La Renaissance et la nuit
In this stimulating volume, Ménager applies his vast erudition to a topic clearly under-researched heretofore. When considering his period and theme, night's negative connotations (fear and danger) must be set against its positive associations: starlight and moonlight redeem it in a wide range of contexts (including scientific astronomy) and it is also a time for rest and lovemaking. Moreover one should not simply equate night with darkness. During the Crucifixion the sun was obscured, but in daytime. Conversely, the nativity occurred on a starlit night. Genesis is also revisited in order to dissociate night (created by God on the fourth day) from l'obscurité primordiale, whereas classical antiquity, particularly Hesiod, is less approving, which hostility is reinforced by Renaissance humanists, Ficino in particular, given the prestige they afforded the Sun. In response, Ménager emancipates la nuit, a feminine time (p. 82), using a broad variety of materials drawn from philosophy, science, literature, fine art and theology. Although the least perfect of the stars, the Moon is an essential counterpart to the Sun. Traditionally infected by temptation, the hours of darkness can also lead one closer to God, for instance via a contemplation of the Agony, the Christian's tragic night par excellence. Although for some night was a time of melancholia inimical to useful study, others, including Erasmus and Aneau, favoured the midnight oil as endorsed by the emblematic figure of the owl and the in nocte consilium topos. In the former connection, Dürer's Melencolia is subjected to a deep analysis whose (laudable) aim is to refute superficial appearances: is it not less a [End Page 379] study of idleness than of reflexion, and is it not sited in twilight rather than night-time? A similar respect for artistic polysemy accompanies Ménager's intepretation of Michelangelo's Notte and his reading of Quixote: driven mad by reading the wrong texts at the wrong time, the latter yet performs nocturnal exploits that are the more admirable for being unobserved and fearless. The final chapter ('Nocturnes') provides a long and stimulating treatment of various Renaissance paintings (by Correggio and Bassano, among others), again refusing simplistic equations whereby, for example, night scenes are viewed systematically as mannerist. Within these different pictures, Ménager particularly investigates the sources of light and the allegorical meanings their implications have incited. Although his enthusiasm in rescuing and redefining la nuit may even affect its very gender (p. 22: the fate is shared by [la] ciel (p. 56) and [la] bal (p. 201)), hyper-criticism is the less appropriate for the work's being so challenging and so wide-ranging: references to Stendhal, Kafka, Maupassant, for instance, stand alongside readings of an extensive gamut of sixteenth-century European authors, especially Ronsard, but not excluding Shakespeare. Specialists will no doubt pick up points of detail: for instance, Ménager's sense of the discipline and temporality of the Heptaméron (p. 226) is, by my reading, a little abrupt. Yet in doing so they will scarcely impair the quality of what is a genuinely new perspective on a most fertile field of study.