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An excerpt from the book The Rule of Four (which I have mixed feelings about mostly, but then I come across parts like this):


"The intellectual life of Italy during Francesco’s day revolves around a single city,” he says.
“Rome.”
But Paul shakes his head. “Smaller than that. The size of Princeton—the campus, not the town.”
I see how enchanted he is by what he’s found, how real it’s become for him already.
“In that town,” he says, “you’ve got more intellectuals than anyone knows what to do with. Geniuses. Polymaths. Thinkers who are gunning for the big answers to the big questions. Autodidacts who have taught themselves ancient languages no one else knows. Philosophers who are combining religious points from the Bible with ideas from Greek and Roman texts, Egyptian mysticism, Persian manuscripts so old nobody knows how to date them. The absolute cutting edge of humanism. Think of the riddles. University professors playing Rithmomachia. Translators interpreting Horapollo. Anatomists revising Galen.”
In my mind’s eye the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore comes into focus. My father liked to call it the mother city of modern scholarship. “Florence,” I say.
“Right. But that’s only the beginning. In every other discipline, you’ve got the biggest names in Europe. In architecture you’ve got Brunelleschi, who engineered the largest cathedral dome in a thousand years. In sculpture you’ve got Ghiberti, who created a set of reliefs so beautiful that they’re known as the doors of paradise. And you’ve got Ghiberti’s assistant, who grows up to become the father of modern sculpture—Donatello.”
“The painters weren’t bad either,” I remind him.
Paul smiles. “The single greatest concentration of genius in the history of Western art, all in this little town. Applying new techniques, inventing new theories of perspective, transforming painting from a craft into a science and an art. There must’ve been three dozen of them, like Alberti, who would’ve been considered first-class anywhere else in the world. But in this town, they’re second-rate. That’s because they’re competing with the giants. Masaccio. Botticelli. Michelangelo.”
As the momentum of his ideas increases, his feet move faster down the dark hallways.
“You want scientists?” he says. “How about Leonardo da Vinci. You want politicians? Machiavelli. Poets? Boccaccio and Dante. And a lot of these guys were contemporaries. On top of it all, you have the Medici, a family so rich it could afford to patronize as many artists and intellectuals as the town could produce.
“All of them, together, in the same small city, at basically the same time. The greatest cultural heroes in all of Western history, crossing each other in the streets, knowing each other on a first-name basis, talking to each other, working together, competing, influencing and pushing each other to go further than they could’ve gone alone. All in a place where beauty and truth are king, where leading families fight over who can commission the greatest art, who can subsidize the most brilliant thinkers, who can own the biggest library. Imagine that. All of that. It’s like a dream. An impossibility.”


and then, later:

“Meanwhile, for all of its cutting-edge art and scholarship, Florence is in constant upheaval. Factions fight each other in the streets, prominent families plot against each other to gain power, and even though the city is supposedly a republic, the Medici control everything. Death is common, extortion and coercion are even more common, injustice and inequality are a rule of life. It’s a pretty disturbing place, considering all the beautiful things that come out of it."


It sounds like the most wonderful city ever.
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September 2015

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