- La Renaissance et la nuit
Both elite and popular culture in the Renaissance seem to have privileged day over night in their discourse about social, cultural, artistic, and intellectual practices. On the positive side, humanists from Petrarch onwards fashioned a [End Page 563] vocabulary of clarity, illumination, and enlightenment to express their program of education. On the negative side, urban as well as rural dwellers documented their fears about night and darkness as a setting for theft, riot, and violence. Or so it might seem until we begin to look carefully at complex figurations of night in major texts of the period. This is exactly what Daniel Ménager does as he challenges the privilege accorded to day over night in early modern Europe. Biblical texts, he argues, accord night the same status as day since God created both, and believers themselves dedicated night as a special time for prayer. Furthermore, he contends, the logical relationship of night to day emphasizes a natural succession rather than artificial opposition, a cyclic progression from one to the other and then back again that valorizes night as a concomitant of day. Finally, night enjoys a productive association with scholarship, science, and the creative and performing arts. It's not for nothing that many of us enjoying this journal think of ourselves as happy night owls, a charter extended to us by none other than Minerva herself.
The book's five chapters pursue these themes with an exceptionally rich variety of interpretation and analysis. Beginning with a study of cosmology, Ménager contrasts Hesiod's version of night as chaos with the aforementioned biblical approval of it as part of divine creation, and he uses the tension between these two views as a structural principle for assessing Renaissance representations of night. It helped the proponents of tenebrosity that the Hymn to Night attributed to Orpheus came to publication by Henri Estienne in 1566, ritualizing the beneficence of the dark hours for scholars and artists alike. Earlier devotees of Cupid and erotic pleasure needed no such inducement to celebrate their nocturnal preferences. Neo-Latin elegists, Italian Petrarchists, and the poets of the Pléiade alike found night inseparable from their dreams of amatory conquest or frustration. In this regard, Ronsard emerges early in the chapter as a master-poet for his Amours, just as later in the chapter he holds sway for his sober assessment of night as principle of order in his "Hynne à la Nuit" and "Hynne de l'Hyver." His senior contemporary, Michelangelo, commands an important subsection for his sculpture of Notte on Giuliano de' Medici's tomb as a figure of repose, as a sign of fecundity and triumph over death, and as a veiled statement of liberation from the growth of Medici tyranny.
The book's next two chapters treat respectively of imaginative literature and moral representation. In the former, Sannazaro's pastoral Arcadia affords a model that later writers would take in different, productively divergent directions. The shepherds of his prose narrative spend starry nights singing poetic eclogues of compliment and complaint, investing their performances with a plenitude that fuses private and public concerns. Its private dimension would inform the amatory poetry of Remy Belleau's pastoral sonnet sequence Bergerie in the late sixteenth century, while its public dimension would help shape the hermetic Rosicrucian allegory of Johann Valentin Andreae's The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz just before the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. The keystone of the third chapter — and the fulcrum of the book — is a generous subsection on Don Quixote. Here Cervantes's insomniac hero transforms his sleeplessness into an act [End Page 564] of devotion, fusing ethics and aesthetics in his construction of an ideal while affording a countervailing critique of the outmoded chivalric ethic that occupies him during daylight hours. Quixote's obsessive reading habits distort the aims of study espoused by Petrarch in De vita solitaria just as surely as they reproduce the indecision...