bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Renaissance, English self-deception and homegrown imports

Posted in British Renaissance interest, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 April, 2014

When it came to constructing ‘our own’ ‘Very British Renaissance’, the Scots, it seems, had little to contribute. In the first episode of the BBC programme of that title, presented by the art historian Dr James Fox, Stirling Castle made a guest appearance. It stood alone: the second episode of the three-part series dispensed with any attempt to define ‘British’ as anything other than ‘English’, with Wales and, indeed, most of England itself beyond the south-east also forgotten. And, indeed, if those from north of the border played any role in this Renaissance, it was, implicitly, as the bad guys: it all went wrong, the final episode suggested, when James I (as he was described) allowed a Stuart court culture to develop that looked to the ‘foreign Renaissance’ rather than to ‘our homegrown’ one.

You will see that I have stayed the course, selflessly I may say, caring not for blood pressure nor for restful leisure time. After I fulminated about the first episode ‘A Very British Renaissance’, I felt it behove me to continue watching so that you did not have to (and I know several of you are grateful to me for that). And I must admit that the later episodes surprised me in two ways. The first was that I found myself growing to like the tall figure on the small screen. I will admit that ‘to my mind’ – a favourite phrase of Dr Fox – the presenter, in his first instalment, was simply too fey as he chatted up a putto. In the second, which concentrated on Elizabethan England, he was more knowing and his enthusiasm was undeniably infectious. That excitement continued into the last episode but with it came an element not seen before, a certain forthrightness, a willingness to dismiss as much as to delight. The one constant across these later episodes was that he did not cleanse himself of those attitudes which had so successfully raised my hackles earlier: his blithe elision of England with Britain; his unblinking assumption that, of course, these islands had a separate civilization from mainland Europe, and his recourse to a depiction of ‘our’ ‘British’ character which, he implied, the Renaissance reaffirmed and reinforced. In fact, the second surprise was the way in which the third episode saw him dirty his hands further with this greater-England, little-Britain Whiggish cant.

Having given his first discussion over to the supposed domestication of the Italian Renaissance on these shores in the earlier sixteenth century, the second episode had concentrated on how peculiarly ‘British’ was the art of Nicholas Hilliard or were the achievements of Thomas Harriot as the English Leonardo. The final offering took, from its start, a rather different angle, setting up a dichotomy between the court’s ‘foreign’ Renaissance, all classicism, masques and ‘sycophantic drivel’, and the wholesome, homegrown British Renaissance of the ‘real world’ – which turned out to be the Suffolk countryside and Christ Church, Oxford. Now, I am a Houseman, Oxford’s Henrician foundation my alma mater, and the stately expanse of Tom Quad through which Fox walked saw me mature, while the elegance of the Upper Library is where I will be at work with the manuscripts this afternoon, sitting at the desk where the presenter fingered The Anatomy of Melancholy. But even I would not want to claim for this cathedral-college status as the epitome of reality – and not because, before it became known as (and I have truly heard a tour-guide call it thus) ‘Harry Potter’s college’, it was the looking-glass world of Alice. Rather, we should be severely sceptical of any neat distinction between ‘fantasy’ and the ‘real’, as if each did not mediate the other to such an extent that the technicolor and the monochrome bleed together in our lives. The desire for dichotomy – the ordering of the world by binary oppositions – is itself suspect but has been the driving motor of ‘A Very British Renaissance’. Its shift of gear in the third episode begged more questions than it could possibly answer: were there, then, two Renaissances occurring simultaneously in England? Was the ‘Italian Renaissance’ still alive, then, in the early seventeenth century or was the court outdated as well as decadent? When did the division between ‘court’ and – though this was not Fox’s term – ‘country’ develop?

However inconsistent it may be with what went before, it could be said, in its defence, that at least a political thread united this presentation with the previous ones: it would not take a master cryptographer to decode the implications of a tale of an out-of-touch élite squandering money on ‘Europe’ while the true British heroes knew the value of their own land. We could also hope that it should also not take an intelligent viewer many moments to see this is as fictitious as most Europhobic yarns. Fox suggested that while the Stuarts preferred the fripperies of a van Dyck portrait, those elsewhere were developing the English genius, with Nathaniel Bacon both a gardener and an artist of his products, and William Harvey the man who made medicine modern by his discovery of the circulation of the blood. No mention of the genre of the still life of the Dutch Golden Age that clearly inspired Bacon; no hint that Harvey had read the medical pioneers Vesalius or Matteo Realdo Colombo. Perhaps there is something quintessentially ‘British’ in the homegrown’s reliance on the import – and on the self-deception that it is English tout court.

Does this matter? I do recognise that, however well Mr Farage and his band of Europhobes do on 22nd May 2014 when about a quarter of the electorate bother to turn out, it will probably not be with a mental image of ‘A Very British Renaissance’ in their minds that the voters’ hand swings to the UKIP box. I also appreciate that I could be accused of asking too much – a consistent argument, an honesty with the evidence: but this is a television programme! And that, I think, is where my concern lies. My mind veers towards another series airing at the moment, the deliciously satirical take on the modern BBC, ‘W1A’. In the latest episode, there is a scene where the Head of Values is on his phone counselling against moving ‘Songs of Praise’ to the radio to make TV space for ‘Britain’s Tastiest Village’. He suggests it is not in the spirit of Lord Reith – a pause as he listens – and repeats ‘Reith’, the name clearly unfamiliar to his BBC colleague. ‘W1A’ has drawn plaudits for the Corporation’s ability to find comedic value in its corporate workings; perhaps ‘A Very British Renaissance’ was commissioned in a similar spirit, one of parody of the public broadcasting tradition. It takes on a serious subject, it travels to umpteen settings, it has a ‘Dr’, no less, to present it. Yet, if the curious watched the programme in the hope of learning about the Renaissance what could they take from it, apart from possibly unintended and unwanted advice on their voting intentions? There is no clear definition of ‘Renaissance’, a rather incomplete sense of chronology, a cast-list of characters that combines household names with the little known in a manner which could be interesting but is more likely to confuse – not to mention the absence of any discussion of the ‘how’: how precisely, for example, were the English able to access foreign fashions and how that changed over the period. An audience is more likely to leave this befuddled than enlightened.

I am, though, being ungenerous. What a viewer could not help but take away from Dr Fox’s engaged and personable presentation is that there is a relationship between the British Isles and what we call the Renaissance which is worth investigating. That is surely a public service in itself. Maybe it will even convince the Head of Values — or whichever head poncho — that a programme introducing to a wide public the richness and complexity of that history would be worth commissioning.


A very conservative Renaissance

Posted in British Renaissance interest, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 March, 2014

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?