Studying the Renaissance at A-Level and as an Undergraduate
17th November 2014
Just a few weeks ago, the students in my first-year survey class were deep into an extract from Niccolò Machiavelli’s famous work, The Prince. First printed in 1532, although available in manuscript much earlier than that, The Prince is a political treatise of much-reputed cynicism, since it has been seen to recommend that its princely readers be duplicitous and treacherous in their dealings with peers and subjects. More interesting to my own students, however, were its innovations: its vernacular language and humanist riffs on medieval literary forms. The Prince is, after all, a product of the Renaissance – for example, its reliance upon pre-Christian writers such as Plato and Cicero emphasise its connection to the ‘new learning’ of 15th- and 16th-century Florence.
All this may, too, be of interest to students currently studying early modern history at A-Level. Though it builds significantly upon this stage of the curriculum, of course, my first-year survey module also acts as a kind of step-up into the world of undergraduate study, echoing quite a few of the themes addressed by early modernist sixth-formers. (The great Quentin Skinner’s Very Short Introduction to Machiavelli is indispensable to students recently introduced to the period, I’d suggest.)
For instance, Machiavelli wrote his treatise to curry favour with a sort of patron. Patronage was the absolute centre of Renaissance culture – few of the seminal works of art available to us today, from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Michelangelo’s David, would have existed without the individual or group who commissioned them. Machiavelli’s situation, however, was slightly different: his work was composed in order to attract a patron, rather than at the behest of one. A diplomat for the Florentine Republic, in 1512 he was exiled by the victorious Medici, the all-powerful banking family that had been deposed by the Republic and now returned again to dominate the city. The Prince was Machiavelli’s attempt to return to favour (it didn’t work).
The context of the composition of this work emphasises that the Renaissance was not a unitary phenomenon. It was contingent and reliant upon events. That is, the Florentine Renaissance had a character quite separate to the Roman or Venetian one. Venice, for instance, had none of the changing of hands that occurred in Florence – it had been declared a republic long before this period, and continued to be one throughout it. Rome, meanwhile, was dominated by the Vatican, and the Pope’s patronage led to art more clearly Christian than the Classical references of Florence (although I can recommend Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods to any student looking to peer a little further beneath the sometimes deceptive surface of the Renaissance’s Classical allusions). Whenever you look at a work of the Renaissance, or think about the period in the abstract, it’s worth considering context: which Italian Renaissance, and when?
Indeed, it’s worth thinking even wider, at A-Level as much as at undergraduate level: the Renaissance wasn’t a purely Italian phenomenon. Machiavelli is again a great example: The Prince came to be read across Europe, and it’s possible to argue that the monarch who most embodied many of its author’s most famous suggestions was English. Henry VIII cultivated an air of insecurity in his court, did away with former allies with little fanfare or sentimentality, and pursued his goals – whether religious supremacy or English hegemony – with not a little purpose. We’re told by Reginald Pole that Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was a devotee of Machiavelli – although since Pole was Cromwell’s great enemy, we may want to ask if there isn’t a little propagandising hidden in that remark!
The Dutch Renaissance, too, compares and contrasts usefully with the Italian. Dutch artists are now most famous for their focus on the domestic, on still lifes of food or portraits of country-folk. (That is not to say that the fantastical was not also present, as a glimpse at the work of Hieronymus Bosch will confirm to anyone!) One of the great humanists, Desiderius Erasmus, was a Dutchman, and his relationship with another of Henry VIII’s ministers, Thomas More, is almost as celebrated as his influence upon the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther. (Take a look at the relevant pages in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation for more on this.)
So even a simple scan of a single extract can reveal to the student that the Renaissance was an astonishingly complex cultural movement with a range of influences – and a whole slew of inter-connected and inter-relating networks and consequences. It is fascinating, but also diffuse, and that’s perhaps why focusing on a key work can often be a great route into the ways of thinking current during the period, and the manner in which events acted upon those mentalities. The depths a student will need to plumb around these issues will depend upon their current level; but, it occurs to me, no study of the Renaissance can get far without considering each of them to one extent or another.
So – here’s an online version of The Prince. Why not have a look, and let me know what you think!