This site uses cookies to deliver our services, improve performance, for analytics, and (if not signed in) for advertising. By using LibraryThing you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your use of the site and services is subject to these policies and terms.
Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Renaissance: A Short History by Paul…

The Renaissance: A Short History (2000)

by Paul Johnson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
509830,270 (3.43)8



Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 8 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Brief surveys such as this are sometimes more difficult to absorb than their longer counterparts simply because the facts and information are so highly concentrated. Since countless artists are at the very heart of any discussion of the Italian Renaissance, the problem is even more acute because the book suffers by lack of illustrations. But we cannot have it both ways. Or can we? Thanks to the ready availability of internet resources, we can provide our own visual aids, and I highly recommend that one take the time to do so, as this book is very much worth reading. It brings the story of three hundred years of history together and gives the reader a sense of how it all ties together. The book consists of six chapters that survey a particular aspect of the history of the period.

Chapter 1 — The Historical and Economic Background
A quick overview which shows patterns of history where ebbs and flows evidence periodic "renaissances" throughout human history. Technology improvements during the Middle Ages led to unprecedented wealth and the growth of "intermediate technology" culminating in the first "pan-European industry": i.e., the printing of books. Dissemination of knowledge and economic progress led to the Renaissance. Interestingly, printing was born in Germany — not Italy — although it thrived and exploded in Italy, largely because of the more attractive and readable printing types developed there: Roman and Italic. The German so-called "black letter" was not accepted outside of Germany. Printing was invented in the years 1446-50, the Gutenberg Bible — the first printed book — began printing in 1450 and was completed in 1455 in Germany. By 1500, even though there were printing presses in sixty German towns, the locus had moved to Italy. Venice alone had 150 printing presses!

Chapter 2 — The Renaissance in Literature and Scholarship
"The Renaissance was the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism." The individual in literature — as opposed to the merely archetypal category — began with Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio and culminated in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The humanist bent of Renaissance literature inevitably led to conflict with the Church. Despite the almost total subsuming of Aristotelian philosophy by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, or perhaps because of it, the critical scholarship of Lorenzo Valla not only exposed the fraud of the Donation of Constantine, but began to undermine inconsistencies in Church doctrine. The resulting conflict between the Church and humanism set up a cultural war — according to Johnson, the first in European history: "Medieval certitude — or credulity, depending on one's viewpoint — was now faced with Renaissance scrutiny or skepticism." Key Renaissance writers are highlighted and fleshed out in this chapter.

Chapter 3 — The Anatomy of Renaissance Sculpture
"The Renaissance was concerned with the presentation of human reality" in all its endeavors, but especially in literature and the arts. Sculpture was the most vivid expression of three dimensionality. Johnson concentrates on Donatello — whose "workshop was one of the great creative furnaces of the Renaissance" and who "in some ways was the central figure of the Renaissance" — and Michelangelo, whose output was not limited to sculpture as "he was more interested in the human form as such than in any particular way or medium in which to represent it." His "heroic figure of David, designed to stand in the open and overawe the Florentines," added to his legend: "patrons and public alike confuse the giganticism of the work with the man who made it." Johnson also gives more than a nod to the particular contributions of Verrocchio and Benvenuto Cellini whose autobiography was written while serving a four-year prison sentence under house arrest.

Chapter 4 — The Buildings of the Renaissance
This chapter gives a brief but tantalizing introduction to Renaissance style, its architects and their contributions: Brunelleschi, the dome of Florence cathedral; Leon Battista Alberti for the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence and the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini; Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, personal architect to Cosimo de Medici; Donato Bramante of Urbino for his contributions to St. Peter's; Bernini; Michelangelo; and in Venice, which came belatedly to the renaissance, Jacopo Sansovino for the Libreria Marciana and his redesign of Piazza San Marco; and Palladio, Venice's greatest architect and the only Renaissance architect to give his name to a style that has endured. He was also the last of the true Renaissance architects.

Chapter 5 — The Apostolic Successions of Renaissance Painting
This is the longest chapter in the book, and if it weren't for the blessings of the Internet, it might be rather dry reading. But perhaps that goes for the rest of the book as well. Johnson surveys almost three hundred years of Renaissance painting, beginning with Cimabue, Giotto and Masaccio, the so-called apostolic succession of Florentine artists after whom no such definite progression was possible to identify simply because of the seeming explosion onto the scene of so many individual artists. Johnson has interesting comments about the important works of too many artists to name here. Looking up each painting slows down the reading, but adds immeasurably to one's absorption of what is presented. Johnson makes salient points about the works mentioned and places the artists in context with their contemporaries and patrons.

Chapter 6 — The Spread and Decline of the Renaissance
What we today, many hundreds of years later, call "Gothic" and "Renaissance" had no such names in those times. They were viewed as normality which, as we know, progresses almost without notice from day to day. This nameless phenomenon we call the Renaissance, however, had distinct characteristics and a distinctly new perspective: "the rejection of medieval art as false; the need to examine the work of antiquity both in practice, by studying its survivals, and in theory, by reading the texts; the concentration on the human form and its exact representation by scientific study; and the mastering of perspective." While Renaissance ideas spread quickly to northern Europe thanks to the printing press, artistic manifestations were slow to catch on and did not really take hold north of Italy until after the High Renaissance ended with the deaths of Michelangelo and Titian in the 1560s and 1570s. For northern artists visiting Italy — most notably Albrecht Dürer — the experience "was an artistic revelation, what we would call a cultural shock." The dissemination of Renaissance ideas and arts was inadvertently aided by military incursions into Italy beginning in 1494 by Charles VIII of France: "From the perspective of history, we can now see that the Florentine Renaissance came to a climax in the quarter century before the French invasion, when it truly was a city made for artists." The center of artistic activity then shifted to Rome under a series of munificent popes, especially Julius II and his Medici successor Leo X. This was the great Roman age of Raphael and Michelangelo. But in 1527, the devastating sack of Rome by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's armies ended the High Renaissance there. After the sack of Rome, artistic leadership in Italy moved to Venice, where it abided for half a century, after which the locus shifted north to the rest of Europe. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to a new age in the history of Europe.

In this short survey of the Renaissance we can see as if through a telescope how much the Italian Renaissance has contributed to our cultural heritage. Despite its lack of visual aids, this is a very useful book in summarizing and clarifying the important aspects of the period. ( )
1 vote Poquette | Aug 24, 2015 |
I would have enjoyed this very light (and opinionated) recap of the Renaissance if it hadn't been for Johnson's annoying homophobia. On Michelangelo: "More nonsense has been written about him than about any other great artist: that he was a neurotic, a homosexual, a Neoplatonist mystic, etc." On Da Vinci: "He may have had homosexual inclinations, for in 1476, when he was twenty-four, he was accused of sodomy, though this does not necessarily imply the practice of unnatural vice (the accusation was anonymous and nothing came of it)." It's pretty much universally accepted that both of these artists were homosexuals, and Johnson's sniffy reaction is uncalled for. ( )
  giovannigf | May 25, 2015 |
History of the Renaissance through its artists. Short, but good. Exactly what is described. Pictures would have been a nice addition. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Paul Johnson has a reputation as an historian of high quality and breadth of subject. Whether his focus is traditional historical overview (Modern Times, America, or England), biography (Churchill, Napoleon, or Creators), religion (Christianity or The Jews), or specialized areas like Art history, he is always worth reading.
The story of the Renaissance is filled with great names: Gutenberg, Dante, Erasmus, Leonardo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Raphael, the Medici family, Machiavelli, not to mention a plethora of popes. Many of these geniuses were Italian, but not all, as the Renaissance spread across Europe in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In fact, Paul Johnson, in The Renaissance: A Short History, credits the invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany by Johann Gutenberg as the single most important event of the era, as the printing of books allowed for the explosion of learning to spread past the church leaders, princely classes, and academics to the growing merchant class.

My favorite part was the section on Renaissance literature, as Johnson described the most important authors and their works. Even with works I had already read or studied, like the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, I learned much from the many stories about the people and the period.
I also enjoyed reading about the painters and the development of oil painting on canvas in the Netherlands; Johnson explains how oil and canvas allowed artists to broaden their markets and paint non-church subjects; the modern tradition of portrait painting began with this innovation. The overview of Architecture by comparison is somewhat weaker, but I would attribute this to the limitations of a "short history" of this size. This may also explain the lack of illustrations; however, these are readily available both on the Internet or in books referenced in the bibliography.
The many ideas and topics in this short history inspire further study of the Renaissance. Fortunately a Chronology and Bibliography included in the book provide guides for beginning your own study of this pivotal and important era in the development of Mankind. Reading The Renaissance by Paul Johnson provides a superb starting point. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Aug 8, 2012 |
A decent short history of Renaissance art & culture. I must say, however, that the lack of any illustration is disappointing. After all, since we are reading about sculpture, architecture and painting for half the book, it would be nice to see what is being described, rather than be kept entirely captive to Johnson's opinions...

I.e., it reads well once, but if you look again, it's thinner than it seems.

(7/10) ( )
1 vote Tullius22 | Apr 4, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
no reviews | add a review
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Information from the Dutch Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
First words
The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events, big and small, beyond computation.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Originally published: London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000.
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language
Canonical DDC/MDS

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (3)

Book description
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812966198, Paperback)

The Renaissance holds an undying place in our imagination, its great heroes still our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Chaucer. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern and producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. But what was it? In this masterly work, the incomparable Paul Johnson tells us. He explains the economic, technological, and social developments that provide a backdrop to the age’s achievements and focuses closely on the lives and works of its most important figures. A commanding short narrative of this vital period, The Renaissance is also a universally profound meditation on the wellsprings of innovation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:41 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The Renaissance holds an undying place in our imagination; its great heroes still our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Chaucer. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern and producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. But what was it? In this masterly work, the incomparable Paul Johnson tells us. He explains the economic, technological, and social developments that provide a backdrop to the age's achievements and focuses closely on the lives and works of its most important figures. A commanding short narrative of this vital period, The Renaissance is also a universally profound meditation on the wellsprings of innovation.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

Quick Links

Popular covers


Average: (3.43)
1 2
1.5 1
2 4
2.5 1
3 15
3.5 9
4 18
4.5 1
5 5

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


About | Contact | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 135,554,175 books! | Top bar: Always visible