England in the Italian Renaissance

John Gage gauges the impact of Italian influences trickling through to Britain until the 17th century.

England under the Tudors was probably closer to Italy than at any time since the twelfth century, and historians of culture have found it convenient to divide the period into about a half-century of contact through English travellers in Italy during the High Renaissance; and a half-century of influence, during the English Renaissance, when Italian exiles came to England.

The Anglo-Italian contrasts in Elizabethan society are well known: if the Queen called herself demie Italienne, the Genoese financier Sir Horatio Pallavicino became more than half an English country gentleman; and, although Giordano Bruno despised the word-chopping and beer-swilling of the Oxford philosophers, he nevertheless found in London his “Venetia” of freedom, where he could publish safe from the Inquisition.

Yet it has not been sufficiently recognized that the earlier period of contact saw a traffic of ideas and interest between England and Italy that was not entirely one-way. Renaissance ideas were not necessarily new; the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini complained of arid scholasticism in England when he visited this country in 1418-22, but the favourite philosopher of that great Renaissance patron, Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), was Duns Scotus, and the figure of “Perspective” by Antonio Pollaiuolo on Sixtus’ tomb (1493) bears a text not by Alberti, nor Piero della Francesca, nor any other Renaissance writer on the subject, but from a work of Archbishop John Peckham, who was trouncing Thomism in Oxford at the end of the thirteenth century. 

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