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AN ACADEMIC BOOK REVIEW OF DENYS HAY‟S THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE IN ITS

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

David G. Terrell
May 28, 2010

Denys Hay, The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Background, xii + 218 pp., 24 ill., 2 maps
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1961.

Denys Hay‟s book appeared in the early 1960s, when social history and its proponents

had begun to transform western historiography. History, particularly medieval and “early modern

history,” was still much influenced by document-centric inquiry, still insisting on defining

unique periods, and still tending to think in terms of national contexts.1 Not many years later,

postmodernism‟s relativism would storm and rage against the “progress view of history” which,

in Renaissance terms, meant Burckhardt‟s book, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. It is

during this interregnum that Hay writes his book, purposely intending “to provoke an unbiased

and fresh appeal of a phase in Italian and European history which has, more than most such

„periods‟, suffered from traditional and stereotyped treatment, above all by being dealt with as

static and solid.”2

Hay acknowledges that previous historians have suffered because of the large volume of

detailed critical work already extant. Any historian, he asserts—except perhaps the most

brilliant, short-sighted, or vain—would be daunted by the effort necessary to master any

reasonable fraction of Renaissance history.3 Because of this “elephant in the room,” there is not a

1
Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983),
356-357.
2
Denys Hay, The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Background, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1961), x.
3
David G. Terrell, "HIST535 K001 SPR 10 Discussion Board (Re: Historiography)," American Military University,
(May 7, 2010,
2
David G. Terrell

large corpus of fully-informed, completely holistic discussions of Renaissance history; and those

discussions that have occurred settled upon narrowly-defined and more easily mastered topics.

Hay‟s beginning, an overview of Renaissance historiography, classifies previous histories into

four binary groupings: Rankean (political, social and economic)-historiographic; Rankean-

methodological; Cultural-historiographic; and Cultural-methodological.4

Hay tells us that limited by their scope and preferences, historians wrote these four types

of Renaissance history independently until the 1960s, when historians began to synthesize and

integrate their Renaissance-related historical perspectives. This reviewer believes the impetus

driving the change came from the fresh historical perspective provided by the Annales historians,

who launched more inclusive and analytical histories than previous schools preferred—or were

capable of producing.5

Before leaving his Preface, one knows where Hay stands with regard to his subject and its

history. In quick succession, he explicitly positions himself within the literature by claiming

variance with Burckhardt‟s transitionalism while mentioning John Addington Symonds‟

Renaissance in Italy with approbation. Hay asserts the possibility that a single general history of

the period is possible, since “…the Renaissance is the last epoch when one man can hope to have

a direct view of most of the sources. … (as) … I here try to view the history of Italy from the

early fourteenth century to the mid-sixteenth.”6

Hay then introduces his subject as one should—who intends to expound upon a period

known for its love of Aristotelian and Platonic thought—he sets forth his axioms and defines his

https://online.apus.edu/educator/student/threadcontent.cgi?lb1753*1048044*mpos=4&spos=0&slt=cSaP0fPMgMD
Qs*hist535k001spr10*dg003*0002*1*reply*Threaded** (accessed May 22, 2010)). Hay, 5.
4
Hay, 5. Terrell.
5
Terrell.
6
Hay, x-xii.
3
David G. Terrell

terms. His three axioms are: there was a “Renaissance” between the approximate years 1350 and

1700; this period began in Italy and later affected the rest of Europe; and, the period is

identifiable through a “difference in the style of living between the Renaissance and both what

came before and what came after.”7

In the subsequent chapters, Hay sets about providing evidence supporting the axioms he

asserts. His chosen method is to integrate the Renaissance‟s cultural history with the long extant

political and social histories of Italy, drawing no distinction between Italian history and the

history of the Renaissance in Italy. He acknowledges the difficulty of synchronizing the two,

labeling the period as “one of those paradoxical epochs where cultural change seems to be out of

step with economic change.” Interestingly, he also recognizes the existence of a hidden history

related to the commoner; and when he asserts that the defining cultural innovations that changed

the Europeans‟ styles of living were formed “in the castle rather than the cottage,” and required

centuries to finally disperse to “simple men and women,” he foresees the need for, and predicts

the rise of, feminist and gendered Renaissance history.8

Hay then turns to the conceptualization and emergence of the term “Renaissance” and the

validity of the notion of its existence. He asserts the existence of the Renaissance, as a definable

period of history, based on the spread of new styles in art, architecture, letters, and politics within

Italy; and, the derivative and relatively rapid adoption of these styles throughout Europe. At the

same time, however, he is in critical disagreement with those historians who describe the

Renaissance as a transitional period between and dark medieval world and the modern era.9

7
Hay, 1-2, 7.
8
Hay, 8, 3-5.
9
Hay, 10-14.
4
David G. Terrell

In particular, Hay uses the following points as evidence for accepting Renaissance as a

period sui generis and dismissing the idea of its transitional role. Politically, the fifteenth and

sixteenth centuries were an age of ubiquitous monarchy and the ideology of divine right for king

and pope. The preceding era was definable by the prominence of landed magnates and

strongmen who took titles such as Duke, Landgrave, and Count; and, the lack of a supporting

political ideology. Economically and socially, the beginning of the renaissance saw the

diminishing of land-based-wealth in favor of a moneyed economy. The primary source of

religious, intellectual, literary and artistic standards shifted away from the Christian clergy and

curia towards the common or secular man in the “lay direction of Christian spirituality”

supported by the increased use of vernacular languages which decreased the sacral monopoly on

written learning.10

Hay then addresses the political and cultural climate in Italy that contributed to the birth

of the Renaissance. He sets himself a definition for the history of Italy that includes the way a

country acquires self-consciousness; the play of political, social, cultural interests within the

boundaries formed by language and geography; and, its relations with its neighbors. Beginning

with the physical environment, Hay briefly describes the geography of Italy that, in a literal

sense, made Italy. He describes the insulating effect of the Alps, whose protective arch around

the northern plain moderated the climate, slowed overland invaders, and formed a linguistic

barrier; and of the seas, whose unpredictability and dangers deterred all but the hardiest and most

determined of outsiders from visiting the peninsula for more than trade. Conversely, Hay asserts

that the Apennine ridge down the length of Italy worked against unifying forces by preventing

efficient internal communications between the two sides of the peninsula. Based on these

10
Hay, 15-25.
5
David G. Terrell

considerations, hay posits that the geography created forces that protected the peninsula from

external tampering, while insuring that local socio-cultural dynamics were never completely

static.11

By the fourteenth century, according to Hay, Italy had its first chance to go her own way

since the eleventh century. Along with the protections afforded by geography, pressures from

Emperors, Popes and outsiders were diminished by narcissistic concerns, which further

contributed to “less inhibited political development”12 that facilitated a series of cultural

developments. The resulting dynamism changed the forces, ambitions, or fears that drove towns

and great lords to shift from the papal and imperial towards the regional.13

At the local level, the fourteenth century saw styles of governance change from those of

free communes to that of the signoria which invested power in a man and his extended family, a

mostly kinship-based structure reminiscent of early roman familial client-patron groupings. The

presence of these structures in Italian towns produced an insecure balance of parties formed as

families grouped themselves into mutually supporting factions through marriage and commercial

alliances. The principal weapons used in struggles for dominance between the factions drew on

roman traditions of proscribing families and seizing their property. These structures were

enlarged and empowered by popular support and the strength of commerce and industry. The

oligarchs excluded attempts by the traditional nobility to impose rule and Florence, Lucca and

Siena became republics of a sort.14

However, the political dynamism was partially fueled by negative economic and

demographic factors. From the late thirteenth century, Italy was faced with an economic

11
Hay, 26-32.
12
Hay, 59.
13
Hay, 58-62.
14
Hay, 63-65.
6
David G. Terrell

recession, including significant numbers of bankruptcies and famine that were certainly

exacerbated, if not caused, by the severe disease outbreaks that reduced the population available

for agriculture and industry, and suppressed transportation and trade. Urban Italy and especially

Tuscany was seriously affected by the plagues. Nevertheless, a recovery was under way in Italy

by the late fifteenth century, after an identifiable period of serious strife in terms of conflict,

confusion and destitution.15

After thus considering the political sphere, Hay turns to discussing the cultural

development of the Renaissance through newly conceived educational programs and new

attitudes about literature and morality. He points out that, intellectually, the fourteenth century

was still a time of individuals. Hay names Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio to illustrate his point—

granting Dante the role of summing up the past; to Petrarch, that of defining an image for a

European future; and, to Boccaccio, of defining the path (Latin and vernacular language) and the

sources (Roman, rather than Grecian or Germanic) through which that image could be made

real.16

Petrarch‟s paradigm describes a humanity trained to live a planned life that was

expansive, beautiful, and pleasing to God, as opposed to a life limited by the simple training that

produced tradesmen, clerks and clerics. The use of a common, vernacular linguistic medium was

meant to expand the number of people able to receive the necessary instruction; that was to be

drawn from those classical sources which wise men believed to provide more appropriate

guidance than was found in traditional western teachings, in spite of its variance to the Christian

embrace of renunciation.17

15
Hay, 67.
16
Hay, 75, 91, 95.
17
Hay, 80-84.
7
David G. Terrell

Hay then directs his view beyond the turbulent political events cresting between 1375 and

1385 to consider the post-Petrarch, post-Boccaccio environment. He indicates that while men of

letters became more numerous and more visible, they were less skilled—unlike the increasing

numbers of highly-skilled artisans. The spread of these classical ideals tended to simplify and

gentle the extremes of Italian political life while, at the same time, enriching its cultural life. 18

As mentioned, the Florence that emerges as the focus of change in the early fifteenth

century is dominated by oligarchic merchant families—power being vested in the industrial and

mercantile guilds. The resulting government promulgated some reasonable and forward-thinking

fiscal policies that kept the populace reasonably content for years. Hay asserts that the resulting

stability and prosperity allowed the gathering of the raw materials that produced the

Renaissance: the collection of manuscripts; and, the development of architecture, painting,

sculpture and literary methods, style and content—all of which were pursued in search of moral

guidance and inspiration.19

The Florentine paradigm Hay describes centers around an accommodation with mortality

based more on the Roman euphoria derived from the well-lived life, watched over by gods, not

so different from men, rather than from the medieval Christological model that exalted worldly

abnegation and renunciation. In this, Hay acknowledges his agreement with Burckhardt‟s views

concerning the expression of sentiment in the Renaissance through a new attitude towards

education, the enthronement of secular wisdom, the favoring of almost republican principles in

politics, and a revival of artistic literature. At the same time, Hay voices disagreement with

Burckhardt‟s assertion that the physical sciences had a parallel boost in the Renaissance;

18
Hay, 102-103.
19
Hay, 118-121.
8
David G. Terrell

pointing out that, excepting new ideas in optics and perspective—both related to developments in

art and architecture—little scientific progress occurred.20

The initial era of the Renaissance in Italy wound down in the late fifteenth and early

sixteenth centuries while Italian culture begins its expansion into the rest of Europe. Within Italy,

the political move towards republicanism had shifted and, by the end of the fifteenth century,

Florence had gotten itself a Prince, now the prevailing form of governance in Italy. Hay points

out that the humanist education many of the princes had received affected their choice of

servants. Humanist-trained men made excellent administrators and diplomats and, through the

favor of their noble former-students, they became such in many Italian principalities. This

included the Papal States where, by the early sixteenth century, humanists came to dominate the

papal entourage. Under their influence, Rome renewed its reputation as a center of art, literature

and scholarship—which had not been true since classical times. By the end of Hay‟s first age of

the Renaissance in Italy, the cultural and intellectual power it had engendered had become

subject to pope and prince; and in Florence, it had been suborned by the autocrat to flatter the

person of, and to politically protect the position of, its prince. Hay laments that while the cultural

unity of Italy was assured through the common styles in art and literature, the overall tone of

word and image had lost its revolutionary verve and become more plebian than patrician.21

After thus tracing the flowering of the Renaissance in Italy, Hay turns his attention to the

expansion of the new modes of thought and expression into the rest of Europe. He describes

Italy‟s offering to Europe as a mode of life revitalized by a turning away from Christianity‟s

asceticism, a common educational paradigm based on the Latin texts, and artistic developments

20
Hay, 131-134.
21
Hay, 102-103, 150-153, 157-161, 172-173.
9
David G. Terrell

enriched by the classical Latin symbolism and mythology. As evidence, he discusses the rising

prominence of men of law, the establishment of schools, and the standardization of English and

French vernaculars that arose from the universities.22

Nevertheless, Hay is careful to point out that it is not until the sixteenth century that we

really see the Renaissance take root in Central and northern Europe. He hesitates to conjecture at

to the reasons for the delay but believes that differences in social structures between Italy and the

North must have had some resistive quality.23

In the name of maintaining a reasonable scope, Hay also limits his northern study to

events in France and England. He first addresses Petrarch‟s presence in Avignon, which likely

exposed France to the early influences of the Renaissance. He also attributes English exposure to

early Renaissance concepts through Chaucer‟s familiarity with Petrarch, which included a

possible meeting, and with Boccaccio‟s writings. Secondly, Hay asserts that the Councils of the

church provided major venues for cross-pollination between Italians and visiting prelates,

diplomats and counselors from the North. Thirdly and, to Hay, most importantly, Italy‟s shift

towards royalist forms of governance made Italy more comfortable to the ambassadors and

visitors from the nobility-ruled North. So the transmission to the north was, to Hay,

accomplished by Italian scholars and artists traveling north, by northern visitors to Italy, and by

the physical movement of works of art and books.24

The transmission of ideas tended to homogenize Europe in a final “courtly phase” of the

Italian Renaissance which centered around an education in Latin; the production of realistic art

tempered with heroic symbolism; and, an ideological emphasis on practical living in mortality

22
Hay, 179-181.
23
Hay, 183.
24
Hay, 186-189, 191-198.
10
David G. Terrell

rather that a pining for the hereafter. This uniformity eventually broke down at the start of the

eighteenth century when an industrial economy overtook the agrarian; nationalism overtook

autocratic allegiances; and, the physical sciences supplanted philosophy as the accepted model

for cognition.25

While the general historical community lauded Hay for a satisfactory treatment in a small

book, some objections to his work came from Art Historians. From their prospective, Hay failed

to devote enough attention to art, as opposed to politics and literature, and to art beyond the

boundaries of Florence, particularly to the detriment of Padua, Venice and Milan. Art historians

also took exception to Hay extending the Renaissance to about 1700, through the age they label

as the Baroque. Hay is criticized less about his assertions than for failing to mention particular

examples important to these other reviewers. This reviewer enjoyed receiving Hay‟s mentoring

hand. 26

David G. Terrell
Herndon, VA

25
Hay, 201-203.
26
Benard C. Weber, "Review of Denys Hay, 'The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Background'," (Italica
(American Association of Teachers of Italian) XL, no. 1 (March 1963): 85). Selma Pfeiffenberger, "Review of
Denys Hay, 'The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Background'," (Art Journal (College Art Association) XXIII,
no. 2 (Winter 1963-1964): 172, 176, 178). Alfred Neumeyer, "Review of Denys Hay, 'The Italian Renaissance in its
Historical Background'," (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The
American Society for Aesthetics) XX, no. 3 (Spring 1962): 327).
11
David G. Terrell

Works Cited

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Chicago: University of


Chicago Press, 1983.

Hay, Denys. The Italian Renaissance in its Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1961.

Neumeyer, Alfred. "Review of Denys Hay, 'The Italian Renaissance in its Historical
Background'." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Blackwell Publishing on behalf of
The American Society for Aesthetics) XX, no. 3 (Spring 1962): 327.

Pfeiffenberger, Selma. "Review of Denys Hay, 'The Italian Renaissance in its Historical
Background'." Art Journal (College Art Association) XXIII, no. 2 (Winter 1963-1964): 172, 176,
178.

Terrell, David G. "HIST535 K001 SPR 10 Discussion Board (Re: Historiography)." American
Military University. May 7, 2010.
https://online.apus.edu/educator/student/threadcontent.cgi?lb1753*1048044*mpos=4&spos=0&s
lt=cSaP0fPMgMDQs*hist535k001spr10*dg003*0002*1*reply*Threaded** (accessed May 22,
2010).

Weber, Benard C. "Review of Denys Hay, 'The Italian Renaissance in its Historical
Background'." Italica (American Association of Teachers of Italian) XL, no. 1 (March 1963): 85.

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