Humanism 1: An
Humanism: What it is not
was a word used by the humanists themselves and meant a practitioner
of the studia humanitatis, the liberal arts. The word humanism
was never used by them and in fact was coined only in 1808 in Germany
to designate the study of the language and literature of one's own culture
(as opposed to the study of the language and literature of classical
antiquity). The term subsequently came to mean a non-theistic philosophy
(as in "Ethical Humanism"). The word is today used pejoratively in political
discourse (generally by the religious right) to stand for the degeneration
of the contemporary world. These later meanings, of course, have nothing
to do with humanism as it is being presented here.
Humanism: What it is
practitioners of the studia humanitatis. The studia humanitatis
or liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy,
and (sometimes) politics. Humanists had nothing to do with the professional
disciplines of law, medicine, or theology. Pier Paolo Vergerio is explicit
in his treatise (On the Education of Boys) [see
Humanism 4] both about what the humanists regarded as their
"turf" and what they did not.
A Time Line
Establishment of humanism as a new ideal through Petrarch and
his disciple Boccaccio.
The "heroic age" of humanism, its blossoming into a movement
most notably in Florence, under the leadership of Coluccio Salutati,
head of the city's bureaucracy until his death in 1406; then under
Spread of humanism from Florence to other cities and courts
throughout Northern Italy, but also to Rome and Naples in the south.
The invasion of Charles VIII of France in 1494 and the Sack of Rome
in 1527 by troops of Emperor Charles V (151955) marked the end
of the dominance of humanism as a movement in Italian culture, though
humanism continued to thrive through the 16th century, developing
theories of literary interpretation and canons of critical scholarship
related to restoring ancient texts.
The blossoming of humanism in Germany, France, and England, before
the movement was incorporated into the larger struggles related to the
Protestant Reformation (1517 ff).
D. The Blossoming
of Humanism in Florence
- Petrarch (1305-1374)
and Boccaccio (1313-1375) were the first generation of
humanists to make humanism visible to the cultured world. The second
generation was led by Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), chancellor
of Florence 1375-1406 and a disciple of Petrarch. Salutati introduced
the teaching of Greek into Florence, encouraged the discovery and copying
of manuscripts, and pioneered in writing elegant letters which were
copied all over Europe.
- The third generation of humanism is represented by a number
of important figures.
Bracciolini (1380-1459) was a notary who came to Florence as
a young man with no money. Salutati took Poggio under his wing and
employed him copying manuscripts. Poggio devised a new kind of script,
Roman script, actually copied from Carolingian manuscripts that
Poggio believed were classical in origin; this script became the
basis for that used in printed books after 1450. But Poggio's most
important work was the discovery of classical texts. We can say
that between 1333 when Petrarch made his earliest discovery and
1429 when Poggio made his last, virtually all the texts now known
of classical antiquity had been recovered. [see
Humanism 3] What flowed from these discoveries? At least
Niccoli (1364-1437) was a Florentine contemporary of Poggio's.
He was a pure classicist (of Latin only; he never learned Greek).
Having been left independently wealthy by his father, a wool
merchant, he spent his life collecting manuscripts. He became
familiar with the classical contents of libraries all over Europe,
and when researchers set out to look for manuscripts Niccoli
would provide them with lists of manuscripts to look for (the
one Latin writing we have from his hand is a list of manuscripts).
He became a channel through whom passed all the information
about manuscripts related to classical antiquity. He collected
over 800, exhausting his wealth in the process; Cosimo dei Medici
finally had to support his work. When he died Niccoli left his
library to Cosimo (to pay off his debts) and to the city of
Florence, stipulating that the books were to be housed in a
library which was to be open to the public for study. He thus
became directly responsible for the founding of the first public
library. Indeed, at the time of his death over 200 of his manuscripts
were out on loan. (His books were placed in the library of San
Marco, which Cosimo was then building, and later they were divided
between what is now the Laurenziano Library and the Bibliotheca
Nationale Centrale, both in Florence, where they can still be
seen and studied.) Niccoli developed the italic script, also
still used in printed books. [see Humanism
- Poggio not
only collected manuscripts but also began to collect classical
artifacts and to decipher and record stone inscriptions (some
of them badly worn) in Rome and elsewhere. When Donatello, Brunelleschi,
and Ghiberti came to Rome to study the artistic remains of the classical
city and to make measurements of some of its remains [see
Humanism 5], Poggio probably served as their guide. Thus
we can say the humanists gave birth to archaeology
Humanists of the Third Generation
Bruni (1370-1444), who served sometime after Salutati as
Chancellor of Florence (1427-44), was among the best students
of the Greek teacher Manuel Chrysoloras (1350-1415),
who was brought to Florence by Salutati and taught Greek there
for three years, 1397-1400.
Traversari (13861439), a monk in the Camaldulensian Order,
came to Florence in 1400 and either studied under or was inspired
by Chrysoloras. He translated a number of texts of the Greek
church fathers: Basil, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzen, Pseudo-Dionysius.
He translated one important non-Christian writer, Diogenes Laertius,
Lives of the Philosophers.
- A number of Greeks came to Italy for the Council of Ferrara-Florence
during the 1430s, convened at the request of the Byzantine Church
to implore help in the face of the Turkish Moslem threat to
the Byzantine Empire that led to its collapse in 1453. The most
important consequence for Florence was the introduction of Platonism
by some of the Greeks present and the subsequent development
of a "Platonic academy" in Florence (see immediately below,
- Subsequent Development
of Florentine Humanism
- During the
second half of the 15th century, humanism in Florence lived in close
conjunction with the Medicis who controlled the politics of the
city. The most notable humanist among them was Angelo Poliziano
(145494) who developed principles for the establishment of
standard editions of ancient texts. [see
most important intellectual movement in Florence was Florentine
Neoplatonism, which exercised a wide influence throughout Europe.
Its leader was Marsilio Ficino (143399) who, in the 1460s
and 1470s, translated Plato and Plotinus, among others, from Greek
into Latin. His translation of Plato marks the first time in over
one thousand years that all the works of Plato were known in Europe.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (146293) included the Cabala
and other esoteric writings believed to belong to the "ancient theology"
and had as his ambition to unite all truth and knowledge into one
system. [see Humanism 8] Florentine
Platonism was as influential as humanism during the following century.
Though Ficino was following the lead of the humanists (learning
the languages and translating and commenting on the texts of ancient
authors), he made out of ancient wisdom a philosophical system,
which it was never the ambition of humanists to do.
E. The Spread
of Humanism Throughout Italy
The most learned people in Venice were the patricians (a closed class
after 1297) and their civic duties prevented their lifelong productivity
as humanists. There were, however, many patricians who pursued humanist
studies, especially in their early adulthood. One of the earliest
was Francesco Barbaro (13901454), whose treatise On Wifely
Duties (1415), written on the occasion of the marriage of the
Florentine patrician Leonardo de' Medici, expressed patriarchal attitudes
toward women. Other notable examples are Leonardo Giustiniani (d.
1446) and Bernardo Giustiniani (140889). Two who did manage
to pursue lifelong careers as humanists were Gregorio Correr (140964)
and Ermolao Barbaro (145493), but they left Venice. Margaret
King has detailed the lives of hundreds of Venetian humanists in the
appendix to her Venetian Humanism in an Age of Patrician Dominance
(Princeton UP, 1986). John Bessarion (14001472) willed his
library to the city, which became the foundation for the famous Marciano
Library. Venice also produced a number of women who wrote in the vernacular
but were influenced by humanism, most notably Gaspara Stampa (152354),
Veronica Franco (154691, subject of the recent movie, Dangerous
Beauty), Modesta da Pozzo (Moderata Fonte, 155592), Lucrezia
Marinella (15711653), and Arcangela Tarabotti (160452).
The last three mentioned are among the most prominent "feminists"
of the Renaissance. [see Humanism 9]
Humanism also established itself in other free cities in Northern
Italy: Padua, Verona, Brescia near Venice; and Siena, Pisa, and Genoa
near Florence. Padua was one of the few cities in which humanism was
prominent in the university.
Courts and Court Cities: Humanists were also active in court cities.
The largest court city in Italy, ruled by the Viscontis (13501450),
then by the Sforzas (14501535, with breaks). Gasparino da
Barzizza (d. 1424) established a school there which had a
long history. Uberto Decembrio served the first dynasty,
his son Pier Candido Decembrio (13991477) served both.
Francesco Filelfo (13981481) dominated humanist culture
there during both regimes for many years during the 15th century.
- One of the
most notable humanist schools was at Mantua under the Gonzaga
family. Vittorino da Feltre (13781446) established a school
there in 1420. He was an exemplary person, and the curriculum
of his school became the basis for the education of the European
elite until very recent times. His curriculum did not include
law or medicine or theology, but it did include physical training,
Latin and Greek, literature and philosophy.
- At Ferrara
under the Este family a school was established by Guarino da
Verona (13701460) in 1430. He was in charge of advanced studies
and also had a connection with the university there. He developed
classical materials for his students' use, including translations
from Greek. Like other humanists (and unlike Vittorino) he wrote
a good deal. Ferrara subsequently became a center of Italian literary
culture, indebted to humanism but different from it (especially
in its use of the vernacular and its development of medieval literary
models). Boiardo's (144194) Orlando innamorato
(bks 12, 1483; bk 3, 1495) was published there, as was Ariosto's
(14771533) more famous Orlando furioso (in 3 versions:
1516, 1521, 1532), and Tasso's (154495) Gerusalemme
liberata (1581). All three of these epic romances celebrated
- The court
at Urbino was presided over by Federigo da Montefeltro
(d. 1503) who collected a large library, and then by his son Guidobaldo
(14721508) and by Guidobaldo's wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga (14711526).
Out of this court came one of the classics of the Renaissance,
The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione (14781529)
which appeared in 1528, describing the perfect gentleman (bk 1)
and lady (bk 3).
Most humanists, like Bruni and Poggio, who served as papal secretaries,
came to the city from elsewhere and did not remain there. One
who spent his life there was Flavio Biondo (13921463)
who arrived as a mature scholar in 1433 and remained until his
death. He wrote a survey of European history from the 5th
to the 15th century, Decades (143742), argued
against Bruni in Concerning the words of the Roman Speech
(1435) that ancient Rome had had a common language, Latin, not
two parallel languages, one (Latin) for the learned, and another
(Italian) for the unlearned. He also contributed to Roman archaeology
and topography in his Rome Restored (144446). Rome became
a center of humanist culture from the time that Pope Nicholas
V (144755) became the first humanist pope of the city. The
Renaissance papacy lasted through the reign of the second of the
two Medici popes, Clement VII (152334). Renaissance popes included
the patrons of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, among
many others. Humanists congealed around the papacy as well, Valla
(see below) among them. Pomponio Leto (142898) and Bartolomeo
Sacchi (Platina, 142181) were prominent in a humanist academy
that was suppressed by Pope Paul IV (146471) in 1468 for its
presumed "paganism," though Platina was restored by Paul's successor,
Sixtus IV (147184), who made him papal librarian. Platina subsequently
wrote Lives of the Popes in which he painted an unflattering
picture of Paul IV. The humanist academy in Rome was reconstituted
under the following generation of humanists at the papal court
under the leadership of Paolo Cortesi (14651510).
Alphonso V, king of Aragon, won possession of Naples in 1442 and
ruled it until his death in 1558. It was during his reign that
Lorenzo Valla (140757) wrote On the Donation of Constantine
(1444) [see Humanism 7] to
support Alphonso's opposition to the papacy, and revised his On
Pleasure or On the True Good (a moral philosophical text pitting
Christianity against both Stoicism and Epicureanism) and Elegances
of the Latin Language, a text long used to teach Latin. It
was also at Alphonso's court that the Florentine humanist, Giannozzo
Manetti (13961459), wrote On the Dignity of Man (1453).
[see Humanism 6] Humanist culture
was also encouraged by Alphonso's illegitimate grandson, Ferrante
I (145894). During this period Giovanni Pontano (14221503),
the most important humanist in Naples, and Jacopo Sannazaro
(14571530), its most important pastoral poet, flourished.
In 1502 Naples became part of the Spanish kingdom and remained
so until the beginning of the 18th century.
F. The Spread of
Humanism Beyond Italy
- The earliest
humanists in France, as in England and Germany, became so by traveling
to and studying in Italy. Guillaume (William) Fichet (143392)
returned from Italy in 1470, set up a press in the basement of the
Sorbonne for the printing of humanist literature, and lectured on
the classical Latin poets. But he returned to Italy in 1472 and
remained there until his death. His place was taken by Robert
Gaguin (14331501), the leader of the classical revival in France
for the next 25 years.
d'Etaples (Latin name: Faber Stapulensis, 14551536) lived in
the Academy at Florence and was much influenced by the Neoplatonism
of Marsilio Ficino (143399). But after 1500 he turned his attention
to the Christian fathers, publishing the works of a number of them.
From the fathers he moved back to the Bible. His greatest accomplishment
was his translation of the Bible; he published the New Testament
in 1523 and the Old Testament in 1528. The entire translation was
published together in 1530. After the outbreak of the Protestant
Reformation he devoted himself to church reform, but he never broke
with the Catholic Church.
- A number of
humanists helped develop Greek studies in France; one Frenchman,
Guillaume Budι (14681540) made notable contributions to
the study of both Latin and Greek classical antiquity, through his
commentary on Roman law, the Pandects; and his study of classical
coinage, De Asse (1515). After he wrote The Education
of a Prince, the king called him to court where he served as
an adviser. He was instrumental in having the Collθge de France
made trilingual. He also had some contact with John Calvin ; his
children became Calvinists.
- Germany followed
the same pattern as France: Italian influence mingled with native
pietistic traditions, resulting after 1500 in a strong humanist
movement. The initiators of German humanism were Rudolf Agricola
(144485) who studied in Italy for ten years (146979), then
returned to Germany where he taught; and Conrad Celtis (14591508),
who traveled to various places, including Italy, between 1487 and
1497, then returned to Germany where he taught until his death.
Reuchlin (14551522) was the first humanist to know Latin, Greek,
and Hebrew. He studied Hebrew from 1492 and published the first
Hebrew grammar in 1506. He published a commentary on the Cabala
in 1517. His sympathy for ancient Jewish literature led to conflict
with those (especially a converted Jew named Pfefferkorn) who wanted
all Jewish books burned, a conflict that involved most leading humanists
of the time. His supporters published a defense entitled Letters
of Obscure Men, 1517), ridiculing his enemies. The struggle was
a precursor of the Protestant Reformation in which humanists would
also have to take sides.
- A small circle
of English humanists emerged around 1500: William Grocyn (14461519),
who taught both scholastic and humanist curricula; and his pupils
who followed the humanist path alone, Thomas Linacre (14601524),
John Colet (14661519), and William Latimer (14601545),