The Victorians loved the Renaissance. To them it was a period of intellectual expansion, unparalleled individualism, bourgeois prosperity, the resurrection of secular values while continuing to respect spiritual ones, and enormous creativity in all the arts. It was a period, in other words, not unlike their own. The great book embracing this view was Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (German original 1860). The Renaissance was a re-birth (what the word means) of classical culture, and the period between the two classical eras was “the Middle Ages” (even “the Dark Ages”), because they stood between the two great, enlightened peaks.
Then came New Historicism, led by Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), citing such gurus as Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault. The Renaissance, re-named the Early Modern period, was altogether darker, he argued. Individual freedom was curtailed, sexual self-consciousness was characterized by anxiety, and politics was dominated by tyrants and a Catholic Church whose most significant feature was the Spanish Inquisition. This view has dominated academic activity in the field for 30 years.
Chicago University’s Richard Strier seeks to redress the balance. In giving his new book the title The Unrepentant Renaissance he almost means that it’s he who’s unrepentant in putting the Renaissance back on its exalted pedestal. This was the period when pre-Christian Greek and Roman books were re-discovered in monastic libraries, sometimes, like Catullus and Petronius, in only a single volume; when Greek statues were unearthed and carried decked with flowers into the city squares; and when the subjects of ancient literature were again treated in books. Shakespeare was a Renaissance artist because human values characterized his plays (note the phrase “Renaissance humanism”), and religion scarcely figured. Twelve of his 37 plays are set in Italy where the Renaissance began and largely flourished.
The Unrepentant Renaissance
By Richard Strier
But what Strier means by “unrepentant” is actually rather different. In turning their backs on medieval humility and subservience to the clergy, Renaissance writers recovered a sense of pride and even defiance. Despite their sufferings or their crimes, their anger or their brutality, Lear, Richard III and Macbeth don’t repent in any religious sense. Instead, they shake their fists at the gods. Nor are they the only characters in Shakespeare to do this — Titus Andronicus and Timon do the same. They’re unrepentant, in other words, and Strier sees this as characteristic of Renaissance writers, and their creations, in general.
Even strongly Christian English authors such as John Milton and George Herbert are unrepentant in their own way, Strier considers. And his book is largely taken up with considering a sequence of Renaissance authors, from Petrarch, Montaigne, Milton and Shakespeare to Herbert, John Donne and Ignatius Loyola.
It’s incontrovertible that the Renaissance, in reviving the classical world, was taking a stand against the power of the Church — not only against its warnings about human pride, but also its warnings on the pleasures of the flesh. Greece and Rome relished the body in a way Christianity found abhorrent (there were hundreds of public swimming-pools in ancient Rome, but after that no more were built in Europe until the 1890s).