Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age

Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age

Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age

Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age

Synopsis

From Titian and Galileo to Catherine de' Medici and John Milton--Rabb tells the story of the Renaissance by examining the lives who lived it.

Excerpt

Here is an old Latin tag that was much beloved in the Renaissance: habent sua fata libelli -- books have their own destiny. This particular one started out as a colorful, glossy hardback adjunct to a Public Television series and vanished from the shelves soon after the reruns came to an end. But it has now had its own rebirth, courtesy of Basic Books, in more modest blackand-while paperback form. If it may still be of interest to general readers and useful to college students, it can thank the enduring appeal of biography, amidst more impersonal studies of history, as an entryway to an understanding of the past.

To suggest that a single human life can represent an age, or that a few individuals might distill a whole era, is to indulge in another of the favorite conceits of the Renaissance -- a fondness for the microcosm. Renaissance metaphors frequently relied on tangible and comprehensible models to stand for elusive wholes. Thus the complex workings of a kingdom or even the Christian Church might be summed up as a family, with head and members; as a body, with appropriate organs and limbs; or as a ship, with captain and oarsmen, smooth sailing or treacherous waters. There are pitfalls, to be sure, in such shorthand, and historians have to be particularly careful that their purpose is clear when, as often happens, they attach labels identified with one powerful person (such as Luther or Louis XIV) to periods as long as centuries. But the appeal of these encapsulations is enduring, and in the case of the emblematic life it is at least as old as Plutarch and Suetonius, in whose hands, nearly 2000 years ago, an Alcibiades or an Augustus could embody an Athens or a Rome.

Yet the justification for the pages that follow does not rest on long tradition alone. People are not passive receptacles, like ships or limbs. Nor . . .

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