History and the Renaissance - Suggested Read

A few days back I finished reading the book called “1492, The Year the World Began” by Notre Dame University professor Felipe-Fernandez Armesto.

I usually enjoy reading books that focus on Europe during medieval and Renaissance times, with a slant toward historic artistic events. So this book was a bit different for me because the author gives an overview of the entire world in 1492, along with a few key happenings during that year which helped to shape the “modern world”. Most of these events were obscure to me, and non art-related. They were fairly interesting though, and gave me a different perspective on that period.

One of the most striking sections in the book was about the Renaissance. No one else I’ve read put it quite the way this author did when he wrote, “The Renaissance no longer looks unique. Historians detect revivals of antique values, tastes, ideas, and styles in almost every century from the fifth to the fifteenth. The West never lost touch with the heritage of Greece and Rome. Nor did Islam... As a result, if you are a product of mainstream Western education, almost everything you ever thought about the Renaissance is likely to be false.”

Ouch! With that last statement, he just brushed aside all the other books I’ve ever read on the subject. However, I don’t dismiss or totally disagree with his view because, for one thing, he is much more knowledgeable about history than I am, and secondly he followed that statement up with valid rebuttals against all the common points usually put forward about the Renaissance.

In a way I found it refreshing that the book reminds us that it’s all too easy to compartmentalize history into tidy “movements” and “eras”. Some folks living through the Renaissance were “revolutionary” and there were significant events that made a discernable shift in peoples’ lives and beliefs, but most people living through that time probably didn’t detect that anything was happening at all.

The book also gave me a better appreciation for how events in Eastern Europe and Asia effected Europe’s own history. Seems funny to think about as a Westerner, but before 1492, Asia was the worlds influential  power (quickly becoming that again too). Europe was a backwash that slowly pushed itself forward through the need to gain access to the riches of the far East.

Of the Renaissance the author wraps up later in the book by saying “The Renaissance was, in part, a product of cultural cross-fertilization between Islam and the West. It was not a unique ‘classical revival’ but an accentuation of uninterrupted Western self-modeling on ancient Greece and Rome.”

Though a bit dry, the book did bring up other interesting points. Since they aren’t art-related however, I’ll not discuss them here. I’ll Just let you buy the book yourself and invite your opinion which I’ll publish in a future post.


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