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Rachel Teukolsky, “Walter Pater’s Renaissance (1. British Aesthetic Movement”I. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Figure 1: Photograph of Walter Pater.
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Walter Pater (Fig. Aesthetic movement. His essays laid out the serious and subversive ideas underpinning an art movement whose rebellion was enacted through an embrace of beauty and strangeness. Art historians today are not in the business of proposing to us controversial new ways of living and thinking; yet that is what happened in 1. Pater published his collection titled Studies in the History of the Renaissance. He used the art- historical essay as a platform to describe indirectly a lifestyle freed from Victorian conventionalities, especially those surrounding the human body.
While many authors before Pater had used art history to meditate more broadly on modern values—most influentially, the art critic John Ruskin, promoting the moral worth of Gothic architecture—Pater puts his own unique spin on the practice. Though Pater has often been assimilated into an apparently normative group of Victorian essay writers that includes Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, this piece will highlight some of his more rebellious tendencies, describing how he critiques and even ironizes the scholarly tradition to which he contributes. His double vision is at once serious and transgressive, using the canon of Renaissance art to offer his own idiosyncratic impressions and to implicitly defend the right of others to experience a similar freedom.
In the 1. 86. 0s, the Italian Renaissance was emerging as a new subject for Victorian criticism. Cultured Britons since the eighteenth century had been embarking on “Grand Tours” of continental Europe, in which Italy was a prime destination.
Pater himself toured Italy in 1. Charles Lancelot Shadwell, taking in the art treasures of Florence, Pisa, and Ravenna. Britain’s National Gallery and South Kensington Museum had made a series of high- profile purchases in the 1. High Renaissance art as central to the Victorian canon. Arnold Hauser argues that the Italian Renaissance is itself a nineteenth- century invention, a fantasy of origins for the “individualistic- liberal” embracing a “sensualistic” and nature- based vision more true to nineteenth- century psychology than to any actual Renaissance history (2). While fully evaluating Hauser’s claim is beyond the scope of this essay, his insight is valuable for describing the way that nineteenth- century European thinkers used the Renaissance to advance their own modern- day concerns.
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In Britain, some late- Victorian writers promoted a cultural nationalism that assimilated the perceived superiority of Renaissance Italian culture into the economic and political dominance of modern- day Britain, thus forging an imaginative link between two very different histories and cultures. Italian subjects might conform to the type of the Catholic, the Southern, the warm- blooded, and the emotional, as opposed to the ostensibly cold- blooded, logical, and morally correct peoples of the North. This stereotyping allowed Victorians to address indirectly some of the more irrational or carnal strains implicit in their own culture.
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Pater’s essays take up a two- sided idea of the Renaissance, both normative and subversive, celebrating canonical artist- heroes even while depicting them engaged in behavior that would have scandalized Victorian society. Most famously, he quotes Matthew Arnold approvingly in his preface to The Renaissance, only to overturn Arnold’s idea in the following clause: “To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever; and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me?
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