Classical Scholarship

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Classical Scholarship

Adefining feature of Renaissance culture was its fascination with the ancient world. Scholars of the period devoted themselves to the study of ancient Greek and Roman writings. Humanists* dreamed of discovering and preserving classical* works and making them available to society as a whole.

Classical scholarship began in northern Italy in the late 1200s when a small group of learned people developed a passion for Roman literature and history. In the 1300s, the Italian poet Petrarch turned these early glimmerings of scholarship into a complete program. He discovered lost works of Latin literature, including the letters of the Roman orator Cicero. He also made efforts to improve classical texts, comparing different versions to find and correct errors. He even attempted to learn Greek so that he could study the literature of ancient Greece in its original form. Finally, he used his knowledge of ancient writings in his own works of poetry, history, and ethics (or moral philosophy). Petrarch's approach to classical learning became a model for generations of humanists in Italy and elsewhere.


Recovering Lost Works. During the Renaissance, classical scholars unearthed many copies of ancient works. Some of these writings were completely unknown. Others were more complete versions of known texts. In the early 1400s a scholar named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a large number of Latin manuscripts while traveling through northern Europe. His finds included new speeches by Cicero and a poem about the universe by the philosopher Lucretius. Other scholars discovered works by Roman historians such as Tacitus. Many of these ended up in the Vatican Library.

In the early Renaissance, European scholars brought manuscripts to Italy, recognized as the home of classical studies. Later, however, leadership in this field shifted toward northern Europe. In 1527 a German scholar found lost works by the Roman historian Livy in a German monastery. Instead of traveling to Italy like past discoveries, this new manuscript was published in Switzerland.

The rediscovery of Greek literature was even more dramatic. Latin translations of a few ancient Greek authors, such as Aristotle, had existed in the Middle Ages. Manuscripts in Greek, however, were rare, and few scholars could read the language. Petrarch owned Greek texts of works by the poet Homer and the philosopher Plato but was unable to read them. During the 1400s, large numbers of Greek texts entered western Europe. Some of these were brought by Greek-speaking scholars from the Byzantine Empire*, who fled to Italy to escape the invading Turks. Western Europeans recovered many previously unknown works, such as the influential Outline of Geography by the ancient scholar Ptolemy. By the end of the 1400s, nearly all the classical Greek literature that survives today had reached Italy.

To share their discoveries, Renaissance scholars began translating these Greek works into Latin. Patrons* such as the Medici family in Florence supported this work. They also encouraged the spread of scholarship by founding libraries where scholars could study manuscripts and books. One of the finest Renaissance libraries occupied four specially designed rooms in the Vatican, the pope's official seat in Rome. Scholars were free to use this collection, which included many classical texts, as long as they followed certain rules. For example, they had to put books back in their places and avoid quarreling with other readers.


Improving the Texts. During the Middle Ages, scribes* copied and recopied ancient texts by hand. In the process, they introduced many errors that later scribes picked up. By the Renaissance, many different versions of these texts existed. Scholars of the Renaissance attempted to untangle the web of errors and identify the true text through a process called textual criticism. Textual critics collated, or compared, the variations found in different manuscripts to determine which was the original. They also used their own imagination and knowledge to make conjectures—educated guesses—as to what the original text might have been.

Early textual critics, including Petrarch, did not explain the reasons for their changes to the text. In the late 1400s, Angelo Poliziano of Italy transformed the field of textual criticism. A master of both Greek and Latin, Poliziano took a systematic approach to each text. He carefully recorded all his alterations to the text and noted whether they were based on collation or on conjecture. When he compared texts, he noted which reading came from which manuscript, identifying it by its owner, appearance, and history.

By analyzing the errors found in all copies of a given text, Poliziano was sometimes able to identify the original version from which the others had descended. For example, he realized that many manuscripts of Cicero's letters had the pages in the wrong order. He traced this problem back to a specific copy and identified it as the original source. His careful methods set a new standard for textual criticism.

Textual studies also involved explaining and interpreting ancient works. Poliziano excelled in this field, largely because of his exceptional knowledge of Greek literature. For example, he was able to explain an obscure line in a Roman poem as a reference to a myth mentioned in an ancient Greek song.

In the 1500s France replaced Italy as the most important center of classical studies. French editors tended to avoid the drudgery of collation in favor of changes based on conjecture. They also commented at length on the texts. One French scholar's editions of Roman works were notable chiefly for the long-winded notes in which he compared the Latin texts to earlier Greek models. Scholars in the Netherlands and Germany also produced important editions of classical materials in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Their creations included the first edition of the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a work that influenced later movements in ethics. Many of them applied material from ancient writings to the problems of modern life in their own works.


Study of Classical Languages. Latin had been taught and studied throughout the Middle Ages. Over the years, the language had gradually changed. In the 1300s Petrarch began a trend toward returning the Latin language to its ancient roots. Other early humanists revised existing textbooks and methods for Latin study, placing more stress on classical models and forms.

A new era in Latin studies began in 1471, with the printing of a guide to the Latin language written by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla. Valla had based this work on a careful study of Roman literature. He believed that the return to the classical style of writing Latin was helping to renew all fields of study, from law and medicine to philosophy and art. His book reformed the study of Latin, teaching Renaissance writers to imitate the great Roman authors in their poetry and prose. Other scholars also worked to restore the Latin of ancient Rome, removing from it every trace of medieval* vocabulary and style.

Until the late 1400s the teaching of Greek was largely in the hands of scholars who had moved to Italy after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. One of them, Manuel Chrysoloras, taught Greek in Florence to a generation of young Italian humanists. Byzantine scholars published textbooks and dictionaries, some in Greek and some in both Greek and Latin. Western scholars began producing their own Greek dictionaries in the 1500s. In 1572 two scholarly printers, Robert and Henri Estienne, published the Treasure-House of the Greek Language, the greatest monument of Greek scholarship in the Renaissance.

Influences of Classical Scholarship. Advances in classical scholarship during the Renaissance had important effects on the fields of theology*, philosophy, and medicine, which were based on ancient texts. Scholars transformed theology by applying the new techniques of textual criticism to the Bible. Valla, for example, approached the New Testament much as he had approached other ancient works, attempting to restore the true meaning of the text by undoing the errors scribes had made over the years. Humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus hailed this new approach to the sacred text. Erasmus discovered, however, that the Bible required special treatment. An uproar broke out when he removed a passage from the New Testament on the grounds that it could not be found in any of the Greek versions and must have been added later. He restored the passage in later editions.

Meanwhile, other humanists devoted their attention to the works of ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle. Throughout the 1400s and 1500s they produced new editions of Aristotle's writings. Their translations were both more accurate and more readable than earlier versions. Classical scholars further expanded the study of philosophy by editing and translating the works of other Greek thinkers, such as Plato. They also uncovered important Latin works of philosophy.

In the same way, new critical editions of classical works reshaped the study of medicine. Poliziano spent the last years of his life studying Greek medical texts and translating the technical terms they contained into Latin. In 1492 physician Niccolò Lenoniceno wrote a treatise* on the medical errors in an ancient Roman work. He showed that the author had misunderstood the Greek terms for various plants and herbs. Other doctors of the 1500s made new translations of works by Galen and Hippocrates, two Greek physicians whose works formed the basis of medicine. Overall, classical scholarship affected nearly every aspect of intellectual and cultural life in the Renaissance.

(See alsoBooks and Manuscripts; Classical Antiquity; Geography and Cartography; Greek Émigrés; History, Writing of; Humanism; Latin Language and Literature; Libraries; Medicine; Philosophy; Religious Thought. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Byzantine Empire

Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* scribe

person who copies manuscripts

The Power of the Press

The invention of the printing press around 1455 was a blessing to classical scholars. Until then, the only way to copy a newly discovered text had been to write it out by hand—a time-consuming process with countless possibilities for error. The press made it possible to print hundreds, even thousands, of identical copies of works. By the end of the 1400s most classical Latin literature was available in a variety of printed editions, at prices virtually any scholar could afford.

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* treatise

long, detailed essay