• Email
  • Print

Back to Burckhardt

Renaissance Man

by Agnes Heller, translated by Richard E. Allen
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 481 pp., $35.00

What is the best introduction to Renaissance Italy? “Burckhardt, alas!” remains the most appropriate answer to that question. After a hundred and twenty years of intensive research into the subject, it is something of a scandal to have to recommend The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy as an introduction. All the more so because the book, however brilliant, has serious flaws. The picture Burckhardt presents of Italy from Dante to Michelangelo is much too static. His central themes, like “the discovery of the world and of man,” “the development of the individual,” and “the state as a work of art,” are too fuzzy to bear the explanatory weight he lays on them. Above all, from the point of view of a late-twentieth-century reader, he has too little to say about the material and social setting of cultural life.

Different as they are, the books under review have in common that they, like Burckhardt’s book, are attempts to present a general picture of the Renaissance, while their authors place a greater stress on change and try to relate culture more closely to the social environment than Burckhardt did.

Agnes Heller was a pupil of the late Georg Lukács. Her study, Renaissance Man, just translated, was first published ten years ago. It is a bold book which takes a big subject and attempts to interpret it as a whole. Heller is concerned not only with ideas of human nature but also with attitudes toward time, the state, destiny, work, science, and art in Europe, especially Western Europe, from about 1350 to about 1600. Nearly a hundred Renaissance men are mentioned, of whom about twenty are discussed in some detail, including Petrarch, Giordano Bruno, and “the four crowning glories of the Renaissance,” as the author calls Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Bacon. This is a philosopher’s book, but also the work of someone who, like Hegel and Dilthey, Cassirer and Lukács, defines philosophy to include the ideas implicit in great works of art and literature.

To interpret the ideas of these Renaissance men, Agnes Heller places them in a cultural tradition stretching back to Plato and Aristotle and forward to Marx and Weber. She is equally concerned to interpret these ideas with respect to their social setting, that of the “first wave of the protracted process of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.” Her striking first sentence sums up the book’s central theme, and points beyond it. “The consciousness that man is a historical being is a product of bourgeois development; the condition of his fulfillment is the negation of bourgeois existence.”

Renaissance Man is a provocative book. Agnes Heller makes some illuminating comparisons between classical culture and Renaissance culture. She looks at some well-known texts from unfamiliar angles—emphasizing, for example, the interest in the division of labor, as a means to the happiness and self-realization “of every single person,” in Pomponazzi’s treatise on the immortality of the soul. Two chapters impressed me in particular. The chapter on “Time and Space” discusses an important theme which Burckhardt virtually omitted; here she suggests that perception of time changed radically during the Renaissance, as people experienced an acceleration of technological development, social change, and historical events. The old sense of time, an “even, measured, ‘certain’ time…whose tempo does not change,” gave way to an awareness of temporal change—of an irretrievable past, a fleeting present, and, perhaps most important, an evolving future. She says of Renaissance men, “it was precisely their orientation towards the future which enabled them to comprehend time as process.” “Time as continuity” gave way to “time as rhythm.”

The chapter on “Individuality” takes up one of Burckhardt’s favorite themes—and some of his favorite texts, like the autobiographies of Cellini and Cardano—but interprets self-consciousness as rooted in economic and social changes, arguing that the division of labor and the “dissolution of the system of feudal orders” made it possible for the same person to play different roles and so to distinguish his role from his personality.

Yet the book has some very serious weaknesses. Agnes Heller’s knowledge of the history of Western philosophy from Socrates to the present is impressive; her knowledge of the Renaissance is not. The frequency of her references to a few older studies (to Antal, Dvorák, and Zilsel in particular) suggests that she may not always have been aware of more recent research. Of the “practical atheism” of the Renaissance, for example, she writes, “In practice it behaved as if God did not exist.” This and other remarks might have been less cavalier if she had known what Lucien Febvre, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and Richard Popkin had written on the subject; all of them show that what may look like atheism to a modern reader often turns out to be a much less radical attitude.

It may be the translator’s fault that Thomas More is described as reacting against “Calvinism” instead of Lutheranism, and that Michelangelo’s poem about the statue in the stone is called an “anecdote,” but the muddling of the battles of Anghiari and Cascina is Heller’s own. There are many other questionable statements in this book, many dogmatic conclusions based on insufficient evidence, and some interpretations of texts based on no more than a few quotations found in modern books.

More serious still are the weaknesses in Heller’s method. She anticipates modern ways of thinking in Renaissance men, instead of looking at the ways in which they thought, at their own worldview. If the author finds a major figure of the time unsympathetic, he is dealt with ruthlessly: Erasmus is virtually absent from this book, and with him Christian humanism. On the other hand, she devotes three pages to Tommaso Inghirami because of the daring attitudes attributed to a character of this name (actually he was a straw man) in a dialogue by Sadoleto.

There is a still more serious methodological weakness in this book, and it is a weakness that Agnes Heller shares with Georg Lukács. Like Lukács, she is attracted to traditional Geistesgeschichte in the manner of Dilthey and Cassirer, the history of the great ideas of great men. She leaps from mountain peak to mountain peak, from Alberti to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare to Rosa Luxemburg. This Olympian approach makes it impossible to place ideas in any sort of cultural, social, or political context. But Agnes Heller does want to offer social interpretations of ideas; indeed, she describes her fifth chapter, “Everyday Life,” as a piece of historical sociology. What this means is that readymade Marxist interpretations of European history according to the decline of feudalism and the rise of primitive accumulation are simply tacked on to a philosophical analysis. The reader is given virtually no concrete information about social life or social groups in different parts of Europe in this period. Agnes Heller does not want to get her hands dirty.

Lauro Martines, on the other hand, plunges up to his elbows in historical detail. His first five chapters give a blow-by-blow, plot-by-plot account of the political history of Italian city-states from their emergence until the end of the popular communes. It is only when this foundation has been laid that Martines begins to tell the reader about attitudes and values, literature and art.

Power and Imagination is a book that seems designed to replace, or displace, Burckhardt. Despite his horrified fascination with violence, Burckhardt portrayed a Renaissance which was too respectable, too middle-class, too Swiss, too “Victorian,” too genteel. “Genteel” is just about the last word anyone would use to describe Power and Imagination. Martines is fascinated by wealth, status, and power, how they were acquired and how they were lost. He has a feel for the aggression, the swagger, and the competitiveness of a society where—in the cities at least—life was seen as a race in which a man must “sweat to be first,” where a man of humble origins could, if he had the necessary ability and ruthlessness, end his career as a prince, as did Francesco Sforza in Milan. Despised by older families, the new men often tried to acquire status by what contemporaries called “magnificence,” in other words by lavish patronage of the arts. Italy was already a land of façades. No effort was spared to make sure that people were impressed. A tabernacle commissioned by Piero de’Medici, the father of the “magnificent” Lorenzo, bore the inscription: “The marble alone cost 4,000 florins.” It may be easier for a native of modern Chicago to understand the social world of Renaissance Italy than it was for a native of nineteenth-century Basel.

In his concern with the economic, social, and political environment of literature and the arts, Martines is setting out to correct the impression given by his predecessor. Burckhardt looked at politics with the eye of an aesthete; his first chapter is entitled “The State as a Work of Art.” Martines, on the other hand, looks at the arts with the eye of a politician. His chapter on art is subtitled “An Alliance with Power.” “Before we daze ourselves with notions about the period’s universal love of art,” runs a typical comment, “let it be remembered that popes Julius II and Leo X used artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo to glorify themselves personally, their families and their office.” Martines discusses the arts primarily as propaganda, ideology, self-assertion. He sees portraits as designed to reflect flattering self-images. He looks at palaces as embodiments of the desire of the political elite to dominate the space within the walls of their city. Like the towers built by the warring nobles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Renaissance palaces are “affirmations of power.”

His interest in the Middle Ages gives Martines a certain advantage over his predecessor. In Renaissance Italy, wrote Burckhardt, “man became a spiritual individual,” whereas in the Middle Ages he had been “conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation.” Scholars have long found simplistic this view of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages as the inverse of one another. However, they do not all go so far as Martines, who suggests that the cultural achievements of the period 1300-1600 were no more than the “second stage” of a process which began as far back as the eleventh century. The foundations of the new cities, new society, new states, new values we call the Renaissance were laid between 1000 and 1300.

The first half of Power and Imagination is devoted to this first stage, including the rise of the independent city-states or communes, the struggle for power within them, economic growth, and the development of a civic culture characterized by an intense local patriotism and an equally strong preoccupation with money. Both concerns were expressed in the emotive language of kinship. “Every man who comes into the world is first born to his father and relatives, then to his commune,” wrote Dante’s teacher Brunetto Latini. The Sienese poet Cecco Angiolieri said with brutal simplicity; “Florins are the best of kin.”

In the second half of his book, Martines concentrates on art, literature, and ideas. Humanism, he argues, was “a program for ruling classes,” and the humanists themselves were “avidly ambitious, socially mobile, proud, touchy and combative”; they celebrated success and accepted the values of their patrons. The chapter on art likewise stresses the “alliance” between the ruling class and another ambitious and mobile group, the artists. A chapter on the High Renaissance, subtitled “A Divided Consciousness,” suggests that changes in artistic style and the new fashion for neo-Platonism reflected a loss of confidence by the ruling class after the French had invaded Italy in 1494 and found no state in the peninsula able to resist them. A brief conclusion on “The End of the Renaissance” carries the story up to the Counter-Reformation and the so-called “crisis of the seventeenth century.”

Power and Imagination is a vigorous, crude book. It is clumsily written, its analysis of Renaissance culture is lacking in subtlety. Martines, for example, too sweepingly identifies the values of fifteenth-century humanists with the values of the ruling class. It is easy enough for him to quote examples of humanists who made successful careers in government and of rulers who were interested in ideas, but the less successful intellectuals and the less cultivated members of the ruling class escape his attention. He has little to say about the conflicts of values made explicit in the debates on the relative value of arms and letters, individual worth and noble birth. He has much to say about self-assurance, but curiously little about anxiety over status, although Cellini, to take just one example, would appear to have suffered intensely from such feelings.

Martines’s writing on art is also oversimplified, not to say crudely reductionist. He sees that art was used by the rich, the well-born, and the powerful as a mode of self-assertion, and illustrates this point with some vivid examples. The trouble is that he sees little else. He does not distinguish, or does not distinguish explicitly or sharply enough, between the glory that any magnificent work reflected on its patron and the more precise political messages that were carried by some paintings and sculptures. Indeed, his analysis of the relation between culture and society rests on somewhat shaky concepts. He uses such terms as “ideology,” “hegemony,” “class conscience” [sic], “social interests,” and “ascribed consciousness,” but he rarely defines them and does not always use them consistently. Viewed as a study of power, this book offers a useful synthesis of recent research on six hundred years of Italian history. Viewed as a study of imagination—in spite of some insights—it is much less successful.

Both Heller and Martines are at their weakest when it comes to the links between art and ideas and society, primarily because both authors appear to see these links as simple ones. Neither of them offers us an explicit discussion of the problem of defining them. Agnes Heller appears to think that changes in ideas simply reflect economic and social changes. She does not explain by what means this reflection takes place. Does it happen immediately or can thought lag behind the development of the economy? Do ideas reflect social conditions directly or are they mediated by other institutions? Are the leading philosophers and writers of an age the first or the only people to adapt thought to changes in society, or do they (and in what sense) speak for another social group? In short, she fails to specify the kinds of relations that take place between thought and society. Lauro Martines’s view of the connection between culture and society is less mechanical but almost equally crude; he sees art and ideas primarily as weapons in the competitive struggle for self-assertion. He uses the Gramscian language of cultural “hegemony,” but his analysis is considerably less subtle than Gramsci’s or that of his modern interpreters.

If such ideas of “reflection” and “self-assertion” are too simple, what can replace them? Here some of the current debates over the relation between culture and society seem to me suggestive. Such debates have proceeded from a widely shared sense that Weber’s concept of “legitimation,” Gramsci’s notion of “cultural hegemony,” and Durkheim’s ideas about the relation between a community and its symbols all have great relevance to cultural history in general and the history of the Italian Renaissance in particular. But can these ideas be joined in any synthesis? What we need is a model of the relation between culture and society which is complex enough to avoid reductionism but simple enough to organize the data we have. Can such a model be constructed?

Recent work in sociology, anthropology, and linguistics provides a possible answer to this question, one centering on the concept of “communication.” A generation ago, Harold Lasswell defined the sociology of communication with tough-mindedness and vigor as the study of “Who says what to whom, by what means, and with what effect.” The formula sounds crudely behaviorist now, but it has been refined, for example by J.A. Fishman, Dell Hymes, and Raymond Williams, to read something like “Who says what to whom, for what purposes, in what situations, through what channels, and in what codes?” A cultural historian would want to add: how were the messages interpreted by their recipients? And how did channels, codes, situations, and so on change during different periods of time? The last two questions are linked because interpretations during any given period are made according to different assumptions and schemata; these are part of a cultural tradition which is transmitted from one generation to the next but changes in the course of transmission.

What difference would it make to studies of Renaissance Italy with such a model of communication in mind? It would involve displacing attention from great “works of art” to a much wider range of “communicative events,” such as popular songs, sermons, the political graffiti found scrawled on walls and monuments, and rituals, whether official rituals like religious processions and public executions, or semi-official and unofficial rituals like Carnival and charivari.

Working with this sort of communication model in mind would also involve distinguishing between different kinds of sender and recipient—rulers and subjects, clergy and laity, the whole commune and the guilds, and other social groups which made it up. It would involve distinguishing between learned and popular culture, but also identifying the situations in which the learned participated in popular culture, the situations in which they spoke dialect rather than Latin or literary Tuscan. Such an approach would attempt to distinguish different purposes or functions of communicative events—to obtain obedience, to obtain favors, to spread the truth, to make people laugh, to defend or criticize the established order, to assert oneself (or one’s family, faction, fraternity, or commune), or to insult rivals. What we call the “works of art” of Renaissance Italy can be seen as messages which served all these functions and more. It was to legitimate his authority and to show that rebellion does not pay that Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Botticelli to paint the Punishment of Corah in the Sistine Chapel. It was to avenge himself on an enemy that a nobleman of Verona commissioned the fifteenth-century painter Francesco Benaglio to go at night, with torches and a bodyguard, and paint obscene, defamatory pictures on the façade of another nobleman’s house.

The communication model also involves the study of how audiences and spectators interpreted the messages they received. A pageant might represent a local ruler as Hercules; but how many people in the crowds standing in the streets could recognize Hercules? To answer this sort of question we need what French historians call the history of “collective mentalities,” the history of the unstated assumptions or unconscious mental habits of different social groups, including the categories they use, and the ways they classify reality. Fortunately, apothecaries, tailors, and carpenters as well as priests, lawyers, and patricians have left diaries that lend themselves to such analysis. The process of change could be investigated by what the French call “serial history,” the study of continuity and discontinuity in phenomena that remain more or less homogeneous, such as portraits, pageants, or wills.

Work has already begun on a number of these problems. Florentine rituals, for example, have been studied by Eve Borsook and Richard Trexler. The categories with which fifteenth-century viewers approached paintings have been described by Michael Baxandall. The changing forms of palaces and churches have been related to their changing functions by James Ackerman and Richard Goldthwaite. Carlo Ginzburg has published two books on popular beliefs in the Friuli region. With this kind of research going on, it is frustrating to have to send inquirers back to Burckhardt for a general picture of the social and cultural life of Renaissance Italy.

  • Email
  • Print