Étiquette : Florence

 

LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Van Eyck, Rolin and the Peace of Arras

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Detail

Back of Van Eyck’s painting showing imitation of gorgeous marble!
La Vierge du Chancelier Rolin

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Other audios of the Louvre Audio Guide collection:

  1. Short note about the building;
  2. The Greek tradition behind the Fayum Mummy Portraits;
  3. Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, the Wonders of the Italian Trecento;
  4. Who was whispering in the Ear of Joan of Arc;
  5. Van der Weyden and Cusanus;
  6. Antonello de Messina and Man in the image of Christ;
  7. Ghirlandaio’s immortality;
  8. The Rigor of Mantegna’s crucifixion;
  9. Leonardo and Verrocchio’s workshop;
  10. Why Leonardo didn’t like painting;
  11. Mona Lisa made in China?;
  12. How Bosch’s Ship of Fools drove the Jester out of business;
  13. Why Erasmus had no time to pause for portraits;
  14. Rembrandt, sculptor of Light;
  15. Why Vermeer was hiding his convictions;
  16. Van Eyck, Nicolas Rolin and the Peace of Arras.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Why Leonardo didn’t like painting

Karel Vereycken, analyzing four major works of Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre: « Saint-John the Baptist », « The Virgin on the Rocks », the « Belle Ferronière » and « Saint Anna and the Virgin ».

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Leonardo and Verrochio’s workshop

Louvre Audio Verrocchio
Terracotta of « flying angels » (1475), attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop.

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How Jacques Cœur put an end to the Hundred Years’ War

The life of Jacques Cœur (1400-1456), a simple shoemaker’s son who became the King’s treasurer and whose motto was « A vaillans cuers, riens impossible » (To a valiant heart, nothing is impossible),
has much to inspire us today.

Without waiting for the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), Jacques Cœur, an intelligent and energetic man of whom no portrait or treatise exists, decided to rebuild a ruined, occupied and tattered France.


Not only a merchant, but also a banker, land developer, shipowner, industrialist and master of mines in Forez, Jacques Coeur was a contemporary of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), who lived in 1429 in Coeur’s native city of Bourges.

First and foremost, he entered into collaboration with some of the humanist popes of the Renaissance, patrons of the scientific genius Nicolaus Cusanus and the painter Piero della Francesca. With Europe threatened with implosion and chaos, their priority was to put an end to interminable warfare and unify Christendom.

Secondly, following in the footsteps of Saint-Louis (King Louis IX), Cœur was one of the first to fully assume France’s role as a naval power. Finally, thanks to an intelligent foreign exchange policy and by taking advantage of the maritime and overland Silk Roads of his time, he encouraged international trade. In Bruges, Lyon and Geneva, he traded silk and spices for cloth and herring, while investing in sericulture, shipbuilding, mining and steelmaking.

Paving the way for the reign of Louis XI, and long before Jean Bodin, Barthélémy de Laffemas, Sully and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his mercantilism heralded the political economy concepts later perfected by the German-American economist Friedrich List or the first American Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

We will concentrate here on his vision of man and economy, leaving aside important subjects such as the trial against him, his relationship with Agnès Sorel and Louis XI, to which many books have been dedicated.

Jacques Cœur’s palace in Bourges, a residence where he rarely stayed.

Jacques Cœur (1400-1454) was born in Bourges, where his father, Pierre Cœur, was a merchant pelletier. Of modest income, originating from Saint-Pourçain, he married the widow of a butcher, which greatly improved his status, as the butchers’ guild was particularly powerful.

The Hundred Years’ War

The early XVth century was not a particularly happy time. The « Hundred Years’ War » pitted the Armagnacs against the Burgundians allied with England. As with the great systemic bankruptcy of the papal bankers in 1347, farmland was plundered or left fallow.

While urbanization had thrived thanks to a productive rural world, the latter was deserted by farmers, who joined the hungry hordes populating towns lacking water, hygiene and the means to support themselves. Epidemics and plagues became the order of the day; cutthroats, skinners, twirlers and other brigands spread terror and made real economic life impossible.

Jacques Cœur was fifteen years old when one of the French army’s most bitter defeats took place in France. The battle of Agincourt (1415) (Pas-de-Calais), where French chivalry was routed by outnumbered English soldiers, marked the end of the age of chivalry and the beginning of the supremacy of ranged weapons (bows, crossbows, early firearms, etc.) over melee (hand-to-hand combat). A large part of the aristocracy was decimated, and an essential part of the territory fell to the English. (see map)

King Charles VII

Portrait of King Charles VII by Jean Fouquet.

In 1418, the Dauphin, the future Charles VII (1403-1461), as he is known thanks to a painting by the painter Jean Fouquet, escaped capture when Paris was taken by the Burgundians. He took refuge in Bourges, where he proclaimed himself regent of the kingdom of France, given the unavailability of his insane father (King Charles VI), who had remained in Paris and fallen to the power of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy.

The dauphin probably instigated the latter’s assassination on the Montereau bridge on September 10, 1419. By his ennemies, he was derisively nicknamed « the little King of Bourges ». The presence of the Court gave the city a boost as a center of trade and commerce.

Considered one of the most industrious and ingenious of men, Jacques Coeur married in 1420 Macée de Léodepart, daughter of a former valet to the Duke of Berry, who had become provost of Bourges.

As his mother-in-law was the daughter of a master of the mints, Jacques Coeur’s marriage in 1427 left him, along with two partners, in charge of one of the city’s twelve exchange offices. His position gave rise to much jealousy. After being accused of not respecting the quantity of precious metal contained in the coins he produced, he was arrested and sentenced in 1428, but soon benefited from a royal pardon.

Yolande d’Aragon

Yolande d’Aragon in front of the Virgin and Child.

Although the Treaty of Troyes (1420) disinherited the dauphin from the kingdom of France in favor of a younger member of the House of Plantagenets, Charles VII nonetheless proclaimed himself King of France on his father’s death on October 21, 1422.

The de facto leader of the Armagnac party, retreating south of the Loire, saw his legitimacy and military situation considerably improved thanks to the intervention of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), operating under the benevolent protection of an exceptional world-historic person: the dauphin’s mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon (1384-1442), Duchess of Anjou, Queen of Sicily and Naples (Note 1).

Backed and guided by Yolande, Jeanne helped lift the siege of Orléans and had Charles VII crowned King of France in Reims in July 1429. In the mean time Yolande d’Aragon established contacts with the Burgundians in preparation for peace, and picked Jacques Coeur to be part of the Royal Court (Note 2).

The contemporary chronicler Jean Juvenal des Ursins (1433–44), Bishop of Beauvais described Yolande as « the prettiest woman in the kingdom. » Bourdigné, chronicler of the house of Anjou, says of her: « She who was said to be the wisest and most beautiful princess in Christendom. » Later, King Louis XI of France recalled that his grandmother had « a man’s heart in a woman’s body. »

A twentieth-century French author, Jehanne d’Orliac wrote one of the few works specifically on Yolande, and noted that the duchess remains unappreciated for her genius and influence in the reign of Charles VII. « She is mentioned in passing because she is the pivot of all important events for forty-two years in France », while « Joan [of Arc] was in the public eye only eleven months. »

Journey to the Levant

In 1430, Jacques Cœur, already renowned as a man « full of industry and high gear, subtle in understanding and high in comprehension; and all things, no matter how high, knowing how to lead by his work » (Note N° 3), with Barthélémy and Pierre Godard, two Bourges notables, set up,

« a company for all types of merchandise, especially for the King our lord, my lord the Dauphin and other lords, and for all other things for which they could provide proof ».

In 1431, Joan of Arc was handed over to the English by the Burgundians and burned alive at the stake in Rouen. One year later, in 1432, Jacques Cœur went to the Levant. A diplomat and humanist, Cœur went as an observer of customs as well as economic and political life.

His ship coasted from port to port, skirting the Italian coast as closely as possible, before rounding Sicily and arriving in Alexandria, Egypt. At the time, Alexandria was an imposing city of 70,000 inhabitants, bustling with thousands of Syrian, Cypriot, Genoese, Florentine and Venetian ships.

Port of Alexandria in the XVIth century.

In Cairo, he discovered treasures arriving from China, Africa and India via the Red Sea. Around the Sultan’s Palace, Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Ethiopian and Nubian merchants offered precious stones, perfumes, silks and carpets. The banks of the Nile were planted with sugar cane and the warehouses full of sugar and spices.

Selling Silver at the Price of Gold

« Gros de roi », a silver coin made in Lyon, issued in 1447.

To understand Jacques Coeur’s financial strategy, a few words about bimetallism. At the time, unlike in China, paper money was not widely used. In the West, everything was paid for in metal coins, and above all in gold.

According to Herodotus, Croesus issued silver and pure gold coins in the 6th century BC. Under the Roman Empire, this practice continued. However, while gold was scarce in the West, silver-lead mines were flourishing.

Added to this, in the Middle Ages, Europe saw a considerable increase in the quantities of silver coinage in circulation, thanks to new mines discovered in Bohemia. The problem was that in France, national production was not sufficient to satisfy the needs of the domestic market. As a result, France was obliged to use its gold to buy what was lacking abroad, thus driving gold out of the country.

According to historians, during his trip to Egypt, Coeur observed that the women there dressed in the finest linens and wore shoes adorned with pearls or gold jewels. What’s more, they loved what was fashionable elsewhere, especially in Europe. Coeur was also aware of the existence of poorly exploited silver and copper mines in the Lyonnais region and elsewhere in France.

Historian George Bordonove, in his book Jacques Coeur, trésorier de Charles VII (Jacques Coeur, treasurer of Charles VII), reckons that Coeur was quick to note that the Egyptians « strangely preferred silver to gold, bartering silver for equal weight ». whereas in Europe, the exchange rate was 15 volumes of silver for one volume of gold !

In other words, he realized that the region « abounded in gold », and that the price of silver was very advantageous. The opportunity to enrich his country by obtaining a « golden » price for the silver and copper extracted from the French mines must have seemed obvious to him

What’s more, in China, only payments in silver were accepted. In other words, the Arab-Muslim world had gold, but lacked silver for its trade with the Far East, hence its huge interest in acquiring it from Europe…

Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Cœur then travels via Beirut to Damascus in Syria, at the time by far the biggest center of trade between East and West.

The city is renowned for its silk damasks, light gauze veils, jams and rose essences. Oriental fabrics were very popular for luxury garments.

Europe was supplied with silk and gold muslin from Mosul, damasks with woven motifs from Persia or Damascus, silks decorated with baldacchino figures, sheets with red or black backgrounds adorned with blue and gold birds from Antioch, and so on.

The « Silk Road » also brought Persian carpets and ceramics from Asia. The journey continues to another of the Silk Roads’ great maritime warehouses: Cyprus, an island whose copper had offered exceptional prosperity to the Minoan, Mycenaean and Phoenician civilizations.

The best of the West was bartered here for indigo, silk and spices.

Genoa and Venice

Genoese trade expansion.

During his voyage, Coeur also discovered the maritime empires of Venice and Genoa, each enjoying the protection of a Vatican dependent on these financial powers.

The former, to justify their lucrative trade with the Muslims, claimed that « before being Christian », they were Venetians…

Like the British Empire, the Venetians promoted total free trade to subjugate their victims, while applying fierce dirigisme at home and prohibitive taxes to others. Any artist or person divulging Venetian know-how suffered terrible consequences.

Venice, outpost of the Byzantine Empire and supplier to the Court of Constantinople, a city of several million inhabitants, developed fabric dyeing, manufactured silks, velvets, glassware and leather goods, not to mention weapons. Its arsenal employs 16,000 workers.

Port of Genoa.

Its rival, Genoa, with its highly skilled sailors and cutting-edge financial techniques, had colonized the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, from where treasures from Persia and Muscovy flowed. They also shamelessly engaged in the slave trade, a practice they would pass on to the Spanish and especially the Portuguese, who held a monopoly on trade with Africa.

Avoiding direct confrontation with such powers, Cœur kept a low profile. The difficulty was threefold: following the war, France was short of everything! It had no cash, no production, no weapons, no ships, no infrastructure!

So much so, in fact, that Europe’s main trade route had shifted eastwards. Instead of taking the route of the Rhône and Saône rivers, merchants passed through Geneva, and up the Rhine to Antwerp and Bruges. Another difficulty was soon added: a royal decree prohibited the export of precious metals! But what immense profits the Kingdom could draw from the operation.

The Oecumenial Councils

Council of Constance (1414-18).

On his return from the Levant, France’s history accelerated. While preparing the economic reforms he wanted, Jacques Cœur also became involved in the major issues of the day. Through his brother Nicolas Cœur, the future bishop of Luçon, he played an important role in the process initiated by the humanists to unify the Western Church in the face of the Turkish threat.

Since 1378, there had been two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. Several councils attempted to overcome the divisions. Nicolas Cœur attended them. First there was the Council of Constance (1414 to 1448), followed by the Council of Basel (1431), which, after a number of interruptions, was transferred to Florence (1439), establishing a doctrinal « union » between the Eastern and Western churches with a decree read out in Greek and Latin on July 6, 1439, in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, i.e. under the dome of Florence’s dome, built by Brunelleschi.

The central panel of the Ghent polyptych (1432), painted by the diplomatic painter Jan Van Eyck on the theme of the Lam Gods (the Lamb of God or Mystic Lamb), symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of mankind, and is capable of reuniting a church torn apart by internal differences. Hence the presence, on the right, of the three popes, here united before the Lamb. Van Eyck also painted portraits of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, one of the instigators of the Council of Florence, and Chancellor Rolin, one of the architects of the Peace of Arras in 1435.

The Peace treaty of Arras

Proclamation of the Peace of Arras in Reims.

To achieve this, the humanists concentrated on France. First, they were to awaken Charles VII. After the victories won by Joan of Arc, wasn’t it time to win back the territories lost to the English?

However, Charles VII knew that peace with the English depended on reconciliation with the Burgundians. He therefore entered into negotiations with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

The latter no longer expected anything from the English, and wished to devote himself to the development of his provinces. For him, peace with France was a necessity. He therefore agreed to treat with Charles VII, paving the way for the Arras Conference in 1435.

This was the first European peace conference. In addition to the Kingdom of France, whose delegation was led by the Duke of Bourbon, Marshal de La Fayette and Constable Arthur de Richemont, and Burgundy, led by the Duke of Burgundy himself and Chancellor Rolin, it brought together Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, Mediator Amédée VIII of Savoy, an English delegation, and representatives of the kings of Poland, Castile and Aragon.

Although the English left the talks before the end, thanks to the skill of the scholar Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, at that cardinal of Cyprus (and futur Pope Pius II) and spokesman for the Council of Basel, the signing of the Treaty of Arras in 1435 led to a peace agreement between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, the first step towards ending the Hundred Years’ War.

In the meantime, the Council of Basel, which had opened in 1431, dragged on but came to nothing, and on September 18, 1437, Pope Eugene IV, advised by cardinal philosopher Nicolaus Cusanus and arguing the need to hold a council of union with the Orthodox, transferred the Council from Basel to Ferrara and then Florence. Only the schismatic prelates remained in Basel. Furious, they « suspended » Eugene IV and named the Duke of Savoy, Amédée VIII, Felix V, as the new pope. This « anti-pope » won little political support. Germany remained neutral, and in France, Charles VII confined himself to implementing many of the reforms decreed in Basel by the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges on July 13, 1438.

King’s Treasurer and Great State Servant

One of the corridors of the Palais Jacques Cœur in Bourges. The roof, in the shape of a ship’s hull, bears witness to his great passion for maritime affairs.

In 1438, Cœur became Argentier de l’Hôtel du roi. L’Argenterie was not concerned with the kingdom’s finances. Rather, it was a sort of commissary responsible for meeting all the needs of the sovereign, his servants and the Court, for their daily lives, clothing, armament, armor, furs, fabrics, horses and so on.

Cœur was to supply the Court with everything that could neither be found nor manufactured at home, but which he could bring in from Alexandria, Damascus and Beirut, at the time major nodal points of the Silk Road by land and sea, where he set up his commercial agents, his « facteurs » (manufacturers).

Following this, in 1439, after having been appointed Master of the Mint of Bourges, Jacques Cœur became Master of the Mint in Paris, and finally, in 1439, the King’s moneyer. His role was to ensure the sovereign’s day-to-day expenses, which involved making advances to the Treasury and controlling the Court’s supply channels.

Then, in 1441, the King appointed him commissioner of the Languedoc States to levy taxes. Cœur often imposed taxes without ever undermining the productive reconstruction process. And in times of extreme difficulty, he would even lend money, at low, long-term rates, to those who had to pay it.

Ennobled, Coeur became the King’s strategic advisor in 1442. He acquired a plot of land in the center of Bourges to build his « grant’maison », currently the Palais Jacques Coeur. This magnificent edifice, with fireplaces in every room and an oven supplying the rest and bath room with hot water, has survived the centuries, although Coeur rarely had the occasion to live there.

Coeur is a true grand state servitor, with broad powers to collect taxes and negotiate political and economic agreements on behalf of the king. Having reached the top, Coeur is now in the ideal position to expand his long-cherished project.

Rule over Finance

On September 25, 1443, the Grande Ordonnance de Saumur, promulgated at Jacques Coeur’s instigation, put the state’s finances on a sounder footing.

As Claude Poulain recounts in his biography of Jacques Coeur:

« In 1444, after affirming the fundamental principle that the King alone had the right to levy taxes, but that his own finances should not be confused with those of the kingdom, a set of measures was enacted that affected the French at every level. »

These included: « Commoners owning noble fiefs were obliged to pay indemnities; nobles who had received seigneuries previously belonging to the royal domain would henceforth be obliged to share in the State’s expenses, on pain, once again, of seizure; finally, the kingdom’s financial services were organized, headed by a budget committee made up of high-ranking civil servants, ‘Messieurs des Finances’. »

In clear, the nobility was henceforth obliged to pay taxes for the Common Good of the Nation !

The King’s Council of 1444, headed by Dunois, was composed almost exclusively, not of noblement but of commoners (Jacques Coeur, Jean Bureau, Étienne Chevalier, Guillaume Cousinot, Jouvenel des Ursins, Guillaume d’Estouteville, Tancarville, Blainville, Beauvau and Marshal Machet). France recovered and enjoyed prosperity.

If France’s finances recovered, besides « taxing the rich », it was above all thanks to strategic investments in infrastructure, industry and trade. The revival of business activity enabled taxes to be brought in. In 1444, he set up the new Languedoc Parliament in conjunction with the Archbishop of Toulouse and, on behalf of the King, presided over the Estates General.

Master Plan


In reality, Jacques Cœur’s various operations, sometimes mistakenly considered to be motivated exclusively by his own personal greed, formed part of an overall plan that today we would describe as « connectivity » and at the service of the « physical economy ».

The aim was to equip the country and its territory, notably through a vast network of commercial agents operating both in France and abroad from the major trading cities of Europe (Geneva, Bruges, London, Antwerp, etc.), the Levant (Beirut and Damascus) and North Africa (Alexandria, Tunis, etc.), in order to promote win-win trade. ), to promote win-win trade, while reinvesting part of the profits in improving national productivity: mining, metallurgy, arms, shipbuilding, training, ports, roads, rivers, sericulture, textile spinning and dyeing, paper, etc.

Mining

Mining sites around Lyon.

Of special interest were the silver mines of Pampailly, in Brussieu, south of l’Arbresle and Tarare, 25 kilometers west of Lyon, acquired and exploited as early as 1388 by Hugues Jossard, a Lyonnais jurist. They were very old, but their normal operation had been severely disrupted during the war. In addition, there were the Saint-Pierre-la-Palud and Joux mines, as well as the Chessy mine, whose copper was also used for weapons production.

Jacques Cœur made them operational. Near the mines, « martinets » – charcoal-fired blast furnaces – transformed the ore into ingots. Cœur brought in engineers and skilled workers from Germany, at the time a region far ahead of us in this field. However, without a pumping system, mining was no picnic.

Under Jacques Cœur’s management, the workers benefited from wages and comforts that were absolutely unique at the time. Each bunk had its own feather bed or wool mattress, a pillow, two pairs of linen sheets and blankets, a luxury that was more than unusual at the time. The dormitories were heated.

High quality food was provided to the laborers: bread containing four-fifths wheat and one-fifth rye, plenty of meat, eggs, cheese and fish, and desserts included exotic fruits such as figs and walnuts. A social service was organized: free hospitalization, care provided by a surgeon from Lyon who kept accident victims « en cure ». Every Sunday, a local priest came to celebrate a special mass for the miners. On the other hand, workers were subject to draconian discipline, governed by fifty-three articles of regulation that left nothing to chance.

The Ports of Montpellier and Marseille

On his return from the Levant in 1432, Jacques Coeur chose to make Montpellier the nerve center of his port and naval operations.

In principle, Christians were forbidden to trade with Infidels. However, thanks to a bull issued by Pope Urban V (1362-1370), Montpellier had obtained the right to send « absolved ships » to the East every year. Jacques Cœur obtained from the Pope that this right be extended to all his ships. Pope Eugene IV, by derogation of August 26, 1445, granted him this benefit, a permission renewed in 1448 by Pope Nicholas V.

At the time, only Montpellier, in the middle of the east-west axis linking Catalonia to the Alps (the Roman Domitian Way) and whose outports were Lattes and Aigues-Mortes, had a hinterland with a network of roads that were more or less passable, an exceptional situation for the time.

In 1963, it was discovered that at the site of the village of Lattes (population 17,000), 4 km south of today’s Montpellier and on the River Lez, there had been an Etruscan port city called Lattara, considered by some to be the first port in Western Europe. The city was built in the last third of the VIth century BC. A city wall and stone and brick houses were built. Original objects and graffiti in Etruscan – the only ones known in France – have suggested that Etrurian brokers played a role in the creation and rapid urbanization of the settlement.

Model of the Etruscan port of Lattara, founded in the 6th century BC and, according to some, the first port in Western Europe. (Today known as Lattes, 4 km south of Montpellier).

Trading with the Greeks and Romans, Lattara was a very active Gallic port until the 3rd century AD. Then maritime access changed, and the town fell into a state of numbness.

In the 13th century, under the impetus of the Guilhem family, lords of Montpellier, the port of Lattes was revitalized, only to regain its splendor when Jacques Cœur set up his warehouses there in the 15th century.

As for the port of Aigues-Mortes, built from top to bottom by Saint-Louis in the XIIIth century for the crusades, it was also one of the first in France. To connect the two, Saint-Louis dug the canal known as « Canal de la Radelle » (today’s Canal de Lunel), which ran from Aigues-Mortes across the Lake of Mauguio to the port of Lattes. Cœur restored this river-port complex to working order, notably by building Port Ariane in Lattes.

The Roman trade axis, Via Domitia.

Over the following centuries, these disparate elements of canals and water infrastructure will become an efficient network built around the Canal du Rhône à Sète, a natural extension of the « bi-oceanic » Canal du Midi (between the Meditteranean and the Atlantic) begun by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (see map).

Coeur had the local authorities involved in his project, shaking Montpellier out of its age-old lethargy. At the time, the town had no market or covered sales buildings. Also lacking were moneychangers, shipowners and other cloth merchants.

Montpellier: remnants of Jacques Cœur’s residence, now the Hôtel des Trésoriers de la Bourse.
Hôtel de Varenne in Montpellier.

In Montpellier, an entire district of merchants and warehouses was erected him, the Great Merchants Lodge, modeled on those in Perpignan, Barcelona and Valencia.

Numerous houses in Béziers, Vias and Pézenas also belonged to him, as did residences in Montpellier, including the Hôtel des Trésoriers de France, which, it is said, was topped by a tower so high that Jacques Cœur could watch his ships arrive at the nearby Port of Lattes.

And yet, as an old merchant and industrial city, Montpellier had long been home to Italians, Catalans, Muslims and Jews, who enjoyed a tolerance and understanding that was rare at the time. It’s easy to see why François Rabelais felt so at home here in the XVIth century.

Port of Marseille

Port of Marseille.

The hinterland was rich and industrious. It produced wine and olive oil, in other words, exportable goods. Its workshops produced leather, knives, weapons, enamels and, above all, drapery.

From 1448 onwards, faced with the limitations of the system and the constant silting-up of the port infrastructure, Coeur moved one of his agents, the navigator and diplomat Jean de Villages, his nephew by marriage, to the neighboring port of Marseille, at that time outside the Kingdom, to the home of King René d’Anjou, where port operations were easier, a deep harbor protected from the Mistral by hills and a port equipped with waterfront shops and storehouses. The boost that Jacques Coeur gave to Montpellier’s port Lattes, Jean de Villages, on Coeur’s behalf, immediately gave to Marseille.

Shipbuilding

Good ports mean ocean-going ships! Hence at that time, the best France could do was build a few river barges and fishing boats.

To equip himself with a fleet of ocean-going vessels, Cœur ordered a « galéasse » (an advanced model of the ancient three-masted « galley », designed primarily for boarding) from the Genoa arsenals.

The Genoese, who saw only immediate profit in the project, soon discovered that Coeur had had the shapes and dimensions of their ship copied by local carpenters in Aigues Mortes!

Furious, they landed at the shipyard and took it back, arguing that Languedoc merchants had no right to fit out ships and trade without the prior approval of the Doge of Venice!


Stained glass window of a ship (a caraque) in the Palais de Jacques Cœur in Bourges.

After complicated negotiations, but with the support of Charles VII, Coeur got his ship back. Cœur let the storm pass for a few years. Later, seven great ships would leave the Aigues-Mortes shipyard, including « La Madeleine » under the command of Jean de Villages, a great sailor and his loyal lieutenant.

Judging by the stained-glass window and bas-relief in the Palais de Coeur in Bourges, these were more like caraques, North Sea vessels with large square sails and much greater tonnage than galleasses. But that’s not all!

Having understood perfectly well that the quality of a ship depends on the quality of the wood with which it is built, Cœur, with the authorization of the Duke of Savoy, had his wood shipped from Seyssel. The logs were floated down the Rhône, then sent to Aigues-Mortes via the canal linking the town to the river.

The crews

One last problem remained to be solved: that of crews. Jacques Cœur’s solution was revolutionary: on January 22, 1443, he obtained permission from Charles VII to forcibly embark, in return for fair wages, the « idle vagabonds and caimans » who prowled the ports.

To understand just how beneficial such an institution was at the time, we need to remember that France was being laid to waste by bands of plunderers – the routiers, the écorcheurs, the retondeurs – thrown into the country by the Hundred Years’ War. As always, Coeur behaves not only according to his own personal interests, but according to the general interests of France.

Connecting France to the Silk Road

Cairo Citadel

Now with financial clout, ports and ships at his disposal, Cœur organized win-win commercial exchanges and, in his own way, involved France in the land and Maritime Silk Road of the time. First and foremost, he organized « détente, understanding and cooperation » with the countries of the Levant.

After diplomatic incidents with the Venetians had led the Sultan of Egypt to confiscate their goods and close his country to their trade, Jacques Coeur, a gentleman but also in charge of a Kingdom that remained dependent on Genoa and Venice for their supplies of arms and strategic raw materials, had his agents on site mediating a happy end to the incident.

Seeing other potential conflicts that could disrupt his strategy, and possibly inspired by Admiral Zheng He‘s great Chinese diplomatic missions to Africa from 1405 onwards, he convinced the king to send an ambassador to Cairo in the person of Jean de Villages, his loyal lieutenant.

The latter handed over to the Sultan the various letters he had brought with him. Flattered, the Sultan handed him a reply to King Charles VII:

« Your ambassador, man of honor, gentleman, whom you name Jean de Villages, came to mine Porte Sainte, and presented me your letters with the present you mandated, and I received it, and what you wrote me that you want from me, I did.

« Thus I have made a peace with all the merchants for all my countries and ports of the navy, as your ambassador knew to ask of me… And I command all the lords of my lands, and especially the lord of Alexandria, that he make good company with all the merchants of your land, and on all the others having liberty in my country, and that they be given honor and pleasure; and when the consul of your country has come, he will be in favor of the other consuls well high…

« I send you, by the said ambassador, a present, namely fine balsam from our holy vine, a beautiful leopard and three bowls (cups) of Chinese porcelain, two large dishes of decorated porcelain, two porcelain bouquets, a hand-washer, a decorated porcelain pantry, a bowl of fine green ginger, a bowl of almond stones, a bowl of green pepper, almonds and fifty pounds of our fine bamouquet (fine balsam), a quintal of fine sugar. Dieu te mène à bon sauvement, Charles, Roy de France. »

Syria was a pioneer in sericulture, so much so that any silk fabric, monochromatic in color with a satin weave, is called « damask », bringing out a contrast of brilliance between the background and the pattern formed by the weave.

To the Orient, Coeur exported furs, leathers and, above all, cloth of all kinds, notably Flanders cloth and Lyon canvas. His « factors » also offered Egyptian women dresses, coats, headdresses, ornaments and jewels from our workshops. Then came basketry from Montpellier, oil, wax, honey and flowers from Spain for the manufacture of perfumes.

From the Near East, he received animal-figured silks from Damascus (Syria), fabrics from Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and Baghdad (Iraq); velvet; wines from the islands; cane sugar; precious metals; alum; amber; coral; indigo; coral; indigo from Baghdad; madder from Egypt; shellac; perfumes made from the essence of the flowers he exported; spices – pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, jams, nutmegs, etc. – and more.

From the Far East, by the Red Sea or by caravans from the Euphrates and Turkestan, came to him: gold from Sudan, cinnamon from Madagascar, ivory from Africa, silks from India, carpets from Persia, perfumes from Arabia – later evoked by Shakespeare in Macbeth – precious stones from India and Central Asia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, pearls from Ceylon, porcelain and musk from China, ostrich feathers from the black Sudan.

Manufactures

As we saw in the case of mining, Coeur had no hesitation in attracting foreigners with valuable know-how to France to launch projects, implement innovative processes and, above all, train personnel. In Bourges, he teamed up with the Balsarin brothers and Gasparin de Très, gunsmiths originally from Milan. After convincing them to leave Italy, he set up workshops in Bourges, enabling them to train a skilled workforce. To this day, the Bourges region remains a major center of arms production.

In the early days of printing in Europe, Coeur bought a paper mill in Rochetaillée, on the Saône near Lyon.

Le livre des propriétés des choses, Teinturiers au travail, manuscript copied and painted in Bruges, completed in 1482. London, British Library © The British Library Board/Leemage.

In Montpellier, he took an interest in the dyeing factories, once renowned for their cultivation of madder, a plant that had become acclimatized in the Languedoc region.

It’s easy to understand why Cœur had his agents buy indigo, kermes seeds and other coloring substances. The aim was to revive the manufacture of cloth, particularly scarlet cloth, which had previously been highly sought-after.

With this in mind, he built a fountain, the Font Putanelle, near the city walls, to serve the population and the dyers.

In Montpellier, he also teamed up with Florentine charterers based in the city, for maritime expeditions.

Through their intermediary, Coeur personally traveled to Florence in 1444, registering both his associate Guillaume de Varye and his own son Ravand as members of the « Arte della Seta » (silk production corporation), the prestigious Florentine guild whose members were the only ones authorized to produce silk in Florence.

Coeur engaged in joint ventures, as he often did in France, this time with Niccolo Bonnacorso and the Marini brothers (Zanubi and Guglielmo). The factory, in which he owned half the shares, manufactured, organized and controlled the production, spinning, weaving and dyeing of silk fabrics.

It is understood that Coeur was also co-owner of a gold cloth factory in Florence, and associated in certain businesses with the Medici, Bardi and Bucelli bankers and merchants. He was also associated with the Genevese and Bruges families.

Going International

Jacques Coeur organized a vast distribution network to sell his goods in France and throughout Europe. At a time when passable roads were extremely rare, this was no easy task. Most roads were little more than widened paths or poorly functioning tracks dating back to the Gauls.

Cœur, who had his own stables for land transport, renovated and expanded the network, abolished internal tolls on roads and rivers, and re-established the collection (abandoned during the Hundred Years’ War) of taxes (taille, fouage, gabelle) to replenish public finances.

Jacques Cœur’s network was essentially run from Bourges. From there, on the French level, we could speak of three major axes: the north-south being Bruges-Montpellier, the east-west being Lyon-Tours. Added to this was the old Roman road linking Spain (Barcelona) to the Alps (Briançon) via Languedoc.

From Bourges, for example, the Silverware, which served the Court, was transferred to Tours. This was only natural, since from 1444 onwards, Charles VII settled in a small castle near Tours, Plessis-les-Tours. So it was at the Argenterie de Tours that the exotic products the Court was so fond of were stocked. This did not prevent the goods from being shipped on to Bruges, Rouen or other towns in the kingdom.

Counters also existed in Orléans, Loches, Le Mans, Nevers, Issoudun and Saint-Pourçain, birthplace of the Coeur family, as well as in Fangeaux, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Limoges, Thouars, Saumur, Angers and Paris.

Orléans and Bourges stocked salt from Guérande, the Vendée marshes and the Roche region. In Lyon, salt from the Camargue and Languedoc saltworks. River transport (on the Loire, Rhône, Saône and Seine rivers) doubled the number of road carts.

The great crane of Bruges. Miniature from the early 16th century.

Jacques Coeur revived and promoted trade fairs. Lyon, with its rapid growth, geographic location and proximity to silver-lead and copper mines, was a particularly active trading post. Goods were shipped to Geneva, Germany and Flanders.

Montpellier received products from the Levant. However, trading posts were set up all along the coast, from Collioure (then in Catalonia) to Marseille (at the home of King René d’Anjou), and inland as far as Toulouse, and along the Rhône, in particular at Avignon and Beaucaire.

A trading post was set up in La Rochelle for the salt trade, certainly with a view to expanding maritime traffic. Jacques Cœur also had « factors » in Saint-Malo, Cherbourg and Harfleur. After the liberation of Normandy, these three centers grew in importance, and were joined by Exmes. In the north-east, Reims and Troyes are worth mentioning. They manufactured cloth and canvas. Abroad, Geneva was a first-rate trading post, as the city’s fairs and markets had already acquired an international character.

Coeur also had a branch in Bruges, bringing back spices and silks from the Levant, and shipping cloth and herring from there.

Member cities of the Hanseatic League.

The fortunes of Bruges, like many other towns in Flanders, came from the cloth industry. The city flourished, and the power of its cloth merchants was considerable. In the 15th century, Bruges was one of the lungs of the Hanseatic League, which brought together the port cities of northern Europe.

Bruges in the XVth century. On the left, the Genoese factorie; on the right, opposite, the Florentine factorie.
Hof Blandelin in Bruges. Built in 1435, the building housed the branch of the Medici Bank in 1466.

It was in Bruges that business relations were handled, and loan and marine insurance contracts drawn up. After cloth, it was the luxury industries that ensured its prosperity, with tapestries. By land, it took less than three weeks to get from Bruges to Montpellier via Paris.

Between 1444 and 1449, during the Truce of Tours between France and the English, Jacques Coeur tried to build peace by forging trade links with England.

Coeur sent his representative Guillaume de Mazoran. His other trusted associate, Guillaume de Varye, began trading in sheets from London in February 1449. He also bought leather, cloth and wool in Scotland. Some went to La Rochelle, others to Bruges.

Internationally, Coeur continued to expand, with branches in Barcelona, Naples, Genoa (where a pro-French party was formed) and Florence.

At the time of his arrest in 1451, Jacques Coeur had at least 300 « factors » (associates, commercial agents, financial representatives and authorized agents), each responsible for his own trading post in his own region, but also running « factories » on the spot, promoting meetings and exchanges of know-how between all those involved in economic life. Several thousand people associated and cooperated with him in business.

The Military Reform that saved the Nation

Charles VII’s ordinance of April 8, 1448 created the Franc-Archers (free archers), a popular army that could be mobilized in the event of war.

Cœur used the profits from this lucrative business to serve his country. When in 1449, at the end of the truce, the English troops were left to their own devices, surviving by pillaging the areas they occupied, Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress, Pierre de Brézé, the military leader, and Jacques Cœur, encouraged the king to launch a military offensive to finally liberate the whole country.

Coeur declared bluntly:

« Sire, under your shadow, I acknowledge that I have great proufis and honors, and mesme, in the land of the Infidels, for, for your honor, the souldan has given me safe-conduct to my galleys and factors… Sire, what I have, is yours. »

We’re no longer in 1435, when the king didn’t have a kopeck to face strategic challenges. Jacques Coeur, unlike other great lords, according to a contemporary account,

« spontaneously offered to lend the king a mass of gold, and provided him with a sum amounting, it is said, to around 100,000 gold ecus to use for this great and necessary purpose ».

Under the advice of Jacques Coeur and others, Charles VII was to carry out a decisive military reform.

On November 2, 1439, at the Estates General that had been meeting in Orleans since October of that year, Charles VII ordered a reform of the army following the Estates General’s complaint about the skinners and their actions.

As Charles V (the Wise) had tried to do before him, he set up a system of standing armies that would engage these flayers full-time against the English. The nobility got in the king’s way. In fact, they often used companies of skinners for their own interests, and refused to allow the king alone to be responsible for recruiting the army.

In February 1440, the king discovered that the nobles were plotting against him. Contemporaries named this revolt the Praguerie, in reference to the civil wars in Prague’s Hussite Bohemia.

Yolande d’Aragon passed away in November 1442, but Jacques Coeur would continue pressuring the King to go ahead with the required reforms.

Following the Truce of Tours in 1444, an ordinance was issued on May 26 announcing no general demobilization should occur; instead, the best of the larger units were reconstituted as “companies of the King’s ordinance » (Compagnies d’Ordonnance),” which were standing units of cavalry well selected and well equipped; they served as local guardians of peace at local expense. This consisted of some 10,000 men organized into 15 Ordonnance companies, entrusted to proven captains. These companies were subdivided into detachments of ten to thirty lances, which were assigned to garrisons to protect the towns’ inhabitants and patrol the countryside. In a territory similarly patrolled by the forerunners of our modern gendarmerie, robbery and plunder quickly ceased.

Crossbowman loading his weapon.

Although still a product of the nobility, this new military formation was the first standing army at the disposal of the King of France. Previously, when the king wished to wage war, he called upon his vassals according to the feudal custom of the ban. But his vassals were only obliged to serve him for forty days. If he wished to continue the war, the king had to recruit companies of mercenaries, a plague against which Machiavelli would later warn his readers. When the war ended, the mercenaries were dismissed. They then set about plundering the country. This is what happened at the start of the Hundred Years’ War, after the victories of Charles V and Du Guesclin.

Then, with the Ordinance of April 8, 1448, the Francs-Archers corps was created. The model for the royal « francs archiers » was probably taken from the militia of archers that the Dukes of Brittany had been raising, by parish, since 1425.

The Ordinance stipulated that each parish or group of fifty or eighty households had to arm, at its own expense, a man equipped with bow or crossbow, sword, dagger, jaque and salad, who had to train every Sunday in archery. In peacetime, he stays at home and receives no pay, but in wartime, he is mobilized and receives 4 francs a month. The Francs-Archers thus formed a military reserve unit with a truly national character.

As writes the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

« With the creation of the “free archers” (1448), a militia of foot soldiers, the new standing army was complete. Making use of a newly effective artillery, its companies firmly in the king’s control, supported by the people in money and spirit, France rid itself of brigands and Englishmen alike. »

At the same time, artillery grandmaster Gaspard Bureau and his brother Jean (Note N° 4) developed artillery, with bronze cannons capable of firing cast-iron cannonballs, lighter hand cannons, the ancestors of the rifle, and very long cannons or couleuvrines that could be dragged on wagons and taken to the battlefield.

As a result, when the time came to go on the offensive, the army went into battle. From all over the country, the Francs-Archers, made up of commoners trained in every region of France rather than nobles, began to converge on the north.

The war was on, and this time, « the gale changed sides ». The merciless French army, armed to the highest standards, pushed its opponents to the limit. This was particularly true at the Battle of Formigny near Bayeux, on April 15, 1450. It was a kind of Azincourt in reverse, with English losses amounting to 80% of the forces engaged, with 4,000 killed and 1,500 taken prisoner. At last, towns and strongholds returned to the Kingdom!

Helping a Humanist Pope

As mentioned above, the Council of Basel had ended in discord. On the one hand, with the support of Charles VII and Jacques Coeur, Eugene IV was elected Pope in Rome in 1431. On the other, in Basel, an assembly of prelates meeting in council sought to impose themselves as the sole legitimate authority to lead Christendom. In 1439, the Council declared Eugene IV deposed and appointed « his » own pope: the Duke of Savoy, Amédée VIII, who had abdicated and retired to a monastery. He became pope under the name of Felix V.

His election was based solely on the support of theologians and doctors of the universities, but without the support of a large number of prelates and cardinals.

In 1447, King Charles VII commissioned Jacques Coeur to intervene for Eugene IV’s return and Felix V’s renunciation. With a delegation, he went to Lausanne to meet Felix V. While the talks were going well, Eugene IV died. As Felix V saw no further obstacles to his pontificate, the Pontifical Council in Rome quickly proceeded to elect a new pope, the humanist scholar Nicholas V (Tommaso Parentucelli).

To make France’s case to him, Charles VII sent Jacques Coeur at the head of a large delegation. Before entering the Eternal City, the French formed a procession.

The parade was sumptuous: more than 300 horsemen, dressed in bright, shimmering colors, bearing weapons and glittering jewels, mounted on richly caparisoned horses, dazzled and impressed the whole of Rome, except for the English, who saw themselves doubled by the French to serve the Pope’s mission.

From the very first meeting, Nicholas V was charmed by Jacques Coeur. Slightly ill, Coeur was treated by the pope’s physician. Thanks to information obtained from the Pontiff, notably on the limits of concessions to be made, Coeur’s delegation subsequently obtained the withdrawal of Felix V, with whom Coeur remained on good terms.

The humanist Pope Nicholas V, fresco by Fra Angelico, one of the painters he protected. Fresco in the Nicoline Chapel in the Vatican.

Nicholas V, it should be remembered, was a happy exception. Nicknamed the « humanist pope », he knew Leonardo Bruni (Note N° 5), Niccolò Niccoli (Note N° 6) and Ambrogio Traversari (Note N° 7) in Florence, in the entourage of Cosimo de’ Medici.

With the latter and Eugenio IV, whose right-hand man he was, Nicholas V was one of the architects of the famous Council of Florence, which sealed a « doctrinal union » between the Western and Eastern Churches. (Note N° 8)

Elected pope, Nicholas V considerably increased the size of the Vatican Library. By the time of his death, the library contained over 16,000 volumes, more than any other princely library.

He welcomed the erudite humanist Lorenzo Valla to his court as apostolic notary. Under his patronage, the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Archimedes were reintroduced to Western Europe. One of his protégés, Enoch d’Ascoli, discovered a complete manuscript of Tacitus’ Opera minora in a German monastery.

In addition to these, he called to his court a whole series of scholars and humanists: the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Poggio Bracciolini, the Hellenist Gianozzo Manetti, the architect Leon Battista Alberti, the diplomat Pier Candido Decembrio, the Hellenist Giovanni Aurispa, the cardinal-philosopher Nicolas de Cues, founder of modern science, and Giovanni Aurispa, the first to translate Plato’s complete works from Greek into Latin.

Nicholas V also made gestures to his powerful neighbors: at the request of King Charles VII, Joan of Arc was rehabilitated.

Later, when he sought refuge in Rome, Jacques Coeur was received by Nicholas V as if he was a member of his family.

The Coup d’Etat against Jacques Coeur

Jacques Coeur’s adventurous life ended as if in a cloak-and-dagger novel. On July 31, 1451, Charles VII ordered his arrest and seized his possessions, from which he drew one hundred thousand ecus to wage war.

The result was one of the most scandalous trials in French history. The only reason for the trial was political. The hatred of the courtiers, especially the nobles, had built up. By making each of them a debtor, Coeur, believing he had made allies of them, made terrible enemies. By launching a number of national products, he undermined the financial empires of Genoa, Venice and Florence, which eternally sought to enrich themselves by exporting their products, notably silk, to France.

One of the most relentless, Otto Castellani, a Florentine merchant, treasurer of finances in Toulouse but based in Montpellier, and one of the accusers whom Charles VII appointed as commissioner to prosecute Jacques Coeur, practiced black magic and pierced a wax figure of the silversmith with needles!

Lastly, Charles VII undoubtedly feared collusion between Jacques Coeur and his own son, the Dauphin Louis, future Louis XI, who was stirring up intrigue after intrigue against him.

In 1447, following an altercation with Agnès Sorel, the Dauphin had been expelled from the Court by his father and would never see him again. Jacques Cœur lent money to the Dauphin, with whom he kept in touch through Charles Astars, who looked after the accounts of his mines.

« Trade with infidels », « Lèse majesté », « export of metals », and many other pretexts, the reasons put forward for Jacques Coeur’s trial and conviction are of little interest. They are no more than judicial window-dressing. The proceedings began with a denunciation that was almost immediately found to be slanderous.

Tomb of Agnès Sorel, Collégiale Saint-Ours, Loches.

A certain Jeanne de Mortagne accused Jacques Coeur of having poisoned Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress and favorite, who died on February 9, 1450. This accusation was implausible and devoid of any serious foundation; for, having placed all her trust in Jacques Coeur, she had just appointed him as one of her three executors.

Coeur is imprisoned for a dozen equally questionable reasons. When he refused to admit what he was accused of, he was threatened with « the question » (torture). Confronted by the executioners, the accused, trembling with fear, claims that he « relies » on the words of the commissioners charged with breaking him.

A miniature representing Christ (in front of the Palais Jacques Cœur in Bourges) on his way to the Mount of Calvary…

His condemnation came on the same day as the fall of Constantinople, May 29, 1453. Only the intervention of Pope Nicholas V saved his life. With the help of his friends, he escaped from his prison in Poitiers, and took the route of the convents, including Beaucaire, to Marseille for Rome.

Pope Nicholas V welcomed him as a friend. The pontiff died and was succeeded by his successor. Jacques Cœur chartered a fleet in the name of his illustrious host, and set off to fight the infidels. Jacques Coeur, we are told, died on November 25, 1456 on the island of Chios, a Genoese possession, during a naval battle with the Turks.

The great King Louis XI, unloved son of Charles VII, as evidenced by his ordinances in favor of the productive economy, would continue the recovery of France begun by Jacques Coeur. Many of Coeur’s collaborators soon entered his service, including his son Geoffroy, who, as cupbearer, became Louis XI’s most trusted confidant.

Charles VII, by letters patent dated August 5, 1457, restored to Ravant and Geoffroy Coeur a small portion of their father’s property. It was only under Louis XI that Geoffroy obtained the rehabilitation of his father’s memory and more complete letters of restitution.

NOTES:

  1. During the five years between Joan of Arc’s first appearances and her departure for Chinon, several people attached to the Court stayed in Lorraine, including René d’Anjou, the youngest son of Yolande d’Aragon. While Charles VII remained undecided, his mother-in-law welcomed La Pucelle with maternal solicitude, opening doors for her and lobbying the king until he deigned to receive her. During the Poitiers trial, when Jeanne’s virginity had to be verified, she presided over the council of matrons in charge of the examination. She also provided financial support, helped her gather her equipment, provided safe stopping points on the road to Orléans, and gathered food and relief supplies for the besieged. To this end, she did not hesitate to open her purse wide, even going so far as to sell her jewelry and golden tableware. Yolande’s support was rewarded on April 30, 1429 with the liberation of Orléans, followed on July 17 by the King’s coronation in Reims. Although many of her contemporaries praised her simplicity, her closeness to her subjects and the warmth of her court, Yolande d’Aragon was a stateswoman. And whatever sympathy she may have felt for her protégée, she would not hesitate to abandon her to her sad fate when her warlike impulses no longer accorded with her own political objectives : to negociate a peaceful alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy. The Duchess knew how to be implacable, and like her comrades-in-arms, the Church and the King himself, she abandoned La Pucelle to the English, to Cauchon, to her trial and to the stake. For more: Gérard de Senneville, Yolande d’Aragon : La reine qui a gagné la guerre de Cent Ans, Editions Perrin)
  2. Georges Bordonove, Jacques Coeur, trésorier de Charles VII, p. 90, Editions Pygmalion, 1977).
  3. Description given by the great chronicler of the Dukes of Burgundy, Georges Chastellain (1405-1475), in Remontrances à la reine d’Angleterre.
  4. Jean Bureau was Charles VII’s grand master of artillery. On the occasion of his coronation in 1461, Louis XI knighted him and made him a member of the King’s Council. Louis XI stayed at Jean Bureau’s Porcherons house in northwest Paris after his solemn entry into the capital. Jean Bureau’s daughter Isabelle married Geoffroy Coeur, son of Jacques.
  5. Leonardo Bruni succeeded Coluccio Salutati as Chancellor of Florence, having joined his circle of scholars, which included Poggio Bracciolini and the erudite Niccolò Niccoli, to discuss the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Bruni was one of the first to study Greek literature, and contributed greatly to the study of Latin and ancient Greek, offering translations of Aristotle, Plutarch, Demosthenes, Plato and Aeschylus.
  6. Niccolò Niccoli built up one of the most famous libraries in Florence, and one of the most prestigious of the Italian Renaissance. He was assisted by Ambrogio Traversari in his work on Greek texts (a language he did not master). He bequeathed this library to the Florentine Republic on condition that it be made available to the public. Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici was entrusted with implementing this condition, and the library was entrusted to the Dominican convent of San Marco. Today, the library is part of the Laurentian Library.
  7. Prior General of the Camaldolese Order, Ambrogio Traversari was, along with Jean Bessarion, one of the authors of the decree of church union. According to the Urbino court historian Vespasiano de Bisticci, Traversari gathered in his convent at San Maria degli Angeli near Florence. There, Traversari brought together the heart of the humanist network: Nicolaus Cusanus; Niccolo Niccoli, who owned an immense library of Platonic manuscripts; Gianozzi Manetti, orator of the first Oration on the Dignity of Man; Aeneas Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II; and Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the physician-cartographer and future friend of Leonardo da Vinci, whom Piero della Francesca also frequented.
  8. Philosophically speaking, reminding the whole of Christendom of the primordial importance of the concept of the filioque, literally « and of the son », meaning that the Holy Spirit (divine love) came not only from the Father (infinite potential) but also from the Son (its realization, through his son Jesus, in whose living image every human being had been created), was a revolution. Man, the life of every man and woman, is precious because it is animated by a divine spark that makes it sacred. This high conception of each individual was reflected in the relationship between human beings and their relationship with nature, i.e., the physical economy.

Merci de partager !

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 !

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.

    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, ce qui 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.

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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 !

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 !

La révolution du grec ancien, Platon et la Renaissance

Enseignement à l’Université de Bologne (Italie) avant 1400. Sans livres scolaires,
les élèves ont bien du mal à se concentrer.

Par Karel Vereycken,
peintre-graveur, zoographe, passionné d’histoire.
cet article en PDF

Des amis m’ont interrogé sur les conditions ayant conduit à la découverte de la philosophie grecque, en particulier les idées de Platon, et le rôle qu’a pu jouer la découverte du grec ancien pendant la Renaissance européenne.

On entend parfois dire que c’est à l’occasion des grands conciles œcuméniques de Ferrare et de Florence (1439) qu’en apportant avec lui les manuscrits grecs de Byzance, le cardinal Nicolas de Cues (Cusanus), avec ses amis Pléthon et Bessarion, aurait permis à l’Europe occidentale d’accéder aux trésors de la philosophie grecque, notamment en redécouvrant Platon dont les œuvres étaient perdues depuis des siècles.

C’est l’introduction par Nicolas de Cues de la vision positive de l’homme qui aurait suscité en partie la Renaissance. Comme preuve, le fait qu’après le Concile de Florence, les Médicis auraient été les premiers à financer la traduction de l’œuvre complète de Platon, une percée qui aurait permis à la Renaissance de devenir ce qu’elle est devenue.

Si tout ceci n’est pas entièrement faux, permettez-moi d’y apporter quelques précisions.

La Renaissance fut-elle le fruit du Concile de Florence ?

Coluccio Salutati, chancelier de Florence.

Pas vraiment. C’est le programme de renouveau des études grecques et hébraïques, lancé par Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406), futur chancelier de Florence, qui marqua le début du processus.

L’idée lui vient de Pétrarque et de Boccace. Avec Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), c’est sans doute le poète italien Pétrarque (1304-1374) qui incarne le mieux l’idéal qui animait les humanistes de la Renaissance.

Toute sa vie, il tenta de « retrouver le très riche enseignement des auteurs classiques dans toutes les disciplines et, à partir de cette somme de connaissances le plus souvent dispersées et oubliées, de relancer et de poursuivre la recherche que ces auteurs avaient engagée ». *

Après avoir suivi ses parents à Avignon, Pétrarque fit ses études à Carpentras où il apprit la grammaire, puis à Montpellier, la rhétorique, et enfin à Bologne, où il passa sept ans à l’école de jurisconsultes.

Cependant, au lieu d’étudier le droit qui ouvrait sur une belle carrière, Pétrarque, en secret, lira tous les classiques alors connus, notamment Cicéron et Virgile, malgré le fait que son père ait brûlé ses livres à l’occasion.

Barlaam de Seminara

L’évêque basilien Barlaam de Seminara, portant un sac d’épaule,
traverse une rivière. Haguenau, 1469. Encre et lavis sur papier.
Pétrarque

Sous le pontificat de Benoît XII, Pétrarque tenta d’acquérir les rudiments de la langue grecque grâce à un savant moine de l’ordre de Saint-Basile, Barlaam de Seminara (1290-1348), dit Barlaam le Calabrais, venu en 1339 à Avignon en tant qu’ambassadeur d’Andronic III Paléologue afin de tenter, en vain, de mettre un terme au schisme entre les Églises orthodoxe et catholique.

Philosophe, théologien et mathématicien, Barlaam, tout en ayant une connaissance limitée du grec et du latin, fut un des premiers à souhaiter que l’étude de la langue et de la philosophie grecques renaisse en Europe.

Dans son Traité sur sa propre ignorance et celle de beaucoup d’autres (1367), Pétrarque se déclara fier de ses manuscrits grecs – et de sa bibliothèque en général – et évoqua avec admiration Barlaam :

J’ai chez moi seize œuvres de Platon. Je ne sais pas si mes amis en ont jamais entendu nommer les titres […]. Et ce n’est là qu’une petite partie de l’œuvre de Platon, car j’en ai vu, de mes yeux, un grand nombre, en particulier chez le calabrais Barlaam, modèle moderne de sagesse grecque qui commença à m’enseigner le grec alors que j’ignorais encore le latin et qui l’aurait peut-être fait avec succès si la mort ne me l’eût ravi et n’eût fait obstacle à mes honnêtes projets, comme de coutume.

En 1350, c’est-à-dire deux ans après le décès de Barlaam, Pétrarque rencontra Boccace (1313-1375). Ce dernier, comme Pétrarque, se prit d’un vif amour pour le grec. Dans sa jeunesse, à Naples, il avait lui aussi rencontré Barlaam et appris quelques mots de grec, recopiant avec une émouvante maladresse des alphabets, des vers, y joignant la traduction latine et des indications de prononciation.

Le calabrais Léonce Pilate,
traducteur d’Euripide, d’Aristote et d’Homère.

Pour se remettre au grec, Boccace fit alors venir de Thessalonique un disciple de Barlaam, Léonce Pilate (mort en 1366), un personnage austère, laid et de fort mauvais caractère. Mais ce Calabrais lui expliqua l’Iliade et l’Odyssée d’Homère et lui traduisit seize dialogues de Platon. Comment se fâcher avec lui ?

Boccace le garda trois ans dans sa maison et fit créer pour lui, chose totalement nouvelle, une chaire de grec à Florence. Mais Pilate ne maîtrisait pas vraiment cette langue. Bien que se faisant passer pour un Grec de souche, l’homme n’avait qu’une maigre connaissance du grec ancien et ses traductions ne dépassèrent jamais le niveau du mot-à-mot. Quant aux leçons qu’il donna à Pétrarque, elles étaient si brutales qu’il l’en dégoûta pour toujours.

Ce qui ne l’empêchera pas, sur les instances de Boccace, de traduire l’Iliade et l’Odyssée d’Homère en latin à partir d’un manuscrit grec envoyé à Pétrarque par Nicolaos Sigeros, l’ambassadeur de Byzance à Avignon.

L’histoire étant ce qu’elle est, c’est grâce à cette traduction très imparfaite que l’Europe redécouvrit une des grandes œuvres fondatrices de sa culture !

Et sur ce terreau fragile s’élèvera une flamme qui va révolutionner le monde.

Ne fut-ce pas moi, écrit Boccace dans sa Généalogie des Dieux, qui eus la gloire et l’honneur de me servir le premier de vers grecs parmi les Toscans ? Ne fut-ce pas moi qui amenai par mes prières, Pilate à s’établir à Florence et qui l’y logeait ? J’ai fait venir à mes frais des exemplaires d’Homère et d’autres auteurs grecs alors qu’il n’en existait pas en Toscane. Je fus le premier des Italiens à qui fut expliqué, en particulier, Homère, et je le fis ensuite expliquer en public.

La chasse aux manuscrits

Le traité de Boccace, Des femmes célèbres. Il s’agit, dans la littérature européenne, de la première œuvre ne présentant que des biographies de femmes.

Ce qui importe, c’est qu’au cours de ces rencontres, Pétrarque créa un réseau culturel couvrant toute l’Europe, qui se prolongea jusqu’en Orient.

Il demanda alors à ses relations et amis, qui partageait son idéal humaniste, de l’aider à retrouver dans leur pays ou leur province, les textes latins des anciens que pouvaient posséder les bibliothèques des abbayes, des particuliers ou des villes. Au cours de ses propres voyages il retrouva plusieurs textes majeurs tombés dans l’oubli.

C’est à Liège (Belgique) qu’il découvrit le Pro Archia et à Vérone, Ad Atticum, Ad Quintum et Ad Brutum, tous de Cicéron. Lors d’un séjour à Paris, il mit la main sur les poèmes élégiaques de Properce, puis, en 1350, sur une œuvre du Quintilien. Dans un souci constant de restituer le texte le plus authentique, il soumet ces manuscrits à un minutieux travail philologique et leur apporte des corrections par rapprochements avec d’autres manuscrits. C’est ainsi qu’il recomposa la première et la quatrième décade de l’Histoire Romaine de Tite-Live à partir de fragments et qu’il restaura certains textes de Virgile.

Ces manuscrits, qu’il conserva dans sa propre bibliothèque, en sortirent par la suite sous forme de copies et devinrent ainsi accessibles au plus grand nombre. Tout en reconnaissant que « la vraie foie » manquait aux païens, Pétrarque estimait que lorsqu’on parle vertu, le vieux et le nouveau monde ne firent pas en lutte.

Le « Circolo di Santo Spirito »

Le couvent augustinien Santo Spirito de Florence.

A partir des années 1360, Boccace réunira un premier groupe d’humanistes connu sous le nom de « Circolo di Santo Spirito » (Cercle du Saint Esprit), emprunté au couvent augustinien florentin datant du XIIIe siècle.

Forme embryonnaire d’une université, son Studium Generale (reconnu en 1284) était alors au cœur d’un vaste centre intellectuel comprenant des écoles, des hospices et des réfectoires pour les indigents.

Avant son décès en 1375, Boccace, qui avait récupéré une partie de la bibliothèque de Pétrarque, léguera au couvent l’ensemble de cette précieuse collection de livres et manuscrits anciens.**

Ensuite, dans les années 1380 et au début des années 1390, un deuxième cercle d’humanistes s’y réunit quotidiennement dans la cellule du moine augustinien Luigi Marsili (1342-1394). Ce dernier, qui avait étudié la philosophie et la théologie aux universités de Paris et de Padoue, où il était déjà entré en contact avec Pétrarque en 1370, se lia rapidement d’amitié avec Boccace.

En fréquentant à partir de 1375 le Cercle du Saint Esprit, le futur chancelier de Florence Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406) s’éprit à son tour d’un amour infini pour les études grecques.

En invitant à Florence le savant grec Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) pour y enseigner le grec ancien, c’est Salutati qui donnera l’impulsion décisive conduisant à la fin du schisme entre l’Orient et l’Occident et donc à l’unification des Églises, consacrée lors du Concile de Florence de 1439.

Un siècle avant Salutati, le philosophe et scientifique anglais Roger Bacon (1214-1294), un moine franciscain résidant à Oxford, auteur d’une de l’une des premières grammaires grecques, appela déjà de ses vœux une telle « révolution linguistique ».

Comme le précise Dean P. Lockwood dans son article Roger Bacon’s Vision of the Study of Greek (1919) :

« De toute évidence, le grec ancien était la clé de voûte du grand entrepôt des connaissances antiques, l’hébreu et l’arabe étant les deux autres. En outre, nous ne devons pas oublier qu’à l’époque de Bacon, la supériorité des anciens était un fait incontestable. Le monde moderne a surpassé les Grecs et les Romains dans d’innombrables domaines ; les penseurs médiévaux se rapprochaient encore du standard hellénique.« Trois choses étaient claires pour Roger Bacon : la nécessité de maîtriser la langue grecque, l’ignorance qu’on avait de cette langue à son époque et aussi, l’occasion réelle de pouvoir l’acquérir. On peut dire la même chose de l’hébreu, mais Bacon faisait passer, à juste titre, le grec en premier. Le programme de Bacon était simple :
1. Rechercher les Grecs byzantins natifs résidant en Europe, de préférence des grammairiens. Ils sont très peu nombreux, bien sûr, mais on peut les trouver dans les monastères grecs du sud de l’Italie.
2. A partir de ceux-ci et de toute autre source disponible, retrouver des livres en grec ancien. Si l’on réalisait ce programme, Bacon prophétisa avec confiance que les résultats ne se feraient pas attendre ».

Leonardo Bruni

Leonardo Bruni (manuscrit du XVe siècle).

Manuel Chrysoloras arriva à Florence à l’hiver 1397, un événement qui apparaîtra comme une nouvelle grande opportunité selon l’un de ses élèves les plus célèbres, le savant humaniste Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444). Celui-ci occupera le poste de chancelier de Florence lors du Concile qu s’y déroula. Bruni disait qu’il y avait beaucoup de professeurs de droit, mais que personne n’avait étudié le grec ancien en Italie du Nord depuis 700 ans.

En faisant venir Chrysoloras à Florence, Salutati permit à un groupe de jeunes, dont Bruni et Vergerio, la lecture d’Aristote et de Platon en grec original.

Aristote (la Logique) contre Platon (la Dialectique),
bas-relief de Luca della Robbia.

Jusque-là, en Europe, les chrétiens connaissaient les noms de Pythagore, Socrate et Platon par leurs lectures des pères de l’Eglise : Origène, Saint-Jérôme et Saint Augustin. Ce dernier, dans sa Cité de Dieu, n’hésite pas à affirmer que les « platoniciens », c’est-à-dire Platon et ceux qui ont assimilé son enseignement (Plato et qui eum bene intellexerunt), étaient supérieurs à tous les autres philosophes païens.

Comme nous l’avons démontré ailleurs, notamment dans notre étude sur Raphaël et l’École d’Athènes, c’est en grande partie la démarche philosophique optimiste et prométhéenne de Platon, pour qui la connaissance provient avant tout de la capacité d’hypothèse et non pas du simple témoignage des sens, comme le prétend Aristote, qui fournit la sève permettant à l’arbre de la Renaissance d’offrir à l’humanité tant de fruits merveilleux.

Le témoignage suivant, de l’imprimeur français Etienne Dolet, mort sur le bûcher à Paris en 1546, révèle bien que pour les humanistes, il s’agissait d’un projet civilisationnel décidé à faire reculer la barbarie en élevant l’homme « au-dessus de l’animal par son âme ».

Le cercle d’Ambrogio Traversari

Buste d’Ambrogio Traversari au couvent Sainte-Marie-des-Anges.

L’élève le plus célèbre de Chrysoloras fut Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439) qui devint général de l’ordre des Camaldules. Aujourd’hui honoré comme un saint par son ordre, Traversari fut l’un des premiers à conceptualiser le type « d’humanisme chrétien » que promouvront le Cusain et plus tard Erasme de Rotterdam (qui forgea le concept de « Saint-Socrate » en unissant Platon aux Saintes Ecritures et aux Pères de l’Eglise), ainsi que celui qui se considérait comme son disciple, le bouillonnant François Rabelais.

Traversari, l’un des principaux organisateurs du Concile de Florence, fut également le protecteur personnel du grand peintre de la Renaissance Piero della Francesca et l’architecte du Dôme Filippo Brunelleschi.

Le couvent florentin Sainte-Marie-des-Anges.

Selon Vespasiano de Bisticci, l’historien de la cour d’Urbino, Traversari animait des séances de travail hebdomadaires sur Platon et la philosophie grecque au couvent florentin Sainte-Marie-des-Anges avec la fine fleur de l’humanisme européen dans le domaine des lettres, de la théologie, de la science, de la politique, de l’aménagement des villes et des territoires, de l’éducation et des beaux-arts. Parmi eux :

  • Le cardinal-philosophe allemand Nicolas de Cues ;
  • Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, le célèbre médecin et cartographe, lui aussi ami et protecteur de Piero della Francesca et de Léonard de Vinci ;
  • L’érudit collectionneur de manuscrits Niccolò Niccoli, conseiller de Côme l’ancien, héritier de l’empire industriel et financier des Médicis. Considéré à l’époque comme l’homme le plus riche d’Occident, il fut l’un des mécènes du sculpteur Donatello ;
  • Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, le futur pape humaniste Pie II ;
  • Le secrétaire apostolique du pape Innocent VII puis de ses trois successeurs, Leonardo Bruni, élève de Chrysoloras. Il succèdera à Coluccio Salutati à la chancellerie de Florence (1410-1411 et 1427-1444).
  • L’homme d’Etat italien Carlo Marsuppini, passionné de l’Antiquité grecque et successeur de Bruni, à sa mort en 1444, au poste de chancelier de la République de Florence.
  • Le philosophe, antiquaire et écrivain Poggio Bracciolini. Après avoir conseillé pas moins de neuf papes (!), il est nommé chancelier de la République de Florence suite à la mort de Marsuppini en 1453 ;
  • L’homme politique et ambassadeur Gianozzi Manetti. Amoureux du grec ancien et de l’hébreu, son cercle comprend Francesco Filelfo, Palla Strozzi et Lorenzo Valla. Valla ;

Manuel Chrysoloras à Florence

L’érudit grec Manuel Chrysoloras,
dessin de Paolo Uccello.

Chrysoloras ne resta que quelques années à Florence, de 1397 à 1400. Tout comme à Bologne, Venise et Rome, il y enseigna les rudiments du grec ancien. Parmi les nombreux jeunes qui profiteront de ses cours, plusieurs de ses élèves comptèrent parmi les figures les plus marquantes du renouveau des études grecques dans l’Italie de la Renaissance.

Outre Leonardo Bruni et Ambrogio Traversari, on compte parmi eux Guarino da Verona et le banquier florentin Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), par la suite l’ami et protecteur du sculpteur et traducteur Lorenzo Ghiberti). 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.

Chrysoloras se rendit à Rome à l’invitation de Bruni, à l’époque secrétaire du pape Grégoire XII. En 1408, le savant grec fut envoyé à Paris par l’empereur Manuel II Paléologue (1350-1425) pour une importante mission. En 1413, choisi pour y représenter l’Église d’Orient, il se rendit également en Allemagne pour une ambassade auprès de l’empereur Sigismond, dont l’objet est de décider du lieu du Concile sur l’union des églises, qui se tiendra à Constance en 1415.

Chrysoloras a traduit en latin les œuvres d’Homère et La République de Platon. Son Erotemata (Questions-réponses), qui fut la première grammaire grecque de base employée en Europe occidentale, circula d’abord sous forme de manuscrit avant d’être publiée en 1484.

Réimprimée à de multiples reprises, elle connut un succès considérable non seulement auprès de ses élèves à Florence, mais également auprès des humanistes les plus éminents de l’époque, dont Thomas Linacre à Oxford et Erasme lorsqu’il résida à Cambridge. Son texte devint le manuel de base des élèves du fameux « Collège Trilingue » créé en 1515 par Erasme à Louvain en Belgique.

Un cercle d’étude à la Renaissance.

Traversari rencontra Chrysoloras à l’occasion des deux séjours qu’il fit à Florence pendant l’été 1413, puis en janvier-février 1414, et le vieux lettré byzantin fut impressionné par la culture bilingue du jeune moine. Il lui adressera une longue lettre philosophique en grec sur le thème de l’amitié. Ambrogio lui-même exprima dans ses lettres la plus grande considération pour Chrysoloras et son émotion pour la bienveillance qu’il lui avait témoigna.

Notons également que le riche érudit humaniste Niccolò Niccoli, grand collectionneur de livres, ouvrit sa bibliothèque à Traversari et le mit en relation avec les cercles érudits de Florence (notamment Leonardo Bruni, et aussi Côme de Médicis dont il était le conseiller), de Rome et de Venise.

En 1423, le pape Martin V envoie deux lettres, l’une au prieur du couvent Sainte-Marie-des-Anges, le Père Matteo, l’autre à Traversari lui-même, exprimant son soutien au grand développement des études patristiques dans cet établissement, et tout particulièrement au travail de traduction des Pères grecs mené par Traversari.

Le pape avait en vue les négociations qu’il allait mener avec l’Église grecque : début 1423, son légat Antoine de Massa rapporta de Constantinople plusieurs manuscrits grecs qu’il confia à Traversari pour traduction : notamment l’Adversus Græcos de Manuel Calécas, et pour les classiques les Vies et doctrines des philosophes illustres de Diogène Laërce, qui ne sera longtemps diffusé que dans la traduction latine de Traversari.

C’est suite à ce travail que Traversari manifesta son intérêt à voir résolu le schisme entre les Eglises latine et grecque. Fin 1423, Niccolò Niccoli procura à Traversari un vieux volume contenant tout le corpus des anciens canons ecclésiastiques. Le savant moine exprima dans sa correspondance avec l’humaniste son enthousiasme de pouvoir se plonger dans la vie de l’Église chrétienne antique alors unie. Sur sa lancée il traduira en grec une longue lettre du pape Grégoire le Grand aux prélats d’Orient.

Bessarion et Pléthon furent-ils les premiers à introduire l’ensemble de l’œuvre de Platon en Europe ?

Giovanni Aurispa, traducteur de Platon.

Pas vraiment. Si Jean Bessarion (1403-1472) apporta effectivement en 1437 sa propre collection des « œuvres complètes de Platon » à Florence, elles avaient déjà été introduites plus tôt en Italie, notamment en 1423 par le Sicilien Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), le précepteur de Lorenzo Valla (un autre collaborateur du Cusain, avec lequel il dénonça la fraude de la « Donation de Constantin » et dont les travaux influenceront fortement Erasme). 

En 1421, Aurispa, travaillant avec Traversari, fut envoyé par le pape Martin V afin de servir de traducteur au marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, en mission diplomatique auprès de l’empereur byzantin Manuel II Paléologue. Sur place, Aurispa gagna la faveur du fils et successeur de l’empereur, Jean VIII Paléologue (1392-1448), qui fit de lui son secrétaire. Deux ans plus tard, Aurispa accompagnera l’empereur byzantin dans une mission à la cour d’Europe.

Jean VIII Paléologue, ici représenté comme le roi Balthazar,
fresque de Benozzo Gozzoli.

Le 15 décembre 1423, 16 ans avant le Concile de Florence de 1439, Aurispa arriva à Venise avec la plus grande et la plus belle collection de textes grecs à pénétrer en Occident ; donc avant ceux apportés par Bessarion.

En réponse à une lettre de Traversari, il précisa avoir ramené 238 manuscrits. Ceux-ci contenaient toutes les œuvres de Platon, dont la plupart jusqu’alors n’étaient connues que très partiellement ou pas du tout en Occident, à quelques exceptions près. Par exemple, en Sicile, dès 1160, Henri Aristippe de Calabre (1105-1162) avait traduit en latin le Phèdre et le Ménon, deux dialogues de Platon.

Le virus du néo-platonisme

Les authentiques platoniciens (tels que Pétrarque, Traversari, Nicolas de Cues ou Erasme), s’opposèrent avec force aux « néo-platoniciens » (tels que Plotin, Proclus, Jamblique, le Ficin et autres Pic de la Mirandole) dont l’influence suscitera ce que l’on peut et doit appeler une « contre-Renaissance ».

Quelques siècles plus tard, le philosophe humaniste Leibniz mettra lui aussi fortement en garde contre les « néo-platoniciens » et exigera que l’on étudie Platon dans ses écrits originaux plutôt qu’à travers ses commentateurs, aussi brillants soient-ils :

« Non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere. » Il faut étudier Platon, dit-il, « mais non pas Plotin ou le Ficin, qui, en s’efforçant toujours de parler merveilleusement et mystiquement, corrompent la doctrine d’un si grand homme. »

Examinons maintenant, dans ce contexte, la figure de Pléthon, qui estimait que Platon et Aristote pouvaient jouer chacun leur propre rôle.

George Gemistos Pléthon,
fresque de Benozzo Gozzoli.

George Gemistos « Pléthon » (1355-1452), fut un disciple du neo-platonicien radical Michael Psellos (1018-1080).

Vers 1410, Gemistos ouvrit son académie « néo-platonicienne » à Mistra (près du site de l’ancienne Sparte) et ajouta « Pléthon » à son nom pour ressembler à Platon. A part Platon, il admirait aussi Pythagore et les « Oracles chaldéens », qu’il attribua à Zoroastre.

Alors que la plupart des écrits de Pléthon, soupçonné d’hérésie, furent brûlés, une partie de son œuvre finira entre les mains de son ancien élève, le cardinal Jean Bessarion. Ce dernier, avant de mourir, légua sa vaste collection de manuscrits et de livres à la bibliothèque Saint-Marc de Venise (ville où résidaient plus de 4000 Grecs). Parmi ces livres et manuscrits se trouvait le Résumé des Doctrines de Zoroastre et de Platon. Ce texte, un mélange de croyances polythéistes et d’éléments néo-platoniciens, était un résumé que Pléthon avait écrit en partant de l’œuvre de Platon, Les Lois.

Jean Bessarion, ce véritable humaniste qui participa au Concile de Ferrare (1437) et de Florence (1439), en tant que représentant des Grecs et a signa le décret de l’Union, il s’en tint au principe :

« J’honore et respecte Aristote, j’aime Platon » (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem).

Pour lui, la pensée platonicienne ne serait acceptable pour le monde latin (Occident) que lorsqu’elle obtiendrait le même droit que la pensée aristotélicienne en apparaissant comme une interprétation irénique de l’aristotélisme, sans être en contradiction avec le christianisme.

Les Médicis financèrent-ils un programme intensif pour traduire les œuvres de Platon ?

Côme de Médicis.

En 1397, le banquier et industriel Giovannni « di Bicci » de’ Medici (1360-1429) fonda la Banque des Médicis. Giovanni possédait deux manufactures de laine à Florence et fut membre de deux guildes : l’Arte della Lana et l’Arte del Cambio. En 1402, il fut l’un des juges du jury qui sélectionna le projet du sculpteur Lorenzo Ghiberti pour les magnifiques bas-reliefs en bronze des portes du Baptistère de Florence.

En 1418, Giovanni di Bicci, souhaitant doter les Medicis de leur propre église familiale, confia à Filippo Brunelleschi, futur réalisateur du Duomo, la fameuse coupole de la cathédrale de Santa Maria del Fioro, le Duomo, le soin de transformer radicalement l’église basilique de San Lorenzo et chargea Donatello de réaliser les sculptures.

Politiquement, la puissante famille des Médicis, actifs dans la finance et l’industrie textile, n’accéda au pouvoir qu’en 1434, trois ans avant le Concile de Florence alors que la Renaissance battait déjà son plein.

Certes, le fils et héritier de Giovanni di Bicci, Cosimo (Côme) di Medici (1389-1464), connu comme l’homme le plus riche de son siècle, fut si enthousiasmé par les paroles de Pléthon qu’il acquit une bibliothèque complète de manuscrits grecs. Il lui acheta également un ensemble de 24 dialogues de Platon, ainsi qu’un exemplaire du Corpus Hermeticum d’Hermès Trismégiste l’Égyptien (entre 100 et 300 après JC.), trouvé en Macédoine par un moine italien, Leonardo de Pistoia.

Cosimo songea à faire traduire du grec ancien au latin la totalité des œuvres de Platon. Cependant, comme nous l’avons déjà dit, Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), chancelier de la république florentine de 1427 à 1444, avait déjà traduit bien avant une grande partie des œuvres de Platon du grec ancien vers le latin.

Cosimo choisit comme traducteur Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), le fils de son médecin personnel, âgé seulement de cinq ans au moment du Concile de Florence en 1439. Ayant de sérieux doutes sur les capacités du Ficin lorsque ce dernier lui offre en 1456 sa première traduction, Les institutions platoniques, Cosimo lui demanda de ne pas publier cet ouvrage et d’apprendre d’abord la langue grecque… que le Ficin apprit auprès du savant byzantin Jean Argyropoulos (1395 -1487), un élève aristotélicien de Bessarion.

Avancé en âge et gagné par la corruption, Cosimo lui donna finalement le poste. Il lui alloue une bourse annuelle, les manuscrits nécessaires et une villa à Careggi, un quartier de Florence, où le Ficin fonda son « Académie platonicienne » avec une poignée d’adeptes, parmi lesquels Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Jean Pic de la Mirandole (1463-1494) et Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).

Marsilio Ficino (à gauche) avec ses disciples.

L’Académie du Ficin, reprenant (comme il le dit lui-même) l’ancienne tradition néo-platonicienne de Plotin et de Porphyre organisait chaque année, le 7 novembre, un banquet cérémonial « négligé depuis mille deux cents ans ». Cette date correspondait, selon lui, à la fois à l’anniversaire de Platon et de sa mort.

Après le dîner, les participants lisaient le Symposium de Platon, puis chacun d’entre eux commentait l’un des discours de l’œuvre. Il s’agissait de démonstrations sans véritable dialogue et dépourvus de l’essence de toute vraie dialectique socratique : l’ironie.

En outre, il est à noter que la plupart des réunions de l’Académie du Ficin avaient lieu en présence de l’ambassadeur de Venise à Florence, en particulier le puissant oligarque Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), père du cardinal « poète » Pietro Bembo, plus tard conseiller spécial du pape guerrier, le génois Jules II.

C’est cette alliance formée par la famille des Médicis, de plus en plus dégénérée, des Vénitiens et des néo-platoniciens qui permit de consolider une emprise oligarchique sur l’Église catholique romaine.

Les Médicis eurent peu de considération pour Léonard de Vinci dont ils jugeaient trop lente l’exécution de ses œuvres et ses fresques défaillantes techniquement. Déçu de n’obtenir aucune commande de la part du pape, Léonard se rendit en France où le roi François Ier l’attendait.

Giorgio Vasari, peintre médiocre, fut l’homme orchestre des Médicis. Dans sa Vies des peintres, il répandit le mythe que la Renaissance fut le bébé quasi-exclusif des ses employeurs.

Soulignons également qu’avant de traduire les œuvres de Platon, et à la demande expresse de Cosimo, le Ficin traduira d’abord (en 1462) les Hymnes orphiques, les Dictons de Zoroastre et le Corpus Hermeticum d’Hermès Trismégiste.

Ce n’est qu’en 1469 (trente ans après le Concile de Florence) que le Ficin achèvera ses traductions de Platon après une dépression nerveuse en 1468, décrite par ses contemporains comme une crise de « profonde mélancolie ».

En 1470, sous le titre plagié de Proclus, le Ficin écrivit sa Théologie platonicienne de l’immortalité des âmes. Bien que complètement gagné au néo-platonisme ésotérique, il devint prêtre en 1473 et écrira son Livre de la religion chrétienne sans renoncer à sa vision païenne néo-platonicienne, puisqu’il entreprit alors toute une nouvelle série de traductions des néo-platoniciens d’Alexandrie : les cinquante-quatre livres des Ennéades de Plotin ainsi que les œuvres de Porphyre et de Proclus.

Le Ficin, dans ses « Cinq questions concernant l’esprit », s’attaqua explicitement à la conception prométhéenne de l’homme :

Rien n’est plus déraisonnable que l’homme qui, par la raison, est le plus parfait de tous les animaux, non, de toutes les choses du ciel, le plus parfait, dis-je, par rapport à cette perfection formelle qui nous est donnée dès le commencement, que l’homme, également par la raison, devrait être le moins parfait de tous par rapport à cette perfection finale pour laquelle la première perfection est donnée. Cela semble être celui du plus malheureux Prométhée. Instruit par la sagesse divine de Pallas, il a pris possession du feu céleste, c’est-à-dire de la raison. C’est à cause de cette possession, sur le plus haut sommet de la montagne, c’est-à-dire à la place la plus élevée de la contemplation, qu’il est à juste titre jugé le plus misérable de tous, car il est rendu misérable par le rongement continuel du plus vorace des vautours, c’est-à-dire par le tourment de l’enquête… 

(…) Que disent les philosophes de ces choses ? Certainement que les Mages, disciples de Zoroastre et d’Ostanès, affirment quelque chose de similaire. Ils disent que, à cause d’une certaine vieille maladie de l’esprit humain, tout ce qui est très malsain et difficile nous arrive…

L’Académie néo-platonicienne florentine, soutenue par le flamboyant Lorenzo de Médicis (1449-1492) dit « Laurent le Magnifique », ne fut jamais à l’origine d’une quelconque Renaissance. Bien au contraire, elle servira d’opération « delphique » : défendre Platon pour mieux le détruire ; le louer en des termes tels qu’il en devienne discrédité.

Et surtout détruire l’influence de Platon en opposant la religion à la science, à un moment où Nicolas de Cues et ses partisans réussirent à fertiliser l’une avec la semence de l’autre. N’est-il pas étrange que le nom du Cusain n’apparaisse pas une seule fois dans les œuvres du Ficin ou de Pic de la Mirandole, si érudits ?

Infecté par ce néo-platonisme ésotérique, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516), le bibliothécaire en chef du pape Jules II, n’accomplira rien d’autre que cela en dictant au peintre Raphaël le contenu des Stanze (chambres) au Vatican quelques décennies plus tard.

La « mélancolie » néo-platonicienne, que l’ami d’Erasme, le peintre-graveur Albrecht Dürer, prendra comme thème de sa célèbre gravure, deviendra la matrice philosophique des romantiques, des symbolistes et de l’école dite moderne.

Quant à la révolution que susciteront les études grecques dans les sciences, j’ai eu l’occasion d’expliquer la question dans mon texte « 1512-2012 : De la cosmographie aux cosmonautes, Gérard Mercator et Gemma Frisius ».

Humanistes et traducteurs

Pour conclure, voici une courte liste de traducteurs (il en manque certainement) et des langues étrangères qu’ils maîtrisaient.

Remercions-les pour tout ce qu’ils nous ont apporté. Sans eux, l’homme n’aurait certainement pas pu poser le pied sur la Lune !

  • Cicéron, 106-43 av. JC. : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Philon d’Alexandrie, vers 20 av. JC- 45 apr. JC : hébreu, grec ;
  • Origène, v. 185-v. 253 après JC. : grec, latin ;
  • Saint Jérôme (de Stridon), 342-420 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Boèce, 477-524 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Bède le Vénérable, 672-735 : anglais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Charlemagne, 742-814, parlait couramment le latin et connaissait le grec, l’hébreu, le syriaque et l’esclavon (l’ancien serbo-croate) ;
  • Jean Scot Erigène, 800-876 : irlandais, grec, arabe et hébreu ;
  • Hunayn ibn Ishaq, 809-873 : arabe, syriaque, persan et grec ;
  • Thabit ibn Qurra, 826-901 : syriaque, arabe et grec ;
  • Al-Fârâbi, 872-950 : farsi, sogdien et grec ;
  • Al-Biruni, 973-1048, chorasmien, farsi, arabe, syriaque, sanskrit, hindi, hébreu et grec ;
  • Héloïse, 1092-1141 : français, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Hugues de Saint Victor, 1096-1141 : français, latin, grec ;
  • Constantin l’Africain, XIe siècle. : arabe, latin, grec et italien ;
  • Jean Sarrazin, XIIe siècle : latin et grec ;
  • Henri Aristippe, 1105-1162 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Gérard de Crémone, 1114-1187 : Italien, latin et arabe ;
  • Robert Grosseteste, 1168-1253 : anglais, latin et grec;
  • Michael Scot, 1175-1232 : écossais, latin, grec, hébreu et arabe;
  • Moïse de Bergame, XIIe siècle : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Burgundio de Pise, XIIe siècle : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Jacques de Venise, mort après 1147 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Roger Bacon, 1214-1294 : anglais, latin, grec, hébreu, arabe et chaldéen ;
  • Guillaume de Moerbeke, 1215-1286 : flamand, latin et grec ;
  • Raymond Lulle, 1232-1315 : catalan, latin et arabe ;
  • Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321 : italien et latin
  • Léonce Pilate, (?-1366) : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Francesco Pétrarque, 1304-1374 : Italien, latin et notions de grec ;
  • Giovanni Boccaccio (Bocace), 1313-1375 : italien, latin et notions de grec ;
  • Coluccio Salutati, 1331-1406 : italien et latin ;
  • Geert Groote, 1340-1384 : néerlandais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Florens Radewijns, 1350-1400 : néerlandais et latin ;
  • Manuel Chrysoloras, 1355-1415 : grec, latin et italien ;
  • Jacopo d’Angelo, 1360-1410, italien, latin, grec ;
  • Georgius Gemistus Pléthon, 1360-1452 : grec ;
  • Pier Paolo Vergerio (l’Ancien), 1370-1445 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Leonardo Bruni, 1370-1441 : italien, latin, grec, hébreu et arabe ;
  • Guarino Guarini (de Vérone), 1370-1460 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Palla di Onorio Strozzi, 1372-1462 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Giovanni Aurispa, 1376-1459 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Vittorino da Feltre, 1378-1446 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Poggio Bracciolini, 1380-1459 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Ambrogio Traversari, 1386-1439 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Gianozzo Manetti, 1396-1459 : italien, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Jean Argyropoulos, 1395-1487 : grec, italien et latin ;
  • Georges de Trébizonde, 1396-1472 : grec, latin et italien ;
  • Tommaso Parentucelli (pape Nicolas V), 1397-1494 : italien et latin ;
  • Francesco Filelfo, 1398-1481 : Italien, latin et grec ;
  • Carlo Marsuppini, 1399-1453 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Théodore de Gaza, 1400-1478 : grec et latin ;
  • Jean Bessarion, 1403-1472 : grec, latin et italien ;
  • Lorenzo Valla, 1407-1457 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Nicolas de Cues, 1401-1464 : allemand, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • John Wessel Gansfoort, 1419-1489 : néerlandais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Georg von Peuerbach, 1423-1461 : allemand, latin et grec ;
  • Démétrios Chalcondyle, 1423-1511 : grec et latin ;
  • Marcilio Ficino, 1433-1499 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Constantin Lascaris, 1434-1501 : grec, latin, italien ;
  • Regiomontanus, 1436-1476 : allemand, latin et grec ;
  • Alexander Hegius, 1440-1498 : néerlandais, latin et grec ;
  • Rudolf Agricola, 1444-1485 : néerlandais, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Janus Lascaris, 1445-1535 : grec et latin ;
  • William Grocyn, 1446-1519, anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Angelo Poliziano, 1454-1494 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Johannes Reuchlin, 1455-1522 : allemand, latin, grec et hébreu ;
  • Thomas Linacre, 1460-1524 : anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Erasme de Rotterdam, 1467-1536 : néerlandais, français, latin et grec ;
  • Guillaume Budé, 1467-1540 : français, latin et grec ;
  • William Latimer, 1467-1545 : anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Willibald Pirckhimer, 1470-1530 : allemand, latin et grec ;
  • Marcus Musurus, 1470-1517, italien, latin et grec ;
  • Thomas More, 1478-1535 : anglais, latin et grec ;
  • Pietro Bembo, 1470-1547 : italien, latin et grec ;
  • Jérôme Aléandre, 1480-1542, italien, latin et grec;
  • François Rabelais, 1483-1553 : français, latin et grec ;
  • Germain de Brie, 1490-1538 : français, latin et grec;
  • Juan Luis Vivès, 1492-1540 : espagnol, latin, grec et hébreu.

* * * * *

NOTES :
*A. Artus et M. Maynègre, La Fontaine de Pétrarque, n° spécial consacré au 700e anniversaire de la naissance de François Pétrarque, Avignon, 2004.
**Dans son testament du 28 août 1374, Boccace avait prédisposé qu’à sa mort (advenue le 21 décembre 1375), une partie de sa riche bibliothèque (l’essentiel des textes latins et grecs, à l’exclusion donc des œuvres en langue vernaculaire) aille en héritage au frère augustin Martino da Signa et que celui-ci, à sa propre mort (survenue en 1387), la lègue intégralement à son institution d’appartenance, le couvent de Santo Spirito à Florence.

Merci de partager !

The Greek language project, Plato and the Renaissance

By Karel Vereycken

Some friends asked me to elaborate on the following:

It is sometimes said that the introduction of Plato in the context of the Councils of Ferrara and Florence (1439) “triggered the explosion of the Italian Renaissance”.

And of the great humanist, the German Cardinal-philosopher Cusanus, it is said that he “brought to Florence Bessarion and Plethon, who were both Greek scholars of Plato and brought the entire works of Plato which had been lost in Europe for centuries”.

At the same time, goes the narrative, “the Medicis financed a crash program to translate the works of Plato. This excitement made the Italian Renaissance what it became”.

While Plato’s ideas and the renewal of greek studies did play a major role in triggering the European Renaissance, the preceding affirmations, as we shall document here, require some refinement.

Was the Italian Renaissance “triggered” by the Council of Florence?

The chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati.

Not really. It was rather –40 years earlier–, the “Greek language revival project” project of Coluccio Salutati (1332-1406), who would become the chancellor of Florence and invite the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to his city, that “triggered” a revival of Greek and Hebrew studies, which in return lead to the unification of the churches at the Council of Florence (1439).

The idea had regained interest from Petrarch and Boccaccio, which Salutati admired. Along with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), it is undoubtedly the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) who best embodies the ideals guiding the humanists of the Renaissance.

All his life, it is said, Petrarch tried to

« rediscover the very rich teaching of classical authors in all disciplines and, starting from this sum of knowledge, most often scattered and forgotten, to revive and pursue the research that these authors had begun. »

After following his parents to Avignon, Petrarch studied in Carpentras where he learned grammar, then in Montpellier, rhetoric, and finally in Bologna, where he spent seven years at the school of jurisconsults.

However, instead of studying law, which in those days paved the way to a brilliant career, Petrarch secretly read all the classics hitherto known, including Cicero and Virgil, despite the fact that his father occasionally burned his books.

Petrarch and Barlaam of Samara

Barlaam of Seminara crossing a river. XVth century manuscript.
Petrarch

Under the pontificate of Benedict XII, Petrarch tried to learn Greek language with the help of a learned monk of the Order of St. Basil, Barlaam of Seminara (1290-1348), known as Barlaam the Calabrian, who came to Avignon in 1339 as ambassador of Andronic III Paleologus in an unsuccessful attempt to put an end to the schism between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

A philosopher, theologian and mathematician, Barlaam, while having limited knowledge of Greek and Latin, was one of the first to wish that the study of the Greek language and philosophy be reborn in Europe.

In his Treatise On my own ignorance and that of many others (1367), Petrarch declared himself proud of his Greek manuscripts – and of his library in general – and expressed his deep admiration for Barlaam:

« I have at home sixteen works of Plato. I don’t know if my friends have ever heard the titles […]. And this is only a small part of Plato’s work, for I have seen, with my own eyes, a large number of them, especially in possession of the Calabrian Barlaam, a modern model of Greek wisdom who began to teach me Greek while I was still ignorant of Latin, and who might have done so successfully if death had not taken him away from me and hindered my honest plans, as usual.« 

In 1350, two years after Barlaam’s death, Petrarch met the son of a banker, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The latter, like Petrarch, fell in love with the Greek culture and language. In his youth, in Naples, he too had met Barlaam and learned a few words of Greek, meticulously copying alphabets and verses, adding the Latin translation and pronunciation indications.

Boccaccio and Leontius Pilatus

Leontius Pilatus

To increase his mastery of Greek, Boccaccio then called from Thessaloniki a disciple of Barlaam, Leontius Pilatus (died in 1366), an austere, ugly and very bad-tempered character. But this Calabrian lectured him on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and translated sixteen of Plato’s dialogues. How could one get angry with him?

Boccaccio offered him shelter and food for three years in his home and had a chair of Greek created for him in Florence, the first time ever!

Unfortunately, Pilatus did not really master this language. Although posing as a native Greek, the man had poor knowledge of ancient Greek and his translations never got beyond the level of word-for-word. As for the lessons he gave Petrarch, they were so brutal that he disgusted him forever.

This did not prevent Pilatus, at the insistence of Boccaccio, from translating Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey into Latin from a Greek manuscript sent to Petrarch by Nicolaos Sigeros, the Byzantine ambassador to Avignon.

Hence, history being what it is, it was thanks to this highly imperfect translation that Europe rediscovered one of the great founding works of its culture!

Boccaccio’s book on famous women.

And on this fragile ground will rise a flame that will revolutionize the world.

« Was it not I, » writes Boccaccio in his Genealogy of the Gods, « who had the glory and honor of employing the first Greek verses among the Tuscans? Was it not I who, through my prayers, led Pilatus to settle in Florence and who housed him there? I brought at my own expense copies of Homer and other Greek authors when none existed in Tuscany. I was the first of the Italians to whom Homer, in particular, was explained, and then I had him explained in public.« 

The hunt for manuscripts

What is important is that during these encounters Petrarch created a cultural network covering the whole of Europe, a network reaching into the East.

He then asked his relations and friends, who shared his humanist ideals, to help him find in their respective country or province, the Latin texts of the ancients that the libraries of abbeys, individuals or cities might possess. In the course of his own travels, he found several major texts that had fallen into oblivion.

It is in Liege (Belgium) that he discovered the Pro Archia and in Verona, Ad Atticum, Ad Quintum and Ad Brutum, all by Cicero. During a stay in Paris, he got his hands on the elegiac poems of Propertius, then, in 1350, on a work by Quintilian. In a constant concern to restore the most authentic text, he subjected these manuscripts to meticulous philological work and made corrections by comparing them with other manuscripts. This is how he reconstructed the first and fourth decades of the Roman History of Titus Livius from fragments and restored some of Virgil’s texts.

These manuscripts, which he kept in his own library, later came out in the form of copies and thus became accessible to the greatest number of people. While acknowledging that the pagans lacked the « true faith, » Petrarch believed that when one speaks of virtue, the old and new worlds are not at war.


The « Circolo di Santo Spirito »

Florence: the Augustinian Convent Santo Spirito.

From the 1360s onwards, Boccaccio gathered a first group of humanists known as the « Circolo di Santo Spirito » (Circle of the Holy Spirit), whose name was borrowed from the 13th century Florentine Augustinian convent.

An embryonic form of a university, its Studium Generale (1284) was then at the heart of a vast intellectual center including schools, hospices and refectories for the needy.

Before his death in 1375, Boccaccio, who had recovered part of Petrarch’s library, bequeathed to the convent his entire collection of precious ancient books and manuscripts.

Then, in the 1380s and early 1390s, a second circle of humanists met daily in the cell of the Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili (1342-1394). The latter, who had studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Paris and Padua, where he already established contact with Petrarch in 1370, became friends with Boccaccio. Hence, by attending the Cercle Santo Spirito from 1375 onwards, Coluccio Salutati in turn fell in love with Greek studies.

By inviting the Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to Florence to teach Ancient Greek, it was Salutati who gave the decisive impulse leading to the end of the schism between East and West and thus to the unification of the Churches, consecrated at the Council of Florence in 1439.

Roger Bacon

A century before Salutati, the English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a Franciscan monk residing in Oxford, author of one of the first Greek grammars, already called for such a « linguistic revolution ».

As wrote Dean P. Lockwood in Roger Bacon’s Vision of the Study of Greek (1919):

« Obviously, Greek was the master-key to the great storehouse of ancient knowledge, Hebrew and Arabic to lesser chambers. Furthermore, we must not forget that in Bacon’s day the superiority of the ancients was an indisputable fact. The modern world has outstripped the Greek and the Romans in countless ways; the medieval thinkers were still climbing toward the Hellenic standard.

« Three things were clear to Roger Bacon: the need of Greek, the contemporary ignorance of Greek, and the feasibility of acquiring Greek. The same may be said of Hebrew, but Bacon rightly put Greek first. Bacon’s program was simple:

« 1. Seek out the native Byzantine Greeks resident in Europe, preferably grammarians. The latter were very few, of course, but might be found in the Greek monasteries of Southern Italy.

« 2. From these and from any other available sources let Greek books be sought. If this program were to be carried out, Bacon confidently prophetized that results would not be long in forthcoming.« 


Leonardo Bruni

Leonardo Bruni.

Manuel Chrysoloras, arrived in winter 1397, an event remembered by one of his most famous pupils, the humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) and later chancellor of Florence at the time of the Council of Florence, as a great new opportunity: there were many teachers of law, but no one had studied Greek in northern Italy for 700 years.

Thanks to Chrysoloras, Bruni and Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder were able to read Aristotle and especially Plato in the original Greek version.

Aristotle (Logic) versus Plato (Dialectics).

Until then, in Europe, Christians knew the names of Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato by their reading of the church fathers Origen, St. Jerome and St. Augustine.

The latter, in his City of God, did not hesitate to affirm that the « Platonists », that is Plato and those who assimilated his teaching (Plato et qui eum bene intellexerunt), were superior to all other pagan philosophers.

As we have demonstrated elsewhere, in particular in our study on Raphael and the School of Athens, it is to a large extent Plato’s optimistic and Promethean philosophical approach, for whom knowledge comes above all from the capacity for hypothesis and not from the mere testimony of the senses as Aristotle claims, that clearly provided the sap that allowed the Renaissance tree to offer humanity so many wonderful fruits.

Traversari’s humanist circle

Bust of d’Ambrogio Traversari.

The most famous pupil of Chrysoloras was Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), who became general of the Camaldolese order. Today honored as a saint by his order, Traversari was one of the first to conceptualize the type of “Christian Humanism” that would be promoted by Nicolaus of Cusa (Cusanus) and later Erasmus of Rotterdam (who framed the concept of “Saint-Socrates”) and the latter’s admirer Rabelais, uniting Plato with the Holy Scriptures, and the fathers of the Church.

Traversari, a key organizer of the Council of Florence, was also the personal protector of the great Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca and of the architect of the Dome Filippo Brunelleschi.

Traversari’s circle of humanists, which included Cusanus and Toscanelli, regularly met at the Florentine Santa Maria degli Angeli convent.

According to Vespasiano de Bisticci, the court historian of the Court of Urbino, Traversari had weekly working sessions on Plato and Greek philosophy at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent with the crème de la crème of European humanism in the fields of literature, theology, science, politics, architecture, infrastructure, urban planning, education and the fine arts. Among those :

  • The German cardinal-philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus);
  • Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the great physician and cartographer, also friend and protector of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.
  • The erudite manuscript collector Niccolò Niccoli, adviser to Cosimo the Elder, heir to the Medici’s industrial and financial empire. Considered at the time to be the richest man in the West, Cosimo was one of the patrons of the sculptor Donatello;
  • Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, the future humanist pope Pius II;
  • Leonardo Bruni, the apostolic secretary of Pope Innocent VII and his three successors. He succeeded Coluccio Salutati at the chancellery of Florence (1410-1411 and 1427-1444).
  • The Italian statesman Carlo Marsuppini, passionate about Greek Antiquity, and successor of Bruni as Chancellor of the Republic of Florence after the latter’s death in 1444.
  • The philosopher, antiquarian and writer Poggio Bracciolini. After having advised no less than nine popes (!), he was appointed Chancellor of the Republic of Florence following the death of Marsuppini in 1453;
  • The politician and ambassador Gianozzi Manetti. In love with ancient Greek and Hebrew, his circle includes the éducator Francesco Filelfo, the banker Palla Strozzi and the founder of the Vatican library Lorenzo Valla ;

Chrysoloras in Florence

The Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras

Chrysoloras remained only a few years in Florence, from 1397 to 1400, teaching Greek, starting with the rudiments. He moved on to teach in Bologna and later in Venice and Rome. Though he taught widely, a handful of his chosen students remained a close-knit group, among the first humanists of the Renaissance. As said before, among his pupils one could count some of the foremost figures of the revival of Greek studies in Renaissance Italy.

Aside from Bruni and Ambrogio Traversari, they included Guarino da Verona and the Florentine banker Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), later the friend and protector of the sculptor and translator Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is worth noting that Strozzi paid part of Chrysoloras’ salary and had the books necessary for the new teaching brought from Constantinople and Greece.

Chrysoloras went to Rome on the invitation of Bruni, who was then secretary to Pope Gregory XII. In 1408, he was sent to Paris on an important mission from the emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (1350-1425). In 1413, he went to Germany on an embassy to the emperor Sigismund, the object of which was to decide on the site for the church council that assembled at Constance in 1415. Chrysoloras was on his way there, having been chosen to represent the Greek Church, when he died that year.

Chrysoloras translated the works of Homer and Plato’s Republic from Greek into Latin. His Erotemata (Questions-answers), which was the first basic Greek grammar in use in Western Europe, circulated initially as a manuscript before being published in 1484.

Widely reprinted, it enjoyed considerable success not only among his pupils in Florence, but also among later leading humanists, being immediately studied by Thomas Linacre at Oxford and by Erasmus when he resided at Cambridge. It’s text became the basic manual used by pupils of the Three Language College set up by Erasmus in Leuven (Belgium) in 1515.

Study during the Renaissance

Traversari meets Chrysoloras during his two stays in Florence in the summer of 1413 and in January-February 1414, and the old Byzantine scholar is impressed by the bilingual culture of the young monk; he sends him a long philosophical letter in Greek on the theme of friendship. Ambrogio himself expresses in his letters the highest consideration for Chrysoloras, and emotion for the benevolence he showed him.

It should also be noted that the rich humanist scholar Niccolò Niccoli, a great collector of books, opened his library to Traversari and put him in constant contact with the scholarly circles of Florence (notably Leonardo Bruni, and also Cosimo de Medici, of whom he was advisor), but also of Rome and Venice.

In 1423, Pope Martin V sent two letters, one to the prior of the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Father Matteo, and the other to Traversari himself, expressing his support for the great development of patristic studies in this establishment, and especially for the work of translation of the Greek Fathers carried out by Traversari.

The Pope had in mind the negotiations he was conducting at the time with the Greek Church: at the beginning of 1423, his legate Antonio de Massa returned from Constantinople and brought back with him several Greek manuscripts which were to be entrusted to Traversari for translation: notably the Adversus Græcos by Manuel Calécas, and for the classics the Lives and Doctrines of the Illustrious Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, a text which circulated for a long time only in Traversari’s Latin translation.

It was following these undertakings that Traversari expressed his great interest in seeing the schism between the Latin and Greek Churches resolved. At the end of 1423, Niccolò Niccoli provides Traversari with an old volume containing the entire corpus of the ancient ecclesiastical canons, and the learned monk expresses in his correspondence with the humanist his enthusiasm for being able to immerse himself in the life of the then united ancient Christian Church, and in the process, he translates into Greek a long letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the prelates of the East.

Arrival of Plato’s mind

Were Bessarion and Plethon the first to bring the entire works of Plato to Europe?

Not really. While John Bessarion did indeed bring his own collection of the “complete works of Plato” in 1437 to Florence, they had already been brought to Italy earlier, most notably in 1423 by the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), who was the teacher of Lorenzo Valla (another collaborator with whom Cusanus exposed the fraud of the “Donation of Constantine” and a major source of inspiration of Erasmus).

In 1421 Aurispa was sent by Pope Martin V to act as the translator for the Marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos.

The Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus, here portrayed as King Balthasar.

After their arrival, he gained the favor of the emperor’s son and successor, John VIII Paleologus (1392-1448), who took him on as his own secretary. Two years later, he accompanied his Byzantine employer on a mission to the courts of Europe.

Giovanni Aurispa, the first Italian, in coordination with Traversari, to bring the complete works of Plato to the West.

On 15 December 1423, 16 years prior to the Council of Florence of 1439, Aurispa arrived in Venice with the largest and finest collection of Greek texts to reach the west prior to those brought by Bessarion. In reply to a letter from Traversari, he says that he brought back 238 manuscripts.

These contained all of Plato’s works, most of them hitherto unknown in the West.

Plato’s works so far were only known very partially. In Sicily, Henry Aristippus of Calabria (1105-1162) had translated into Latin Plato’s Phaedo and Meno dialogues as early as 1160.

Evil neo-Platonist

Platonists (such as Petrarch, Traversari, Cusanus or Erasmus), have nothing to do and even violently opposed “Neo-platonist” (such as Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola) whose influence would create what could and should be called a “counter-Renaissance”.

Already Leibniz strongly warned against the “neo-Platonists” and demanded Plato be studied in his original writings rather than through his commentators, however brilliant they might be:

“non ex Plotino aut Marsilio Ficino, qui mira semper et mystica affectantes diceren tanti uiri doctrinam corrupere.”

[In English: Plato should be studied, but “Not from Plotinus nor Marsilio Ficino, who, by always striving to speak wonderfully and mystically, corrupt the doctrine of so great a man. »]

George Gemisthos « Plethon »

George Gemistos « Plethon » in the mural painting of Benozzo Gozzoli.

Now, let us enter Plethon, who thought Plato and Aristotle could each one play their own role. George Gemistos « Plethon » (1355-1452), was a follower of the radical “neo-Platonist” Michael Psellos (1018-1080). Around 1410 Gemistos created a “neo-Platonic” academy in Mistra (near the site of ancient Sparta) and added “Plethon” to his name to make it resemble to « Plato ». He was also an admirer of Pythagoras, Plato, and the “Chaldean Oracles”, which he ascribed to Zoroaster.

Gemistos came for the first time to Florence when he was fifteen years old and became an authority in Mistra. So at the time of the Council, the Emperor, John VIII Paleologus, knew they were going to face some of the finest minds in the Roman Church on their own soil; he therefore wanted the best minds available in support of the Byzantine cause to accompany him. Consequently, the Emperor appointed George Gemistos as part of the delegation. Despite the fact that he was a secular philosopher — a rare creature at this time in the West — Gemistos was renowned both for his wisdom and his moral rectitude. Among the clerical lights in the delegation were John Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, and Mark Eugenikos, Metropolitan of Ephesus. Both had been students of Gemistos in their youth. Another non-clerical member of the delegation was George Scholarios: both a future adversary of Gemistos and a future Patriarch of Constantinople as Gennadios II. Initially, Gemistos was opposed to the unity of the western and eastern churches.

Not assisting at every theological debate during the Council of Florence of 1439, he went in town to give lectures to intellectuals and nobles on the essence of Plato and Neo-platonic philosophy. Plethon also brought with him the text of the “Chaldean Oracles” attributed to Zoroaster.

While most of Plethon’s writing were burned, since he was suspected of heresy, a large number of Plethon’s autograph manuscripts ended up in the hands of his former student Cardinal Bessarion. On Bessarion’s death, he willed his personal library to the library of San Marco in Venice (where over 4000 Greeks resided). Among these books and manuscripts was Plethon’s Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato. This Summary was a summary of the Book of Laws, which Plethon wrote inspired by Plato’s laws. The Summary is a mixture of polytheistic beliefs with neo-Platonist elements.

While John Bessarion (1403-1472), a real humanist, took part in the Council in Ferrara (1437) and Florence (1439), and as the representative of the Greek, signed the decree of the Florentine Union, he held nevertheless to the principle: “I honor and respect Aristotle, I love Plato” (colo et veneror Aristotelem, amo Platonem). For him Platonic thought would have the right of citizenship equal to Aristotelian thought in the Latin world only when it appeared in an irenic interpretation to Aristotelianism and as not in contradiction with Christianity, since only such an interpretation of Platonism could succeed at that time.


Cosimo di Medici and Ficino

Giovanni di Bicci de Medici

Did the Medicis finance a crash program to translate the works of Plato?

In 1397, Giovannni « di Bicci » de’ Medici (1360-1429) set up the Medici Bank. Giovanni owned two wool factories in Florence and was a member of two guilds: the Arte della Lana and the Arte del Cambio.

In 1402, he was one of the judges on the jury that selected Lorenzo Ghiberti’s design for the bronzes for the doors of the Baptistery of Florence.

In 1418, Giovanni di Bicci, wishing to endow his family with their own church, entrusted Filippo Brunelleschi, future architect of the famous dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fioro, the Duomo, with the task of radically transforming the basilica church of San Lorenzo and ordered Donatello to execute the sculptures.

Politically, the Medici family did not come to power until 1434, three years before the Council of Florence and at a time when the Renaissance was already in full swing.

Cosimo di Medici, the elder

Admittedly, Giovanni’s son and inheritor of his financial empire, Cosimo di Medici (1389-1464), known as the richest man of his epoch, became so inspired by Plethon that he acquired a complete library of Greek manuscripts. He bought a copy of the Platonic Corpus (24 dialogues) from Plethon, and a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus, acquired in Macedonia by an Italian monk, Lionardo of Pistoia. Cosimo also decided to initiate a project to translate from the Greek into Latin, the totality of Plato’s works.

However, as said before, Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), who after having been papal secretary became chancellor of the Florentine republic from 1427 till 1444, had already translated close to all of Plato’s works from Greek into Latin.

It should be underlined that the translator chosen by Cosimo was Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), the son of his personal physician and only five years old at the time of the Council of Florence in 1439. Cosimo had some severe doubts concerning Ficino’s capacities as translator. When the latter offers in 1456 his first translation, The Platonic Institutions, Cosimo asks him kindly not to publish this work and to learn first the Greek language… which Ficino learns then from Byzantine scholar John Argyropoulos (1415-1487), an Aristotelian pupil of Bessarion who rejected the Council of Florence’s epistemological revolution.

But seeing his age advancing and despite his unfortunate descent into corruption, Cosimo finally gave him the post. He allocates him an annual stipend, the required manuscripts and a villa at Careggi, close to Florence, where Ficino would set up his “Platonic Academy” with a handful of followers, among which Angelo Poliziano (1454-94), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498).

The evil « neo-Platonic » Marsilio Ficino (left) with some followers of his fake Platonic Academy: Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano and Demetrios Chalkondyles.

Ficino’s “Academy”, taking up the ancient neo-platonic tradition of Plotinus and Porphyry (as Ficino states himself) would organize each year a ceremonial banquet “neglected since one thousand two hundred years” on November 7, thought to be simultaneously the birthday of Plato and the day of his death.

After the dinner, the attendants would read Plato’s Symposium and then each of them would comment on one of the speeches. The comments are demonstrations, without any real dialogue and void of the essence of real platonic thinking: irony. On top of that it is remarkable that most gatherings of Ficino’s academy were attended by the ambassador of Venice in Florence, notably the powerful oligarch Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519), father of “poet” cardinal Pietro Bembo, later special advisor to the evil Genovese “Warrior Pope” Julius II.

It was this alliance of the increasingly more degenerated Medici family, the Venetian Empire’s maritime slave trade and the anti-Platonic neo-Platonists that gained dominant influence over the Curia of the Roman Catholic Church. The Medici’s clearly disliked Da Vinci (who never got an order from the Vatican and subsequently left Italy), and through their propaganda man Vasari made the world belief that the Renaissance was exclusively their baby.

But before translating Plato, and at the specific demand of Cosimo, Ficino translated first (in 1462) the Orphic Hymns, the Sayings of Zoroaster, and the Corpus Hermeticum of Hermes Trismegistus the Egyptian (between 100 and 300 after BC).

It will be only in 1469 that Ficino will finish his translations of Plato after a nervous breakdown in 1468, described by his contemporaries as a crisis of “profound melancholy”.

In 1470, and with a title plagiarized from Proclus, Ficino wrote his “Platonic Theology or on the immortality of the Soul.” While completely taken in by esoteric neo-Platonism, he became a priest in 1473 and wrote “The Christian Religion” without changing his neo-platonic pagan outlook, producing an entire new series of translations of the neo-Platonists of Alexandria: he translated the fifty-four books of Plotinus “Enneads”, Porphyry and Proclus.

Ficino, in his “Five Questions Concerning the Mind” explicitly attacks the Promethean conception of man:

« Nothing indeed can be imagined more unreasonable than that man, who through reason is the most perfect of all animals, nay, of all things underheaven, most perfect, I say, with regard to that formal perfection that is bestowed upon us from the beginning, that man, also through reason, should be the least perfect of all with regard to that final perfection for the sake of which the first perfection is given. This seems to be that of the most unfortunate Prometheus. Instructed by the divine wisdom of Pallas, he gained possession of the heavenly fire, that is, reason. Because of this very possession, on the highest peak of the mountain, that is, at the very height of contemplation, he is rightly judged most miserable of all, for he is made wretched by the continual gnawing of the most ravenous of vultures, that is, by the torment of inquiry…” (…) “What do the philosophers say to these things? Certainly, the Magi, followers of Zoroaster and Hostanes, assert something similar. They say that, because of a certain old disease of the human mind, everything that is very unhealthy and difficult befalls us…« 

The Florentine Neo-Platonic Academy, backed by the libido-driven Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) “The Magnificent”, will serve as a “Delphic” operation: defend Plato to better destroy him; praise him in such terms that he becomes discredited. And especially destroying Plato’s influence by opposing religion to science, at a point where Cusanus and his followers are succeeding to do exactly the opposite. Isn’t it bizarre that Cusa’s name doesn’t appear a single time in the works of Ficino or Pico della Mirandola, so overfed with all-encompassing knowledge?

Lorenzo did protect artists such as Sandro Botticelli, whose Birth of Venus exemplifies Lorenzo’s neo-platonic symbolism.

Infected with this evil neo-Platonism, Thomaso Inghirami (1470-1516), the chief librarian of pope Julius II, will accomplish nothing but this when dictating to the painter Raphaël the content of the Stanza in the Vatican some decades later.

Neo-platonic “melancholy”, which Albrecht Dürer went after in his famous engraving, will become the matrix for the romantics, the destructive virus affecting the symbolists and the so-called modern school. As for the revolution that Greek studies will bring about in the sciences, I refer you to our article on this website: 1512-2012: From Cosmography to Cosmonauts, Gerard Mercator and Gemma Frisius.

To conclude, here is a short list of translators, and I certainly forgot some of them, and their mastery of foreign languages. Even if some of them can’t be called « humanists », let’s thank them for everything they allowed us to discover. I’m profoundly convinced that without them, man would certainly not have set foot on the Moon!

Merci de partager !

La Route de la soie maritime, une histoire de 1001 coopérations

Reconstruction à l’identique d’un des navires figurant sur les bas-reliefs du temple bouddhiste de Bonobudur datant du VIIIe siècle en Indonésie.

Il est de bon ton aujourd’hui de présenter les enjeux maritimes dans le cadre d’une l’idéologie géopolitique britannique moribonde dressant les pays et les peuples les uns contre les autres.

Cependant, comme le démontre cette brève histoire de la Route de la soie maritime, tirée pour l’essentiel d’un document de l’organisation internationale du tourisme, l’océan a été avant tout un lieu fantastique de rencontres fertiles, de brassages culturels et de coopérations mutuellement bénéfiques.

Les anciens Chinois ont inventé beaucoup de choses que nous utilisons de nos jours, notamment le papier, les allumettes, les brouettes, la poudre à canon, la noria (élévateur), les écluses à sas, le cadran solaire, l’astronomie, la porcelaine, la peinture laque, la roue de potier, les feux d’artifice, la monnaie de papier, la boussole, le gouvernail d’étambot, le tangram, le sismographe, les dominos, la corde à sauter, les cerfs-volants, la cérémonie du thé, le parapluie pliable, l’encre, la calligraphie, le harnais pour animaux, les jeux de cartes, l’impression, le boulier, le papier peint, l’arbalète, la crème glacée, et surtout la soie dont nous aller parler ici.

Soie chinoise.

Origine de la soie

Avant de parler des « routes » de la soie, deux mots sur les origines de la sériciculture, c’est-à-dire l’élevage de vers à soie.

Comme le confirment des découvertes archéologiques récentes, la production de la soie représente un savoir-faire ancestral. La présence du mûrier pour l’élevage du ver à soie a été constatée en Chine autour du fleuve jaune chez la culture de Yangshao lors du néolithique moyen chinois de 4500 à 3000 av. JC.

En général, on préfère retenir la légende qui affirme que la soie a été découverte vers 2500 ans avant J.C., par la princesse chinoise Si Ling-chi, lorsqu’un cocon tomba accidentellement dans son bol de thé. En essayant de le retirer, elle s’aperçut que le cocon ramolli par l’eau chaude déployait un fil délicat, doux et solide pouvant être dévidé et assemblé. Ainsi serait née l’idée de confectionner des étoffes. La princesse décida alors de planter de nombreux mûriers blancs dans son jardin pour élever des vers à soie.

Cycle de reproduction du ver à soie.

Les vers à soie (ou bombyx) et les mûriers furent divinement bien soignés par la princesse (les vers à soie se nourrissent uniquement de feuilles de mûriers blancs).

La production de soie est un processus long qui nécessite une grande surveillance. Les papillons de soie pondent environs 500 œufs au cours de leurs vies, qui est de 4 à 6 jours. Après éclosion des œufs, les bébés vers se nourrissent de feuilles de mûrier dans un environnement contrôlé. Ils ont un féroce appétit et leur poids peut considérablement augmenter. Après avoir emmagasiné suffisamment d’énergie, les vers sécrètent par leurs glandes de la soie une gelée blanche et s’en servent pour réaliser un cocon autour d’eux.

Après huit ou neuf jours, les vers sont tués et les cocons sont plongés dans de l’eau bouillante afin d’assouplir les filaments de protection qui sont enroulés sur une bobine. Ces filaments peuvent être de 600 à 900 mètres de long. Plusieurs filaments sont assemblés pour former un fil. Les fils de soie sont alors tissé pour former une toile ou utilisée pour de la broderie fine ou encore le brocart, riche tissu de soie rehaussé de dessins brochés en fils d’or et d’argent.

Le début du commerce de la soie

Sous la menace de la peine capitale, la sériciculture resta un secret bien gardé et la Chine conservera durant des millénaires son monopole sur la fabrication.

Ce n’est que sous la dynastie des Zhou (1112 av. JC.), qu’une Route de la soie maritime va desservir à partir de la Chine le Japon et la Corée car le gouvernement décide d’y envoyer, depuis le port situé dans la baie de Bohai (de la Péninsule de Shandong), des Chinois chargés de former les habitants à la sériciculture et l’agriculture. C’est ainsi que les techniques d’élevage du vers à soie, du bobinage et du tissage de la soie ont, peu à peu, été introduites en Corée via la mer Jaune.

Lorsque l’empereur Qin Shi Huang unifie la Chine (221 av. JC.), de nombreuses personnes des États de Qi, Yan et Zhao s’enfuient vers la Corée en emportant, avec eux, des vers à soie et leur technique d’élevage. Ceci va accélérer le développement de la filature de la soie dans ce pays.

Pour les relations internationales de la Chine, la Corée a joué un rôle central en particulier comme un pont intellectuel entre la Chine et le Japon. Son commerce avec la Chine a également permis la divulgation du bouddhisme et des méthodes de fabrication de la porcelaine.

Bien qu’initialement réservé à la Cour impériale, la soie s’est répandu à travers toute la culture asiatique, aussi bien géographiquement que socialement. La soie devient rapidement le tissu de luxe par excellence que la terre entière désire.

A l’époque des dynasties Han (206 av. JC à 220), un canevas dense de routes commerciales fait exploser les échanges culturels et commerciaux à travers l’Asie centrale et impacte profondément la dynamique civilisationnelle. La dynastie des Han continue la construction de la grande muraille et crée notamment la commanderie de Dunhuang (Gansu), poste clé de la Route de la soie. Son commerce s’étend, plus de deux siècles av. JC, jusqu’à la Grèce puis Rome où la soie est réservée aux élites.

Au IIIe siècle, l’Inde, le Japon et la Perse (Iran) réussissent à percer le secret de la fabrication de la soie et deviennent d’importants producteurs.

La soie arrive en Europe

L’élevage du ver à soie, dit-on, aurait débuté en Europe au VIe siècle grâce à deux moines du Mont Athos, envoyés par l’empereur byzantin Justinien. Ils ont rapporté de Chine ou d’Inde, des œufs de vers à soie cachés dans leur bâton de pèlerin en bambou creux. Une autre version prétend que ce serait l’empereur Han Wu (IIe siècle) qui envoya des ambassadeurs, munis de présents tel que la soie, vers l’occident. L’élevage se répandit d’abord dans l’empire byzantin qui en conserva le secret.

Au VIIe siècle, la sériciculture se répand en Afrique et en Sicile où, sous l’impulsion de Roger Ier de Sicile (v. 1034-1101) et de son fils Roger II (1093-1154), le ver à soie et le mûrier furent introduits dans l’ancien Péloponnèse.

Au Xe siècle, l’Andalousie devient l’épicentre de la fabrication de la soie avec Grenade, Tolède et Séville. Lors de la conquête arabe, la sériciculture passa en Espagne, en Italie (Venise, Florence et Milan) et en France.

Les plus anciennes traces françaises d’une activité séricicole remontent au XIIIe siècle, notamment dans le Gard (1234) et à Paris (1290).

Au XVe siècle, face à l’importation ruineuse de la soie (brute ou manufacturée) italiennes, Louis XI essaye de créer des manufactures de soieries, d’abord à Tours sur la Loire, en ensuite à Lyon, une ville au carrefour des routes nord-sud où les émigrants italiens pratiquaient déjà le commerce de soieries.

Au XIXe siècle, la production de la soie a été industrialisée au Japon mais au XXe siècle, la Chine reprend sa place comme le plus grand producteur mondial. Aujourd’hui, l’Inde, le Japon, la République de Corée, la Thaïlande, le Vietnam, l’Ouzbékistan et le Brésil ont des grosses capacités de production.

Brassage culturel

Autant que la soie elle-même, le transport de la soie par voie maritime remonte à des âges immémoriaux.

Pour les Chinois, il existe deux principales routes : la Route de la Soie de la Mer orientale de Chine (vers la Corée et le Japon) et la Route de la Soie de la Mer méridionale de Chine (via le détroit de Malacca vers l’Inde, le golfe Persique, l’Afrique et l’Europe). Royaume du Fou-Nan

Au Vietnam, le musée de Hanoï possède une pièce de monnaie datant de l’an 152 arborant l’effigie de l’empereur romain Antonin le Pieux. Cette pièce a été découverte dans les vestiges d’Oc Eo, une ville vietnamienne située au sud du delta du Mékong, qu’on pense avoir été le port principal du Royaume du Fou-nan (Ier au IXe siècle).

Ce royaume, qui couvrait le territoire du Cambodge actuel et de la région administrative vietnamienne du delta du Mékong, a prospéré du Ier au IXe siècle. Or, la première mention du royaume du Fou-nan, apparait dans le compte rendu d’une mission chinoise qui s’y est rendue au IIIe siècle.

Les Founamiens furent à la gloire de leur puissance lorsque l’hindouisme et le bouddhisme furent introduits en Asie du Sud-Est.

Ensuite, à partir de l’Egypte, des marchands grecs ont atteint la baie de Bengale. Des quantités considérables de poivre atteignent alors Ostia, le port d’entrée de Rome. Toutes les preuves historiques démontrent que le commerce est-ouest fleurissait dès notre premier millénaire.

Perses et Arabes en Asie

Empire des Sassanides.

Du coté occidental, à l’entrée de la baie de Koweït, à 20 kilomètres au large de la ville de Koweït City, non loin du débouché de l’estuaire commun du Tigre et de l’Euphrate dans le golfe Persique, l’île de Failaka a été l’un des lieux de rendez-vous où la Grèce, Rome et la Chine échangeaient leurs marchandises.

Sous la dynastie des Sassanides (226-651), les Perses ont développé leurs routes commerciales jusqu’en Asie du Sud-est en passant par l’Inde et le Sri Lanka. Cette infrastructure commerciale fut reprise ensuite par les Arabes lorsqu’en 762 ils déplacèrent la capitale Omeyyade de Damas à Bagdad.

Les présidents chinois et indien, Xi Jinping et Narendra Modi, explorant le fonctionnement de la roue à tisser, fruit des échanges entre Arabes, Indiens et Chinois.
Dhow arabe.

Ainsi, la ville de Quilon (Kollam), la capitale du Kerala en Inde, voit cohabiter dès le IXe siècle des colonies de marchands arabes, chrétiens, juifs et chinois.

Du coté occidental, les navigateurs perses et ensuite arabes ont joué un rôle central dans la naissance de la route de la soie maritime. A la suite des routes sassanides, les Arabes poussaient leurs dhows, c’est-à-dire les boutres ou voiliers arabes traditionnels, de la mer Rouge aux côtes chinoises et jusqu’aux confins de la Malaisie et de l’Indonésie.

Ces marins apportèrent avec eux une nouvelle religion, l’islam qui s’étendra en Asie du Sud-Est. Si initialement le pèlerinage traditionnel (le hajj) vers la Mecque ne fut qu’une aspiration pour de nombreux musulmans, il leur deviendra de plus en plus possible de l’effectuer.

Lors de la mousson, la saison où les vents sont favorables à la navigation vers l’Inde dans l’océan Indien, les missions commerciales semestrielles se transformaient en véritables foires internationales offrant du même coup une occasion pour transporter par la mer une grande quantité de marchandises dans des conditions (abstraction faite des pirates et de l’imprévisibilité du temps) relativement moins exposées aux dangers du transport par voie terrestre.

Chine : la Route de la soie maritime
sous les dynasties Sui, Tang et Song

Le pont de Luoyang, un chef-d’œuvre d’architecture ancienne à Quanzhou.

C’est sous la dynastie Sui (581-618), qu’en partance de Quanzhou, ville côtière dans la province du Fujian, dans le sud-est de la Chine, la Route de la soie maritime trace ses premiers itinéraires commerciaux.

Riche de sa panoplie d’endroits pittoresques et de sites historiques, Quanzhou a été proclamée « point de départ de la Route de la Soie maritime » par l’UNESCO.

C’est à cette époque que les premières méthodes d’imprimerie font leur apparition en Chine. Il s’agit de blocs de bois permettant d’imprimer sur du textile. En 593, l’Empereur Sui, Wen-ti, ordonna l’impression des images et des écrits bouddhiques. Un des plus anciens textes imprimés est un écrit bouddhiste datant de 868 retrouvé dans une grotte près de Dunhuang, une ville étape de la Route de la soie.

Sous la dynastie Tang (618-907), l’expansion militaire du Royaume apporta de la sécurité, du commerce et des idées nouvelles. Le fait que la stabilité de la Chine des Tang coïncide avec celle de la Perse des Sassanides, permet alors aux routes de la soie terrestres et maritimes de prospérer. La grande transformation de la route de la soie maritime aura lieu à partir du VIIe siècle lorsque la Chine s’ouvre de plus en plus aux échanges internationaux.
Le premier ambassadeur arabe y prend ses fonctions en 651.

Fresque murale exécuté en 706, du tombeau de l’Empereur Tang, avec des émissaires diplomatiques à la Cour impériale. Les deux figures à droite, soigneusement habillés, y représentent la Corée, celui au milieu, (un moine ?) sans couvre-chef et avec « un gros nez » l’Occident.

La Dynastie Tang choisit comme capitale la ville de Chang’an (appelé aujourd’hui Xi’an). Elle adopte une attitude ouverte vis-à-vis des différentes croyances. Des temples bouddhistes, taoïstes et confucéens y coexistent pacifiquement avec des mosquées, des synagogues et des églises nestoriennes chrétiennes.

Chang’an étant le terminus de la Route de la Soie, le marché ouest de Chang’an devient le centre du commerce mondial. Selon le registre de l’Autorité Six des Tang, plus de 300 nations et régions avaient des relations commerciales avec Chang’an.

Presque 10 000 familles de pays étrangers de l’ouest vivaient dans la ville, spécialement dans la zone autour du marché ouest. Il y avait beaucoup d’auberges étrangères dont le personnel était des servantes étrangères choisies pour leur beauté. Le poète le plus célèbre dans l’histoire Chinoise, Li Bai, flânait souvent parmi elles. La nourriture étrangère, les costumes, la musique étaient la mode de Chang’an.

Après la chute de la dynastie Tang, les Cinq dynasties et la période des dix royaumes (907-960), l’arrivée de la dynastie Song (960-1279) va inaugurer une nouvelle période faste caractérisée par une centralisation accrue et un renouveau économique et culturel. La route maritime de la soie retrouve alors de son allant. En 1168 une synagogue est érigée à Kaifeng, capitale de la dynastie Song du Sud, pour servir aux marchands de la route de la soie.

Durant la même période, de pair avec l’expansion de l’islam, des comptoirs commerciaux vont apparaître tout autour de l’océan Indien et dans le reste de l’Asie du Sud-est.

La Chine incite alors ses marchands à saisir les occasions qu’offre le trafic maritime, notamment la vente du camphre, une plante médicinale très recherchée. Un véritable réseau commercial se développe alors dans les Indes orientales sous les auspices du Royaume de Sriwijaya, une cité-Etat du sud de Sumatra en Indonésie (voir ci-dessous) qui fera pendant près de six siècles la jonction entre d’un coté les marchands chinois et de l’autre les Indiens et les Malais. Une route commerciale émerge alors réellement méritant le nom de « route de la soie » maritime.

Des quantités de plus en plus importantes d’épices passent alors par l’Inde, la mer Rouge et Alexandrie en Egypte avant d’atteindre les marchands de Gênes, Venise et les autres ports occidentaux. De là, ils repartiront vers les marchés du nord de l’Europe de Lübeck (Allemagne), Riga (Lituanie) ou encore Tallinn (Estonie), qui deviendront, à partir du XIIe siècle, des villes importantes de la Ligue hanséatique.

Après sept années de fouilles, plus de 60 000 objets en porcelaine datant de la Dynastie Song (960-1279) ont été découverts sur le navire Nanhai (mer de Chine méridionale) qui était resté sous l’eau depuis plus de 800 ans.
Jonque du XVe siècle de la dynastie Ming.

En Chine, sous le règne de l’empereur Song, Renzong (1022-1063), beaucoup d’argent et d’énergie furent dépensés pour réunir les savoirs et les savoir-faire. L’économie fut la première à en bénéficier.

En s’appuyant sur le savoir-faire des marins arabes et indiens, les navires chinois deviennent alors les plus avancés du monde.

Les Chinois, qui avaient inventé la boussole (au moins depuis l’an 1119), dépassèrent rapidement leurs concurrents au niveau de la cartographie et l’art de naviguer alors que la jonque chinoise devient le vraquier par excellence.

Dans son traité géographique, Zhou Qufei, en 1178, rapporte :

« Les gros navires qui croisent la Mer du sud sont comme des maisons. Lorsqu’ils déplient leurs voiles, on dirait d’énormes nuages. Leur gouvernail est long de plusieurs dizaines de pieds. Un seul navire peut abriter plusieurs centaines d’hommes. A bord, il y a de quoi manger pour un an ».

Des fouilles archéologiques confirment cette réalité comme par exemple l’épave d’une jonque datant du XIVe siècle, retrouvée aux larges de la Corée, dans laquelle on a découvert plus de 10 000 pièces de céramique.

Lors de cette période, le commerce côtier passe graduellement des mains des marchands arabes aux mains des marchands chinois. Le commerce s’étend, notamment grâce à l’inclusion de la Corée ainsi que l’intégration du Japon, de la côte indienne de Malabar, du golfe Persique et de la mer Rouge dans les réseaux commerciaux existants.

La Chine exporte du thé, de la soie, du coton, de la porcelaine, des laques, du cuivre, des colorants, des livres et du papier. En retour, elle importe des produits de luxe et des matières premières, notamment des bois rares, des métaux précieux, des pierres précieuses et semi-précieuses, des épices et de l’ivoire.

Des pièces de monnaie en cuivre de la période Song ont été découvertes au Sri Lanka, et la présence de la porcelaine de cette époque a été constatée en Afrique de l’Est, en Egypte, en Turquie, dans certains Etats du Golfe et en Iran, tout comme en Inde et en Asie du Sud-est.

L’importance de la Corée et du Royaume de Silla

Pendant le premier millénaire, la culture et la philosophie ont fleuri dans la péninsule Coréenne. Un réseau marchand bien organisé et bien protégé avec la Chine et le Japon y opérait.

Sur l’île japonaise d’Okino-shima on trouve de nombreuses traces historiques témoignant des échanges intenses entre l’archipel japonais, la Corée et le continent asiatique.

Des fouilles effectuées dans des tombeaux anciens à Gyeongju, aujourd’hui une ville sud-coréenne de 264 000 habitants et capitale de l’ancien Royaume de Silla (de 57 av. JC à 935) qui contrôlait la plus grande partie de la péninsule du VIIe au IXe siècle, démontrent l’intensité des échanges de ce royaume avec le reste du monde, via la route de la soie.

L’Indonésie, une grande puissance maritime au coeur de la Route de la soie maritime

En Indonésie, en Malaisie et dans le sud de la Thaïlande, le Royaume de Sriwijaya (VIIe au XIIIe) a joué le rôle majeur de comptoir maritime où furent entreposées des marchandises de forte valeur de la région et au-delà en vue de leur commercialisation ultérieure par voie maritime. Sriwijaya contrôlait notamment le détroit de Malacca, le passage maritime incontournable entre l’Inde et la Chine.

A l’apogée de sa puissance au XIe siècle, le réseau des ports et des comptoirs sous domination Sriwijaya échangèrent une vaste palette de produits et de productions : du riz, du coton, de l’indigo et de l’argent de Java, de l’aloès (une plante succulente d’origine africaine), des résines végétales, du camphre, de l’ivoire et des cornes de rhinocéros, de l’étain et de l’or de Sumatra, du rotin, des bois rouges et d’autres bois rares, des pierres précieuses de Bornéo, des oiseaux rares et des animaux exotiques, du fer, du santal et des épices d’Indonésie orientale, d’Inde et d’Asie du Sud-est, et enfin, de Chine, des porcelaines, des laques, du brocart, des tissues et de la soie.

Avec comme capitale la ville de Palembang (à ce jour 1,7 million d’habitants) sur la rivière Musi dans ce qui est aujourd’hui la province méridionale de Sumatra, ce royaume d’inspiration hindouiste et bouddhiste, qui a prospéré du VIIIe au XIIIe siècle, a été le premier royaume indonésien d’importance et la première puissance maritime indonésienne.

Dès le VIIe siècle, il règne sur une grande partie de Sumatra, la partie occidentale de l’île de Java et une partie importante de la péninsule malaise. Avec une étendue au Nord jusqu’en Thaïlande, où des vestiges archéologiques de cités Sriwijaya existent encore.

Le musée de Palembang — une ville où communautés chinoises, indiennes, arabes et yéménites, chacun avec ses institutions particulières, co-prospèrent depuis plusieurs générations — raconte à merveille comment la Route de la soie maritime a engendré un enrichissement culturel mutuel exemplaire.

Madagascar, le sanskrit et la Route de la cannelle

Carte de l’expansion des langues austronésiennes.

Aujourd’hui, Madagascar est habitée par des noirs et des asiatiques. Des tests ADN ont confirmé ce que l’on savait depuis longtemps : de nombreux habitants de l’île descendent de marins malais et indonésiens qui ont mis pied sur l’ile vers l’année 830 lorsque l’Empire Sriwijaya étend son influence maritime vers l’Afrique.

Autre élément de preuve de cette présence, le fait que la langue parlée sur l’île emprunte des mots sanskrits et indonésiens.

Sans surprise, la carte de l’expansion des langues austronésiennes est quasiment superposable à celle de la Route de la cannelle (ci-dessus).

Bas-relief du temple bouddhiste de Borobudur (VIIIe siècle, Indonésie).

Pour démontrer la faisabilité de ces voyages maritimes, une équipe de chercheurs a navigué en 2003 d’Indonésie jusqu’au Ghana en passant par Madagascar à bord du Borobudur, la reconstruction d’un des voiliers figurant dans plusieurs des 1300 bas-reliefs décorant le temple bouddhiste de Borobudur sur l’île de Java en Indonésie, datant du VIIIe siècle.

Beaucoup pensent que ce navire est une représentation de ceux que les marchands indonésiens utilisaient autrefois pour traverser l’océan jusqu’en Afrique. Les navigateurs indonésiens utilisaient habituellement des bateaux relativement petits. Pour en assurer l’équilibre, ils les équipaient de balanciers, aussi bien doubles (ngalawa) que simples.

Leurs bateaux, dont la coque était taillée dans un seul tronc d’arbre, étaient appelés sanggara. Dans leurs traversées vers l’est, les marchands de l’archipel indonésien pouvaient jadis se rendre jusqu’à Hawaii et la Nouvelle-Zélande, à une distance de plus de 7 000 km.

Sur la Route de la cannelle, le navire a fait le trajet d’Indonésie jusqu’à Accra au Ghana, en passant par Madagascar.

En tout cas, le bateau des chercheurs, équipé d’un mât de 18 mètres de haut, a réussi à parcourir la route Jakarta – Maldives – cap de Bonne-Espérance – Ghana, une distance de 27 750 kilomètres, soit plus de la moitié de la circonférence de la Terre !

L’expédition visait à refaire une route bien précise : celle de la cannelle, qui a conduit les marchands indonésiens jusqu’en Afrique pour vendre des épices, dont la cannelle, une denrée très recherchée à l’époque. Elle était déjà très prisée dans les régions du bassin méditerranéen bien avant l’ère chrétienne.

Sur les murs du temple égyptien de Deir el-Bahari (Louksor), une peinture représente une expédition navale importante dont il est dit qu’elle aurait été ordonnée par la reine Hatshepsout, qui régna de 1503 à 1482 avant JC.

Autour de cette peinture des hiéroglyphes expliquent que ces navires transportaient diverses espèces de plantes et d’essences odorantes destinées au culte. Une de ces denrées est la cannelle. Riche en arôme, elle était une composante importante des cérémonies rituelles dans les royaumes d’Egypte.

Or, la cannelle poussait à l’origine en Asie centrale, dans l’est de l’Himalaya et dans le nord du Vietnam. Les Chinois méridionaux l’ont transplantée de ces régions dans leur propre pays et l’ont cultivée sous le nom de gui zhi.

Carte de la route de la cannelle.

De la Chine, le gui zhi s’est répandu dans tout l’archipel indonésien, trouvant là une terre d’accueil très fertile, en particulier dans les îles Moluques. De fait, le commerce international de la cannelle était alors un monopole tenu par les marchands indonésiens. La cannelle d’Indonésie était appréciée pour son excellente qualité et son prix très compétitif.

Les Indonésiens parcouraient donc à la voile de grandes distances, jusqu’à plus de 8 000 km, traversant l’océan Indien jusqu’à Madagascar et le nord-est de l’Afrique. De Madagascar, les produits étaient transportés à Rhapta, dans une région côtière qui prit par la suite le nom de Somalie. Au-delà, les marchands arabes les expédiaient vers le nord jusqu’à la mer Rouge.

Le détroit de Malacca

Pour la Chine, le détroit de Malacca a toujours représenté un intérêt stratégique majeur. À l’époque où le grand amiral chinois Zheng He mène la première de ses expéditions vers l’Inde, le Proche-Orient et l’Afrique de l’Est entre 1405 et 1433, un pirate chinois du nom de Chen Zuyi a pris le contrôle de Palembang. Zheng He défait la flotte de Chen et capture les survivants. Du coup, le détroit est redevenu une route maritime sûre.

Selon la tradition, un prince de Sriwijaya, Parameswara, se réfugie sur l’île de Temasek (l’actuelle Singapour) mais s’établit finalement sur la côte ouest de la péninsule malaise vers 1400 et fonde la ville de Malacca, qui deviendra le plus grand port d’Asie du Sud-est, à la fois successeur de Sriwijaya et précurseur de Singapour.

Suite au déclin de Sriwijaya, c’est le Royaume de Majapahit (1292-1527), fondé à la fin du XIIIe siècle sur l’île de Java, qui dominera la plus grande partie de l’Indonésie actuelle.

C’est l’époque où les marins arabes commencent à s’installer dans la région.

Le royaume de Majapahit noua des relations avec celui le Royaume de Champa (192-1145 ; 1147-1190 ; 1220-1832) (Sud Vietnam), du Cambodge, du Siam (la Thaïlande) et du Myanmar méridional.

Le royaume de Majapahit envoyait également des missions en Chine. Alors que ses dirigeants étendirent leur pouvoir sur d’autres îles et mirent à sac les royaumes voisins, il chercha avant tout à augmenter sa part et son contrôle sur le commerce des marchandises transitant par l’archipel.

L’île de Singapour et la partie la plus au sud de la péninsule malaise fut un carrefour clé de l’ancienne Route de la soie maritime. Des fouilles archéologiques entrepris dans l’estuaire du Kallang et le long du fleuve Singapour, ont permis de découvrir des milliers d’éclats de verre, des perles naturelles ou en or, des céramiques et des pièces de monnaie chinoises de la période des Song du nord (960-1127).

La montée de l’Empire mongol au milieu du XIIIe siècle va provoquer l’accroissement du commerce par la mer et contribuer à la vitalité de la Route de la soie maritime. Marco Polo, après un voyage terrestre qui dura 17 ans, vers la Chine reviendra par bateau. Après avoir été témoin d’un naufrage, il passa de la Chine à Sumatra en Indonésie avant de remettre pied à terre à Ormuz en Perse (Iran).

Sous les dynasties Yuan et Ming

Sous la dynastie des Song, on exporte, vers le Japon, une quantité importante d’articles de soie. Sous celle des Yuan (1271-1368), le gouvernement instaure le Shi Bo Si, bureau en charge des échanges commerciaux, dans de nombreux ports comme, notamment, Ningbo, Canton, Shanghai, Ganpu, Wenzhou et Hangzhou, permettant, ainsi, l’exportation des soieries vers le Japon.

Durant les dynasties des Tang, Song et Yuan, et au début de celle des Ming, on assiste, dans chaque port, à la création d’un département océanique de négoce pour gérer l’ensemble des échanges commerciales extérieures maritimes.

Le commerce avec les sud de l’Inde et du golfe Persique fleurit. Le commerce avec l’Afrique de l’Est se développe également en fonction de la mousson et apporte de l’ivoire, de l’or et des esclaves. En Inde, des guildes commencent à contrôler le commerce chinois sur la côte du Malabar et au Sri Lanka. Les relations commerciales se formalisent tout en restant soumises à une forte concurrence. Cochin et Kozhikode (Calicut), deux grandes villes de l’Etat indien du Kerala, rivalisent alors pour dominer ce commerce.

Les explorations maritimes de l’amiral Zheng He

Carte des expéditions maritimes de l’amiral Zheng He.

Les explorations maritimes chinoises connaitront leur apogée au début du XVe siècle sous la dynastie Ming (1368-1644) qui, pour diriger sept expéditions diplomatiques navales, choisira un eunuque musulman de la cour, l’amiral Zheng He.

Financées par l’Empereur Ming Yongle, ces missions pacifiques en Asie du Sud-est, en Afrique de l’Est, dans l’Océan indien, dans le golfe Persique et en Mer Rouge, viseront avant tout à démontrer le prestige et la grandeur de la Chine et de son Empereur. Il s’agit également de reconnaître une trentaine d’Etats et de nouer des relations politiques et commerciales avec eux.

En 1409, avant une des expéditions, l’amiral chinois Zheng He demanda à des artisans de fabriquer une stèle en pierre taillée à Nanjing, actuelle capitale de la province du Jiangsu (est de la Chine). La stèle voyagea avec la flottille et fut laissée au Sri Lanka comme cadeau à un temple bouddhiste local. Des prières aux divinités en trois langues -chinois, persan et tamoul- furent gravés sur la stèle. Elle fut retrouvé en 1911 dans la ville de Galle, dans le sud-ouest du Sri Lanka et une réplique se trouve aujourd’hui en Chine.

L’armada de Zheng était composée de vraquiers armés, le plus modeste étant plus grand que les caravelles de Christophe Colomb. Les plus vastes atteignaient une longueur de 100 et une largeur de 50 mètres. D’après les chroniques Ming de l’époque, une expédition pouvait comprendre 62 navires avec 500 personnes à bord chacun. Certains d’entre eux transportaient la cavalerie militaire et d’autres des réservoirs d’eau potable. La construction navale chinoise était en avance. La technique de cloisons hermétiques, imitant la structure interne du bambou, offrait une sécurité incomparable. Elle fut la norme pour la flotte chinoise avant d’être copiée par les Européens 250 ans plus tard. A cela s’ajoutait l’emploi de la boussole et celui de cartes célestes peintes sur soie.

La synergie qui a pu exister entre marins arabes, indiens et chinois, tous des hommes de mer qui fraternisent face à l’adversité de l’océan, a de quoi nous impressionner. Par exemple, certains historiens estiment qu’il n’est pas exclu que le nom « Sindbad le marin », qui apparaît dans la fable d’origine perse qui conte les aventures d’un marin du temps de la dynastie des Abbassides (VIIIe siècle) et fut intégrée dans les Contes des Mille et Une Nuits, dérive du mot Sanbao, le surnom honorifique donné par l’Empereur chinois à l’amiral Zheng He, signifiant littéralement « Les trois joyaux », c’est-à-dire les trois vertus capitales indissociables communes aux principales philosophies que sont l’Eveil (qui permet d’apprendre), l’Altruisme (qui permet la compréhension de l’autre) et l’Equité (qui invite à partager avec lui).

Statue de l’amiral Zheng Ho devant une mosquée construite en son honneur en Indonésie.

Aussi bien en Chine (à Hong-Kong, à Macao, à Fuzhou, à Tianjin et à Nanjing) qu’à Singapour, en Malaisie et en Indonésie, des musées maritimes mettent les expéditions de l’amiral Zheng en valeur.

Soulignons cependant qu’au moins douze autres amiraux ont effectué des expéditions similaires en Asie du Sud-est et dans l’océan Indien. En 1403, l’amiral Ma Pi a conduit une expédition jusqu’en Indonésie et en Inde. Wu Bin, Zhang Koqing et Hou Xian en ont fait d’autres. Après que la foudre avait provoqué un incendie de la Cité interdite, une dispute éclata entre la classe des eunuques, partisans des expéditions, et des mandarins lettrés, qui obtiendront l’arrêt d’expéditions jugées trop onéreuses. Le dernier voyage a eu lieu entre 1430 et 1433, c’est-à-dire 64 ans avant que l’explorateur portugais Vasco da Gama ne se rende sur les mêmes lieux en 1497.

Le Japon, de son coté, de façon similaire, a restreint ses contacts avec le monde extérieure lors de la période Tokugawa (1600-1868) bien que son commerce avec la Chine ne fut jamais suspendu. Ce n’est qu’après la restauration Meiji en 1868 qu’un Japon ouvert au monde a ré-émergé.

Dans un repli sur eux-mêmes, le commerce aussi bien la Chine que du Japon tomba aux mains de comptoirs maritimes comme Malacca en Malaisie ou Hi An au Vietnam, deux villes aujourd’hui reconnues par l’Unesco comme patrimoine de l’humanité. H ?i An était un port étape majeur sur la route maritime reliant l’Europe et le Japon en passant par l’Inde et la Chine. Dans les épaves de navires retrouvées à Hi An, les chercheurs ont retrouvé des céramiques qui attendaient leur départ pour le Sinaï en Egypte.

Histoire des ports chinois

Au fil des années, on assiste à une évolution en ce qui concerne les principaux ports de la Route maritime de la Soie. A partir des années 330, Canton et Hepu étaient les deux ports les plus importants.

Cependant, Quanzhou se substitue à Canton, de la fin de la dynastie des Song à celle des Yuan.

A cette époque, Quanzhou, dans la province du Fujian et Alexandrie en Egypte étaient considérés comme les plus vastes ports du monde. A cause de la politique de fermeture sur le monde extérieur imposée à partir de 1435 et de l’influence des guerres, Quanzhou a été, progressivement, remplacé par les ports de Yuegang, Zhangzhou et Fujian.

Dès le début du IVe siècle, Canton est un important port de la Route maritime de la Soie. Peu à peu, il devient le plus vaste mais, également, le port d’Orient le plus renommé à travers le monde sous les dynasties des Tang et des Song. Durant cette période, la route maritime reliant Canton au golfe persique en passant par la Mer de Chine méridionale et l’océan Indien est la plus longue du monde.

Bien que plus tard supplanté par Quanzhou sous la dynastie des Yuan, le port de Canton demeurera le second plus grand port commercial de Chine. Par comparaison avec les autres, on le considère comme étant un port durablement prospère au cours des 2000 ans d’histoire de la Route maritime de la Soie.

Le système tributaire de 1368

La dernière dynastie impériale chinoise, celle des Qing, a régné de 1644 à 1912. Depuis l’arrivée de la dynastie Ming, les échanges commerciaux maritimes avec la Chine s’organisaient de deux façons :

Né sous les Ming en 1368, et le « système tributaire » atteindra son apogée sous les Qing. Il prend alors la forme raffinée d’une hiérarchie inclusive mutuellement bénéfique. Les Etats qui y adhèrent faisaient preuve de respect et de reconnaissance en présentant régulièrement à l’Empereur un tribut composé de produits locaux et en exécutant certaines cérémonies rituelles, notamment le « kowtow » (trois génuflexions et neuf prosternations). Ils demandaient également l’investiture de leurs dirigeants par l’Empereur et adoptaient le calendrier chinois. Outre la Chine, on y retrouvait le Japon, la Corée, le Vietnam, la Thaïlande, l’Indonésie, les îles Ryükyü, le Laos, le Myanmar et la Malaisie.

Paradoxalement tout en occupant un statut culturel central, le système tributaire offrait à ses vassaux un statut d’entité souveraine et leur permettait d’exercer leur autorité sur une aire géographique donnée. L’Empereur gagnait leur soumission en se préoccupant vertueusement de leur bien-être et en promouvant une doctrine de non-intervention et de non-exploitation. En effet, d’après les historiens, en termes financiers, la Chine ne s’est jamais enrichie d’une façon directe avec le système tributaire. En général, tous les frais de voyage et de séjour des missions tributaires étaient couverts par le gouvernement chinois. En plus des coûts de fonctionnement du système, les cadeaux offerts par l’Empereur avaient en général beaucoup plus de valeur que les tributs qu’il recevait. Chaque mission tributaire avait en effet le droit d’être accompagnée par un grand nombre de commerçants et une fois le tribut présenté à l’Empereur, le commerce pouvait commencer.

Il est à noter que, lorsqu’un pays perdait son statut d’Etat tributaire suite à un désaccord, ce dernier essayait à tout prix et parfois de façon violente d’être à nouveau autorisé à payer le tribut.

Le système de Canton de 1757

Port de Canton en 1850 avec les missions commerciales américaines, françaises et britanniques.

Le deuxième système concernait les puissances étrangères, principalement européennes, désireuses de faire du commerce avec la Chine. Il passait par le po