I have a quandary. Sitting yesterday in the first of James Hankins’ Carlyle Lectures on Renaissance ‘republicanism’, it occurred to me that I should break my on-line silence and comment on them here. However, afterwards I was introduced to Prof. Hankins who mentioned that he read this blog. So, I write conscious that the lecturer might well find his lecture is played back to him.
It is certainly worth drawing your attention to this series. They are a significant event for the study of Renaissance humanism – in a country where such events are few and far between. In Britain, the studia humanitatis do not enjoy the level of interest that (as it seems to us here) they receive in the States. That is not to say there are not good scholars of humanism on this side of the Altantic – many of the best of them were in the room yesterday – but the study of the studia is something of a minority sport here. In the circumstances, the invitation of the Carlyle electors is both an unusual and an inspired choice. Unusual since, as James Hankins himself mentioned at the start of his lecture, this is only the second time the Lectures have been devoted to a Renaissance subject and the first series – Quentin Skinner on Machiavelli – could justly be said to be the exception that proves the rule. Inspired because there might be some hope that these lectures can help the fortunes of humanist studies in Britain. In that sense, the Lecturer has an extra burden on his shoulders: the demand on him is not just to provide a cogent set of talks that will persuade listeners of their thesis but also to persuade and inspire others to share a fascination in the subject. Not, of course, that I wish to place extra pressure on you, if you are reading this, Prof. Hankins.
For those of you who do know the prodigious output of James Hankins, the theme of these lectures will not altogether be a surprise. He comes, as it were, to lay to rest the ghosts of Hans Baron and of civic humanism. As an aside, I should remind us that Baron, one of those emigré scholar from Nazi Germany who enriched the intellectual life of the post-war Anglo-Saxon world, coined the concept of ‘civic humanism’, a terminology that has proved seductive to historians of disparate subjects, but he did not invent the analysis that lay beneath the term – the concept of the competitive spirit of a face-to-face society the political structure of which, by being non-monarchical, gives all citizens the liberty, and an equal chance, to succeed. There are late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century formulations of that identity of Renaissance Florence, to which I might return (if you are interested) another time. I mention this now to emphasise that Baron and civic humanism are not synonymous. Prof. Hankins has been writing nuanced critiques of Baron’s work for at least fifteen years now; his article in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1995 is a classic. The lecture series on which he has now embarked allows him a wider expanse through which to steer us as he presents an image of humanist political thinking more fitting for our own times.
The distance between Baron and Hankins is encapsulated in their different terminology. Baron, nostalgic for the Weimar Republic and revolted by its successor, talked openly of the distinction between ‘civic humanists’ and ‘tyrannical humanists’, the latter – like Pier Candido Decembrio or Guarino da Verona – being in the pay of princes and signori. Many scholars have expressed unease about such openly partisan phrasing (though ‘tyrants’ or ‘despots’ had received their own historical supporters in previous generations). Hankins’ preferred replacement is to talk of ‘oligarchical’ and ‘princely’ humanists, phrasing clearly intended to avoid us becoming dewy-eyed over the constitution of the Florence or actually believing the myth of Venice was anything other than a myth.
At the core of Hankins’ critique, and central to his discussion yesterday, was the unarguable point that the terminology of ‘res publica’ was rarely as republican (in our sense) as some would have it. The term ‘res publica’ could be neutral about the nature of the constitution or, as Guarino would have it, the ‘res publica’ could be saved by a prince from destruction by republican tyrants. It is a point that we also know from other periods – for instance, Patrick Collinson’s talk of Elizabethan ‘monarchical republicanism’ – but it has yet more significance in the complex politics of quattrocento Italy. In emphasising this insight, Prof. Hankins ended his lecture with the question of whether the variety of meanings of ‘res publica’ might mean we have to rethink the concept of civic humanism. With this Lecturer, we can second-guess the outline to the answer he will give to his own question.
But if we are familiar with the terrain which these lectures will cover, there is still the joy of discovery. On yesterday’s performance, they will be rich in fresh knowledge and in challenging perspectives. For instance, the name of Francesco Patrizi is often mentioned en passant as the sort of run-of-the-mill writer against whom Machiavelli responded. But what is not often recognised and is newly emphasised by Prof. Hankins is how popular, how frequently reprinted Patrizi’s two works De Institutione… were in the sixteenth century. This is clearly a text ripe for an edition in the I Tatti series overseen by Prof. Hankins – will his lectures inspire someone to take on that task?
So, wherever you are, make your way to the High Street in Oxford for each of the next five Thursdays and arrive at Schools for 5pm, for an hour of stimulation which, we can but hope, will persuade more to immerse themselves in the deliciae of humanist Latin.
And, finally, let me return to my opening paragraph. If, Prof. Hankins, you are indeed reading this, a thought may be ploughing a furrow on your brow. You might legitimately be wondering what I would have written if I had not imagined you would be a reader: how sincerely can you take my words? There, of course, we come to a central question the humanists had of themselves. Adept at shifting tone for different recipients and in writing, in one work, for more than one audience, they knew they lay themselves open to the charges of inconsistency and insincerity. When were they at liberty to write freely? Perhaps that is a question that is not irrelevant to your lectures.
I share with that simpatico scholar, John Law, a hobby of collecting signs of late modern British interest in the Renaissance. Littered in our nation’s churches, often autonomous or, if signed, by amateur female artists, are paintings, tapestries and other pieces which attempt to recreate the style of Renaissance art. Some can be quite accomplished, others much less so. As I singularly failed to send out Christmas cards this year, what follows is by way of a belated substitute, intended for John’s enjoyment.
A couple of months ago I visited the church of St Michael’s, Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire. It is one of those churches where nineteenth-century restoration has obscured much of its medieval character: for instance, it is clear that there was once a side chapel in what is now the south transept, since visible in the chancel is one end of a squint, through which the chapel celebrant would have been able to spy the high altar as mass was being performed. It is now blocked in and there is no sign of it from the transept. But what there is, on the west wall, is a small canvas, depicting the Madonna and Child.
This, as you can see, does not fall into the accomplished category; perhaps it is best that, in this instance, there is no evidence for its creator. There is no information in the church to enlighten us of its origins; to guess from its appearance, it is surely from the first half of the twentieth century. What interests me is that its arrangement of the main figures, with a standing red-head child Christ held by His blue-caped mother, suggests a familiarity with the treatments of that theme by Giovanni Bellini (as, for instance, in The Madonna of the Trees in the Accademia), a style which found an earlier northern imitator in Albrecht Durer. However, the gathering of the angels in the background around the two figures suggest that a major or additional influence might have been Andrea Mantegna’s painting of this subject, now in the Brera. If you, though, can think of any other source, I would be most grateful for advice.
What seems most likely, though, is that this painting, like some others I have seen, suggests an interest in Renaissance art which focuses not on the Florentine tradition but instead turns for inspiration to north-east Italy and to the Veneto. Let me cite just one other example: there is an imitation of Perugino’s Certosa Altarpiece (National Gallery, London) close to the Atlantic coastline in the church of St. Materiana, Tintagel; its artist is one of those women to whom I alluded above: her name is recorded as Miss Laura Dickinson. But, so that I do not create the impression that the art of Florence was entirely forgotten by these British imitators, I should add that the same church of Tintagel includes another painting by another woman artist (noted as ‘Miss Florence Cooper’) — it is a lunette depicting the Virgin breast-feeding, based on the image by Botticelli.
Finally, let me add another image, intended to remind us that it is not just in paint that modern imitations occur. The thirteenth-century church of North Moreton in south Oxfordshire includes a remarkable high altar, added in 1867. It is formed with two outsize marble slabs, one on each side of a central panel which is itself a mosaic, depicting the Crucifixion. Precisely which Renaissance depictions the creator of this altarpiece had in mind, I am not sure — Masaccio might provide the inspiration for the general layout (perhaps with a nod to Fra Angelico?), though the body of Christ might suggest the influence (once more) of Perugino. But I leave you with this image and, John, wish you all the best for a 2010 full of hunting for more remnants of Britain’s former love for the Renaissance.