Arts Librarian Raymond mounts a defence of the printed word as an e-library purge sweeps through his university. Thousands of volumes are culled before the librarian himself is shown the door. Redundant, alone with his books, Raymond plots his renaissance: a return to a time when everything he encountered was new.

Renaissance takes him back to architecture, to the student experience, to the suburb of his student days, all encapsulated in his planned renovation of a derelict warehouse.

When the renovation stalls, Raymond takes the opportunity to visit Italy. Inspired by a classic text, surrounded by the architecture of Italy, he re-invents himself as the ‘student of architecture’. He learns to draw, to see with different eyes, to discover the Italian Renaissance as if it were new. Why didn’t we just stop here? he asks.

But on the cusp of heading to Rome, misadventure disrupts his euphoria, and he finds himself convalescent in the home of an Italian nonna, in an Italy that is everyday.

Renaissance is a novel of books, of art and architecture, of rediscovery. It explores the relationship between past and present, between old and new, between personal and cultural longing.

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extracts from chapters 1, 2, 3 & 4

This is how it all begins – Raymond sees Don Quixote lying in a skip. The last days of summer. Sun shines in the bluest of skies, small birds sing, a sweet breeze flirts with the leaves on the eucalypts. Days like this you could imagine yourself by the sea – the cries of the gulls circling, the soft kiss of the tide on the sand, and you without a care in the world, drinking chilled white wine and thinking you could live forever. No hint of the autumn to come.

Don Quixote. Raymond clambers over the edge, bangs his knee on the hard metal, looses his balance and tumbles onto his back. He rolls over till they are face to face. Don Quixote. Someone has thrown Cervantes’ masterpiece into the skip! Back up on his knees, he examines his find. Wear on the spine, a faded scratch on the back cover, fresh damage on the bottom left corner where it landed. He tries to smooth out the crease, gently coaxing the bent corner back, but he knows you can’t do that with a book, the scar will be permanent.

The Tobias Smollett translation. Remember the difficulty getting that? Years out of print then. All those faxes to that bookseller in Tottenham Court Road. Did he really have a copy or was he just playing you along? The library has others, Putman’s and the Edith Grossman translation, as good as any contemporary version, but Smollett is the original and the favourite. It’s the language, it takes you back…So eager and entangled was our Hidalgo in this kind of history, that he would often read from morning till night, and from night to morning again, without interruption, till at last, the moisture of his brain being quite exhausted with indefatigable watching and study, he fairly lost his wits.

What other treasures have been thrown away? Raymond gets back on his feet and perches on the slender metal edge of the skip, one foot resting on somebody or other’s First Principles of Accountancy, the other on a science textbook, Inorganic Chemistry, Kotz & Purcell. There is a broad ledge at the front of the skip and it is there that he places Cervantes’ classic. He traces an arc across the cover with the tips of his fingers, an apology for the outrage.

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He will have to sell the house. He doesn’t want to, he can’t avoid it. On the day of the decision he wanders from room to room overcome by nostalgia and distressed by feelings of guilt. Abandonment? Betrayal? You make your home here, you live your life here, and then one day you walk away, you leave it behind. Will Em still be there for him when the house is gone? He stands at the back door, looks out into the garden. It’s still the same garden, the one they made together, and it’s still the same house. But the town is no longer the one they fell in love with. That town has gone now, and if developers buy the house, the house will be gone, too.

They couldn’t believe their luck then – a twenties house on a big block, more than an acre, going for ‘almost nothing’. Views to the hills from the kitchen window, an old orchard over the back fence, kids riding their ponies down the street on the weekends. It was close enough to the northern suburbs for work, but far enough away to be its own place, to have its own small town identity. You would meet people in Yerendah who had lived there all of their lives, and they could tell you about the bushfires and the droughts, they could tell you what life was like between the wars. They remembered who were the first families to have cars, who were the first to get television sets.

The houses in Yerendah reflected those two periods. A lot of of them were built in the nineteen-twenties – stuccoed brick bungalows with red-tiled roofs, arched porches facing the street, big front windows with leadlights up top. The age of Australiana, gum nuts and gum leaves, native birds and flowers. Houses with big hallways and living rooms, and kitchens always too small. There had been another burst of building in the nineteen-fifties, flat-roofed fibro cottages on the outskirts of the town. The plainest of houses, these, ‘timid’ you would call them, houses without ambition or stature. They were never able to compete with their solid pre-war cousins, and they hadn’t worn well, either, always looked run-down without ever looking ‘old’.

Outside the day is warm, the air tastes of spring. Raymond settles into the chair under the lemon-scented magnolia. There is a mower humming in the distance and snatches of clarinet practice up the road. The town was at its best in spring. Mists in the morning, the first sounds of crickets, the nights sometimes warm enough to eat outside. The old orchard, (long gone now), would spontaneously burst into flower one day, and that was the cue for Em to replant the herb garden, ready for the summer. Time didn’t move on in Yerendah, it came, it went, it came back again. A cycle of renewal.

They weren’t the only ones to discover Yerendah. There was a steady stream afterwards, people with jobs in the northern suburbs, enjoying the evening drive home past the farms and the orchards. There was no way it could last. You could see the northern suburbs advancing crab-like along the highway, closer and closer, year after year. Now that the town has been swallowed up and the northern suburbs have moved on, what is left? Pockets of the 1920s houses, but with swimming pools, two-storey extensions and kitchens you could run a restaurant out of. Most of the fifties houses have been bulldozed.

In the end there is also the promise of a beginning. Weeks passed before that realisation took hold. Then one morning, sitting in this same chair under the magnolia, Raymond freed himself from his melancholy and made the decision. No, he would not retreat to the life of the retired librarian, the eccentric old man with a house full of books, he would start again. And by then he had a vision of what ‘starting again’ might mean: finding a new life by going back to the past, back to the promise of a future that had once been there.

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It’s a different type of drawing, the drawing of the architect. Architects draw things that don’t yet exist, they draw things into existence. How to draw like an architect. Remember that? The way the lines had to overlap, not stopping where they met, but crossing over to form an intersection, the corner precise within it. Overlapping the ends of the lines, drawing each line with a single clean stroke, drawing with boldness and purpose. And the feel of the drawing pen, light in the fingers but firm on the paper. How significant the black ink seemed as the line came into being, as if the line once drawn could never be erased, as if drawing were actually building.

The young architect draws quickly. It’s just three weeks since her visit, and they are perched on stools at a drawing table, as she reveals her ideas in her white-black-white architect’s office. Photographs of contemporary interiors line the walls, the same ones she used in the lecture. The stables converted into apartments, the restaurant conversion, the re-built warehouse. She is throwing ideas around with her pen the way other people talk. She talks as she draws, explaining the ideas, pen and voice working as a team.

‘I really like your idea of keeping the old doorway at one end of the warehouse and the big arched window at the other. But let’s emphasise them.’

So she takes the openings as a motif and makes another in the middle of the space by putting in an arch that mirrors the openings at either end.

‘It’s not a ‘real’ arch, it’s not structural, only holding itself up.’

The arch appears on the paper, a big broad arch of laminated timber, attached at the top to the exposed timber truss. An orb at its apex is sketched, and the timber fretwork linking the sides to the brick walls. But she resists Raymond’s idea of keeping the old stairwell.

‘How you arrive at a space is critically important for how you experience it,’ she says.

She wants a circular stairwell right in the middle of the space so that the whole open area is revealed as you wind your way up the stairs. A prism-shaped skylight above will give it a celestial quality, and glass treads on the staircase will refract and reflect the light above. It’s a staircase you can see through, right up to the sky.

‘You will feel like you are being lifted up,’ she says, ‘like you’re ascending a staircase to heaven.’

Raymond is happy to go along with that, but then she installs the library downstairs! Punching big holes in the end walls to let light in, and filling in the holes with glass bricks. It’s genius, really – thin glass bricks stacked together to look like books on a shelf, standing, lying, leaning. The idea is exhilirating, but it ignores his brief. The library is meant to be upstairs.

‘It’s wonderful, but…’

‘You will still have books upstairs.’ Peering at him through her black-framed glasses, trying to reassure, sensing his resistance. ‘Here. A small, intimate library. A private library. An alcove. For all your really important books.’

And the pen is at work again, detailing how that might look: an almost enclosed space, a narrow entrance. ‘You might even have to turn sideways to enter…’ It gives a sense of just how private a private library could be. There’s no desk at its centre, there’s no space for a desk, just the outlines of a chair. But then it’s not just any chair.

‘Marcel Breuer. You have such an affection for modernism.’ She pulls a catalogue off the shelf, flicks through it until she finds the chair. ‘They still make them. The Wassily. You don’t sit in this chair. You’re sort of suspended in it. Perfect for reading.’

A Bauhaus design – tubular chrome frame with black leather straps stretched across it like strips of skin. It’s modernism, pure modernism, just as he remembers it.

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The restaurant is on the far side of the Giardini in a residential neighbourhood that doesn’t look a lot like the rest of Venice, there is so much space. They are dining on the pavement. There’s a view towards the water in one direction and a view into a walled garden in the other. Boys kick a ball around the campo.

‘I’m thinking of returning to Architecture.’

They have finished their entrées of stewed salt cod and now the waiter has cleared their plates. Raymond judges it the right moment.

‘You mean, to study? To become a student again?’ The word is whispered, as if the suggestion is somehow scandalous.

‘I’m looking at it as unfinished business.’

‘This is because of the warehouse project. You’ve been so immersed in it.’

‘I’ve started going to lectures, and I’ve been to a couple of architecture events. That’s how I found the architect, Gabriele. She gave a lecture about her work, but it wasn’t the work that struck me, it was what she said. Buildings have histories, buildings have lives. We don’t need to demolish the past to build the future…I’m reading a lot, too. There’s a whole new section in my library – history, theory, contemporary design journals, and lots and lots on Modernism. I’ve been re-reading the works I read in Architecture School. It comes back. I have to tell you, I’m really inspired again.’

‘But Raymond, you don’t seriously see yourself becoming an architect, do you…? Do you?’

He hasn’t thought about that. Becoming an architect. It’s the wrong question. What does it mean to ‘become an architect’, anyway? It’s a question for another time.

‘I want to be a student again, to pick up from where I left off, and the simplest way of doing that is to return to where it all started.’

‘But Raymond, everything changed. Architecture is a different world now…’

‘I know. They’ve demolished the old building at the university and built a new one, and they don’t call it a ‘School of Architecture’ anymore, it’s ‘Environments’, now. Yes, it’s different there, people see Architecture with different eyes, but….’

‘It’s been a long, long time…’

‘I know, but it’s got big on me. It’s what I think about all the time…’

‘Why not do Fine Arts? You don’t need a professional qualification, you just want to enjoy the field.’

Over the main course of more Venetian fish, Cass warms to the idea of Raymond doing a Fine Arts degree. This is her territory, and she paints a picture of people like Raymond happily returning to university to study things for which there is no professional outcome and no specific expectation. ‘Best time of your life,’ she says. And she talks quickly about museums and galleries, periods and histories, movements and turning points, art heroes and art warriors, and she makes it sound almost irresistible, except….

Except it’s not the answer for Raymond, because the point of returning to study is to study architecture, whatever the outcome of that might be. As he listens to her expound on the joys of the Fine Arts degree, he realises the mistake he is making in imagining a return to the institution. The books are great, but the university doesn’t work. Sitting up the back in the lecture theatre, listening to a different language, trying to understand a sensibility that is barely recognisable, and feeling all the time alienated like he doesn’t belong. And it doesn’t work because there is no romance there, no possibility of experiencing awe like there is in Venice, no moment of euphoria in discovering the Renaissance as a set of architect’s drawings. And then he remembers Robinson, and another idea of the architecture student takes hold.

‘We had this lecturer back then, Robinson was his name. We all thought he was the best design teacher in the school. He had this way of explaining the process of design; he made the act of creation totally compelling. We were in awe of him. Some of the staff were too, I think. Then one day, we found out something really shocking: Robinson had never built anything! Nothing. Whatever buildings he’d designed, whatever brilliant schemes he’d fashioned on his drafting table, none of them had ever been built. He was an architect without architecture. It was devastating at the time, and just like that, we all gave up on him. How can you be an architect without architecture? we asked. We didn’t get it then, but I do now. Architecture was his way of understanding the world.’

It’s their last night together in Venice, the curator of contemporary art and the architecture student, and they walk back along the riva, arm in arm, in a strange sort of harmony. And Venice is a dark lagoon, reflections on the water of the lights on the vaporetti, black silhouetted buildings in the distance, dimly lit spires, the fragrance of the flowering shrubs perfuming the air around the Giardini.

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