October 27, 2009

Book Review: Peter Burke The Italian Renaissance

In culture as in economic life, there are rentiers and there are entrepreneurs. (P. Burke, The Italian Renaissance p. 256)

Harvey Mansfield recently suggested that Quentin Skinner and John Pocock were historians who suggested that "ideas can be traced to prior conditions that are not ideas, such as economic forces or, more particularly for them, political interests." Professor Mansfield misunderstands the point of the Cambridge school of political thinking, which breaks down the distinctions between theory and practice, wilfully: if however he or those who read him wish to find an elucidating account of the way that economic and political forces can actually sustain ideas then they should turn to Peter Burke's book on the Italian Renaissance. Burke's account of the Renaissance is an attempt to place the Renaissance in a wider context: it is an attempt to answer the question, why did a renaissance happen in Italy over two hundred years at the end of the Middle Ages? Why did extraordinary figures like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Donatello, Guiccardini, Contarini, Botticelli, all emerge from the same corner of Europe at the same time? Why was there a concentration of people with good ideas from one particular society?

Burke's answer is painstakingly and elaborately constructed. He is one of the most elegant writers of history around today- his account is short (only 256 pages long) but testifies to a rich exposure to the sources. Burke's basic contention is that in Italy between 1400 and 1550, a fortunate series of structural events came together which helped produce the Renaissance. Part of those structural events had to do with the organisation of society- so for example he emphasizes the ways that Italian city states were more hospitable for the arts than the feudal communities of Northern Europe. In Italy, the artist joined the merchant in living in the gaps of the traditional feudal understanding of the world in which everyone was a fighter, a peasant or a priest. He talks about the ways that art was structured itself- it became entrepreunerial with great artists having workshops in which apprentices worked. Indeed Burke demonstrates that the urban world of Italy thrived on the model of the apprentice and master relationship with dozens of clientel relationships prospering in each individual city. He shows how urban Italy was- the most urban region of Europe at the time and how this helped sustain an art market. How disruption in such urban centres, whether in Florence in 1494 or Rome in 1527 may have effected not merely art but also political thought: Guiccardini began his own inquiries into history with 1497 for example.

Burke is attentive always to caution though- for him the world of the Renaissance was complicated and not simply driven by social pressures. Society provided the backdrop against which Renaissance art was conjured up. Like Rahe, whose book I have just reviewed, Burke is attentive to hidden meanings and yet unlike Rahe he provides evidence that contemporaries shared his attention. Take the painting I have illustrated this piece with. Its title is the Virgin, Child and Saint Anne. The Virgin sits upon St Anne's lap, restraining Christ from grabbing on to a lamb. In one sense it is an image of maternal love: yet Burke cites Pietro da Novellara writing about an early version of the picture to Isabelle d'Este giving his interpretation.

A cartoon of the cild Christ, about a year old, almost jumping out of his mother's arms to seize hold of a lamb. The mother is in the act of rising from St Anne's lap and holds back the child from the lamb, an innocent creature which is the symbol of the passion, while St Anne, partly rising from her seat, seems to anxious to restrain her daughter, which may be a type of the church, who would not hinder the passion of Christ (cited Burke p. 172)

The 'may' is Novellara's word but it is a word that Burke stresses that we should appreciate. Such caution about a hidden language is opposite to Rahe's extravagance with hidden meanings. Burke also seems more atuned to a variety of languages- from the religious (more than half of paintings from the Renaissance sample of 2000 Burke has looked at were of the Virgin) to the classical and political and even to the alchemical. This fecundity of meaning is an interesting part of Burke's book and something he is unwilling to endorse without further proof: like any good historian, Burke suggests ways we can translate the past but stresses how much of it remains untranslatable.

Burke's thesis is bold- he links commerce, commercialisation, capital, empire and republicanism together. Some of the details do not convince: Burke takes the line that republics foster artists whereas monarchies offer scope for patronage- that seems a sensible argument and yet it is worth saying that Burke devotes perhaps too little attention to fortifying it. Voltaire would have disagreed, suggesting the Age of Augustus and the Enlightenment of Louis XIV as counter examples. Again Burke is right that Italian art declined as Italian patrons moved from being entrepreuneurs to rentiers- but even he admits that the process had not completed by 1680, long after the Dutch and possibly English had passed Italian art. The argument that art and culture are products of recession (Lopez) is refined by Burke- he denies that people invested in art, but suggests that a lack of other investment led to surplus wealth- the Buddenbrook complex writ artistically, but it would have been interesting to hear more about spending patterns in merchant houses from this perspective. A short book leaves you vulnerable to not taking up every avenue and exploiting the potential to answer every doubt- but this is a tour de force that Professor Mansfield would not appreciate. In a sense what Burke does, the same enterprise that Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx and others were engaged in, is discuss what type of society best produces creativity. We may dispute his answer: but the question as he discusses is as old as the condition that gave rise to it- Vasari and Bruni during the Renaissance were the first to contemplate why the Renaissance should have happened.

I do not want to leave anyone with the impression that Burke does not write about or care about the art he studies. This is not a dull study which focusses away from the subject it studies- rather Burke is fascinated by the art. He is interested in the ways that artists thought- the movement towards rules of perspective and eventually towards mannerism. He is fascinated by what art meant- Michelangelo's David for instance fitted into a neat model of Florentine portraits of David symbolising their weakness and virtue against Milanese monarchist Goliathan imperialism. He writes illuminatingly about the way artists were educated- few knew how to read and commissions may have spread education. This is a book where the focus is wide not narrow.

Burke's work is also filled with illuminating detail. Italian painters were imitating classical models without having any to hand- all the Roman paintings that we have date from eighteenth century finds. We do not know much about major strands of art or performance because they are naturally of their time: we are told of sermons in which the preacher rode in arms to his congregation or elaborate festivals in the great cities, but we have no idea what these looked or sounded like. The book is a major acheivement with a lot packed into a small volume- but what it does do is turn us back, particularly in the conclusion where Burke matches Italy to the Netherlands and eighteenth century Japan, to major questions about society and creativity- about how clusters are caused and why they persist.


James Higham said...

If you could choose a time to live in, other than today, which 75 year period would it be?

Gracchi said...

The one just before now- I want to live in an age with antibiotics and pain killers. I think we all tend to forget that- how painful normal life was one hundred or two hundred years ago.