to syllabus

Lecture 13    The Renaissance

The term "Renaissance" means "re-birth" and refers to Europe's "cultural rebirth" in approximately 1350-1550.  Artists and intellectuals at the time themselves used the term "renaissance" to indicate the difference between their world and the world of the "dark ages" (from the fall of Rome until the mid-1300s).  Renaissance intellectuals and artists believed that they had rediscovered the lost cultural legacy of Greece and Rome.  As we have seen in previous lectures, the cultural legacy of the classical world really had never been completely lost.  But the term Renaissance is still useful to describe a series of interrelated cultural and artistic developments that began in Italy in the late 1300s, and then spread to Northern Europe in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

 General issues

The "rediscovery" of the Classical world

As we have seen, scholars in the 1200s knew Classical works not only through the efforts of figures like Bothius and the Benedictine monks, but also because of translations by Arab and Hebrew scholars and subsequent writings of people like St. Thomas Aquinas.  So what distinguished the "classicism" of the Renaissance from that of the High Middle Ages? 

Knowledge of Greek became even more widely diffused among an even larger group of scholars, so that far more scholars studied the classics than had in previous centuries.  Also, Renaissance scholars faced relatively less pressure to filter all aspects of classicism through Christian doctrine:  although sincere believers, they treated the Classical world as distinct from the Christian era and believed that it offered lessons of its own.  That helped make Renaissance classicism comparatively secular in its outlook. 


The leading figures of the Renaissance were generally deeply religious, but took as their main subject the study of man rather than that of God.   Their perspective became known as Humanism.   Humanists did not doubt the existence of God, but emphasized human capabilities and celebrated individual achievement and genius. 

Note:  In Shakespeare's Hamlet (written just after the Renaissance), Hamlet describes mankind in terms that steeped in humanism:  "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel!" (etc.)

Humanists questioned the efficacy of Scholasticism, with its concentration on "abstract" logic and Aristotelian philosophy.  Instead, they championed the study of the "humanities":  history, literature, language and rhetoric, and ethics--subjects concerned with human experience.  For the Renaissance Humanists, the humans worthy of study were the men of classical Greece and Rome.  

 The Italian Renaissance


The Renaissance began in the city states of Northern Italy.  In cities like Florence and Venice, the urban-based aristocrat families had melded with the wealthy non-aristocratic merchants and bankers, and both groups of elites placed significant value on education.   For the north Italian elites, education was critical to dominance in the world of commerce, but also in civic affairs (e.g., to political power).  As a consequence, the northern Italian cities became centers of universities and schools over which the Church (which was relatively weak in this region) exercised little supervisory control.  

Booming commerce in the Italian city states (see lecture 11) gave city governments, trade and merchant guilds, and wealthy elites enough wealth to patronize (employ) large numbers of painters, sculptors, architects, poets, and scholars.   In the early 1400s, the guilds and city councils of the north Italian cities competed with one another to commission works of art that would reflect the greatness and glory of their city, their trade, etc.  In the late 1400s, the "princely" families that had consolidated their political power in the city states became the most patrons of Renaissance artists and intellectuals.  But here again, it was the wealth of the new commercial economy that allowed the Medici of Florence, the Visconti of Milan, or Popes Julius II or Leo X (himself a Medici), to patronize Italy's artists.

One of the important contexts of the Italian Renaissance was foreign intervention in Italy in the late 1400s and early 1500s.  In the 1494, French King Charles VIII invaded Italy in hopes of claiming the thrones of Milan and of Naples.  He conquered Florence, then Naples.  The Spanish joined forces with the Papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, Venice, and Milan to drive out the French.  But in 1499 the new French King Louis XII again invaded Italy.  Again, the Spanish joined in the fight against the French occupation.  In 1525 Spanish troops defeated the French and again drove them out of Italy completely in 1529.  But the Spanish had began to behave as occupiers; in 1527 Spanish soldiers went on a rampage in Rome.  Charles V, the Habsburg King who was both the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, claimed both Milan and Naples as his own territories and  began "appointing" princes to other territories.

This foreign occupation had an impact on the culture of the Italian Renaissance.   In the era of the Great Schism, when France seemed to dominate both the Papacy and European intellectual life, and at a time when French and Spanish armies occupied large portions of Italy, citizens of the Italian city states sought to establish their own civic identities by looking to the models of the classical world that they could see all around them.  Rome and its cities were, after all, "their" inheritance…       

 Petrarch's humanism vs. Alberti's humanism

The first of the great Renaissance Humanist scholars, the Italian Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch, 1304-1374), considered "French" Scholasticism too abstract, too removed from the realities of life.   He believed that a better path to imparting Christian ethics was to produce literature shaped by the wisdom and rhetoric of the ancients, as found in the classical literature of Rome.  That meant shifting the focus of study from logic to literature and rhetoric—one of the foundations of Humanism.  While Petrarch's goal was to glorify God by devoting his life to solitary meditation and study, he used his command of classical Latin poetic form in sonnets about human love, which became one of the models for subsequent Renaissance literature.

Later Italian Humanists did not share Petrarch's Christian asceticism; men like Leon Alberdi (1404-1472) considered civic engagement the goal of Humanistic study.  The individual, Alberdi and the "civic humanists" believed, must serve both God and the city-state by employing the knowledge, skills, and abilities that he (but not she, according to Alberdi), had cultivated through a Humanistic education.  Alberdi, even more than Petrarch, emphasized the capabilities of man and the ability of men (as individuals) to shape the world. 

     Re-reading the classics

In the generations after Petrarch's death, dozens of scholars new, highly developed linguistic skills, began re-reading the classics.  Often, the results were dramatic.  Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), for instance, used his tremendous knowledge of classical Latin rhetoric to study one of the most politically important "documents" of the early Roman Church.  The Papacy had based its claim to temporal rule (a serious issue in the 1300s and 1400s!) on the "Donation of Constantine," allegedly written by the Emperor Constantine in the 300s; Valla proved that this was a medieval forgery.  (He also used his knowledge of Greek to uncover mistranslations in St. Jerome's Vulgate.)

Whereas Petrarch had looked for inspiration to the Roman classics, Alberdi, Valla, and the Civic Humanists looked primarily to the Greeks.  Their efforts "popularized" Greek classics, including the works of the philosopher Plato, the plays of Euripides and Sophocles, and historical works by Herodotus and Thucydides (remember the lectures on Greece?!).  The civic spirit of the Greek city states resonated with the new civic identities of intellectuals in the north Italian city states. 

The most dramatic example of the Civic Humanists elevation of Hellenistic culture was the creation of the Platonic Academy of Florence.  The scholars drawn together in this academy (which had as its patron Duke Cosimo de Medici), saw themselves as "Neo-Platonists," and tried to blend the teachings of Plato with the doctrines of Christianity.   Several of the academy's members, like Pico della Mirandolla, seem to have been as interested in Jewish mysticism as they were in civic virtues; still, for our purposes what is most important is that they identified man as the main object of their studies and emphasized man's seemingly endless capabilities. 


Among the thinkers of Renaissance Italy, perhaps the most controversial (and brilliant) was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527).  In 1494, when the French invaded Italy and neared Florence, the Medici family--the merchants who had overturned the Florentine Republic and set themselves up as the city's Dukes--fled.   Florence again became a republic, and in 1498 Machiavelli took a post as one of the republic's high-level officials (as a diplomat).  In 1512, when the Medici returned to power, Machiavelli went into exile on his country estate.  There he wrote a number of studies of the uses of political power.  Machiavelli took as his model of the "ideal" ruler the notorious contemporary Roman aristocrat Cesare Borgia; he argued that a successful prince must be ruthless and must not be bound by morality, and that "evil" acts are sometimes necessary to achieve good ends.

The relationship between Machiavelli's political thought and Renaissance Humanism was complex.  One the one hand, he seems to have a very low opinion of mankind, which he describes as sinful, cowardly, and weak.  On the other hand, he shares in the Humanistic celebration of the prowess of the individual.  On one hand, Machiavelli seems an apologist for despotic tyrants like Cesare Borgia and Lorenzo de Medici.  On the other hand, he championed constitutional republicanism and viewed the early Roman Republic as an ideal toward which Italian city states should aspire (in his Discourses on Livy).

I would generally agree with Coffin that Machiavelli's endorsement of ruthless tyranny reflected his conviction that before Italians could re-establish constitutional republics, they must first expel the French and Spanish.  According to Machiavelli's reading of ancient and contemporary history, this task required ruthlessness and signal-mindedness uncharacteristic of republican rule.  He believed that history had proven tyrants more effective in such situations.   So Machiavelli considered despotic, ruthless tyranny a precondition for Italian national liberation, which would set the stage for the restoration of republic rule.    

 Italian Renaissance Arts

    (In addition to the Coffin, pay special attention to the Video shown on Thursday)


Why did the Italian Renaissance End?

The strains of invasion and warfare in the 1500s helped to destroy the very wealth and prosperity that had made the Italian Renaissance possible.  But other forces were at work undermining the Italians predominance in European commerce; the Dutch, the English, the Spanish, and the Portuguese had established new sea routes to Asia (and the Americas) that were undercutting the more expensive Italian dominated overland routes.  (See Coffin, chapter 12.)  As the wealth of the Italian dukes and princes declined, so did their patronage of the arts.

There was another, "political" reason for the decline of the Italian Renaissance in the mid-1500s:  the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation (which we will discuss next week).  In the early 1500s, England's King Henry VIII, the Swiss preacher John Calvin, and the German cleric Martin Luther all launched religious movements that broke with the Catholic Church and denied the authority of the Papacy.  The Catholic Church then launched its own "Counter-Reformation" (also called the "Catholic Reformation").  The Church sought not only to stop the spread of Protestantism, but also to crack down on the "creeping secularism" of the Renaissance.   The Papacy established an "Index" of banned books, set up a court of the Inquisition in Rome, and began persecuting artists and scholars whose views seemed to challenge that of the Church.   Historians consider the effect of this theological/ideological censorship so chilling as to bring an end to Italy's Renaissance.

 The Northern Renaissance

In the 1400s the ideas that fueled the Italian Renaissance spread to Northern Italy, carries by returning students who had attended Italian universities, and then (at the end of the century) by French and German officers involved in warfare in Italy.  (Also, during the wars of the early 1500s, northern European rulers began employing many Italian Renaissance artists and intellectuals).  Therefore the Renaissance began taking root in Northern Europe just as it began waning in Italy.

 Christian Humanism in the North

In contrast to the trend towards "civic humanism" in Italy that looked to pagan Rome and Greece for inspiration, the "Christian Humanism" typical of Northern Renaissance thought focused its scholarly attention on the study of the early Roman Church fathers (e.g., Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome) and the New Testament.   One of the major reasons for this difference was that the great universities of the North were bastions of Scholasticism; moreover, they (paradoxically) exercised far less independence from the Church than did those in Italy.

 The exemplar of Christian Humanism was Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) of Rotterdam (Holland).  As a young monk, Erasmus read  virtually all of the classical works then available in Latin translation, while also studying Greek and Hebrew.  At age 30 he began divinity studies at the University of Paris, but rather than becoming a priest, he began a traveling scholar in the employment of various royal patrons.  Through his teaching, his abundant publications, and his correspondence with hundreds of colleagues and admirers, Erasmus helped spread the ideas and attitudes towards scholarship, the arts, and ethics that historians describe as "Christian Humanism."

 In a prose style justly famous during his own time, Erasmus produced translations of important Christian works (most significantly, his Greek New Testament); wrote scholarly essays on early Christian literature, produced satires of worldly corruption and ignorance (the most famous being In Praise of Folly), and guides to Christian ethics (such as his Complaint of Peace).  All of these made use of examples drawn from his vast reading in late Roman and Church history and literature.  He frequently used his erudition to skewer the worldliness of ecclesiastical officials and the "arid" traditions of Scholasticism, which he argued reinforced popular ignorance. 

One of the hallmarks of Erasmus' ethical-theological perspective was the belief that the Church, the Scholastic professor, and the laity had strayed from the simple moral teachings of the New Testament, and that humanistic scholars had the duty to guide their readers towards "the philosophy of Christ."  Another was that Christianity preached peace and that true Christian piety required a commitment to pacifism.

Thomas Moore (1478-1535), an English aristocrat who served as England's Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII, shared most of the basic views of his friend Erasmus.  A decade before his rise to power, Moore penned his most important written work, Utopia.  In this book, Moore presented a thinly-veiled criticism of intolerance, materialistic greed, and war-loving among England's aristocrats and clergy.  Utopia depicted an island kingdom not unlike England except that its people live in perfect harmony:  they spend most of their time pursing virtue, own no private property, practice tolerance of each others' views (so long as they recognize the existence of God), and have no need or desire for the art of warfare.  

 King Henry VIII held Moore's scholarship and his abilities in great esteem; however, Moore clashed with Henry VIII when the King broke with the Catholic Church and founded the Church of England .(We will discuss this again next week).  Moore refused to take an oath recognizing Henry as the head of the national Church (Moore believed there could be only one Christian Church, as there was only one true Christian doctrine).  In 1535 Henry VIII ordered Moore's execution.  (Moore was later canonized as a martyred Catholic saint.)

Ultimately, the very religious institutions that Moore had sought to defend and the Erasmus had hoped to reform contributed to the decline of Christian Humanism.  By 1520, Church officials in the Holy Roman Empire vigerously sought to circumscribe humanistic scholarship.  The famous debate between the supporters of Johann Reuchlin and the Scholastics over the German Inquisition's efforts to ban all Hebrew books may have helped spread the ideas of Erasmus, et al., but it also signaled the Church's growing unease with the implications of Biblical scholarship. 

That was largely a consequence of the lessons that Martin Luther and others had taken from Erasmus and the Christian Humanists.  As we will see in the next lecture, Luther expanded on criticisms of the Church's worldliness and used Biblical scholarship to attack the foundations of Catholicism.  In the North as in Italy, the Catholic Church clamped down on ideas that might feed into Luther's Protestant Reformation (launched in 1517), even when these ideas came from men like Erasmus, who considered themselves loyal and faithful Catholics.  By 1525 Christian Humanism was in decline.

 "Secular" literature in the Northern Renaissance

Although the scholarship of the Northern Renaissance concerned itself largely with Christian ethics, the 1500s witnessed a revival of secular literature as well.  Perhaps the most significant Northern European literary figure of the era, Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), had been influenced considerably by the writings of Erasmus.  But his Gargantua and Pantagruel appealed to a very different audience than did the works of Erasmus.  These stories of mythical giants were written in very vernacular French, filled with sex, violence, and vulgar language.  What links Rabelais to Erasmus and to Humanism more generally is his naturalism and his conviction that humans and human behavior are fundamentally good (even when vulgar).

 Northern Renaissance art

Here again, for the sake of time, I ask you to pay special attention to Coffin.  The art of the Northern Renaissance was strongly influenced by developments in Italy, yet it was also markedly different.  For a quick illustration of some of the differences, look closely at and compare Holbein's portrait of Thomas Moore (p. 478) to Raphael's portrait of Julius II (p. 458).  Coffin emphasizes differences in subject and theme between Italy and the North, and in particular the greater "modesty" of Northern Renaissance artists.  But they also made dramatically different use of light, form, and color than did the Italians.  It is worth noting that that Northern Renaissance painting had a reciprocal influence on Italian art:  Northern artists pioneered the use of oil paint (vs. water color and tempera), which was then imported to Italy.