The Renaissance

by Walter Pater

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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...

(This entire section contains 1967 words.)

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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 beauty . . . that abstract form of beauty, about which the Platonists reason.” Yet the influence of Dante is there, too, in the sentiment of imaginative love. To Pater, Michelangelo was “the last . . . of those on whom the peculiar sentiment of the Florence of Dante and Giotto descended: he is the consummate representative of the form that sentiment took in the fifteenth century.” In this sentiment is another source of his “grave and temperate sweetness.”

The fifteenth century witnessed two movements: the return to antiquity represented, says Pater, by Raphael and the return to nature represented by Leonardo da Vinci. In Leonardo the return to nature took on a special coloring, for his genius was composed not only of a desire for beauty but also of a curiosity that gave to his paintings “a type of subtle and curious grace.” His landscapes, as in the background of his masterpiece, La Gioconda, partake of the “bizarre of recherché.” One of the most famous passages in the book is Pater’s description of La Gioconda. Pater sees in the picture an archetypal woman: “All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded” her features.

In “The School of Giorgione” (which did not appear in the first edition of The Renaissance), Pater propounds his famous dictum that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” The “condition of music” is a complete fusing, an interpenetration, of matter and form. The other arts achieve perfection in the degree that they approach or approximate this condition. Giorgione and others of the Venetian school are representative of the aspiration toward perfect identification of matter and form in their realization that “painting must be before all things decorative.” Their subjects are from life, but “mere subject” is subordinated to pictorial design, so that matter is interpenetrated by form.

In the chapter on Joachim du Bellay, Pater turns from Italy to France, to the theories and the elegant verse of the Pléiad. Du Bellay wrote a tract in which he sought “to adjust the existing French culture to the rediscovered classical culture.” In this tract, says Pater, the Renaissance became aware of itself as a systematic movement. The ambition of the Pleiad was to combine the “music of the measured, scanned verse of Latin and Greek poetry” with “the music of the rhymed, unscanned verse of Villon and the old French poets.”

The longest chapter of The Renaissance is devoted to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German scholar of antiquity. His importance, for Pater, is chiefly that he influenced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who “illustrates a union of the Romantic spirit . . . with Hellenism . . . that marriage . . . of which the art of the nineteenth century is the child.” The Hellenic element, characterized by “breadth, centrality, with blitheness and repose,” was made known to Goethe by Winckelmann, who consequently stands as a link between antiquity (and the Renaissance) and the post-Enlightenment world.

The most celebrated part of The Renaissance—and indeed of the author’s entire body of writing—is the conclusion. Here, Pater utters the famous, and frequently misinterpreted, dicta “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end” and “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” These statements must be seen in the context of Pater’s conception of the nature of human existence.

For Pater, reality is human experience. It consists not in the objective, material world but in the impressions of color, odor, and texture which that world produces in the observer’s mind. Each impression endures for but a single moment and then is gone. Life is made up of the succession of these momentary impressions, and life itself is brief.

Not to make the most of these moments, not to experience them fully, is to waste a lifetime. “What we have to do,” says Pater, “is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions.” Given the brevity of human life and given as well the brevity of the very impressions that constitute human lives, “we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” Hence, “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” This emphasis on experience also leads Pater to distinguish among kinds of experience. The highest kind, he says, is the great passions (themselves a kind of wisdom) gained from art. “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.”

Pater omitted the conclusion from the second edition of the book, fearing “it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall.” Having explained his beliefs more fully in Marius the Epicurean (1885) and having altered the conclusion slightly, he restored it to later editions of The Renaissance.

In what may seem a curious irony, Pater stands with Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin as one of the great aesthetic critics of the nineteenth century. The seemingly radical differences between them—Pater pronouncing the primacy of art for art’s sake, Ruskin and Arnold insisting on its moral value—tend to obscure some important similarities that offer insight into the ways the Victorians viewed the production and appreciation of art, poetry, and music. All are intent on close scrutiny of the work under examination; all emphasize the seriousness of purpose that great artists bring to their works, and all are convinced that the impact of art on humanity is profound.

Pater, however, stands on its head the famous Arnoldian dictum that the purpose of the viewer or reader is “to see the object as in itself it really is.” Pater insists instead that the principal task of anyone who really wishes to appreciate art is “to know one’s own impression of the object of art as it really is.” The focus in The Renaissance, and in other writings by Pater, is on the significance of the individual impression made by art on the viewer or reader. For him, great art is not dependent on social or political context, and it does not exist principally to deliver a message or emphasize some moral dictum. Instead, art is essentially intended to stir the senses of those who partake in the aesthetic experience (reading a poem or novel, observing a painting or sculpture, listening to a musical composition).

Many of Pater’s contemporaries found his approach disconcerting, especially his decoupling of art from the historical and political milieu in which it is produced. Nevertheless, Pater’s influence can be seen distinctly in the late nineteenth century movement that is frequently, and unfortunately, labeled as “decadence,” in which artists consciously attempted to divorce their works from the more mundane aspects of life. Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, and W. B. Yeats are the best among many of the generation whom Pater influenced. His insistence on looking closely at the art object to isolate and appreciate its beauty, rather than simply using it as a means for political or moral commentary, lies at the heart of one of the great critical movements of the twentieth century, New Criticism, whose proponents insist that great art is intrinsically worthwhile and that standards of judgment must rest on aesthetic rather than moral or political principles.