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Renaissance

Historical Challenges From Annales School And From Early Modernists

Coincident with national movements of independence from colonization by European nations, historians in Paris developed a movement disparaging the historical studies focused on "What's new?" The Annales school focused on structures of long duration, emphasizing land patterns, family structures, religious and political rituals, and popular customs that have changed slowly and not in accordance with the traditional dates of historical periodization. Funded as social science and utilizing increasingly computerized databases on demography and prices of material goods (whether wine, salt, or catechisms), scholars are accumulating more precise information on living conditions in the premodern world.

The work of scholars seeking out lives of lesser-known people (women and the marginalized) and seeking documents of public performances (confraternity events, religious and political rituals) has provided a fuller awareness of premodern cultures. To be inclusive of popular as well as elite cultures and to start afresh without the ideological implications of nineteenth-century interpretations of "Renaissance," some scholars prefer the period term "early modern." Such scholars tend not to be working on the Italian Renaissance of the 1300s and early 1400s but to start after 1450, when the invention of the printing press accelerated the spread of the renaissance of arts and letters throughout Europe. For those scholars, who view either the invention of the printing press or Martin Luther the protester as the turning point from the Middle Ages to the early modern period and who drop Renaissance as a period concept, the Renaissance in Europe becomes closer to its original definition as a movement in arts and letters—in the early modernist's viewpoint, the first movement in a succession of overlapping movements of the early modern period.

A strain of scholarship has emerged to historicize the development of the concept of a Renaissance period. Scholars are fascinated by various versions of ideas of the Renaissance, such as those of Jules Michelet, Burckhardt, the Victorians, J. P. Morgan, and Virginia Woolf. Pascal Brioist emphasizes that Michelet published his Introduction à la Renaissance in 1855, the year Burckhardt began writing his more famous work. Even though Michelet originated the phrase "the discovery of the world and the discovery of man," the term "Burckhardtian" remains the common adjective for "Renaissance" with a capital R.

While "medievalisms" are also studied, the brunt of historicizing of the period concept of Renaissance suggests that the Burckhardtian Renaissance is a nineteenth-century historical fiction or a utopian vision. J. B. Bullen traces the development of the "myth" of the Renaissance between Voltaire (1756) and Walter Pater (1873). Burckhardtians have responded to the undermining of the period concept by printing editions of his work with art illustrations, as art more than any other medium demarcates a distinctive period. The 1793 creation of the Louvre Museum, with its succession of rooms of great civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the centrally placed Renaissance) set a pattern spread by Napoléon to Madrid, Naples, Milan, and Amsterdam, and imitated in New York, Boston, and Chicago (see Carol Duncan's 1995 study, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums). Daniel Ménager in 1992 emphasized the aesthetic, in fact the religion, of beauty that distinguishes the creativity of the Renaissance. Paula Findlen, in a 1998 American Historical Review forum on "The Persistence of the Renaissance," demarcated the period by its passion for collecting objects of antiquity and taking creative inspiration from that collecting. The general public, as well as the tourist industry, recognizes the innovation, distinctiveness, and sheer visual beauty of art from, say, the cardinal and Christian virtues and vices of Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua to the nude forms of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgment.

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