The Renaissance

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Overview

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...
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Overview

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 thelives 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.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This slim volume is among the first in a new series, the Modern Library Chronicles, described by the publisher as "authoritative, lively, and accessible." Noted historian Johnson's (A History of the American People, etc.) book satisfies on the latter two counts--it provides a serviceable introduction for the general reader--however, on the first count it falls short. Johnson offers an unimaginative and superficial history, with insidious signs of haste, like the claim that Charles V created El Escorial. Few will be surprised that the Renaissance was "primarily a human event" or excited by the pedestrian approach: dates of birth and death abound. Although he avoids blind admiration (the Mona Lisa "shows the defects of [Leonardo's] slovenly method of working"), Johnson is resolutely canonical: Chaucer is one of precisely four writers in English whose genius, he claims, cannot be rationally explained (Shakespeare, Dickens and Kipling are the others). Other value judgments will also raise eyebrows: Leonardo, for instance, had "not much warmth to him. He may, indeed, have had homosexual inclinations." Johnson equivocates on Michelangelo: he was quarrelsome, secretive and mean-spirited, but to say he was neurotic is "nonsense." More interesting is the remark that the humanists were outsiders, beyond the stifling university pale; the author evidently senses kindred spirits, and he snipes at academia. But there is much here for the academicians to attack, and it is difficult to see how this volume improves on, say, Peter Burke's even briefer volume The Renaissance. 3-city author tour. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Historian Johnson, fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford, and author of A History of the American People, has written a concise and comprehensive survey of the Renaissance, published as part of Modern Library's new "Chronicles" series, which also includes Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History. Johnson begins by looking at earlier periods of post-Roman European history that were precursors of the Renaissance and also considers when the term Renaissance became common usage. In the book's early sections, he assesses the historic and economic background of the period and then examines the Renaissance in literature and scholarship, the anatomy of Renaissance sculpture, Renaissance buildings, the evolution of painters and paintings of the period, and, finally, the dissemination and decline of the Renaissance. Johnson has included a chronology of significant events, a list of key period figures, and an incredible amount of other information--from the number of printed books in Europe to the controversy over polyphonic music in the 16th century. This work will be of interest to both students and lay readers, who will find that nothing else on the Renaissance is available in this price range and size. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/00.]--Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
If it's Thursday, this must be Michelangelo-a stimulating and sophisticated, if rapid, tour of the Italian Renaissance (with the emphasis on the visual arts in the 15th and 16th centuries).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402889806
  • Publication date: 7/29/2002
  • Pages: 167

Read an Excerpt

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 theimpact 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.



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.

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