“In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe” – Jacob Burckhardt, ‘The Renaissance in Italy’

Via the Renaissance, allow me to concisely consider the birth-throngs of modernity: the ur-aesthetic-political-conceptual conceits and peculiarities its victims imbibe, and thus the archetypal theorist it furnished.

Italy, a nation both old and young vis-à-vis the modern world, was unmoored from the feudal binds that predominated elsewhere during the Renaissance – the centralizing measures that blotted the early-modern period and thereafter occurred centuries prior in the Sicily of Frederick II.

Concurrently, the conceptual dispensation underwent mutations, resulting in a disposition toward questions of political legitimacy that was radically at odds with prevailing European sentiment.

The famed exponent of political of realism, the successor to Livy in the modern world, Machiavelli, owes a grand debt to Italy’s historical position as the pre-eminent forerunner to modernity – likewise, this period is a creditor, to whom much is owed by thinkers thereafter who adopted a ‘realist’ orientation; that is, those who treat all appearances, bar their own trappings and purported benevolent intentions, as suspect.

When one cognizes the egoistic basis of political authority that was then ascendant, the ‘Prince’ comes to be understood as a reflection of circumstance; the genre ‘Spaghetti Western’ accrues a different meaning, no longer circumscribed to cow rustlers of the 19th century – picture the inter-filial feuds that inspired Romeo and Juliet, instead.

With the piazza as its kumite, the bellicosity inflicted by warring families with lineal pedigree equaling Athenian eupatrids and condottieri, prostituting their arms to the highest bidder, whose sole loyalty was to gold, altered the picture of the world for those with a preponderance to consider cerebral matters; the internecine blood feuds engendered a crimson tinted realism, displacing earlier idealistic vistas. Credulity became passé.

French Humanism and the Italian Renaissance.

18th century French humanism offers an illustrative contrast whereby the Renaissance’s realist character becomes more definite.

Linked insofar as both epochs marked a rejection of the Aristotelian and Thomistic inheritance, their respective positive answers to the shedding of the aforesaid produced disjunctive orientations. 

It is telling that both eras bore witness to great feats of Classicism. Rousseau, for instance, was an admirer of the Spartan state; Montesquieu’s ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ owes a considerable debt to Aristotle’s notion of the mixed constitution. The Renaissance’s debt to Antiquity need not be explicated.

It is fruitful to briefly consider the French Enlightenment and Italian Renaissance in light of Aeschylus’ ‘Prometheus Bound’. How would the leading representatives of these eras interpret and process the significance of this play?

For the Encyclopédistes, those decadent denizens of Parisian Salons, Prometheus’ conference of fire represents mankind’s liberation from divine yoke, the ignition that would mark its march toward ever-greater illumination – and knowing man’s nature, it’s far from conjecture to suppose that they found parallels in their own rejection of their Catholic and Aristotelian inheritance.

Prometheus’ own fate and the arrival of fire among man – tragedy for the standard bearers of the Renaissance. The will-to-power, as microcosm, in the case of Prometheus, led ineluctably to the depths of Tartarus. Macrocosmically, viz. Mankind, the play does not betray the fate of the species given fire. To do so would be redundant.

The latencies of that initial spark were felt tangibly by the writers of Dante’s day. The will to power of fractious elite families were its fruit. And it resulted in an ambience gloomier, more moribund, and less disposed toward progress-narratives purveyed by Enlightenment scions of the Condorcet variety. Against the progress mongers, Vico’s ‘New Science’ was a pre-emptive uppercut.


I am almost certainly overstating my case. But in doing so, I hope I have erred in a fashion that has spurred consideration of the Renaissance’s janus-face, clothed beneath the human vivacity, whether in art or literature, it’s famed for.

Allow me to conclude as I began – with an extract from Jacob Burckhardt; let it illuminate the preceding paragraphs; consider how such a context smelted the modern theorist, why it left him ill-disposed to teleologies, moral and otherwise.

“The struggle between the Popes and the Hohenstaufen left Italy in a political condition which differed essentially from that of other countries of the West. While in France, Spain and England the feudal system was so organized that, at the close of its existence, it was naturally transformed into a unified monarchy, and while in Germany it helped to maintain, at least outwardly, the unity of the empire, Italy had shaken it off almost entirely. The Emperors of the fourteenth century, even in the most favourable case, were no longer received and respected as feudal lords, but as possible leaders and supporters of powers already in existence; while the Papacy, with its creatures and allies, was strong enough to hinder national unity in the future, but not strong enough itself to bring about that unity. Between the two lay a multitude of political units—republics and despots—in part of long standing, in part of recent origin, whose existence was founded simply on their power to maintain it. In them for the first time we detect the modern political spirit of Europe, surrendered freely to its own instincts. Often displaying the worst features of an unbridled egotism, outraging every right, and killing every germ of a healthier culture. But, wherever this vicious tendency is overcome or in any way compensated, a new fact appears in history — the State as the outcome of reflection and calculation, the State as a work of art.”

Posted by Ulick Fitzhugh

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *