among the foremost personalities, such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, Politian, and Aldo; even though it may be difficult to conceive such prodigies of versatility as a Battista Alberti or a Lionardo da Vinci. But it is a much harder thing to imagine the general atmosphere of the revival, the pervading enthusiasm, sustained through several generations, which was so prolific in many-sided work, so far-reaching in its influence on other lands. This atmosphere was created, this enthusiasm kindled, by the labours and examples of men extraordinary both in their powers and in their ardour. Yet it may be doubted whether even they could have wrought so effectually, had they not felt the motive which at the Renaissance was peculiar to Italians,—that patriotism which, failing of political expression, was concentrated on restoring the ancestral language and literature. No other country could show a parallel to the zeal with which Latin was cultivated in Italy, as the chief organ of literary expression, from the days of Petrarch to those of Politian. The ancient tongue, not the modern, was that in which the ablest men of letters chiefly aspired to shine. Few masters of Italian prose emerge in the interval of about a century and a half which separates the age of Villani and Boccaccio from that of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. Such men as Petrarch, Aeneas Sylvius, Jovianus Pontanus, and Paulus Jovius, who might have enriched the prose of their vernacular, preferred to write in Latin. The Platonic Academy of Florence was the first influential coterie which gave its sanction to the view that literary taste and skill, disciplined by the ancient models, could be worthily exercised in Italian. Lorenzo de1 Medici set an example in his lyrics; a more authoritative one was given by Politian, especially in his Orfeo, the first Italian drama of true literary merit. This larger virtue of the Classical Renaissance, as educating a new capacity for culture in general, which came out in Italy only towards the close of the movement, was manifested in other countries almost as soon as they had been fully brought under the influences. of the New Learning. It was conspicuously seen in France, not merely in the work which classicists such as Ronsard and his group did for the French language, but also, for example, in the Aristophanic genius of Rabelais,—the greatest literary representative of the Renaissance for France, in the same large sense that Cervantes was such for Spain, and Shakespeare for England. The historical importance of the Classical Revival in Italy depends ultimately on the fact that it broadened out into this diffusion of a general capacity for liberal culture, taking various forms under different local and national conditions. That capacity, once restored to the civilised world, became a part of the higher life of the race, an energy which, though it might be temporarily retarded here and there by reactionary forces, could not again be lost. Not in literature or in art alone, but in every form of intellectual activity, the Renaissance opened a new era for mankind.
Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/620
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