The blessings of loss

The faces of a lost world. A 15th-century illustrated chronicle (chronica figurata) featuring figures from ancient Rome (Paris, BnF, Latin 9673 f.27r)

To have a renaissance, a death certificate is first required. Without the collapse of ancient Rome, the disintegration of ancient culture and the loss of much of its intellectual and literary output, the Renaissance would be a word without meaning. You have to die first in order to be reborn.

It is not just a matter of words. The European humanistic revival and then the Renaissance weren’t merely a rediscovery of the classics, although they wouldn’t have been anything without the recovery of Rome’s written works and cultural achievements. Key to the significance and impact of the Renaissance was the long period before the Renaissance – the so-called medieval period.

The loss of much of the works of the ancient Greek and Roman world in the centuries following the political dissolution of the Empire in the West has been the object of endless jeremiads by those who, like the men and women of the Renaissance, consider the Middle Ages as being nothing more than a ‘middle’ cavity, a millenium-long entr’acte between two shows. Thank God for the Renaissance. But thank God for the Middle Ages which led to the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance, Western Europe was able to move from the mere rediscovery of ancient words to the creation of a modern world. It is a remarkable fact that a faraway world such as the classical world could give rise to what we now call early-modern art, literature and science. But since history, like nature, does not make a jump, the sweeping force of the Renaissance cannot be explained without taking the millenium-long entr’acte into account. To get to 16th-century science, one has to pass through medieval scholasticism. To get to perspective and genre painting, one needs to cross the medieval bridge of sacred art.

But continuity is not all. Like grapevines, cultures need scarcity to achieve great results. The medieval West created a culture out of scarcity, and achieved a higher level of creativity than the Renaissance itself, engrossed as it was with classical models and the imitation of the ancients. In their relative cultural poverty, the medievals couldn’t imitate anyone, so they innovated. Despite their contempt for all things medieval, the men and women of the Renaissance were carrying the debt of the preceding age.

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