The language of historical periodization is so much part of common currency that it is easy to use terms such as ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ without particularly pondering their meaning. These are complex terms, however, with complex histories, and they carry a good deal of invisible ideological baggage. ‘Renaissance’, of course, literally signifies ‘rebirth’. But what exactly are we claiming was reborn?

This deceptively simple question is best answered by revisiting the history of the notion of ‘Renaissance’ as we use it today. Although the term was first coined by Jules Michelet in his History of France (1855), it was conceptually crystallized in the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt’s TheCivilization of the Renaissance in Italy, a pioneering work first published in German in 1860 and in English in 1878. In a manner that reflects the philosophical influence of Hegel, Burckhardt sought to produce an account of Italian fifteenth- and sixteenth-century culture that embraced political, social, and intellectual history, all seen as reflections of the same unifying Zeitgeist, or ‘spirit of the age’.1

Burckhardt’s answer to the question of what was reborn in Renaissance Italy was most fundamentally the human spirit. In Burckhardt’s representation, medieval culture was informed by abstraction and unworldliness, deriving from a transcendental, religious worldview. Men looked upwards to heaven, scorning or ignoring the material world around them. The Renaissance, by contrast, was marked by a reprise of the kind of vigorous attention to the world that had characterized classical antiquity; in Burckhardt’s dramatic metaphor, the ‘veil’ that had obfuscated medieval man’s vision ‘melted into air’ (p. 98). The natural and social worlds came into focus and became an object of a new and inexhaustible curiosity, manifested in phenomena such as the development of anatomical study and the growth of a new science of politics. At the same time, the inner world of the self became a focus of scrutiny; ‘man became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such’ (p. 98).

This emphasis on the individual has an important part to play in Burckhardt’s conception of the novelty and modernity of this period, and it led him to hail the Italian of the Renaissance as the ‘first-born among the sons of modern Europe’ (p. 98). In the Middle Ages, for Burckhardt, men conceived of themselves only as part of some larger social group, such as a family, a religious order, a guild or corporation. The Renaissance saw the birth of the self-conscious individual: proud of his quiddities, confident of his self-mastery, abounding with intellectual vigour. In his finest guise, this individual incarnates the type of the universal ‘Renaissance man’, perhaps Burckhardt’s most lasting conceptual legacy. As an example, Burckhardt cites the Florentine intellectual Leon Battista Alberti, author of the first modern treatises on painting, sculpture, and architecture, and of dark, witty philosophical satires imitating the Syrian-Greek sophist Lucian. Alberti was also a practising sculptor and architect, a talented musician, a key figure in the early history of cryptography, and, in Burckhardt’s endearingly eccentric account, a man of such remarkable physical prowess that he could flick a coin to the height of the dome of Florence cathedral and leap over a man’s head from a standing start (p. 102).

Not all was quite so solar in Burckhardt’s vision of the Renaissance. The titanic individuals that stride through his pages include not only artists and scientists, but also despots like Cesare Borgia, possessed of an amoral, Nietzschean will to power (Nietzsche was a colleague of Burckhardt’sat the university of Basel and an admirer of his work). The Italian Renaissance was for Burckhardt the crucible of modernity in its disturbing, as well as its admirable, aspects: godless, cynical, zestfully Promethean, possessed of an inexhaustible, explosive, all-encompassing creativity. Even the political world became subject to this creativity, for Burckhardt; the Renaissance prince crafted his state as a ‘work of art’.

The imaginative power of Burckhardt’s construction of the Italian Renaissance was such as to leave a long shadow. For much of the twentieth century, scholarly descriptions of the period remained largely Burckhardtian in flavour, and, even today, popular accounts of the tour-guide type retain some Burckhardtian commonplaces intact. Within scholarship, meanwhile, Burckhardt’s majestic Victorian edifice has been meticulously demolished, brick by brick. Today’s scholarly ‘Renaissance man’ is less atomistically individualistic than Burckhardt’s and distinctly more corporate, his identity inflected to a large extent by affiliations of kinship and amicitia (a term with a meaning somewhere between ‘friendship’ and ‘networking’). He is also godlier than Burckhardt’s figure, his faith providing a strong vein of continuity with his medieval forebears, so that sharp distinctions between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ become increasingly difficult to maintain.

More than the mystical rebirth of the human spirit, it is the phenomenon that Burckhardt relegates to second place in his description of the Renaissance, the revival of interest in classical antiquity, that today seems more robust and defensible as a way of capturing and defining the cultural novelties of the age. That ‘the individual’ was born between 1300 and 1500 is a generalization most modern historians would find problematic. That artistic and literary style changed radically over this period is a matter of fact. The same may be said of styles of thought and argument, and of the range and variety of conceptual tools available to thinkers. Italians—or elite Italians—asked different questions of the world in 1500 than they did in 1300, and they came up with different answers. Their imagination was furnished differently, as were their cities and houses. They represented the world to themselves in different ways. Much of this cultural transformation was due to their intense and prolonged engagement with classical culture, and the extraordinarily vibrant dialogue this triggered between ancient models and modern needs.

Of course, the new and keen interest in the classical world that characterized the Renaissance did not ‘just happen’. Italian readers turned with new curiosity and urgency to classical texts, artefacts and ruins, because the world of Greece and Rome had a relevance and a resonance for them that had not been so obvious in the earlier Middle Ages. Europe in general had witnessed an economic reprise from the eleventh century onwards, and trade, communications, and infrastructure steadily improved across the following centuries, despite the catastrophe of the Black Death in the fourteenth. In Italy, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in particular saw massive commercial expansion and a sharp trend towards urbanization, especially in the centre and north (Fig. 1). The most rapidly growing city of all, Florence, had to expand the reach of its city walls to accommodate its burgeoning population in the 1170s and again from the 1280s. The second of these expansion projects, concluded in the 1330s, increased the size of the city to three or four times its previous extent.2 An urbanization rate of 27 per cent has been calculated for Tuscany in 1300, at a time when the average across Europe was 10 per cent.3

Northern Italy’s precocious urbanization was only one of the features that distinguished it from most European territories in this period. The wealth of the northern Italian cities derived principally from trade and commerce, and also increasingly from banking and financial services, a sector in which Florence took the lead. By the fourteenth century, the ruling class of a city like Florence was made up of wealthy merchants and merchant-bankers, flanked by well-educated notaries and lawyers. This was a very different world from most of northern Europe, where power lay predominantly in the hands of a landed feudal aristocracy under a king. In the thirteenth century, most of the cities of northern Italy governed themselves as independent city-republics on the model of ancient Greece or Rome, having wrested political independence from their nominal political overlord, the Holy Roman Empire, late in the previous century. These republics or ‘communes’ (comuni) were governed first by consuls, then later, increasingly, by guild-based governments, in a manner that reflects the importance of trade and the professions within late-medieval Italian civic life.

It is understandable that this wealthy, urban, and precociously proto-capitalistic society would not find itself fully reflected or expressed in medieval Christian culture, which had evolved largely in monastic and other ecclesiastical contexts. It seems predictable, as well, that in Italy, on lands saturated in classical reminiscences and surrounded by the impressive physical remains of classical culture, it would be to the ancient world that this society would look. Already in the thirteenth century, we find an impressive number of translations of ancient works appearing in Italy, suggesting that classical learning had a strong appeal for constituencies far beyond the Latin-literate worlds of the clergy and the notariate.4


Fig 1: Map of Italy, c. 1300, showing extent of urbanization

It is the breadth and the practical bent of this attraction to the classical world that distinguishes the Italian Renaissance from the previous, medieval classical ‘renaissances’ that scholars have identified. Impressive though the Carolingian and the twelfth-century French renaissances were in their output, they remained the province of a limited elite.5 This was not the case in Italy, where, from the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries onwards, pioneering scholarly work on the classics was accompanied by a more grassroots interest in how classical learning might be appropriated and deployed in everyday life. The extraordinarily high literacy rate of Italy’s merchant cities is an important consideration here. The fourteenth-century Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani estimated that, when he was writing, in the 1330s, around 8,000 to 10,000 boys and girls were in elementary school in Florence, out of a population he estimates at around 90,000 (by modern estimates, 120,000). A further 1,000 to 1,200 adolescents were studying the business curriculum at abacus schools, and 550 to 600 were studying Latin.6 Remarkable though these figures are for the period, Villani’s statistics find confirmation in other evidence. Fifteenth-century Florentine census results confirm that 80 per cent of heads of household had sufficient literacy to sign their names.7

Reorienting our understanding of the Renaissance from Burckhardt’s mystical ‘human spirit’ interpretation to one centred on the revival of classical culture has the advantage of bringing our modern-day analysis closer to the perception of intellectuals at the time. While fifteenth-century Latin has no exact equivalent for the term ‘Renaissance’, the notion existed and was clearly articulated by the early fifteenth century that a new and superior age was opening in cultural terms, defined by a return to the insuperable norms of classical culture after a long parenthesis of ignorance and ‘darkness’. This represented an inversion of the historiographical narrative that had dominated within medieval Christian culture, which represented the classical world, despite its cultural sophistication, as benighted on account of its ignorance of the salvific truths of Christian revelation, and which saw the passage from ‘darkness’ to illumination as coinciding with the incarnation of Christ. This fifteenth-century historiographical revision effectively invented the modern narrative of the successive eras of ‘classical’, ‘medieval’, and ‘Renaissance’ (or ‘modern’), as well as laying the conceptual foundation for a term such as the ‘Dark Ages’, a notion that would have perplexed the medieval mind.

Although any account of the Italian Renaissance must give centrality to the phenomenon of classical study and imitation, it would be reductive to see the extraordinary energies of this period as arising from classicism alone. As we have already seen, Renaissance Italy’s imaginative engagement with the classical world may be seen more appropriately as a symptom than a cause, within a rapidly changing society that had in a sense begun to outgrow its own culture. Further dramatic changes were in store for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italians, as for Europeans in general. By the 1450s, the great communications revolution triggered by the introduction of print technology in the West was underway. In the 1490s, the known world dramatically expanded with the discovery of the ‘new’ lands beyond the Atlantic. By 1520, medieval Christendom was undergoing what would prove a permanent religious schism, with the coming of the Reformation.

It was against this dynamic and challenging background that the classicizing movement of the Italian Renaissance grew to maturity, and we should not perhaps be surprised that what resulted was so strikingly dynamic in turn. Although they took their cue from the classical world, Italian Renaissance art, thought, and literature were very far from being backward looking or tritely derivative. In some ways, the metaphor of ‘rebirth’, applied to the Renaissance, is misleading, in that it suggests a revivification of something that has already existed in the past. More than a simple ‘rebirth’ of classical culture in its pristine, ancient form, what we see in this period is something incorporating elements of both recovery and creative dialogue—both patient archeological work addressed to piecing together an understanding of the powerful legacy of antiquity, and a re-appropriation and reworking of the resulting discoveries to create something equally powerful, yet new.


Vital to any understanding of Italian Renaissance culture is the fact that there was no such thing, strictly speaking, as an ‘Italian’ Renaissance. Rather, there were as many Italian Renaissance cultures as there were Italian Renaissance cities. Art historians are, of course, familiar with this principle, and we are used to seeing anonymous works in galleries attributed to the Tuscan or the Venetian school, rather than simply the Italian. The same is true also to a remarkable extent for literary and intellectual history, with the result that the first question scholars in these fields ask in approaching a new writer or thinker tends to be ‘where is he (or she) from’?

The importance that regionalism assumed in Italian culture was a result of the peninsula’s distinctive political history. In northern and central Italy, throughout much of the Middle Ages, each city and town was effectively self-governing: a city-republic exerting sway over a surrounding country area (contrada). Only in the south could a pattern of political authority be observed more reminiscent of that found elsewhere in Europe, that of a united kingdom ruled by a single royal dynasty, presiding over a feudal hierarchy of barons. These southern dynasties were invariably foreign. After a failed attempt in the thirteenth century by the German imperial dynasty of the Hohenstaufen to establish a power base there, southern Italy and Sicily were ruled for most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the French dynasty of Anjou and by the Iberian dynasty of Aragon, which took over definitively in 1442.

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the high point of medieval Italian republicanism, but, by 1300, this political model was already beginning to manifest its precariousness. Over the course of the following century, most of the Italian city-republics devolved into signorie or lordships, as powerful local families profited from the political factionalism endemic to these small republican regimes. Twentieth-century scholarship often represented this shift in strongly negative terms, and the Italian lords were frequently referred to as ‘despots’, a term suggestive of cruel and arbitrary rule. Perspectives have shifted on this point, however, and it is now more usual to emphasize the continuities between republican and seigneurial rule, and the advantages the latter offered urban populaces in terms of security and stability.8 Although signorie were generally established by warlords, those that survived consolidated over the centuries into quasi-monarchic regimes, acquiring the trappings of legitimate rule, such as imperial or papal titles, and marrying into families that could enhance their prestige. This could be an expensive business. In 1305, Azzo d’Este, lord of Ferrara, invested the huge sum of 51,000 ducats to buy a marriage alliance with the daughter of the king of Naples, Charles II of Anjou. In 1539, still in Ferrara, Ercole II d’Este paid the pope of the day 180,000 ducats to be reconfirmed in his title as duke.9


Fig 2: Map of Italy, c. 1494, showing main political divisions

Although northern and central Italy began the thirteenth century as a genuine mosaic of miniature states, its political geography simplified over the course of the next two centuries, as larger cities began to extend their power over the surrounding territory and to subjugate nearby towns. By the later fifteenth century, seven principal regional powers may be observed in the peninsula, along with a few smaller independent states (Fig. 2). The northernmost of the great powers were the duchies of Savoy and Milan, along with the sea-faring mercantile republics of Genoa and Venice, the latter of which had acquired an extensive mainland empire in the fifteenth century. South of Milan stood Florence, officially a republic, though under the informal sway of the Medici family for much of the fifteenth century. South of Tuscany, where Florence stood, were the Papal States, extending northwards on the Adriatic coast up to the Romagna, south of Venice. These lands were nominally under the rule of the popes, though in fact they were farmed out to vicarious rulers who were in some cases so well established as to be virtually indistinguishable from independent princes. To the south of the Papal States extended the vast kingdom of Naples, by this point under Aragonese rule.

Once this political background is grasped, it becomes clear why central and northern Italian cities, even small ones, are often so culturally distinctive. Most cities of any size had spent a period of some centuries in the late Middle Ages as independent, self-governing states, often at war with their neighbours. Even those that were subjugated and absorbed by those neighbours retained a keen sense of their own civic identity and history and culture. Indeed, it may well be that the loss of political independence led the former ruling elites of those cities to invest more—literally and metaphorically—in culture, as a form of compensation or displacement. By the mid-sixteenth century, even relatively small towns in central and northern Italy generally had at least one publishing house, and very often an academy that organized plays and spectacles and fostered literary and sometimes musical production. Their elites spent lavishly on architecture, adding to an already impressive medieval urban legacy. All this cultural activity was conducted with an eye on neighbouring towns, in the emulative spirit that Italians evoke by the term campanilismo (literally, ‘bell-towerism’—a fierce attachment to the town of one’s birth).

The emulative dynamic just noted goes far to explain the extraordinary speed with which cultural novelties were generated and diffused in the Italian Renaissance. In an important work of 1993, the economic historian Richard Goldthwaite argued that the startling rate of stylistic innovation that characterized fifteenth-century Florentine artistic production could be explained by conditions of patronage, and notably the presence in Florence of numerous wealthy families of equal or near-equal status competing with one another for cultural prestige. This created a lively demand for art to which workshops responded increasingly by differentiating their products in formal and stylistic terms. As a result, the capacity to innovate gained a sharp premium, at least at the top end of the market.10

Something of a similar dynamic may be observed on a far vaster scale at a national level. Italy’s disunity revealed itself a political and military liability in an age in which nation-states were consolidating elsewhere in Europe, but it was an undoubted strength in cultural terms. Rather than a country possessed of a sole capital city, Renaissance Italy was a land of competing capitals. The competitors at this national level were not merely the great powers listed earlier (Milan, Genoa, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples). Smaller signorie such as Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino, and smaller republics such as Siena, can also be numbered among Italy’s key cultural protagonists, as can the larger cities of the Venetian mainland, such as Padua, Verona, Vicenza, and Brescia. Many of these cities ranked much higher in terms of cultural prestige than they did in terms of size or population or wealth. Each had a similar internal competitive patronage market to that described by Goldthwaite in the case of Florence. Even in signorie, where the ruling dynasties dominated the patronage of their cities, other elite families and courtiers contributed, eager to enhance the prestige of the city as well as their own prestige within it.11 ‘Magnificence’ (magnificentia)—sumptuous and tasteful expenditure—was theorized by philosophers as a virtue and even accorded a cautious welcome by preachers as a duty of the civic-minded elite.12

The multipolar character of the Italian Renaissance is a point worth underlining, as there has been a tendency in both academic and popular culture to place undue emphasis on Florence, which is often given credit for initiating the movement. This has some justification in art-historical terms, but the notion of Florence as ‘cradle of the Renaissance’ is far less tenable in the case of literary and intellectual history; as Chapter 2 will make clear, the cities of the Veneto, such as Padua and Verona, have a better claim than Florence to this title. Nor is it easy to see, more generally, why Florence should be regarded as representing the apex of Italian Renaissance culture. Even in the fifteenth century, Florence’s moment of greatest glory, the city was in competition with other culturally innovative cities, principally Milan, Naples, and the rapidly ascendent power of Rome. In the sixteenth century, Renaissance culture was even more dispersed. Histories of specific facets of Renaissance culture—poetry, drama, music, scientific culture, warfare—each have their own distinctive geographies, in which Florence features to a greater or a lesser extent. Early fifteenth-century art aside, only in a few of these narratives does Florence have a clear claim to precedence, perhaps most notably the history of political thought.


The question of when the Renaissance began is reasonably well established, though the answer will differ somewhat depending on whether it is considered from the perspective of literary and intellectual history or art history. Where literary history is concerned, current scholarship tends to point to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries for first stirrings, the later fourteenth century for something that may comfortably be called a movement, and the early fifteenth century for the moment when the concerted study of the classics went from being a minority and avant-garde interest to something more approaching mainstream. Art history has a similar trajectory, though less linear, with the impact of classical art and architecture most apparent from the early fifteenth century and important anticipations apparent from the later thirteenth century onwards. Needless to say, this chronology is remarkably precocious by comparison with other countries in Europe, where Renaissance classicism came much later. In England, Geoffrey Chaucer, born in 1343, is conceived of as squarely medieval, as is his successor John Lydgate, born around 1370. In Italy, Francesco Petrarca (b. 1304) and Giovanni Boccaccio (b. 1313) already have good claims to be ‘Renaissance men’.

The question of when the Renaissance in Italy ended is a far more difficult and ideologically charged one than the question of when it began. One traditional periodization, largely based on art history, posited an ‘Early Renaissance’ in the fifteenth century, followed by a ‘High Renaissance’in the early sixteenth, the latter encompassing the remarkable period in artistic production culminating in Michelangelo’s decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–12), and encompassing also the works of Leonardo (d. 1519) and Raphael (d. 1520). Within this narrative, after this insuperable moment, the Renaissance essentially burnt itself out, even though some scholars were prepared to admit the notion of a ‘late Renaissance’, sometimes referred to as ‘mannerism’ in art-historical terms. Some extreme versions of this traditional periodization even dramatically posited an exact moment for the end of the Renaissance, with the Sack of Rome in 1527, when Lutheran mercenaries in the service of the Emperor Charles V brutally trashed the city, desecrating its relics, killing and mutilating many of its inhabitants, and provoking a diaspora among those artists who survived.

Among literary and intellectual historians, there has been less of a temptation to posit such an early date as the end of the Renaissance. In these fields, the tendency has been to see a date of around the mid-sixteenth century as the key turning point, at the time of the Council of Trent (1545–63), the great, decades-long meeting of Catholic clerics at which the reform imperatives of the movement known as the Counter-Reformation were defined. The Council of Trent was summoned in part as a defensive response to the Protestant Reformation, but in part also as a response to widespread calls for reform within the Catholic Church itself. The Council’s remit was principally doctrine and church discipline, but, in the second half of the sixteenth century, under a series of reforming popes, concerted attempts were also made to bring secular culture under some kind of moral control. The most striking manifestation of this was the introduction on a national level of print censorship, resulting in the banning or bowdlerization of texts that were perceived as immoral or licentious, or which voiced anti-clerical views.

Because of this element of repression, the Counter-Reformation has traditionally been regarded in Italy as marking the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of a new age of cultural retrogression that would endure throughout the ancien régime. This narrative was soldered into place in Italy shortly after unification in 1861, when new, national histories of Italian literature began to be written. To a figure like Francesco De Sanctis, the founder of the modern Italian tradition of literary history, the Counter-Reformation represented a brutal end-point for the great explosion of creative energies Italy had seen during the period of the Renaissance.13 The free, questing spirit of intellectual inquiry that had characterized the Renaissance was gradually replaced, through the agencies of church censorship and the Inquisition, with something much meaner and more timorous and convention-bound. Those thinkers who dared still to speculate were executed (like the philosopher Giordano Bruno) or silenced through censorship (like the scientist Galileo Galilei). In literature, too, the sensuous, world-embracing, classicizing works of the Renaissance were replaced by a literature of bigoted and superstitious religiosity. The Counter-Reformation cast Italy, culturally at the forefront of Europe during the Renaissance, back into the outer darkness of a belated Middle Ages.

Forged by Italian scholars but largely accepted by scholars elsewhere, this narrative has essentially maintained its currency almost down to the present day, despite its oddly anachronistic, nineteenth-century character. As a result, the literature and thought of later sixteenth-century Italy have remained significantly under-investigated by comparison with that of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Indeed, the flourishing and inventive tradition of Counter-Reformation religious literature is still virtually a ‘lost continent’, despite some signs of interest in recent years.14This model of cultural periodization has endured in Italian literature even as the ‘black legend’ of the repressive and backward-looking Counter-Reformation has been dispelled within the discipline of religious history. Most religious historians now see the Protestant Reformation in the North and the Catholic Reformation in the South as parallel movements, rather than regarding the first as a grassroots religious movement and the second as an institutionally orchestrated campaign of spiritual and societal discipline, as was common until a few decades ago.15

Curious anomalies have resulted from the historiographical situation just outlined. As an example, the relative cultural prominence of women in Italian elite society in the fifteenth and especially the early sixteenth century has always been seen as a striking sign of the open-mindedness and ‘modernity’ of the Italian Renaissance. In a breathtaking exaggeration, Burckhardt even went so far as to assert that during this golden period ‘women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men’ (p. 250). Within traditional scholarly accounts, this extraordinary moment of female cultural emergence came to an end with the patriarchal and conservative social policies of the Counter-Reformation, which forced women back into traditional domestic roles and drove them from their tentative foothold in the cultural sphere.

What is odd about this view is that it flies entirely in the face of the empirical evidence, which shows Italian women’s literary activity not only continuing but also actively flourishing after 1560. The decades from around 1580 to 1610, at the height of the Counter-Reformation’s influence on Italian culture, mark the time when Italian women writers were at their boldest and most experimental (see Chapter 6 for further discussion). Women were also active during this period as painters, as musicians, and as actresses. A figure like the actress Isabella Andreini, author of a witty and sensual pastoral drama and a volume of sometimes faintly salacious lyric poems, is hard to square with traditional notions of the Counter-Reformation as an age of bigotry and obscurantism; yet Andreini was born as the Council of Trent was closing, and she ended her life in 1604.

Bearing in mind evidence such as this, it seems wise to define the chronological boundaries of the Italian Renaissance with sufficient elasticity to encompass the later sixteenth century—and perhaps even the first decade of the seventeenth century, when it becomes more illuminating to speak of the Baroque. Like later sixteenth-century music and art, so later sixteenth-century literature drew liberally on earlier Renaissance traditions, at the same time that it experimented with newer, proto-Baroque aesthetics and sensibilities. A term like ‘late-Renaissance’ makes perfect sense for this cultural production. It is true that religious subject matter became more common during the Counter-Reformation in art, music, and literature, but it flourished alongside secular subject matter, instead of replacing it. Besides, once we have disposed of the last remnants of the nineteenth-century myth of a neo-pagan Renaissance (see Chapter 2), there seems no reason to suppose that, because a work is religious, it cannot be ‘Renaissance’ as well.


At the time when the modern notion of the Renaissance was forged in the nineteenth century, talk of an undifferentiated ‘man’ to designate humanity was not regarded as problematic, even when that ‘man’, on closer inspection, generally meant ‘elite, literate, urban man with the money to afford books and the leisure to study’. Talk of ‘man’ undergoing a spiritual revolution in this period, as was common in the nineteenth century, reveals this cultural myopia distinctly.

Modern historiographical trends have quite rightly debunked this tendency to a universalism blind to considerations of race, class, and gender. An essay of the 1970s, famous in the field, by the American historian Joan Kelly-Gadol, asked ‘Did women have a Renaissance?’16 Similar questions might be framed about non-elite men, or about racial or religious outsiders such as Italy’s fairly large Jewish population. The nature of these questions has, of course, changed with the changing definition of what ‘having a Renaissance’ might mean. As Burckhardt’s ‘transformation of the human spirit’ and ‘birth of the individual’ have given way to a less mystical conception of the Renaissance as a cultural movement, the question has become less whether a given subject-group metamorphosed in this period into a cohort of free, questing, self-defining individuals, cut loose from the constraints of collective identity, but rather whether a given subject-group participated in the cultural transformation of the Renaissance, with all the legacy of intellectual enrichment that implies. When we speak of a cultural transformation brought about through a galvanizing encounter with the classical world, are we speaking of something that affected only an extremely narrow—and male—social elite?

The answer to this changes somewhat depending on the periodization we posit for the Renaissance, which is one reason why chronological questions are so crucial. A cut-off point of 1527 or 1560 produces one answer, a cut-off point of 1600 a rather different one. Similarly, a methodology that isolates a small number of outstanding works of ‘high’ art and literature and concentrates on issues of authorship and patronage, rather than reception, produces a different answer from a methodology that extends its purview to ‘secondary’, imitative, more popular works and includes readers and users as well as authors and patrons. If we limit our consideration of Renaissance culture to the former, we will find ourselves inhabiting a world largely composed of dukes, marquises, popes and cardinals, of refined intellectuals and avant-garde artists. If we extend our consideration to the latter, we find ourselves in a more diverse and motley and distinctly more populous universe, whose denizens include merchants, printers, intellectually aspirant artisans, actors, courtesans, lesser artists, jobbing writers for the press.

Considerations of language and communications media are vital in understanding the diffusion of Renaissance culture. Latin was the dominant language of high culture down to the end of the fifteenth century, and texts tended to circulate largely in manuscript or in the relatively expensive printed books produced in the early decades of print technology. Both these factors limited the extent of the dissemination of the literary and intellectual novelties of the Renaissance. From the turn of the sixteenth century, as the cost of printing came down and print-runs increased, books began to become accessible to ever-larger segments of the public. At the same time, the vernacular grew in status as a viable and dignified alternative to Latin, not merely for creative writing, but also for works of philosophy, technical treatises, and other didactic literature. This vernacular turn drew momentum from the commercial considerations of printers keen to exploit the ample market of readers from outside Latin-literate milieus.

As a result of the greater availability of books and printers’ attentiveness to the needs of their vernacular readership, classical learning became considerably more accessible in the later sixteenth century. Already in the fifteenth century, vernacular translations had played an important role in disseminating classical and humanistic literature in manuscript.17 In the sixteenth, the volume of printed translations vastly increased, making a very substantial portion of classical literature accessible to a broad literate public, including women, who were rarely educated in Latin. At the same time, editions of vernacular classics such as Lodovico Ariosto’s great chivalric romance Orlando furioso (The Madness of Orlando) began to appear with commentaries identifying their allusions to and imitations of classical texts, allowing non Latin-literate readers to participate in Italian elite culture’s rich dialogue with the classical past.18 By the late sixteenth century, it was possible for an adept writer to give a decent impression of classical learning with no acquaintance whatsoever with Latin.

It was not, of course, through books alone that the innovations of the Renaissance permeated the broader urban culture of Italy. A Venetian in 1550 wandering down the Piazzetta by the Ducal Palace to lay a bet at the gambling stalls that stood there would pass Jacopo Sansovino’s newly constructed Loggetta, with its statues of Minerva, Mars, and Apollo. A Florentine of 1600 walking through the main piazza of her city could muse on such edifying tales in stone as Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Slain Medusa of 1545, or Giambologna’s recent Abduction of the Sabine Woman, completed in 1582. In addition to these fixtures, Renaissance cities regularly transmuted into stage sets to celebrate events such as dynastic marriages and diplomatic visits, their streets and piazzas filled with elaborate temporary architecture, which often served as a vehicle for allegorical or historical messages, helpfully spelled out in vernacular print texts that served as souvenirs for these events. For the 1589 wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in Florence, no fewer than seven triumphal arches were constructed in the city, all lavishly painted with images representing the glories of the two dynasties and the history of Florence. If medieval church paintings served as the ‘bible of the unlettered’, the streets of Renaissance cities must have similarly tutored intellectually curious observers in the classical past.

A vivid account of this filtering down of classical learning may be found in the verse autobiography of the Bolognese popular poet and street performer Giulio Cesare Croce (1550–1609). Croce was the son of a blacksmith and began life in his father’s trade. In his verse autobiography, he constructs a paradigmatic tale of his transformation from blacksmith into poet, which he wryly represents as the result of an encounter with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the classical world’s greatest epic of mutation. Croce recounts how a grocer neighbour lent him an ancient copy of Ovid, which he had bought along with other scrap paper (scartafacci) to wrap lard and cheese in his shop. His attention first caught by the book’s illustrations of shape-shifting gods, the young blacksmith soon found himself enthralled.19 Transfigured by this experience, Croce launched a poetic career that would fascinatingly contaminate low and high culture. His works range from pastoral idylls and high-flown compliments to local dignitaries to songs in dialect celebrating the clamour of the piazza, with its raucous street cries, or dramatizing a dialogue between a mother and daughter as they delouse their hair. We are far here from the sublimity of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or from the dazzling attainments of Burckhardt’s Renaissance hero Leon Battista Alberti. Arguably, however, a more capacious Renaissance, capable of embracing also a figure like Croce, can capture the dynamics of this remarkable cultural movement more accurately than one that remains on the heights.

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