The Italian Renaissance has been exercising its magnetic power over tourists, scholars, composers, playwrights, artists and novelists since its beginning. Indeed, there is now held to have been a ‘first’ Renaissance (1100–1350), predating the ‘true’ Renaissance (1450–1650). These books, one by a renowned French historian and the other by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, offer two very different approaches to the subject.
Fernand Braudel’s Out of Italy (first published in Italian in 1974) is unashamedly academic. Leader of the French Annales school, he saw history not in terms of individuals and events but as patterns of economic and social change. This approach has its advantages but also drawbacks; in the light of recent scholarship, it now appears somewhat dated. His cast of characters are not people but cities, ships, crops, weather and money, above all the trading fortunes amassed by Italy’s city-states, which gave them supremacy in the Mediterranean and beyond – by 1450, Italian merchants were trading in London, Constantinople and across the Black Sea to Tana at the mouth of the Don. Preferring broad brushstrokes to narrow details, Braudel presents a series of snapshots taken at different stages between the years 1450 to 1650 to document the rise and fall of this cultural movement and the central role these merchants played in its development, as well as the way in which Italy ‘beamed a radiance out beyond its own frontiers, a light that spread to every corner of the world’, as he magniloquently puts it.
Braudel describes three stages in the evolution of the Renaissance. The first of these, dating from 1450 to 1494, was one of relative peace in Italy. With France and England locked in civil wars and Spain yet to be united under a single crown, Italy’s powerful city-states extended territorial