From a remarkable essay about Leonardo da Vinci by historian Ian Goldin1 in this weekend’s Financial Times, sadly behind a paywall:
“The third and most vital lesson of the Renaissance is that when things change more quickly, people get left behind more quickly. The Renaissance ended because the first era of global commerce and information revolution led to widening uncertainty and anxiety. The printing revolution provided populists with the means to challenge old authorities and channel the discontent that arose from the highly uneven distribution of the gains and losses from newly globalising commerce and accelerating technological change.
The Renaissance teaches us that progress cannot be taken for granted. The faster things change, the greater of people being left behind. And the greater their anger.
Sound familiar? And then…
Renaissance Florence was famously liberal-minded until a loud demagogue filled in the majority’s silence with rage and bombast. The firebrand preacher Girolamo Savonarola tapped into the fear that citizens felt about the pace of change and growing inequality, as well as the widespread anger toward the rampant corruption of the elite. Seizing on the new capacity for cheap print, he pioneered the political pamphlet, offering his followers the prospect of an afterlife in heaven while their opponents were condemned to hell. His mobilisation of indignation — combined with straightforward thuggery — deposed the Medicis, following which he launched a campaign of public purification, symbolised by the burning of books, cosmetics, jewellery, musical instruments and art, culminating in the 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities”.
Now of course history doesn’t really repeat itself. Still… some of this seems eerily familiar.
Also co-author of *The Age of Discovery:Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. ↩