Here’s a passage from The Swerve, a 2011 book by Stephen Greenblatt on how the discovery of the lost poem “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius helped spark the Renaissance. The passage has to do with handwriting, not architecture, but feel free to read into the passage some thoughts about the recovery of the classical orders and how that resembled – or differed from – the recovery of other classical modes of art or thinking.
Greenblatt refers to Poggio, the papal official who lost his job and went around looking in far-flung monasteries for copied manuscripts of lost works of Greek and Roman literature. Greenblatt also refers to Petrarch, the 14th century scholar and poet whose rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is said to have been the first spark of the Renaissance.
Poggio arrived in Rome a quarter of a century after Petrarch’s death, at a time when the charismatic moment of the movement had already begun to fade. The sense of creative daring was gradually giving way to a spirit of antiquarianism and with it a desire to discipline, correct, and regulate all relations with the ancient past. Poggio and his generation became increasingly caught up in the desire to avoid mistakes in Latin grammar and to catch the blunders of others. But the lingering sense of the strangeness of the recovery of classical antiquity helps to explain the peculiar impact of his handwriting. The script that he fashioned was not a direct evocation of the handwriting used by the ancient Romans: all traces of that handwriting had long since vanished, leaving only the carved inscriptions in handsome capital letters on stone and occasional rough graffiti. But Poggio’s script was a graphic expression of the deep longing for a different style of beauty, a cultural form that would signal the recovery of something precious that had been lost. The shape of his letters was based on the manuscript style of certain Carolingian scribes. But Poggio and his contemporaries did not identify this style with the court of Charlemagne; they called it lettera antica, and, in doing so, they dreamed not of Charlemagne’s tutor Alcuin but of Cicero and Virgil.
The passage brings to mind how architecture after the decline and fall of Rome had changed, and yet how the differences between the Gothic style and its predecessors and its successors are often overemphasized. In fact, much of ancient classicism and its elements are common to the Gothic. Likewise, perhaps, Petrarch is said by Greenblatt to have exaggerated, for what we would call careerist reasons, the degree to which classical influences from Greece and Rome had disappeared from Western culture prior to their recovery by him. Moreover, Greenblatt describes Poggio’s handwriting and its relationship to that of original manuscripts that had disappeared, which remained only in copied form. This can help us to think about the classical revival and the process of rediscovering and reinvigorating not just ancient architecture but the broad traditional architecture that arose everywhere from its influences, and whose suppression in the past century resembles, in some ways, the suppression of certain classical ideas in the Middle Ages.
There is an irony in the subtitle of Greenblatt’s book! It is “How the World Became Modern.”
(“Stephen Greenblatt Discusses The Swerve” for about 23 minutes on this YouTube video, which I have not yet viewed. I trust it is interesting, but you be the guinea pig. … Four hours later I’ve listened to it and it was interesting. Not must-see TV, but okay.)