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Ideas, Spread of

Ideas, Spread of

The Renaissance was a time of new ideas. Scholars not only rediscovered the works of ancient artists and writers, they also promoted their own views on science, religion, and education. Through word of mouth, personal letters, and scholarly writings, they passed their ideas on to others. Schools and libraries also helped promote knowledge, so that eventually Renaissance thought spread to all areas of Europe.


Early Developments. Most scholars credit the Italian poet Petrarch with setting the new ideas of the Renaissance in motion. His studies of ancient writers, especially Cicero, led him to the conclusion that the glory of the ancient world had been lost during the Middle Ages and that scholars should work to revive it. He expressed this view in his personal letters, which he gathered in two collections. He also produced other works praising ancient Rome, including biographies of great men from the past. His works inspired a generation of scholars to study the knowledge of ancient cultures.

The educational system helped spread Petrarch's views across Italy and into the rest of Europe. Humanists* such as Guarino Guarini and Vittorino da Feltre founded schools throughout northern Italy that focused on the study of the humanities. In these schools, new ideas flourished. The new style of schooling was the biggest change to take place in education in more than 1,000 years—and it lasted until well into the 1900s.

The revival of classical* studies occurred alongside an artistic revival in the Italian city of Florence. As a result, the enthusiasm for the ancient world spread to artists. In the early 1400s artists such as Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi began to study and copy the styles of classical art and architecture. Although most of these artists were not scholars themselves, many of them associated with humanists who taught them about ancient cultures. The new knowledge they acquired raised the status of art as a profession. Artists came to be viewed as part of the humanist tradition, not as mere crafts workers. Throughout the 1400s, humanists continued to pass classical knowledge on to artists by word of mouth. For example, the Italian painter Botticelli learned about classical mythology from his humanist friends and made it the basis for several of his paintings.

The development of research libraries also helped promote classical knowledge. Cosimo de' Medici, the leader of Florence, funded a library in his home city where humanist scholars could read rare books. It housed both Latin and Greek works. Over the course of the 1400s, increasing numbers of scholars learned the Greek language and began discussing and debating ideas from ancient Greek culture.


Changes After 1450. The spread of Renaissance ideas accelerated after 1450. One factor was the conquest of the eastern city of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks* in 1453. This event brought many Greek scholars from the east to Italy, following in the steps of other important scholars who had moved to the west earlier. Their knowledge of the language, and the books they brought with them, greatly expanded Greek studies. The invention of the printing press around 1455 also played a major role in the spread of ideas. Printing created identical copies of ancient texts, making it easier for humanists to correct errors in existing versions.

Scholars also translated Greek works into Latin and both Greek and Latin works into vernacular* tongues. Translations made the works of ancient writers available to the general reading public. In the 1460s, the Italian scholar Marsilio Ficino translated the complete writings of the Greek philosopher Plato into Latin. For the first time in more than 1,000 years, readers could know Plato firsthand. The ideas of Plato influenced Western writers in many areas, including poetry and philosophy.

Humanists also promoted their ideas through oratory, the art of public speaking. Speeches were a part of all kinds of occasions, including visits from important foreign figures to a city or court, the opening of a new school year, and church sermons. For example, the philosopher Heinrich Agrippa of Nettesheim opened the school year at a French university with a speech arguing that women were superior to men. The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus wrote a speech against war for a character called Peace.

Humanists frequently argued with each other about their ideas and character. For example, Erasmus engaged in a famous war of words with critics of his biblical scholarship. In the 1500s, Protestants and Catholics frequently attacked each other's religious views in public. Arguments such as these became a powerful means of spreading new ideas. The printing press turned private debates into "pamphlet wars," which enabled people on all sides of religious, political, and scientific debates to air their views.

(See alsoBooks and Manuscripts; Classical Antiquity; Classical Scholarship; Greek Émigrés; Gutenberg, Johann; Printing and Publishing; Protestant Reformation. )

* 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

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

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