The Story of Civilization, Vol. V: The Renaissance by Will Durant

“Don’t be so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

— Harry Lime (Orson Welles), The Third Man, 1949

The full title of this work is The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304 – 1576 AD, The Story of Civilization, Volume V.  We see by this title that the scope of Durant’s study of the Renaissance has been limited dramatically.  For most people, the Renaissance is an Italian idea, and indeed, that’s where it starts.  But it was an event that crossed all over Europe and the British Isles.  Something like this simply could not be contained.  Even while limiting discussion of it to Italy, we know already that other countries have been discussed during the time frame described in the previous volume, and the next volume will continue that.  The Italian Renaissance officially kicked off around 1400 or 1450, depending on which scholar you talk to or which source you reference, and many scholars accept the end of the Renaissance to be marked with the birth of Opera as the highest culmination of artistic pursuit in 1600.  Obviously, opinions differ.  It delights me to no end that Durant’s dates are marked from the birth of Petrarch to the death of Titian because I went into this with some understanding of what that actually means, and I know it to be less arbitrary than most measurements.  To begin in 1304 means Durant puts the cultural explosion that quite literally changed the world into a framework far better suited to explore why it happened as it did than most surveys I’ve ever read on the subject.

This tome provides unflinching looks at all of the power players you’d expect from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti to Cesare Borgia and Clement VII, across every kingdom and principality in Italy.  It expands upon many ideas that we take for granted that shape the modern world as we understand it.  Given advances in scholastic research in recent decades, some of the facts offered are perhaps outdated or incomplete, but as with the previous volumes, the real centerpiece of this work is how the author ties everything together, examining why and how things worked as they did and exploring the ramifications in context.  The rich depth of commentary remains the reason to read this series.  With context and uncensored commentary comes new understanding.

From the rise of the Medici, through the beginnings of humanist thought and the schisms in the Church that opened the floodgates to new ideas, the Renaissance officially explodes through every walk of life and manner of thought — art, architecture, literature, music, drama, science, medicine, philosophy, religion, the occult, statecraft, technology, warfare, morality, sexuality, national and personal identity, and even the very notion of immortality itself — each idea grounding itself on the solid footing of the past with an eye towards the future and the potential advancement of humanity.  For every stone turned to possibility, another is turned towards opportunity, and another towards exploitation, ultimately laying Italy wide open for power struggle.  It is a microcosm of all of world history, super-heated at every possible level.  It is, in short, possibly the greatest battle between Church and State, superstition and reason, or tradition and progression ever waged, the axis upon which all of Western history is turned.  The prize: nothing less than the hearts, minds, and souls of all of humankind.  The fire lit here still burns even today.  In understanding this, one can see the scorch marks upon our modern institutions and understand how we got here by knowing the stories behind the scars.  These same fires illuminate where we’re going, which is the foremost reason to read history, to gain insight into what was and what might have been so as to make our way towards a more promising future.  This idea is the baseline intrinsic to Renaissance thinking, the lens through which all of modern history has been focused.