Friday, September 26, 2014

Discovering Great Books About the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration

By Jeff Burns
Trends in history and historical writing come and go.  Lately, some historians and historical commentators have been downplaying the importance of the Renaissance, arguing that the concept of the Renaissance was only created generations later by Eurocentric historians who ignored the fact that the great advances of the period were truly the result of a major period of globalization.  (Watch John Green’s Crash Course video here )

No matter how the history of the 15th and 16th centuries is written, the world was forever changed.  Here are a few interesting books about the period you should consider.

Author Charles Mann has written two great books on the subject of globalization:  1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  1491 presents the latest scholarship on the Americas before the voyages of Columbus.  It’s a fascinating and thorough account of cultures throughout the two continents, and it introduces many ideas that run counter to longstanding conventional wisdom.  1493 examines the effects of European exploration on the entire world, not just the Americas and Europe, environmentally, economically, culturally, and politically. 
Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston Jr also focuses on 1492.  As the title says, Reston writes about the three pivotal events that created Spain and transformed Europe and the world in the process.  Detailed and thorough, it’s a very entertaining read, and Reston’s narrative brings the central characters to life.

Stephen Greenblatt examines the origins of humanist thought, the driving force behind the Renaissance in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.  It’s part biography, part detective story, his search for information on a papal librarian who discovered an ancient Roman poem written 1000 years earlier, called “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius.  Lucretius’ poem set down ideas that the Church and the European establishment deemed to be dangerous, and it had been  locked away and forgotten.  Greenblatt holds that its rediscovery inspired the greatest minds of the Renaissance.
The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior: Da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped by Paul Strathern is about three of the most important men of the Renaissance and their very brief, but impactful, interaction in 1502.  The book is a real insight into three of the most brilliant, and disparate, geniuses of their day.

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