La Belle Époque: The Beautiful Age

by Gurpreet Sihat

A very important question has been floating around the Sihat household this week: What is your La Belle Époque?

La Belle Époque translates to ‘the Beautiful Age’. Strictly speaking, it refers to the era between 1880 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 that was filled with peace, optimism, prosperity, and innovation after innovation. In my family, however, it refers to the movie, Midnight in Paris. The idea is that everyone has their own idea of what the ‘beautiful age’ is. For the protagonist, Gil, it’s Paris in the 1920s, filled with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Luis Buñuel. For his (and I use the term loosely) love interest, it’s La Belle Époque with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas. But, for Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, and Degas, it’s the Italian Renaissance. 

So, the question again: What is your La Belle Époque? If you could visit any time without restrictions, without any thought of your age, race, or gender, where would you go?

To Rome in 1512, as Michelangelo lifts his brush to the Sistine Ceiling on final time, securing his place as il Divino?

To Washington in 1963, as Martin Luther King delivers his I Have A Dream speech, the flutter of hope and the promise of change in the air?

To Harlem in 1920, sitting in a speakeasy drinking illegal liquor as Louis Armstrong plays jazz up on stage?

To Nassau in 1750, exploring the golden age of piracy with the Flying Gang – Edward Teach, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Israel Hands and Benjamin Hornigold?

To India in 1875, as the Queen of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, tied her son to her back and fought the first war of independence with an army of women?

To Northumbria 815, as the Great Heathen Army arrive to take down King Ælla?

To London 1985, as Freddie Mercury took to the stage at Wembley Stadium for their set during the Live Aid concert, where you could hear their music eight miles away?

My answer?

Florence in the 1970s. After the construction of Filippo Brunelleschi’s great dome but before the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 changed everything. When Leonardo da Vinci had become a master in the Guild of St. Luke and was starting to really make a name for himself, when Michelangelo was still a child gazing awestruck at the works of such artists as Donatello and Ghiberti, when Sandro Botticelli was creating works in the Medici court, when Lorenzo il Magnifico himself was in power and his court consisted of erudite conversations, hope for a brighter tomorrow and an abundance of inspiration. 

But our own personal La Belle Époque changes, doesn’t it?

With every day that passes into history, a day from the past lights up and reminds us of something important. It reminds us how far we’ve come and that the fight is worth it. It reminds us that the darkest of moments end in bright sunlight and clear skies. It reminds us that our dreams are worth the price of pain. It reminds us that happiness can be found in the smallest of moments, and sadness found in the biggest. It reminds us that this time, this very second, will end. It will write itself off as history and we’ll never get it back, so we need to keep moving forward. 

Perhaps that’s why the Renaissance is such a beautiful moment in time. They understood that La Belle Époque isn’t time past but time present. They didn’t want to return to a moment in history, they wanted to learn from it and use it as a foundation to something far more beautiful. They wanted to become the magnificence and the divine. 

And with that thought in mind, I leave you with an abridged version of the letter Leon Battista Alberti wrote to Filippo Brunelleschi in the Italian translation of his treatise, De Pictura (On Painting). I’m off to find the genius, the beauty, and the hope in my day… 

I used to both marvel and to regret that so many excellent and divine arts and sciences, which we know from their works and from historical accounts were possessed in great abundance by the talented men of antiquity, have now disappeared and are almost entirely lost. Painters, sculptors, architects, musicians […] and suchlike distinguished and remarkable intellects, are very rarely to be found these days, and are of little merit. Consequently I believed what I heard many say that Nature, mistress of all things, had grown old and weary, and was no longer producing intellects any more than giants on a vast and wonderful scale such as she did in what one might call her youthful and more glorious days. But after I came back here to this most beautiful of cities from the long exile in which we Albertis have grown old, I recognised in many, but above all in you, Filippo, and in our great friend the sculptor Donatello, […] a genius for every laudable enterprise in no way inferior to any of the ancients who gained fame in these arts. I then realised that the ability to achieve the highest distinction in any meritorious activity lies in our own industry and diligence no less than in the favours of Nature and of the times. I admit that for the ancients, who had many precedents to learn from and to imitate, it was less difficult to master those novel arts which for us today prove arduous; but it follows that our fame should be all the greater if without preceptors and without any model to imitate we discover arts and sciences hitherto unheard of and unseen. What man, however hard of heart or jealous, would not praise Filippo the architect when he sees here such an enormous construction towering above the skies, vast enough to cover the entire Tuscan population with its shadow, and done without the aid of beams or elaborate wooden supports? Surely a fear of engineering, if I am not mistaken, that people did not believe possible these days and was probably equally unknown and unimaginable among the ancients. But I will speak elsewhere of your praises and the talent of our friend Donatello, and of the others who are dear to me for their virtues. I beg you to go on, as you are doing, finding means whereby your wonderful merit may obtain everlasting fame and renown…

On Painting by Leon Batista Alberti – Penguin Classics, 1991 – Translated by Cecil Grayson, Edited by Martin Kemp 
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