FOR a perfectly practical and common sense knowledge of facts (as distinct from theories about terms, which can only carry real meaning in so far as we know these facts) let us remember what we can of the contemporary history of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the Renaissance began and most beneficently flourished.
In England the Wars of the Roses had ended in the exhaustion of the feudal aristocracy and the rise to power of a despotic Tudor dynasty (Henry VII., Henry VIII., Ed-ward VI., Mary, Elizabeth) whose despotic power was mainly used to antagonize the feudal nobles and to exalt the importance of the cities and of the commercial classes. The great personal popularity of Queen Elizabeth, in spite of her arbitrary acts and despotic rule, is the best re-minder of this significance of her dynasty.
In France the same alliance of royal despotism and commerce against feudalism was still more apparent during the reigns of Louis XI., Charles VIII., Louis XII., Francis I., and their successors. During these two centuries England, France, and Spain all illustrate the tendency to national consolidation and concentration, as opposed to the earlier dismemberment of these countries in local feudal principalities.
As regards the existence of modern monarchies and modern states, the history of modern Europe at this time, therefore, clearly begins to show its character. In Germany we find at this timé the memorable events of the Reformation. Otherwise, the great maritime discoveries made first by Portugal and Spain, the invention and spread of the art of printing, the use of gunpowder, and of standing armies of artillery and infantry, and the astronomical announcements of Copernicus regarding the true nature of the planetary system are to be mentioned as leading facts of general history. Where then, the student may ask, does the Renaissance appear to be a controlling fact of history ?
To this we might answer: first, that in so far as the organization of a modern state is concerned, its necessary basis is admitted to be a uniform system of taxation; and this again presupposes a census, an administrative system, and settled and prosperous industries. Now in all these things it is known that Italy was the teacher of Europe. As opposed to the arbitrary, oppressive, spasmodic, and ill-adjusted levies of money made by the sovereigns of northern Europe down to the close of the Middle Ages, Italy was the country where a census and uniform taxation were first generally in use, and they spread from this country to the North. The state of Ferrara has been much quoted for its especially fine administrative system. Florence and Venice were also among the foremost in matters of the census and of regular taxation. The diplomatic system of Venice was so highly developed that the reports of her ambassadors to the various states of Europe are at present our best authority for the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The histories of the German historian Ranke, which are the best authority for all countries of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are largely founded on these reports. What the Rothschilds are to the countries of modern Europe, the bankers of Florence were to the sovereigns of the North during the fifteenth century.* Most of the industries of modern civilization can either be traced to the North from Italian sources or were found in Italy in highest perfection. The manufactures of silks, velvets, and laces may be mentioned as cases in point.
It would appear then for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, that while the size and power of the modern monarchies in England, France, and Spain may first attract attention, their very existence in the matter of administration was due to Italy. It is significant that it was customary for the courts of northern Europe during the sixteenth century to have an Italian diplomatist in their employ. Such, for instance, was the true position of the unfortunate Rizzio at the court of Mary Queen of Scots, although he is generally quoted by English historians as having been a musician.
In the matter of the maritime discoveries, which are the most obvious distinction of the fifteenth century, it should not be forgotten that Columbus was a Genoese, that the Cabots were Venetians, and that the knowledge of the earth’s rotundity, which was the basis of the search of Columbus for the eastern shores of Asia, was spread by Florentine astronomers and men of learning. As regards the science of modern warfare, we may mention that the first treatise on gunnery was written by the artist Leonardo da Vinci, who was himself a practical artilleryman. Al-though printing was invented in Germany, it was in Venice that the art found its early highest development. Copernicus was a native of Prussia, but he had studied five years in Rome before reaching his conclusions regarding the planetary system.
It would appear from the above suggestions that even where other countries of Europe seem to have been fore-most, an Italian influence may frequently or generally be traced and proven. As regards the general system of modern law we know that the University of Bologna was the great center of legal studies during the centuries which prepared the way for modern times, and that the University of Padua was the famous center of Europe for the study of anatomy and medicine. It is no mere chance which has made the violins of Cremona famous above all others, and that the word ” piano ” is Italian, or that Lombard Street in London has its name from the Italian bankers who were settled there. It is no mere chance which carries the names of Torricelli and Galileo wherever the study of physics travels, or that the name of Galvani has coined a new English word. It is no mere chance that the finest European palace of the nineteenth century, architecturally speaking, was built for the residence of a Florentine banker of the fifteenth century (the Pitti Palace), or that “Venetian glass” is still a synonym for all that is elegant and graceful in that material. It is no mere chance that the parks of French Versailles or German Schwetzingen and Hesse Cassel were imitations of Italian originals, whose landscape gardening was the in spiration of all modern art in this direction. It is not chance that artifical flowers were known as ” Italian flowers” in Germany, or that the lace manufactures of Valenciennes and Alençon were transplanted from the Island of Murano, or that the high ruffs of Queen Elizabeth point to a fashion which came from Italy.
For the matter of refinement in behavior, we have the opinion of Dr. Samuel Johnson that the finest work ever written on good breeding was that entitled ” The Courtier,” which came from the pen of Raphael’s friend, the Count Castiglione. For the matter of general education, we have the opinion of Gregorovius, the greatest German authority on the history of medieval Rome, that the Italian ladies of the fifteenth century were the superiors in education of the German ladies of our own day. We know that lady professors were lecturing in the University of Bologna some centuries before the American colleges were hesitating to admit a female student. It is only necessary to glance at the portraits of fifteenth and sixteenth century Italians, which will be found in later pages, to be aware of their intellectual and personal refinement; a refinement which does not equally distinguish, for instance, the German portraits of the same age.
Finally, in the matter of literature let us notice the Italian inspiration of Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” and the dramas of Shakespeare which are founded on Italian stories or whose scenes are laid in Italy then those additional ones (all of the antique subjects) based on the “Lives” of Plutarch, a work which found its way into Shakespeare’s library through a French translation, but which first came into notice through Italian students. Or turn to the ” Paradise Lost ” of Milton, who had traveled in Italy, and consider the classical citations and references drawn from Italian learning. In the literature of the French, the comedies of Molière or the tragedies of Corneille and Racine will offer still more striking illustrations.
It is apparent from these references that the statues of Michael Angelo, Donatello, and Verocchio, the paintings of Raphael, Correggio, and Titian, the buildings of Brunellesco, of Bramante and Palladio, are not isolated facts explained by isolated individual genius in the history of art. They are facts of general history, phases of general civilization, illustrations parallel to those which I have just advanced in other lines of intellectual activity, of education, culture, and refinement.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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