Tag Archives: art

Back to the future with Renaissance Man


The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.


Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.


19 kya. Lascaux cave paintings, Southwest France, discovered in 1940.

lascaux copy

below, from Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering how the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (an excellent book, not mainly about cave paintings)

Deep inside the Lascaux cave, past the world-renowned Great Hall of the Bulls, where Paleolithic artists painted a colorful menagerie of horses, deer, and bulls, starts a lesser-known corridor known as the Apse. There, at the bottom of a sixteen-foot pit, next to fine drawings of a wounded bison and a rhinoceros, lies one of the rare depictions of a human being in prehistoric art. The man is lying flat on his back, palms up and arms extended. Next to him stands a bird perched on a stick. Nearby lies a broken spear that was probably used to disembowel the bison, whose intestines are hanging out.

The person is clearly a man, for his penis is fully erect. And this, according to the sleep researcher Michel Jouvet, illuminates the drawing’s meaning: it depicts a dreamer and his dream. As Jouvet and his team discovered, dreaming occurs primarily during a specific phase of sleep, which they dubbed “paradoxical” because it does not look like sleep; during this period, the brain is almost as active as it is in wakefulness, and the eyes ceaselessly move around. In males, this phase is invariably accompanied by a strong erection (even when the dream is devoid of sexual content). Although this weird physiological fact became known to science only in the twentieth century, Jouvet wittily remarks that our ancestors could easily have noticed it. And the bird seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.

This idea might seem fanciful were it not for the remarkable recurrence of imagery of sleep birds, souls, and erections in the art and symbolism of all sorts of cultures. …


28 kya. The Venus of Willendorf, from Austria, is one of a number of “Venus figurines” from the European Upper Paleolithic.


The statuette is realistic, except for the attenuated/missing hands and feet, and the absence of facial features. Obviously she’s nude, and fat. But not entirely unclothed. The pattern on her head is not just an abstract design, but carefully depicted piece of headgear.


It took a female archeologist, Olga Soffer, to notice that this figurine represents not just a naked woman, but a fashion statement.  Here’s a quotation:

A close examination of this specimen shows a spirally or radially hand‐woven item which may be initiated by a knotted center in the manner of some kinds of coiled baskets. The technique represented is a two‐element structure in which an apparently flexible, horizontal foundation element or warp is vertically wrapped with stem stitches. The foundation element is clearly visible between the stitches, some of which are plain while others are countered. Work direction is right to left, and at least seven circuits encircle the head, with two extra half‐circuits over the nape of the neck. The selvage, as depicted over the forehead, simply has the wrapping element encircling the final horizontal warp circuit. Several areas on the body of the cap appear to illustrate splices, where new material has been added.

Many other Venus figurines are also nude but adorned – with headgear, or with bands and belts, or with skirts, sometimes worn below the buttocks. These figures tell us something about the complexity of textile technology long ago. What more is going on – whether we’re seeing a representation of mythology, of a beauty pageant, or an initiation rite, or all of the above – is a mystery.

The Inheritors

40 kya. “The Inheritors” is a novel by William Golding about the encounter between Neanderthals and modern humans. Like “Lord of the Flies,” it is written with a mid-twentieth century awareness that advanced societies don’t leave behind the potential for cruelty. The novel isn’t all that scientifically accurate, though: Golding’s early humans have bows and arrows, for example.

Neanderthal 1, the first Neanderthal fossil recognized as probably belonging to another species, was discovered in the Neander Thal (=Neander Valley) in 1856. He is close in time to the last Neanderthals: the most recent review of the evidence finds that Neanderthals disappear as a distinct group around 40 thousand years ago. They were almost certainly outcompeted by Homo sapiens who had arrived in Europe earlier. There was probably some kind of coexistence between Neanderthals and H. sapiens over many thousands of years. Regional cultures from this period, like the Châtelperronian, may represent Neanderthals copying the Aurignacian culture of incoming H. sapiens. The final blow may have come between 39 and 38 thousand years ago, when a “Heinrich event” sent cascades of icebergs into the North Atlantic, drastically chilling Europe. Homo sapiens recovered from the cold spell; Neanderthals did not.

Just last year we have learned that one of the earliest modern human fossils from Europe, Oase 1, from Romania (40 kya), has substantially more Neanderthal DNA, 6-9%, than living Europeans. Furthermore, this DNA comes in the form of long stretches of chromosomes, rather than little bits broken up by millennia of recombination, showing that his Neanderthal ancestors go back just a few generations, maybe to some great-great-great-grandparents. We’ve also learned from isotopic evidence that Oase 1 got the proteins in his diet from a broad array of sources, including freshwater fish. Neanderthals, by contrast, look like top predators, gaining nearly all their protein from large herbivores.

And here is some of the art produced by Homo sapiens 40 thousand years ago. lionman The lion man from Hohlenstein-Fels

And the earliest known cave paintings, from Sulawesi, Indonesia. indonesiancaveart


75 kya, The whole period between the time Homo sapiens first leaves Africa, 120 thousand years ago, and the time when H. sapiens spreads far and wide through Eurasia, replacing Neanderthals and others, 45 thousand years ago, sees episodes of increasing cultural complexity in Africa. One of these occurs at Blombos cave, at the southern tip of South Africa. There, over tens of thousands of years, people make a cultural great leap forward.
75 thousand years ago, we find that they produce finely crafted stone blades that are part of multi-part composite tools. They make shell ornaments.


And they etch ocher (a red stone useful as a dye, but not for tools).

Oddly though, this tradition doesn’t last. It’s over by 60 thousand years ago. It may be that people left as climate deteriorated. But Blombos cave is a reminder that cultural progress is not always a permanent thing. It looks like an early instance of Rise and Fall: a culture rises to new heights, and then falls back.

Land of Samba


South America avoided the all-out international total wars that consumed Eurasia in the twentieth century. (Civil wars are another matter.) But international events made themselves felt even here. Brazil had its own fascist party, the Integralists, with its paramilitary wing, the Green Shirts. However in Brazil, even the fascists couldn’t quite get into the whole National Socialist racial purity thing; the Integralist slogan called for a “Union of all races and peoples.” The Integralists fought the Communists in the early 1930s, but eventually both sides were suppressed by the dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) in 1937, led by Getúlio Vargas.


In much of the world at the time, liberalism and free trade were out, and nationalism and protectionism were in. In Latin America, this move went under the name of “populism,” favoring urban businessmen and workers at the expense of the old export-oriented land- and mine-owners. This often meant cultural as well as economic nationalism. Brazil today is famous for its Carnival celebrations, including samba parades. Ironically these took much of their current shape during the 1930s as a means of bringing rowdy public celebrations under official control: samba parades from this point on were officially sponsored, and were expected to march in orderly lines and to celebrate edifying nationalist themes. Early twentieth century samba musicians incorporated a variety of musical styles in their performances; in the 1930s, in the name of “authenticity,” they were encouraged to purge their music of foreign influences, including jazz.



Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology, came out between 1831 and 1833. Lyell advocated an uncompromising uniformitarianism: the same geological forces at work today, causing small changes over the course of lifetimes, were at work in the past, causing massive changes over the course of geological ages. We’ve seen over the course of this blog that uniformitarianism is not a completely reliable guide either to geology or to human history, which have been punctuated often enough by catastrophes – asteroid strikes, continent-scale floods, volcanic eruptions, and devastating wars and plagues. But the theory is nonetheless at least part of the story of history, and Lyell’s work was deservedly influential.

In 1837 Charles Darwin, a careful reader of Lyell, published a short article entitled On the Formation of Mould. This would eventually led to his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s work on soil formation was Lyellianism in miniature. He demonstrated, through a combination of careful reasoning and experiment, that the surface layer of pasture soil is formed by earthworms. “Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasturelands springs, has passed through the intestines of worms.” Reading Darwin on worms you get the feeling he identifies with his subjects, gradually remaking the world through their patient industry.

The doctrine of progress through gradual change was appealing not just for scientific reasons. In the 1830s, English liberals (of whom Darwin was one) were attempting to reform their society gradually, without the violence of the French Revolution, and without turning over politics to a Great Man in the style of Napoleon. (Darwin was also a gradualist with regard to his own work: he came up with the theory of natural selection in 1838, but England at the time wasn’t ready for anything so radical, and he didn’t publish The Origin of Species for another twenty years.)

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), a friend of Darwin’s, set her greatest novel, Middlemarch, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832, which moved England one big step closer to a genuinely representative government. The novel’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, might in another age have been a famous saint, another Theresa of Avila. In the England of her time she has another fate. Here is the famous conclusion of the novel:

Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.