The Renaissance died in 1620 in much the same way that the same way as the US Depression started with the stock market crash of `1929. There are many reasons for it, but if we want to be very contemporary about it one would have to say that the Renaissance died because in 1620 the economic structure of Europe based on trade stopped. Moreover, as the Thirty Years War became all-consuming in parts of Europe, economic depression and insecurity devastated any effort to keep the classical world alive. The Thirty Years War and Oliver Cromwell’s destruction of Catholic Ireland were so terrible that much later the revolutionaries in the former British colonies fashioned a First Amendment to prevent religious wars. The Reformation and the equally protestant Counter-Reformation made puritans of practically of everybody in Europe, not just in Britain, where in a generation after Shakespeare the Puritans closed all the theatres. The great extravagances of the Duke of Lerma in Spain, of Maria de Medicis in France, and of the Duke of Buckingham in England were swept away. There were great monarchies in Europe and they were all afraid that they, too, would be swept away. Thus, there were great “statesmen” whose work was to preserve the monarchies, men like the Cardinal Richelieu or the Count-Duke of Olivares (whose face glows in the portraits of Valázquez), and the Archbishop Laud who attempted to save the last Renaissance court, that of Charles I in England. War, depression, and eventually the creation of the nation-state meant that there could never be another Renaissance again. That’s one approach.
But that kind of analysis is what we would find when we read historians who are enraptured of the politics and the economics of the times. But there is something that is rarely incorporated into the histories. It is the radical change in thought arising from Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and later Spinoza and many others. Art and thought and politics radically changed, because the classical world that the Renaissance rediscovered had been abandoned and thrown away.
What I am about to say about Renaissance art is controversial and will seem too simplistic. Apologies, as I am not writing a long dissertation. Somewhere along the line, Italians looked around them and saw Roman ruins with which they had lived for centuries. Some began to study the works of the pagans, and they discovered a world that was entirely different than their own Christian way of life. They also re-discovered the Greek word mimesis, i.e., imitation as the method with which art works. The notion that art is the imitation of nature was first articulated by Aristotle, but today it is no longer understood. When Dr. Johnson said of Shakespeare that he held a mirror to nature, he did not mean that Shakespeare was a documentarian or that he had found a way to show the world exactly as it is. No, what Aristotle meant was that all beings have a natural development and a natural end or perfection, even if in nature these higher developments are rare to find. What art can do is to present what is potential in nature, including the perfection of something. The ability of that freedom-loving fiction is to show what is truly rare, something that has reached its proper natural end, both for good and bad. For example, Shakespeare wrote a sequence of history plays which encompassed the most difficult of times for England, i.e., of the civil wars that racked that country from the time of the overthrow of Richard II to the defeat of Richard III on Bosworth Field by the Earl of Richmond. This history is not a history as we know it. In fact, a large part of it is simple fiction that never happened. However, oddly, Shakespeare’s version of those years is better than the real thing, because it shows the political and human problems against a canvas that clarifies what the true problems are in a way that ordinary history cannot. Another example: Although Lear never existed as Shakespeare made him out to be, Lear represents the very epitome of the political perfection that English kings had sought. Not only does Lear rule a united England and the English isles, but his chief rivals, the Kings of France and Burgundy, are at his court currying favor to marry his daughters. We see how the most powerful of men undoes his entire kingdom and his own life simply because he loves his youngest daughter best. That he is the greatest king makes his fall and his love truly tragic. This mimetic approach to art imitating the perfection of nature is what gives Shakespeare his universality. Even though Shakespeare writes about some very parochial place in Italy, at the end one experiences the love of Romeo and Juliet not as some puny “feeling” between two kids, but as something universal about love itself.
Imitation of nature was a truly pagan approach to art. What made the Renaissance so classical was that it rediscovered that the Greeks and Romans in their art had attempted to show man not as he is, but as he could be, both for good and bad. Da Vinci, for example, did long studies of the relations of the various parts of the body, not in the way they usually are, but in their “ideal.” The pagan statues of the gods, for example, were perfect in their proportions, including the emphasis on the head through the reduction of the size of the penis (small was better than large for the Greeks), and these forms informed the Renaissance Italians in their statues of everything from the great David in Florence to the Michelangelo’s Moses for the grave of Pope Julius II. The entire pagan approach to art totally reinvigorated the primitive mythology of the Bible and Christianity, for example, its apotheosis probably being the Sistine Chapel.
The second and very important part of Renaissance art was not just the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, but their revival as gods and goddesses, all done in a Christian age. This remarkable development is ignored today, because people assume that the pagan gods as they were portrayed and housed on canvas and in marble were simply some kind of affectation of decoration and fantasy. However, that was not the case. It was a mass movement to revive these gods, but was done in a way that was meant not to arouse Christian resentment and censure. One can think of, for example, what one of the most beautiful books of all time, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, had done. The so-called The Strife of Love in a Dream is a vast myth where the erotic gods and goddesses are evoked without any interference from Christianity in the privacy of the dream.
Of course, perhaps the most essential thing about the pagan gods is their unabashed nudity. While the eroticism of these gods is self-evident, our ignorant modern sensibility fails to see that this nudity is symbolic of perfection itself. Michelangelo, for example, paints the pre-fall beings naked, because that was the state of man before Adam takes a bite out of the apple. Nudity and perfection also meant that the artist had reflected on how the human form can reflect the divine and it is amazing how remarkably beautiful the Renaissance bodies are.
Of the various examples that intrigue me, the most interesting to me is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Venus or Aphrodite rises out of the water, naked, with a face that is human, but a face that no woman has had or will have. Botticelli doesn’t merely show us some quaint little story: He has painted a divine moment and how it must truly be. It is as much a revelation as the claim that the Decalogue presented on Sinai is a revelation. We know what divine revelation is through Botticelli’s Venus. It is the mimesis of the presence of the goddess among us.
And it must be noted that these gods and goddesses did not just go away. They are revealed in the works of Giovanni Bellini, Guido Reni, Bernini, Poussin, and even in Rembrandt’s The Rape of Persphone. Many other examples of the presence of these deities are found throughout the 15th-17th centuries, not just in painting and sculpture, but in architecture as well, as in the Villa d’Este. Underlying these deities is an assumption about the human soul. It is that the soul is part of the truth of all things, of the cosmos itself, i.e., that an understanding of the human soul is a key to the understanding of the whole of all things.
Then, out of nowhere there is a first-rate painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who appears briefly in the early 1600s towards the end of the Renaissance. A homosexual and perhaps a murderer and perhaps murdered himself at a young age, Caravaggio’s techniques, his use of light, his use of the secretive character of chiaroscuro, had an impact on painters all over Europe. But Caravaggio did something that no Renaissance painters before him did. Let us look at it in this way: Imagine a moment, you are painter and you are commissioned to paint a Madonna. You need a model, and you hire a well-worn prostitute to sit for you for a few coppers. You give her a costume and then you paint her. But unlike a Renaissance or Medieval painter, you simply paint her the way she is, facials marks and all. The portrait is that of a prostitute with a costume; the title has something to do with Mary. The technique of the painting is so different, so exciting, that is appears that Mary is truly there in the art, rather than a prostitute. Caravaggio did precisely that, but in a less muted way that I have described it.
Caravaggio did not “idealize” his subjects. Today, his paintings look harmless, even the ones that are obviously in part homosexual erotic fantasy. However, in his day, they were revolutionary. His paintings were no longer Renaissance as were the works by Raphael or da Vinci. They were something new. One of the painters he influenced was Rembrandt van Rijn and with Rembrandt there is a decisive change that put an end to the Renaissance approach to art, as well as in the view of the human soul itself.
The man who brought this problem to the fore is the late-Howard B. White of the New School for Social Research in his remarkable essay, “Rembrandt and the Human Condition,” which was published in the 1978 book Antiquity Forgot. White was a student of Leo Strauss, and Strauss both tapped and lobbied to have White replace him in the New School when Strauss decided to move to the University of Chicago. [A bit of extraneous polemics: There is a portion of today’s rightwing that assumes and promotes Strauss as a conservative as in neocon or even in the Bachmann mold. At the same time, there are liberals who have swallowed the propaganda that was somehow the father of the neocon movement. These views are totally false. It should be noted that White was a socialist and he knew what a socialist is, as opposed to someone like Michelle Bachmann who doesn’t have any idea of what a socialist or a communist is. It should also be noted that one of most important of Strauss’s intellectual friends was Alexandre Kojève, who happened to be a rather eccentric communist. So much for the conservative nonsense, which I just wish would just go away.]
White, who was not an art historian, pointed out Rembrandt, like Caravaggio and Titian and other artists, found that the classical approach to art as Aristotle conceived of it, i.e., of imitation of nature and that of painting what is perfection, was too restrictive and that it was possible to replace that classical approach with a dramatic use of light and darkness as Caravaggio did years before and the affirmation of compassion for what was depicted. White writes: “Rembrandt in implicitly raises the question as to why, in response to the development of universality, in the face of the great metaphysical systems like that of Descartes, it was necessary to turn to the soul and the self.”
White makes the case that Rembrandt saw the truth of the soul as soul (i.e. the self) is not related to the truth of the whole of all things. This decisive step in art has ramifications with which we live even today. Apparently, there is an agreement that the young Rembrandt had painted or drawn at least 90 and probably more self-portraits. These portraits are self-portrait, not portraits of his soul. To divorce the soul from the truth of all things is the same as thing as establishing the self as primary over the soul. White compares the numerous Rembrandt self-portraits to the various confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where Rousseau exposed his self from everything from his best thinking to his masturbatory fantasies and his sexual deviances. What is important here is that Rousseau, too, never concerned with his soul, but with his self.
Throughout his life, Rembrandt made self-portraits, including portraits that were incorporated into other themes, in a way as if he were constantly looking into a mirror, a mirror not to nature, but a mirror that captures his physical shape. My favorite of his self-portraits is in the Frick Collection in New York. It is an amazing work, where Rembrandt’s hand seems completely malformed if one approaches the painting too closely. You also see colors in the flesh that are not in any human hand, but in the painting at a proper distance look exactly like flesh. The distance from the portrait has a lot to do with how one sees it. But these portraits are not a leap to universality, but it is a quest for individuality, an absorption into one’s individuality and the expression of compassion for that self.
White, however, interpolates something that is entirely unexpected when one reads his essay for the first time. It is that White believes that the philosopher Descartes, who was living as a nomad in the Netherlands, a very tolerant place and nearly secularist society, at the time, was an acquaintance of Rembrandt. Descartes is one of the founders of modernity, along with Machiavelli, Bacon, and Hobbes. Descartes doubted all pre-scientific knowledge, i.e., all traditional metaphysics as well as any god and found that there was only one thing he could trust: Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. He created what is now known as the Cartesian duality. Descartes knew he had a mind, but that mind knows only what one can make and mathematics. The rest of the world is “extension,” that is, mere matter that goes on and on and is ordered mechanically. One might say that Descrartes’ duality is a radical “self,” which is radically subjective. The self, because it has no longer relation to any kind of universal truth, is thus completely relative to whatever the individual thinks about his self.
White evokes Leo Strauss about this problem of whether one makes a soul portrait as Shakespeare did or as a self-portrait as Rembrandt did. He quotes one of my favorite passages from Strauss:
Not a few people who have come to despair of the possibility of a decent secularist society, without having been induced by their despair to question secularism as such, escape into the self and into art. The “self” is obviously a descendant of the soul; that is, it is not the soul. The soul may be responsible for its being good or bad, but it is not responsible for its being a soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain whether it is not a self by virtue of its own effort. The soul is part of an order which does not originate in the soul; of the self it is not certain whether it is a part of an order which does not originate in the self. Surely, the self as understood by the people in question is sovereign or does not defer to anything higher than itself; yet it is no longer exhilarated by the sense of its sovereignty, but rather oppressed by it, not to say in a state of despair.
Descartes had replaced virtue, that activity that is directed beyond the self to the soul, by the passions, which are totally tied up with the self. White notes; “Rembrandt certainly had a hierarchy of the passions, wherever he got it. He either replaced virtue with the passions or identified virtue and the passions.” What makes Rembrandt such an interesting painter is that he subordinates everything to light and dark, instead of imitating the natural development or perfection of human activities and thought. The subordination of everything to light and dark is a rich way to appeal to the passions.
This fascination with the self that is Rembrandt has become a fascination throughout modern life and modern art. I had students who wanted to write novels and inevitably they wanted to write autobiographical novels, as if their lives were of paramount interest to the world. Occasionally, one would do it with remarkable technique and verve that would make me overlook the fact that the life that was the object of the writing was very boring, vulgar, and uninteresting. But inevitably, the success of such a novel rested on its evocation of what is light and airy, and what is dark. The students who wrote short stories or parts of novels that simply were about their lives were annoying small in scope and interest. But these students were really writers, as they were young people exploring the physicality, the materiality, of their lives and they wanted to know their selves, but not their souls, and as such their work were never satisfactory to read.
After Rembrandt, any evocations of classical things, including classical gods and goddesses, were simply conventional. They lost their natural character, and became signs or social symbols. The putti we find in Renaissance art are certainly not the putti we find in Victorian art, as the latter is not divine, but a quite decoration. Inevitably, because the soul was no longer of interest in art or imitating nature in the Aristotelian sense was no longer the method of art, painters and other artists were able to convert art into self-expression rather than a search of the expression of what is universal and true or, for that matter, what is just beautiful. Eventually, self-expression meant that there was no need for any examination of the self on the canvas. You could hammer away at two or three big squares all your life and then commit suicide after the squares went from a blood-orange glow to a dreary black surrounded by gray.
In a 1959 interview with poet and art critic Frank O’Hara, painter Larry Rivers said:
In the past you would walk right up to a painting if you were attracted, and the nearer you got the more intimate you felt with the work. There was something to examine close up. Today it doesn’t make a difference how close you get, you’re still just as far as away as you were. There’s nothing to learn from detail. Paintings are done close up. But today their impact is at a distance—the kind of painting that looks the same thirty feet away as it does at five feet. They’re practically made to be in buildings. But I think there should be an appreciable difference being near, in the detail. I thought that used to differentiate me from the others, but it’s fading fast. I’m trying to hold on to it. Just to add to my difficulties, I was talking to the painter Grace Hartigan the other day and she agreed with me. She said, “Yes, what is detail today?” Very depressing.
I only mention this passage, because I was thinking about Botticelli’s Primavera. It has more detail up close that it might take years of discovery to make a sense of, while at the same time at a distance it has another life.
In any event, in the Renaissance, there was an effort to universalize and to bring the soul to the fore, while today we are so absorbed in the self that we can’t even see what the self is any more. It is the same whether we are close or far away from it. What’s even better now is that one doesn’t have to learn to draw or to paint. The computer does it better. That sure makes the world a happier place.