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The Renaissance Bazaar (J. Brotton)


The Renaissance is often seen as the moment when Europe enters the so-called Modern Age period, after a dark Middle Ages. This leads to a few historiographical clichés, admittedly more and more questioned on many levels, but the work that interests us here, The Renaissance Bazaar (J. Brotton), aims to defeat another received idea, according to him: the Renaissance would only be European, thus opening up the possibility for Europe to dominate the world, notably through Reason. However, the author wants to prove that the Renaissance is not only Western but, better, that the European Renaissance owes much (everything?) To the East, and in particular to the Muslim world. Interesting thesis, but more than problematic result ...


Notes on the French edition of Renaissance Bazaar

We must dwell on the French edition of J. Brotton's work, for several reasons. The first, and not the least, is that nowhere in the volume is the date of the original edition mentioned. However, J. Brotton wrote his book in 2002, almost ten years ago, which is not nothing in the field of scientific research, especially with regard to the Renaissance and even more so in global history. Indeed, both the book and the French publisher are placed in a perspective of global history, as mentioned in the presentation of the collection World-History : The objective is to "To contribute to the emergence of a global history [and to grant] Europe and the West their rightful place but nothing but their place, highlighting the contributions of other cultures, other civilizations to our history ". A laudable intention, obviously, and for our part, global history is undoubtedly the most fascinating current field of historical science, as we have seen with the work edited by Patrick Boucheron, History of the World in the 15th century (Fayard, 2009). It is also necessary that this be done correctly, and to start a collection with a dated work (on many points, we will come back to it), which more is by presenting it implicitly as recent and innovative, raises questions. And the subtitle chosen by the editor is even more problematic: How have the East and Islam influenced the West? What do we mean by "Orient"? Why put a small "i" in "Islam", does it only concern religion? Because, and even if we can debate it, the convention would rather require to write Islam with a big "i", to evoke the civilization and not only the religion ... Worse, why this French subtitle whereas the original , From The Silk Road to Michelangelo, is much more neutral, and moreover more faithful to the substance of the book?

This slightly biased view of the reality of Brotton's writings, as well as the motivations for this publication, are reflected in the presentation of the book by Alain Gresh. This one, journalist, author of many books (including What is Palestine the name of?, or in collaboration with Tariq Ramadan, Islam in questions) and contributor to Diplomatic World or to oumma.com (on the sites where his text is posted), of course praises Brotton’s book, but in a curious way, and with surprising twists. He first returns to the controversy Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel, to show the negative view we have of Islam, especially since September 11. Undoubtedly, and here we recognize his struggles, which often lead him to support ambiguous characters. The journalist, while specifying that the book is not an answer to Gouguenheim (fortunately since it is six years older thanAristotle...), puts The Renaissance Bazaar as a model to prove that the thesis of the French historian is false (which the vast majority of specialist historians have already said), by calling (and we follow him on this point) to the global history in which Brotton situates his job. After summing up very briefly the definition of the Renaissance by the English historian, Gresh insists on his criticism of humanism and, in a nebulous reference to the "founders of secularism", highlights the negative relationship of humanists with women . We will come back to this part of the book, but it is questionable why Gresh is so inclined to highlight it and to appeal to secularism. This homage to Brotton’s book concludes with a parallel which sheds light on the goals of the French edition, and which sums up fairly well the problems (only part) that the Renaissance Bazaar pose; Gresh therefore writes: “They [Renaissance men and women] all found their inspiration in this bazaar in the eastern Mediterranean which was 'the true source of the European Renaissance', a bazaar reminiscent of 'the global village' in which we live today. hui ".

The author's intentions

In his preface, J. Brotton claims to be the first to "synthesize" approaches emphasizing the importance of relations between Europe and the East (especially the Muslim world) in the birth of the Renaissance. The angle he chooses would help "[Change] our vision of the Renaissance".

The author is more specific in his introduction. First of all by explaining his choice of the term "bazaar", which would make it possible to understand the richness and variety of exchanges between West and East at the beginning of the 15th century, the whole "In a spirit of friendly competition", curious term when one knows the nature of the relations between Latins and Moslems at this period… One will notice besides that Brotton returns several times on this "friendly spirit", in particular when it evokes Moslem Spain, where, until the end 15th century, "Christians, Muslims and Jews had exchanged ideas and objects in a friendly manner, despite their religious differences". A romantic vision of Al Andalus more than questionable, especially since Brotton mirrors it with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs, which is not trivial. He draws a parallel with the Renaissance, for which he speaks of "The spirit of mutual exchange between East and West [maintained throughout the 16th century]". The exchanges, commercial in particular, obviously existed and in the 15th century the Mediterranean really became again a sea of ​​commerce, but no need to include in these relations notions such as "friendship", because the context - the conflict - is still the same, including in the 16th century. The author says so, but to make it almost negligible. This angle, which can be described as naïve, or politically correct, haunts the entire book, alongside a regular dismantling of the humanist values ​​of the European Renaissance.

Indeed, J. Brotton wants to rethink the traditional vision of the Renaissance, which would see this period as the moment when, mainly in Italy, "European culture [would have] rediscovered a lost Greco-Roman intellectual tradition". According to him, by bringing in the Eastern paradigm, everything would fall apart. Certainly, but is he really the first to defend this thesis? Let's read Peter Burke, in European Renaissance (published two years before The Renaissance Bazaar), which evokes Eastern and Muslim influence, and calls for a "De-centered", proposing "To see Western culture as one of many [coexisting and interacting] with its neighbors, especially Byzantium and Islam, both of which had their own 'rebirth' of ancient Greece and Rome". Further on, P. Burke speaks of the "Contribution of both Arabs and Jews", taking the example of Leon the African. He drives the point home by claiming that “Architects and artists also learned from the Islamic world. The plans for the hospitals in Florence and Milan in the 15th century were directly or indirectly inspired by those of Damascus and Cairo. The silversmith Benvenuto Cellini admired and imitated the "arabesques" that adorned Turkish daggers, a form of decoration found on the bindings and pages of French and Italian books of the 16th century ". In a few lines of his introduction, P. Burke perfectly sums up the thesis that J. Brotton claims to be the first to defend, and it is surprising that the author of Renaissance Bazaar does not cite Burke (among others) in his bibliography ... Better, while Brotton gives a very critical view of humanism, Burke draws the parallel between humanitas European and adab muslim one adab which, oddly enough, Brotton never mentions! In addition to that, the author, to show that there are indeed several Renaissances (who doubted it?), Proposes throughout his work to deal with religious conflicts, art and architecture, the Grandes Discoveries, then of science and philosophy, from Dante to Shakespeare. Vast program which, let us say it right now, gives an extremely confused result and which, for the most part, does not add anything new.

The author therefore presents the main thrusts of his work, one of the main ones being trade with the Orient. Then, as he will do regularly over the pages, he supports his thesis by starting from the (sometimes surprising) analysis of works of art, such as the painting by Hans Holbein, The ambassadors. This allows him to insist on "The dark side of the Renaissance" and on European imperialism (what about Ottoman imperialism?). After a digression on nudity and Michelangelo, which allows him to criticize the opportunism of the humanists (!), The author gives the different historiographical definitions of the Renaissance, from Michelet to Huizinga, including Burckhardt. He thus puts himself in an overhang before embarking on his first chapter, "The World Renaissance".

Trade at the origin of the Renaissance?

In his first chapter, J. Brotton wants to get out of the Eurocentric definition of Europe by mirroring two works and two interpretations. On the one hand, Panofsky's analysis of Dürer's drawing, The Abduction of Europe, on the other hand his own analysis of the Bellini painting, Saint Mark preaching in Alexandria. Here we have a good summary of Brotton's approach throughout his work, to set itself apart from traditional Renaissance visions. That of Panofsky, who would see in Dürer's work the birth of Europe, without the fact that it was rape seeming to shock him; and his, which would make the painting of the Venetians the good symbol of a mixed world open to the "mutual exchanges" mentioned above. The author actually wants to show that Europe is starting to define itself not against the East, but "Through a large and complex movement of exchanges of ideas and materials". He also suggests that the West was envious of an East "Very early". If this can be said before the 11th century, is it still the case in the 15th and 16th centuries?

The author considers trade to be central to the weight of the Islamic East on the European Renaissance. Trade allows the arrival of materials, like pigments, without which the Italian or Flemish painters could not have made their splendid works. Certainly. Then, like P. Burke, J. Brotton points out the oriental influence on the architecture of Venice, a city which "Admired and imitated oriental cultures" (including Byzantium…). The rest of the chapter continues to make trade an essential element, and for that it goes back to the Middle Ages, and to the role of the Arab discoveries having already influenced Europeans, such Fibonnaci. Which is obviously known and recognized.

The part on "The Great Turks" is more interesting. After having exaggerated a little the importance of the schism of 1054, J. Brotton relativizes that of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. For this, he evokes the personality of the conqueror of the city, Mehmet II, who turned out to be very interested in an opening towards the West, for example by welcoming Italian artists and humanists. This is one of the rare times that J. Brotton speaks of the reciprocal influence between East and West. However, we can express some reservations about his vision of two certainly rival worlds, but without "No clear geographic and political barrier in the 15th century". Once again, the author minimizes (but obviously does not deny) conflicts in order to insist on exchanges (which cannot be denied either, of course). He goes so far as to speak "Europhile" (without quotes) to qualify Djem, the son of Mehmet II in conflict with his brother Bayezid!

By a rather characteristic detour of an often confused work, J. Brotton is interested again in the trade, but this time that of gold and especially slaves. This allows him to evoke once again "The dark side of the European Renaissance [which] kicked off a transatlantic slave trade that was to overwhelm millions of Africans with pain and suffering in subsequent centuries". If, indeed, we locate the very beginnings of the slave trade with the slave trade by the Portuguese during their exploration of the African coasts in the 15th century, and the integration into the commercial circuits, it is perhaps a little fast to make such a direct link between trafficking and "Great cultural breakthroughs of the Renaissance [which would therefore have benefited] fully from this unscrupulous trade in human lives". We know that J. Brotton wants to demystify the European Renaissance, but is that a reason for ignoring the role of the Ottoman Empire in slavery, and implicitly saying that the Renaissance was built on the backs of slaves? On the other hand, the passage on the African influence on European art, in particular the Afro-Portuguese ivories, is one of the most interesting of the book. Too bad the French subtitle does not at all suggest that J. Brotton does not focus solely on the Muslim East ...

After having therefore "proved" that "The planetary domination of Europe would be anything but harmonious and civilizing", J. Brotton gives his very personal view of Renaissance humanism.

Opportunistic, cynical and sexist humanists?

The chapter "Humanist writing" is curious in more ways than one. First, it is almost irrelevant to the thesis that J. Brotton (or his French edition) claims to be defending. The Orient and the Muslim world are hardly mentioned, and the author emphasizes instead the method and the intentions of the humanists, then the role of the printing press in the dissemination of their thought.

In J. Brotton's opinion, these "Self-proclaimed humanists" in fact only wanted to "sell" (he uses the term) an education for "To enter the ranks of the social elite". The author is well on his way to unraveling "The romantic and idealized image of humanism", which is funny when you know that he himself has this approach for, for example, Al Andalus ... "Finality [of the humanists would be] clearly pragmatic". They all pass there, Petrarch, Bruni, Guarino of Verona, Erasmus, then later Machiavelli and More. Opportunists using their rhetorical talents and their erudition to make a cynical career. Worse, when they claimed to defend "The dignity of humanity", the humanists were sexist (admittedly, J. Brotton does not use the term, but it is just like) and left no room for women, with a few exceptions (Christine de Pizan, for example). We are not far from anachronism.

In the remainder of the chapter, J. Brotton wishes to stress the importance of the printing press. Very well, but we do not really understand the place of this part in the whole of the book, and especially in relation to the thesis defended by the author ...

Humanists dressed for winter, what about the Church, J. Brotton's next target?

Renaissance, Church and Reformation

The author discusses in "Church and State" the question of changes in the Church in the 16th century, "The metamorphosis of the relations between religion, politics and scholarship in the Renaissance". Once again, the question of the influence of the East and of Islam on the European Renaissance is hardly addressed, with the exception of the ideological proximity between Protestantism and the Muslim religion, and the political choices of the Ottoman sultans. in European struggles, in the context of the Reformation. While demystifying the Renaissance, the author wants above all to point out the link between it and the birth of nationalism. Then, to try all the same to hang on to his original subject, he tells about the Council of Florence (1438), this time showing the influence of Byzantine art through the medals of Pisanello… The last part of the chapter mixture jumbled up the birth of the Reformation, the Ottoman foreign policy, and once again the importance of the printing press, here in the diffusion of the thought of Luther. We may be surprised by the analysis that J. Brotton makes of the works of Raphael and especially Michelangelo, in which he sees the symbol of a triumphant Church which shows its muscles ...

Eastern influence on Renaissance art and architecture?

The fourth chapter opens with the presentation of the work of Vasari, The lives of artists, and the latter's use of the term " rinascità ". We are surprised here that J. Brotton makes such a difference between the word Vasari and the "Renaissance" used by historians of the nineteenth century. For him, it's just if there is a connection, as we already noted in his introduction. However, the origin of the word "Renaissance" comes from the expression of Vasari, whose importance in the vision of this period is paramount, at least in the field of the arts. However, J. Brotton does not deny the role of Vasari, while relativizing it, in particular to criticize his deification of the artist to the detriment of the place of the patron. And, on this point, we can follow it.

Despite everything, we once again have the impression that the author is getting lost in the rest of the chapter. He departs once again from his original thesis in a description which is certainly correct for the most part, but which has been seen many times over, of the role of the patron, of the studio, and then of the painters of the North. There, we want to say: what relation with the East? And the author seems to understand it, a little late, with his (thin) part "Return to the Orient". Unfortunately, the reader has largely dropped off at this point.

The chapter concludes with sculpture and architecture, and again we get a feeling of déjà vu. J. Brotton attempts with a few examples to return to the Ottoman Empire, once again to show reciprocal influences. Then, he relativizes the innovation of architects like Brunelleschi and Alberti to, as before the humanists, point the finger "The abyss [separating] theory from practice". After a long digression on Alberti's work with Sigismond Malatesta, J. Brotton somehow manages to give a new example of Islamic influence on the Renaissance, by making the palace of Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino a virtual copy. from the Ottoman Palace of Topkapi, which is debatable. As for his analysis of the Duke of Urbino’s political vision of architecture, and his use of magnificence and patronage, it does not add anything new either.

The last paragraph, supposed to sum up the chapter, ensures that "The material, political and artistic exchanges between East and West were instrumental in shaping the art and architecture of the Renaissance". Too bad we haven't seen a real demonstration of that in this part ...

The New World and the Renaissance

This chapter seems, finally, truly in the spirit of "global history" yet announced from the presentation of the book, and by the collection itself in which it is published. Opening onto the Geography of Ptolemy and its importance in the vision of the world in the 15th century, J. Brotton recounts the Portuguese expeditions, then that of Christopher Columbus. It's interesting, but again the author doesn't add anything new. The same goes when he returns to his subject a bit and shows the contribution of Arab knowledge to navigation, then of Piri Reis's map at the beginning of the 16th century. What follows, especially an accumulation of examples, is of the same ilk, and is content to recount the "discovery" of the world by the Portuguese and the Spaniards, and the change in scale of the globe with the explosion of trade which, for the arrival of new food is changing the daily life of Europeans. When J. Brotton finally broaches the massacres in the New World, we have long forgotten what his book was supposed to talk about at the start, especially if we refer to the subtitle of the French edition ... We only notice that this is another way to denounce again "The dark side of the Renaissance" and, after the slave trade, to make it the origin of the colonial system, "Of the unspeakable suffering and appalling oppression inflicted on indigenous peoples and slaves".

Science and Renaissance

The last chapter "Explores [the] scientific transformation, and also shows that new perceptions of time, space and the body were quickly integrated into the philosophy and literature of the period". Copernicus, Vesalius, Ambroise Paré and many others are thus invoked, then a new "return to the East", which this time goes back to the translators of Toledo, to Gérard of Cremona, and even to Baghdad in the 9th century!

The rest of the chapter tackles - again - the print, then goes from the links between art and science to Dante, passing by the natural philosophy of Ficino and Pic de la Mirandole! What follows is just as confused, and one has the impression that J. Brotton has put in it a little everything that he had not been able to fit before: women, printed tales (those of Rabelais in particular) and, finally , epic.

However, this is the part "Return to the bazaar" which is bordering on intellectual scam. The author does not offer us a real conclusion, in an independent part, which would have allowed us to return to the synthesis he claimed to make, and open up the subject a little. He is content with yet another "comeback", as if several times during his test he had lost the thread a bit (which he indeed is). This two-and-a-half-page "return" therefore serves as a conclusion (in any case it will be necessary to be satisfied), through one more example, this time The Comedy of Errors, by Shakespeare. This should allow J. Brotton to finish his book "At the true source of the European Renaissance: the bazaar - the market of the Eastern Mediterranean". However, it is very difficult in reading the essay to find any real proof for what he puts forward, so great is the confusion, and it is perhaps not for nothing if he insists one last time on asserting that his "Book has shown, these achievements already existed for centuries, because it is the exchanges on the markets and bazaars of the East which created the conditions for the emergence of a mobile and planetary world - exceeding by far the intellectual and geographical frontiers of the myth of the European Renaissance ”. One persists in wondering above all where these two hundred and forty pages have led.

Notice of History for all

The term "mess" fits the J. Brotton essay perfectly. We could even prefer a more pejorative and connoted term, also starting with a "b". Because what is most striking is the extreme confusion of the whole: a relatively vague thesis but above all very little substantiated once the reading is completed; examples in shambles often interpreted in a curious way; incessant back and forth, repetitions and repetitions; and, sometimes, we are borderline off-topic. The attempt at synthesis therefore fails. And this also causes, despite some pleasant passages, a weariness in the reader who often finds himself lost, when he is not annoyed.

Because the book poses many other problems. First of all, and here J. Brotton does not have much to do with the presentation of the French edition. When you read Gresh's text, or just the subtitle (How the East and Islam influenced the West), we can think that the essay would be a response, albeit indirect, to Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel, but for the Renaissance period. That we would discover the contributions of Muslim culture to the Renaissance, a bit like all those books devoted to what "culture owes to the Arabs of Spain". This is hardly the case, however, and when it is, it is only to kick open doors and make revelations that aren't. This does not even pay homage to the whole of the work which, if it claims to start from this paradigm, brews many other themes which transcend the borders of Islam or the Ottoman Empire. We can see here the limits of political correctness, which Gresh's text and its wide distribution on certain sites (including that of the Natives of the Republic) foreshadowed. And we stress the real problem with the absence of the date of the first edition, which suggests that the book is recent and therefore "revolutionary".

Second, J. Brotton, whatever the theme he deals with in his essay, does not add anything new. Whether it is about influences between East and West, trade in the Mediterranean in the 15th and 16th centuries, the history of the Great Discoveries from the angle of "world history", humanist thought or the art of the Renaissance. We note, however, a desire to demystify the European Renaissance, which would be commendable if this did not lead the author to insist on "the dark side" (a term that comes up several times), and to give us in the end a vision just as much. biased than the idealized one he criticizes. Indeed, after reading The Renaissance Bazaar, we very little remember the beauties and the advances of the period (mentioned all the same), and we have the impression that the humanists were only sexist opportunists, the artists and the scientists copiers of the marvels and oriental knowledge , the merchants of greedy beings and who inaugurated the slave trade and colonialism,… Deconstruct the myth of the European Renaissance to build a demonized version of it, moreover without bringing anything new on the merits, what good? And then, it is extremely embarrassing to find such sharp value judgments, sometimes with vocabulary that has little to do with a historical essay. Not to mention the anachronisms.

We therefore cannot recommend The Renaissance Bazaar, not only because it adds nothing, but also because it is cartoonish and extremely confusing. We can only be surprised that it has been so successful among the Anglo-Saxons (which saddens some French historians), and especially to regret that it is at the head of the gondola among mainstream booksellers. We can always read it as a curious historiographical object, while questioning the motivations of the French publisher.

- J. Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar. How the East and Islam influenced the West, The links that liberate, 2011, 247 p.


Video: A revival of the Renaissance. Gregory Washington. TEDxOrangeCoast (January 2022).