are there to indicate to people the phases of time and the pilgrimage season.”

For all these reasons, the Muslims could not be satisfied with either the Christian or the Hebrew calendar, and had to create a new one.

Spherical geometry

In order to forecast the phases of the moon, new methods of calculation and new instruments capable of observing them were required. The calculation of the day when the crescent moon starts to become visible again was a formidable challenge for the Arab scholars. To predict this day, it was necessary to be able to describe its movement in relation to the horizon, a problem whose resolution belongs to a rather sophisticated spherical geometry.

It was the determination of the direction of Mecca from a given location and the time of prayers that led the Muslims to develop such geometry. To solve these problems, it is necessary to know how to calculate the side of a spherical triangle of the celestial sphere from its three angles and the other two sides; to find the exact time, for example, it is necessary to know how to construct the triangle whose vertices are the zenith, the north pole, and the position of the Sun.

The field of astronomy has strongly stimulated the birth of other sciences, in particular geometry, mathematics, geography and cartography. Some people like to recall that Platonists and Aristotelians were arguing about rather abstract concepts, each of them believing that reason was sufficient to understand nature. Arab astronomy, on the other hand, played a decisive role in the emergence of a true scientific method by verifying the various hypotheses, by building measuring instruments and astronomical observatories and by rigorously recording observations over many years.

MUTAZILISM

Socrates discussng philosophy with his disciples, Arabic miniature from a manuscript, Turkey 13th Century.

The question then arises as to where this infatuation with science and astronomy could have come from, in a culture essentially centered on religion?

A first answer comes from the fact that in the 8th century, shortly after the birth of Sunnism (656), Kharidjism (657) and Shi’ism (660), but independently of these currents, a school of Muslim theological and philosophical thought appeared, founded by the revolutionary theologian Wasil ibn Ata (700-748), a current known as “mutazilism” (or motazilism), branded in the West as “the rationalists” of Islam. One explanation of its name came from the fact that the mutazili refused to take part in the internal strife inside factions using theological interpretations for earthly power, the arab word iʿtazala meaning “to withdraw”.

Wasil was born in Medina in the Arabian Peninsula and moved to Basra, now in Iraq. From there he formed an intellectual movement that spread all over the Arab-Muslim world. Many of his followers were merchants and non-Arabs (mawâlî) from Iranian or Aramaic “converted” families, victims of the Omayyad dynasty’s discriminating policies between Arabs and non-Arabs. This hypothesis is sufficient to back the claim of a Mutazilite participation in the overthrow of the Omayyad and that dynasty’s replacement with the Abbasid.

In a clear break with dualistic cosmology (Mazdeism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, etc.), Mutazilism insists on the absolute unity of God, conceived as an entity outside time and space. For them, there is a close relationship between the unity of the Muslim community (Ummah) and the worship of the Lord. The Mutazilites are closely inspired by the Koran, and it is quite wrong to present them as the “free thinkers” of Islam.

However, “we reject faith as the only way to religion if it rejects reason,” the Mutazilite saying goes. Relying on reason (the logos dear to the Greek thinkers Socrates and Plato), which it considers compatible with Islamic doctrines, Mutazilism affirms that man can, outside of any divine revelation, access knowledge.

Just as Augustine, a christian, emphasized man can advance on the path of truth, not only through the Gospel (revelation), but by reading “the Book of Nature”, a reflection and foretaste of divine wisdom. One book of the Bible, The Book of Wisdom, recognizes that

For from the greatness and the beauty of created things
their original author,
by analogy, is seen.

(Book of Wisdom, 13:5)

The Mutazilites differed from their opponents in their teaching that God has endowed man with reason specifically so that he can come to know the moral order in creation and its Creator; that is what reason is for. Reason is central to man’s relationship to God.

In the Fundamentals, the great Mutazilite theologian Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad (935-1025), whose texts were discovered only in the 1950’s by Egyptian scholars in a mosque in Yemen, begins by positing the primary duty to reason: « If it is asked: What is the first duty that God imposes you? Say to him: Speculative reasoning which leads to knowledge of God, because He is not known intuitively or by the senses. Thus, He must be known by reflection and speculation ».

Therefore, Reason logically precedes revelation. Reason first needs to establish the existence of God before undertaking the question as to whether God has spoken to man. Natural theology mus be antecedent to theology.

Al Jabbar says: « The stipulates of revelation concerning what we should say and do are no good until after there is knowledge of God, » which knowledge comes from reason. « Therefore, » he concludes, « it is incumbent on me to establish His existence and to know Him so that I can worship Him, give Him thanks and do what satisfies Him and avoid disobedience toward Him ».

How does Reason lead man to the conclusion of God’s existance? It is through the observation of the ordered universe that man first comes to know that God exists, says Al Jabbar. As he sees hat nothing in the world is its own cause, but is caused by something else, man arrives at the contingent nature of creation. From there, man reasons to the necessity of a Creator, an uncaused cause.

The concept of an inherent nature in things (tab’) means that God, though he is the First Cause, acts indirectly through secondary causes, such as the physical law of gravity. In other words, God does not immediately or directly do everything. He does not make a rock fall; gravity does. God allows some autonomy in his creation, which has its own set of rules, according to how it was made.

As Mutazilite writer and theologian Uthman al-Jahiz (765-869) stated, every material element has it own nature. God created each thing with a nature according to which it consistently behaves. The unsupported rock will always fall where there is gravitational pull. These laws of nature, then, are not an imposition of order from without by a commander-in-chief, but an expression of it from within the very essence of things, which have their own integrity. Creation is possessed of an intrinsic rationality from the Creator. That is why and how man is able to understand God’s Reason as manifested in his creation (This does not discount God’s ability to supercede natural laws in the case of a miracle). From that standpoint, the act of discovery of the nature and beauty of things, by each human individual, brings him closer to God.

Hence, Muzatilism gives human reason (the faculty of thinking) and freedom (the faculty of acting) a place and importance not only unknown in other trends of Islam but even in most philosophical and religious currents of the time. Against fatalism (“mektoub!” = it was written!), which was the dominant tendency in Islam, mutazilism affirms that the human being is responsible for his acts.

More than five centuries before Erasmus, Mutazilite faith and philosophy offered already the foundations to solve most of the sterile theological disputes that would destroy the Renaissance and throw Europe in the abyss of self-destruction known as the “wars of religion”.

Here are the five Fundamentals (Principles), described by Abdel al Jabbar and summarized in 2015 by economist Nadim Michel Kalife:

Monotheism (Al Tawhid) whose concept of God is beyond the simple intellect of the human mind. That is why the verses of the Koran describing God “sitting” on a throne should be interpreted only allegorically and not literally. Hence the Mutazilites called their opponents anthropomorphists who sought to reduce God who is unknowable to a human appearance. And they concluded that this one detail (!) of the Koran is sufficient to prove that the Koran is not “uncreated” but “created” by Allah, via man, to make it accessible to the believer, and therefore, that it can and should evolve and adapt according to the times and circumstances ;

Divine justice (Adl) is about the origin of evil in our world where God is all-powerful. Mutazilism proclaims free will, where evil is man’s doing and not God’s will, because God is perfect and therefore cannot do evil or determine man to do it. And, if human wrongdoings were the will of God, punishment would lose all meaning since man would be doing nothing but respecting the divine will. This unquestionable logic allowed Mutazilism to refute predestination and the « mektoub » of the Sunni schools;

Promise and threat (al-Wa’d wa al-Wa’id): this principle concerns the judgment of man at his death and that of the last judgment where God will reward the obedient in the heavenly paradise, and punish those who disobeyed him by damning them eternally in the fires of hell;

The intermediate degree (al-manzilatu bayn al-manzilatayn), the first principle opposing Mutazilism to the Sunni schools. A great sinner (murder, theft, fornication, false accusation of fornication, drinking alcohol, etc. ) should be judged neither as a Muslim (as Sunnism thinks) nor as a disbeliever or kâfir (as the Kharidjites think), but considered in an intermediate degree from which, when he dies, he will go to hell if he failed to be redeemed by God’s mercy ;

To order the good and blame the blameworthy (al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al munkar): this principle authorizes even rebellion against authority when it is unjust and illegitimate, to prevent the victory of evil over all. This principle attracted the hatred of the ulama (theologians) and imams (predicators) who saw it as a manouver to weaken their own authority over the faithful. And the Seljuk Turks considered it a serious danger since it called into question their power… over the Arabs.

Mutazilism under the Abbasid

Abbasid Caliphate.
Caliph with his advisors. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237.

In Baghdad, it was with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 749 that Mutazilism gained influence, first under the Caliph Hâroun al-Rachîd (765-809) (“Aaron the Well-Guided”) and then under his son, Al-Ma’mûn (786-833) (“The one to be trusted”). Shortly before his death in 833, the latter made Mutazilism the official doctrine of the Abbasid Empire.

This was too much for the conservative ulama and imams who rebelled against the Caliph’s enlightened vision that created a space for secular society and limited their grip over society. Faced with the revolt, the Abbasid administration (made up largely of Persians), which was won over to Mutazilism, carried out a ruthless crackdown on Sunni (Arab) clerics for fifteen years, from 833 to 848. This bloody persecution left an increasingly bitter taste in people’s minds, especially when the Abbasid power refused to release Muslim prisoners in the hands of the Byzantines if they did not renounce the dogma of the “uncreated” nature of the Koran…

Finally, in 848, Caliph Jafar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), changed course completely and asked the traditionalists to preach hadiths according to which Muhammad had condemned the Mutazilites and their supporters.

Dialectical theology (Kalâm) was banned and the Mutazilites were not any longer welcome at the Baghdad court. This was also the end of the spirit of tolerance and the return of persecution against Christians and Jews. If the craze for science continued, Mutazilism disappeared with the fall of the Abbasids and the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century.

Mutazilism also influenced Judaism. The Kitab Al-Amanat Wa’l-I’tiqadat – that is, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions – by the tenth-century Jewish rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon (882-942), who lived in Baghdad, draws its inspiration from Christian theological literature as well as from Islamic models. The Kitab al-Tawhid, the Book of Divine Unity, by Saadia’s Karaite contemporary, Jacob Qirqisani (d. 930), is unfortunately lost.

This makes the German Islamologist Sabine Schmidtke say:

The new tradition of Jewish rational thought that emerged in the course of the ninth century was, in its initial phase, mainly informed by Christian theological literature, both in its content and methodology. Increasingly, specifically Mutazilite Islamic ideas, such as theodicy [*1] and human free will, as well as the emphasis on the oneness of God (tawhid), resonated among Jewish thinkers, many of whom eventually adopted the entire doctrinal system of the Mutazila. The now emerging ‘Jewish Mutazila’ dominated Jewish theological thought for centuries to come.

Brothers in Purity

A Brother in Purity (1287, Epistles of the Brothers in Purity, Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul)

Also worth mentioning in this context, are the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity (Ikwân al-Safâ), an encyclopedia of 52 epistles (dealing with mathematics, natural sciences, rational sciences and theological sciences), composed between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the tenth century and containing common knowledge. The text will be promoted by the Ismailis, an esoteric branch of shiite islam strongly contesting the ruling powers of that time. Produced in Basra, in present-day Iraq, the book, neo-platonic in character, is a collective work. As for the authors, designated under the mysterious name of Brothers of Purity, they belonged to a brotherhood of sages and intellectuals who met regularly to organize sessions of discussion, readings and recitation. Its followers considered that knowledge was an indispensable condition for any spiritual and mystical elevation. Its avant-garde character is apparent in its hymn to tolerance advocating a plurality of paths to salvation. Some experts believe that the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity are the work of a high-level Pythagorean philosopher, a disciple of the mutazilist platonic, al-Kindi.

Leaving aside, therefore, the errors that were very real, it has to be recognized and underscored that the optimistic philosophical vision of Mutazilism (reason, free will, responsibility, perfectibility of man) strongly contributed to the emergence of a true « golden age » of Arab culture and sciences.

The total number of muslim scientists in the 9th Century was larger that the non-muslim scientists in the 15th Century.

Finally, it is not uninteresting to note that today, “neo-Mutazilite” currents are appearing in reaction to obscurantist doctrines and the barbaric acts they provoke. For the Egyptian reformist thinker Ahmad Amin, “the death of mutazilism was the greatest misfortune that befell Muslims; they committed a crime against themselves.”

Bagdad

Artist view of ancient Bagdad. Note the canal that runs through the city and allows it to be integrated into the natural infrastructure of the Tigris River. In reality, the surrounding area was urbanized.

In 762, the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (714-775) (“the victorious”) began construction of a new capital, Baghdad. Called Madinat-As-Salam (City of Peace), it houses the court palace, the mosque and the administrative buildings. Built on a circular plan, it is inspired by previous traditions, notably the one that gave birth to the Iranian city of Gur (current name: Firouzabad).

We are in the heart of fertile Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”, essentially the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which have their source in Turkey. It is here that the Sumerians invented irrigation, agriculture (cereals and livestock) [*3], and writing (3400 years BC), starting in the 10th millennium BC.

Baghdad, a powerful and refined city, reigned over the entire East and became the capital of the Arab world. Crossed by the Tigris River, populated today by some 10 million inhabitants, it remains the largest city in Iraq as well as the second most populated city in the Arab world (behind Cairo in Egypt).

Minaret of the Grand mosque of Samarra that many Westerners believed to be the Tower of Babel…

The Abbasid cities were built on huge sites. The palaces and mosques of Samarra, the new capital from 836, stretch along the banks of the Tigris for 40 kilometers. To match the scale of the sites, monumental buildings were erected, such as the Abu Dulaf Mosque or the Great Mosque of Samarra, which had no equivalent elsewhere. Its curious spiral minaret (52 meters high) inspired in the following centuries the Western representations of the Tower of Babel.

Moreover, by relying on an extremely disciplined and obedient army from Khorassan (a region in north-eastern Iran) [*2], as well as on an elaborate system of stagecoaches and mail distribution, the Abbasid rulers managed to increase their hold on the provincial governors. The latter, who in the time of the Omayyad caliphs paid little tax on the pretext that they had to spend locally for the defense of the caliphate’s borders, now had to pay the taxes imposed by the ruler.

The New “Paper” Road

Thanks to high quanlity paper, arab astronomical research survived.

After the military victory against the Chinese in the battle of Talas (a city in present-day Kyrgyzstan) in 751, the year that marked the most eastern advance of the Abbasid armies, Baghdad opened up to Chinese and Indian cultures.

The Abbasid quickly assimilated a number of Chinese techniques, in particular paper-making, an art developed in Samarkand (capital of Sogdiana, now in Uzbekistan), another stopover city on the Silk Roads. The craftsmen of this city smoothed the paper with an agate stone. The resulting extremely smooth and shiny surface absorbed less ink and as a result, both sides of the same sheet became usable. The Chinese, who had invented silk paper, did not need to smooth their paper because they wrote with brushes and not with pens.

Hâroun al-Rachîd was very interested in the industrial production of paper. He ordered the use of paper in all the administrations of the Empire: it is easier to manufacture, less expensive and more secure than silk, because one cannot easily erase what is written on it. He developed the paper factories of Samarkand and established similar ones in Baghdad, Damascus and Tiberias around 1046 – the paper of Tripoli or Damascus was then referred to, and its quality was considered better than that of Samarkand – in Cairo before 1199, where it was used as a packaging for goods, and in Yemen at the beginning of the 13th century. At the same time, several paper factories were established in North Africa. There were 104 paper factories in Fez, Morocco, before 1106, and 400 paper mills between 1221 and 1240. They will emerge in Andalusia, Spain, in Jativa near Valencia in 1054 and in Toledo in 1085.

Agro-industrial revolution

Watermill in Cordoba, Spain.
Floating watermill, to be attached with cables in a strong current.

The first Abbasid caliphs led the economic transition from the Umayyad model of tribute, booty or the sale of slaves to an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, trade and taxes. The introduction of more energy dense modes of technologies modes of energy (compared to the former ones), will revolutionize irrigation and agriculture:

–Construction of canals ensuring irrigation and limiting flooding;
–Construction of dams and the exploitation of the mechanical energy they produce;
–Construction of water mills;
–Use of tidal energy;
–Construction of windmills;
–Distillation of kerosene used as fuel for lamps and used since. [*4]

Ancient wind mills in Persia

Industrial uses of water mills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century. During the time of the Crusades, all provinces of the Islamic world had operating mills, from al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.

These mills performed various agricultural and industrial tasks.

When Erasmus’ follower Cervantes’ Don Quichote starts attacking the windmills of La Mancha, a Spanish region where Arab influence was notable, he not only ironially mocks the cult of chivalry, but also the insane undertaking called the crusades.

Irrigation, inherited from the ancient world (floods of the Nile in Egypt, canals in Mesopotamia, pendulum wells (shadoof), water wheels used to raise water (noria), dams in Transoxiana, Khuzistan and Yemen, underground galleries at the foot of the mountains in Iran (qanat) or in the Maghreb (khettara), is organized thanks to a solid community organization and the intervention of the State.

Abbasid artisans and engineers will develop machines (such as pumps) incorporating crankshafts and use gears in mills and water-lifting machines. They will also use the dams to provide additional power to watermills and water-lifting machines. Such advances will allow the mechanization of many agricultural and industrial tasks and free up the workforce for more creative occupations.

At its peak in the tenth century, Baghdad had a population of 400,000 to 500,000. Its food survival depended entirely on an ingenious system of canals for the irrigation of crops and the management of the recurring floods of the Euphrates and Tigris. Example: the Nahrawan canal, parallel to the Tigris, which allowed the waters of the Tigris to be diverted to protect the capital from flooding.

Agricultural production gains in diversity : cereals (wheat, rice), fruits (apricots, citrus fruits), vegetables, olive oil (Syria and Palestine), sesame (Iraq), roe, rapeseed, flax or castor oil (Egypt), wine production (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), dates, bananas (Egypt), sugar cane.

Breeding remains important for food, for the supply of raw materials (wool, leather) and for transport (camels, dromedaries, horses). Sheep are present everywhere but buffalo farming is developing (marshes of lower Iraq or Orontes). Small poultry, pigeon and bee farms are in high demand. The people’s diet is predominantly vegetarian (rice cake, wheat porridge, vegetables and fruits).

A number of industries will emerge from this agro-industrial revolution, including the first textile factories, the production of ropes, silk and, as noted above, the manufacture of paper. Finally, metalworking, glassware, ceramics, tooling and crafts also experience high levels of growth during this period.

Charlemagne, Baghdad and China

Charlemagne receiving elephant, camel and other gifts sent to him by Hâroun al-Rachîd.

Finally, in the eighth and ninth centuries, seeking to counter the Omayyad and the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid and Carolingian Franks conclude several agreements and alliances.

Three diplomatic missions were sent by Charlemagne to the court of Hâroun al-Rachîd and the latter sent at least two embassies to Charlemagne. The caliph sent him many gifts, such as spices, fabrics, an elephant and an automatic clock, described in the Frankish Royal Annals of 807. It marked the 12 hours with copper balls falling on a plate at each hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at the same intervals.

The same caliph sent a diplomatic mission to Chang’an (now called Xi’an), capital of the Tang dynasty. Chang’an being the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the western market of Chang’an became the center of world trade. According to the record of the Tang Six Authority, more than 300 nations and regions had trade relations with Chang’an.

Maritime Silk Road

These diplomatic relations with China were contemporary with the maritime expansion of the Muslim world into the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Apart from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon, so transport by sea was very important. The ships of the caliphate began to sail from Siraf, the port of Basra, to India, the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia.

Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Hormuz was an important center for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean, along which Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venice or Genoa.

The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through the Abbasid caliphate between China and Europe. At that time, Canton, or Khanfu in Arabic, a port of 200,000 people in southern China, had a large community of traders from Muslim countries. And when the Chinese Emperor Yongle decided to send his famous flotilla of ships to Africa, he chose Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), a court eunuch who was born a Muslim. And when in 1497 the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama reached the Kenyan city of Malindi, he was able to obtain an Arab pilot who took him directly to Kozhikode (Calicut) in India. In short, a sailor who knew how to navigate on the stars.

Scientific and cultural renaissance

Thus, it is under the caliphate of Hâroun al-Rachîd and his son Al-Ma’mûn, that Baghdad and the Abbasids will experience a real golden age, both in the sciences (philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc.) and in the arts (architecture, poetry, music, painting, etc.). For the British writer Jim Al-Khalili, “the fusion of Greek rationalism and Mutazilite Islam will give rise to a humanist movement of a type that will hardly be seen before 15th century Italy.”

In the field of sciences, an assimilation of Hellenistic, Indian and Persian astronomical doctrines took place very early. Several Sanskrit [*5] and Pehlevi [*6] writings were translated into Arabic.

Indian works by the astronomer Aryabhata (476-560), a prominent scientist of the Indian Gupta Renaissance, and the mathematician Brahmagupta (590-668) were cited early on by their Arabic counterparts. A famous translation into Arabic appeared around 777 under the title Zij al-Sindhind (or Indian Astronomical Tables). Sources indicate that this text was translated after the trip of an Indian astronomer invited to the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in 770. The Arabs also adopted the sines (inherited from Indian mathematics) which they preferred to the chords used by Greek astronomers. From the same period, a collection of astronomical chronicles compiled over two centuries in Sassanid Persia and known in Arabic as the Zij al-Shah (or Royal Tables).

In the field of music, the Persian-born Arab musician Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), among others, can be mentioned. A composer of about two hundred songs, he was also a virtuoso on the oud (a kind of lute with a short neck but no frets). He is credited with the first system of codification of learned Arabic music.

The death of the Prophet Mohammed. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi, kept at the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Hazine 1222, folio 414a) . circa 1595. Ottoman miniature painter 492 Siyer-i Nebi 414a

Respecting the visual arts, let us first stress that, contrary to the prevailing opinion, the Koran does not prohibit figurative images. There is no explicitly stated and universally accepted “ban” on images of living figures in Islamic legal texts. On the other hand, Islam, like other major religions, condemns the worship of idols.

From the eighth to the fifteenth century, numerous historical and poetic texts, both Sunni and Shi’a, many of which appeared in Turkish and Persian contexts, include admirable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The purpose of these images was not only to praise and pay homage to the Prophet, but represent occasions and central elements for the practice of Muslim faith.

In this respect, the book by the German art historian Hans Belting with the catchy title Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science (2011) is not only misleading but downright outrageous. Belting presents “Islam” as an aniconic faith (banning all human and animal representations), while in reality, besides exquisite calligraphy and geometric patterns in search for the infinite, representations of men and animals are an essential part of Islamic artistic expression.

In addition, other religions have experienced strong outbreaks of iconoclasm. For example, and this is one of the reasons why so little is known about ancient Greek painting, between 726 and 843, the Byzantine Empire ordered the systematic destruction of images representing Christ or the saints, whether they were mosaics adorning church walls, painted images or book illuminations.

From there on, Belting, for whom Islam is in essence an aniconic civilization, has great difficulty in demonstrating what he announces in the title: the influence of Arab science (notably Ibn al-Haytam work on human vision) on the Renaissance in Florence (in particular its definition of “geometric perspective”). In fact, presenting himself as an erudite, peaceful and “objective” scholar, Belting’s book feeds into the bellicose thesis of a supposed “Clash” of civilizations, while claiming the opposite.

Frescos of the « desert castle » of Qusayr ‘Amra (Jordan).

The first manifestations of pictorial art in the Arab-Muslim world date back to the Omayyad period (660-750). It is from this period that date the famous “desert castles”, such as Qusayr ‘Amra, in Eastern Jordan. Covered with wall paintings, these palaces reflect a contribution of the Byzantine, but also Persian Sassanid modes of representation. Thus, in the palace of Qusayr ‘Amra, used as a resort by the Caliph or his princes for sport and pleasure, the frescoes depict constellations of the zodiac, hunting scenes, fruits and women in the bath.

In the field of literature, Al-Rashid built up a vast library including a collection of rare books as well as thousands of books that kings and princes of the ancient world offered him.

For example, Kalila and Dimna, also known as the Indian Fables of Bidpaï, one of the most popular works of world literature. Compiled in Sanskrit nearly two thousand years ago, these animal fables, from which Aesop and La Fontaine drew, were translated from China to Ethiopia. Translated into Arabic around 750 by Ibn al-Muqaffa, they were richly illustrated in the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds. The oldest illustrated Arabic version was probably produced in Syria in the 1200s. The landscape is symbolized by a few elements: a strip of grass, shrubs with stylized leaves and flowers. Men and animals are represented with bright colors and simplified lines.

A true manual for the education for kings, one of the fables evokes the idea,



of creating a university dedicated to the study of languages, ancient and modern,
and to the preservation, in renewed forms, of the heritage of the human species…

Illustration of Kalima and Dimna.


And at the end of his story, the wise Bidpaï warns the young king Dabschelim:



“I must emphasize this last point: my stories require, at this stage, no extra commentary, wretched imaginings, or vapid guesswork by you, me, or anyone else. The very worst habit would be that of moralizing away the effective substance. Thus the urge to tag tidy little rationalizations, persuasive formulas, intellectual summaries, symbolical labels, or nay other convenient pigeon-holing device, mus be steadfastly resisted. Mental encapsulation perverts the medecine, rendering it impotent. It amount to a bypass around the story’s true destination; to explain away is to forget. It is also a type of hypocrisy – poisonous, an antidote to truth. Thus, let the stories which you can remember do their own work by their very diversity. Familiarize yourself with them, but fiddle with them not.”



Also noteworthy is The Sessions of the poet and man of letters Al-Hariri (1054-1122) [*7], written at the end of the tenth century and which had a tremendous diffusion throughout the Arab world. The text, which recounts the adventures of the brigand Abu Zayd, is particularly suitable for illustration.

Al-Ma’mûn and the Houses of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)

After a violent dispute with his brother who sought to remove him from power, Al-Ma’mûn, the youngest son of Al-Rashid, became the eighth Abbasid caliph in 813. He was particularly interested in the work of scholars, especially those who knew Greek. He gathered in Baghdad thinkers of all beliefs, whom he treated magnificently and with the greatest tolerance. They all wrote in Arabic, a language that allowed them to understand each other. He brought manuscripts from Byzantium to enrich the vast library of his father. Open to scholars, translators, poets, historians, physicians, astronomers, scientists and philosophers, this first public library became the basis of the Bayt Al-Hikma (the “Houses of Wisdom”) combining translation, teaching, research and even public health activities, long before the Western universities. It was here that all known scientific manuscripts of the time, especially Greek writings, were gathered for study.

In Baghdad, this cultural bubbling will not remain confined to the Court but will go down to the street as this description of Baghdad by Ibn Aqul (died in 1119) testifies:

“First there is the large space called the Bridge Square. Then the Birds’ Market, a market where one can find all kinds of flowers and on the sides of which are the elegant stores of the money changers. (…) Then the caterers’ market, the bakers’ market, the butchers’ market, the goldsmiths’ market, unrivaled for the beauty of its architecture: high buildings with teak beams, supporting corbelled rooms. Then there is the huge booksellers’ market, which is also the gathering place for scholars and poets, and the Rusafa market. In the markets of Karkh and the Gate of the Ark, the perfumers do not mix with the merchants of grease and products with unpleasant smells; in the same way the merchants of new objects do not mix with the merchants of used objects.”

Persia, the Nestorians and medicine

Ruins of Gondichapur (Iran)

As a model for the Houses of Wisdom, the Persian influence and precedents are often mentioned. It is true that the Barmakids, a family of Persian origin [*8], had a great influence on the first Abbasid caliphs.

In fact, al-Ma’mûn’s tutor was Jafar ben Yahya Barmaki (767-803), a member of the family of the Armenians and the son of the Persian vizier of his father Al-Rashid. The Persian elite who advised the Abbasid caliphs took a keen interest in the works of the Greeks, whose translation had begun during the reign of the Sassanid king Khosro I Anushirvan (531-579).

The latter founded the Academy of Medicine in Gondichapur. Many Nestorian (Christian) scribes and scholars had taken refuge there after the Council of Ephesus in 431. [*9]

The liturgical language of the Nestorians was Syriac, a Semitic dialect [*10].

A Tang Dynasty Chinese ceramic statuette of a Sogdian merchant riding on a Bactrian camel.

Like the Jews, these Nestorian Christians possessed a cosmopolitan culture and a knowledge of languages (Syriac and Persian) that enabled them to act as intermediaries between Iran and its neighbors. And thanks to their access to the wisdom of ancient Greece, they were often employed as physicians. [*11]

The Academy of Medicine of Gondichapur [*12] had reached its peak in the 5th century thanks to the Syriac scholars expelled from Edessa. In this school, medicine was taught based on the translations of the Greek scholar and physician Claudius Galen. These teachings were put into practice in a large hospital, a tradition taken up in the Muslim world. This school was a meeting place for Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian scholars, whose scientific influence was mutual. Heir to the Greek medical knowledge of Alexandria, the school of Gondichapur trained several generations of physicians at the court of the Sassanid and later at that of the Muslim Abbasid. As early as 765, the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, who reigned from 754 to 775, consulted the head of the Gondichapur hospital, Georgios ben Bakhtichou, and invited him to Baghdad. His descendants will work and teach medicine there. Long after the establishment of Islam, the Arab elites sent their sons to this Nestorian Christian school.

Timothy I (727-823) was the Christian patriarch of the Church of the East (“Nestorian”) between 780 and 823. His first decision was to establish the seat of his church in Baghdad, where it was to remain until the end of the thirteenth century, thus forging privileged links between the Nestorians and the Abbasid caliphs. A man with a good command of Syriac, Arabic, Greek and eventually Pehlevi, Timothy enjoyed the consideration of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Mahdi, Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mûn.

During his forty-three years of pontificate, the Eastern Church lived in peace. Moreover, the Nestorians played a major role in the spread of Christianity in Central Asia as far as China via the Silk Road. In Central Asia, before the arrival of Islam, it was Sogdian, (the Iranian language of Sogdia and its capital Samarkand) that served as the lingua franca on the Silk Road. [*13]

Translating, understanding, teaching, improving

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237.

In Baghdad and Basra, in the Houses of Wisdom, the histories and texts collected after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great were translated and made available to scholars, texts initially collated and translated from Syriac into Persian under the aegis of the Sassanid emperors.

The Arab historian and economist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who came from a large Andalusian family of Yemeni origin, paid tribute to this effort to preserve and disseminate the Greek heritage: “What happened to the sciences of the Persians whose writings, at the time of the conquest, were annihilated by order of Omar? Where are the sciences of the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the inhabitants of Babylon? Where are the sciences that reigned among the Copts in the past? There is only one nation, that of the Greeks, whose scientific productions we possess exclusively, and that is thanks to the care that Al-Ma’mûn took in translating these works.”

These first translations into Arabic made available to the Arab-Muslim world hundreds of texts on philosophy, medicine, logic, mathematics, astronomy, music, etc., from Greek, Pehlevi, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc, including those of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Sushruta, Hippocrates, Euclid, Charaka, Ptolemy, Claudius Galen, Plotinus, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.

An illustration of a self-trimming lamp from Ahmad’s (Banu Musa) On Mechanical Devices, written in Arabic.

They were accompanied by reflections, commentaries, translations of commentaries, etc. and gave rise to a new form of literature. According to the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I, it was at the request of the Caliph Al-Mahdi that he translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic. He also wrote a treatise on astronomy entitled The Book of Stars, now lost.

An astrology and astronomy enthusiast, Al-Ma’mûn once made it a condition of peace with the Byzantine Empire to hand over a copy of the Almagest, Ptolemy’s main work, which was supposed to summarize all Greek astronomical knowledge. In 829, in the upper district of Baghdad, he built the first permanent observatory in the world, the Baghdad Observatory, allowing his astronomers, who had translated the Astronomical Treatise of the Greek Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.), as well as his star register, to methodically monitor the movement of the planets.

Here is what Sâ’id al-Andalusî (1029-1070) tells us about Al-Ma’mûn’s interest in astronomy and his efforts to advance it:

“As soon as Al-Ma’mûn became caliph, his noble soul made every effort to attain wisdom, and to this end he was particularly concerned with philosophy; moreover, the scholars of his time studied in depth a book by Ptolemy and understood the diagrams of a telescope that was drawn therein. So Al-Ma’mûn gathered all the great scholars present throughout the regions of the caliphate, and he asked them to build the same kind of instrument so that they could observe the planets in the same way as Ptolemy had done and those who had preceded him. The object was built and the scholars brought it to the city of al-Shamâsiyya in the region of Damascus in the Sham in the year 214 AH (829 AD). Through their observations they determined the exact duration of a solar year as well as the inclination of the sun, the exit of its center and the situation of its various faces, which allowed them to know the state and positions of the other planets. Then the death of the caliph al-Ma’mûn in 218 A.H. (833) put an end to this project, but they nevertheless completed the astronomical telescope and named it ‘the Ma’mûn telescope’”

Now, let me present you a short list of the main astronomers, mathematicians, thinkers, scholars and translators who frequented the Houses of Wisdom:

Al-Jahiz (776-867). The encyclopedic approach of this Mutazilite is conceived as « a necklace gathering pearls » or as a garden which, with its plants, its harmonious organization and its fountains, represents in miniature the whole universe. He sketches the principle of the evolution of species;

Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), (in Latin Algorithmus). This Persian mathematician and astronomer, according to some a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, would have been a follower of mutazilism. He is best known for having invented the method of solving mathematical problems, which is still used today and which is called algorithm. He studied for some time in Baghdad but it is also reported that he made a trip to India. Al Khawarizmi invented the word algebra (from the Arabic word j-b-r, meaning force, beat or multiply), introduced the Indian numerical system to the Muslim world, institutionalized the decimal system in mathematics, and formalized the testing of scientific hypotheses based on observations;

Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (786-845), a Jewish astronomer and physician whose name means “The son of the rabbi of Tabaristan”. His son Ali was the tutor of al-Razi (865-925). An alchemist who became a physician, he is said to have isolated sulfuric acid and ethanol and was among the first to advocate their medical use. He greatly influenced the conception of hospital organization in connection with the training of future doctors. He was the object of much criticism for his opposition to Aristotelianism;

Al-Hajjaj (786-823) made the first Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements from Greek. He also translated Ptolemy’s Almagest;

Al-Kindi (801-873) (known as Alkindus), considered the father of Arab philosophy, was a mutazilist. He was a prolific author (about 260 books) and explored all fields: geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, physics, arithmetic, logic, music and psychology. Along with his colleagues, Al-Kindi was entrusted with the translation of the manuscripts of Greek scholars. After the death of Al-Ma’mun in 833, he was considered too much of a mutazilist, fell into disgrace and his library was confiscated;

The Banu Musa (“children of Moses”) brothers, three brilliant sons of a deceased astrologer, friend of the Caliph. Mohammed will work on astronomy; Ahmed and Hassan on the canals linking the Euphrates to the Tigris, a guarantee of the control and optimization of their respective floods. They published the Book of Ingenious Mechanisms, an inventory of new techniques and machines [*14];

Hunayn ibn Ishâk (808-873) (known as Iohannitius). This Nestorian Christian was entrusted by Al-Ma’mun with the task of overseeing the quality of translations; a physician, he translated some of the works of the Greek physician Claudius Galen;

Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901), a Syrian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and musicologist;

Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Greek Byzantine physician, also a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, naturalist and translator. A Christian of the Melkite Church, he spoke both Greek (his mother tongue) and Arabic, as well as Syriac. Considered, along with Hunayn ibn Ishaq, as one of the key figures in the transmission of Greek knowledge from Antiquity to the Arab-Muslim world. He was the translator of Aristarchus of Samos for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun and the author of a treatise on the astrolabe;

Ibn Sahl (940-1000), in the footsteps of Al-Kindi, wrote a treatise on burning mirrors and lenses around 984, explaining how they can focus light on a point. His work was perfected by Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1040) (Latin name: Alhazen), whose writings reached as far as Leonardo da Vinci, via the Commentaries of Ghiberti. In Ibn-Sahl, we find the first mention of the law of refraction, later rediscovered in Europe as the law of Snell-Descartes.

Drawn into Bagdad for the opportunities it offered, these scholars generally worked in teams in a totally interdisciplinary spirit. Al-Ma’mûn, monitoring the science projets and noting the contradictions that arose from the translations of Greek, Persian and Indian sources, fixed with the scholars the next great scientific challenges to be met:

–To obtain, thanks to more efficient astronomical observatories, tables of astronomical ephemerides [*15] of greater precision than those of Ptolemy;
–To calculate with precision the circumference of the Earth with more advanced methods than those of the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes (3rd century BC);
–Produce a world map integrating the latest geographical knowledge concerning the distances between cities and the size of the continents;
–Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs that Al-Ma’mûn had discovered during his trip to Egypt.

Translations of Plato

Socrates and his Students, illustration from ‘Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam’ by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c).

By asserting that what had advanced science at this period was the rediscovery of Aristotle and his purely empiricist method, one forgets the rediscovery of Plato, whose dialectical and hypothetical method has often done more for science than blind empiricism.

Al-Kindi’s intense involvement in the Platonic tradition is reflected in his summaries of the Apology and the Crito, and in his own works that paraphrase the Phaedo or are inspired by the Meno and the Symposium. The Syrian scientist Ibn al-Bitriq, a member of Al-Kindi’s “circle” in Bagdad, translated the Timaeus.

Otherwise, the House of Wisdom’s top translator, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his circle translated the Greek physician Claudius Galen’s commentaries on the Timaeus, especially his On what Plato said in the Timaeus in a medical way and his On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. And from Hunayn’s own works, we know that some of his students translated Galen’s lost Greek summaries of Plato’s Cratylus, Sophist, Parmenides, Euthydemus, Republic and Laws. Finally, the physician al-Razi presented and commented on Plutarch’s treatise On the Generation of the Soul in the Timaeus.

Inter-religious dialogue:
possible for some, complicated for others

In the West, the name of Al-Kindi is best known in association with The Apology of Al-Kindi, an anonymous text of the time. It is probably a fictitious dialogue between two believers, one Muslim (Abdallah Al-Hashimi), the other Christian (Al-Kindi), both criticizing the other’s and praising one’s own religion and inviting the other to join him! This dialogue supposedly took place at the time of the caliph Al-Ma’mûn. What we know about the open-mindedness of the Caliph does not contradict this assertion. The earliest known mention of the existence of this Apology came to us from Al-Biruni (973-1048).

The manuscript of Al-Kindi’s Apology was translated into Latin in 1142 at the request of Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), grand abbot of the abbey of Cluny, the most powerful and important in Latin Europe. That same year, after visiting Toledo, he conceived the idea of a systematic refutation of the Muslim religion, which he considered heretical and errant.

Here is how he explains the translation he has just ordered of the Koran (the Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete) by a team of translators (including an Arab) brought together for the occasion:

Whether one gives the Mohammedan error the shameful name of heresy or the infamous one of paganism, one must act against it, that is, write. But the Latins and especially the moderns, the ancient culture perishing, according to the word of the Jews who once admired the polyglot apostles, do not know any other language than that of their native land. So they could neither recognize the enormity of this error nor stop it. So my heart was inflamed and a fire burned in my meditation. I was indignant that the Latins did not know the cause of such a perdition and their ignorance robbed them of the power to resist it; for no one answered, for no one knew. So I went to find specialists in the Arabic language which has allowed this deadly poison to infest more than half the globe. I persuaded them, by dint of prayers and money, to translate from Arabic into Latin the history and doctrine of this wretched man and his very law, which is called Koran”.

Accused hence “the Arabic language which allowed this deadly poison (Islam) to infest more than half of the globe”…

This declaration of war was undoubtedly required to motivate his troops. Let us recall that Eudes de Châtillon, the grand prior of the abbey of Cluny, who will become Pope Urban II in 1088, will be, in 1095, at the origin of the first crusade sending the bandits who ravaged France, to go and wage war elsewhere.

The decline and Al-Ghazali

Aristotle trying to explain the astrolab to his pupils. Miniature from The best rulings and the most precious sayings of Al-Moubachir, Arabic manuscript, 13th Century. Istanbul.

Let us return to the Abbasids. As we have said, with the arrival in power of Al-Mutawakkil in 847, mutazilism was removed from power and the Houses of Wisdom were reduced to simple libraries. This did not prevent a traveller, describing his visit to Baghdad in 891, from reporting that the city contained more than one hundred public libraries. Following the Bayt Al-Hikma model, small libraries were founded on every street corner of the city…

Entangled in endless theological debates between experts and won by sectarianism, the mutazilist elite cut itself off from a people who were losing confidence and eventually welcomed with a sense of relief the obscurantist doctrine of Al-Ghâzalî (1058-1111) (Latin name: Algazel), the worst enemy of the mutazilites.

Al-Ghâzalî proposed a radical solution: philosophy is only right when it agrees with religion – which, according to Al-Ghâzalî, is rare. This leads him to radicalize his position, and to attack more and more the Greco-Arab philosophy, guilty, in his eyes, of blasphemy.

Where someone like the Persian Ibn Sina (980-1037) (Latin name: Avicenna), author of the Canons or Precepts of Medicine (around 1020), crossed Greek philosophy and Muslim religion, Al-Ghazali wanted to filter the first through the second.

Hence his most famous and important work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, written in 1095. In it, he denounces the “pride” of the philosophers who claim to “rewrite the Koran” through Plato and Aristotle. Their error is above all a logical one, as the title of the book itself indicates, which underlines their “incoherence”: they want to complete the Koran with Greek philosophy, whereas the Koran comes later in history and therefore does not need to be completed. He therefore promotes a much more literal approach to the Koranic text, whereas Ibn Sina defended, cautiously it is true, a metaphorical approach. In truth, it is Aristotelianism and nominalism that triumph. The doctrine opposing Mutazilism became known as Ash’arism.

For Ascharites, to speak of God’s justice and rationality is a double blasphemy, because it amounts to limiting his omnipotence. If God were, as the Mutazilites say, compelled to will what is good, then he would be … compelled, which the Ascharites find theologically unacceptable. Therefore, believers should not admit the idea that God wills good, but submit to the principle that whatever he wills is good because he wills it.

Similarly, it is blasphemous to look for « second causes » in nature, i.e. scientific laws. The world exists because God, at every moment, wants it to exist. Any scientific research, any attempt to apply reason and analysis, is an offense to the divine omnipotence.

For Sébastien Castellion, the rejection of reason by the Ascharite school – and subsequently by much of Muslim civilization – was not an implicit and subterranean process, but an explicit decision based on theological principles. The great jurist Ibn Hanbal, whose school is predominant in Saudi Arabia today, said that « all those who indulge in reasoning by analogy and personal opinions are heretics (…). Accept only, without asking why and without making comparisons. »

The fall of Bagdad

From the eleventh century onward, the Abbasid, whose Empire was fragmenting, called upon the Turkish Seljuk princes to protect them against the Shiites, supported by the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. Gradually, the Turkish and Mongol troops, coming from Central Asia, ended up governing the security of the Abbasid caliph while letting him exercise his religious power.

Then, in 1258, they deposed the last caliph and confiscated his title of successor of the Prophet, which gave them religious power over the four schools of Sunnism. In order to subdue the Arab and Persian populations, the Seljuk Turks created the madrasa (Koranic school) where the conservative doctrine of Acharite Sunnism was taught to the exclusion of the dialectical Mutazilite theology, considered an ideological threat to Turkish authority over the Arabs.

The Abbasid Empire declined as a result of administrative negligence, abandonment of canal maintenance, flood-induced famine, social injustice, slave revolts, and religious tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the 9th century, the Zendj, black slaves (from Zanzibar) who worked in the marshes of the lower Iraq, revolted several times, even occupying Basra and threatening Baghdad. The Caliph restored order at the cost of an unprecedentedly violent repression. The rebels were only crushed in 883 at the cost of many victims. The empire did not recover.

In 1019, the Caliph forbade any new interpretation of the Koran, radically opposing the Mutazilite school. This is a brutal stop to the development of critical thinking and intellectual and scientific innovations in the Arab Empire, the consequences of which are still felt today.

ASTRONOMY

Since the dawn of time (it is the case to say it), man has tried to understand the organization of the stars in the environment near the Earth.

Installations such as Stonehenge (2800 BC) in England allowed the first observers to identify the cycles that determine the place and the exact day when certain stars rise. All these observations posed paradoxes: around us, the earth appears relatively flat, but the Moon or the Sun that we perceive with the same eyes seem spherical. The Sun « rises » and « sets », our senses tell us, but where is the reality?

It seems that Thales of Miletus (625-547 BC) was the first to have really wondered about the shape of the Earth. He thought that the Earth was shaped like a flat disk on a vast expanse of water. Then Pythagoras and Plato imagined a spherical shape, which they considered more beautiful and rational. Finally Aristotle reported some observational evidence such as the rounded shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during eclipses.

The Greek scientist Eratosthenes (276 BC- 194 BC), chief librarian of the Alexandria library, then calculated the Earth’s circumference. He had noticed that at noon, on the day of the summer solstice, there was no shadow on the side of Aswan. By measuring the shadow of a stick planted in Alexandria at the same time and knowing the distance between the two cities, he deduced the circumference of the Earth with a rather astonishing accuracy: 39,375 kilometers against some 40,000 kilometers for current estimates.

Between Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, as we have said, Arabic astronomy constitutes “the missing link”.

The original title of Ptolemy’s work is The Mathematical Composition. The Arabs, very impressed by this work, called it “megiste”, from the Greek meaning “very great”, to which they added the Arabic article “al”, to give “al megiste” which became Almageste.

It is important to know that Ptolemy never had the opportunity to re-read his treatise as a whole. After writing the first of the thirteen books of his work, the one on “The Fundamental Postulates of Astronomy”, Ptolemy passed it on to copyists who reproduced it and distributed it widely without waiting for the completion of the other twelve books…

Astrolabe made of brass by mathematician Ibrahim ibn Sa’id al-Shali. It is dated in the year 459 of the Hegira, corresponding to 1067 and was built in a Toledo workshop.

In the end, confronted with observations that called into question his own observations and in order to rectify his errors, Ptolemy wrote another work, after the Almagest, entitled Planetary Hypotheses. The author returned to the models presented in the Almagest while making modifications to the average motions (of the planets) to take into account the latest observations. However, his Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to calculate the dimensions of the universe. Finally, the Almagest also contains a description of 1022 stars grouped into 48 constellations.

Ptolemy also presents stereographic projection invented by Hipparchus, the theoretical basis for the construction of the astrolabe by Arab astronomers.

In the ninth century, when the Arabs became interested in astronomy, knowledge was based on the following principles summarized in the work of Ptolemy:

–Ignoring the assertions of Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun, Ptolemy resumed in the second century AD the thesis of Eudoxus of Cnidus (approx. 400-355 BC) and especially Hipparchus (180 to 125 BC) to assert that the Earth is a motionless sphere placed at the center of the world (geocentrism);

–Ptolemy agreed with Plato, who was inspired by Pythagoras, that the circle was the only perfect form, and that the other bodies turning around the Earth did so according to circular and uniform trajectories (without acceleration or deceleration);

–Yet everyone knew that some planets do not follow these perfect rules. In the 6th century, the neo-Platonic philosopher Simplicius, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, wrote: “Plato then poses this problem to the mathematicians: what are the uniform and perfectly regular circular motions that should be taken as hypotheses, so that we can save the appearances that the wandering stars present?” ;

–In order to account for the « apparent retrograde motion » of Mars, Hipparchus will introduce other secondary perfect figures, again circles. The articulation and interaction of these “epicycles” gave the appearance of sticking with the observed facts. Ptolemy took up this approach;

–However, the more the precision of astronomical measurements improved, the more anomalies were discovered and the more it was necessary to multiply these interlocking “epicycles”. It quickly became very complicated and inextricable;

–The universe is divided into a sub-lunar region where everything is created and therefore perishable, and the rest of the universe, supra-lunar, which is imperishable and eternal.

Hipparchus of Nicea

Ptolemy’s Almagest in arab with figures of Hipparchus epicycles.

The Arab astronomers, for both religious and intellectual reasons that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, initially discovered and then, on the basis of increasingly detailed observations, challenged Hipparchus’ hypotheses, which were the basis of the Ptolemaic model.

Hipparchus imagined a system of coordinates for the stars based on longitudes and latitudes. We also owe him the use of parallels and meridians to locate the Earth as well as the division of the circumference into 360° inherited from the sexagesimal calculation (base 60) of the Babylonians.

In astronomy, his works on the rotation of the Earth and the planets are numerous. Hipparchus explains the mechanism of the seasons by noting the obliquity of the ecliptic: the inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation. By comparing his observations with older ones, he discovered the precession of the equinoxes due to this tilt: the Earth’s axis of rotation makes a conical movement from East to West and of revolution 26,000 years. Thus in a few millennia, the North Pole will no longer be found with the North Star (Polaris) but with another star, Vega.

Based on Hipparchus, the Arabs perfected and fabricated an important instrument for measuring positions: the astrolabe. This “mathematical jewel” allows to measure the position of stars, planets, to know the time on Earth. Later, the astrolabe was replaced by more precise and easier to use instruments, such as the quadrant, the sextant or the octant.

With the manuscripts at their disposal in the Houses of Wisdom and the observatories of Baghdad and Damascus, the Arab astronomers had texts of an incredible richness but often in flagrant contradiction with their own observations of the movements of the Moon and the Sun. It is from this confrontation that later discoveries were born. The Arabs introduced a lot of mathematics to solve problems, especially trigonometry and algebra.

The Arab astronomers

In order to present the main Arab astronomers and their contributions, here is an excerpt from J. P. Maratray’s remarkable article L’astronomie arabe.

Al-Khwarizmi (783-850) called Algorithmi.
A mathematician, geographer and astronomer of Persian origin, he was a member of the « House of Wisdom ». He is one of the founders of Arab mathematics, inspired by Indian knowledge, in particular the decimal system, fractions, square roots… He is credited with the term “algorithm”. Algorithms are known since antiquity, and the name of Al-Khwarizmi (Algorithmi in Latin) will be given to these sequences of repeated elementary operations. He is also the author of the term “algebra”, which is the title of one of his works on the subject. He was also the first to use the letter x to designate an unknown in an equation. He wrote the first book of algebra (al-jabr) in which he described a systematic method of solving second degree equations and proposed a classification of these equations. He introduced the use of numbers that we still use today. These “Arabic” numbers are in fact of Indian origin, but were used mathematically by Al-Khwarizmi. He adopted the use of the zero, invented by the Indians in the 5th century, and adopted by the Arabs through him. The Arabs will translate the Indian word “sunya” by “as-sifr”, which becomes “ziffer” and “zephiro”. Ziffer will give “number”, and zephiro, “zero”. Al-Khwarizmi established astronomical tables (position of the five planets, the Sun and the Moon) based on Hindu and Greek astronomy. He studied the position and visibility of the Moon and its eclipses, the Sun and the planets. It is the first completely Arabic astronomical work. A crater of the Moon bears his name.

Al-Farghani (805-880) called Alfraganus (mentioned in Dante’s Commedia).
Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, he wrote in 833 the Elements of Astronomy, based on the Greek knowledge of Ptolemy. He was one of the most remarkable astronomers in the service of Al-Ma’mûn, and a member of the House of Wisdom. He introduced new ideas, such as the fact that the precession of the equinoxes must affect the position of the planets, and not only that of the stars. His work was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and had a great impact on the very closed circles of Western European astronomers. He determined the diameter of the Earth, which he estimated at 10500 km. We also owe him a work on sundials and another on the astrolabe.

Al-Battani (850-929) called Albatenius.
He observed the sky from Syria. He is sometimes called “the Ptolemy of the Arabs”. His measurements are remarkably accurate. He determined the length of the solar year, the value of the precession of the equinoxes, the inclination of the ecliptic. He noted that the eccentricity of the Sun is variable, without going so far as to interpret this phenomenon as an elliptical trajectory. He wrote a catalog of 489 stars. We owe him the first use of trigonometry in the study of the sky. It is a much more powerful method than the geometrical one of Ptolemy. His main work is The Book of Tables. It is composed of 57 chapters. Translated into Latin in 1116 by Plato of Tivoli, it will greatly influence the European astronomers of the Renaissance.

Al-Soufi (903-986) known as Azophi.
Persian astronomer, he translated Greek works including the Almagest and improved the estimates of the magnitudes of stars. In 964, he published « The Book of Fixed Stars », where he drew constellations. He seems to have been the first to report an observation of the large Magellanic cloud (a nebula), visible in Yemen, but not in Isfahan. Similarly, we owe him a first representation of the Andromeda galaxy, probably already observed before him. He described it as « a small cloud » in the mouth of the Arabian constellation of the Great Fish. Its name (Azophi) was given to a crater on the Moon.

Al-Khujandi (circa 940- circa 1000).
He was a Persian astronomer and mathematician. He built an observatory in Ray, near Tehran, with a huge sextant, constructed in 994. It is the first instrument able to measure angles more precise than the minute of angle. He measures with this instrument the obliquity of the ecliptic, by observing the meridian passages of the Sun. He found 23° 32′ 19 ». Ptolemy found 23° 51′, and the Indians, much earlier, 24°. The idea of the natural variation of this angle never occurred to the Arabs. They discussed for a long time about the accuracy of the measurements, which made their science advance.

Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1039) called Alhazen.
A mathematician and optician born in Basra in present-day Iraq, he was asked by the Egyptian authorities to solve the problem of the Nile floods. His solution was the construction of a dam towards Aswan. He gave up in front of the enormity of the task (the dam was finally built in 1970!). Faced with this “failure”, he feigned madness until the death of his boss. He made a critical assessment of Ptolemy’s theses and those of his predecessors, and wrote Doubts on Ptolemy. He draws up a catalog of the inconsistencies, without however proposing an alternative solution. Among the inconsistencies he noted were the variation in the apparent diameter of the Moon and the Sun, the non-uniformity of the allegedly circular motions, the variation in the position of the planets in latitude, the organization of the Greek spheres. Observing that the Milky Way has no parallax, he placed it very far from the Earth, in any case further away than Aristotle’s sub-lunar sphere. Despite his doubts, he maintains the central place of the Earth in the universe. Ibn Al-Haytam takes up the work of Greek scholars, from Euclid to Ptolemy, for whom the notion of light is closely linked to the notion of vision: the main question being whether the eye has a passive role in this process or whether it sends a kind of fluid to “interrogate” the object. Through his studies of the mechanism of vision, Ibn Al-Haytam showed that the two eyes were an optical instrument, and that they actually saw two separate images. If the eye sent this fluid, one could see at night, he speculated. He understood that the sunlight reflected off the objects and then entered the eye. But for him, the image is formed on the lens… He took up Ptolemy’s ideas on the rectilinear propagation of light, accepted the laws of reflection on a mirror, and sensed that light has a finite, but very great speed. He studied refraction, the deviation of a light ray as it passes from one medium to another, and predicted a change in the speed of light as it passes. But he could never calculate the angle of refraction. He found that the phenomenon of twilight is related to the refraction of sunlight in the atmosphere, which he tried to measure the height, without success. Already known in antiquity, we owe him a very precise description and the use for experimental purposes of the dark room (camera obscura), a black room that projects an image on a wall through a small hole drilled in the opposite wall. The result of all this optical research is recorded in his Treatise on Optics, which took him six years to write and was translated into Latin in 1270. [*16] In mechanics, he asserted that an object in motion continues to move as long as no force stops it. This is the principle of inertia before the letter. An asteroid bears his name: 59239 Alhazen.

Al-Biruni (973-1048).
Certainly one of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, originally from Persia, he was interested in astronomy, geography, history, medicine and mathematics, and philosophy in general. He wrote more than 100 works. He was also a tax collector and a great traveler, especially in India, where he studied language, religion and science. At the age of 17, he calculated the latitude of his native town of Kath (in Persia, now in Uzbekistan). At the age of 22, he had already written several short works, including one on cartography. In astronomy, he observed the eclipses of the Moon and the Sun. He is one of the first to evaluate the errors on his measurements and those of his predecessors. He noticed a difference between the average speed and the apparent speed of a star. He measured the radius of the Earth at 6339.6 km (the correct figure is 6378 km), a result used in Europe in the 16th century. During his travels, he met Indian astronomers who supported heliocentrism and the rotation of the Earth on its axis. He will always be skeptical, because this theory implies the movement of the Earth. But he will ask himself the question: « Here is a problem difficult to solve and to refute ». He believes that this theory does not lead to any mathematical problems. He refuted astrology, arguing that this discipline is more conjectural than experimental. In mathematics, he developed the calculation of proportions (rule of three), demonstrated that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is irrational (future number Pi), calculated trigonometric tables, and developed methods of geodesic triangulations.

Ali Ibn Ridwan (988-1061).
Egyptian astronomer and astrologer, he wrote several astronomical and astrological works, including a commentary on another book of Claudius Ptolemy, the Tetrabible. He observed and commented on a supernova (SN 1006), probably the brightest in history. Its magnitude is estimated today, according to the testimonies that have come down to us, at -7.5! It remained visible for more than a year. He explains that this new star had two to three times the apparent diameter of Venus, a quarter of the brightness of the Moon, and that it was low on the southern horizon. Other western observations corroborate this description, and place it in the constellation of the Wolf.

From the 11th to the 16th century.
After a first phase, more important observatories were built. The first of them, model of the following ones, is that of Maragheh, in the current Iran. Their purpose was to establish planetary models and to understand the movement of the stars. (…) The school thus constituted will have its apogee with Ibn Al-Shâtir (1304-1375). Other observatories will follow, such as the one in Samarkand in the 15th century, Istanbul in the early 16th century, and, in the West, the one of Tycho Brahe in Uraniborg (Denmark at that time) at the end of the 16th century. The new models were no longer Ptolemaic inspired, but remained geocentric. The physics of the time still refused to put the Earth in motion and to remove it from the center of the world. These models were inspired by the Greek epicycles, keeping the circles, but simplifying them. For example, Al-Tûsî proposes a system comprising a circle rolling inside another circle of double radius. This system transforms two circular motions into an alternating rectilinear motion, and explains the variations of the latitude of the planets. Moreover, it accounts for the variations of the apparent diameters of the stars. But to go further, it will be necessary to change the reference system, which the Arabs refused to do. This change will occur with the Copernican revolution, during the Renaissance, in which the Earth loses its status as the center of the world.

Al-Zarqali (1029-1087) said Arzachel.
Mathematician, astronomer and geographer born in Toledo, Spain, he discussed the possibility of the movement of the Earth. Like others, his writings will be known to Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He designed astrolabes, and established the Toledo Tables, which were used by the great Western navigators such as Christopher Columbus, and served as a basis for the Alphonsine Tables. He established that the eccentricity of the Sun varies, more precisely that the center of the circle on which the Sun rotates moves periodically away from or towards the Earth. A crater of the Moon bears his name, as well as a bridge of Toledo on the Tagus.

Omar Al-Khayyam (1048-1131).
Known for his poetry, he was also interested in astronomy and mathematics. He became director of the Isfahan observatory in 1074. He created new astronomical tables even more precise, and determined the duration of the solar year with great accuracy, given the instruments used. It is more accurate than the Gregorian year, created five centuries later in Europe. He reformed the Persian calendar by introducing a leap year (Djelalean reform). In mathematics, he was interested in third degree equations by demonstrating that they can have several solutions (he found some of them geometrically). He wrote several texts on the extraction of the cubic roots, and a treaty of algebra.

Al-Tûsî (1201-1274).
Astronomer and mathematician, born in the city of Tus in present-day Iran, he built and directed the observatory of Maragheh. He studied the works of Al-Khayyam on proportions, and was interested in geometry. On the astronomical side, he commented on the Almagest and completed it, like several astronomers (Al-Battani…) before him. He estimates the obliquity of the ecliptic at 23°30′.

Al-Kashi (1380-1439).
Persian mathematician and astronomer, he witnessed a lunar eclipse in 1406 and wrote several astronomical works afterwards. He spent the rest of his life in Samarkand, under the protection of Prince Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) who founded a university there. He became the first director of the new observatory of Samarkand. His astronomical tables propose values with 4 (5 according to the sources) digits in sexagesimal notation of the sine function. He gives the way to pass from a system of coordinates to another. His catalog contains 1018 stars. He improves the tables of eclipses and visibility of the Moon. In his treatise on the circle, he obtained an approximate value of Pi with 9 exact positions in sexagesimal notation, that is to say 16 exact decimals! A record, since the next improvement of the estimation of Pi dates from the 16th century with 20 decimals. He leaves his name to a generalization of the Pythagorean theorem to any triangles. This is the Al-Kashi theorem. He introduced the decimal fractions, and acquired a great reputation which made him the last great Arab mathematician astronomer, before the West took over.

Ulugh Beg (1394-1449).
Grandson of Tamerlan, prince of the Timurid (descendants of Tamerlan). Viceroy from 1410, he acceded to the throne in 1447. He was a remarkable scholar and a poor politician, a position he delegated to devote himself to science. His teacher was Qadi Zada al-Rumi (1364-1436) who developed in him a taste for mathematics and astronomy. He built several schools, including one in Samarkand in 1420 where he taught, and an observatory in 1429. He worked there with some 70 mathematicians and astronomers (including Al-Kashi) to write the Sultanian Tables published in 1437 and improved by Ulugh Beg himself shortly before his death in 1449. The accuracy of these tables will remain unequaled for more than 200 years, and they were used in the West. They contain the positions of more than 1000 stars. Their first translation dates from around 1500, and was made in Venice.

Taqi Al-Din (1526-1585).
After a period as a theologian, he became the official astronomer of the Sultan in Istanbul. He built an observatory there with the aim of competing with those of European countries, including that of Tycho Brahe. The observatory was opened in 1577. He drew up the Zij tables (“the unbroken pearl”). He was the first to use comma notation, rather than the traditional sexagesimal fractions in use. He observed and described a comet, and predicted that it was a sign of victory for the Ottoman army. This forecast turns out to be erronous, and the observatory is destroyed in 1580… He then devotes himself to mechanics, and describes the functioning of a rudimentary steam engine, invents a water pump, and is fascinated by clocks and optics.

The destruction of the observatory of Istanbul marks the end of the Arab astronomical activity of the Middle Ages. It was not until the Copernican revolution that new progress was made, and what progress! Copernicus and his successors were certainly strongly inspired by the results of the Arabs through their works. Travel and direct contact between scientists of the time were rare. Since Westerners did not understand Arabic, Latin translations probably influenced the West, along with the works of some Greek philosophers who had questioned the central position of the Earth, as Aristarchus of Samos had proposed around 280 BC.

Arab observatories

Scale model of the giant sextant constructed inside the Maragheh observatory (1259).

The modern observatory, in its conception, is a worthy successor of the Arab observatories of the late Middle Ages. Unlike the private observatories of the Greek philosophers, the Islamic observatory is a specialized astronomical institution, with its own premises, scientific staff, teamwork with observers and theoreticians, a director and study programs. They have recourse, as today, to increasingly large instruments, in order to constantly improve the accuracy of measurements.

The first of these observatories was built during the reign of Al-Ma’mûn in Bagdad in the 9th century. We have already mentioned the observatory of Ray, near Tehran and second city of the Abbasid Empire after Baghdad, with its monumental wall sextant dating from 994. To these must be added the observatories of Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, Baghdad and Isfahan.

Finally, the one in Maragheh in the north of present-day Iran, built in 1259 with funds collected to maintain hospitals and mosques. Al-Tusi worked there. Then came the era of the observatory of Samarkand, built in 1420 by the astronomer Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), whose remains were found in 1908 by a Russian team.

Today’s museum in Maragheh, Iran.

Conclusion

Mongol siege of Bagdad of 1258

Much more than the crusades, it will be the Mongol offensives that will devastate entire sections of the Arab-Muslim civilization. Genghis Khan (1155-1227), to the great pleasure of some Westerners, will destroy the Muslim kingdoms of Khwarezm (1218) and Sogdia with Bukhara and Samarkand (1220). The great city of Merv in 1221. In 1238, his son will seize Moscow, then Kiev. In 1240, Poland and Hungary will be invaded. In 1241, Vienna was threatened.

Before bringing down the Song Dynasty in China in 1273, the Mongols turned against the Abbassid.

Hence, the Houses of Wisdom came to a brutal end on February 12, 1258 with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad led by Hulagu (Genghis Khan’s grandson), who killed the last Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tassim (despite his surrender) and destroyed the city of Baghdad and its cultural heritage. Hulagu also ordered the massacre of the caliph’s entire family and entourage.

Mutazilism was banned and the magnificent collection of books and manuscripts in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was thrown into the muddy water of the Tigris, which turned brown for a few days because of the inked papers of the books and manuscripts.

One report says that the Mongols exterminated twenty-four thousand scholars and an incalculable number of books were lost. Of Mutazilism, its doctrine was only known through the texts of the traditionalist theologians who had attacked it. It was only the discovery of the voluminous works of Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad in the 19th century that made it possible to understand the key role played my this current of thought in the Arab renaissance and the formation of current Muslim theology, whether Sunni or Shiite.

Closer to home, the Iraq war of 2003: until then, Iraq was the world’s largest publisher of scientific publications in Arabic. As a result of the chaos caused by a war waged in the name of “democracy” and “the war on terror”, both the National Library and the National Archives were looted and burned. The same happened to the Central Library of Pious Legacies, the Library of the Iraqi University of Sciences, as well as many public libraries in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. The same was true for the archaeological treasures of the Iraqi Museum and its library. It seems that some people have declared war on civilization.

British troops entering Bagdad in 1917.

NOTES:

  1. A theodicy or « righteousness of God ») is an explanation of the apparent contradiction between the existence of evil and two characteristics peculiar to God: his omnipotence and his goodness.
  2. Sumer. The natural environment of the Sumerian country was not really favorable to the development of a productive agriculture: poor soils with a high content of salts harmful to the growth of plants, very high average temperatures, insignificant rainfall, and flooding of rivers coming in the spring, at harvest time, and not in the fall when the seeds need them to germinate, as is the case in Egypt. It was therefore the ingenuity and relentless labor of Mesopotamian farmers that enabled this country to become one of the granaries of the ancient Middle East. From the 6th millennium BC, the peasant communities developed an irrigation system which gradually branched out to cover a large area, thereby taking advantage of the advantage offered to them by the extremely flat relief of the Mesopotamian delta, where there was no no natural obstacle to the extension of the irrigation canals over tens of kilometers. By regulating the level of water derived from natural watercourses to adapt it to the needs of crops, and by developing techniques aimed at limiting soil salinization (leaching of fields, practice of fallow), it was possible to obtain very high cereal yields.
  3. Khorassan is a region located in northeastern Iran. The name comes from the Persian and means « where does the sun come from ». It was given to the eastern part of the Sassanid Empire. Khorassan is also considered the medieval name of Afghanistan by Afghans. Indeed, this territory included present-day Afghanistan, as well as southern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
  4. In the 10th century, the Persian medical scholar Mohammad Al-Razi describes the distillation of petroleum to obtain kerosene or « illuminating petroleum » in his Book of Secrets.
  5. Sanskrit is a language of India, among the oldest known Indo-European languages ​​(older even than Latin and Greek). It is notably the language of Hindu religious texts and, as such, it continues to be used as a cultural language, like Latin in centuries past in the West.
  6. Peshlevi or Middle Persian is an Iranian language that was spoken during the Sassanid era. She descends from Old Persian. Middle Persian was usually written using the Pahlevi script. The language was also written using the Manichean script by the Manichaeans of Persia.
  7. Abu Muhammad al – Qasim ibn ’Ali al – Hariri (1054–1122), Arab man of letters, poet and philologist, was born near Basra, in present-day Iraq. He is known for his Oaths and his maqâmât (literally fashions, often translated as assemblies or sessions), a collection of 50 short stories combining social and moral commentary with the brilliant expressions of the Arabic language. If the genre of maqâma was created by Badi’al – Zaman al – Hamadhani (969–1008), it is the sessions of al – Hariri that best define it. Written in a rhyming prose style called saj ’and interwoven with exquisite verse, the stories are meant to be entertaining and educational. Each of the anecdotes takes place in a different city in the Muslim world during the time of al – Hariri. They tell of an encounter, usually at a gathering of townspeople, between two fictional characters: the narrator al – Harith ibn Hammam and the protagonist Abu Zayd al-Saruji. Over the centuries, the work has been copied and commented on many times, but only 13 copies still in existence today have illuminations illustrating scenes from the stories. The manuscript presented here, executed in 1237, was both copied and illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, often considered the first Arab artist. It contains 99 miniatures of exceptional quality. No other known copy contains so much. The miniatures, recognized for their striking depiction of Muslim life in the 13th century, are considered to be the earliest Arab paintings created by an artist whose identity is known. Al – Wasiti, founder of the Baghdad School of Illumination, was also a remarkable calligrapher, as evidenced by his fine Naskhi style. The almost immediate popularity of the maqâmât reached Arab Spain, where Rabbi Judah al-Harizi (1165-c. 1225) translated the sessions into Hebrew under the title Mahberoth Itiel and subsequently composed his own Tahkemoni, or Hebrew sessions. . The work was also translated into many modern languages.
  8. The Barmecids or Barmakids are members of a Persian nobility family originally from Balkh in Bactria (north of Afghanistan). This family of Buddhist religious (paramaka means in Sanskrit the superior of a Buddhist monastery) who became Zoroastrians and then converted to Islam provided many viziers to the Abbasid caliphs. The Barmakids had acquired a remarkable reputation as patrons and are regarded as the main instigators of the brilliant culture which then developed in Baghdad.
  9. The Christological thesis of Nestorius (born c. 381 – died 451), Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), was declared a heretic and condemned by the Council of Ephesus. For Nestorius, two hypostases, one divine, the other human, coexist in Jesus Christ. From the Eastern Church, Nestorianism was one of the historically most influential forms of Christianity in the world throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, to India, China and Mongolia.
  10. Syriac (a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ) is alongside Latin and Greek the third component of ancient Christianity, rooted in Hellenism but also descended from Near Eastern and Semitic antiquity. From the first centuries, in a movement symmetrical to that of the Greco-Latin Christian tradition towards the west, Syriac Christianity developed towards the east, as far as India and China. Syriac is still today the liturgical and classical language (a bit like Latin in Europe) of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean and Maronite Churches in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and South India. Where is. Finally, it is the branch of Christianity most in contact with Islam in which he continued to live.
  11. In South-West Asia, the Greek influence remained alive in several cities under Christian influence: Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey), at the time capital of the county of Edessa, one of the first Eastern Latin states, the closest to the Islamic world; Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey); Nisibe (now Nusaybin in Turkey); Al-Mada’in (ie “The Cities”), an Iraqi metropolis on the Tigris, between the royal cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and Gondichapour (now in Iran) whose ruins remain. To this must be added the cities of Latakia (in Syria) and Amed (today Diyarbakir in Turkey) where there were Jacobite centers (Christians of the East, but members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Nestorians).
  12. The Gondishapour Academy was located in present-day Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, near the Karoun River. It offered the teaching of medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was well versed not only in Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but also taught Greek and Indian languages. The Academy included a library, an observatory, and the oldest known teaching hospital. According to historians, the Cambridge of Iran was the most important medical center in the Old World (defined as the territory of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries .
  13. Sogdian is a middle Iranian language spoken in the Middle Ages by the Sogdians, a trading people who resided in Sogdiana, the historic region encompassing Samarkand and Bukhara and covering more or less present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Before the arrival of Arabic, Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Sogdian traders settled in China and Sogdian monks were among the first to spread Buddhism there. As early as the 6th century, Chinese rulers appealed to the Sogdian elite to resolve diplomatic, commercial, military and even cultural issues, prompting many Sogdians to migrate from Central Asia and China’s border regions to major Chinese political centers.
  14. The Book of Ingenious Machines contains a hundred machines or objects, most of them due to the Banou Moussa brothers or adapted by them: funnel, crankshaft, conical ball valves, float valve and other hydraulic regulation systems, mask gas and ventilation bellows for mines; dredge, variable jet fountains, hurricane lamp, auto-off light, auto-powered; automatic musical instruments including a programmable flute.
  15. Astronomical ephemeris: registers of the positions of stars at regular intervals.
  16. Ibn Al-Haytam. In 2007, during a conference at the Sorbonne, I explored the use, by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (early 15th century), of a bifocal geometric perspective, wrongly qualified as « primitive », erroneous and intuitive, actually inspired by the work and binocular experiences of the Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen). The latter drew on the work of his predecessors Al-Kindi, Ibn Luca and Ibn Sahl. Alhazen was widely known in the West thanks to the translations of the Franciscans of the University of Oxford (Grosseteste, Bacon, etc.). See summary biography.

SUMMARY CHRONOLOGY:

  • 310-230 BC.: Life of the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos;
  • 190-120 BC.: life of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea;
  • v. 100-160 : life of Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy;
  • 700-748: life of Wasil ibn Ata, intellectual founder of Mutazilism;
  • 750: beginning of the Abbasid dynasty;
  • 751: Abbasid victory against the Chinese at the battle of Talas (Kyrgyzstan);
  • 763: founding of Baghdad by Caliph Al-Mansur;
  • 780: Timothy I, patriarch of the Nestorian Christian church in Baghdad;
  • 780-850: life of the Arab mathematician al-Kwarizmi;
  • 786 to 809: caliphate for 23 years of Haroun al-Rachîd, legendary hero of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Development of mutazilism;
  • 801-873: life of the mutazilist and Platonic philosopher Al-Kindi;
  • 805-880: life of Al-Farghani, treatise on the Astrolabe;
  • 813-833: caliphate of Al-Ma’mûn (20 years);
  • 829: creation of the first permanent astronomical observatory in Baghdad followed by that of Damascus;
  • 832: creation of the public library and creation of the Maisons de la Sagesse;
  • 833: shortly before his death, Al-Ma’mûn decrees the created Koran and has mutazilism adopted as the official doctrine of the Abbasids;
  • 836: transfer from the capital to Samarra;
  • 848: the mutazilites removed from the Baghdad court;
  • 858-930: life of Al-Battani, known as Albatenius;
  • 865-925: life of translator and doctor Sahl Rabban al-Tabari;
  • 869-883: revolt of the Zanj (black slaves from Zanzibar);
  • 892: return from the capital of the Abbasids to Baghdad;
  • 965-1039: life of Ibn Al-Haytam, known as Alhazen;
  • 973-1048: life of Al-Biruni;
  • 1095: first crusade;
  • 1258: Baghdad sacked by the Mongols;
  • 1259: creation of the Maragheh Astronomical Observatory (Iran);
  • 1304-1375: life of Ibn Al-Shâtir;
  • 1422: creation of the Astronomical Observatory of Samarkand, capital of Sogdiana;
  • 1543: Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus publishes his De Revolutionibus;
  • 1917: British troops enter Baghdad;
  • 2003: looting and destruction by systematic arson of libraries and museums during the Iraq war.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Mutazilism, website of the Association for the Renaissance of Mutazilite Islam (ARIM);
  • Antoine Le Bail, Who are the mutazilites, sometimes called the « rationalists » of Islam ?, website of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris;
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  • Jean-Pierre Luminet, Ulugh Beg – The Astronomer of Samarkand, 2018;
  • Kitty Ferguson, Pythagoras, His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe, Walker publishing Company, New York, 2008;
  • Sir Thomas Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, The Ancient Copernicus, Dover, New York, 1981:
  • A. T. Papadopoulo, Islam and Muslim Art, The Art of Great Civilizations, Mazenod, Paris, 1976;
  • Olag Grabar, Art and Culture in the Islamic World, Arts & Civilizations of Islam, Köneman, Cologne, 2000;
  • Christiane Gruber, Images of Muhammad in Islam, Afkar / Ideas, Spring 2015;
  • Hans Belting, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011;
  • Dominique Raynaud, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99;
  • Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, Yale University Press, 2001;
  • Karel Vereycken, Jan Van Eyck, a Flemish painter in Arabic optics, S&P website;

 
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