THE PAGAN DREAM OF THE RENAISSANCE
By Joscelyn Goodwin, published by Thames & Hudson at £26.00. 304pp with 250 illustrations. HBk. ISBN: 0500 -251193 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)
The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance tells the history of a surge of interest in classical pagan ideas which began around the middle of the 15th century. The book is a beautifully produced hardback with great quality paper and choice monochrome images. For those reasons alone it is a pleasure to read and just to own as a nice thing. The book has a nice flow to it too, the author having the knack of putting across a lot of detailed biographical and historical information in an effortless way.
The type of pagan dream being discussed here is very much one belonging to the elite of society at the time. The stifling nature of Christianity in the centuries leading to the Reformation did not leave a great deal of room for self-expression of ideas, so the rediscovery and dissemination of much classical literature in the period was welcomed like a fresh breeze in the stale air of educated society at that time, and clearly impacted upon the character of the Renaissance itself. Those who were wealthy enough to afford a good education were able to indulge their new interest in paganism and the liberal arts which led to some remarkable instances of spiritual self expression.
The author traces the evidence of this revival through literature, art, architecture, garden design and virtually every other recorded form of human self-expression in a very detailed way. It becomes clear that for several individuals this revival of interest became more like a cult. Two things in particular stuck inside my brain after reading this book and one of those points illustrates the other…
The term studiolo was not one I had come across before reading this. It refers to a small room akin to a study, but not functioning as one, in which symbolism and perspective are the two dominant influences. The symbolism is manifest through art and objects and these appear to have been chosen to reflect the individual spirituality of the owner of the studiolo. The play on perspective with optical illusions in panels of art is rather unusual and would surely have been a rare sight in the period described. It appears that this was used to help achieve an altered state in which personal spiritual reflection and magic were more possible. The symbolism used is a mixture of personal symbolism drawn from the owners own life, classical mythology and also the Kabbalah. So this small space was used as a mirror to the self and a tool for growth and introspection.
The second thing, which feeds directly from the studiolo information, is that the owners also had their own private Christian chapels. Obviously there could be dangers in entirely rejecting the state religion by not having a chapel which could explain their presence in the same building, but it is clear that many of these individuals considered themselves to be Christian in addition to exploring a more pagan worldview. This latter point kept reminding me of the overlap between magical symbolism and Christian symbolism which is evident in written charms and spells in popular culture. To me this demonstrates the lack of a popular thorough understanding of Christianity, that it was used in parallel with other supernatural and magical symbols so easily.
There is much more of interest in this book that I don't have time to comment upon here, and indeed I shouldn't because you should go and buy yourself a copy right away instead. The book will grace your bookshelf in a most elegant way! In this book is charted a little discussed area of the history of magic and paganism, and it is done most eloquently.