From artificial art to dissolute beauty: The Renaissance in George Eliot and Walter Pater
MetadataShow full item record
The present work analyses the theoretical impact of the Italian Renaissance, which deeply caught the imagination of the Nineteenth century, in George Eliot's Romola and Walter Pater's Studies in the Renaissance and Greek Studies . The project was prompted by the uncanny and mostly contemporary critical accusations that both authors, generally assumed to belong to the opposite end of the "aesthetic spectrum," shared of endorsing "artificial art". If for George Eliot art is, supposedly, indebted to an Hegelian aesthetic where the materiality of the artistic work is superseded by its spiritual content, Romola appears to stand as a bizarre, "artificial" artistic statement where the erudite and historical knowledge of the Italian Renaissance overwhelms the ambition to a higher aesthetic synthesis, which should ensue from a successful "truthful" and "realistic" historical representation. Pater, in turn, in both his Studies in the Renaissance and Greek Studies , seems to positively elaborate on George Eliot's slippage into "artificiality", taking inspiration by what appears to be her embarrassment with an ornamental and sensual notion of art, which much artistic production of the Italian Renaissance seemingly endorses. Indeed the Italian Renaissance appears to emphasize the predominance of art's "form" over its content, which in Romola is best negatively illustrated by the languid, effeminate and "oriental" character of Tito. From the Eastern Dionysian element present in the Fifteen century Florentine revival of Platonism and paganism to the pastoral escapist element in the poetry of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Politian together with the languid atmosphere of Botticelli's paintings, the complex, highly intertextual culture of the Italian Renaissance develops into the problematic aesthetic core around which fundamental issues concerning the nature of the work of art revolve. In particular, the sensual element that the Renaissance revival of antiquity endorsed with its irreverent Hellenism, and its vision of existence as endlessly tainted by death (hence the insistence on carpe diem ) intersects with notions of artificiality: art appears dissolute and decadent when artificial, i.e. when it revels in the corpse of the signifier rather than in the immateriality of the signified.