In his Letter to Posterity Petrarch wrote:
Among the many subjects that interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own. In order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages.
Well over a century later Machiavelli wrote a famous letter to a friend in Rome describing his own life in the country, how he spent his evenings at work on a treatise entitled De Principatibus:
In the evening, I return to my house, and go into my study. At the door I take off the clothes I have worn all day, mud-spotted and dirty, and I put on regal and courtly garments. Thus appropriately clad, I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, being lovingly received, I feed on that food which alone is mine, and which I was born for; I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask the reasons for their actions, and they courteously answer me. For four hours I feel no boredom and forget every worry. I do not fear poverty, and death does not terrify me. I transfer myself completely into the ancients.
We have been at it ever since. Petrarch, Machiavelli, and a whole movement we call the Renaissance became busily engaged in recovering an image that had (as they thought) been discarded in a dark age when the virtù of their glorious “ancients” was lost. It was our first great revivalist movement—succeeded since by so many others that we may not even name them here. Then there came in Romantic times the recoil and a growing concerted effort to recover precisely the Image that the Renaissance revival had sought so energetically to do away with: the Image of the medieval universe in which Dante’s Comedy moves and has its being. In each case, the bibliographies are long; and the second of these “renascences” must now include this posthumous volume by an Oxford don and Cambridge professor who years ago became a name to scholars with a study of medieval tradition entitled The Allegory of Love.
It should be remembered, however, that the author of that work, now a classic, was concerned on its first page to deny that his study represented anything that could be called a “revival”:
The study of this whole tradition may seem, at first sight, to be but one more example of that itch for “revival,” that refusal to leave any corpse ungalvanized, which is among the more distressing accidents of scholarship. But such a view would be superficial. Humanity does not pass through places as a train passes through stations: being alive it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still. Neither the …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.