Boom to gloom in five centuries

<i>From Dawn to Decadence: 500 years of our Western cultural life</i> by Jacques Barzun (HarperCollins, &pound;25, 877pp) <i>The Waning of the Renaissance 1550-1640</i> by William J Bouwsma (Yale University Press, &pound;20, 288pp)
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The Independent Culture

An unexpected consensus is emerging among the grand old men of Western letters that the European Renaissance has failed us. It was, perhaps, only to be expected. Historians like Jacques Barzun and William Bouwsma, bold enough to look back from the vantage-point of the Millennium and attempt an overview of Europe's intellectual achievements since 1500, were bound to be of a maturity which meant that they viewed today's culture with a mixture of fascination and distaste.

An unexpected consensus is emerging among the grand old men of Western letters that the European Renaissance has failed us. It was, perhaps, only to be expected. Historians like Jacques Barzun and William Bouwsma, bold enough to look back from the vantage-point of the Millennium and attempt an overview of Europe's intellectual achievements since 1500, were bound to be of a maturity which meant that they viewed today's culture with a mixture of fascination and distaste.

Indeed, the soaring prose of Barzun and Bouwsma, both models of elegance and urbanity tinged with occasional regret and irony, reminds one of nothing more than Alistair Cooke's Letter from America - a rich mine of knowledge about a past many are too young to recall, with interludes of amazed incredulity at the bewildering antics of "the youth of today".

It was Jacob Burckhardt's great work, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), which turned the spotlight of history on 15th- and 16th-century Italy, and found there an explanation for the emergence of a distinctively European modernity. His aim was to show that the rebirth of art and thought derived from the models of antiquity - what he labelled the "Renaissance" - was "the mother and the source of modern man".

Burckhardt argued that the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, retrieved by scholars of humane learning in Italy, fused with a particularly rich temperament among the Italian people to give rise to an aesthetically pure art, a delight in truth and beauty, and, above all, to a robust individualism and a new intellectual freedom. These, he claimed, were enduringly the cultural triumphs of the West, distinguishing its civilisation permanently from the barbarism of both the Middle Ages, and of the cultures east of the Mediterranean.

This high point in European cultural aspiration is Barzun's starting point - his "dawn" - and the origin of that "overarching culture" whose persistence he sets out to trace from 1500 to the present. "By tracing in broad outline the evolution of art, science, religion, philosophy, and social thought," he hopes to show "that during this span the peoples of the West offered the world a set of ideas and institutions not found earlier or elsewhere".

Barzun executes this task with brilliant virtuosity. In a sweeping narrative that is always entertaining and often funny, he weaves together many strands of European history, ranging effortlessly across nations and disciplines. One minute he is explaining the relationship between Luther's Protestant revolution and Erasmus's satirical bestseller, In Praise of Folly; the next, the absence of cutlery on a 16th-century table, and the fact that washing hands before and after meals was, for most people, the full extent of bodily hygiene. "The body was washed at birth, before marriage, and after death. The century that laid down the fundamentals of science is the one that got rid of public baths and of the very idea of regular bathing."

Barzun belongs to the school of French-influenced historical writing, established by Fernand Braudel, which comfortably includes the rise of commerce among those Renaissance stimuli which gave us the richness and vitality of modern culture. Among the illuminating marginal quotations which stud his story are paired quotes from newsletters issued by the Fugger bankers in Antwerp in 1581.

One reports that Calvinist heretics have "mutilated all the pictures and altars in the churches and cloisters of Belgium". The other records that four Fugger ships have been dispatched, "laden with sculptured and carved statues, bells, brass and stone effigies of saints, candlesticks and other such-like ornaments from the Belgian churches", to sell these items (for a handsome profit) in territories not yet affected by Protestantism. One man's crisis of faith is another's business opportunity.

By the final third of the book, however, the rising curve of European achievement, the burgeoning of individual genius, the spread of liberal democracy and freedom of thought in their kaleidoscope forms, have - on Barzun's own admission - got bogged down. Here Barzun returns to themes pursued in his recent, hand-wringing books about the "crisis" in American education and culture. Our own age, he concludes, is one of uncertainty, disillusion, absurdity. The culprit is the "demotic style" of the 20th century - that of the upstart individual who does not understand that the promise of the Renaissance was grounded in a robust elitism. "The [20th-century] mind was shaped and the fancy filled by the intricacies [of new technology] as had been done in an earlier era by theology, poetry, and the fine arts. The New Man saw the world as a storehouse of items retrievable through a keyboard, and whoever added to the sum was in high repute... After a time, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom."

In The Waning of the Renaissance, William Bouwsma is more pessimistic than Barzun about the promise inherent in that first Burckhardtian surge we call the Renaissance. Alongside Pico della Mirandola's triumphant Renaissance assertion of the intellectual autonomy and imaginative integrity of mankind, there was always, he proposes, a backlash tendency towards despair and nihilism. By the 17th century that negative tendency had overwhelmed the promise of Italian humanism and the revived classical tradition. The Renaissance waned before ever it had finished flowering.

In earlier work, Bouwsma has been concerned with "a usable past" - history which helps us to see our own intellectual and cultural predicament with clarity. In the context of this revaluation of the Renaissance, "usable" means for Bouwsma that a realisation that the promise of the Renaissance had burned out within a century might enable today's historian to master his own sense of rising panic at a fin-de-siÿcle loss of direction and focus. This panic he proposes, along with Barzun, to be the product of the unregulated pursuit of knowledge and the accumulation of an unmanageable body of technology-led information and global possibilities.

The period we call the Renaissance ended, according to Bouwsma, in collapse and failure. Our own age does not come as the end point, the final triumphant achievement, in an emerging culture of progress and innovative thought. The Renaissance, like the Middle Ages in Jacob Huizinga's great book on the subject, waned. We are not, Bouwsma concludes, heirs to a Renaissance tradition at all. Rather, like the great ground-breaking thinkers themselves - Montaigne and Bacon, Descartes and Galileo - we stand at the edge of an abyss of our own making, the product of our irrepressible intellectual curiosity. We are fearful of, and incapacitated by, the void.

Barzun, however, offers a word of caution at the end of his compelling, magisterial survey. Once before, he tells us, a careful historian looked back and surveyed the immense intellectual journey mankind had taken towards some sort of modernity, and pronounced progress as at an end. In 1493, Hartmann Schedel published the Nuremberg Chronicle, a compendious pan-European history which concluded that the sixth of seven ages of mankind was drawing to a close, and the end of the world was at hand. So confident was Schedel that he proposed that the couple of blank pages left by the printer at the end be used by readers to jot down the one or two points of interest which might occur before darkness descended.

What actually happened was the opening up of the New World and all that followed from that remarkable expansion in knowledge and human aspiration. "Hardly a close," Barzun comments. Perhaps the dawning 21st century, too, marks something more like a new beginning.

Lisa Jardine's 'Ingenious Pursuits: building the scientific revolution' is published in Abacus paperback

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