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Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Age.

Theodore K. Rabb and his associates have produced a college course on the Renaissance for our time: a telecourse of 18 lessons, with 14 of the 18 lessons also aired on public television; a text with sources; a teacher's guide to the telecourse and text; and a tradebook. All these materials are organized around themes and the historical figures who best embody them: Prince, Warrior, Dissenter, Merchant, Artist, Scientist.

The films aired on public television, narrated by Ian Richardson, comprise five one-hour presentations, one each on "The Scientist, " "The Dissenter," "The Prince," "The Artist," and "The Warrior." In the telecourse there are, in addition, two lessons on "The Merchant" and, at the end of the series, a lesson on the continuing influence on the modern world of the transformations that took place during the Renaissance and a narrative overview of the period 1300-1700. Since I did not buy the telecourse, I have not seen these four lessons. But I taped and took stenographic notes on the films shown on public television, which comprise either all of the other 14 lessons or most of what they contain (I base this judgment on a comparison of written descriptions of the lessons with my notes on the films).

Each program is a kind of narrative history of "The Renaissance" seen through a particular lens. Here is the narrative movement of each program, in the order shown:

1. "The Scientist" begins with the alchemists and magicians and moves to the natural philosophers (roughly 1450-1650), proceeding through the great names of the scientific century, on each of whom there is a longer or shorter segment: Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Galileo (longest segment), Descartes, Pascal, Newton. There is relatively little on Newton and the founding of scientific societies; part of lesson i6 may have been omitted.

2. "The Dissenter" treats Wyclif, Hus, and Luther (roughly 1350-1550). Again, there is relatively little about the growth of violence in the name of religion and the beginnings of a demand for religious tolerance, described as part of lesson 8 of the telecourse.

3. "The Prince" begins with Machiavelli's book and the Medici of Florence as an illustration of it, then moves on to Philip II, Elizabeth I, the Stuarts and the English Civil War roughly 1450-1650). All three lessons devoted to "The Prince" in the telecourse seem to be included here.

4. "The Artist" begins with Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio in early Renaissance Florence, then moves on to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Durer, Titian, Veronese, Bruegel, Caravaggio, Gentileschi (roughly 1400-1650). All three lessons devoted to "The Artist" in the telecourse seem to be included here.

5. "The Warrior" tells the story of warfare as it changed from the combat of individual knights in heavy armor fighting for honor to the use of gunpowder, the increase in the numbers involved in war, the accompanying increase in taxation to support war (roughly 1350-1650). Two lessons are devoted to this topic in the telecourse, which appear to be included here.

Each of these programs has various contemporary commentators (including Rabb, but a diverse group, appropriately politically correct in their diversity) intervene to make comments, both historical and contemporary, about the subject under review. The comments are most invasive in the programs on "The Dissenter" and "The Warrior" (subjects that particularly lend themselves to such commentary), in which a number of persons who have been dissenters or warriors in contemporary America make interesting personal comments on their involvement and the wisdom they have gained.

Rabb's text, Origins of the Modern West, with sources edited by Sherrin Marshall, is essential to the coherence of the course. His introductions to the seven chapters and his conclusion provide a narrative that, in each case, illuminates the larger historical context. The sources are interesting and well-chosen. The sources for chapter 2, "The Prince," begin with selections from the Middle Ages to show changes in Renaissance conceptions. I assumed this pattern would be followed throughout -- and I believe it should have been -- but it did not reappear in the following chapters. One can always quibble over the inclusion or exclusion of sources; I refrain from all but one: it seems to me that John Locke should have concluded the selections on political theory. Available with the text is a teacher's guide, complete with sample questions for discussion and tests. Despite several attempts, I have been unable to obtain this Guide. I list it as available (?) but cannot comment on it.

Renaissance Lives contains fifteen biographies of persons male and female, from various professions, classes, and countries spanning the years 1350-1650 or, more neatly 1374-1674 (from the death of Petrarch to that of Milton, the first and last biographies in the book). The same categories that appear in the films and the textbook -- Scientist, Dissenter, Artist, Prince, Warrior -- appear in the book as well, though the book contains the additional categories of Student, Merchant, Believer, Explorer; Merchant is in the Telecourse but all four are absent from the five public television programs. This particular text is disjointed. Instead of a history of artistic innovation, we are given biographies of Titian, Durer, and Artemesia Gentileschi -- all belonging to the latter end of the time period of the Renaissance; for religious dissent Hus begins and Milton ends the book (other kinds of dissenters are presented -- Petrarch and Montaigne); for science only Galileo; for the prince only Catherine de' Medici; for the warrior only Wallenstein. The others on whom biographies appear in this book are barely if at all mentioned in the television series.

Regarding Renaissance Lives, Rabb says in his foreword that he has tried to convey the importance and fascination of the past without offending either the guardians of the academy or those of mass communications. His aim, he says, is to address a more general readership. It was this aim that dictated the organization of the book around particularly exemplary individuals. The biographies are interesting and convey a feeling for the individual in the changing world in which each was involved. Moreover, people of both sexes (four women) and all classes are included. Emphasis on change, in-determinacy, possibility, openness to struggle without premature closure is what Rabb thinks connects these people to us (as he reiterates in an afterword).

All this having been said, the methodological problem of conveying an historical period through individual biographies is enormous and ultimately insuperable. I could not piece together an historical period through these individual biographies. When Rabb asks in his afterword whether this is possible (admitting his own sense of ambiguity about the enterprise he has just completed), he concludes only that they embody the restlessness and struggle that marked these years. That they do. But restlessness and struggle do not define an historical period or, more precisely, they could be said to define virtually any historical period one might choose to discuss. Since we live in a century of very rapid social change, these rubrics seem obviously intended to relate the Renaissance to the Present.

In what sense is The Renaissance a companion to the series, as the jacket proclaims? I am left with the strong impression that the relation has little to do with learning in the formal sense (it lacks footnotes, bibliography, index) and much to do with business. The book is beautifully produced, on glossy paper with many reproductions, and virtually mistake-free editing (unlike the textbook, though the latter is not badly edited). It is obviously intended to sell. To whom? Not to students but rather to the educated public that watches PBS programs.

For courses covering these years, the films will be useful to high school and college teachers who do not use the textbook but present the material in each program in other formats. I have shown the film on science already and could show most of the others when the appropriate courses cycle around again. High school teachers participating in the RSA's 1994 Summer Institute on the Renaissance viewed the films and 25 of 32 wanted a copy of them.

I think it highly commendable that a scholar has attempted to communicate the nature of the Renaissance to a broader, non-academic audience, to "popularize" the Renaissance in the best sense of that word. And I know enough about television production to appreciate the difficulty of bringing to fruition a project of this scope. The textbook and the films could be an effective college course as a package, though the course would be a better one if combined with additional narrative structures provided by a teacher or other texts. A number of high school teachers at the 1994 Summer Institute mentioned above were enthusiastic about the textbook (especially the sources -- their sources for an entire world history course are normally no more numerous than these); several, on reviewing the book, decided to order copies for themselves and suggested that the book be distributed to participants in future summer institutes. On the other hand, The Renaissance is not appropriate for the classroom at all, and I question its usefulness to the general reader as well.

Thus it seems to me that, as virtually always happens in such complex enterprises, the results are mixed. I would like to see more efforts of this kind to generate interest in and greater appreciation for the Renaissance -- and other historical periods -- and I think such enterprises should include in their prospective audiences students at various levels (as this series does reasonably well) who look to the newer media for knowledge and entertainment much more than those of my generation are inclined to do.


Sharon T. Strocchia. Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. xix + 308 PP. $42.50.

Focusing on Florence, Strocchia uses death rites as a base from which she investigates the social and political dynamics of the period from the 1348 plague to the end of the Republic (1527). Her sources include chronicles, histories, diaries, letters, financial records, and legal prescriptions a well as assorted works of literature and popular legends. These stories make for fascinating reading. Equally intriguing is the evidence which surfaces regarding the differing expectations of male/female roles, the statutes controlling extravagance, the political/familial considerations concerning the placement of participants in the funeral procession and the gradual changes in the ritual from itself, reflecting the influence of philosophical changes such as the influx of civic humanism and the Quattrocento interest in antiquities.

As enticing as the individual accounts are, however, the social and educational disparity of their authors renders the task of comparing them on equal footing practically impossible. Strocchia fails to present evidence that these accounts are representative of their particular genre or that their authors are linguistically and/or critically reputable. Can a silversmith grieving over the death of his wife be held accountable for his word choice in the same way that a disinterested court chronicler could?

Although her chapter notes are replete with bibliographical information, they are practically devoid of source quotation. Often the reader hungrily turns to the endnotes to read the original text that Strocchia is analyzing to find no text but merely a reference to an inaccesible, archival work. Because the points she is trying to make are inextricably interwoven with language and the original context of that language, her argument would have merit only if supported by the primary text in question. Rarely, however, does Strocchia include the primary text in the original language -- not even when the thrust of her argument is dependent on her translation/interpretation of a particular word or phrase. Instead of directly citing, for example, Alberti's Della Famiglia, Strocchia makes use of a translation in English which she has appropriated from a secondary source, the objective of which is completely different from her own; there are no chapter/page notations that would lead the reader to Alberti's work. Because Strocchia's argument in this instance is gender-oriented, Alberti's original language and the context in which his statement appears are invaluable in making an analysis.

In other instances, Strocchia seems to force her argument. In her discussion of consolatory letters, for example, she argues that some letters failed to recognize the accomplishments of patrician women, citing as an example the letter written by Carlo Marsuppini to Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici upon the death of their mother Piccarda Bueri. Marsuppini, Strocchia observes, rather than eulogizing the late Piccarda, chose instead to consider Piccarda's life as reflected in her sons' contemporary honors, focusing most of his effort on Cosimo and Lorenzo. But what Strocchia falls to consider is Marsuppini's agenda in writing the letter in the first place. Rather than illustrating that the deeds of patrician women were often intentionally left unnoticed, the letter is instead, evidence of how an author could use a consolatory letter to manipulate his way into the good graces of the remaining family members. This is not a gender issue but one of political acumen.

Overall the material that Strocchia relates is engaging. Difficulties emerge when she begins to compare and draw conclusions from these very disparate case studies. Such an examination can be successfully accomplished only if one takes into consideration the agenda and education of the individual authors of each diary, letter and chronicle; moreover, one should also examine these documents from a fifteenth-century and not a twentieth-century perspective.

Despite the flaws noted above, Strocchia's work succeeds in presenting us with a variety of information about Florentine death rites. Her wide range of sources gives us a glimpse into the world of the tanner and his family as well as into the more frequently studied arena of the Florentine humanists and the Medici princes. Both interesting and enlightening, these daily records make for a much more pleasant excursion into early Italy than one would normally associate with the topic of death.

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Author:Rabil, Albert, Jr.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
Previous Article:Origins of the Modern West: Essays and Sources in Renaissance and Early Modern European History.
Next Article:Study Guide to Accompany 'The Renaissance: The Origins of the Modern West' Telecourse.

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