Martin Ruehl on “Thomas Mann and the Italian Renaissance in Fin-de-Siecle Germany”

The fifth week of Winter Term was started with a guest lecture by Martin Ruehl. Martin – an intellectual historian – studied in Cambridge and Princeton, and is teaching at the University of Cambridge. He visited ECLA for the first time several years ago, presenting a lecture on Nietzsche. He was obviously thrilled to be back. In his lecture, Martin provided a comprehensive introduction to the overall theme of the week: the reception of Quattrocento Italy.

Going far beyond the textual analysis of Thomas Mann’s Fiorenza, Martin gave a fascinating account of the history of reception of the Italian Renaissance in Germany from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s. This “Renaissancismus”, as it is called, was a widespread phenomenom which manifested itself not only in literary statements, but also in a revival of the Renaissance style in architecture and painting. Martin took us on a journey back to the bourgeois and later anti-bourgeois motivations of this Renaissancismus. He started his account with Goethe’s Italian travel diaries of 1829, and continued with the seminal study by Jacob Burckhardt Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860, in particular his chapter on the State as Art Work (in our Readers!). Burckhardt’t impact on his contemporaries was considerable, and among his disciples was Friedrich Nietzsche, who had attended his lectures at Basel university. From Nietzsche’s literary concepts Martin progressed to their appropriation by the racial theorist H. S. Chamberlain, who became a sympathizer of the National-Socialist regime.

After this essential contextualization, we were ready to take a closer look at Thomas Mann’s text of 1905 which has been much criticised. Interestingly, Fiorenza was already considered in critical light by contemporaries. Even at the time Mann was attacked for it by the journalist Alfred Kerr, Mann’s rival in trying to conquer the heart of Katja Pringsheim (Mann’s later wife) who did not consider it a work of genius but of Sitzfleisch (literally translated as sitting flesh). Since its publication, Fiorenza has had difficulty to stand up against other works by Mann, and the discussion over the quality of the work, as well as Mann’s personality and artistic creativity led to a lively discussion afterwards.

Martin can be contacted on

For those interested in reading more about the topic, have a look at the below articles:

‘Death in Florence: Thomas Mann and the Ideologies of Renaissancismus at the Fin de Siècle’, in S. Marchand and D. Lindenfeld (eds), Germany at the Fin de Siècle: Culture, Politics and Ideas (Baton Rouge 2004)

‘Blut, bellezza, Bürgertugend: Thomas Manns Fiorenza und der Renaissancekult um 1900′, in C. Emden and D. Midgley (eds), German Literature, History and the Nation (Oxford 2004), pp. 189-229.

Article by Aya Soika (Faculty)

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