Wednesday, August 2


Did the Renaissance Really Happen?

Catch me in the right mood and I will enumerate all the sins of the Renaissance, from Paracelsus's frauds to its distinctly post-medieval mania for witch-burning. Yet, if I hear enough slams about the humanism of Castiglione and the humanity of Botticelli, I'm just as likely to switch sides. Some classicists call me Gothic, while my Gothic friends have me pegged as Mr. Baroque, or that classical guy. I love all these eras equally, for equally different reasons, and as a consequence, I know all their little flaws just as well.

There's a tendency these days in certain Catholic circles to cut off Christian civilization at some unspecified golden date in the thirteenth century. Sight unseen, the Renaissance, counter-Reformation and Baroque are condemned to the outer darkness without a second thought. Even setting aside the question of artistic merit, such a view neglects the rich tapestry that the Church has sought to cultivate, with varying results, in every age, and unsuspectingly subscribes to historiographic notions more in keeping with forotten Whig progressivism than a nuanced, reasoned view of the catholicity of Catholic history.

Most of our popular notions of the Renaissance--either an age of nekkid people and neo-pagan sex and violence, or the greatest thing for liberality since sliced bread--can be traced back to Jacob Burckhardt's 1878 The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a pivotal text in terms of historiography, but to us today tells us more about Burckhardt's time than that of Dante, Raphael and Michelangelo.

To Burckhardt, the Renaissance was the origin of all the comfy Whig-Victorian values that left the stereotypically Pythonesque middle ages in the dust. Scholars now know the picture is far more complex than that, and some have gone to the opposite extreme--saying the Renaissance's quest for classical purity killed medieval Latin, or that its bookish enthusiasms retarded science, or that the Borgia popes and Luther together destroyed the faith of half-a-continent. Others try to recast the entire movement as wholly Catholic in inspiration, while still others see it as a humanistic flutter at the top levels of society, as if the hobby of being a Roman were something like fly-fishing. In some respects, they are all right and all wrong.

The truth is, the Renaissance, like the Middle Ages before it, was a period of glories and woes, and the best lesson is to see both eras, warts and all. Arguing over which period was holier--and certainly one can make the argument that the Middle Ages was the better period for the Church--still misses the point, I think. There is much for a Catholic to learn from the Renaissance as well, if one reads with a little prudence and charity. Painting one's ceiling with gods does not mean necessarily worshipping them. Why not take the best from both ages? (Effectively, this is on some levels what the Baroque achieves, but that's another essay entirely--and I would certainly not suggest a wholesale replacement of Gothic and Renaissance with Baroque, either.)

The whole question of where one stops and the other takes off is so tangled as to be essentially without an answer. The Middle Ages was a period of greater freedom for women and scientific progress than is often made out, while the Renaissance had its own round of superstitions, its magicians and misguidedly bookish scholars. But, sed contra: The pious Middle Ages saw a raft of bizarre liturgical abuses, the endless feuds between Pope and Emperor, saw schisms in the East, and in time, even the West, not to mention the nominalist scoffers Siger of Brabant and the heresies of the Cathars.

Likewise, the pagan, impenitent renaissance gave us Dante's poetic ecstasies, the profound religious visions of Giotto, the music of Dufay and Palestrina, the hellfire of Savonarola (as well as his surprisingly Machiavellian political treatise), and in its post-Reformation sequels, Ignatius Loyola, Xavier, Trent and Bernini. Let's be done with the name-calling and crime-reporting and try and understand each age both in the breach and the observance of their Catholicity.

In the end, the split between the two ages becomes a manner of who's trying to slam who, and who's trying to out-Catholicize the other. A history book will tell us of the glowing Rome of the Renaissance and fifteen pages later Luther will be bang up against a blinkered medieval rendition of the same Church. Or Dante's love of holy things be attributed to different sort of humanism that he never heard of, and Savonarola's inhumanity to a chronological peculiarity he may have had little concern for.

To which world does Jan van Eyck belong to, with his stunning Gothic religiosity and his Renaissance techniques? Is Dante the pinnacle of the Middle Ages or the first fleeting shafts of Renaissance light? What of St. Francis's love of nature, or of Cornelius Agrippa's perversions of it? The oddities of Renaissance neo-Platonism or the heresies of nominalism? One is forced, depending on the agenda of choice, to keep pushing the date farther and farther back, to the golden-edged days of Duccio, or forward to the very threshhold of Luther.

It does us no good today to slam the Renaissance's irreligion if we ignore the scandal of the Great Schism, nor to deride the self-consciousness of classicism without a good knowledge of the artifice of the Carolingian and twelfth-century Renaissances or the high-brow, and deeply intellectual thoughts that went into the production of much medieval art.

The medievals had room for pagan romances in their monastic libraries, while Florence of the Medici was crammed with a thousand Madonnas. (And is pagan myth so absolutely corrupting? A single smutty magazine today is far worse than a gallery of chaste Renaissance nudes.) The chill Renaissance still has much warmth in it, while the alleged spontanaity or naivete of the Gothic mind is a fiction which obscures realities both sophisticated and devout, and has more to do with William Morris than Chaucer, and even then, not very much with Morris. Medieval art was a self-conscious diagram--much like modern art today is a diagram; Renaissance art was inhabited by a naturalism much like that of the centuries that came afer it. Except medieval art was a diagram of something, and Renaissance nature came from a universe turned by the love of the Unmoved Mover.

Today, we are faced with the question of how to truly rescuscitate religious art and Christian culture. Every previous attempt to do so has picked some golden date in the past--whether it be 1962, 1562, 1400, 1300, AD 33, or the days of Caesar, has withered in the end in the face of chronological determinism. We could no more fit ourselves perfectly into a borrowed Renaissance culture than a medieval one, but both contain aspects worthy of imitation and synthesis. Certainly, the need to adapt and even to modernize is widely recognized, but even more important is the need to borrow intelligently from the best of every era. As Catholics, we have a two-thousand-year-old history to pick from; let us be catholic, as well as Catholic, in our tastes.

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