The Renaissance by Walter Pater

RNS‘The golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty’ Oscar Wilde

Introduced by Michael Prodger
16 pages of colour plates
Published 5 September 2013, £24.95

The Renaissance by Walter Pater provoked outrage on first publication in 1873; Pater’s so-called hedonism was considered an affront to Victorian morals. However, it became a touchstone for the aesthetes of the fin-de-siecle including Oscar Wilde. One of Pater’s most memorable phrases was adapted as their manifesto: ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.’

The Renaissance was Pater’s most famous and influential work; part cultural critique, part aesthetic creed, and is, as art critic Michael Prodger writes in his specially commissioned introduction, ‘a work of art in its own right.’ This sumptuous new edition published by The Folio Society features 16 pages of colour plates showing artworks mentioned in the text. They include paintings by Sandro Botticelli, whom Pater first brought to the attention of the British public, as well as works by Michelangelo, Verrochio, Titian, Giorgione and da Vinci.

Unlike the other great critics of the Victoria era, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin, Pater espoused a new, subjective way of writing about art that focused on the ‘sensations’ it evoked in the viewer. For him, the art of the Renaissance (which he took to include Michelangelo’s poems and Pico della Mirandola’s philosophy) made the most direct appeal to the senses, which he expresses in rich, memorable phrases.

‘She is older than the rocks upon which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her …’ With these words, the scholar Walter Pater described one of the world’s greatest paintings: the Mona Lisa.

‘He is a kind of hinge upon which turns the single gate, one side of which is Romantic and the other modern poetry’ Harold Bloom