A fresh and vigorous appreciation of the intellectual liberation and artistic triumphs of the Italian Renaissance.
The development of the first universities from the 12th century onwards, growing wealth and patronage in certain cities, and above all the invention of printing and cheap paper, provided essential conditions for the Renaissance. And it was in literature and scholarship that it began, in the rebirth of classical culture that loosened the Church's iron grip on visual art. Paul Johnson tells the story, in turn, of Renaissance literature, sculpture, building and painting.
Despite the critical importance of inventions outside Italy - printing in Germany and oil painting in Holland - he locates the Renaissance firmly in Italy and in Florence above all, between 1400 and 1560. There are memorable sketches of the key figures - the frugal and shockingly original Donatello, the awesome Michelangelo, the delicacy of Giovanni Bellini. The final part of the book charts the spread and decline of the Renaissance, as the Catholic Church repositioned itself to counter the Reformation which the Renaissance had itself helped to produce.
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 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.