IT has been a profound and grateful experience to study so many of the phases and personalities of these rich and vibrant centuries. How endless was the wealth of this Renaissance, which even in its waning produced men like Tintoretto and Veronese, Aretino and Vasari, Paul III and Palestrina, Sansovino and Palladio, Duke Cosimo and Cellini, and such art as the rooms of the Ducal Palace and St. Peter’s dome! What frightening vitality there must have been in those Renaissance Italians, living amid violence, seduction, superstition, and war, yet eagerly alive to every form of beauty and artistry, and pouring forth—as if all Italy had been a volcano—the hot lava of their passions and their art, their architecture and assassinations, their sculpture and liaisons, their painting and brigandage, their Madonnas and grotesques, their hymns and macaronic verse, their obscenities and piety, their profanity and prayers! Has there ever been elsewhere such depth and intensity of Yea-saying life? To this day we feel the lifting breath of that afflatus, and our museums overflow with the spared surplus of that inspired and frenzied age.
It is difficult to judge it calmly, and we grudgingly rehearse the charges that have been brought against it. First of all, the Renaissance (limiting that term to Italy) was based materially upon the economic exploitation of the simple many by the clever few. The wealth of papal Rome came from the pious pennies of a million European homes; the splendor of Florence was the transmuted sweat of lowly proletaires who worked long hours, had no political rights, and were better off than medieval serfs only in sharing in the proud glory of civic art and the exciting stimulus of city life. Politically the Renaissance was the replacement of republican communes with mercantile oligarchies and military dictatorships. Morally it was a pagan revolt that sapped the theological supports of the moral code, and left human instincts grossly free to use as they pleased the new wealth of commerce and industry. Unchecked by censorship from a Church herself secularized and martial, the state declared itself above morality in government, diplomacy, and war.
Renaissance art (the indictment continues) was beautiful, but seldom sublime. It excelled Gothic art in detail, but fell short of it in grandeur, unity, and total effect; it rarely reached Greek perfection or Roman majesty. It was the voice of an aristocracy of wealth that divorced the artist from the artisan, uprooted him from the people, and made him dependent upon upstart princes and rich men. It lost its soul to a dead antiquity, and enslaved architecture and sculpture to ancient and alien forms. What an absurdity it was to put false Greco-Roman fronts upon Gothic churches, as Alberti did in Florence and Rimini! Perhaps the whole classical revival in art was a grievous mistake. A style once dead cannot properly be revitalized unless the civilization that it expressed can be restored; the vigor and health of the style lie in its harmony with the life and culture of its time. There was, in the great age of Greek and Roman art, a stoic restraint idealized by Greek thought and often realized in Roman character; but that restraint was quite foreign to the Renaissance spirit of freedom, passion, turbulence, and excess. What could be more contrary to the Italian temper in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than the flat roof and ceiling, the regular rectangular façade, the dreary rows of identical windows, that stigmatized the Renaissance palace? When Italian architecture tired of this monotony and artificial classicism, it let itself go, like a Venetian merchant robed for Titian, in excessive ornament and splendor, and fell from the classic into the baroque—corruptio optimi pessima.
Neither could classic sculpture express the Renaissance. For restraint is essential to sculpture; the enduring medium does not fitly embody a contortion or an agony that by its nature must be brief. Sculpture is motion immobilized, passion spent or controlled, beauty or form preserved from time by metal congealed or lasting stone. Perhaps for this reason the greatest sculptures of the Renaissance are mostly tombs or pietàs, in which restless man has at last achieved tranquillity. Donatello, try as he might to be classic, remained striving, aspiring, Gothic; Michelangelo was a law to himself, a Titan imprisoned in his temperament, struggling through Slaves and Captives to find esthetic peace, but ever too lawless and excited for repose. The recovered classic heritage was a burden as well as a boon; it enriched the modern soul with noble exemplars, but it almost smothered that youthful spirit—just come of age—under a falling multitude of columns, capitals, architraves, and pediments. Perhaps this resurrected antiquity, this idolatry of proportion and symmetry (even in gardens), halted the growth of a native and congenial art, precisely as the revival of Latin by the humanists impeded the development of literature in the vernacular.
Renaissance painting succeeded in expressing the color and passion of the time, and brought the art to a technical refinement never surpassed. But it too had its faults. Its stress was on sensuous beauty, on lordly raiment and rosy flesh; even its religious pictures were a voluptuous sentimentality, more intent upon corporeal forms than upon spiritual significance; and many a medieval crucifix reaches deeper into the soul than the demure Virgins of Renaissance art. Flemish and Dutch artists dared to picture unattractive faces and homely dress, and to seek behind these simple features the secrets of character and the elements of life. How superficial the nudes of Venice—even the Madonnas of Raphael—seem beside the Van Eycks’ Adoration of the Lamb! Raphael’s Julius II is unexcelled, but is there anything in the hundred self-portraits by Italian artists that can compare with Rembrandt’s honest mirrorings of himself? The popularity of portraiture in the sixteenth century suggests the rise of the nouveaux riches, and their hunger to see themselves in the glass of fame. The Renaissance was a brilliant age, but through all its manifestations runs a strain of show and insincerity, a flaunting of costly costumes, a hollow fabric of precarious power unsupported by inner strength, and ready to fall into ruins at the touch of a merciless rabble, or at the distant cry of an obscure and angry monk.
Well, what shall we say to this harsh indictment of an epoch that we have loved with all the enthusiasm of youth? We shall not try to refute that indictment: though it is weighted with unfair comparisons, much of it is true. Refutations never convince, and to pit one half-truth against its opposite is vain unless the two can be merged into a larger and juster view. Of course the Renaissance culture was an aristocratic superstructure raised upon the backs of the laboring poor; but, alas, what culture has not been? Doubtless much of the literature and art could hardly have arisen without some concentration of wealth; even for righteous writers unseen toilers mine the earth, grow food, weave garments, and make ink. We shall not defend the despots; some of them deserved a Borgian garroting; many of them wasted in vain luxury the revenues drawn from their people; but neither shall we apologize for Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo, whom the Florentines obviously preferred to a chaotic plutocracy. As for the moral laxity, it was the price of intellectual liberation; and heavy as the price was, that liberation is the invaluable birthright of the modern world, the very breath of our spirits today.
The devoted scholarship that resurrected classic letters and philosophy was chiefly the work of Italy. There the first modern literature arose, out of that resurrection and that liberation; and though no Italian writer of the age could match Erasmus or Shakespeare, Erasmus himself yearned for the clear free air of Renaissance Italy, and the England of Elizabeth owed to Italy—to “Englishmen Italianate”—the seeds of its flowering. Ariosto and Sannazaro were the models and progenitors of Spenser and Sidney, and Machiavelli and Castiglione were powerful influences in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It is not certain that Bacon and Descartes could have done their work had not Pomponazzi and Machiavelli, Telesio and Bruno paved the way with their sweat and blood.
Yes, Renaissance architecture is depressingly horizontal, always excepting the lordly cupolas that rise over Florence and Rome. The Gothic style, ecstatically vertical, reflected a religion that pictured our terrestrial life as an exile for the soul, and placed its hopes and gods in the sky; classic architecture expressed a religion that lodged its deities in trees and streams and in the earth, and rarely higher than a mountain in Thessaly; it did not look upward to find divinity. That classic style, so cool and calm, could not fitly represent the turbulent Renaissance, but neither could it be allowed to die; rightly a generous emulation preserved its monuments, and transmitted its ideals and principals to be a part—a sharer but not a dictator —of our building art today. Italy could not equal Greek or Gothic architecture, nor Greek sculpture, nor, perhaps, the noblest flights of Gothic sculpture at Chartres and Reims; but it could produce an artist whose Medici tombs were worthy of Pheidias, and his Pietà of Praxiteles.
For Renaissance painting there shall be no word of apology; it is still the high point of that art in history. Spain approached that zenith in the halcyon days of Velásquez, Murillo, Ribera, Zurbarán, and El Greco; Flanders and Holland came not quite so close in Rubens and Rembrandt. Chinese and Japanese, painters scale heights of their own, and at times their pictures impress us as especially profound, if only because they see man in a large perspective; yet their cold, contemplative philosophy or decorative elegance is outweighed by the richer range of complexity and power, and the warm vitality of color, in the pictorial art of the Florentines, of Raphael and Correggio and the Venetians. Indeed, Renaissance painting was a sensual art, though it produced some of the greatest religious paintings, and—as on the Sistine ceiling—some of the most spiritual and sublime. But that sensuality was a wholesome reaction. The body had been vilified long enough; woman had borne through ungracious centuries the abuse of a harsh asceticism; it was good that life should reaffirm, and art enhance, the loveliness of healthy human forms. The Renaissance had tired of original sin, breast-beating, and mythical post-mortem terrors; it turned its back upon death and its face to life; and long before Schiller and Beethoven it sang an exhilarating, incomparable ode to joy.
The Renaissance, by recalling classic culture, ended the thousand-year rule of the Oriental mind in Europe. From Italy by a hundred routes the good news of the great liberation passed over mountains and seas to France, Germany, Flanders, Holland, and England. Scholars like Aleandro and Scaliger, artists like Leonardo, del Sarto, Primaticcio, Cellini, and Bordone took the Renaissance to France; Italian painters, sculptors, architects took it to Pesth, Cracow, Warsaw; Michelozzo carried it to Cyprus; Gentile Bellini ventured with it to Istanbul. From Italy Colet and Linacre brought it back with them to England, Agricola and Reuchlin to Germany. The flow of ideas, morals, and arts continued to run northward from Italy for a century. From 1500 to 1600 all western Europe acknowledged her as the mother and nurse of the new civilization of science and art and the “humanities”; even the idea of the gentleman, and the aristocratic conception of life and government, came up from the south to mold the manners and states of the north. So the sixteenth century, when the Renaissance declined in Italy, was an age of exuberant germination in France, England, Germany, Flanders, and Spain.
For a time the tensions of Reformation and Counter Reformation, the debates of theology and the wars of religion, overlaid and overwhelmed the influence of the Renaissance; men fought through a bloody century for the freedom to believe and worship as they pleased, or as pleased their kings; and the voice of reason seemed stilled by the clash of militant faiths. But it was not altogether silent; even in that unhappy desolation men like Erasmus, Bacon, and Descartes echoed it bravely, gave it fresh and stronger utterance; Spinoza found for it a majestic formulation; and in the eighteenth century the spirit of the Italian Renaissance was reborn in the French Enlightenment. From Voltaire and Gibbon to Goethe and Heine, to Hugo and Flaubert, to Taine and Anatole France, the strain was carried on, through revolution and counterrevolution, through advance and reaction, somehow surviving war, and patiently ennobling peace. Everywhere today in Europe and the Americas there are urbane and lusty spirits—comrades in the Country of the Mind—who feed and live on this legacy of mental freedom, esthetic sensitivity, friendly and sympathetic understanding; forgiving life its tragedies, embracing its joys of sense, mind, and soul; and hearing ever in their hearts, amid hymns of hate and above the cannon’s roar, the song of the Renaissance.