"I'm tired of Leonardo, everybody always talking about Leonardo. Sure, he had some great ideas, but what did he ever actually accomplish?"
"You have to have Latin, naturally, and Greek is useful - then there's Italian, French, German and of course English. Those are the basic tools, and you can't do much without them. If you have a specialty, you may have to add Polish or Portuguese or SerboCrotian."
"I have a friend who has been working on some Islamic archives in Istanbul - untouched for seven or eight centuries. He says it's a race; he's reading through the pile from the top and the rats are eating through it from the bottom and the rats are winning."
Lunchtime chitchat - not the usual Washington cafeteria conversation, but this was hardly an ordinary Washington group.
More than 200 Renaissance scholars gathered last Friday and Saturday at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the National Museum of History and Technology for a symposium on "Science and the Arts in the Renaissance," and their discussions, formal and informal, covered a bewildering range of topics, from the birth of calculus to perspective and chiaroscuro and the various systems for tuning a harpsichord.
We live in an age when art is art and science is science and never the twain shall meet, but these scholars are dedicated to a period when nobody bothered to make such distinctions (Leonardo, for example), and the artists and scientists must talk to one another if they hope to get a reasonably whole picture of the age.
"Do you enjoy Renaissance music?" someone asked an eminent historian of science during the intermission of a concert given by the Folger Consort. "For about half an hour," he answered, glancing at his watch.
"I think I would feel more at home in Elizabethan London than I do in most modern foreign cities," remarked a historical researcher, and nobody in the vicinity dreamed of questioning the remark. Although the scholars seemed quite at home in Washington, strolling from museum to museum on a warm October afternoon or sitting quietly taking notes at a lecture, their conversation was of another time and place. Names like Copernius and Kepler, Sir Walter Raleigh and Gutenberg cropped up in their conversation as casually as though these worthies lived down the street and might be dropping in later for tea.
But for all this cozy familiarity, the subject matter in much of this dialogue was the stuff of cosmic drama
Something explosive happened to the mind of Europe about five centuries ago, and we are still living in the fallout from that explosion. The symposium was part of a continuing effort to understand how that explosion happened, what it means, and how it makes the culture of Europe (with its American offspring) different from all other cultures in human history.
Angles of approach to the question varied tremendously during the two days. Michael Mahoney of Princeton covered a blackboard with equations> following the astronomers of the period from one discovery to the next and explaining how their picture of the universe shifted from a static image shrouded in mystery to a dynamic one flooded with light.
Samuel Edgerton of Boston University filled a screen with slides of scientific illustrations, exploring the idea that the way one generation draws pictures of reality affects the way the next generation sees that reality. Side by side wiht Renaissance pictures of machinery, he showed Chinese pictures of the same subjects to illustrate his speculation that "Galileo could not have accomplished what he did in Ming Dynasty China."
Others sketched in details from other fields, showing the shift from a world where knowledge was some thing ferreted out of old books to a world where knowledge is something you get by going out and taking a fresh look at the subject. Like the period on which it focused, the symposium was a mind-expanding experience, carrying the participants' minds into a dozen different areas to give an incomplete but stimulating picture of one of mankind's golden hours.
"A Renaissance scholar has to be a Renaissance man," Alistair Crombie of Trinity College, Oxford, remarked at one of the symposium's informal receptions. A renaissance woman standing next to him nodded in silent agreement.