A Short History
by Paul Johnson
"It must be grasped that the Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, which in some cases amounted to genius. ...The Renaissance was about the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism." - Paul Johnson, The Renaissance: A Short History
Paul Johnson has a reputation as an historian of high quality and breadth of subject. Whether his focus is traditional historical overview (Modern Times, America, or England), biography (Churchill, Napoleon, or Creators), religion (Christianity or The Jews), or specialized areas like Art history, he is always worth reading.
The story of the Renaissance is filled with great names: Gutenberg, Dante, Erasmus, Leonardo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Raphael, the Medici family, Machiavelli, not to mention a plethora of popes. Many of these geniuses were Italian, but not all, as the Renaissance spread across Europe in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In fact, Paul Johnson, in The Renaissance: A Short History, credits the invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany by Johann Gutenberg as the single most important event of the era, as the printing of books allowed for the explosion of learning to spread past the church leaders, princely classes, and academics to the growing merchant class.
My favorite part was the section on Renaissance literature, as Johnson described the most important authors and their works. Even with works I had already read or studied, like the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, I learned much from the many stories about the people and the period.
I also enjoyed reading about the painters and the development of oil painting on canvas in the Netherlands; Johnson explains how oil and canvas allowed artists to broaden their markets and paint non-church subjects; the modern tradition of portrait painting began with this innovation. The overview of Architecture by comparison is somewhat weaker, but I would attribute this to the limitations of a "short history" of this size. This may also explain the lack of illustrations; however, these are readily available both on the Internet or in books referenced in the bibliography.
The many ideas and topics in this short history inspire further study of the Renaissance. Fortunately a Chronology and Bibliography included in the book provide guides for beginning your own study of this pivotal and important era in the development of Mankind. Reading The Renaissance by Paul Johnson provides a superb starting point.
Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2000.