When did the Italian Renaissance end? Questions of this kind are always difficult, not to say impossible, to answer. Cultural history generally proceeds on a gradual, evolutionary basis, without dramatic points of transition. Elements of past traditions live on, even as new traditions emerge.
With this caveat, however, there are reasons to take the decade or so after 1600 as marking a cultural turning point from late Renaissance to Baroque. Certainly, the languages of literature and art changed at this time, in ways that contemporaries registered quite sharply. Although it is possible in retrospect to trace a gradualist history of the evolution of the Baroque style, reaching back into later sixteenth-century mannerism, nowhere in the sixteenth century do we see as strong a consciousness of a stylistic sea-change as we do after 1600. This is especially the case with literature, where the Rime of the Neapolitan poet Giovanni Battista Marino, published in 1602, were widely seen as ushering in a new and flamboyant style, which sharply polarized literary circles. It is not difficult to see anticipations of Marino’s Baroque in certain poets of the later sixteenth century, yet this did not diminish his impact or readers’ sense that they were seeing the dawn of a new age. Marino’s aesthetic was one of rebelliousness, originality, daring, outrageousness, ‘knowing how to break the rules’ (saper rompere le regole). This marked a violent rejection of Renaissance Petrarchism, which had been rooted, precisely, in respect for rules and decorum and tradition. Marino underlined the point through his colourful lifestyle, which involved various stints in prison, and a narrow escape from death in a rival poet’s assassination attempt.1
One way of seeing the culture of the Baroque in Italy, underlined by Marino’s rule-breaking maxim, is that it marked a tilting of the cultural balance away from reverence for antiquity towards an exhilarated embrace of the new. As was emphasized in Chapters 2and 3, these two impulses coexisted in Renaissance culture in a dynamic, dialectical, and highly fruitful relationship, with celebration of modernity on the rise across the course of the sixteenth century. The seventeenth century saw this latter trend coming to a head, with the ‘quarrel of the ancients and the moderns’ emerging as a formal topic of debate, often bullishly resolved in favour of the moderns. The academic and literary critic Paolo Beni pronounced the superiority of Tasso as epic poet to Homer and Virgil in a work of 1607, while, in 1620, the poet Alessandro Tassoni published an essay comparing ‘ancient and modern intellects’, the Paragone degli ingegni antichi e moderni, arguing for the superiority of the moderns in every respect, from science and art to music, agriculture, warfare, politics, and dress.
Although it would be easy, in this regard, to see the Baroque era as marking a continuity of trends already apparent in the Renaissance, in other regards, the relation between the two periods is one of inversion. Gender thinking and attitudes to women offer a dramatic example of this. After more than a century in which the dominant attitude to women in polite society had tended to be gallant and supportive, the Baroque saw a sharp backlash, with a revival of misogyny that swept away many of the cultural gains women had experienced in the long sixteenth century. The tradition of women’s writing that had so flourished in the sixteenth century dwindled after around 1610, virtually drying up after 1650. Although some species of virtuose still flourished, in particular celebrity singers and a few painters, we see nothing like the critical mass of female creatives in all fields that marks the last decades of the sixteenth century. In particular, cultural activity by ‘respectable’ women was problematized, as the old slur associating literacy and intellectual curiosity in women with sexual profligacy was revived. Only after around 1690, as the vogue for the Baroque faded, to be succeeded by a new classicizing cultural movement called Arcadia, did creative women once more begin to receive the encouragement and social approbation they had come to enjoy 100 years before.2
In some quite clear senses, then, we can see the Renaissance as a cultural movement coming to an end in the early seventeenth century. In another sense, of course, it never ended. Many of the cultural novelties described in this book are still with us, though in much-changed guises. Histories of printing, technology, diplomacy, journalism, portraiture, philology, professional theatre, academies, collecting, and museum culture, all sink their roots into Renaissance terrain. So does the history of the creative woman in Italy, which frequently had recourse to Renaissance prototypes in reinventing itself in subsequent centuries. The ladies of the Arcadian Academy in the eighteenth century looked back quite explicitly to Vittoria Colonna and Gaspara Stampa in shaping their identity as modern female writers. Similar levels of scholarly and popular interest may be seen in Renaissance women poets during the late nineteenth century, when Italy lived its brief ‘New Woman’ moment.3
This book has made the case for a broader and deeper Renaissance than has generally been presented within scholarly literature, touching the lives of many men and women without the capacity to ‘speak in bus and bas’, to use Leonardo Fioravanti’s impatient characterization of Latin. Burckhardt noted regretfully of the humanist revival of classical antiquity that it must be acknowledged as an ‘anti-popular’ movement, which had the effect of thrusting a wedge for the first time between the ‘cultivated and uncultivated classes’ (p. 121). The evidence examined in this book suggests that this is true only if we look at the initial moment of classical discovery and scholarship, not at the moment of dissemination and reception.
Of course, the democratizing processes discussed here had their limits. The broader Renaissance public considered here consists, at its lowest, of skilled artisans and shopkeepers; upwardly mobile courtesans, artists, and actors; and the more skilled and specialized ‘mechanics’ of the courts. These men and women might have been labelled ‘base plebeians’ by status-conscious nobles, but they stood very far from the lowest socio-economic ranks of Italian society; these were the literate, the urban, the clothed, and the fed, those sufficiently far from subsistence to afford books. Still, these vernacular stakeholders in Renaissance culture cannot be termed in any meaningful sense a social elite; nor can a movement whose ripples reached them be properly characterized as ‘anti-popular’. Adding their voices to the conversation of the Renaissance can only enrich our understanding of the age.