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

By Douglas Biow | Go to book overview

NOTES

INTRODUCTION

1. Lodge 1984, 134.

2. Greenblatt 1980, 1986, 1988, 1990; Martin 1997, 2004. In all fairness, Martin’s study, with which I feel a great affinity, is not at all the same as Greenblatt’s. Martin is a religious, cultural, and social historian who draws on extensive archival research; Greenblatt is a literary and cultural scholar who draws on the work of historians but is ultimately a close reader of texts, informed as those eloquent readings are by a variety of critical theories. And Martin takes aim at Greenblatt throughout his book, calling Greenblatt’s assumptions and historical methodology into question, while recognizing the importance of what Greenblatt has done and the value of his scholarship for historians generally. But, and this is the key issue for me, both Greenblatt and Martin, albeit in strikingly different ways, do away with the notion of the “individual” when talking about the period. Martin, who cogently prefers to talk about “selves” (porous selves, layered selves, a whole variety of selves), drives this point home quite personally at the very outset of his book when he writes about Veronese and his conflict with the Inquisition. At first glance, Martin observes, everything about Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi (originally designed as a “Last Supper”) strikes him as the product of an individual, until he looks closely at the historical context and then—poof—the individual, designated as such, effectively disappears from consideration as the producer of his remarkable, alluring work, even as Martin investigates issues throughout related to the interior self. Or, as Martin puts it emphatically at one point as he turns away from the concept of the individual to talk instead about “selves,” “identity was not about individuality but rather explicitly about the problem of the relation of one’s inner experience to one’s experience in the world” (2004, 15)—a point reiterated at the very end of the book: “notions of individuality and individualism were not … part of the basic vocabulary of the Renaissance” (131). By contrast, my aim is to restore that individual, designated as an “individual,” back into our discussion, to keep the individual—Veronese, say—from disappearing from our purview as we become sensitized to all the contextualizing historical constraints within which a particular person—again Veronese, say—operated. Needless to say, Burckhardt’s seminal, but much contested, discussion of “individualism”—or, more precisely, the “individual”—appears in the second chapter of his landmark The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

3. I am thinking, for instance, of Weissman 1989 and Wojciehowski 2011. The number of studies that have embraced the notion that the self is a cultural construct in one form or another in the Italian Renaissance, and the European Renaissance generally, is by now legion. I find myself in much sympathy with Davis 1986 and Burke 1997.

4. On Burckhardt’s profound pessimism and disenchantment with the notion of the “individual” in his own time, which he roots back in the Italian Renaissance (and to a degree even ancient Greece, for that matter), see Gossman 1994 and 2000, as well as Murray’s

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