TAF >> NY & the World >> Teaching Materials >> Renaissance Humanism

  Humanism 1:
  Humanism 2:
Attitudes Toward Classical Antiquity
  Humanism 3:
Discovery of Manuscripts
  Humanism 4:
  Humanism 5:
Humanism and Art
  Humanism 6:
Human Dignity
  Humanism 7:
Literary and Historical Criticism
  Humanism 8:
Rhetoric vs. Philosophy
  Humanism 9:
Women & Humanism
  Humanism 10: Christian Humanism
  Series List

Humanism 1: An Outline
Albert Rabil, Jr

A. Renaissance Humanism: What it is not

Umanista was a word used by the humanists themselves and meant a practitioner of the studia humanitatis, the liberal arts. The word humanism was never used by them and in fact was coined only in 1808 in Germany to designate the study of the language and literature of one's own culture (as opposed to the study of the language and literature of classical antiquity). The term subsequently came to mean a non-theistic philosophy (as in "Ethical Humanism"). The word is today used pejoratively in political discourse (generally by the religious right) to stand for the degeneration of the contemporary world. These later meanings, of course, have nothing to do with humanism as it is being presented here.

B. Renaissance Humanism: What it is

Humanists were practitioners of the studia humanitatis. The studia humanitatis or liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy, and (sometimes) politics. Humanists had nothing to do with the professional disciplines of law, medicine, or theology. Pier Paolo Vergerio is explicit in his treatise (On the Education of Boys) [see Humanism 4] both about what the humanists regarded as their "turf" and what they did not.

Humanism: A Time Line

  1. Italy

    1. 1350-75: Establishment of humanism as a new ideal through Petrarch and his disciple Boccaccio.

    2. 1375-1420: The "heroic age" of humanism, its blossoming into a movement most notably in Florence, under the leadership of Coluccio Salutati, head of the city's bureaucracy until his death in 1406; then under Leonardo Bruni.

    3. 1420-1527: Spread of humanism from Florence to other cities and courts throughout Northern Italy, but also to Rome and Naples in the south. The invasion of Charles VIII of France in 1494 and the Sack of Rome in 1527 by troops of Emperor Charles V (1519–55) marked the end of the dominance of humanism as a movement in Italian culture, though humanism continued to thrive through the 16th century, developing theories of literary interpretation and canons of critical scholarship related to restoring ancient texts.

  2. 1480-1520: The blossoming of humanism in Germany, France, and England, before the movement was incorporated into the larger struggles related to the Protestant Reformation (1517 ff).

D. The Blossoming of Humanism in Florence

  1. Petrarch (1305-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) were the first generation of humanists to make humanism visible to the cultured world. The second generation was led by Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), chancellor of Florence 1375-1406 and a disciple of Petrarch. Salutati introduced the teaching of Greek into Florence, encouraged the discovery and copying of manuscripts, and pioneered in writing elegant letters which were copied all over Europe.

  2. The third generation of humanism is represented by a number of important figures.
    • Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was a notary who came to Florence as a young man with no money. Salutati took Poggio under his wing and employed him copying manuscripts. Poggio devised a new kind of script, Roman script, actually copied from Carolingian manuscripts that Poggio believed were classical in origin; this script became the basis for that used in printed books after 1450. But Poggio's most important work was the discovery of classical texts. We can say that between 1333 when Petrarch made his earliest discovery and 1429 when Poggio made his last, virtually all the texts now known of classical antiquity had been recovered. [see Humanism 3] What flowed from these discoveries? At least two things:
      • Niccolς Niccoli (1364-1437) was a Florentine contemporary of Poggio's. He was a pure classicist (of Latin only; he never learned Greek). Having been left independently wealthy by his father, a wool merchant, he spent his life collecting manuscripts. He became familiar with the classical contents of libraries all over Europe, and when researchers set out to look for manuscripts Niccoli would provide them with lists of manuscripts to look for (the one Latin writing we have from his hand is a list of manuscripts). He became a channel through whom passed all the information about manuscripts related to classical antiquity. He collected over 800, exhausting his wealth in the process; Cosimo dei Medici finally had to support his work. When he died Niccoli left his library to Cosimo (to pay off his debts) and to the city of Florence, stipulating that the books were to be housed in a library which was to be open to the public for study. He thus became directly responsible for the founding of the first public library. Indeed, at the time of his death over 200 of his manuscripts were out on loan. (His books were placed in the library of San Marco, which Cosimo was then building, and later they were divided between what is now the Laurenziano Library and the Bibliotheca Nationale Centrale, both in Florence, where they can still be seen and studied.) Niccoli developed the italic script, also still used in printed books. [see Humanism 3]
    • Poggio not only collected manuscripts but also began to collect classical artifacts and to decipher and record stone inscriptions (some of them badly worn) in Rome and elsewhere. When Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti came to Rome to study the artistic remains of the classical city and to make measurements of some of its remains [see Humanism 5], Poggio probably served as their guide. Thus we can say the humanists gave birth to archaeology

    • Greek Humanists of the Third Generation
      • Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), who served sometime after Salutati as Chancellor of Florence (1427-44), was among the best students of the Greek teacher Manuel Chrysoloras (1350-1415), who was brought to Florence by Salutati and taught Greek there for three years, 1397-1400.
      • Ambrogio Traversari (1386–1439), a monk in the Camaldulensian Order, came to Florence in 1400 and either studied under or was inspired by Chrysoloras. He translated a number of texts of the Greek church fathers: Basil, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzen, Pseudo-Dionysius. He translated one important non-Christian writer, Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers.
      • A number of Greeks came to Italy for the Council of Ferrara-Florence during the 1430s, convened at the request of the Byzantine Church to implore help in the face of the Turkish Moslem threat to the Byzantine Empire that led to its collapse in 1453. The most important consequence for Florence was the introduction of Platonism by some of the Greeks present and the subsequent development of a "Platonic academy" in Florence (see immediately below, 3b).


  3. Subsequent Development of Florentine Humanism

      1. During the second half of the 15th century, humanism in Florence lived in close conjunction with the Medicis who controlled the politics of the city. The most notable humanist among them was Angelo Poliziano (1454–94) who developed principles for the establishment of standard editions of ancient texts. [see Humanism 7]
      2. The most important intellectual movement in Florence was Florentine Neoplatonism, which exercised a wide influence throughout Europe. Its leader was Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) who, in the 1460s and 1470s, translated Plato and Plotinus, among others, from Greek into Latin. His translation of Plato marks the first time in over one thousand years that all the works of Plato were known in Europe. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1462–93) included the Cabala and other esoteric writings believed to belong to the "ancient theology" and had as his ambition to unite all truth and knowledge into one system. [see Humanism 8] Florentine Platonism was as influential as humanism during the following century. Though Ficino was following the lead of the humanists (learning the languages and translating and commenting on the texts of ancient authors), he made out of ancient wisdom a philosophical system, which it was never the ambition of humanists to do.

E. The Spread of Humanism Throughout Italy

    1. Venice: The most learned people in Venice were the patricians (a closed class after 1297) and their civic duties prevented their lifelong productivity as humanists. There were, however, many patricians who pursued humanist studies, especially in their early adulthood. One of the earliest was Francesco Barbaro (1390–1454), whose treatise On Wifely Duties (1415), written on the occasion of the marriage of the Florentine patrician Leonardo de' Medici, expressed patriarchal attitudes toward women. Other notable examples are Leonardo Giustiniani (d. 1446) and Bernardo Giustiniani (1408–89). Two who did manage to pursue lifelong careers as humanists were Gregorio Correr (1409–64) and Ermolao Barbaro (1454–93), but they left Venice. Margaret King has detailed the lives of hundreds of Venetian humanists in the appendix to her Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance (Princeton UP, 1986). John Bessarion (1400–1472) willed his library to the city, which became the foundation for the famous Marciano Library. Venice also produced a number of women who wrote in the vernacular but were influenced by humanism, most notably Gaspara Stampa (1523–54), Veronica Franco (1546–91, subject of the recent movie, Dangerous Beauty), Modesta da Pozzo (Moderata Fonte, 1555–92), Lucrezia Marinella (1571–1653), and Arcangela Tarabotti (1604–52). The last three mentioned are among the most prominent "feminists" of the Renaissance. [see Humanism 9] Humanism also established itself in other free cities in Northern Italy: Padua, Verona, Brescia near Venice; and Siena, Pisa, and Genoa near Florence. Padua was one of the few cities in which humanism was prominent in the university.
    2. Princely Courts and Court Cities: Humanists were also active in court cities.
      1. Milan: The largest court city in Italy, ruled by the Viscontis (1350–1450), then by the Sforzas (1450–1535, with breaks). Gasparino da Barzizza (d. 1424) established a school there which had a long history. Uberto Decembrio served the first dynasty, his son Pier Candido Decembrio (1399–1477) served both. Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481) dominated humanist culture there during both regimes for many years during the 15th century.
      2. One of the most notable humanist schools was at Mantua under the Gonzaga family. Vittorino da Feltre (1378–1446) established a school there in 1420. He was an exemplary person, and the curriculum of his school became the basis for the education of the European elite until very recent times. His curriculum did not include law or medicine or theology, but it did include physical training, Latin and Greek, literature and philosophy.
      3. At Ferrara under the Este family a school was established by Guarino da Verona (1370–1460) in 1430. He was in charge of advanced studies and also had a connection with the university there. He developed classical materials for his students' use, including translations from Greek. Like other humanists (and unlike Vittorino) he wrote a good deal. Ferrara subsequently became a center of Italian literary culture, indebted to humanism but different from it (especially in its use of the vernacular and its development of medieval literary models). Boiardo's (1441–94) Orlando innamorato (bks 1–2, 1483; bk 3, 1495) was published there, as was Ariosto's (1477–1533) more famous Orlando furioso (in 3 versions: 1516, 1521, 1532), and Tasso's (1544–95) Gerusalemme liberata (1581). All three of these epic romances celebrated Este ancestry.
      4. The court at Urbino was presided over by Federigo da Montefeltro (d. 1503) who collected a large library, and then by his son Guidobaldo (1472–1508) and by Guidobaldo's wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga (1471–1526). Out of this court came one of the classics of the Renaissance, The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) which appeared in 1528, describing the perfect gentleman (bk 1) and lady (bk 3).
      5. Rome: Most humanists, like Bruni and Poggio, who served as papal secretaries, came to the city from elsewhere and did not remain there. One who spent his life there was Flavio Biondo (1392–1463) who arrived as a mature scholar in 1433 and remained until his death. He wrote a survey of European history from the 5th to the 15th century, Decades (1437–42), argued against Bruni in Concerning the words of the Roman Speech (1435) that ancient Rome had had a common language, Latin, not two parallel languages, one (Latin) for the learned, and another (Italian) for the unlearned. He also contributed to Roman archaeology and topography in his Rome Restored (1444–46). Rome became a center of humanist culture from the time that Pope Nicholas V (1447–55) became the first humanist pope of the city. The Renaissance papacy lasted through the reign of the second of the two Medici popes, Clement VII (1523–34). Renaissance popes included the patrons of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, among many others. Humanists congealed around the papacy as well, Valla (see below) among them. Pomponio Leto (1428–98) and Bartolomeo Sacchi (Platina, 1421–81) were prominent in a humanist academy that was suppressed by Pope Paul IV (1464–71) in 1468 for its presumed "paganism," though Platina was restored by Paul's successor, Sixtus IV (1471–84), who made him papal librarian. Platina subsequently wrote Lives of the Popes in which he painted an unflattering picture of Paul IV. The humanist academy in Rome was reconstituted under the following generation of humanists at the papal court under the leadership of Paolo Cortesi (1465–1510).
      6. Naples: Alphonso V, king of Aragon, won possession of Naples in 1442 and ruled it until his death in 1558. It was during his reign that Lorenzo Valla (1407–57) wrote On the Donation of Constantine (1444) [see Humanism 7] to support Alphonso's opposition to the papacy, and revised his On Pleasure or On the True Good (a moral philosophical text pitting Christianity against both Stoicism and Epicureanism) and Elegances of the Latin Language, a text long used to teach Latin. It was also at Alphonso's court that the Florentine humanist, Giannozzo Manetti (1396–1459), wrote On the Dignity of Man (1453). [see Humanism 6] Humanist culture was also encouraged by Alphonso's illegitimate grandson, Ferrante I (1458–94). During this period Giovanni Pontano (1422–1503), the most important humanist in Naples, and Jacopo Sannazaro (1457–1530), its most important pastoral poet, flourished. In 1502 Naples became part of the Spanish kingdom and remained so until the beginning of the 18th century.

F. The Spread of Humanism Beyond Italy

  1. France

    1. The earliest humanists in France, as in England and Germany, became so by traveling to and studying in Italy. Guillaume (William) Fichet (1433–92) returned from Italy in 1470, set up a press in the basement of the Sorbonne for the printing of humanist literature, and lectured on the classical Latin poets. But he returned to Italy in 1472 and remained there until his death. His place was taken by Robert Gaguin (1433–1501), the leader of the classical revival in France for the next 25 years.

    2. Lefθvre d'Etaples (Latin name: Faber Stapulensis, 1455–1536) lived in the Academy at Florence and was much influenced by the Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino (1433–99). But after 1500 he turned his attention to the Christian fathers, publishing the works of a number of them. From the fathers he moved back to the Bible. His greatest accomplishment was his translation of the Bible; he published the New Testament in 1523 and the Old Testament in 1528. The entire translation was published together in 1530. After the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation he devoted himself to church reform, but he never broke with the Catholic Church.

    3. A number of humanists helped develop Greek studies in France; one Frenchman, Guillaume Budι (1468–1540) made notable contributions to the study of both Latin and Greek classical antiquity, through his commentary on Roman law, the Pandects; and his study of classical coinage, De Asse (1515). After he wrote The Education of a Prince, the king called him to court where he served as an adviser. He was instrumental in having the Collθge de France made trilingual. He also had some contact with John Calvin ; his children became Calvinists.

  2. Germany

    1. Germany followed the same pattern as France: Italian influence mingled with native pietistic traditions, resulting after 1500 in a strong humanist movement. The initiators of German humanism were Rudolf Agricola (1444–85) who studied in Italy for ten years (1469–79), then returned to Germany where he taught; and Conrad Celtis (1459–1508), who traveled to various places, including Italy, between 1487 and 1497, then returned to Germany where he taught until his death.
    2. Johann Reuchlin (1455–1522) was the first humanist to know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He studied Hebrew from 1492 and published the first Hebrew grammar in 1506. He published a commentary on the Cabala in 1517. His sympathy for ancient Jewish literature led to conflict with those (especially a converted Jew named Pfefferkorn) who wanted all Jewish books burned, a conflict that involved most leading humanists of the time. His supporters published a defense entitled Letters of Obscure Men, 1517), ridiculing his enemies. The struggle was a precursor of the Protestant Reformation in which humanists would also have to take sides.

  3. England

    1. A small circle of English humanists emerged around 1500: William Grocyn (1446–1519), who taught both scholastic and humanist curricula; and his pupils who followed the humanist path alone, Thomas Linacre (1460–1524), John Colet (1466–1519), and William Latimer (1460–1545), all