‘The Renaissance’ in European History

From The Revision of European History, 2003

‘Renaissance’ is the most glamorous piece of shorthand in historical language.

J. R. Hale

Philosophy is a struggle against the fascination that words exert on us.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Much revision has been done on ‘the Renaissance‘ as a concept and designation, but confusion and misunderstanding remain prevalent. I begin with the simplest questions. Does 'the Renaissance' refer to an event in Italy or in Western Europe generally? It refers to both or to either; when the Italian location is intended, it is short for 'the Italian Renaissance'. Used on its own, it leaves the hearer or reader guessing.

When did the Renaissance occur? Consulted in sequence, works that refer to it or deal with it leave one puzzled. The Concise Oxford Dictionary, without specifying a location on the planet, says: 'in the 14th-16th centuries'. Peter Burke of Cambridge University, in The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (1999) treats his subject as occurring in the fifteenth and in most of the sixteenth century. In A History of Music of the Western World 1100-1980, a series of taped lectures published in Britain and the USA in the early 1990s, the tape entitled 'Music of the Renaissance' has the dates 1480-1620 appended. The lecturer, Anthony Rooley of Oxford University, introduces his subject with the words 'Europe in the sixteenth century...' Norman Davies, for his part, in his Europe: A History (1996) treads a well-worn path in having the Italian Renaissance begin 'circa 1450' and continue through the first half of the sixteenth century. The title of a book by J.R.Hale of University College, London, published in 1971, surprises: Renaissance Europe 1480-1520, a mere forty years? Or is it intended as a snapshot of a longer period?

By an established convention of historians, the Renaissance and the discovery of America marked the beginning of the ‘Modern Age’ in or around 1500 or in the latter part of the 1400s. Conventionally, ‘modern’ connotes among other things ‘post-superstition, enlightened’. But the modernity of the Renaissance in that sense has latterly been called in question on the

1.From The Revision of European History, Belfast, Athol Books, 2003.

grounds that a notable feature of the Italian culture of 1450-1600was an increased interest in magic, alchemy and witchcraft. Accordingly, modernity’s blessed dawn would need to be brought forward to the Scientific Revolution or the so-called ‘Enlightenment’! But that would make the Renaissance 'medieval', when in the accepted scheme of historical ages it was post-medieval; came after the 'Middle Age'. Indeed, the already cited Concise Oxford Dictionary—and it is not alone in this—also clashes with that scheme of ages by placing the start of the Renaissance in the by all accounts ‘medieval’ 1300s. That apart, the dictionary’s vague three centuries – 14th-16th – with their many variations of circumstances and mentality, is hardly a satisfactory temporal designation for something that is presented as an ‘event’ in European history.

In passing, be it remarked that 'the Middle Age' is, like ‘the Renaissance’, a term coined by the victors in an ideological struggle. So it, too, calls for scrutiny of its designative accuracy. At least in a chapter-heading in his history of Europe, Davies takes the overdue step. of removing the eccentric and blurring plural that has afflicted it in, alone among languages, English. I have the impression that, whereas it originally stood for the period between the fourth or fifth century and 1453 or 1500 2 , we have come to understand ‘medieval’ as referring roughly to the years 1000 to 1500. Provisionally, I will use ‘the Middle Age’ in this sense, while intending to return to the matter and to discuss the preceding centuries, which used to be called in English ‘the Dark Ages’. (Correction, I have just noticed that term in Davies’ book!).

Gordon Leff, in his book Medieval Thought, writes:

It has become so much a habit to describe any sudden growth of culture as a renaissance that we are in danger of depriving the expression of any meaning.

That sentence comes at the start of Leff's chapter on the (genuine) Carolingian Renaissance. in the ninth century. The point he is making, implicitly, is that 'renaissance' means, properly and only, a rebirth; in cultural matters, a fresh start of creativity and innovation after a period when they have been absent or scantily present. And in fact, pace Leff, 'renaissance' still does convey that meaning—even when it is misapplied as in the case of ‘the Renaissance’! That

2. I am referring to the first uses of ‘Middle Age’ (medium aevum, Mittelalter} with a pan-European denotation, which occurred in Holland and Germany in the 1600s. When the Italian enthusiasts of ancient Rome had used such 'middle' terms, beginning in 1469 with media tempestas, the reference was to a (variable) period of Italian history.

term is generally understood to mean an epoch-making return of culture or, more precisely, of high culture – first in Italy, then in Europe generally – after a ‘Middle Age’ when it was absent or in meagre supply. (That age had, in its latter centuries, produced Italy’s greatest poet, Dante, and most eminent philosopher, Thomas Aquinas – not to mention Bologna and Padua universities, Francis of Assisi, Giotto, Petrarch, Boccaccio and St Catherine of Siena.) Also generally believed is that the cultural rebirth in question included, or was actually caused by, a revival of studious interest in Graeco-Roman culture after a long period of neglect or ignorance of it. The Oxford Dictionary definition reflects both aspects of this received belief: 'the revival of art and literature under the influence of classical models ....'

Peter Burke records simply a new 'enthusiasm for classical antiquity' without any revival except that of Italian vernacular literature at the end of the fifteenth century. Before that, he tells us, for nearly a century, antiquarian enthusiasm had caused most poetry to be written in Latin. In painting as in sculpture a vogue arose for a naturalism inspired by surviving Roman sculpture and literary descriptions of ancient painting. For those who regarded the new painting as proper painting and ‘Italian’, as opposed to the non-naturalistic ‘Greek’ or Byzantine style which had been prevalent in Italy, this was a revival. But the models for the music came, not from the past, but from Flanders, which in the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth was the leading centre of European music. Flanders also contributed oil-paints and stretched canvas to Italian painting. Flemish painting had been naturalistic from the start.

Anthony Rooley, for his part, in his tape on ‘The Music of the Renaissance’, relays the 'cultural rebirth' idea whole. 'Europe in the sixteenth century,' he says, 'was a vigorously creative place. There was a rebirth of inspired artistic activity in music, painting, poetry and sculpture that spread like wildfire through Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England.' Perplexingly, the tape previous to Rooley’s has described the 'inspired' musical culture of the Middle Age, especially in northern France shortly after the great cathedrals had been built, and when Paris was Europe's first intellectual centre.

With the widespread notion of the Renaissance as a cultural rebirth goes the suggestion that in all European history there has never been anything so culturally splendid. The titling of the series of tapes just referred to reflects this. The lectures on medieval music are presented soberly as 'New Arts for Old, 1100-1480', and those dealing with the Viennese music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven prosaically as 'The Sonata and the Creative Ideal: The Classical Period 1750-1830'. But the two Renaissance lectures are trumpeted as 'Musick's Feaste'—the playfully antique spelling contributing to the implied celebration of a special excellence!

Such kneejerk glamourisation of anything connected with 'the Renaissance' is commonplace. Two further instances are the notion of 'Renaissance man' as a many-skilled genius, and the flatteringly ambiguous use of 'humanist' and 'humanism' in the Renaissance context. For 'Renaissance man', Peter Burke finds little evidence in the historical facts. For the general purposes of his study, he uses a selection of 600 members of the Italian creative elite from the late 1300s into the 1500s: painters, sculptors, writers, 'humanists', scientists and musicians. Of these he finds eighteen who practised three arts or more, fifteen of them architects. Remarking that architecture at the time was a bridge between science, sculpture and 'humanistic' studies, he adds that 'apart from Alberti [one of the eighteen] these many-sided men belong to the tradition of the nonspecialist craftsmen rather than that of the gifted amateur' (italics added).

'Humanist' came into English from the Italian umanista in the sixteenth century. It meant simply a student, teacher or scholar of 'the humanities' as distinct from 'divine' matters. The studia humanitatis comprised grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and ethics. The teaching was done in Latin and was based entirely on classical authors. In other words, a 'humanist' was what we now call a 'classicist'. That was still what Dr Johnson had in mind when in 1755 he defined 'humanist' in his Dictionary as: 'A philologer; a grammarian'. But in the course of the nineteenth century, that sense of the word faded from ordinary language, and 'humanist' began to have the philanthropic, philosophical meaning it normally has today. It was joined in that new sense by 'humanism', taken from the German (where it had originally denoted only classical education). Later, both words acquired yet another meaning denoting, in civil affairs, the sufficiency pf human rational effort and hostility to interference by religion. he effect, without as much as a hint to the unwary, was to dress all the Latin and Greek scholars of the 1400s and subsequently in the livery of 'humanists' and 'humanism' in these new senses vaguely combined. Once established, this ideological and misleading representation of the Renaissance classicists has persisted, both in academic books and in popular history, into the present day.

Hand in hand with the glamourisation of the Renaissance has gone a progressive denigration of the preceding Middle Age. Despite a century of historical writing aimed at correcting this, its correction in narratives of ‘the history of Europe’ has not been so diligent. Partly for this reason, in the minds and speech even of educated people, 'Middle Ages' and 'medieval' continue to connote at least a primitive and ignorant condition, at most a barbarous one. More, the notion persists that West European life in those centuries was qualitatively inferior to that of ancient Rome and Greece. In part these resistances to a more realistic view of the Middle Age flow directly from the glamourisation of the Renaissance. Abandoning the 'dark' view of the Middle Age would detract from the 'bright' view of the Renaissance - and from the aptness of the word itself.

In order to present a true, clear view of 'the Italian Renaissance' and 'the Renaissance' generally, and to integrate this into a true, clear history of Europe, it is necessary to sort out what took place around that time in Italy and in Western Europe generally; and to examine why it has come to be represented in an unhistorical and confused manner. In providing my own corrective account of these matters, I am aware that I will in part be making points which have been made in previous critiques of the 'Renaissance myth'. In the Bibliography of the book by Peter Burke that I have referred to, I notice an entire work of such criticism: Bullen, J.B., The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing (1994). And indeed, in another short book by Burke himself, called simply The Renaissance, the first chapter is headed 'The Myth of the Renaissance'. But I am writing about European history and I cannot take for granted that all who are interested in that are also familiar with critical writing on ‘the Renaissance’ in particular.

For the sake of argument, I shall follow Davies’s well-worn track and regard the ‘Italian Renaissance’ as beginning around 1450 and continuing to around 1550. I define the movement in question as one of heightened innovation in the arts and in scholarship and worldview. It was preceded in 1400-50 by what is often referred to as the ‘Early Renaissance’; a general growth of interest in the Graeco-Roman past – with the emphasis on Roman and the Greek element secondary - that was centred mainly in Florence, together with remarkable artistic innovation in the same city. In 1450-1550 the Florentine movement expanded throughout Italy; Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were active; the Graeco-Roman revival reached and passed its zenith; vernacular literature re-emerged strongly; and the movement as a whole impinged on European generally.

Cultural renaissances do occur; we know what they are like. In Charlemagne's Frankish empire, under the guidance of Alcuin, there was indeed, after two particularly barren centuries, a brief renaissance. A great and sustained re-emergence of high culture – the first such in Western Europe since the fall of Rome – occurred in France in the twelfth century and extended into the thirteenth. Embracing theology, philosophy, architecture, classical Latin, vernacular literature and the plastic arts, it deserves to figure in European history as ‘the Renaisance’ if this term is to be employed. (It does not so figure because the Italian antiquarians of the fifteenth century rubbished its achievements and its legacy and exalted their own movement as the true rebirth; and northwestern European historians in later centuries took them at their word and inflated it.) Then again, in Germany in the final third of the eighteenth century there was an outstanding cultural renaissance. And in many small nations, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries , there were lesser ones. By all these measures, in the fifteenth century in Italy no cultural renaissance is discernible, rather a culmination of the high culture of the preceding two centuries and its gradual transformation into a high culture of a different kind.

European civilisation around 1450 was still young as civilisations go, but in its most developed areas it did not compare badly with its Roman predecessor. Understandably, in some material respects, such as road-building and hydraulic engineering, it was inferior to Roman civilisation at its height. But in most kinds of structural engineering it equalled Rome and in the Crusades it had shown itself capable of using military force successfully at a great distance and holding the conquered territory for a time. It still lacked Rome's ability to make such distant conquest on an extensive scale and to maintain it for centuries. Europe's monotheism, on the other hand, and its related morality based on neighbour-love, were superior to the religion and morality of Rome. And while European intellectual life fell short of the Graeco-Roman world in its range of enquiry, within its narrower scope it was intense and ambitious and—because Europe had invented universities—better organised. Between 1100 and 1400, in a succession of styles that were in turn described as 'modern', new kinds of thought, poetry, prose, painting, music and architecture had flourished. Institutional creativity in city-states and kingdoms was on a par with that of the ancient world. And again, while Europe was in some material respects inferior to Rome at its height, in other material ways which favoured productive power, military effectiveness or the amenity of everyday living it was in advance of it.

Wheelbarrows and big shafted carts favoured facilitated carrying. The invention of the head-collar for horses had tripled their drawing capacity. Specially bred ‘cart horses’ pulling all-iron ploughs had increased agricultural yield. Eye-spectacles had greatly lengthened the productive life both of scholars and of such artisans as needed keen eyesight. Thousands of windmills and water-mills served multiple purposes; the water-mills were used for, among other things, the manufacture of paper. Mechanical clocks measured time in hours of equal duration. Ships were equipped with fixed rudders and guided by compasses. The biggest ships, carrying multiple decks, two or three masts and great expanses of sail, were capable of long ocean voyages. Stirrups giving foot-purchase to sword-wielding horsemen, the deadly shots of cross-bows, and gunpowder put to use in firearms and cannon, made a few hundred European soldiers more than a match for a Roman legion equipped with its conventional artillery. Cities helped finance themselves with public loans. Arabic numerals with their zero sign, and insurance and paper money backed by bankers, facilitated trading. Among the well-to-do, everyday life was enhanced by such innovations as buttons, gloves, underpants, table forks, and fireplaces with chimneys. In helping the poor and alleviating misfortune, pawning establishments subscribed to by the well-to-do supplemented the charity of monasteries.

In all these aspects of contemporary West European life, Italy was either typical or to the fore. Many of its cities, moreover, were works of urban art containing buildings and art works of great beauty. In the centuries preceding 1450, Italy, along with northern and southern France and northern Spain, had had the most continuously flourishing high culture in Europe. In the following hundred years the developing Italian high culture reached a splendid culmination.

The notion, first, that this culmination was, in fact as distinct from rhetoric, a cultural renaissance - and then that it was ‘the Renaissance’ of European history – arose centuries later, north of the Alps. It derived, initially, not from the great art of the period, but from the simultaneous antiquarian movement. It is instructive to observe how this happened.

The Graeco-Roman movement inherited and shared in a restorative ideology which had been present in Italian culture since the early 1300. In each new generation, dissident intellectuals had seen ‘resurrection’, a ‘return to life’ or ‘rebirth’ occurring in their time. In Rome Cola di Rienzo had made an abortive attempt to restore the Roman Republic politically. Successively, the revivalist intellectuals had lengthened the previous period of alleged barbarism or darkness In the first such instance, it was merely the hundred years preceding Dante’s Divine Comedy. By the 1400s it was the thousand-year ‘middle age’ between the fall of Rome and the present. Among the alleged forces of barbarian darkness that thwarted true culture and oppressed Italia were the 'Greek' style of painting, French 'Gothic' architecture, 'barbarous' English logicians, Parisian physics, the ignorant treatment of ancient authors, the scholastic

distortion of Aristotle and the neglect of Plato.3 Apart from ‘the Greeks’, these offences were attributed variously to 'the moderns', 'the Goths', 'the Germans' or 'the Franks'. France, because of its previous cultural dominance, figured as the principal centre from which the allegedly debased culture radiated.

Thus, when enthusiasm for the Roman past - became a confident group movement in the mid-1400s, the notion of ‘rebirth’ (rinascita) lay to hand as its ideology. In the previous centuries, apart from occasional surges of enthusiasm for the classical heritage, educated people had seen it as a valuable quarry to draw on for the construction of a new, Christian European world. Knowledge of such ancient writers as were readily available was part of a good education, but no more than that. In the 1300s Petrarch’s love affair with the classical past was exceptional. His most important work was not his excellent Latin prose but his Italian poetry. And the main result of his inducing Boccaccio to share his classical enthusiasm was to deprive Italian literature of what would otherwise, very likely, have followed the Decameron!

The classical enthusiasts of the 1400s were a different matter. Favoured by the Popes and other rulers of the time, they helped to create a broad, fashionable movement, and exulted in belonging to it. They included architects who studied ancient buildings and ruins, and who used their findings in their architecture. They included some painters and sculptors - more particularly, their commissioning patrons. But the main body were, of course, literary men. These were the first professional classicists – the first to make Graeco-Roman learning their exclusive intellectual interest. They saw the ancient world, moreover, not only as a value in its own right, but as an example of realised humanity which Italy and Europe stood in need of for their improvement and secular redemption. Thus, apart from Christian revelation and faith, which by and large remained precious to them, they regarded the Roman classical past as culturally superior to the present and they aimed to bring it to life again.

Partly this was to come about through language revival. The classicists campaigned for the replacement of modern Latin by the Ciceronian language, that is, classical Latin at its best. Believing that the Carolingian script of many monastic manuscripts was Ancient Roman, they

adopted it in place of the modern 'Gothic'. More generally, they searched for and found,

3. The denigration of the 'middle age' as a time of superstition, perverted religion and intellectual death came later, with Protestantism and rationalism. Insofar as they were northern Europeans, it can only have been the anti-Catholic zeal of these Protestant and rationalist gentlemen that induced them to swallow, without a murmur, the Italian denigration of their medieval ancestors as barbarians in art and learning!.

or otherwise acquired, manuscripts that had been forgotten or that had existed only in the

Byzantine East. As a result, and because book-printing arrived from Germany in 1465, they had more texts available for study than their predecessors. (In Rome alone, in the ten years after a book press was set up there, 160,000 books of all kinds were printed.) In their study of the ancient texts, the classicists were at pains to establish sound versions and developed critical method accordingly. More of them learned Greek and learned it better than had scholars in the previous century. A little Greek had been available then too, and many Greek works—literary, philosophical and mathematical—had long been available in Latin. But now, apart from new Greek texts acquired from Constantinople—more Plato, much mathematics and natural science—direct translations from Greek originals began to replace what were often garbled renderings from Arabic versions.

What all this amounted to in net effect was that ancient Rome and, to a much lesser extent, ancient Greece were actively influencing Italian elite culture, just as the latter was beginning to influence the other cultures of Europe. The princely rulers, the popes included, gave employment to many classicists, collected ancient statues, and commissioned buildings in Roman styles. Some classicists tried to appropriate the mindset of the ancient authors; others merely used the Roman literary forms for their imitative Latin prose and poetry. Previously Graeco-Roman mythology had played an ancillary role in European literature; now it became a self-sufficient source for literature and painting. Many classicists gave themselves Latin names. For many of its adherents the movement became a ‘swinging’ lifestyle with touches of the carnivalesque.

This kind of feeling and activity directed towards a past culture is what we call—as in the later Celtic, medievalist and neo-Gothic instances—a 'revival', using the verb transitively and figuratively. So it seems to me correct to describe the fifteenth-century Italian movement as in this sense a ‘Graeco-Roman revival Like the Celtic and medievalist revivals in later times, so, too, the Graeco-Roman movement believed that in the prevailing high culture important aspects of man were neglected; and therefore, man as he fully is and could be. In some of the classicists this gave rise to a current of thought and endeavour which can properly be described as a humanism. Such men replaced the medieval discourse on the wretchedness and dignity of man with an emphasis on his dignity and potential. In religious contexts they gave prominence to the humanity of Christ. In education they sponsored a new pedagogy which stressed the building of character, and which included physical exercise along with Latin and Greek.

More generally speaking, Italy’s Graeco-Roman revival was a companion and forerunner of all those European movements that believed in renewal of the present life through return to remote origins. The classicists were conscious that ‘Ancient Rome’ was ancient Italy, and classical Latin, Old Italian. They regarded the Roman past of their country as civilisation, properly speaking. Thus they believed that by reviving that past they were both renewing civilisation .and bringing Italia spiritually to life again. Similarly, in those same years, .the English and French monarchies and German intellectuals were finding inspiration in remote national or pseudo-national origins. Before the Italian revival had run its course, Protestant reformers and Erasmian Catholics were repeating its pattern in Christian terms. Later, Rousseauism would give the myth a universally human dimension; and one nationalist movement after another would be inspired by the belief that rebirth of the nation could be secured by drawing on, and in some sense repeating, the national origins. To cite an example with which I am familiar, almost every feature of the Italian Graeco-Roman revival was repeated, mutatis mutandis, in the Gaelic revival in early twentieth-century Ireland.

Italian memory in the following centuries recalled no cultural renaissance in 1450-1550. Italians, looking back, saw a ‘middle age’ reaching from the fall of Rome to Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492. The second half of this age, from around 1250, was characterised in their eyes by the revival and development of urban life. The simultaneous growth of commerce and prosperity was accompanied from the mid-1200s by ‘the revival (rinascita) of letters and arts’. This meant the emergence of literature in Italian and of styles of painting and architecture that increasingly rejected foreign models and recalled the Ancient Roman. In the Quattrocento (the 1400s) all these developments, except that of literature, reached a peak. The industrious passion for the ancient world brought novelties and intellectual enrichment. But except with respect to the arts, Italy’s ‘good time’ – such was the view of later Italians – ended with the Middle Age! The splendid Quattrocento was also characterised by a breakdown in morals; the discovery of America marginalised the Mediterranean trade routes; and the French invasion of 1494 introduced a long period of Italian subjection to foreigners. (This would end only with the Risorgimento or ‘rising again’ of the nineteenth century,)

In western Europe outside Italy, after 1550, remembrance worked differently. The educated classes celebrated the industry of the Italian classicists as the outstanding feature of the Quattrocento. In English they called it ‘the revival of letters’ or ‘of learning’: in France, la renaissance des lettres. The ‘letters’ and ‘learning’ intended were those of the ancient sort – literature and learning par excellence. This scholarly, restricted concept of revival was, so to speak, the duck from which ‘the Renaissance’ later sprang. The metamorphosis began with a gradual broadening of the concept ‘letters’, notably in France.

Italy in 1450-1550 had been leading Europe in painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts, and ultimately, in vernacular poetry. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw high creative periods in Spain, France and England. a number of countries, culminating with the artistic and literary splendours of France under Louis XIV and the new philosophy and natural science of England. When the French philosophes of the 1700s came to celebrating the modern as against the 'barbarism' of the 'Middle Age', all of that, but particularly its Italian, French and English elements, was la renaissance des lettres.

It is in this broadened sense that d'Alembert, in 1751, uses the term in his introductory essay to the Encyclopédie. The human race, he writes, in order to escape from barbarism, needed 'one of those revolutions that give a new face to the earth'. It had begun in Italy in the 1400s. Here are his words - using the historical present about events after 1453 when the Turks captured Constantinople:

The Greek empire is destroyed; its ruin sends coursing again into Europe [many Greek scholars had migrated to Italy] that little sum of knowledge that still remained in the world. The invention of printing, the protection of the Médicis and of Francis I reanimate minds; and light is reborn everywhere.

For d'Alembert, the rediscovery of the ancient world—nothing in previous Italian culture!—had made possible the painting of Raphael and Michelangelo. After a phase of mere erudition and slavish imitation, he continues, the Graeco-Roman revival gave rise to flourishing vernacular literature in Italy and France. Racine, Molière, Bossuet and others were there to show that. With Descartes, and among the English, Bacon, philosophy revived. And so on to Newton, Leibniz and Locke. Owing to the pre-eminence of the French language and culture in the 1700s, this view of the (still lower-case) renaissance des lettres spread through Europe.

But elevation to still greater heights occurred after the French historian Jules Michelet, in the 1840s, dispensed with the delimiting lettres in order to celebrate 'la Renaissance' unqualified, in hyperbolical language. For Italy and for Europe, it was ‘the emergence of certainty and life, the discovery of man and the world,’ after a dead age when these realities had been shrouded in doubt. Dressed in this cosmic raiment, 'la Renaissance' passed, with only the definite article changed, into German and English. In German, then, Jakob Burckhardt’s glittering The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (of which more later, confirmed the term, extended its scope vaguely backwards to Dante’s time, and depicted the Italy of those centuries as the birthplace of the Modern. The Italians, roused to action and flattered by this grand mythologizing of a period in their history, searched among their words for ‘rebirth’, came up with il Rinascimento, applied it with its mythical meanings to the 1400s and, with mixed feelings, to the subsequent decades, and readjusted their academic history accordingly. Thus the stage was set for the still-continuing career of 'the Renaissance' as the epoch-making rebirth of culture, man and spiritual well-being that succeeded the barbaric Middle Age and brought Europe, or all that was best and ‘modern’ in it, into being.

But, to return to the facts of the matter, in 1450-1550 the flourishing culture of medieval Italy culminated in a high creative period that continued in somewhat reduced form into the 1600s. By a 'high creative period' I mean one in which there is an abundant production, in varying proportions, of new fascinating artistic works (including literary ones), new attractive ideas and new useful tools. The Italian high creative period was rich in new art and ideas (though not profound ones), and relatively poor in new tools. It coincided, during parts of its long course, with similar high periods in Flanders, Germany, Spain, France, England and Holland, as the first age of Europe culminated and the second age began.

Some periods of this kind in European nations – in France during the reign of Louis XIV and after, in Germany-Austria from the late eighteenth century to the 1930s – have overflowed beyond the national boundaries to become periods of European cultural leadership for the nation in question. The new art, ideas and tools being produced in the country where innovation is peaking are found to be, respectively, fascinating, attractive or useful by Europeans generally. This was the case with Italian high culture in the sixteenth century and in the subsequent baroque era until the mid-1660s.

The first half of this period, generally referred to as ‘the Italianr Renaissance’, was not of itself epoch-making.; or rather, as a movement of innovation and high achievement it was no more epoch-making than the Spanish Golden Age, the Age of Louis XIV, or ‘the Age of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant’. If the misleading name ‘Italian Renaissance’ had not taken over, it might well be called ‘the Age of Raphael and Michelangelo’ or ‘the Italian Golden Age’. Indeed, and illustrating the persisting rather different Italian perspective, the currently most popular Italian history of Italy, in sixteen volumes, (Montanelli and Cervi) includes one entitled Italy of the Golden Centuries (1250-1492).

However, the Italian high creative period, between 1450 and 1550, included two components which were indeed epoch-making, inasmuch as they signalled a new age of Europe and helped to shape it. One of these was the Graeco-Roman revival. Its contemptuous rejection of the previous European culture, and its elevation of the Roman heritage to a prominent cultural role, exerted decisive influence on the consciousness, elite culture and statecraft of Europe's second age.4 On the one hand, it spurred Europeans to equal and surpass, in all fields, the great achievements of the ancients. On the other, it started a series of rejections of historic Europe by religious and secular elites, in favour of a different kind of life modelled on a past life, and deemed superior.

Before identifying and discussing the other epoch-shaping feature of Italian culture in these years, I make a brief digression north of the Alps.

A few pages back, I remarked that 'book-printing arrived from Germany in 1465'. Apart from mentioning the name Johann Gutenberg, the city of Mainz and a date c.1450, histories of Europe seldom tell us any more about this momentous invention and the man responsible for it, let alone convey his cultural context. Inevitably, however, against the sketched background of 'Renaissance Italy', we are told about the machines and the physical phenomena that Leonardo da Vinci sketched. And we are invited to marvel at the 'universality' of the man, given that he was also a painter. But apart from innovations in his painting, Leonardo invented nothing, let alone a mechanical process which shaped subsequent European history. There is a strange imbalance here. Norman Davies is exceptional in devoting similar spaces to Leonardo

and to the technical aspects of Gutenberg's invention. The result of fifteen years of dogged effort in the teeth of recurrent misfortune, it served its purpose so effectively that it remained virtually unmodified until the nineteenth century.

In Nuremberg around 1510, a man not even mentioned in the standard 'history of Europe', the locksmith Peter Henlein, invented the pocket-watch. Inasmuch as, by its subsequent diffusion and improvement, it brought precise consciousness of time into the daily lives of Europeans, it ranks close to book-printing as a formative historical influence. About fifteen

4. Elsewhere in The Revision of European History I suggest that the first and second ages of Europe be called the Pre-Columbian Age and the Columbian Age respectively; the former extending from the Battle of the Lech in 955 (which ended barbarian incursions into Western Europe from the East) to the discovery of America in 1492; the latter lasting from that date to the West’s justification of the atomic massacres of 1945.

years earlier, in the same city, Martin Boheim had made the first terrestrial globe. Nuremberg was then the main European centre for the publication of books on mathematics and astronomy—translations from the Greek and new works—and for the manufacture of instruments used in astronomy and navigation. It had a close connection with the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese navigators.

The 'history of Europe' does tell us of Copernicus and his sensational announcement of a sun-centred celestial system that made earth and man peripheral. But because it does not present Copernicus in his cultural and intellectual context, it fails to convey a related historical fact of almost equal importance: the foundation of European as distinct from Graeco-Arab mathematics in Germany in the 1400s. Copernicus, before he latinised his name, was Nikolaus Koppernigk, born in 1473 in a German town in Pomerania that had recently come under Polish suzerainty. His theory of the heavens derived more from mathematical calculation than from accurate observations. When dedicating his main work De Revolutionibus to Pope Paul III, he described its findings as 'mathematical truths' [which] 'can be judged only by mathematicians'. So he in fact profited by, and contributed to, a mathematical movement that had begun before his birth, in Austria with Georg von Peuerbach.

Contemporary concern about the disorder of the calendar gave the movement a bias towards astronomy. Von Peuerbach's interests ranged from arithmetic and algebra to the motions of the planets. He compiled the first European ephemeris, a table predicting the daily positions of celestial bodies. His pupil and collaborator, Johann Müller, a Franconian—he used the Latin name Regiomontanus—was the leading mathematician of his time. He compiled the almanac of astronomical data, Tabulae Directionum, used by Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci in their transatlantic voyages in the 1490s. As Copernicus would later do more successfully, he grappled with the problems raised by the Ptolemaic system of the heavenly bodies. Around the time of the transatlantic voyages, Copernicus, at Cracow university (he later attended three Italian universities) was studying Regiomontanus's Tabulae Directionum and a work by Peuerbach. Much later, in 1539, when he had completed De Revolutionibus but was hesitating to publish it, a posthumously published work on trigonometry by Regiomontanus, De Triangulis caused him to revise his own book's trigonometry. De Triangulis had been brought to him at Frauenburg in East Prussia by an admirer, Georg Joachim von Lauchen, a mathematician teaching at Wittenberg university. Von Lauchen, also known as Rheticus, persuaded Copernicus to publish. He arranged to have De Revolutionibus printed in Nuremberg in 1543.

The developing mathematical skills also helped in depicting the earth. In 1507 Martin Waldseemüller from Baden led an upsurge in improved map-making which culminated in Germany with Mercator and in Flanders with Ortelius. In the printed maps of the world which Waldseemüller published in that year, he named the newly-discovered continent's southern half 'America'. Mercator (Gerhard Kremer), in 1538, applied the name to the entire continent.

I have said sufficient to make several things clear. Innovation north of the Alps was providing an abundance of new useful tools which signalled the new age and shaped it: for example, the techniques of oil-painting and book-printing, pocket-watches, advanced mathematics, mariners' almanacs and navigational instruments, terrestrial globes, improved maps of the world and a radically improved cosmography. On a different plane, Luther launched the strain of Christianity which, as Protestantism in its various manifestations, would best express the spirit of the new age until the eighteenth century and beyond. And before the 1500s ended, Germany had given Europe, in the Faust legend, the myth that represented the age's essence.

There is therefore something seriously unbalanced about presenting contemporary Italian culture as the birth of European 'modernity'. Its elevation to this role appears to reflect the aestheticist bias and romantic nostalgia the northern Liberals who elevated it. In line with the historical scheme they created, the coeval German cultural scene is generally presented as ‘the German Renaissance’ with the emphasis on that country’s classical ‘humanism’.and pictorial art. Talk of Procrustean beds: the art in question, far from being 'Renaissance', in the conventional meaning, is in fact a final crowning development of the Gothic, with a sprinkling of contemporary Italian influence!

But the imbalance is not only a matter of failing to give an adequate account of innovation in Germany and Flanders. While such figures as Raphael, Brunelleschi and Pico della Mirandola are presented in their cultural context and therefore with adequate intelligibility, innovators such as Gutenberg, Copernicus and Luther who had much profounder historical influence are not. Given the focus on Italy, there is a suggestion of their being marginal, isolated figures from the northern, still Gothic forests, when in fact—like the unmentioned Henleins, Boheims and Müllers and the new map-makers—they were central shapers of the new age; innovators participating in a modernising culture where no one preferred ancient Rome or decried a barbarous intervening period. The suggestion of northern marginality persists even when we are told, as the standard history more or less does tell us, that in the years after 1500 the house of Fugger in Augsburg was the financial centre of Europe, controlling copper production from Hungary to Spain and using the new sea routes to trade with the East Indies.

Here is not the place to develop the matter apart from pointing out that in 1450-1520, in western and southern Germany and in Italy from Rome northwards, two high creative movements were in progress—diverse, independent, communicating, and to some degree engaged in the same or similar pursuits. Add to this what was happening then in Flanders, Spain and Portugal. There is an exciting prospect for the historian of Europe who, recognising these facts, depicts this period as the culmination of the first, and the multiple beginnings of the second age of Europe.

But to return to the matter we left. Jakob Burckhardt's The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, published in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, offered a view of the Italian phenomenon not so much as a rebirth of high culture, but as the birth, rather, of individualism, realism and secularism.. After a slow start, the book ultimately reached and held a wide readership, not least because it conveyed an enchanting message. With the help of much learning, it suggested that in the ('individualistic, realist, secular') men of Renaissance Italy – which for Burckhardt begins in the early 1300s - Modern Man first appeared. To many Liberal and Protestant bourgeois around 1900 and many uprooted intellectuals in the following half-century, this offered a beguiling image of their spiritual origins.

Criticism has shown that with regard to 'individualism' Burckhardt exaggerated. Even in the years around 1500 most Italian city-dwellers still regarded themselves as members of corporations of various kinds. Peter Burke quotes Burckhardt in later life as admitting in private that he no longer believed what he had written about the matter. 'But I don't say so,' he added, 'it gives people so much pleasure'. Certainly what we call 'individualism' was growing in Italy as in Western Europe generally, but around 1500 it was more notably evident in the transoceanic activities of Spaniards and Portuguese, and of Italian mariners in foreign service such as Columbus, Vespucci and the Cabots.5 And it was in Germany in 1520 that a clarion

5. The omission of these world-discovering Italian navigators from the conventional account of 'the Italian Renaissance'—from a place alongside Michelangelo, Leonardo and Ariosto—is part of the tendentious misrepresentation of this Italian high creative period as a lofty phenomenon of spirit, art and learning, quite separate from the innovatory practical activity of contemporary Europe.

call was issued to all Christians to think and act, individually, as responsible, priestly members of the Church.

For people to be 'secular' in mind or action, they must first be conscious of a clear distinction between the sacred and the secular. Apart from the long-standing legal distinctions between clergy and laity, that was as little the case throughout most of the ‘Renaissance’ period as it was in ancient Rome or Greece. But that said, it is true that, in Italian art and thought between 1450 and the 1520s, what we would call realism and the secular increased their presence.6 This, taken together with other phenomena of the Italian high creative period after 1450, points to what is in fact its primary novelty and its principal epoch-making feature.

Add to those 'thisworldly' tendencies in the arts the increased interest in 'human' studies as distinct from 'divine' ones; the spur towards high secular achievement provided by the Graeco-Roman revival; the new emphasis on the dignity and potential of man; the appearance of analytical writing of Italian history; the splendid and scandalous worldliness of the popes and the papal court; the emergence of Christian activism among secular clergy and among laymen; the first European theorising of 'the State' as a natural entity and some pioneering instances of state absolutism; the ruthless expansionist war and politics of such as the Viscontis, the Sforzas and Cesare Borgia; and the titanic self-confidence, capacity and ambition of Michelangelo, Alberti and Leonardo. All these point to a substantial refocusing of minds and wills in a thisworldly direction. It is a 'secular turn’; a lunge of the restrained secular commitment of Europe’s first age into aggressive confidence and vigour. Burke cites, as one of the few possible means of measuring that progress, a study that quantifies Italian paintings with 'secular subjects' as roughly five per cent in the 1420s and twenty per cent in the 1520s. Add the fact that that, along with this increase in 'secular subjects', there was also, both in Italian and in Flemish religious paintings, an increased depiction and celebration of objects and surroundings redolent of material well-being.. In this general context it is interesting to note that the Italian universities had never been notable—as were Oxford and Paris—for theological studies. Their forte lay in law and medicine. No country was more predisposed than Italy to take the lead in Europe’s secular lunge.

6. René Huyghe in Art and the Spirit of Man attributes 'the discovery of matter' to the Flemish rather than the Italian painters, whose realism he finds intellectual. In Italy in the 1520s, the uncontested ascendancy of realism ended. Inspired initially by German Late Gothic art, non-realist, anti-classical styles emerged. Art historians who identify ‘the Italian Renaissance’ with classical naturalism see it as ending here.

I find Davies generally convincing when, in his treatment of ‘the Renaissance’, he locates its main defining feature in the sphere of mind and feeling and describes it in the following terms:

The principal product of the new thinking lay in a growing conviction that humanity was capable of mastering the world in which it lived. The great Renaissance figures were filled with self-confidence. They felt that God-given ingenuity could, and should, be used to unravel the secrets of God's universe; and that, by extension, man's fate on earth could be controlled and improved. Here was the decisive break with the mentality of the Middle Ages, whose religiosity and mysticism were reinforced by exactly the opposite conviction—that men and women were the helpless pawns of Providence, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible workings of their environment and of their own nature.

Surprisingly, coming from the usually measured Davies, that last sentence exaggerates the contrast between the emerging mentality and the one that had prevailed for centuries. In the ‘Middle Age’, as in contemporary Islam, 'mysticism' was one thing, ‘religiosity’ quite another. 'Helpless pawns of Providence, overwhelmed' by their circumstances was not how the kingdom-building monarchs and empire-building emperors, the commercial imperialists of the Hansa, bankers of Florence and Antwerp, roistering Paris students, Venetian doges and courtesans, crusading Norman barons or Teutonic Knights had seen themselves. It is true, however, that in the first age of Europe which was now ending, the human and material world and man's ability to master it had been valued less than the supernatural reality centred on Christ, and man's ability to participate in it. With that difference of valuation went the belief that only the spiritual power conferred by Christ was absolutely good and desirable, inasmuch as it enabled people to live in God's grace and ultimately to dwell forever in heaven. In comparison with that power, which enabled people to 'overcome the world’, the intellectual and ultimately physical power that enabled people actively to master the world was of little account.

What had now emerged among the Italian elite—and among some other European elites, but in an exemplary manner in Italy—was an increased valuation of man and the world and a corresponding belief that not only was he capable of mastering it, but that such mastery was of great account. It represented a value almost equal to the absolute value of being able to live eternally in heaven. From this it followed that it was incumbent on people, collectively and individually, to develop and use to the maximum, within the guidelines of Christian truth and morality, the potential for control and remaking of their circumstances that lay within them. In the context of this emerging avid will to collective and personal secular power for its own sake, the antiquarian obsession with world-conquering Rome, and with the most gifted personalities of the classical civilisations, makes sense.

An erroneous cliché long opposed a 'Christian' Renaissance in Northern Europe to a 'pagan' one in Italy. Mainly this sprang from lighthearted Italian play-acting with ancient pagan symbolism and allusion—it occurred even in papal circles—being taken too seriously by North European sobersides. But it is also a fact that in the secular turn that manifested itself in Italy around 1500 there was a small, unrepresentative 'left wing', so to speak, which was not committed to pursuing the secular enterprise within the guidelines of Christian truth and morality. Some surviving writings and other evidence show this. The unformulated belief of this minority of the elite seems to have been that the intellectual and ultimately physical mastery of the world were goods of absolute value, so that securing them justified breaching, in effect, the Christian limits on thought and behaviour. Machiavelli is the most notable example of this tendency; but even Machiavelli received the Last Sacraments before his death.

The argument of this essay with regard to the Italy of 1450-1550 can be summed up as follows. A realistic account of this Italian period would be along the following lines:

In the mid-fifteenth century, stimulated by some cultural developments in Florence, Italy entered a high creative period which lasted until well into the seventeenth century. Among the features which characterised the early part of this period were a Graeco-Roman revival animated by a myth of 'rebirth by return to origins'—the period has often been naively called 'the Italian Renaissance'—and a passionate secular turn directed towards mastery of the world by human effort. In the sixteenth century this flourishing Italian culture, especially its Graeco-Roman revivalism, its architecture and painting, vernacular literature and worldly spirit, influenced European culture generally. It did this partly by offering innovations which were readily accepted or strongly resisted, but mainly by strengthening already existing cultural trends.

The way would then be open to elaborate on that last sentence, allowing each of the other national cultures its true and different story, as distinct from trying to force them all into a mould called 'the Renaissance' just because that mythical mould exists. Davies hints at this truer kind of narrative by using the plural 'renaissances' in the title of his relevant chapter. But there still remains the shadow of the Procrustean mould. In England, but later, under Elizabeth I and particularly after the defeat of the Spanish armada, there was indeed a renaissance. But it was not part of any general European movement; and much of what has been called 'Renaissance' in sixteenth-century England and in Europe generally is simply 'Italian influence' and more accurately described as such.

Ideally, however, as I have suggested above, the account of Italy in 1450-1550 would move in the context of simultaneous innovative movement on both sides of the Alps. Apart from the arguments I have already made for this, there is this clinching one. The stereotypically 'Italian Renaissance' activity of searching for and finding forgotten Latin manuscripts was carried out to a large extent in the monastic libraries of Switzerland and of western and southern Germany by Italian and German scholars.in colleaguely collaboration.

Dismantling the myth of ‘the Renaissance’, and acquiring an approximate view of the true course of Italian culture in those years, has taken a greater length of words than I expected at the outset. The obvious reason is that the myth of the Renaissance, entangled as it is with the myths of the Middle Age and Modernity, is the foundation on which the ideological History of Europe was consolidated in the nineteenth century. It was on that basis, with the Renaissance poised between a debased Middle Age and an exalted Modern Age, that the ensuing mythical sequence 'Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, Rights of Man, (liberating) Industrial Revolution, (civilising) World Empire' was constructed to represent the European Path of Comprehensive Liberation and Progress – not merely of Europe, but through Europe of Man.7 So in dismantling 'the (Italian) Renaissance' one encounters the entire matter of European history and is obliged to deal with it to some degree.

In particular, one encounters that mythical notion of Europeans constantly advancing in mental and moral quality beyond those who preceded them. True, this myth boosted morale and thus encouraged achievement; but it also produced in its believers an ugly kind of behaviour. So recurrent as to typify the mental set of Europe's second age, it was a behaviour which will not redound to our credit when others, in a future time, come to write our history. Robert Musil in The Man without Qualities satirised it in a jokey manner: 'The present looks proudly down on the past, which, if it had come later, would have looked proudly down on the present'. But it is not really much of a joke to see snobbish elites in one generation after

7. If this historical scheme of European Progress had been formulated in the late twentieth century, it would have had to conclude with ‘The Bloodiest Century in Human History’!

another saying in effect: 'Our ancestors, who were poorer and less powerful than we are, were stupid and vicious to boot.' It is a sort of generational racism, in which – to cite the most glaring instance - 'medieval Europe' comes to figure as the first 'Dark Continent' of the European imagination.