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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Today the word “Renaissance” (rebirth) is generally
applied to a series of cultural changes which began
in Italy in the fourteenth century and spread to the
rest of Europe in the late fifteenth century, coloring
and perhaps conditioning many fundamental assump-
tions about art, scholarship, and morality until at least
the eighteenth century. The word is also applied to
the period when these innovations occurred and
assumed a dominant position. The word, as commonly
used in the English-speaking world, follows the French
form. Some writers in English—they are a minority—
prefer “Renascence.” The French word is used in
German and many other European languages save
Italian, where Rinascita first emerged (see below) and
where the alternative Rinascimento is now also used,
especially for the purposes of periodization.

As a synoptic abstraction both for cultural change
and for an epoch the word is unlike similar expressions
in being both autonomous and contemporary with the
events it describes. By “autonomous” we mean that
it had no earlier employment. No classical Latin word
for rebirth existed. Christian doctrine is based on the
notion of rebirth and regeneratio is used in the New
Testament, and was thence monopolized by the litera-
ture of the theologians. The metaphor was, of course,
obvious enough both in the loose sense of “renewal”
(e.g., the renovatio imperii), in the regular opposition
of day and night, sleeping and reawaking, and the cycle
of the seasons, as well as in scriptural exegesis and
homiletics where the terms regeneration and resurrec-
tion were available. A few writers in the fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries invented Latin words (renacium,
renascentia, renascitura
) which summarized the
processes, but none of this would have led to the
subsequent employment of “Renaissance” had there
not arisen the need for a word to describe the aware-
ness of intellectuals in the fifteenth century and later
that their world was characteristically different from
what had gone before, and that their times had spiritual
and perhaps historical affinities with an antiquity of
which they were witnessing the rebirth. “Rebirth” was
to be the term which prevailed, rather than “renova-
tion,” “reflowering,” “renewal,” or others. “Regenera-
tion” was presumably too closely associated with the
usage of the divines, “renewal” too colorless.

Such an awareness has been traced in a number of
fourteenth-century Italians and in particular it was
provoked by the life and work of Petrarch (Francesco
Petrarca). To the accepted educational and theological
conventions of his day Petrarch deliberately opposed
an urgent plea for the cultivation of Latin literature
and of a moral philosophy closely based on classical
models. Traditionally the Church had frowned on the
study of Roman writers and thinkers save as means for
teaching the clergy to be proficient in the service of
a religion whose scriptures (the Vulgate) and whose
service books were written in Latin. It is true that


classical elements were prominent in speculation,
artistic literature, and the fine arts of Europe between
the fall of Rome and the fourteenth century; and it
is also true that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
the works of Aristotle had come to play a dominant
role in the study and teaching of logic, metaphysics,
and theology. But Greek and Roman influences were,
at least in theory, subordinated to the requirements
of clerical education: Ovid was “moralized,” Aristotle
reigned in the university schools at the price of his
rationalism being lost to view.

Interest in pagan authors beyond such pedagogical
and professional uses was only justified on the principle
of spoiling the Egyptians and this dangerous and
tempting procedure had from the start had its puri-
tanical critics. Of course there had always been men
(many of them clergy) who had enjoyed self-expression
in the vernaculars and in Latin regardless of censure,
just as there had always been heretics in the religious
sphere. But such men had been a minority without
significant public support. For Petrarch, for his grow-
ing number of disciples, and friends and for a steadily
widening audience, both lay and clerical, the cultural
achievements of Greece and Rome acquired fresh
relevance. “Poetry” was defended as morally inspiring.
“Philosophy” should be cultivated, not in the arid
syllogisms of the schools, but as a devout love of wis-
dom. Literature thus became a vehicle for the good
life, its perfection the duty and the joy of the literate
Christian. While Petrarch was far from overthrowing
all the conventions of his own times and although he
was somewhat contemptuous of the culture of his
contemporaries, his convictions did lead him to despise
the barbarism of an earlier epoch and thus prepared
the way for a tripartite periodization—ancient, middle,
modern—which had a development concomitant with
that of the idea of renewal or rebirth. This notion is
explicit in Petrarch's friend Giovanni Boccaccio who
referred to Dante as the man who had brought the
Muses back to Italy and to Giotto as the restorer of
the art of painting. Even more telling is the conviction
of a renewal evident in the pages of the chronicler
Filippo Villani writing towards the end of the four-
teenth century an account of the great men of
Florence. The idea was beginning to leave the learned
coteries and establish itself as part of the mythology
of a major Italian city.

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio were all Florentines,
though Dante lived much of his later life in exile and
Petrarch was the son of another banned citizen. The
association of new moral, scholarly, and artistic atti-
tudes with Florence grew ever stronger in the decades
on either side of 1400. The Republic appointed a series
of humanist chancellors (the executive secretaries of
the state) beginning with Coluccio Salutati in 1375;
the most influential of these officials was Leonardo
Bruni, chancellor in 1410-11 and from 1427 to his
death in 1444. At the same time there were scores of
scholars and citizens eager to participate in the debates
and researches of the leading thinkers and writers. This
coincided with an astonishing development in the fine
arts, painting, sculpture, and architecture, which was
to transform the structure and the decoration of
Florentine buildings in the first half of the fifteenth

None of this could have happened without the active
support of the leading oligarchs of the city, hardheaded
businessmen intent on prosecuting their own interests
and the welfare of the city whose affairs they managed.
To explain this phenomenon it has been argued that
the political threat to Florence of the Milanese state
under the Visconti acted as a spur. Progressively
isolated, the Republic and its citizens were forced to
ask themselves why resistance to the Visconti was
worthwhile. Humanists answered his questions with an
analysis of the unique qualities of the commune: the
inspiration of republican liberty as against Caesarian
absolutism, the superiority of the active as against the
contemplative life, an acceptance of wealth and beauty
as God-given elements in the human situation in spite
of the long-standing reverence for the merit of poverty
and the contempt for seductive art. Stimulated in these
ways the consciousness of renewal was regularly dis-
played by contemporaries. For example, here is Matteo
Palmieri in his Vita civile (ca. 1436):

Where was the painter's art till Giotto tardily restored it?
... Sculpture and architecture, for long years sunk to the
merest travesty of art, are only today in process of rescue
from obscurity; only now are they being brought to a new
pitch of perfection by men of genius and erudition. Of
Letters and liberal studies at large it were best to be silent
altogether. For these, the real guides to distinction in all
the arts, the solid foundation of all civilization, have been
lost to mankind for 800 years or more. It is but in our own
day that men dare boast that they see the dawn of better
things.... Now indeed may every thoughtful spirit thank
God that it has been permitted him to be born in this new
age, so full of hope and promise, which already rejoices
in a greater array of nobly-gifted souls than the world has
seen in the thousand years that have preceded it

W. H. Woodward).

In this passage the Florentine merchant indicated most
of the elements in the Renaissance concept: the sense
of belonging to a new age, the antecedent period of
darkness, and behind that the ancient world of light;
the assumption that Latin letters are the basis for all
cultural activity, in the fine arts as well as in literature.
The notion of renewal, the figure of rebirth meet one


constantly in the literature of the fifteenth century, and
not only in Florentine sources, but in other parts of
Italy and in Northern Europe among scholars in touch
with Italian developments.

It was, however, to be, if not another Florentine,
at least another Tuscan, the painter and architect
Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), who finally invented the word
“Renaissance” (Rinascita) in his Lives of the Most
Excellent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors
from Cimabue to our own Times,
which was first pub-
lished at Florence in 1550. In the Preface to this influ-
ential work Vasari explains the origin of art in the
divine gift of God and briefly traces its manifestations
down to the perfection it reached with the ancient
Greeks and the high esteem in which it was held by
the Romans. Then, in the later Roman Empire, decline
set in: “when human affairs begin to decline, they grow
steadily worse until the time comes when they can no
longer deteriorate any further.” This decline was fol-
lowed by the final destruction which followed the
barbarian invasions. Triumphant Christianity obliter-
ated pagan monuments and rifled old buildings for new
churches. A long period of barbaric insensitivity then
followed, with some better work being occasionally
produced, as for example by Nicola Pisano (ca.
1220-87), but no reversal of the trend, no consistent
attempt to study the “admirable sculptures and paint-
ings buried in the ruins of Italy.” He concludes by
stressing that “the arts resemble nature as shown in
our human bodies; and have their birth, growth, age
and death.” “I hope,” he writes, “by this means they
[the artists of his own day] will be enabled more easily
to recognise the progress of the renaissance (rinascita)
of the arts and the perfection to which they have
attained in our own time.”

Vasari's Renaissance was strictly applied to the fine
arts but, as we have seen, the metaphor of rebirth had
earlier and regularly been applied also to literature
and scholarship as well; fleetingly in Petrarch and
Machiavelli even to political situations. But what was
to gain rapid acceptance for the term was the extension
far beyond Florence and Tuscany of the phenomena
epitomized in the idea. One after another the courts
of Italy accepted the new learning and literature, the
new painting and architecture, and the new moral
value which they exemplified. First the smaller centers
(Urbino, Mantua, Ferrara), then the papal court from
the mid-fifteenth century and finally the capitals of the
Neapolitan kingdom and the Sforza dukes. In the early
sixteenth century Rome was the greatest center of
scholarship and artistic patronage and Venice had
begun to understand the message. By this time trans-
Alpine Europe was beginning to be interested. The
republicanism of Florence found little sympathy in the
courts of princes, but everything else was welcome.
A new generation of civil servants emerged to staff
chanceries and diplomatic posts and a new kind of
schoolmaster educated princes, courtiers, and their men
of business in the techniques now felt to be essential
for good government and the good life. The basis was
Latin; the aim was the perfection of what we would
nowadays call “communication”; Cicero filled the
educational role which had been occupied in the
schools of the Middle Ages by Aristotle. The slow and
subtle adaptation of Renaissance techniques and atti-
tudes in France and Germany, in England and Spain,
produced endless variations of the basic theme; as
indeed had the earlier reception in the various Italian
centers. But the assumption that all culture depended
on a mastery of Latin (for scholars Greek was added),
and a thorough knowledge of the main classical writers
was pervasive and was to color European society for
centuries to come. A gentleman was by definition well
educated in the “humanities.” The humanities were (to
quote a canonical definition) “grammar, rhetoric, his-
tory, poetry, and moral philosophy” studied in the
“standard ancient writers in Latin and, to a lesser
extent, in Greek.” The aim was an illuminated and
public-spirited elite.

Clearly the non-Italian peoples of Europe identified
themselves less passionately with classical Rome than
the Italians had done. Indeed the Germans, the French,
and the rest looked back to an antiquity in which their
ancestors had been subjugated by the legions. Nothing
is more remarkable therefore than the rapid and
irrevocable penetration of Italian ideas and practices
among the “barbarians,” as the Italian writers referred
to them, some of whom were currently invading the
peninsula. The concept of rebirth may sometimes (as
in Germany) have provoked anti-Roman and nationalist
sentiment; but the gymnasia of Philip Melanchthon
(1497-1560) bore tribute to a new educational ideal.
The “battle of the books” might lead the French to
dispute the primacy in all fields of Italians or even
Romans but everywhere among the literate there was
an acceptance of the proposition that, so far as schol-
arship, literature, and the fine arts were concerned, the
new age had recovered a sophistication and a mastery
which had been lost for centuries. Obviously the ten-
sions produced in the Middle Ages by an official con-
demnation of the world and natural beauty, of artistic
achievement as an end in itself, of wealth and educa-
tion as more than mere embellishments or social dis-
play (noblesse oblige)—obviously these tensions be-
tween how men actually lived, and how they ought
to have lived, were by no means confined to Italy, and
this is the ultimate explanation for the sure finality with
which the Florentine discoveries moved from Tuscany


to Italy and from Italy to Europe. Italy (on this sole
occasion) solved the moral problems of the Continent.

It was to be in the North that the word Renaissance
was regularly applied to more than the painting,
sculpture, and architecture of Vasari's usage. It was,
in fact, Erasmus who first stressed the rebirth of “good
literature,” reflecting the early interest of humanists
in Paris in the literary developments in Italy, and
recapturing in his affirmation of a docta pietas some-
thing of Petrarch's spirit. The movement was, however,
more broadly based than it had been in the Italy of
the mid-Trecento. A new conviction of the remarkable
certainty afforded by philological scholarship enriched
both patristic and classical studies; and soon the élan
of the neo-Latinists was taken over into the vernacu-
lars, producing the “golden” prose and poetry of the
second half of the sixteenth century in English, French,
and Spanish. From this was to come a generalized
sentiment that there was a renaissance des lettres
alongside the artistic Renaissance. Such a view was
explicit by the end of the seventeenth century, in the
dictionaries of Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) and of the
French Academy. Such a view was generally accepted
in Europe (and North America). The excitement was
now dimmed. A Reformation had occurred (for some
the Renaissance had been its John the Baptist). But
Roman Catholics and most varieties of Protestants
agreed on canons of artistic style and of literary
relevance (the Bible together with the classics of
Greece and Rome), scholarly precision and the morality
of public service.

Such a series of related convictions dominated the
eighteenth century. By then the existence of a Middle
Age was an accepted part of the mental furniture of
the educated. This benighted period ran from the Sack
of Rome (A.D. 410) to the Fall of Constantinople (1453),
when (so ran the legend) the escaping Greeks carried
their manuscripts and wisdom to the West. For Voltaire
there was surprise that so much illumination had come
out of an Italy politically divided and sub-divided: “it
may appear somewhat extraordinary that so many
great geniuses should have started up of a sudden in
Italy.” But in reality he did not find it so extraordinary,
because it was right, and because “the pest of religious
controversy left Italy on one side,” enabling Italians
to cultivate “the never fading glory of the fine arts.”
These obiter dicta (from the Essai sur les moeurs of
1756) are echoed in most of the writers of the Enlight-
enment. One of them, Thomas Warton, described what
had occurred as a “revolution.” This transformation,
he felt, “was the most fortunate and important” in
breaking the “bonds of barbarism... in which the
mouldering Gothic fabrics of false religion and false
philosophy fell together” (History of English Poetry,
1774-81). Soon another revolution was to disturb these
well-established platitudes.

The events in France in and after 1789, the social
and emotional developments which flowed from them
throughout Europe, coincided with a further and inde-
pendent enrichment of the Renaissance: its association
with the “Greek spirit.” It was, of course, the case that
the scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had
cultivated Greek scholarship, but it was never as im-
portant an inspiration as Rome had been and Greek
scholarship had so far failed to attain the expertise of
Latin learning. Knowledge of ancient Greek history
(for example) was rudimentary compared with the
scientific study of Rome.

From the mid-eighteenth century onwards this situ-
ation changed. A new and profounder attempt to un-
derstand the art and the literature of the Greek world
is associated with Winckelmann, Lessing, and Friedrich
August Wolf. The living embodiment of much of this
was Goethe. Under the influence of these writers a fresh
interpretation of aesthetics emerged (neo-classicism)
and the traditional “humanities” began to assume a
different aspect as “humanism” (the word Humanismus
was apparently first used by F. J. Niethammer in 1808).
A humanist in the Renaissance period itself had meant
a teacher or student of the humanities (as defined
above). From the start of the nineteenth century
“humanist” began to acquire its alternative and vaguer
meaning as a sympathizer with a human as opposed
to a divine set of values. The “spirit of Greece” con-
tributed largely to the idealization of Man. Lessing
even attacked Latin: “... the monks let loose on us
[the Germans] the barbarous deluge of Latin literature,
Latin religion, and Latin speculation.... Latin, being
considered as an end in itself, is ruining our education.”
Such opinions would have been incomprehensible to
Petrarch, Bruni, or Erasmus.

The Renaissance school curriculum survived such
criticism, and it survived too the forces released by
the French Revolution which were to lead to the re-
placement of the social and political dominance of the
gentleman and the courtier, trained to be citizens of
the world, by that of the middle class, urban-based and
marked by a bitter chauvinistic nationalism. All of this
was to produce, both in sympathy and hostility, men
who looked back at the now receding Renaissance with
new eyes. They had, of course, all been educated tradi-
tionally enough in lycées, gymnasia, and grammar
schools. The art they admired, however much it seemed
to them daringly to break new ground, was firmly
linked to the Italian masters of the Quattrocento and
Cinquecento. Stendhal, Michelet, Voigt, Burckhardt
were products of a Renaissance world, even if by their
day it was a world of shadows from the past. The call


of Italy and the attraction of the Renaissance centuries
were often drenched in romanticism and associated
with contemporary political and artistic aspirations.
Genius was what mattered. National genius was an
identifiable commodity. There was a “spirit of
Germany,” and of France, as well as a “Greek spirit.”
Such a sentiment was to further the final stage in the
evolution of the notion of the Renaissance: its identifi-
cation with a whole civilization. This had many
antecedents. Its two brightest apostles were French-
men, Stendhal (Henri Beyle, 1783-1842) and Jules
Michelet (1798-1874). Stendhal, novelist and art critic,
found in Italy and especially in Renaissance Italy an
antidote for the bourgeois philistinism and mediocrity
of the France of the post-Napoleonic period. His Italy
was a world of men of virtù: Cesare Borgia was the
type who dared everything.

In Italy, a man distinguished himself by all forms of merit
... and a woman of the sixteenth century loved a man
learned in Greek as well as, if not more than, she would
have loved a man famous for his martial valour. Then one
saw passions, and not the habit of gallantry. That is the
great difference between Italy and France...

(Abbesse de
trans. Scott-Moncrieff).

In these lines we see the identification of a Renaissance
period and the assumption that the fundamental ele-
ments in it are based on national characteristics. Simi-
larly the historian Michelet poured fire into the
Renaissance in the volume so entitled of his Histoire
de France.
He came to this section of the work after
completing the Middle Ages (1833-44) and the Revo-
(1847-53). In this last section (Renaissance to
1855-67) his prose-poetry is wilder and an
attempt has been made to relate the vehemence of his
approach to a crisis in his own emotional life. However
that may be, the pages of glowing generalization were
to be remarkably influential. The traditional achieve-
ments of the Renaissance—a new art and the renewal
of classical studies—Michelet sweeps aside: such was
a mere arabesque, a nothingness.

So great a power of will is said to have remained fruitless.
What could be more discouraging for human thought!
Only these over-prejudiced minds have forgotten two
things, two little things, which belong to that age more than
to any of its predecessors: the discovery of the world and
the discovery of man....
And, definitively, the Middle Ages are at death's door
in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the blazing
beacons of printing, of classical antiquity, of America, the
Orient and the true system of the world converge on them
their withering light....
A vast event had taken place. The world was changed.
Not one state in Europe, even the most immobile of them,
but did not find itself, now, involved in a wholly novel
movement forward.... The discovery of Italy had an
infinitely greater effect on the sixteenth century than that
of America. All the nations followed in France's footsteps,
to be initiated in their turn and to see clearly by the light
of this new sun

(trans. A. R. Press).

One is tempted to go on quoting from the tempestuous
words, not least because they are so refreshingly unlike
the careful academic precisions of our own prosaic day.
Yet the academic was already pressing forward with
detailed studies which were to fill in the picture. In
art history the most influential figures were Franz
Kugler (Handbook of the History of Painting, 1837; 2nd
ed. 1847) and John Ruskin (Lectures on Architecture
and Painting,
1854), for both of whom in different ways
the Renaissance marked a watershed. In the history
of literature and scholarship the greatest work of the
mid-nineteenth century was Georg Voigt's Revival of
Classical Antiquity
which was published in German
in 1859. This solid and imaginative book covers the
history of humanism from Petrarch down to the early
fifteenth century and is still a mine of exact informa-
tion. Its assumption was, however, a broad generaliza-
tion. “At this moment there developed in Italy the seed
of a new civilization, which was to bear its fruits first
in the literary and artistic field and later to gather
under the standard of literature and scholarship not
merely Italy but the whole civilized world.” He ex-
plained that the “heart” of this change “was the
adoption of humanitas, all that was uniquely human
in the spirit and soul of man, human in the Greek and
Roman sense, and so in contradiction to the outlook
of Christendom and the Church.” This, he adds, could
only have taken place in Italy: “In Italy such [classical]
studies aroused sentiment and passion, and became
matters of flesh and blood.”

After all this blood and thunder, coloring even the
precise erudition of Voigt, it is curious to read the
Civilization [Kultur] of the Renaissance in Italy by
Jacob Burckhardt. Published first at Basel in 1860, this
was to be the most significant single treatment of its
subject. It defined a period and its content. All subse-
quent discussion of the Renaissance turns on this re-
markable work. Burckhardt was born and brought up
in Basel. Thoroughly grounded in the classics at school,
he read theology at the university. He later studied
history with Ranke at Berlin before developing the
interest in art history which was to be his main concern
in later years. After a period of sporadic teaching and
journalism, undertaken to finance visits to Italy, he
became professor of history at Basel in 1858 and taught
there almost to the end of his life. By the time of his
appointment he had published a revised and extended
version of Kugler's Handbook (1847), The Age of


Constantine the Great (1853), and the Cicerone (1855).
Though some of his other works were to appear after
his death, the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
was to be the last major book published in his lifetime.
Burckhardt saw his Renaissance “essay” (for this is his
emphatic description of it) gradually acquire a world
reputation. He never revised it, though he allowed
others to annotate it—the eruditi for whom he felt
boredom tinged with contempt. The monumental con-
troversies the work was to produce, the mountains of
commentary and analysis, were far from being to his

In a profound way the sympathies of this lonely man
lay with Goethe and not with the professors and their
diligent seminars. It is one of the most curious of
paradoxes that the scholar who, more than any other,
delineated the Renaissance for the next three genera-
tions lost interest in the subject. In view of this one
must ask why Burckhardt's interpretation has, on the
whole, stood the test of time. The reason is partly the
artistry and subtlety of his style, partly the novelty of
his technique of research and exposition, partly the
happy coincidence in his synthesis of many elements
which had already proved enduring. What earlier
writers had often enunciated as shattering truths, were
filled by Burckhardt with cautious qualifications. His
approach to his subject was total—all the sources
readily accessible to him were ransacked for a view
of society and culture in the round; no such balanced
and integrated view of a whole epoch in all its aspects
had been attempted. As for his indebtedness to earlier
writers we cannot do better than to quote the following
words of Wallace K. Ferguson:

The time was ripe for a new idealization of the Renaissance
analogous to the neo-classical idealization of ancient Greece
or the Romantic rehabilitation of the Middle Ages.... The
closely associated currents of liberalism, new humanism and
German idealism in nineteenth-century thought had
combined to establish as essential attributes of modern
progress the growth of individual freedom of thought and
expression, the full development of self-conscious person-
ality, and the evolution of moral autonomy founded upon
a high conception of the dignity of man.... And by the
middle of the nineteenth century, a long series of inter-
pretations, approaching the problem from various angles,
had taught men to see in the Renaissance, bounded on one
side by the Middle Ages and on the other by the Reforma-
tion and Counter-Reformation, the age in which all these
traits of the modern world had first appeared and had
flourished with youthful vigor. Burckhardt's decisive contri-
bution was to gather all these trends of interpretation to-
gether into one coherent synthesis, based upon a respectable
foundation of historical scholarship

(Ferguson, pp. 180, 182).

The book, encountered in our own days by most
students in survey courses, is too familiar to need
detailed description: it will be sufficient to indicate its
contents in a few words. Part i is devoted to “the State
as a work of art,” and summarizes the Italian history
of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries in terms
of tyrannies and republics, with a heavy priority to
the former. Part ii is devoted to “the development of
the individual” and in it Burckhardt contrasts medieval
anonymity with “universal men” and the idea of fame.
Part iii deals with “the revival of antiquity,” that is
the humanists, their care for texts, their scholarship,
and their literary exercises. Part iv, entitled from
Michelet's phrase “the discovery of the world and of
man,” discusses natural science, the appreciation of
natural beauty, the desire to analyze the human situa-
tion and describe the human scene. Part v, “society
and festivals,” deals partly with the social structure
of peninsular society, partly with outward display.
Finally in Part vi Burckhardt turns to “morality and
religion,” and assembles evidence for mounting super-
stition and a steady erosion of Christian morality.
Throughout the work the author is dealing consciously
with the spirit of Italy, the “genius of the Italian peo-
ple,” who are “the first born among the sons of
Europe,” ushering in the modern world and paying
for their priority with the harsh and cynical situation
of the sixteenth century, moderated by the syncretism
of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. “Echoes of medie-
val mysticism here flow into one current with Platonic
doctrines, and with a characteristically modern spirit.
One of the most precious fruits of the knowledge of
the world and of man here comes to maturity, on whose
account alone the Italian Renaissance must be called
the leader of the modern ages.” These are the final
sentences in the book.

Burckhardt fairly and firmly asserted four proposi-
tions: there was indeed a Renaissance, a definable and
important moment in the spiritual and material evolu-
tion of Western man; this moment was sharply opposed
to the Middle Ages (which accordingly came into
clearer focus from the acceptance of this view); the
Renaissance inaugurated the modern world; and it was
a product initially of the Italian people (though its
ultimate relevance was to be worldwide). These as-
sumptions were soon challenged, and so were many
of the subsidiary arguments of the book. The studies
by Wallace K. Ferguson, Franco Simone, and others
referred to in the Bibliography below form a guide
to the ensuing debates, which cannot be rehearsed here.
Some points must, however, be briefly touched on if
the reader is to be aware of the present status of the
idea of the Renaissance.

One of the assumptions of Burckhardt and his con-
temporaries has been commonly and quietly aban-
doned. No one could now pretend that the Renaissance


ushered in the modern world if by modern we mean
the world of the twentieth century. The notion of
popular sovereignty to which all governments pay at
any rate lip service, the aim of universal education,
the abandonment in educational practice of the teach-
ing of the old “humanities,” these are only a few of
the ways in which the Renaissance world, still lingering
on in nineteenth-century Europe, has now been left
behind. To them we may add the art and architecture
of our own times which no longer look back to
Masaccio and Michelangelo, to Bramante and Palladio.
Even more important, we entirely lack any one
accepted style in the arts or in literature. We enjoy
(or pretend to) a Greek vase alongside a medieval
altarpiece, a statue by Bernini along with a jocular
construction by Picasso. We admire (or pretend to) at
the same instant the Decameron and Finnegans Wake.
Our model is to have all models or no model. It was
not thus as late as Reynolds and Dr. Johnson, even as
late as Burckhardt. Yet the passing of Renaissance
values as an influence has naturally lent definition to
the periodic concept. We have now, at any rate in our
centers of so-called higher learning, digested the
European past, not into the tripartite division of the
humanist, but into four divisions: ancient, medieval,
Renaissance, and modern. It is true that much nice
argument has revolved round the delimitation of fron-
tiers; boundary commissioners regularly snarl at each
other. And it is probably the case that the Renaissance
as a period has found readier recognition in the
academies of North America than in those of Europe,
where university departments labelled “Renaissance”
are to be found, if at all, in literature rather than in
history or the fine arts. None of this has much signifi-
cance, being the small change in which dons delight.
The acceptance that the Renaissance is dead and gone
is, however, important as it has removed at any rate
some of the acerbities from the discussion of this part
of the past. We may still feel inspiration or relevance
in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century situations. We need
no longer feel that this involves identifying ourselves
with them.

Two aspects of post-Burckhardt Renaissance argu-
ment are sufficiently important to merit a further word:
the emergence of other Renaissances besides that which
started in Italy in the Trecento; and the problem of
the Renaissance as a radical transformation of society
in all its aspects.

It was natural that writers interested in medieval
history and culture should react sharply to the deni-
gration of their period by Burckhardt and scores of
lesser men. This reaction has taken many forms. It has
been argued that the roots of all that occurred in the
time of Petrarch and later are to be found in earlier
centuries. For example the love of nature has been
traced to Saint Francis. Or again, the medievalist has
been able to show that a high degree of repre-
sentational art can be found in the thirteenth century.
Gilson went further and argued that in Abelard was
to be seen a “Renaissance man” and that therefore the
category was meaningless. Much of this, while illumi-
nating, even (in the case of Gilson) deeply moving, is
beside the point. One swallow does not make a sum-
mer. But those scholars who have stressed the “revival
of antiquity” as the essential ingredient of the Renais-
sance have been forced to admit that there were earlier
examples of a conscious attempt to resuscitate ancient
(Latin) language and ideals. Did this not happen among
the scholars at the court of Charlemagne? Is there not
plentiful evidence of such interests among the contem-
poraries of John of Salisbury (ca. 1115-80) at Chartres
and Paris? So have emerged the “Carolingian Renais-
sance” and the “Renaissance of the Twelfth Century.”
From these researches much light has been shed on
the rich tapestry of medieval thought and art. Yet, as
with the exceptional Abelard, so with Alcuin and his
friends, so with John of Salisbury's circle, one fails to
find the wide support, the association with the new
ideas of the men who were politically and socially of
weight. These medieval Latinizers were antiquaries,
they were not involving antiquity in the pursuit of
solutions of current dilemmas.

The rival “Renaissances” are perhaps by now
superannuated. Not so the question of the Renaissance
as a fundamental reorientation of the human predica-
ment. If it was significant (so runs the argument) then
it must have been significant in the fields of politics,
of science, of religion, as well as in those of literature,
morality, and the arts. Yet it is not difficult to show
that in these spheres the innovations of the Italians,
even as developed at large through Europe, had little
direct influence. The devices of governments were
perhaps enriched a little by the humanities, but they
were hardly transformed. Princes employed laymen
educated in the new Latin instead of clerks educated
in the old Latin: a significant change but hardly catas-
trophic. We can no longer pretend that Machiavelli's
Prince described a situation which was new rather than
one of which the earliest protagonists were Cain and
Abel. That he dotted the i's and crossed the t's was
important, and so was the aversion he provoked in
many decent conventional men. But none of this ex-
actly altered the structure of politics.

It is not so different with the case of religion. It
would be generally conceded that the new philology
contributed something towards the Reformation and
so did the equation of wisdom with book-learning. But
Burckhardt's assumption, shared by many of his con-


temporaries and followers, that the Renaissance was
in some sense “pagan” does not bear examination.
Atheists are rarissimi among the humanists, though the
charge was happily bandied about (along with illegit-
imacy) in the acrimony of learned diatribe. In
Protestant as in Catholic Europe (after the Reforma-
tion) a basic acceptance of the Christian verities
prevailed and it is hard, if not impossible, to discern
any important change directly due to the Renaissance.

Science is in a somewhat special category. We are,
and since the nineteenth century have been, in a
“modern” world largely determined by the physical
scientists. If this is our modernity and the Renaissance
contributed nothing to it, was there a Renaissance?
Some (Lynn Thorndike was one) would say No. The
humanist of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cer-
tainly contributed very little to the stock of ideas from
which Galileo and Newton were to nourish themselves.
We can no longer regard, with Bacon, the compass,
gunpowder, and the printing press as occurring sud-
denly or as constituting the instruments of sudden
change. It is fair to add, however, that there were
scientists at work in the Renaissance period and their
activities are in this sense “Renaissance.”

Overall it seems therefore inescapable that the
Renaissance can no longer arrogate to itself all the
elements which were to influence subsequent history.
It was a profound change, affecting public life in many
of its aspects, but not in all of them. Its modes of
thought, its aesthetic standards, its techniques of edu-
cation, and the social and moral principles on which
all these rested were to be long-lived, but they became
irrelevant in the course of the nineteenth century.

At a more popular level the Renaissance idea has
percolated to many areas of vulgarization, high and
low. Besides the competing Renaissances of scholars
mentioned above it is not uncommon for the word to
be applied loosely to any revival: “the Renaissance of
Scottish literature,” “the Renaissance of Irish drama.”
As used in this way the word has often little meaning.
Such a use of the word is often equivalent to “birth,”
rather than “rebirth,” as no antecedent period or cul-
ture is in question. More important is the persistence
of the Renaissance as the symbol of a spiritual state.
As has been noted, this goes back to early nine-
teenth-century writers like Stendhal. The concepts of
freedom and paganism, of men of unbridled genius and
of universal men have had a secure place in literary
tradition since Burckhardt and (for the English-
speaking world) since John Addington Symonds' large
scale Renaissance in Italy (7 vols., 1875-86). Such
myths remain impervious to scholarly criticism and are
lying about to be put to use by novelists and film
producers. The continued physical attraction of Italy
nourishes this general awareness of the Renaissance.
Millions of Germans, Swiss, Austrians, French, British,
and Americans still pour into the peninsula each year,
though fewer of them live there for long periods, as
they did before the First World War. And the Italy
which meets the visitor's eye is overwhelmingly an
Italy of the late Renaissance. The relatively tidy con-
cept of the Renaissance currently held by academics
must be placed against this larger, amorphous but
influential popular feeling.


There is a vast literature, to which a number of special-
ized reviews and bibliographies are now devoted: e.g.,
Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance (Geneva, since
1941), and earlier as Humanisme et Renaissance (Paris,
1934-41); Renaissance News (New York, since 1948), and
Studies in the Renaissance (New York, since 1954); Bibli-
ographie internationale d'Humanisme et de Renaissance

(Geneva, since 1966). The indispensable guide to the history
of the idea is Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in
Historical Thought
(Boston, 1948), which should be read in
conjunction with Franco Simone, La coscienza della
Rinascita negli umanisti francesi
(Rome, 1949), and Il
Rinascimento francese
(Turin, 1961). For Burckhardt, see
W. Kaegi, Jacob Burckhardt, eine Biographie, 4 vols. (Basel,
1947-67). A recent discussion of the word itself will be found
in B. L. Ullman, Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Rome,
1955), pp. 11-25. For philosophical aspects see the many
works of P. O. Kristeller and of E. Garin. Kristeller's defini-
tion of humanism is quoted above from The Classics and
Renaissance Thought
(Cambridge, Mass., 1955), reprinted
as Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and
Humanist Strains
(New York, 1961). Recent fundamental
studies of the structure of Renaissance concepts are by Hans
Baron, Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, 2nd rev. ed.
(Princeton, 1966), together with earlier papers of which two
may be instanced: “Cicero and the Roman Civic Spirit in
the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance,” Bull. J. Rylands
22 (1938), and “Franciscan Poverty and Civic
Wealth in Humanistic Thought,” Speculum, 13 (1938). See
Eugenio Garin, L'umanesimo italiano (Bari, 1952; trans.
Munz, Oxford, 1965). The best single study of educational
theory remains W. H. Woodward, Studies in Education
during the Age of the Renaissance
(Cambridge, 1906; reprint
New York, 1967). For the revival of antiquity, besides Voigt
as in the text above, see J. E. Sandys, A History of Classical
3 vols. (Cambridge, 1903-08); R. R. Bolgar, The
Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries
(Cambridge, 1954).
For the debate over the earlier “Renaissances” two brilliant
books are: C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth
(Cambridge, Mass., 1927), and É. Gilson, Héloïse
et Abélard
(Paris, 1938; trans. L. K. Shook, Ann Arbor, 1960);
see in general E. Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences
in Western Art
(Stockholm, 1960). For discussion of the
Renaissance and politics see, inter alia, F. Chabod's contri-
bution to Actes du colloque sur la Renaissance (Paris, 1958);


the matter really needs to be studied, so to speak, on the
ground: e.g., F. Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini
(Princeton, 1965). There is nothing adequate on religion in
the Renaissance, but there is an elaborate bibliography by
C. Angeleri, Il problema religioso del Rinascimento
(Florence, 1952). Lynn Thorndike's criticism from the point
of view of a historian of science is briefly presented in
“Renaissance or Prenaissance,” in Journal of the History of
4 (1943), 65-74.


[See also Classicism in Literature; Cycles; Enlightenment;
Gothic; Humanism in Italy; Nationalism; Periodization;
0">Reformation; 9">Renaissance Humanism; Romanticism; Virtù.]