Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” By understanding and applying Renaissance ideas about beauty today, we can tangibly improve human life at this very moment in time.
In one of his most famous lines, Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
This article explores how beauty can change the world. Specifically, by understanding beauty—and by creating beautiful environments—we can tangibly improve human life at this very moment in time.
In my experience—and the experience of countless others—when we spend time in a truly beautiful setting, it doesn’t just elevate our minds. In addition, a beautiful setting can inspire our best work and deepen our entire experience of being alive.
From classical Greek times up until the 1700s, nearly every serious thinker believed that beauty was an objective quality of nature, something we can all experience and benefit from.
The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 570–495), it is reported, was the first to call the universe a kosmos. The word kosmos refers to the presence of beauty, and it is the source of our word “cosmetic.” When he called the universe a cosmos, what Pythagoras meant that “the universe is a beautiful order.” He also highlighted the fact that nature is objectively beautiful.
In modern times, however, many have been led to believe that beauty is just a subjective experience, or “in the eye of the beholder,” as the saying goes. This highly reductionistic idea, which originated with David Hume in the 1700s, is that beauty is only a subjective “sentiment” or emotional reaction.
While Hume’s idea reduced beauty to nothing but a feeling, it does convey a small truth: Since people respond to beauty psychologically or emotionally, they will respond to beauty in unique ways. But that doesn’t mean that “beauty isn’t really there,” or that beauty is purely subjective.
In the end, beauty can be objective, and, at the same time, it can be felt in unique and individual ways.
The easiest way to prove that beauty is objective is simply to observe the forms of nature. For example, a perfect flower, a snowflake, and the harmonious form of a distant galaxy all radiate beauty and help us to understand what underlies beauty.
If Pythagoras was correct and the universe is a beautiful order, then nature is the first place where we can discover and study beauty.
Going deeper, the Pythagoreans believed that the cosmos, or nature—and everything it contains—is a manifestation of harmonia (harmony), a word that means “fitting together.”
This means that nature’s forms, from living organisms to snowflakes, embody proportional and part–whole relationships in their structures. In other words, nature’s forms fit together in beautiful ways. Moreover, these proportions, which harmonize the part with the whole, can be objectively studied. They also can be understood.
Other schools of Greek philosophy accepted this Pythagorean view of beauty. While it was hugely influential in the thought of Plato, it was accepted by Aristotle and the Stoics. In fact, Aristotle expressed the idea just as a Pythagorean would. As he wrote in his Poetics:
to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must . . . present a certain order in its arrangement of parts.
Similarly, Aristotle wrote in the Metaphysics that
The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.
Notably, the idea that beauty is a manifestation of proportion and harmony was the foundational concept in ancient art and architecture. But it wasn’t just a theoretical idea. Artists and architects were interested in proportion and harmony as tools, and as practical tools they could use. That’s because artists needed to understand and apply these tools to create beautiful works.
While the knowledge linking harmony and beauty never disappeared during the Middle Ages, it experienced a powerful reawakening in the Renaissance, galvanizing both architecture and art.
For the Renaissance genius and architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), beauty originated from concinnitas or “congruity.” This is nothing other than the classical Pythagorean idea of harmony or “fitting together.”
As Alberti wrote in his Ten Books on Architecture, beauty is “a harmony of all the parts, in whatever subject it appears, fitted together with such proportion and connection that nothing could be added, diminished, or altered but for the worse.”
Significantly, Alberti was not just the foremost Renaissance theorist of architecture. He was also a leading theorist of painting and sculpture, whose work influenced Botticelli, Leonardo, and other great Renaissance artists.
The later Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) saw beauty in the same way as Alberti had, and he designed his famous villas based on mathematical harmonies and proportions, which have now been much studied. (See Figure 2.)
In the very startling (but perfectly true) statement of the famous art historian Rudolph Wittkower, “Renaissance architecture was conceived as an image or mirror of a pre-ordained mathematical harmony of the universe.”
This means that in some examples of Renaissance architecture and art, there was a mathematical and scientific dimension at work behind the scenes.
Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, some of the greatest Renaissance artists and architects used simple mathematical ratios—the ratios most often found in nature itself—to compose their masterpieces.
Like the underlying geometry of Palladio’s villa shown above in Figure 2, even though these underlying patterns of harmony are rarely noticed directly—at least by the conscious mind—the sense of beauty and harmony they are designed to give rise to are easily felt. In other words, beauty emerges from an overall harmonious gestalt, which captivates our attention and can even astonish us. And that, of course, was the entire purpose in using these principles of composition.
In my twenties, I would spend hours gazing at oversized, full-color books devoted to the beauties of Renaissance villas and formal gardens, which are still among my prized possessions. Contemplating these masterpieces of beauty clarified my mind and made me feel grounded. They inspired inner tranquility.
But these feelings I experienced were not by accident—they were created by design.
That is why the study of Renaissance architecture and art can be so valuable, especially if we could learn to apply the same principles today, which is certainly possible. Then, once a student understands how the great masters used these techniques and patterns, he or she can employ them too.
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Because beautiful settings inspire us, there is a long tradition that people should study and discuss important topics in beautiful settings. Sometimes, even gardens were designed for that purpose.
Recently, when up above Florence, Italy, I was fortunate to spend a morning at the Medici Villa at Fiesole, where humanist thinkers influenced by Plato’s philosophy would meet. This included Lorenzo de’ Medici, the philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, probably the artist Michelangelo, and others.
Significantly, this was the first “formal garden” ever constructed that was attached to a Renaissance villa. It was a conscious attempt to re-create a garden for philosophical contemplation, based on ancient Roman gardens (and the scanty sources that have come down to us).
Renaissance scholar and writer Ross King describes this villa as the outgrowth of a desire to create “an enclave of beauty and order through the harmonious interplay of plants and flowers with geometry and architecture.” In the end, he notes, “It became a kind of fifteenth-century Florentine equivalent of Plato’s Academy, or Aristotle’s Lyceum, a place where the carefully crafted beauty of nature could elevate both the mind and the spirit.”
“The promise of beauty is happiness.”
Studies have proven what many would assume to be a simple, common-sense truth: When people work in beautiful settings, or are exposed to the beauty of nature, the feel more at peace, more “at home,” and feel capable of doing their best possible work.
If we took these obvious, common-sense insights to heart, we would strive to create more beautiful cities, workspaces, and schools because of the way they would enhance our world.
To use another Renaissance example, the Florentine city-state has been described as a “work of art”—both in terms of its political system and physically, since the city, its architecture, and its artwork, taken together, resembles a monument dedicated to beauty. Obviously, this didn’t happen just by chance. Rather, it was inspired by a sense of “civic humanism” and by a deep desire to create a place of beauty in which to live and work.
If we worked toward this goal today, each in our unique way, we could create a better and more beautiful world.
Since beauty in the ancient world was associated with goodness, it also possessed an ethical dimension. (Not by coincidence, the ancient Greek word for “beauty,” kalos or kallos, also means “goodness” and “excellence”). For Plato, beauty or excellence of the soul enables us to thrive as human beings.
Plato said that if we could see the highest form of goodness with our physical eyes, it would appear to us as beauty, and we would fall in love with it (Phaedrus 250D).
Paraphrasing this idea in the Renaissance, Francesco Petrarch described beauty as “the face of the good made visible.”
In another dialogue, the Philebus, Plato carefully argued that truth, beauty, goodness, and proportion are all closely related. In some sense, he wrote, they are all different aspects—or different faces—of the same thing (Philebus 64D–65A).
This passage is where we get the Platonic idea of “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” which still inspires people today as the highest ideal worth striving for. It’s unfortunate, though, that good proportion got left out of this popular formula because it was an essential part of Plato’s thinking. As he wrote in the original text:
If we cannot catch the Good with the aid of one idea, let us run it down with three: Beauty, Proportion, and Truth.
Finally, it’s noteworthy that every citizen of Athens took an oath, pledging to leave the world in a more beautiful state than how they had received it. Of course, that is a noble aim, to make the world we receive more beautiful and to leave it in a better condition for future generations.
One modern person who has been deeply influenced by the Renaissance spirit of humanism, and by classical philosophies of beauty, is the Italian fashion designer and philosopher Brunello Cucinelli.
Inspired by words attributed to the Roman Emperor Hadrian—“I feel responsible for the beauty of the world”—over the last three decades, Cucinelli has totally restored the small, medieval village of Solomeo, where his business is located, close to the Italian city of Perugia. (Figure 4.)
For the past thirty years, Cucinelli has given back a percentage of his company’s profits, using them to restore and beautify the village of Solomeo. In addition to restoring a church and a medieval castle (which serves as his office), he has constructed a 200-seat theatre, which offers dramatic presentations and a summer concert series. He has also created a School of Arts and Crafts, which helps develop artisans of the future (and future employees for his company).
In Solomeo, he has created a simple but elegant Monument to Human Dignity using Renaissance design principles. A lifelong student of philosophy, Brunello Cucinelli has established a beautiful public library and is now working on a much larger one, inspired by the Library of Alexandria. This project, the Universal Library of Solomeo, will house books in philosophy, architecture, and literature. He has also worked to restore Solomeo ecologically by transforming an area of run-down warehouses into a verdant, flowering oasis.
Since I’m writing a book on how Renaissance ideas can enhance our world today, I had to see Cucinelli’s project with my own eyes. So, arriving recently in the hilltop village of Solomeo on a beautiful May morning, I sat in front of the restored castle and the School of Arts and Crafts. (Figure 5.)
Softly illuminated by the morning sun, the beauty of the rolling Umbrian countryside stretched into the distance under the vaulted arches of the School of Arts.
As I sat there in perfect silence—aside from the birdsong of the swallows flying overhead—I experienced the same sense of perfect tranquility I had felt at the Medici garden overlooking Florence. It was the exact same feeling of tranquility I had felt decades earlier, in my twenties, as I poured over photographs of Italian Renaissance villas.
Sitting there, also, had a profound effect. It transformed the idea that “beauty can save the world” into a tangible sense of a human world transfigured by beauty, and what that world might look like.
Since I arrived early, I sat there for nearly thirty minutes before the scheduled meeting. Breathing deeply and feeling at peace, I based in both the harmonious beauty of nature combined, each complementing one another.
To my right, I gazed at a bust of Pythagoras, which floats above an inscription written in Italian: “Number is a law of the universe.” And to my left, I looked upon a bust of Leonardo da Vinci, whose inscription reads: “I will make an invention, which will mean great things.”
The day before, I had received an e-mail from my learned guide at the Cucinelli Foundation, who I was waiting to meet.
His message concluded, “I am delighted to host you in Solomeo, and we will pleasantly talk about the Renaissance, neo-humanism, and all these philosophical themes that bring us back to Plato’s Academy.”
When he finally arrived, I said in Italian, “È un grande onore conoscerti” (It is a great honor to meet you). And then I said, “It’s really wonderful to be here. Solomeo is like an island of sanity in a world that’s grown increasingly mad.”
Beauty, indeed, could save the world.
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