Good friends of mine are in Italy at the moment, pinging back words & pictures. They sensibly decided to winter in Venice, where thanks to Internet they can work as well as anywhere else, & explore day to day. Hotels are useful in transit, & for three weeks en route they used them around Florence, “visiting every church, seeing every fresco & all the pictures” they could; but better to take an apartment & settle in. They will “do Rome” in the homeward arc, come the spring. Sometimes I almost wish that I would allow photographs on this site. (But you know me. Backward.) The lady, once our art director at the Idler magazine, since married to an Idler writer, is already chittering away in Italian. Everything sounds better in Italian. In the latest message — magnificent photos — they have just arrived in Venice:
“I almost wept when I got off the train. There was part of the Grand Canal looking modestly beautiful. You can see a million pictures of a place, & even see it in a movie, but it is always just itself when you arrive.”
Verily. As a traveller reading obsessively ahead, as a journalist cramming background for an “assignment,” I found this again & again. Everything written is as straw, compared with what is revealed on arrival. In ten minutes, in ten seconds, all is transformed by the reality of the place itself; & none of the preparation was ever adequate. I remember Venice in the winter, under my own circumstances of almost forty years ago. I could not stay long, alas. Of a morning I rose to witness the city under a light fall of snow. This turned quickly to slush, but the enchantment will not leave me, until I develop Alzheimers or whatever. How could one ever become bored with Venice, & all her history in centuries compounded. And even for that history, the beginning of understanding was to touch that stone, & comprehend the incredible fact of stone & water.
The Commentariat have been discussing words: which ones we put in “scare quotes” & why. “Renaissance” & “Enlightenment” came up for a fresh flogging. Let me carry the beating into this post, for which perhaps a new category is needed: “Philosophical Dictionary.” There is great confusion in the use of labels, & one must define terms as one goes along, to make any sense. This word “Renaissance,” with a capital “R,” & often preceded by the definite article, is a term that demands some brief, decisive expostulation.
We have, up here in the High Doganate, a copy of The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, by the beloved American scholar, Charles Homer Haskins (1870–1937). It is, for the bibliomaniacal reader, the Meridian reprint of 1957. I bought it second-hand when I was in high school, & though scruffy then & scruffier now, it is precious beyond words. To this day I would recommend it to anyone as a point of departure. No later book of which I am aware does so good a job of providing a sympathetic overview, or handbook to the period. And while truly, as noted above, no book can replace the experience of being there, all my attempts to return to the 12th century have so far failed.
Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, a rather poetical account of the north-west of Europe two & three centuries later, was my other adolescent portal into the Mediaeval world; the world from which such beautiful things came down to us as Venice, & Chartres. “Poetical” in both better & worse sense; but Huizinga does something beyond what most historians even attempt. From the bells ringing through the opening pages, he tells the reader that he is now a long way from home.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This famous opening of L.P. Hartley’s (recommended) novel, The Go Between, refers to a past at the turn of the 20th century, viewed from the position of 1953. That was the year of my birth, & in looking back upon my own childhood, now equally displaced in time, I, too, am remembering a foreign country, when they did things differently, even here in my father’s Methodist Ontario, or in my mother’s Calvinist Cape Breton. One must take that in, as one perhaps cannot help doing with advancing age. Two generations can be a long time; & by extension, twenty or thirty or forty generations require a formidable leap of the imagination. One cannot learn enough about so displaced a time, to avoid anachronism entirely; even if one is reading a history in the place where it occurred.
Part of my motive, for travelling in space, through as much of rural India as I could in the 1970s — when India was another country from what she is today — was to acquaint myself with physical conditions in, if you will, “a representative pre-Modern society.” That is to say, an India then still largely free of the gadgets & baubles of “modern life”; a land where the village was still the centre of being, & not yet a statistical insignificance, a bureaucratic anomaly, & an impediment to Progress.
In retrospect, I am very glad to have seen & touched pieces of an India not yet hustled out of herself, & to have felt my own Post-Modern cynicism & glibness being stripped away. For otherwise I might never have grasped some huge things. For instance, the sheer joy in the lives of people who were by any Western standard quite ridiculously “poor.” The intensity of their pleasure in God’s green earth. Their freedom from aesthetic & other neuroses.
The joy, for instance, taken by men & women alike in small children; & the happiness of women who were by contemporary Western edict grievously oppressed. Too, the contentment to be found in caste & station, among people who had not yet been taught to resent their circumstances, in the Marxist way; who had not yet learned to crave the phantasms of materialism. People who received the humblest gifts of life with a gratitude so simple & direct as to be inexplicable in any modern language.
One might almost say I went to India (or returned there, for it was part of my childhood) in order to visit the Middle Ages: to walk along ancient footpaths, & ride in bullock carts, mile on mile under the sun & under the stars through countryside without electrification. To be rained on, & feel my feet sink into the mud; to sweat & to shiver & to live, intensely.
India had her ages of spiritual & intellectual transformation, her own Renaissances now buried in deep time; her own succeeding catastrophes. They provide useful comparisons with our European history, & to the Italy to which we now return — the “superpower” through so many past centuries, & centre of our Christendom along with the Church’s first daughter, France.
There was indeed a Renaissance in the 12th century, as Haskins from the outset declares:
“This century, the very century of Saint Bernard & his mule, was in many respects an age of fresh & vigorous life. The epoch of the Crusades, of the rise of towns, & of the earliest bureaucratic states of the West, it saw the culmination of Romanesque art & the beginnings of Gothic; the emergence of the vernacular literatures; the revival of the Latin classics & of Latin poetry & Roman law; the recovery of Greek science, with its Arabic additions, & of much of Greek philosophy; & the origin of the first European universities. The 12th century left its signature on higher education, on the scholastic philosophy, on European systems of law, on architecture & sculpture, on the liturgical drama, on Latin & vernacular poetry. The theme is too broad for a single volume, …” & therefore he will attempt only a sketch of what we might call the “scientific” developments.
Much that we associate with our own modernity, traces to that Renaissance of the 12th century, if not back to the Ottonian Renaissance before it, or to the Carolingian Renaissance before that. Then looking forward, one may descry distinct “Renaissances” within the Duecento, Trecento, Quattrocento: not mere periods of time, but organic movements, with centres of activity: heart, body, limbs. Seen for what they were, they do not, as our “Whig interpretation of history” assumes, anticipate any later age. Each instead offers a treasury in itself, including maps to roads not taken. Each added to the accumulation of knowledge, & to the catalogue of artistic possibilities; & from each, much is lost. “Progress” lays claim to the accumulations, but only by appropriating them — this little pygmy on the shoulders of giants, who thinks he is so tall.
Consider this English word, “Renaissance.” It means rebirth, recovery, revival, renewal, restoration. There is no futurism in any of those words. The Renaissance of the Quattrocento, which we call “The Renaissance,” looked backward, not forward. It was proud of recovering what was thought to have been lost from earlier ages; to be restoring ancient clarities & standards. The same could be said of every other Renaissance.
Giotto, to use a ragamuffin prop from the old Whiggish bag of deceits, is habitually presented as “ahead of his time.” He, from his own master Cimabue, introduced “innovations” to the art of painting, including a technique of perspective that “looks forward to The Renaissance.” This is utter nonsense. Giotto was looking forward to no such thing. To view his paintings as if he were, is to stare right through them; to see only tricks. He was himself an embodiment of the Renaissance of the later Trecento. He is innocent of any Quattrocento intention. The Arena Chapel does not lead to anything. It is a place in itself; of pilgrimage.
The future does not exist. This is a plain statement of fact the Moderns began to lose their hold on, & we Post-Moderns have lost it altogether. Only the past exists. Giotto, like every other fully sane human being, was looking not to the future but to the past. So far as he may have been guilty of “innovations,” they were innovations upon the past. As Cardinal Newman said, of the spiritual journey, we “walk to heaven backward,” advancing not towards the future but in recession from error, towards truth. People trying to escape the monstrous fantasies of our progressive futurists should try very hard to get that.
When a man refers to “The Renaissance,” ask him which Renaissance he means.
The habit of dating our modernity from 1492 — from the discovery of America & all that — is an ignorant habit, though from its constant repetition, hard to throw off. It is like dating anything from the Moon Landing: a memorable but meaningless technological accomplishment. Or, dating “The Renaissance” from the technique of perspective. These are habits of the excruciating technological mind, which one might almost say is trained to miss the point. The Genoese, Cristoforo Colombo, is unambiguously a figure of the Middle Ages. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, were likewise men fully formed & functioning in the pre-Reformation environment of Catholic Christendom. Copernicus, too, was a Mediaeval man. Impressive they were, but they were not Modern. It is an act of theft to claim them for some later age; to drag them across the boundary into our Brave New World.
That boundary in time lies beyond them. Choose, if you need a fixed date for filing purposes, 31 October 1517 as one scrap of the frontier — that Hallowe’en when Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg; but most of it comes a generation later. It is the Reformation, & not the last Mediaeval Renaissance, that separates us from the Middle Ages; separates Catholic & Protestant alike, from every kind of Catholic who lived before. Everything that defines us as “Modern” descends rather from the destruction of the unity of Western Christendom.
That this Reformation had many Mediaeval antecedents should go without saying. Yet the Lollards & other Mediaeval heretics, to whom Reformation heretics looked back, were themselves not looking forward. They could see no Zwingli, no Luther, no Calvin from where they were standing. Those, in their turn, conceived their reforms for all Christendom; none quite intended to found an Ism on himself. In that sense they, too, were Mediaeval men.
Indeed, no one can see the full consequences of his acts, for that is beyond the possibilities of human knowledge. Every figure, from every age, was living in a present that is murky to us, & becomes completely opaque when we read into his works the slightest reference to an unforeseeable future. We, who often think we can see into the future, are in every moment we attempt that, insane.
No “Renaissance” can offer so violent a division, as the Reformation achieved. We self-flattering Moderns seize upon “The Renaissance” as harbinger of our modernity, from the purest vanity. Nothing so beautiful is conceivable to us. It is out of our reach; it is of another age. We should like to think that our beginnings may be found in some fine perfume or mist. In fact we start in a monstrous breach of the order in which the flower of Mediaeval Humanism was nurtured; with a poisoning of that soil. Our modernity began in the statecraft of Henry VIII; in cold-blooded murder. In worse than murder: for it involved a declaration of the Right of Man to play God — the precise opposite of the humanist spirit in Erasmus & More & Vives, each a bold defender of Catholic Christendom.
And we have lived, since, not in a civilization characterized by rinascimenti & rebirths, but in one characterized by violent turmoil, amid corpses piled ever higher.
Which is not to say that the longing has been, or ever can be suppressed, for Creation, for creative Renaissance; or that it has not continued to burst, by freshets through our asphalt pavements. New life, & new Creation, follows through those cracks; then is again paved over. But eventually all asphalt must dissolve.
Let us therefore abjure Progress. Let us therefore seek Renaissance again.