chapter  4
Manufacturing discontinuity
Pages 21

Backward from Byzantium According to Judith Herrin, Byzantium was “born old,” a characterization that might be used to describe humanist culture – or one that the humanists, in regard to genealogy, might well embrace. But, whereas there is a manufactured element to the Petrarchan or Ficinian claim, there is historical justification in Herrin’s remark. “In contrast to other medieval societies,” Herrin explains, “both in the West and among the Muslims, Byzantium was old, many centuries old by the time of Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid in AD 800, and the structure of its culture was both a constraint and a source of strength.”1 Although the dialectic between constraint and strength might reflect the relationship of the humanists to the “dark ages” they created in their fictions, the suppression (and denigration) of medieval influence gives the phrase “born old” more importance than the dialectic that produces it. The idea of a renaissance, or rinascimento as Giorgio Vasari called it in relation to the arts, contains little hint of a developmental pattern (even though Vasari’s Lives traces the stages of painting leading up to the Second Coming in Michelangelo). Renaissance implies a kind of arrival, or descent, not so much ab ovo as fully grown, by fiat. In this sense, too, the humanists were “born old,” with emphasis on the relationship of birth simultaneously to the remythicization of their cultural legacy and to their intellectual merit as legatees.