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The Renaissance Revealed


by George Holmes
St. Martin’s, 272 pp., $35.00

Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance

by Lisa Jardine
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 470 pp., $32.50

Venice and Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past

by Patricia Fortini Brown
Yale University Press, 361 pp., $60.00

Art and Life in Renaissance Venice

by Patricia Fortini Brown
Abrams, 176 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Housecraft and Statecraft: Domestic Service in Renaissance Venice, 1400-1600

by Dennis Romano
Johns Hopkins University Press, 333 pp., $45.00

Provincial Families of the Renaissance: Private and Public Life in the Veneto

by James S. Grubb
Johns Hopkins University Press, 344 pp., $45.00

Florentine Drama for Convent and Festival: Seven Sacred Plays

by Antonia Pulci, annotated and translated by James Wyatt Cook, edited by James Wyatt Cook, by Barbara Collier Cook
University of Chicago Press, 281 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Autobiography of An Aspiring Saint

by Cecilia Ferrazzi, transcribed, translated, and edited by Anne Jacobson Schutte
University of Chicago Press, 101 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence

by Michael Rocke
Oxford University Press, 371 pp., $35.00

Machiavelli, Leonardo, and the Science of Power

by Roger D. Masters
University of Notre Dame Press, 366 pp., $32.95


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 DĂźrer 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 acquaintance with the social or economic historians whose work might have modified her claims that a “New History of the Renaissance” can be discovered simply by taking consumer culture into account. When, in her preface, she introduces her readers to a series of Renaissance paintings in London’s National Gallery, calling attention to their meticulous representation of luxury objects, she reveals, by omission, the usefulness of art history: it has trained people to say something more about a series of Annunciations than “paintings like these celebrate the culture’s new access to a superfluity of material possessions.” When a painting shows a winged man flying down out of the sky to talk to a woman with a gold ring around her head, most people will be hard pressed to fix their attention, as Jardine does, on the provenance of the carpet in the background. (Still, a small army of specialists have long been able to trace most of these exotic painted artifacts, whether silks, carpets, or metalwork, to their sources in China or the Levant; here, too, Jardine seems to write as an enthusiastic amateur.)

Similarly, Jardine does not seem to realize that one of the most telling criticisms of Europe’s obsession with worldly goods was made long before the Renaissance got going at all. In 1206, in the main square of the small Italian town of Assisi, Francis, the son of a prosperous local merchant, had just recovered from a serious illness, and something in him seemed to snap. All of a sudden, he hated the greed that impelled his father and his peers to mount their risky commercial ventures, the ostentation with which they wore the trappings of their success (but how else could they advertise their competence?), the singlemindedness of their devotion to profit. He wanted no more of their way of life, and as he argued with his father in the center of town he lost his temper. A crowd had begun to gather at the first sound of raised voices, and in a fit of rage Francis stripped bare in the middle of the piazza and threw his clothes at his father. “Now I owe you nothing!” he shouted.

The gentle attitude of Francis’s later years, his whimsical courtship of Lady Poverty, has obscured the sheer hostility in that first act of rebellion, the pointed cruelty of his move to humiliate his proud parent as publicly as possible. But the Florentine painter Giotto (himself, it must be said, a shrewd capitalist) has left a fresco of the scene that still carries its full charge of anger.1 Agitated townspeople pull back Francis’s father, tugging at him by his brocaded robes and his clenched fists. At the same time, the bishop of Assisi rushes forward to wrap the naked youth in his own cloak and spirit him off into the discreet recesses of the cathedral. Off to the side, a small child screams from the tension of it all. Clearly, worldly goods did not make the Renaissance by themselves. Capitalism and its peculiar discontents were ubiquitous in Europe long before.

Indeed, recent general studies like that of Holmes, or Patricia Fortini Brown’s Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, continue to remind readers that contemporaries identified the turning point into the Renaissance with an intellectual movement, which they called “the rebirth of letters” or “the study of humanity.” The movement drew its inspiration from the close scrutiny and emulation of ancient Latin, and eventually Greek, literature, as well as the tangible remnants of antiquity that still shaped the Italian landscape and continually emerged from its soil. Like capitalism, interest in antiquity had been palpable in Italy for ages; in the fourteenth century, Giotto infused his figures with the weighty dignity he perceived in ancient Roman statues, and many fourteenth-century readers already felt an affinity with Cicero. But then, for the fourteenth-century malcontent Francesco Petrarca, that sense of affinity became a consuming passion. Defying the onrush of history, he wrote letters to his favorite ancient authors, attempting to model his Latin style on theirs. He also spent much of his time shaping Italian vernacular into a language of comparable elegance.

As the example of Petrarch shows, the real problem with Jardine’s reduction of Renaissance culture to an appetite for luxury goods is twofold. First, there is its lack of specificity: birds and beasts feather their nests as eagerly as humans, but Jardine has hardly anything to say about the particular choices that Renaissance buyers made. Secondly, she tends to reduce the spiritual dimension of that thoughtful, religious time to its crass material base: her analysis of the religious paintings in London’s National Gallery virtually ignores their sacred content and devotes not a word to their actual liturgical use. By contrast, Fortini Brown’s short, accessible study of Venice, the city whose “people neither plow nor sow, but‌buy,” still reserves an entire chapter to the spirituality of these pious merchants. Similarly, Jardine speaks of manuscripts as “luxury” objects without addressing the significance of the Greek and Latin texts that made the books so precious to their owners. In fact, of course, these Renaissance artifacts were given lavish physical presentation as a sign of honor, for manu-scripts and works of sacred art afforded their users some of the most exalted experiences of their lives. The altarpieces that are now to be found on museum walls once surveyed the ritual of Communion or private prayer—they bore witness, in other words, to faithful Christians’ direct contact with divinity. Manuscripts contained a wisdom that was more precious to readers than any feat of binding or illumination.

So, too, when Francesco Petrarca said that gazing upon his crucifix was “his chief delight,” he was not talking about the quality of its execution, as Jardine would have it, but about its intangible promise that his soul would be immortal. The cravings that drove him to his headlong rebellion against time, his practice of looking back to look forward, all these were rare enough to define a cultural transformation, but they were changes first in an interior world, which only gradually came to affect the world around him.

Recent work on the Renaissance has expanded its range not only geographically and temporally but socially, taking in all the social classes rather than just the lettered elite, Muslims and Jews as well as Christians. Much has been written about the differences between men and women and about the lives of rogues, deviants, and criminals, who often took their own place in the motley tapestry of Renaissance society.

In post-World War II Italy, however, two talented women writers, the novelist Maria Bellonci and the biographer Iris Origo already showed remarkable knowledge of the material texture of the Renaissance and its wide social spectrum, so much so that their work still holds lasting interest for scholars today. What continues to distinguish Bellonci’s Secrets of the Gonzaga (1947) from most historical novels is her ability to infuse a carefully described physical world with psychological force, to fathom the private fantasies of characters for whom ribbons, seed pearls, and slashed velvets marked social position, rites of passage, but also states of mind, or of spirit.2 She begins her novel as follows, though no English rendering can catch the lyrical quality of her Italian:

Rather than a baldachin of satin, Vincenzo Gonzaga was born beneath the black-and-gold standard of the Counter-Reformation, swelling on the great evening breeze of the Council of Trent. For his father, hunchbacked and sick, Vincenzo’s birth was a sign of God’s benevolence. Thus it was with good reason that his parents lofted their prayers over the fine blond baby, swaddled tight from neck to foot in gold brocades, elevated to the precious, uncomfortable majesty of infant idols.

Bellonci, who established postwar Rome’s chief literary salon (and with her husband, Goffredo, founded the Strega literary prize), drew her factual information from the Gonzaga archives in Mantua. She used contracts, inventories, birth records, and wills to reconstruct convincingly the fortunes of the Gonzagas.

  1. 1

    The fresco was executed for the Bardi Chapel in the great Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. A similar version in a similar style can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi; it is variously attributed to Giotto himself, to his school, or to the “master of San Francesco.” (See page 32.) This particular fresco seems mercifully to have escaped damage in the recent Umbrian earthquake.

  2. 2

    Segreti dei Gonzaga (Milan: Mondadori, 1947); English translation, A Prince of Mantua: the Life and Times of Vincenzo Gonzaga, translated by Stuart Hood (Harcourt Brace, 1956).

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