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The best books on The Renaissance

recommended by Jerry Brotton

The Renaissance by Jerry Brotton

The Renaissance
by Jerry Brotton


A century-and-a-half ago the Swiss art historian, Jacob Burckhardt, popularized the idea of a 'Renaissance' in 14th century Italy. For most people, the term still conjures up works of art by the likes of Michelangelo or Leonardo. But there is much, much more to it than that. Professor of Renaissance studies, Jerry Brotton, picks the best books to read for a more complete understanding of the Renaissance.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

The Renaissance by Jerry Brotton

The Renaissance
by Jerry Brotton

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Most of us, when we think ‘Renaissance,’ think art.

Only a week before we spoke, I strayed into the Royal Academy to see ‘In the Age of Giorgione,’ 

an excellent exhibition. It’s beautiful, a lovely show. These intense encounters with some of these faces and personalities from the Renaissance made me think of many of the themes that come across very clearly in the reading material you suggested. 

Absolutely, because work by scholars like Michael Baxandall has been crucial to helping people understand how we read such gestures in those portraits.

This is Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy?

Yes. Baxandall’s work was incredibly important in the 1970s, because he developed our understanding of Renaissance art from simply connoisseurship. You would look at Leonardo and, through your innate connoisseurship, you would somehow have a connection to the painting. What Baxandall argues, in his book, is that a work of art is like an archaeological object. You need to excavate everything that surrounds it. You need to look at the worldview: the intellectual, commercial, even the political and imperial issues that surround it. You need to understand the rhetoric of humanist thought and humanist writing in this period. You need to go back to look at questions like patronage. And also, where the painting was originally located. For instance, you could go to the Royal Academy and you see a painting by Giorgione. But if we understand how that painting was commissioned and where it actually was—where people saw it and how they interacted with it—that that would inform our understanding of what that painting meant. If you lose that, then you lose a crucial dimension of how to understand that picture. So I think Baxandall’s work was fantastic for really taking on that High Renaissance moment— particularly the 15th to early 16th century, predominantly Italian, art—and asking readers to start by thinking about the significance of paintings in that culture.

One of the things reminds us is that the painter in this period is relatively secondary to the art object. It’s only really towards the end of this period—the late 15th and early 16th century—with Michelangelo and Leonardo that we start to see the name of the painter becoming important. Baxandall says wryly that paintings in the 15th century were too important to leave to the painters. The painter is just an artisan, or a craftsperson. It’s the patrons that are important. Why did the Medici want to commission a painting for a certain chapel or a certain political building? If we understand that, we get a heightened sense of what the painting is about.

“It’s only really towards the end of this period—the late 15th and early 16th century—with Michelangelo and Leonardo that we start to see the name of the painter becoming important”

Baxandall is also interested in other material issues. We forget, when we look at some of these paintings, that contracts agreed by the patron state, ‘it has to use so much ultramarine, this much lapis lazuli, and it needs to have gold ’ — because that is what people value in this period. They are not necessarily valuing the touch of the artist’s paintbrush. Once you start to understand that, you start to see the social dimension of the painting, and how it functions, and in particular, its connection to religion. He’s interested in the way the power of the painting has a religious influence and impact. Today when we look at Giotto or Giorgione we’re more interested in the psychology: we diminish the religious aspect the painting had, while Baxandall wants to put it at the centre of its creation.

In the later sections of his book, he talks about gesture. He’ll ask, ‘What is the meaning of a painting by Pinturicchio where the figure of Christ is holding his finger up?’ To answer that, he suggests we go and read contemporary sermons, and other texts from the time which talk about gesture, and the importance of the body. That’s also part of what the painter is drawing on. That’s the mental apparatus that they used to transform a certain biblical story and inject it with contemporary significance.

So it almost serves a didactic purpose: a reminder to the faithful of their religious commitment?

Exactly, yes. We ignore and diminish a lot of the paintings’ significance. We just see it cold and seek to impose our own values upon it. Again, you could ask, ‘why is that? Why has that painting survived and why are we still sustained by it?’ Baxandall is a shrewd enough historian to understand that these paintings still speak to us. He doesn’t just want to reduce them to ossified objects from the 15th century. They still have an powerful afterlife.

Baxandall has a huge influence on a tradition over the last thirty years that talks about the biography of a painting. When we talk about the biography of a life, we start at birth and we end at death. Baxandall’s work alerted us to the fact that we can say something similar about paintings. We can look at the way that a painting from a church in southern Italy has been moved to a palace in northern Europe. And if it’s moved to a palace it’s read in a different way. Then it’s sold by somebody and it ends up in a public art gallery, and that changes its meaning again.

“Jacob Burckhardt’s book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, really starts the whole tradition”

Baxandall’s work has been incredibly influential and most people who study 15th century Italian Renaissance art still have to—and should—engage with his work. I still teach it on my MA in Renaissance Studies. To me it remains very fresh and powerful. Students are fascinated by it and really engage with it. It also gives you fascinating ways to go and do further research into a picture because you can use Baxandall’s methodology. First, you can go and look for any remaining evidence about how it was commissioned and who commissioned it. Also, how did people talk about it in the period? If we look at the 15th century and what people said about that painting, one problem is that they don’t say much — which is interesting in itself (why is nobody interested in that picture, as opposed to another one?). But when people do say something, they might say, for example, that Botticelli’s work has ‘a virile air.’ What does that mean? You can then go and find out what virility means in this period.

Baxandall is far more than just somebody interested in the social history of art. He takes you back to that moment and draws you into that world.

I was also struck by the socio-economic context in which these paintings were created. Of course, the lives of the artists continue to capture the imagination right to this day, but Baxandall insists, to quote a line, that it’s ‘not just the learning of humanists, but also practical skills — and not just those of the elite, such as dancing and manners, but also those of the merchant and the artisan, such as the valuation of minerals and the gauging of barrels that is important.’ These beautiful objects are very much a record of the commercial skills and mercantile values that were prevalent.

Yes, Baxandall says that it’s not just about the celebration of genius. It’s not that people wake up in 1400 in the Italian peninsula and say, ‘We’re Renaissance people now!’ He wants to move away from the strictly elite way of thinking about how this culture develops. He is interested in understanding how trade influenced art. We see artists like Pisanello producing paintings, and others like Piero creating and fashioning—to use Stephen Greenblatt’s word—new ways of visualising stories. For instance, they use merchants’ methods of gauging. Look at the brilliance of the hat in Uccello’s painting: that’s actually drawn from merchants’ handbooks about how to gauge volume. People are looking at that picture and gaining not only aesthetic but also social satisfaction from it. They see the way he’s using a way of gauging volume that is new to that culture, and then transforming it into art. It’s not just drawn from elite ways of talking about ‘vanishing point perspective.’ This is something that in northern Italy, with its commercial dynamism, became increasingly important during this period.

The materials were important, but he goes on to describe how artistry was replacing these precious materials like gold-leaf and lapis lazuli as a marker of value in society. There’s the development of a visual language that he describes as starting to outline the first indications of the concept of individuality and personal style.

That’s a good segue to my second author. Baxandall is writing in the 1970s when Stephen Greenblatt, the author of my second choice, is also starting to develop his work. They take a very similar approach in thinking about culture, society, and the place of the arts within it. But as opposed to the great artwork that we get in the fifteenth century, Greenblatt is interested in the great literature that comes out of the late 16th and early 17th century.

Greenblatt wrote a book on Walter Raleigh in the mid-70s but the great book he wrote is Renaissance Self-Fashioning in 1980. Like Baxandall he argues that we need to move between an understanding of the elite and the non-elite, and talk about what we have previously seen as marginal figures. Greenblatt is more obviously interested in the literary tradition but, like Baxandall, he’s fascinated by what’s always been marginalised. For Greenblatt, that’s figures like witches or even women – hugely under-represented in the period. Before the late 1970s, people had not really talked about the presence of women in the Renaissance. The focus was always great white men like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Montaigne.

“The self is always fashioned. We are never born fully-formed as selves”

Greenblatt believes that because we’re now learning from other disciplines—drawing on anthropology, archaeology, psychoanalysis, and feminism—we can develop a completely new methodology for understanding the period. What Greenblatt does is follow the way Renaissance people start to fashion their identity. He argues that the self is always fashioned. We are never born fully-formed as selves. Ironically, part of what Greenblatt argues is that that intense sense of selfhood, of individuation, which we’ve always said is key to the Renaissance, doesn’t necessarily come out of progressive ideas. Rather, it’s fashioned in response to absolutist political authority, as well as censorship and sectarian religious conflict. In court life in Elizabethan England there are figures like Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Bacon that are starting to understand themselves and position themselves as ‘selves’ in relation to quite politically prescriptive state systems. What that creates somewhat paradoxically is a flourishing of the self and of great literature.

So there’s the advent of the idea of the constructed nature of character rather than some innate or unchanging idea of self. You mentioned Shakespeare and we find many examples in his stories of mistaken identity, of masquerade, of the self as being somehow constructed or fashioned. You also talked about Renaissance people. ‘Renaissance man’ is a bit of a cliché and, of course, we think of the Leonardos and these larger-than-life figures from the era.

In the third book that you’ve chosen, Worldly Goods by Lisa Jardine, one of the things that comes across very clearly is that the typical Renaissance man or—indeed Renaissance woman— was motivated by things other than humanist principles. They were motivated by things that we would recognise in our own time, like conspicuous consumption.

Lisa Jardine’s book Worldly Goods is quite a personal book for me. It remains one of the most influential crossover books on the Renaissance by an academic writing for a broader audience. Jardine was my academic mentor and I did the research for the book. She was my professor and we used to joke that she became my surrogate Jewish mother. She was, again, someone who was coming out of the humanist tradition. She read Greek and Latin and worked on archival sources from the High Renaissance. What we see in this period is the birth of modernity, as we understand it today, as late modern or postmodernists. We’re looking at this period and we can see a glimpse of—and the foundation of—our modern society and our own sense of self. Characters like Shakespeare’s Hamlet are crucial because they seem, in all their complexity, as somehow connected to us. These works of art are created under very specific historical conditions but something about those conditions allows us to connect with them.

Jardine’s work was reacting to a neoliberal economic moment in the late 70s and early 80s when the market became all-powerful. People in academia said, ‘We’re all on the left and we oppose what’s going on with Reagan and Thatcher, but we probably have to acknowledge that that’s the way culture is going.’ Jardine is therefore looking back to the late 15th and 16th centuries and saying that trade, exchange, financial developments, and the development of overseas long distance trade, are all playing their part in these iconic art objects and literary texts which we see as quintessentially Renaissance. It’s the birth of our own modern society.

“What we see in this period is the birth of modernity, as we understand it today”

For Jardine, even things like the creation of manuscripts or printed books are driven by very specific commercial and financial imperatives. Again, merchants are crucial figures. Jardine says that we should look at the middlemen who are financing these great art artefacts. This doesn’t mean that we diminish the artists, but we need to understand that they don’t just spring out of the genius of the soil of the Italian peninsula.

We have this notion that the Renaissance is a European phenomenon, that it emerges somewhere on the Italian peninsula and affects northern Europe in a slightly more attenuated way, with artists like Dürer, Montaigne, Erasmus, and Shakespeare. But we never really look elsewhere. Jardine moves the emphasis east. This is something that I’ve also been working on, exchange with the East, and particularly the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a key player in the Renaissance. Jardine is interested in what happened after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and how important that becomes in the High Renaissance. Jardine believes we need to think about what’s happening in North Africa, and Muslim societies there and the Ottoman and Persian empires, because they’ve been completely excluded from the story. That’s a really important aspect of her book, putting cultural exchange with other societies as central. The book was written before 9/11 but it’s prescient to read it again in the light of recent debates about the west’s relations with the Muslim world.

There’s so much here that we would recognise in our own day and age. She writes memorably about the Renaissance planting the seeds “of our own exuberant multiculturalism and bravura consumerism” – all very much hallmarks of western society in the late twentieth century. One might perhaps add the globalisation that we see very much at work to that list. She speaks of worldly goods and this unashamed pursuit of valuable possessions of great religious and secular art as a defining characteristic of the age.

I guess you could argue that there is one worldly good in particular that made a very meaningful difference to the historical trajectory of Europe at the time and which was made broadly available to a new audience and that is: the book. You mentioned manuscripts and printed books and that’s a good segue to your next choice which is The Printing Press as an Agent of Change by Elizabeth Eisenstein.

Yes, and Jardine is somebody who was highly influenced by Eisenstein’s work. It was very important to me to reflect the role played by feminist scholars in how we understand the Renaissance because until very recently this has been seen as a predominantly male story written by men. Jardine and Eisenstein are both fantastic scholars who did extraordinary archival work to start to revise that story. Eisenstein’s book is, in many ways, a classic male book: a fat, complicated tome about the emergence of the printing press in the mid-to-late fifteenth century. It’s vast and it really makes you work hard. There aren’t really that many readable books on the Renaissance for the general reader. Jardine’s book is just about the only one on this list you could give to an informed member of the public. The other books are very complicated and Eisenstein, quite possibly, gives fewer concessions to the readership than anybody else.

“The fact that it becomes possible to produce a book that is exactly reproducible so you can have, say, an index is completely transformative”

The emergence of the printing press is not classically seen as part of the story of the High Renaissance. But the fact that it becomes possible to produce a book that is exactly reproducible so you can have, say, an index is completely transformative. You can’t have indexes in manuscript books because you can’t create that sense of exact replicability. For her, it changes everything. It transforms how we understand trade and how we understand science. It is particularly important in science because you can print a book in London and that book can go to Antwerp, to Vienna, to Venice, and people can read the same book and correspond with each other about, say, footnote twenty-five on page sixty, or a reference in an index. And this is what starts to happen. You start to get networks of scholars sharing ideas in a way that is so much greater than you can get with manuscript culture where you can only circulate it among four or five people. Suddenly, you can print a thousand copies of a book and they can go all over Europe. People start to work on very specific areas of science, culture and ethnography and start to build up a sense of objectivity in understanding how we operate.

Eisenstein’s argument has come under huge scrutiny. Some scholars were quite critical of her argument because she pushes such a strong idea about standardisation. They argued that her approach misunderstands that the printing press was still in its infancy. It didn’t quite have the reach Eisenstein claims. There were a lot of mistakes in the books, people then published different books, they pirated them. We shouldn’t really overestimate the power of printing. I’m not so convinced by those arguments. I think it remains a hugely important issue, perhaps more so than ever. I remember a time before people used the internet and email. We are going through a similar technological evolution now, one that changes our idea of self and our ideas of culture and society in a profound way.

We’ve come to think of print as ubiquitous and something we take for granted because it’s everywhere around us. But if you take a step back, typography – the printed word – is still indispensable for the transmission of instructions and even sophisticated technological skills. She writes at one point how the punctuation marks, numbered pages, and indices not only helped to cross-reference and made things more accurate but helped to “reorder the thought of all readers, whatever their profession or craft”. So, it allowed for a cognitive revolution to take place.

Absolutely, and it affects how we understand those books. I teach my undergraduates that there are three different printed versions of Hamlet circulating during and just after Shakespeare’s lifetime. Most readers believe there is one book written by Shakespeare called Hamlet. I ask my students to look at all three versions and see how radically different they are. We can’t ever know which one was closest to Shakespeare. The implication is that we have to understand the history of print culture. That’s really what Eisenstein is interested in. It changes how we read and if it changes how we read, it changes how we think and how we interpret.

“With a book, people just pick it up in the British Library, read it, and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ But that’s only one dimension”

And so, if we pay attention to the creation of these art objects and what surrounds them, we get a richer understanding of them. With Hamlet we realize that one version says, ‘To be or not to be, ay there’s the point,’ and another says, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ My students are fascinated by this. They want to know why there are two versions. We don’t know. It’s the result of print culture as much as it might be of whatever Shakespeare initially wrote down in handwritten script before it went to the printer and then the printers changed it. What we’re dealing with is the history of the transmission of the printed text via the printing press.

What’s interesting to me is that when it comes to the pamphlet, people have always been interested in the history: how it was produced, who printed it, what else those people printed. With a book, people just pick it up in the British Library, read it, and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ But that’s only one dimension. We have to understand the long history of that text and how people may change it for their own agenda. That changes habits of reading and, therefore, habits of thought as well. For that, we remain indebted to Eisenstein’s work.

One final thing to say about Eisenstein’s book is that this is where the field currently stands. At the moment, the field is obsessed with book history. It is the leading area of interest in Renaissance Studies.

Let’s talk about agendas for a moment. We’re not speaking here just learned texts but, of course, also the documents that made bureaucracy and statecraft a possibility but also allowed readers to become part of an imagined community and the collective imagining which made possible not only political allegiances but also allegiances to an ideology or an idea.

We’ve talked about typography and print as indispensable for the transmission of technical skills but it was also very much a vehicle of propaganda and that brings us to a discussion of religion and the Reformation.

Yes, so my next choice is Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This book is not one you necessarily see on lists of the top books about the Renaissance. MacCulloch is fascinated by the key moment where many scholars would say that the Renaissance ends. Someone like Burckhardt would say that it concludes in the early sixteenth century. MacCulloch is fascinated by the fact that this coincides with the moment at which the Reformation happens. If we take it as starting in 1517—when Luther’s Theses are nailed to the church at Gutenberg—we see that that changes everything. All the things we’ve talked about were inevitably affected by that split in Christendom between the emergence of Protestantism and the Catholic attempt to crush that reformed religious belief. It partly comes down to the printing press. All the challenges to Catholic orthodoxy, before the Lutheran Reformation, had been crushed. But Luther was able to exploit the power of the printing press. Here, again, MacCulloch is very good about the idea of the ‘word.’ Luther always emphasised the overriding power of the word of God. It was now possible to circulate the word of God in hundreds—if not thousands—of copies of a printed book and that was one of the things that, of course, drove the Reformation. MacCulloch says it has affected culture, society and of course religion ever since.

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It’s a wonderful book coming from somebody who has such a strong but complicated relationship to religious belief as MacCulloch does. Many of the scholars we’ve been looking at are quite clear—with Baxandall being an exception—that they are not believers in a theological sense But MacCulloch takes very seriously the power of belief. He is also openly gay, and left the Anglican church because of its position on homosexuality. He can say we have to understand the powerfully held belief on both sides of this religious divide, Catholic and Protestant. He’s even-handed and quite brilliant at saying just how powerful that sense of faith is, even for whoever it is that is producing the agenda. For me, this has become a classic book that completely defines how we think about the Reformation.

He talks in particular about the printing of a scholarly edition of Augustine’s works in 1490 that paved the way for European readers to experience religion differently. By book-reading, in a sense, to experience it directly in a reordered form. The thoughts of readers had been reordered to engage with ideas in an entirely different way.

It’s also the period where you have texts being printed in the vernacular languages. We had been looking at a more elite, Latinate tradition and now you have Luther using the power of the printing press to circulate a copy of the Bible in German. They can reach a much wider readership and people can therefore have a much more intimate relationship to the book. Obviously, the book is a sacred object but the printed book, in its own right, is a magical sacred object. It’s a new piece of technology, it’s exciting and different. It’s also something that you can invest in much more. You can circulate books amongst your friends. Believers can start to standardise their beliefs, in a certain sense. MacCulloch is not only a great church historian but also a great historian of the book.

So you can imagine someone like Augustine writing in quite an orthodox Catholic tradition. That can actually then be re-appropriated and gives rise to different forms of belief which might actually be antithetical to whatever Augustine may have wanted the text to say. You start to get this moment when readers can appropriate a text and say they want it to do something else. This is a period where religious and political authorities, in particular, have tried to limit the ways in which a text can be read. MacCulloch says there are unintended consequences about how those new forms of technology, those readerships, those networks, can create new forms of belief. It’s not hard and fast. It’s almost accidental. There are these unintended consequences of how people read. This is very important, and MacCulloch’s book made sure that we cannot ever go back to a sort of Burckhardtian, secular idea of the Renaissance. We often pay lip service to the idea of faith and religion in the Renaissance but the fact religion is absolutely central to everything is one of the great insights of this book.

Which probably brings us full circle. Here you have a sacred object but also a worldly good that was communicating new ideas, very much attuned to a world that was changing rapidly in social and economic terms. It was based increasingly on trade, on manufacturing, on commerce, on the accumulation and display of wealth and art. The beginning, in other words, of a world that we can recognise as distinctly similar to our own — the capitalist era of information driven linkages across cultures and peoples. So, arguably, we are, all of us, Renaissance men and women.

There’s a way in which there’s no other period that defines us in such a profound way. We never think of the medieval period as doing that. We never even think of the 18th century Enlightenment period as doing that. MacCulloch ends his book by looking forward and talking about the Enlightenment and how the Reformation affected it. But, still today, it’s always the Renaissance that we go back to in our search for origins. When we try and understand where the modern sense of self, the modern sense of political organisation, the modern sense of culture all come from, we always end up going back to this period: this late 15th/early 16th century moment that we still persist in calling the Renaissance. So, you’re right that this almost brings us full circle and brings us back to Burckhardt.

Although it’s not on your list of five, can you say a word or two about Burckhardt for readers who maybe aren’t familiar with its arguments?

Jacob Burckhardt’s book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), really starts the whole tradition. It’s the classic argument that the Renaissance emerges in Italy. He says it’s a 14th century moment, that creates this sense of the ‘Renaissance’ that it defines through the Italian city-state, like the Sforza in Milan, and the Medici in Florence. At that time, there was no unified state of Italy, just a series of independent city states. In the medieval period, Burckhardt claims people are ‘dreaming’ under a ‘veil’ of faith and superstition. Medievalists are understandably furious about him saying this. They say it’s nonsense. But it’s a very seductive argument to say that in the Middle Ages people don’t have a sense of their self, and that that emerges through the genius of the Italian people in the fourteenth century and leads to the creation of the great outpouring of art and culture that we have. He talks about everything ending with the Reformation. He says Italy is, in effect, ripped to pieces by what happens, which is, again, a simplification.

I tend to start teaching Renaissance courses by looking at Burckhardt. It sets up all the issues that you can then run with but also critique. What’s fascinating and ironic about it is that there is no description of art. There’s very little account of literature and when he tries it, it doesn’t really work. There isn’t really any sense of economic change. In fact, none of the things that we see as quintessentially Renaissance are in Burckhardt’s essay. It’s very much a polemical piece. My students are always very bemused because there are no footnotes, no analysis, it’s just an argument. It’s a very subjective argument, driven by Burckhardt’s position as a member of the Swiss bourgeoisie reacting badly to revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. You can still see traces of that argument in all the texts that we’ve looked at. Jardine is reacting explicitly to Burckhardt. Greenblatt does it as well, he mentions Burckhardt very clearly. Baxandall is coming out of that whole tradition of art history that has been informed by Burckhardt. Eisenstein is still producing a response around the secular drive that Burckhardt was so fascinated by. MacCulloch is probably about the only person who is not squarely interested because he is not a Renaissance scholar by training. He is interested in religious history and this moment is particularly significant. But, of course, he starts his book in 1490, and Burckhardt’s book concludes before 1490. So because of the bleeding-across of these boundaries, the concept of putting institutional, academic, or historical boundaries on the Renaissance is virtually impossible. If you’re an art historian like Baxandall you believe the Renaissance dates from 1350-1450. If you’re a literary scholar, you call it the ‘early modern’ period and you say its dates are 1500-1700. If you’re a church historian, you call it something else. Whereas Burckhardt is telling us it’s very specifically a late 14th to early 15th century phenomenon and then it’s done because it’s all about Italy.

And yet, as we’ve seen today, you could argue that the Renaissance is with us to this day…

Interview by Romas Viesulas

August 31, 2017

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Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton is a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London.

Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton

Jerry Brotton is a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London.