I’ve enjoyed Will Durant’s account of the Italian Renaissance every bit as much as I thought I would. He concentrates on art in the first few chapters, which suits me fine since I just spent several months enjoying the beautiful outpouring of Italy’s great masters. Some sections in this first part are devoted to political history, especially that of the Medici and Savonarola in Florence. But even here Durant seems to put art in the forefront; while the typical Renaissance prince found artists to support his political aims, Durant inverts that structure by letting his political story serve his lessons on art. His treatment of Lorenzo de’ Medici, for instance, ends with a long account of the artists and scholars whose work was made possible by Lorenzo’s generosity.
As much fun as I’m having, though, I can’t help getting frustrated sometimes when I read about an artist I didn’t know about. Florence is bursting with great Renaissance art; you can’t just go there, visit the Uffizi gallery, and say you’ve seen what the city has to offer. Fra Angelico’s most important frescoes are in the Convento San Marco. Michelangelo’s monumental David is in the Accademia; his heartbreaking Pietà is in a stairwell in the Duomo museum. Going up those same stairs takes you to a room with some of Donatello’s best work; to see a sampling of his other masterpieces, you have to go to the Bargello, one of his most important sculptures stands on the side of a public building. I visited all these churches and museums and more, but I still never came across Andrea del Sarto (as far as I know). Durant tells me that Andrea’s most revered work graces the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. I look at a map now and see that I was a block and a half away from that church many times but never knew to go there. To give one more example, he calls the Milan cathedral the noblest and most inspiring in all of Italy. Looking at pictures of it online now, I get an idea why. But several people steered us away from Milan, so we traveled right past it a couple of times, totally ignorant of the opportunity to place ourselves in the midst of that nobility and breathe it in. Ah, well. Expect to return, says our tour guide Rick Steves.
Writing about the age when scholars explored a philosophy “that would enable them to retain a Christianity that they had ceased to believe in, but never ceased to love” leads Durant to some interesting conclusions about our species. I don’t expect him to convert to a Christian view of humankind through a contemplation of all that sacred art, especially since the position of some of the most prominent Renaissance artists – even those painting steady streams of Madonnas and Crucifixions – could run anywhere between wavering doubt to outright scoffing, with plenty of hypocrisy in between. But while it may not be pure orthodoxy, Durant’s position is in hailing distance, and quite compatible in certain aspects. Of Savonarola’s attempt to make fifteenth-century Florence “honest, good, and just,” for instance, he says that “we cannot wonder that Savonarola failed where Christ succeeded . . . . But we know, too, that such a revolution is the only one that would mark a real advance in human affairs.” Later, in speaking of Leonardo’s attempts to build a flying machine, he says that when we contemplate the crimes and selfishness of humanity, “we feel our race in some part redeemed when we see that it can hold a soaring dream in its mind and heart for three thousand years.” We are a broken race, and while art and ingenuity bring a feeling of partial redemption, only goodness and justice mark true human elevation. Not far off at all.