Monday, July 11, 2016

The Renaissance: A Short History by Paul Johnson (2000)

This is part of a series called "The Modern Library Chronicles."  I've read two others before - a book about Islam by Karen Armstrong which I don't recall liking very much (emphasis on "short" in "Short history") and a book about the Balkans, which I apparently liked slightly better but can't remember much about now.  Karen Armstrong is an expert in religious history; Mark Mazower is an expert on the Balkans.  Paul Johnson is a renowned historian, Wikipedia says conservative historian.  He's not one of my favorite authors, although I remember vaguely reading a book by him in college called Modern Times, a history of the 1920s through the 1980s.  Another vague thought about him is that he is anti-gay. (a quick search on Google proves that I was right about this).  It's always been difficult for me to set aside my prejudice against a writer's anti-gay public attitudes and their writing.  I can't pinpoint any place in The Renaissance where Johnson's bad attitude towards the gays infects his writing, other than discounting of the gayness of Leonardo and Michelangelo.  He calls the gay rumors about Michelangelo "nonsense" - but then, maybe they are. He said Leonardo "may" have had homosexual inclinations.  That "may" is actually probably a truism as well - it's all conjecture.  Historians far less gay baiting than Paul Johnson have been discounting of historical figures' gayness.

I'm never going to run out and buy the next Paul Johnson book or pick one up on purpose, but his The Renaissance was passable.  I think Will and Ariel Durant did a far better job - it's what I read before I went to Italy, even though it's quite old.  But there wasn't anything in Johnson's book  that wasn't already detailed more lovingly and in chattier, more interesting prose by the Durants.  I skimmed a bit of Johnson's book, and only finished it because it was short.

There were a couple of tidbits.  Ghiberti made the very famous doors of the Florence baptistry, across from the Duomo, and as Johnson says, he "finished them in 1452, three years before his death.  So he spent virtually his entire working life, more than half a century, on these Florentine doors." (I saw these doors when we were in Florence, but didn't take a picture of them; there is just too much in Italy to photograph; there is art and architecture and antiquities everywhere you turn).  That struck my fancy - your whole life spent on one work of art.  He only created a few other things, but the doors were his life's work.  I don't know if I find that awesome or awful.  Probably a bit of both.

Michelangelo's first marble masterpiece was The Battle of the Centaurs - made at 17!  I can attest that creative juices flow and flow at 17, but also are quickly stoppered too. Which was true for Michelangelo - he never finished The Battle of the Centaurs.

This book wasn't great or even very good.  It was a passable history, sort of unimaginatively written.  With some suppositions too - like when Johnson says that "Chaucer had not read The Decameron."  How does he know what Chaucer has and hasn't read?  He can suppose Chaucer hasn't read a book, but can't also suppose that Leonardo was gay.  Bleah.  Fuck you Paul Johnson.  Maybe I don't like this book afterall.

(I also never thought of Chaucer as a Renaissance writer, but Johnson says he was).

The Renaissance: A Short HistoryThe Renaissance: A Short History by Paul  Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Johnson says it's nonsense to write that Michelangelo was gay - and it may well be nonsense. He also emphatically states, among other things, that Chaucer never read The Decameron. I'm not exactly sure how he knows both of these things for certain; actually, I'm certain that these are his opinions. This is a "short history" with the Johnson's occasional opinions. I'm not so foolish to think that historians don't inject their opinions into what they write; quite frankly, that is what makes history so interesting to read. But I think that Johnson's opinions aren't every really qualified with any facts to back them up. He wants certain things to be true, and thinks by writing them, they will be. Bleah. This is lazy writing at worst, and almost completely unimaginative at best. If you want some meaty, opinionated but also beautiful prose on this subject, try the longer but much richer The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304 1576 Ad .

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