Monday, September 12, 2011

The Renaissance

The Renaissance:  A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 A.D.
© 1953 Will Durant
776 pages

I assumed the Renaissance would be a high point of this series for me, second only to The Age of Reason. After a thousand years of dogma and depressing piety, at last returns the classical world and the revival of its philosophy and art!  Instead, most of The Renaissance focuses on the politics of various Italian city states -- in great detail -- and their rivalries with one another. I grew bored of this very sharp focus after a few hundred pages, but aside from occasional commentaries on art history, it dominates the book. There are a few scant chapters with a more general view (one on the hilarious schism years, with various popes and antipopes running around; another on Italy's conquest at the hands of various European powers, most notably France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire) , and scores of mini-biographies, but the predominant theme of The Renaissance is petty politics. It may be most useful as an introduction to The Reformation, as its two-century history see the authority and power of the Vatican evaporated away by moral corruption, political machinations, and finally invasions of Italy which compromise its sovereignty.  While it is heartening to see people turn away from stultifying medieval piety and return to attempting to make the most of this life, in the Renaissance that shift manifests itself in merchant-princes turned dictators constantly fighting with one another and sponsoring art to praise themselves.   I'm still holding out for the good stuff in The Age of Reason, which I assume covers the Enlightenment.

Given its radical shift in focus from the broad (thousand-year epochs spanning multiple continents) to the narrow ( two centuries in one peninsula), The Renaissance is quite a bit different from the rest of the books in this series. I imagine it is a worthy read for someone interested in Italian politics, but I had hoped for a broader story and made my way through these two centuries somewhat unenthusiastically.

Selected quotations:

‎"The lives of great men oft remind us that a man's character can be formed after his demise. If a ruler coddles the chroniclers about him they may lift him to posthumous sanctity; if he offends him they may broil his corpse on a spit of venom or roast him to darkest infamy in a pot of ink."

Will Durant, p. 391

"The sun does not move....the earth is not in the center of the circle of the sun, nor in the center of the universe."

- Leonardo da Vinci, , quoted on page 122.

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