The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550-1640


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William J. Bouwsma

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Historians have conventionally viewed intellectual and artistic achievement as a seamless progression in a single direction, with the Renaissance, as identified by Jacob Burckhardt, as the root and foundation of modern culture. But in this brilliant new analysis William Bouwsma rethinks the accepted view, arguing that while the Renaissance had a beginning and, unquestionably, a climax, it also had an ending.

Examining the careers of some of the greatest figures of the age—Montaigne, Galileo, Jonson, Descartes, Hooker, Shakespeare, and Cervantes among many others—Bouwsma perceives in their work a growing sense of doubt and anxiety about the modern world. He considers first those features of modern European culture generally associated with the traditional Renaissance, features which reached their climax in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But even as the movements of the Renaissance gathered strength, simultaneous impulses operated in a contrary direction. Bouwsma identifies a growing concern with personal identity, shifts in the interests of major thinkers, a decline in confidence about the future, and a heightening of anxiety.

Exploring the fluctuating and sometimes contradictory atmosphere in which Renaissance artists and thinkers operated, Bouwsma shows how the very liberation from old boundaries and modes of expression that characterized the Renaissance became itself increasingly stifling and destructive. By drawing attention to the waning of the Renaissance culture of freedom and creativity, Bouwsma offers a wholly new and intriguing interpretation of the place of the European Renaissance in modern culture.

William J. Bouwsma was Sather Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, John Calvin, and A Usable Past, among other books.

A selection of Readers’ Subscription

“Lucid and perceptive. . . . [Bouwsma] has a clear story to tell and . . . he tells it convincingly.”—Peter Burke, American Historical Review

“Bouwsma argues elegantly that the liberation accompanying the Renaissance engendered an intellectual reaction characterized by pessimism, doubt, and anxiety. By placing the intellectual history of the Renaissance in the context of a continuing struggle between freedom and order, Bouwsma fundamentally challenges a progressive interpretation of Western history.”—Atlantic Monthly, (The Best Books of 2001)

“[A] rich and subtle work.”—Choice

“This book deeply changes the way we look at both the Renaissance and our relationship to it.”—Robert Royal, First Things

“An elegant and learned survey. . . . It is a marvelous portrait, deserving to be set beside those of the earlier masters Burckhardt and Huizinga.”—Donald R. Kelley, Isis

“This is a rich and informative collection from which historians of philosophy will learn much, whether or not they are experts in Renaissance philosophy.”—Sarah Hutton, Journal of the History of Philosophy

“This long-awaited work by the distinguished historian William J. Bouwsma is a series of surprises, some playful, some profound. . . . Over his solid framework is stretched this echoing, brilliant conversation of some of mankind’s most fascinating voices . . . and yet the dialogue is everywhere coherent and enchantingly humane. What made this brilliant and brilliantly entertaining book possible is Bouwsma’s own profound awareness of what he calls ‘the universality of mind.’. . . Bouwsma has offered a fresh, compelling voice--his own--which exemplifies just such stamina and good humor. Twenty-five years is not too long to wait for a book this timely, this rich, this good.”—Tom D’Evelyn, Providence Sunday Journal

“Bouwsma produces a masterful portrait of an era, one deserving to become as canonical as Huizinga; it will be increasingly difficult to teach or discuss the 16th century without it.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Perhaps the first monographic treatment of the end of the European Renaissance, The Waning of the Renaissance is a rewarding and challenging book by a master scholar.”—Ronald G. Witt, Renaissance Quarterly

“A reliable and comprehensive account of the complex, even contradictory, intellectual themes of the Renaissance. . . . A very useful book for those who want an introduction to high intellectual culture in the Renaissance, especially when coupled with the work of figures like Anthony Grafton. Highly recommended.”—Virginia Quarterly Review
ISBN: 9780300097177
Publication Date: September 10, 2002
304 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
20 b/w illus.