Beginning And Progress Of The Renaissance
Author: Symonds, John Addington
Fourteenth To Sixteenth Century
The new birth of resurrection known as the "Renaissance" is usually considered to have begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, though some writers would date its origin from the reign of Frederick II, 1215-1250; and by this Prince - the most enlightened man of his age - it was at least anticipated. Well versed in languages and science, he was a patron of scholars, whom he gathered about him, from all parts of the world, at his court in Palermo.
At all events the Renaissance was heralded through the recovery by Italian scholars of Greek and Roman classical literature. When the movement began, the civilization of Greece and Rome had long been exerting a partial influence, not only upon Italy, but on other parts of mediaeval Europe as well. But in Italy especially, when the wave of barbarism had passed, the people began to feel a returning consciousness of their ancient culture, and a desire to reproduce it. To Italians the Latin language was easy, and their country abounded in documents and monumental records which symbolized past greatness.
The modern Italian spirit was produced through the combination of various elements, among which were the political institutions brought by the Lombards from Germany, the influence of chivalry and other northern forms of civilization, and the more immediate power of the Church. That which was foreshadowed in the thirteenth century became in the fourteenth a distinct national development, which, as Symonds, its most discerning interpreter, shows us, was constructing a model for the whole western world.
The word "renaissance" has of late years received a more extended significance than that which is implied in our English equivalent - the
"revival of learning." We use it to denote the whole transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world; and though it is possible to assign certain limits to the period during which this transition took place, we cannot fix on any dates so positively as to say between this year and that the movement was accomplished. To do so would be like trying to name the days on which spring in any particular season began and ended. Yet we speak of spring as different from winter and from summer.
The truth is that in many senses we are still in mid-Renaissance. The evolution has not been completed. The new life is our own and is progressive. As in the transformation scene of some pantomime, so here the waning and the waxing shapes are mingled; the new forms, at first shadowy and filmy, gain upon the old; and now both blend; and now the old scene fades into the background; still, who shall say whether the new scene be finally set up?
In like manner we cannot refer the whole phenomena of the Renaissance to any one cause or circumstance, or limit them within the field of any one department of human knowledge. If we ask the students of art what they mean by the Renaissance, they will reply that it was the revolution effected in architecture, painting, and sculpture by the recovery of antique monuments. Students of literature, philosophy, and theology see in the Renaissance that discovery of manuscripts, that passion for antiquity, that progress in philology and criticism, which led to a correct knowledge of the classics, to a fresh taste in poetry, to new systems of thought, to more accurate analysis, and finally to the Lutheran schism and the emancipation of the conscience. Men of science will discourse about the discovery of the solar system by Copernicus and Galileo, the anatomy of Vesalius, and Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood. The origination of a truly scientific method is the point which interests them most in the Renaissance. The political historian, again, has his own answer to the question. The extinction of feudalism, the development of the great nationalities of Europe, the growth of monarchy, the limitation of the ecclesiastical authority, and the erection of the papacy into an Italian kingdom, and in the last place the gradual emergence of that sense of popular freedom which exploded in the Revolution: these are the aspects of the movement which engross his attention.
Jurists will describe the dissolution of legal fictions based upon the False Decretals, the acquisition of a true text of the Roman code, and the attempt to introduce a rational method into the theory of modern jurisprudence, as well as to commence the study of international law. Men whose attention has been turned to the history of discoveries and inventions will relate the exploration of America and the East, or will point to the benefits conferred upon the world by the arts of printing and engraving, by the compass and the telescope, by paper and by gunpowder; and will insist that at the moment of the Renaissance all the instruments of mechanical utility started into existence, to aid the dissolution of what was rotten and must perish, to strengthen and perpetuate the new and useful and life-giving.
Yet neither any one of these answers, taken separately, nor indeed all of them together, will offer a solution of the problem. By the term
"renaissance," or new birth, is indicated a natural movement, not to be explained by this or that characteristic, but to be accepted as an effort of humanity for which at length the time had come, and in the onward progress of which we still participate. The history of the Renaissance is not the history of arts or of sciences or of literature or even of nations. It is the history of the attainment of self-conscious freedom by the human spirit manifested in the European races. It is no mere political mutation, no new fashion of art, no restoration of classical standards of taste. The arts and the inventions, the knowledge and the books which suddenly became vital at the time of the Renaissance, had long lain neglected on the shores of the dead sea which we call the Middle Ages. It was not their discovery which caused the Renaissance. But it was the intellectual energy, the spontaneous outburst of intelligence, which enabled mankind at that moment to make use of them. The force then generated still continues, vital and expansive, in the spirit of the modern world.
How was it, then, that at a certain period, about fourteen centuries after Christ, to speak roughly, humanity awoke as it were from slumber and began to live? That is a question which we can but imperfectly answer. The mystery of organic life defeats analysis. Whether the subject of our inquiry be a germ-cell, or a phenomenon so complex as the commencement of a new religion, or the origination of a new disease, or a new phase in civilization, it is alike impossible to do more than to state the conditions under which the fresh growth begins, and to point out what are its manifestations. In doing so, moreover, we must be careful not to be carried away by words of our own making. Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution are not separate things, capable of being isolated; they are moments in the history of the human race which we find it convenient to name; while history itself is one and continuous, so that our utmost endeavors to regard some portion of it, independently of the rest, will be defeated.
A glance at the history of the preceding centuries shows that, after the dissolution of the fabric of the Roman Empire, there was no possibility of any intellectual revival. The barbarous races which had deluged Europe had to absorb their barbarism; the fragments of Roman civilization had either to be destroyed or assimilated; the Germanic nations had to receive culture and religion from the effete people they had superseded. It was further necessary that the modern nationalities should be defined, that the modern languages should be formed, that peace should be secured to some extent, and wealth accumulated, before the indispensable milieu for a resurrection of the free spirit of humanity could exist. The first nation which fulfilled these conditions was the first to inaugurate the new era. The reason why Italy took the lead in the Renaissance was that Italy possessed a language, a favorable climate, political freedom, and commercial prosperity, at a time when other nations were still semibarbarous. Where the human spirit had been buried in the decay of the Roman Empire, there it arose upon the ruins of that Empire; and the papacy - called by Hobbes the ghost of the dead Roman Empire, seated,
throned, and crowned, upon the ashes thereof - to some extent bridged over the gulf between the two periods.
Keeping steadily in sight the truth that the real quality of the Renaissance was intellectual - that it was the emancipation of the reason for
the modern world - we may inquire how feudalism was related to it. The mental condition of the Middle Ages was one of ignorant prostration before the idols of the Church - dogma and authority and scholasticism. Again, the nations of Europe during these centuries were bound down by the brute weight of material necessities. Without the power over the outer world which the physical sciences and useful arts communicate, without the ease of life which wealth and plenty secure, without the traditions of a civilized past, emerging slowly from a state of utter rawness, each nation could barely do more than gain and keep a difficult hold upon existence. To depreciate the work achieved for humanity during the Middle Ages would be ridiculous. Yet we may point out that it was done unconsciously - that it was a gradual and instinctive process of becoming. The reason, in a word, was not awake; the mind of man was ignorant of its own treasures and its own capacities. It is pathetic to think of the mediaeval students poring over a single ill-translated sentence of Porphyry, endeavoring to extract from its clauses whole systems of logical science, and torturing their brains about puzzles more idle than the dilemma of Buridan's donkey, while all the time, at Constantinople and at Seville, in Greek and Arabic, Plato and Aristotle were alive, but sleeping, awaiting only the call of the Renaissance to bid them speak with voice intelligible to the modern mind. It is no less pathetic to watch tide after tide of the ocean of humanity sweeping from all parts of Europe, to break in passionate but unavailing foam upon the shores of Palestine, whole nations laying life down for the chance of seeing the walls of Jerusalem, worshipping the sepulchre whence Christ had risen, loading their fleet with relics and with cargoes of the sacred earth, while all the time, within their breasts and brains, the
spirit of the Lord was with them, living but unrecognized, the spirit of freedom which ere long was destined to restore its birthright to the world.
Meanwhile the Middle Age accomplished its own work. Slowly and obscurely, amid stupidity and ignorance, were being forged the nations and the languages of Europe. Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany took shape. The actors of the future drama acquired their several characters, and formed the tongues whereby their personalities should be expressed. The qualities which render modern society different from that of the ancient world were being impressed upon these nations by Christianity, by the Church, by chivalry, by feudal customs. Then came a further phase. After the nations had been moulded, their monarchies and dynasties were established. Feudalism passed by slow degrees into various forms of more or less defined autocracy. In Italy and Germany numerous principalities sprang into preeminence; and though the nation was not united under one head, the monarchical principle was acknowledged. France and Spain submitted to a despotism, by right of which the king could say, "L'etat c'est moi." England developed her complicated constitution of popular right and royal prerogative. At the same time the Latin Church underwent a similar process of transformation. The papacy became
more autocratic. Like the king the pope began to say, "L'Eglise c'est moi." This merging of the mediaeval state and mediaeval church in the personal supremacy of king and pope may be termed the special feature of the last age of feudalism which preceded the Renaissance. It was thus that the necessary milieu was prepared. The organization of the five great nations, and the leveling of political and spiritual interests under political and spiritual despots, formed the prelude to that drama of liberty of which the Renaissance was the first act, the Reformation the second, the Revolution the third, and which we nations of the present are still evolving in the establishment of the
Meanwhile it must not be imagined that the Renaissance burst suddenly upon the world in the fifteenth century without premonitory symptoms. Far from that, within the Middle Age itself, over and over again, the reason strove to break loose from its fetters. Abelard, in the twelfth century, tried to prove that the interminable dispute about entities and words was founded on a misapprehension. Roger Bacon, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, anticipated modern science, and proclaimed that man, by use of nature, can do all things. Joachim of Flora, intermediate between the two, drank one drop of the cup of prophecy offered to his lips, and cried that "the gospel of the Father was past, the gospel of the Son was passing, the gospel of the Spirit was to be." These three men, each in his own way, the Frenchman as a logician, the Englishman as an analyst, the Italian as a mystic, divined the future but inevitable emancipation of the reason of mankind. Nor were there wanting signs, especially in Provence, that Aphrodite and Phoebus and the Graces were ready to resume their sway. We have, moreover, to remember the Cathari, the Paterini, the Franticelli, the Albigenses, the Hussites - heretics in whom the new light dimly shone, but who were instantly exterminated by the Church.
We have to commemorate the vast conception of the emperor Frederick II, who strove to found a new society of humane culture in the South of Europe, and to anticipate the advent of the spirit of modern tolerance. He, too, and all his race were exterminated by the papal jealousy. Truly we may say with Michelet that the sibyl of the Renaissance kept offering her books in vain to feudal Europe. In vain, because the time was not yet. The ideas projected thus early on the modern world were immature and abortive, like those headless trunks and zoophytic members of half-moulded humanity which, in the vision of Empedocles, preceded the birth of full-formed man. The nations were not ready. Franciscans imprisoning Roger Bacon for venturing to examine what God had meant to keep secret; Dominicans preaching crusades against the cultivated nobles of Provence; popes stamping out the seed of enlightened Frederick; Benedictines erasing the masterpieces of classical literature to make way for their own litanies and lurries, or selling pieces of the parchment for charms; a laity devoted by superstition to saints and by sorcery to the devil; a clergy sunk in sensual sloth or fevered with demoniac zeal - these still ruled
the intellectual destinies of Europe. Therefore the first anticipations of the Renaissance were fragmentary and sterile.
Then came a second period. Dante's poem, a work of conscious art, conceived in a modern spirit and written in a modern tongue, was the first true sign that Italy, the leader of the nations of the West, had shaken off her sleep. Petrarch followed. His ideal of antique culture as the everlasting solace and the universal education of the human race, his lifelong effort to recover the classical harmony of thought and speech, gave a direct impulse to one of the chief movements of the Renaissance - its passionate outgoing toward the ancient world. After Petrarch, Boccaccio opened yet another channel for the stream of freedom. His conception of human existence as a joy to be accepted with thanksgiving, not as a gloomy error to be rectified by suffering, familiarized the fourteenth century with the form of semipagan gladness that marked the real Renaissance.
In Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio Italy recovered the consciousness of intellectual liberty. What we call the Renaissance had not yet arrived; but their achievement rendered its appearance in due season certain. With Dante the genius of the modern world dared to stand alone and to create confidently after its own fashion. With Petrarch the same genius reached forth across the gulf of darkness, resuming the tradition of a splendid past. With Boccaccio the same genius proclaimed the beauty of the world, the goodliness of youth, and strength and love and life, unterrified by hell, unappalled by the shadow of impending death.
It was now, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, when Italy had lost, indeed, the heroic spirit which we admire in her communes of the thirteenth, but had gained instead ease, wealth, magnificence, and that repose which springs from long prosperity, that the new age at last began. Europe was, as it were, a fallow field, beneath which lay buried the civilization of the Old World. Behind stretched the centuries of mediaevalism, intellectually barren and inert. Of the future there were as yet but faint foreshadowings. Meanwhile, the force of the nations who were destined to achieve the coming transformation was unexhausted, their physical and mental faculties were unimpaired. No ages of enervating luxury, of intellectual endeavor, of life artificially preserved or ingeniously prolonged, had sapped the fibre of the men who were about to inaugurate the modern world. Severely nurtured, unused to delicate living, these giants of the Renaissance were like boys in their capacity for endurance, their inordinate appetite for enjoyment. No generations, hungry, sickly, effete, critical, disillusioned, trod them down. Ennui and the fatigue that springs from scepticism, the despair of thwarted effort, were unknown. Their fresh and unperverted senses rendered them keenly alive to what was beautiful and natural. They yearned for magnificence and instinctively comprehended splendor. At the same time the period of satiety was still far off.
Everything seemed possible to their young energy; nor had a single pleasure palled upon their appetite. Born, as it were, at the moment when desires and faculties are evenly balanced, when the perceptions are not blunted, nor the senses cloyed, opening their eyes for the first time on a world of wonder, these men of the Renaissance enjoyed what we may term the first transcendent springtide of the modern world. Nothing is more remarkable than the fulness of the life that throbbed in them. Natures rich in all capacities and endowed with every kind of sensibility were frequent. Nor was there any limit to the play of personality in action. We may apply to them what Browning has written of Sordello's temperament:
"A football there
Suffices to upturn to the warm air
Half-germinating spices, mere decay
Produces richer life, and day by day
New pollen on the lily-petal grows,
And still more labyrinthine buds the rose."
During the Middle Ages man had lived enveloped in a cowl. He had not seen the beauty of the world, or had seen it only to cross himself, and turn aside and tell his beads and pray. Like St. Bernard travelling along the shores of Lake Leman, and noticing neither the azure of the waters nor the luxuriance of the vines,nor the radiance of the mountains with their robe of sun and snow, but bending a thought-burdened forehead over the neck of his mule - even like this monk, humanity has passed, a careful pilgrim, intent on the terrors of sin, death, and judgment, along the highways of the world, and had not known that they were sightworthy, or that life is a blessing. Beauty is a snare, pleasure a sin, the world a fleeting show, man fallen and lost, death the only certainty, judgment inevitable, hell everlasting, heaven hard to win, ignorance is acceptable to God as a proof of faith and submission, abstinence and mortification are the only safe rules of life - these were the fixed ideas of the ascetic mediaeval Church. The Renaissance shattered and destroyed them, rending the thick veil which they had drawn between the mind of man and the outer world, and flashing the light of reality upon the darkened places of his own nature. For the mystic teaching of the Church was substituted culture in the classical humanities; a new ideal was established, whereby man strove to make himself the monarch of the globe on which it is his privilege as well as destiny to live. The Renaissance was the liberation of humanity from a dungeon, the double discovery of the outer and the inner world.
An external event determined the direction which this outburst of the spirit of freedom should take. This was the contact of the modern with the ancient mind, which followed upon what is called the Revival of Learning. The fall of the Greek empire in 1453, while it signalized the extinction of the old order, gave an impulse to the now accumulated forces of the new. A belief in the identity of the human spirit under all manifestations was generated. Men found that in classical as well as biblical antiquity existed an ideal of human life, both moral and intellectual, by which they might profit in the present. The modern genius felt confidence in its own energies when it learned what the ancients had achieved. The guesses of the ancients stimulated the exertions of the moderns. The whole world's history seemed once more to be one.
The great achievements of the Renaissance were the discovery of the world and the discovery of man. Under these two formulas may be classified all the phenomena which properly belong to this period. The discovery of the world divides itself into two branches - the exploration of the globe, and that systematic exploration of the universe which is in fact what we call science. Columbus made known America in 1492; the Portuguese rounded the Cape in 1497; Copernicus explained the solar system in 1507. It is not necessary to add
anything to this plain statement, for, in contact with facts of such momentous import, to avoid what seems like commonplace reflection would be difficult. Yet it is only when we contrast the ten centuries which preceded these dates with the four centuries which have ensued that we can estimate the magnitude of that Renaissance movement by means of which a new hemisphere has been added to civilization.
In like manner, it is worth while to pause a moment and consider what is implied in the substitution of the Copernican for the Ptolemaic system. The world, regarded in old times as the centre of all things, the apple of God's eye, for the sake of which were created sun and moon and stars, suddenly was found to be one of the many balls that roll round a giant sphere of light and heat, which is itself but one among innumerable suns, attended each by a cortege of planets, and scattered - how, we know not - through infinity. What has become of that brazen seat of the old gods, that paradise to which an ascending Deity might be caught up through clouds, and hidden for a moment from the eyes of his disciples? The demonstration of the simplest truths of astronomy destroyed at a blow the legends that were most significant to the early Christians by annihilating their symbolism. Well might the Church persecute Galileo for his proof of the world's mobility. Instinctively she perceived that in this one proposition was involved the principle of hostility to her most cherished conceptions, to the very core of her mythology.
Science was born, and the warfare between scientific positivism and
religious metaphysics was declared. Henceforth God could not be worshipped
under the forms and idols of a sacerdotal fancy; a new meaning had been given
to the words "God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in
spirit and in truth." The reason of man was at last able to study the scheme
of the universe, of which he is a part, and to ascertain the actual laws by
which it is governed. Three centuries and a half have elapsed since
Copernicus revolutionized astronomy. It is only by reflecting on the mass of
knowledge we have since acquired, knowledge not only infinitely curious, but
also incalculably useful in its application to the arts of life, and then
considering how much ground of this kind was acquired in the ten centuries
which preceded the Renaissance, that we are at all able to estimate the
expansive force which was then generated. Science, rescued from the hands of
astrology, geomancy, alchemy, began her real life with the Renaissance. Since
then, as far as to the present moment, she has never ceased to grow.
Progressive and durable, science may be called the first-born of the spirit of
the modern world.
Thus by the discovery of the world is meant on the one hand the
appropriation by civilized humanity of all corners of the habitable world, and
on the other the conquest by science of all that we now know about the nature
of the universe. In the discovery of man, again, it is possible to trace a
twofold process. Man in his temporal relations, illustrated by pagan
antiquity, and man in his spiritual relations, illustrated by biblical
antiquity: these are the two regions, at first apparently distinct, afterward
found to be interpenetrative, which the critical and inquisitive genius of the
Renaissance opened for investigation. In the former of these regions we find
two agencies at work - art and scholarship. During the Middle Ages the
plastic arts, like philosophy, had degenerated into barren and meaningless
scholasticism - a frigid reproduction of lifeless forms copied technically and
without inspiration from debased patterns. Pictures became symbolically
connected with the religious feelings of the people, formulas from which to
deviate would be impious in the artist and confusing to the worshipper.
Superstitious reverence bound the painter to copy the almond eyes and stiff
joints of the saints whom he had adored from infancy; and, even had it been
otherwise, he lacked the skill to imitate the natural forms he saw around him.
But with the dawning of the Renaissance a new spirit in the arts arose.
Men began to conceive that the human body is noble in itself and worthy of
patient study. The object of the artist then became to unite devotional
feeling and respect for the sacred legend with the utmost beauty and the
utmost fidelity of delineation. He studied from the nude; he drew the body in
every posture; he composed drapery, invented attitudes, and adapted the action
of his figures and the expression of his faces to the subject he had chosen.
In a word, he humanized the altar-pieces and the cloister frescoes upon which
he worked. In this way the painters rose above the ancient symbols and
brought heaven down to earth. By drawing Madonna and her son like living
human beings, by dramatizing the Christian history, they silently substituted
the love of beauty and the interests of actual life for the principles of the
Church. The saint or angel became an occasion for the display of physical
perfection, and to introduce un bel corpo ignudo into the composition was of
more moment to them than to represent the macerations of the Magdalen. Men
thus learned to look beyond the relique and the host, and to forget the dogma
in the lovely forms which gave it expression. Finally, when the clasics came
to aid this work of progress, a new world of thought and fancy, divinely
charming, wholly human, was revealed to their astonished eyes.
Thus art, which had begun by humanizing the legends of the Church,
diverted the attention of its students from the legend to the work of beauty,
and lastly, severing itself from the religious tradition, became the exponent
of the majesty and splendor of the human body. This final emancipation of art
from ecclesiastical trammels culminated in the great age of Italian painting.
Gazing at Michelangelo's prophets in the Sistine Chapel, we are indeed in
contact with ideas originally religious. But the treatment of these ideas is
purely, broadly human, on a level with that of the sculpture of Phidias.
Titian's "Virgin Received into Heaven," soaring midway between the archangel
who descends to crown her and the apostles who yearn to follow her, is far
less a Madonna Assunta than the apotheosis of humanity conceived as a radiant
mother. Throughout the picture there is nothing ascetic, nothing mystic,
nothing devotional. Nor did the art of the Renaissance stop here. It went
further, and plunged into paganism. Sculptors and painters combined with
architects to cut the arts loose from their connection with the Church by
introducing a spirit and a sentiment alien to Christianity.
[See Michaelangelo's Last Judgement]
Through the instrumentality of art, and of all the ideas which art
introduced into daily life, the Renaissance wrought for the modern world a
real resurrection of the body which, since the destruction of the pagan
civilization, had lain swathed up in hair-shirts and cerements within the tomb
of the mediaeval cloister. It was scholarship which revealed to men the
wealth of their own minds, the dignity of human thought, the value of human
speculation, the importance of human life regarded as a thing apart from
religious rules and dogmas. During the Middle Ages a few students had
possessed the poems of Vergil and the prose of Boethius - and Vergil at
Mantua, Boethius at Pavia, had actually been honored as saints - together with
fragments of Lucan, Ovid, Statius, Cicero, and Horace. The Renaissance opened
to the whole reading public the treasure-houses of Greek and Latin literature.
At the same time the Bible, in its original tongues, was rediscovered. Mines
of oriental learning were laid bare for the students of the Jewish and Arabic
traditions. What we may call the Aryan and the Semitic revelations were for
the first time subjected to something like a critical comparison. With
unerring instinct the men of the Renaissance named the voluminous
subject-matter of scholarship Litterae Humaniores ("the more human
literature"), the literature that humanizes.
There are three stages in the history of scholarship during the
Renaissance. The first is the age of passionate desire. Petrarch poring over
a Homer he could not understand, and Boccaccio in his maturity learning Greek,
in order that he might drink from the well-head of poetic inspiration, are the
heroes of this period. They inspired the Italians with a thirst for antique
culture. Next comes the age of acquisition and of libraries. Nicholas V, who
founded the Vatican Library in 1453, Cosmo de' Medici, who began the Medicean
collection a little earlier, and Poggio Bracciolini, who ransacked all the
cities and convents of Europe for manuscripts, together with the teachers of
Greek, who in the first half of the fifteenth century escaped from
Constantinople with precious freights of classic literature, are the heroes of
this second period. It was an age of accumulation, of uncritical and
indiscriminate enthusiasm. Manuscripts were worshipped by these men, just as
the reliques of the Holy Land had been adored by their great-grandfathers.
The eagerness of the crusades was revived in this quest of the holy grail of
ancient knowledge. Waifs and strays of pagan authors were valued like
precious gems, revelled in like odoriferous and gorgeous flowers, consulted
like oracles of God, gazed on like the eyes of a beloved mistress. The good,
the bad, and the indifferent received an almost equal homage. Criticism had
not yet begun. The world was bent on gathering up its treasures, frantically
bewailing the lost books of Livy, the lost songs of Sappho - absorbng to
intoxication the strong wine of multitudinous thoughts and passions that kept
pouring from those long buried amphorae of inspiration.
What is most remarkable about this age of scholarship is the enthusiasm
which pervaded all classes in Italy for antique culture. Popes and princes,
captains of adventure and peasants, noble ladies and the leaders of the
demi-monde alike became scholars. There is a story told by Infessura which
illustrates the temper of the times with singular felicity. On April 18,
1485, a report circulated in Rome that some Lombard workmen had discovered a
Roman sarcophagus while digging on the Appian Way. It was a marble tomb,
engraved with the inscription "Julia, Daughter of Claudius," and inside the
coffer lay the body of a most beautiful girl of fifteen years, preserved by
precious unguents from corruption and the injury of time. The bloom of youth
was still upon her cheeks and lips; her eyes and mouth were half open; her
long hair floated round her shoulders. She was instantly removed - so goes
the legend - to the Capitol; and then began a procession of pilgrims from all
the quarters of Rome to gaze upon this saint of the old pagan world. In the
eyes of those enthusiastic worshippers, her beauty was beyond imagination or
description. She was far fairer than any woman of the modern age could hope
to be. At last Innocent VIII feared lest the orthodox faith should suffer by
this new cult of a heathen corpse. Julia was buried secretly and at night by
his direction, and naught remained in the Capitol but her empty marble coffin.
The tale, as told by Infessura, is repeated in Matarazzo and in Nantiporto
with slight variations. One says that the girl's hair was yellow, another
that it was of the glossiest black. What foundation for the legend may really
have existed need not here be questioned. Let us rather use the mythus as a
parable of the ecstatic devotion which prompted the men of that age to
discover a form of unimaginable beauty in the tomb of the classic world.
Then came the third age of scholarship - the age of the critics,
philologers, and printers. What had been collected by Poggio and Aurispa had
now to be explained by Ficino, Poliziano, and Erasmus. They began their task
by digesting and arranging the contents of the libraries. There were then no
short cuts of learning, no comprehensive lexicons, no dictionaries of
antiquities, no carefully prepared thesauri of mythology and history. Each
student had to hold in his brain the whole mass of classical erudition. The
text and the canon of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and the tragedians had to be
decided. Greek type had to be struck. Florence, Venice, Basel, and Paris
groaned with printing-presses. The Aldi, the Stephani, and Froben toiled by
night and day, employing scores of scholars, men of supreme devotion and of
mighty brain, whose work it was to ascertain the right reading of sentences,
to accentuate, to punctuate, to commit to the press, and to place, beyond the
reach of monkish hatred or of envious time, that everlasting solace of
humanity which exists in the classics. All subsequent achievements in the
field of scholarship sink into insignificance beside the labors of these men,
who needed genius, enthusiasm, and the sympathy of Europe for the
accomplishment of their titanic task. Vergil was printed in 1470, Homer in
1488, Aristotle in 1498, Plato in 1512. They then became the inalienable
heritage of mankind. But what vigils, what anxious expenditure of thought,
what agonies of doubt and expectation, were endured by those heroes of
humanizing scholarship, whom we are apt to think of merely as pedants! Which
of us now warms and thrills with emotion at hearing the name of Aldus Manutius
or of Henricus Stephanus or of Johannes Froben? Yet this we surely ought to
do; for to them we owe in a great measure the freedom of our spirit, our
stores of intellectual enjoyment, our command of the past, our certainty of
the future of human culture.
This third age in the history of the Renaissance scholarship may be said
to have reached its climax in Erasmus; for by this time Italy had handed on
the torch of learning to the northern nations. The publication of his Adagia
in 1500 marks the advent of a more critical and selective spirit, which from
that date onward has been gradually gaining strength in the modern mind.
Criticism, in the true sense of accurate testing and sifting, is one of the
points which distinguish the moderns from the ancients; and criticism was
developed by the process of assimilation, comparison, and appropriation, which
was necessary in the growth of scholarship. The ultimate effect of this
recovery of classic culture was, once and for all, to liberate the intellect.
The modern world was brought into close contact with the free virility of the
ancient world, and emancipated from the thraldom of improved traditions. The
force to judge and the desire to create were generated. The immediate result
in the sixteenth century was an abrupt secession of the learned, not merely
from monasticism, but also from the true spirit of Christianity. The minds of
the Italians assimilated paganism. In their hatred of mediaeval ignorance, in
their loathing of cowled and cloistered fools, they flew to an extreme, and
affected the manner of an irrevocable past. This extravagance led of
necessity to a reaction - in the North, of Puritanism; in the South, to what
has been termed the Counter-Reformation effected under Spanish influences in
the Latin Church. But Christianity, that most precious possession of the
modern world, was never seriously imperilled by the classical enthusiasm of
the Renaissance; nor, on the other hand, was the progressive emancipation of
the reason materially retarded by the reaction it produced.
The transition at this point to the third branch in the discovery of man,
the revelation to the consciousness of its own spiritual freedom, is natural.
Not only did scholarship restore the classics and encourage literary
criticism; it also restored the text of the Bible, and encouraged theological
criticism. In the wake of theological freedom followed a free philosophy, no
longer subject to the dogmas of the Church. To purge the Christian faith from
false conceptions, to liberate the conscience from the tyranny of priests, and
to interpet religion to the reason, has been the work of the last centuries;
nor is this work as yet by any means accomplished. On the one side, Descartes
and Bacon and Spinoza and Locke are sons of the Renaissance, champions of
new-found philosophical freedom; on the other side, Luther is a son of the
Renaissance, the herald of new-found religious freedom. The whole movement of
the Reformation is a phase in that accelerated action of the modern mind which
at its commencement we call the Renaissance. It is a mistake to regard the
Reformation as an isolated phenomenon, or as a mere effort to restore the
Church to purity. The Reformation exhibits, in the region of religious
thought and national politics, what the Renaissance displays in the sphere of
culture, art, and science - the recovered energy and freedom of humanity. We
are too apt to treat of history in parcels, and to attempt to draw lessons
from detached chapters in the biography of the human race. To observe the
connection between the several stages of a progressive movement of the human
spirit, and to recognize that the forces at work are still active, is the true
philosophy of history.
The Reformation, like the revival of science and of culture, had its
mediaeval anticipations and foreshadowings. The heretics whom the Church
successfully combated in North Italy, in France, and in Bohemia were the
precursors of Luther. The scholars prepared the way in the fifteenth century.
Teachers of Hebrew, founders of Hebrew type - Reuchlin in Germany, Alexander
in Paris, Von Hutten as a pamphleteer, and Erasmus as a humanist - contribute
each a definite momentum. Luther, for his part, incarnates the spirit of
revolt against tyrannical authority, urges the necessity of a return to the
essential truth of Christianity as distinguished from the idols of the Church,
and asserts the right of the individual to judge, interpret, criticise, and
construct opinion for himself. The veil which the Church had interposed
between humanity and God was broken down. The freedom of the conscience was
established. The principles involved in what we call the Reformation were
momentous. Connected on the one side with scholarship and the study of texts,
it opened the path for modern biblical criticism. Connected on the other side
with intolerance of mere authority, it led to what has since been named
rationalism - the attempt to reconcile the religious tradition with the
reason, and to define the logical ideas that underlie the conceptions of the
popular religious conscience. Again, by promulgating the doctrine of personal
freedom, and by connecting itself with national politics, the Reformation was
linked historically to the Revolution. It was the Puritan Church in England,
stimulated by the patriotism of the Dutch Protestants, which established our
constitutional liberty and introduced in America the general principle of the
equality of men. This high political abstraction, latent in Christianity,
evolved by criticism, and promulgated as a gospel in the second half of the
eighteenth century, was externalized in the French Revolution. The work that
yet remains to be accomplished for the modern world is the organization of
society in harmony with democratic principles.
Thus what the word Renaissance really means is new birth to liberty - the
spirit of mankind recovering consciousness and the power of
self-determination, recognizing the beauty of the outer world and of the body
through art, liberating the reason in science and the conscience in religion,
restoring culture to the intelligence, and establishing the principle of
political freedom. The Church was the schoolmaster of the Middle Ages.
Culture was the humanizing and refining influence of the Renaissance. The
problem for the present and the future is how, through education, to render
culture accessible to all - to break down that barrier which in the Middle
Ages was set between clerk and layman, and which in the intermediate period
has arisen between the intelligent and ignorant classes. Whether the Utopia
of a modern world in which all men shall enjoy the same social, political, and
intellectual advantages be realized or not, we cannot doubt that the whole
movement of humanity, from the Renaissance onward, has tended in this
direction. To destroy the distinctions, mental and physical, which nature
raises between individuals, and which constitute an actual hierarchy, will
always be impossible. Yet it may happen that in the future no civilized man
will lack the opportunity of being physically and mentally the best that God
has made him.
It remains to speak of the instruments and mechanical inventions which
aided the emancipation of the spirit in the modern age. Discovered over and
over again, and offered at intervals to the human race at various times and on
divers soils, no effective use was made of these material resources until the
fifteenth century. The compass, discovered according to tradition by Gioja of
Naples in 1302, was employed by Columbus for the voyage to America in 1492.
The telescope, known to the Arabians in the Middle Ages, and described by
Roger Bacon in 1250, helped Copernicus to prove the revolution of the earth in
1530, and Galileo to substantiate his theory of the planetary system.
Printing, after numerous useless revelations to the world of its resources,
became an art in 1438, and paper, which had long been known to the Chinese,
was first made of cotton in Europe about 1000 and of rags in 1319. Gunpowder
entered into use about 1320. As employed by the Genius of the Renaissance,
each one of these inventions became a lever by means of which to move the
world. Gunpowder revolutionized the art of war. The feudal castle, the armor
of the knight and his battle-horse, the prowess of one man against a hundred,
and the pride of aristocratic cavalry trampling upon ill-armed militia, were
annihilated by the flashes of the canon. Courage became more a moral than a
physical quality. The victory was delivered to the brain of the general.
Printing has established, as indestructible, all knowledge, and disseminated,
as the common property of everyone, all thought; while paper has made the work
of printing cheap. Such reflections as these, however, are trite and must
occur to every mind. It is far more to the purpose to repeat that not the
inventions, but the intelligence that used them, the conscious calculating
spirit of the modern world, should rivet our attention when we direct it to
the phenomena of the Renaissance.
In the work of the Renaissance all the great nations of Europe shared.
But it must never be forgotten that, as a matter of history, the true
Renaissance began in Italy. It was there that the essential qualities which
distinguish the modern from the ancient and the mediaeval world were
developed. Italy created that new spiritual atmosphere of culture and of
intellectual freedom which has been the life-breath of the European races. As
the Jews are called the chosen and peculiar people of divine revelation, so
may the Italians be called the chosen and peculiar vessels of the prophecy of
the Renaissance. In art, in scholarship, in science, in the mediation between
antique culture and the modern intellect, they took the lead, handing to
Germany and France and England the restored humanities complete. Spain and
England have since done more for the exploration and colonization of the
world. Germany achieved the labor of the Reformation almost single-handed.
France has collected, centralized, and diffused intelligence with irresistible
energy. But if we return to the first origins of the Renaissance, we find
that, at a time when the rest of Europe was inert, Italy had already begun to
organize the various elements of the modern spirit, and to set the fashion
whereby the other great nations should learn and live.