Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance
Venice and Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past
Art and Life in Renaissance Venice
Housecraft and Statecraft: Domestic Service in Renaissance Venice, 1400-1600
Provincial Families of the Renaissance: Private and Public Life in the Veneto
Florentine Drama for Convent and Festival: Seven Sacred Plays
Autobiography of An Aspiring Saint
Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence
Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power
What caused the outburst of mental energy known as the Renaissance? This is the question that is being freshly considered in many of the current books on the period. The historian George Holmes’s new book, Renaissance, argues that the most important catalyst was the city, specifically the great European commercial centers that were expanded and governed by a rising merchant class in the aftermath of the plague of 1348. Rather than concluding that life was cheap, the survivors seem instead to have been drawn to formulate ideas about an inherent human dignity, with vast repercussions for every aspect of their culture, from the striking precision of Renaissance art to the neoclassical philosophies expounded in Renaissance literary texts. Carefully constructed spaces and imposingly physical figures create a world in which a version of individualism is played out in every interior, on every street corner and piazza we see, whether in the Florence of Leonardo, the Venice of Bellini, or the Rome of Raphael. Holmes’s Renaissance interprets its title broadly; it is both a picture book and historical study, a work that seeks to reconcile the Northern Renaissance of the Burgundian dukes, Bosch, and Dürer with the Southern Renaissance in Italy. “My aim,” he states at the outset, “is to place the Renaissance in the context of the expanding and prosperous life of the European cities. I see the commercial city as the heart of modern European life.”
For the literary scholar Lisa Jardine, the key to the Renaissance lies more narrowly in its hunger for material possessions; she would like “to suggest that those impulses which today we disparage as ‘consumerism’ might occupy a respectable place in the characterization of the new Renaissance mind.” She observes “how reluctant we are to include acquisitiveness among the defining characteristics of the age which formed our aesthetic heritage.” This resolute concentration on what she calls “a fifteenth-century life-world crowded with desirable consumer objects,” and particularly with luxurious objects, allows her to sidestep some of the most interesting and typically paradoxical characteristics of the early modern period.
You would not know from Jardine’s book that the obsessive traffickers in goods were also obsessed with the Greco-Roman past; that Cosimo de’ Medici could speak eloquently on the subject of human dignity while siring children with his Circassian slave-girl; that empirical investigation and witch-hunting grew up side by side as parallel methods for inquiring into the natural world. Holmes, to his credit, takes up these and other intractable problems, showing in the process how thoroughly, if gradually, our view of the Renaissance has changed within a lifetime.
The chief agent of that change has been the sheer mass of new information revealed by a growing number of scholars in the field; like the sciences, Renaissance studies have become scholarly industries, with their own information explosion, increasing specialization, and failures to communicate between subdisciplines.
Jardine’s popular study is a case in point; the author of a book on Erasmus, she seems to have little …