The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy


The Italians of that day lived in the belief that they were more cleanly than other nations.There are in fact general reasons which speak rather for than against this claim.Cleanliness is indispensable to our modern notion of social perfection, which was developed in Italy earlier than elsewhere.That the Italians were one of the richest of existing peoples, is another presumption in their favour.Proof, either for or against these pretensions, can of course never be forthcoming, and if the question were one of priority in establishing rules of cleanliness, the chivalrous poetry of the Middle Ages is perhaps in advance of anything that Italy can produce.It is nevertheless certain that the singular neatness and cleanliness of some distinguished representatives of the Renaissance, especially in their behavior at meals, was noticed expressly,83 and that 'German' was the synonym in Italy for all that is filthy.The dirty habits which Massimiliano Sforza picked up in the course of his German education, and the notice they attracted on his return to Italy, are recorded by Giovio.It is at the same time very curious that, at least in the fifteenth century, the inns and hotels were left chiefly in the hands of Germans, who probably, however, made their profit mostly out of the pilgrims journeying to Rome.Yet the statements on this point may refer mainly to the country districts, since it is notorious that in the great cities Italian hotels held the first place.The want of decent inns in the country may also be explained by the general insecurity of life and property.

To the first half of the sixteenth century belongs the manual of politeness which Giovanni della Casa, a Florentine by birth, published under the title 'Il Galateo.' Not only cleanliness in the strict sense of the word, but the dropping of all the habits which we consider unbecoming, is here prescribed with the same unfailing tact with which the moralist discerns the highest ethical truths.In the literature of other countries the same lessons are taught, though less systematically, by the indirect influence of repulsive descriptions.

In other respects also, the 'Galateo' is a graceful and in- telligent guide to good manners--a school of tact and delicacy.Even now it may be read with no small profit by people of all classes, and the politeness of European nations is not likely to outgrow its precepts.

So far as tact is an affair of the heart, it has been inborn in some men from the dawn of civilization, and acquired through force of will by others; but the Italians were the first to recognize it as a universal social duty and a mark of culture and education.And Italy itself had altered much in the course of two centuries.We feel at their close that the time for practical jokes between friends and acquaintances --for 'burle' and 'beffe'--was over in good society, that the people had emerged from the walls of the cities and had learned a cosmopolitan politeness and consideration.We shall speak later on of the intercourse of society in the narrower sense.

Outward life, indeed, in the fifteenth and the early part of the sixteenth centuries, was polished and ennobled as among ?no other people in the world.A countless number of those small things and great things which combine to make up what we: mean by comfort, we know to have first appeared in Italy.In | the well-paved streets of the Italian cities, driving was universal, while elsewhere in Europe walking or riding was the custom, and at all events no one drove for amusement.We read in the novelists of soft, elastic beads, of costly carpets and bedroom furniture, of which we hear nothing in other countries.We often hear especially of the abundance and beauty of the linen.Much of all this is drawn within the sphere of art.We note with admiration the thousand ways in which art ennobles luxury, not only adorning the massive sideboard or the light brackets with noble vases, clothing the walls with the movable splendor of tapestry, and covering the toilet-table with numberless graceful trifles, but absorbing whole branches of mechanical work--especially carpentering--into its province.All Western Europe, as soon as its wealth enabled it to do so, set to work in the same way at the close of the Middle Ages.But its efforts produced either childish and fantastic toy-work, or were bound by the chains of a narrow and purely Gothic art, while the Renaissance moved freely, entering into the spirit of every task it undertook and working for a far larger circle of patrons and admirers than the northern artists.The rapid victory of Italian decorative art over northern in the course sixteenth century is due partly to this fact, though the result of wider and more general causes.

Language and Society The higher forms of social intercourse, which here meet us as a work of art--as a conscious product and one of the highest products of national life have no more important foundation and condition than language.In the most flourishing period of the Middle Ages, the nobility of Western Europe had sought to establish a 'courtly' speech for social intercourse as well as for poetry.In Italy, too, where the dialects differed so greatly from one another, we find in the thirteenth century a so-called 'Curiale,' which was common to the courts and to the poets.

It is of decisive importance for Italy that the attempt was there seriously and deliberately made to turn this into the language of literature and society.The introduction to the 'Cento Novelle Antiche,' which were put into their present shape before l 300, avows this object openly.Language is here considered apart from its uses in poetry; its highest function is clear, simple, intelligent utterance in short speeches, epigrams, and answers.This faculty was admired in Italy, as nowhere else but among the Greeks and Arabs: 'how many in the course long life have scarcely produced a single "bel parlare." '

Jacob Burckhardt