Synopses & Reviews
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 ages 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.
About the Author
Paul Johnson is a leading historian and journalist whose historical works have been national bestsellers and translated into many languages. Among his books are Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, The Birth of the Modern, and A History of the American People. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. In what ways was the Renaissance a transition between the medieval and modern periods?
2. When was the term “Renaissance” first employed to describe this period in European history? How conscious were the people living during this period of the uniqueness of their own time? In what social, political, and cultural realms was this sense of historicity more and/or less prevalent?
3. How did the Renaissance differ from previous renaissances? How was it similar?
4. In what ways can Dante be said to be the father of the Renaissance? In what ways can he be seen as a medieval figure?
5. What is Renaissance humanism? To what extent was humanism a revolt against university learning at the time? Could it be argued that humanists merely provided the cloak of authenticity, a kind of set-dressing, for the rule of despots? Why or why not?
6. Of all the artists and writers mentioned in this book, who would you say embodies “the Renaissance man” to the fullest extent of the ideal? What great Americans have been described as “Renaissance men”? Could anyone from our own present-day culture be aptly called a “Renaissance man” (or woman)? Why or why not?
7. Why did the Renaissance happen in Italy first? How successful was the Italian Renaissance as a cultural export to other areas of Europe? What were some of the different characteristics of Renaissance literature in the rest of Europe as opposed to Italy? How was the Renaissance in the northern European countries different from the Renaissance in the southern European countries?
8. Could it be said that the modern-day culture of celebrity was born in the Renaissance? What role did this cult of the individual play in the artistic innovations of the period?
9. What are the relative limitations and benefits of studying a period by focusing on the arts and culture, rather than society and politics, or technology and economy? Why has Paul Johnson chosen this approach?
10. Which contributions of the Renaissance have been the most enduring?