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CHAPTER 5 - RENAISSANCE LITERATURE

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

"Renaissance" means "rebirth." The traditional application of the term is in many ways misleading, like so many of the traditional Western period designations. It loosely denotes a wave of cultural changes that swept across Europe, beginning in Florence and the surrounding Italian city-states in the fourteenth century and lasting until the middle of the seventeenth century. But today's scholars realize the impossibility of drawing a clear dividing line between the medieval and the Renaissance worlds and reject the traditional connotations of the two terms. For centuries, "medieval" has implied "old-fashioned," while "Renaissance" has been a high compliment suggesting wide-ranging knowledge and ability. Now, however, we recognize fundamental flaws in this apportioning of blame and praise. As the era when the seeds of imperialism and despotism were sown, the Renaissance must not be idealized; nevertheless, although not all were positive, major changes certainly did take place during this long period of time. What did the first users of the term "Renaissance" mean by it? The scholars and artists whose work constitutes the early stages of the Renaissance were convinced that they had rediscovered classical antiquity, largely because new access to ancient Greek literature enabled them to read Greek texts in the language of their authors rather than in medieval Latin and Arabic translations. Manuscripts in the original Greek came Westward when the Turks conquered Constantinople and its Christian inhabitants in 1453; refugee scholars brought their libraries with them when they fled the Turkish invasion just as refugees in this century who have been forced to relocate bring their learning and cultural traditions to their new homelands.

In Florence, where the age of humanism and the Renaissance began decades before 1453, poets and painters were recording a new view of the universe and of human beings' role in it. The Renaissance humanists believed that ancient Greece and Rome, where "man was the measure of all things" (as the Athenian philosopher Protagoras wrote in the 5th century B.C.), provided models for improving their world. Although they were Christians, the humanists depended on human intelligence rather than divine authority to reform and correct the corrupt practices condemned by critics like Dante.

In short, these humanists saw the world in increasingly secular terms. Their reassessment of the power human beings had to shape their world is visible in a painting by the Florentine artist known as Masaccio (1401-1428). In The Tribute Money (1425), Masaccio introduced the style of painting we still consider "realistic." The subject matter, to be sure, is Christian, and illustrates a story told in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. But set against medieval paintings like the Wilton Diptych, Masaccio's rendering of a human God actively involved with men who look just like Him must have seemed revolutionary. Instead of adhering to the style of the Middle Ages, Masaccio painted lifelike bodies that resemble the shapes of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

This conscious return to classical forms may be seen in the work of another Florentine artist, Filippo Brunelleschi, whose creations transformed the landscape of his city. In 1420, Brunelleschi built the dome of the Cathedral of Florence after studying the shapes of ancient Roman architecture. While the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages rose toward God, Renaissance buildings, including cathedrals, concentrated on the human sphere of earthly activity.

Revolutionary works of art such as these were commissioned by the wealthy patrons of the Italian city-states, where sophisticated techniques for making and managing money created powerful secular political leaders. This new class of entrepreneurs increasingly challenged the old aristocracy whose inherited wealth was based primarily on land-owning. For instance, the ruling family of Florence, the Medici, controlled a great banking firm. The development of farflung commercial activity, of new methods of banking and producing goods, was spurred by the profit motive. New markets and new resources nurtured the great age of exploration that began with the expeditions of Henry the Navigator of Portugal (1394-1460) and ultimately brought Columbus to America in 1492 and Ferdinand Magellan's ships around the world in 1512. The profits of the "old world," however, came at the expense of the native populations of the "new," whose ways of life, so foreign to the European colonizers, seemed devoid of culture to the white men who "discovered" them.

While explorers found a new world across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, mathematicians and astronomers encountered a new universe in the skies. These combined discoveries upset the traditional medieval picture of the cosmos, which showed the fixed earth as the center of a finite system. Like the recovery of the classical past, Islamic culture played an important role in stimulating the development of Renaissance thought. The Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), who probably was influenced by the sophisticated astronomical calculations of Islamic scientists, theorized that the planets revolved around the sun, not the earth.

Copernicus' theory was proved by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). These scientists typify Renaissance methodology, which has a mathematical and an empirical base. Copernicus knew Greek and Arabic and applied the astronomy, physics, and mathematics he found in ancient writings to the study of heavenly bodies; Galileo, legend tells us, dropped weights from atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa to measure the speed at which objects fall, and built telescopes which revealed to him that the heavens were constantly changing. Long assumed to be the unmoving hub of the heavens, the earth moved. Galileo's evidence challenged the orthodox version of astronomy and attacked the authority and the teaching of the Church. Because of his scientific endeavors, he was tried as a heretic and forced to recant his findings, findings that the Catholic Church has reevaluated only recently.

One reason the Church feared these new theories so intensely was Johann Gutenberg's invention of movable type, which meant that many copies of books could readily be produced and thus rapidly reach a wide audience. The power of language became keenly apparent as literacy grew; words could be dangerous weapons. Gutenberg's printing press was one of the most important technological innovations that gave material form to the rich diversity of ideas springing up during the Renaissance. Disseminated through publication, one idea generated others and stimulated new--and potentially rebellious--thoughts. The manuscripts brought from Constantinople in 1453 would have made little general impact had Gutenberg not perfected his printing press in 1454.

The power of the word was great enough to split the Christian world in the sixteenth century, when the first Protestants rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German monk, gradually rejected monasticism and many of the elements of Catholicism--like the papacy, the priesthood, and the sacraments--for he believed that such institutions prevented Christians from directly experiencing the word of God as revealed in the Bible. Because the Bible was known in the Catholic Middle Ages in a Latin translation, the work was unintelligible to ordinary churchgoers. Many were not literate at all: those who were often knew only their own vernacular, not Latin, Hebrew, or Greek. Protestantism was a profoundly literary phenomenon, founded upon an individual's reading what previous generations of Christians passively received from Church services. Luther's translation of the Bible and the Mass into German transformed the religious experience of his contemporaries by inviting personal participation in church services and by enabling the study of God's word.

The Protestant Reformation changed the religious habits of Northern Europe; the Scandinavian countries, Scotland, and England all broke with Rome. In France, as in the German and Swiss states, persistent religious wars culminated in the linking of religious and national identity. The English Renaissance provides an excellent example of how religious conflict strengthened national identity and dynastic power. Henry VIII started his long reign as a conservative Catholic (the Pope even honored him in 1521 as Defender of the Faith for writing an attack on Martin Luther). But Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn and wanted to be rid of his Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, whose only surviving child was a daughter (Mary Tudor) and not a son and heir to the throne. For a number of reasons, Henry decided to sever relations with Rome and found a national church. Parliament, not the Pope, declared his marriage null and void. Henry married Anne as soon as his divorce was granted, and a few months later, became a father again--of another girl. Her name was Elizabeth.

Finally, Henry did have a son, by the third of his six wives; but this boy, who reigned as Edward VI, died at the age of fifteen, leaving England in the hands of his two older sisters. The elder, Mary Tudor, daughter of a Spanish Catholic, married a Spanish Catholic, Philip II of Spain. When she ascended to the throne of England, she returned the country to Catholicism; those who had professed the new Anglican religion were burnt as heretics. When Mary died, Anne Boleyn's daughter was next in line. With the accession of Elizabeth I, England became a Protestant country once again.

In 1588, Philip II of Spain sent a large naval force, the Spanish Armada, to attack England in an effort to conquer the country of his deceased wife. Aided by stormy weather, the English repelled the attack and have ever since regarded the succeeding era of relative stability as a Golden Age. During the Elizabethan Age the arts, painting, music, and especially literature, reached new heights; one critic has called the era "the Shakespearean moment."

Paradoxically, the same event also had remarkable artistic consequences in Spain, where the experience of defeat nurtured another literary genius, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Unlike Shakespeare, Cervantes was a veteran of his country's foreign wars. While working as a naval supplier for the Spanish Armada, he was accused of graft and spent some years in prison where he may have begun to write his masterpiece, Don Quixote.