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From Alberti to Zoppo

Italy: A Cultural Guide

by Ernest O. Hauser
Atheneum, 276 pp., $14.95; $8.95 (paper)

A Concise Encyclopedia of the Italian Renaissance

edited by J.R. Hale
Oxford University Press, 360 pp., $19.95

In his Cultural Guide to Italy, Ernest O. Hauser writes of the Renaissance: “While it has long been understood as a spontaneous upswelling of the Italian genius, scholars now view it as a more complex phenomenon, the coming-to-a-head of a slow evolutionary process. However that may be, something new did happen after 1400, and whether it was an explosion or a mere culmination, it is the Renaissance, with its abundance of masterpieces, that first comes to our mind when we think of Italian art.” A leading scholar of the Renaissance, John Hale, Professor of Italian at London University, is more circumspect—no “explosion” for him. “Though there is something inherently ridiculous about describing a period of 250 years as one of rebirth, there is some justification for seeing a unity within it, if only in terms of the chronological self-awareness of contemporaries,” he writes in the Concise Encyclopedia of the Italian Renaissance, of which he is editor. Conceding that the term “Renaissance,” first used in its modern sense in the nineteenth century, “retains most of its glamour and much of its usefulness,” he sternly warns us that it is a word “to be used with caution.”

These remarks betray the anxiety nowadays felt by writers—especially by academic writers—when approaching the Italian Renaissance. The two and a half centuries, early fourteenth to late sixteenth, embrace the careers of nearly all the most famous Italian artists and writers as well as many other colorful characters who have never lost their hold on the Western imagination—the most pontifical of popes, the greasiest of éminences grises, the most adventurous of explorers, not to mention several generations of Borgias, Farnese, and Medici, and various audacious condottieri. There is a perennial demand for books about such people and the world in which they lived—books which range from minutely documented studies like Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms to general accounts and historical novels with such Firbankian titles as The Home Life of Lucrezia Borgia and Those Gonzagas. No other period in European history exerts greater fascination. From the point of view of the serious historian of politics, society, economics, thought, or art, however, this quarter millennium of Italian life cannot be regarded as more than an arbitrarily cut segment of time. Nor can it be isolated from the history of northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the world beyond.

The problem confronting the author of a book on the Italian Renaissance was, paradoxically, solved only to be recreated by Jacob Burckhardt. Before he wrote Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, published in 1860 and translated into English as The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1878, the outlines of the subject had already been drawn. But no one had succeeded in relating its multifarious aspects of life, thought, literature, and art to one another. Burckhardt’s synthesizing genius enabled him to present a view as beguiling to the general public as it was initially stimulating to scholars. “My starting point has to be a vision, otherwise I cannot do anything,” he told a friend. “Vision I call not only optical, but also spiritual realization; for instance, historical vision issuing from the old sources.”

That he had studied these original sources carefully, if rather selectively, there can be no doubt. But his vision may also have been colored by his other, more desultory reading, even by historical romances such as Wilhelm Heinse’s Ardinghello, published in 1787 but still popular in the nineteenth century—a story in which scenes of violence, political intrigue, and frank eroticism alternate with passages of art criticism and descriptions of the Italian landscape. Its hero begins as a painter, turns pirate first, then politician, and ends by founding a new democracy in which sensual grace and beauty can be freely cultivated: truly “the state as a work of art.” Heinse based much of his novel, in fact, on sixteenth-century texts used also by Burckhardt.

Piece by piece, the tapestry intricately woven by Burckhardt has been picked apart by numerous later scholars. His claims for the “newness” of the characteristics he isolated as distinguishing the Renaissance from the Middle Ages have been questioned. The humanism which he represented as a progressive movement is now interpreted as having been, if not wholly reactionary, a hindrance rather than a help to scientific advance and much more closely allied with Christianity than he allowed. It is generally agreed that he grossly exaggerated the prevalence of paganism among the mass of the population and of skepticism in the elite. His lack of interest in economic history has been deplored. Yet this ghost still stalks through every later study of the Renaissance, including J.R. Hale’s encyclopedia, despite all attempts to lay it. “Few statements in his Civilization of the Renaissance are more misleading than …” is a typical put-down. Burckhardt’s vision is like a constellation which cannot be forgotten even when the artificiality of its grouping of stars has been recognized.

For some decades now, publishers have been seeking a substitute for Burckhardt—a book on the Italian Renaissance of the same wide scope, equally accessible to the general public but informed by the most recent scholarship. It is a vain quest, prompted by the belief that a work of genius—and a best seller—can be produced by “updating.” For Burckhardt’s book owes its greatness not simply to its theme and approach and general conception, but—like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall or Winckelmann’s history of ancient art—to a unique combination of historian and historical materials. His earlier Age of Constantine the Great and his later History of Greek Civilization make nothing like the same impact. Nor has any subsequent writer been able to present a picture of the Renaissance as vivid and apparently homogeneous—J.A. Symonds’s seven-volume work, Renaissance in Italy, is too diffuse and too personal in its nostalgia and most later writers have confined themselves to limited aspects.

Believing that we study history “to be wise for always,” Burckhardt opened up perspectives through the Renaissance onto the central concerns of humanity. What Goethe said of Winckelmann is equally applicable to Burckhardt: we may learn nothing by reading him but “we become something.” Encountered at an impressionable age, The Civilization of the Renaissance had and still retains a life-changing power. (The influence of the beautiful little Phaidon edition published in 1944 and pressed into the hands of thousands of English schoolboys during the next decade might be worth investigation.)

John Hale’s encyclopedia can hardly be expected to have an equivalent effect. But he has chosen the most satisfactory, perhaps the only, way of surveying the subject marked out by Burckhardt from a present-day viewpoint. His book is composed of brief entries written by the editor with a team of able and distinguished collaborators including Denis Arnold, Peter Burke, L.D. Ettlinger, Brian Pullan, and J.H. Whitfield, among others. All sign their respective contributions. There are biographies of all the leading personalities in politics, the Church, literature, science, music, and the visual arts, and accounts of such families as the Loredan, Pazzi, Doria, and even of the Baglioni of Perugia “principally famed for their crimes.” Military history is given due prominence. There are excellent entries for individual cities.

A few more writers are in the Penguin Companion to Literature: European and many more painters in Peter and Linda Murray’s Dictionary of Art and Arists.* But no truly significant figure has been omitted and only devotees of Ezra Pound will notice the absence of Jacopo del Sellaio who “knew out the secret ways of love.” I know of no other single volume in which one can find in a matter of minutes who the Ciompi or the Uskoks were, who fought whom at the battle of Agnadello, or who ruled Milan in 1450; when Santi di Tito was born, when Alvise Cadamosto visited Senegal, or when Girolamo Fracastoro published his strange poem Syphilis sive morbus gallicus. The quantity of information crammed into this elegantly designed and well-illustrated volume is most impressive. A greater number of cross-references would, however, have made it still more useful.

There are, perhaps inevitably, a few lapses. Some of the accounts of artists fall below the high standard set by other entries. It is not very enlightening to be told, for instance, no more of Cima da Conegliano (1459/60-1517/18) than that he was “a Venetian painter who combined the volumetric simplifications of Antonello with a sense of light and colour derived from Giovanni Bellini, to whose images of the Virgin and Child many of his own are intimately related,” without so much as a mention of a single painting. That Signorelli’s “geometrical simplifications are particularly telling to anyone attuned to the art of Léger” is surely beside the point.

But only the art-historical entries are written in so casual a manner. They are also less well balanced than the others, with painters as notable as Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolommeo, and Correggio getting short shrift in comparison with, for instance, Cosmé Tura or Andrea del Castagno. Errors are few though it is surprising to find Titian’s portrait group in Naples described as representing Pope Paul III with his “nephews” rather than his grandsons (the Italian word nipoti means both), even though the correct relationship is stated in the article on the Farnese family. That the first tapestry factory in Italy was that set up in Florence in 1545 is not true: it was preceded by those at Venice, Vigevano, and Ferrara. But the entry on tapestry is a welcome reminder that this was by far the most expensive medium for largescale figurative art throughout the period.

Otherwise, however, the “decorative arts” are skimped. There is nothing on the goldsmith’s craft though several major Florentine artists were trained in it—Botticelli, Verrocchio, and the Pollajuolo brothers among them—and only later turned to painting either for shortage of precious metals or, as Vasari claimed with the benefit of hinsight, because they hankered after greater fame. Nor is there an entry for maiolica. A paragraph on ceramics is included under “technology” but nothing is said of the maiolica vessels that are sometimes minor masterpieces of Renaissance art and, in the style and subject matter of their decorations, contribute notably to our understanding of the interests of the period.

Perhaps the most valuable articles in the encylopedia are those that encapsulate large themes such as astrology, humanism, individuality, glory, rhetoric, festivals, plague, poison, cuisine. Continuity with the Middle Ages is brought out in entries for chivalry and scholasticism; economic history is introduced under banking, business methods, the economy, industry, and taxation. Preoccupations of the 1980s are reflected in entries on “homosexuality” and “women, status of.”

The contributors have fully assimilated the results of recent research in which many have taken part (Hale’s own studies of military history and architecture, for instance, and Brian Pullan’s of the Venetian confraternities). Brief bibliographies at the end of each entry bring the reader up to date with the current “state of play.” Here the absence of old names is as striking as the presence of newcomers. Fernand Braudel is never mentioned—not even under Philip III Nor is Rudolf Wittkower mentioned under “church architecture” or “Palladio.” Have they really been eclipsed as, Dante tells us, Cimabue was by Giotto? O vana gloria dell’umane posse!

John Hale’s encyclopedia is also up-to-date in another and less fashionable way. Narrative histories of the Italian Renaissance and “portraits of the age” like Burckhardt’s have come to seem not only undesirable but impossible to write. Tracing broad lines of progress and development toward the modern world, which obsessed nineteenth-century historians, is nowadays thought simplistic or worse, and, instead, the diversity and complexity of all contemporary phenomena are pursued with ever more scrupulous, detailed, and wide-ranging research. Only from such an approach, it is or was believed, might a “definitive” history one day be written. But it has, of course, had exactly the opposite effect. It has made the Renaissance almost impossible to understand at all. It has increased the difficulty not only of isolating and defining it, whether chronologically or conceptually, but also of integrating social, economic, political, and cultural events. All the old generalizations about the Renaissance have been undermined by the discovery of exceptions—exceptions too numerous to prove any rule.

As a result the encyclopedia’s article on “the economy,” for instance, steers well clear of old ideas about “investing in culture” and the excellent if brief account of the Sack of Rome makes no allusion whatsoever to the influence it was once supposed to have had on the visual arts. To encompass the myriad contradictions and convolutions and complexities of the period, its proliferation of literary and artistic achievements, its sober economic and turbulent political history, only a cautious encyclopedic approach will now serve. And yet—and yet—even here, in a work so radically different in approach, Burckhardt will not go away. Nearly all his section headings provide the titles and subjects for general entries in the encyclopedia. Perhaps the difference is not so radical after all.

In Italy: A Cultural Guide, Ernest O. Hauser has adopted an alphabetical arrangement for a hundred briskly written essays simply as a matter of convenience. This is very obviously a book for the bedside table rather than the study, a pasture for browsers. Slightly more than half the essays are on Renaissance topics covered in Hale’s encyclopedia; others range from Julius Caesar’s assassination to a biography of Garibaldi, with interesting excursions on such subjects as “marble” and the color blue (with reference to the lapis lazuli used by painters).

Much more information is included than the list of headings might suggest (there is a good index) and the choice of main subjects is engagingly personal. But Hauser’s enthusiasm ebbs as he approaches later periods and his book gives the unfortunate impression that Italian culture gradually died out. Whereas Vivaldi has an entry to himself, Verdi gets in only under “opera.” And Puccini is barely mentioned even under “opera.” Tiepolo and Piranesi are the last artists referred to in the book. Literature appears to come to an end with Lorenzo da Ponte (whose libretto for Don Giovanni was, however, much less original than Hauser suggests, having been largely taken over from one by Giovanni Bertati). Manzoni appears only as the friend for whom Verdi’s Requiem was written—Leopardi, D’Annunzio, and Pirandello are among the many writers left out.

But Hauser tells good stories—that of Beatrice Cenci, for instance—and can sketch vivid profiles—of Cicero, Aretino, or Casanova. Very few people will fail to learn something from this book. But neither from it nor from Hale’s encyclopedia will they “become something.”

  1. *

    Penguin, revised edition, 1972.

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