Pastides Shows He’s No Renaissance Man

November 2, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveThere’s no doubt that University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides is well-educated.

With a doctoral degree in epidemiology from Yale University Graduate School, a master’s of public health from Yale University School of Medicine, and bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry from the State University of New York at Albany, Pastides certainly knows a thing or two about the sciences.

But putting proof to a quote variously attributed to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers that “we’re all ignorant, just in different things,” Pastides may need to brush up on his history.

Last week, USC’s top executive was on the school’s Horseshoe for an announcement by Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. regarding plans to build a $313 million plant in Lexington County.

Pastides began his part of the program by reflecting on a recent trip to Florence, Italy, from which he had just returned. He said he found it amazing that the Renaissance had begun in such a small region and produced so many men of genius within a few generations, including Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Dante and Machiavelli.

Curious as to how such a unique confluence of genius had sprung up in one area at one time, Pastides said that after he did some reading, “The answer became clear.”

“It was the leadership of the business or the merchant class, supported, frankly, by local and regional government, that came together in ways that the Western world had never seen before,” he said. “It was, in other words, a public-private partnership; and the people flourished and the economy grew.”

Pastides went on to say that, thanks to government support, Nephron is just the latest step in a renaissance taking place in South Carolina and the Midlands, one that includes BMW, Boeing, Continental Tire and Bridgestone, adding that he hoped it would be supported by the state’s research universities, as well.

Unstated in Pastides’ thinly veiled plug for command-style economics is the fact that the strategy has meant hundreds of millions of dollars in economic incentives to large corporations, tax breaks that the vast majority of South Carolina businesses aren’t eligible for, and free job training for several Fortune 500 companies.

Pastides’ historic assertion also misrepresents what actually took place during the Italian Renaissance, according to William Wallace, a professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in art and architecture of 14th to 18th century Italy.

“I would say that the Renaissance is an economic miracle that happened independent of government,” he told The Nerve. “Florence was a city of 50,000, and a good many of those were merchants. In fact, the merchant class came to dominate government. But I wouldn’t say that the Renaissance happened because of government.”

Charles Connell, chairman of the history department at Northern Arizona University, said the Renaissance was greatly supported by private commerce, in Italy particularly by banking families.

In Florence, the Medici family was a primary supporter of the Renaissance, being patrons of such artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Filippo Brunelleschi and Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi.

“It’s difficult to separate the two, but given how we think of partnerships today, I don’t see a similar partnership between government and artists back in that time,” Connell told The Nerve.

“It wasn’t that once people got in power they decided to support the arts; it was just their inclination,” he added. “They never, as far as we know, tried to influence how artists made their work; they just wanted to support the artists.”

Wallace added that the Medicis never actually participated in government in 15th-century Florence, even if they did influence it.

Pastides’ comments come at a time when USC, the state’s largest public university, is undergoing increased scrutiny for its involvement in public-private projects some believe should be handled exclusively by the private sector.

Among these has been the Innovista research campus.

Innovista was supposed to be a public-private partnership that would feature the university and a private developer each building a pair of structures. But the private aspect of Innovista has yet to materialize because developers couldn’t secure financing, in part because of legal issues and the downturn in the economy.

Meanwhile, approximately $100 million in public funds has gone into the two public buildings, which are less than 50 percent occupied. Earlier this year, USC’s board of trustees approved $15.5 million – money taken from federal research grants – to complete one of the buildings.

Also, another $33.7 million has been spent for a pair of parking garages, paid for by the city of Columbia and Richland County.

USC has spent $4 million over the last three years to cover deficits at the parking structures, and it could be another half-dozen years before the garages break even, The State newspaper reported earlier this week.

Judging from Innovista, USC’s idea of a public-private partnership would seem to be heavy on the public and very light on the private. On the Innovista website is a page titled “Public/Private Partnership.” It begins with the following: “Innovista would not be possible without the cooperation and contributions of a number of public and private entities”; and a list of 24 different bodies, organizations, companies or individuals.

All but three receive at least a portion of their funding from government, with some receiving all or nearly all funding from taxpayers. These include USC, the state of South Carolina and the S.C. Department of Commerce.

In addition, last month The State detailed USC’s disastrous partnership with Johnson Controls Inc. of Wisconsin in connection with a biomass-fueled power plant built on campus.

The story reported that some USC officials had privately complained that “the plant has been a $20 million disaster, a money pit that was poorly planned and built by a company that had never constructed such a cutting-edge ‘green energy’ power plant before.”

In short, if the Renaissance had been run in “public-private” partnership fashion favored by USC, the Western world might still be copying books by hand, suffering from famine on a regular basis and bearing witness to a whole lot more sculpture featuring gargoyles.

Meredith Cohen, an assistant professor in UCLA’s Department of Art History, says government did play a role in the Renaissance, but it wasn’t as simple as leaders writing checks with money collected from citizens for myriad economic development projects.

“The first major ‘Renaissance’ commission in Florence was by the government of Florence for a set of bronze doors for the public Baptistery (the one right in front of the cathedral),” she told The Nerve by email. “They set up a competition for the artists and Lorenzo Ghiberti, who is typically seen as the first Renaissance sculptor, won; his competitor, Filippo Brunelleschi, lost but went on to become one of the most important Renaissance architects.

“Florence was a republic, so the wealthy merchants participated in the government and helped to create legislation that fostered this kind of growth for Florence,” Cohen said. “Government played an important role commissioning public art at the same time as wealthy merchants did the same for their own personal enjoyment.

“People back then were both loyal and proud of their city-states and wanted theirs to be the best and most beautiful; this urban pride led to many of the commissions for public artwork in the city during the Renaissance,” she added.

In addition to the role families such as the Medicis played in the Renaissance, there were a variety of societal factors at play, as well, according to historians.

Among those was the Black Death, which struck Europe in the middle of the 14th century. The plague, which first hit around 1348, would wipe out one-third of Europe’s population. A resulting labor shortage caused wages to increase for survivors and their descendants. The remaining population was wealthier, better fed and had more disposable income to spend on luxury goods.

As the plague began to wane in the 15th century, demand for products and services helped create a growing class of bankers, merchants and skilled artisans. The Medicis, who created the largest bank in Europe, were among those who benefitted.

In addition, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the middle of the 15th century proved a mixed blessing, as Greek scholars and texts migrated to Italy, reintroducing a good deal of learning that had long been lost in the West.

Finally, famous 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, the author of two seminal works on the Italian Renaissance, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and The History of the Renaissance in Italy, saw in the epoch the emergence of the modern spirit of individuality.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.