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HOME > Classical Novels > Theory & History of Historiography > IV THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF THE RENAISSANCE
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The negation of Christian transcendency was the work of the age of the Renaissance, when, to employ the expression used by Fueter, historiography became 'secularized.' In the histories of Leonardo Bruni and of Bracciolini, who gave the first conspicuous examples of the new attitude of historiographical thought, and in all others of the same sort which followed them—among them those of Machiavelli and of Guicciardini shine forth conspicuously—we find hardly any trace of 'miracles.' These are recorded solely with the intention of mocking at them and of explaining them in an altogether human manner. An acute analysis of individual characters and interests is substituted for the intervention of divine providence and the actions of the popes, and religious strifes themselves are apt to be interpreted according to utilitarian passions and solely with an eye to their political bearing. The scheme of the four monarchies with the advent of Antichrist connected with it is allowed to disappear; histories are now narrated ab inclinatione imperii, and even universal histories, like the Enneads of Sabellicus, do not adhere to traditional ecclesiastical tradition. Chronicles of the world, universal miraculous histories, both theological and apocalyptic, become the literature of the people and of those with little culture, or persist in countries of backward culture, such as Germany at that time, or finally are limited to the circle[Pg 225] of Catholic or Protestant confessional historiography, both of which retain so much of the Middle Ages, the Protestant perhaps more than the Catholic (at least at a first glance), for the latter contrived at least here and there to temporize and to accommodate itself to the times. All this is shown very clearly and minutely by Fueter, and I shall now proceed to take certain observations and some information from his book, which I shall rearrange and complete with some more of my own. In the political historiography of the late Middle Ages, the theological conception had been, as we have said, thrown into the background; but henceforward it is not to be found even there, and if at times we hear its formulas, they are just like those of the Crusade against the Turks, preaching the liberation of the tomb of Christ. These were still repeated by preachers, writers of verse, and rhetoricians (and continued to be repeated for three centuries), but they found no response in political reality and in the conscience of the people, because they were but empty sound. Nor was the negation of theologism and the secularization of history accomplished only in practice, unaccompanied with complete consciousness; for, although many minds really did turn in the direction indicated by fate, or in other words by the new mental necessity, and although the polemic was not always open, but on the contrary often surrounded with many precautions, evidence abounds of the agreement of the practice with the theory of historiography. The criticism of so grave a theorist of history as Bodin is opposed to the scheme of the four monarchies. He makes it his object to combat the inveteratum errorem de quattuor imperiis, proving that the notion was capriciously taken from the dream of Daniel, and that[Pg 226] it in no way corresponded with the real course of events. It would be superfluous to record here the celebrated epigrams of Machiavelli and of Guicciardini, who satirized theology and miracles. Guicciardini noted that all religions have boasted of miracles, and therefore they are not proofs of any one of them, and are perhaps nothing but "secrets of nature." He advised his readers never to say that God had aided so-and-so because he was good and had made so-and-so suffer because he was wicked, for we "often see the opposite," and the counsels of divine providence are in fact an abyss. Paolo Sarpi, although he admits that "it is a pious and religious thought to attribute the disposition of every event to divine providence," yet holds it "presumption" to determine "to what end events are directed by that highest wisdom"; for men, being emotionally attached to their opinions, "are persuaded that they are as much loved and favoured by God as by themselves." Hence, for example, they argued that God had caused Zwingli and Hecolampadius to die almost at the same time, in order that he might punish and remove the ministers of discord, whereas it is certain that "after the death of these two, the evangelical cantons have made greater progress in the doctrine that they received from both of them." Such a disposition of religious and cautious spirits is yet more significant than that of the radical and impetuous, openly irreverent, in the same way as the new importance attributed to history is notable in the increase of historiographical labour that is then everywhere noticeable, and in the formation of a true and proper philological school, not only for antiquity, but for the Middle Ages (Valla, Flavio Biondo, Calchi, Sigonio, Beato Renano, etc.), which publishes and restores texts, criticizes the authenticity and the[Pg 227] value of sources, is occupied with the establishment of a technical method of examining witnesses, and composes learned histories.

Nothing is more natural than that the new form of historiography should seem to be a return to Gr?co-Roman antiquity, as Christianity had seemed to be a return to the story of Eden (the interlude of paganism having been brought to an end by the redemption), or that the Middle Ages should still seem to some to-day to be a falling back into barbarous pre-Hellenic times. The illusion of the return was expressed in the cult of classical antiquity, and in all those manifestations, literary, artistic, moral, and customary, familiar to those who know the Renaissance. In the special field with which we are at present occupied, we find a curious document in support of the difficulty that philologists and critics experienced in persuading themselves that the Greek and Roman writers had perhaps been able to deceive themselves, to lie, to falsify, to be led astray by passions and blinded by ignorance, in the same way as those of the Middle Ages. Thus the latter were severely criticized while the former were reverenced and accepted, for it needed much time and labour to attain to an equal mental freedom regarding the ancients, and the criticism of texts and of sources was developed in respect to medieval history long before it attained to a like freedom in respect to ancient history. But the greatest proof and monument of the illusion of the return was the formation of the humanistic type of historiography, opposed to the medieval. This had been chiefly confined to the form of chronicle and humanistic historiography, although it accepted the arrangement by years and seasons according to the examples set by the Greeks and Romans, cancelled as[Pg 228] far as possible numerical indications, and exerted itself to run on unbrokenly, without chronological cuts and cross-cuts. Latin had become barbarous in the Middle Ages and had accepted the vocabularies of vulgar tongues, or those which designated new things in a new way, whereas the humanistic historiographers translated and disguised every thought and every narrative in Ciceronian Latin, or at least Latin of the Golden Age. We frequently find picturesque anecdotes in the medieval chronicles, and humanism, while it restored its dignity to history, deprived it of that picturesque element, or attenuated and polished it as it had done the things and customs of the barbaric centuries. This humanistic type of historiography, like the new philological erudition and criticism and the whole movement of the Renaissance, was Italian work, and in Italy histories in the vulgar tongue were soon modelled upon it, which found in the latinized prose of Boccaccio an instrument well suited to their ends. From Italy it was diffused among other countries, and as always happens when an industry is transplanted into virgin soil, and workmen and technical experts are invited to come from the country of its origin, so the first humanistic historians of the other parts of Europe were Italians. Paolo Emilio the Veronese, who Gallis condidit historias, gave the French the humanistic history of France in his De rebus gestis Francorum, and Polydore Virgil did the like for England, Lucio Marineo for Spain, and many others for other countries, until indigenous experts appeared and the aid of Italians became unnecessary. Later on it became necessary to throw off this cloak, which was too loose or too tight—indeed, was not cut to the model of modern thought. What there was in it of artificial, of swollen, of false, was blamed—these[Pg 229] defects being indeed clearly indicated in the constructive principle of this literary form, which was that of imitation. But anyone with a feeling for the past will enjoy that historical humanistic prose as the expression of love for antiquity and of the desire to rise to its level. This love and this desire were so keen that they had no hesitation in reproducing things external and indifferent in addition to what was better and sometimes in default of it. Giambattista Vico, sometimes so sublimely puerile, is still found lamenting, three centuries after the creation of humanistic historiography, that "no sovereign has been found into whose mind has entered the thought of preserving for ever in the best Latin style a record of the famous War of the Spanish Succession, than which a greater has never happened in the world since the Second Carthaginian War, that of C?sar with Pompey, and of Alexander with Darius." But what of this? Quite recently, during the war in Tripoli, came the proposal from the depths of one of the meridional provinces of Italy, one of those little countrysides where the shadow of a humanist still exists, that a Latin commentary should be composed upon that war entitled De bello libico. This proposal was received with much laughter and made even me smile, yet the smile was accompanied with a sort of tender emotion, when I recalled how long and devotedly our fathers and forefathers had pursued the ideal of a beautiful antiquity and of a decorous historiography.

Nevertheless, the belief in the effectivity or possibility of such a return was, as we have said, an illusion; nothing of what has been returns, nothing of what has been can be abolished; even when we return to an old thought the new adversary makes the defence new and the thought itself new. I read some time[Pg 230] ago the work of a learned French Catholic. While clearing the Middle Ages of certain absurd accusations and confuting errors commonly circulated about them, he maintained that the Middle Ages are the truly modern time, modern with the eternal modernity of the true, and that therefore they should not be called the Middle Ages, which term should be applied to the period that has elapsed between the fifteenth century and our own day, between the Reformation and positivism. As I read, I reflected that such a theory is the worthy pendant to that other theory, which places the Middle Ages beneath antiquity, and that both had some time ago shown themselves false to historical thought, which knows nothing of returns, but knows that the Middle Ages preserved antiquity deep in its heart as the Renaissance preserved the Middle Ages. And what is 'humanism' but a renewed formula of that 'humanity' of which the ancient world knew little or nothing, and which Christianity and the Middle Ages had so profoundly felt? What is the word 'renaissance' or 'renewal' but a metaphor taken from the language of religion? And setting aside the word, is not the conception of humanism perhaps the affirmation of a spiritual and universal value, and in so far as it is that, altogether foreign, as we know, to the mind of antiquity, and an intrinsic continuation of the 'ecclesiastical' and 'spiritual' history which appeared with Christianity? The conception of spiritual value had without doubt become changed or enriched, for it contained within itself more than a thousand years of mental experiences, thoughts, and actions. But while it thus grew more rich, it preserved its original character, and constituted the religion of the new times, with its priests and martyrs, its polemic and its apologetic, its intolerance (it destroyed[Pg 231] or allowed to perish the monuments of the Middle Ages and condemned its writers to oblivion), and sometimes even imitated the forms of its worship (Navagaro used to burn a copy of Martial every year as a holocaust to pure Latinity). And since humanity, philosophy, science, literature, and especially art, politics, activity in all its forms, now fill that conception of value which the Middle Ages had placed in Christian religious faith alone, histories or outlines of histories continue to appear as the outcome of these determinations, which were certainly new in respect to medieval literature, but were not less new in respect to Gr?co-Roman literature, where there was nothing to compare to them, or only treatises composed in an empirical and extrinsic manner. The new histories of values presented them selves timidly, imitating in certain respects the few indent examples, but they gave evidence of a fervour, an intelligence, an afflatus, which led to a hope for that increase and development wanting to their predecessors, which, instead of developing, had gradually become more superficial and finally disappeared again into vagueness. Suffice it to mention as representative of them all Vasari's Lives of the Painters, which are connected with the meditations and the researches upon art contained in so many treatises, dialogues, and letters of Italians, and are here and there shot through with flashes such as never shone in antiquity. The same may be said of treatises on poetry and rhetoric, and of the judgments which they contain as to poetry and of the new history of poetry, then being attempted with more or less successful results. The 'state' too, which forms the object of the meditations of Machiavelli, is not the simple state of antiquity, city or empire, but is almost the national state felt as something divine,[Pg 232] to which even the salvation of the soul must be sacrificed—that is to say, as the institution in which the true salvation of the soul is to be found. Even the pagan virtue which he and others opposed to Christian virtue is very different from the pure Gr?co-Roman disposition of mind. At that time a start was also made in the direction of investigating the theory of rights, of political forms, of myths and beliefs, of philosophical systems, to-day in full flower. And since that same consciousness which had produced humanism had also widened the boundaries of the known world, and had sought for and found people of whom the Bible preserved no record and of whom the Gr?co-Roman writers knew nothing, there appeared at that time a literature relating to savages and to the indigenous civilizations of America (and also of distant Asia, which had been better explored), from which arose the first notions as to the primitive forms of human life. Thus were widened the spiritual boundaries of humanity at the same time as the material.

We are not alone in perceiving the illusion of the 'return to antiquity,' for the men of the Renaissance were not slow in doing this. Not every one was content to suit himself to the humanistic literary type. Some, like Machiavelli, threw away that cloak, too ample in its folds and in its train, preferring to it the shorter modern dress. Protests against pedantry and imitation are indeed frequently to be heard during the course of the century. Philosophers rebelled against Aristotle (first against the medieval and then against the ancient Aristotle), and appeals were made to truth, which is superior both to Plato and to Aristotle; men of letters advocated the new 'classes,' and artists repeated that the great masters were 'nature' and the 'idea.' One feels in the air that the time is not far[Pg 233] distant when the question, "Who are the true ancients?"—that is to say, "Who are the intellectually expert and mature?"—will be answered with, "We are"; the symbol of antiquity will be broken and there will be found within it the reality which is human thought, ever new in its manifestations. Such an answer may possibly be slow in becoming clear and certain as an object of common conviction, though it will eventually become so, and now suffices to explain the true quality of that return antiquity, by preventing the taking of the symbol for the thing symbolized.

This symbolical covering, cause of prejudices and misunderstandings, which enfolded the whole of humanism, was not the sole vice from which the historiography of the Renaissance suffered. We do not, of course, speak here of the bias with which all histories were variously affected, according as they were written by men of l............
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