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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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HUMANISM IN ITALY
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170 occurrences of ideology
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HUMANISM IN ITALY

Humanism enjoys a very high prestige among modern
intellectual currents; it is connected with a great num-
ber of basic philosophical ideas, and is usually consid-
ered as having had its source in Italy. What actually
was Italian humanism?

Humanism is best defined as the rise of classical
scholarship, of the stiudia humanitatis (a term used in
the general sense of literary education by ancient
Roman authors like Cicero and taken up by Italian
scholars of the late fourteenth century), during the
Renaissance. There had been several revivals of classi-
cal studies during the Middle Ages—notably by
scholars of Charlemagne's court—and then especially
in the twelfth century, when the works of ancient Latin
writers served as models for contemporary authors.
These “Protorenaissances,” as they are generally called,
did not, however, survive very long, nor did they pen-
etrate so deeply into the consciousness of the time as
did the Renaissance humanism of the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries.

The humanism of the twelfth century, i.e., the gram-
matical and classical studies which formed part of the
curriculum of French cathedral schools, was over-
shadowed and replaced by scholastic philosophy and
theology and by the study of Roman and canon law
(which had originally been part of twelfth-century
humanism) in the universities of the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries, and it is hardly admissible to call
scholastic philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas,
humanists, simply because they were indebted in their
work to Greek philosophy. It was in Italy that classical
studies started to blossom again about 1300, and finally
witnessed their lasting revival in the fifteenth century.
Prior to the thirteenth century, Italy had been lagging
behind in the cultural development of Europe. In
classical studies, it had little that could match the
highlights of twelfth-century French humanism. Yet
Italy had a tangible and persistent tradition that con-
nected her Middle Ages with ancient Rome, mainly
in the practice and study of Roman law and of gram-
mar and rhetoric—which were not limited to clerics,
but were also widespread among laymen. Furthermore,
the geographical position of Italy exposed her to the
Greek tradition of Byzantium.

Italian humanism was largely rooted in the field of
Italian classical tradition proper—in grammar and
rhetoric, in epistolography and oratory. The study of
these subjects, the so-called ars dictaminis, had begun
at Montecassino or Bologna about 1100 and had spread
from there to other regions, reaching a new climax
in Capua at the time of the Emperor Frederick II
(1215-50). It was then continued by the rising human-
ism of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Here
the path from the medieval tradition into Renaissance
humanism is most evident. Yet the early Italian
humanists were eager to apply classical standards in
their grammar, rhetoric, and oratory. Thus the art of
letter-writing and of oratory underwent a slow but
considerable change in the course of the fourteenth
century. The style of Cicero and of other classical
authors became more influential than before (as could
be seen in the letters of Geri of Arezzo shortly after
1300), although neither the characteristics of technical
medieval Latin nor those of twelfth-century Italian and
French rhetorical tradition disappeared. Even as late
as about 1400, a humanist like Coluccio Salutati com-
bined, in his numerous letters, stylistic elements of
medieval chanceries, twelfth-century French episto-
lography, and the letters of Cicero.

It was most important that the Italian humanists,
from the fourteenth century onwards, attained a nota-
ble influence in elementary and university education,
where they soon held the professorships of grammar,
rhetoric, and poetry. Thus, during the first half of the
century, the stiudia humanitatis, the “humanities,”
became a well-defined cycle of scholarly disciplines
that included the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry,
history, and moral philosophy, i.e., a broad spectrum
of secular learning independent of—but not necessarily
irreconcilable with—other scholarly disciplines of the
university curriculum, such as theology, metaphysics,
natural philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. It was
among the scholars of Italian universities that the word
umanista (in the vernacular, whence it was taken over
into Latin as humanista) was first applied to the pro-
fessors and students of rhetoric. The earliest examples
that have so far come to light appear, however, as late
as the end of the fifteenth century (Campana). Soon
afterwards the word was also applied to the students
of classical learning. (The abstract noun “humanism”
is of even later origin; it was first used by German
scholars of the early nineteenth century.)

Characteristic of the Renaissance humanists was a
familiarity with classical Latin and Greek (later also
with Hebrew) language and literature, from which they
derived their stylistic ideals; there was also a certain
degree of philological and historical criticism related
to their widespread contempt for medieval culture, and
showing a serious concern with moral problems. They
were convinced that they were living in an age of a
rebirth of learning and literature.

According to the traditional opinion (Voigt and
others), Italian humanism started with Petrarch. How-
ever, recent studies (Weiss, 1969; Kristeller, Eight...
Philosophers
...) have ventured to include the so-
called pre-humanists, i.e., the Paduan circle with
Albertino Mussato, Geri of Arezzo, and others, in the
discussion of early humanism. As far as its terminal


516

time limit is concerned, many modern students of Italy
tend to restrict the period of humanism to the four-
teenth and fifteenth centuries, reserving the Renais-
sance to the sixteenth, and thus distinguishing human-
ism and Renaissance as two different intellectual
movements. Other modern scholars are inclined to
restrict Italian humanism to the first half of the fifteenth
century. If, however, the definition of humanism as the
revival of classical scholarship during the Renaissance
is accepted, Italian humanism survived far into the
sixteenth century, although it passed its peak around
1500. After the middle of the sixteenth century,
scholars became increasingly aware that they had not
only matched but in most fields surpassed the example
of the ancients, and that progress was no longer de-
pendent on an imitation of classical models, but on
their own originality. The seventeenth century saw the
beginning of a new period in philosophy and science,
as humanist traditions gave way to more modern con-
ceptions. The revivals of classical thought in the eight-
eenth and nineteenth centuries were limited to litera-
ture, the visual arts, moral philosophy, and education,
but did not involve science, where the ancients could
no longer be considered as masters.

The basis for the spread of the knowledge of ancient
Roman literature was the discovery and diffusion by
the humanists of manuscripts of classical authors (Sab-
badini). Many Roman authors, like Vergil, Ovid, and
Seneca, were well-known and widely read during the
Middle Ages, while others, such as Lucretius, Tacitus,
and Manilius, although extant in a few but neglected
medieval manuscripts, had to be rediscovered by the
humanists. Of others, like Cicero, a number of works
were widely diffused during the Middle Ages, while
the rest were relatively unknown. In the case of Cicero,
for example, his Brutus, his letters, and many orations
were rediscovered, and the humanists became familiar
with certain trends in his thought that had been little
known before. One of the foremost achievements of
the Italian humanists in the field of classical scholarship
was that they not only rediscovered forgotten ancient
Latin literature, but also did extensive work first
as copyists, editors, and later as printers (e.g., Aldus
Manutius in Venice) of Roman classics, thus ensuring
their wide diffusion. This activity was combined with
an effort to perfect the techniques of textual criticism
and of historical interpretation by an intense study of
classical Latin spelling, grammar, rhetoric, history,
mythology, epigraphy, archeology, and similar subjects.
In this way, the humanists soon far surpassed the medi-
eval knowledge of ancient Rome and of classical liter-
ature.

Italian humanism reached its maturity during the
fifteenth century with the study of Greek. There was
still at this time some knowledge of Greek in parts
of Calabria and the Salentino (Terra d'Otranto), where
a Greek population, clergy, and liturgy had survived
the Norman occupation and lingered on until the six-
teenth century. But the medieval Byzantine remnants
in southern Italy were too meager to give a decisive
impulse to the Renaissance revival of Greek learning—
despite the fact that it was from a Calabrian monk,
Barlaam (who had probably been partly educated in
Constantinople), that Petrarch acquired some very
elementary knowledge of Greek. There had been some
sporadic knowledge of Greek in the early Middle Ages
and some translating from the Greek in the West,
mainly of Aristotle, since the twelfth century. The
translators had acquired their knowledge of the Greek
language and literature either in the East or in southern
Italy. Their translations were mainly a word-by-word
rendering of the Greek text into Latin without a firm
understanding of grammar and syntax. In typical scho-
lastic fashion they showed little genuine interest in
literary style. Efforts to teach Greek, Hebrew, and
Arabic at the universities were mostly futile. The deci-
sive impetus to Greek studies came with the first arrival
of Greek scholars (like Manuel Chrysoloras), with the
participants (e.g., Bessarion) of the Ecumenical Council
of Florence (1438-39), and then with the Greek
scholars who fled to Italy after the downfall of the
Byzantine Empire (1453).

At this time and even after the Turkish occupation,
many Italians such as Aurispa, Tortelli, Filelfo, Ciriaco
of Ancona, and others went to Constantinople and
Greece (which remained partly under Venetian domi-
nation for a long time to come) to study Greek lan-
guage and literature, and to acquire manuscripts of the
classical authors. After 1450, there was a rapid increase
in exact Latin translations of classical Greek literature
(which had been studied almost uninterruptedly in the
Byzantine East during the preceding centuries, but
was relatively unknown in the West) such as the works
of Homer, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon,
Isocrates, and others. Furthermore, the humanists pro-
vided new and better versions of the earlier transla-
tions. This marked the beginning of Greek philology
in the West, and it entailed a growing interest, not
only in Greek and Byzantine philosophy and theology,
but also in Greek grammar, rhetoric, mythology, and
history.

Greek scholars in the West were to a great extent
responsible for the preservation of classical texts that
might otherwise have been lost after the occupation
of the Byzantine East by the Turks. Many Greek man-
uscripts were brought to Italy, copied there, and later
issued in printed editions. A considerable part of the
literary production of the humanists consists of letters.


517

As chancellors or secretaries to popes, princes, and
republics, it was their official duty to draft letters and
manifestos furthering the interests of their employers,
and the Florentine state letters are especially interest-
ing sources for the history of political thought and
propaganda. The greater part of this correspondence
is still unpublished. They are mostly preserved in the
registers of the chanceries and in the widely diffused
humanistic letter collections, which served mainly
literary and stylistic purposes as examples for other
writers. The transmission of such letters was very simi-
lar to the transmission of medieval letters (some manu-
scripts even contain collections of medieval and
humanistic letters together). Beside such official corre-
spondence, the humanists wrote many private letters
of literary significance, but in many cases it is difficult
to draw a distinction between private and official let-
ters. Some of the private letters grew into short trea-
tises or essays of scholarly or literary content.

The humanists also drafted numerous speeches (or
orations), of which a great number have been pre-
served. Most of them were inspired by specific occa-
sions, such as weddings, funerals, university ceremonies,
visits of princes, etc., and the rhetorical elements are
dominant. Examples of political and forensic speeches
are rarer. The individualistic and propagandistic
aspects of humanistic literature also became evident
in the many invectives the humanists used to defame
either their rivals, or the political opponents of princes
and republics in whose service they stood. They are
part of the rhetorical tradition and their content should
not be taken too seriously, as the humanists themselves
often considered them to be merely pieces of literary
exercise rather than of personal engagement. The same
is true of the numerous eulogies of princes and com-
munes, arts and sciences. Humanist prose literature,
besides imitating classical models, also borrowed from
the vernacular literature. Thus the novella became
popular among the humanists who translated such short
stories into Latin and also composed original pieces.
Even more popular were collections of anecdotes and
of facetious stories.

To the humanists, poetry was an art that, to a great
extent, could be taught and learned. It consisted mainly
of the study of poetics and verse-making and of the
interpretation and imitation of ancient poets. The cor-
onation of poets—which began at Padua with the
honoring of Albertino Mussato in 1314 and is best
known from Petrarch's coronation by the Roman Sen-
ate in 1341—was little more than an academic degree
granted less for pieces of original poetry than for ver-
satility in verse-making, composition, and inter-
pretation of ancient poetical works (Kristeller). As the
art of verse-making was less developed in Italy than
in France before the second half of the thirteenth
century, the Paduan group of pre-humanists, Albertino
Mussato, Lovato Lovati, Geremia of Montagnone, and
Rolando of Piazzola (all of them professional lawyers)
may have been stimulated by French examples. Never-
theless, humanist Latin drama played an important role
in the rise of vernacular dramatic literature during the
sixteenth century. Latin eclogues, satires, and pastoral
poems exerted a strong influence on vernacular lyrical
poetry.

Examples of the more demanding kinds of classical
poems, such as odes, were less frequent among human-
ists because of their metrical difficulties. Epic poems
were widespread, including verse translations of
Homer, as well as Dante's Divine Comedy. Many of
them, beginning with Petrarch's Africa, deal with sub-
jects of ancient history and ancient mythology. Others
are epic versions of biblical and theological subjects,
such as the life of Christ and the lives of the saints.
Still others are didactic poems on natural history, as-
trology, and other arts and sciences. This kind of epic
poetry was in no way an invention of the humanists.
It was widespread during the Middle Ages, and the
humanists mainly improved the style and the meter
by imitating classical examples more closely than me-
dieval authors had done. The largest part of humanist
poetry, however, consisted of elegies and epigrams.
Elegies composed after the models of Ovid, Tibullus,
and Propertius are among the best specimens of poetry
that the humanists have left. Although to a great extent
conventional in their contents, the elegies of Poliziano,
Pontano, and others sometimes show a poetical perfec-
tion and a beauty of imagery that is rare in other kinds
of humanistic poetry.

In the long run, Italian humanists showed no aversion
to the vernacular in principle (Kristeller, in Renais-
sance Thought
II, 119ff., 130ff.; Migliorini; Dionisotti).
They certainly preferred Latin during the fourteenth
century and also later in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, when they wished to give their works a wide
diffusion among an international audience of scholars
and educated people. The vernacular (Volgare), how-
ever, was used for works and especially letters that
were intended for an Italian public, and the more so
if the recipients were poorly educated and not able
to read or understand Latin. The state letters of the
Florentine chancery, which was dominated by human-
ist chancellors like Salutati, Bruni, and Poggio, may
serve as an example to demonstrate this. As they were
addressed to recipients with different educational
backgrounds, one may expect that the humanist
chancellors took this into consideration when choosing
the language in which their respective letters were
written. But Salutati used the vernacular in only a few


518

instances, the bulk of his state letters being in Latin
regardless of their recipients. Under Bruni and later
the situation underwent a complete change. An ever
increasing part of the letters (up to one half and more),
especially those addressed to uneducated condottieri
and statesmen like Francesco Sforza, were now written
in Volgare, while those addressed to communes were
written either in Latin or in the vernacular—with no
obvious reasons for the choice in many cases except,
perhaps, that it was easier to express one's thoughts
more frankly and directly in the vernacular than in
rhetorical Latin. On the whole, the development of
vernacular literature in the fifteenth century was not
seriously hampered by the humanists, and some of them
even had a considerable share in this development.

The contribution of the Italian humanists to the
reform of handwriting is still evident today. During
the thirteenth century, Gothic script, characterized by
compression, angularity, and the fusion of letters, had
prevailed almost everywhere in Europe. Its charac-
teristics had not become as extreme in Italy as else-
where. In Bologna especially a more rounded type was
used. The early humanists, such as Petrarch and Salu-
tati, preferred manuscripts in a clear, legible writing,
in litteraantiqua, which was the script of the ninth
to the twelfth centuries, the Caroline minuscule.
Petrarch, Boccaccio, and others, in their personal
handwriting, tried to avoid the extremes of Gothic
script. The decisive initiative towards a more radical
reform of book script was undertaken by Salutati when
around 1400 he started imitating the earlier Caroline
minuscule. His initiative was soon taken up by his
pupil Poggio, the actual inventor of humanistic book
minuscule. The result was an imitation of Caroline
minuscule.

The most common form of humanistic cursive was
invented by Niccolò Niccoli about two decades later.
Further research is necessary regarding the genesis of
humanistic cursive and the diffusion of humanistic
script in general—research which should take into
account the material preserved in archives. Both kinds
of humanistic script, the book hand invented by Poggio
and the cursive of Niccoli, were preferred by the Me-
dici and by the early Italian printers (Niccoli's cursive
developed into the italic type of Aldus Manutius) and
eventually developed into the present-day antiqua and
italic types. Handwriting and print are thus a living
heritage of the human striving for clarity through
calligraphy.

A moral aspect is clearly evident in humanistic
historiography. The humanists shared the belief that
one of the most important tasks of historical writing
was to teach moral lessons by means of examples from
many classical and medieval authors. Great person
alities of the past were to be presented to the reader
as models worthy of imitation. This basic intention
gave rise to an extensive biographical literature dealing
with the lives of famous ancient and contemporary
personalities, princes, saints, scholars, poets, artists, and
other distinguished citizens. The underlying belief was
that human nature was basically the same at all times
and that it was therefore possible to study the ancients
as models of human conduct, to learn from their mis-
takes, and to imitate their achievements. Humanist
historians thus lacked all understanding of the genetic
and evolutionary aspects of history. Their opinion that
history teaches by example is basically the same (even
if presented in a more secularized form) as that held
by many medieval historians. Compared with medieval
historiography, humanist historical writing, however,
lost its universal aspects. History was no longer em-
bedded in the divine plan of salvation; it centered
around limited and well-defined subjects—cities or
states. Little thought was given to the theory of history,
except that some humanists took over the cyclical
theory of history from ancient authors, i.e., the con-
ception that the historical process is characterized by
endless repetition, always leading back to its starting
point.

The limitation of historical writing to circumscribed
subjects, such as principalities and city-states, eventu-
ally brought about a closer contact between history
and politics, although the beginnings of this develop-
ment, in Florence and Milan for example, are to be
found in the preceding medieval centuries. The
humanist device of placing the founding dates of im-
portant Italian cities in Roman times is also a continu-
ation of medieval myths. A great amount of humanist
historiography was connected with the professional
activities of their authors as chancellors and secretaries
to princes and cities for which they had acted as official
historians. Their style is often highly rhetorical, the
contents impaired by errors, eulogy, and deliberate bias
and by the introduction of fictitious speeches. On the
other hand, the humanists (as did medieval authors
before them) used original documents from the
archives, and their philological approach resulted in
some historical criticism, especially as far as ancient
history was concerned. On the whole, however, their
contribution to the development of historical writing
was limited, their works often vague, superficial and
sometimes even inferior to medieval historiography, if
we take modern historical criteria of concreteness and
objectivity. Real progress in historiography began with
Francesco Guicciardini.

The diffusion of Italian humanism from the four-
teenth to the sixteenth centuries took place mainly
through personal contact and, later on, through the


519

press. Hundreds of students from north of the Alps
attended Italian universities, where they became
acquainted with the stiudia humanitatis while studying
law or medicine, these being subjects for which Italian
universities were famous. During this period the
humanistic movement and the Renaissance civilization
secured Italy a position of cultural predominance that
it had never possessed during the Middle Ages and was
never to possess again.

Italians, on the other hand, visited the regions north
of the Alps, mainly in the retinue of the Papal Curia
or of cardinals, secular princes, and princesses, and as
participants of the church councils. Many of them
entered, at least temporarily, the service of foreign
princes. Others went abroad to teach or study at
French, German, and English universities, while native
scholars who had studied the humanistic disciplines in
Italy received professorships of grammar and rhetoric,
and thus introduced the stiudia humanitatis into
universities like Basel, Erfurt, Louvain, Vienna, Paris,
Oxford, and Cambridge. Not only the classical authors,
but also works of Italian humanists became part of the
curriculum and thus became well-known. The contacts
were further intensified by widespread correspondence
and a diffusion of manuscripts and books between
Italian humanists and their counterparts in countries
abroad. In this way, entire libraries consisting of man-
uscripts and books of Italian origin were brought to-
gether, such as the libraries of Humphrey, Duke of
Gloucester, in England, and of King Matthias Corvinus
of Hungary. Humanism in other European countries
reached its climax at the end of the fifteenth and during
the sixteenth century, when Italian humanism was
already in decline.

Humanism is often believed to have been a predom-
inantly philosophical movement, but the prerequisite
for an understanding of humanistic phenomena seems
to be the common background that all humanists
shared, namely the literary and scholarly ideal of the
study of classical antiquity. Asserting that humanism
was primarily a literary movement does not, however,
imply that it lacked philosophical implications. The
humanists undoubtedly exerted an indirect influence
on philosophical thought in general through their
methodological and philological contributions. But
most of them showed little interest in logic (except
Valla, Agricola, and a few others), metaphysics, or
natural philosophy; their preoccupation with questions
of moral and political philosophy was more personal
than systematic, their foremost aim being the education
and moral perfection of man—the combination of
eloquence and wisdom, of intellectual and practical
abilities. In this sense humanists like Guarino of Verona
and Vittorino da Feltre became very successful teach
ers in the fifteenth century. Most of the humanists'
philosophical writing (in the proper sense) was either
derived from classical sources (which thus became
better known) or served educational, literary, and even
rhetorical purposes, where stylistic elegance was often
more important than philosophical depth or logical
accuracy. Treatises like those of Salutati, Bruni, Poggio,
Valla, Filelfo, and others served limited purposes and
appear rather void of coherence and substance if com-
pared with works of ancient or scholastic philosophers.

In many cases, the humanists were more eager to
discuss several opinions on a given philosophical,
moral, or political issue than to betray their personal
convictions. It has justly been pointed out that even
Machiavelli's Discorsi and his Principe, with their
apparently irreconcilable differences of political atti-
tudes, must still be viewed as part of the humanistic
tradition (Gilbert). Most of the subjects were conven-
tional, including such topics as happiness and the su-
preme good, the power of fortune in relation to human
reason, the educational value of classical authors, the
comparison between republican and monarchical gov-
ernments and between elective and hereditary monar-
chy (on this point humanists like Salutati could simul-
taneously arrive at entirely opposite conclusions), the
question of nobility (the humanists usually appeared
to prefer nobility by merit to nobility by birth), the
advantages of the active or the contemplative life, of
married rather than single life (and vice versa), of
laymen over clerics or monks, and the merits of certain
arts and sciences. Concerning all of these subjects the
humanists expressed so many different views—the same
author often arriving at completely contrasting con-
clusions—that it is hardly permissible to regard any
of the pertinent opinions as characteristic of Italian
humanism in general or even of an individual humanist.
On the whole there were no specific philosophical
doctrines characteristic of the humanist movement, but
rather numerous philosophical ideas expressed by indi-
vidual humanists.

Furthermore, there were many philosophers and
scientists in this period whose basic education was
undoubtedly humanist, but whose works were influ-
enced by other traditions and ideas and thus cannot
be satisfactorily explained by their humanistic starting
point alone. The negative attitude of many humanists
towards scholasticism ought to be seen against the
background of the emphasis they placed on rhetorical,
literary, and moral subjects. In a way it was thus a
continuation of the medieval battle of the arts. Medie-
val philosophy of the thirteenth and fourteenth cen-
turies was based mainly on Aristotle and some Neo-
Platonic sources. The humanists effectively enlarged
this basis by making accessible the works of Plato,


520

Plotinus, Diogenes Laërtius, Lucretius and the Epicu-
reans, Epictetus and the Stoics, the Skeptics, and many
others. These new sources consequently brought a new
stream of ideas into Western philosophy. The overrid-
ing authority of Aristotle was no longer generally rec-
ognized, but the humanists even contributed to the
better understanding of Aristotle himself by replacing
the insufficient medieval translations with new ones
that showed a better understanding of the Greek text,
and also by making accessible the Greek commentators
of Aristotle that now replaced the medieval Arabic and
Latin commentaries. The Stoics had a considerable
influence on Renaissance scholars. Besides, Marsilio
Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Francesco
Patrizi became adherents of Plato; Lorenzo Valla was
a follower of Epicurus. In this way, a great variety
of philosophical schools developed as a result of
humanistic studies. The further history of these schools
should, however, be separated from the cultural con-
tribution of humanism, insofar as they included many
studies, such as metaphysics and cosmology, that were
alien to the humanist tradition. Strictly speaking, the
Platonists, the later Aristotelians, and the natural
philosophers of the sixteenth century do not fall into
the mainstream of the humanist movement.

On the other hand, the contents of humanistic writ-
ing were not limited to moral and philosophical
thought, for we also find a great variety of attitudes
towards Christian religion among the humanists. There
was certainly much talk about the pagan gods and
heroes within the framework of allegory and astrology,
but hardly any of the Italian humanists seriously in-
tended to revive ancient pagan cults. Humanism was
neither Christian nor anti-Christian. The philological
and literary orientation of the movement simply gave
rise to different religious attitudes expressed by indi-
vidual humanists, extending from piety and devotion
to pantheism, skepticism, indifference, agnosticism, and
even atheism, although many of the characteristic
views were cloaked in rhetorical fashion or in allegor-
ies, and do not betray the innermost conviction of their
authors. Accusations of secret or overt atheism often
resulted from literary feuds among humanists and
should not be taken too seriously.

Modern scholars, and some politicians, have added
complications by applying aprioristic conceptions
—Christian, liberal, or atheist—in their evaluation
of humanism. For example, there has been a wide-
spread tendency among Anglo-Saxon and German
Protestant historians to regard not only Erasmus (be-
cause he did not become a partisan of Luther) but even
more the Italian humanists as pagan, irreligious, and
immoral. But not even the most skeptical humanists
undertook a general critique of Christianity, as was
done by eighteenth-century philosophers. Those
humanists—from Petrarch and the Florentine Augus-
tinians to Ambrogio Traversari, Erasmus, and Thomas
More—who took a genuine interest in theology,
showed an approach to this subject similar to that of
others condemning scholastic theology, i.e., the appli-
cation of logic and dialectics to theology, and advocat-
ing the return to the original sources of Christian
doctrine, the Bible, and the Church Fathers (especially
Saint Augustine). Their intention was to harmonize
humanist learning with the essentials of Christian reli-
gion based on these sources. To this end, Italian
humanists like Valla and Manetti applied their newly
developed method of textual criticism to the study of
the Bible and the Latin Church Fathers, later to be
followed by Erasmus and others. They translated the
Greek Fathers, such as Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory
of Nazianzus, and others. Furthermore, they applied
textual and historical criticism to the study of church
history; Valla's attack on the Donation of Constantine
serving as a famous example.

Thus the humanists had their share in the rise of
Protestant and Catholic church reforms during the
sixteenth century, in which personalities with a
humanist background, such as Melanchton, Calvin,
many Italian heretics, and Jesuits played an important
role, while many others preferred an attitude of reli-
gious toleration and reconciliation that soon came
under attack from the Protestant as well as from the
Catholic side. But there were other humanists who
emphasized certain elements of natural religion and
theology without directly interfering with specific
doctrines of the Church. Still other humanists were
adherents (in their theology) of the medieval doctrines
of realism and nominalism. Yet it seems hardly admis-
sible to derive humanism from medieval religious
schools (like Thomism) or from the medieval tradition,
as it seems equally mistaken to divide humanism and
Reformation into two different periods. Generally
speaking, one can say that the humanists north of the
Alps—especially in Germany and England, and partly
also in Spain—were more deeply concerned with theol-
ogy and religion than were the Italian humanists of
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, among whom
secular elements prevailed. These humanists supported
the further growth of nonreligious interests and atti-
tudes in contrast to the religious ideas of Italian
humanists like Petrarch and the Augustinians a century
earlier.

Humanism provided the cultural soil and classical
background for the growth of science or natural phi-
losophy, by making available new or better texts and
translations of pertinent classical authors. Of course
scientific progress was not primarily dependent on


521

humanistic studies. To some degree, the importance
attributed to certain classical authors was an obstacle
rather than a contributing factor to scientific research.
On the other hand, the “medieval” Parisian and Paduan
Aristotelians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
had, to a certain extent, paved the way for modern
science, and even Galileo was still under the influence
of the Paduan school.

Progress in science during the fifteenth century was
not spectacular; the real turning point did not occur
before the sixteenth and advanced most rapidly in the
seventeenth century. The knowledge of Greek and
Arabic authors sometimes helped to overcome errone-
ous conceptions of the Middle Ages (as the medieval
tradition could help to overcome errors diffused by
ancient scientific literature). Knowledge of Greek and
Arabic science served mainly as a point of departure
for independent mathematical reasoning and empirical
observation. Thus, for example, Nicolaus Copernicus,
who had acquired humanist learning in Italy, came to
his revolutionary views concerning the nature of the
solar system by analyzing, mainly by theoretic reason-
ing, the different cosmologies of the ancient “mathe-
maticians” (i.e., astronomers) and by replacing the
Ptolemaic system with a heliocentric system that he
defended as Pythagorean. On the other hand, the occult
tradition with its precedents in late antiquity (e.g.,
astrology) or in Arabic scientific writing (e.g., in al-
chemy and magic) found a fertile soil in Renaissance
society. It was a serious obstacle to scientific progress
and was not finally overcome before the seventeenth
century. The rapid increase in scientific knowledge and
technology in the following centuries was mainly due
to the close cooperation, and even identity, of scholars,
craftsmen, and artisans characteristic of Western civi-
lization of this period. Many of the newly discovered
ancient scientific conceptions had to be singled out and
appropriated, and the natural philosophy of the Aris-
totelians had to be successfully attacked by Galileo
before the final breakthrough of physical science oc-
curred in the seventeenth century.

Here the Platonist tradition with its mathematical
conception of the universe and its notion of cosmic
harmony was especially strong, but not always in a
positive way, because of the preference given to num-
ber symbolism and astrology. While Kepler's rela-
tionship with Platonism is beyond dispute, Galileo's
adherence to it is a controversial matter—although it
is generally admitted that his claim for the certainty
of mathematical knowledge is Platonic, while other
essential experimental aspects of his thought are not.
It was Galileo who took a decisive step forward by
applying mathematical and experimental methods to
the solution of problems of physics.

Renaissance medicine was still influenced by Aris-
totelians like Galen and Avicenna, but freed itself,
through observation and experiment in anatomy and
surgery, from outdated medical theories. The human-
ists' main contribution lay in the fact that they trans-
lated into Latin several writings of Hippocrates and
Galen that had not been translated in the eleventh and
twelfth centuries. In biology, progress was made within
the Aristotelian tradition during the sixteenth century.
In geography, the humanists for the first time translated
two most valuable Greek sources, Strabo and Ptolemy.

In the field of art, humanist learning profoundly
influenced Renaissance architecture and the iconogra-
phy and the style of Renaissance painting. Little was
known of ancient music, but ancient musical theories
were used as a justification of new developments in
Renaissance music that lay outside the proper realm
of humanist scholarship. The reading of the relevant
passages in Plato's Timaeus may have influenced
Marsilio Ficino, an enthusiastic amateur in music and
author of several treatises on musical theory.

In law, the traditions of the canonists and legists
developed at Bologna and other universities continued
through the Renaissance period. Their method was
dialectical and systematic; the authorities collected in
the Decretum Gratiani, the Decretals, and the Corpus
iuris civilis
were quoted and harmonized with little
regard to their historical development. This legal tra-
dition, often referred to as mos Italicus, as it was most
widely spread at the Italian universities, now came
under the attack of the humanists. The new method
which they propagated, and which did not reach its
full development before the sixteenth century, became
known under the name of mos Gallicus. The method
of dialectical reconciliation of legal authorities, “har-
mony from dissonance” (Kuttner), without regard for
their historical background, was replaced by a philo-
logical and historical interpretation of Roman law. This
tendency, although it weakened the actual influence
of Roman law on legal practice, resulted in a deeper
though still limited historical understanding of it. But
on the whole, the medieval traditions of the canon and
civil lawyers and the notaries with their glosses,
commentaries, formularies, questions, and opinions
remained very strong throughout the entire period of
Italian humanism. Many of those lawyers who had a
humanistic education did not abandon the traditional
legal method, as can be clearly seen in Florence and
elsewhere.

From the sociological point of view, humanism was
not restricted to any one class. Yet, on the whole, as
one might expect in the surroundings of Italian urban
civilization, the bourgeois element prevailed. Many
humanists were of humble origin and yet worked their


522

way up to become members of the upper classes (as
was also true of other scholars) and part of the noblesse
de robe.
Many of them collected large incomes as
lawyers, secretaries, notaries, and chancellors. Others,
like Niccolò Niccoli in Florence, were born as members
of the oligarchy and later squandered their rich inher-
itance by investing their money, as dead capital, in
large libraries. Generally speaking, the picture of the
poor humanist scholar living on his idealism and on
the favor of princes sprang from a generalization of
some individual occurrences, and can be considered
as largely mythical—although there were instances of
(at least temporary) poverty and dire need.

Social considerations may serve better to explain
certain elements of Italian humanism, such as the
propagandistic-rhetorical attitude of the “republican”
circle around Salutati and Bruni in Florence, or certain
phenomena of Italian humanism at the courts of Italian
princes, but there is no general sociological criterion
that can explain the great variety of Italian humanists.
As teachers the humanists were often successfully en-
gaged in educating the children of princes and of the
urban patriciate, many of whom became convinced
that their social status required a humanist education.
But the diffusion and the depth of such education
should not be exaggerated. The reading public of the
humanists consisted of fellow scholars, students, a mi-
nority of educated businessmen, and some learned
princes and noblemen. It was not until the sixteenth
century that an increasing number of people of the
middle class became interested in humanistic literature.

In Florence, where a republican form of government
had been preserved during the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries, humanists like Salutati, Bruni, Palmieri,
Alberti, Niccoli, and Poggio—many of them as
chancellors to the republic—became especially in-
volved in the vita activa (the active life of city politics),
and championed the ideal of man taking a responsible
part in public affairs.

An individualist outlook prevailed in this regard also,
and different humanists held different views. While the
Florentines praised the ideal of active life, others
favored a life of contemplation. While the Florentine
humanists subordinated their lives to the interests of
the republic, others emphasized the uniqueness of the
individual and the resulting strife for personal honor
and glory. Since the Florentine humanists had worked
their way up to become members of the upper class
of society, or belonged to that class by birth, they
naturally supported the policy of the ruling oligarchy
and its struggle for communal independence, the more
so as many of them had been born outside Florence
(such as Bruni in Arezzo, whose loyalty to Florence
was never beyond doubt) and had to overcome, by
pronounced and unceasing support of the Florentine
cause, the natural suspicion of the native patriciate.
Salutati, chancellor from 1375 to 1406, still propagated
the previous hit ideology next hit of Guelfism, i.e., communal liberty and
cooperation with the papacy and France, at a time
when the previous hit ideology next hit had long lost its political founda-
tions (adding, however, reminiscences of classical po-
litical thought). Bruni, however developed the ideal
of republican liberty, which was originally an old Guelf
concept but which now received a fresh inspiration
from the study of Republican Rome. Ideas like these
were spread during the struggle between Florence and
Giangaleazzo Visconti of Milan (died 1402), but their
rhetorical and propagandistic purposes were too evi-
dent, and they apparently had little influence on the
political conceptions of the governing oligarchy, as the
unpublished minutes of the consultations of the
Signoria show. Bruni did not even apply the political
ideas of his literary works in his official correspondence,
and on the whole Florentine politics in the fifteenth
century was little affected by humanistic previous hit ideologies next hit.

The realistic attitude that we observe in the policy
of the commune was largely due to a political experi-
ence that went back to the thirteenth century. Classical
models played a certain, but not a decisive role in
overcoming the medieval outlook and in strengthening
the determination to preserve communal liberty. This
largely coincided with the political interests of the
ruling oligarchy and showed little regard for the “lib-
erty” of other communes such as Pisa and Arezzo.
Appeals for popular government did not result in the
participation of a larger section of the city's population
in the government of Florence. Florentine “civic”
humanism, though it sometimes strengthened “repub-
lican” tendencies, was to some extent a literary fashion,
and its actual impact on Florentine politics is proved,
by a mass of unpublished material, to have been rather
weak. Salutati, for example, expressly stated that he
did not take most of his rhetorical outbursts against
“tyrannical” Milan too seriously; he and others rather
considered themselves to be part of the entire human-
istic movement with its mainly literary and scholarly
interests. Besides, there was a great variety of human-
istic writing in Florence, much of it unaffected by the
political issues of the Salutati-Bruni circle.

The defense of monarchy was taken up by other
humanists under Milanese rule, such as Antonio Loschi
and Pier Candido Decembrio, and it became a literary
fashion with some humanists. The question of whether
Caesar was to be preferred to Scipio and Brutus was
an interesting subject for comparing the relative merits
of monarchical and republican government. Political
theory had long been a part of moral philosophy, and
the humanists' interests in this field has to be viewed


523

in this light. Beside “republicanism,” there was a strong
component of monarchical thought in humanistic po-
litical theory. This is especially true of the sixteenth
century, but even Salutati toyed with similar ideas
when he wrote two treatises on hereditary and elective
monarchy proving simultaneously the advantages of
each of them over the other respectively. Italian
humanism as a whole, because of its literary and philo-
logical starting point, was politically neutral; it could
serve the purposes of “despotic” rulers as well as those
of “republican” communes. Even in Florence, where
humanists continued to defend the republican form of
government during the fifteenth century, champions
of “republicanism” like Bruni later acquiesced with the
increasing manipulation of republican government by
the Medici.

In most of the subjects discussed here, Italian
humanism changed the intellectual climate, gradually
overcame medieval traditions, and paved the way for
the future. It survived the Protestant and Catholic
Reformations of the sixteenth century. In philosophy
and science, both subjects that have held key positions
in the evolution of the modern mind, humanism was
superseded, during the seventeenth century, by new
developments started by Descartes and Galileo, but at
least partly prepared by Renaissance humanism. In
other fields, such as literature, arts, and education,
humanistic ideas survived or were revived during the
following centuries. Thus the contribution of Italian
humanism to the development of Western civilization
is an important one. Humanistic ideas have proved to
be of great educational value in the formation of civi-
lized and responsible personalities, and they are still
a counterweight against anti-intellectual tendencies
today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The most comprehensive view of Italian humanism with
which the author agrees on most points may be found (with
excellent bibliographies) in P. O. Kristeller, Studies in
Renaissance Thought and Letters
(Rome, 1956; reprint
1969); idem, Renaissance Thought, 2 vols. (New York,
1961-65).

Other major studies are: F. Chabod, Machiavelli and the
Renaissance
(London, 1958). W. F. Ferguson, The Renais-
sance in Historical Thought
(Boston, 1948). E. Garin,
L'umanesimo italiano, 2nd ed. (Bari, 1965), trans. P. Munz
as Italian Humanism (Oxford, 1967). F. Gilbert, Niccolò
Machiavelli e la vita culturale del suo tempo
(Bologna, 1964).
B. L. Ullman, Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Rome,
1955).

All discussions of Italian Renaissance humanism still have
to start with two nineteenth-century works: J. Burckhardt,
DieKultur der Renaissance in Italien, 2nd ed. (Basel, 1869);
critical edition by W. Kaegi (Berlin and Leipzig, 1930);
several English editions; and G. Voight, DieWiederbelebung
des classischen Alterthums oder das erste Jahrhundert des
Humanismus,
3rd ed. by M. Lehnerdt, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1893;
reprint 1960).

Other relevant works include: H. Baron, The Crisis of
the Early Italian Renaissance,
rev. ed. (Princeton, 1966);
idem, Humanistic and Political Literature in Florence and
Venice at the Beginning of the Quattrocento
... (Cambridge,
Mass., 1955; reprint New York, 1968); idem, From Petrarch
to Leonardo Bruni
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of the Word 'Humanist',” Journal of the Warburg and
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le Magnifique
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Age of the Reformation
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524

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in Western Art
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(Göttingen, 1965). J. E.
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ground to the Italian Renaissance,” Proceedings of the
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The Survival of the Pagan Gods, trans. B. F. Sessions (New
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Science,
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dell'umanesimo,
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degli umanisti
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Ullman, The Origin and Development of Humanistic Script
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(London, 1952).

PETER HERDE

[See also Classicism in Literature; Cosmology; Myth;
Periodization; Platonism; Renaissance Humanism; Ren-
aissance Literature;
Universal Man; Virtù.]