Early Renaissance Man: Tristram Hunt Finds Inspiration for His Study of Civic Consciousness in Tuscany and the Lecture Halls of Cambridge

By Hunt, Tristram | History Today, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Early Renaissance Man: Tristram Hunt Finds Inspiration for His Study of Civic Consciousness in Tuscany and the Lecture Halls of Cambridge


Hunt, Tristram, History Today


PERHAPS it was the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View that did it for me. As a teenager I could think of little more romantic than eccentric Florentine pensiones, walks through the baking Fiesole countryside, and, of course, my very own Helena Bonham Carter. So aged seventeen, with some mediocre GCSEs behind me but with a growing interest in history, I headed off ad Tuscany with the proceeds of rive terrible weeks selling ice creams at Hamley's toy store.

Staying with a friend, who cruelly declined the role of Miss Honeychurch, we explored the Chiantishire countryside: long walks and siestas on hay bales, wine-tasting in Montepulciano, site-seeing at San Gimignano. But it was when we reached Siena that my mind moved from the temporal to the historical. Here was a city which immediately presented a very different mental universe. its tight, cloying streets, its incessant iconography, and its extraordinary civic spaces offered up a wholly novel notion of urban living. With Baedeker in hand, we affectedly scoured the Duomo, visited Santa Maria della Scala and rested in awe on the Piazza del Campo's earthen bricks.

Only towards the end of our day did we decide to visit the portentous-looking Palazzo Pubblico whose bell tower and sun dial had been beckoning in since our arrival. The palace's museum was at first rather disappointing with its bland paintings of nineteenth-century hunting scenes and portraits of unknown kings. Matters improved markedly when we encountered Simone

Martini's thunderous Maesta as well as his beguiling, if much disputed, Equestrian Portrait of Guidariccio da Fogliano. But then we entered the Sala della Pace and instantly encircling us was one of the great masterpieces of early Renaissance Italy, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegories of Good and Bad Government.

While I was drawn to the aesthetic sophistication of this fourteen-century cycle--with its elegant human portraiture (regard the declining figure of 'Pax'), its tactile consciousness and vivid depiction of medieval life (the working artisans; the 'dancing maidens')--what excited me was the myriad meanings which the picture contained. With its two opposing narratives of political rule, it constituted a cacophony of iconography which the guidebooks could do little to unpick. I knew it related ad the governance of Siena and served as a reminder to the commune's councillors of the effects of their duties. But why was the figure Prudentia seated on the right of 'Siena'; what was the crime of the prisoners being so closely guarded; who were the figures surrounding the symbol of bad government? And what did it all mean in terms of governing a Renaissance city state?

I returned ad Italy over the following two summers and each time retraced my steps to the Palazzo Pubblico where I sat and studied Lorenzetti's great work. New details began ad appear ad me and aspects of the iconography slowly seemed clearer as I researched the Renaissance and its history of art. But Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, and J.H. Plumb could only offer me so much. It was when 1 went up to read history at Cambridge that the mysteries of Lorenzetti were finally deciphered.

The Cambridge history faculty in the mid-1990s was awash with civic republicanism. Quentin Skinner, who had a global reputation for refashioning the history of ideas, chaired the faculty board and any student of ambition knew to attend his lectures on the history of political thought. Scheduled at 9am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they were hot for the faint-hearted. At 9.05 am he would enter with a flourish: a quick bon mot, a pirouette on the heel, and he was down to business.

An appreciation of rhetoric is at the intellectual core of much of Professor Skinner's scholarship and in the lecture room he transposed theory into practice. Studied pauses, well-placed cultural references, a dramatic turn of the page, and a string of rhetorical questions punctured his lectures. …

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