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The Concept of the Renaissance. Federico Chabod. The Traditional Concept. The problem of Continuity Fustel de Coulanges and his theory on the Barbarian invaders ( tabula rasa )

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The Concept of the Renaissance

Federico Chabod


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The Traditional Concept

  • The problem of Continuity

  • Fustel de Coulanges and his theory on the Barbarian invaders (tabula rasa)

  • The theory of continuity against the theory of things “as they have occurred” (effects and dangers of each theory in itself) p. 151

  • The traditional concepts: Middle Ages and Renaissance

  • The praesens tempus and media aetas according to Italians of the XIV and XV (Boccaccio, C. Salutati, L. Valla, L. Bruni)


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  • As the city of Rome perished at the hands of the perverse and tyrannical emperors, so did Latin studies and literature undergo similar ruin and diminution . . . And Italy was invaded by the Goths and Longobards, barbarous, uncouth people, who practically extinguished all knowledge of literature.

    Leonardo Bruni

    All statues and paintings were smashed and torn . . . And thus were destroyed not only statues and paintings, but the books and commentaries and handbooks and rules on which men relied for their training in this great and excellent and gentle art

    Lorenzo Ghiberti


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  • Vasari : criticism of the Christians but not of the faith. His is an aesthetic criticism

  • Voltaire: antipathy for Catholicism : it is the “guilt” of religion, responsible for medieval obscurantism (furor against the papacy’s power during the Middle Ages - spirit of the Reformation)

  • Voltaire echoes Ghiberti’s and Vasari’s opinions about the fall of the Roman empire, the advent of Christianity and the barbarism of the northern invaders

  • These opinions are amplified by modern historians: Michelet, Burckhardt, Spaventa, Dilthey and Gentile

  • Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien represents the period as a sudden emergence of genius in the middle of a cultural and artistic desert. Isolation of the Renaissance (no sense of historical continuity)


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Imitation of Classical Models His is an aesthetic criticism

  • Opinion expressed by the artists of the time. The Renaissance has its origin when the

    “glorious minds that sprang from the soil of Tuscany . . .

    (turn to the ancient ruins of Rome and start)

    distinguishing very clearly the good from the bad and

    forsaking the old styles, they began once more to imitate,

    to the limit of their energies and abilities, the styles

    affected by the ancients . . .” Giorgio Vasari

    Belief that the ancients had exercised a direct

    influence on the rebirth of Art and Literature

    was general (a direct consequence of numerous

    archeological excavations)


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New Critical Approaches His is an aesthetic criticism

  • The theory of continuity applied to the Middle Ages and Renaissance

  • Middle Ages: rich in variety, stimulated by many problems, interests and aspirations; a restless age, full of exuberant life

  • Is the Renaissance a new phenomenon, with features of its own, or is it a broadening (not very original) of already present motifs and ideals?

  • First step: distinguish between every-day-life and the LIFE OF THE MIND, the theoretical formulation of a CONSCIOUSNESS (man’s thoughts and ideas)


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Renaissance His is an aesthetic criticism

  • The term is used to describe a MOBILIZATION OF IDEAS which is primarily

  • ARTISTIC

  • LITERARY

  • CULTURAL

  • The Renaissance as an “INTELLECTUAL” reality, not as a “PHYSICAL” one

  • An intellectual construction in which human designs and actions conform to an ideal system, to a spiritual creed, to a program of life

  • Only when transformed in a complete, theoretical affirmation, a practical truth becomes a theoretical precept, a law explicitly credited with a universal validity


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  • Vix scio quae fuerim, vix Roma recordor; vix sinit occasus vel neminisse mei. Par tibi, Roma, nihil cum sos prope tota ruina. Hildebrand de Lavardin (Le Mans, 1106)

  • Nichil actum fore potavi, si que legendo didiceram, non aggrederer exercendo. Cola di Rienzo (1350)

  • Nos . . . Volentes et desiderantes . . . Voluntates, benignitates, et liberalitates antiquorum romanorum principium . . . imitari. Decree of the sovereignity of the Roman People I August 1347

  • Imitatio - legere becomes exercere. Instead of an elegy, there is a determination to revive the ancient splendors and glories of Rome

  • Men must imitate the ancients “in matters calling for strength and vigor . . . (they must adopt) the true and perfect ways of antiquity, not the false and corrupt. Niccolò Machiavelli (L’arte della guerra)


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  • Limitation of Medieval thought a) the relationship between God and man; b) the Christian and Augustinian sense of sin and grace (religious conception of the world)

  • The Classic authors remained ornaments in the works of the Middle Ages, intended to give luster to the moral and spiritual ways of the medieval philosophers (Dante?)

  • Il est remarquable . . . que pendant la période la plus radieuse de la Renaissance les types iconographiques “transmis” et donc altérés, - soient presque partout abandonnés au profit des types ‘retrouvés’ dans leur pureté première. J. Seznec, La survivance des dieux antiques


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Realism and Individualism Christian Rome, capital of Christianity

  • In the Middle Ages realism is episodic, emotional. The detail is realistic, but the general conception is not. The Prime Mover of life and human history is located outside the world and the destinies of men are determined by the will of God.

  • The sensibility is ‘human’ and ‘mundane’, but the spirit is nourished by an inner life located outside carnal humanity

  • Medieval and Renaissance historical descriptions? What is the difference? (177)

  • The “conceptual” (vs “impressionistic”)realism of Guicciardini and Machiavelli


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  • The realistic description of physical traits is undertaken only if it serves to complete the “moral” description (178)

  • Renaissance Realism

  • Villani’s (medieval chronicler) Historiae Fiorentine

    a) passionate moral appeals (God, devil etc.).

    b) no interpretation, no sense of human “individuality”

  • Machiavelli’s Historiae Fiorentine a) no supernatural presence b) man is the primary agent of history c) the supernatural as fatality, casualty d) natural “deterministic” realism (sins are political not moral)


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  • Machiavelli’s political realism is not concerned with “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

    But since it is my purpose to write what may be useful to those who need it, I have thought it more fitting to concern myself with the effective reality of things than with speculation. For many have imagined republics (Plato) and principates which have never been seen or known to exist in reality.

    Machiavelli Il principe

  • Political realism: How things are, not how things should be

  • No supernatural Will to explain the immediate causes of events


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Art in the Renaissance “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

  • Aim of the medieval artist is the glorification of the Creator (Theophilus, Schedula diversarum artium)

  • Renaissance artist (L. B. Alberti, Della pittura) a) is conscious of the intrinsic merit of an artwork b) aims at creating the beautiful and immortal c) glorification of humanity and its achievements d) Nature is imitated (scientifically) per se, not as a mirror of God’s power

  • Liberation of the artist from every restriction that is not dictated by artistic reason

  • The world becomes a synthesis of lines, volumes and colors


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Novelty of the Renaissance “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

  • Realism and individualism (from Alberti to Machiavelli, Ariosto and Galileo) lead to the affirmation of the complete autonomy of art, politics, science and history

  • Ars gratia artis

  • The typically medieval conception of the world in which no branch of human activity could be considered independent from life as a whole is abandoned


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Man and God “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

  • Main issues raised by the new system a) how can Nature be reconciled with the excellence of man b) how to reconcile man and Nature with God

  • Art and politics are no longer serving a supernatural purpose but ethics still is!

  • The idea of a purely rational ethic, independent from religion, is unthinkable

  • Ethics concern itself with the question: how things ought to be (vs. how things are)

  • The need to justify the world and existence, nature and creature, will and fortune, brings man back to the idea of a transcendent God of humanity


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The Treatise as Genre “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

  • A treatise is a prose workthat analyzes a problem in all its aspects. It is the demonstration of a thesis whose validity results from the confutation of all other antitheses

  • The themes can range from politics, to aesthetics, to science

  • It derives directly from the Greek and Roman tradition, from Plato’s Dialogues, where a group of thinkers that debate their individual philosophical positions

  • The treatise can have a dialogical form, that becomes a lively debate, or can be discursive, presenting different arguments and contrasting perspectives

  • Popularity of the treatise a) the rediscovery of the classics b) exemplary form of discussion and expression of ideas c) the necessity to theorize and form a new model of man d) the projection on the page of a human res publica whose aim is the education of free thinking human beings


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Niccolò Machiavelli “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

  • 1469 Born in Florence

  • 1498 Is elected secretary of the Florentine Republic

  • 1500 Is sent as envoy to the King of France, Louis XII

  • 1501 Marries Marietta Corsini; will have six children

  • 1502 Envoy to Cesare Borgia, at Urbino and Imola

  • 1503 Is sent to Rome for the Conclave (Pious III)

  • 1506 Works for the republic and organizes its army

  • 1507-11 Travels to Tyrol (Maximilian), then to Blois, to meet Louis XII. Later he travels to Munich and France

  • 1512 The Holy League of Modena decides the return of the Medici to Florence. He is banned from the city for a year

  • 1513 Imprisoned and tortured. Begins to write The Prince

  • 1515-16 Offers The Prince to Lorenzo de’ Medici

  • 1519 Composes The Art of War

  • 1525 Completes the eight volumes of the Florentine Chronicles

  • 1527 After the sack of Rome, Florence returns to the Republic. He dies on June 21


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The Prince and Its Ideology “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”

  • A negative evaluation of human nature

  • The conviction of human nature’s immutability

  • The necessity to keep these data in mind if one wants to enter a political career (Realpolitik)

  • The usefulness of examples taken from the past

  • At the light of his lucid realism, politica activity becomes a science whose core is the foundation and maintenance of the state

  • Political actions shall not be evaluated on the basis of a moral code but keeping in mind the principle of utility and congruence with that given objective (previous point)

  • Virtues are therefore: cruelty, dissimulation, murder etc.

  • Net separation between moral and political judgement differentiates The Prince from previous treatises (mirror of prince) popular during the Middle Ages (catalogues of moral virtues)

  • Contrasting aspects of Machiavelli’s thought: a) the theorization of an absolute power (The prince) b) his sympathy for the democratic government (The Discourses)


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The Structure of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil”The Prince


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  • XI Ecclesiastical Principalities a) Reasons why Ecclesiastical Principalities are secure and happy b) Why are E.P. so powerful now when they once were not c) Present history: Alexander VI - Julius II - Leo X

  • XII Militia and Mercenary Soldiers a) Chief foundations of a state b) Different kinds of arms c) Mercenaries (proof of reality) d) What kind of sins have the Italian princes committed e) Overview of the Quattrocento (church and princes)

  • XIII Auxiliary and Native Troops a) Definition b) Why are they worse than mercenaries c) The symbolic meaning of David’s biblical story d) “But men with their lack of prudence initiate novelties and, finding the first taste good, do not notice the poison within.”


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  • XIV The Duties of a Prince in Regard to the Militia a) Main objective of a Prince b) Armed vs unarmed c) The art of war in peace time d) Knowledge of hardship and territory e) Imitation and study

  • XV Of the Things for which Men, especially Princes, are Praised or Blamed a) Concept of reality b) What ought to be done (consequences) c) Know hows for a Prince d) Good and bad virtues (reversed value)

  • XVI Of Liberality and Niggardliness a) Praise of the miserly Prince (good vice)

  • XVII Of Cruelty and Clemency a) Reasons for being cruel (consequences of leniency) b) To be feared or loved


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  • c) Description of humanity d) Hannibal’s example and the historians e) “Men love of their own free will but fear at the will of the prince.”

  • XVIII In What Way Must Princes Keep Faith a) Experience contradicts good intentions b) The beast and the man c) Broken promises d) Deceivers and deceived e) Alexander VI’s example f) “It is not, therefore, necessary for a prince to have all the above-named qualities, but it is necessary to seem to have them.” g) To be or to appear to be h) Mercy, faith, integrity, humanity, religion


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Machiavelli and Fortuna d) Hannibal’s example and the historians e)

  • Fortuna as ambiguous concept in M.?

  • Characteristics of Fortuna (images used)

  • What is the role of religion in a state (religio instrumentum regni)

  • What is virtue for Machiavelli?

  • Are man’s virtue, intelligence, energy enough to create and shape history?

  • Can man achieve anything by himself?

  • Where is God in his philosophy of man


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