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The Renaissance
By Kenneth Clark, 1969

An Excerpt From "Civilisation: A Personal View"

"Civilisation" blazed a new path for the TV documentary in 1969-70.

Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), an art critic and historian, was asked in the mid-1960s to create the series by the British network BBC-2. He assumed, at first, that the project would be similar to his previous TV work - that it would be a televised lecture. He would sit at a desk; a screen located behind him would show images of famous art works; and he would discuss the pieces in a dispassionate style. And that, Clark assumed, would be that.

He was disabused of this notion by a producer and director named Michael Gill, who wanted Clark to be not so much a scholarly commentator as an explorer embarking on a journey of discovery with the viewer, seeming to search for answers rather than offering dry sound bites, bringing to the show a sense of personal engagement and relaxed spontaneity rather than dry scholarship. Furthermore, the production would travel the world in search of locations. And, shockingly, visuals would be more important than narration. The series was "conceived in visual terms," writes Clark's biographer Meryle Secrest, "in which text would, in the final analysis, be subservient to the image....(resulting in) a seamless blend of ideas, movement, colour, sound and image."

Clark resisted these new-fangled notions with all the haughtiness he could muster (a considerable amount, by all reports) - I am a lecturer, he noted, not a film star - but Gill persisted (he could be very persuasive) and the series got made. “Civilisation: A Personal View” reached substantial audiences in the U.K. and the U.S. in '69 and 1970.

An early screening of the program resulted in tumultuous applause for Clark; in the wake of this, he reportedly wept for long minutes, because such acclaim was new to him, and because ecstatic praise felt....well, it felt rather lovely, in fact. The tears of Kenneth Clark suggest that even the most austere scholar may secretly yearn for fame and glory.

“Civilisation” spawned similar “authored documentaries”: “The Ascent of Man” by Jacob Bronowski, “Alistair Cooke’s America,” “Life on Earth” by David Attenborough, “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, and, more recently, the remarkable historical investigations of Michael Wood and Niall Ferguson. (All of these shows are available on DVD including “Civilisation: A Personal View." However, many of these works are entirely overlooked today by TV networks; see here for an observation about this odd fact.)

Here is a YouTube clip of Clark from the series. Here are reading and Web suggestions about the Renaissance.

In 1970, Clark published a beautifully-illustrated book based on his TV script. The work is excerpted here. The book's prose is strangely choppy in spots, because Clark learned a new way of writing for the series – “fundamentally different from writing a book,” he says: “Television should retain the character of the spoken word, with the rhythms of ordinary speech, and even some of the off-hand imprecise language that prevents conversation from becoming pompous."

In this excerpt, Clark begins by noting that, before the year 1500, many citizens of Rome had a constrained, frightened view of the ruined structures of antiquity that surrounded them. - B.F.


They said that these buildings must be the work of demons, or at best they treated them simply as natural phenomena – like mountains – and built their huts in them, as who should take advantage of a ravine or sheltering escarpment. Rome was a city of cowherds and stray goats in which nothing was built except a few fortified towers from which the ancient families carried out their pointless and interminable feuds – literally interminable, because they are still quarrelling today.

But by 1500 the Romans had begun to realise that (the structures) had been built by men. The lively and intelligent individuals who created the Renaissance, bursting with vitality and confidence, were not in a mood to be crushed by antiquity. They meant to absorb it, to equal it, to master it. They were going to produce their own race of giants and heroes.


Antiquity: the men of fifteenth-century Florence had looked back eagerly to the civilisation of Greece and Rome. They sought for ancient authors and read them with passion, and wrote to each other in Latin. Their greatest source of pride was to write prose like Cicero. But although their minds were full of antique literature, their imaginations remained entirely gothic. It’s true, of course, that Donatello and Ghiberti included in their work a great many quotations from antique sculpture. But when the average painter set out to depict a scene from antique literature he did so in the costume of his own time, with dainty fantastical movements which show not the slightest consciousness of the physical weight and the flowing rhythms of antiquity. And the curious thing is that the humanists, who took so much trouble about the text of an author like Livy, accepted, as a correct representation of the event, a picture of the death of Julius Caesar in which the figures are obviously dressed like fifteenth-century dandies. As long as there was this rather comical discrepancy between the written word and the image, antiquity could not exert its humanising power on the imagination.

I suppose that the first occasion in which the dream of antiquity is given a more or less accurate visible form is the series of decorations representing the triumph of Caesar done for the court of Mantua by Mantegna in about 1480. It is the first piece of romantic archaeology. Mantegna has rummaged passionately in the ruins of ancient Roman towns to find evidence for the shape of every vase and trumpet and he has subordinated his antiquarian knowledge to a feeling for the drive and discipline of Rome. But the man who really assimilated antique art and recreated it, with all its expressive power made more vital and more intense, was Michelangelo. He went to Rome in 1496, and was so overcome by what he saw that he made imitations of Graeco-Roman sculpture, one of which (now lost) was actually sold as an antique – the first recorded fake.

In 1501 Michelangelo returned to Florence. I said that the gigantic and the heroic spirit of the High Renaissance belongs to Rome. But there was a sort of prelude in Florence. The Medici, who had been the rulers of Florence for the last sixty years, had been kicked out in 1494, and the Florentines, under the influence of Savonarola, had established a republic, with all the noble, puritanical sentiments which pre-Marxist revolutionaries used to dig up out of Plutarch and Livy. To symbolise their achievement, the republic commissioned various works of art on heroic-patriotic themes. One of them was for a gigantic figure of David, the tyrant-slayer. The commission was given to the alarming young man who had just returned from Rome. Only twenty-five years separate Michelangelo’s marble hero from the dapper little figure, which had been the last word in Medician elegance, the David of Verrocchio: and one sees that there really has been a turning-point in the human spirit. The Verrocchio is light, nimble, smiling – and clothed. The Michelangelo is vast, defiant and nude. It’s rather the same as the progression that we shall find in music between Mozart and Beethoven.

Seen by itself the David's body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not a part of most people’s idea of civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognise that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilisation depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.

In the same moment of republican zeal Michelangelo was commissioned to paint a decoration in the hall of the great council which had been set up at the summit of the new democratic system. It was intended to represent some heroic episode in Florentine history. Actually Michelangelo’s subject was rather discreditable, a group of Florentine soldiers taken by surprise: he chose it simply because these bathing soldiers gave him the opportunity of depicting the nude. He only got as far as the full-size drawing (what is called the cartoon) and even that is lost, but it had an immense influence, and surviving studies for it show why. It was the first authoritative statement that the human body - that body which, in Gothic times, had been the subject of shame and concealment, that body which Alberti had praised so extravagantly – could be made the means of expressing noble sentiments, life-giving energy and God-like perfection. It was an idea that was to have an incalculable influence on the human mind for four hundred years – perhaps we may say until Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. Of course it was ultimately a Greek idea: and at first Michelangelo was directly inspired by antique fragments. But not for long. What I might call the Beethoven element – the spirit of the David’s head – was soon extended to the body as well.

And this brings us back to Rome, and to the terrible Pope. Julius II was not only ambitious for the Catholic Church: he was ambitious for Julius II, and in his new temple he planned to erect the greatest tomb of any ruler since the time of Hadrian. It was a staggering example of superbia; and Michelangelo at that time was not without the same characteristic. I need not go into the question of why the tomb was never built. There was a quarrel – heroes do not easily tolerate the company of other heroes. Nor does it matter to us what the tomb was going to look like. All that matters is that some of the figures made for it survive, and they add something new to the European spirit – something that neither antiquity nor the great civilisations of India and China had ever dreamed of. As a matter of fact the two most finished of them were derived from antiques, but Michelangelo has turned them from athletes into captives, one of them struggling to be free – from mortality? – and the other sensuously resigned, ‘half in love with easeful death.’ Michelangelo had in mind a Greek figure of a dying son of Niobe. These two are carved out in the round, but the others, which are usually assumed to be part of the same set, are unfinished. Their bodies emerge from the marble with the kind of premonitory rumbling that one gets in the Ninth Symphony, and then sink back into it. To some extent the rough marble is like shadow in a Rembrandt – a means of concentrating on the parts that are felt most intensely; but it also seems to imprison the figures – in fact they are always known as the prisoners, although there is no sign of bonds or shackles. As with the finished captives one feels that they express Michelangelo’s deepest preoccupation: the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter.

People sometimes wonder why the Renaissance Italians, with their intelligent curiosity, didn’t make more of a contribution to the history of thought. The reason is that the most profound thought of the time was not expressed in words, but in visual imagery. Two sublime examples of this truism were produced in the same building in Rome, not more than one hundred yards from each other, and during exactly the same years: Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s frescoes in the room known as the Stanza della Segnatura. Both of them we owe entirely to Julius II. For centuries writers on Michelangelo have criticised Julius for taking him off the tomb, on which he had set his heart, and putting him to work on the painting of the Sistine Ceiling, although he always said he hated the act of painting. I think it was a stroke of inspiration. The original project for the tomb included almost forty marble figures, over life-size. How could Michelangelo ever have completed it? We know that he carved marble faster than any mason, but even with his heroic energy the tomb would have taken twenty years, during which time his mind was changing and developing. And the very fact that, on the Ceiling, he decided to illustrate themes, not simply to concentrate on single figures, freed him to extend his thoughts about human relationships and human destiny. Were they his thoughts? In most of the great philosophical paintings of the Renaissance the ideas were suggested by poets and theologians. But in one of Michelangelo’s letters he says that the Pope told him to do what he liked, so I suppose that the subject of the Ceiling was largely his own idea: or, rather, his own composition from theological sources. This is one reason why it is difficult to interpret. All writers on Michelangelo have given different interpretations, none of which is quite convincing. But one thing is certain. The Sistine Chapel passionately asserts the unity of man’s body, mind and spirit. You can admire it from the point of view of the body – as nineteenth-century critics used to do, who looked first at the so-called athletes; or from the point of view of the mind, as one does when one looks at those great embodiments of intellectual energy, the Prophets and Sibyls. But when one looks at the sequence of stories from Genesis, I think one feels that Michelangelo was chiefly concerned with the spirit. As narrative they begin with the Creation and end with the drunkenness of Noah. But Michelangelo compels us to read them in reverse order – and indeed they were painted in the reverse order. Over our head as we enter is the figure of Noah, where the body has taken complete possession. At the other end, over the altar, is the Almighty dividing light from darkness: the body has been transformed into a symbol of the spirit, and even the head, with its too evident human associations, has become indistinct.

In facing these two scenes comes the central episode, the creation of man. It is one of those rare works which are both supremely great and wholly accessible, even to those who do not normally respond to works of art. Its meaning is clear and impressive at first sight, and yet the longer one knows it, the deeper it strikes. Man, with a body of unprecedented splendour, is reclining on the ground in the pose of all those river gods and wine gods of the ancient world who belonged to the earth and did not aspire to leave it. He stretched out his hand so that it almost touches the hand of God and an electric charge seems to pass between their fingers. Out of this glorious physical specimen God has created a human soul; and it is possible to interpret the whole of the Sistine Ceiling as a poem on the subject of creation, that god-like gift which so much occupied the thoughts of Renaissance man. Behind the Almighty, in the shadow of his cloak, is the figure of Eve, already in the Creator’s thoughts and already, one feels, a potential source of trouble.

After God has brought Adam to life (still reading the sequence in reverse) come scenes of the Almighty in the earlier acts of creation. They form a sort of crescendo, with the movement accelerating from one scene to the next. First of all, God dividing the waters from the earth. ‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ I don’t know why these words give one such a feeling of peace, but they do, and Michelangelo has conveyed it by a tranquil movement and a gesture of benediction. In the next scene, the creation of sun and moon, he does not bless or evoke, but commands, as if dealing with these fiery elements required all his authority and speed, and to the left he swishes off the scene to create the planets. Finally we are back at the separation of light and darkness. Off all the attempts of finite man to set down an image of infinite energy, this seems to me the most convincing; one might even say the most realistic, because photographs of the formation of stellar nuclei show very much the same swirling movement.


In the autumn of 1513, soon after the death of Julius, there arrived, to stay in the Belvedere of the Vatican, one more giant – Leonardo da Vinci. Historians used to speak of him as a typical Renaissance man. This is a mistake. If Leonardo belongs to any epoch it is in the later seventeenth century; but in fact he belongs to no epoch, he fits into no category, and the more you know about him, the more mysterious he becomes. Of course, he had certain Renaissance characteristics. He loved beauty and graceful movement. He shared or even anticipated the megalomania of the early sixteenth century: the horse that he modelled as a memorial to Francesco Sforza was to be twenty-six feet high; he made schemes for diverting the River Arno that even modern technology could not accomplish. And then, of course, he had, to a supreme degree, the gift of his time for recording and condensing whatever took his eye.

But all these gifts were dominated by one ruling passion which was not a Renaissance characteristic – curiosity. He was the most relentlessly curious man in history. Everything he saw made him ask why and how. Why does one find sea-shells in the mountains? How do they build locks in Flanders? How does a bird fly? What accounts for cracks in walls? What is the origin of wind and clouds? How does one stream of water deflect another? Find out; write it down; if you can see it, draw it. Copy it out. Ask the same question again and again and again. Leonardo’s curiosity was matched by an incredible mental energy. Reading the thousands of words in Leonardo’s note-books, one is absolutely worn out by this energy. He won’t take yes for an answer. He can’t leave anything alone – he worries it, re-states it, answers imaginary antagonists. Of all these questions, the one he asks most insistently is about man: not the man of Alberti’s invocation, with ‘wit, reason and memory like an immortal God,’ but man as a mechanism. How does he walk? He describes how to draw a foot in ten ways, each of which should reveal some different components in its structure. How does the heart pump blood? What happens when he yawns and sneezes? How does a child live in the womb? Finally, why does he die of old age? Leonardo discovered a centenarian in a hospital in Florence, and waited gleefully for his demise so that he could examine his veins. Every question demanded dissection and every dissection was drawn with marvellous precision. At the end, what does he find? That man, although remarkable as a mechanism, is not at all like an immortal god. He is not only cruel and superstitious, but feeble compared to the forces of nature. If Michelangelo’s defiance of fate was superb, there is something almost more heroic in the way that Leonardo, that great hero of the intellect, confronts the inexplicable, ungovernable forces of nature. In Rome, in the very year that Raphael was celebrating the god-like human intelligence, Leonardo did a series of drawings of the world overwhelmed by water. The way in which he depicts this disaster shows a strange mixture of relish and defiance. On the one hand he is the patient observer of hydrodynamics; on the other hand he is King Lear addressing the deluge:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

We are used to catastrophes; we see them every day on television. But coming from a perfectly endowed man of the Renaissance, these extraordinary drawings are prophetic. The golden moment is almost over. But while it lasted man achieved a stature that he has hardly ever achieved before or since. To the humanist virtues of intelligence was added the quality of heroic will. For a few years it seemed that there was nothing which the human mind could not master and harmonise.

-The End-

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