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Studying the Renaissance with the Open University

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Looking at the Renaissance

Defining the Renaissance

Mention the Renaissance, and most of us will think automatically of the genius of Brunelleschi, Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed for many Leonardo is the Renaissance, the man himself synonymous with the idea of the polymath whose interests and knowledge know no bounds. There is however more to the Renaissance than beautiful pictures and brilliant individuals. Leonardo's own career alerts us to this in his work as inventor, and technical advisor for the military ambitions of the Dukes of Milan.

The more we look into the term Renaissance, literally rebirth, the more slippery we find its meaning. It was first used retrospectively by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) an Italian artist and critic in his book The Lives of the Artists, published in 1550, in order to define what he saw as a break with the barbarities of gothic art. Vasari had claimed that the arts had fallen into decay with the collapse of the Roman Empire and argued that it was Tuscan artists, beginning with Cimabue (fl.1240-1301) and, more significantly, Giotto (fl.1267-1337) who began to reverse this decline. According to Vasari antique art was pivotal to the rebirth of Italian art, both in inspiring the imitation of nature and as a model for the construction of ideal forms that could surpass the 'imperfections' of nature.

Parallel with the transformation in art was the revival of classical values in the study of the humanities, from which the term humanist derives. The word humanist meant something very different in the Renaissance to its meaning today. Renaissance humanist scholarship entailed a search for lost classical texts, the purging and re-editing of known but corrupted classical texts and the enthusiastic application of classical models and values to contemporary problems. Humanists were men with a mission, intensely self-conscious that they were making a definitive break with the lamentable Latin and obscurantist thinking of the medieval period. Indeed they invented the term the middle ages in order to signal their rejection of what to them seemed a time of stagnation. As with Vasari's conception of artistic revival, the humanists of the 15th century were equally certain that the inspiration for change was Tuscan, and specifically Florentine; for Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), civic official and historian of Florence, his city was the republican heir to Rome. Like Vasari, the humanists looked back for evidence of the first glimmerings of change, and they recruited Petrarch (1304-74) as the first of their number.

These 16th-century evaluations have been very significant for subsequent interpretations of the Renaissance, and find expression in the work of the 19th-century Swiss historian Burckhardt, who published his influential The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860. Nowadays we no longer share the confident assumptions of Vasari, Bruni and Burckhardt that the Renaissance signals the rejection of the medieval past and the commencement of the modern world. Historians rather emphasize continuities of thought between the Renaissance and medieval periods. Humanism itself was a profoundly conservative movement in many respects, looking back to ancient texts that were regarded as enormously authoritative. Nor was the Renaissance characterised by the secular outlook that Burckhardt identified. It was humanism for example that provided the impetus for critical enquiry into the text of the Bible. The great Dutch scholar Erasmus (c.1469-1536) was able to draw on humanist scholarship in his drive for religious reform and a closer imitation of the life of Christ.

From being narrowly focused on the achievements of north Italians in the 15th and early 16th centuries, the Renaissance is now being seen in a far wider context. Even in the role of the visual arts, where the Italians have always been seen as the masters of the new style, the unique role of northern European artists is now more fully acknowledged. Artists such as Jan van Eyck were not second-class citizens in 15th-century Europe. Rather, Netherlandish artists and their distinct style were fully appreciated in Italy at this time, proving a major source of inspiration for Italian artists and their educated patrons. There is no evidence, however, that the antique served as the catalyst for the extraordinary flowering of art in the 15th-century Netherlands as it did in Italy. The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was the first northern artist to begin to turn to the antique (and Italy) in a systematic way, and that was not until about 1500.

Emphasis too is being laid not just on the nature of the new learning and of the changes in art, but on the way these innovations were received. So the study of the Renaissance takes in the culture of the court and of the urban elites, with whom artists and humanists found work. It looks at the priorities of patrons; as these priorities differed from place to place, so the Renaissance took different forms. The creative absorption and transformation of classical values throughout Europe and even in the new societies of the Americas is all part of the understanding of the Renaissance. So to is the relationship between the Renaissance and other major contemporary cultural changes, religious, technological and scientific.

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