From Norwich to Naples

Anthony Grafton

  • The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance by John Hale
    HarperCollins, 648 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 00 215339 4

On the sprawling, minutely detailed historical paintings of the contemporary German artist Werner Tübke, preachers and prostitutes, humanists and soldiers, animated zodiacal signs and Popes tortured by devils tumble, gallop and fly past the onlooker. The flamboyantly dressed soldiers, needle-sharp lances, Hills of Golgotha and Towers of Babel that fill his works are carefully reproduced from dozens of well-known Renaissance paintings. Within the swirling clouds of detail, juxtapositions suggest interpretations. Mining machinery and printing presses of the time, for example, appear as complementary causes of the dissolution of the medieval social order and the doomed rising of thousands of German peasants in 1525. But the real effect of Tübke’s work lies in its power to evoke, in unforgettable detail, a moment of seismic historical change.

Like the German painter, John Hale has produced a vast and enthralling mosaic. In his new cultural history of Renaissance Europe a sprawling mass of individual scenes, deftly drawn and coloured, capture the pain and the beauty of massive social and cultural change. As with Tübke, Hale’s work rests on enormous hidden foundations: only someone who had devoted a lifetime to studying the history, literature and art of the 15th and 16th centuries could draw so effortlessly on what seems a limitless range of texts and illustrations. One cannot skim a single chapter without encountering unfamiliar details, elegant juxtapositions of visual and verbal argument, and anecdotes without end, each of which makes a novel and instructive point. Why were the Venetians frightened when the Doge absented himself from a great public meeting to go to the lavatory? Who tried to push Turkish attackers away from the walls of Famagusta with gigantic mechanical forks reminiscent of J.G. Farrell’s Patent Cavalry Exterminator? What percentage of people in Elizabethan England were accused by neighbours of ‘fornication, adultery, buggery, incest, bestiality or bigamy?’ Read Hale and find out.

His account begins with the ‘discovery of Europe’: the massive effort to map the spaces, describe the towns, and understand the weirdly different peoples of the continent that occupied so many scholars and artists of the 15th and 16th centuries. This enterprise found expression at every cultural level. The newly precise maps of Mercator and Ortelius, based on the mathematical principles of Ptolemy’s cartography and informed by new data, satisfied scientific curiosity. The English travellers who survived brigands and bordellos to offer their countrymen scurrilous accounts of the carnivals and customs of Abroad catered to less technical interests. Both produced a newly well-informed stay-at-home reader: ‘From myth and map, chorography, history and survey, Europe passed into the mind.’

Hale shows us with elegance and economy the rise of a collective sense that Europe was a coherent entity: one separated by tradition, languages and customs, as well as geology and geography, from the barbarians of Russia and the New World, and the rich, cultured mandarins of the East. He also reveals, with characteristically skilful quotations, the ambivalence that Europeans felt as they became more conscious of the existence of powerful rivals. With Pietro della Valle, struck by the sharp contrast between the hurried movements and prissy status displays of European grandees and the silent dignity of the Turks, or Alessandro Valignano, impressed that Japanese children learned more quickly than Europeans and seemingly did not quarrel, sharp observation mutated into something like anthropology. The Americas presented the sharpest challenge: not only to an inherited Biblical history which seemed to supply no son of Noah as a forefather for their inhabitants, but also to a complex of ideas about which institutions are natural, which artificial, that Amerindian societies seemed to subvert. A very few individuals, like Montaigne, reacted to a varied universe with universal tolerance.

For the most part, however, the spyglasses of European intellectuals and readers were trained less on outsiders man on one another, and what they saw inspired more amusement and anger than tolerance. The sense that all Europeans shared assumptions and customs was accompanied by an ever sharper sense that national characteristics divided them. Playwrights, poets and pamphleteers enjoyed themselves creating clichés about national character which would reverberate down the years, inspiring riots, pogroms, wars and disputes over the fate of butter mountains. Thomas Nashe was funnier, but not more opinionated, than rival writers in the same field when he made a character in The Unfortunate Traveller warn that France had nothing for the traveller but syphilis, while in Holland he could study drunkenness, in Italy atheism, whoring, poisoning and sodomy, and in Spain, perhaps worst of all how to make ‘a ruffe with short strings like the droppings of a man’s nose’. True, Germans won Fynes Morrison’s gratitude because they did not piss in the street, unlike everyone else he encountered across the Channel; he attributed their cleanliness not to intelligence but to their obsessive interest in their work.

National feeling inspired complex argument and found relief in simple insults. Political theorists tried to make climate – or the stars – responsible for national differences in height, weight, appearance and etiquette. Painters learned to make Germans strut, gesticulate and scatter their food as they ate it. And everyone made fun of the Hungarians and other peoples of the European fringe for wearing silly clothes and drinking themselves insensible whenever they had the chance. If the Europeans of the 16th century had known the genre of the cartoon, they might have anticipated Astérix in Britain (or Astérix and Cleopatra): they already possessed the necessary combination of chauvinism and Classical learning.

More important than the writers and artists, however, were the monarchs who tried to fuse the still disparate peoples of each European country into effective, aggressive units. Hale draws on his earlier studies on political and military history to sketch, briefly but expertly the ways in which power was seized, reinforced and expressed. Deploying a cast that ranges from the diplomats who crossed Europe, ‘scrutinising nubile [marriage] candidates for indications of health and fecundity’, to the bureaucrats who stayed at home, the ‘proletariat of inky toilers’ and their bosses, the satraps of the bureaucracy, he stages the rise of a new kind of state. Traditional dynastic ideals interacted with modern visions of absolute authority, and the pretensions of a new court, fixed in ever grander castles and attended by ever larger staffs of nobles and servants, were often confronted by the rival claims of representative institutions or great and long-independent nobles.

The rise of these new states fostered a certain cosmopolitanism, especially among those intellectuals and diplomats who moved from court to court, weaving new networks of political and intellectual communication and deploring the crudities and calamities that resulted from excessive patriotism and aggression. But testosterone ran high, and space short. Jammed together, with little room to expand except into Moldavia and Wallachia, confronted by potential rivals abroad, and often enraged by open religious dissent at home, the rulers of Europe devoted themselves, as Machiavelli recommended, to the study of war (unfortunately they often directed it, as he warned them not to against their own subjects). Popes and diplomats tried to regulate relations between states. Treaties were made, unmade and remade. An international élite of scholars dreamed of a transnational order that would regulate, or even eliminate, conflict: writers passionately criticised ‘the new lie’, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. But defeat in the field or bankruptcy, not idealism, usually brought armies home and navies back to port, and filled the streets of Europe with much-feared sturdy beggars. Even the international lawyers, like Hugo Grotius, who devised rules for legitimate conduct in time of war, accepted the grim customs of plundering captured cities and taking hostages that were standard military practice at the time.

Hale takes pains to emphasise contrasts and avoid exaggerating the rate of change. Most Europeans lived their lives on a local, not a national level. The great majority were still peasants, who worked the land and never passed the toll barriers (not to mention the dialect frontiers) that normally stood only a few kilometres away. Yet merchants, travellers and spies crossed and recrossed the continent, as did an ever-increasing range of specialist craftsmen. Moreover, the wandering apprentices of Central Europe and the great military leaders like Charles VIII of France had one thing in common: they saw the world and came home with a great desire to enjoy new comforts and practise new skills. In material as in high culture, some local traditions resisted while others yielded, and still others were merged with foreign ones. Some efforts at cross-cultural communication bore less fruit than others. The marquetry and alabaster workers, master embroiderer and black African parrot-keeper that Charles VIII of France brought back from Italy in 1495 did not all leave a permanent impress on the world of the châteaux. Others had unintended consequences. The English love of potatoes originally rested on the belief that they had aphrodisiac qualities; but the desire to enhance desire created only a Himalaya of stodge. Gradually, however, the crust of late medieval material culture heaved and cracked. In the movement of furs and cloths, strange animals and stranger plants, Hale clearly sees one of the most profound sources of the cultural transformations to which he dedicates the body of his book. A drawing of Leonardo’s, now at Windsor, in which clocks and garden implements, crockery and carpenters’ tools rain down from the clouds onto the earth, nicely evokes the transformative power of the passionate consumerism which, as much as any other shared characteristic, linked Europeans from Norwich to Naples.

Next, Hale attacks the core of Renaissance high culture: the proliferation of new ideals and forms in every area of literature and art. He begins, in a traditional way, with the revival of Antiquity. This he compares, ingeniously, to the scene in Rabelais in which the frozen sounds of a great battle melt and alarm Pantagruel and his friends. Texts and images long held in a sort of stasis suddenly became viable once more, startling and inspiring those who were thus made aware of new ideas and possibilities. Writers who had long been cited as impersonal ‘authorities’ mutated before the startled eyes of Petrarch and Machiavelli into men like themselves, with whom they could engage in decorous or excited conversation. Ruins that had long been mined for materials for churches or feared as the domain of demons suddenly became the haunts of artists and antiquaries (who looked like treasure-hunters to the surprised pigs and puzzled farmers who watched them clambering about the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Hill).

Classical study called for unremitting work. From Guillaume Budé, who complained when he had to take time off from his studies on his wedding day and replied to the news that his house was on fire with the curt words that domestic affairs were Mme Budé’s concern, to the anonymous scholars celebrated by Guillaume Postel, who breathed into their inkpots to keep the ink fluid during icy winters, the scholars of Europe had to follow an ascetic regime as they ransacked libraries, stole or copied manuscripts, and printed, translated and interpreted the new materials they found. Classical texts by the hundred thousand poured from the printing press. Chirped Classical speeches filled the air of schoolrooms, revived Classical philosophies restored the equanimity of troubled souls, and bravely quoted allusions to Caesar and the Rubicon could be heard in locals as exotic as the Mexico of Cortés.

Visual culture changed as dramatically as verbal. Art, of course, underwent a Classical revival of its own. Crisp Classical décor appeared behind paintings of the Crucifixion and in representations of ancient myths and battles. Painters as well as writers celebrated Seneca’s glorious death, architects as well as antiquaries studied the details of Rome’s temples, aqueducts and statues. Central churches surmounted by domes and ringed with pillars, equestrian statues and massive villas with symmetrical façades reveal the Classical impact on the built environment, from Rome to Vicenza and beyond. Both in Flanders and in Italy artists competed to revive what they saw as the central enterprise of their ancient forerunners: to make more and more convincing reproductions in pigment or stone of the visual world around them. Hale rightly emphasises the many parallels between the experimental frescoes of Masaccio, with their conquest of a three-dimensional picture space, and the oils of Jan van Eyck, with their microscopic exploration of texture and surface. Coincidence, co-operation and competition all played their part in the transformation of the arts. So did commerce: in a fascinating chapter on communication, Hale traces the networks of scholarly correspondence and patterns of artisanal travel that carried new texts and images across what remained a dangerous and divided countryside.

Like his most admired forerunner, Jacob Burckhardt, Hale insists that the Renaissance cannot be reduced to the Classical revival that nourished it; but he supports this thesis with a range of evidence that goes against Burckhardt’s belief in a unified and coherent Italian Renaissance. The new art of Italy and Flanders flourished alongside an International Gothic of luminous delicacy, which long retained its place in the vivid, almost hallucinatory miniatures that decorated manuscripts. At the centre of artistic innovation in Florence, the architecture of the 12th century helped to shape Brunelleschi’s Classicism, and Donatello’s richly expressive sculptures did far more than revive ancient forms. German limewood sculptors, English playwrights and Portuguese architects had preoccupations of their own, which shaped their reception of Classical subject-matter or plots into sharply different national styles. Even in Italy attention to Classical detail was always accompanied by passionate experimentation. The book reaches something of a crescendo with its analyses of Raphael’s harmonious imaginary worlds of myth and philosophy; but Hale’s energy and attentiveness remain undimmed as he moves on to Rosso. Parmigianino, Brueghel and Titian, laying due weight in each case on the conquest of unexplored forms and the cultivation of an individual style.

A third section – which begins, significantly, with an epigraph from Freud’s The Future of an Illusion – deals with ‘Civilisation’, more particularly, with the struggle between forces of chaos and order in society and culture alike. More figures crowd onto Hale’s stage: in particular, the merchant (and his wife, who deserves more space than she receives here), whose insatiable desire to speculate and refined commercial techniques drove the growth of many European cities and promoted the spread of visual culture, from books to architectural motifs, but also the peasant, the artisan and the beggar. Tensions grew dramatically. At the top of society, the volatility of fortunes based on commerce and the new confidence of a mercantile élite inspired not only respect but irritation and nostalgia. Urbanites might celebrate the rise of light, warmth and comfort – or dream of a Golden Age in which private property and money had not existed. Some advanced bold sociological hypotheses about ‘the greatness of cities’, as Botero did in 1588. Others imagined unruly Metropolises transformed into completely disciplined communities, as More and Campanella did in their Utopias.

Lower down the food chain, disorder and early sorrow manifested themselves almost everywhere. Rising prices, growing population and heightened taxes pressed on the poor. Many engaged in casually violent behaviour as a matter of course – especially in that period when boys, from peasants working in the fields to aristocrats being groomed in great houses, lived almost exclusively in older male company.

Even in peacetime, the streets ran red. Criminals died in public, broken on wheels or jolting through crowded city streets on carts while the executioner pinched and dismembered them with red-hot tongs (the executioner’s wife would hold the malefactor still and bandage his stumps to keep him alive longer). Bulls and bears were baited, cats buried up to the neck and stoned, drinkers beaten; if Marlowe died in a tavern, Ben Jonson killed in one (his victim, naturally enough for a playwright, was an actor). Mantegna and Michelangelo were as well acquainted with violent criminals as the notorious Benvenuto Cellini. In wartime, murder, rape and pillage devastated whole provinces, leaving mutilated veterans and victims to beg on city streets until the worried and irritated burghers drove them out or confined them in almshouses. No wonder Erasmus and Brueghel, among others, devoted themselves so avidly to evoking the delights of peace and the terrors of war.

Other tensions were harder to fathom, but equally pervasive. Within the high bourgeois household, a new ideal of the nuclear family may have created new intimacies, but it certainly led to a new separateness from poor or demanding relatives. A new passion for sexual information and new strains of art and writing which catered to it seem to have tried the patience of moralists and the solidity of marital bonds. Easier to describe in quantitative detail – but just as hard to pin down with a satisfactory explanation – is the Great Fear of witches that manifested itself so widely. Grave theologians and stern lawyers, the learned King James I and the even more learned lawyer Jean Bodin raised on fragile pilings of fact a towering structure of Monty-Pythonish inferences. Europeans who knew that every village had always had its cunning man or woman who found lost objects and charmed off warts became possessed by notions of conspiracy. Many believed that individuals pledged to Satan as the good Christian was pledged to God haunted their lands, curdling the milk, raising storms to destroy crops and anticipating Lorena Bobbitt by removing men’s penises, which they stored in birds’ nests. Even in empirical England, where Common Law trials extorted more prosaic confessions than Roman Law, with its judicious use of torture, achieved on the Continent, persecution spread. A pervasive poisoning of the atmosphere and massive human suffering resulted, not for the last time, from the exfoliation of fashionable doctrines by lunatic professors.

The forces arrayed against disorder were only partially effective; some efforts proved counter-productive. Luther’s attempt to reassure Christians that they needed only faith to win salvation did away with many traditional means of attaining divine grace, from relics to pilgrimages, and perhaps increased the anxiety of some believers as it allayed that of others. Protestant and Catholic authorities tried to resist intellectual rebellion by imposing censorship – only to see books condemned for prurient content or heretical authorship circulate as rapidly as novels banned in Boston used to fly from bookshop shelves elsewhere in the United States. Peasant revolts and urban riots never ceased; carnivals and apprentices’ revels continued to explode into violence.

Gradually, however, civility asserted itself. The second and final crescendo of the book occurs as Hale describes the rationalisation of social life. Urban ordinances kept peace even during outbreaks of plague; sumptuary laws limited displays of new wealth; and almshouses offered harsh but safe places for the new poor. A new etiquette, spreading from Italy, softened and civilised nobles from England to Poland, teaching them to imitate the well-bred clerics of the Middle Ages. A new mastery of nature, to which Hale devotes his final chapter, expressed itself in many domains, from the new mining machinery of Central Europe to the new anatomy of Vesalius to the newly washed bodies of burghers suddenly convinced of the value of cleanliness. The Renaissance villa, with its Classicising architecture, neat gardens bright with flowers and redolent of simples, and prospects of an orderly countryside, represents perhaps the most concrete as well as most dramatic piece of evidence for the Renaissance’s new style of life.

In his dedication to treating all areas of social life and human experience as coherently related to one another, Hale shows himself still the unrepentant disciple of Burckhardt (and none the worse for that). Yet he neither clearly accepts nor fully abandons Burckhardt’s chief interpretative tool: the national spirit that supposedly shaped all forms of activity within one culture. He rightly shows, against Burckhardt and Huizinga, that the Italians were not uniquely modern. For one thing, they were flanked and were sometimes preceded by the Flemish, whose culture was vital and innovative. Like the Flemings, too, they retained plenty of traditional artistic and cultural forms. Elsewhere, however, Hale leaves it unclear whether a national spirit or new forms of consumerism and communication – or all, acting together – provide the driving force in his story. At times, the profuse detail he mobilises seems to escape interpretation entirely, giving the book the cheerfully energetic but slightly chaotic air of the interdisciplinary history courses of the Sixties.

Hale could, in other words, have sharpened the methodological point of his enterprise – especially by taking into account the work of other social and cultural historians, who in the last twenty years have formulated some of the questions he raises more precisely than he does and offered original, provocative answers as well. Perhaps, however, it is unfair to ask one historian – even one of John Hale’s gifts – to survey and set in order a dense and difficult body of scholarship as well as the vast amount of primary material he has so deftly analysed and exploited. What he has done is extraordinary enough. He has painted a fascinating panorama of Renaissance Europe’s sprawling, violent, creative life. His emphasis on the continual dialectical interplay between the civilising spirit and multiple sources of disorder gives the book drama and tension. His curiosity never fails, his learning constantly surprises, and the wit and energy of his style never flags. Small failings cannot detract from the large virtues of this warm, eloquent and erudite book.