On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

Synopsis

In recent decades, scholars have vigorously revised Jacob Burckhardt's notion that the free, untrammeled, and essentially modern Western individual emerged in Renaissance Italy. Douglas Biow does not deny the strong cultural and historical constraints that placed limits on identity formation in the early modern period. Still, as he contends in this witty, reflective, and generously illustrated book, the category of the individual was important and highly complex for a variety of men in this particular time and place, for both those who belonged to the elite and those who aspired to be part of it.

Biow explores the individual in light of early modern Italy's new patronage systems, educational programs, and work opportunities in the context of an increased investment in professionalization, the changing status of artisans and artists, and shifting attitudes about the ideology of work, fashion, and etiquette. He turns his attention to figures familiar (Benvenuto Cellini, Baldassare Castiglione, Niccolo Machiavelli, Jacopo Tintoretto, Giorgio Vasari) and somewhat less so (the surgeon-physician Leonardo Fioravanti, the metallurgist Vannoccio Biringuccio). One could excel as an individual, he demonstrates, by possessing an indefinable nescio quid, by acquiring, theorizing, and putting into practice a distinct body of professional knowledge, or by displaying the exclusively male adornment of impressively designed facial hair. Focusing on these and other matters, he reveals how we significantly impoverish our understanding of the past if we dismiss the notion of the individual from our narratives of the Italian and the broader European Renaissance.

Excerpt

This book reflects onthe importance of the notion of the individual in the Italian Renaissance, with an “individual” understood as someone with a mysterious, inimitable quality, a signature style, and/or a particular, identifying mode of addressing the world. More specifically, it examines how the notion of the individual was important for a variety of men in the Italian Renaissance, both men who belonged to the elite and those who aspired to be part of it, as a way of understanding, characterizing, and representing themselves and others, both “real” and “fictional” others. At the same time, this book explores the individual in light of the new patronage systems, educational programs, and work opportunities that had come into place and in the context of an increased investment in professionalization, the changing status of artisans and artists, shifting attitudes about the ideology of work, technological advances, the collecting habits of people with significant disposable incomes, new dominant fashions among men, an increased concern for etiquette, and the eventual rise of court culture in the sixteenth century. Moreover, scholars, beginning with the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt in his foundational essay The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, have not—this book shows—always adequately appreciated how complex and sometimes deliberately mystifying the notion of the individual in the period actually was. Nor have they always sufficiently recognized how that notion permeated simultaneously so many different areas of expertise, from the visual arts to the medical arts to the intellectual arts of the humanists, and how it pervaded so many different visual and verbal forms, from works of imaginative literature to treatises to paintings to fashion.

The overriding concern of this book, then, has been not to resuscitate in any form or manner a Burckhardtian view of the Renaissance individual. Rather, it has been to reconsider how valuable the notion of the individual was for some men who lived and worked in Renaissance Italy and, at the same time, to reassess the value of thinking about the notion of the individual in the period generally. This notion, it is important to emphasize from the outset, has largely, if not at times completely, fallen out of favor when we talk about identities in the period. And it has come under serious attack over the past few decades. A

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