Humanism: Renaissance

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Humanism: Renaissance

In the mid-twentieth century, Paul Oskar Kristeller (19051999) established the understanding of Renaissance humanism accepted by all scholars in the field. Humanists or umanisti were practitioners of the studia humanitatis or liberal arts: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy. Their origins are traceable to the notaries who worked for courts and cities in medieval Italy writing letters and preparing legal documents. The practice of these notaries was, from 1100, influenced by the ars dictaminis or manuals of letter writing emanating from France. Italian notaries subsequently began to write manuals of their own; their innovation was to abandon medieval Latin style and to emulate the Latin style of classical Roman writers. They focused particularly on the rhetoricians (most notably Cicero from the 1380s), whose interests as public lay intellectuals most closely matched their own.

Spread of Humanism

Humanism first achieved public visibility through Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch; 13041374) whose achievements impressed his humanist contemporaries. His immediate disciples were Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375) and Coluccio Salutati (13311406), both Florentines. Salutati, as chancellor (chief administrative officer) of the city from 1375 until his death, did much to encourage the growth of humanism, especially employing humanists and bringing Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 13531415) to Florence, where he taught Greek for three years (13971400) and left behind a group of scholars competent to continue Greek studies on their own. From its center in Florence, humanism spread rapidly throughout Italy during the fifteenth century and established itself as the most defining intellectual movement of the Renaissance (13501600). Its spread always involved the establishment of schools. Three influential pedagogues were Gasparino Barzizza (13601430), the most outstanding scholar of Cicero in his generation, who taught in Venice, Bologna, and Padua; Vittorino da Feltre (13781446), a student of Barzizza's who taught in Padua and Venice and established a school in Mantua; and Guarino da Verona (Guarino Veronese; 13741460), who taught in Venice, Verona, and Florence, and established a school in Ferrara. All three had illustrious students, some of whom became rulers of city-states, others reputable scholars and teachers.

During the second half of the fifteenth century the movement also established itself in Spain, France, Germany, the Low Countries, and England, as well as in eastern Europe as far as Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. But during the second generation of its expansion outside Italy, the Reformation in Germany and then elsewhere absorbed a good deal of humanist energy. The influence of humanism on the religious disputes of the sixteenth century was great, in large part because the Bible and the church fathers came so centrally into play. But its influence extended to other areas as well: to art, politics, philosophy, medicine, law, and mathematics. Humanism began to merge into other intellectual movements after 1600, though its program of education remained central in western Europe and the United States until the twentieth century.

Development of the Studia humanitatis

The classical texts of Greece and Rome were the basis of humanist education, the purpose of which was to teach students to read, write, and speak well in Latin by using classical sources. The earliest of many humanist treatises on education was Pierpaolo Vergerio's (c. 13691444) De ingenuis moribus et liberalibus studiis (1403; The character and studies befitting a free-born youth); he is the first to describe in print the studia humanitatis as the best course of study for an emerging non-clerical elite, both in private letters and in public life. Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444) wrote a parallel treatise (as a letter) for girls (De studiis et litteris ; [1524, The study of literature]). Grammar for each of them meant a thorough knowledge of Latin, enabling a student to read the historians, rhetoricians, poets, and moral philosophers (Bruni especially includes the church fathers among these) of classical Latin antiquity. Although Vergerio also includes arithmetic and geometry in his curriculum, Bruni eliminates these as well as rhetoric from the education of women, for whom these subjects have no practical use, since all are related to public vocations not open to women. Later humanists not only wrote educational treatises (Maffeo Vegio, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Battista Guarini, Erasmus, and Juan Luis Vives among them) but also produced texts designed to help students master Latin, most notable among these Lorenzo Valla's (14071457) Elegantiae linguae latinae (1437, pub. 1471; Elegances of the Latin language) and a number of works by Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536), including De ratione studii ac legendi interpretandique auctores (1511; On the method of study and of reading and interpreting authors), De conscribendis epistolis (1522; On the writing of letters), De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis declamatio (1529; A declamation on the subject of liberal education for children), and the Colloquia familiaria (15181533; Colloquies).

Under the heading of grammar, the humanist emendations of texts and the development of methods of textual study and their literary and historical critique should also be included. A method for doing so was put forth by Angelo Poliziano (14541494) in his Miscellaneorum centuria prima (1480; Miscellanies), marking the real beginning of modern methods of textual research. The most famous attack on a forged text was Lorenzo Valla's De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio (1440; Falsely believed and fictitious Donation of Constantine), in which he proved on philological and historical grounds that the Donation was an eighth-century forgery.


In the Middle Ages, Cicero was known as a philosopher, but his orations and his major theoretical works on oratory were entirely unknown. Petrarch made the earliest discovery of a Ciceronian oration, Pro Archia poeta (In defense of the poet Archias), extolling the value of poetry and literature. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (13801459) discovered ten additional orations of Cicero and a complete copy of Quintilian (which provides the step by step education of an orator), and Cicero's De institutione oratoria (On the education of the orator). In 1421 Gerardo Landriani discovered in Lodi Cicero's other major oratorical treatises: Brutus (his history of rhetoric), Orator (the ideal orator), and De oratore (the ingredients of a great orator). Thus Cicero the orator became known again for the first time in a thousand years.

The Greek tradition was recovered more slowly. George of Trebizond (13961473) made the first humanist translation of Aristotle's Rhetoric into Latin. But it was not until the following century that the Greek rhetorical tradition was made as fully available as is now known. Aldus Manutius published Rhetores graeci (1508) comprising ninety manuscripts, and including the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hermogenes, Aphthonius, Demosthenes, Isocrates, Aeschines, and other Attic orators.

Humanists also wrote treatises on rhetoric and aids to teaching it. George of Trebizond wrote the first comprehensive rhetoric of the Renaissance, Rhetoricorum libri V (1434), in which illustrations from both Greek and Latin traditions were included. In the next century Philipp Melanchthon's (14971560) Institutiones rhetoricae (1521; Training in rhetoric) extended the humanistic rhetorical art to Protestant Germany, while Cypriano Soarez's De arte rhetorica libri tres ex Aristotele, Cicerone, et Quintiliano deprompti (1562; Three books on the art of rhetoric drawn from Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian) circulated in Jesuit schools throughout the world and was continuously reprinted into the eighteenth century. Among the many practical treatises Erasmus wrote to teach rhetoric was De duplici copia verborum ac rerum (1512, rev. 1514, 1534; Copia of words and ideas), offering many ideas and ways to amplify ideas.

Humanists used their rhetorical models to attack scholastic philosophy and the central position given to logic in it. Valla, in his Disputationes dialecticae (1439), claimed that the logicians had created fictitious abstractions and categories; he did away with the abstractions and most of the categories and made logic a subdivision of invention, one of the five parts of rhetoric. Rodolphus Agricola (Roelof Huysman; 1443 or 14441485) studied in Italy and in later years published De inventione dialectica (1479, pub. 1515; On dialectical invention; 47 editions by 1562, all in northern Europe). It is not clear whether he knew Valla's earlier work, but he sought to substitute a logic based on topics for one based on terms, and the probabilities of dialectic and rhetoric for the certitude of the syllogism. Agricola's views were taken up by Johannes Sturm (15071589) who propagated them in Paris (15281535) and Strasbourg (1538 ff.). While in Paris he taught Petrus Ramus (Pierre de La Ramée; 15151572), who attacked Aristotelian logic in his Aristotelicae animadversiones (1543; Aristotelian animadversions) and developed a topics logic following Agricola, emphasizing rules of natural reasoning. He was enormously popular between 1575 and 1600, and in Puritan New England during the seventeenth century.


Latin historians were known during the Middle Ages, but humanists began the scholarly study of their texts by annotating and emending manuscripts of the classical Roman historians (notably Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Caesar, Sallust, and Velleius Paterculus), and once printing became established in the late 1460s the Roman historians were among the most popular texts printed. The Greek historians were less known, but between 1400 and 1450 many Greek manuscripts were brought from Constantinople to Italy, and a cadre of humanists trained in Greek began to translate them. Plutarch's Lives were particularly popular as comparative biographies, and Polybius's discussion of the various forms of constitutions attracted much interest. Humanists began at once to translate these texts into Latin. Niccolò Perotti translated Polybius 15, and Valla translated Herodotus and Thucydides.

Erasmus published editions of a number of the church fathers and the first Greek edition of the New Testament (1516, expanded and republished in 1519, 1522, 1527, and 1535) placing in a parallel column his own translation of it into Latin, and adding annotations as well. In separate volumes he published paraphrases. Martin Luther (14831546) used Erasmus's first edition in his lectures on Romans in 1516. Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros (14361517) founded the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1499 (opened 1508) to promote study of the biblical languages. His first large project was publication of the Bible in its original languages, which was accomplished between 1513 and 1517 in six volumes, though a delay until 1520 in gaining papal approval prevented publication of the New Testament; hence Erasmus's Greek Bible was the first to appear.

Humanists were prolific writers of history. They regarded it as a branch of moral philosophy ("moral philosophy taught by example"), but over time the lessons they drew became increasingly complex. Bruni's history of Florence, modeled on Livy, was one of the earliest and most famous humanist histories, extolling the liberty and virtue of Florence, triumphant over Milanese attempts to conquer the city. By the end of the century, histories of Florence by Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) and Francesco Guicciardini (14831540), written in Italian rather than in Latin, were much more grim in evaluations of human character, behavior, and judgmentand much more fully grounded in documentary evidence. Flavio Biondo (13921463) wrote the first history of medieval Italy, making use of archaeological information; but a history covering much the same period by Carlo Sigonio (ca. 15221584) a century later used archives to make a great advance in detail and precision over what Biondo was able to achieve.

Historical writing developed in important ways also in France. Paolo Emilio (d. 1529), who returned from Italy to France with Charles VIII in 1498, abandoned the medieval chronicle tradition. Guillaume Budé (14671530) wrote the first extensive humanist study of Justinian's Digest. In the next generation Jacques Cujas (15221590) introduced the mos gallicus docendi, the French or historical method of teaching Roman law based on the awareness that the law was specific to a given society, changed over time, and was not universal. The mos italicus, to which the French method was opposed, sought to clarify the universal principles exemplified in the law and continued to be practiced in Italy. Cujas inspired a group of historians to study the French past in the same way; Jacques Auguste de Thou (15531617) went further and tried to incorporate the histories of the various European states into one history, a "universal" or "perfect" history.

Poetry and poetics.

Humanists wrote a great deal of Latin poetry, virtually all of which faded into obscurity with the rise of the vernaculars. Petrarch's Italian lyric poetry and the sonnet form he created, however, exercised enormous influence on Renaissance Italian, French, and English poets. In the sixteenth century Ariosto and Tasso, who created the most influential narrative poems in Italian (see below) were trained as humanists and wrote poetry in Latin as well as Italian, but self-consciously turned against Latin and, in Ariosto's case, became critical of humanist education.

Humanist texts on literary theory, on the other hand, exercised great influence. Aristotle's Poetics was published in a new Latin translation from Greek in 1498; the Greek text was published in 1508. After a lag of a generation humanists began to write commentaries on it, most notably Ludovico Castelvetro (Poetica di Aristotele vulgarizzata; 1570). But they also wrote treatises on their own poetics, most famously Julius Caesar Scaliger, Poetices libri septem (1561; Seven books on the art of poetry) and Francesco Patrizi, Della poetica (1586; On the art of poetry). Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie (1583, pub. 1595) was much influenced by the Italian tradition and skillfully blended Horace and Aristotle. These works led to various literary debates, among them the importance of Aristotle's unities of time, place, and plot. Ludovico Ariosto's (14741533) Orlando furioso (1516, 1532) did not honor them, while Torquato Tasso's (15441595) later Gerusalemme liberata (1581) was regarded as having done so, setting off a debate in favor of one or the other.

Moral philosophy.

Humanists were not "school" philosophers, but they recovered many texts that belonged to various schools, including most of Plato, Greek Stoicism (Epictetus), Epicureanism (Lucretius), and Skepticism (Sextus Empiricus). Platonism became a strong presence through the Platonic "Academy" in Florence under Marsilio Ficino (14331499), who translated Plato and Platonists (including Plotinus) into Latin, making them available in that language for the first time in more than a thousand years. The translation of Sextus Empiricus into Latin (1563) was the major source behind Michel de Montaigne's (15331592) pyrrhonian stance in his "Apology for Raymond Sebond" (1575).

Humanists used these and other texts to reflect on moral issues. Is happiness, the supreme good, achievable in this life? Petrarch said no and criticized Aristotle for having believed otherwise; many humanists agreed with him, as did Valla in his De voluptate (1434; On pleasure), in which he argued that while Epicurus was right to argue for the superiority of pleasure over virtue, the supreme pleasure was achievable only through Christian faith in life after death. Ficino, on the other hand, believed enjoyment of God was possible in this life. Isotta Nogarola (14181466), one of a dozen or so women humanists in fifteenth-century Italy, wrote a dialogue, together with a Venetian humanist, Ludovico Foscarini, on the relative responsibility of Adam and Eve for the Fall; Nogarola defended Eve, Foscarini Adam.

The relative merits of men and women was another important topic. The starting point for this discussion was Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (1361; Famous women), portraits of mostly classical (and excluding Christian) women, which provided many of the examples used by Christine de Pizan (1364c. 1430) in building her city of ladies (Le livre de la cité des dames, 1405; The book of the city of ladies). Thus a humanist text led to a new chapter in the debate about women (the querelle des femmes ), new because de Pisan was the first woman to respond directly to male misogynistic treatises. The most important humanist text in this debate, was Baldassare Castiglione's (14781529) Il cortegiano (1528; Book of the courtier,), written in Italian, book 3 of which summed up the querelle to that point and influenced later writing in the genre. Several women writers from Venice wrote important texts in Italian on the theme in the seventeenth century: Moderata Fonte (15551592), Il merito delle donne (pub. 1600; The worth of women); Lucrezia Marinella (15711653), La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne, co' difetti et mancamenti de gli huomini (1600, 2nd ed., 1601; The nobility and excellence of women and the defects and vices of men); and Arcangela Tarabotti (16041652), Tirannia paterna (pub. 1654; Paternal tyranny). Marie le Jars de Gournay wrote an important text in French, Égalité des hommes et des femmes (1622; Equality of men and women) on the same subject.

The "mirror of princes" literature sought to describe the perfect prince and the education that would produce one; Erasmus's Institutio principis Christiani (1516; Education of a Christian prince) is a notable example. Others sought to describe the perfect courtier or gentleman; the most enduring of these has been Castiglione's Il cortegiano, which portrays both the perfect male (Book 1) and the perfect female (Book 3) courtier; Sir Thomas Elyot's (c. 1490?1546) Boke Named the Governour (1531) is an English counterpart. Much debated were the relative merits of the contemplative and active life, with most opting for the latter. The relation between intellect and will was also much discussed, the latter being much more strongly supported by humanists skeptical of the power of reason to know and do the good. A related topic was the power of fate and fortune over human life. On none of these issues did humanists speak with a single voice; they explored all sides of questions and took various positions.

In three cases humanist moral philosophical texts achieved greatness: Erasmus's Encomium moriae (1511; Praise of folly; rev. 1512, 1514, 1516), François Rabelais's (c. 14941553) Gargantua and Pantagruel (15321556), and Montaigne's Essais (1580, 1588, 1595). The first, written in Latin, is an oration of praise spoken by a goddess, Folly, who praises folly as wise, an oxymoron that becomes transformed in the "Christian fool," whose divine wisdom is folly to all the world. Though unique as a text, its spirit is visible in Rabelais, whose book celebrates the violation of boundaries, and in nothing more than in providing serious commentary and in the next breath undoing all he had just said. The Tiers Livre (1546) does this throughout on the question of marriage and is a central text in the querelle des femmes. Montaigne's Essays is filled with quotations and allusions from classical authors, as if all of humanist scholarship had been poured into him, but it is all employed to explore his own consciousness and distill his experience in a new "essay" form, which he invented.

Political Implications of Renaissance Humanism

Leonardo Bruni, who later followed Salutati as chancellor of Florence (14271444), was the first to use an ancient Greek model (Aelius Aristides' Panathenaicus ) to compose a pane-gyric (Laudatio florentinae urbis, 14031404; Panegyric to the city of Florence). This has turned out to be a very important text, since Hans Baron (19001988) made much use of it in developing his theory that "civic humanism" first emerged in Florence as a result of the struggle for Florentine liberty (13891402) against the tyrant of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. According to Baron, this struggle led to a new awareness on the part of Florentine humanists of their citizenship in a republic, which they (and most notably Bruni) began to defend. This change meant, Baron argued, that the humanists had to bring their classical studies and civic commitment into harmony. Initially rejecting Machiavelli as a civic humanist, Baron subsequently included him, arguing that his Discourses on Livy, which supported a republican view of government, superceded his earlier Prince, supporting authoritarian rule. Because of Florence's central place in Renaissance culture, Baron contended that civic humanism influenced all of Europe and lay behind the growth of western democracy into the nineteenth century. This thesis has been among the most hotly contested in Renaissance humanist studies ever since it was propounded in 1956. If any consensus has emerged out of this debate it is that civic humanism is recognizable as a humanist option, but that its appearance cannot be neatly tied to the one event to which Baron links it; the allegiances of humanists were complicated, beginning with those of Bruni, on whom no critical biography has yet been written.

A significant debate took place in Spain in 15501551 between a humanistically trained lawyer and cleric, shortly after the Spanish conquest in the New World, over the question of whether Christians had a right to enslave the natives in the New World; Bartolomé de Las Casas (14741566), a Dominican (and the first person to be ordained in the New World), challenged that right as unchristian, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490?1572 or 1573) defended it on the basis of Aristotle's view that some are born to be natural slaves.

Humanists contributed two classics to political literature: Machiavelli's Prince (1513, pub. 1532) and Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Machiavelli was the first to describe politics as a struggle for power, which may well be incompatible with morality and religion. More presents a vision of how politics might remain moral, which should always be its aim. Both texts have created very large literatures ever since they were first published.

See also Philosophy, Moral ; Poetry and Poetics ; Reformation ; Renaissance ; Rhetoric .



Astell, Mary. The First English Feminist: Reflections on Marriage and Other Writings. Edited by Bridget Hill. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Famous Women. Edited and translated by Virginia Brown. The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Henderson, Katherine Usher, and Barbara F. McManus. Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 15401640. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

King, Margaret L., and Albert Rabil, Jr., eds. Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works by and about the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy. 2nd ed. Asheville, N.C.: Pegagus Press, 1997. Separate volumes devoted to the writings of three of the writers included in this volume have appeared in "The Other Voice" series (below): Laura Cereta, Cassandra Fedele, and Isotta Nogarola.

"The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe," a project in the textual recovery of continental European women's writings, c. 14001700, edited by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr. and published by the University of Chicago Press. Sixty-eight volumes have been approved for publication, and as of the end of 2003, twenty-five had been published, translated from French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. Published texts include those by Moderata Fonte, Marie le Jars de Gournay, Lucrezia Marinella, Isotta Nogarola, Anna Maria van Schurman, and Arcangela Tarabotti, some of whom are mentioned in the body of this essay.


Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. 2 vols. in one. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

. In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism: Essays on the Transition from Medieval to Modern Thought. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. See, in conjunction with both entries, James Hankins, "The 'Baron Thesis' after Forty Years and Some Recent Studies of Leonardo Bruni," Journal of the History of Ideas 56 (1995): 309339; and AHR Forum on the Baron thesis, with commentary by Ronald Witt, John Najemy, Craig Kallendorf, and Werner Gundersheimer, The American Historical Review 101 (1996): 107144. See further, Mark Jurdjevic, "Civic Humanism and the Rise of the Medici," Renaissance Quarterly 52 (1999): 9941020, which argues convincingly why and how civic humanists could support the Medici regime in Florence after 1434.

Eden, Kathy. Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Garin, Eugenio. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Translated by Peter Munz. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. His thesis concerning the conjunction of these three elements (humanism, philosophy, civic life).

Kekewich, Lucille, ed. The Renaissance in Europe: A Cultural Enquiry. Vol. 1: The Impact of Humanism. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 2000. There are two additional volumes on other aspects of Renaissance culture art and politics), plus two volumes accompanying the entire series, one of ancillary secondary readings and the other of primary sources. The best of contemporary scholarship distilled for teaching.

King, Margaret L. Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Kraye, Jill, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kristeller, Paul O. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.

. Renaissance Thought II: Papers on Humanism and the Arts. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. These two short books are the best statements of Kristeller's thesis regarding humanism, its difference from other movements in Renaissance Italy, and its diffusion.

Nauert, Charles G., Jr. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The best of the recent book-length treatments of humanism designed for students and general readers.

Rabil, Albert, Jr., ed. Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy. 3 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988. Paperback edition with corrections 1992. The most comprehensive contemporary treatment of the subject in one source.

Rummel, Erika. The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Trinkaus, Charles. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. Demonstrates in great detail the religious and theological interests of Italian humanists.

Witt, Ronald G. In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. Boston: Brill, 2000. The emergence of humanism from the 1240s until just after 1400 in Italy; the second volume in a two-volume study of the historical background of humanism. The first volume (forth-coming) will cover developments in the earlier Middle Ages up to the 1240s (outlined in Rabil, ed., above, 1.2970). Witt's thesis refines but does not alter Kristeller's paradigm.

Albert Rabil Jr.