Past masters: Leon Batista (artist unknown, early 17th century, Florence school), left, was convinced that in 15th-century Florence was an artistic scene to rival that of Ancient Rome, wheras Petrarch (painted here by Andrea del Castagno, c.1450), right, commented on the paucity of great artists in his day.
The imaginative energy of a society can be differently channelled. In Renaissance Italy it was channelled most effectively into painting, in Elizabethan England into theatre, in post-Reformation Germany into music. Historians have argued over why this imaginative energy became so precisely channelled in these various times and places; but nowadays it is more fashionable to challenge the assumption that the energy was, in fact, so channelled — now they prefer to list all the other little ways it went, in order to disqualify our concentration on that celebrated culture as more sentimental than scholarly. Their approach has had its effect, certainly. Once we thought of those Golden Ages with grateful, even pious, admiration, or sometimes with slightly envious awe. Now, revisionists and relativists have stigmatised the whole idea of a Golden Age. They are keen to tell us again and again that things were forever as messy as they are now. They point out that there have always been grumps bemoaning their times, even in so-called Golden Ages; and so, they declare, every judgment on culture must be suspicious because it is compromised by conventions of thought, or by personal attitudes and moods. Thus they seek to disorder all scales of values.
I think we swallow their arguments so easily because we cannot see much around us now to suggest what a cultural Golden Age is like. And we swallow those arguments too easily for our own good. I would like to discourage the relativists' arguments by proposing that the conception of a Golden Age is useful to our cultural progress; take painting, for instance.
When an admiring condottiero sent an artist to make Petrarch's portrait, Petrarch wrote in a letter, "He would gladly have sent Zeuxis, Protogenes, Parrhasius or Apelles, if any such painters existed in our century, but since one has to be content with what the age produces, he chose the best among the very few there are . . ." The artists listed were made legendary for Petrarch by Pliny, a scholar of the Roman Golden Age already dreaming of that Golden Age in Greece. Petrarch — often seen as the father of the Renaissance — referred to antiquity for his standard; here we find encapsulated the sentimental driver of progress in European culture — the "classic" Florentine takes on the dream of the classical Roman about classical Greece. Petrarch was not to know that the most lustrous bloom of Renaissance thought, nourished by his own humanistic studies, would come in paint; this makes his letter of 1362 all the more poignant. Florentine painters had at that time fallen into a Gothic daze, following the brilliance of Giotto. In neighbouring Siena painting still thrived, though it all but died with the plague one year after. The great Sienese master Simone Martini was a friend of Petrarch at Avignon, but the Sienese favoured an almost oriental mode of miniaturised narrative painting that would have done nothing to satisfy Petrarch's yearning for the grandeur of the antique. But Petrarch was no grump; I believe that, had he lived 60 years longer to witness the art of the generation of Leon Battista Alberti, he would have had something quite different to say in his letter.
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