In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Renaissance and Renascences

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Journal Articles and Book Chapters
  • Renaissance Roots
  • The Flowering of the Renaissance Idea

Art History Renaissance and Renascences
Brian A. Curran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0040


This article is directed to the much-debated theme of “Renaissance and Renascences,” a concept defined by the German-born art historian Erwin Panofsky (b. 1892–d. 1968), who defended the unique and permanent status of the Renaissance “revival of antiquity” in relation to claims for earlier or “rival” Renaissances (Carolingian, 12th century) during the Middle Ages. According to Panofsky, these earlier revivals, while significant for their accomplishments in the realms of scholarship, literature, and the arts, were relatively short-lived and limited in scope, when compared to the “permanent” revival of antique forms accomplished during the Italian Renaissance. Panofsky described these earlier revivals as “Renascences” (or “not-quite Renaissances”) that, for all their accomplishments, remained strictly “mediaeval phenomena.” Panofsky’s argument may be seen as one chapter in a broader debate over the relationship of the Renaissance to the Middle Ages, on the one hand, and the “modern” world on the other. These distinctions have their origins in the humanist culture of the Renaissance itself, where the concepts of a distant period of great accomplishments (“Antiquity”) and a subsequent period of decline (the “Middle Ages” or medium aevum) were formulated as part of a programmatic movement for the “revival” of the former. During the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari used the Italian rinascita (“rebirth”) to describe the renewal of the arts in the 14th–16th centuries, setting the stage for the modern definition of the period, using the French term, “Renaissance.” But the origins of the “Renaissance” as a term and a periodic concept emerged only later, in the 18th and 19th centuries in France, Germany, Italy, and England. In the earlier Enlightenment tradition, the Italian revival of antiquity that eventually passed to France and other nations of Europe was understood as representing the beginning of a more secular, modern era, marked by the triumph of reason over the religiosity of the Middle Ages. From the mid-18th century onward, a more positive evaluation of medieval culture began to emerge, spurred by “nationalistic” patriotism and a growing religious reaction to the perceived excesses of the Enlightenment. During the 1850s and 1860s, a more favorable view of the “Renaissance” (using the French word first employed by Jean-Baptiste Seroux d’Agincourt and applied to the whole period by Jules Michelet in 1855), emerged. In some ways, this new concept of the era represented a simple revival or revision of the Enlightenment idea of the era as a turn away from the “darkness” of the Middle Ages and a first step toward the advent of the modern age. This trend reached its canonical form in the work of Jacob Burckhardt and John Addington Symonds in the 1860s and 1870s. In the early 20th century, a new critique of this model emerged, stressing the era’s continuities as well as breaks from medieval traditions. It was this “Revolt of the Medievalists” that set the stage for Panofsky’s mid-century defense of the Renaissance, which helped to inspire a broader debate over the relative merits of the Renaissance vs. the Middle Ages that began to fade by the end of the 1960s, when new disciplinary issues, related to class, gender, and globalism, among other themes, came to the fore.

Foundational Works

The concept of the Renaissance as a period in European political, intellectual, and cultural history, has it origins in the writings of 18th- and early-19th-century historians, including such notables as Voltaire (b. 1694–d. 1778), Edward Gibbon (b. 1737–d. 1794), and William Roscoe (b. 1753–d. 1831) who, in their own divergent ways, conceived of the period of the later 15th and early 16th centuries as a golden age exemplified by the Medici family’s patronage of art and learning in Florence (see Gibbon 1776–1788 and Roscoe 1796, and Hay 1965 cited under Anthologies and Edited Volumes for Voltaire). As noted in the Introduction, the earliest usage of the modern French term “Renaissance” appears to have been introduced in Agincourt 1823. Somewhat paradoxically, d’Agincourt’s lavishly illustrated volumes also contributed to the “Romantic reaction” against the classical art of the Renaissance and fueled a growing admiration for the art and architecture of the Middle Ages, including the so-called “primitive” painters of the 14th–15th centuries, a trend exemplified in Rumohr 1827–1831, Rio 1836, Ruskin 1854, and Ruskin 1851–1853, and inspired in part by Bottari’s new edition of Vasari 1759–1760.

  • Agincourt, Jean-Baptiste Seroux d’. Histoire de l‘art par les monumens, depuis sa décadence au IVe siècle jusqu’ à son renouvellement au XVIe. 6 vols. in 3. Paris: Treuttel et Würtz, 1823.

    English edition: History of Art by Its Monuments: From Its Decline in the Fourth Century to Its Restoration in the Sixteenth. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1847. A monumental work of illustrated “universal” art history, covering Europe from the 4th to the 16th centuries. The author seems to have been the first to employ the term “Renaissance” for the artistic and cultural renewal following the “decadence” of Middle Ages. Agincourt’s illustrations of Italian “primitives” contributed to the early-19th-century enthusiasm for pre- and early Renaissance art.

  • Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols. London: Printed for A. Strahan; and T. Cadell, 1776–1788.

    This famous work originated as a proposed study of the Florentine Republic under the Medici but was expanded to embrace the history of the Roman Empire and its collapse, ending in the 16th century.

  • Rio, Alexis François. De la poésie chrétienne dans son principe dans sa matière et dans ses formes. Paris: Debécourt, 1836.

    English translation: The Poetry of Christian Art. London: T. Bosworth, 1854. Revised edition, De l‘art chrétien. 4 vols. Paris: Hachette 1861–1867. A devout Catholic and royalist, Rio was influenced by German philosophers and art historians (including Rumohr). He traces the late antique “decline” of Christian art to its “rebirth” in 13th-century Siena, and describes its rebirth in the art of Giotto and other 14th-century masters. In later chapters, Rio explores the development of 15th-century Italian painting, climaxing in the early work of Raphael. Rio influenced the thinking of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

  • Roscoe, William. The Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Called the Magnificent. London: Printed for A. Strahan, T. Cadell jun. and W. Davies, and J. Edwards, 1796.

    A popular and influential biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici, presenting the subject as an enlightened patron of the arts and literature, whose cultural activities almost single-handedly made the revival of the arts at the end of the 15th century possible. Although Roscoe’s research drew extensively from contemporary printed and manuscript materials, the author never actually visited Italy himself.

  • Rumohr, Carl Friedrich von. Italienische Forschungen. 3 vols. (in Vol. 1). Berlin: Nicolai’sche Buchhandlung, 1827–1831.

    Rumohr, sometimes referred to as the “father of modern art history” for his reliance on documentary research, was also one of the earliest scholars to favor the Italian “primitives” of the 14th–15th centuries over the “classical” masters of the 16th. He shared this enthusiasm with the group of expatriate German painters known as the Nazarenes. Rumohr’s ideas influenced the thinking of Rio, and through him the ideas of Ruskin. Updated edition with introduction by Julius von Schlosser, Italienische Forschungen. Frankfurt: Frankfurter Verlags-Anstalt, 1920.

  • Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. 3 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1851–1853.

    Based on the author’s intensive study of Venetian architecture, this influential work champions the Gothic era as a time when honesty, piety, and artistic freedom brought the arts to their highest level, in contrast to the Renaissance, which extinguished this creative spar in favor of enforced conformity and spiritual corruption.

  • Ruskin, John. Lectures on Architecture and Painting, delivered at Edinburgh in November 1853. London: Smith, Elder, 1854.

    A collection of lectures that captures the essence of Ruskin’s thinking in the era of the Stones of Venice (Ruskin 1851–1853) and his association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

  • Vasari, Giorgo. Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori scritte da Giorgio Vasari pittore et architetto. Corette da molte errori e illustrate con note. 3 vols. Edited by Giovanni Bottari. Rome: Niccolò and Marco Pagliarmi, 1759–1760.

    Scholarly edition by the Jesuit Bottari, based on the 1568 edition, augmented with material from the 1550 version, with notes, and commentary. This edition contributed materially to the later 18th- and 19th-century interest in Italian Renaissance art, and formed the basis for the nine-volume Gaetano Milanesi edition of 1878–1885.

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