The Renaissance

by Walter Pater

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"All Art Constantly Aspires Towards The Condition Of Music"

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Context: In The Renaissance, Pater is concerned with a discussion of the artists whose work best reflects the essential qualities of the era, an age which he describes not merely as a revival of classical antiquity but as a period of general excitement and enlightening of the human mind. He traces its beginnings far back into the Middle Ages, "with its motives already clearly pronounced, the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of the limits which the religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and on the imagination." But he finds in Italy the dominant Renaissance expression–in the concrete works of art and its prominent personalities. One of the essays, "The School of Giorgione," describes the fervid artistic activity in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century, with the experimentation in light, the harmonious and splendid color, the large and free design. Giorgione was an accomplished musician, and his canvases can aptly be termed symphonies in paint. It is this symphonic quality with which Pater is concerned in the opening paragraphs in which he discusses the separate, yet similar, aspects of art. There is rhythmic design in canvas painting, just as there is body and color in music; all art is but a translation "into different languages of one and the same fixed quantity of imaginative thought":

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it. That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation–that the mere matter of a picture, the actual circumstances of an event, the actual topography of a landscape–should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling, should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different degrees.

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