Ah! Sweet History of Life

The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance

by John Hale
HarperCollins, 648 pp., £25.00

Johan Huizinga
Johan Huizinga; drawing by David Levine

In his preface to his extremely fine study The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, John Hale hopes it will not be thought presumptuous that his title adapts that of a book of truly seminal importance, Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy of 1860—a book that “I have carried…for so long in my mental baggage as a talisman at once protective and provocative that this was not a journey I could undertake without it.” However, as the adaptation of the title itself suggests, and as his nearly six hundred pages of lucid, imaginative, and constantly engrossing text elaborate, it is the provocation rather than the protection that has provided the greater stimulus for Hale. For Burckhardt’s Renaissance was emphatically Italian, and not European.

Yet Hale’s caution is not in any way unusual. As is pointed out by the editor of a series of “revisionist” art historical essays covering very much the same time span as he does—from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth century—“nearly every reevaluation of the Renaissance—this one is no exception—begins by acknowledging The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, first published in 1860″; and she in turn refers to another recent revaluation, whose “revisionist approach to cultural history retains the spirit of Burckhardt’s Civilization.”1

It is very difficult indeed to think of any historian from any period (other than one who was actually a contemporary of the events described) whose conclusions have so greatly, and for so long, dominated consideration of a major and much disputed subject. The attention that is paid to Burckhardt is of a quite different order from that accorded to great historians such as Gibbon or Ranke or Michelet, whose achievements, however vast and however acclaimed, are no longer a necessary point of departure for all serious discussion of the themes treated by them—enlightening though their insights into particular issues still remain.

Perhaps the only other historian to maintain an overriding influence on all subsequent generations is one who was of great importance to Burckhardt himself: Giorgio Vasari, the historian of Italian art. After more than four hundred years of controversy, and the detection in his work of inaccuracies and bias, deceit, ignorance, and intellectual carelessness, it still remains almost impossible for most of us not to think of Italian painting, sculpture, and architecture as having been born in Florence and as having then “progressed” in a direct line, so to speak, along the road which we will all have to follow: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and (by implication) decay and death.

The rare gift that Vasari and Burckhardt shared was an ability to embrace a fresh and immediate response to the real, the vivid, the unusual, and the picturesque within a tough but flexible conceptual frame that relates to some of our deepest human sensitivities. Because of this it has always been possible, and rewarding, to read their masterpieces not only for…

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