Background: Culture and Thought in Renaissance Italy

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Background: Culture and Thought in Renaissance Italy

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Recovery of Ancient Knowledge. Europes intellectual agenda in the age of exploration and expansion was set largely by the thinkers and scholars of Renaissance Italy. Beginning with the fourteenth-century scholars Francesco Petrarca (better known by his Latinized pen-name Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio, Italian thinkers took a special interest in the literature, philosophy, and thought of the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. Fifteenth-century scholars such as Poggio Bracciolini scoured libraries and monasteries not only in Italy but also across Europe and the Mediterranean basin in search of long-forgotten Greek, Latin, and even translated Arabic manuscript copies of the works of such writers as Plato and Tacitus. It should be noted that many of these works had been forgotten only from the point of view of the western European intellectual tradition. Arabic and Byzantine scholars had continued throughout the Middle Ages to study several of the literary and scientific classics of Greece and Rome that the Italians recovered only in the fifteenth century. Nonetheless exposure to previously lost ideas and knowledge gleaned from these recovered works opened up fresh lines of intellectual inquiry to the scholars of the Italian Renaissance. Of particular importance in this regard was the recovery of the works of the Roman geographers Ptolemy and Strabo, whose ideas would contribute significantly to fifteenth-century shifts in Europeans views of the physical globe and of their own place within it. The changing worldviews of the Renaissance would in turn inspire European navigators to sail out into previously uncharted waters in search of, among other things, new water routes to Asia.

A New Golden Age? Coupled with the recovery of much of the thought and knowledge of the Greeks and Romans was a new spirit of assertive self-confidence among the thinkers of the Renaissance. Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla proudly proclaimed this era to be a new golden age that might be favorably compared to the most glorious and learned civilizations of history. The word Renaissance itself in fact means rebirth, and this label was applied to the era by Italian thinkers themselves, who understood their age to represent a re-emergence of the glories of ancient civilization. Whatever the merits of such claims, the Renaissance was also an era that extolled individualism and often a boastful individual self-confidence. Such haughtiness was perhaps most apparent among artists, including the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo and the famous goldsmith and sculptor Benevenuto Cellini, who penned the following poem in praise of himself:

My cruel fate hath warred with me in vain:
Life, glory, worth, and all unmeasured skill,
Beauty and grace, themselves in me fulfill
That many I surpass, and to the best attain.

Similar individualism and boastful self-confidence would also be common among many of the famous sailors and explorers of the Renaissance, including Christopher Columbus himself.

Source

John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler, A History of Western Society, fourth edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).