Signore e signori. Non potete immaginare che piacere sia per me e mia moglie essere nuovamente qui a Firenze. Inutile dire quanto sia onorato e lusingato di ricevere questo premio.
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, when I heard that you wished to present it to me, I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary to find that Renaissance Man is defined as “a person with many talents or interests, especially in the humanities.” In my case, I fear I have many more interests than talents – which is why I feel so greatly honoured to be given such an award in the city of the Strozzis and the Medicis, the home of the Renaissance.
It is one of those extraordinary coincidences in life that both my wife and I had grandmothers whose grandmother, or mother, had a villa in Florence (in my wife's case the Villa Ombrellino - which I now hear is in desperate states - and in mine the Villa Capponi) which they used to visit as children. Both our grandmothers were born, coincidentally, in the same year and even went to the same school. Both used to remember being taken to visit the Uffizi or Pitti Palace to look at the works of art – but never more than one or two paintings at a time in order to avoid putting the grandchildren off!
My great, great, great grandmother, Queen Victoria, of course used to stay at the Villa Palmieri, so perhaps it is hardly surprising that like so many before us, we have both been in love with Florence ever since we first came here. So when, very nearly thirty years ago, I was invited to become Patron of The British Institute of Florence, it didn’t take me very long to say “yes!”
Now throughout the hundred years of its existence the British Institute has played an essential role in fostering understanding between the people of the United Kingdom and the people of Italy. In so doing, it has helped to strengthen and deepen the relationship between our two countries.
Although our relationship is deeply rooted in our shared history, today, I am delighted to say, it is more firmly embedded than ever before. In almost any field that one can think of – in culture, business, education, defence and security co-operation, innovation and research, even sport – the partnership between the United Kingdom and Italy brings tremendous benefits to our economies and to our societies.
It is also a force for good in the world. The United Kingdom and Italy are Europe's two biggest contributors to global peacekeeping. Together, we are fighting Daesh; tackling the challenges of mass migration and climate change; and striving to defend the values we share – of pluralism, democracy and human rights.
All of this is possible because of the rich exchange of ideas that has for centuries been a bridge between us. So many of those ideas – which have shaped both our countries, and indeed shaped the world we share – emerged or were rediscovered here in Florence during the remarkable years of the Renaissance.
So, as many of you may know, the Institute is celebrating its centenary this year and, like the Strozzi Foundation, it exists to promote the learning and importance of the classical arts that Florence has, for so long, represented. And, if there is one Florentine artist who symbolizes that extraordinary flowering of ideas based upon the rediscovered classical principles of balance and harmony, for me it is Botticelli – the artist who created not one, but two of the greatest paintings of all time for Lorenzo Medici. I suppose if I had to pick just one of them, it would be the “Primavera,” Botticelli’s detailed depiction of the great “re-awakening,” his portrait of the renewal brought by Spring, a painting steeped in important symbolism. In fact, it is worth considering what Botticelli was trying to say by painting those figures set within such an abundant scene, composed with great attention to the precise underlying geometry of Greek art and architecture.
Botticelli was guided in his thinking by a slightly older man here in Florence whose patron was Lorenzo’s grandfather. Sadly, he is not as well known as he should be, but for me, Marsilio Ficino might even be called the father of the Renaissance.
It was Cosimo Medici who had Ficino create the Florentine Academy, which was an attempt to revive the idea of Plato’s Academy and where Ficino’s task was to make the first translations of all of Plato’s writing. So it was effectively Ficino who ignited the great renewal of the philosophy of “wholeness” that Plato was so pivotal in defining – a renewal of learning and study of the natural world that would, in time, lead to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and, eventually, the so-called Age of Enlightenment.
Sadly, as those two later developments took hold, so a vital element of Ficino’s thinking was gradually sidelined and eventually ignored, and when I come to think of it, it is the restoration of that loss that has been my concern ever since I first realized what had happened.
Ficino’s primary concern, as with Plato, was the immortality of the human soul as it experiences a living universe. As he put it, “There will be some who observe that there is life in the lowest animals and the smallest plants, but they do not see that the whole, in which we live and move and have our being, is itself alive.”
Sadly, that idea of humanity existing within a living whole was abandoned by those who led the mechanistic revolution that came 150 years later. We kept the words, but tended to forget their meaning. We still talk in English of “animals,” for instance, but forget that the word comes from “anima,” the word for “soul.” And so the sense of an animate Nature “in which we live and move and have our being” was replaced by a rather more artificial idea that Nature was some kind of autonomous machine. We were persuaded that matter was merely inanimate with no purpose and with no self-organizing principles. And for me, that was a very damaging turning point in our history. It was a shift in perception that has had many dire consequences in many fields of human endeavour.
And when I began pointing this out over thirty years ago, I was immediately accused of being “anti-science.” It was clear I was suggesting a notion that lay beyond the limits of the predominant mindset. And yet now, things have moved on a little and the tables have begun perhaps to turn. The empiricism that emerged from Descartes’ rather deadening concept has finally enabled us to see the world in a much more precise way. And, lo and behold, our science now suggests Ficino’s philosophical proposition 550 years ago was not without foundation. Essentially, we are indeed utterly embedded within Nature’s self-organizing living web. To the extent that we are not simply a part of that web; we ARE the web ourselves. We ARE Nature – HER patterns are OUR patterns. And, thus, we are fundamentally contained within Nature’s system for all our needs. As Ficino said, quoting the Bible, “we live and move and have our being” within Nature’s benevolent complexity. And this is surely what Botticelli was depicting.
It is why I find it so unbelievable when people ask why we should bother with conservation and saving the Earth’s dwindling biodiversity, or why we should strive to make the terrifying environmental issues we face such a priority. The diversity of life on Earth is what actually enables us “to have our being.” Deplete it, reduce it, erode and destroy it, and we will, literally, prevent our “being.” Imagine what Botticelli’s masterpiece would look like then…
I must say, I would never presume to call myself a “Renaissance Man.” But when you first offered your award to me, I did consider what that term has come to mean. So, if it refers to someone who is deeply interested in what the arts and sciences, literature and philosophy can tell us about the human condition, particularly how interrelated everything is in the world and how embedded we are within Nature’s living system, then I would perhaps agree with your very generous observation. And I would like to accept it in the hope, in the hope, that it helps to reignite the learning of those remarkable ancient scholars who fired such an explosion in art and thinking here in Florence, but whose work also contains a warning: that if we continue to unravel the necessary balance in Nature and continue to destroy her myriad, interdependent connections, then the disorder we cause will wreck the human world for good. We all know it is already doing so – and that we have to look urgently at what will restore the balance before it is finally too late. So I can only presume you have given me this award precisely because I have spent much of my life living extremely dangerously by challenging the prevailing, conventional paradigm – whether in architecture and planning, agriculture and the environment, healthcare or education - all to try and restore the lost, essential balance between the intuitive and the rational; between, if you like, the East and West in our consciousness.
The key, as many scientists now see, is to regard Nature as our guide and teacher, seeing if we can do things in a much more sustainable way by better mimicking the way Nature operates. Of course, that means looking seriously at better ways of recycling our waste and at renewable forms of energy – and here, ladies and gentlemen, I must pay tribute to the remarkable leadership shown by Italy where 40% of electricity produced is now from renewable sources - but it also means looking at the way we design and build our new urban developments to create more coherent and integrated communities and to add both social andenvironmental value; the way we run our businesses; the way we design our manufacturing processes – essentially, at every level and in all fields, working to establish circular economies, rather than continuing to rely upon the conventional, linear ones that so often operate in silos and lead to fragmentation and division.
If we can do this I have every confidence we will begin to create a much more inclusive approach to our economics that takes proper account, at last, of the importance of Nature’s capital. And also enables us to take a much more compassionate approach to what is often called “human” or “social capital.”
Quindi, signore e signori, vi sono estremamente grato per questo premio. Viene consegnato a qualcuno che ha tentato, nel suo piccolo, di ricordare agli altri i principi universali ed immortali di equilibrio ed armonia che sono stati riscoperti qui nella vostra meravigliosa citta' tutti quei secoli fa – nella speranza di poter vivere, chissa', un secondo Rinascimento; che riallinei la percezione umana alle leggi della Natura e ci dia un necessario, integrato apprezzamento dell'importanza del mondo naturale "in cui viviamo, ci muoviamo ed esistiamo."
Grazie per avermi fatto vivere, in questo viaggio, le gioie e i dolori di questo straordinario popolo.