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Purity and Danger: The Many Lives of the Italian Renaissance

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August 25th, 2011 at 8:58 am

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The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne

The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (Italian, 1445-1484(?) ), ca. 1480-1484
[Image source: Art Walters]

A year or so into my graduate studies in medieval and early modern European history, I had my TV tuned to a rather cheesy show on the paranormal, with segments about alien abductions and ghostly voices and such. A man came on to explain how all major events in human history actually correlated with some cosmic phenomenon or other – sunspots, or maybe solar flares. As proof of his theory, he’d produced a graph of the phenomenon similar to an EKG or a seismograph. “You see?” he said, pointing to an angling upward of the line, “the Italian Renaissance.”

As a budding historian, I laughed, but was also flattered. The idea that a certain set of intellectual and aesthetic developments on one small peninsula of one small continent represented some kind of measurable cosmic impact, like the Tunguska Event or the asteroid that that may have wiped out the dinosaurs, was undoubtedly a PR triumph for my field. (How did he know his graph wasn’t registering the rise of the Inca empire, or the heyday of the Ming dynasty?)

The minor media flurry over Michele Bachmann’s apparent disapproval of the Renaissance seems to be another such PR triumph. As Wonkette notes, these stories pretty much write themselves. An evangelical philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, whom Bachmann cites as an influence produced a series of educational videos describing Western civilization since the Middle Ages as one long decline and fall into secular depravity. As Bachmann has, in the past, seemed a bit hazy on these matters, I’m not sure that examining her historical thinking would be especially fruitful. However, as someone with a vested interest in “the Renaissance,” I have to jump in.

First of all, medievalists – at least the ones I’ve known – have never been wild about the term, as it reinforces the idea of the Dark Ages in which no one did anything but scratch their flea bites and run away from Vikings. Medievalists (and most of the ones I’ve known, for the record, have been thoroughgoing secularists) tend to see continuity rather than revolutionary change.

More importantly, the good-for-you, vitamin-enriched Renaissance we know today is itself a fairly recent, and largely American, historical construction. I’d recommend anyone interested in the topic turn to Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, edited by Gordon S. Wood and Anthony Molho. Molho’s own contribution is entitled “The Italian Renaissance, Made in the USA,”; he contends that the field was defined for many years by American scholars who saw in 14th and 15th century Italy a mirror of their own society and its ambitions.

One of the earliest of these writers – now almost forgotten – was critic and collector James Jackson Jarves. In an essay entitled “A Lesson for Merchant Princes,” Jarves describes the businessmen of Renaissance Florence as the source of its greatness, but warns that America cannot expect similar greatness unless its merchant princes learn it is “more honorable to spend money for wise purposes than to make it”; he also warns that the American focus on the nuclear family might undermine its citizens’ civic spirit. I doubt the Tea Party would have much use for Jarves.

American uses of the Renaissance are placed in an even wider context by Eugen Weber in “Western Civilization,” an essay in Imagined Histories tracing the rise of courses by that name. The purpose of “Western Civ,” Weber argues, was to synthesize the information Europeans got in courses on their own national histories, link it to American history, and to provide a crash course in civics and culture along the way. As an American creation, “Western Civ” was naturally an optimistic narrative of progress, in which the Renaissance and the Enlightenment played key roles. The evangelical reading of history cited by Bachmann essentially flips this scheme on its head, reading progress as backward and downward, rather than onward and upward.

But there have been other Renaissances, more shadowed and ambivalent. For the Victorians, the problem with the Renaissance was not that it had too little religion, but too much, of exactly the wrong kind. Roman Catholicism troubled and fascinated English and American Protestants, even as they admired the art produced under its aegis. The legendary excesses of the Borgia and Medici popes (the latter Michaelangelo’s employers) sat uneasily alongside tales of martyrdom, and wild stories of young girls imprisoned in convents (still rife in 19th century Boston), or even walled up alive. For this era, one of the chief symbols of Italian art, of both its achievements and the world that produced them, was the alleged Guido Reni portrait of Beatrice Cenci, executed for conspiring with her brothers to murder the father who had forced her into incest. As I’ve noted before, the painting plays a central role in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun, along with the faun of the title, by Praxiteles, embodying the allure and the danger tangled up with the very idea of art in the post-Puritan mind. The tragic, tainted Miriam exactly resembles the supposed portrait of Beatrice, while an Italian count — named Donatello — whose character has a distinct pagan cast, is the double of the faun.

Henry James evokes this Dark Renaissance when he sends Isabel Archer to Italy in The Portrait of a Lady; there she marries the cruel and manipulative Gilbert Osmond, a connoisseur and collector of early Renaissance art, who says he would have liked to have been the Pope. He lives like a latter day Medici or Borgia, with his illegitimate daughter, surrounded by his pictures and objets. Far from keeping virtuous Americans like Isabel Archer away from Italian art and its dangers, such associations seem to have lured them, challenging them to plumb new depths, to test their moral frontiers in ways not possible at home.

The apotheosis of this view of Renaissance is almost certainly English aesthete Walter Pater’s famous reverie on the Mona Lisa, which appeared in his book The Renaissance, published in 1893. Pater — who supposedly liked to put himself into a kind of trance by repeating “Botticelli, Botticelli” as a kind of mantra — said the Mona Lisa expressed “the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of Paganism, the sins of the Borgias…like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and knows the secrets of the grave…”

And vampires were not the only forbidden lovers evoked by scholars of the Renaissance. Renowned poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whose many works included a seven-volume study of the Italian Renaissance published between 1875 and 1886, was one of the first writers in English to defend gay sexuality and propose related legal reforms in his privately circulated essays. So perhaps Bachmann and her mentors are right, at least by their rules, to fear the Renaissance. Those who ask unsettling questions of their own societies have certainly found the Renaissance “good to think with,” in the phrase of anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

In The Stones of Florence, one of my own favorite modern thinkers about the Renaissance, Mary McCarthy, notes that the invention of the modern world was “not, of course, an unmixed good,” and wonders if “a terrible mistake was committed here [in Florence], at some point between Giotto and Michelangelo, a mistake that had to do with power and megalomania, or gigantism of the human ego.” But there’s a difference, I would argue, in McCarthy’s embrace of ambiguity, her unwillingness to draw a pat moral from the story. The pursuit of knowledge – which is, after all, what the Renaissance has come to stand for – carries risks. When the artists Brunelleschi and Donatello were seen measuring and digging among the ruins of Rome, McCarthy tells us, locals thought they were using black magic to seek buried treasure.

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