Renaissance Research Paper

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Two nineteenth-century historians were instrumental in giving the term ‘Renaissance’ the content that it retains to this day. In his 1855 Histoire de France, Jules Michelet (1798–1874) chose the word for the period of the decouverte de l’homme et du monde, the sixteenth century. But the Swiss Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) was even more important. His famous book Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien. Ein Versuch (1860) became a milestone of research. Burckhardt sketched a monumental fresco that located the origin of modernity in fifteenth century Italy—in conscious distinction from Hegel’s philosophy of history, which posited that the German Reformation marked the beginning of the modern age. Burckhardt referred to the conditions in the Italian ministates as ‘masterpieces of statecraft,’ in which he saw the preconditions for the ‘emergence of the individual’ as the most important and far-reaching development of the modern age. He presented the Renaissance, with the many-faceted Humanistic movement as its intellectual substrate, as a period that forced the pace of modernization and secularization and as the beginning of the modern world in which he himself lived and whose negative sides he analyzed perhaps more acutely than any other thinker of his time.

1. The Development Of The Concept Of The Renaissance

1.1 Renaissance

Burckhardt’s thought-provoking image of the epoch exerted substantial influence, not only on the study of history, but also on literature and philosophy, in particular on Nietzsche’s thinking. It remains the more or less explicit background of discussions of the term ‘Renaissance,’ though it soon roused dissension. For example, in the book Franz on Assisi und die Anfange der Renaissance in Italien (1885), Henry Thode (1857–1920) attempted a romantic reinterpretation, placing the poverello and the religious movement he inspired at the beginning of the epoch. Thode and his followers saw the Renaissance more as a reform movement on a medieval-clerical foundation, eliminating its character as an epoch of its own. Thode rejected the idea that classicism and rationality fundamentally constituted the Renaissance and divided it from the Middle Ages. He posited an individualism of piety and sensitivity to beauty, in contrast to Burckhardt’s subjects becoming aware of themselves.

But the prospect of another, religious side of the Renaissance had already existed before Thode and did not completely contradict Burckhardt’s view. In his influential essay collection The Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater (1839–94), an admirer of Ruskin presented several artists and thinkers he considered representative of the Renaissance. The essay on Botticelli became essential to the incomparable cult of this painter, which thrived throughout Victorian society, and not solely among the Pre-Raphaelites. Botticelli’s art seemed to correspond to a ‘metaphysical need’ in the modern, industrialized world of Victorian England.

The inventions of the historians and literary writers stimulated broad segments of the educated bourgeois class. Florence became the preferred destination for an international cultural tourism. People built in the Renaissance style, surrounded themselves with splendid interiors in the style of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and purchased original works of art. Especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, collections of important Renaissance art were amassed from Boston to Berlin. The ‘Renaissance’ was not only a focus of scholarly interest, but also part of a lifestyle.

Around 1900, the international Renaissancism reached a zenith. Burckhardt’s classic was reprinted, and novels like Heinrich Mann’s ‘Gottinnen’ depicted the sixteenth century as a foil for the contemporary ‘decadent’ fin de siecle. The closing nineteenth century saw itself not only in a strange spiritual kinship with the Renaissance: the fiction of a ‘lascivious,’ ‘unscrupulous’ epoch paradoxically appeared to offer counterimages to the usual bourgeois existence, taking shape in princes of commerce, patrons, condottieri, and courtesans.

At this time, the term ‘Renaissance,’ was loaded with a plethora of sometimes contradictory meanings, triggering associations of ‘gold and purple,’ as Johan Huizinga said. The patronage of the Medici, the magnificence of the papal court, and the art of the Renaissance with its heroes Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo provided new cult objects for religious worship in a demystified world. At the same time, the word recalled the art of power and Realpolitik, as Machiavelli had analyzed in his trailblazing work. Racist ideas of a victory of hard men and cunning women over decline and enfeeblement were inherent in this image of the epoch. A widely read literature in the succession of Carlyle, Count Gobineau, Nietzsche, and others popularized the cliche of the ‘blond beast,’ the amoral ‘Renaissance man’ up to mischief.

The myth of the Renaissance thus offered models for Caesarism and imperialism. It was no coincidence that a nationally-oriented writing of history took up Italy’s Signorie and identified them with the precursors of the modern military and power-wielding state. But the iridescent construct of the ‘Renaissance’ also offered fragments for a historical foundation of modern civic societies. As early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Swiss Sismonde de Sismondi had described the Italian city republics in this way, and travelers from England and the USA thought they were tracing the ideal roots of their own nations when they came to Florence. It is hardly surprising that the inglesi were the largest group among the tourists. The Florence of the Medici was long a primarily AngloAmerican myth.

Examples of the ideological interpretation of the Renaissance with an unmistakable relationship to current history are also found in the works of Hans Baron, a German Jew who emigrated to the USA. In the essay he published in the middle of World War II, he saw the crisis of Italian ‘freedom’ caused by the aggression of the Visconti signoria in the early Quattrocento as the precondition for the formation of a modern, pluralistic state system on the Italian peninsula. In Baron’s view, the high degree of citizen participation in Florentine politics was a precondition for this most important result of the struggle against the tyrants: He saw it as a kind of Italian America winning the upper hand over Visconti Hitler (Baron 1955).

1.2 The Revolution Of The Medievalists

More recent research on the Renaissance has tried to free itself of mythologizing. Insight has been sought into the clientele systems of the clan that enabled Cosimo de’ Medici and above all Lorenzo the Magnificent to exercise an authoritarian power behind a republican facade (Wackernagel 1938, Thomas 1995), whereby special attention was paid to the patrons commissioning the art (Esch and Frommel 1995). But art history tended to go its own way. Wolfflin and others separated Renaissance art from the culturalhistory context and treated it primarily as a problem of style, and thus of aesthetics.

The conception of the art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929) remained fragmentary and accessible only in a very few essays. It aimed once again at the great synthesis and still provides impetus for new research. He located the epoch in a long-term process of civilization that experienced its climax in the Apollonian beauty of the art of the High Renaissance. In the triumph of the Olympic gods, Warburg saw an important step toward overcoming ‘oriental,’ ‘medieval’ irrationality. He was interested in the difficult breakthrough to the Enlightenment, humanity and reason in the history of the West. Warburg saw works of art as documents of the states of the human psyche, and he believed that, through subtle analysis, he could uncover the Zeitgeist preserved in them. Warburg’s works addressed aspects previously not or only marginally considered. The role of the patron became a theme, along with what Michael Baxandall (1972) calls ‘troc’: the market of intellectual and material goods where what we call ‘Renaissance art’ took shape. Warburg sought to illuminate the dark side of the epoch—its interest in divination, astrology, and magic, to which Burckhardt had devoted only a few passages. Equally important was that he conceived the emergence of Renaissance culture as a transfer process and thus examined not only the Orient, but also the culture of the North—the courts of Burgundy, France, and the Netherlands. This underscored what is now the general possession of research: the cultural physiognomy of the Renaissance as an amalgamation of varying influences. Italy remained important, but it was placed in the context of a network cast across the continent (Porter and Teich 1992).

This geographical expansion, the focus on the ‘occult Renaissance,’ and above all his constant question of the beginnings led Warburg to avoid drawing the boundary between the ‘Renaissance’ and the ‘Middle Ages’ too sharply. Although his works had no discernible importance for it, he prepared the ground for what Wallace K. Ferguson has termed a ‘revolt of the medievalists’ (Ferguson 1948). This debate, characteristic of the 1920s, adopted aspects of the image of the Renaissance as sketched by Thode, Sabatier, and other researchers. It pointed out, for example, that the tradition of antiquity was never completely buried and recalled that various ‘renaissances’ were palpable between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, in which ancient forms clearly stand out as elements shaping culture. Some researchers, including Etienne Gilson and Johann Nordstrom saw the Renaissance as a mere continuation of currents existing in the twelfth century. In this famous book The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), the Dutch writer Johan Huizinga drew an image of the fifteenth century diametrically opposed to Burckhardt’s conception. Contemplating the courtly world of Burgundy, France, and the Netherlands, he depicted the epoch as a flowering ‘autumn’ of burgeoning color, rather than as the spring of a new age.

2. A Movement Of The Happy Few: The Sociohistorical Dimension

Discussion thus ensued on the boundaries of epochs; it was the hour of the deperiodizers, who made the Renaissance their preferred target. George M. Trevelyan went as far as to locate the turn from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age in the epoch of the Industrial Revolution, the eighteenth century; and for other researchers as well (like Delio Cantimori), the Renaissance of the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries lost its meaning as a significant turning point. A more differentiated sociohistorical research underscored that Renaissance societies were more ‘medieval’ than widely conceived. Additionally, this culture had been borne by a tiny minority—one of the reasons Ernst H. Gombrich no longer speaks of the Renaissance as an epoch, but as a movement.

It is indeed indisputable that epochs named for styles can describe little more than the cultural stances of an often compoundly interwoven elite. Social history has provided glimpses of the world of the majority of the ‘Renaissance people’; these reveal little ‘Renaissance’ quality (e.g., Herlihy and KlapischZuber 1978, Davis 1982, Squatriti and Merideth 1999). Recently, the theme of gender has also been considered more intensely (see King 1991); here, research focuses not only on the ‘Renaissance women,’ the princesses and courtesans who populate the mythological scenario, but also on other women who lived at the time—witches and saints, nuns, artists, authors, and women in working life in general (Ferguson 1986).

3. ‘Modern Individualism’ And The Concept Of The Renaissance Today

3.1 Art Historical Findings

Despite the still current discussion of the term ‘Renaissance,’ the concept has prevailed as the name of a cultural epoch (cf., e.g., Burke 1972, Delumeau 1967, Hale 1993). What arguments can be adduced for or against the concept of the Renaissance? The most conspicuous are the findings of art history, and they were what gave the essential impetus to construe the epoch in the first place. Thus, it is beyond doubt that the painting of Giotto and Massaccio and the sculpture of the Pisani in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries marked a fundamental transformation. What was decidedly new in painting was that dependence on the Byzantine model was overcome. Here, Flemish influences played a major role, and the Renaissance in general increasingly appears as a complex amalgamation of transfer processes embracing Europe, the Middle East, and finally the New World. The early Quattrocento brought the introduction of a central perspective formulated with geometric precision, a Florentine invention. The goal was to create the illusion of ‘real’ living beings, objects, and spaces.

One of the most important arguments for Burckhardt’s old ‘individualism hypothesis’ is still that not only did artists’ signatures appear even more frequently, but also that, in the fifteenth century, initially in the Netherlands and Italy, portraits were painted that appear closer to nature than anything since classical antiquity. Since the Trecento, sculpture once again clearly approached antiquity’s conceptions of the body, and, increasingly frequently, portrait busts clearly strove to convey the individuality of the person portrayed. While it cannot be claimed that the ‘modern individual’ was invented in the fifteenth century, if we also adduce literary testimony in the broadest sense, for example Ghiberti’s Autobiography and Giovanni Ruccelai’s unique Zibaldone, we do note that reflection on the self-gained decisively in importance (Davis 1986 is highly differentiating; see also Schulze 1996, Porter 1997, Schweikhart 1998).

In architecture, the building forms of classical antiquity reappeared first and initially exclusively on the Italian peninsula. Only at the beginning of the sixteenth century was anything remotely comparable found north of the Alps, starting with the buildings commissioned by the Fuggers in Augsburg. Regional variant forms emerged rapidly. Their common denominator was a more or less clearly articulated reference to antiquity. With Mannerism, the Renaissance flows into a typically European style (cf. Sect. 5).

3.2 The Revolution In Discourse And Renaissance Humanism

The art of the Renaissance developed in a complex content with a theoretical discourse that, on the one hand, used texts from antiquity, for example Vitruvius’ theory of architecture. This was new and genuinely Italian. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, no other European country produced a theory and critique of art whose quality and differentiation were even remotely comparable. Italy was also the first place with a palpable group of collectors, art agents, and patrons who, for aesthetic considerations, acquired real or putative ancient objects. These inspired an almost romantic veneration and learned discussion and correspondence. One of the earliest representatives of this modern phenomenon of collecting was the Florentine Niccolo Niccoli (1364–1437).

Interest in ancient and contemporary art was part of the humanistic culture that was closely tied to the Renaissance. The term studia humanitatis is of ancient origin and refers to education in the broadest sense, the acquisition of knowledge as well as of ‘good’ ways of living. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the emergence of the social type of the humanista, the scholar concerned with the canon of humanistic studies—grammar, rhetoric, poetics, history, and moral philosophy—with recourse to the authors of classical antiquity. Humanistic scholars and humanistically educated elites became the real bearers of the Renaissance. They gave art, architecture and literature essential elements of form and content (see e.g., Wind 1968, Panofsky 1962). Modern research sees the first beginnings in upper Italy in the second half of the thirteenth century. But Francesco Petrarca (1304–74) was the first thinker to unite in himself the essential aspects of the humanistic movement. The older idea that the humanists were a group of traveling scholars staging a Revolution against scholastic theology and Church doctrines is no longer tenable. Social history cannot view the host of humanists as homogeneous, even as early as the fifteenth century. The majority of the humanists of Florence, the ‘capital’ of the Renaissance, were economically well off (Martines, 1968). Monks, prelates, princes, university scholars, urban jurists, and many others spread the studia humanitatis in Europe, and in many places humanism established itself as a national movement with national characteristics.

Humanism, and with it the culture of the Renaissance, were in no way pagan. The vast majority of humanists were firmly based in Christianity, and this did not change with the Reformation (Verdon and Henderson 1997). Significantly, pictorial subjects remained mostly religious during the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century, however, we note their gradual dwindling (Burke 1972), a telling indication that Renaissance humanism contained substantial potential for secularization. The great expansion of the spectrum of questions discussed and written about in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was of long-term importance. Theology and religion still dominated, but texts on every possible aspect of life increasingly moved to the foreground; finally, and again with recourse to ancient thinkers, a new theory of politics developed (Pocock 1975). This ‘differentiation of discourse’ did not depend on the Gutenberg Revolution, but began much earlier. In a certain way, the invention of the letterpress with movable type can be viewed as a response to a market ravenous for written material.

4. The Research Problem Of The Genesis Of The Renaissance

A question equally fascinating and controversial is why the beginnings of humanism and the Renaissance lay in Italy and what led to the formation of these movements. As Burckhardt had already underscored, there was the multiplicity of signoria and city republics, whose political rivalry sought artistic representation. Ancient monuments, statues, and other relics also provided models. Italy and Flanders, the regions in which the new culture developed, were probably the richest in Europe at the time, so here is where the economic prerequisites for extensive patronage were given. But the connection between art and economy should not be absolutized. There is no necessary parallel between the unfolding of Renaissance culture and a general economic upswing; Roberto S. Lopez (1963) even attempts to interpret the Renaissance as an attempt to compensate for crisis-like developments. The financial position of the patrons was decisive (see e.g., Roover 1963). The condottieri wars in fifteenthcentury Italy resulted not merely in a destruction of resources, but also in processes of redistribution from the great centers to small seats of courts like Urbino and Bergamo, where successful military commanders spent astronomic sums on books and in patronizing the arts. It is difficult to estimate the significance of the dynamics of economic shrinkage triggered by plague epidemics and failed harvests in the first half of the fourteenth century. Along with the resulting acceleration of urbanization, the consolidation of capital in the hands of the survivors contributed to the financing of early Renaissance art—in part as an ‘investment in saving one’s soul,’ which must have suggested itself and seemed necessary against the backdrop of the crisis of Church hierarchy and the experiences of the plague era. The Renaissance, humanism, and the Reformation thus appear as varying answers to one and the same problem, namely the determination of the human position in a fundamentally changed world. The writings of Giannozzo Manetti and Pico della Mirandola, the political theories of Machiavelli, the primary Reformation writings of Luther and the invention of the realistic portrait and of central perspectives thus all had the same preconditions.

5. The ‘Mannerist’ Renaissance

The question of the end of the Renaissance is no less complex and controversial than that of its beginnings. Art history sees indications of a metamorphosis to the ‘Mannerist Renaissance’ or to mannerism as early as the second decade of the sixteenth century (Shearman 1967, Arasse and Tonnesmann 1997). Literary history usually locates the end of the epoch around 1600. And music history, too, has its difficulties with the question of the definition and temporal boundaries of mannerism (important but controversial, see Maniates 1979). National differences in particular must be differentiated. Setting the boundaries of the epoch is also made difficult by the fact such important intellectual currents constitutive of the Renaissance as humanism and such aesthetic ideals as the orientation toward the standards of Greek classicism lived on after 1600 and experienced their own renaissances.

There has been no lack of attempts to set the stylistic transformation of the sixteenth century in direct relationship to political and societal changes (the best known is Arnold Hauser 1979). Structural changes at least in the art market and thus in the relationships between artists and patrons probably played an important role. Europe’s princes, the rulers of the rising early modern states, moved increasingly into the foreground as patrons. They used the arts to buttress their legitimacy and to display their grandeur: now, in the sixteenth century, the art of the power availed itself of the power of art more than hardly ever before. Political competition also manifested itself as competition among patrons of the arts. The artists’ virtuosity, or maniera, had to prove itself in this complicated field.


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