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The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing.

J. B. Bullen's book contains a great deal of interesting information about responses to the Italian Renaissance, and many perceptive insights into the nature of those responses. Its title is, however, somewhat misleading and it could more accurately (though, admittedly, much more clumsily) have been called The Myth of the Renaissance in English and some French Writing during the first two-thirds of the Nineteenth Century. Nor does it seem very helpful of the author to challenge comparison of his own book with that of two exceptionally impressive predecessors who have worked in closely related fields: W. K. Ferguson (whose The Renaissance in Historical Thought of 1948 is commended for its 'considerable breadth of scholarship' and which 'remains an invaluable work of reference', though 'like all encyclopaedias it places comprehensiveness before analysis') and John Hale (whose England and the Italian Renaissance is characterized as 'witty and trenchant', though 'limitations of space force the argument along too quickly'; and despite being 'often lucid and accurate, he raises more questions than he is ever able to answer)'.

Most historians of any distinction raise more questions than they are ever able to answer, and it is to Bullen's credit that he is among them. If, for instance, he is going to argue very briefly (no doubt, because of limitations of space) that 'the image of the Renaissance was constructed beyond verbal texts' and received imaginative expression also in paintings, one cannot help asking why, to illustrate this point, he should select three not very relevant works by Turner, Leighton, and Dyce, while omitting far more telling examples of the genre by Ingres and Delacroix.

Bullen claims, with forceful arguments, that the concept of the Renaissance as a landmark in historical thought (rather than as 'the rediscovery of ancient art and letters') came into being and won such strong support essentially because of the attention that had been paid rather earlier in the nineteenth century to the ethos of the Middle Ages. He is very good at developing this argument and at pointing out that the violent controversies about the essence of a period which could be described, at almost exactly the same time, by a French writer as one 'when Satan ruled as the absolute master of the world' and by an English writer as 'the most marvellous period the world has ever known' can only be understood if one constantly remembers how forceful, and ideologically binding, remained the impact of the Middle Ages.

Bullen suggests - stimulatingly rather than wholly convincingly - that the 'revolutionary' term Renaissance was first used, shortly before 1789, by the French gentleman scholar and antiquarian J.-B. Seroux d'Agincourt, who was then - and until his death, at the age of 84 in 1814 - living in Rome. Bullen acknowledges, however, that d'Agincourt seems to have stumbled on the notion almost by accident and that he certainly thought of himself, rather ruefully, as the discoverer of the Dark and Middle Ages. It was certainly this aspect of his researches that struck the younger generation, and the wider implications of the Renaissance were not to be pursued until some years later, because it was the cult of the medieval that (following Napoleon's Concordat with the Church and the return of the monarchy) caught the imagination both of devout Catholics and of the more imaginative Romantic writers. Bullen gives us a very well-informed account of their concerns and of the impact made by those concerns on England. But he scarcely even alludes to Stendhal's remarkable history of Italian painting which, although it consisted for the most part of a plagiarism of the more solid and adequately researched volumes of Luigi Lanzi, must surely have been (along with other works by Stendhal) of real significance in creating and spreading the notion of an uninhibited Renaissance teeming with creative vitality in every field. And Hippolyte Taine is not mentioned once.

The reason for a certain patchiness in the French chapters (despite useful accounts of Michelet and Quinet) is clear enough. Bullen is essentially interested in the English scene, but has rightly understood that this cannot be adequately discussed without knowledge of the continental background. The core - and by far the most valuable part - of his book consists of a series of sustained accounts of Pugin, Ruskin, Browning, George Eliot, Arnold, Pater, Swinburne, and Symonds; and Bullen's analysis of what the Renaissance meant to them is certainly much enriched by his deft allusions to the French debates and speculations with which they were all familiar.

Bullen feels far more at home in nineteenth-century England than elsewhere - to the extent that it is not always clear whether a number of small, but revealing, slips in his book are his responsibility or those of the authors about whom he is writing. Is it George Eliot or Bullen who refers to a Raphael in Dresden called, inaccurately, the Madonna del Sisto? Was it Dickens, or is it Bullen, who believes that the atrocious scenes of martyrdom to be seen in the Roman church of S. Stefano Rotondo were painted by medieval artists (rather than, as is in fact the case, by late sixteenth-century ones)? Alas, the most bizarre of such errors - the notion that Michelangelo had a grandson - is certainly Bullen's own.

Nevertheless, it is for the English chapters that this book will mainly be read; and they can be studied with pleasure and profit by anyone fascinated by a particularly appealing period of English literature and also by everyone interested in the mysterious (but frequently recurring) processes by which some new and foreign historical concept gradually becomes absorbed into the fiction, poetry, aesthetics, philosophy, and historical writing of a quite different civilization.

FRANCIS HASKELL Trinity College Oxford
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Author:Haskell, Francis
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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