The Value of the Renaissance Past in Contemporary Culture
What is the significance of doing Renaissance Studies now, not only in terms of the field per se, but in terms of what the field has to say to contemporary society? In the past, the field of Renaissance Studies has drawn themes and orientations from particular concerns of the moment, without losing its rigorous focus, and has given back crucial insights to those studying it. Could the same be said today? To facilitate a multifaceted answer, this book attempts to cover some of the principal areas of this interdisciplinary field within the humanities and social sciences. Contributors include specialists in history, languages and literatures, the history of science, cultural studies, art history, philosophy, sociology and politics.
Paul R. Wright 12 The Raw and the Cooked: The Renaissance as Cultural Trope in Times of Crisis
Introduction As a means of interrogating the philosophical and historical assumptions that animate nineteenth- and twentieth-century conceptions of the Italian Renaissance, this paper frames two moments of acute cultural crisis wherein the Renaissance past becomes a touchstone for a tortured present. The first instance involves the intensely conservative reaction to the age of revolu- tion in which Jacob Burckhardt lived and constructed his historiographi- cal template of the Renaissance; the second involves the post-World War II malaise that infuses Graham Greene’s novella The Third Man, as well as its cinematic incarnation in Sir Carol Reed’s iconic film. In each case, the interplay between historiographical practice and popular culture sug- gests that the Renaissance as a cultural construct is a painful negotiation between the traces and artifacts of early modernity; the historian’s instinct to periodize and categorize; and the contemporary anxieties that fuel that process of re-imagining the past. To borrow from Lévi-Strauss’s famous formulation, the question becomes how the ‘raw’ material of the Italian Renaissance is ‘cooked’1 – and under what ideological conditions. 1 See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, vol. 1, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). 270 Paul R. Wright Part I: Jacob Burckhardt and the Tumultuous Nineteenth Century The first case returns us to Burckhardt’s foundational work on the Renaissance, but not in the vein of the usual re-assessments of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.2 Rather than mining that well- travelled ground, I am instead interested...
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