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Sociability • Confidence

How to Have a Renaissance

At the beginning of the 14th century, the leaders of an obscure Tuscan town on the banks of the river Arno formulated a plan as visionary as it turned out to be historically significant: they set their sights on turning Florence into one of the great centres of commerce, art, architecture and scholarship. They wished – extraordinarily given its standing at the time – that their town become the equal of Venice and Rome, Paris or – most impudently of all – ancient Athens.

A photo of the rooftops of Florence.
Photo by Nicola Pavan on Unsplash

More surprisingly still, they succeeded beyond every conceivable measure. In the next two hundred years, Florence’s language was adopted as the vernacular in the whole of the Italian peninsula; its leading architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, invented modern engineering; its artistic culture gave birth to Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Giotto; its local currency, the florin, became the global reserve currency; its scholars rediscovered classical literature and its navigator Amerigo Vespucci lent his name to two continents. 

One cannot ascribe Florence’s success to any of the standard features associated with urban renewal: the town was not – at the outset – especially rich; she had no particular natural resources; she was militarily weak and surrounded by rivals. What Florence’s success can ultimately be attributed to was an ingredient that sounds hugely peculiar, improbable and plain naive when stated baldly: confidence. One of the great cities of the world arose off the back of an inspired mood. It wasn’t coal, guns or wealth that did it: it was a movement of the mind.

The idea is both momentous and terrifying, for it forces us to acknowledge that all that separates us from a golden age might be the right degree of self-belief. We cannot keep making excuses. Right now, if we could only align the molecules of our brains appropriately, our generation could create structures to rival Brunelleschi’s and artworks to stand besides those of Michelangelo. We could stop being tourists of past greatness and become great ourselves. 

We remain mediocre not for any immovable reasons; we are overlooking what we could do if we could rediscover a way to dream.

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