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This article is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

How the West Learned to Read and Write:

Silent Reading and the Invention of the Sonnet
Paul Oppenheimer
It is fashionable these days to denigrate as misleading the conventional terms for historical periods, and in particular ‘Renaissance’, substituting for them with reckless abandon the far more misleading ‘early modern period’. This implies that the events of, say, the twelfth century glide along a magnetic wire either into Modernism or the Wright brothers or computer programming. In fact ‘Renaissance’, with its clear imputation of rebirth, à la the Swiss journalist-­turned-historian Jacob Burckhardt, who first popularised it in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), retains an accuracy hard to beat. Nor is it much of an achievement to replace clarity with smog.

Clarity amounts to insight, and granted that ‘Renaissance’, like other period terms such as ‘Middle Ages’, represents more a state of mind than a span of time, it also retains a potent whiff of pithiness for its seminal events, whose dates are well established. Few painters, sculptors, and architects in the know in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy had
any doubt that they were living through a time that, as the mathematician-philosopher Marsilio Ficino noted in 1492, ‘like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts’. Nor, like Ficino, were they less than certain that ‘the ancient singing of songs to the Orphic lyre’, along with ‘grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, music’, was ‘almost extinct’, and that their revival, like that of astronomy, ‘has recalled the Platonic teaching from darkness into light’. Nor were educated sixteenth-century Italians confused about style. They understood that the discovery in Rome in 1504 ...


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