BOOK REVIEW / A wheel of fortune splashed with blood: 'The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance' - John Hale: HarperCollins, 25 pounds

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ON NEW Year's Eve half a millennium ago there were some impressive resolutions. Michelangelo would probably have been painting the party hats for Lorenzo de' Medici's 50th birthday celebration on 1 January if Lorenzo had not died a couple of years earlier; as it was, he resolved to leave Florence to take up that job in Bologna. Leonardo da Vinci was in Milan designing war machines and playing the lyre, perhaps deciding at last to start sketching out The Last Supper; Mantegna was in Mantua working on the Triumph of Caesar; Bellini, Titian and Giorgione were dreaming boyish dreams about what they would do to Venice (Carpaccio was already hard at work); and in Urbino, a 10-year-old boy called Raffaello Sanzio wondered whether it might not sound better if he became plain old Raphael. In Germany, the boy Luther promised that he'd start reading the Bible himself instead of listening to some priest droning on. In France, Charles VIII made a New Year's resolution to invade Italy.

No one actually celebrated New Year's Eve as such, of course. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain until 1582, and in England not for another 170 years after that - an early instance of our reluctance to sit in the driving seat of European affairs. But there was still lots to think about that day. The continent was on the brink of a huge upheaval. The forthcoming Treaty of Tordesillas was about to divide the New World between Spain and Portugal. A 20-year-old Polish astronomer, Copernicus, was about to follow up Nicholas of Cusa's 1440 pamphlet which first mooted the idea that the Earth rotated round the Sun. And the Protestant Reformation was about to ignite a hundred years of savagery.

John Hale's book is a monumentally learned and neat account of this stunning period. Apart from anything, it is a treasury of top quotations: Erasmus, More, Luther, Machiavelli, Leonardo, Bacon and Montaigne lead a merry pageant of eloquent voices. But there is also a fine central thread. Great art; great brutality - this is the conundrum that every schoolchild learns and no one can explain. Hale does not even try, but revels in the details of the contrast - the pikestaffs and the poems, the frescos and rapists, the domes and slaves, the busy, swarming vitality of the whole picture.

He enjoys noticing that Germany invented both printing and book-burning - Luther's works were torched in Cologne. And just when you think he is about to assert one of the Renaissance's most obvious lessons - that great wealth automatically provokes great art (perish the thought) he points out: 'In the Florentine generations of Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Pico della Mirandola and Machiavelli, nearby Genoa was as commercially active but produced no artist or thinker of note.' In any case, paintings were cheap. A bag of sugar (an exotic new import) was pricier than a masterpiece.

Hale's book begins cleverly, by describing the birth of the idea of Europe - a Renaissance construct designed to replace the medieval notion of Christendom. It is quite common these days to hear Christendom being bandied about as an Aunt Sally religious union opposed to rival doctrines; but Hale dates the death of Christendom to the middle of the 16th century, the time when religious violence made it impossible for anyone to believe that all Christians were members of the same club. More than anything, he suggests, it was the rise of map making that replaced a vague theological notion with a fixed geographical terrain and a pagan title: Europa.

The civilisation invoked by Hale's own title is presumably in inverted commas. In tracing the advance of civility as a social ideal, he is always alert to the ambiguous nature of the means by which 'civilisation' was promoted and enforced. Much of the book is a steady-eyed look at the ceaseless fighting between European princes - or warlords, as we would call them now. But Europe was not only militant on princely national grounds; everyday life was a matter of dramatic ill- health and dogged scuffling. Michelangelo broke his nose in a brawl, the pious Mantegna hired hoodlums to beat up his rivals, Ben Jonson murdered an actor, and Marlowe was killed in a tavern.

He recites with relish the initiation ceremonies favoured by the Hanseatic merchant guilds of Bergen: 'First they were hoisted feet-first up a chimney until nearly asphyxiated. Next they were thrown three times from a boat far out in the harbour and pushed back each time they tried to climb back. Last, naked in the guildhall, they were whipped until bloody and then had to sing a comic song to round off the entertainment.' Ah, those were the days.

For some reason, wondrous art flourished in this atmosphere. Philippe de Comines, a well-travelled French diplomat, declared that mutual enmity was the norm 'all over the world' at almost exactly the same time that Erasmus was announcing that 'all over the world', spendid talents were stirring. This was in 1517, by which time many splendid talents had already stirred.

This is a huge book, yet concise - in some areas perhaps too concise. The chapterette on 'The Cosmos' makes the scientific advances of the Renaissance - from Copernicus to Galileo - seem like marginal scholarly disputes. Hale may be right that they made little impact on the mass of people, who preferred magic to maths. But from our vantage point these were colossal changes, almost as disruptive of the status quo as the endless religious discord. But a work such as this, which embraces politics, theology, war, art and daily life is always going to have a hard job pleasing everybody.

Hale concludes by insisting that the period in which his Renaissance heroes thought they lived is, more or less, our period, too. Certainly, it is striking how little has changed in the past 500 years. The fatal echoes of the great religious schism are still heard most days in Northern Ireland. Noisy efforts were even then being made to divert national rivalries into a common Christian cause against the infidel Turk, who had recently sacked Constantinople.

Europe was at war with Islam, with the Amerindians, with everyone in sight - but most of all with itself. A magnificent and never surpassed burst of inventiveness in the arts and sciences was accompanied by bitter nationalist bloodshed at every turn. As Hale remarks: 'the wheel of human fortune revolved with the red splash of war on its rim'. Or, as the pessimistic Karel von Mander put it in 1604: 'Peace brings livelihood, livelihood wealth, wealth pride, pride strife, strife war, war poverty, poverty humility, humility peace.' Heigh-ho, and happy new year.