Pirenne, Henri: The Renaissance and the Transormation of Social Life to the North of the Alps

From “A History of Europe”, translated by Bernard Miall, Anchor Books, © University Books Inc

pirenne2There was, it seems, a rather striking difference between the intellectual evolution of Italy during the Renaissance and that of the countries lying to the north of the Alps. In Italy the new orientation of ideas, manners, and artistic feeling began at the very moment when the economic development of the nation had reached its apogee. It was not contemporary with this development, but subsequent to it, and while the intellectual movement continued to progress the economic development was already beginning to decline. This intellectual development was the fine flower of the entire civilization that preceded it; the product of thought and beauty succeeding to the product of force. This development was not unlike that of ancient Greece in the days of Pericles: Athens in the 4th century, and Florence in the middle of the 15th century, shone with a glory which was nο longer commensurate with their real strength; the dazzling radiance which they shed upοn the world, before they made way for more vigorous successors, had the splendour but also the ephemeral quality of a sunset. At the very moment when the genius of Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci was in flower, the discovery of the New World was diverting the current of European life from the Mediterranean.

The case was very different to the north of the Alps. Here the Renaissance was not a sunset but a sunrise. It meant the beginning, in every sense, and in every domain of social activity, of a new life, of which the economic phenomena that we have just been considering reveal only one aspect, and of which we have nοw to consider the moral physiognomy. The historian, unfortunately, is obliged to exhibit piecemeal matters that were parts of a concerted whole. But it must not be believed that capitalism provoked the renaissance of thought which was contemporaneous with it. The one and the other were different symptoms of the same crisis of growth. And it is curious to note that in each case the crisis was divided into two corresponding periods. What the discovery of the New World was for capitalism, the Italian Renaissance was for the intellectual movement. In its beginnings this intellectual movement was independent of the Renaissance, but the rapidity of its advance and the extent of its influence were explained by its submission to the guidance of the Renaissance.

Tο be sure, the symptoms of a new orientation of men’s minds in the countries to the north of the Alps, about the middle of the 15th century, were not as yet very numerous nor very striking. Scholasticism in science, Gothic style in the arts, and the traditional forms in the literature of the vulgar tongue, were still incontestably predominant. The mysticism of the 14th century still survived, and in the Imitation it found its most complete expression. The great Flemish or Walloon painters of the Low Countries, Van Eyck, De la Pasture, Memling, etc., merely continued, by their genius, a long-established school. When the stupendous invention of printing made its appearance, about 1450, nο one foresaw its future. Gutenberg himself had nο idea of the future importance of the Press. All he had in view was to provide the clergy and students with cheaper manuscripts. His standpoint was that of the mere industrialist, and the humanists of Italy were at first disdainful of a discovery which in their opinion detracted from the charm and majesty of intellectual masterpieces by the cheapness and mechanical character of its products. Thus, even in the most lasting and most remarkable achievements of the period, in its most beautiful and most influential innovations, we do not find that it was opposed to the past. And yet, although it is very evident that it was largely a continuation of the past, it is none the less true that it did in some degree diverge from it. As in Italy, and before the influence of Italy had made itself felt, life was beginning to escape from the custody of tradition; here, as in Italy, the ascetic morality of the Middle Ages was beginning to lose its authority. The relaxation of morals in the 15th century, and the predominance of temporal interests, were nο less striking in Northern Europe than in Italy. And they were most perceptible in countries whose civilization was most advanced. The Low Countries, under the Dukes of Burgundy, between France and England, the one exhausted by war and the other a prey to civil discord, were enjoying a period of peace and prosperity, and they afforded a spectacle which presented curious analogies with that of Italy. One might have observed at the court, in the society of the great nobles, and among the governrnent officials and the capitalists, whether landowners or merchants, a kind of life whose principal features were precisely those which are commonly attributed to the early Renaissance in Tuscany and Lombardy: a general relaxation of morality, a love of luxury and social festivities, a demand for elegance and comfort in private dwellings, a pronounced taste for fine clothing, and for the nobler pleasures of art, and the general diffusion of education and good breeding. Here, very obviously, we see that the aristocracy of birth, like the aristocracy of wealth, was living a social life of a kind that nο longer had anything in common with the conventional cortesia of the Middle Ages. Philip the Good and Charles the Bold patronized artists, surrounded themselves with painters and musicians, and founded a library whose splendour is attested by the remnants which have survived to this day. In 1465 the Sieur de la Grunthuse built in Bruges a spacious hotel, the handsome, roomy and comfortable habitation of a grand seigneur who was at the same time a passionate lover of books, and the patrοn of Colard Mansion, who had just introduced the art of printing to Bruges. The chancellor Rolin and the treasurer Bladelin commissioned pictures by Van Eyck and De la Pasture. And it is enough to recall the adorable landscapes which assuredly contributed to the success of the Belgian school of painting in the 15th century in order to realize that the discovery of Nature at this period was by nο means a purely Italian discovery. The same may be said of the discovery of the individual. The individual portrait was painted as truthfully and conscientiously by the brush of Van Eyck and De la Pasture as by the pen of Chastellain and Commines. And in the work of these last two, I believe, we may see the beginnings of the modern Press; already seeking, in the case of the former, to embellish itself, though clumsily enough as yet, with the prestige of style, and nourished, by the latter, with thought so vigorous that almost the only pendant to his Mémoires is The Prince of Machiavelli.

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