#WhatImReadingNow: Heretics and Heroes

The high spirits of Renaissance Italy spilled over into other European lands, though the waves set off by so much gaiety sometimes landed elsewhere with a shock and might even be received with contempt. The Renaissance, as it appeared elsewhere, could at times look and sound quite different from its lively Italian manifestation. And though the humanists of Italy were generous in sharing their artistic and intellectual riches with other Europeans, they were quite certain that the great classical tradition was a uniquely Italian treasure and that Italians had nothing to learn from anyone else (except—when they remembered—from the Greeks, of course).

This attitude militated against the dissemination through Italy of the art of printing, where it was for years considered something concocted “among the Barbarians in some German city.” Duke Federigo of Urbino, an important collector, dismissed the invention out of hand, admitting that he “would have been ashamed to own a printed book.” No printing press was set up at Florence till Bernardo Cennini established one at last in 1477, a full quarter century after its invention in Germany.

So the miltiplication of copies of individual books in Italy continued to depend for decades on the ancient traditions of the scriptorium. But it was at such scriptoria as Lorenzo [Medici]’s that many scribes were employed for the sake of making many copies of many manuscripts, so that these might be distributed widely. (Even in their self-imposed cultural isolation, the Italians remained generous.) An it is thanks to these last scriptoria of Europe that you, dear Reader, can today read the book in your hands (or on your screen) so easily.

The thing that most put off the Italians from adopting printing was the monstrous appearance of the Gothic letters employed by German printers. Thick, heavy, overweight, very nearly sludgy, unattractive to the modern eye, these letters (whether in movable type or in earlier manuscript examples) reminded Italians of everything they disliked about the Barbarians.** (Madre di Deo, those letters looked like overweight people with inert bowels!) Instead, the Italians invented calligraphy, beautiful—and eminently readable—script. From this calligraphy, lean and swift, balanced and shapely, full of sweeping slides and lovely loops—rather than the stolid shapes of Gothic—were born the typefaces we still use today, roman, italic, and their derivatives.

**See Volume 1 of the Hinges of History, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Chapter I, for the original confrontation of taste between Italians and Germans in the early fifth century.]

—Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes (Doubleday, 2013)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • This is a short selection, but I could go on and on and on. Cahill makes every little twist and turn (the hinges) of history so utterly fascinating! It’s like sitting down with your old Uncle Tom, who knows simply everything about this one topic and tells it to you like a story, complete with humor and pathos and irony and the inside scoop. Except … Uncle Tom knows pretty much everything! Languages, for example (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian). Read his biography at Wikipedia, you’ll see. The success of this series of books, Publishers Weekly has said, “lies in Cahill’s ability to interpret and present a great amount of information and complex ideas in a manner that is both easily accessible and entertaining. In straightforward yet lyrical prose filled with humor, Cahill presents ancient characters—many of whom are not well-known—with motivations that we can recognize.”
  • I read, first (as it was intended), How the Irish Saved Civilization and fell in love with it. In quick succession I read The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. While I was waiting for the next book in the Hinges of History series, I read A Literary Guide to Ireland (written with his wife, Susan Cahill). There is one more book to come in this series. Mr. Cahill is seventy-seven years old, and I wish him excellent health for many, many years to come.
  • Here are the six current titles. Interestingly, sometimes the subtitles have changed with subsequent printings. These are from the books on my shelves:

1 / How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995)

2 / The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)

3 / Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (1999)

4 / Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003)

5 / Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (2006)

6 / Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Changed Our World (2013)

  • The blurb: “In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through the thrilling period of the Rainassance and Reformation (the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century), so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western World would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Death, Cahill traces the many developments in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation. This is an age of the most sublime artistic and scientific adventure, but also of newly powerful princes and armies and of newly found courage, as many thousands refuse to bow their heads to the religious pieties of the past. It is an era of just-discovered continents and previously unknown peoples. More than anything, it is a time of individuality in which a whole culture must achieve a new balance if the West is to continue.”
  • I’d read other books about medieval artists (Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, for example, and The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece) and knew about Martin Luther and Christopher Columbus—I’ve always had a thing for history, actually—but this book just pulled it all together: popes, kings and queens, monks, historians, artists, biblical translations. Oh my goodness. The Medicis were fascinating. As always, the book has many full-color pages of of art of the period, famous and less so. Highly recommended.

Tweet: I’ve always had a thing for history, and the Hinges of History series satisfies.
Tweet: On Heretics and Heroes: I wish Mr. Cahill excellent health for many, many years to come.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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