9th Grade: Mark Twain and Renaissance Florence


This week we began looking at the Renaissance in Europe.  The Renaissance can be viewed as a either a reaction to, or an extension of, the feudal period that preceded it.  Whatever position one takes on that issue, no one doubts that that the Renaissance represents a new way of thinking about the world and our relationship to it.

Historians debate exactly when the Renaissance began, but most agree that the ‘Spirit of the Renaissance’ had its origin in Florence, a city in northern Italy.  Why this city, previously of no real importance, should suddenly be the epicenter of a whole new way of thinking poses a question we needed to explore.

If we look at the conditions under which cultural revolutions take place throughout history, a few general trends emerge.  For one, it appears that they generally arise in geographical and social frontiers, and not as we might expect, in the centers of power and influence.  Thus, in the Middle Ages, we see the Gothic style originate in northern France, which saw so much conflict with England and the Vikings.  On top of that, northern France had relatively less Roman influence than southern France near the Mediterranean, making them less “civilized” in the eyes of many.  But the tension between “Gallic” and “Roman” may have given them the freedom to think of things in new ways.

UnknownIn our own history Mark Twain invents American literature on what was for the time, the geographic and social frontier of America.  Today, the mythology and folklore of the “frontier” still do much to shape the American psyche. If we think of Twain’s vocabulary and compare it to say, Hawthorne’s, we see that Twain occupied a social frontier as well as a geographic one.

Notice also, for example the incredibly dynamic & spiritual  response of African-Americans to persecution from say, 1880-1964 or thereabouts.  Swing, jazz, blues, motown, soul, rock and roll — all of them basically their creations, and that hardly encompasses a final account of their contributions to American life and culture.  Perhaps their disadvantaged social position led them to think of creative ways to deal with that challenge, which helped them create such vibrant music.

Florence found itself on the geographic frontier of two more established civilizations, that of France and southern Italy.  Divided politically (as the map below indicates) northern Italy never quite had the chance to develop its own social identity.  It appears that culture arises not from comfort, but from a challenge, be that challenge physical or social.



Another common thread in cultural innovation seems to be water.  The great cultural explosions, be it in Athens, Amsterdam, London, New York, or New Orleans, all have water in common.  I don’t think this is a coincidence, something I take up much more fully in this post, which we discussed in class.  Here is a link to a post that formed part of the basis of our discussion about water and creativity.

As we delve into the Renaissance, we face many questions:

1. Inherent in the names “Middle Ages,” and “Renaissance” (which means “rebirth”) are a lot of assumptions, namely, that the Renaissance took major leaps forward for humanity after we treaded water in the “Middle Ages” after the fall of Rome.  Some historians, however, like Regine Pernoud, see the Renaissance as a step backward from what came before.  Who is right?

2. Will the new view of mankind in the Renaissance be consistent with Christianity?  Will it correct what some perceive to be a medieval over-spiritualization, or will it give humanity too much pride of place?

3. How will this new view of mankind spill over into the rest of Renaissance society?

The Renaissance emerged from the wreckage of the feudal system in the 14th century.  The old social structure did not hold, the Church was busy shooting itself in the foot, and so on.  Different ways of thinking had opportunity to emerge, and we looked at the financial innovations of the Renaissance, particularly in banking.

Many thanks,