“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo
Burning Man’s 2016 art theme is inspired by the Italian Renaissance of the middle fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when an historic convergence of inspired artistry, technical innovation and enlightened patronage launched Europe out of medievalism and into modernity. Our story will focus on the republic of Florence, for it was here, in a city-state of about the same size and population as Black Rock City, that humanist ideals, a rediscovery of science, and funding from a newly moneyed class of entrepreneurs fueled a revolutionary cultural movement that redefined Western civilization. Five centuries later, we will attempt to recreate this potent social alchemy by combining Burning Man art, maker culture and creative philanthropy to make Black Rock City the epicenter of a new renaissance.
The parallels between these two precocious cities are remarkable. Of all the cities of the Renaissance, Florence is perhaps most notable for a new kind of social mobility; not only was it governed democratically, it was also possible for artists to rise through the ranks of society by apprenticing in workshops led by master craftsmen who belonged to guilds. Botticelli was the son of a tanner, and any persevering artist might ascend from humble origins to gain the status of a culture hero, one whose work might be commissioned by the wealthy Wool Guild or be paid for by princes or popes. In the name of art, class barriers were cast aside.
Florentines were famous for their love of beauty – not only for the value they attached to public art, but for their love of costume, pageantry, and an idealized admiration of the human body as a measure of all things. Florentine artist Leonardo da Vinci sketched what is perhaps the definitive icon of this era. Inspired by his study of the Roman architect Vitruvius, he mapped the ratios of the human body to produce the image of a man, his limbs outstretched to span a universal circle. This year’s Man will emulate the symbol of Vitruvian Man. As nearby bell towers toll the hours, we will invite participants to operate an elaborate system of human-powered gears and pulleys that will slowly rotate Burning Man a full 360 degrees on the vertical plane, as if it formed the axle and spokes of an enormous spinning wheel.
The creation of a giant Turning Man is especially appropriate, since many famous Florentine artists were also civil engineers. Filippo Brunelleschi, originally enrolled in a guild and trained as a goldsmith, went on to design and construct the city’s cathedral – an unprecedented structure; it became a wonder of the world. Tasked with raising and assembling four million bricks in order to complete its egg-shaped dome, he invented dozens of diverse machines. Likewise, the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci are replete with engineering sketches – including the prototype of a helicopter. This fusion of art, science and technology also characterizes Black Rock City. In 2016, the Burning Man will be surrounded by a public square, a piazza lined with workshops, each representing a guild. Our guilds, unlike the traditional guilds of Florence, will be self-invented and devoted to the interactive manufacture of whatever participating artists and inventors can imagine. We will again invite our regional communities to join in this effort, and will reach out to members of the maker movement to help create this interactive environment.
The signature of Florence was its civic pride. As much as this was marked by popular participation, it was also manifested through philanthropy. Lorenzo de Medici was a leader of Florence’s first family. A poet, a banker and a politician, he was famous for befriending artists and advancing their careers. This same pattern of philanthropy has long been a part of the little-known history of Black Rock City. Over many years, private donors, with a remarkable lack of fanfare, have quietly funded some of the most beloved artworks that have honored our city. We believe that what has long been private should be made more public.
In 2016 we will conduct a social experiment, inviting artists and patrons to settle around and activate a public plaza in the city. We will call on them to join together, pooling their resources to create a welcoming environment at the plaza’s center – a sheltered place where all our citizens may take their ease amid the amenities of high civilization. Thus we will establish common ground where participants can be united by their shared experience. To quote from Leonardo’s notebook, “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
This essay is the first in a series of blog posts that will explore aspects of the 2016 theme. Details of our 2016 Honoraria Art Grant program will be announced soon on the Burning Man website.