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Renaissance Humanism

Humanism was a basic source of inspiration for all the cultural changes of the Renaissance, heavily influencing literature, history, painting, sculpture and political ideas.

Humanist scholars devoted themselves to the studia humanitatis by examining the texts of antiquity with renewed interest. Although classical works had some influence on medieval thought, they had acquired an extensive superstructure which scholars from the fourteenth century onwards set about dismantling. Increasing emphasis was laid on understanding the classics in their original form, and this was inevitably accompanied by an insistence on grammatical precision and stylistic purity. A particularly important development was the revival of Greek. This language, which had virtually disappeared from the West during the Middle Ages, spread during the fifteenth century not, as is often supposed, with the flight of scholars from the East after the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453, but as a result of invitations extended to Byzantine scholars like Manuel Chrysoloras to lecture in Florence and Rome in the 1390s. A widespread search for Roman and Greek manuscripts followed. By the end of the fifteenth century interest had reached dramatic proportions, with 27 principal editions of Greek works published between 1494 and 1515. Meanwhile, various humanist circles had been established, the most important of these being the Platonic Academy in Florence (1439). At times their members were excessively concerned with detail and produced commentaries on the classics rather than works of originality. Leonardo da Vinci, himself excluded from the inner sanctum of humanist study, observed bitterly of the members of the Platonic Academy: ‘They go about puffed up and pompous in fine raiment and bejewelled, not from the fruits of their own labours, but from those of others.’ But, although the humanists were often, in Leonardo's words, ‘trumpeters and reciters of the works of others’, they performed a service of inestimable value for the arts either by opening the renaissance world to the influence of little known Greek and Roman writers or by re–examining, in the original, works which had already had an impact on the Middle Ages.

The result was the emergence of humanism as a broader intellectual influence which was more significant than the sum of its humanist parts. Following the maxim of the Greek, Protagoras, that ‘man is the measure of all things’, it focused attention on the nature, achievements and potential of humanity rather than on the power and mystery of divinity. It was not necessary to be a member of a humanist academy to be influenced by humanism. Painters expressed it when they represented the human figure with greater accuracy and grace, made possible by a more extensive anatomical knowledge. Architects incorporated it into the circular and domed structures so characteristic of Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Writers emphasized it through introspective analysis of the emotional and rational sides of man's nature. Historians reflected it in their conception of the past, which underwent a radical change in the fifteenth century. Medieval scholars had regarded their world as existing on a higher plane than antiquity, suffused with the glow of Christianity and solidly based on political institutions and social structures which were permanent because they had divine authorization. Antiquity, by contrast, had been insecure and unenlightened, certainly until the Christian faith had established itself in the Roman Empire. By the fifteenth century, however, humanist historians had permanently reversed the entire emphasis. The medieval world was now associated with a superstition and barbarism that choked the more positive achievements of antiquity; the Middle Ages had been superseded by a better era. This value judgement was assiduously spread by writers like Conrad Celtis, who congratulated his fellow Germans on ‘having cast off your vile barbarity’,1 and Rabelais, who wrote: ‘Out of the thick Gothic night our eyes are opened to the glorious torch of the sun.’2

Geographically, humanism originated in Italy, spreading through the peninsula from its original centre in Florence. During the last decade of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, its influence had permeated much of Europe beyond the Alps. This was the result of the extensive contacts between northern and southern Europe by which new ideas could be readily transmitted. Italian ecclesiastical legates, diplomats, traders and professors travelled to the north, and there was a corresponding flow from France, Germany and England into Italy. Italian humanism gradually combined with autochthonous intellectual developments to produce regional and national variations, the main exponents of which were Lefèvre d'Etaples and Budé in France, Agricola, Celtis, Reuchlin and von Hutten in Germany, Ximenes in Spain, Colet and More in England, and, most significantly of all, Erasmus.

Like most general movements, humanism assumed different shapes, two of which were especially pronounced. The first was Christian humanism, in which the new learning was synthesized with basic Christian belief. Sometimes, although not always, this was officially sanctioned by the Church; several Popes were classical scholars, and Leo X thought that ‘nothing more excellent or useful has been given by the Creator to mankind—if we except only the knowledge and true worship of Himself– than these studies’.3 The second type, particularly strong in Italian politics, was the more obviously secular humanism which exerted a powerful influence on historians.

Christian humanism was undoubtedly the mainstream of renaissance thought, for the rediscovery of man did not necessarily mean the abandonment of God. Humanism had a considerable capacity for idealism and its search for ultimate perfection used human knowledge and skills in a manner which was often religious. This was apparent in the growth of neo-Platonism, the spread of Biblical study and criticism of medieval theology, and the strong leaning towards Christianity in the arts.

Neo-Platonism emerged in fifteenth–century Italy. At first it was a philosophical movement, deriving inspiration from Plato's Republic and Laws, and contrasting sharply with the medieval form of theology and philosophy known as Scholasticism. The medieval Church had itself used certain classical concepts to construct an impregnable system of doctrine and political thought. Beginning with Aristotle's assumption that ‘man is naturally a political and social animal’, St Thomas Aquinas (1235–74) had developed a hierarchical structure of authority and of the obligations involved in man's relationship with God and with his ruler. This had been followed by a system of philosophical reasoning which by the fourteenth century had become so elaborate and tortuous that fundamental questions were often submerged by trivia. Neo-Platonism was an attempt to bypass the entire edifice of Scholasticism and to return to the ideas of Plato in their pure form. Since the hold of Christianity was so powerful, however, neo–Platonism rapidly assumed a religious tone, although it was not usually sanctioned by the Church. As developed by Pico and Ficino, neo-Platonism encouraged man to see and understand more clearly the different aspects of Creation, human and inanimate, in their idealized as well as actual form. This required successive degrees of contemplation and the full use of all the faculties, the driving force being, in Pico's words, ‘the intellectual desire for ideal beauty’.4 The emphasis was on man's striving to see God, the source of perfection, by developing the gifts which he had been given. Pico believed that ‘God the Father endowed man, from birth, with the seeds of every possibility and every life.’ This was something of a departure from the traditional view of man, vitiated by original sin as a result of the Fall.

Christian humanism also developed in northern Europe, taking the form of biblical research and sustained attacks on Scholasticism. Italian scholars had established a precedent in their accurate and detailed study of a wide variety of classical texts. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the same attention was being given to the scriptures, particularly by Colet, Lefèvre d'Etaples and Erasmus. They believed that classical learning, applied to biblical study, could provide a greater harmony between faith and intellect, reinforcing the effects of neo-Platonism by a solid return to scriptural directives. The northern humanists let forth a blast of satirical invective against the Scholastics. Erasmus complained in his Praise of Folly: ‘Then there are the theologians, a remarkably supercilious and touchy lot They are fortified … with an army of schoolmen's [Scholastic] definitions, conclusions and corollaries, and propositions both explicit and implicit.’5 Ulrich von Hutten's Letters to Obscure Men contained requests to eminent (and fictitious) theologians for advice on a whole series of ‘fiddle faddles’, a reference to the intricacies of Scholastic thought.

The artists of the Renaissance benefited from the humanist influence which greatly enhanced accuracy and realism. Their aims were not, however, purely representational. Leonardo da Vinci wrote, in his Treatise on Painting: ‘The good painter has two principal things to paint: that is, man and the intention of his mind.’6 Artists used the religious theme as the most popular vehicle for their idealism. Typical subjects included the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and, above all, the Madonna and Child. The last featured in the work of Lorenzo Costa, Signorelli, Francesco Cossa, Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, Correggio, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Bellini and Carlo Crivelli. Old Testament themes were also popular, the best examples being in the paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, intricate in their workmanship, accurate in their observation and idealized in their conception. The religious synthesis with humanism is apparent in the Creation of Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, where Adam is created in God's image, but God is an idealized version of man.

Architecture also displayed for all to see the revised connection between God and man. Two views of the proportions of the Renaissance church illustrate the emphasis on the human and the divine. Nikolaus Pevsner explains that in the elongated medieval cathedral ‘the prime function … had been to lead the faithful to the altar’. In the renaissance church, however, with its new circular shape, this was no longer possible, for ‘the building has its full effect only when it is looked at from one focal point’, the central altar. Thus man enjoys ‘the beauty that surrounds him and the glorious sensation of being the centre of this beauty’.7 The circle, indeed, had a mystic significance. The renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, put forward another explanation for its use. The church would be ‘enclosed by one circumference only, in which is to be found neither beginning nor end, and the one is indistinguishable from the other; its parts correspond to each other and all of them participate in the shape of the whole; and moreover every part being equally distant from the centre, such a building demonstrates extremely well the unity, the infinite essence, the uniformity and the justice of God’.4 To a Christian humanist, especially a neo-Platonist, would not these two views be entirely reconcilable?

A more distinctively secular type of humanism developed in Italy during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

One of the forms which it took has been described as ‘civic’ humanism, or the replacement of asceticism by active involvement in civic affairs as the most worthwhile of human endeavours. Many humanists were appointed as leading officials in town governments and chanceries, a situation openly applauded by Palmieri (1406–75) in his De vita civile. Others became extensively involved in business transactions, accumulating considerable wealth and property. Such activities, it was argued, enhanced the human potential for achievement, whereas poverty, traditionally regarded as a Christian virtue, stunted the complete development of the personality.

Civic humanism, in turn, contributed to a fundamental revision of the approach to historical study. No longer was history regarded merely as an illustrative adjunct to theology; the efforts of Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo in the fifteenth century, together with those of Machiavelli and Guicciardini in the early sixteenth, enabled it to emerge as a discipline within its own right. The emphasis was switched from exemplifying divine direction of human affairs to providing narrative accounts of human political developments, devoid of divine planning or intervention. The study of the past, particularly the classical past, could also be used to make deductions about the feasibility of present political actions. Machiavelli, for example, observed that ‘for intellectual training the prince should read history, studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former. Above all, he should read history so that he can do what eminent men have done before him.’8

The influences of humanism which showed particularly strongly in Machiavelli's works were the considerable debt to classical writers like Livy, a belief in the importance of public life, and an uncompromisingly secular approach to history and statecraft. He brought all his knowledge to bear on examining the political chaos in the Italy of his day, although some of the conclusions he reached were considered too extreme by most contemporary humanist scholars. He sought, in his Discourses and The Prince, to examine, by historical references, the forms of political and military action which were most likely to ensure a ruler's political survival. Openly abandoning any religious connection, he emphasized the importance of virtù (courage and vigour) in taking advantage of the opportunities and overcoming the obstacles presented by fortuna (the unpredictable form of change). The activity urged by Machiavelli was generally incompatible with Christianity, although not with the beliefs of the ancients. He accepted that there was ‘a difference between our religion and the religion of those days. For our religion … leads us to ascribe less esteem to worldly honour.’ Consequently, the ancients ‘displayed in their actions more ferocity than we do’.9 In his rejection of Christian ethics as the basis of political action, Machiavelli provided reasoned justification for pragmatism. He believed, in the words for which he is most famous: ‘It is a sound maxim that reprehensible actions may be justified by their effects.’10

The practical application of these principles was described in The Prince. This work, dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, was expressed with simplicity and clarity, for although Machiavelli was himself a member of the Florentine Platonic School, he avoided abstruse ideas and ‘any other charm or superfluous decoration of the kind which many are in the habit of using to describe or adorn what they have produced’.11 After categorizing the different types of state, Machiavelli examined the various methods of achieving power, before proceeding to offer advice on the maintenance of effective rule. The prince must, in effect, be ruthless, disposing of all opponents and establishing a powerful army. Indeed, he should excel in the art of war, for this ‘is all that is expected of a ruler’.8 In diplomacy and in his relations with his subjects he must be versatile, acting ‘as a fox’ and breaking his word when necessary. He should cultivate the people's support by projecting virtues and qualities which he need not necessarily possess, and, in the true spirit of the Renaissance, showing ‘his esteem for talent, actively encouraging able men, and paying honour to eminent craftsmen’.12 In his final chapter Machiavelli departed from clinical analysis and launched an impassioned appeal to Lorenzo de’ Medici to liberate Italy from ‘foreign inundations’ and ‘barbarous tyranny’ which ‘stinks in everyone's nostrils’.13 This pointed to his higher aim, the end of political anarchy within Italy and a return to the spirit of ancient Rome.

Is it possible to assess the impact of humanism on sixteenth-century Europe? In its synthesis with Christianity the mainstream of humanism led, indirectly, from the Renaissance to the Reformation. Christianity, for so long assimilated into an elaborate doctrinal and intellectual structure, now became the focus of reinterpretation and argument. Neo-Platonism offered a more individual approach to religious belief than had Scholasticism. Classical research, at the same time, brought a new approach to the scriptures, calling into question many previously accepted assumptions about their precise meaning. A considerable hole was therefore knocked in the established thought of the Church, coinciding, as the next chapter will show, with serious institutional weakness. This provided the opportunity for a new generation of religious reformers to re–examine the basis of Catholic dogma and to give renewed emphasis to the concepts of grace, faith and predestination. Humanism, therefore, made possible the rise of a more fervent and extreme form of dissent and criticism. The result, in a metaphor common to the period, was that Erasmus's egg, when hatched by Luther, produced a different breed of bird. Humanism also had some contact with the eventual revival of the Church and the beginning of the Catholic Reformation. Throughout the period of crisis the Spanish Church was strengthened by the reforms and humanist studies of Cardinal Ximenes. When it was invigorated by the fervour of mysticism and of religious orders the Spanish Church became the vanguard of the assault on Protestantism although, in the process, it lost sight of the principles of toleration and the capacity of self-criticism which were essential features of humanism.

The precise influences of humanism in its purely secular form are more difficult to establish. It is true that the Italian states experienced considerable diplomatic intrigue in the fifteenth century which was devoid of religious influences and which, many humanists believed, bore some resemblance to the problems and crises of antiquity. On the other hand, Renaissance studies in history and statecraft did not themselves secularize Italian politics; rather, they described and rationalized a process which had been occurring for centuries. Similarly, Machiavelli did not invent expediency in diplomacy, but he did examine it more scientifically than ever before, drawing attention to the full range of opportunities which it offered to the adventurous statesman. It is certain that The Prince was read by some of the leading figures of the period: W.Durant cites Charles V, Henry III and Henry IV of France, Richelieu and William of Orange, who kept a copy under his pillow. Officially, however, Machiavelli's methods were not regarded as legitimate until the eventual emergence of Realpolitik. Before the period of Cavour and Bismarck, Machiavelli was often imitated secretly, but always denounced openly; as Frederick the Great showed in the mid– eighteenth century, the more successful the imitation the louder the denunciation.

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