This book is a collected, edited sequence of essays by Walter Pater (1839–1894), a Fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford. Oscar Wilde first read it in 1874, as a student at Trinity College Dublin.
What is it about?
‘The Renaissance’ is a term that refers to flowering of human culture brought about by the rediscovery of Greek and Roman civilisation; chiefly in 15th century Italy, though Pater argues that this definition can be expanded. The essays in this book tend to work by flamboyantly imagining their way into works of art; at one point, Pater suggests of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa ‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times.
The book became a kind of manual for aestheticism; a movement which, in Pater’s definition, aimed,
to distinguish, to analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book, produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced.
For many, the historical period Pater covered – and the way, in treating it, he insisted on the importance of artistic style over moral content – was a by-word for un–Christian vice. The Bishop of Oxford specifically preached against the book’s ‘neo-pagan’ character. Fearing ‘it might possibly mislead some of the young men into whose hands it might fall’, Pater removed the most controversial section, the Conclusion, in time for the 1877 edition.
How did it affect Oscar Wilde?
Arguably, Wilde was one of these ‘young men.’ Studying at Oxford in 1877, he sent Pater a review of some paintings in which his writing shows the distinct influence of The Renaissance; they met, and Pater praised Wilde’s ‘quite exceptionally cultivated tastes’. Later, Wilde would be disappointed with the sense that, in his more timid, careful lifestyle, Pater ‘lived to disprove everything that he has written'.
The Renaissance animated not just every aspect of Wilde’s work, but his desire to make his life into a work of art; ‘to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy is success in life’, as the Conclusion urges. Looking back over his own life from the isolation of prison in De Profundis (1897), he remembered it as ‘the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty’; ‘that book which has had such a strange influence over my life’.