Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On the Origin of the Label: “The Renaissance”

The School of Athens by Raphael
In his book The Renaissance: A Short History, Paul Johnson talks about the origin of the label “the Renaissance”. Here’s an excerpt:
The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events, big and small, beyond computation. To make sense of it, the historian must select and simplify and shape. One way he shapes the past is to divide it into periods. Each period is made more memorable and easy to grasp if it can be labeled by a word that epitomizes its spirit. That is how such terms as "the Renaissance" came into being. Needless to say, it is not those who actually live through the period who coin the term, but later, often much later, writers. The periodization and labeling of history is largely the work of the nineteenth century. The term "Renaissance" was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his great book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. The usage stuck because it turned out to be a convenient way of describing the period of transition between the medieval epoch, when Europe was "Christendom," and the beginning of the modern age. It also had some historical justification because, although the Italian elites of the time never used the words "Renaissance" or "Rinascita," they were conscious that a cultural rebirth of a kind was taking place, and that some of the literary, philosophical and artistic grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome was being recreated. In 1550 the painter Vasari published an ambitious work, The Lives of the Artists, in which he sought to describe how this process had taken place, and was continuing, in painting, sculpture and architecture. In comparing the glories of antiquity with the achievements of the present and recent past in Italy, he referred to the degenerate period in between as "the middle ages." This usage stuck too. (Part One: "Historical and Economical Background")
Thus, the term “Renaissance” was first used by French intellectuals in the nineteenth-century (almost 300 years after the Renaissance was over). Johnson notes that the “connection between the Renaissance and the start of the early modern period is more schematic than chronologically exact” and that there are problems in defining the chronology of the Renaissance itself.

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