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Culture Wars: 'It is given to man to be that which he wills'

The Renaissance was not so much a rebirth as a new age of human life, says Alan Hudson

There are two reproductions of Renaissance paintings on the wall of my study: The Expulsion (of Adam and Eve) by Masaccio, and The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Together these pictures sum up the spirit of the Renaissance: the discovery and pain of the self, and the acting out of human endeavour.

The development of the self through achievement in the public sphere is the core of the Renaissance experience. Andrew Graham-Dixon's BBC blockbuster (see below for details) captures how the Renaissance involved a new relationship to public space, public pride and public duty. For Renaissance man, the public space opens up the inner space, the inwardness, of humanity through its exploration of the world.

In a sense, the Renaissance was not a rebirth at all, and certainly not a mere revival of classical learning. It was a new development in human life. As with any social developments there is a relationship between change and continuity, and the task is to establish the mediations between the two. So it is possible to make a case for a twelfth-century renaissance - a period in which the ecclesiastical glories of Western Christendom were much in evidence, and there was the re-establishment of a more integrated and substantial trading system. But this takes place without a real sense of discontinuity with the medieval world order.

There are sufficient examples of earlier masterpieces, and the continued significance of classical and Christian philosophy, iconography and language, to try to make the case that the Renaissance did not happen at all. In this reading the Renaissance is a convenient fiction probably invented by the great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, who represented the Italian city states as the first secular cities, awakened from the mystical trance of the Middle Ages. Burckhardt is undoubtedly one-sided in his presentation of Renaissance Florence as all sweetness and light. But while there is a dark side to the Florentine spirit, this is as modern as the harmony and elegance of Florentine humanism.

Renaissance man embarked upon a journey of discovery and contestation, which enabled humanity to push back the limits and transform what we are. Even while aware of his own isolation and contingency, he believed in his own project and was aware that a fundamental shift in human affairs was taking place through his own activity. The Florentine humanist Pico della Mirandola epitomised this spirit in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. Pico defines man as homo faber: man as his own maker. He separated man from the natural world and the great chain of being of the medieval world picture. He notes that 'man is an animal of diverse, multiform, and destructible nature...it is given to (man) to have that which he chooses and to be that which he wills'. Pico concludes triumphantly that 'It is ignoble....To give birth to nothing from ourselves'. The imposition of our selves on the world is what makes us human. This is the real meaning of the term Renaissance.

Renaissance Florence was shaped by only a handful of men. But this does not matter - they did it. Graham-Dixon makes this point vividly in relationship to the achievements of Brunelleschi and Donatello in the early years of the Quattrocento. Men such as these grasped the nettle and transformed their world. This is well worth remembering at a time when human capacity is being put to question.

We now have, at least potentially, an almost infinitely greater capacity to determine our own circumstance in a world that we understand much, much better than did the giants of the Quattrocento. Yet we no longer see ourselves as our Renaissance forbears did: as the crown of creation, with the world a measure of ourselves. Our worldview is not defined by the need to push back the limits and discover new things, but by a sense that risk should be avoided and contestation eschewed.

The self-determination of Renaissance man is an important point to grasp, not least because contemporary interpretation and reanalysis insists that the narrative of Pico, Donatello, Leonardo and the others is just one possible story among many. In so doing, these interpreters implicitly apologise for their own narrow and impoverished sense of possibilities. In one sense, the contemporary preoccupation with chance and contingency is pertinent. To the Greeks and Romans chance meant fate - the will of the gods of which we were as flies to wanton boys. But while the Renaissance conception of fortuna was one in which a strong man made his own destiny through seizing opportunities and decisive action, the contemporary understanding of chance tends to see a lottery of parallel universes through which we wander.

The Renaissance was an accident. But it was an accident waiting to happen, and one which humanity was ready to make sense of and flourish through. When you come out of the railway station in central Florence, cross the road to the Church of Santa Maria Novella. Go up to the nave and you will be faced with the piercing beauty of Masaccio's crucifixion of Christ. In the world defined by the gaze of the dying Christ, you are part of a world which is marked by the pain of mortality but etched in the frame of human possibility.

This is the time when the measure of man became man. The Renaissance presents itself to us as an aesthetic experience, but the urgency and quality of artistic production itself derives from a qualitative shift in the human imagination. It is the ability to illustrate this which should be the marker for our own judgement of how the Renaissance is presented. By this criterion the National Gallery's exhibition on Florence in the 1470s is a failure: but not for the reasons usually cited. The problem is the arbitrary nature of the context.

The 1470s was the period when the Medici consolidated their power and undermined the republic. But except for a passing reference to the Pazzi conspiracy (much better explained in Hannibal by Thomas Harris) even this is not explained. Why the 1470s, and not the succeeding period of Savonarola's rule culminating in the Bonfire of the Vanities? Why not the 1490s and the High Renaissance, or better still the springtime of the Florentine Renaissance earlier in the century? The discovery of perspective, the growth of self-perception and the increasing use of the vernacular seem to me a more appropriate vocabulary through which to understand the Renaissance.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the plans for Brunelleschi's unsurpassable dome, for the cathedral Church of Santa Maria del Fiore. So magical is this building that the cathedral itself is known simply as Il Duomo. If one work and one man sum up the spirit of the Renaissance, it is the dome and the man Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi, credited with the discovery of perspective, was a stubborn individual who persuaded an incredulous gathering of Florentine city fathers that a huge dome could be built without internal support. It would be a glorious symbol of Florentine excellence and he could build it in record time. Brunelleschi's dome is a miracle of engineering and harmony, and soars over and defines the city which worships it. This is what the Renaissance is all about.

  • Renaissance, a six-part series, started on BBC2 in November
  • The exhibition Renaissance Florence: the art of the 1470s is at the National Gallery until 16 January 2000
  • The Art of Invention: Leonardo and Renaissance engineers is at the Science Museum until 24 April 2000

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000



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