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…

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