The Renaissance: Medieval or Modern?

The Renaissance: Medieval or Modern?

The Renaissance: Medieval or Modern?

The Renaissance: Medieval or Modern?


IN 1860 in the introduction to his work on The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burckhardt predicted the present Problem of the Renaissance when he wrote "To each eye, perhaps, the outlines of a great civilization present a different picture. . . . In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead to essentially different conclusions."

To the writers of the Italian Renaissance itself, there was no serious problem. Their views of the age in which they were living furnished the basis for a long-held concept, namely, that after a period of about a thousand years of cultural darkness and ignorance, there arose a new age with a great revival in classical literature, learning, and the arts.

The humanists of the Northern Renaissance continued this concept. "Out of the thick Gothic right our eyes are opened to the glorious torch of the sun," wrote Rabelais. Moreover, there was also now introduced a reforming religious element, further emphasizing the medieval barbarization of religion and culture. Protestant writers joined in this condemnation of the dark medieval period, an attack little circumscribed by the defense of the medieval Church by Catholic apologists.

The system of classical education and the standards of classical art employed in the subsequent centuries meant a continuation of the concept established by the humanists. Indeed, the historical philosophy current in the Age of Reason, for purposes of its own, supported the earlier view. Rationalists like Voltaire, Condorcet, Boling- broke, and Hume saw nothing but barbarism, ignorance, superstition, violence, irrationality, and priestly tyranny in the period of Western history between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the modern era, the Renaissance. They also gave currency to the concept of the Italian Renaissance as a period of brilliant culture and irreligion.

It was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with the development of the intellectual revolution known as Romanticism, that a reaction took place. A new spirit led the Romanticists to see much in the past to understand and admire. There was a lively interest in historical growth and evolution, including that which took place in the Middle Ages. Human history was enthusiastically approached, the folk origins of art, language, literature, and music were patriotically idealized, and the irrational, the simple, and the emotional sympathetically sought out. The Age of Faith was discovered and peopled with chivalrous knights, beautiful ladies, pious clergy, and industrious peasants. The unity of medieval Christianity and the corporatism of medieval society was admired. Rescuing the Middle Ages from the oblivion to which the classicists and rationalists had relegated it, the Romantic writers found the Renaissance pagan, sensuous, villainous, and shocking -- yet attractive.

The astonishing growth of historical research in the nineteenth century produced a great number of works influenced by such varying movements as nationalism, liberalism, Romanticism, neo-classicism, and Hegelian philosophy. The spirit expressed in the art and humanism of the Renaissance received especial consideration. A tendency toward periodization is also characteristic. In the seventh volume (1855) . . .

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