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MICHAEL ANGELO'S great painting of the newly created Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel might be taken as a symbol of the Renaissance, of the time when man was, as it were, re-created more glorious than before, with a body naked and unashamed, and a strong arm, unimpaired by fasting, outstretched towards life and light. Definitions are generally misleading, and it is easier to represent the Renaissance by a symbol than to define it. It was a movement, a revival of man's powers, a reawakening of the consciousness of himself and of the universe – a movement which spread over Western Europe, and may be said to have lasted over two centuries. It was between 1400 and 1600 that it held full sway. Like other movements it had forerunners, but, unlike other movements, it was circumscribed by no particular aim, and the fertilizing wave which passed over Italy, Germany, France, England and, in a much fainter degree, over Spain, to leave a fresh world behind it, seems more like a phenomenon of nature than a current of history – rather an atmosphere surrounding men than a distinct course before them. The new birth was the result of a universal impulse, and that impulse was preceded by something like a revelation, a revelation of intellect and of the possibilities in man. And like the Christian revelation in the spiritual world, so the Renaissance in the natural, meant a temper of mind, a fresh vision, a source of thoughts and works, rather than shaped results. When it crystallized into an æsthetic ritual, it fell into decadence and corruption...
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Copyright © 2015 by Edith Sichel
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THE MEDICI IN FLORENCE, 1434-1492: I. THE RENAISSANCE IN FLORENCE
II. LORENZO IL MAGNIFICO
THE RENAISSANCE IN ROME
BALDASSARE CASTIGLIONE AND THE WOMEN OF THE RENAISSANCE
THE CYNICS AND THE SWASHBUCKLERS OF THE RENAISSANCE: I. MACCHIAVELLI AND THE PRINCE
II. VENICE AND PIETRO ARETINO
III. BENVENUTO CELLINI
THE FRUITS OF THE RENAISSANCE
THE RENAISSANCE OF THE NORTHERN RACES
THE THINKERS OF THE NORTHERN RENAISSANCE
THE FRENCH RENAISSANCE
THE ENGLISH RENAISSANCE
MICHAEL ANGELO’S GREAT PAINTING OF the newly created Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel might be taken as a symbol of the Renaissance, of the time when man was, as it were, re-created more glorious than before, with a body naked and unashamed, and a strong arm, unimpaired by fasting, outstretched towards life and light. Definitions are generally misleading, and it is easier to represent the Renaissance by a symbol than to define it. It was a movement, a revival of man’s powers, a reawakening of the consciousness of himself and of the universe – a movement which spread over Western Europe, and may be said to have lasted over two centuries. It was between 1400 and 1600 that it held full sway. Like other movements it had forerunners, but, unlike other movements, it was circumscribed by no particular aim, and the fertilizing wave which passed over Italy, Germany, France, England and, in a much fainter degree, over Spain, to leave a fresh world behind it, seems more like a phenomenon of nature than a current of history – rather an atmosphere surrounding men than a distinct course before them. The new birth was the result of a universal impulse, and that impulse was preceded by something like a revelation, a revelation of intellect and of the possibilities in man. And like the Christian revelation in the spiritual world, so the Renaissance in the natural, meant a temper of mind, a fresh vision, a source of thoughts and works, rather than shaped results. When it crystallized into an æsthetic ritual, it fell into decadence and corruption.
But before that happened, its real task had been accomplished – a complex task, in which certain elements stand out. Two main things there were which the Renaissance of Western Europe signified: it signified Emancipation and Expression. The Renaissance is a loose term which has served to cover many issues – the Revival of Learning, the regeneration of art, the revolt against the Schoolmen, the expansion of men’s thought with the expansion of the world beyond the seas. And it has been ascribed to many external causes greater and less. The death of feudalism had given free play to the individual and had weakened authority. The famous taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, which put an end to the Greek Empire, had sent Greek scholars wandering over the world and shipped west into Italy a glorious cargo of looted manuscripts and sculptures. The discovery of printing, with the consequent circulation of books and of thought, produced a change that was immeasurable; while the discovery of America and the obvious effect that it produced upon trade profoundly modified the laws of wealth and the possibilities of transit. But all these outward events were only visible signs of a great motive power that grew from within; of the reassertion of Nature, and of her rights, against asceticism; of the disinterested desire for knowledge for its own sake – not the Schoolman’s desire for logical results, or that of the alchemist who regarded science as a A 2 means to find the philosopher’s stone, but for something far wider. Rabelais’ giant baby, Prince Gargantua, born in the open air, in the midst of a festival, waking to life parched with thirst and calling loudly for drink, must have been a conscious symbol of the child of the Renaissance, who came forth into the world unswaddled, and athirst, to drink deep and grow strong enough for the overturning of false barriers, and the reinstatement of those senses which religion had taught him to contemn. Beauty was manifested to man afresh – beauty and joy which he had learnt to regard as the deadly foes of Christianity. And, inspired by new- found marbles and manuscripts, in a kind of intoxication, he once more embraced Paganism and Nature, and acknowledged man’s body to be the exponent, not the adversary, of his soul.
Here there comes in the second great element of the Renaissance – Expression. Expression implies a consciousness of that which is expressed. In the Middle Ages expression in words or stone or painting was naïf, a matter of narrative and of symbols, prescribed mostly by tradition. If personal force pierced through, it was accidental – when men of exceptional gifts happened to be employed. But as people became more conscious of themselves and the world, and began to want to define their relations towards it, and when they finally reawakened to a sense of beauty, emotion was kindled and expression sought and found. There arose, first in Italy, then in other lands, a perfect passion for language. The fuel was ready, the re-discovery of the classics set it alight. The unearthing of manuscripts in remote and forgotten monasteries, the publication of the works of Virgil and Seneca, Plato and Aristotle, with a score of other ancient authors, acted upon men’s imaginations. Scholarship in those days was no set science; it involved risk, it unfolded unknown vistas. Like all else, like science itself, it was bathed in an atmosphere of poetry. Men approached new-found manuscripts with excitement and reverence.
When Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) discovered an ungarbled text of Quintilian Institutions, there was an almost religious exaltation; while the great Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457) urged the claims of Latin with the zeal of a propagandist. Scholars and students unknown to one another corresponded all the world over, formed friendships, compared texts, communicated fresh niceties of erudition. The Scaligers in Verona, the Estiennes in France, the preeminent Erasmus of the Netherlands, the rest of that wonderful band of men who tried to apply learning to life and went by the name of Humanists, revealed and increased a hundredfold the powers and possibilities of language. And in doing so they performed a work more important for the nations than scholarship. They increased vocabulary, and with it the national mind. Few words mean few ideas, and vocabulary is a fairly safe index of a country’s intellectual outlook. Literature is, foremost, a sweetening and civilizing influence. But, unconsciously, it has a further power, not deeper, but more far-reaching – the faculty to propagate words and widen the horizon. This is what happened in the early Renaissance; presently scholarship ceased to be emotional, it became prosaic, and then it grew formal. Words fresh from the mint were over-used and, turning against themselves, finally hardened into shibboleths or eupheuisms. Humanists gave place to pedants. But the words introduced by scholars quickly filtered into common speech; the vulgar tongue was enriched; and the spirit of research went outside the classics, revising old folk-songs, forming schools of popular poets. The Stornelli and Rispetti (songs of the country-side, many of which are still existent), the Ballate (dance-songs), the sacred songs, or Laude, and such-like traditional verse, served as a ready means for the ripening of the Italian mother-tongue and the rehabilitation of homely themes. And in France Fables, and Romances of chivalry did much in the same fashion to keep the French language alive. The exclusive employment of Latin in the world of letters had been the link between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The growth of national speech and its gradual encroachment upon Latin as a literary medium was the link with modern times. In later days this growth, by these means, formed such natural poets in Italy as Lorenzo de’ Medici, Poliziano, and Pulci, or as Villon and Marot in France. Literature became what it was meant to be, the property of the people. Language, however, is but one part of expression, and art was, perhaps, the most potent and enduring means of self-revelation chosen by the Renaissance. In painting, in sculpture, in chiselled gems and goldsmiths’ work, that wonderful period flowered and seeded, as fertile as if it were a second Nature with its own laws and seasons, until expression degenerated into over-expression and art grew decadent and died of surfeit.
This emancipation, this power of expression, were manifest in every direction. Men’s minds were in love – there was not a dry place throughout the realm of knowledge. If the investigation of language was poetic, the study of grammar was a high adventure and the science of the Law became romantic. For it was now that the false Decretals – those so- called Sybilline Leaves upon which the theologians had based the legal system – were proved to be forgeries and that many found in Roman Law the supreme word of wisdom, while the complex relations of war and commerce produced the need and the rudimentary outlines of a law between the nations. The work of such a great legal initiator as the Frenchman, Cujas (1522-1590), gives life to dry bones. The enthusiasm for Oriental learning, meanwhile, produced a great band of Orientalists, pundits in Sanscrit or Hebrew, scholars of the Talmud or the Koran, who thus indirectly stimulated thought and modified men’s views of Church teaching; while, on the physical side, the discovery of the Western world – the voyages of Columbus (1492) and Sebastian Cabot (1497, 1499, 1526), of Vasco da Gama to India by the Cape of Good Hope (1497-1498), and of Vespucci over the Atlantic (1499), with the later expeditions of Drake and Hawkins – enlarged men’s horizons, widened their national sympathies, enriched their purses. Physical science, which can hardly exist till thought has advanced far enough to provide it with a starting-point, was the last branch of knowledge to develop. It was not the least. The upheaval produced by Copernicus when (1507) he proclaimed that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but only one of many planets revolving round the sun, was perhaps the greatest blow that intellect dealt to orthodoxy – an assault followed up by Galileo (1564-1642) and his famous Pur si muove. Harvey’s discovery, rather later, of the circulation of the blood, and the rise in the sixteenth century of such a school of doctors and surgeons as that of Kop and Paré, put an end to the universal prevalence of empirical methods in medicine. All these men, setting out in small vessels on the high seas of knowledge, were as much explorers as any Drake or Hawkins who sailed, big with hope, for El Dorado.
But the Renaissance could never have been the true Renaissance, the spread of knowledge among the many, had not this intellectual enthusiasm arisen at the same time as a means of diffusing it. It almost seems, indeed, as if the enthusiasm itself produced the invention of printing, as a strong current forces a passage. In a day when the dissemination of literature depended on copyists of manuscripts, even though there were hundreds of them, ideas were bound to remain in the possession of the few. The printing press of Gutenberg – the inventor of the art – in partnership with Fust or Faustus, set up in Mayence (1450); that of William Caxton in London (1474); the great Aldine Press in Venice (1494), which first published books under folio size – in itself an inestimable service – and the House of Plantin in Antwerp (1549), began a new era for the world. Whoever has been over the House of Plantin, with its simple Renaissance front, its spacious rooms – a perfect hostelry for learning – its garnered memories of furred and blackrobed scholars and printing-presses ever at work, and gold-tooled brown leather folios, has gained some notion of the patient knowledge, the fine taste and criticism which went to make the printers of those days; and whoever has seen or read descriptions of the Aldine editions of the Greek classics will realize that Aldus Manutius was a genius. They will understand how great was his contribution to knowledge at a time when he had often no more than a single manuscript, badly defaced, from which to reconstruct his version; when, in any case, a choice of readings of these garbled documents meant an act of daring; when the very fact of publication meant a lifelong devotion. The printing of books in those days was in itself expression, perfect in each part, from the text and paper to the binding – a noble art which ranked with the highest. And it was the same when, as speedily happened, books grew cheaper and more numerous, when the Aldine press sold them at what amounted to a shilling or half-crown in our currency. Printing remained the source of irrigation which fertilized the world of intelligence.
It is always an interesting question whether men produce movements or movements men. The answers may be equally true. Every great movement is heralded by forerunners, each following each, each often influenced by each, till the single figures mass into groups first, later into throngs, and what was exceptional is universal. Men make movements, and then it would seem that the movement, once created, makes the men. For with the general need there spring up the people to fulfil it, one, magnet-like, drawing others.
The Renaissance had many forerunners, growing, indeed, so frequent between 1300 and 1400 that some historians prefer to date its rise earlier by a century than we have done. But even long before that there were prophetic messages. There were, to begin with, all the heretics: the Breton Abélard (1079-1142), the foe of the Schoolmen; and their other enemy, the Arabian, Averroes (1120-1198), who tried to restore the true text of Aristotle, so mutilated by theologians; and his great patron, Frederick II, the arch-heretic, the friend of heretics and of artists, who initiated a brief and premature Renaissance at his court in Sicily. After his day the names come more quickly, first in literature and the arts, and afterwards in thought. The Divina Commedia of Dante (1265-1321) revealed behind its mediæval theology the mind of an individual cut after no pattern; and in that colossal work and in the Vita Nuova he built up the national language – always the first step towards emancipation. Cimabue (1240 – c. 1302) and Giotto (1266 or 1276-1336) in painting, and Niccolo Pisano in sculpture, no less than Dante, burst the bonds of tradition and replaced monastic symbolism by Nature. They were followed throughout the fourteenth century by an unbroken dynasty – by Orcagna, and Simone Memmi, and Spinello Aretino, and by Niccolo’s successor, Giovanni Pisano; while the Van Eycks’ great picture, “The Adoration of the Lamb,” was begun before 1400. In thought, St. Francis (1182- 1226) wandered as wide as Wycliffe (1324- 1384) from the beaten track, each, in his way, obeying natural instinct; and later the Franciscan friar and born freethinker, Roger Bacon (1214-1292), turning his mind to physical science, made discoveries several centuries too early and was imprisoned by Franciscan monks for having done so. Literature was a safer field, and literature did not lie fallow after Dante.
He was succeeded by Petrarch (1304-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375), two complete men of the Renaissance before their time: Petrarch, almost the first collector, and the loving student of Latin manuscripts, the Christian who adored the pagan thinkers, who said he stood between Augustine and Virgil (the fragmentary Virgil of those days, for no complete Virgil saw light till 1469); Boccaccio, the frank child of beauty and the senses, whose starry meadows and greenrobed, myrtle-wreathed ladies foreshadow the painters to come; whose vivid, marvellous prose continued the work of Dante and helped to mould the mother-tongue.
“What life dost thou live?” says Petrarch in his Imaginary Letter to Virgil, “. . . how near the truth were thy earthly dreams and inaginings? Hast thou been welcomed by the wandering Æneas, and hast thou passed by the ivory portal? . . . Or, rather, dost thou dwell in that quiet region of heaven which receives the blessed, where the stars shine benignly upon the peaceful shades of the famous? Wert thou received thither after the conquest of the Stygian abodes – on the arrival of that Highest King who, victorious in the great struggle, crossed the unholy threshold with pierced feet, and, irresistible, beat down the unyielding bars of hell with His pierced hands, and hurled its gates from their . . . hinges.”
In this passage the Renaissance was born – with its passionate feeling for the past, its determination to reconcile the old gods with Christianity.
And while Petrarch was writing thus, Chaucer (1328-1400) was singing in England, running tilt against asceticism and hypocrisy, striking blows for the “trouthe” that “shal delivere”; and Langland was giving us Piers Plowman, with its cry for sincerity and equality.
After the dawn came the day. Its first glory passed quickly, its noon and evening brought about unexpected results. The Renaissance began with an almost fanatical revival of classical learning; it ended in anti-classicism and the triumph of the Romantic Movement. It opened with Poggio and Lorenzo Valla, it closed with Shakespeare. For while it was worshipping antique forms, it bore within itself a new life which was pushing towards birth; it involved paradoxes of which it was unconscious. The embracing of Paganism meant the reassertion of Nature; the reawakening of art and learning, a revived sense of beauty and enjoyment. And enjoyment, which is vitality, can bear no bonds; it is spontaneous, it must make its own laws and live. It must live in the present, not in the past. By 1600, the world was on the side of Shakespeare.
Every nation played its part in the Renaissance, but Italy came first of all. Italy was the well-spring from which the other countries drew life. That life was the enduring fruit of conquest which the French invaders, Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I, carried back to France between 1494 and 1515. Germany and England caught the same inspiration from the same source. And in each land, shaped by its own qualities, the Renaissance took a particular form. Rabelais tells how, when the seekers after the Temple of Bacbuc at last reached the shrine and entered, the wine that the priestess gave them, though it came from the same fountain, tasted different in the mouth of every man. So it was with the subtle wine of the Renaissance.
In Italy the movement was practically over by 1500. In the other countries, where 1450 still found it in its infancy, it did not prevail till the end of the century, nor did it die till 1600. In France and in England, indeed, its full life was not lived till 1540 and onwards. But, whatever its dates, its fall was much the same everywhere. It killed itself. The weak element of the movement, for long kept under by its force, was emotionalism; and as its force declined there was nothing to counterbalance this weakness, which degenerated into pedantic sentimentality. The Renaissance had a sense of beauty, a conviction of man’s power, of his dignity; it had no conscience, no rudder to steer by. And yet it has bequeathed to us a noble heritage. Before it ended, what was enduring in it had already passed into common existence – its championship of Nature, its rehabilitation of joy in life. In Autumn, when all seems most mortal, the dying leaves make the mould from which the flowers will grow the next Spring; and in the decay of the Renaissance was hidden the secret of the future – the rich seed of modern thought.
IT WAS NOT ONLY IN different countries that the Renaissance took different forms. In Italy every great town or province had in a measure its own Renaissance. Romans, Tuscans, Umbrians, Venetians, Sienese, the Schools of Naples, Mantua, Ferrara, could each show an art distinct from the rest. Rome was, as behoved the capital of the West, the meeting point of all the arts; it collected, it excavated, it criticized; possessing no creative gift of its own, it developed the Renaissance of the amateur; Florence, divided between intellect and religion, linking them together through beauty, sublimated the senses and, at once natural and ideal, gave us Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli; Umbria, in a varying form, fulfilled much the same purpose, with something more of intellect; Mantua and Ferrara were still more elaborately intellectual; Venice and Naples were pagan, splendid, of the earth; Siena was purely mystic, symbolic, almost consciously archaic. What, amid all this variety, was the bond which made the many Renaissances of all the states and towns and nations into one? There was obviously the search after beauty, but there was a far deeper quest of which this was but the part: there was the search after unity – the central truth of all these movements and one which made their best days what they were.
The great men of the prime of the Renaissance were reconcilers. They sought for knowledge as if it were the philosopher’s stone, but solely on condition that thought should be made one with Christianity. Petrarch’s position between Augustine and Virgil only heralded that of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who spent a great part of his life in harmonizing Christ and Plato – and these strivers were types of all cultivated people. “Much noted for the sanctity of his life and for being learned in Greek and Latin” is a phrase which, in the biography of the day, served as a common passport to reputation. Saints and pagan gods, the Virgin and Aphrodite, were placed indiscriminately together; Cato and David were put into the same rank in heaven. Law, science, medicine, mathe- matics, each man thought he could master them all, and that all religions, all branches of knowledge, were one. This vision even affected conquerors and their lust of possession. The French King, Francis I, dreamed of universal Empire, and of joining East and West. Men saw that intellect which led you where it would was the natural enemy of the pale Galilean; they desired neither of the two to conquer; they wanted reconciliation, not victory, and they set to work to discover the link between hostile forces. That link they found, or thought they found, in beauty.
Had this ideal been practicable, the Reformation, as a new religion, a cause of insuperable division between reason and authority, need, perhaps, never have existed. Luther and his comrades, proclaiming as they did the rights of natural instinct, were quite in the spirit of the Revival, and it seems as if at one moment the Renaissance and the Reformation might have gone hand in hand. But the passion for classicism then reigning had to be reckoned with. It was a pagan passion, irreconcilable either with a spiritual outlook or with strong religious conviction. And the great blunder of the new movement was to plant this classicism – the most polished and sophisticated art – in a soil where it could not grow, the soil of raw and truculent Nature reasserting long sequestered rights. The good in one and the other was unable to make common cause, and withered; like found like, and primeval licence fusing with the licence of satiety ended in a corrupt materialism, a materialism so wholly inimical to the interests of religion that any alliance between the two was impossible. Luther with his direct vision saw as much, and made for conquest not for peace. But had this not been so, who knows if Erasmus might not have won the day?
Florence from 1400 till the last decade of the century may be taken as the central hearth of this faith in unity, in the ultimate harmony of clashing elements – Cosimo de’ Medici and his grandson, Lorenzo (1449- 1492), as representatives of this ideal. After that reigned Savonarola, a living protest against it, an iconoclast with regard to all that it involved; and the shattered fragments were never pieced together again. When Cosimo, the sumptuous banker, defeated the Albizzi and, after two years of exile, came into power and became the popular head of a Republic (1434), the new movement was still at the spring. The Medici were true princely democrats, born organizers, born patrons, not too common a combination. Cosimo suited the world he lived in, and that world, in so far as art was concerned, was one in which new vistas were always opening. The young art was, indeed, rapidly growing towards maturity; the old and highly perfected art of Byzantine tradition was played out. Its once living emblems were becoming formulæ, ill-suited to current needs. Duccio di Buoninsegna (1285-1320) was the last representative of their majesty. When Giotto and Niccolo Pisano reasserted in painting and in sculpture the truth of Nature as against the truth of convention – the claims of men and things as they were, as against the claim of symbols; when they and their followers, Memmi and Orcagna and Spinello, with the uncle, Andrea, and the greater nephew, Giovanni Pisano, had the instinct to leave the known forms, the genius to try to see for the first time, they still unconsciously kept some traces of Byzantine style.
A certain stiffness in their work, a generalizing quality, came to some degree from inevitable technical difficulties; but as much, or more, these were the involuntary heritage from the past. By 1400, however, such archaisms had practically disappeared. With miraculous rapidity the new art sprang up almost full-grown. Masaccio, who died, a fully ripened master, at twenty-seven, had painted on the walls of the Carmine Chapel scenes from Genesis and the Life of St. Peter, as rich in modelling as in power of dramatic narrative. He had but followed in the footsteps of his master and colleague Masolino (1383-1440?) and of Paolo Uccello (1397-1476), whose green frescoes of Noah’s adventures in the cloisters of Sta. Maria Novella show his genius for grafting serene classical form upon the live reality of Florentine life; while his potent battle-pieces, the first of their kind, with horses rearing beneath jewelled trappings and gleaming condottieri, solve problems of perspective and foreshortening hitherto unattempted. And, secluded in the Monastery of San Marco, Fra Angelico (1387-1455) was trying to bring heaven to earth, and technique into heaven, with colours that were as clear as his inspiration.
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