THE period covered by the title of my book has had a duration of about five hundred years. The Renaissance had fairly begun in the early part of the fifteenth century, and from the standpoint of general history the beginning of the Renaissance was the beginning of modern times. In a broad and general sense this period cannot be considered to have ended yet. Modern civilization dates from the Renaissance and was created by it.
This broadest and largest fact about the Renaissance is best explained, proven, and illustrated through the history of art.
It therefore holds, in a large sense, that Renaissance art must also be conceived as still continuing. It is especially, however, in architecture and in ornament that the proof and illustration of this fact can be most definitely given. In sculpture and in painting, although the relations and connections of modern art with its Renaissance origins are perfectly definite and perfectly continuous, they are not so immediately obvious without research.
On the other hand there are uses of the term Renaissance in which, both for history in a general sense and for the history of art in a special sense, it must be considered as having long since ended. It seems then proper at the outset of this little book, to indicate the various senses in which this word may be legitimately used as regards limits of time and period ; observing, at the same time, that whenever we feel disposed to restrict the sense of the term, we have still chosen a title for our book which is perfectly explicit. The period to be covered began about 1400 A. D. and has not ended. No one can deny that modern art and history began about this time. Whenever the Renaissance may have ended, there is no doubt as to when it began. Our title, therefore, covers the ground in any case.
A discussion about words is never useless when it tends to bring out facts. The fact to be indicated then is this: that in some senses the term ” Renaissance,” either in art or history, specially applies to Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and to the obvious and palpable influence of Italy on foreign countries at this time. This is the special and generally recognized use of the term. Although no one can deny that the seventeenth century continued to exhibit and spread this influence, the term is not so generally understood as applying to a period of history when the seventeenth century is in question. Still less would the eighteenth century be considered to come within the limits of the period, according to the usual acceptance of historic divisions. On the other hand the history of art during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enables us to prove without the least difficulty that the same historic influences are really always in question.
As a matter of fact the first distinct break with these Italian traditions in taste, literature, and art, occurred in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and even then it is only in a narrow and limited sense that they can be said to have ended.
The Term Defined.
What was the Renaissance? According to a literal rendering of the word, which is French for ” rebirth,” it was a rebirth of civilization, of literature, and of art, and according to universal acceptance the word relates to Italy ; for we never speak of the English, French, German, or Spanish Renaissance, without the implication that Italy was the original home, center, and inspiration of the movement.
But “rebirth” implies that something had ceased to exist which once existed. The word therefore implies two preceding periods as well as its own. It implies a preceding period which was reborn, and it implies an intervening period of cessation, a gap or chasm between that period and itself. The word Renaissance therefore carries with itself a conception of the Middle Age as this intervening period, and a conception of itself as a rebirth of the civilization of the Roman Empire. These were the conceptions of the Italians of the Renaissance.
Now, as a matter of fact, civilization is never reborn; it continues with changes. Nothing could be more different, as a matter of fact, than was the civilization of Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries from the civilization of ancient Rome. But this matter-of-fact distinction escaped the perception of the Italians themselves. They believed themselves to be reviving the civilization of the past, when they were in reality only learning from it. This belief colored their language, their literature, their daily life, and, therefore, their art.
In the character of the period we shall therefore gradually learn to separate two things: on the one hand, the estimate which the time made of itself, its enthusiasms, sentiment, patriotism, coloring in brief, the dream of the Roman Empire; on the other hand, the actual conditions and facts of early modern civilization.
The first aspect of the Renaissance was mainly confined to Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and its obvious reaction on other European countries. But the actual facts and conditions of early modern civilization were necessarily controlling facts and conditions for all later modern civilization. It is in these two senses that our conceptions of the Renaissance as a special period, and of modern history as a whole, either fall apart or hold together.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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