Renaissances

It’s been very busy in Planet Melanie Marshall these last few weeks. In addition to various papers I’ve been working on, I recently received reader reports back on two essay collections I’m co-editing, and I’m delighted to say the commissioning editors for both books want to move to the next stage. The collection that arose from my conference on Sexualities, Textualities, Art and Music in Early Modern Italy is going through another editorial pass just now. Not every speaker was able to participate in the essay collection—many had promised their papers elsewhere—so myself, Linda Carroll and Katherine McIver had the enormous pleasure of finding additional contributors. (The other collection, critical essays on a popular music topic, is at a much earlier stage.)

With thanks to my former boss and his wife, Robert and Sally Sawyer, I did make time to catch an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which was a fantastic accompaniment to a book I’ve been reading, William Caferro’s Contesting the Renaissance (2011).

 

 

In a nutshell, Burckhardt floated the idea that the Renaissance saw the rise of the idea of the individual; people began to consider themselves as individuals independent from their status, rank, occupation, and so on. (That really is an oversimplification, but you can read an early English translation of Burckhardt to fill in the details.) More specifically, Burckhardt considered men to have understood themselves as individuals, which is reflected in Caferro’s chapters ‘Individualism: Who Was the Renaissance Man?’ and ‘Gender: Who Was the Renaissance Woman?’. Men have gender too, of course (although Caferro rarely mentions that, as you might guess from the chapter titles), but Burckhardt did away with having to think too much about men as men and women as women by blithely (and erroneously) declaring that Renaissance Italy had been a time of equality between the sexes. He could just consider people to be people and it was just coincidence that most of his examples were male. In the years since Burckhardt, scholars have revised their ideas of the Renaissance considerably, and although there’s still a tendency to forget that men are gendered too (and particularly to forget that privileged men’s experiences were not universal), people now tend to agree that men still saw themselves as members of a group. This was really borne out by the exhibition; in some cases, it seemed as if the paintings had been selected and hung to draw attention to group identity. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I’m fairly sure the wall of one room had a row of portraits of young men, all facing the same direction, all wearing red. (No, they were not cardinals.) I think they may have all been Florentine men. Anyway, this similarity in clothing (sometimes regulated) highlighted group identity over individuality.

One of the things that is occupying me just now is the very idea of Renaissance. If women didn’t have a Renaissance—in fact, if more than 50% of the population didn’t have a Renaissance in the Renaissance, given that so many features of the Renaissance apparently require literacy—then can the concept, even broadly understood, be said to be the main characteristic of a c200-year period?

This week sees the Renaissance Society of America annual conference, meeting this year in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, it clashes almost exactly with the IASPM/EMP Pop Conference here in New York. I’ll be doing a little of both and will endeavour to report back next week.