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Our Last 50 Referrers

« Moviemaking and Food | Main | Elsewhere »

August 27, 2004

The Renaissance

Dear Vanessa --

I just finished reading two compact histories of the Renaissance, William Henry Hudson's The Story of the Renaissance (which I listened to on audiotape, rentable here), and Paul Johnson's The Renaissance (buyable here). They're both accessible and helpful, as well as miracles of organization and condensation. If anyone's interested: I'd recommend reading the Hudson before the Johnson. Johnson's awfully good on the art of the period, and he brings his vigorous and earthy commonsense to bear on everything he says. But Hudson's book is much more comprehensive, without being much longer than Johnson's. It's the better E-Z general survey.

A couple of things struck me as I was going through these books.

One was ... Well, it's going to take a few sentences to set up. The Middle Ages, out of which the Renaissance emerged, was a theocratic time. All the era's best brainpower went into re-justifying theological conclusions that were already agreed-upon: the medieval Christian view of the world. As Hudson writes, "All thought led back to the monastery."

As the Middle Ages started to come apart, some people started looking outwards. They looked beyond the walls of the monastery, began comparing what they saw with what they'd been told, and having new and fresh thoughts. This opening-up was the Renaissance Humanist spirit at work; the ingrown reasoning it slowly dislodged was Medieval Scholasticism.

My modest reflection? That what the PC/multiculti/academic view of the arts -- whether modernist, post-modernist, or deconstructivist -- represents is a present-day equivalent of Medieval Scholasticism. It's a never-ending, self-justifying, all-devouring system that's a labyrinth leading nowhere but back to its own premises and predetermined conclusions.

Both books -- but especially the Johnson -- were very effective at reminding the reader how naive we are when we imagine Renaissance artists as early versions of self-expressive, modern, gallery-art-type artists. In fact, Renaissance artists were almost all outgoing entrepreneurs with bills to pay and contracts to honor. Art was their business; hustle, talent, and skill were what they were selling. Manpower, too: Bellini was famous for employing dozens of assistants.

Here's a vivid passage from the Paul Johnson book about what the art game was like in Renaissance Florence:

We must not take too elevated a view of the Florentine art shop. It was a business venture, whose chief object was to get lucrative commissions, execute them at a profit, and excel or fend off the competition.

Florence was about art, but it was also about money. In 15th century Florence, there was a continuum from the countinghouse through the wholesale cloth warehouse, to shops selling embroidery and colored shoes, to the all-purpose art workshop, catering to the sometimes vulgar taste of rich parvenus, but also producing works of genius that we now venerate.

That's the stuff, as far as I'm concerned: don't be so blind that you ignore the actual circumstances out of which art emerges; but don't be such an unresponsive clod that you fail to experience and acknowledge how beautiful and moving some of the results can be.

Which of today's culture businesses does Johnson's description remind you of? Movies? TV? It reminds me most of today's smaller ad or design shops. While oftentimes one "genius" is in charge, stamping his style on the workshop's output, many hands are typically involved in scaring up business and in executing projects.

Even the nature of the two businesses strike me as analogous. If the Florentine workshops made imagery that sang the praises of -- that "sold," if you will -- Italian Renaissance Humanism, today's ad shops make work that sells 21st century Fun Consumerism. Which leads me to wonder: why do so many Renaissance works stir us deeply while so few of today's ads do? Any ideas about this? It couldn't be because ... well, maybe Renaissance Humanism is simply a deeper and more enriching vision than Fun Consumerism is, could it?

Two more works that do a good job of illustrating what the Renaissance art-biz was like are Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur, by William E. Wallace (buyable here); and Artemesia, a silly film in one of my favorite silly genres (feminist historical softcore art-porn) that nonetheless does a good job of providing images of Renaissance painters at work. It's buyable here, and Netflixable here.



posted by Michael at August 27, 2004


Proof that nothing ever chances, when Titian took on too many jobs, he had to leave work unfinished to finish them all on time. When asked why he didn't finish them, he told clients it was the "modern style."

Posted by: JL on August 27, 2004 8:32 PM

Smart man!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 27, 2004 9:11 PM

Is this the same Paul Johnson who wrote "The History of the United States?" I've been browsing that volume and his British perspective is very entertaining at times. I've never thought of Thomas Jefferson as "born to the purple."

Posted by: Deb on August 28, 2004 9:34 AM

Same guy -- he recently came out with a big, fat history of art that's supposed to be good too. I can believe it: he writes about some art (Western figurative, especially) awfully well, and god knows he knows his history. How's his History of the US?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 28, 2004 10:52 AM

My favorite example of a Renaissance man - craftsman, businessman, sometimes inspired artist, sometimes a thug, swindler, even murderer - Benvenuto Cellini. First time I read his autobigraphy, I was struck how little scrupples the guy had - not a shred of guilt for his greed, boasting bravado or other, more sinister deeds. Very small distance between "inspired vision" and "to hell with competition" attitudes.

Unfortunately, artists of today take their "inspired vision" way too seriously, without the down-to earth, craftsman aspect reality check...

Posted by: Tatyana on August 28, 2004 11:06 AM

Yeah. Hudson and Johnson both emphasize how the Renaissance artworld was very much an outgrowth of the European crafts worlds. A lot of these guys grew up in bricklaying, or goldsmithing, families, or got their start as craftspeople/assistants of one sort or another. Johnson actually argues that jewelry-making and goldsmithing can be thought of as the two central art-making crafts of the period -- that it wouldn't be a mistake to think of many of the paintings, for instance, as great big pieces of jewelry; or to think of the sculptures as great big pieces of goldsmithing. We're just being goofy when we think of "art" as something that exists independent of craft, just as we're goofy when we think of it as something that exists independent of the circumstances of its creation.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 28, 2004 11:15 AM

Alot of the later chapters in Johnson's History of Art show how the Arts And Crafts-through Art Deco movements are really one thing, the idea that craft can be art and art is a craft..., and is the last time that meme poped up in Western Art.

Another good Titan Story, He was sending off paintings on board to various patrons the world over. Board is heavy, awkward, hard to ship and Vience isn't blessed with trees. To make matters easier, he began to paint on the most common surface is a sea-going city; canvas.

Posted by: JL on August 28, 2004 12:34 PM

Did Renaissance Humanist thought dislodge Medieval Scholasticism? Or rather was it an organic outgrowth of its predecessor?
It's easy to point to the intolerance of the Church intelligentsia. But it's amazing, when you delve into the medieval and especially late medieval period preceding the renaissance, just how much tolerance for new thought, even borderline heretical thought, there was in the priest class (or caste). After all, a conversation about God; man made in the image of the divine; man, the creature who has a choice between good and evil: these concepts are inherent in Christianity. And these concepts inevitably lead to profound questioning of the nature of things.
In that sense I believe late medieval religious thinkers were far more open to challenge than are those who hold to the "PC/multiculti/academic view of the arts" today.

Posted by: ricpic on August 28, 2004 1:18 PM

Johnson's History of the US is pretty good. I am still only in the colonial era, however. It's big, heavy and has small print so it's a slow read for me.

Posted by: Deb on August 28, 2004 9:18 PM

After-afterthought: Cellini again. I had him whole day on a back burner - and just a moment ago realised why I did.
Was reading LJ again and came across this line:
"I never could resist a wisecracking arrogant bastard with a deadpan delivery"


Posted by: Tatyana on August 28, 2004 10:01 PM

Ah, but Tatyana, Cellini is also quite touching at the very end of his biography when it becomes clear that--after decades of utter self-absorption--how desperate he is for his family to continue on after him. It's too late for him to play family man (I don't think he was even aware if the children he had fathered were still alive), but he gets very, very interested in his sister's children and their prospects. It's quite similar, really, to Michelangelo's obsession that his nephew Lionardo (apparently the only viable prospect to carry on the family name in the next generation) make a good marriage and have children.

Also, did you ever note that Stendhal stole Cellini's prison escape sequence for "The Charterhouse of Parma"? I've never put them side by side, but I would guess in places he ripped off entire sentences or paragraphs.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 30, 2004 11:09 AM

The Middle Ages, out of which the Renaissance emerged, was a theocratic time. All the era's best brainpower went into re-justifying theological conclusions that were already agreed-upon: the medieval Christian view of the world. As Hudson writes, "All thought led back to the monastery."

As the Middle Ages started to come apart, some people started looking outwards. They looked beyond the walls of the monastery, began comparing what they saw with what they'd been told, and having new and fresh thoughts. This opening-up was the Renaissance Humanist spirit at work; the ingrown reasoning it slowly dislodged was Medieval Scholasticism.

Uh, Michael, I've been spending a lot of time wrestling with this stuff recently and while I'm not to the point of being able to create my own three-sentence explanation of the Renaissance, I think the old religion-vs. "new thought" paradigm is something very closely approximating a myth. (For one thing, the whole notion of "Medieval Scholasticism" seems to be a 19th century myth--it wildly under-represents the diversity of thought in late Medieval times.) For another, most significant developments in thought--for at least two hundred years after the start of the Renaissance c. 1400) were expressed in religious terms. Also, much of the "new thought" that eventually developed had its roots in religion (note the very significant role in the development of modern science of Hermetic theory and alchemy, both of which operated on a religious/magical frontier.) Another small note: is it so hard to see the impact of, say, the Reformation on the thought of Descartes, the first significant modern philosopher?

As I say, I have no easy paradigm to replace the notion of scholasticism being broken up by "new thought" but I am deeply suspicious of that things really worked that way.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 30, 2004 11:43 AM

P.S. As far as truly "modern" thought goes, I suspect that the "Age of Exploration" might be more significant than "The Renaissance." It appears that exploration caused a huge interest in navigation and related subjects, causing a huge amount of data to be generated and creating the conditions for the birth of modern science. Mathematical physics, of course, (the model for all subsequent science) first manifested itself in astronomy and optics--what a surprise, huh? And, of course, the growth of modern mathematics also had a huge impact on early Modern philosophy, etc., etc.

Just a thought.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 30, 2004 11:53 AM


The idea that the Age of Exploration laid down the seeds for the modern world is the theme of Stepehenson's massive 2-soon-to-be-3 book series "The Barqoue Cycle" (Normally I wouldn't touch Stephenson, but this is great stuff, it reads like an over-learned historical pulp novel with occasional philsophical detours. From captured Harem Girls and the Manilia Galleon to Newton vs. Leibniz)

That ideas we consider modern, Banks, Stock Exchanges, Insurence companies, scientific review and journals, and a nominal commerical secularism all took off in the 17th Century. (along with the first U.S colonies) and the Divine Right of Kings started tp fade.

I highly reccomend it. It is Barqoue in the best senses of the word.

Posted by: JL on August 30, 2004 3:00 PM

Ricpic, FvB -- I'll have to put you two radical and innovative historians in touch with Hudson and Johnson. Food fight! Actually, small thought? It's sometimes hard to know whether to describe one era as reacting against the previous one, or as being an outgrowth of it. Thinking about the 1950s and '60, for instance, the usual thing is to describe the '60s as rebelling against the supposed conformity of the '50s. But some people have made a good case that the '50s prepared the way for the '60s. Heck, maybe it's both.

As for Stendhal ... Well, he loved Renaissance narratives (ripped off, er, "adapated" a bunch for "Italian Chronicles"), and he certainly wasn't averse to a little plaigiarism. So it wouldn't be unlikely that he'd have let himself be "inspired" by Cellini. On the other hand, not that I have much personal knowledge of this, but escape-from-castle tales were apparently mighty common in the Renaissance. So I've got no idea if Stendhal made use of Cellini, or let himself be inspired by someone else. Scholars?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 30, 2004 6:27 PM

Wasn't there another "escape from dungeon" sequence in Giacomo Casanova memoirs? Or only in a movie? But that's 17 cent. already.
And another great one, in Memoirs of Messr D'Artagnan (sp?) - vol.2 of 4,by the man himself, not Mr.Duma ; somewhere around 1650, too. Long past the Renaissance.
Sure way to capture attentions of impressionable dames...

And it's more than tangenially off-topic.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 31, 2004 7:18 PM

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