First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.
Leon Battista Alberti
Fenestra aperta. The window to the outside. It seems such a simple idea to paint light falling into a room, a mirror on the wall, or a landscape through a window. But it was new in the Renaissance. Windows themselves were changed, and the new technology and advances in understanding of mathematics spilled into painting.
STEM becomes Art
Alberti—architect, philosopher, and artist—was as famous for his ideas as his creations. But his idea about painting through the window inspired many of the painters who came after, from Da Vinci to Raphael. He was helping create the new idea of perspective, to help artists think of their canvas as a reflection of the world outside. But to be able to use that idea required a simple thing: the ability to see through the window.
Enter the Venetian glass makers: the guild, the island of Murano, sequestered and jealously guarding their secrets. I’ve mentioned before that the glass makers were a monopoly. The artisans were wealthy, but you could not leave the guild. Assassins were dispatched if a glass maker left with the secrets. Glass making technology improved significantly the early Renaissance, often shown in museums as elegant and sophisticated glass objects from Murano. But, just as significantly, the technology led to thinner, clearer glass–for windows. Everywhere.
One of the most famous people in Renaissance Venice was not an artist, duke, noble, doge, pope or even wealthy merchant. But she did know all of them.
Veronica Franco, a poet, publisher, and high society intellect was also known cortigiana onesta: an honored courtesan. The famed artist Tintoretto painted her multiple times, sometimes etching her name on the back and sometimes not. Her notoriety led to multiple books, movies, and even a musical about her. She was the toast of the town in 1565, the Kim Khardashian of her day. Except that the Khardashians haven’t been called before the Inquisition. Yet.
Honored Courtesan, no Mere Prostitute
Cortigiana meant, for women, a position parallel to a male courtier, a word with connotations of splendor and high cultural accomplishments. Onesta can translate as “honest,” and biographers of her have used that adjective. But used with the courtier, it meant privileged, wealthy, recognized.
She was respected for her poetry as much as for her beauty. Some poems were sonnets, love poems, but others were early expression of feminist ideas:
When we women, too, have weapons and training, we will be able to prove to all men that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours; and though we may be tender and delicate, some men who are delicate are also strong, and some, though coarse and rough, are cowards.
Franco: A Challenge to a Poet Who Has Defamed Her, from monstrousregimentofwomen.com
Usury was denounced by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, a potential route to heresy and excommunication. But royalty, the church, and the merchants needed bankers. The bankers found ways around restrictions. The Medici thrived on banking, but it proved to be their downfall, or their rise depending on how you look at it. Lending to people in charge seems to have an inherent risk, usury or not.
Usury is defined as charging an “exorbitant” interest according to Webster’s. But there’s that third dictionary definition, listed as Obsolete. Usury was once defined as charging any interest at all. It varied with the century.
There were banks in Rome, which might charge from 5-12% interest. There were banks in the 6th century Byzantine Empire, because Emperor Justinian set loan rates, which varied by the venture: 4% for “exalted personages,” 7% for business loans, and 12% for maritime loans. The Council at Nicea centuries earlier had banned interest but for clergy, not everybody.
Yet a few centuries later, between the time of Charlemagne (750 CE) to the Black Death (1350), usury was more strictly banned. First, the Catholic church said that usury was banned to everybody, that you could not have a transaction where more was returned than was given. Even in a simple transaction, like selling a cow, the farmers had to find a just price, where they would only receive what it cost.