Monday, March 05, 2007

A Renaissance Festival

The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance by John Hale

At first flush, designations such as Medieval and Renaissance don’t seem to mean much. They are often arbitrary beginning and end points for whatever phenomenon one wishes to examine, whether social, political, cultural, religious, etc. In the past, hearing the term Renaissance applied historically, my mind immediately turned to the Quattrocento, a brief period in which Italian arts and architecture reached an apogee under the patronage of what seemed to be proto-Mafioso strongmen. Over time, I came to realize what a limited perspective this had been. The Renaissance was in fact a truly European phenomenon with complex antecedents and a number of highs and lows depending upon whether one is considering the age in terms of social conventions, artistic achievement, the rise of the mercantile class, the expansion of the limits of the known world (the discovery of the New World was a direct result of the expanding mercantile economy), religious innovation (the Reformation), innovations in leaning as a result of the “rediscovery” of ancient authors, or the many other perspectives Hale examines in this volume. Braudel wrote of “the perspective of the world”, and what one sees in this volume is the awakening of thought and energy to a new way of perceiving the world. Fore Hale, Europe discovered itself in the Renaissance, and began to see the world as one of expanding horizons, as cartographers worked feverishly to redefine the limits of the Earth in an age of discovery.

Hale touches on a wide range of themes in this work. My only complaint is that the major themes tend to get lost as he attempts to provide almost too much detail, too many names and examples to illustrate his themes. But once I got used to his pace, I began to appreciate the details – the odd moments when an obscure voice from the past speaks to us to provide details of a life lived and insights into a cognitive terrain in which we see some dim ancestry to ourselves, just as we see, taking shape, the outlines of our own world in the maps of the 16th century cartographers.

John Hale suffered a severe stroke soon after completing the manuscript of this book. His wife thoughtfully enlisted the aid of David Chambers, a former student of Hale’s, to see the book to completion. It is clearly the culmination of a life’s work in Renaissance studies, and a fitting tribute to the author.

Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance

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