The Good, the Bad & the Bourgeois

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the curriculum of Rugby School in England was dominated, as was true of other public schools, by instruction in Greek and Latin. In addition, however, all students from the first to the sixth grade read history, both ancient and modern, which was interlarded with generous portions of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Livy. Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby, once gave the rationale for this by saying, “The history of Greece and Rome is not an idle inquiry about remote ages and forgotten institutions but a living picture of things present, fitted not so much for the curiosity of the scholar, as for the instruction of the statesman and citizen.”

History was central to Victorian education as a means of forming character and preparing students for the challenges of the times, and this was not the only field in which it was accorded a respect that has no equal in our own age. Because it seemed to express and validate the hopes and ambitions of the rising middle class and its belief in progress—after all, what Englishman would deny that he lived in a land where freedom broadened from precedent to precedent, and what citizen of the Bismarckian Reich that he was a beneficiary of history’s law of natural selection?—its influence was apparent in all fields of human thought and activity. This was true of the arts as well as the sciences. Historical painting remained popular throughout the century, and the historical novel had a vogue that was never enjoyed by the more analytical novels of society. Indeed, Leopold von Ranke, the most famous practitioner of Quellenkritik, always insisted that history was more an art than a science and cited Scott’s Quentin Durward as the ideal model of historical narration.

In architecture, too, history found important expression. In an absorbing chapter in his new book on the ascendancy and eclipse of historicist culture in the nineteenth century, Carl E. Schorske writes of how the post-1848 tension between the crown and the liberal elite in Vienna was moderated by the construction of the Ringstrasse and how the different architectural styles of the principal buildings along this thoroughfare served as a kind of visual mastering of a difficult past. Crucial to this, he argues, was the construction of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and its positioning between the Rathaus and Parliament of the ascendant liberals and the monumental dynastic buildings of the Hofburg, so that it served as a bonding element between the monarch and the new elite. Schorske points out that the most visible symbol of the implied political compromise was the statue of the Empress Maria Theresa that stands in the center of the museum square, surrounded by the leading figures of her reign. These included not only her soldiers and diplomats, but representatives of the Enlightenment like the reformer Joseph Sonnenfels, who abolished torture, and Gerard van Swieten, who modernized the university, and great artists like …

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