During the Renaissance and today, artists and scientists have more in common than you think

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Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Italy was Cammy Brothers’ first love.

When she was 13, she went on a “typical first trip to Europe” with her parents, hitting the tourist hot spots like Paris, London and Venice. Paris and London came and went, but it was the latter that left an impression on Brothers. The friendly people, sun-dappled roofs and streets covered in layer upon layer of history–it all left the young girl from Iowa City wanting to learn more.

And that’s what she did.

Brothers, now an associate professor of art, design and architecture at Northeastern, specializes in Italian Renaissance and Mediterranean art and architecture. Like a story pulled from some ancient Roman myth, the seed that was planted on Brothers’ first trip to Italy has blossomed into a fruitful tree of knowledge and lifelong passion.

“Every time I go back to a church I’d seen before but I hadn’t been to in years, I see new things,” Brothers says. “It’s really the contact with the buildings and the objects and seeing new places that just always raises new questions for me.”

After returning from Europe with her parents, Brothers became obsessed with Italian culture, history and language. She took up Italian in her senior year of high school and went on to study Italian history and literature during the early days of her undergraduate program at Harvard University.

Brothers says the turning point that led her to the Italian Renaissance was a summer trip to Florence as part of a program run by the University of Pennsylvania. Years after she first wandered the streets of Venice with her parents, Brothers was now visiting villas, palaces, churches and museums. She returned to Harvard with an almost religious zeal for Italian art and architecture, specifically from the Italian Renaissance.

“There was a kind of way in which art of that period represented a convergence of a lot of different cultural factors, and because I was interested in all those things, it seemed like a way I could keep pursuing my interests in poetry or literature while also studying these beautiful objects,” Brothers says.

The Italian Renaissance spanned the 15th and 16th centuries––although some scholars argue it lasted even longer–and represented a cultural rebirth after the Middle Ages. Italian artists, architects, writers and thinkers explored new ideas and techniques. Italy’s greatest creative minds brought a humanist approach to their work, finding inspiration in not only Biblical stories and Roman myths but the human body itself.

“Patrons and humanists were interested in these classical texts or stories like Apollo and Daphne, but then there was also a lot of motivation on the part of artists to find any excuse to represent nudes because it was this really compelling new subject,” Brothers says.

But the creative boom of the Italian Renaissance was only possible because of another parallel development: “the birth of capitalism,” says Brothers. The Renaissance was a historic convergence between artistic innovation and new forms of financial and economic power. Wealthy families like the Medici were some of the first international bankers and they invested significant capital in the arts not only for the public good but for their own benefit.

“One explanation for why this period has such a central place is that very smart people were putting a huge amount of money into the arts and into arts that were for public benefit, and that then encouraged competition among artists,” Brothers says.

Drawing from the concept of “magnificence,” first coined by Aristotle, wealthy patrons funded projects to make public spaces more beautiful in an attempt to “become magnificent,” according to Brothers.

“It’s a thing that has happened over hundreds of years, but the Medici were some of the first to get hold of this idea that if they wanted to avoid criticism, they would build beautiful buildings for the city,” Brothers says.

For Brothers, the Italian Renaissance is an endlessly rich historical tapestry with layers of meaning that provide important context in the modern day. She brings those conversations to the forefront in her courses, many of which utilize Boston’s Museum of Fine Art as an “extension of the classroom.”

One of her courses uses Renaissance figures like Leonardo da Vinci and fields of study like cartography and zoology to illustrate the connection between the arts and sciences.

“We think of the STEM fields and the arts as so divided today, and everything in our culture is constructing them as so separate,” Brothers says.

“I think it would be of so much benefit to everybody, certainly in a university setting, if there was more dialogue across these divides between artists and scientists, researchers and creative practitioners, and just more recognition that what people are doing is actually not that far apart.”

Brothers also argues that modern cities could learn a thing or two from the Renaissance-era concept of the public realm, where urban design and architecture were used as tools for the public good. The piazzas, streets and buildings of Italian cities are designed, Brothers says, to enrich the aesthetic daily experience of every citizen.

“There are a few American cities that have this, but many really have a very diminished public realm and so much of the investment in American cities is in fancy residential high-end buildings and not the public square, not the idea of things that should be available to everybody,” Brothers says.

The role of architects has become more functional than aesthetic in most projects, Brothers says, a departure from how Renaissance architects used even building facades to beautify public space.

“At some point there came to be a perception of artists as these highly idiosyncratic individuals not as people who can serve the public good, but in the Renaissance there was very much that idea and I think aspects of that could be really beneficial again,” Brothers says.

Although she spends most of her time investigating the past, Brothers is very focused on what Renaissance art and history can tell modern audiences about themselves. She is now working on her third book, “The Architectural Legacy of Islamic Spain,” and continues to write art reviews for the Wall Street Journal. She views her writing as a public service, especially because she notes there is intense public interest in work from the Renaissance.

“I see it as basically outreach because there’s so much curiosity out there,” Brothers says.

Brothers just returned from her fourth trip to Italy this year, and although she’s been there countless times at this point in her career, the curiosity and passion of that wide-eyed teenager from Iowa City is still there. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo might be long gone, but Brothers isn’t done asking questions of them and their work.

“Whenever I am actually looking at art objects,” Brothers says, “whether they’re paintings or sculpture or buildings, I see so many unresolved questions and so many things that spark my curiosity and so many things I want to understand.”

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