Will the real Renaissance please stand up?
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?