Today sees the return of the Penn Press Author Q&A, with Douglas Biow, whose book, On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy, explores the individual in light of early modern Italy's new patronage systems, educational programs, and work opportunities in the context of an increased investment in professionalization, the changing status of artisans and artists, and shifting attitudes about the ideology of work, fashion, and etiquette.
* * *
Penn Press: Why has “the individual” faded from view in Renaissance studies?
Douglas Biow: There are many reasons for it, but let me try to suggest a few, at the risk of grossly oversimplifying the matter. The first has to do with an entirely justified debunking of Jacob Burckhardt’s famous, and for a long time influential, claim that the bright, shining light of the “individual” emerged in the Italian Renaissance out of the dark, slumbering, “corporate” structure of identity that marked the Middle Ages. As historians have now conclusively demonstrated, we simply know that was not the case: there was as great an emphasis on corporate identities in the Renaissance as there was in the Middle Ages, and there was nothing dark or slumbering or dormant about the Middle Ages, which was an exceptionally vibrant and innovative period in European history. Simply put, the Renaissance was very much a period invested in what goes by the name of “corporatism.”
Nevertheless, this important recognition has led scholars to consistently overemphasize the centrality of corporatism wherever one might even begin to detect the presence of the individual at play in the Italian Renaissance, much less the European Renaissance more broadly, so much so that the notion of the individual, in my judgment, simply gets eclipsed. Another reason has to do with the rather pervasive application to the Renaissance, on the part of various scholars, of critical theories that undermine or completely dismantle the notion that the individual exists at all, not just now but also, to be sure, in the past. So there has been a predisposition to begin with the assumption that to look for the individual, or expressions of notions of individuality, in the Renaissance was to engage in a scholarly project that was at best somewhat botched from the start or at worst done in bad faith.
Finally, yet another reason has to do with the fact that social historians, while not denying the existence of the individual or individual agency in the past, have been so invested in looking at large-scale structural patterns over broad spans of time that the individual has simply not been a matter of concern to them. I find this to be true, curiously enough, even with regard to the work of micro-historians, who focus on individuals in local cultures, often enough peculiar, atypical individuals; yet they do so not to investigate the concept of the individual but to describe large-scale intellectual, social, and legal trends that macro-historians tend not to be able to capture in their studies or simply have no particular interest in examining.