Last month I received notice of a conference which I am sure proved stimulating but which I could not attend as I was then in Rome. What caught my attention, however, were the first words of the promotional e-mail:
While Renaissance and Early Modern Studies are focused on the two and a half centuries between 1500 and 1750,…
I must admit that it took me some time to move beyond that comma. Has the Renaissance that I study been abolished? Have we returned to calling Piero della Francesca or Andrea Mantegna ‘Primitives’ and now see art beginning only with Michelangelo and his followers? Since I have been away, has it been decided that humanism now starts only with Filippo Beroaldo the Younger and leaves out the generations of Leonardo Bruni and Pomponius Laetus? More to the point: what Renaissance after 1500? From where I am standing, it is mostly over, bar the shouting (between back-biting editors) – and that soon turned into the burnings of the Reformation. What brave new world is this?
When I explain my work, I sometimes describe my area of study as that part of the Middle Ages that we call the Renaissance. I do not say it because I believe in the essence of the ‘medieval’ any more than I have faith in the existence of ‘modernity’ but rather because most of the achievements we would recognise as ‘Renaissance’ – think of Brunelleschi’s dome capping Florence’s cathedral, Alberti’s design for the Palazzo Rucellai, Donatello’s statues of David, the art of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Lippi father and son, the new classicising Latin of Bruni or Poggio, the reform of manuscripts begun in the same circle, the establishment of libraries from San Marco in Florence to the Malatestiana in Cesena and the papal library in Rome, the philological work of Lorenzo Valla or Politian, the teaching of Guarino or Vittorino da Feltre the first sales from the Aldine press – fall within the fifteenth century. And that century, as we know, sits in most faculty corridors or on bookshop shelves within that millennium of civilisation that follows the Fall of Rome. Such distinctions necessarily simplify – we might not now believe Italian creativity dies with the invasions from 1494, or even with the re-born Sack of Rome in 1527 – but we might wonder how long into the sixteenth century lasts that cycle of fashions and their fruitful combination that marked the quattrocento.
I will be accused of being obtuse: the term ‘Renaissance’ is surely being used with the meaning of ‘cultural flowering’ which sprouts in many parts of Christendom. But is such ‘flowering’ solely the province of the sixteenth century? Could not late medieval England boast of its tre corone – Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate – and celebrate the architecture of the likes of Richard Winchcombe, or the artistry of Nottingham alabasters? Would not Castile look earlier to the vernacular achievements of its three cultures in the time of Alfonso X? And, in the fifteenth century, the would-be nation of Burgundy has been described as having in its heyday its own Renaissance, and one which with its skill in oil paintings and tapestry found buyers in Italy. In Italy itself, why talk of creativity only in quattrocento or cinquecento terms: are Giotto, the Cosmati family, Pietro Cavallini, Dante and Mussato all to be forgotten? It does not seem obvious to me that these was unprecedented creativity that marks out the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – new markets, following the economic reorganisation created by the Black Death, and new technologies, most notably in print, certainly, but not necessarily new genius after a winter (or an autumn) of cultural decay.
Of course, it may be then said, the ‘Renaissance’ was a particular type of cultural flowering which began in Italy and slowly oozed out of the peninsula, eventually to stain all of Europe (meaning, most often, western Europe and paying less heed to culture in, say, Krakow or Buda). This is a claim with a long tradition – the Italian humanists themselves, like Polydore Vergil, liked to talk of the translatio studii which had transferred learning from their homeland to whichever country they were then visiting (following in the footsteps, it must be said, of earlier humanists). There was certainly an export of a type of education then becoming popular in Italy and eventually giving its name to humanism; that export was made possible, in large part, by the creation of a trade in printed books. Yet, was there really a similar combination of artistic fashions with interplay between them in Shakespeare’s London, say, as there had been in early Medici Florence or in the papal city of Nicholas V and Sixtus IV? Even if the answer to that was ‘yes’, the question would then be how much that particular cultural flowering – the Shakespearean moment, one episode in many – directly owed to the earlier activities in those Italian cities? Do we use the term ‘Renaissance’ more by analogy than by association?
Ah, says the early modernist, that is the point: our Renaissance need not be the young relative in the shadow of your quattrocento events; it is its own man. So be it: use the term as you choose. But, if it is to have a specific relevance to a particular part of one vernacular tradition, it cannot simultaneously be employed in some general sweeping definition, that can encompass all of the cultural activity of the sixteenth century or (even more incongruously) later. Hispanists perhaps are more fortunate: they can talk of their literary ‘Golden Age’ without straining to define it in unavoidably Italianate terms. Perhaps other nations need a similar separation. For late sixteenth-century England, then, who would like to invent a term?
When was the Renaissance? It is an old question which came to mind as I was walking around the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood House last week. The temporary exhibition ‘The Art of Italy: the Renaissance‘, is one half of a larger show of works from the Royal Collection, previously presented in London, where it also covered the Baroque. In the smaller but elegant space available in Edinburgh, the display allows us to muse on some memorable paintings, as well as drawings and a very few books. What struck me was that nearly all the items are datable to the sixteenth century: they include well-known portraits by Parmigianino, Agnolo Bronzino and Lorenzo Lotto, as well as more enigmatic images by Titian and Lodovico Pozzoserrato (whose Italianised name hides his Netherlandish identity); the oldest work was a copy of the masterpiece published by Aldus Manutius from his Venetian press in 1499, the illustrated Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Where, I wondered, was the Renaissance of the quattrocento, the fifteenth century, that is home to me?
It is not as if the Royal Collection lacks art from fifteenth century Italy. I remember, about fifteen years ago now, having, in effect, a private view of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar at Hampton Court – they had, at that point, been removed from the public rooms, but, being a pushy student, I asked to see them. It was a memorable half hour in front of images remarkable for their classicising style and sheer magnitude, with an equally interesting history to tell as one of the purchases of Charles I from the sale of the Gonzaga treasures. Perhaps the Mantegna are considered too frail to travel for exhibitions, but there are other quattrocento works available as well in the Royal Collection. The Queen can feast her eyes on a work by Benozzo Gozzoli, best known for his lively frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. Up the road and to the right from there, the convent of San Marco hides within its tranquil, contemplative walls the work of Fra Angelico, also represented among Her Majesty’s artworks. The exhibition could also have branched out into ceramics and included the bust by Guido Mazzoni of a laughing child, owned by Henry VII as one of the first Italian Renaissance items in the English royal collection. But all were absent, leaving out at least a century of what I would consider Renaissance art.
The Royal Collection’s decision implicitly to define the Renaissance as sixteenth century is in many ways a return to an old fashion. Many would now use the terms High Renaissance and (though highly problematic) Mannerist to describe the trends in art of the generations of Michelangelo and his followers. But, to the nineteenth century, this is where it truly was: the art of the quattrocento – Masolino and Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna himself – constituted ‘the Primitives’, before the grace and supposed perfection of the early cinquecento so influentially by Vasari. Few, however, would consider that we should return to those designations or that periodisation.
The real question, of course, is whether it matters. After all, the Royal Collection have provided a pleasurable exhibition which fits into the space available. In many ways, it does not matter or, rather, should not – but there are two current issues which do give it some import. In the first place, it relates to the academic division between ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’, which, in history departments tends to fall around the year 1500. As someone who studies both sides of that divide and who sometimes describes himself an expert in that part of the Middle Ages called the Renaissance, this is one more example of a tendency which reinforces an unfortunate separation which we should be working instead to undermine.
This, though, is about more than the relatively unimportant matter of how academic departments choose to organise themselves. What is also at stake is how we perceive historical ‘progress.’ There are surely few, if any, historians who would admit to believing that there was some definable shift from ‘medieval’ to ‘early modern’, a moment or simple process moving from one era of society to another. The passage from past to present is more complex, and much less about a linear vector of development, than that would suggest. But I would want to take this further and to warn against making too close an association between different cultural ‘movements’ or phenomena. Historiography can provide many ‘Renaissances’, particularly clustered in the sixteenth century but – as the case of Italy shows – not confined to that time-period. In popular textbooks, the impression can be given that those Renaissances, usually defined by country, share an identity, as if it were a baton-race from nation to nation. It is wise to be aware of the evident links between these phenomena, but all the more essential to appreciate the disconnections and the distance between them. In the end, we can use the concept as we wish, either confining our own use to the sixteenth century or allowing to range from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries in chosen contexts – just as long as we recognise we are always constructing ‘Renaissances’ for ourselves rather than expressing some ineffable reality.
In short, it is tidier to have a Renaissance confined to the sixteenth century and certainly less complicated to imagine it was a single phenomenon which manifested itself across Europe. But, in this case, I am on the side of messiness.