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Studies in the History of the Renaissance by…

Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)

by Walter Pater, Walter Pater

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Walter Pater had a passion for the Italian Renaissance, it spoke to him as something like a reassertion of paganism into the world of Christianity. He was able to see the Hellenistic world wherever he looked and he looked deep into Renaissance art to find it. [The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry is a collection of essays, originally collected together in 1873 under the title of [Studies in the History of the Renaissance] but the later edition published in 1888 has in addition his essay on the school of Giorgione, where he delves deeply into a definition for a work of art.

Like many other famous Victorian art critics Pater saw the Renaissance as an uplifting of the spirit from the dark ages of the medieval period. However he was careful to look backwards to the twelfth century and before to find the seeds for growth and his first chapter is on the early influence of France, this is followed by an essay on Pica Della Mirandola in whom Pater discovers in his writing its subject as the dignity of man:

"It helped man onward to that reassertion of himself, that rehabilitation of human nature, the body, the senses, the heart, the intelligence, which the Renaissance fulfils"

It is in his essay on Sandro Botticelli that Pater launches into his ideas on the influence of Pagan images in Renaissance art, but he also does a wonderful job in describing the unique qualities of the paintings. There follows an excellent little essay on Luca Della Robbia before one of the highlights of the book is the essay on the poetry of Michelangelo. The essay title is a bit misleading because Pater talks about the 'sweetness and strength' in Michelangelo's work and it ranges over his painting and his sculpture. The following essay on Leonardo Da Vinci is equally impressive and here Pater talks about his curiosity and his desire for beauty and he tells us what he sees in the celebrated Mona Lisa. His essay on The School of Giorgione has the startling idea at it's heart that music is the most sublime form of all the arts because it unites subject and form and it is the paintings (there are only a handful in existence) of Giorgione that suggest this to him. In his essay on Joachim Du Bellay, Pater has come nearly full circle as he is back with France and the poetry of the Pleiad which takes him into the mid sixteenth century and towards the end of the Renaissance. Pater is not yet finished as two astonishing essays are still to follow the first is on the Germanart critic and archeologist: Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Pater says:

Winklemann -"As it is confessedly the beauty of man which is to be conceived under one general idea, so I have noticed that those who are observant of beauty only in women, and are moved little or not at all by the beauty of men, seldom have an impartial, vital, inborn instinct for beauty in art. To such persons the beauty of Greek art will ever seem wanting, because its supreme beauty is rather male than female. But the beauty of art demands a higher sensibility than the beauty of nature, because the beauty of art, like tears shed at a play, gives no pain, is without life, and must be awakened and repaired by culture. Now, as the spirit of culture is much more ardent in youth than in manhood, the instinct of which I am speaking must be exercised and directed to what is beautiful, before that age is reached, at which one would be afraid to confess that one had no taste for it."

His eulogy on Winckelmann leads Pater to discuss in detail the awakening to the divine forms of antiquity that signifies to him the Renaissance. He puts many of his thoughts together in his conclusion where he celebrates the quest for beauty in the artistry of the Renaissance:

"Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."

These essays provide us with a Victorian art critic's view of the Renaissance by selecting key figures on which he can hang his theories and ideas. It is a celebration of the artistic genius that is paramount in these essays and they are written with a passion for the subject. They will serve as an introduction to the Renaissance, but they will be more appreciated by readers that already have some knowledge of the period. Pater is a critic that encourages his readers, by his writing, by his ideas and theories to look again at some of the great works of art, to see for himself just what he might have missed and so his essays are there to be read by all lovers of the period. A four star read. ( )
4 vote baswood | Jul 7, 2015 |
[From The Summing Up, The Literary Guild of America, 1938; ix, 24; xii, 36; xxiv, 86-87:]

But at that time [1890s] a florid prose was admired. Richness of texture was sought by means of a jewelled phrase and sentences stiff with exotic epithets: the ideal was a brocade so heavy with gold that it stood up by itself. The intelligent young read Walter Pater with enthusiasm. My common sense suggested to me that it was anaemic stuff; behind those elaborate, gracious periods I was conscious of a tired, wan personality. I was young, lusty and energetic; I wanted fresh air, action, violence, and I found it hard to breathe that dead, heavily scented atmosphere and sit in those hushed rooms in which it was indecorous to speak above a whisper.


When English prose recovered simplicity with Hazlitt, the Shelley of the letters and Charles Lamb at his best, it lost it again with De Quincey, Carlyle, Meredith and Walter Pater. It is obvious that the grand style is more striking than the plain. Indeed many people think that a style that does not attract notice is not style. They will admire Walter Pater's, but will read an essay by Matthew Arnold without giving a moment's attention to the elegance, distinction and sobriety with which he set down what he had to say.


But the two writers that It was really necessary to admire [in the 1890s] if you would be a person of culture and not a British philistine were Walter Pater and George Meredith. […] Now I know that there is a great deal of fustian in [Meredith’s] novels. But the strange thing is that, reading them again, I recapture the days when I first read them [in the 1890s]. They are rich for me now with sunny mornings and my awakening intelligence and the delicious dreams of youth, so that even as I close a novel of Meredith's, Evan Harrington for instance, and decide that its insincerity is exasperating, its snobbishness loathsome, its verbosity intolerable and I will never read another, my heart melts and I think it's grand.

On the other hand I have no such feeling about Walter Pater whom I read at the same time and with a similar excitement. No pleasant associations give him for me a merit to which he has no claim. I find him as dull as a picture of Alma Tadema. It is strange that one can ever have admired that prose. It does not flow. There is no air in it. A careful mosaic constructed by someone without great technical skill to decorate the walls of a station dining-room. Pater's attitude towards the life about him, cloistered, faintly supercilious, gentlemanly, donnish in short, repels me. Art should be appreciated with passion and violence, not with a tepid, deprecating elegance that fears the censoriousness of a common room. But Walter Pater was a feeble creature: it is unnecessary to condemn him with intensity. I dislike him not for himself, but because he is an example of a type in the literary world that is common and detestable. This is the person who is filled with the conceit of culture.

[From A Writer's Notebook, Doubleday & Company, 1949, Preface, xiii-xiv]

I have heard that Walter Pater used to make abundant notes on his reading and reflection and put them into appropriate pigeonholes, and when he had enough on a certain subject, fit them together and write an essay. If this is true, it may account for the rather cramped feeling one has when one reads him. This may be why his style has neither swing nor vigour. For my part, I think to keep copious notes is an excellent practice, and I can only regret that a natural indolence has prevented me from exercising it more diligently. They cannot fail to be of service if they are used with intelligence and discretion.
1 vote WSMaugham | Jun 26, 2015 |
The classic Victorian study of the art and literature of the renaissance.
  Fledgist | Oct 6, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Walter Paterprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pater, Waltermain authorall editionsconfirmed
Symons, ArthurIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, to express it in the most general terms, to find some universal formula for it.
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The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry and Studies in the History of the Renaissance refer to the same work. The latter is the original 1873 title . Oxford World's Classics has released it under both titles (reverting to the original Studies in the History of the Renaissance for the 2010 redesign), but not a word of the text differs.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 019283553X, Paperback)

Oscar Wilde called this collection of essays the "holy writ of beauty." Published to great acclaim in 1837, it examines the work of Renaissance artists such as Winckelmann and the then neglected Botticelli, and includes a celebrated discussion of the Mona Lisa in a study of Da Vinci. The book strongly influenced art students and aesthetes of the day and is still valuable for the insights it offers and the beauty of the writing.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:14 -0400)

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Published to great acclaim in 1873, Walter Pater's compendium of idiosyncratic, impressionistic essays on the Renaissance gained him a reputation as a daring modern philosopher. Oscar Wilde called it the "holy writ of beauty." It was Pater's cry of "art for art's sake" that became the manifesto for the aesthetic movement. He believed that art should be sensual and that beauty should rank as the highest ideal. Marked by elegant fluency, Pater's essays discuss Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and other artists who, for him, embodied the spirit of the Renaissance. Pater's work survives to this day as one of the best pieces of cultural criticism to emerge from the nineteenth century.This collection is criticism as beautiful as the art it considers.… (more)

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