On the Renaissance
Reflecting on the History of Rebirth
Renaissance means “rebirth,” but that is about as much agreement as one can find about the word. It is an odd historical coinage, based vaguely on Petrarch’s 14th-century reform of Latin and reified in the Italian term rinascità during the 15th century as a form of self-praise by humanist writers who thought that by returning to the literary and artistic glories of ancient Greece and Rome they could reform their own culture. Intellectuals in France decided they also had bragging rights to a Renaissance, but the definitive use of the term came from Jacob Burckhardt, the 19th-century German-speaking Swiss historian who stamped it on 14th- to 16th-century Italian art and politics. The idea spread like gospel for other epochs. Scholars borrowed the brand to grace the literary cultures of 17th-century England and early 20th-century Harlem. Capitalist commerce has stretched out the expression to convey a sense of ineffable distinction: elegance in the case of Marriott’s Renaissance Hotel chain, or the financial success of a Medici bank in the case of Renaissance Wealth Management of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The superficial lure of the term sometimes defies obvious explanation. What is “Renaissance” about Beyoncé’s Renaissance or the Renaissance Plumbing and Heating company of Wood Dale, Illinois?
Perhaps troubled by the squishy, elitist feel of the word, many historians during the past half century have sought alternative terms—late medieval or, more often, early modern—but these tend to be so anodyne as to be drained of all meaning beyond a range of dates. A course or book labeled “early modern” will not, in my experience, draw as much interest as one called “The Renaissance.” The word possesses a great emotive power even if most have barely a clue about its precise meaning. The allure of the Renaissance transcends Western culture, as the numerous students from China in my courses demonstrate. Paul F. Grendler has observed “that Americans love and identify with the Renaissance more than with any other period of the distant past. . . . Nothing compares with the importance of the American West in the American imagination. But the Renaissance comes next.” As evidence, he cites Renaissance faires (in which people dress up in pseudo-Renaissance costumes and watch pretend jousts), Renaissance retreat weekends, movies and novels set in the Renaissance, and the recasting of Niccolò Machiavelli into an expert on modern business management. The Renaissance can also paper over something unpleasant, such as the pains of old age at Renaissance North Tampa, a senior living community—“revitalize your retirement at Renaissance.”
Scholars borrowed the brand to grace the literary cultures of 17th-century England and early 20th-century Harlem.
In the United States, the significance of the Renaissance has long been tied to the republican institutions of the Italian city-states, which codified constitutions, selected officeholders through elections, and created a variety of local quasi-official institutions that we would now call civil society: hospitals, orphanages, guilds, and specialized offices for managing public works. In the heady days of the 1990s after the collapse of the communist regimes in Europe, examining Renaissance republican models seemed de rigueur, but the waning of democratic vitality in Europe and the United States has made those distant precedents seem less vital than immediate political reforms. And among professional historians, the Renaissance has long had a respectable place, even if academic jobs formerly occupied by Renaissance specialists have now disappeared or been shifted outside of European history to other periodizations and geographies.
Embedded in the very idea of the European Renaissance is an abiding paradox: the literary, artistic, and scientific culture of the Renaissance period was profoundly innovative, but many of the masters of that culture felt obliged to deny their own innovations by insisting that they were merely midwives to the “rebirth” of something very old. Indeed, Guido Ruggiero has argued the term Renaissance disguises the new by finding it in the old, diluting the novelty of social and intellectual changes and rejecting the beneficial nature of progress. For the most innovative thinkers in the Renaissance, the best defense was to argue that someone in the ancient world had also thought the same thing and all that was needed was to acknowledge the ancient source. Nicolaus Copernicus may have recognized on his own the superiority of the heliocentric system over the Ptolemaic, but he found it prudent to show that Aristarchus of Samos had the same idea 1,800 years before. As Ruggiero writes, “One of the deep differences that sets modern society and culture off from most others is that it tends to accept without question that the new is good. The premodern world, by contrast, had a deep suspicion of change and the new.”
The concept of the Renaissance is thus deeply conservative, a view that change meant decay from ideal beginnings. Reforming religion, politics, or thought necessitated revisiting those beginnings. This is a belief that reverberates today among conservatives who describe being “born again” or “returning” to the primitive church to purify Christianity, or want to restore the “original meaning” of the Constitution to guide American jurisprudence, or hope to revert to the unfettered free market to reinvigorate the economy. The preoccupation with such re- words implies the past was always better, but as was the case in 15th-century Italy, these conservative returns to a better past are at best fantasies. At worst, they are an evasion of the real issue of whether change, which is perforce inevitable, is desirable.
For the most innovative thinkers in the Renaissance, the best defense was to argue that someone in the ancient world had also thought the same thing.
Whatever the problems with the terminology, the issue for historians and teachers is that thanks to the ever-growing body of research into the Renaissance since World War II, historians no longer broadly accept a single paradigm, whether they want to celebrate or to denigrate the period. There is just too much known to reduce it to a simple thesis, which makes the teacher’s task especially difficult. For example, feminists once categorically rejected Burckhardt’s thesis that Renaissance society liberated women by asking Joan Kelly-Gadol’s famous question “Did women have a Renaissance?” A generation ago, the answer was a clear no, but now many historians would incline toward a limited yes. Perhaps in answer to Kelly-Gadol, in 1993, Margaret King and Albert Rabil established the Other Voice in Early Modern Europe book series. This began as a modest project to make available in English translation about a dozen important texts by women writers who contributed to the development of humanism during the European Renaissance. The series has far outstripped the original plans by publishing to date 163 new editions of books by and about women. That series alone has forced a major reassessment of Renaissance intellectual life, so that Sarah Gwyneth Ross could confidently title her 2009 book The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. There is now an entirely new answer to Kelly-Gadol’s question.
On the lawn of the Northwestern campus where I teach, there is a bronze. Man Going through a Door depicts a naked man in the process of walking through a closed door, or perhaps he is stuck trying to get through the door. I suppose the patrons who gave it to the university imagined it as a metaphor for college students passing to a new place in their lives, but for me it conveys the sense that I am trying to get through a closed door of understanding. When I went to graduate school, what the Renaissance meant seemed hard to figure out. It still is. After 50 years of my teaching the period, the meaning of the Renaissance is still uncertain to me, which is why it remains a seductive challenge every time I teach it. That it is hard to define is why it is worth studying.
Edward Muir is president of the AHA.
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