Monday, August 6, 2007

Modernity: What Happened? (Part One)

My Ph.D. is in medieval thought and I've read a lot of modern history, but lately I've been trying to figure out what happened in between. I'll share on this blog a few of the things I've discovered. I'll do this as a series, so the pieces are of a more readable length.

I recently finished The Renaissance: A Short History, by the wonderful historian (and artist) Paul Johnson. The book itself is dazzling, more showing you how much you don't know than actually teaching you anything. But the conclusion is fantastic:
There is a famous story, or legend, that the master of music at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the composer Giovanni Palestrina(1525-94), produced his Missa Papae Marcelli for a special performance, to show that polyphony could be combined with intelligibility, and that this had the desired effect. Whether the story is true or not, it is a fact that Trent ended without any destructive ruling on music.
It was a different matter with painting. Here the council in its final session ruled that stories about sacred personages that were not to be found in the canonical texts, and saintly miracles that the church had not certified as probable, were not to figure in works of art to be placed in churches or other religious buildings. It was not, strictly speaking, an act of iconoclasm, since it was prospective, not retrospective. Few existing images were removed, as had already been done in countless buildings controlled by Protestant zealots. But it put a stop to any future work of that kind and thus robbed religious artists of one of their chief sources of subject matter. It was the end of the Middle Ages, abolishing at a stroke the swarming inventiveness and labyrinthine imagination that had produced so much delightful art, both in the Gothic mode and indeed in Renaissance works, where Christian and pagan mythology intertwined. It affected not only the great masters working in the big cities but also--and perhaps more--the humble artist-craftsmen of the smaller towns and villages, whose wall paintings, bench ends and shrine figurs had been encyclopedias of Christian folklore, now all forbidden.
Even more influential were the more positive doctrines of the Counter-Reformation, which the final session of Trent formalized. In response to the Protestant cult of the vernacular--of simplicity, austerity and puritanism--the Catholic Church, after its earlier defensive and guilt-ridden response, decided to embark on a much bolder policy of emphasizing the spectacular. With the Jesuits in the vanguard, churches and other religious buildings were to be ablaze with light, clouded with incense, draped in lace, smothered in gilt, with huge altars, splendid vestments, sonorous organs and vast choirs, and a liturgy purged of medieval nonsense but essentially triumphalist in its content and amplitude. The artists--painters, sculptors, architects, makers of church furniture and windows--were to fall into line, scrapping the folklore and mythology indeed, but portraying the story of Christianity, the history of the church, the faith of its martyrs and the destruction of its enemies with all the power and realism they could command. Thus Rome defied the Protestants and bade Puritans do their worst. Catholicism would reply to simplicity and primitive austerity with all the riches and color and swirling lines and glitter in its repertoire, adding new ones as artists could create them.
Whatever the spiritual merits of this policy, it was undoubtedly popular in southern Europe at least, and in the closing decades of the sixteenth century the Catholic Church began to regain some lost ground. However, the Counter-Reformation approach to art was a formula for what would later be called the Baroque. It was music in the ears of ambitious young painters like Caravaggio. But it tolled a requiem for the Renaissance, or rather the attitudes it stood for. The movement was already a spent force anyway, and by the 1560s and 1570s it was dead, as dead as Michelangelo and Titian, its last great masters. . . .
This passage nicely encapsulates some of the main themes in my reading of early modernity. The Renaissance is a departure from the Middle Ages in some senses (especially the elevation of individual genius over communal action), but in the grand sweep of history, it is the culmination of the medieval world, a world where faith and reason deeply interpenetrate, where the local, the mythical, and the remembered are as much a part of reality as the universal, the textual, and the authoritarian. The middle ages were a profound syntheses of all these things -- and that synthesis got difficult as the human, the natural, the ingenius came more and more alive. The Renaissance popes, for all their need of reform, were right to let the Renaissance happen, and to embrace it.

The disaster begins, I believe, when the Tridentine reformers attacked the Renaissance, destroyed the medieval, and launched the Church too quickly into the antagonism of the modern world. This was a disaster not only for the Church, but even more for the secular world -- as the Church increasingly stood against genius and creativity, genius and creativity went outside the Church, creating those horrible deformities: Hobbes, Locke, Kant . . . . I will say more. . . .