There Was No Such Thing As The “Renaissance”

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On a bright Spring day in Tuscany, sometime around 1500 CE, a dowdy merchant in the lovely city of Florence rolled out of bed. He smelled something different in the air. He sprang from his bed, but his wife and the animals in the house still asleep, moved quietly to the shutters and opened them to a bright, sunshine-filled day. “Oh my!” he yelled, waking everyone around. “Finally, the Middle Ages are over. It must be the Renaissance!”

But, of course that didn’t really happen.

IRWINDALE, CA – MAY 13: Atmosphere at The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire – ‘Heroes & Villians’ held ay Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area on May 13, 2018 in Irwindale, California. (Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)Getty

We tend to understand intuitively that historical periods don’t suddenly “begin” or “end.” We know, for example, that the example above is ridiculous. We say, for example, that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and understand what it means. Similarly, we understand that Rome and its empire didn’t crumble in a day either. But we’re still attached to those ideas, still wedded to the idea of a sudden apocalypse. We want clean breaks – Greece gave way to Rome, which gave way to the Middle Ages, which gave way to the Renaissance, to the Reformation, etc.

The biggest break, of course, is between “pre-modern” and “modern” with the line usually drawn right after the Middle Ages. This we still call the “Renaissance.” But the “Renaissance” is nothing more than air, a myth created by 14th-century Italians to tell themselves they were different – better – than their ancestors. And the “Renaissance” survives to today because we find it comforting like a warm blanket.

The invention of the Renaissance, which goes hand-in-hand with the invention of the Middle Ages, is a story often told (though maybe told best in Wallace Ferguson’s 1948 book). In literature and art, men from the Italian peninsula, wanted to show that they were different from what came before. For example, Petrarch in the 14th century, then Giorgio Vasari in the 16th, spoke of a great, sudden transformation.

For Vasari, art was transformed by the Florentines, particularly Michelangelo. But to do this, he had to show that what came before wasn’t as good. He coined the term “gothic” for the art and architecture north of the Alps, not as a term of respect but to link it to the “Goths” – the barbarians, the uncultured.

For Petrarch, literature was transformed by, well, him. He looked back at a world in darkness, in longing for the thinkers of Rome and in disdain for most of the thinkers of the immediately preceding centuries. That transition had happened quite suddenly. And although he admitted he still lived in an age of darkness, he saw the seeds of transformation (sown in part by he himself) and seemed to “know” that a new age would dawn soon.

The expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, 1511-1512, by Raphael (1483-1520), fresco, Room of Heliodorus, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.Getty

In the 19th century, the great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt cemented these ideas into the modern sense of self. The son of Protestant clergy, Burckhardt was born and died in the city of Basel, and although he initially wanted to become a priest, he became a historian of art instead. In his most famous work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, he wrote:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness… lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such. 

I love to teach with this passage because it does so much work. The Middle Ages was a time of sleep, able only to see the world through a “veil” that obscured reality. People had no sense of themselves as individuals. Then, in Italy that world “melted into air.” Reality could be seen “objectively” and mankind moved towards a spiritual awakening (towards Protestantism).

This is less history than polemic, less an argument against the medieval world and more an argument for the modern one. In other words, Burckhardt (just like Petrarch and Vasari before him) was working backwards from his own time, seeing in himself something better than that what came before. The movement of time, the story in history, therefore (by this logic) had to move necessarily towards him, towards his own time. History became a search for 19th century European ideals about religion, about self, about politics, etc. in the past. And the opposite – the antithesis – of that ideal was the Middle Ages, as “Catholic,” as communal, as mystical and not rational.

In that way of thinking, long, slow processes of change don’t work. For Burckhardt and those who think like him, there needs to be a break.”Then” needs to be different from “now.” The Italians melted the Middle Ages into air and created the modern world. And the word “Renaissance,” or rebirth, does so much to convey that idea. “Renaissance” says that culture, art, ideas, and literature were dormant, near death until they were revived once more.

But we know that isn’t true.

We know that the European Middle Ages were far from static, far from dark, but instead filled with vibrant, garish colors. To say all this in no way diminishes the accomplishments of those Italians, those Michelangelos, Donatellos, Leonardos, and Raphaels. To say that there was no such thing as “the Renaissance” is simply to say, as historians always should, that it’s more complicated than that. For every Ghiberti there was a Gislebertus. For every Sistine Chapel, there’s the Sainte-Chapelle. For every Vesalius, there was an Avicenna. And so on, and so on.

Perhaps then it’s time for the “Renaissance” to melt into air – not because the Middle Ages surpassed it but because both periods, like the atmosphere, are a complex mixture of elements, some good, some bad, but all of them necessary to a full and complete understanding of our world.

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