The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance

By David Rundle | Go to book overview
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Grand claims have been made for what we have come to call 'the Renaissance.' It was, in many accounts, a thorough-going modernizing movement, when Europeans rediscovered their past and simultaneously found their own individuality: it was, as it were, the age when civilization progressed from monochrome to technicolour. But, defined like this, the Renaissance is an urbane myth. The mélange of cultural changes which occurred over the 15th and 16th centuries can not be reduced to a single term; nor are those centuries reducible to just those changes. The conventional interpretation of 'the Renaissance' underestimates the complexity -- and the excitement -- of two hundred years of European history.

If the Renaissance has been cursed by exaggeration, that is appropriate enough: grandiloquent assertions were the métier of eloquent writers from Petrarch to Giorgio Vasari. Several scholars defined themselves in relation to a classical past, although that past was itself often ill-defined. While some authors emphasized how their modern world failed to live up to the glories of ancient civilization, others declared that they were in the business of reviving Roman or Greek culture. In the process, they also claimed they were reacting against barbarism, which could mean either other people -- early Italian humanists were fond of depicting the far-away English as the quintessential barbarians -- or previous generations, thus creating the Middle Ages. It hardly mattered where they found barbarism darkly lurking; these scholars' self- appointed task was to eradicate it in their own particular area of interest. Modesty was not the virtue most in evidence in these claims: their exponents oscillated between self-importance and self-congratulation. The first use of the idea of recreating classical culture applied specifically to Latin literature; the tradition of Florentine letters begun by Petrarch emphasized the overwhelming importance of their enterprise -- although their detractors sometimes wondered whether a fascination with the niceties of syntax and orthography was anything more than pedantry. A couple of centuries after Petrarch, Giorgio Vasari created a grand sweep of art history, describing how classical art had been gradually revived by generations of Italians (in particular by Vasari's fellow Florentines), culminating in Vasari's own generation. Such descriptions were more about marking out one's position in posterity than about dispassionate analysis of recent history. Yet, subsequent scholars have sometimes treated these claims with a naive faith they do not deserve: even the most self-confident humanist might be surprised to realise how persuasive his arrogant rhetoric has proved to be.

Scholars and artists were given to announcing their activities as great transformations to ensure their voices would be heard. They needed to shout loudly because the avant-garde was consistently in the minority. In the early 15th century, for example, the humanists were small coteries of scholars in various Italian cities. They never defined themselves clearly as 'humanists' -- what they shared was a devotion to what some called studia humanitatis, by which they meant, in effect, ancient Roman literature and its lessons. However, even between the various coteries, there was not a shared agenda. The circle in Florence, centred on leonardo Bruni, saw the translation of Greek works into a readable, Ciceronian Latin as one of their main tasks; others, like Pier Candido Decembrio in Milan, questioned whether Aristotle or Plato should be rendered into so different an idiom. Still others, like the north-eastern teacher Gasparino Barzizza, concentrated their attention not on Greek but on Latin texts. Yet others, often based in Rome, turned the new style of Latin writing to the service of patristic studies -- a vogue also championed by Bruni's Florentine colleague, Ambrogio Traversari. Again, different groups of humanists drew contrasting lessons from the reading: Bruni might use his classical rhetoric in praise of the active life in a republic like Florence; others, like Guarino da Verona, at the d'Este court of Ferrara, thought the classics taught the preferability of living under a monarchy.

If these were the contrasting, competing interests of the early quattrocento avant-garde, some of these


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