Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 September 2020
Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was a foundational text for British Decadence. John Ruskin had vilified Renaissance Italy for its moral and aesthetic depravity, but for Pater and his followers the works of artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci became vehicles for a radical aesthetic that elevated intensity of experience as the goal of life and saw art as the most crystalized form of that experience. The Renaissance offered sensual enjoyment that could transform and re-enchant the experience of modernity. This chapter argues that it was the aesthetic and moral ambiguousness of the Renaissance that appealed to the Decadent imagination – its audacious blurring of the boundaries between good and evil, the spiritual and the carnal, beauty and ugliness, legitimate and illicit pleasures; its radical unsettling of conventional demarcations of gender, sexuality, place and historical period. For Decadent writers and artists such ambiguities were intellectually and personally liberating. Renaissance Italy provided a creative space in which to explore contemporary uncertainties and to mobilize a distinctively Decadent style.
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