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The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing.

It now seems inevitable that the progress-obsessed cultures of late nineteenth-century England and France should have found it necessary to invent a tradition for themselves - to borrow Eric Hobsbawm's formulation - that began with some ur-moment of rejuvenation: a renaissance, in fact. It is precisely this invented tradition that J.B. Bullen's The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing examines. Surely to become a standard reference work for the historiography of the Italian Renaissance, Bullen's book now complements Wallace K. Ferguson's The Renaissance and Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (1948) and John Hale's England and the Italian Renaissance (1954). Bullen's title sells his book short though: his subject is the myth of the Renaissance in both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

The book includes essays on such diverse historians of European culture as Edward Gibbon, Voltaire, Seroux d'Agincourt, William Roscoe, J.C.L. Simonde de Sismondi, Charles Nodier, Victor Hugo, Francis Alexis Rio, Charles Montalembert, August Welby Pugin, and John Ruskin. Bullen credits Gibbon and Voltaire with having first sowed the seeds for the idea of the Renaissance; their writings represent the past as a field of development in which images of birth, efflorescence, decay, and death are the dominant metaphors, though neither man uses the term Renaissance (chapter one). The first scholar to employ the term, according to Bullen, was the French art historian Seroux d'Agincourt (Histoire de l'art par les monumens, 1789), who met with Girolamo Tiraboschi and Jacopo Morelli in Italy and Horace Walpole in England (chapter two). Chapter three describes the further vicissitudes of the idea of the Renaissance in the work of William Roscoe, whose Life of Lorenzo de' Medici (1796) viewed the Medici as responsible for the "progress" of the arts in the fifteenth century; and J.C.L. Simonde de Sismondi, whose Histoire des republiques italiennes au moyen age (1802-26) decried the Medici and other Renaissance princes as tyrannical and corrupt. Chapter four surveys the opinions of the French Romanticism who argued against the idea of a rebirth of culture in Italy; such writers as Charles Nodier, Victor Hugo, Francis Alexis Rio and Charles Montalembert instead idealized the Gothic spirit of the Middle Ages while they deplored what they saw as the decline of Italian culture after the fourteenth century. Chapters five and seven, respectively, consider two English counterparts of the French Romantics: the architect, prolific writer, and convert to Catholicism, Augustus Welby Pugin; and the outspoken critic of sixteenth-century Italian painting, John Ruskin.

Two works in particular - volume seven of Jules Michelet's Histoire de France, entitled Renaissance (1855), and Edward Quinet's Les Revolutions d'Italie (1849) - finally convinced the scholarly world that the culture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy represented an important moment in Western civilization, marking the discovery of the world, the rediscovery of nature, and the emancipation from religious despotism (chapter eight). Quinet in particular saw the Renaissance as a revolution of the body - the erotic body - against the Church, while in Michelet's view it had been the liberty of the early Italian cities that the Church had stifled.

Bullen also devotes two chapters to the writings of Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, George Eliot, and even Swinburne and his interest in the Cinquecento as a titillating locus of images of incest (among other pet interests), though these writers' works were chiefly concerned with the picturesque nature of Renaissance Italy rather than its aesthetic or intellectual history (chapters nine and ten).

According to Bullen, the modern idea of the Renaissance first crystallized not so much in the work of Jacob Burckhardt but in the scholarship of three figures, each of them a resident of Balliol College at Oxford (chapters eleven and twelve): the essays of Matthew Arnold (1863-1888); Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), which was unprecedented in representing the Renaissance as an imaginative event rather than a chronological one, as a process of enlightenment and cultural rebirth in which Classicism and Romanticism do not represent "a choice between alternative modes, fixed in eternal opposition," but rather exist "in a dialectical, dynamic, and ever-changing relation to each other" (292); and John Addington Symonds's extremely influential multi-volume history of the Renaissance, first published in 1873, about which I wish Bullen had said more. Most surprising of all is Bullen's decision to omit any extended discussion of Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which he judged outside the scope of his work, since Burckhardt was not well known in England until 1878 when the first English translation of his book came out.

In his conclusion, Bullen notes sadly that in the twentieth century Renaissance historiography lost its "danger" (its aura of political and sexual apostasy), having been finally "tamed by scholarship" (298).

DIANA ROBIN University of New Mexico
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Author:Robin, Diana
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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