chapter  1
5 Pages

THE CONCEPT OF THE RENAISSANCE

How arbitrary the usual distinction between the Middle Ages and the modern age is and how fluid the concept of the ‘Renaissance’ is best shown by the difficulty there is in assigning such personalities as Petrarch and Boccaccio, Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello, Jean Fouquet and Jan van Eyck, to one or other of these categories. If one likes, one can even consider Dante and Giotto as belonging to the Renaissance and Shakespeare and Molière to the Middle Ages. In any case, the idea that the real turning-point does not occur until the eighteenth century and that the modern age really begins with the enlightenment, with the idea of progress and with industrialization, is not to be lightly dismissed.1 But it will probably be best to place the crucial dividing-line between the first and second half of the Middle Ages, that is to say, at the end of the twelfth century, when money economy comes to life again, the new towns arise and the modern middle class first acquires its distinctive characteristics-it would be quite wrong to place it in the fifteenth century, in which, it is true, a number of things come to fruition but as good as nothing absolutely new begins. Our naturalistic and scientific conception of the world is certainly in essentials a creation of the Renaissance, but it was medieval nominalism that first inspired the new direction of thought in which this conception of the world has its origin. The interest in the individual object, the search for natural law, the sense of fidelity to nature in art and literature-these things do not by any means begin only with the Renaissance. The naturalism of the fifteenth century is merely the continuation of the naturalism of the Gothic period in which the individual conception of individual things already begins to be clearly manifest. And if those who sing the praises of the Renaissance profess to see in all the spontaneous, progressive and personalist tendencies of the Middle Ages a heralding or a proto-form of the Renaissance, if for Burckhardt even the songs of the wandering scholars are proto-Renaissance and Walter Pater sees an expression of the Renaissance spirit in such an absolutely medieval creation as the chante-fable ‘Aucassin and Nicolette’, then this conception only sheds light on the same state of affairs, the same continuity between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, from the opposite angle.