One student asked a very pertinent question as we were explaining how the renaissance changed Europe and the West: Why Florence? Why of all places would this Tuscan city be the take off point for cultural change. Why does Florence give us Plutarch, Boccocio, Dante and Galileo (who, to be sure, was originally from Pisa)? One answer could be a revolution in accounting. Accounting, that method of keeping books and balancing budgets, is usually not thought to be the driving force of change. Yet the Medici family developed a clever use of what we now call double entry book keeping, and their use of share holding allowed them to build a banking empire while avoiding usuary laws. Their wealth financed the arts and of course made Florence more worldly — what good is massive wealth if one is not concerned with material affairs?
The renaissance did not take place in a vacuum, however. The more advanced civilization, the Muslim world, had knowledge that would be key to the European awakening. Frederick II of Sicily, closest to the Islamic world, first challenged the church and started to use reason to rule. Then, after the defeat of the Muslims in Spain, information started to flow into Italy as Muslim texts were translated and spread. Universities arose, and by the mid-13th century the Neopolitan Thomas Aquinas, who ultimately would teach in Paris, learned of Aristotle through the texts of Muslim philosophers Avicenna and Averroes. Aristotle argued for logic, realism, and concern about the world — ideas that inevitably would lead to humanism and rationalism. The Church embraced these ideas. Why would God put us in a material world with problems to solve if the material world was meaningless? Instead of faith alone, it would now be reason and faith together, with Aristotle the authority.
Then in 1300s came the black death, the take off point of the humanistic writings of Boccacio in the Decameron. This further leveled society as workers became scarce, and old traditions gave way to the need to survive. Dante’s Inferno, written in Italian rather than Latin, showed this fascinating mix of Christian faith and humanistic impulses. Brunelleschi (1377-1446) was part of the wave of Florentines who were determined to rediscover the old knowledge of Rome, and apply it in their world. The wealth and stability provided by the Medicis provided the resources to do so; their dominance politically meant a degree of independence from the Church, as humanist ideas overtook art, literature and archetecture.
So why Florence? Of all the revolutions in thought and art of the era, the revolution in accounting that gave us the Medicis allowed Florence to move further and faster than the rest of Europe. Moreover, the Medicis, who provided many Popes and whose worldly materialism would contribute to the growing corruption of the church, helped put the material above the spiritual amongst church leaders. Patrons of the arts? Corrupt money lenders? Probably both. And this also shows the complicated nature of the renaissance. Roman knowledge and philosophy was rediscovered, opening up the minds of Europe to progress, critical thought, and exquisite art and literature. It also led to materialism, corruption, and the vices of our system such as a reliance on credit and consumption. Florence is a testament to all of that, thanks not only to the creativity of Dante and Florence native Michelangelo, but also the creativity of the unknown accountants working for the Medicis. And as such, it stands as a jewel today.