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Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the Search for Renaissance Men

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by Bramantyo Indirawan

Renaissance, derived from the French word that means ‘rebirth’, was an age of ideas and culture taking place in Europe between the 14th and 17th century. According to Renaissance and Reformation (2007), it was an age of artistic splendor, a turmoil on humanism and religion, the birth of new knowledges and paradigms, and an age of war that forge modernity.

This age became a bridge between the middle ages and the enlightenment. From the decay left out by the collapse of Roman Empire since 5th century, a process through hardship in Europe called Renaissance eventually advances into the age of enlightenment in 18th century, illuminating the dark ages with science, culture, and even politics—paving the way for the modern world.

When the west was going through its “dark” time, the east, or Islam in particular, were enjoying its golden age (8th-13 century) where education and culture were flourishing. In the Iberian peninsula intellectuals gathered to learn and understand more about the world. This spirit was aligned with the renaissance concept and we can argue that the golden age of Islam had inspired it. According to Sacred Bridge Foundation (SBF), both ages has the triangulation of arts, spirituality, and science—united and achieved greatness.

Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba (Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral); one of the inter-faith manifestations from Islamic Caliphate period in Cordoba, Spain. | Source: Sacred Bridge Foundation

The term ‘renaissance man’ is founded on the basis of an age where great minds challenge the world they live in. It simply indicate a person that has many abilities or at the very least embrace every knowledge and try to develop greatness in multiple areas. Astronomy, architecture, arts, philosophy, and geometry can be seen as the core knowledge that make someone a renaissance man. wrote that it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) from Italy who coined the term. Uomo universale, universal man, or renaissance man means that “a man can do all things if he will,” said Alberti, asserting that man as the center of universe must push their capability to the fullest.

Leon Battista Alberti (left), Leonardo da Vinci (right) | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Italy’s Leonardo da Vinci  is the perfect example of a renaissance man. Born on 15 April 1452, Da Vinci was a polymath who painted The Last Supper and Monalisa, tackled anatomy by creating the Vitruvian Man, and dwell on other areas such as mathematics, engineering, and astronomy. Throughout this period, there are others who has this multiple expertise, such as Michelangelo Buonarroti who was an architect, a sculptor, painter, and writer, Galileo who put interest in multiple areas such as astronomy, mathematics, physics and philosophy, Alberti was an architect, artist, and priest. From the east we have Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar from Mughal empire outside of Europe whom can be easily considered as a renaissance man from having so many expertise: an architect, an artist, a carpenter, and a writer.

Before the term exist, renaissance men have been around the world for long time. A polymath like Aristotle (384–322 BC) was an expert in many subject areas such as physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, and art. In the east there are Imhotep (2650–2600 BC) from Egypt and Zhang Heng  (AD 78–139) from China who are both considered as personas with multiple abilities.

Head statue of Imhotep (left), A stamp of Zhang Heng issued by China Post in 1955 (right) | Source: and Wikimedia Commons

When age of enlightenment finally arrived, great minds still challenged and made breakthroughs that eventually shaped the future—our present. Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin are primary examples of renaissance men or polymaths in this era.

Take Albert Einstein for example, can the scientist be called as a modern renaissance man? | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Flash forward to the modern world, do we still have renaissance men who learn multiple knowledges? Having values such as those polymaths of the past by being persistent, critical, and keep on challenging all that goes around them for the betterment and further advancement of the world.

If the notion that people master only one subject to fully understand and be the best in that area, then we are ignoring the fact that all subjects are interrelated. Once one masters a subject, he or she will see that it is connected to other areas of knowledge. We must be willing to explore it, just like a renaissance man would.

Another problem arises when people try to do a lot of things without  bothering to understand the basic principles. For instance, a self-proclaimed painter who can sculpt and write doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is a renaissance man. The same goes for other subjects such as physics and architecture.

Renaissance was about process, being great at multiple subjects seems the very least. The modern men must thrive throughout their own time, pushing boundaries and their own limit to create or try hard at creating something more advance—making a betterment for the people and the world.

The question is, does modern renaissance man exist? Do we really need to understand about the world we live in today as a renaissance man would do? Share your thoughts about who you would consider as modern renaissance men in the comment page below.



Bramantyo Indirawan

Author: Bramantyo Indirawan

Freelance Journalist and Writer

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3 years ago

I am considering your questions where it draws a conclusion in my mind. To me, you emphasized the presence of modern Renaissance man today is probably needed by us, so there are some questions come in my head.
If there is only one modern Renaissance man live in this world, can he/she change this world where most of people objecting the value of the past?
I think it could be real if people consciously leaving capitalism mentality. Can we do that?

3 years ago
Reply to  Bobi

Hello Boby, thank you for your question. We can argue that renaissance men are needed in the modern world in which we are living today. But to ask can he/she changed the world is not the priority because what they did is to challenge, criticize, and struggle in their life time—a process. Does one renaissance man can change the world? It depends, by definition a polymath can be a renaissance man. If the polymath simply can do many things but doesnt push himself forward, it would be hard to really change the world today. Thats why the article add up… Read more »

3 years ago

I don’t know if Einstein can be considered as renaissance man, but i believe he is very capable of talking about arts deep. Perhaps deeper than the artist himself…