Before the late seventeenth century, the language of criticism develops within the rhetorical tradition. Renaissance discussions of style accordingly centre on prose, a focus reflecting the cultural priority of the humanist paideia over vernacular poetry throughout the period. The fullest and most important of such discussions occur in the great scholarly neo-Latin rhetorics, although these subsequently inform vernacular rhetoric, as well as poetics, music theory, and art criticism. Because stylistic concepts evolve within the pan-European culture of neo-Latin humanism, it seems possible to sketch a general outline of Renaissance stylistics; yet because the cultural and political functions of these rhetorical categories shift from country to country, such an overview needs to be supplemented by consideration of specific national contexts. This chapter will therefore examine the dominant trends in Renaissance stylistics but also their divergent ideological exfoliation in France and England.
Renaissance terminology for stylistic analysis draws upon four principal categories, all borrowed from classical rhetoric. Style may be described in terms of (1) the genera dicendi – the Roman categories of low/plain, middle, and grand style (or their Greek equivalents); (2) its classical prototypes; for example, a style may be labelled as Senecan, Tacitean, or Ciceronian; (3) its characteristic features, especially syntactic; Renaissance rhetorics thus classify styles as periodic, curt, copious, laconic, pointed, loose; and (4) the related distinction between Attic (brief), Asiatic (copious), and Rhodian (intermediate) styles. These categories are not exclusive; one may describe an author as using an Asiatic middle style or pointed Senecan brevity. Nor are they unambiguous. In Renaissance (as in classical) rhetoric, for example, the plain style includes an informal conversational manner, the type of speech characteristic of ‘low’ persons, the unartistic plainness of logical/scholastic argument, and a graceful cultivated urbanity.