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Walter Pater’s Renaissance

ISSUE:  Spring 1982

A flood of publications on the elusive Victorian scholar-aesthete, Walter Pater, has appeared during the last two decades. As plans for a critical edition of his works are now being made, the writings on him continue to flow from the presses, threatening to submerge his achievement in their vastness, as they seek to sustain it. Books, articles, anthologies, Ph. D. dissertations, symposia, and now the May 1981 issue of Prose Studies—where the interested reader will find a detailed summary of recent bibliography on Pater—have scrutinized seemingly every facet of the man, from his place in the history of literature to the significance of his moustache. This is not to say that even Pater’s best-known works are now conveniently available to a broad audience in paperback editions sold in drugstores and airports. For the Pater boom is largely an academic phenomenon.

Few writers as distinguished as Pater have lived lives as diaphanous as his. Between birth in London in 1839 and death 55 years later, he lived in a quiet reverie among books and works of art, seeking to divine the magical powers of beauty, journeying invisibly among sensations and ideas in quest of their ineffable essences. The center of this private existence was Oxford, where the almost ghostly scholar and writer, a seemingly disembodied consciousness, dwelt more than 20 years as student, fellow, and tutor, gravely and fastidiously measuring the exquisite nuances of aesthetic experience in prose of incomparable refinement. He occasionally traveled without incident in Germany, France, and Italy, imperceptibly absorbing impressions under a dreamlike veil. One of the singular, rare facts of Pater’s physical existence, if one can even speak of it as such, was the decision to print the first edition of his book The Renaissance on ribbed paper, thereby giving to his thoughts a certain faintly tangible reality. As one of Pater’s finest critics has observed, “he seems almost to have succeeded in passing through his times with hardly a trace.” Not a flesh and blood historical personage, he appears in retrospect as if a fiction from the labyrinth of Jorge Luis Borges’ imagination. Pater chose to live “his true life,” it is said, in his art, and, not surprisingly, his most recent biographer has had to acknowledge that “the real reasons for re-examining” Pater lie in his writings. It is hard to say whether the day Walter Pater began to write he came to life or disappeared.

Revisionist scholars always tend to exaggerate the weaknesses of their forebears. And to hear recent Paterians speak, you might think a true understanding of Pater dated from the mid-1960’s, even though an extensive body of writings throughout this century, including essays by Arthur Symons, Logan Pearsall Smith, and Maurice Bowra, has offered valuable perceptions concerning the character of his work. The most fashionable aspect of Pater’s writings at present is the role they are understood to have played in the emergence of Modernist literature. Literary historians are now beginning to investigate his influence on Woolf, Conrad, Joyce, and Proust; on Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. Yet this is a field of investigation still only tentatively explored. More attention might especially be paid to the ways in which Pater influenced T. S. Eliot. Although Eliot’s attacks on Pater are supposed to mark the beginnings of the decline of Pater’s critical fortunes, Eliot wrote in many respects as his perpetuator. Eliot’s critical stance in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” for example, which stresses the impersonal “significant emotion” in literary art, depends on Pater’s preoccupation with “impersonal” style, or “form in all its characteristics.”

Of all Pater’s works The Renaissance is probably his greatest single achievement. Fascinating as they are, his more apparently imaginative efforts, Marius the Epicurean and Imaginary Portraits, so deficient in dramatic interest, are flawed as fiction. And his other essays—gathered in Appreciations, Miscellaneous Studies, and Greek Studies—are not so subtly harmonized and orchestrated, individually or integrally, as those in The Renaissance, which remains the heart of Pater’s literary career. The chapter on Winckelmann, one of Pater’s first essays to appear in print, was first published in 1867; the essay on Giorgione was not added to the book until 1877; and, continuing to polish its style, Pater made revisions in subsequent printings, down through the 1893 edition, published the year before his death. In recent years The Renaissance has received considerable philological attention. Not only do we now have an excellent new critical edition of it, with extensive notes by Donald L. Hill, but Billie Andrew Inmann’s valuable commentary on Pater’s reading during the period of its composition has also just appeared. These scholarly works augment our knowledge of Pater’s numerous sources, but, modestly refraining from consideration of larger questions of interpretation, they are written, to use Nietzsche’s words, in usum Delphinorum. Yet we might ask, what kind of a book is The Renaissance? What are its distinctive characteristics?

Reviewing the first edition, published in 1873 as Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Mrs. Mark Pattison objected that the “historical element” was lacking, prompting Pater to change the title in the subsequent edition to The Renaissance Studies in Art and Poetry. Historians of art and literature alike have since continued to comment on Pater’s unhistorical approach to his subject. This claim has been much repeated during the recent period of Pater’s “rehabilitation.” But it goes unnoticed even by his admirers that Pater’s suggestions were the first general indications of the extensive role of Neoplatonism in Renaissance theology, philosophy, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Of Michelangelo’s poetry he observes that the great artist “is always pressing forward from the outward beauty . . .to apprehend the unseen beauty . . .that abstract form of beauty, about which the Platonists reason.” And, contemplating the Medici Chapel, he sees Michelangelo here as a “disciple” of the Platonists. These remarks on Michelangelo’s poetry, sculpture, and architecture are closely related to Pater’s appreciation of Pico della Mirandola’s “love of unseen beauty.” Appropriately comparing Pico himself to an archangel Raphael or Mercury by Piero di Cosimo or Botticelli, Pater seemingly alludes in part to the Mercury in Botticelli’s Primavera. This divinus amator gazes beyond the clouds toward an “unseen beauty,” like that beloved of Pico and Michelangelo.

If we take a broad view of Pater’s book, we see that its sustained evocations of Platonism are, as though a form of verbal cartography, an historical outline of the place that Neoplatonism occupied in Renaissance culture. In this respect The Renaissance prefigured and influenced the more detailed historical account in Nesca Robb’s Neoplatonism in the Italian Renaissance (1935), a work which in turn stimulated the most distinguished art historical scholars of Renaissance Neoplatonism, Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, and E. H. Gombrich, all of whom followed, if distantly, in the wake of Pater and whose work depends on his implicit historical formulation.

Pater’s historical intuitions, seminal though they are, lie almost concealed by the poetical form of his prose. It is thus not surprising that, reading The Renaissance primarily as art rather than as history, scholars have overlooked these aperqus. To identify Pater’s “errors” of fact or “misrepresentations” is to ignore his fundamental definition in Appreciations of the “sense of fact.” The historian, according to Pater, becomes the author of fine art, as he comes to transcribe, not mere fact, but his sense of it. Given his “absolutely truthful intention,” the historian “amid the multitude of facts presented to him must needs select, and in selecting, assert something of his own humour, something that comes not of the world without but of a vision within.” A distinguished art historian has recently argued that “the historian is not a critic and should not aspire to be one.” Pater would not object to this scholar’s quest for historical truth. But he would ask: even if it is possible to separate “intention” and “significance” in theory, is it possible in practice for the historian to understand this truth apart from his own critical sense of its significance?

The soundness and longevity of Pater’s critical evaluations of Renaissance art should not be forgotten. In an admirable new monograph on Luca della Robbia, John Pope-Hennessy speaks of the aesthetic affinities between the sculptor’s work and Greek art, referring to the recent observations on this topic by Italian scholars. But it was Pater who first observed so forcefully that “Luca della Robbia and the other Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth century” partook “of the Allgemeinheit of the Greeks, their way of extracting certain select elements only of pure form and sacrificing all the rest.” Speaking of Botticelli as a “poetical painter,” Pater was to influence Aby Warburg and subsequent generations of scholars who explored the painter’s poetical sources; and dwelling on the artist’s mastery “of the medium of abstract painting,” he influenced Berenson and Home, Binyon and Yashiro, and still other, more recent interpreters of Botticelli’s form and sensibility.

Similarly, Pater’s interpretation of the school of Giorgione remains the foundation of our interpretation of the painter today. Although countless attempts have been made to read various meanings—mythical, biblical, moral, and historical— into such works as Giorgione’s Tempesta, recent scholars of Renaissance art, despite the current aversion to what is called “formalism,” still adhere to Pater’s sense of such pictures as “the subordination of mere subject to pictorial design.” There are also critical and historical perceptions in Pater’s writing that have yet to be properly developed by art historians. Describing the “treacherous smile” of Leonardo’s Saint John the Baptist, which “would have us understand something far beyond the outward gesture,” Pater is not merely recalling Gautier’s fascination with Leonardo’s strangeness, but he is calling attention to the ambiguity and, ultimately, the irony of the painter’s vision. Yet on this discomforting aspect of the painter’s vision modern scholars (not surprisingly) remain reticent.


Above all, Pater is esteemed as a prose poet. And the most famous example of his poetry is the often quoted description of the Mona Lisa, rendered in poetical form by Yeats in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Possibly the single most familiar passage of 19th-century prose, it has lost none of its sensuous enchantment for those today who find pleasure in a prose that conveys “the sound of lyres and flutes.” For Pater, that “presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters” is expressive of Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and modernity—of “all modes of thought and life.” But there is another, related passage which, although usually overlooked, helps us to appreciate more intimately the nature of Pater’s book. This is his rendering in the chapter on Winckelmann of another aesthetic experience, this one in Rome.

In one of the frescoes of the Vatican, Raphael has commemorated the tradition of the Catholic religion. Against a space of tranquil sky, broken in upon by a beatific vision, are ranged the greatest personages of Christian history, with the Sacrament in the midst. Another fresco of Raphael in the same apartment presents a very different company, Dante alone appearing in both. Surrounded by the muses of Greek mythology, under a thicket of laurel, sits Apollo, with the sources of Castalia at his feet. On either side are grouped those on whom the spirit of Apollo descended, the classical and Renaissance poets, to whom the waters of Castalia come down, a river making glad this other “city of God.” In this fresco it is the classical tradition, the orthodoxy of taste, that Raphael commemorates. Winckelmann’s intellectual history authenticates the claims of this tradition in human culture.

Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, which also include the School of Athens and Civil and Canon Law, have been appropriately called “one ideal temple of the human mind.” They express the “harmony” and “correspondences” between pagan and religious truths, Greek and Roman, Hebrew and Christian, like those to which Pico aspired. Indeed, the relation between Pico’s art and Raphael’s, implicit in Pater’s text, is yet another example of his vivid sense of historical analogy. Just as Raphael created an ideal harmony among theologians, philosophers, poets, and lawgivers, Pater creates a unified picture of visionary thinkers. Speaking of the “spirit of Apollo,” and implicitly of the “new Apollo,” Pater observes that the medieval poet Dante participates in “both” visions, as a poet of Christ, and, like the other “classical and Renaissance poets,” as a poet inspired by Apollo. When he refers to Castalia as the river “making glad this other “city of God,”” Pater is not only alluding to the “city of God” of Psalm 46, but aptly to Augustine’s City of God. For, seated with a copy of his City of God, Augustine is one of the “great personages” beholding the vision of Christ in Raphael’s Disputa.

What Pater has done here is to delineate a history of what he elsewhere calls “visionariness”—from Apollo and the Old and New Testaments to Augustine, Dante, and finally to Raphael himself. But the history does not stop at this point. The art of Greece, inspired by Apollo, is one of “pure thoughts or ideas”—a Platonic art. And Pater reveals to us a similar Platonic character in Raphael’s painting. Speaking of Raphael in Miscellaneous Studies, he observes that in his work “painted ideas, painted and visible philosophy, are for once as beautiful as Plato thought they must be, if one truly apprehended them.” We might recall that in Raphael’s fresco, Apollo is inspired by the music of the spheres, painted in the ceiling of the stanza. And appearing in the adjacent School of Athens with his Timaeus, Plato points toward these heavenly harmonies. In the modern historical scholarship the Platonic meaning of these frescoes has been much discussed, especially by Edgar Wind. And we can now see that these discussions return, as do the Neoplatonic interpretations of Michelangelo, to Pater. Yet whereas scholars of Neoplatonic iconography usually speak of what art illustrates, that is, its Neoplatonic content, Pater evokes the manner in which Platonism informs Raphael’s art.

Pater’s visionary history extends further to Winckelmann, the inspired writer on Apollo, whom Pater compares to both Dante and Plato. If Winckelmann’s history—a bridge between the Renaissance and the modern age—”authenticates” this classical tradition commemorated by Raphael, Pater’s writings in like manner authenticate this tradition. Amidst the flux of modernity, in which “universal culture” is “perhaps a lost art,” The Renaissance is itself self-consciously conceived as a renaissance. And Pater himself, like Heine’s gods of an earlier epoch, is an Apollonian “exile” in the modern world.

Although the book is ostensibly about the Renaissance, we find that in various ways Pater relates the period to antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, as well as to the modern or Romantic epoch. Recalling the ancient world, the book begins in 12th-century France, and the impact of the awakening there is pursued to the Quattrocento; the influence of Leonardo (who traveled to France) and that of the Renaissance in general are then traced back to the France of the Pteiade. As part of his general cultural history, Pater discusses, notes, or appropriates ideas and forms from principal figures of European literature. The French tradition is traced beyond the Renaissance to Pascal, Rousseau, Hugo, Stendhal, Gautier, and finally, Baudelaire. Just as the allusions to Ghaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, and Arnold chart the history of English literature, references to Lessing, Kant, and Hegel, not to mention Winckelmann and Goethe, hint, and more than hint, at the story of the new German literature, which is seen as a rebirth or renaissance of the classical tradition. Aspiring to the ideal of the “unity of culture,” Pater seeks to define the harmony between the classical and biblical traditions and their unity in European culture.

The poetical structure of Pater’s intellectual history is, as we have seen, so overwhelming that its historical value has to be excavated. This structure is also so very intricate that it is almost impossible for the reader to grasp all of the analogies or correspondences as they “cross and re-cross” his book. Endless affinities are established or suggested, as between Botticelli and Dante, Dante and Michelangelo, Michelangelo and Blake, Blake and Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Giorgione, Giorgione and Du Bellay, Du Bellay and Leonardo, Leonardo and Pico, Leonardo and Paracelsus, Leonardo and Bacon, Leonardo and Goethe, Goethe and Winckelmann, Goethe and Pater himself. The numerous artists and writers referred to by Pater, or who have been shown to have influenced him, are not merely present as sources, but, to use Pater’s language, they are artistically “threaded through” the text to establish a coherent pattern of cultural wholeness. To express this Allgemeinheit, Pater deploys a veritable thesaurus of interrelated words: connection, affinity, analogue, twin, correspondence, repetition, counterpart, equivalent, combination, reconciliation, resemblance, similitude, identity, congruity, Doppelgänger, double meaning (and reflex), union, unison, wholeness, integrity, centrality, interweaving, interfusing, blending, interpenetration. In their analyses of the continuities of Western culture, the great scholarly books of our own time, Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Seznec’s The Survival of the Pagan Gods, Bolgar’s The Classical Heritage, and Panofsky’s Renaissance and Renascences, all follow the path that Pater first struck.

As critics have always observed, Pater’s book is also autobiographical, or at least an intellectual autobiography, in which Pater becomes all of his subjects or their creations. Like Luca della Robbia’s, Pater’s is “a life of labours and frugality, with no adventure.” It is a life of the mind resembling that of Pico and the Neoplatonists, who seek “order and beauty in knowledge.” With Leonardo, Pater is primarily motivated by the “desire of beauty,” as with Giorgione and Du Bellay he aspires to lyrical purity. But in the modern world Pater is an exile, like Michelangelo, “a ghost out of another age.” He shares Winckelmann’s “wistful sense of something lost to be regained.” His solitary journey as an “alien” is paradoxically that of the knight Tannhäuser or the “knight errant of philosophy,” Pico. He is these pilgrims to Rome, just as he is Abelard, Botticelli, Leonardo, Du Bellay, Winckelmann, and Goethe, all journeying to the Eternal City.

The examples of Pater’s identification with the subjects of his book can be multiplied indefinitely, but it gradually becomes clear that he is building a series of biographies not merely into a diaphanous autobiography but into an incipient novel. The historical actors merge into a single protagonist in search of beauty and truth. In his different guises, this character is himself handsome. The angelic Pico is “of features and shape seemly and beauteous,” Leonardo is noted for his “charm of voice and aspect,” and Giorgione is of a “presumably gracious presence.” Pater’s historical personages are protean manifestations of a single fictionalized self who, however uneventfully, lives through history. Pater later developed this implicitly fictional form in Marius the Epicurean; and, nourished by it, Virginia Woolf parodied it affectionately in Orlando.

The Renaissance is conspicuously about philosophy. Himself a Platonist, Pater constantly writes in pursuit of an ideal beauty. In addition to observing the beauty of scholars and artists, Pater denominates their lovely creations—Botticelli’s “comely” persons, Leonardo’s “bright and animated” angel, and above all, the “beautiful multitude” of the Parthenon, rendered in Platonizing terms. When Pater describes the comeliness of artistis and their works, he proceeds as Plato had in the Symposium. For, like his Greek hero, Pater ascends from specific examples of beauty to the more abstract idea of the beautiful, to “pure form.” The counterparts to Pater in the visual arts, we might recall, are Botticelli, whose beauteous Mercury gazes toward the Sun, and Raphael, whose suave Apollo turns his eyes toward the heavenly spheres.


Works of literary art are invariably written in mixed genres, but in this respect perhaps no work is quite like The Renaissance. It constantly aspires to history, criticism, biography, and autobiography; to poetry, novel, and philosophy. But all of these forms seem almost to disappear as they fuse in utter unity. At the same time Pater seeks to create an art that transcends literature, becoming a visual art in its very “visionariness.” Pater’s essay, “Style,” in Appreciations serves as a key to our understanding of this aspiration in The Renaissance. Here he speaks of a “literary architecture,” which “if it is to be rich and expressive, involves not only foresight of the end in the beginning, but also development or growth of design, in the process of execution, with many irregularities, surprises, and after-thoughts; the contingent as well as the necessary being subsumed under the unity of the whole.” In this manner is the “architectural design” of Pater’s book classically proportioned and ordered. But Pater’s is also, antithetically, a romantic architecture analogous to that of Renaissance France, where one “often finds a true poetry, as in those strangely twisted staircases of the chateaux of the country of the Loire, as if it were intended that among their odd turnings the actors in a theatrical mode of life might pass each other unseen.”

The prose poetry approaches sculpture in its ambition. For Pater, the clarity of the Greek vision manifests itself in sculpture, so lucid in its incisiveness. In the essay, “Style,” Pater defines the writer’s quest, like that of the sculptor, to remove “surplusage, from the last finish of the gem-engraver blowing away the last particle of invisible dust, back to the earliest divination of the finished work to be, lying somewhere, according to Michelangelo’s fancy, in the rough-hewn block.” Pater seeks in a similar way to carve and chisel away in prose in order to embody a Platonic essence in words. Speaking of “those “Mothers” who, in the second part of Faust, mould and remould the typical forms that appear in human history,” he is expressing his own goal, to mould and remould sculpturally as he gives birth to the idea of history.

If sculpture is the essence of antiquity, painting is the art form more nearly associated in its abstraction with modernity, especially the paintings of Giorgione and his school, in which one beholds a “perfect interpenetration of the subject with its form.” Again in the essay, “Style,” Pater implicitly reflects on his own aspiration to paint in words; in the prose of the artistic writer the “elementary particles of language will be realised as colour and light and shade.” Thus, writing of Venetian art, Pater becomes a Giorgionesque painter in words: “And it is with gold dust, or gold thread, that these Venetian painters seem to work, spinning its fine filaments, through the solemn human flesh, away into the white plastered walls of the thatched huts.”

In the end, for Pater all art aspires to the condition of music, which most completely expresses the modern world. Like Giorgione’s painted music, “modulated unisons of landscape and persons,” Pater’s prose aspires to the condition of the lyric. No less so, his writing is inspired by the “doublemusic” of Du Bellay’s poetry, especially its quality of poésie chantee. Pater also admires the lyrical character of Shakespeare’s poetry, which in Measure for Measure “seems to pass for a moment into an actual strain of music.” At times Pater’s prose achieves a sensuous abstraction and evocativeness related to musical experience: “A sudden light transforms some trivial thing, a weather-vane, a windmill, a winnowing fan, the dust in the barn-door. A moment—and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.” In the music of Walter Pater, memory is continuously drawn into play, as it absorbs, one upon another, the sensations of history, condensing these into perfect moments, exquisite pauses in time. The ripple of a faint breeze across a still stream, the wondrous whispering of wind-wafted wheat in soft sunshine, the distant murmur of unfamiliar voices at dusk—these, then, among the vagrant undulations of sound, at once present and past, are refined in Pater’s reverie, into purely Platonic music, etherealized, at the last, into ghostly silences of unheard melodies.

Just as Pater attempts, among these so numerous antitheses, to reconcile modernity and the classical tradition, he tries to bring the basic literary genres, indeed all forms of art, into synthesis, paradoxically dissolving these forms as he unites them. One can read The Renaissance as poetry, autobiography, philosophy, or even as the origins of some weird fiction. But for all of these aspects of the work, Pater’s omnipresent sense of history is the point d’appui. His own efforts he viewed as “scholarly,” and I have tried to suggest something of the soundness and significance of his highly suggestive historical scholarship. Even so, The Renaissance, metaphorically becoming architecture, sculpture, painting, and music, and finally all and none of these, becomes in its perpetual striving beyond limits a network of almost Baudelairean “correspondances”; “Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent / Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité.” As we only dimly perceive these Symbolist ambitions and their realization in The Renaissance—at once a perfect synthetic form of all art and a “vanishing away” of form—we begin to sense that our reading of his strange, solitary book has only just begun.


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