The Renaissance: A Short Historyby Paul Johnson
The Renaissance holds an undying place in the human imagination, and its great heroes remain our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Montaigne. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern; reviving the city as the center of human activity and the acme of civilization; and, of course,… See more details below
The Renaissance holds an undying place in the human imagination, and its great heroes remain our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Montaigne. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern; reviving the city as the center of human activity and the acme of civilization; and, of course, producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. Perhaps no era in history was more revolutionary, and none has been more romanticized. What was it? In The Renaissance, the great historian Paul Johnson tackles that question with the towering erudition and imaginative fire that are his trademarks.
Johnson begins by painting the economic, technological, and social developments that give the period its background. But, as Johnson explains, "The Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, in some cases amounting to genius." It is the human foreground that absorbs most of the book's attention. "We can give all kinds of satisfying explanations of why and when the Renaissance occurred and how it transmitted itself," Johnson writes. "But there is no explaining Dante, no explaining Chaucer. Genius suddenly comes to life, and speaks out of a vacuum. Then it is silent, equally mysteriously. The trends continue and intensify, but genius is lacking." In the four parts that make up the heart of the book--"The Renaissance in Literature and Scholarship," "The Anatomy of Renaissance Sculpture," "The Buildings of the Renaissance," and "The Apostolic Successions of Renaissance Painting"--Johnson chronicles the lives and works of the age's animating spirits. Finally, he examines the spread and decline of the Renaissance, and its abiding legacy. A book of dazzling riches, The Renaissance is a compact masterpiece of the historian's art.
From the Hardcover edition.
Times Literary Supplement
“Abound[s] in interesting detail and idiosyncratic judgment.” —The New York Times
“Mr. Johnson does not reduce the art and literature of this immensely rich period to mere by-products of the European economy. . . . His concise and entertaining survey is a reminder that the most sublime accomplishments of civilization also depend on the mundane.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[Johnson’s] reputation for capacious erudition precedes him, and it is no surprise that he turns in a vibrant summary of the era’s eruption of art.” —Booklist
Read an Excerpt
PART ONE--THE HISTORICAL AND ECONOMICAL BACKGROUND
The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events, big and small, beyond computation. To make sense of it, the historian must select and simplify and shape. One way he shapes the past is to divide it into periods. Each period is made more memorable and easy to grasp if it can be labeled by a word that epitomizes its spirit. That is how such terms as "the Renaissance" came into being. Needless to say, it is not those who actually live through the period who coin the term, but later, often much later, writers. The periodization and labeling of history is largely the work of the nineteenth century. The term "Renaissance" was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his great book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. The usage stuck because it turned out to be a convenient way of describing the period of transition between the medieval epoch, when Europe was "Christendom," and the beginning of the modern age. It also had some historical justification because, although the Italian elites of the time never used the words "Renaissance" or "Rinascita," they were conscious that a cultural rebirth of a kind was taking place, and that some of the literary, philosophical and artistic grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome was being recreated. In 1550 the painter Vasari published an ambitious work, The Lives of the Artists, in which he sought to describe how this process had taken place, and was continuing, in painting, sculpture and architecture. In comparing the glories of antiquity with the achievements of the present and recent past in Italy, he referred to the degenerate period in between as "the middle ages." This usage stuck too.
Thus a nineteenth-century term was used to mark the end of a period baptized in the sixteenth century. But when exactly, in real chronological terms, did this end of one epoch and beginning of another occur? Here we come to the first problem of the Renaissance. Historians have for long agreed that what they term the early modern period of European history began at the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, though they date it differently in different countries. Thus, Spain entered the early modern age in 1492, when the conquest of Granada was completed with the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews, and Christopher Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere on the instructions of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. England entered the period in 1485, when the last Plantagenet king, Richard 111, was killed at Bosworth and the Tudor dynasty acquired the throne in the person of Henry VII. France and Italy joined Spain and England by virtue of the same event, in 1494, when the French king Charles VIII invaded Italy. Finally, Germany entered the new epoch in 1519, when Charles V united the imperial throne of Germany with the crown of Spain and the Indies. However, by the time these events took place, the Renaissance was already an accomplished fact, in its main outlines, and moving swiftly to what art historians term the High Renaissance, its culmination. Moreover, the next European epoch, the Reformation, usually dated by historians from Martin Luther's act in nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, had already begun. So we see that the connection between the Renaissance and the start of the early modern period is more schematic than chronologically exact.
The next problem, then, is defining the chronology of the Renaissance itself. If the term has any useful meaning at all, it signifies the rediscovery and utilization of ancient virtues, skills, knowledge and culture, which had been lost in the barbarous centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, usually dated from the fifth century A.D. But here we encounter another problem. Cultural rebirths, major and minor, are a common occurrence in history. Most generations, of all human societies, have a propensity to look back on golden ages and seek to restore them. Thus the long civilization of ancient Egypt, neatly divided by modern archeologists into the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, was punctuated by two collapses, termed intermediate periods, and both the Middle and the New kingdoms were definite and systematic renaissances. Over three millennia, the cultural history of ancient Egypt is marked by conscious archaisms, the deliberate revival of earlier patterns of art, architecture and literature to replace modes recognized as degenerate. This was a common pattern in ancient societies. When Alexander the Great created a world empire in the fourth century B.C., his court artists sought to recapture the splendor of fifth-century Athenian civilization. So Hellenistic Greece, as we call it, witnessed a renaissance of classic values.
Rome itself periodically attempted to recover its virtuous and creative past. Augustus Caesar, while creating an empire on the eve of the Christian period, looked back to the noble spirit of the Republic, and even beyond it to the very origins of the city, to establish moral and cultural continuities and so legitimize his regime. The court historian Livy resurrected the past in prose, the court epic poet Virgil told the story of Rome's divinely blessed origins in verse. The empire was never quite so self-confident as the Republic, subject as it was to the whims of a fallible autocrat, rather than the collective wisdom of the Senate, and it was always looking over its shoulder at a past that was more worthy of admiration, and seeking to resurrect its qualities. The idea of a republican renaissance was never far from the minds of Rome's imperial elites.
Naturally, after the fall of the Western empire in the fifth century A.D., the longing for the recovery of the majestic past of Rome intensified among the fragile or semibarbarous societies that succeeded the imperial order. In the Vatican Library there is a codex, known as the Vatican Virgil, which dates from the fifth or sixth centuries. It is written in a monumental Capitalis Rustica, a self-conscious attempt to revive the Roman calligraphic majuscule, which had largely fallen out of use during the degenerate times of the third and fourth centuries. The artist-scribe, perhaps from Ravenna, who illustrated the text with miniatures, including one of Virgil himself, evidently had access to high-quality Roman work from a much earlier date, which he imitated and simplified to the best of his ability. Here is an early example of an attempted renaissance of lost Roman skills. There were many such.
A more successful and conscious renaissance, organized from above, took place during and after the reign of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, 768-814, who brought together virtually all the Christian lands of Western Europe in one large kingdom. In the quasi-millennarian year A.D. 800 he had himself crowned emperor of what became established as the Holy Roman Empire, a Christian revival of the past distinguished from its pagan predecessor by its qualifying adjective. The coronation took place in Rome, during Christmas mass in Old St. Peter's, Pope Leo III being the celebrant, but the new Roman emperor did not live there, preferring instead to erect a palace in his imperial heartland, Aachen. It was, however, built from materials transported from Rome and Ravenna, which had the right antique stamp and beauty. In Aachen Charlemagne created a court culture on what he believed to be Roman lines, having himself taught Latin and a little Greek, and summoning scholars to serve him from all over the known world. His chief intellectual assistant, Alcuin, wrote on Charlemagne's orders the Epistola de litteris colendis (785), which outlined a program for the study of the Latin language and texts sacred and profane at all the cathedral and monastic schools in the empire. A summary of the knowledge deemed authentic and needful, the Libri Carolini, was prepared and circulated. In Charlemagne's own scriptorium, and thereafter in other intellectual centers where his writ ran, his clerks developed what became known as the Carolingian minuscule, a clear and beautiful script that became standard in the early Middle Ages.
There survive in the Vatican Library two codices that illustrate the impact of Charlemagne's program. The first, the Sacramentarium Gelasianum, dates from the period just before he came to the throne, and is distinguished by superb if barbarous paintings of plants and animals. It records ancient Roman liturgical ceremonies and other documentary evidence of the past, and is written in a fine uncial, though the minuscule Charlemagne popularized makes its first appearance in places. This was the heritage on which the new emperor built. By contrast there is the far more sophisticated Terentius Vaticanus, dating from a few years after Charlemagne's death, written entirely in fine Carolingian minuscule and illustrated by paintings of actors performing Terence's plays. The book is interesting in itself as showing how familiar early medieval scholars were with Terence's writings, but the artwork is clearly and self-consciously based on earlier models from Roman times-the figures of actors in folio 55 recto, with their vigorous gestures, are powerful recapitulations of skills supposedly lost for centuries.
The Carolingian experiment had thus some of the characteristics of a genuine renaissance. But it remained an experiment. Ninth-century society lacked the administrative resources to sustain an empire the size of Charlemagne's, and anything less lacked the economic resources to consolidate and expand such an ambitious cultural program. All the same, it was something to build on, and in due course the Ottonians of Germany, who also had themselves crowned Roman emperors in Rome, did so. By the eleventh century, the Holy Roman Empire, the successor state (as it saw itself) to Rome, was a permanent element in medieval society, and a reminder that the achievements of Roman antiquity were not just a nostalgic memory but capable of re-creation. This was underlined visually by the spread of the architectural forms we call Romanesque, the sturdy round pillars, holding aloft semicircular arches, which early medieval masons, and their clerical employers, believed were characteristic of the architecture of imperial Rome at its best. Moreover, the Ottonian renaissance itself provoked a papal response, under the monk Hildebrand, enthroned as Pope Gregory VII This included a fundamental refashioning of the entire corpus of canon law, on the lines of the great law codes of late antiquity, and ambitious programs for the education and moral improvement of the clergy, and their physical and intellectual liberation from the secular authorities. This naturally led to papal-imperial conflict, perpetuated in the political-military struggles of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines in Italy. But the positive side was that the Hildebrandine reforms spread under their own momentum into every part of western Christendom, producing a self-confident clerical class that included in its ranks a growing number of accomplished scholars.
In due course, the new scholars congregated in critical numbers to form what became known as universities, an extension and amalgamation of cathedral schools and monastic training centers. The first emerged during the twelfth century in Paris, where Peter Lombard taught at the cathedral school of Notre Dame, Abelard at Ste. Genevieve and Hugh and Richard at St. Victor. A similar development occurred in Oxford, where there is evidence from the second quarter of the twelfth century that independent masters were teaching arts, theology and civil and canon law in schools grouped in the center of the town. The new universities were the core of what we now call the twelfth-century renaissance, and it is particularly significant that an arts faculty existed in Oxford as early as the 1120s because such courses provided the foundation for the true Renaissance more than two hundred years later.
This proto-renaissance was important not merely because it introduced qualitative improvements in the teaching, writing and spoken use of Latin, which became the lingua franca or hieratic tongue of a learned class composed mainly but not entirely of the clergy, but also because it was a quantitative explosion too. The growing number of scholars and literates stimulated a huge increase in the output of manuscripts from monastic scriptoria and secularized production centers in the towns. Some of the professional scribes were artists too, and their miniatures became a means by which artistic ideas circulated. Only the literate elites made use of codices and manuscripts, but their illuminations were seen and used by church wall-painters, workers in stained glass, sculptors, masons and other artisans engaged in the enormous building and rebuilding program that, beginning early in the twelfth century, transformed thousands of Romanesque churches and cathedrals into Gothic ones. It is worth noting that the new choir of Canterbury Cathedral, which replaced a Romanesque one after a fire in 1174, with a corona added to house the shrine of the murdered Thomas A Becket, included Corinthian columns, which we would date from fifteenth-century Italy, did we not possess documentary evidence that they were the work of William of Sense in the last quarter of the twelfth century.
With the new universities in place, the time and setting were ripe for the revival of Aristotle, the greatest encyclopedias and systematic philosopher of antiquity. The early church fathers had regarded Aristotle with suspicion, ranking him as a materialist, in contrast to Plato, whom they saw as a more spiritual thinker and a genuine precursor of Christian ideas. Booths in the sixth century expounded Aristotle with enthusiasm but he had few imitators, partly because the texts were known only in extracts or recessions. However, Aristotle's writings on logic began to circulate in the West from the ninth century, though they were not available in full until about 1130. The Ethics became available in Latin translation about 1200 and the Politics half a century later, and various scientific texts were translated from the Arabic, with learned Arabic commentaries, at the same time. Because of the transmission through Islam, Aristotle remained suspect in the church's eyes, as a possible source of heresy, but that did not stop the great thirteenth-century philosophers, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, from constructing their summae on an Aristotelian basis. Indeed they, and particularly Aquinas, used Aristotle with brilliance, the net effect being to place Christian belief on a solid foundation of reason as well as faith. The incorporation of Aristotelian ideas and methods must be regarded as the first great complicated act in the long story of the recovery of the culture of antiquity, and it took place in the thirteenth century, before the Renaissance as such even began.
If so many elements of what constitutes the Renaissance were already in place even before the year 1300, why is it that the movement took so long to gather momentum and become self-sustaining? Here it is right to look for two explanations, one economic, one ' human. Athens in its prime was a rich trading center, the center of a network of maritime colonies; and the Alexandrine Empire that succeeded it was much larger and disposed of far greater resources; and the Roman Empire, which incorporated Alexander's as its eastern wing, was far larger still, and disposed of resources that have not been equaled until comparatively modern times. Such wealth made possible not only colossal public works programs and generous state patronage of the arts but leisure classes of ample means who both patronized the arts and practiced them. The Roman Empire was a monumental physical, legal and military fact, gathering and spending vast sums of money, from which the arts and literature incidentally benefited.
Once that monumental fact collapsed in irretrievable ruin-caused in part by hyperinflation-the inability to maintain an honest currency, the gross economic product of the empire of the West's component parts declined steeply to today's standards and appeared superhuman to medieval man. But there was something suspect about Roman monumentality. It was built on muscle power rather than brain power. The forts, the roads, the bridges, the enormous aqueducts, the splendid municipal and state buildings were put up thanks to a conscript or servile multitude, whose human energies were the chief source of power. The slave gangs, constantly replenished by wars of conquest, were always available in almost unlimited numbers. The disincentive to develop new engineering skills, as opposed to the brute strength of immensely thick walls and buttresses, was continual. Indeed, there is disconcerting evidence that the Roman authorities were reluctant to use labor-saving methods, even when available, for fear of unemployment and discontent. Considering the wealth of the Roman Republic in its prime, its technology was minimal, barely in advance of Athenian Greece, and confined largely to the military sphere. Yet even in the navy, the Romans made pitifully little use of sail power, preferring oars rowed by galley slaves. Technology stagnated, and in the late empire, as inflation strengthened its grip, even regressed.
Medieval Europe had no such luxury in the use of manpower. Under the impact of Christian teaching, slavery declined slowly, then precipitously, especially in the Germanic north but later even in the Mediterranean south. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086) the number of slaves listed in England was tiny. Most men and women were glebae adscripti, tied to the soil of a particular place by elaborate feudal obligations, reinforced in time by statutory law, which forbade freedom of movement. It was difficult for villeins to flock to towns to constitute a labor market. Even unskilled laborers were in short supply, and ambitious building programs soon ran into trouble on this account. When Edward I of England embarked on his huge castle-building effort in North Wales in the late thirteenth century, he found himself competing with the ecclesiastical authorities, who were rebuilding their cathedrals, for a limited pool of skilled draftsmen and even for builders' laborers. The impact of labor scarcity is reflected in the rising costs recorded in the accounts of the King's Works. French experience was similar. The Black Death, in the mid-fourteenth century, by reducing the population of Western Europe by 25 to 30 percent, made labor still scarcer, even in agricultural areas, and seaports were hit too.
For all these reasons, there were strong incentives, which grew in the later Middle Ages, to improve labor-saving machinery and develop alternative sources of power to human muscles. Some of the medieval inventions were very simple' though important, like the wheelbarrow. The Romans had been extraordinarily slow in making effective use of the horse, making do with a type of ox yoke or a harness consisting chiefly of a breast band. By contrast, medieval farmers had developed, by the twelfth century, shafts, little used by the Romans, and traces, and they transformed the inefficient breast band into the stiff, padded horse collar, thereby multiplying the tractive power of the horse fivefold. To support the medieval knight, with his heavy armor, the French bred ever-stronger horses, which developed into the modern carthorse. These powerful animals, substituted for oxen at the plow, more than doubled agricultural productivity, and made it possible for farmers to substitute all-iron for wooden plows, thus raising it further. Such horses also pulled bigger carts, equipped with a swiveling front axle, and more efficient concave wheels. In fourteenth-century England, cartage costs, where the return journey could be made in a day, fell to a penny per ton per mile, and more and more bridges made land travel, for the first time, competitive with water transport.
The Romans knew about the water-powered mill and they made some large specimens. But they were slow to build mills, preferring slaves, donkeys and horses to supply power; Vespasian, emperor 69-79 A.D., was even said to have opposed the extension of water power because it would throw men out of work. Shortage of iron also made the Romans reluctant to replace inefficient wooden gearing. In the Middle Ages, iron production increased steadily, making it cheaper and available for a variety of purposes, including gearing. Medieval forges also produced, for the first time, cast iron, invaluable for harnessing power of all kinds. So thousands more water mills were built. In England, south of the Trent, the Domesday Book lists 5,624 water mills. Gradually, water-powered mills were used for sawing timber, fulling, ore crushing, metal hammering and mining. Their ubiquity and importance is reflected in complex laws governing the control of rivers. Moreover, from the twelfth century, water power was joined by wind power as a means of turning heavily geared metal-grinding machinery. Windmills, unknown to the Romans, were built in large numbers, and often of prodigious size. There were eight thousand in the Netherlands alone, where they were used not only for grinding corn but for pumping water, thus making possible drainage schemes that expanded the cultivable land area, a process taking place in many parts of Europe.
The complex sail power used in the powering of windmills and the development of sail power for ships were connected, and helped to explain why medieval mariners were able to improve so markedly on Roman sea transport, largely confined to the oar-propelled galley. The cog, driven entirely by sail, made its appearance in the thirteenth century, chiefly in the northern waters of the Hanseatic League. It was succeeded in the fourteenth century by the Portuguese caravels, lateen-rigged ships with two or three masts, multiple decks and a big hull-in all essentials modern sailing ships--often weighing six hundred tons or more and carrying their own weight in cargo. This vessel was capable of sailing into and across Atlantic seas, and eventually did so, aided by the invention of the magnetic compass, mechanical timepieces, and navigational charts, which were improving all the time.
With revolutionized sea power and improved land transport, internal and external trade in Europe virtually doubled with each generation. Overseas trade, especially with the East, made plague more common, and outbreaks such as the Black Death (1347-5 1) decimated the population. But there is no evidence plague interrupted the wealth-producing process. It more likely accelerated it in the long run by providing yet more incentives to the use of nonhuman power, metals and labor-saving devices. At the same time the expansion of trade produced ancillary practices, such as insurance and banking, on an ever-growing scale, aided by the invention of techniques such as double-entry bookkeeping.
Thus in the later Middle Ages, wealth was being produced in greater quantities than ever before in history, and was often concentrated in cities specializing in the new occupations of large-scale commerce and banking, like Venice and Florence. Such cities were chiefly to be found in the Low Countries, the Rhine Valley and in northern and central Italy. As wealth accumulated, those who possessed it gratified their senses by patronizing literature and the arts, and they were joined by sovereigns, popes and princes, who found ways of taxing the new wealth of their subjects. But wealth alone would not have produced the phenomenon we call the Renaissance. Money can command art, but it commands in vain if there are no craftsmen to produce it. Happily, there is evidence everywhere that Europe, in the later Middle Ages, was entering a period of what modern economists call intermediate technology. Especially in the Low Countries, Germany and Italy, thousands of workshops of all kinds emerged, specializing in stone, leather, metal, wood, plaster, chemicals and fabrics, producing a growing variety of luxury goods and machinery It was chiefly the families of those who worked in these shops that produced the painters and carvers, the sculptors and architects, the writers and decorators, the teachers and scholars responsible for the huge expansion of culture that marked the beginnings of the early modern age.
There was one respect in which the growth of intermediate technology had a direct, explosive, effect on this cultural spread. Indeed, it was the most important cultural event by far of the entire period. This was the invention, followed by the extraordinarily rapid diffusion, of printing. The Romans produced a large literature. But in publishing it they were, as in many other fields, markedly conservative. They knew about the codex-that is, a collection of folded and cut sheets, sewn together and enclosed within a binding-but they clung on to the old-fashioned scroll as the normative form of book. It was the early Christians who preferred the codex, and the replacement of the scroll by ever more sophisticated codices was the work of the so-called Dark Ages. What the Christians took from the Romans was a version of their screw wine-press, to bind the codex.
The material on which the Romans originally wrote was papyrus, the dried leaves of a grass grown along the Nile, and it is from this term that our word "paper" is ultimately derived. But between 200 B.C. and A.D. 300 papyrus was replaced by vellum, calfskin soaked in lime, then smoothed by knife and pumice stone, or parchment, made from the scraped skin of sheep or goats. Vellum was a luxury material, extremely durable, and was used throughout the Middle Ages for the finest manuscripts. Indeed, it continued to be used in the Renaissance, even for printed work, though special care was required to produce satisfactory results. Parchment was cheaper but also durable and continued to be used for certain legal documents until the mid-twentieth century. However, during the Middle Ages both were largely superseded by paper, or cloth parchment as it was originally called. This was produced by an industrial process that turned fibrous material, such as straw, wood, linen or cotton, into pulp, which was then spread in sheets over a wire framework. It came from China via the Moslem world, from which it reached Spain and Sicily. By about 1150 the Spanish had improved on the original process by developing a stamp mill, turned by hand, which used a wheel and tappets to raise and drop pestles in mortars. By the thirteenth century, paper mills were powered by water, and leadership in the industry had shifted to Italy, which by 1285 had developed the practice of sewing a figure of wire into the mold to produce a watermark. Efficiently produced, paper was cheaper than any other writing material by far. Even in England, which was backward in the trade, a sheet of paper (eight octavo pages) cost only one penny by the fifteenth century.
The availability of cheap paper in growing quantities was a key factor in making the invention of printing by movable type the central technological event in the Renaissance. Printing from wooden blocks was an old idea: the Romans used the technique for textiles and the Mongol Empire used it to make paper currency. By about 1400, playing cards and pictures of saints were being printed from blocks in Venice and southern Germany. The key novelty, however, was the invention of movable type for letterpress, which has three advantages: it could be used repeatedly until worn out; it could be easily renewed, being cast from a mold; and it introduced strict uniformity of lettering. Moveable type was the work of two Mainz goldsmiths, Johannes Gutenberg and Johann Fust, in the years 1446-48. In 1450 Gutenberg began work on a printed Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible or the Forty-two Line Bible (from the number of lines on a page), which was completed in 1455 and is the world's first printed book. Gutenberg had to solve all the problems of punch cutting, typefoundings, composing the type, imposing the paper and ink, and the actual printing, for which he used a modification of the screw press. The resulting book, which amazes those who first see and handle it for its clarity and quality, is a triumph of fifteenth-century German craftsmanship at its best.
Printing from movable type, therefore, was a German invention, which rather undermines the label "the Italian Renaissance." Germans were quick to exploit the new possibilities, for religious books, especially Bibles, and works of reference, but also for scarce classic texts. The first printed encyclopedia, the Catholicon, appeared in 1460 and the following year a Strasbourg printer, Johan Mentelin, produced a Bible for laymen. He followed this with a Bible in German, the first printed book in the vernacular. Cologne had its own press by 1464, Basel two years later. Basel quickly became famous for scholarly editions of the classics, later with Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, as their literary adviser. Nuremberg got its first press in 1470 and soon became the earliest center of the international printing trade, where Anton Koberger worked twenty-four presses and had a network of connections with traders and scholars all over Europe. In Augsburg the new presses were built alongside the Abbey of St. Ulrich, which had one of the most famous scriptoria in Europe. There seems to have been little commercial conflict between the scriptoria and the new presses, the scriptoria concentrating on luxury books of ever-increasing complexity and beauty, often illustrated by leading artists, the printers on quantity and cheapness. Thus the first best-seller in the new world of print was Thomas A Kempis's De imitatione Cbristi, which went through ninety-nine editions in the thirty years from 1471 to 1500.
Though the Italians were not the first into printing, with their large paper-making industry, their experience in block printing and their strong scriptoria tradition, they soon took the leadership in the new technology. Near Rome, the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco had links with Germany, and in 1464-65 it commissioned two German printers, Sweynheym and Pannartz, to set up presses alongside its scriptorium. Presses in Germany had one important disadvantage in international trade. Gutenberg and other German printers based their type on imitations of the calligraphic strokes of official writing, using German Gothic hands of the mid-fifteenth century as their model (known later in England as "black letter type). Outside Germany, readers found these typefaces repellent and difficult to understand. The German printers of the Subiaco press were ordered to cut type based on the standard style of handwriting used by Italian humanists in the fifteenth century, itself based on the admirably clear Carolingian minuscule. This became known as Roman, and was the true Renaissance type.
Nicolas Jenson, the master of the Royal Mint at Tours, was sent by King Charles VII of France to Mainz in 1458 to learn the new art of printing. But instead of returning to France, Jenson spent the rest of his life in Venice, where he set up the most famous printing press in the world. He cut superb examples of Roman types, which were imitated all over Europe. From 1490 his presses were rivaled in Venice by those of Aldus Manutius, who not only designed a serviceable Greek type, for printing ancient texts in the original, but also designed and popularized a type based on the cursive handwriting used in the fifteenth-century papal chancery. This is characterized by a sharp inclination to the right and exaggerated serifs, and the type based on it became known as italic. Aldus used it first in 1501, uppercase only. Lowercase followed around 1520, and some books were produced entirely in italic. Later it slipped comfortably into its modern role of use for emphasis, contrast and quotation.
The speed at which printing spread, the quality and quantity of the production, and the extraordinary mechanical ingenuity displayed together constituted a kind of industrial revolution. By 1500, less than half a century after the first printed book, there were printing firms in sixty German towns, and Venice alone had 150 presses, German workmen took printing to Utrecht in the Netherlands in 1470, Budapest in Hungary in 1473 and Krakow in Poland in 1474. Printing reached Valencia in Spain in 1473, and a quarter century later, under the patronage of Cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros, Spain began to produce what remains to this day one of the most remarkable books ever devised, the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, in five languages of antiquity, Hebrew, Syriac, Latin, Greek and Chaldee, the texts running in parallel columns. At the other end of the market, Manutius was producing cheap Latin texts for the use of poor scholars. The spread of printing in the vernacular was one way in which the market expanded. Thus William Caxton, who learned printing in Cologne and ran his first press at Bruges in 1474, brought printing to England in 1476 with an eye to the vernacular readership. Of the ninety or so books he published, seventy-four were in English, of which twenty-two were his own translations.
The printed book trade, then, might be described as the first really efficient and innovative pan-European industry.
Advertisements for books began to appear in 1466, and publishers' catalogs soon afterward. The quantitative impact was overwhelming. Before printing, only the very largest libraries contained as many as six hundred books, and the total number in Europe was well under one hundred thousand. By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million.
Hence, the background to what we call the Renaissance was a cumulative growth and spread of wealth never before experienced in world history, and the rise of a society in which intermediate technology was becoming the norm, producing in due course a startling revolution in the way words were published and distributed. But this does not mean the Renaissance was an economic, let alone a technological event. Without economic and technological developments it could not have taken the form it did, and so it has been necessary to describe the material background first. But it must be grasped that the Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, which in some cases amounted to genius. We turn now to the human foreground, and in the first place to the writers.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Educated at Oxford, author of a number of landmark works of history, philosophy, and religion, Paul Johnson is one of the preeminent historians of our time. He lives in England.
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