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RENAISSANCE. The Renaissance is one of the most interesting and disputed periods of European history. Many scholars see it as a unique time with characteristics all its own. A second group views the Renaissance as the first two to three centuries of a larger era in European history usually called early modern Europe, which began in the late fifteenth century and ended on the eve of the French Revolution (1789) or with the close of the Napoleonic era (1815). Some social historians reject the concept of the Renaissance altogether. Historians also argue over how much the Renaissance differed from the Middle Ages and whether it was the beginning of the modern world, however defined.

The approach here is that the Renaissance began in Italy about 1350 and in the rest of Europe after 1450 and that it lasted until about 1620. It was a historical era with distinctive themes in learning, politics, literature, art, religion, social life, and music. The changes from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance were significant, but not as great as historians once thought. Renaissance developments influenced subsequent centuries, but not so much that the Renaissance as a whole can be called "modern."


The term "Renaissance" comes from the Renaissance. Several Italian intellectuals of the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth centuries used the term rinascità ('rebirth or renaissance') to describe their own age as one in which learning, literature, and the arts were reborn after a long, dark Middle Ages. They saw the ancient world of Rome and Greece, whose literature, learning, and politics they admired, as an age of high achievement. But in their view, hundreds of years of cultural darkness followed because much of the learning and literature of the ancient world had been lost. Indeed, Italian humanists invented the concept of the "Middle Ages" to describe the years between about 400 and 1400. Scholastic philosophy, which the Italian humanists rejected, and a different style of Latin writing, which the humanists viewed as uncouth and barbarous, prevailed in the Middle Ages. But Italian humanists believed that a new age was dawning. In the view of the humanists, the painter Giotto (d. 1337) and the vernacular writer and early humanist Francesco Petrarch (13041374) led the rebirth or Renaissance. Most Italian intellectuals from the mid-fifteenth century on held these views.

Northern Europeans of the sixteenth century also reached the conclusion that a new age had dawned. They accepted the historical periodization of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance and added a religious dimension. Desiderius Erasmus (c. 14661536), the great Dutch humanist, and his followers looked back to two ancient sources for inspiration: the secular learning of ancient Greece and Rome, and Christianity of the first four centuries. The former offered models of literature, culture, and good morality, while the New Testament and the church fathers, such as Sts. Augustine (354430) and Jerome (c. 347419/420), combined pristine Christianity with ancient eloquence. But then barbarous medieval culture replaced ancient eloquence, and, in their view, the theological confusion of medieval Scholasticism obscured the message of the New Testament. Erasmus and his followers dedicated themselves to restoring good literature, meaning classical Greek and Latin, and good religion, meaning Christianity purged of Scholastic irrelevance and clerical abuses. They believed that Christians could best live moral lives and attain salvation in the next life by following both Cicero and the New Testament. They believed that there were no real differences between the moral precepts found in the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome and the Bible.


A cluster of dates marks the beginning of the Renaissance era. The majority of scholars view the early humanist and vernacular writer Petrarch as the first important figure. He strongly criticized medieval habits of thought as inadequate and elevated ancient ideals and literature as models to emulate. By the period 1400 to 1450 numerous Italian intellectuals agreed with Petrarch's criticism of the Middle Ages and support for a classical revival. The result was the intellectual movement called humanism, which came to dominate Italian Latin schooling, scholarship, ethical ideas, and public discourse and spread to the rest of Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Both contemporaries and modern historians also see the Great Plague of 1348 to 1350, with its huge demographic losses (30 to 50 percent in affected areas) and psychological impact as another dividing point between Middle Ages and Renaissance. Next, a series of major political changes between 1450 and 1500 marked a new political era that was uniquely Renaissance. Spain, France, and England emerged as powerful territorial monarchies in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Their quarrels with each other and interventions in the affairs of smaller states through the next 150 years dominated European politics. Finally, the invention of movable type in the 1450s by Johannes Gutenberg (c. 13981468) created a break with the medieval past in the production and dissemination of books that was so great that it is difficult to measure. By the end of the year 1470, some nineteen towns had printing presses; by 1500 some 255 towns had presses, and the spread of printing was far greater in the sixteenth century. An efficient system of distribution and marketing spread printed books to every corner of Europe. The greater availability of books had an impact on practically every area of life, especially intellectual and religious life, so immense as to be beyond measurement.


Humanism was the defining intellectual movement of the Renaissance. It was based on the belief that the literary, scientific, and philosophical works of ancient Greece and Rome provided the best guides for learning and living. And humanists believed that the New Testament and early Christian authors offered the best spiritual advice.

The nineteenth century invented the term "humanism." But humanism is based on three Renaissance terms. Studia humanitatis meant humanistic studies, which were grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy based on study of the standard ancient authors of Rome and, to a lesser extent, Greece. This is the famous definition presented in 1945 by the eminent historian Paul Oscar Kristeller (19051999) and now widely accepted. The Renaissance also used and praised humanitas, an ancient Latin term meaning the good qualities that make men and women human. And the Renaissance invented a new term, humanista. It first appeared in Italian in a University of Pisa document of 1490. By the end of the sixteenth century it had spread to several European vernacular languages and was occasionally used in Latin. A humanista was a student, teacher, or scholar of the humanities.

Humanism became institutionalized in society as a new form of education. Around 1400 a number of Italian pedagogical leaders decided that the traditional medieval curriculum for Latin schools, consisting of studying medieval authors and a few ancient poetic classics, or portions of them, and learning to write formal letters in Latin according to nonclassical rules, was inadequate. They proposed a new curriculum and approach. Pier Paolo Vergerio (c. 13681444) wrote the first and most important humanist pedagogical treatise, called De Ingenuis Moribus et Liberalibus Studiis Adulescentiae (On noble customs and liberal studies of adolescents) in 1402 or 1403. He argued that the best way to foster good character, learning, and an eloquent Latin style in speech and writing was to teach humanistic studies. He gave pride of place to history, moral philosophy, and eloquence, a novel emphasis. Boys trained in humanistic studies would be ready to become honorable leaders in society as adults. Vergerio's treatise had enormous resonance: More than one hundred manuscripts can be found in Italian libraries, and Italian presses produced more than thirty incunabular (printed before 1501) editions. It enjoyed similar diffusion in northern Europe.

Humanism was more than skill in Latin. It tried to teach the principles of living a moral, responsible, and successful life on this earth. Parents came to believe that a humanistic education would best prepare their sons, and a few daughters, for leadership positions, such as head of a family, member of a city council, judge, administrator, or teacher. Humanistic studies provided the fundamental education. Training in the specialized disciplines of law, medicine, philosophy, or theology came later for those needing them. By about 1550 the English clergyman, the French lawyer, the German knight, the Italian merchant, and the Spanish courtier shared a common intellectual heritage. They could communicate across national frontiers and despite linguistic differences. They shared a common fund of examples, principles, and knowledge derived from the classics. Humanism brought intellectual unity to Europe.

Humanism also included a sharply critical attitude toward received values, individuals, and institutions, especially those that did not live up to their own principles. The humanists' study of ancient Rome and Greece gave them the chronological perspective and intellectual tools to analyze, criticize, and change their own world. Humanists especially questioned the institutions and values inherited from the Middle Ages. They found fault with medieval art, government, philosophy, and approaches to religion. Once the humanist habit of critical appraisal developed, many turned sharp eyes on their own times. And eventually they turned their critical gaze on the learning of the ancient world and rejected parts of it.


Renaissance scholars inherited from the Middle Ages intellectual views and approaches in philosophy, medicine, and science, and challenged almost all of them. In astronomy they inherited a conception of the universe originating in Ptolemy (c. 100 c.e.c. 170 c.e.) of the ancient world that the sun revolved around the Earth. Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) in his De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium (1543; On the revolutions of the heavenly orbs) argued the reverse, that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun. Despite bitter opposition from both Catholic and Protestant religious authorities, his views prevailed with most astronomers by the early seventeenth century. Galileo Galilei (15641642) absorbed Aristotelian science and then rejected it in favor of a mathematically based analysis of physical reality, the modern science of mechanics. And along the way he offered evidence that Copernicus's daring view was not just mathematical hypothesis but physical reality. Another mathematical achievement affecting Europe and the rest of the world in future centuries was calendar reform. Renaissance Europe inherited the Julian calendar of ancient Rome, which was ten days in arrears by the sixteenth century. Pope Gregory XIII (reigned 15721585) appointed a team of scholars to prepare a new calendar and in 1582 promulgated the Gregorian calendar still used today.

Renaissance medical scholars inherited an understanding of the human body and an approach to healing based on the ancient Greek physician Galen (c. 129c. 199 c.e.), Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), and medieval Arab medical scholars. But a group of medical scholars called "medical humanists" by modern scholars challenged and altered received medical knowledge. Led by Niccolò Leoniceno (14281524), who taught at the universities of Padua and Ferrara, they applied humanistic philological techniques and ideological criticism to both medieval and ancient medical texts, found them wanting, and proceeded to investigate the human body anew. As a result, Andreas Vesalius (15141564) through his anatomical studies, William Harvey (15781657) through his study of the circulation of the blood, and other scholars revolutionized medical research and instruction. Several Renaissance medical scholars gave their names to parts of the body; for example, the eustachian tube between the ear and the nose is named for Bartolomeo Eustachi (1500/101574), and the fallopian or uterine tubes are named for Gabriele Falloppia (15231562).

Most of the innovative research in science, medicine, philosophy, and law came from universities. The Renaissance saw a great expansion in the number and quality of universities. It inherited twentynine functioning universities from the Middle Ages in 1400, then created forty-six new ones by 1601, losing only two by closure in between. This left Europe with sixty-three universities, more than double the medieval number. Demand for new universities came from several directions. Most important, increasing numbers of men wanted to learn. Society also needed more trained professionals. Monarchs, princes, and cities required civil servants, preferably with law degrees. A medical degree enabled the recipient to become a private physician, a court physician, or one employed by the town. The Protestant and Catholic Reformations stimulated the demand for theology degrees.

Universities provided stipends and other support for scholars. Since the universal language of learning was Latin and the printing press could publish new information, scientific communication was rapid and overcame the religious division of sixteenth-century Europe. University students to a lesser extent also crossed religious frontiers. The adoption of Roman law in central Europe created a demand for lawyers and judges trained in this field, which meant that both Catholic and Protestant Germans continued to study in Italian universities, the centers for the study of Roman law.


Renaissance states had three basic forms of government: princedoms, monarchies, and oligarchies, which the Renaissance called republics.

Princedoms. A prince was an individual, whether called duke, count, marquis, or just signore (lord), who ruled a state, usually with the support of his family. The term "prince" meant the authority to make decisions concerning all inhabitants without check by representative body, constitution, or court. But the source of the prince's power and the nature of his rule varied greatly. He often had displaced another ruler or city council by force, war, assassination, bribery, diplomacy, purchase, marriage, or occasionally because the city invited him in to quell factionalism. Most often a prince came to power through an adroit combination of several of these. Once in control, he promulgated laws of succession to give himself a cloak of legitimacy so that his son or another family member might succeed him. Indeed, some inhabitants of the state would see him as legitimate and be content to be ruled by him.

Princely power was seldom absolute. Most princes depended on some accommodation with powerful forces within the state, typically the nobility or the merchant community. Many small princedoms depended on the good will of more powerful states beyond their borders to survive, and this limited options in foreign policy. And the prince's rule was always uneasy, which was one reason he relied on hired mercenary troops in war, instead of a militia created from his subjects. However achieved, what mattered most was that the prince possessed effective power to promulgate and enforce laws, to collect taxes, to defeat foreign invaders, and to quell rebellion. If the prince commanded the affection and loyalty of his subjects, this made his task easier. Italy and central Europe had an abundance of princedoms, including the states of Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, Parma, Piedmont-Savoy, and Urbino in northern Italy, and Bavaria, Brandenburg, Burgundy, Brunswick-Lüneberg, Luxembourg, the Palatinate, Albertine and Ernestine Saxony, and Württemberg in central Europe.

Monarchies. A monarchy was a princedom sanctioned by a much longer tradition, stronger institutions, and greater claims of legitimacy for its rulers. The majority of monarchies (for example, England, France, Portugal, Scotland, and Spain) were hereditary, while Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, and the Holy Roman Empire were elective. Monarchies typically were larger than princedoms and ruled subjects speaking multiple languages and dialects. Monarchies usually had developed laws and rules that determined the succession in advance. Only when the succession was broken through the lack of a legitimate heir, a bitter dispute within the ruling family, or overthrow by a foreign power was a monarch displaced by another.

Monarchies grew in power and size in the Renaissance. The creation of the dual monarchy of Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile between 1474 and 1479 created a powerful Spain that ruled the entire Spanish peninsula except Portugal, and Portugal as well from 1580 to 1640. The Tudor monarchy of England (three kings and two queens from 1485 to 1603) made England, previously a small, strife-torn, and remote part of Europe, into a major force. After the conclusion of the Hundred Years' War with England (13371453), France under the Valois dynasty (ruled 1328 to 1589) became a powerful and rich state. Conflicts between territorial monarchies dominated international politics and war in the Renaissance.

Republics. The smallest and most unusual political unit was the city-state consisting of a major town or city and its surrounding territory of farms and villages. Oligarchies, usually drawn from the merchant elite of the town, ruled republics. Flanked by the professional classes, the merchant community first dominated the commerce of the city. Then in the Middle Ages they threw off the authority of prince, king, or emperor. In their place the merchants created a system of government through interlocking and balanced councils. Large deliberative assemblies, comprising of one hundred, two hundred, or more adult males, elected or chosen by lot, debated and created laws. Executive committees, often six, eight, or a dozen men elected for two to six months, put the laws into action. Short terms of office and rules against self-succession made it possible for several hundred or more adult males to participate in government in a few years. The system of balanced and diffused power ensured that no individual or family could control the city. It was a government of balanced power and mutual suspicion.

Borrowing terminology and legal principles from ancient Roman law and local tradition, the men who formed oligarchies called their governments "republican" and their states "republics." They believed that their rule was based on the consent of the people who mattered. But they were still oligarchies, because only 5 to 20 percent of the adult males of the city could vote or hold office. Members of government almost always came from the leading merchants, manufacturers, bankers, and lawyers. Some republics permitted shopkeepers and master craftsmen to participate as well. But workers, the propertyless, clergymen, and other middle and low groups in society were excluded. Occasionally the laws conceded to them extraordinary powers in times of emergency. Those living in the countryside and villages outside the city walls had neither a role in government nor the right to choose their rulers. Indeed, the city often exploited them financially and in other ways. Venice, Genoa, Lucca, Florence, Pisa, and Siena in Italy, and Augsburg, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and the Swiss cantons were republics. Some city-state republics were small in comparison with monarchies and princedoms. But the Republic of Venice commanded an overseas empire of considerable size and commercial importance, while Florence's merchants and bankers played a large role in international trade, and the city participated forcefully in Italian politics.

Renaissance Europe presented a constantly shifting political scene. No government escaped external threats and very few avoided internal challenge. The numerous weak small states tempted powerful rulers and states. Despite their eloquent proclamations in defense of the liberty of states and citizens, republics were just as aggressive in conquering their weaker neighbors as were princedoms, while monarchies were always on the watch for another princedom, landed noble estate, or republic to absorb. It was the same within the state. Some powerful group or individual within the state would attempt through force or stealth to take control and change its nature. Many succeeded. The maneuvering for advantage, the shifting diplomatic alliances, plots, threats of war, and military actions made Renaissance politics extremely complex.

Two broad political developments prevailed. Princedoms grew in number and strength, and more powerful states, especially monarchies, absorbed smaller states. Republican city-states became princedoms, as a powerful individual or family within the city took control while maintaining a facade of republican institutions and councils. The gradual transformation of the Republic of Florence into a princedom ruled by members of the Medici family is the classic example. Meanwhile, princedoms fell into the hands of monarchies through military action or dynastic marriages. Three examples will suffice. France and the Habsburgs divided the Duchy of Burgundy between them when its duke, Charles the Bold, was killed in battle in 1477, leaving no male heir; Spain took control of the Kingdom of Naples by military force in 1504; and Spain absorbed the Duchy of Milan as the result of an alliance when the Duke Francesco II Sforza died without an heir in 1535. Strong republics also grew at the expense of their neighbors. The Republic of Venice conquered almost all the independent towns and small princedoms in northeastern Italy in the first half of the fifteenth century in its successful drive to create a mainland state. Small states survived at the price of careful neutrality, which avoided giving offense to more powerful neighbors, or by aligning themselves with larger powers. Such alliances came at a price. The small state lacked an independent foreign policy and might itself become a victim if the larger state fell.


The very complex and ever-shifting political reality stimulated the rapid development of diplomacy. The resident ambassador, that is, a permanent representative of one government to another, was a Renaissance innovation. He went to live in the capital city or court of another state where he conveyed messages between his government and the host government. Or to use the words that Sir Henry Wotton (15681639), the English ambassador to Venice, supposedly wrote in 1604, "a resident ambassador is a good man sent to tell lies abroad for his country's good." Perhaps more important than the messages, or lies, was the information that the resident ambassador and his staff gathered about the host country. Ambassadorial reports full of every kind of information are invaluable sources for modern scholars studying the Renaissance. The reports of papal nuncios and Venetian ambassadors are particularly useful.

The instability of forms of government, the many wars, and the fluidity of international politics stimulated an enormous amount of discussion about politics, including several masterpieces of political philosophy. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), having observed both, wrote about princedoms in his Il principe (The Prince, written in 1513), and on republics in Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the first ten books of Titus Livy, written 15141520). Numerous humanists wrote treatises advising a prince or king how he might be a good prince, work for the good of his people, and, as a result, see his state and himself prosper. Erasmus wrote the most famous one, Institutio Principis Christiani (1516; Education of a Christian prince). Jean Bodin (15301596) argued that state and society needed the stability that only a sovereign and absolute power can provide, and that this must be the monarchy, in his Six livres de la république (1576; Six Books on the commonwealth; in Latin, 1586).


Vernacular literatures flourished in the Renaissance even though humanists preferred Latin. In 1400 standard English, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and other vernaculars did not exist. People spoke and sometimes wrote a variety of regional dialects with haphazard spelling and multiple vocabularies. Nevertheless, thanks to the adoption of the vernacular by some governments, the printing press, and the creation of literary masterpieces, significant progress toward elegant and standard forms of modern vernaculars occurred.

German was typical. German-speaking lands inherited many varieties of German from the Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century some state chanceries began to use German instead of Latin. Hence, versions of German associated with the chanceries of more important states, including the East Middle Saxon dialect used in the chancery of the electorate of Saxony, became more influential. Next, printing encouraged writers and editors to standardize orthography and usage in order to reach a wider range of readers. Most important, Martin Luther (14831546) published a German translation of the Bible (New Testament in 1522; complete Bible in 1534), which may have had three hundred editions and over half a million printed copies by 1600, an enormous number at a time of limited literacy. And many began to imitate his style. Since he wrote in East Middle Saxon, this version of German eventually became standard German. Literary academies concerned about correct usage, vocabulary, and orthography rose in the seventeenth century to create dictionaries. A reasonably standardized German literary language had developed, though the uneducated continued to speak regional dialects.

Similar changes took place in other parts of Europe, with the aid of Renaissance authors and their creations. In Italy three Tuscan authors, Dante Alighieri (12651321)medieval in thought but using Tuscan brilliantlyPetrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375) began the process. Literary arbiters, such as Pietro Bembo (14701547) insisted on a standard Italian based on the fourteenth-century Tuscan of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Major sixteenth-century writers, including Ludovico Ariosto (14741533), Baldassare Castiglione (14781529), and Torquato Tasso (15441595), agreed. None of the three was Tuscan, but each tried to write, and sometimes rewrote, their masterpieces in a more Tuscan Italian. Then the Accademia della Crusca (founded in Florence in the 1580s) published a dictionary. Tuscan became modern Italian. William Shakespeare (15641616) and three English translations of the Bible, that of William Tyndale (printed 1526 and 1537), the Geneva Bible of 1560, and the King James Bible of 1611, had an enormous influence on English. The writers and dramatists of the Spanish Golden Age, particularly Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (15471616), did the same for the Castilian version of Spanish.


Art is undoubtedly the best-loved and -known part of the Renaissance. The Renaissance produced an extraordinary amount of art, and the role of the artist differed from that in the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance had a passion for art. Commissions came from kings, popes, princes, nobles, and lowborn mercenary captains. Leaders commissioned portraits of themselves, of scenes of their accomplishments, such as successful battles, and of illustrious ancestors. Cities wanted their council halls decorated with huge murals, frescoes, and tapestries depicting great civic moments. Monasteries commissioned artists to paint frescoes in cells and refectories that would inspire monks to greater devotion. And civic, dynastic, and religious leaders hired architects to erect buildings at enormous expense to beautify the city or to serve as semipublic residences for leaders. Such art was designed to celebrate and impress.

A remarkable feature of Renaissance art was the heightened interaction between patron and artist. Patrons such as Lorenzo de' Medici (14491492) of Florence and popes Julius II (reigned 15031513) and Leo X (reigned 15131521) were active and enlightened patrons. They proposed programs, or instructed humanists to do it for them, for the artists to follow. At the same time, the results show that they did not stifle the artists' originality. Men and women of many social levels had an appetite for art. The wealthy merchant wanted a painting of Jesus, Mary, or saints, with small portraits of members of his family praying to them, for his home. A noble might provide funding to decorate a chapel in his parish church honoring the saint for whom he was named. Members of the middle classes and probably the working classes wanted small devotional paintings. To meet the demand, enterprising merchants organized the mass production of devotional images, specifying the image (typically Mary, Jesus crucified, or patron saint), design, color, and size. It is impossible to know how many small devotional paintings and illustrated prints were produced, because most have disappeared. Major art forms, such as paintings, sculptures, and buildings, have attracted the most attention, but works in the minor arts, including furniture, silver and gold objects, small metal works, table decorations, household objects, colorful ceramics, candlesticks, chalices, and priestly vestments were also produced in great abundance.

The new styles came from Italy, and Italy produced more art than any other part of Europe. Art objects of every sort were among the luxury goods that Italy produced and exported. It also exported artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who died at the French court.

The ancient world of Rome and Greece, as interpreted by the humanists, greatly influenced Renaissance art. Artists and humanists studied the surviving buildings and monuments, read ancient treatises available for the first time, and imbibed the humanist emphasis on man and his actions and perceptions, plus the habit of sharp criticism of medieval styles.

Stimulated by the ancients, Renaissance artists were the first in European history to write extensively about art and themselves. Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) wrote treatises on painting (1435) and on architecture (1452); Raphael wrote a letter to Pope Leo X (c. 1519) concerning art. Giorgio Vasari's (15111574) Lives of the Artists (first edition 1550, revised edition 1568) was a series of biographies of Renaissance artists accompanied by his many comments about artistic styles. It was the first history of art. The silversmith Benvenuto Cellini (15001571) wrote about artistic practices and much more about himself, much of it probably fictitious, in his Autobiography, written between 1558 and 1566.

The social and intellectual position of the artist changed in the Renaissance. The artist began as a craftsman, occupying a relatively low social position and tied to his guild, someone who followed local traditions and produced paintings for local patrons. He became a self-conscious creator of original works of art with complex schemes, a person who conversed with humanists and negotiated with kings and popes. Successful artists enjoyed wealth and honors, such as the knighthood that Emperor Charles V conferred on Titian (Tiziano Vercelli, c. 14881576) in 1533.


The Renaissance was a hierarchical age in which the social position of a child's parents largely determined his or her place in society. Yet it was a variegated society, with nobles, commoners, wealthy merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers, workers, peasants, prelates, parish priests, monks in monasteries, nuns in convents, civil servants, men of the professional classes, and others. It was an age of conspicuous consumption and great imbalances of wealth. But Renaissance society also provided social services for the less fortunate. Ecclesiastical, lay, and civic charitable institutions provided for orphans, the sick, the hungry, and outcast groups, such as prostitutes and the syphilitic ill. Although social mobility was limited, a few humble individuals rose to the apex of society. Francesco Sforza (14011466), a mercenary soldier of uncertain origins, became duke of Milan in 1450 and founded his own dynasty. The shepherd boy Antonio Ghislieri (born 1504) became Pope Pius V (reigned 15661572).


Renaissance Europe had considerable cultural and intellectual unity, greater than it had in the centuries of the Middle Ages or would again until the European Economic Union of the late twentieth century. A common belief in humanism and humanistic education based on the classics created much of it. The preeminence of Italy also helped because Italians led the way in humanism, art, the techniques of diplomacy, and even the humble business skill of double-entry bookkeeping.

The prolonged Habsburg-Valois conflict, often called the Italian Wars (14941559) because much of the fighting occurred in Italy, and, above all, the Protestant Reformation began to crack that unity. Moreover, many typical Renaissance impulses had spent their force by the early seventeenth century. The great revival of the learning of ancient Greece and Rome had been assimilated, and humanism was no longer the driving force behind philosophical and scientific innovation. Italy no longer provided artistic, cultural, and scientific leadership, except in music, as a group of Florentine musicians created lyric opera around 1600.

Europe began a new age on the eve of the Thirty Years' War (16181648). More powerful monarchies with different policies ushered in a different era of politics and war. Exuberant baroque art and architecture of the seventeenth century were not the same as the restrained, classicizing art of the previous two centuries. Galileo Galilei and René Descartes (15961650) discarded Renaissance Aristotelian science in favor of mathematics and mechanics. The universities of Europe were no longer essential for training Europe's elite and hosting innovative research. France would be the military, literary, and stylistic leader of the different Europe of the seventeenth century.

See also Art ; Bible: Translations and Editions ; Cellini, Benvenuto ; Copernicus, Nicolaus ; Education ; English Literature and Language ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Galileo, Galilei ; German Literature and Language ; Humanists and Humanism ; Italian Literature and Language ; Leo X (pope) ; Medici Family ; Monarchy ; Political Philosophy ; Printing and Publishing ; Republicanism ; Spanish Literature and Language ; Universities .


Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile, eds. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Rev. ed. Cambridge, U.K., 1999. See articles on Renaissance authors and genres.

Burns, J. H., ed., with the assistance of Mark Goldie. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Copenhaver, Brian P., and Charles B. Schmitt. Renaissance Philosophy. Oxford and New York, 1992. Excellent one-volume survey.

Elton, G. R. England under the Tudors. 3rd ed. London, 1991. Standard study.

Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. New York, 1948. Classic study of the concept of the Renaissance from the fourteenth century to the twentieth.

Grendler, Paul F. Schooling in Renaissance Italy: Literacy and Learning, 13001600. Baltimore and London, 1989. Explains humanistic education.

. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore and London, 2002. Survey of all sixteen universities and curriculum changes, 14001600.

Grendler, Paul F., et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. 6 vols. New York, 1999. Nearly 1,200 articles and 800 illustrations on every aspect of the Renaissance.

Hall, A. Rupert. The Revolution in Science, 15001750. 3rd ed. London and New York, 1983. Good survey.

Hardin, James, and Max Reinhart, eds. German Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 12801580. Detroit, 1997.

Hays, Denys, and John E. Law. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance, 13801530. London and New York, 1989.

Hirsch, Rudolf. Printing, Selling and Reading, 14501550. 2nd printing with a supplemental annotated bibliographical introduction. Wiesbaden, 1974. Excellent short account of the first century of printing.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. New York, 1961. Pioneering account of humanism by the most important twentieth-century scholar of the Renaissance.

Lynch, John. Spain under the Habsburgs. Vol. 1, Empire and Absolutism, 15161598. Oxford, 1965.

Mattingly, Garrett. Renaissance Diplomacy. Boston, 1955, with many reprints. Classic study not yet superseded.

McFarlane, I. D. Renaissance France, 14701589. London and New York, 1974. Survey of French literature.

Paoletti, John, and Gary Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. 2nd ed. New York, 2002.

Rabil, Albert, Jr., ed. Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms, and Legacy. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1988. Articles on humanism everywhere in Europe.

Schmitt, Charles B., et al., eds. The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., 1988. Comprehensive coverage.

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New York, 1985.

Stephens, John. The Italian Renaissance: The Origins of Intellectual and Artistic Change before the Reformation. London and New York, 1990.

Turner, Jane S., ed. Encyclopedia of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist Art. 2 vols. New York, 2000. Part of the 34-volume Dictionary of Art (1996).

Wear, A., R. K. French, and I. M. Lonie, eds. The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Paul F. Grendler


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The term used to designate the period of European history beginning in Italy in the 14th century and extending into the 16th. Since it originated in connection with what was considered a "rebirth" of letters and art, those fields have often been emphasized in the study of the Renaissance, and some would prefer to confine the term to such usage. There was, however, a general cultural transition at this time, and historians therefore have concerned themselves also with the period's political, religious, economic, and social changes. They have felt justified in using the term Renaissance to refer to the transitional period

as a whole. In France, England, and Germany, the movement in question began in the latter half of the 15th century rather than in the 14th. The Renaissance beginning in Italy in the 14th century brought about fundamental changes in the course of which many ideals, attitudes, and institutions that had been predominant during the medieval period were modified or replaced. This article is concerned with describing the nature of those changes in the cultural, political, and religious areas, with emphasis upon the role of the Church in this transitional age, and upon the impact of the age upon the Church.


To understand the nature of the Renaissance, a necessary first step is to see how the term came into existence and the circumstances of its development. It is immediately apparent that the rise of the concept of the Renaissance is closely connected with the rise of the concept of the Middle Ages. It is likewise apparent that the writers of the 14th and 15th centuries who first developed these concepts were thinking primarily of conditions and changes in the realms of literary style and the visual arts, though they did occasionally make remarks about religious, political, and other factors as being also involved.

Petrarch. petrarch (130474) seems to have been the first to refer to the period between his own times and ancient Rome as the "Dark Ages." He designated as "ancient history" the period before the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperors, and as "modern history" the events "from that time to the present." He declined to write about this "modern period" from the 4th to the 14th century because it offered "so few famous names," because it was simply a period of "darkness." [See T. E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark Ages"' Speculum 17 (1942) 226242.]

Boccaccio and Villani. boccaccio (131375) considered that his age was witnessing a great increase of illustrious men, who wished to "raise up again the oppressed art of poetry." The first of these was Dante (12651321), though he reached the sacred spring of poetry "not by the path that the ancients had followed, but by certain byways entirely unknown to our ancestors." After him came Petrarch, who did "follow the ancient path," and thus "opened the way for himself and for those who wished to ascend after him" (Ross and McLaughlin 123126). Filippo Villani (13251405) expresses views similar to those of Boccaccio. He states in his Liber de civitatis Florentiae famosis civibus that Claudian (d. c. 408) was perhaps the last of the poets of the ancient world. After him, "almost all poetry decayed, because of the weakness and avarice of the emperors, and also because art was no longer prized, since the Catholic faith began to abhor the figments of poetic imagination as a pernicious and vain thing." The revival of poetry came with Dante, "who recalled it from an abyss of shadows into the light" [quoted in W. K. Ferguson, "Humanist Views of the Renaissance," (American Historical Review 4) 19]. In a parallel way, Villani held that painting had been "almost extinct" until Cimabue (12401302) recalled it to natural similitude, and Giotto (d. 1336) "restored painting to its ancient dignity and greatest fame" (ibid. 20).

Leonardo Bruni. With Bruni (c. 13701444) the political factor is more fully developed: the decline and subsequent revival of poetry are directly attributed to the decline and the revival of political liberty. In his Vita di Messer Francesco Petrarca he states that "after the liberty of the Roman people had been lost through the rule of the emperors the flourishing condition of studies and of letters perished, together with the welfare of the city of Rome." Then, connecting the recovery of liberty with the recovery of literature, he observes that "when the liberty of the Italian people was recovered, by the defeat of the Lombards, the cities of Tuscany and elsewhere began to revive, and to take up studies, and somewhat to refine the coarse style." He considered that the recovery was feeble and slow until the time of Dante, and that the really significant recovery had begun only with Petrarch. Petrarch's style was not perfect, but he opened the way to perfection by recovery of the works of Cicero (see Ross and McLaughlin 127130). It is apparent that there is a considerable chronological divergence in regard to his views as to the time of the recovery of liberty and that of the recovery of literature.

Bearing upon this matter also are references in Bruni's Historiarum Florentini populi libri xii, in which he states that the recovery of liberty by the Italian cities came when the emperors confined their attention in Italy to only brief campaigns, allowing the cities to concern themselves more with freedom and less with imperial power. This suggests the 12th-century victories of the Italian communes over the emperorsa considerable time before the literary revival that he sees in Petrarch. One of the basic problems in interpreting the Renaissance is essentially connected with this divergence. The 12th and 13th centuries, which saw the rise of relatively free, self-governing communes, produced literature that the humanists disliked, while the literary revival they praised took place in 14th-and 15th-century Italy, when most of the free communes had come under despotic princes or small oligarchies of wealthy businessmen.

Vasari. Giorgio Vasari (151174), who coined the word rinascita (rebirth), expressed views similar to those of Bruni in his famous Lives of the Painters, first published in 1550. Although beginning with Cimabue, he gives an introductory section explaining his views on earlier art, describing its rise and perfection in the ancient world, and then its decline, beginning about the time of Constantine. For him, medieval art was unworthy because it was unclassical. He wished to discuss art before Cimabue in an introductory way merely in order that the readers might see that, just as it is with human beings, so also it is with the arts: they "have their birth, growth, age, and death." He hoped his readers would thereby "be enabled more easily to recognize the progress of the renaissance [rinascita ] of the arts, and the perfection to which they have attained in our own time" (quoted in Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought, 62).

Luther. It is understandable that the deprecatory view of the Middle Ages among the humanists and art historians would continue in the historical opinions of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation especially in the light of Luther's theological objections to medieval philosophy and theology. Luther also saw the literary Renaissance as preparing the way for his religious revival. It is perhaps understandable, too, that the 18th-century Enlightenment, in view of the hatred of the Church that is evident in many of its leaders, would continue the deprecatory view of medieval civilization.

Voltaire. In his Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations, et sur les principaux faits de l'histoire, depuis

Charlemagne jusqu'à Louis XIII, published in 1756, Voltaire expressed his strong dislike of medieval Latin (which he considered barbarous), of medieval religion, and of the culture of the period in general. Scholasticism, he considered as a "bastard off-spring of the philosophy of Aristotle, poorly translated and poorly understood, which had done more harm to reason and to polite studies than had the Huns and Vandals." In contrast to that darkness, he held that human intelligence began to revive in Italy about the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th. As a cause for this, he noted the wealth of Italy, coming from the commerce of her cities. He emphasized the importance of Florence in this revival, and spoke with great praise of the Medici rule there.

Voltaire noted not only the revival in intelligence, but also the moral shortcomings of Renaissance men, the widespread assassinations, poisonings, and such; but this did not disturb him, for he viewed Renaissance irreligion as a factor in the destruction of Christianity; he held this to be a gain, since he considered the loss of religion as a necessary step for the progress of reason.

Hegel. The interpretation of the Renaissance in G. W. F. Hegel's Philosophie der Geschichte (1837) and Geschichte der Philosophie (183336) is similar to that of Voltaire. For hegel the Middle Ages meant a period

of despiritualization of religion through emphasis upon mere externals of ceremony and scholastic thought, so that life in this world was devoid of spiritual content. The medieval Church and feudalism made freedom impossible. An antithesis to this came at the end of the Middle Ages, as men became free again, "having the power of exercising their activity for their own objects and interests." It is at this time, also, that there was a new birth, a "revival of the arts and sciences which were concerned with present matter, the epoch when the spirit gains confidence in itself and its existence, and finds its interest in its present." Hegel's interpretation was reflected in the dramatic phrase used by Jules Michelet in his Histoire de France. In the seventh volume of this work, which he entitled La Renaissance (1855), he said that the 16th century must be considered as the age that brought about, more than any previous age, "the discovery of the world and the discovery of man."

An echo of Hegel's interpretation is found also in Georg Voigt's Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Altertums (1859), which noted "the corporative tendency" as the characteristic that especially distinguished the Christian Middle Ages, when the great men who arose "seem so only as representatives of the system in which they lived." In contrast, he saw Petrarch as the example of the Renaissance humanist who broke through the bonds of the corporative tendency, and in whom "individuality and its rights stood forth strong and free with a claim to the highest significance."

Burckhardt. The full development of this line of interpretation, coming down from the Renaissance humanists themselves, through Voltaire, Hegel, and others, was presented in 1860 in Jacob Burckhardt's work, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien. He credited the Renaissance with the beginning of individuality, and the beginning of the objective treatment of this world. He granted that there had been some examples of "free personality" in medieval Italy, but for the most part, he saw the Middle Ages as a period when a "ban" had been "laid upon human personality." But, "at the close of the 13th century Italy began to teem with individuality." Medieval men had been "dreaming or half awake" under a veil woven of "faith, illusion, and childish prepossession." Then, in Renaissance Italy this veil first melted into air, and "an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible." Burckhardt considered that the chief cause for the birth of individualism and objectivity was the political condition in Italy, which had developed from the conflicts between emperors and popes. In 14th-century Italy the state became a "calculated, conscious creation a work of art." The illegitimacy of the princely governments and the conflicts within the republics provided the possibility of success to the man who could "make good his claims by personal merit." If he were sufficiently resourceful, able, and unscrupulous, he would succeed, no matter what his other shortcomingsthe illegitimacy of his birth, the illegality of his position, the flaunting of tradition or accepted conventional morality.

In "the character of these states, whether republics or despotisms, lies not the only but the chief reason for the early evolution of the Italian in the modern man," As to the moral crisis that he considered a part of this movement, he did not welcome it in the same way that Voltaire did, but considered that the "excessive individualism" of the Renaissance Italian came upon him not "through any fault of his own, but rather through an historical necessity." And so, it was in itself "neither good nor bad, but necessary." Hence, he considered the political situation in Italy rather than the revival of antiquity as the chief cause for the Renaissance. Indeed, though he admitted that Renaissance developments were "colored in a thousand ways by the influence of the ancient world," yet the "essence of the phenomena might still have been the same without the classical revival."



Burckhardt's interpretation in many of its aspects had been developing from the age of the Renaissance humanists. A different view, however, already began to appear in the Romantic school in the early 19th century. One may or may not agree with these Romantics in their glorification of chivalry, Gothic architecture, and medieval life in general. But, after F. chateaubriand's Le Génie du Christianisme (1802), and works of others of this school, such as F. schlegel, Mme. de Staël (17661847) and Walter Scott, there was a growing consciousness that there was another point of view than that which insisted upon the absolute superiority of classical literature and art. Chateaubriand insisted upon the superiority of medieval culture because he was convinced that Christianity gave a truer, more fruitful basis for understanding human nature and emotions, and for the depiction of them in literature and art than had the beliefs underlying the literature and art of the classical world.

20th-Century Reevaluations. In addition to the reaction of the Romantics, 20th-century historians, such as C. H. Haskins, J. de Ghellinck, L. Thorndike, É. gilson,C. dawson, and others provided convincing evidence that the medieval period, and especially from 800 on, cannot be correctly described as "Dark Ages." Nor can it be maintained that medieval men were blind in regard to the nature of man or the world about them. Medieval men had a much better understanding of and appreciation for classical Latin literature than the Renaissance humanists suspected. One who reads the works and letters of Alcuin (d. 804), Lupus of Ferrières (d. c. 862), and John of Salisbury (d. 1180) is impressed not only with the extent of their knowledge of ancient literature, but also with their enthusiasm and understanding of the importance of such studies. One who investigates medieval architecture and sculpture and reads the studies that É. mÂle, among others, has made of them, will hardly fail to be impressed with medieval man's consciousness of the world about him, as reflected in the exact depiction of plants in the details of Gothic sculpture. The profundity of Dante's understanding of human nature could hardly have come about if Dante and the men from whom he drew his intellectual and spiritual roots had been separated from reality by the "veil woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession" of which Burckhardt spoke.

Consequently, a study of the works of medieval men and of recent historians who have devoted themselves to the intellectual history of the Middle Ages makes it clear that the Michelet-Burckhardt formula of attributing to the Renaissance the discovery of the world and of man is an exaggeration that is false. It is, nevertheless, true that the men of the Renaissance placed a much greater and more exclusive emphasis upon man and this world than had medieval men. This tendency is discernible first, perhaps, in the works of the 14th-and 15th-century humanists.


At the outset it should be noted that there were links of a professional nature between the Renaissance humanists

(see humanism) and their medieval predecessors. P.O. Kristeller has stated that the Renaissance humanists were "the professional heirs and successors of the medieval rhetoricians, the so-called dictatores ," the professional writers of the Middle Ages, who wrote letters and prepared documents of various kinds in accordance with the ars dictaminis ("Humanism and Scholasticism in the Italian Renaissance," in Kristeller 100103). Thus, there is a marked similarity in function between Petrus de Vineis, who served the Emperor Frederick II as dictator, and Coluccio Salutati, the humanist chancellor of Florence from 1375 to 1406. When Salutati was given Florentine citizenship in 1400 he was cited as one skilled in the ars dictaminis (see Hay 121 n.3).

As R. Weiss has pointed out (The Dawn of Humanism in Italy ), it must be noted, too, that a large proportion of the early humanists were connected with the legal profession in some way. Thus, Lovato dei Lovati (d. 1309), who made a study of the meters of Seneca's tragedies, was a Paduan jurist, and Geri d'Arezzo (d. c. 1339), whom Salutati considered an important precursor of Petrarch, was a doctor of civil law. Albertino Mussato (12611329) of Padua, the most important of these early humanists, who wrote the Senecan tragedy, Ecerinis, and who was crowned poet laureate in 1315, was also connected with the law. The Ecerinis deals with the 13th-century tyrant Ezzelino da Romano, and apparently Mussato hoped to influence the Paduans to oppose the aggressive moves of the Can Grande della Scala. It would be unwise, however, to attempt on this basis a generalization respecting the political aspirations of these early humanists, because a great deal more research work still remains to be done concerning them (Weiss II primo secolo dell'Umanesimo, 10).

Petrarch. Difficulties in the interpretation of the works of Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (130474) are of a different type. He wrote a great deal, and some of his statements are confused and contradictory. But there does seem to be in him, in spite of his egocentrism, a charitable concern to help his fellow men. He believed that effective communication was essential, the right word must be found, and for this purpose the works of classical Latin literature were the perfect models. He was convinced that men should help their fellow men, and that the spirits of men can be helped especially through effective discourse. Learning how to use right words comes from study of the classics. This was the objective, the studia humanitatis, for Petrarch, and to pursue such studies was the justification he would probably offer for his life of retirement, for the solitude he loved. (See Garin 2731.) His emphasis upon the importance of classical Latin rhetoric is seen in his work On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others, in which he agrees that in Aristotle's Ethics he sees virtue "egregiously defined and distinguished by him and treated with penetrating insight," all of which causes him to know a little more than he knew before. But, he says, "I myself remain the same." The trouble with Aristotle is that "his lesson lacks the words that sting and set afire the urge toward love of virtue and hatred of vice or, at any rate, does not have enough of such power. He who looks for that will find it in our Latin writers, especially in Cicero and Seneca" (tr. H. Nachod, in Cassirer 103).

There is nothing in Petrarch's attitude that is anti-Christian; on the contrary, he seems to be inspired by sincere Christian charity. But he is not satisfied with the medieval emphasis upon the theological. When his friend, Luigi Marsili, an Augustinian, was going away to study theology, Petrarch wrote to him, urging him to follow the example of Lactantius and St. Augustine in conjoining the studia humanitatis with studia divinitatis, and thus to continue working for the construction of a pia philosophia (see Garin 36). His conviction of the superiority of classical literature was such that it was natural enough for him to consider the civilization that produced medieval literature, different as it was, the "Dark Ages."

As to his political views, Petrarch centered all his hopes in Rome, believing that the world had never seen such peace and justice as it had when it had one head, and that head was Rome. He was enthusiastic about Cola di Rienzo until the more fantastic aspects of his activities began to be demonstrated. It seems, too, that Petrarch expected the papacy to make of the Pax romana, a pax christiana, and the fact that the popes were in Avignon, removed from Romewhere he thought they should bedisturbed him greatly. One historian has even gone so far as to suggest that "Humanism was forged in the Catholic pathos generated by the seventy years of Babylonian captivity" (G. Toffanin 112).

In regard to dictatorship, as opposed to republicanism, Petrarch had been critical of Caesar in his Africa, but praised him in his later Historia Julii Caesaris. He even became friendly with the Visconti tyrants of Milan, and decided to reside there in 1353. Boccaccio, the devoted follower of Petrarch in so many matters, nevertheless reproached him for this. Boccaccio lived long enough in Florence to become attached to its republican traditions, as Petrarch had not.

Boccaccio. Giovanni Boccaccio (131375) had moved to Florence in 1340, after having spent some time in Naples. He entered into the cultural life of the city, and served as an important link in emphasizing the contribution of Petrarch. In addition to his Decameron and other productions of a similar nature, Boccaccio did very serious scholarly work in classical Latin literature and culture and was one of the first to promote the study of Greek. He devoted himself especially to the preparation of treatises that would assist readers in understanding classical authors, such as his work on mythology, De genealogiis deorum gentilium.

Salutati and Civic Humanism. In 1375, the year of Boccaccio's death, Coluccio salutati (13311406) the disciple of Petrarch and Boccaccio, became chancellor of Florence, and continued to foster their influence in that city. His writing reveals the development of the humanist movement into the civic humanism that was so important in Florence. His humanist attitude is seen in an exchange of letters he had with the Dominican Giovanni dominici on the values and dangers of the new humanistic trends. Dominici was a formidable opponent, for he was well informed and fully aware of the value of the classics for mature students, but was opposed to placing so much emphasis upon them in the education of the young. Salutati was in agreement that Christianity came first, and had no intention of saying anything contrary to the Faith. But he was convinced of the value of the new attitudes. He maintained that the studia humanitatis and studia divinitatis were interrelated, and a true and complete knowledge of the one could not be had without the other (see Emerton 341377).

In one of his letters he expressed his conviction on the superiority of the active life, in behalf of family, friends, and the state. In writing to a friend who was planning to become a monk he said: "Do not believe that to flee from turmoil, to avoid the view of pleasant things, to enclose oneself in a cloister, or to isolate oneself in a hermitage, constitute the way of perfection Without doubt you, fleeing from the world, can fall from heaven to earth, while I, remaining in the world, can raise my heart to heaven." Consequently, Salutati advised his friend to do those things "necessary for the family, pleasing to friends, salutary for the state " (tr. in Brucker 3536). As in the case of Petrarch, there is here no rejection of Christian doctrine as such, but there is a rejection of the ascetic ideal that had held so high a place in the medieval period.

Civic Humanism of Bruni. The trend toward civic humanism, which is evident in Salutati, reached perhaps its fullest expression in the works of Leonardo Bruni. Although born in Arezzo, Bruni spent most of his mature years in Florence. He studied Greek under Manuel Chrysoloras there, and came also under the influence of Salutati. After service in the Roman Curia from 1405 to 1415, Bruni returned to Florence, where he became chancellor in 1427, a post he held until his death. The numerous Greek works translated by him included the Ethics and the Politics of Artistotle. These works very likely confirmed him in his belief that the study of politics must have a central place in the educational process, since that study is connected with the bringing of happiness, not just to one man but to the entire population. He considered that the study of politics should be a part of moral philosophy, and that in the classics of the ancient world one could obtain knowledge of those things that concern life and morality, and which, therefore "are called humanitatis studia, inasmuch as they perfect and elevate man" (quoted in Garin 53). Cicero was recommended for such studies, but Lactantius, St. Augustine, and the other Fathers were mentioned also.

Boccaccio had praised Petrarch, together with Dante, for the restoration of poetry. Bruni went further and hailed Petrarch as the founder of a new discipline of literary studies. While these 15th-century humanists had progressed sufficiently to realize that Petrarch's Africa could not match the poetic achievements of Vergil's Aeneid, Bruni nevertheless praised Petrarch as the one who restored the humanities to life when they were already extinct, and "opened for us the path upon which we could cultivate learning" (quoted from Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum, in Baron 1:237).

Perhaps the most remarkable presentation of his civic humanism is found in the funeral oration that Bruni composed in 1428, eulogizing Nanni degli Strozzi, a general who had been important in the Florentine coalition that prevented the Visconti tyranny from dominating northern Italy. The oration is a Renaissance counterpart of the funeral oration in which Periclesas reported in Thucydideshad praised the free institutions of Athens. Florence, said Bruni, had "revived and rescued from ruin Latin letters, which previously had been abject, prostrate, and almost dead." It had been Florence, too, that had brought back knowledge of Greek letters, which for more than 700 years had fallen into disuse in Italy. "Finally, the studia humanitatis themselves, surely the best and most excellent of studies, those most appropriate for the human race, needed in private as well as public life, and distinguished by a knowledge of letters befitting a free born mansuch studia took root in Italy after originating in our city" (quoted in Baron 1:362363).

Reflections of Humanism in Renaissance Art.

Some observers consider that the paintings of Masaccio (c. 140128), such as the "Tribute Money" and the "Expulsion of Adam and Eve" in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, reflect an emphasis upon man, parallel to that which is found in the writings of these humanists. It would seem, too, that the interior of the Chapel of San Lorenzo, designed by Brunelleschi (13771446), the Florentine architect, emphasizes the dominance of man in this world, just as clearly as the high nave of Chartres Cathedral emphasizes the otherworldliness of medieval civilization. Theophilus (10th century), in writing about the nature of art, stated that the achievement in art is "in glorifying the Creator in His Creature, in causing God to be admired in His works." [See E. De Bruyne, Études d'esthétique médiévale 2 (Bruges 1946) 413417.] There is no trace of such a view in Leon Battista Alberti (140472), who in his Della Pittura wrote that "The object of painting is to earn favor and goodwill and praise." It is man, the artist, not the Creator, who has become important in this 15th-century view (see Chabod 182183).

Filelfo. It should be realized that not all Renaissance humanists advocated civic humanism in the same way as Salutati and Bruni. There were those also who served the tyrants and princes, and there were those who did not place emphasis upon the active life. When Cosimo de' medici returned from exile in 1434, Francesco Filelfo (13981481) left florence and then spent much of his time writing in opposition to Florence and the Medici. He went to Milan, where he placed his scholarly services at the disposal of the Visconti tyrants. He served the Ambrosian republic during its short life in Milan, and then Francesco sforza, after he gained control of the government in 1450. In his earlier life Filelfo had spent seven years in Constantinople, and when he returned to Italy in 1427, brought back a large number of Greek manuscripts, as well as a member of the Chrysoloras family as his first wife. Nevertheless, in his De morali disciplina libri quinque, he did not emphasize the active life or civic humanism of Salutati and Bruni, but praised wisdom, which he defined as knowledge of things divine. Wisdom contemplates the eternal and immutable, rather than the temporal and mobile (see Rice 5053). Bruni had praised the republican freedom of Florence, but Filelfo wrote his epic poem, the Sfortias, to glorify the most successful of the condottieri, Francesco Sforza, who had gained control of Milan solely by military ability, unscrupulousness, and force.

Pontano. Pontano (14261503) was similar to Filelfo in many respects. He had served the tyrannical Aragonese kings of Naples, and received many favors from them. Yet, when the Aragonese were overthrown by the French in 149495, Pontano was ready with an oration in honor of Charles VIII of France. Also, in contrast to Bruni and Salutati, in his De prudentia, Pontano insisted that the prudent man, skilled in civic affairs and business cannot be the wise man who concerns himself with investigating the principles and causes of things (see Rice 5357).


It would seem, then, that Bruni's civic humanism cannot serve as a general definition of Renaissance humanism, though it certainly was a very important development within that movement (see Kristeller, in Helton 35). That Bruni's thought developed in the way that it did must be considered as due in large part to the historical actuality of Florence, which had taken the lead in the later 14th and earlier 15th century in defending central Italy and preventing it from falling completely under the domination of the Visconti tyrants of Milan (see Baron passim ). It may well be that "the Renaissance would have been nipped in the bud if Florence had become a provincial town within an Italian kingdom under despotic Viscontean rule" (Baron 383384).

However, throughout Italy, except for Florence and Venice, the trend of the 14th century was from relatively free communes to one man rule of the signorie and princes. And, although there is much to be said in favor of the government of Florence or Venice when compared with tyrannies like those of the Visconti, it is nevertheless true that from the early 14th century, Florence and Venice were ruled by small oligarchies of wealthy businessmen rather than by the citizens generally. Furthermore, however much the Florentines might complain about the aggression of the Visconti, the Florentines themselves were little different, as they brought the other areas of Tuscany under their control.

Milan. The Visconti had gained control of Milan in 1278, and, except for about ten years in the early 14th century, had held it constantly until 1447. After the short-lived Ambrosian republic, Francesco Sforza (d. 1466) gained control in 1450, and he and his descendants ruled, except for the period of French control in the early 16th century, until 1535. The Della Scala family, which controlled Verona, had by 1335 reached out to gain also Vicenza, Treviso, Padua, Parma, Reggio, and Lucca. Other princes and despots of the 14th and 15th centuries included the Este family of Ferrara, the Malatesta of Rimini, and the Bentivoglio family of Bologna. The House of Anjou, which had ruled the Kingdom of Naples since the 13th century was replaced by Alfonso the Magnanimous of Aragon (d. 1458) in 1442, and it would be difficult to imagine a government more tyrannical than that of his illegitimate son Ferrante (d. 1494).

Florence under the Medici. In Florence the executive power was in the hands of a kind of city councilthe eight priors and the gonfalonier of justice. The priors were selected by the guilds, but from the early 14th century, a majority of places were allotted to the Seven Greater Guilds, made up of the very wealthy, such as the bankers and great merchants. The Lesser Guilds, including lower tradesmen such as bakers and shoemakers, were allotted only a minority of places. Furthermore, from the 1320s, the priors were picked by lot, their names being pulled out of an election bag at two-month intervals. The trick in controlling the government was to have charge of the committee that determined which names would be allowed to go into the election bag, and which would be excluded on one pretext or another. In this way the oligarchy could see that enemies did not become priors and that friends did. In 1378 there was a revolt of the ciompi, as the wool carders were called, and this led to lower-class control of the government for a short time. But, by 1382 the wealthy oligarchy, led by the Albizzi family, was back in control, which it maintained until 1434, when Cosimo de'Medici (d. 1464) returned from exile.

Cosimo de'Medici held public office for only three terms of two months each, but in effect he was in complete control as the dictator of the city from 1434 to 1464: On the one hand, he was able to see to it that only names of Medici supporters got into the election bags, and that enemies of his regime had their taxes raised so high that they had no alternative but to move out of the city, as happened to Giannozzo Manetti. On the other hand, Cosimo spent much of his great wealth in the patronage of arts and letters, so that Florentines could be proud of their city and thank the Medici for making it so beautiful and famous. It appears to have been Cosimo's money and influence that caused the general council that had opened in Ferrara in 1438 to be moved to Florence in 1439. One of the Greek delegates was Georg Gemistos Plethon, whose lectures on Plato were important in initiating the great interest in Platonic philosophy among the Florentines. This interest led to Cosimo's patronage of Marsilio Ficino (143399), who later was provided with a monetary allowance and a home near the Medici Villa Careggi.

Important also in the maintenance of Cosimo's position was the successful foreign policy he pursued. In the years following his return from exile in 1434 he continued the alliance with Venice, for protection from the aggression of Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan (141247). But after the death of this last of the Visconti, Cosimo broke the link that had existed with Venice and allied himself with Francesco Sforza. Cosimo realized that Venice was now more of a menace than Milan. He perceived, also, that Sforza would make an excellent ally, since he would need Cosimo's financial support, whereas Venice would not. Venice soon saw the wisdom of coming to terms with Milan (Peace of Lodi, 1454) and of joining in a league with Florence and Milan. By 1455 the papacy and Naples joined with the above three states. The Italian League thus formed was able to keep out foreign invaders and maintain comparative peace within the peninsula. Historians have usually given Cosimo de'Medici chief credit for the formation and maintenance of this system, though recent studies have held that Francesco Sforza and Pope Pius II (145864) were equally important, if not more so, in keeping up a steadfast opposition to French interference [see V. Ilardi, "The Italian League, Francesco Sforza and Charles VII (145461)," in Studies in the Renaissance, 6 (1959) 129166].

Cosimo had been willing to maintain his control by such indirect methods, and without changing the constitution of the city, but his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (d. 1492), who directed affairs after the death of his father Piero (1469), made changes assuring his dictatorial power. In 1480 Lorenzo established a Council of Seventy. This Council, which included Lorenzo and friends of the Medici, and which had the right to fill its own vacancies as they occurred, had the power to appoint committees from its own members, to handle foreign affairs, defense, internal security, and finance. Lorenzo's power became constantly more dictatorial until the time of his death. There are indications that he helped his declining financial position by tapping the treasury of the state, and there were murmurings that he dipped into various savings funds, such as the state dowry fund, which the citizens had built up.

Later Florentine Cultural Developments. Florence's later chancellorsMarsuppini, appointed in 1444, Poggio in 1453, and Benedetto Accolti in 1458became merely ornamental, while Bartolomeo Scala, appointed in 1464, devoted himself chiefly to praising the Medici. In contrast to Salutati, who had insisted upon the importance of the active life in preference to the ascetic ideal, Marsilio ficino (143399), an ardent student of Plato and the founder of the Platonic Academy in Florence, insisted upon the superiority of the mind and spirit of man over the body and all things material. He was convinced that the farther behind the mind can leave the body, the more perfect it is. As man goes about his intellectual activities, studying the liberal arts, astronomy, music, and poetry, "in all these arts the mind of man despises the service of the body, since the mind is able at times, and can even now begin, to live without the help of the body" (tr. J.L. Burroughs, in Ross and McLaughlin 387392). pico della mirandola (146394) was a member of this group in Florence, but his interests did not stop with Platonism or Neoplatonism; he was interested also in Aristotle as well as in Arabic and Hebraic works. Because of his conviction of the unity of truth, he believed that apparently contradictory philosophies really share in a common truth. Paralleling Ficino's emphasis upon the spirit, Pico explains, in his Oration of the Dignity of Man, that man is the only creature whose life is determined not by nature, but by his own free choice. Ficino's desire to get away from the material is probably best reflected in the paintings of Sandro Botticelli (d. 1510), with his stress upon unembodied line and movement (see Berenson 111112).


The Renaissance confronted the papacy with a difficult political problem: the aggressive expansion of the nearby Italian states would be achieved at the expense of the Papal States, unless adequate means of defense could be found by the militarily weak popes. In this crisis some popes resorted to means that were too much like those in vogue at the time and which have been labeled "Machiavellian."

Nicholas V. The cultural development of the Renaissance presented a much more subtle danger and one that was not immediately apparent. nicholas v (144755) was a leading patron of Renaissance humanists and artists. Understandably, he considered that the center of the religious world should look the part and should also be the center of the cultural world. His wholesale patronage, however, resulted in his bringing of certain humanists into the papal service whose personal lives and writings left much to be desired on moral grounds. Among them was Lorenzo Valla mentioned above. In his dialogue De voluptate, Leonardo Bruni defended the Stoic point of view; Antonio Beccadelli (Panormita; 13941471), author of the immoral Hermaphroditus, defended the Epicurean view; while Niccolò de'Niccoli (d. 1437), the famous collector of manuscripts, defended the Christian view. Niccoli's defense of the Christian view won out in the debate, but Valla presented the Epicurean view so vividly that some have considered that it represented his personal belief. If this work is read together with Valla's De professione religiosorum, in which he attacks the whole idea of monasticism, it appears that Valla's position is that whatever comes from nature is good and praiseworthy. On the other hand, he considered continence unnatural and therefore wrong. He seems to have considered pleasure man's highest good.

Immediate Successors of Nicholas V. Ludwig von Pastor considered that within the Renaissance there were two tendencies, the Christian and the pagan (Geschichte der Päpste 1:1415), and he emphasized the fact that despite the immorality, obscene literature, and Machiavellian diplomacy of the age there were also a great many remarkable saints. pius ii (145864) understood the pagan tendency in the movement better than had Nicholas V, who had been something of a dilettante; Pius II had himself been a leading humanist writer. Consequently, Pius was not quite so lavish in his patronage. Under paul ii (146471) some of the worst pagan aspects of the movement began to appear in the Roman Academy, led by Pomponius Laetus. Paul understandably looked upon this development with disfavor, and in the quarrel that resulted, a political conspiracy was planned and was said to include a plot to murder the Pope. After discovery of the plot, however, Pomponius Laetus and Platina were arrested.

sixtus iv (147184) has been criticized because of his extensive nepotism. Actually, it was imperative for him to gain control of the cities throughout the Papal States that were held by local despots who allied themselves with enemies of the papacy at will. It seemed to Sixtus that his only safe course was to install his nephews in such cities. When Lorenzo de'Medici, who was interested in expansion toward the Adriatic, tried to interfere, the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478 to overthrow the Medici was planned by a nephew of the Pope, but with the Pope's knowledge. Pastor provided ample documentation to prove that Sixtus directed that murder should not be employed, but Giuliano, the brother of Lorenzo, was nevertheless killed.

Alexander VI. Innocent was followed by the worst of the Renaissance popes, alexander vi (14921503). The immorality of his personal life is indisputable. It was Alexander VI's ruthless, immoral son, Cesare Borgia, whom machiavelli (14691527) praised in The Prince. Machiavelli maintained that a prince who tries to be good in the midst of so many who are not good is bound to fail. Hence he warned that a prince who insists on keeping his promises will not be successful. Some historians have attempted to explain away what Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, claiming that he meant it only as a satire, and that his true, democratic thought is to be found in his Discourses on the First Decade of Livy. Actually, the same basic principles are to be found in the Discourses. For example, in book 1, ch. 9, he praises Romulus for killing his brother, insisting that it should be put down as a general rule that "reprehensible actions may be justified by their effects, and when the effect is good, as it was in the case of Romulus, it always justifies the action."

Julius II and Leo X. The last great popes in the Renaissance tradition were julius ii (150313) and leo x (151321). Despite the brilliance of their reigns from the cultural point of view, the Renaissance in Italy was beginning to be overshadowed by developments elsewhere in Europe. The sack of Rome in 1527 and the momentous happenings north of the Alps marked the beginning of a new age, especially in politics and religion.


The Renaissance in the strict sense was an Italian movement. In its spread to Spain and to the countries north of the Alps, it encountered new political, cultural, and religious conditions and accordingly took on a somewhat different aspect. It should be observed also that it was the later Italian Renaissance that exercised the major influence outside Italy.

Printing and the Renaissance. The art of printing was developed in Germany c. 1450 and therefore antedated the impact of the Renaissance in that area. The new art was soon carried into Italy, and presses were established at Rome, Venice, and other cities. It was not received with any great enthusiasm by certain humanists at first, and was opposed, understandably, by the professional scribes, but long before 1500 the printed book replaced the manuscript as the normal form of book production. The invention of printing created a revolution in the dissemination of learning, the effects of which would be difficult to exaggerate. The spread of Renaissance writings and ideas within Italy and outside Italy was now rapid and effective and the whole program of education at all levels was put on a new foundation. A careful study of the printed books before 1500 reveals concretely both the spread of the new learning and, at the same time, the vitality of the late medieval cultural tradition.

Spain. The Renaissance crossed the Pyrenees when such Italian humanists as Pomponio Montovano, Lucio Marineo Siculo (d. 1533), and Pietro Martire d'Anghiera (d. 1526) were welcomed as lecturers in Castile. Owing to the inclusion of the Low countries in the Spanish empire, there were intimate contacts also between Spanish humanism and northern humanism. Enthusiasm for the new learning produced the great scholar Antonio de Nebrija (14441522). The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was prepared at the University of Alcalà under the patronage of Cardinal Francisco ximÉnez de cisneros. Juan Luis vives of Valencia challenged the medieval dialecticians and composed new rules of literary style and influential theories of education.

Renaissance in the North. France and England, although among the first kingdoms to feel their growth into nationhood, largely as a result of the 100 Years' War, resisted humanism and other features of the Renaissance longer then other areas of Northern Europe. Like Germany, they were governed by a rural nobility that clung to the traditions of courtly chivalry. However, clerics and officials of the crown in their visits to Italy occasionally brought back an enthusiasm for the new learning. Hence, some humanists were invited into the employ of wealthy patrons or into the schools and universities. But it was not until the last quarter of the 15th century that cultural contacts were extensive. Besides literary interest in the classics, the northern Renaissance developed a practical and pedagogical character that included a critical study of the manuscripts of Scripture, patristic literature, and a corresponding impatience with scholastic method. Moreover, they were strong advocates of ecclesiastical reform.

England. In England, William Grocyn, student of the two greatest Greek stylists, Angelo Poliziano (145494) and Demetrius Chalcondyles (14241511), brought his own knowledge of Greek to a perfection that won praise even from the refugee scholars from Constantinople. The lectures of John colet (1467?1519) at Oxford witness the new insistence upon textual studies and historical exegesis of the New Testament, especially of St. Paul's letters, rather than upon the prevailing allegorical interpretation. Colet founded St. Paul's School in London as a center of the new theology. What Colet was doing for theology, Thomas linacre (1460?1524) achieved in medicine. His Greek he had learned in the household of Lorenzo the Magnificent, where he was tutored with Giovanni, the future Pope Leo X. He translated some of his treatises of the Greek physicians, especially Galen, into Latin and later founded the Royal College of Physicians. It was Linacre who taught Greek to St. Thomas more, whose own mastery of classical and English prose produced some of the finest examples of Renaissance writing, especially the Utopia, where wit and gravity vie in an indictment of society.

Germany. The decentralized political structure of Germany favored the academic rivalry out of which several centers of humanism emerged. The Rhenish scholar Rodolphus Agricola and Johann von dalberg, Bishop of Worms, promoted a classical revival at Heidelberg. Ludwig Dringenberg (d. 1490) made Schlettstadt the humanistic axis of the Upper Rhine. Nürnberg, long known as a trading market, was becoming the "Florence of Germany" through the scholarly reputations of Herman (141085) and Hartman (14401514) Schedel and the patronage of Willibald pirkheimer. The generous favor of Emperor Maximilian I led to the formation of literary academies by Conrad Celtis and Johannes Cuspinian and the rise of such scholars as Conrad Peutinger, leading antiquary and epigraphist of Augsburg. Jakob Wimpfeling of Schlettstadt, the "Schoolmaster of Germany," was surrounded by a growing circle of scholars at Strassburg, as was Maternus Pistoris (d. 1534) at Erfurt.

Investigation of Latin and Greek texts soon included scriptural and exegetical writing. Johannes trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, among his copious writings, dealt with the Fathers and with Scripture; Johann reuchlin of Pforzheim (14551522), professor at Ingolstadt and Tübingen, traced philological errors in earlier transcriptions of the Bible. Ridicule was heaped upon the techniques of the scholastic theologians in the Epistolae obscurorum virorum and in the Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brandt.

erasmus of Rotterdam was the greatest and most influential representative of the new learning in the north. Outstanding as a classical and patristic scholar, he made important contributions in the textual study of the Bible. He was a severe critic of the contemporary Church and of scholastic theology, and an ardent advocate of reform, but he regarded Luther's revolt as a calamity and refused to support it.

France. Guillaume Budé (14681540), a friend of Erasmus and distinguished Hellenist and specialist in antiquities, was a founder of the new learning in France. He was appointed royal librarian by Francis I and was largely responsible for the founding of the Collège de France (1530) by that king. Patristic and scriptural studies were given a new and critical direction by Lefèlvre d'Étaples (c. 14501537) and other scholars influenced by him.

The Renaissance in Recent Historical Work.

Scholars continue to explore the cultural, artistic, and intellectual legacies of the Italian Renaissance and the national movements it helped produce in Northern Europe. In recent decades historians have returned again to debate humanism's precise influence upon the cultural life of Renaissance cities. Following the work of Hans Baron some have stressed the decisive role that "civic humanism" played in shaping the values of Renaissance culture. Others have seen humanism's penetration of the world of the Renaissance as more problematic and diffuse. The researches of Paul Kristeller, Charles Trinkaus, and others have stressed that the studia humanitatis was primarily an educational and rhetorical movement. As such, they have stressed that humanism's influence was often more conservative and traditional than dynamic or modern. Despite these ongoing debates about the precise character of Renaissance humanism, few would deny that the Renaissance did produce new approaches to art, literature, learning, and politics. Above all, a new view of humankind and its place and role in the world seems to have been one of the era's most distinctive contributions to the modern world.

Bibliography: w. k. ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought (Boston 1948); Europe in Transition: 13001520 (Boston 1963). p. o. kristeller, Renaissance Thought (New York 1961). h. baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny, 2 v. (Princeton 1955). e. garin, L'Umanesimo italiano: Filosofia et vita civile nel Rinascimento (Bari 1952). g. toffanin, History of Humanism, tr. e. gianturco (New York 1954). h. rÖssler, Europa im Zeitalter von Renaissance, Reformation und Gegenreformation, 14501650 (Munich 1956). d. hay, The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background (Cambridge, England.1961). g. a. brucker, ed., Renaissance Italy (New York 1958). j. b. ross and m. m. mclaughlin, eds., The Portable Renaissance Reader (New York 1953). e. cassirer et al., eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago 1948). e. emerton, Humanism and Tyranny: Studies in the Italian Trecento (Cambridge, MA 1925). m. p. gilmore, The World of Humanism, 14531517 (New York 1952). f. chabod, Machiavelli and the Renaissance, tr. d. moore (Cambridge, MA 1958). b. hathaway, The Age of Criticism: The Late Renaissance in Italy (Ithaca, NY 1962). e. f. jacob, ed., Italian Renaissance Studies (New York 1960). g. saitta, Il pensiero italiano nell' Umanesimo e nel Rinascimento, 3 v. (Bologna 194951). e. f. rice, The Renaissance Idea of Wisdom (Cambridge, MA 1958). b. berenson, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance (5th rev. ed. New York 1959). a. renaudet, Humanisme et Renaissance (Geneva 1958). r. weiss, The Dawn of Humanism in Italy (London 1947); Il primo secolo dell'Umanesimo (Rome 1949). b. l. ullman, Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Rome 1955). t. helton, ed., The Renaissance: A Reconsideration of the Theories and Interpretations of the Age (Madison, WI 1961). a. sapori, L'età' della rinascita, secoli XIIIXVI (Milan 1958). l. pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, v.13 (LondonSt. Louis 193861). r. aubenas and r. ricard, L'Église et la Renaissance, 14491517 (Histoire de l' église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours v.15; 1951). g. brucker, The Civic World of Early Renaissance Florence (Princeton 1977). l. martines, Power and Imagination (New York 1979). a. rabil, jr., Renaissance Humanism, 3 v. (Philadelphia 1988). c. nauert, jr., Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambrige 1995). j. siegel Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism (Princeton 1968). c. trinkaus In Our Image and Likeness (Chicago 1970).

[w. w. wilkinson]


views updated May 21 2018


"Renaissance" is the term customarily employed to designate a cultural movement that began in Italy in the middle of the fourteenth century and spread throughout the rest of Europe. Although the term is well established in the writings of historians, its usefulness has been challenged. Indeed, there has grown up around the concept of the Renaissance an extensive controversy that sometimes threatens completely to divert the attention of scholars from the historical facts. In part, this controversy is simply an acute form of the general problem of periodization in history. The concept of the Renaissance, however, arouses particularly strong opposition because it involves a disparagement of the preceding period, the Middle Ages (medium aevum ), from which culture presumably had to be awakened.

The idea of a rebirth of literature or of the arts originated in the period itself. Petrarch in the fourteenth century hoped to see an awakening of culture, and many later writers expressed their conviction that they were actually witnessing such an awakening in their own time. Latin was generally the language used by cultivated men to discuss such matters, but no single Latin term or phrase became the standard name for the whole cultural epoch. One of the earliest historians of philosophy in the modern sense, Johann Jakob Brucker, in 1743 referred to the Renaissance only as the "restoration of letters" (restauratio literanum ), and wrote of the "recovery of philosophy" (restitutio philosophiae ): Even in an earlier German work he used such Latin phrases. Scholars who wrote in Latin never used rinascentia as the name for the cultural epoch as a whole. It was the French word renaissance that finally acquired this status and was then adopted or adapted into other languages. During the seventeenth century, and fitfully before, French scholars used the phrase renaissance des lettres for the humanists' restitutio bonarum literarum, taking over in the process the humanist periodization of history. Other writers translated the Latin phrase or phrases into their own vernacular: Edward Gibbon (1787) spoke of the "restoration of the Greek letters in Italy," while Heinrich Ritter, in his history of philosophy (1850), remarked that the Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften derived its name from philology.

Various French authors used the term renaissance in titles of their works before Jules Michelet devoted one of his volumes on sixteenth-century France to la Renaissance (1855). However, Michelet gave only the sketchiest characterization of the period, and hardly deserves to be credited (if indeed any one person can be) with having "invented" the concept of the Renaissance. Michelet did coin one memorable phrase: He remarked that two things especially distinguished the Renaissance from previous periods"the discovery of the world, the discovery of man." This phrase was also used by the Swiss cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt for the title of a chapter in his famous work, The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). At his hands, the concept of the Renaissance received what was to become its classic formulation; all subsequent discussion of the concept invariably focuses upon Burckhardt's description of the essential features of life during the Renaissance. Burckhardt, taking the term in its narrow sense of a literary revival of antiquity, conceded that there had been earlier "renaissances" in Europe; but he insisted that a renaissance in this sense would never have conquered the Western world had it not been united with the "already-existing spirit of the Italian people" (italienischen Volksgeist ). Not until the time of Petrarch, so Burckhardt held, did the European spirit awake from the slumber of the Middle Ages, when the world and man lay "undiscovered."

The relation of the Renaissance to the era that preceded it has been much studied because defenders of medieval culture quickly came to the rescue of their period, stressing its continuity with, or even its superiority to, the Renaissance. However, little has been done to clarify the relation of the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. This is rather surprising, for there was an issue that ran straight through the thought of both these eras: "Can we modern men hope to equal or even excel the achievements of antiquity?" This issue is known to literary historians as the "quarrel of the ancients and moderns." We think of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in the seventeenth century as the main champion of the moderns, who had science and truth on their side, as against those writers, with their inflexible rules, who favored the ancients. However, much the same attitude as Fontenelle's is found in the De Disciplinis of the Renaissance humanist Juan Luis Vives, who wrote in the early sixteenth century. The Renaissance itself had championed the moderns even before modern science had arisen to prove their case. Renaissance confidence in men's powers was based on art and literature rather than on science, but it was strong nevertheless. Men could respect classical excellence and yet strive to outdo the ancients in every field, including vernacular literature.

Chronological Limits

Various events have been taken as marking the beginning of the Renaissance: the crowning of Petrarch as poet laureate of Rome in 1341; the short-lived triumph of Cola di Rienzi in setting up a republican Rome in 1347, an attempt to revive Rome's former greatness; the arrival in Italy of Greek émigrés (which actually antedated by a few years the much publicized fall of Constantinople in 1453); the opening up of new trade routes to the East. Each choice represents the selection of a particular field as central in the history of the period: art, architecture, religion, politics, economics, trade, or learning. In certain fields it is hard to maintain any sharp break between conditions in, let us say, 1300 and those in 1350. However, few students of the history of art or of literature are prepared to deny completely the start of new trends in the fourteenth century (at least in Italy). In literature, Petrarch's enthusiasm for Greek antiquity must surely be accepted as inaugurating, in the eyes of men in the fourteenth century, a fresh start. In painting, there is little hesitation about ascribing a similar place to Petrarch's contemporary, Giotto; this ascription dates from the earliest attempt at a history of art, that of Giorgio Vasari (1550). No such figures can plausibly be singled out to mark new beginnings in economic or political history.

Difficulties also surround the choice of an event to mark the end of the Renaissance: the sacking of Rome in 1527, the hardening of the Counter-Reformation via the Council of Trent in 1545, the burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600, or Galileo Galilei's setting of experimental physics on its true path around 1600any of these might be selected. Once again, however, a periodization that is useful in one field may prove useless in another field. Generally speaking, the era from 1350 to 1600 will include most of the developments commonly dealt with under the heading "Renaissance."

Geographical Limits

The shifting locale of the Renaissance presents problems similar to those of its chronological limits. Burckhardt's description focused exclusively on Italy; he implied that the Renaissance, after it had been taken over by the Italian Volksgeist, moved on to the rest of Europe. The movement to France is usually said to have resulted from the French invasion of Italy in 1515, which gave the French nobility their first glimpse of the glories of the Italian Renaissance. No comparable event can be singled out for the bringing of the Italian Renaissance to England, unless it be the return from Italy to their native land of the classical scholars William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, and John Colet in the last decade of the fifteenth century, or perhaps Desiderius Erasmus's arrival there about the same time. Clearly England did enjoy a renaissance, but it is not easy to fix its dates: English literary historians prefer to discuss the Elizabethan age or the age of the Tudors, thus sidestepping the question of the relation of the English Renaissance to that of the Continent. Still less clear is the coming of the Renaissance to the German lands: German historians treat the sixteenth century as the "time of the Reformation," and tend to discuss the Renaissance chiefly in terms of its impact upon individual reformers.

The Renaissance is sometimes called the "age of adventure." It is not at all clear, however, that the spirit behind men's daring and adventurous actions was entirely new: The two chief incentives toward voyages of discovery, for instance, were commercial acquisitiveness and religious zealattitudes by no means foreign to medieval men. It was the shutting off of Venetian trade routes through the Mediterranean by the Turks that forced Europeans to search for new routes to the East, not a new desire for scientific knowledge of geography. The Spanish conquistadores may have thirsted for glory, but such a thirst was characteristic of medieval knights as well as of Renaissance humanists. The motives of the Franciscan missionaries were clearly religious and medieval in spirit. Moreover, in the field of domestic trade, the resurgence of economic activity in the fifteenth century that formed the basis for the cultural developments of the Renaissance was less a matter of suddenly effective acquisitiveness than of normal recovery from the slump brought about by the Black Death in 1348.

The New Learning

Historians may without hesitation ascribe a rebirth of classical knowledge to the Renaissance period. The discovery of old manuscripts and the invention of printing combined to make the heritage of ancient Greece and Rome available to a far wider audience. The humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries discovered and preserved many ancient texts that had been neglected for centuries. Of these perhaps the most significant from a philosophical point of view was Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, but many other newly discovered texts helped to enrich men's general familiarity with antiquity and to present in full view the setting in which Greek and Roman philosophy originated.

The collecting of manuscripts could be indulged in only by noblemen or well-to-do scholars, but the invention of printing made possible a broader social base for intellectual interests. With the production of vast numbers of newly discovered texts, self-education became a real possibility, as did institutional education on a broad scale. Peter Ramus in France and Philipp Melanchthon in Germany urged the educating of the people, chiefly with the idea of promoting intelligent Christian piety.


Developments in technology and science indirectly provided material for philosophical reflection. The increased use of firearms and cannon in war, for example, made necessary the mathematical study of ballistics; and the scientific work of Benedetti and Galileo drew upon the practical experience of foundries and arsenals. However, Renaissance philosophy of science still took its cue largely from Aristotle: Francis Bacon, dissatisfied with Aristotelian logic and methodology of science, found a replacement not in the actual practices of mechanics and craftsmen but in the rhetorical method derived from Aristotle and applied to the questioning of Nature.

The most spectacular and far-reaching scientific development during the Renaissance was the heliocentric theory advanced by Nicolas Copernicus, who found hints about Pythagorean cosmology in ancient works. The Copernican theory was surely the most significant revolution ever to take place in science. Far less conspicuous, but still important, were the developments in pure and applied mathematics. Modern notation (such as the use of the "equals" sign) began to be adopted, bringing with it the possibility of greater attention to logical form.

Social Values

There have been many attempts, beginning with Michelet and Burckhardt, to capture the mind or spirit of Renaissance man. All such attempts seem doomed to failure, for they are bound to oversimplify complex social facts. We may, however, single out four sets of social ideals that were characteristic of various groups during the Renaissance.

The ideals of the feudal nobility, medieval in origin, persisted through the Renaissance among the ruling class, although they underwent considerable refinement. The rude military virtues of camp and field gave way to the graces of the court, which were set forth most admirably in Baldassare Castiglione's book The Courtier (1528), one of the most influential treatises on manners ever written. In Castiglione's ideal courtier we may recognize the ancestor of our "gentleman." Works of this sort are presumably also the source of the "universal man," a concept closely associated in modern minds with the Renaissance. In the heroic life idealized by the feudal tradition, love of glory and concern for one's reputation were strong social motives. The humanists' thirst for glory, which Burckhardt emphasized, merely continues this concern but applies it to the achievements of a nonwarrior class, the "knights of the pen." The urban middle class chose, as usual, to emulate the style of life of their superiors: the modern gospel of work as a raison d'être, shaping the whole of life, hardly existed during the Renaissance. Few social theorists extolled the virtues of commercial activity until Martin Luther stressed the sanctity of all callings, provided they benefited one's fellow men.

Religion provided the second set of ideals, which centered upon moral salvation and involved a willingness to relinquish the world and all its goods. This mood, exacerbated in some individuals by the terror of imminent death or of eternal damnation, continued unabated throughout the Renaissance; and the entire Reformation movement has been called the "last great wave of medieval mysticism." Although such a religious concern is usually associated by modern secular critics with contempt for this world and with pessimism, it is equally compatible with a cheerful resignation in the face of unavoidable misfortunes and gratefulness for such morally harmless pleasures as life affords. A genuine tension often resulted from the opposing pulls of these religious values and of secular attitudes and this-worldliness: Aristotelian philosophers as well as humanists felt this tension during the Renaissance.

A third set of ideals, that of the ancient sage (Platonic or Stoic), was consciously adopted by Renaissance humanists as an adjunct to Christian exhortation, for many of them felt that Christians could learn much from pagan expounders of virtue. Rarely, if ever, did a humanist attempt to replace the Christian ideal altogether: Burckhardt undoubtedly overstressed the "paganism" of the humanists.

Finally, there was the ideal of a return to nature, a flight from the complexities of sophisticated urban life to pastoral pleasures. This theme has ancient antecedents in the poetry of Theocritus and Vergil, but it emerges into new prominence with Petrarch, who also stressed the benefits of solitude. Passive delight in the beauties of nature can hardly ever be totally lacking in human beings, of course, but during the Renaissance we find an interest in such activities as gardening, the collecting of strange plants and animals, and strolling through woods and fields. Petrarch's famous excursion to the summit of Mont Ventoux turned into an occasion for Christian self-reproach, to be sure, but his letters also abound in references to his gardening and to lone promenades in the countryside near Vaucluse.


A major role in the culture of the Renaissance was played by the humanists. All sorts of people call themselves "humanists" today, but in the early days of the Renaissance the name had a clear occupational meaning. During the fourteenth century, the traditional subjects of grammar, rhetoric, and poetry had begun to be called, after a phrase of Cicero, the studio humanitatis. The term umanista was coined (on the analogy of artista, also a product of university slang) to designate a teacher of these subjects in Italian universities. Such studies were by no means new in the fourteenth century; in fact, the humanists were the heirs of a less ambitious but old and respectable medieval profession, that of the dictator or teacher of the art of letter-writing (ars dictaminis ). The Renaissance teachers of "humanities" placed a greater emphasis on ancient models than had the dictatores, but their teaching had much the same; objective. Their students often became official letter-writers or speechmakers for popes and princes. Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni, two of the most influential humanists of the fifteenth century, were chancellors of Florence. The study of Greek philosophy owes much to these two men.

Renaissance humanists did not propound a distinct philosophy but took over from Cicero and Aulus Gellius the ancient ideal of a civilized and urbane way of life that could be formed through acquaintance with Greek literature. With such a program in mind, the humanists began to concern themselves with moral and political philosophy, and this brought them into conflict with the philosophers who taught ethics or politics in the universities. The humanists regarded the Aristotelian Schoolmen as derelict in the performance of their duties, since their teaching (so the humanists claimed) made no differences in the lives of students. The scholastic teachers, in return, regarded the humanists as dilettantes and upstarts, meddling in subjects beyond their depth. The feud of humanists with philosophers began with Petrarch's invective against the secular Aristotelians, the so-called Averroists of his day, and continued through the seventeenth century.

We still tend to see Renaissance Aristotelianism (and medieval Scholasticism as well) through the eyes of these Renaissance humanists. Their bias has crept into most histories of philosophy, largely because the first writers of histories of philosophy shared some of the humanist attitudes. One such early historian was Brucker, whose Critical History of Philosophy (17421744) has already been mentioned. Brucker presented the Renaissance as a time when human thought emerged slowly into the light (a standard metaphor) from the tiresome labyrinths of medieval Scholasticism. He divided his treatment into various sections, dealing with schools of Greek philosophy that were "restored" during the Renaissance. In spite of his scorn for "more recent Aristotelian-scholastic philosophers," Brucker had great respect for the philosophers who followed the "genuine philosophy of Aristotle": Pietro Pomponazzi, Simon Porta, Jacopo Zabarella, and others. Few modern historians of philosophy pay much attention to these writers. They do, however, characteristically devote lengthy sections to Paracelsus, Jakob Boehme, Robert Fludd, and other "theosophers." According to Brucker, these theosophers "condemn all use of reason in understanding the nature of things," and hence do not belong to the history of philosophy; he includes them only because they have commented incidentally on philosophical matters.

Whatever his own philosophical competence may have been, Brucker had one clear advantage over most later historians: He had actually read the Renaissance writers he discussed. Much of Renaissance philosophy still awaits reevaluation based upon such actual reading of texts.

The general framework of Brucker's treatment of Renaissance philosophy remains a useful way of dealing with most of the thought of the period. The various sects of Greek philosophy were indeed "reborn" during the Renaissance; few of them escaped some sort of revival. There was even what might be called a genuine rebirth of Aristotle, if we mean by this what Brucker probably meant: an Aristotelianism based directly upon the Greek texts rather than upon Latin or Arabic commentators.


It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the main stream of philosophical inquiry during the Renaissance continued to be Aristotelian. The terms employed in philosophical discussion, the problems posed, and the characteristic solutions remain, in basic outline, Aristotelian. Almost all Renaissance philosophers show the influence of their Aristotelian school training, even when they are trying most strenuously to break the shackles of that tradition. The technical terms of philosophy (such as propositio, entitas, realis, materia, forma, essentia and many others) originated or became naturalized in the Aristotelian school-tradition, and persisted even in the writings of the most daring innovators, such as Bruno. The Aristotelian tradition, for reasons already in part suggested, remains the least known and most maligned of all Renaissance schools. Elements of the critical spirit of later medieval philosophy (Scotist and Ockhamist) formed part of the school philosophy of the Spaniard Francisco Suárez and of the Scotsman John Major.


Platonism took on new life during the Renaissance, after having been known for centuries chiefly through Aristotle's attacks on it. There was more acquaintance with Plato during the medieval period than is generally recognized, but it is still true that Marsilio Ficino's translations into Latin (first published in 1484) gave the main impetus to the spread of Plato's doctrines. Later editions of Plato often contained Ficino's translations of Proclus and Porphyry, together with his own commentaries, which were strongly colored by his Neoplatonism. Hence, the Platonism that emerged during the Renaissance cannot be distinguished easily from Neoplatonism, for it tends to be otherworldly and religious in tone. The cultural influence of Florentine Platonism emanated from the famous academy founded by Ficino in direct imitation of Plato's school. The society that grouped itself around Ficino aimed at moral improvement and resembled in character certain lay religious societies common in Italy at that time. The whole movement of natural religion was set in motion by Florentine Platonism, as was the renewed study of Pauline theology by such men as John Colet.

Florentine Platonism is well known, by name at least, to most students of the Renaissance. Much less well known is a tradition of reconciling Plato with Aristotle, which also found expression during the period. Byzantine scholars had brought with them to Italy an old battle over the superiority of Plato or Aristotle. During the late Renaissance this battle resolved itself into a truce, with many books written to show that Plato and Aristotle agreed on fundamentals and differed only on words or nonessentials.


Only a few late Renaissance thinkers, such as Justus Lipsius and Guillaume du Vair, committed themselves explicitly to Stoicism, but the influence of Stoic philosophy may be seen at work directly and indirectly (largely via Cicero, Seneca, and the Greek commentators on Aristotle) even during the early Renaissance. Pomponazzi's rigorous moral doctrine, for example, is strongly tinged with Stoic attitudes.


Rejected with horror by medieval thinkers, who saw him through the eyes of the Church Fathers, Epicurus began to be more sympathetically known as a result of humanist activity in the fifteenth century. Previous to this time, anyone who believed that the soul perished with the body was called an Epicurean, whether he held to any other Epicurean tenet or not. Now it was no longer possible to apply this label so casually. Lucretius's great poem won immediate favor because of its sturdy poetic qualities, but, until Pierre Gassendi in the seventeenth century, no one adopted the system of Epicurus in its entirety. Nevertheless, Epicurean influence prior to Gassendi's time did foster a climate less hostile to the concepts of pleasure and utility.


The direct influence of philosophical skepticism in a technical sense began with the first publication of Sextus Empiricus in 1562, from which time skepticism exercised an important influence upon European thought and literature. The religious factionalism or warfare of the sixteenth century had brought about a widespread distrust of dogmatism and fanaticism on the part of such sophisticated minds as Erasmus and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, whose writings may have contributed to the growth of that spirit of toleration usually associated with the Enlightenment.

the occult tradition

The Renaissance was immensely receptive (perhaps more so than the Middle Ages) to occult and secret lore of all kinds, especially if it claimed to come from the most ancient times and to incorporate the wisdom of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Hebrews. When the fashion for reviving ancient thought was at its height, the spurious treatises of "thrice-great Hermes," the so-called Hermetic writings, enjoyed great prestige and blended easily with various other secret teachings, such as that of the Jewish Kabbalah.

Toward the end of the Renaissance, the vogue for reviving past philosophies began to subside: Instead, there began to appear "new" philosophies and "new" systems of thought proudly announced as such, for instance, the Nova de Universis Philosophia offered by Francesco Patrizzi or the Great Instauration (explicitly opposed to a "restoration") of Francis Bacon. However, most of these efforts at original creation clearly bear the stamp of some ancient sect or sects of philosophy. Even Nicholas of Cusa, the most original systematic mind of the Renaissance, could be called (and indeed once called himself) a Pythagorean. Philosophers hardly ever make a complete break with the past, even when they most loudly claim to be doing so. The great merit of the Renaissance was that thinkers learned what they could from the school of Athens and brought what they learned to bear with fresh vigor upon the problems of human life.


No individual completely typifies his age, yet it may be useful to focus for a moment on the way in which the various philosophical traditions converged in a single person. As a case history of this sort, we may take the thought of Girolamo Cardano (15011576), an Italian medical man and mathematician. Cardano lived in the late, mature stage of the Renaissance, when the dialogues of Plato and the works of Aristotle were known in their entirety, as were Galen and Hippocrates. The Greek commentators on Aristotle were just being recovered and translated. These works were well known at the universities where Cardano studied: Pavia, a stronghold of humanist learning, and Padua, a center of science and medicine. At Padua the biological and logical aspects of Aristotle's thought were stressed in connection with medical training. Cardano studied under Joannes Montesdoch, a Spaniard, whom he mentions in his writings. There were quite a few such Iberian philosophers studying and teaching in Italy at this time. Aristotelian philosophy was clearly a common European heritage and knew no national boundaries.

A considerable number of Renaissance philosophers were, like Cardano, medical men, and of these quite a few dabbled in mathematics (Galen had urged them to study mathematics for the sake of the training it gave them in sound demonstration). Cardano was, of course, far more successful than most in mathematics: No matter what the true story of his relations with Niccolò Tartaglia may be, there can be no questioning of Cardano's grasp of algebra, as shown by his solution of cubic equations. Cardano wrote works on medicine, astrology, and mathematics, but his philosophical reputation must rest primarily on two works in natural philosophy: De Subtilitate Libri XXI (On subtlety; 1550) and its sequel, De Rerum Varietate (On the variety of things; 1557). De Subtilitate attempted a total reconstruction of natural philosophy.

Since other philosophers of the period were inspired to embark on similar projects, it is clear that there was widespread dissatisfaction with Aristotle's philosophy of nature even before the attacks of Galileo or René Descartes. Aristotle's physical system was to be threatened dramatically by Copernican heliocentrism, which upset the conceptual scheme on which Aristotle's analysis of motion was based. This threat was not explicitly posed, however, until the next century, with Galileo's Two Chief World Systems. A Renaissance philosopher such as Cardano did not specifically base his criticisms of Aristotle on the findings of Copernicus or Vesalius: Instead, he reproached Aristotle in a general way for having built up "certain general propositions that experiment teaches to be false." Cardano presumably intended to remedy this defect, although it must be confessed that his empiricism is not worked out in philosophical detail. This observation would apply with equal force to most Renaissance nature philosophers, few of whom gave more than perfunctory attention to epistemology.

In developing his own system, Cardano started out by taking as his central category something called "subtlety," which he described as "a certain reason by which sensibilia are with difficulty comprehended by the sense, and intelligibilia by the intellect." Cardano soon abandons this unpromising concept in favor of a revised Aristotelian terminology in which matter, form, soul, principle, and element play roles somewhat analogous to those they play in Aristotle's philosophy. For example, Cardano retains the notion of elements but reduces their number from the traditional Aristotelian four to three by eliminating fire, which he classifies as an "accident." Matter and motionthose central concepts of mechanismare regarded by Cardano as principles, but they must share this status with form, place, and soul. The last addition puts Cardano into the class of hylozoists, those who believe that all matter is somehow animated, a rather characteristic Renaissance doctrine borrowed largely from Neoplatonism.

Cardano's writings must have appealed to his Renaissance readers: They are lively, detailed, and full of medical and factual information and misinformation. His style contrasts sharply with the dry, logically structured argument of the medievals, which can still be found early in the century in the work of a man such as John Major. Cardano obviously delighted in mathematics and in machinery, in this respect, at least, anticipating Galileo in the generation that followed. The amount of superstitious nonsense incorporated in Cardano's work, however, is still distressingly high, and one can easily understand the impatience of later figures such as Gassendi, Thomas Hobbes, and Galileo with their Renaissance predecessors. Cardano wrote a painfully candid autobiography, which appeared in Paris with an evaluation by the French writer Gabriel Naudé (1643). Naudé's judgment on Cardano's character is quite severe. This illustrates a general trend in scholarship: The information current today about many Renaissance thinkers, especially the Italians, comes to us by way of generally hostile French writers of the seventeenth century (Pierre Bayle is exceptional in his lack of polemical intent). If we approach Cardano with the distaste of a Naudé, for example, we too might be inclined to dismiss his work On Consolation (1542) as a piece of moralizing cant, when in fact a more humane scholar might consider it a noble document in the light of Cardano's wretched life. Or again, Cardano's passion for gambling could be presented as a despicable and mercenary motive for his interest in games of chance.

But a less censorious approach, such as that of Oystein Ore in his Cardano, the Gambling Scholar (Princeton, NJ, 1953), will give Cardano the credit he deserves for anticipating the modern conception of probability as the proportion of favorable outcomes to total possible outcomes. Finally, the mere fact that there was enough interest in Cardano's thought still lingering in seventeenth-century France to justify the publication of his entire work (Opera Omnia, 10 vols., Lyons, 1663), shows that Naudé's attitude was by no means universal. This comment could also be made of many other Renaissance philosophers who continued to be read in the seventeenth century, even if not all students of that century were as receptive to Renaissance thought as was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

See also Florentine Academy; Hermeticism; Humanism.


Everyone interested in the Renaissance should begin by reading two masterpieces of historical writing: Jacob Burckhardt, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1st German ed., Basel, 1860), and Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1st Dutch ed., Haarlem, 1919), both available in various English editions. These works complement each other: Huizinga deals with France and the Low Countries; Burckhardt deals only with Italy and apologizes for having even mentioned Rabelais. No works of comparable standing in cultural history exist for the Renaissance as it affected England, the German lands, or other European countries.

On the concept of the Renaissance, see Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), and Franco Simone, Il rinascimento francese (Turin: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1961), which adds new evidence for the seventeenth century in France. Invaluable evidence is contained in Herbert Weisinger's articles, especially "The Self-Awareness of the Renaissance," in Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 29 (1944): 561567. See also Augusto Campana, "The Origin of the Word 'Humanist,'" in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 9 (1946): 6073, and Hans Baron, "The Querelle of the Ancients and the Moderns as a Problem for Renaissance Scholarship," in Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959): 322. See also Federico Chabod, "The Concept of the Renaissance," in Machiavelli and the Renaissance (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965).

For general historical background, Edward M. Hulme, The Renaissance, the Protestant Revolution, and the Catholic Reformation in Continental Europe (New York: Century, 1914), is convenient. Excellent summaries may be found in The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. I, The Renaissance, 14931520 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957).

On humanism, two older works are still basic: Georg Voigt, Die Widerbelebung des classischen Alterthums, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (Berlin, 1893), and J. E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, 3 vols. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 19031938). All can profit from reading Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1960).

Coming more particularly to philosophy, a useful guide is Paul O. Kristeller and J. H. Randall Jr., "The Study of the Philosophies of the Renaissance," in Journal of the History of Ideas 2 (1941): 449496. Two leading mid-twentieth-century historians of Renaissance philosophy are Paul O. Kristeller and Eugenio Garin. Kristeller's major books are The Classics and Renaissance Thought (Cambridge, MA: Oberlin College by Harvard University Press, 1955), revised and enlarged in Renaissance Thought (New York, 1961); Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1956), which brings together many valuable articles; and The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943). Kristeller's work is solidly based on careful reading of the sources. Garin has dealt with philosophers of the Italian Renaissance extensively in his La filosofia, 2 vols. (Milan, 1947), and has compiled useful anthologies, including Filosofi italiani del quattrocento (Florence, 1942) and Il rinascimento italiano (Milan, 1941). An invaluable anthology, edited by Ernst Cassirer, Kristeller, and Randall, is The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

For French thought during the Renaissance, see Augustin Renaudet, Préréforme et humanisme à Paris pendant les premières guerres d'Italie (14941517), 2nd ed. (Paris: Librairie d'Argences, 1953). For Germany, see Peter Petersen, Geschichte der Aristotelischen Philosophie im protestantischen Deutschland (Leipzig: Meiner, 1921), and Max Wundt, Die deutsche Schulmetaphysik des 17. Jahrhunderts (Tübingen, 1939). On Spain see Carlo Giacon, La seconda scolastica, 3 vols. (Milan: Fratelli Bocca, 19441950). On Italy, besides Garin's works, see Giuseppe Saitta, Il pensiero italiano nell'umanesimo e nel rinascimento, 3 vols., 2nd ed. (Florence: Sansoni, 1961), and Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955). Important studies are those of Ernst Cassirer, especially The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, translated by Mario Domandi (New York: Harper, 1964).

The Renaissance is a favorite topic for symposia, and the results are sometimes useful: See Tinsley Helton, ed., The Renaissance (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), with contributions by various authorities. Two specialized studies are Carlo Angeleri, Il problema religiosa del rinascimento (Florence, 1952), and Georg Weise, L'ideale eroico del rinascimento e le sue premesse umanistiche (Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1961). Useful articles appear in Renaissance Studies and in Bibliothèque d'humanisme et de renaissance.

other recommended works

Artz, Frederick B. Renaissance Humanism 13001500. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1966.

Coates, Willson Havelock, Hayden V. White, and J. Salwyn Schapiro. The Emergence of Liberal Humanism: An Intellectual History of Western Europe, Vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 19661970.

Hankins, James. Plato in the Italian Renaissance. Leiden: Brill, 1991.

Kahn, Victoria. Rhetoric, Prudence, and Skepticism in the Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kelly, Donald R. Renaissance Humanism. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

King, Margaret L. Humanism, Venice, and Women: Essays on the Italian Renaissance. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar, and Mooney, Michael, eds. Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Mahoney, Edward P. Two Aristotelians of the Italian Renaissance: Nicoletto Vernia and Agostino Nifo. Burlington, VT: Ashgate/Variorum, 2000.

Moyer, Ann E. Musica Scientia: Musical Scholarship in the Italian Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Palisca, Claude V. Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Parkinson, G. H. R., ed. The Renaissance and Seventeenth Century Rationalism. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Stinger, Charles L. Humanism and the Church Fathers: Ambrogio Traversari (13861439) and Christian Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.

Trinkaus, Charles. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Neal W. Gilbert (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)


views updated May 09 2018


The term Renaissance (English, French, German; rinascità in Italian) refers to (1) "a rebirth of arts and letters" noticed by authors and artists living between the 1300s and the 1600s; (2) Italian cultural history from about 1300 to 1520 ("La Rinascimento"), as in the period concept of Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860); or (3) a period of European history starting in Italy as early as the fourteenth century and extending into the seventeenth century in England. In the twentieth century, those studying other European nations sought to document outside Italy the presence of both a renaissance of arts and letters and the Burckhardtian characteristics of Renaissance civilization. The Renaissance, especially in American humanities courses on "Western" civilization and to members of the Renaissance Society of America (founded 1954), became a full period concept for European civilization from Petrarch to Milton, including trade routes and colonization.

Medievalists, led by Charles Homer Haskins, researched a succession of medieval renaissances (Carolingian, Ottonian, twelfth century), suggesting that the fourteenth-and fifteenth-century Renaissance may be viewed as an extension of late medieval culture. Nevertheless, Erwin Panofsky in Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1972) argued that the Italian Renaissance differed from the earlier ones in that the revived classical heritage became a permanent possession and ancient forms were reunified with ancient content; to experience Panofsky's point, visit in the renovated Galleria Borghese in Rome the succession of rooms of pagan gods such as Venus or Hermaphrodite.

Comparison of Culture to Horticulture

Petrarch, who was a practical gardener, viewed the rebirth of culture as plants regrowing in the sunlight of spring. Petrarch's French disciple Nicolas de Clamanges refers to flowers together with the Latin term renasci, meaning "to grow again" or "to be reborn." Boccaccio praised Dante for inviting back the Muses and Giotto for restoring the art of painting. Borrowing from the ancient vegetative imagery, such as the older Cato's image of a broken clover regrowing and Pliny's examples of vegetative matter regrowing as sprouts, humanists praised the work of fourteenth-century Italian artists and writers. Northern humanists continued a strategy of nourishing, cultivating, and transplanting from classical texts and images the seeds of virtue and knowledge. In the circle of King Francis I of France, in flowery rhetoric humanists praised him for the rebirth (renaître ) of letters, and in the architecture, decorative arts, and manuscript and book collections in the court at Fontainebleau, there was a "renaissance of arts and letters." Visual evidence for concepts of the rebirth of culture include Simone Martini's illumination that Petrarch commissioned for his copy of Virgil's Georgics and Eclogues, Da Vinci's image of a trunk resprouting (a botanical lesson from Virgil's Georgics ), and Botticelli's Primavera.

The Influence of the Burckhardtian Renaissance

Burckhardt claimed "the Italian Renaissance must be called the mother of our modern age" and described its six major characteristics: the vision of the state as a work of art in both princedoms breeding egocentric leaders and republics breeding new independent individuals; the development of the individualnewly subjective, conscious of fame, and multi-faceted; the revival of antiquity, especially ancient Latin culture; the discovery of the world and of humanity as evidenced by mapmaking, landscapes, natural science, poetry, biography, and social commentary; the equalization of society through festivals that expressed a common culture; and the advent of an immoral and irreligious age with revival of ancient pagan superstitions and an oscillation between religiosity and secularity. Medievalists sought to show that especially the first four Burckhardtian characteristics were already present in the medieval world, that in fact a rich Roman culture persisted more in the north than in the divided Italian peninsula. They documented individualism in Thomas Aquinas and Eleanor of Aquitaine and medieval advances in science and in naturalistic art. Scholars of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in England, France, Spain, the Low Countries, the German lands, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere have likewise claimed Burckhardtian Renaissances, usually like the medievalists emphasizing the first four traits, although in French scholarship a secular, doubting French Renaissance had a vogue to which Lucien Febvre responded in The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (1982). In the expansion by later Burckhardtians, the Italian city-states were a model in miniature for the development of the nation-states (see Garett Mattingly on diplomacy, Hans Baron on civic humanism in Florence as a precedent for the United States), and individualism emerged not only from political turmoil but from the development of capitalist, middle-class occupations (Alfred von Martin, E. P. Cheyney).

Today the Burckhardtian Renaissance is evident in textbooks, in films on Renaissance individuals, and in art exhibitions. The term "renaissance" meaning a flowering of culture is positive and optimistic, and thus it has been extrapolated to other contexts, such as the "Jewish Renaissance" of Hebrew with the rebirth of Zionism in nineteenth-century Europe, the "Harlem Renaissance" of African-American culture in the 1920s, and numerous discussions of urban renewal as a "renaissance."

Burckhardtian scholarship continues to emphasize Burckhardt's first four characteristics of the Renaissance, finding isolated precedents in the medieval period. As social and economic historians and women's historians have made evident the hierarchies of rank and gender that marked the age, scholars have recognized that the fifth characteristic, "equalization," was limited to the mingling and rising of burgher to noble status and that a few daughters tutored along with sons and women's presence at courts did not add up to Burckhardt's "footing of perfect equality with men."

In claiming Burckhardtian Renaissances for other nations, generally scholars isolated the "immoral and irreligious age" to the Italians, although in some postcolonial interpretations (such as that of Walter D. Mignolo), point fourthe discovery of the world and of humanityprovides the strongest evidence of point sixthe immorality of the European colonialist, slave trader, and missionary.

Scholars of the Protestant Reformation have always emphasized the Christian characteristics of northern humanists. Criticizing Luther for authoritarianism and asceticism, Ernst Troeltsch (1906) contrasted medieval traits of the reformation with modern traits of the Renaissance; admiring Luther for redirecting Christian freedom to vocations in this world, Wilhelm Dilthey (1923) interpreted the Renaissance and Reformation together as the foundation of the modern world. Especially in the United States, where scholars specializing in the Renaissance and the Reformation often interpret the Reformation as a culmination of the Renaissance and focus on the humanist's inquiries into Christian antiquity, the term "Christian humanism" is applied to humanists of both the Italian and the northern Renaissance. Nevertheless, we must note that curious and daring humanists employed Jews and Greek Orthodox to explore texts in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and openly read and commented upon works written by ancient pagans; Jewish humanists in Italy brought about a renaissance of ancient Hebrew genres (see Cecil Roth and Arthur Lesley in Renaissance Rereadings ).

Rebirth of Culture as a Regrowth of Plants in the Spring

Petrarch, Secretum, c. 1343: "When too many plants are sown in a narrow ground, namely that there growth is prevented by crowding, the same thing happens to you, so that no useful roots are put down in the soul that is too occupied and nothing fruitful grows."

Pierre Belon, Observation, 1553: "The minds of men have begun to wake up and to leave the darkness where for so long they have remained dormant and in leaving have put forth and put in evidence all kinds of good disciplines, which to their so happy and desirable renaissance, all as the new plants after a season of winter regain their vigor in the heat of the Sun and are consoled by the mildness of the spring."

source: From Maryanne C. Horowitz, Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge, pp. 115, 297, n. 96; pp. 156, 309, n. 7.

Historical Challenges from Annales School and from Early Modernists

Coincident with national movements of independence from colonization by European nations, historians in Paris developed a movement disparaging the historical studies focused on "What's new?" The Annales school focused on structures of long duration, emphasizing land patterns, family structures, religious and political rituals, and popular customs that have changed slowly and not in accordance with the traditional dates of historical periodization. Funded as social science and utilizing increasingly computerized databases on demography and prices of material goods (whether wine, salt, or catechisms), scholars are accumulating more precise information on living conditions in the premodern world.

The work of scholars seeking out lives of lesser-known people (women and the marginalized) and seeking documents of public performances (confraternity events, religious and political rituals) has provided a fuller awareness of premodern cultures. To be inclusive of popular as well as elite cultures and to start afresh without the ideological implications of nineteenth-century interpretations of "Renaissance," some scholars prefer the period term "early modern." Such scholars tend not to be working on the Italian Renaissance of the 1300s and early 1400s but to start after 1450, when the invention of the printing press accelerated the spread of the renaissance of arts and letters throughout Europe. For those scholars, who view either the invention of the printing press or Martin Luther the protester as the turning point from the Middle Ages to the early modern period and who drop Renaissance as a period concept, the Renaissance in Europe becomes closer to its original definition as a movement in arts and lettersin the early modernist's viewpoint, the first movement in a succession of overlapping movements of the early modern period.

A strain of scholarship has emerged to historicize the development of the concept of a Renaissance period. Scholars are fascinated by various versions of ideas of the Renaissance, such as those of Jules Michelet, Burckhardt, the Victorians, J. P. Morgan, and Virginia Woolf. Pascal Brioist emphasizes that Michelet published his Introduction à la Renaissance in 1855, the year Burckhardt began writing his more famous work. Even though Michelet originated the phrase "the discovery of the world and the discovery of man," the term "Burckhardtian" remains the common adjective for "Renaissance" with a capital R.

While "medievalisms" are also studied, the brunt of historicizing of the period concept of Renaissance suggests that the Burckhardtian Renaissance is a nineteenth-century historical fiction or a utopian vision. J. B. Bullen traces the development of the "myth" of the Renaissance between Voltaire (1756) and Walter Pater (1873). Burckhardtians have responded to the undermining of the period concept by printing editions of his work with art illustrations, as art more than any other medium demarcates a distinctive period. The 1793 creation of the Louvre Museum, with its succession of rooms of great civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the centrally placed Renaissance) set a pattern spread by Napoléon to Madrid, Naples, Milan, and Amsterdam, and imitated in New York, Boston, and Chicago (see Carol Duncan's 1995 study, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums ). Daniel Ménager in 1992 emphasized the aesthetic, in fact the religion, of beauty that distinguishes the creativity of the Renaissance. Paula Findlen, in a 1998 American Historical Review forum on "The Persistence of the Renaissance," demarcated the period by its passion for collecting objects of antiquity and taking creative inspiration from that collecting. The general public, as well as the tourist industry, recognizes the innovation, distinctiveness, and sheer visual beauty of art from, say, the cardinal and Christian virtues and vices of Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua to the nude forms of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgment.

Humanists and Early Scientists

Meanwhile, neither humanist nor reformer ushered in the world of the post-Sputnik generation; government funding of the sciences, including the history of science, has taught historians that the major intellectual shift of modernity occurred in the development of the sciences, especially from Galileo to Newton. Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter (1999) illuminates the contrasting mentalities of this shift as represented by the scientist's relationship (through correspondence) with his daughter Maria Celeste, a nun. The interpretation of Copernicus and Galileo as early scientists rather than as "Renaissance men," as well as the seeking of the origins of science in the practices of apprenticeship, the work of artisan workshops, and in the inventions accompanying military battles and world navigation, rivals the outpouring of current scholarship documenting the humanist movement in countries throughout Europe.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the decrease in humanists educated in Greek and Latin letters, the rise in the status of scientists and those educated in "science" or "social science" curricula, and the funding of the history of science encouraged a search for the origins of modernity in the seventeenth-century innovations in science and technology. To create global and multicultural liberal arts curricula, colleges and universities have condensed posts across the disciplines for pre-modern Europe, making it sensible for those doing scholarship on topics from antiquity to the French Revolution to advocate their common interests in the creation of academic centers, funding of journals, and defending posts in premodern studies. For those in the historical profession, "early modern" is the category used globally by the American Historical Association.

Renaissance of the Renaissance Society of America

Together with practical on-line resources for accessing published books, such as Early English Books, 14751700, Elizabeth Eisenstein's Printing Press as an Agent of Historical Change refocused attention on 1450 as a turning point. E-mail groups such as FICINO and conferences have discussed the rivalry of the term "Renaissance" and the term "early modern," but "Renaissance" persists as a period label for books and articles in disciplinary histories such as art history, music history, and history of science, in national and comparative literatures, and in history. While the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies appeared in 1997 with the new title Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, expanding its reach to "European and Western Asian cultural forms from late antiquity to the seventeenth century," its home base at Duke University remained the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Women's studies scholars, delving into women's writings and disregarding the stereotype "Renaissance woman," created the Society for Study of Early Modern Women with a home base at the University of Maryland Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies.

Encouraging regional and topical organizations, the Renaissance Society of America holds council meetings with affiliates. As of 2003, there was no early modern umbrella organization. From the 1985 national meeting of the Renaissance Society of America at Occidental College, the Huntington Library, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, which ushered in open calls for papers on distinctive topics of the European Renaissance (collected in Renaissance Rereadings: Intertext and Context, a selective anthology commemorating the conference) to the RSA's international meetings in 2000 in Florence, Italy, and in 2005 in Cambridge, England, there has been an international renaissance of Renaissance studies.

See also Cultural History ; Humanism: Renaissance ; Periodization ; Periodization of the Arts ; Reformation ; Science, History of .


Benson, Robert L., and Giles Constable, eds., with Carol D. Lanham. Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Brioist, Pascal. La Renaissance: 14701570. Paris: Atlande, 2003.

Bullen, J. B. The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore. New York: Penguin, 1990. Illustrations aid in providing visual evidence that Burckhardt did not include.

Ferguson, Wallace F. The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.

Findlen, Paula, and Kenneth Gouwens. "AHR Forum: The Persistence of the Renaissance." American Historical Review 103 (1998): 51114.

Gentrup, William F., ed. Reinventing the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Constructions of the Medieval and Early Modern Periods. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1998.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline. Seeds of Virtue and Knowledge. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Horowitz, Maryanne Cline, Anne J. Cruz, and Wendy A. Furman, eds. Renaissance Rereadings: Intertext and Context. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 22, no. 1 (winter 1992). Special issue: "The Idea of the Renaissance in France." See especially Jean Delumeau, "Une histoire totale de la Renaissance"; Gisèle Mathieu-Castellani, "Pour une renaissance de la Renaissance"; and Daniel Ménager, "La Renaissance et la religion de la beauté."

Kerrigan, William, and Gordon Braden. The Idea of the Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Committed to vitality of the concept.

Marcus, Leah S. "Renaissance/Early Modern Studies." In Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: Modern Language Association, 1992.

Mignolo, Walter D. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Maryanne Cline Horowitz


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Renaissance (rebirth) characterizes the impulse, initiated in Italy, towards improving the contemporary world by discovering and applying the achievement of classical antiquity. The movement was at its strongest from the time of Petrarch (1304–74) through the ‘long 16th cent.’ (1450–1625). ‘Renaissance’ is now generally used to describe the politics, beliefs, philosophy, science, scholarship, discourse, literature, handwriting, printing, painting, engraving, sculpture, architecture, and music of that period. The 20th cent. identified stages of this renaissance (pre- or proto-, early, high, and late), as well as earlier revivals of classical studies (Carolingian, Byzantine, 12th-cent.), and unrelated other ‘renaissances’ (American, Bengal, black).

‘Renaissance’ was first used alone in the 19th cent., though Giorgio Vasari (1550) saw a ‘rinascità delle arti’ in his own time, and Voltaire two centuries later a ‘renaissance des lettres et des beaux-arts’ in Medicean Florence. ‘Renaissance’ tout court, current French in the 1830s and employed in 1842 by Queen Victoria to define a style, was influentially used by Jules Michelet as title for a volume of his Histoire de France (1855). The concept of an epoch marked by ‘the discovery of the world and of man’ was taken up in Jakob Burckhardt's Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860). For Burckhardt the defining emphasis of the Renaissance was secular and individual; the new attitudes he detected in the Italy of that epoch to nature, morality, religion, affairs, art, and literature made him see it as inaugurating the modern era. Some later historians intensified Burckhardt's stress on paganism. Others reacted against it both by indicating continuities with medieval Christianity and by positing earlier renaissances. Post-Burckhardtian valuation of social, economic, and political factors has led to stress on difference in continuity, with classical learning, defence of the active life and of the virtue of possessions seen as coexistent with earlier knowledge and ideals.

The Renaissance discovery of classical antiquity was essentially a revival of learning, which Petrarch believed had dispelled the ignorance which had prevailed since late antiquity. Petrarch's mode of studying and transmitting the Latin classics became the province of the 15th-cent. (h)umanista, or teacher of Latin and Greek (hence ‘humanist’ and, but not until the 19th cent. ‘humanism’). From the 15th cent. onwards, humanist activity spread to other countries. At the turn of the 15th–16th cents. German imperial scholarship claimed a translatio studii parallel with the Carolingian translatio imperii. Later German humanists such as Melanchthon were usually advocates of the Reformation. Greek studies flourished especially in 16th-cent. France.

The English Renaissance was influenced by the Italian indirectly, through France, Burgundy, and the Netherlands, as well as directly. In its earliest phase, the patronage of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester (1390–1447), was important; later, under Henry VII, William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, after Italian experience, won a reputation for Greek. From about 1500, however, the chief force in English humanism was the concept of pietas literata, or evangelical humanism, associated with Erasmus. The friendship of Erasmus with John Colet and with Thomas More was particularly significant. Colet's St Paul's School was influenced by Erasmus; he and More translated Greek together; his Praise of Folly (1511) was dedicated to More.

England produced no humanist scholar of the first rank, More's Utopia being the finest Latin achievement of its early Tudor phase. Many classical and humanist works were translated into the vernacular, however. A pattern of civility on the Italian model was offered by Sir Thomas Elyot (Book Named the Governor, 1531) and Sir Thomas Hoby (translation of Castiglione's Courtier, 1561). Machiavelli's Prince, known in the 1530s, was printed in Italian at London in the 1580s, as were works by the philosopher Giordano Bruno. Greek studies were notable, from the 1520s especially in association with the Reformation. Erasmus' Greek New Testament with Latin translation (1516–19) was used by Martin Luther for his German New Testament (1521): William Tyndale used both for his English version (1526–34); later reformed English versions, including the Authorized (1611), kept much of Tyndale's language.

A protestant Renaissance poetic tradition embodied by Edmund Spenser, who was also, like John Donne, influenced by Italian Renaissance poetry, poetics, and Neoplatonism, extends to Andrew Marvell and John Milton. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, had earlier introduced Italian lyric forms. In drama, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson were much indebted to the Italo-classic tradition.

The visual arts and architecture of Renaissance England remained predominantly

traditional, in spite of the presence of Italian sculptors and of north European painters such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Rubens, and Van Dyck. The first English architect and designer of international stature was Inigo Jones, the Palladian (1573–1652). Music similarly remained traditional until the flowering of the Italian fashion (1575–1625).

The Renaissance in Scotland was notable for logical and theological studies, and for its connections with French humanism. Its earlier stages produced three of the finest poets of their time in Robert Henryson (d. 1490), William Dunbar (d. c.1515), and Gavin Douglas (d. 1522); Douglas was also the first translator of the whole of Virgil's Aeneid into any British vernacular. George Buchanan (1506–82) won a lasting European reputation as humanist, poet, and historian; he was also tutor to the young James VI and I.

J. B. Trapp


Hale, J. R. , The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, 1450–1620 (1993);
Kraye, J. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (Cambridge, 1996);
Panofsky, E. , Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Stockholm, 1960);
Rice, E. F., Jr., and and Grafton, A. , The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460–1559 (2nd edn. New York, 1994);
Skinner, Q. , The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, i: The Renaissance;
ii: The Reformation (Cambridge, 1978).


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In the medieval period, few women described women's lives; mostly, the record was written by men, expressing men's perception. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's Wife of Bath in looks at a picture of a lion defeated and asks a rhetorical question, "Who painted the lion?" If the lion—or the woman—were to tell the story, it would look very different. The pattern of misogyny this question registers, which characterized the Renaissance as well as the Middle Ages, was backed by ecclesiastical authority and founded in attitudes towards women in texts by biblical and patristic authors. St. Paul affirmed women are inferior beings, to be endured for procreative reasons; the theologian Tertullian argued that a woman was "a temple built over a sewer" and "the gateway to the devil." In effect, women are either the occasion of temptation and pollution, like Eve, or the embodiment of virtue and purity, like the Virgin Mary. Such symbolic figures supported a great many of the disciplinary practices that regulated women's moral lives and their relationships with men.

Women were characterized and largely controlled not in relation to their natural capacities (although medical tradition conceived of women as imperfect men, by nature incapable of higher-level thought and rationality), but according to a set of views that denied they were capable of entering fully into human culture, other than the culture of the household or family. By 1400 core beliefs about women's roles, centered on their common experience as wife, mother, or daughter, had been elaborated in pastoral texts and pedagogical literature, constructing a gender typology defining women in relation to marital status: unmarried, wife, widow. This three-fold division was extraordinarily tenacious, dominating the medieval and Renaissance centuries, classifying women on the basis of sexuality (chastity being taken as the supreme spiritual virtue) and largely ignoring social categories that were crucial to the representation of male experience.

Despite the general cultural silence to which women were consigned, the turn of the fifteenth century saw the emergence of an author, in whom women found the voice Chaucer's Wife missed: Christine de Pisan (1363–1431), sometimes called Europe's first feminist. Widowed, she supported herself and children as, in effect, the first female professional writer. Her most notable work, La cité des dames, promoted women and their virtues and resisted male assault. Pisan here participated in the contemporary querelle des femmes, offering a visionary society of "women worthies" in demonstration of women's excellence. Nevertheless, her city of ladies affirmed virtues that were accredited by tradition as well as Church-sponsored belief: chastity, humility, and feminine decorum. Furthermore, in line with a typical history, for all her contemporary impact her work was soon out of circulation, only reemerging in the twentieth century.

At law, women were generally subordinated to male authority and their property taken into men's hands. Law, then, was both gendered theory and its practical instrument. Insistence upon the importance of marriage contributed to women's exclusion from public life, since, subject to her husband, she could not be trusted to act independently; in many areas of Europe, indeed, she could not be personally sued or charged with a crime, and, correlatively, needed her husband's approval to go to law. Dower and the limited property freedoms of the widow served to protect women's independence to some degree; city law codes could even allow married women to define themselves for commercial purposes as femme sole, entitling them to enter into contracts; but such independence was constantly under attack through the course of the Renaissance. If women were always accorded secondary status at law, the larger European movement toward assimilation of local codes to Roman Law confirmed a woman's lack of legal responsibility. This pattern of restriction extended into women's commercial life. Women had dominated many areas of commercial activity (city markets in Poland, for instance), and productive labor early in the period, but progressively lost their few rights in organizations like craft guilds that normally consolidated and defended the rights of the productive classes.

Despite legal limitations, many women, like Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) and Margaret of Navarre (1492–1549), won renown as great political leaders. In general, however, women occupied positions of power that accrued to the household, as the heads of great secular or religious estates, or informally through their proximity to great men in royal and aristocratic courts. Although high-born women were not taught in the language of the church and higher education—Latin—a surprising number received an education in the classics, like their brothers. The training that marked the upbringing of women like Elizabeth I was a positive consequence of humanist ideas (promoted by scholars like Erasmus [1469–1536] and Juan Luis Vives [1492–1540]) which insisted that sexes were "equally suited for knowledge of learning by which reason is cultivated," as Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) maintained.

If many women were educated to a degree, their education was of a practical nature to assist in managing household business, including, in pious households, the reading of devotions written with women in mind. On the whole, women's capacity to read far exceeded their capacity to write; vigorous family politicians like the Paston wives—especially the matriarchs, Agnes (1405–1479), Margaret (1420–1484), and Margery Brews (d.1495)—read and composed the letters that passed through their households, but seldom even signed letters written in their names. In this area, as in others, a woman's success tended to distinguish her from her sex, making her more like a man. Jean de Gerson (1363–1429), Chancellor of the University of Paris, called Christine de Pisan insignis femina, virilis femina; the same could be said of a great political figure like Elizabeth I, who fused to her man-like capacity for learning a public virility in the face of national enemies, paradoxically conjoined with a triumphant virginity that suggested she was the bride of her people.

Many aristocratic women were significant patrons of learning and the learned, writers, painters, and the arts. On the whole, however, women were urged to be submissive and modest in their relations to men. When women wrote, their writing tended to be modestly minor, confined to specific, gender-determined modes and topics: spiritual autobiography, epitaphs, panegyrics, moral and family life. In general, then, silence was the rule and a woman wrote freely only where, because of the character and scale of her household (whether religious or secular), she was guaranteed an audience. One should not forget, however, Louise Labé's (c. 1525–1566) firm resolve: "And if any woman becomes so proficient as to be able to write down her thoughts, let her do so, and not despise the honour, but rather flaunt it instead of fine clothes, necklaces and rings."


Davis, Natalie Zemon, and Arlette Farge, eds. 1993. A History of Women in the West: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jardine, Lisa. 1983. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Sussex, UK: Harvester Press.

Wiesner, Merry E. 2000. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Katharina M., ed. 1987. Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Woodbridge, Linda. 1984. Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540–1620. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

                                         Claudia Marquis


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Renaissance, Renascence. From the French renaître (to be born again) and the Italian Rinascimento (rebirth), the term is given to the great revival of arts and letters under the influence of Classical precedents which began in Italy in C14 and continued during the following two centuries, spreading to virtually all parts of Europe. It is also a convenient label for the style of architecture that developed in, and was characteristic of, that period from the time of Brunelleschi in Florence (early C15) to the beginnings of Mannerism (c.1520), and which was based on the architecture of Roman Antiquity. Indeed, it was referred to as maniera all'antica, and the style was codified by Alberti in De re aedificatoria (begun around 1450), drawing on the exemplary work of Vitruvius. In architecture the Renaissance includes the High Renaissance (c.1500–c.1520) in which Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael flourished, but it does not include the Baroque. Elsewhere in Europe, Renaissance architecture tended to acquire Italian Renaissance motifs, either from printed sources or from the observations of travellers, but each country or region produced buildings that looked un-Italian: German, French, Flemish, Spanish, and English (the latter associated with Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture) Renaissance styles all had distinct flavours. English, Flemish, German, Polish, and Scandinavian Renaissance buildings of C16 and early C17 fall into the Northern Renaissance category, but the infusion of Mannerism gave French Renaissance architecture a different flavour. Only in the early C17 was uncorrupted Renaissance architecture, firmly based on Italian prototypes, introduced in England (see Paesschen) by Inigo Jones, an event that was enormously influential in C18, first in England, and then elsewhere. There were various national Renaissance Revivals in C19 once Neo-Classicism had become wearisome. There are some (e.g. the late John Harvey (1911–97) ) who held that the introduction of Renaissance architecture was a disaster, destroying the living, indigenous, and inventive Gothic tradition of England and Northern Europe.


Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Lewis & Darley (1986);
H. Osborne (1970);
Jane Turner (1996)


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Renaissance (Fr. ‘Rebirth’) Period of European history lasting roughly from the mid-l5th century to the end of the 16th century. Late 15th-century Italian scholars used the word to describe the revival of interest in classical learning. It was helped by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, which resulted in the transport of classical texts to Italy. In Germany, the invention of a printing press with moveable type assisted the diffusion of the new scholarship. In religion, the spirit of questioning led to the Reformation. In politics, the Renaissance saw the rise of assertive sovereign states – Spain, Portugal, France, and England – and the expansion of Europe beyond its own shores, with the building of trading empires in Africa, the East Indies, and America. The growth of a wealthy urban merchant class led to a tremendous flowering of the arts. See also Renaissance architecture; Renaissance art; Renaissance music


views updated May 18 2018

Renaissance the revival of art and literature under the influence of classical models in the 14th–16th centuries; the culture and style of art and architecture developed during this era.

The Renaissance is generally regarded as beginning in Florence, where there was a revival of interest in classical antiquity. Important early figures are the writers Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio and the painter Giotto. Classical techniques and styles were studied in Rome by the sculptor Donatello as well as by the architects Bramante and Brunelleschi, who worked on the theory of perspective, which was developed in the innovative frescoes and paintings of Masaccio.

The period from the end of the 15th century has become known as the High Renaissance, when Venice and Rome began to share Florence' importance and Botticelli, Cellini, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo were active. Renaissance thinking spread to the rest of Europe from the early 16th century, and was influential for the next hundred years.
Renaissance man a person with many talents or interests, especially in the humanities, supposedly exhibiting the virtues of an idealized man of the Renaissance.


views updated May 23 2018

Ren·ais·sance / ˈrenəˌsäns; -ˌzäns/ the revival of art and literature under the influence of classical models in the 14th–16th centuries. ∎  the culture and style of art and architecture developed during this era. ∎  [as n.] (a renaissance) a revival of or renewed interest in something: rail travel is enjoying a renaissance.

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