Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia by Bernd Roeck (Translated by Stewart Spencer) - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

The Rest Is Nothing

Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia


Yale University Press 291pp £25

‘To resist living in one’s own time, to attempt to live in an imaginary past,’ the American scholar Edward Mendelson has written, ‘is human in the same way that being neurotic is human.’ Florence 1900 is presented by its author as a ‘psycho-history’ of a cultivated clique which coped with the stress, din, materialism and chauvinistic optimism of north European industrialism by fleeing to an insular, temporary Arcadia for the intelligentsia in Tuscany. It is a book about states of mind as well as time and place, a study of rich men’s neurasthenia, of the personal urges that lead historians to reinvent the past and of the reactionary escapism that is so tempting for anyone of sensibility in hard times.

Bernd Roeck’s chief sources are the diaries and other writings of Aby Warburg (1866–1929), the scion of a Hamburg banking family, who made a life’s vocation of elucidating the intellectual and social context of Renaissance art. As a youngster, Warburg wrote his doctorate on two Botticelli paintings held

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