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The Renaissance: A Short History

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The Renaissance holds an undying place in our imagination, its great heroes still our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Chaucer. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern and producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. But what was it? In t The Renaissance holds an undying place in our imagination, its great heroes still our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Chaucer. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern and producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. But what was it? In this masterly work, the incomparable Paul Johnson tells us. He explains the economic, technological, and social developments that provide a backdrop to the age’s achievements and focuses closely on the lives and works of its most important figures. A commanding short narrative of this vital period, The Renaissance is also a universally profound meditation on the wellsprings of innovation.


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The Renaissance holds an undying place in our imagination, its great heroes still our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Chaucer. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern and producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. But what was it? In t The Renaissance holds an undying place in our imagination, its great heroes still our own, from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Dante and Chaucer. This period of profound evolution in European thought is credited with transforming the West from medieval to modern and producing the most astonishing outpouring of artistic creation the world has ever known. But what was it? In this masterly work, the incomparable Paul Johnson tells us. He explains the economic, technological, and social developments that provide a backdrop to the age’s achievements and focuses closely on the lives and works of its most important figures. A commanding short narrative of this vital period, The Renaissance is also a universally profound meditation on the wellsprings of innovation.

30 review for The Renaissance: A Short History

  1. 4 out of 5

    David

    I enjoyed this overview of that most fascinating historical periods. It might also be subtitled "How 15th Century Italy Woke Up the World." Johnson (whose "History of Christianity" I read decades ago) gives a basic overview of the period, including technological and economic conditions. Then he addresses the "awakening" in four separate sections: literature, sculpture, architecture, and painting. Since it's a "short history" I was often left wanting more; but I enjoyed his overview of the relati I enjoyed this overview of that most fascinating historical periods. It might also be subtitled "How 15th Century Italy Woke Up the World." Johnson (whose "History of Christianity" I read decades ago) gives a basic overview of the period, including technological and economic conditions. Then he addresses the "awakening" in four separate sections: literature, sculpture, architecture, and painting. Since it's a "short history" I was often left wanting more; but I enjoyed his overview of the relationships between people and events, and how the Renaissance unfolded and expanded. He talks about the Renaissance being "primarily a human event" and introduces the lives of the great men who were a part of it. It got to be annoying in the audiobook that every character's name was followed by the years of his birth and death. Oh, and it's hard to listen to this kind of book without pictures! I tried to imagine the buildings and works of art in my mind, but there were many where I really wanted to be looking at a photo while the item was described. Nevertheless, a worthwhile book as an introduction or review.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Maggie ☘

    Reall enjoyed this brief, but detailed and informative, history of Renaissance. The book is clearly categorized into the history of literature, sculptures, architecture, art and concludes with the transmission of Renaissance through Europe and its decline in Italy. One thing I noticed a bit (maybe too often) was how much of his own personal opinion the author mixed with the facts. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci seemed to sometimes be quite criticized for what the author thought of them as pe Reall enjoyed this brief, but detailed and informative, history of Renaissance. The book is clearly categorized into the history of literature, sculptures, architecture, art and concludes with the transmission of Renaissance through Europe and its decline in Italy. One thing I noticed a bit (maybe too often) was how much of his own personal opinion the author mixed with the facts. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci seemed to sometimes be quite criticized for what the author thought of them as people, and less on their work - their art - while other artists were highlighted because the author seemed to appreciate them more as people. But then again, I didn't expect this work to be 100% objective, and so far as one can recognize opinions as such and not clear facts, I don't have too many problems with it. Even though Michelangelo and Leonardo are (one of) my favourite artists from the era. 3.5

  3. 4 out of 5

    An Idler

    Johnson has focused on short, digestible books in his twilight years - a far cry from his former epics such as Birth of the Modern and Modern Times. By his own admission, this is in large part a response to the death of that middle-ground of historical writing that was once occupied by serious-yet-popular histories. These newer, slimmer volumes are Johnson's attempt to appeal to audiences that lack the interest to tackle a mighty tome, but his sweeping scope is a poor fit. There are still flashes Johnson has focused on short, digestible books in his twilight years - a far cry from his former epics such as Birth of the Modern and Modern Times. By his own admission, this is in large part a response to the death of that middle-ground of historical writing that was once occupied by serious-yet-popular histories. These newer, slimmer volumes are Johnson's attempt to appeal to audiences that lack the interest to tackle a mighty tome, but his sweeping scope is a poor fit. There are still flashes of Johnson. His joyous agility with archaic jargon (the background factors of the Renaissance show here and there "like palimpsests"), the thunderbolts that illuminate his positions and opinions, etc. But it's not up to his former standard. For Johnson fans only. Prospective fans should start with his longer works.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shawn Thrasher

    Johnson says it's nonsense to write that Michelangelo was gay - and it may well be nonsense. He also emphatically states, among other things, that Chaucer never read The Decameron. I'm not exactly sure how he knows both of these things for certain; actually, I'm certain that these are his opinions. This is a "short history" with the Johnson's occasional opinions. I'm not so foolish to think that historians don't inject their opinions into what they write; quite frankly, that is what makes histor Johnson says it's nonsense to write that Michelangelo was gay - and it may well be nonsense. He also emphatically states, among other things, that Chaucer never read The Decameron. I'm not exactly sure how he knows both of these things for certain; actually, I'm certain that these are his opinions. This is a "short history" with the Johnson's occasional opinions. I'm not so foolish to think that historians don't inject their opinions into what they write; quite frankly, that is what makes history so interesting to read. But I think that Johnson's opinions aren't every really qualified with any facts to back them up. He wants certain things to be true, and thinks by writing them, they will be. Bleah. This is lazy writing at worst, and almost completely unimaginative at best. If you want some meaty, opinionated but also beautiful prose on this subject, try the longer but much richer The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304 1576 Ad .

  5. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    The main problem with this book was that it presents the Renaissance less as a historic period (whatever a historic period might be) and more as a series of great men mostly in the arts doing rather impressive arty things. That is, the Renaissance didn’t end up quite as I would have expected it to. Now, my view of history is a bit more like James Burke’s in Connections – where history is the creation of jigsaw pieces and great ‘men’ (and I guess in the Renaissance ‘men’ it had to mostly be) are th The main problem with this book was that it presents the Renaissance less as a historic period (whatever a historic period might be) and more as a series of great men mostly in the arts doing rather impressive arty things. That is, the Renaissance didn’t end up quite as I would have expected it to. Now, my view of history is a bit more like James Burke’s in Connections – where history is the creation of jigsaw pieces and great ‘men’ (and I guess in the Renaissance ‘men’ it had to mostly be) are those who get all the credit once they are the first to put all the pieces together. The myth that is presented here is that if a great artist in particular did not exist then the world would be down one great artist. One gaping hole would open up in the aesthetic fabric of the cosmos. There is no Zero-Sum game quite like it. Sure, Galileo was pretty smart, but people would have eventually looked through a telescope to see the moons of Jupiter and even figured out that odd little fact about falling bodies of different weights. He was a genius only by being first, but by necessity his discoveries would have been discovered again. Not so a Titian or a Michelangelo. Artists are of a completely different substance than we mere mortals and they are much like gasps of fresh air when trapped in the septic tank of history. It is all a bit hard to take after a while. Burke’s criticism – that these artists would have been nothing without the technological advances that gave them oil paints and printing and engraving, I think still holds. Anyway, I’m not completely convinced that if there had never been a Titian necessarily means there would not have been someone else. Every successful artist takes away a sequence of opportunities that someone else may have had. If there was no Shakespeare there would have been no Hamlet, I can see that, but there would possibly have still been a theatre on the dangerous side of the river and it would still have needed plays… I don’t want to take away anything from the greatness of these artists, but over inflating them might only make them into grotesques, rather than the remarkable humans they actually were. But I digress. What I actually wanted to say was that I didn’t read this book, but listened to it as a talking book and it reminded me of what it would be like if I was watching a really interesting art program on television and suddenly the picture tube on the TV went and all I could get was the sound. It was a real problem as I really have no idea what any of the works discussed in any of these churches look like. I mean, there is not a single image in my head of any of the pictures that adorn the walls of the Our Lady of the Thank You church. So while he was gushing, I was spending my time thinking about the type of language one ends up using when gushing over works of art. I had to do this, as there is only so long that I could say to myself – god, McCandless, you really should find out more about art. There were some incredibly interesting things said in this book. The most interesting was that artists started creating images of individuals at about the same time as artists started being individuals themselves. That is, when artists started signing their names to their paintings, they also started painting people who were less ‘symbols’ or archetypes and more real people. Like I said, this would have made a really good documentary with lots of sweeping visuals of canvases and buildings and gardens while this guy gushed. But as a text it left much to be desired – quite literally. I never thought of the problems associated with making sculptures in bronze (in times of war some idiot will turn your statue into a canon) or in gold (in hard times some once-rich-person will decide they could do with the ready money rather than a figurine). How much priceless art was turned back into base metal is probably best not thought about. I would have preferred a book that gave a bit more detail on the lives of some of the political figures of the period. I would have liked to come away with a better understanding of the interaction between secular and religious political leadership and the consequences this had on all aspects of life in the Renaissance. But except for quite a short bit on Machiavelli and Dante there was virtually no discussion of politics at all. He did say something very interesting about the fact that the Church was so powerful that it felt unassailable and therefore allowed lots of paintings of pagan things – you know, Greek gods raping women disguised as clouds and such – that would not be allowed during the reformation or counter-reformation – but I would have liked more on this. I would also have liked more on the philosophy of the period – I mean, Aristotle was rediscovered and was making quite a splash – so… I think I will eventually need to read more about the Renaissance, obviously, the book I will read will need to have lots of pictures. I had hoped this book would have been a bit more informative. I think I would have liked it more if it did history with a bit more – this happened, but over here there was this and this. Who would have thought that this and that would mean the Pope would need to build a tower that would block the line of sight between … and so on. Like I said, something more like James Burke would have done.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    There is real value in this little book. And while I wouldn't call it "exciting", if you like a splash of opinion in your reading then this rises above the average academic text. This well-organized "Short History" does a fine job of outlining the major times, people, and places where the great wheel of the Renaissance turned. I like the attempt to divide the arts into writing, sculpture, architecture, and painting. I found that by not mixing artistic genres in discussion, it was easier to absor There is real value in this little book. And while I wouldn't call it "exciting", if you like a splash of opinion in your reading then this rises above the average academic text. This well-organized "Short History" does a fine job of outlining the major times, people, and places where the great wheel of the Renaissance turned. I like the attempt to divide the arts into writing, sculpture, architecture, and painting. I found that by not mixing artistic genres in discussion, it was easier to absorb who influenced whom, and when. So why do I only give three stars? Two reasons. First, the opnions mixed in with facts bother me. What the author knows about an artist should be kept clearly separate from what the author thinks of an artist. For example, Masaccio gets a pass on being "sloppy", preoccupied, or difficult mostly because he died at age 27 and is poorly documented. Michalangelo and Leonardo are both singled out for opinionated criticism based on their personages, not their art. The second reason this book loses a star might have more to do with the publisher than the author. Pictures. I fail to see why pictures of the wonderful artwork and buildings being described could not be inserted freely into the book. If Palladio never built two structures the same, then why not show side by side pictures of two of his surviving structures in Venice to show his flair for originality? So, as a summary of the Renaissance this isn't bad. But it isn't great either. Soak in the history, ignore the opinions.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rw

    What a wonderful little book. It makes me feel like writing down all of the artwork I have not seen in Europe and planning a trip just to follow Johnson's development of the Renaissance.So much better than any Art History course I have ever taken. This is the third book I have read by the author and I find his books to be a source of intelligence and readable. Never the boring, cumbersome reading of so many academics. Like the Renaissance, Mr. Johnson has opened the readers eyes to new ideas and What a wonderful little book. It makes me feel like writing down all of the artwork I have not seen in Europe and planning a trip just to follow Johnson's development of the Renaissance.So much better than any Art History course I have ever taken. This is the third book I have read by the author and I find his books to be a source of intelligence and readable. Never the boring, cumbersome reading of so many academics. Like the Renaissance, Mr. Johnson has opened the readers eyes to new ideas and different ways of looking at things. Did the Times change the people, or did the people change the Times? Loved the book, now I want to find something in more depth to complement this work.

  8. 4 out of 5

    David Lafferty

    I like Paul Johnson. His Art history book is terrific. This book was a bit dry for me. Having visited Florence for the first time this year, I was hoping for more. It's a decent book, nothing earth shattering. Incidently, I've started an Italy group here on GR if you're interested in connecting with other Italophiles like me. I like Paul Johnson. His Art history book is terrific. This book was a bit dry for me. Having visited Florence for the first time this year, I was hoping for more. It's a decent book, nothing earth shattering. Incidently, I've started an Italy group here on GR if you're interested in connecting with other Italophiles like me.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Victoria

    This book was one of the most delightful surprises of the past year. 185 pages, but brings you in and guides you through the history of Renaissance brilliantly. Not for visual types, no illustrations. For this see a beautifully illustrated and much more detailed "History of Italian Renaissance Art" This book was one of the most delightful surprises of the past year. 185 pages, but brings you in and guides you through the history of Renaissance brilliantly. Not for visual types, no illustrations. For this see a beautifully illustrated and much more detailed "History of Italian Renaissance Art"

  10. 4 out of 5

    Annette

    This was the third book I read (or tried to read) to understand the Renaissance. The other two I couldn't even get through. This one, by contrast, was a pleasure. It is concise and well-organized. Since it has no illustrations, I kept my iPad handy so I could look up art, buildings and people. That worked for me. This was the third book I read (or tried to read) to understand the Renaissance. The other two I couldn't even get through. This one, by contrast, was a pleasure. It is concise and well-organized. Since it has no illustrations, I kept my iPad handy so I could look up art, buildings and people. That worked for me.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    My interest in the Renaissance was piqued after a trip to Italy. It made me want to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about painting, architecture, literature, and sculpture of that period of time. If only I could retain the wealth of information contained in this brief history!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Silber

    Full of so much information that you'll forget 10 minutes later. Full of so much information that you'll forget 10 minutes later.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Chase Parsley

    I love the Modern Library Chronicles series, but was really disappointed with this one. It was as dry as a bone, and the title is misleading. It was almost all about the Italian art Renaissance, without the benefit of any illustrations or photos, and long chapters about sculpture, architecture, and painting comprise most of the book. I was hoping for more politics, religion, exploration, and bigger picture of the period. A far, far better book is “A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester. I love the Modern Library Chronicles series, but was really disappointed with this one. It was as dry as a bone, and the title is misleading. It was almost all about the Italian art Renaissance, without the benefit of any illustrations or photos, and long chapters about sculpture, architecture, and painting comprise most of the book. I was hoping for more politics, religion, exploration, and bigger picture of the period. A far, far better book is “A World Lit Only By Fire” by William Manchester. Finally, the language Johnson uses is flowery and eloquent to a fault, and he assumes the reader already has a deep pool of knowledge about the subject. It comes off as snobbish. There are some kernels of wisdom though, and an art and/or art history buff would enjoy this book more than I did. I’ve read lots of books from this series, and so far my top three are the ones about Communism, the Catholic Church, and The Feminist Promise.

  14. 4 out of 5

    James Varney

    Paul Johnson's books are always so good I wanted to love this one, too. But it's too much. I suppose people who have more familiarity than I do with the Italian artists - in all fields - will get more out of it, but my head was spinning halfway through (and it's short) with names. I had to constantly check the chronology, which is extremely helpful and at the beginning of the book. Literature is my favorite art and the one with which I'm most familiar so the opening chapters, featuring Dante and Paul Johnson's books are always so good I wanted to love this one, too. But it's too much. I suppose people who have more familiarity than I do with the Italian artists - in all fields - will get more out of it, but my head was spinning halfway through (and it's short) with names. I had to constantly check the chronology, which is extremely helpful and at the beginning of the book. Literature is my favorite art and the one with which I'm most familiar so the opening chapters, featuring Dante and Boccacio, were fine but once we got into doorways and cathedrals and sculpture and fountains (all kind of connected) I was having a tough time keeping it straight. Still, the book definitely provides a concise overview and (like most books) would reward multiple readings.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Kukwa

    It's very easy to read, and as a one-stop-shop for the Renaissance, it's a useful research tool. However, I am put off by two issues: (1) once the book reaches architecture and art, it transforms from a history book into an art history book...and I would have preferred a bit more balance, especially as the level of detail starts to delve into what could be best described as minutiae; (2) there are strange moments of what I can only describe as prudery; the author suddenly damping down any hints It's very easy to read, and as a one-stop-shop for the Renaissance, it's a useful research tool. However, I am put off by two issues: (1) once the book reaches architecture and art, it transforms from a history book into an art history book...and I would have preferred a bit more balance, especially as the level of detail starts to delve into what could be best described as minutiae; (2) there are strange moments of what I can only describe as prudery; the author suddenly damping down any hints of people be homosexuals, or decrying that Michelangelo's paintings feature too many muscular figures. Some odd, discordant tones to an otherwise straightforward work.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Allen Garvin

    I bought it based on reading the introduction (which was excerpted in the NY Times)--a brief, excellent reading on why the Middle Ages did not deserve the appellation "the dark ages" which were often applied to them in earlier discussions of "The Renaissance". It covered economics, social, and technical advances, post-Roman empire. So, I thought this was going to be a good brief revisionist overview book on Early Modern Europe. It is not. 90% of the book is about art, sculpture, and literature o I bought it based on reading the introduction (which was excerpted in the NY Times)--a brief, excellent reading on why the Middle Ages did not deserve the appellation "the dark ages" which were often applied to them in earlier discussions of "The Renaissance". It covered economics, social, and technical advances, post-Roman empire. So, I thought this was going to be a good brief revisionist overview book on Early Modern Europe. It is not. 90% of the book is about art, sculpture, and literature of Italy, with a few digressions to the rest of Europe on the same. Most of the content would be perfectly at home in any Renaissance history written a hundred years ago. Very disappointing.

  17. 5 out of 5

    John Naylor

    A book that is probably near enough impossible to read in one interrupted sitting. Not due to the fact that it is overcomplicated or boring but due to the need to look at the buildings and art mentioned. I feel that having a longer volume if this with pictures and illustrations would make it a lot better read. I did learn quite a bit from it and it has helped my to discover 'new' artists albeit ones that passed away over half a millennium ago. It is far from a comprehensive guide but has enough i A book that is probably near enough impossible to read in one interrupted sitting. Not due to the fact that it is overcomplicated or boring but due to the need to look at the buildings and art mentioned. I feel that having a longer volume if this with pictures and illustrations would make it a lot better read. I did learn quite a bit from it and it has helped my to discover 'new' artists albeit ones that passed away over half a millennium ago. It is far from a comprehensive guide but has enough information to be a starting point for further research.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Crissy

    This book has been on my bookshelf for many years and when I decided to read it I was not overly fussed. However I must admit that I did enjoy this short history. It was informative and well written. As a short book it could never cover all aspects and all countries during this very productive period in history but the author was successful in keeping my interest, which included 'googling' many of the works of art referred to. I do not intend to increase my knowledge of this subject but I am ver This book has been on my bookshelf for many years and when I decided to read it I was not overly fussed. However I must admit that I did enjoy this short history. It was informative and well written. As a short book it could never cover all aspects and all countries during this very productive period in history but the author was successful in keeping my interest, which included 'googling' many of the works of art referred to. I do not intend to increase my knowledge of this subject but I am very satisfied with this read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tony Bittner-Collins

    I enjoyed the contrast between mediaeval and renaissance artists and styles. Had the book provided images of the works described, I would've enjoyed it better though. Also, I really missed a section on other forms of art, such as music and theatre. That'd definitely made the book more varied and complete. I enjoyed the contrast between mediaeval and renaissance artists and styles. Had the book provided images of the works described, I would've enjoyed it better though. Also, I really missed a section on other forms of art, such as music and theatre. That'd definitely made the book more varied and complete.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tom Kirkham

    Very informative Provided enough detail and specifics to give me a broad understanding of what the Renaissance was without overwhelming me with detail.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sherelyn Ernst

    thorough but concise; well-worth reading if you're going to Florence thorough but concise; well-worth reading if you're going to Florence

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Rudisel

    Great concise treatment of The Renaissance.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    This book does suffer from lack of photos/illustration, so I thought it too wordy for my liking.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tom Baikin-O'hayon

    A nice Introduction, better than most

  25. 5 out of 5

    Groot

    A bit more brief, but just as good as his usual. Always a pleasure to read his history books. The topic is as you would expect from the title, about a truly remarkable era.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nandu Machiraju

    It’s a short book (186 pages), but it’s a tough read. It doesn’t flow very well, and it’s not very accessible.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Dave Papendorf

    This book is a long list of names. There is less thematic cohesiveness than you would like in a work this short.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Imp

    Good information on the renaissance and renaissance artists.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    It is a thin book and a huge subject. If you want to know the highlights of the Renaissance, according to Johnson, this is the book.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Charlie Brown

    This book considers the Renaissance in six parts: (1) the historical and economic background; (2) the Renaissance in literature and scholarship; (3) Renaissance sculpture; (4) the buildings of the Renaissance; (5) the “apostolic successions of Renaissance painting"; and (6), the spread and decline of the Renaissance. The Renaissance seems to me to be the pearl in the essentially Gothic shell that was Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; it was created by a relatively small number of This book considers the Renaissance in six parts: (1) the historical and economic background; (2) the Renaissance in literature and scholarship; (3) Renaissance sculpture; (4) the buildings of the Renaissance; (5) the “apostolic successions of Renaissance painting"; and (6), the spread and decline of the Renaissance. The Renaissance seems to me to be the pearl in the essentially Gothic shell that was Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; it was created by a relatively small number of talented people, primarily hailing from northern Italy, and like a comet it blazed briefly across the Gothic background of European culture. This book may be likened to having a knowledgeable friend offer his insights on the six topics mentioned above; a friend with a library of unusual depth, and with credible scholarly credentials. It differs from a formal history in that Paul Johnson focuses on that which interests him and ignores those things that do not. He is fascinated by the different ways that the Renaissance mind, freed from the confines of medieval thought (and yet very much beholden to it), explodes the boundaries of architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture in ways that were literally unthinkable in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. He shows how northern Europe, for example through Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, made books relatively affordable and common, contributing to the intellectual climate that made the Renaissance possible; he does not forget important inventions such as double-entry bookkeeping, a technical advance on a par with moveable type. His profiles of figures such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giotto, Petrarch, Dante, Chaucer, and Brunelleschi (to name just a few) are worth the time to read this book. From the book: “The Renaissance was the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism. And the first and greatest of those individuals was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was a Florentine, appropriately because Florence played a more important role in the Renaissance than any other city. He also embodies the central paradox of the Renaissance: while it was about the recovery and understanding of ancient Greek and Latin texts and the writing of elegant Latin, it was also about the maturing, ordering and use of vernacular languages, especially Italian.”

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