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The Genius of an Age : The flowering of intellectual talent and burst of originality in Italy and Flanders at the start of the 15th Century still retains its power to impress us? : THE CIVILIZATION OF EUROPE IN THE RENAISSANCE, By John Hale (Atheneum: $35; 648 pp.)

August 28, 1994|Daniel Farson | Daniel Farson is the art critic for Night & Day, a supplement to London's Mail on Sunday, and the author of "The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon," recently published by Pantheon

Why should we thrill to "the Renaissance," a period that evokes so much more than the dictionary definitions: renascence = rebirth; renaissance = revival of art and letters under influence of classical models in the 14th-16th centuries? In America, without the survival of firsthand evidence outside of museums, the Renaissance remains more idea than reality.

But we are thrilled because this flowering of intellectual talent in Italy and Flanders at the start of the 15th Century spread throughout Europe and retains the power to impress us. It was a burst of originality that harnessed the classical past, a vaulting ambition that did not overleap itself but was highly disciplined, an innovation that has few comparisons today. Everything was new and open to experiment in that searing radiance that precedes a storm when everything is clear before the rain muddies it. With today's materialism and political correctness, the very word Renaissance beckons us back to a Golden Age that seems the purer. The answer one looks for from John Hale is more a confirmation: Is Renaissance just a nebulous word like genius, or is it an enduring part of our heritage?

Hale, emeritus professor of Italian History at University College, London, convinces us that an ideal in a vulgar world was turned into reality by the noblest Romans of them all. Even the philosophy and morals of the ancient Greeks, such as Plutarch, were respected as their high ideals were adapted. Filippo Brunelleschi, for instance, was inspired by the Roman ruins, while Leon Battista Alberti, in his design for a Renaissance church in Mantua, embraced the classical to enhance the new.

D. H. Gombrich, in his definitive "The Story of Art," points out that the painters of the Renaissance "were so convinced of the superior wisdom of the ancients that they believed these classical legends must contain some profound and mysterious truth." He cites Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici. (Lorenzo later subsidized another one of his employees--Amerigo Vespucci--to go even farther.)

All Renaissance artists adapted with styles of their own, Hale writes, though united by their sympathy with the past. He quotes Alberti's phrase, "I am never less solitary than when alone."

To know that the Renaissance was indeed a genuine and apt term rather than a convenient and expanding label, the roll-call is conclusive: Donatello; Ghiberti; Mantegna's Triumph of Julius Caesar, 1500; Leonardo's Last Supper, 1495-8; Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, 1508-12.

Among the greatest was Piero della Francesca, perpetuating Giotto's perspective and advancing beyond. Sir David Attenborough once told me that he feels "blessed" whenever he stands before the Baptism of Christ in London's National Gallery. Aldous Huxley regarded Piero's "Resurrection" as the greatest picture in the world, and Dame Freya Stark agreed, feeling that one can take this painting "as the embodiment of European civilization, a sort of highlight."

It is this sense of joy that I needed from Professor Hale, who is so admired by his fellow academics, but that is not his game. He does not take the easy option--and at times his qualifications take us on so many detours that one wishes he did--but proceeds on a higher, intellectual plain.

This can, of course, be a great strength. Managing to place Europe in perspective regardless of creed, religion or war, Hale sees evidence of a far greater Ottoman influence on Europe than most of us in the West have been classically taught.

In his "Utopia" (1516), Thomas More referred to political behavior "in Europe . . . and especially in those parts where the faith and religion of Christ prevails." In that reference, Hale writes, More was accepting "that the Ottoman Turks were likely to remain the masters of Greece and the Balkans, much of Albania and the whole of Bosnia. By the time Sultan Suleiman in the 1530s added to his other titles 'Lord of Europe,' they had moved up from Bucharest, Belgrade and Budapest to within a few days' march of Vienna. There they were held. In a medal struck at about the same time, the bust of Emperor Charles V was shown supported by an angel and haunted by the turbaned profile of Suleiman. That summed up what was to remain the status quo."

This is a revelation, for though I have studied Turkish history I had no idea of the close affinity between the Christian rulers of Europe and the Sultans. I knew of Suleiman's invasion, which was bogged down, literally, at the gates of Vienna by a quagmire of mud due to torrential rain. How astonishing the outcome if the sun had shone for Suleiman and the Renaissance had been largely Ottoman. Instead, the Turks withdrew, leaving their sacks of coffee, a novelty which the Viennese put to their advantage by creating a delicacy in the shape of the Turkish crescent, which they could dunk in this delicious new beverage: the croissant.

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