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 …