Mention to an English-speaking Renaissance scholar the name of Middlemore and you are assured at least a flicker of recognition. Many – if not without some brain-wracking – will identify him as the translator of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Some might be able to provide his initials but few could add further details. It has recently been noted on-line that little information about him is easily available. The only recent, brief discussion is by Ben Kohl in a valuable essay which sadly appeared only after his own death in the important collection edited by John Law and Bernadette Paton, Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. As will be seen, Kohl’s brief discussion can be supplemented and corrected in certain respects. Beyond his paragraphs, there is a notable silence : S. G. C. Middlemore does not gain an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or in the on-line Dictionary of Art Historians, or on the encyclopaedia du jour, Wikipedia – as yet. The man who introduced the Anglophone world to Burckhardt’s ‘essay’ – a foundational work that society is still struggling to forget – surely deserves more attention: it is through his eyes that Burckhardt’s vision is reflected for the crowd of scholars who first encountered Civilization in translation as an undergraduate and who have not later felt the need to compare it to the other versions, either in the original German or (for instance) in Italian, that exist. I myself have done that only briefly, in preparation for a paper given five years ago at a symposium organised by Oren Margolis in celebration of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Burckhardt’s work. One outcome of that event was a recognition of how personal Middlemore’s choices as a translator were – where ‘personal’ might be, at times, a euphemism for ‘misleading’. This is a point Kohl also makes in his article, and our appreciation of this essential insight should make us all the more interested in knowing the man who has shaped for so many scholars their understanding of Burckhardt and, thus, of ‘the Renaissance’.
We might add to this the remarkable fact that the sole English translation of Civilization was published in 1878 when Middlemore was only thirty, and also throw in the nugget that it was not his only foray into Renaissance studies, for he wrote a short survey, The Great Age of Italian Painting, which appeared in print in the last days of 1889 – weeks before Middlemore’s early death. This, I hope, will be sufficient to persuade you that a brief rehearsal of his biography is a worthwhile addition to the treasure-trove of information which is the internet. I will admit, at once, that what follows is a work-in-progress, based to date on ‘soft’ research, drawn partly from what is available on-line but more substantially from a single printed source, the privately printed Some Account of the Family of Middlemore of Warwickshire and Worcestershire of 1901, by W. P. W. Phillimore assisted by W. F. Carter. This work is the origin of the synopses provided by the Visitation of England and Wales, vol. viii (it is to this that Kohl refers) and by the Biographical Register of Christ’s College [Cambridge], with both having some omissions and minor errors. I have supplemented this information with my own reading of Middlemore’s Great Age.
Samuel George Chetwynd Middlemore was born on 16th November 1848 into a large Birmingham family. His father, William (1802-87), inherited and directed the saddlers’ company of Middlemores on which the family’s wealth was based. He was also a Baptist, a philanthropist and a Liberal city councillor. One of Samuel’s elder brothers, John Throgmorton Middlemore (1844-1924), followed his father into politics, though in loyalty to Birmingham’s mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, when he entered Parliament in 1899, it was as a Liberal Unionist. Of Samuel’s own politics I am not yet aware but, as we will see, in religion he moved away from his family’s non-conformist commitment.
Samuel, like John, was educated at Edgbaston Proprietary School. In October 1866, he went up to Merton, Oxford, but his higher education was to be dogged by illness. It seems that he spent only a few terms in Oxford and, presumably for health reasons, travelled to the Continent and became an educational tourist: he attended Heidelberg, Zürich and Dresden, and would later mentioned in The Great Age hearing lectures from ‘one of the most eminent living specialists in historical studies in Germany’ on universal history. It is not clear whether during this trip he either ventured further south into Italy or came to know the work of Jacob Burckhardt. He returned to England and matriculated at Christ’s, Cambridge in early 1871; he was elected to a scholarship the following year but, in September 1873, again left university due to ill health. ‘Thenceforward his life was spent in literature and travel’, according to Phillimore’s Account. ‘He had a perfect knowledge of German and Italian, spoke and wrote French fluently, and had a fair literary knowledge of Spanish, besides being acquainted with some of the Swiss and Italian patois’.
It was in the following years that Middlemore came to work on Burckhardt’s Civilization. It was on 20th December 1875 that he wrote, in German and from Birmingham, to ‘Herr Professor’, expressing his hope that Burckhardt would give his blessing to an English translation. The work, as is well known, appeared three years later, published in two volumes by Kegan Paul, who described it as an ‘authorised translation’. Around this time, Middlemore seems to have moved to London: he was a correspondent for The Saturday Review and became a member of the Savile Club. One of his acquaintances was Robert Louis Stevenson who, as a play on his initials, nicknamed him Sagacity Middlemore, saying ‘it suits his type, his eye, his character’.
I do not yet know where or when Middlemore met his future wife – it was in Florence on 18 April 1881 that he married Maria Trinidad Howard Sturgis (known as Nina, to her friend Emma Lazarus). She had been born in the Philippines on 26 July 1846, the daughter of the American consul there. Like her husband, she was a traveller and an author, translating from Spanish Round a Posada Fire (1883), Spanish Legendary Tales (1885) and Songs of the Pyrenees (1887). She was Roman Catholic and Samuel entered the communion, in London, in December 1886; soon after, they moved to Malvern and a house called ‘Sunnyside’. Their move may partly have been encouraged by the opening of the town’s School of Art where Samuel was to give the lectures which formed the basis of The Great Age of Italian Painting. The preface of that book is dated ‘November 1889’ but soon after the author was, once again, back in Italy. Whether he travelled ill and in the hope of recovery or was taken sick in Rome is unclear, but on 27th January 1890, he died of pneumonia at the Hotel Bristol. His wife, back in Malvern, was not to be a widow for long: on 11th February 1890 she too died. It is a sad end to our tale.
There is, patently, more to be discovered. As yet, I do not know what happened to Middlemore’s library, let alone his letters or papers – and I would, of course, welcome any information. I certainly wish to consider more the light his lectures shed on his reading of Burckhardt and on his knowledge of Italian art. There is (to confine myself for now to a single comment) a story to be told about how his interest in the German’s works – both the Cicerone and Civilization – was part of an English reaction against the fashions promoted by the pre-Raphaelites. On that, more another time and in another place.
What would Geoffrey Elton’s reaction have been to Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? He most likely would have treated them with the disdain of professorial silence – even in his most rabid character-assassination of Thomas More, he was able to avoid mentioning A Man for All Seasons, though the success of Robert Bolt’s play surely rankled with him. But if, as we are dealing with fiction anyway, we are allowed to imagine for a moment a meeting between the don and the novelist, I do wonder what they would have had to say to each other. Mantel takes up the challenge of making Cromwell a sympathetic figure but what she provides is hardly The Tudor Revolution in Government: the novel (the cruel could say there is already enough fantasy in Elton’s thesis). Her Cromwell is rarely seen working as a bureaucrat – a master of detail, certainly, someone who can sense how to use the inner workings of the machine for grander political ends – but the genius with which she endows her character is a heightened ability to read humanity. And the human was hardly central to Elton’s histories; for him, the march of civilization was surely greater than any detail of an individual. He felt no need for a biography of his hero, let alone story-telling about him. Before, though, he emits a gruff snort and walks away from Ms Mantel, perhaps she would have a chance to explain her deeper agenda: Wolf Hall (in particular) is not only about an imaginative creation of Henrician politics; submerged beneath that, there is struggle in which Mantel pits Cromwell against More and in which what is at stake is modernity and Englishness. Perhaps, if she had chance to explain that, a smile would have curled Elton’s whiskers.
Mantel’s concept of modernity is revealed by a minor factual slip. In the days after his wife’s demise (in the narrative of Wolf Hall, it is elided with the later deaths of his daughters), so, in 1527, Cromwell ‘has got Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, Principalities; it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands’ [p. 105] – which is impressive, considering that Il Principe was, in the year of Machiavelli’s own death, not yet printed, let alone in a Latin translation. The first printed edition was that of Filippo Giunti in Florence in 1532; Silvestro Teglio’s Latin version did not appear until a couple of decades after Cromwell’s death. The text certainly did circulate in manuscript in Machiavelli’s own lifetime, so we might say that Mantel’s error is a matter of detail, of no consequence to her larger tale. It seems to me, though, that her determination that her hero should know Machiavelli’s most notorious work – not just at this point but also later in the first novel [pp. 488, 501] – is revealing of her construction of her hero. We might infer that her sense of Machiavelli is like that of Burckhardt: a man without hypocrisy who describes things as they really were, stripped of all comfortable pretence. And her Cromwell is a man in his image; a worldly man, who returns to old England a foreigner, enriched by his experience and by his brush with the modernity that is the Renaissance. There is something yet more Burckhardtian about Mantel’s Cromwell, at least in Wolf Hall: he is not just acquainted with new thinking – be it Machiavelli or Luca Pacioli [pp. 363-4] – but he is himself so endlessly inventive, it reminds me of the visual gag in the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the main characters are repeatedly seen accidentally inventing Leonardesque machines. Cromwell has something of the l’uomo universale, the man not many-sided but all-sided who, for Burckhardt, epitomises the Renaissance.
So, this Machiavellian, Leonardian Cromwell returns to the land of his birth; he has seen the future and he lurks in the shadows until he can impose it on his unwilling, ungrateful countrymen. A future defined by the Renaissance and, of course, the Reformation. Cromwell is not just ready to question tradition, he is determined to stamp on its face. There he stands pitted against Thomas More, depicted by Mantel as a man so ensnared in his conservatism that he cannot tolerate modernity. By some paradoxical twist, that cosmopolitan scholar becomes a parochial stick-in-the-mud, suspicious of Cromwell’s well-travelled career: ‘you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions’ [p. 567]. Except, of course, for Mantel, Cromwell is also the future of Englishness – a new England (for ‘England is always remaking itself’ [p. 649]), modernised by being receptive to foreign ideas. That sounds encouragingly liberal: the low-born Cromwell takes on privilege and established power and shakes it to the foundations. In the process, let us remember, he helps destroys the fabric of a church that he sees as corrupt. If we were to look for a modern parallel for Mantel’s Cromwell and think of an outsider who used every wile to challenge tradition and to break the accepted way of doing things, then the closest may be Margaret Thatcher.
Mantel, of course, would hate that, her bête noire morphing into her hero in the black cloak. Perhaps she would not recognise such parallels and, even if we can find them, perhaps they do not matter – after all, these are only novels. Except that they are not: they have somehow become a cultural phenomenon. I am not sure how that has happened: I still am perplexed at the decision to have a painting of Hilary Mantel at the top of the stairs to the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. How has she become such a household name? Has she filled a gap left by the end of J. K. Rowling’s time as favourite author? If so, it still cannot explain the hyperbole by which Mantel has taken on the mantle of being ‘our greatest living novelist’ – even ‘our’ most accomplished historical novelist might be excessive (Robert Harris provides strong competition). However, though, it has come about, the cult of Mantel and, in particular, of her Cromwellian novels, demands further questions: are they so loved simply for their evocation of character and context? Or is their attraction deeper and is there an affinity with its projection of ‘Englishness’?
This is where, finally, we come to the television adaptation of the novels which began this week. I will admit that I am in the lonely position of not yet being a fan. There are some fine actors in the production but I cannot help thinking there is serious miscasting: it is always good to have Jonathan Pryce on screen but he has nothing of the smooth-skinned corpulence needed for Wolsey – like Shakespeare’s Cassius, Pryce is a lean man; I would he was fatter. Yet more of a problem is that Mark Rylance simply looks too old to be Cromwell in his late thirties and early forties – the actor is the age now that Cromwell was when his head parted from his body and, even given the changes in aging, he looks too world-weary. This, though, is a small difficulty alongside the greater problems of transferring novels with so much internal monologue into an ensemble performance in which the eyes are on Cromwell rather than our seeing the world through his eyes. What surprised me most was that writing which can be so visual seemed not to survive the move from page to screen. Many of the scenes and the words are there, but not the aura of the work. The dull palette used – presumably in conscious contrast to The Tudors – created an ambience which, at worst, was lacklustre or, at best, homely. And it is that homeliness that concerns me most.
The homely is unthreatening. So, we are invited to view a ‘Tudor world’ as we know it or, rather, as we would like it to be. For instance, I was struck by how classless the society was – social gradation seemed to have disappeared both in the interactions and the interiors. There was little sense (as there is in the novels) of the heavy distaste for a man of such lowly birth as Cromwell’s; there was limited hauteur in a Norfolk or, indeed, the king. Meanwhile, the buildings which were home to Cromwell – still, at this point a lawyer in Wolsey’s service – seemed to lack none of the late-medieval conveniences afforded to the higher born and bettered housed. This is a world which has been domesticated for us so that it is tame, familiar and quintessentially English. Wolf Hall, in other words, as heritage product – ‘our’ great novel depicting ‘our’ Tudor forefathers. The battle of conceptions of Englishness that drives Mantel’s telling of the tale is wiped away by television’s evocation of a world we think is ours. But if the battle has gone, who won it? The arch-modernisers like Mantel’s Cromwell, full of dangerous and destructive if revivifying new ideas, or something more traditional? Is this Henrician politics showing how we can break the mould or is the BBC offering us a vision of how we should be happy to be moulded by ‘our’ inheritance? Is, by some convoluted route undertaken in the process of move from book to programme, Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation, a sort of revenge for the conservative, that is, for Mantel’s Thomas More? Cromwell’s on the box but is he also back in his box?
Can there be a less appropriate cover for Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy than this?
Admittedly, if this was an awards category, there would be stiff competition. There is, for instance, the image advertising an e-book version that seems to have mistaken Burckhardt for Huizinga: Or there is the 2003 edition which appears to have read the first pages, where the ‘despots of the fourteenth century’ (in the English translation – the noun in German is ‘Herricher’) are discussed, and (perhaps assuming the rest would be similar) thought a detail from the Lorenzetti brothers’ mid-trecento frescoes on good and bad government for the Republic of Siena might be the thing:
Any anachronism here pales besides that perpetrated by the audio book that I am promoting as the prize-winner. Perhaps the designer thought an image of Venus rising from the waves – any image – would fit, forgetful of Burckhardt’s claim that what made humanism was the revival of antiquity combined with ‘the genius of the Italian people’. Or perhaps a tyro assistant was sent off to find ‘you know, that birth of Venus picture’ and on a quick search found William Bouguereau’s painting. Never mind that it was produced in 1879, nineteen years after Burckhardt’s ‘essay’ was published, and a year later than the translation – still standard – by Samuel G. C. Middlemore (on whom, more another time).
Of course, it might be suggested that there is a deeper truth, in that the image demonstrates a nineteenth-century classicising tradition which so clearly reached back to the fifteenth century. Perhaps it could be defended by saying that to use the painting which Bouguereau so clearly could not shake from his mind would have been too obvious – though that has not stopped other cover-designers.
As Botticelli’s painting was iconic for the nineteenth century, so has it been in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, from Warhol to Lady Gaga (there is a useful gallery of its reuses on-line, to which so many could be added, like Marvin Bartley’s Jamaican re-imagining, to name just one). It stands for successive generations as the epitome of the Renaissance celebration of beauty and of love: what, then, could be more appropriate for Burckhardt’s volume? There is, however, an inconvenient fact: Burckhardt himself never mentions this painting; indeed, in his text, he does not mention once Sandro Botticelli. For Burckhardt, the artist of ‘The Birth of Venus’ and the ‘Primavera’ played a less substantial role than he did for his contemporaries like Bouguereau. In other words, a cover like this – and there are several others which take a work of Botticelli’s to conjure up Civilization‘s subject – projects onto the ‘classic’ work rather different constructions of the Renaissance, however distant they may be from Burckhardt’s conception.
Nor, on this count, is Botticelli the only inappropriate reference-point. For British audiences, the best-known cover of the work is probably that on the Penguin Classic:
The procession of richly dressed figures might seem to capture the extravagance of the Renaissance, and to be particularly apt when we remember this fresco of Bennozzo Gozzoli is in the chapel of the Medici family palace in Florence. What is more, the designer has taken a section from the cycle which includes the figure of the artist himself waving at the viewer – a symbol, if you want, of the painter’s individualism. Yet, this work too does not register in Burckhardt’s text and both in this case and with Botticelli, the absence was not an accidental oversight. Neither artist was central to the Swiss historian’s encapsulation of what he saw to be the Renaissance, that paradoxical, Janus-faced movement which, in his depiction, has its heyday after Gozzoli was dead and Botticelli an old man – in the early sixteenth century, with the achievements of Leonardo and Michelangelo, each an embodiement of the ‘many-sided man’ whom Burckhardt celebrates as the apogee of Renaissance achievement.
This is to say that when The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is dressed up in any of the covers that we have seen, it comes in disguise. It gives a sense of what ‘speaks’ to the designer and the publisher of the Renaissance or of artistic achievement more generally, but there is little dialogue with the work of Burckhardt itself. Civilization certainly gave Europe a distorted, mis-shapen Renaissance, so maybe there is some justice in it being distorted itself in its many reprints, e-books and audio versions. The worry, however, is that it is not being done consciously and that there is a failure to recognise how different ‘our Renaissance’ is from his. Is the distance so great, in fact, that it is impossible for a publisher now to provide a cover which is appropriate to the work?
I am not in the habit of shouting at the television. In part, that is because I am not much of a TV-watcher: until my then partner, now wife, moved in, there was no box in the house. When I do sit in front of it, the programmes on offer are usually not the sort to arouse violent reactions: I find it hard to get angry with Inspector Montablano. But a documentary has had me not just emitting expletives in a raised voice but also searching for suitable objects or pets to throw at the screen (lucky, then, that there are no animals in the house). The programme was the BBC’s ‘flag-ship’ arts phenomenon, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, presented by James Fox – not the actor but brother of Edward Fox, but ‘Dr James Fox’ (nowadays those who have written a dissertation can only appear on TV accompanied by the title, as if it were a mark of their trustworthiness in all matters).
I did not come to the programme cold: already this week I was put in training for the new sport of yelling in frustration and ire at the small screen. I had caught a few moments of another offering from the BBC, its ‘How to Get Ahead, at Renaissance Court’ – clever title, pity about the content. When I joined it, the presenter, Stephen Smith, was standing in the cortile of Florence’s Bargello, in front of Cellini’s bust of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, with its all’antica armour and ducal features finely realised in metal. Smith explains, however, that the Duke hated it because it presented him as a medieval prince while – cut to the Uffizi, with Smith next to Bronzino’s portrait of the Duke in armour – this is how he wanted to be presented, as a Renaissance prince. Smith went on to explain ‘Renaissance’ by evoking (in not so many words) Castigilione’s idea of sprezzatura but by then I had bawled at the screen and scrambled for the remote control. It was not simply that it had been assumed that two objects could encapsulate the contrast between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ – it was the very presence of that discredited dichotomy, expressed with no reservation or recognition of its problematic nature, that made choice words fall unbidden from my lips.
I must admit I did expect ‘A Very British Renaissance’ to give me more opportunities to put my lung capacity through its paces. My prediction that the fifteenth-century Renaissance elements about which I write would be entirely absent quickly proved true. The Renaissance arrived, apparently, in 1507, when Pietro Torrigiano set foot on English soil (or mud, the dominant metaphor for ‘medieval’ Britain in this programme). No time, then, for Poggio Bracciolini or Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, or for the likes of Pietro Carmeliano, secretary and scribe to Henry VII. Indeed, according to the presenter, while ‘the Renaissance had been raging in Italy for two hundred years … here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever’. As you might imagine, at this point in the programme, rage was not confined to trecento and quattrocento Italy. The reason given for this laggardly showing? There had been so much in-fighting that Britain ‘hadn’t had time for a Renaissance’ – not (Dr Fox might have mentioned) that the struggles for power in Florence or the rivalry with Milan or between Milan and Venice had put a brake on ‘the Renaissance’. Neither, having been softened up by Mr Smith’s performance earlier in the week, did the recourse to the simplistic medieval / Renaissance division catch me completely off guard. So, we had Nicholas Kratzer with his ‘formidable mind – a genuinely Renaissance mind’, since he was interested in scientific observation. Likewise, we had his friend Hans Holbein, over whose drawings at Windsor Fox rhapsodised in eloquent fashion, introducing his peroration with ‘I think they’re even more important’ – it was part of the style of the programme that when a point required emphasis it was introduced by a first-person comment, even though the thought that followed was never original or particularly insightful. In this case, it was the claim that in Holbein’s drawings there were ‘the seeds of a new idea – the moment when people stopped thinking about themselves as types … and started to think about themselves as individuals.’ And so was brushed away over a century of scholarship spent dismantling the dubious concepts provided by Michelet and Burckhardt and we are again mired in talk of ‘the birth of the individual’.
It is a moment like this that you want to stop the presenter and interrogate him. In precisely what way is the remarkable draughtsmanship of Holbein associated with a new individualism? Is it that he made his sitters aware of their own selves? Did they walk in thinking of themselves as a type and leave realising they were unique? Or was the fact that they were willing to sit for him evidence that they already had a sense of their own individuality which they wanted captured on paper by this artist for hire? If so, then their sense of self did not need Holbein; it gained expression through him. But also, if so, did not the fact that these courtiers and merchants chose to call on Holbein’s services group them together as a type – the sort of person who would waste some of their expendable wealth on the conspicuous consumption of having their portrait done? They could chant in unison ‘we are all individuals’.
Yet, even the muddle-minded, half-baked historical thinking that underpinned the presentation was not what should concern us most. For one thing, there was also a disturbing politics at play. I realise the BBC is sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias and maybe they worried about the fact that their presenter is a leftie – in the sense that David Cameron is. And Barack Obama. And me. Did they decide they needed their left-handed presenter to be not just right-on but also right-wing, so much so that the attitudes he was required to spout could warm the heart of Mr Farage (if he watched such cerebral stuff)? Did they require Dr Fox to give lines like the British ‘didn’t simply copy Europe, they would do things differently’? ‘Europe’ was consistently used in the sense of ‘the continent’. The assumption that the British Isles is not and has not been part of Europe is depressing politics based on bad history: it was certainly not how contemporaries in the period Dr Fox was discussing would have envisaged their civilisation. Meanwhile, in this year of the Scottish referendum, it might have been thought appropriate to make the case for a shared identity between Scotland and England. So, a section was included on Stirling Castle, but it would be understandable if those north of the border felt the programme stank of Sassenach arrogance. The terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were used interchangeably; the overarching narrative was one provided by the political history of that part of the British Isles that centred on London. Thus, the Reformation discussed was that experienced in England, admittedly with notable omissions — no Break with Rome or Dissolution of the Monasteries — and ample space for anti-Catholic righteous indignation at the Marian persecution of Protestants, those ‘innocent people’ whose only crime was their religious difference from their monarch. The purpose of those lines was to introduce John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which (the author’s near-namesake claimed) the true genius lay in its illustrations. At this point, we might have expected some discussion of their artistic skill but the only association made with the apparent theme of the programme was that the book was produced using a ‘Renaissance invention’ by which printing was presumably meant. Let us leave aside the re-write of history that implies, and concentrate on the conclusion of the section where it was asserted that the Book of Martyrs was not just ‘a monumental work of the Renaissance but also the beginning of a distinctly British tradition of graphically exposing injustice’.
And so we have the British (for which read mainly English) ‘genius’. The relative influences of Hegel and Herder on Burckhardt have been debated; the shadows of both fall across this programme but it turns out that the noun in the title is less significant than the adjective: this is less about the supposed Zeitgeist of the Renaissance than about the mythical Volksgeist of ‘the British’. Sir Arthur Bryant would be proud. What it is to be ‘British’ was not entirely pleasant: without the effete ‘elegance’ of the Mediterranean, ‘our’ Renaissance would express ‘solid, earthy reality’, and while there was a sense of fair play, there was also dislike of Catholics, and of foreigners, despite Britain’s debt to them. It was a construction of ‘Britishness’ in which England’s one intellectual of European standing in the early sixteenth century could have no place: Thomas More was conspicuous by his exclusion.
Perhaps, though, even a little Englander mentality is not the most worrying element in this programme. What was most depressing was that the information was presented not as a point of view, open to debate, but as a set of unquestionable facts: ‘I think’ used as an expression not of humility but of certainty. It presented a mindset in which the past can be easily categorised and judged. ‘How good a poet was he?’, Dr Fox asked about Thomas Wyatt (you can guess the answer). Standing besides the portrait by John Bettes in Tate Britain, he commented ‘I must admit this is not as good as Holbein but it’s pretty darn good’. We were given a history defined by league tables, in which Renaissance is certainly better than medieval, and in which Britain is separate from and implicitly better than ‘Europe’. Who constructs these league tables? The presenters, the doctors, the ‘experts’ – even when their expertise is patently doubtful. You, the viewers, have no part in that construction, you are the passive recipients of what is claimed to be established knowledge. You cannot see – to return to Stephen Smith – that Bronzino is Renaissance and Cellini medieval? That is because you are no expert. What unites the two programmes is that they are not intended to develop the watchers’ critical faculties or their ability to analyse the objects being displayed: it is, rather, to remind us that, we, on the wrong side of the screen, lack those faculties. This is not about liberal education but about indoctrination. It is this, even more than its recourse to a tired, demonstrably mistaken historiography, that makes these programmes deeply, depressingly conservative. Is this really in the spirit of the mission of the BBC?
It is in the nature – it is, indeed, the delight – of discussions that they travel in directions that are unexpected, that the interaction of voices forms its own identity or, as it were, develops its own voice. And, so, yesterday, in the discussion of Stephen Greenblatt, Poggio and Lucretius, I had not anticipated we would end up placing Greenblatt’s The Swerve. How the Renaissance Began within the continuing (or perhaps revived) legacy of Jacob Burckhardt. I should probably have anticipated that something like that might happen, given we were sitting in the refined surroundings of Merton College, under the chairmanship of David Norbrook who had written, over twenty years ago, a seminal article on the associations in Greenblatt’s earlier works with Burckhardt (Raritan, 1989). Convinced, as I am, that Burckhardt constituted a wrong turn for Renaissance studies, I was hoping we could avoid his name, but I should have been prepared for how the discussion swerved. And, it certainly proved a fecund re-direction.
I was there to shed medieval darkness on the light of the early modern: to elucidate Greenblatt’s discussion by placing it within the historiography on Poggio Bracciolini. The outline of my narrative can be easily detected from the handout – talking of Poggio’s influence in England from the time when, while resident in London, he took an English mistress, to outlining the range of Poggios presented by scholarship in the last century: the book-hunter, the inventor of a scribal revolution, the proto-archaeologist – all of which gain some mention in The Swerve. What, I noted, was not present was Poggio the civic humanist. It does not matter for our present purposes what purchase remains in Hans Baron’s thesis of Burgerhumanismus or civic humanism, a concept most closely associated with Leonardo Bruni who was, as James Hankins has put it, Baron’s ‘Exhibit A’ for Baron’s interpretation. What matters is that a cluster of pro-Florentine attitudes – a re-dating of the city’s foundation, a questioning of whether princely government can ever be anything other than tyrannical – these attitudes were championed by Poggio as they were by Bruni. Greenblatt tends to draw distinctions between these two characters (e.g., p. 126), but if there were any duel between Florentine and ‘tyrannical’ humanists, Poggio could have stood as Bruni’s second. The absence of ‘civic humanism’ in Greenblatt’s depiction of Poggio has, yesterday’s discussion suggested, a wider significance.
That absence also, it strikes me now, separates The Swerve from a discussion of Poggio with which, in other ways, it has several similarities: the Life published in 1802 and written by William Shepherd. That Liverpudlian Unitarian Minister constructed his biography over a century before Baron began to envisage his thesis but in his work, as in those of his friend, William Roscoe, there is a pride in the achievements of a mercantile city that creates for them a strong link between their own Liverpool and the Florence of the quattrocento which they admired (but – and this is often counted against them – never saw). While this marks a difference from Greenblatt’s approach, there is a likeness in their style of presentation: Shepherd was criticised for the ‘tedious’ digressions from biography into wider cultural history in his Life – moments we might find the most interesting, and a method that is obviously there in Greenblatt. There are more specific parallels too: both react with a sense of incomprehension against the genre of invective in which Poggio and his contemporaries often immersed themselves; and both find Poggio praiseworthy at the moment that he praises the calm dignity of the heretic Jerome of Prague when sent to die in flames at the Council of Constance.
This is an iconic moment for both authors because it apparently speaks of a tradition of tolerance to which both are sympathetic. Shepherd as a non-conformist in a Protestant country was attracted to any signs that Poggio might have had doubts about his Catholicism; for Greenblatt, it is a moment that relates to the wider theme of his book, to the recovery of a text that he sees as a call to reject superstition or fanaticism – a call, it seems, that Greenblatt senses is very relevant for our modern world.
I have described the urgent call for an end to fanaticism as a product formed in the shadow of the lost twin towers, though, as was pointed out yesterday, that is an added context for an attitude that was present before September 2001. What I sense not just in Greenblatt’s latest book but in other writings to have appeared recently is an attempt to come to terms with not just the bombings of the 11th September but also with the aftermath – the ‘war on terror’, the invasions, the ineffectual increase in security measures. The response is a revulsion with both those political policies and the heritage of western thinking that has allowed them to occur; an intellectual expression of ‘not in my name’ against recent governments and against longer cultural traditions. What I find problematic in this is that ‘not in my name’ is an expression of disengagement, washing one’s hands of responsibility that is, at the same time, a turning away or perhaps even turning a blind eye. Can responsibility be so easily cast off? It would clearly not have been in a culture of civic humanism, where engagement in one’s city was essential to it survival, let alone its thriving. A citizen may suffer exile but to choose to exile oneself, to retreat from the civic space, could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty.
It might, of course, be said that Poggio’s civic humanism was a comfortable position in support of the status quo, taken by someone who could distance himself from it, anyway, by his long-term presence in the ultimate court of monarchy, the papal curia. All this is true, though that should not let us sidestep the question of whether disengagement can ever be a responsible act. Meanwhile, if that criticism of Poggio has any traction, it in itself raises issues about Greenblatt’s depiction of him. The discussion yesterday highlighted elements that I glossed over or perhaps tried to screen out: it was emphasised how Poggio is presented as a masterless Renaissance individual in the Burckhardtian mould. This is harder to sustain if you focus on Poggio’s political career: his continual pursuit of a master, his achievement of status as a papal secretary in which role he wielded a significant influence. Here was not someone struggling to break free of the chains of tradition – something which Greenblatt perhaps senses and which explains his own ambivalent attitude towards his main character. If Poggio did achieve his own distinctive voice (as Riccardo Fubini describes it), it was in his own dialogues and what surprised me most in Greenblatt’s work was how these did not take a more central position, for their complex use of rhetoric and their use of irony makes them open to the sort of analysis at which Greenblatt excels; with closer attention, their ‘philosophy’ (for Poggio was often seen, in his writings, as a philosophus) could have provided a more subtle understanding of how this humanist related to and transformed the traditions in which he worked.
However that may be, let me conclude by lingering on the relationship between Greenblatt and Burckhardt. If is true that the latter is the context in which we should place the former – a context, I have admitted, I struggled to avoid applying to him but which the seminar discussion demonstrated was relevant – we would foreground the tale of individuality, though not as one triumphantly achieved in Poggio’s life. We would, however, also have to concede that there is something quite anti-Burckhardtian in The Swerve. In The Civilization, Burckhardt notoriously wanted to re-define humanism away from its classicising definition, emphasising it as an individualistic mindset which happened to be demonstrated through engagement with ancient texts. Greenblatt’s claim turns this on its head: Lucretius, his work implies, was so different, so other, that, if it did not sit on the desk before one, its contents would be unthinkable; present, it could unleash the changes in mindset that Burckhardt describes. In short, specific classical texts were not incidental to the Renaissance, but, rather, the Renaissance was impossible without them. If, though, this were true, and if we were to take a sober look at the limited influence of Lucretius in the Quattrocento or, indeed, in subsequent centuries, we might have to ask when the Renaissance is going to happen.