In the preface to The Renaissance, Walter Pater writes, “The subjects of the following studies . . . touch what I think the chief points in that complex, many-sided movement.” The subjects themselves are the French, Italian, and German writers, painters, and sculptors, ranging from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, in whose lives and in whose works Pater finds represented the many sides, the divergent attitudes and aims, of the Renaissance.
Pater’s method is impressionistic. The task of the aesthetic critic, he says, is first to realize distinctly the exact impression that a work of art makes upon him (or her), then to determine the source and conditions—the “virtue”—of that impression, and finally to express that virtue so that the impression it has made on him may be shared by others. The Renaissance is the record of the impressions induced in the refined sensibilities of Pater by the art he studied.
The Renaissance, for Pater, was “not merely the revival of classical antiquity which took place in the fifteenth century . . . but a whole complex movement, of which that revival of classical antiquity was but one element or symptom.” Accordingly, in the first chapter, he finds the roots of the movement in twelfth and thirteenth century France, illustrated in two prose romances of that time, Amis and Amile and Aucassin and Nicolette. It is in their “spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time” that these tales prefigure that later “outbreak of the reason and the imagination,” the high Renaissance of fifteenth century Italy.
One important part of that later Renaissance, according to Pater, was the effort made by fifteenth century Italian scholars “to reconcile Christianity with the religion of ancient Greece.” Giovanni Pico della Mirandola typified that effort, in his writings as well as his life; he was “reconciled indeed to the new religion, but still [had] a tenderness for the earlier life.” Lacking the historic sense, Pico and his contemporaries sought in vain, as Pater saw it, a reconciliation based on allegorical interpretations of religious belief: The “Renaissance of the fifteenth century was . . . great, rather by what it designed . . . than by what it actually achieved.”
In discussing Sandro Botticelli, Pater acknowledges that he was a painter of secondary rank, not great as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were great. Nevertheless his work has a distinct quality, “the result of a blending in him of a sympathy for humanity in its uncertain condition . . . with his consciousness of the shadow upon it of the great things from which it shrinks.” He is a forcible realist as well as a visionary painter. Part of his appeal to Pater is simply because “he has the freshness, the uncertain and diffident promise which belong to the earlier Renaissance”—that age that Pater called “perhaps the most interesting period in the history of the mind.”
The chapter “Luca della Robbia” is as much about sculpture in general as it is about Luca. The limitation of sculpture, says Pater, is that it tends toward “a hard realism, a one-sided presentment of mere form.” The Greeks countered this tendency by depicting the type rather than the individual, by purging the accidental until “their works came to be like some subtle extract or essence, or almost like pure thoughts or ideas.” This sacrificed expression, however. Michelangelo, “with a genius spiritualized by the reverie of the middle age,” offset the tendency of sculpture toward realism by “leaving nearly all his sculpture in a puzzling sort of incompleteness, which suggests rather than realizes actual form.” Luca and other fifteenth century Tuscan sculptors achieved “a profound expressiveness” by working in low relief earthenware, the subtle delineation of line serving as the means of overcoming the special limitation of sculpture.
In “The Poetry of Michelangelo,” Pater discusses not so much the poetry itself as his impressions of it. No one, says Pater, need be reminded of the strength of Michelangelo’s work. There is, however, another and equally important quality of his work, and that Pater refers to variously as “charm,” “sweetness,” and “a lovely strangeness.” It is in a “brooding spirit of life,” achieved only through an idealization of life’s “vehement sentiments,” that this quality of sweetness resides. There were, says Pater, two traditions of the ideal that Michelangelo might have followed: that of Dante, who idealized the material world, and that of Platonism. It was the Platonic tradition that molded Michelangelo’s verse: “Michelangelo is always pressing forward from the outward beauty . . . to apprehend the unseen...
(The entire section is 1967 words.)