Today, we ask: Of an age, or of all time?. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In an article about
Donatello, art historian Kenneth Clark reaches
a conclusion that opens up a wider issue. Clark
says that the more famous Bellini,
who followed Donatello, was an artist for his times
-- just as
Delacroix has little place beyond the
nineteenth century. But Florentine sculptor
Donatello, whose name is not on every tongue
today, was, in fact, an artist for all time.
He was born into the post-plague late Middle Ages -- a
serious time. Art floundered as people struggled to
rebuild. Life was more capital-intensive and more
high-pressure than it'd ever been. It was
Donatello's sculpture that finally caught the
gravity of the times. His figures are wonderfully
human and fearfully intense.
We see John the Baptist
gazing with fervent perplexity at a world he means
to change. Mary Magdalene is aging, emaciated, clad
in rags, and infinitely noble. Clark sees seeds of
the late-19th-century sculptor Rodin being sown here. This is
renaissance humanism in its cradle. Donatello
transmutes the themes of his age into an
understanding of the human lot that serves any
Clark gives other examples. Vermeer
was a great artist, but he belonged in his own
seventeenth century, while his contemporary
speaks to the needs of any age.
So let's move beyond art to other creativity.
Science, for example, proceeds like art in a
sequence of revolutions.
Science never looks the same after a revolution,
yet it always retains some of what was once there.
The Donatellos of science are the people who can
still be seen in the science of later eras.
I offer you Robert Boyle
-- the most influential scientist of the
seventeenth century. He touched every aspect of
science, asked the right questions, and was a huge
formative agent. Yet little of his science
survives. He was the scientist of his times, but
the work of his contemporary Isaac Newton is still
foundational today, while Boyle's is not.
Louis Agassiz was the
Robert Boyle of nineteenth-century science. Agassiz
worked on every front of biological science and
justly deserves to be called great. He was woven
into the fabric of his age, yet we find few
fragments of Agassiz in our world. His contemporary
Charles Darwin commanded
nothing remotely resembling his stature. Yet
Darwin's work is timeless.
So I offer you an odd meter-stick for measuring
stature. Bellini is better known to us than
Donatello. But Donatello holds as much meaning for
us as for the people who first saw his work. Put
that measuring-stick to your own heroes and see how
they fare, but be cautious. I wouldn't take one
stitch away from Bellini, Boyle, Vermeer or
Agassiz. Without its formative agents, any age
would be amorphous. The transcendent figures around
us will serve our progeny. But we still live
here. And I suspect that our lives are
inevitably shaped by greatness of a slightly lower
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds