PUBLICATION HISTORY: Pater's The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry is a collection of critical essays first published together as a volume in 1873, originally titled Studies in the History of the Renaissance. The title change came after Pater's friend Frances Strong Pattison remarked that the title was "misleading" since the works are clearly not concerned with history as it was normally defined. Instead, as the summary below will show, Pater's Renaissance traces the existence of a certain temperament that is more primary than any temporal or spatial (historical) contingencies.
The various essays included in The Renaissance were first published in a variety of periodicals. Pater's "Winckelmann" (1867) appeared in the Westminster Review. "Leonardo da Vinci" (1869), "Sandro Botticelli" (1870), and "Michelangelo" (1871), and "The School of Giorgione" (1877, thus included in the second edition of The Renaissance only) were originally published in the Fornightly Review. Finally, Pater's conclusion, which became infamous because it was (mis)understood as advocacy for hedonism, drew material from the final paragraphs of a William Morris essay originally published in the Westminster Review. The publication of The Renaissance provoked strong reactions--it came to be regarded sharply by both critics and religious contingents as a kind of public apostasy (an important exception was John Morley, editor at the Fortnightly). For the most part, though this indubitably contributed to the strong public response, the male to male love which Pater points to tended not to be acknowledged publically by Victorian audiences.
Preface: According to Pater, the role of (aesthetic) critic was to "distinguish, to analyse, separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a [work of art] produce[s]this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced." This is what he seeks to do in his collection of essays, which explore works of art and poetry spanning a historical period of over 500 years (the work is bracketed by explorations of what he sees as the spirit of the Renaissance from the 12th-century and the 18th-century).
Two Early French Stories: Pater makes the case that there were elements of what he considers to be the spirit of the Renaissance much before the traditionally understood Renaissance in fifteenth-century Italy. He cites two early 12th-century French stories as examples, Amis and Amile (the story of deep, male friendship and love, in which Amile is willing to slay his own children to cure Amis's leprosy) and Nicolette and Aucassin (the love story of a Saracen slave girl and the son of a Count).
Pico della Mirandola: Pater singles out Pico as a 15th-century Italian who sought to reconcile Christian and Pagan traditions. Pater particularly admires him for his non-historical/non-intellectual approach of making "Plato and Homer...speak agreeably to Moses." He evinces the spirit of looking for some kind of "diviner signification" than the temporally or spatially specific. Pater says it is not important that he was scientifically wrong about many things (for example, he thought the earth at the center of universe) but values him for his humanist spirit his passion for seeing the world as full of spiritual signification." For Pater, Pico was unmatched in his belief in "the spirit of order and beauty." In a word, Pico represents how "Renaissance of the fifteenth century was...great rather by what it designed or aspired to do, than by what it actually achieved."
Sandro Botticelli: Botticelli, generally known in Pater's time as a minor artist, embodied for Pater an "undercurrent of original sentiment" which was distinct from the dramatic passion of Giotto's (Generally Pater was critical of dramatic, spectatorial passion and a proponent for an internally motivated passion). Pater describes Botticelli's aesthetic as containing something of exile and loss, as well as struggle (for example, Botticelli's paintings of those who struggle in Dante's Divine Comedy between heaven and hell). "Sympathy for humanity in its uncertain condition" is what Botticelli captures.
Luca Della Robbia: Luca represents the "intense and individualized expression" of Tuscan 15th-century sculptors, shared by greats like Michelangelo. At the same time, Luca also manages to adhere to a sense of Hellenic "breadth, generality, universality." For Pater, Luca's work in low relief particularly enabled this "middle-way" between individuality and universality, the form's incompletion relieving a sense of the "hard realism" which tended to inhere in Greek sculpture.
The poetry of Michelangelo: Pater mainly characterizes Michelangelo as someone who unites the seemingly paradoxical attributes of "strength and sweetness." Most of his disciples, he argues, are men that tend to recognize only his "strength" and not his "sweetness." Characteristic of Michelangelo is also a kind of "incompleteness, which...trusts to the spectator to complete the half emergent form." The "sweetness" comes in part from a humanistic preoccupation with creation of man (Michelangelo doesn't take forms of nature as subjects). Pater re-reads Michelangelo's poetry/sonnets as not really about Vittoria Collona, as is traditionally thought, but as the "disappointment" of affection that may yet "charm." Finally, within Michelangelo's aesthetic is a willful consideration of serious topics like death, often yielding a serious and dignified sentiment of pity (as embodied by his "Pieta"). Pater views the "Pieta" as not an expression primarily of religious sorrow, but an aesthetic one in which a mother struggles with physical reality of "the stiff limbs and colourless lips" of her son.
Leonardo da Vinci: For Pater, Leonardo is fascinating for the "enigmatical" in his work. Pater narrates different life stages of Leonardo from his apprenticeship to Verocchio, a period of discontentment in which he embarked upon a frenzied study of nature, to his recommendation to Ludovico Sforza in 1483. The fruit of Leonardo's discontentment and desire for knowing how nature (broadly defined, including man) worked, was a "curiosity often in conflict with the desire of beauty, but generating, in union with it, a type of subtle and curious grace." In his landscape paintings, Leonardo looked for the "bizarre" and also did the same with human personality. For example his type of female beauty was often "nervous, electric, faint" and "clairvoyant." The Mona Lisa has "something sinister in it" and though based on a specific Florentine, Pater compares her to a kind of vampire, who has "is older than the rocks among with she sits" and who rather uncannily contains all of human history.
The School of Giorgione: Pater begins with observations on how different arts (art, music, poetry) express via different sensory apparatuses and so they are not equivalent. Aesthetic criticism seeks, in part, to explain such distinctions. One of Pater's most famous theses is that "all art aspires toward the condition of music" because in music, form and matter are least distinct (matter being the subject, or content). Lyric poetry approaches closer to music than other forms of poetry. Pater's "Giorgionesque" (not attributable, necessarily, to Giorgione the man) encompasses the spirit which approaches this kind of identity of form and matter, through its focus on the decorative (colors, lines, sensory details). Pater further describes the "Giorgionesque" as having "tact in selecting such matter as lends itself most readily and entirely to pictorial form." Subjects often include people playing music, listening to something (either in music, in nature, or in poetry), and also pictures which unite landscape and persons.
Joachim du Bellay: Bellay, a literary from the 16th-century French Renaissance, was one who provided a "softening" touch to the hardened, Rabelaisian aesthetic of his contemporaries. Bellay focused on form, trying to "ennoble the French language, to give it lustre" and to argue that contemporary French culture could be just as refined as classical culture. Bellay's aesthetic is representative of an age which "threw a large part of its energy into the work of decoration."
Winckelmann: This is the longest of the essays in The Renaissance and probably most completely reveals Pater's deep-seated Hellenism. In Protestant, eighteenth-century Germany, Winckelmann became interested in the "Hellenic ideal," finding in it, a more free way of living. Though Winckelmann never made it to Greece, Pater argues for affiliations of spirit rather than of nation: it is perfectly plausible that an individual growing up poor in Protestant Germany might feel a kinship with the artists of antiquity. This is an affinity of temperament, and it is with this kind of affinity that Pater concerns himself in his "history." Central to this Hellenic ideal were male-to-male love, as well as male beauty; Pater's extended musings on this topic is often drawn upon now to speak to Pater's gay sensibilties. Pater gives the interesting history of Winckelmann being murdered before getting a chance to meet Goethe on his return to Germany, but stresses that Goethe is to have been influenced by the Hellenic ideal via Winckelmann (again, affinities of temperament are available without physical meeting).
In delineating the Hellenic ideal, Pater describes "man at unity with himself, with his physical nature, with the outward world," something evident particularly in Greek sculpture which possesses a sensuousness that is not ashamed of itself as a Christian, ascetic might imagine. It is also not weighted down by worldly details that might be apparent from painting (the eyes are blank, the hair is like drapery). In a word, the human form is abstracted from the grossness of everyday life but yet intensely physical in an idealized way.
The essay ends with Pater saying that the modern world can't have this kind of sculpture but instead needs poetry which he understands as "all literary production which attains the power of giving pleasure by its form, as distinct from its matter. Only in this varied literary form can art command that width, variety, delicacy of resoruces, which will enable it to deal with the conditions of modern life." According to Pater, freedom in modern life is only available through such channelsm and Pater singles out Goethe as one who tries to wrestle with whether the Hellenic ideal of unity, "blitheness and repose" might be brought to the modern world (I think, by the way, this "blitheness and repose" might be something like Bataille's notion of being in water like water).
Conclusion: Pater's conclusion was to become infamous because people thought it might be a call for hedonism. In it, he describes life as a bunch of forces coalescing for a moment, and so thoughts too should have the same existence. Life and thoughts contribute to a "strange perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves," and experiences become subordinated to "impressions" that they make within the mind. Freedom inheres in the individual mind reigning supreme while controlling its impressions. Like Arnold, Pater believes in avoiding the trap of stale orthodoxy, and this is why this "strange perpetual weaving and unweaving" is necessary (and besides, natural, as his imagery of all of life and nature as forces coalescing suggests).
I rather like Pater's original title, because it signals his writing an alternate history--one based on aesthetic temperament as he so explicitly gives throughout his essays. It isn't misleading, then, but illuminating. Pater seeks to stand in place of traditional, scholarly understandings of an artist as constitutive of his biographical realities and sociocultural contexts. As Pater remarks in his chapter on Giorgione, he has no use for the scholars who would argue about whether or not any given painting is “authentic” or not—the point is that he is tracing a certain temperament or passion which he associates with the notion of a Renaissance. (Where Pater’s notions--and also Arnold--seem paradoxical is that he does in fact associate the “Renaissance” spirit with specific historical periods, antiquity, and also 15th-century Italy as somehow particularly productive of this temperament. Thus while writing against scholarly cultural or biographical histories, he acknowledges the effect of such histories on the production of this artistic spirit which he values).
In writing this kind of history of temperamental affiliation, Pater, like Matthew Arnold, envisions the existence of an ideal which stands apart from (or perhaps, takes root deeper than) historical contingencies like social, political, or religious identification. For both, Hellenism is a cornerstone of this ideal, though Pater calls the ideal art and Arnold "culture." Inhering in both Paterian and Arnoldian philosophy is a kind of dream of equality (and relatedly, of freedom) via this apartness from such historical contingencies. Hadley's critique of Arnold, that this kind of dream of equality and freedom is in fact contingent on the culturally specific language of liberalism might then also apply to Pater. Additionally, inhering in both is the notion of universality--the faith that there exists an aesthetic ideal or cultural ideal that is "the best" and which may be agreed upon, which might seem immediately suspect to our modern doubt that such claims can be made.
Wilde’s “Critic as Artist” offers a complementary framework for thinking about Pater’s work as alternate history. In acting as the aesthetic critic, Pater is himself the artist, making known the Renaissance ideal to modern audiences through the literary form of criticism. As Pater himself remarks in his chapter on Winckelmann, such art forms as sculpture don’t quite work anymore, because they can’t account for the “conflicting claims,” “entangled interest” and “distracted…sorrows” of a modern age. Pater’s criticism is an attempt at art in the modern era, which requires variety and reflexivity, but which nevertheless reaches towards the unity, “bliteness and repose” associated with the Hellenistic spirit.