At the beginning of the second book of his treatise On Painting, written in the mid-1430s, the Florentine humanist Leon Battista Alberti gives a stirring account of the reverence in which the visual arts were held in ancient Rome. After pillaging Pliny’s Natural History for a few anecdotes concerning regard for individual artworks (Demetrius I of Macedon supposedly refused to burn the city of Rhodes because a famous painting by Protogenes was housed there), Alberti goes on to speak of the social cachet attaching to artistic practice in the Roman world.

The most noble citizens, philosophers and quite a few kings not only enjoyed painted things but also painted with their own hands. Lucius Manilius, Roman citizen, and Fabius, a most noble man, were painters. Turpilius, a Roman knight, painted at Verona. Sitedius, praetor and proconsul, acquired renown as a painter. Pacuvius, tragic poet and nephew of the poet Ennius, painted Hercules in the Roman forum.1

Alberti has a clear personal agenda here, as a man of elite ancestry who practised painting and sculpture as an amateur (he is responsible for what is probably the first independent artist’s self-portrait, a bronze relief plaque showing him in Roman dress). More generally, however, Alberti’s concern is with the broader societal status of painting, still to a large extent regarded as a ‘mechanical art’, or craft, the equivalent of carpentry or weaving, and hence below the purview of the elite. By emphasizing the exalted status the profession of artist enjoyed in the Roman world, Alberti seeks to persuade his contemporaries that it deserves the same status in present-day Italy.

The irony here is that, unlike their Greek cultural forebears, the ancient Romans had not accorded any special honour or status to artists. Most Roman artists were slaves or freedmen, and the profession was regarded as distinctly ‘mechanical’. The passage in Pliny which is Alberti’s main source here states that after Pacuvius, painting was no longer practised by ‘respectable hands’. The obscure knightly Turpilius is cited as a rare exception, not by any means as a rule.2 In Alberti’s Italy, by contrast, the status of painters was already beginning the upward trajectory that would leave the leading painters of the sixteenth century adored cultural icons. Already in the fourteenth century the remarkable figure of Giotto had been honoured by the Florentine civic authorities and lauded by poets and humanists such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The most famous Tuscan painter of Alberti’s own day, Masaccio, was the son of a notary, a distinctly ‘respectable’ profession. The fourteenth-century shift in artists’ status is captured in Cennino Cennini’s Book of Art, written around 1390, the first manual on art composed by a practising painter. Cennini concedes that some painters are drawn to the art by financial ‘necessity’ and ‘gain’, but notes that others choose art through an innate love of painting, seen as a sign of a ‘noble spirit’ (animo gentile).3

This passage in Alberti illustrates an interesting and relatively little-observed feature of Renaissance humanist culture—its tendency to craft convenient caricatures of antiquity to suit modern rhetorical ends. The classical world had the status of an unassailable paradigm in humanistic culture, and appeals to ancient precedent could offer powerful rhetorical ballast for recent and still precarious cultural trends. Another good example of this dynamic is found in the vision Italian humanists fabricated of women’s social and cultural role in ancient Greek and Roman culture. By the later fifteenth century treatises and letters making the case that women’s abilities fitted them for a wider range of activities than they were traditionally permitted were becoming commonplace, and, by the sixteenth, they exploded into a fashionable genre. Such treatises generally featured impressive lists of classical names of ‘famous women’, the product of humanists’ sedulous trawling of classical texts. These included historically certifiable figures such as the philosopher Hypatia, the poets Sappho and Corinna, and the Syrian warrior queen Zenobia, but they were augmented by many figures of dubious historicity, such as the legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis, the Amazons, and Diotima, the mystic philosopher of Plato’s Symposium. Some especially obscure figures turn out to be misreadings, such as ‘Pythagoras’s sister’, sometimes found listed as a philosopher in humanist texts; this has been traced to a text linking Pythagoras to Delphi (the Greek word for sister is adelphe).4

The humanists’ vision of a classical world filled with high-achieving women offered a powerful argument for reconsidering women’s modern-day potential. This notion was, however, no more historically accurate than Alberti’s account of ancient Rome’s fabled tradition of high-born painters. As in the case of Alberti and painting, the humanists who advocated a broader vision of women’s capacities were projecting back modern-day concerns onto their reading of antiquity. For reasons that will be examined in Chapter 6, women of the Italian elites in this period were beginning to attain a new cultural and political visibility, and the dominant feminine stereotype of the ‘chaste, silent, and obedient’ matron was proving inadequate to their self-image. The list of classical heroines crafted by Renaissance humanists supplied an ideal ‘ancestry’ for the modern court lady, freighted with the normative value and cultural capital that any allusion to antiquity possessed.


Renaissance Italy’s relationship with the classical past was inventive and adaptive because that relationship was functional, rather than purely scholarly or antiquarian. Humanism plundered the rich resources of antiquity the better to understand and explain and, where necessary, to retool or repackage contemporary Italian culture. Comparisons and analogies between ancient and modern were a fundamental cultural strategy of the period: great artists were ‘the new Apelles’ or ‘the new Praxiteles’; great rulers ‘the new Augustus’; great writers ‘the new Virgil’—or, as women emerged as poets, ‘the new Sappho’.

Despite this, however, Renaissance Italy was a very different place from its classical dream twin, and it was getting more different by the moment. In the course of the fifteenth century, three changes took place that revolutionized the West’s experience of warfare, communications, and navigation. Gunpowder, which had already migrated to the West from China by the thirteenth century, began to become fundamental in warfare from around the mid-fifteenth century, following technological improvements. Moveable-type printing developed in Germany in the 1430s, spreading to Italy by the 1460s. Finally, this was the great age of world-expanding exploration. In 1492, the Genoese mariner Cristoforo Colombo, or Columbus, under the patronage of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, became the first European explorer certifiably to cross the Atlantic and ‘discover’—from a Eurocentric perspective—the New World.

None of these developments affected Italy exclusively, of course, but all three impacted immensely on Italian culture. A man born in 1460 who lived out his full ‘three score years and ten’, dying in 1530, would leave a world radically different in many ways than that into which he was born. In addition to printing, artillery, and the discovery of the New World, he would have witnessed the advent of the new medical scourge of syphilis, which arrived in Europe in the 1490s, probably as a legacy of the New World. He would also have seen the beginning of what proved the definitive schism of medieval Western Christendom in the form of the Protestant Reformation. Luther broke definitively with the Catholic Church in the early 1520s. By 1530, several German states had broken with Rome, as had a number of cities in Switzerland. England, Sweden, and Denmark followed suit over the next decade.

Italy also underwent very radical political change over this same period. In 1494, the French king Charles VIII crossed the Alps with an army, seeking to enforce a hereditary claim to the Kingdom of Naples. This was the first of a relentless series of foreign invasions, as the most powerful of the emerging nation-states of Europe, France and Spain, fought for possession of the Italian peninsula’s rich spoils. Italy’s political disunity served it ill in this period. In Machiavelli’s withering analysis in The Prince, Italian rulers themselves conspired to bring about the peninsula’s ‘servitude’ to foreign powers by actively inviting these powers to invade Italian soil, with the hope of using them in their own, parochial power-struggles against other Italian states. In 1559, when the Wars of Italy finally concluded with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, they left Spain the dominant power in Italy, ruling Milan and Naples, together with the whole of southern Italy, directly, and exercising hegemonic power over large parts of central and northern Italy. This sealed what had been the reality on the ground since the late 1490s, where the south and Milan were concerned. The first half of the sixteenth century hence proved a key turning-point historically for the Italian peninsula. Large swathes of northern Italy and the whole of the south would remain in foreign hands until the Risorgimento in the mid-nineteenth century.

Unsurprisingly, living in this volatile material and political environment, Renaissance Italians developed an acute sense of changeability as the fundamental condition of human life. Their classical erudition gave them a ready-made conceptual and discursive framework for managing this intuition, in the form of the notion of fortune, figured by the Romans as a goddess, Fortuna (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Tyche). Fortuna was traditionally conceived of as capricious and changeable, equipped with a turning wheel on which mortals were carried up or dashed down. Arbitrariness was an important feature of a Fortune-governed world. Although the Romans flirted with the notion that Fortune favoured the bold, more pessimistic versions of Fortune represented her as favouring no one consistently, or even perversely tending to favour the least deserving, in order better to demonstrate her power. The difference was very sharp from the Christian, providential version of historical causality, whereby the events of the world were determined by God, and hence could be assumed to have some benign or just meaning, even if this was not immediately apparent to human observers.

The Christian world-view, of course, had no place for goddesses, and a literal belief in Fortuna in the Roman sense would have been heretical. Renaissance humanists’ capacity for conceptual code-switching was sufficient, however, to allow them to appropriate the notion of Fortune metaphorically without concerning themselves with its theological implications. Even when theological sensitivities around this subject grew with the Counter-Reformation, publishers could avoid censorship simply by appending a disclaimer to works that spoke of Fortune, noting that the term was not meant as a literal reference to an independent causal force. The metaphor of Fortune could be used, in practice—as it was by political thinkers like Machiavelli—to call attention to the complexity and unpredictability of the external forces determining human outcomes, and to emphasize the flexibility of response political actors should cultivate, in order to attain success in changing times. One of Machiavelli’s key insights, writing at the time when the Italian Wars had dramatically demonstrated the powers of ‘Fortune’, was that to adhere to a single policy—oreven a single, inflexible moral code—was potentially disastrous. Changeability was human beings’ natural habitat, and they should evolve to accommodate that fact.5

If the new centrality accorded to the notion of Fortune was one consequence of the rapidly changing material landscape of early sixteenth-century Italy, an emerging notion of cultural progress was another. The two were complementary—where negative experiences such as the Wars of Italy tended to prompt gloom-ridden reflection on the arbitrariness of human existence, positive developments such as technological and cultural advances fostered a more optimistic view of society as evolving along a coherent trajectory. Our notional Renaissance everyman—born in 1460, dying in 1530—could hardly escape feeling that he had lived through an exceptional age, assuming he was culturally literate and engaged. In addition to the introduction and development of printing, and the discovery of the New World, he had lived through one of the most remarkable periods in the history of Western art, encapsulating the entire productive careers of Leonardo and Raphael, and a significant part of the careers of Michelangelo and Titian. He had also witnessed the rebirth of Italian vernacular literature, after a long period in the early fifteenth century in which Latin absorbed the majority of Italian humanists’ literary energies. The opening decades of the sixteenth century saw the creation of one of the greatest narrative poems in the European tradition, Lodovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, as well as the political writings of Machiavelli and Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, the last vastly influential in shaping the ethos of ‘Renaissance man’ throughout Europe.

One intuition we find expressed increasingly in the course of the sixteenth century was that modern Italian culture had now reached the point where it rivalled or even surpassed the cultures of classical antiquity. This could be controversial where subjective literary or artistic judgments were concerned; when Ariosto’s enthusiasts proclaimed his poem the equal of Virgil’s Aeneid, this provoked a debate that continued for most of the sixteenth century.6 Where material advances were concerned, however, there could be little room for doubt that the modern world had in some ways surpassed its classical role model. The ancients had not known the art of printing, nor the mechanical reproduction of images through engraving. They had fought with military means that seemed primitive to armies equipped with cannons and with increasingly portable and effective handguns. They did not know of the existence of the New World.

The combination of these two perceptions—of cultural progress, on the one hand; of the mutability of the human environment, on the other—gives sixteenth-century thought much of its peculiar air of modernity. Although we should be careful not to exaggerate the exceptionality of sixteenth-century Italians’ sense of their age as one of accelerated change (few people in history can ever have seen their own era as static and changeless), it seems safe to generalize that a factor we have in common with observers in this period is precisely this sense of living in a rapidly changing world, with all the anxiety and exhilaration that brings.

Aside from the epochal discoveries of the age, and its dramatic political and religious history, change imposed itself on Italian sixteenth-century consciousness in less weighty respects. In dress, for example, this was the period when the modern notion began to consolidate that constantly changing fashions were an intrinsic feature of the elite sartorial system. This crowned a long-term trend towards an acceleration of changes of dress style dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when a consumer culture began to emerge within Italy’s wealthy urban centres.7 In a world in which the poor possessed few clothes over the course of their lifetime, and those mainly pre-worn, rapid changes of fashion were a way in which the elites and the aspirational ‘middling sort’ might mark their wealth, along with the use of luxury fabrics and complex tailoring. The result was a fashion culture sufficiently mobile to allow dress historians to date portraits to the decade in some cases. While the modern Italian term for fashion, moda, did not come into use until the seventeenth century, the term foggia conveyed the same meaning. John Florio’s 1611 Italian–English dictionary translates it as ‘any kind of fashion, guise, manner, forme, or new invention, namely in clothes and apparell’, and conveys such associated, short-lived coinages as foggiare (‘to follow fashions’) and foggiatore (‘an inventor or follower of new fashions’). Similarly, from the early sixteenth century, we begin to find the phrase all’usanza employed to mean what would later be called alla moda, to indicate a mode of dress in keeping with usage, or the time.8

One index of the Renaissance fascination with modernity and change was the fashion for books of inventions, such as Polidoro Virgilio’s vastly popular and much-translated 1499 compendium On the Inventors of Things.9 Polidoro’s book incorporates both ancient and modern inventions, but some treatments of the inventions theme are focused exclusively on modernity, such as the series of 20 engravings that the Florence-based Flemish artist Giovanni Stradano, or Jan van der Straat, made for the Florentine erudite Luigi Alamanni in the late 1580s.10 Stradano’s Modern Discoveries (Nova reperta) enticingly mix the geographical discoveries of Columbus and Magellan and technical innovations unknown to the ancient world, such as spectacles, stirrups, water mills, the printing press, the magnetic compass, clocks, gunpowder, the practice of polishing weapons, the art of engraving itself (Fig. 17). Less happily, syphilis also features, along with guaiacum, a New World drug used for its treatment. At the end of the Renaissance, Stradano’s Discoveries allowed Florentines a dazzling vista back over an age of innovation, inviting them to measure how much the world they inhabited differed from the ancient world. The distance is extreme from the kind of humanistic worship of the superiority of antiquity that we see Leonardo Bruni portraying, and perhaps satirizing, in the figure of Niccolò Niccoli in his Dialogues of 1405, who represents modern culture in purely negative terms, as a squalid ruination of the splendours of the classical past.


Fig. 17: Print by Jan Collaert after Giovanni Stradano [Jan van der Straet]. Title page to Nova reperta (Modern Discoveries), c. 1591.


Central to the conception of the Italian Renaissance as it emerged in nineteenth-century Europe was the notion that this age saw a new curiosity about the physical and human world, sharply contrasted with the medieval, otherworldly worldview. This vision is encapsulated in a phrase of Jules Michelet, later picked up and developed by Burckhardt, ‘the discovery of the world and of man’.11

Although the starkness of Burckhardt’s contrast between medieval and Renaissance is undoubtedly exaggerated, there remains an element of truth to it. The quantity and quality of the attention Renaissance Italians directed to the study of nature and society was impressive and innovative in many ways. The world was more thoroughly ‘mapped’ in 1600 than it had been in 1400, and not simply as a result of the expanding geographical reach of the ‘age of discovery’. Important work was done in mathematics, in astronomy and cosmology, in anatomy, and in the various branches of natural history (botany, zoology, mineralogy, gemology). Engineering, surveying, navigation, and cartography profited from the development of new or improved instruments of measurement. Geography, history, and travel writing flourished, as did novel forms of ethnographic mapping such as Cesare Vecellio’s remarkable costume books of the 1590s, illustrating the dress of men and women of different classes and social groups throughout Italy, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the New World, and ranging back from the present day to ancient Rome.12

Striking as an example of the protoscientific culture of the later Renaissance is the extraordinary natural history collection assembled by the Bolognese patrician Ulisse Aldrovandi, which he evocatively described as a ‘microcosm’ and a ‘theatre of nature’, as well as a museum.13 In the year of his death, in 1605, Aldrovandi enumerated his collection as comprising more than 18,000 specimens of the ‘diverse things of nature’, including 7,000 dried plants in 15 volumes. In addition to material specimens, Aldrovandi’s microcosm contained a vast collection of manuscript notes, drawings, and woodcuts intended to assist in the dissemination of his researches in print. Four volumes of his Natural History, classifying birds and insects, appeared during his lifetime, and a further nine were published posthumously by his students, covering molluscs and crustaceans, fish, mammals, serpents and dragons, monsters, minerals and mining, and dendrology.

The presence of a volume on monsters within Aldrovandi’s natural-historical microcosmus serves as a useful reminder that the Renaissance culture of ‘discovery of the world’ did not fully map onto that of modern science, even if it presages it in some ways. Renaissance thinkers approached the study of the natural world with different methods, different assumptions, and a different perspective than later scientists. In Michel Foucault’s influential formula in The Order of Things (1966), they operated according to a different ‘episteme’, or fundamental configuration of knowledge: a more mystical understanding of the universe, privileging the notion of resemblances between the cosmic, the natural, and the human spheres.14 Renaissance thinkers also allowed more weight in their methodology to cultural and textual traditions, which supplemented and demanded to be integrated with empirical observation. The analytic headings Aldrovandi uses to organize his descriptions include such ‘unscientific’ categories as mysticamoraliahieroglyphicaemblemata, so that his chapter on peacocks, for example, includes not only a physical description of the bird and a description of its diet and reproductive habits, but also a detailed discussion of the complex and contradictory moral and symbolic meanings that have attached to it within a long tradition of bestiary lore, religious allegory, and literary representation.15

The story of the Renaissance investigation of the natural and human world offers a vivid illustration of the ways in which humanism’s rediscovery of classical culture interacted with often practically driven impulses to empirical exploration and experimentation. It also allows us to see in action the sense of progression, advancement, and modernity that is such a defining characteristic of the sixteenth century, in particular. Two fields well suited to this kind of analysis are physical and cultural geography, and the study of the human body through anatomy. The next two segments of this chapter will examine these two important areas of Renaissance intellectual and practical culture in turn.


The impulse towards a fuller description and mapping of the physical world in the Renaissance may be seen as stemming initially less from any intellectual or humanistic source than from the pragmatic culture of merchant shipping, an essential element in the infrastructure of late-medieval commerce. At some point in the twelfth or thirteenth century, in an important development in the history of navigation and cartography, nautical charts of the type sometimes known as ‘portolan maps’ began to appear, mapping coasts frequently sailed by merchant mariners with unprecedented precision. The origin of these maps is unsure, but it seems likely that they reflect a confluence of Byzantine and Islamic mapping traditions. Italian maps of this kind, such as the famous Carta Pisana, show the Mediterranean in great detail, together with a sketchier representation of coasts farther afield. The accuracy of portolan charts is remarkable by comparison with the contemporary world maps known as mappae mundi, which feature a symbolic, radically unrealistic treatment of space, intended to narrate the world and to convey cultural and especially religious information, rather than to assist materially in orientation and travel (Figs 18 and 19).

The development of portolan charts was dependent on a prior technological development: the introduction of the compass as a navigational instrument. The use of ‘wet compasses’ for navigation—magnetic needles suspended in water—is first recorded in Europe in the twelfth century (having previously developed in China). Its successor, the ‘dry compass’, evolved in the thirteenth. In addition to the traditional, coast-hugging navigation reflected in the portolan maps, the availability of compasses facilitated oceanic navigation, and the late thirteenth century saw the first, failed attempt to find a route across the Atlantic from Spain to India, on the part of the Genoese brothers Ugolino and Guido, or Vadino, Vivaldi (1291). The expedition vanished without trace, perhaps inspiring the fate that Dante, in his Inferno, imagines for the Greek hero Ulysses. Dante’s Ulysses does not return to Ithaca after the Trojan War like Homer’s; instead, gripped by an unholy desire for knowledge, he sails beyond the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ that God positioned at the straits of Gibraltar as the proper limit of human knowledge, continuing his ‘mad flight’ until his ship is sucked into a vortex and the waters close above his head. Ironically, the stirring oration Dante has Ulysses give to his men—the speech that earns him his condemnation to Hell for ‘false counsel’—is one of the earliest and most evocative anthems of the dawning age of exploration, speaking eloquently of the forbidden lure of experiencing ‘the unpeopled world behind the sun’.16


Fig. 18: Pietro Vesconte, Map of the Atlantic coast of Europe in the style of a portolan chart, showing north Africa, Spain, France, and the British Isles, from a manuscript of Marin Sanudo the Elder, Liber secretorum fidelium crucis, Venice, c. 1320–25.


Fig. 19: Richard de Bello, detail depicting Italy from the Hereford Mappa Mundic. 1280. (The orientation of the map is approximately south–north, with the Greek mainland top left, the Italian peninsula in the centre, dominated by Rome, and Crete, with its labyrinth, and Sicily to the right.)

Despite Dante’s admonition, exploration beyond the Pillars of Hercules continued, with a probable voyage to the Canaries prior to 1339 by the shadowy figure of the Genoese Lanzarotto Malocelli, for whom Lanzarote is named, followed by a better-documented Italian-led, Portuguese-sponsored expedition of 1341, which mapped the entire archipelago of the Canary Islands for the first time. The thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were also a period in which travel to India, Central Asia, and China was newly possible, in consequence of the so-called Pax Mongolica, the period of stability ushered in by Genghis Khan’s establishment of the Mongol Empire. Travellers to the East in this era include the Franciscans Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (c. 1180–1252), the author of an important History of the Mongols; Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247–1328), who established the first Catholic missions in China; and, more famously, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (1254–1324), who, with his father and uncle, spent more than 20 years in China at the court of the legendary Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. Polo’s memoir of his travels, ghost-written by Rustichello da Pisa, rapidly established itself as a classic of early travel writing and survives in around 150 manuscripts.

It is within this context of expanding horizons and cartographic experimentation that we need to locate the interest in geography manifested by Petrarch and Boccaccio, although a further impulse to this study undoubtedly derived from their encounters with classical texts. The principal works of ancient geography available to these authors were Pomponius Mela’s Chorography, which Petrarch discovered in Avignon in 1335, and Pliny’s Natural History, which he acquired in Mantua in 1350. The keenness of Petrarch’s geographical interests is well illustrated by his annotations to the geographical sections of Pliny; he developed a system of marks highlighting the topographical features Pliny describes, distinguishing between mountains, rivers, and cities. Part of the impulse behind these labours lay in the frustration Petrarch felt in reading classical texts without adequate annotation. A long note in his manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid, at the point describing Aeneas’s first sighting of Italy in Book 3, vividly illustrates the difficulty in Petrarch’s day of spatially locating classical narratives and histories.

Many things cause errors concerning the identification of places, including the following: the remoteness of some regions, inaccessible to men of the present day; the changes in names; the difficulties in locating some authors’ works, and their obscurity; and sometimes the inconsistencies that exist among them; but above all the intellectual inertia of those who care for nothing they do not see before their eyes.17

Petrarch goes on to note that his own researches permit him to identify the site of Aeneas’s first landfall as lying at Castrum Minervae, or Castro, in Puglia, speaking of his sources as ‘not only the works of the auctores, especially the cosmographers, but also descriptions of the world and certain very ancient maps [presumably, portolan charts] that have come into our hands’.18

Boccaccio’s intellectual commitment to geography was still more marked than Petrarch’s, to the extent that he wrote two Latin works on the subject. One was a dictionary of classical topography, systematizing the kind of identification work Petrarch had begun in his annotations to Pliny (On Mountains, Forests, Springs, Lakes, Rivers, Swamps or Marshes, and on the Different Names of the Sea). Boccaccio worked on this for around a quarter of a century, from 1350 to his death in 1374. His other geographical work, more contemporary in its focus, was On the Canaries and the Other Islands Newly Found in the Sea Beyond Spain, a Latin account of the 1341 expedition to the Canary Islands drawing on an eyewitness vernacular letter by one of its lead mariners, Nicoloso da Recco. Boccaccio’s fascination with travel and topography is also apparent in his narrative masterpiece, the Decameron, whose stories have the reach of a portolan map, spanning the Mediterranean from Acre and Alexandria to Majorca and Marseilles.

The fifteenth century, with the beginnings of Greek study, saw a remarkable expansion of geographical erudition, as the sophisticated learning of the Hellenistic world became available for the first time. Among the earliest Greek texts to be translated into Latin was the Geography of Ptolemy of Alexandria, translated in the first decade of the century by Jacopo Angeli da Scarperia, a student of Manuel Chrysoloras. Ptolemy’s text exemplified a mathematical approach to geography, using geometrical coordinates, or latitudes and longitudes, to map the world. This transformed the practice of mapmaking, inspiring cartographic feats such as the extraordinary sets of manuscript maps produced in the late 1440s–1450s by the traveller and Camaldolese friar Fra Mauro, in collaboration with the mariner and cartographer Andrea Bianco (Fig. 20), or the series of maps made by the German-born monk, Nicholas Germanus, to accompany a deluxe printed edition of Ptolemy in 1470.19 Building on the earlier innovations of the fourteenth-century Genoese cartographer Pietro Vesconte, these mapmakers began to reconfigure the world map in the realist idiom of the earlier portolan charts. While drawing richly on Ptolemy, later fifteenth-century maps also incorporated material deriving from post-classical sources, some very contemporary. Besides Marco Polo and Muhammed Al Idrisi (1099–c. 1165), the sources for Fra Mauro’s map include Alvise da Mosto, or Cadamosto (1432–83), who had compiled a detailed record of his exploration of the west coast of Africa in the 1450s in the service of the Portuguese.


Fig. 20: Detail of Italy and the Mediterranean Basin, from the only extant copy of the world map of Fra Mauro (c. 1450), in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice. (The map is oriented south–north, with the coast of Africa top right.)

If Ptolemy’s mathematical approach to geography inspired a new school of cartography, another Hellenistic rediscovery of the fifteenth century, Strabo’s Geography, launched a new humanistic tradition of geographical works of a more cultural-historical, ‘human geography’ kind. The founding text of this tradition is Biondo Flavio’s Italy Illuminated of the 1450s, a detailed geographical-historical account of the various regions of Italy, notable for its precocious sense of Italy as a unified territory. Following Flavio, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future pope Pius II, wrote descriptions of Bohemia and Germany, as well as a universal history, which sets out to compare and synthesize the findings of ancient and modern geography. A copy of the first printed edition of Piccolomini’s text held by the Biblioteca Colombina in Seville was owned and annotated by Christopher Columbus: an evocative record of the intersection between the humanistic and the practical traditions of geographic exploration. The importance geography had assumed in humanistic culture by the early sixteenth century is well illustrated in Raphael’s School of Athens, discussed in Chapter 2. Ptolemy and Strabo are given a prominent place in the lower right hand corner of the painting, grouped with artists and flanked by geometers, as the ‘philosophers’ most invested in mapping the physical world.

By the time Raphael painted this image, of course, the discovery of the New World had lent a new excitement to the discipline of geography. The year before he started work on it, 1508, saw the first printed edition of Ptolemy to be updated with a map of the new land mass beginning blurrily to take shape across the ocean. Print technology allowed written accounts of the expeditions to be disseminated rapidly and widely. Columbus’s letter describing his first 1492 voyage was first printed in Italy, in a Latin translation, in May 1493, two months after his arrival back in Spain. By June, a versified version was available in the Italian vernacular (Giuliano Dati, The New Islands Found by the King of Spain). It has been estimated that around 3,000 copies of the letter were printed in Europe between 1493 and 1500, half of them in Italy.20 Amerigo Vespucci’s letters, too, circulated widely, as did the various editions of the first formal history of the voyages of discovery, Pietro Martire d’Angheria’s Decades on the New World, published between 1516 and 1530. Such was the demand for exploration literature that older works found their way into print at this time, alongside burningly current ones. A collection of 1507, New-Found Lands and New Worlds, includes Alvise da Mosto’s 1450s narrative of his explorations of west Africa, as well as the more recent exploits of Vasco da Gama, who pioneered a new sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, and of Pedro Alvarez Cabral, who discovered Brazil.

It was not solely through textual accounts that the New World entered Italy. From the earliest voyages onwards, explorers brought with them plants, animals, birds, and rare woods. Other such mirabilia (marvels) arrived from the Far East, newly opened up to European travel since da Gama’s voyage in 1498, and from the coastal regions of Africa, increasingly frequented at this time. It has been estimated that more than 20 times as many new species of plants entered Europe in the course of the sixteenth century than in the previous 2,000 years.21 Already in 1515–18, when Giovanni da Udine painted his exuberant—and uncannily accurate—festoons of fruits, vegetables, and flowers in Agostino Chigi’s riverside villa in Rome (now known as the Farnesina), he included three New World plants among the 170 species portrayed there, including the first European image of maize.22 The arrival of such novelties intersected with humanism to promote new research and inquiry, exactly as in the parallel case of geography. In 1545, the first botanical garden in Europe was founded, in Padua—first, nominally, as a medicinal resource, but soon for more disinterested botanical study. A year earlier, the Sienese doctor and naturalist Pier Andrea Mattioli had published his commentaries on the Greek herbalist Dioscorides, naming a hundred species unknown to his classical predecessor, including the tomato, described here for the first time.


Fig. 21: Giacomo Gastaldi, Iroquois Village in Hochelaga, Canada, from the third volume of Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Delle navigationi et viaggi (Venice: heirs of Luc’Antonio Giunti, 1566).

The greatest textual monument to the Renaissance interest in travel, first published between 1550 and 1559, was the Venetian Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s remarkable three-volume anthology, Navigations and Voyages, containing accounts of voyages to the Near and Far East, to Africa, and to the New World (Fig. 21). Ramusio’s collection has a distinctly Italian, and Venetian, take on the age of discovery: the first volume opens with a parallel between Marco Polo and Columbus, as the great pioneers of land exploration eastwards and sea exploration to the West. A point of interest in Ramusio’s collection, and of sixteenth-century travel writing more generally, is the confidence it evinces at points concerning the superiority of modern geographical knowledge to ancient. Introducing the illustrative maps in the second edition of Volume 1 of his Navigations and Voyages, Ramusio notes that they illuminate the world in such a way that ‘there will be little need henceforth to weary oneself over the tables of Ptolemy’. Amerigo Vespucci says of the New World’s fauna, ‘Pliny did not touch upon a thousandth part on the species of parrots and other birds, and animals, too, which exist in those same regions’.23 Most emphatically of all, Ramusio prefaces his translation of a text attributed to the ancient Greek writer Arrian with an exasperated comment on the inconsistency of the revered geographical authorities of antiquity, concluding that ‘men who delight in knowing the places of the earth should give infinite thanks to the Lord for ensuring that they were born in the present day’.24


The discovery of the inner ‘geography’ of the human body through dissection followed a trajectory similar in some ways to that of the exploration of the external physical world, in terms of the interaction of humanistic study and practical, empirical exploration. A major difference, however, is the status of the disciplines. While geography as a field of study was essentially a humanistic rediscovery, conducted by interested individuals outside the context of the universities, medicine was a recognized academic discipline long before the advent of humanism. Salerno, south of Naples, had an internationally famous medical school, which attained its peak of influence between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. By the second half of the thirteenth century, the study of medicine had been institutionalized at the University of Bologna, where it was taught in close conjunction with the arts and with Aristotelian natural philosophy. The principal ancient authorities on medicine, Galen and Hippocrates, were known in this period, in Latin translations from the Greek via the Arabic, and Latin translations were also available of the principal authorities of the medieval Arabic tradition, notably the eleventh-century Persian polymath Avicenna.

It is at the University of Bologna in the early fourteenth century that we first find evidence of the use of human dissection in university medical education, as a practical adjunct to the study of Galen’s anatomical writings (animal dissections had already been practised at Salerno). An outstanding document of this early phase in the history of anatomical study is represented by the 1316 dissection manual and anatomy treatise of the Bolognese professor Mondino de’ Liuzzi, Anathomia: an immensely influential text that continued to be published and used in university teaching for the next two hundred years. Although Mondino’s are the first recorded dissections for teaching purposes, it seems likely that the practice was introduced by his predecessor Taddeo Alderotti in the late thirteenth century, which is the time when we begin to find the earliest recorded instances in Italy of autopsies carried out for public health and forensic reasons. From these Bolognese beginnings, the practices of autopsy and pedagogical dissection spread to other centres in Italy across the course of the fourteenth century.25

The reintroduction of dissection as a routine practice within medical teaching was historically momentous; this was the first time dissection had been practised systematically since the early third century BCE, when it was briefly adopted by the Alexandrian medical school under Herophilos of Chalcedon and Erasistratus. Dissection of human bodies was banned in ancient Rome on religious grounds, with the result that Galen was limited to practising dissection on animals anatomically close to humans, such as pigs and Barbary apes. Thus we see that, ironically, one of the most ‘medieval’ aspects of Christianity, its disdain for the corruptible and mortal physical body, in this case enabled a distinctly ‘Renaissance’ practice, which would eventually contribute significantly to man’s understanding of the physical world. That there was no medieval taboo on dissection of the body is strikingly illustrated by the fact that post-mortem autopsies were conducted on men and women of outstanding holiness in search of the secrets of their sanctity (images of the cross and the other instruments of the Passion were found in the heart of St Chiara of Montefalco when she was cut open in 1308; three stones bearing holy images in that of the Blessed Margherita of Città di Castello in 1320).26 Medical dissection, in which the form of the body and face were destroyed, was regarded with greater distaste, and it was generally conducted on executed criminals; yet it was not regarded as a sacrilege. Pope Sixtus IV gave official sanction to the practice in 1482, as long as it was conducted with the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities, and was followed by Christian burial of the remains.27

Partly because the medieval scholastic tradition of medical teaching was so firmly entrenched in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian universities, the impact of humanism on the discipline was relatively belated, although humanist interest in medicine was stirred by the discovery of the Roman writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus’s elegant and accessible compendium On Medicine in 1426. In the second half of the fifteenth century, we find the humanist Niccolò Leoniceno calling for a reformed and classicizing model of medical study, based on the original Greek texts of Galen, Hippocrates, and Aristotle, and on their early Greek commentary tradition. Significantly, Leoniceno taught not at the long-established scholastic powerhouses of Bologna or Padua, but rather at a far more recent institution, the University of Ferrara, founded in 1391 under the aegis of the d’Este family, noted for their interest in humanist culture. A cultured bibliophile, close to the court, he may be seen as a prototype for the new model of humanist doctor who would become a familiar figure in the cultural landscape of the sixteenth century. More broadly, Leoniceno exemplifies the rise of scientific humanism in general in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, initially primarily in Latin, but, from the 1520s and 1530s, increasingly also in Greek.28

A further important development in the history of dissection in this period was a growing interest in the practice on the part of artists. As realism in the rendition of the human body became an imperative in art, and as the influence of antiquity reintroduced the nude into artists’ repertoire, a close knowledge of anatomy became an ever more crucial qualification for artists to acquire. From the later fifteenth century, we begin to find the first indications of artists taking an interest in notomie (literally ‘anatomies’), as dissections were called. The sixteenth-century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari credits the Florentine Antonio Pollaiuolo with priority on this score.29 Although art historians dispute whether Pollaiuolo observed notomie himself, or whether he limited himself to a close scrutiny of surface anatomy, his Battle of Nude Men (c. 1465) certainly broke new ground in the explicitness and detail of its representation of human musculature (Fig. 22).30


Fig. 22: Antonio Pollaiuolo, Battle of Nude Menc. 1470–74, engraving.

The most famous instance of an artist’s involvement in dissection is, of course, that of Leonardo da Vinci, who combined artistic and scientific-philosophical interests more fully than any other figure of his day. Leonardo first seems to have developed a systematic interest in anatomy in the 1480s, when he was employed at the court of Milan. There, precisely on 2 April 1489, he commenced what he later described as a ‘book entitled The Human Figure’, initiated with a series of remarkable studies of skulls, employing techniques developed by architects and engineers to reproduce three-dimensional effects within a two-dimensional medium like drawing (Fig. 23).31 Leonardo’s interest in the subject grew in the first decade of the sixteenth century, and he gained first-hand experience of ‘anatomizing’ (his first recorded dissection, in 1507, was famously of a man claiming to be 100 years old and who died peacefully ‘without any movement or sign of any other mishap’; Leonardo speaks of dissecting him to discover the secret of ‘so sweet a death’).32 According to Vasari, in 1510–11, Leonardo collaborated with the medic Marcantonio della Torre, a professor at the University of Pavia, with the intention of publishing a work on anatomy, although the plan was interrupted by della Torre’s early death.33 Whatever the truth of this, the legacy of anatomical drawings Leonardo left is striking both for its level of scientific insight and the clarity and finesse of its artistic rendition. In some cases, Leonardo’s drawings record details of human anatomy that academic medicine did not register for centuries afterwards.34 Although he never published his drawings, certain of Leonardo’s representational techniques appear to have become known to his fellow artists, and the early sixteenth century saw the art of anatomical drawing generally advancing to a remarkable degree of accuracy (Fig. 24).


Fig. 23: Leonardo da Vinci, two drawings of skulls seen from the left, 1489. Royal Collection, Windsor [RCIN 919057].


Fig. 24: Second plate of the muscles, from Andreas Vesalius, On the Fabric of the Human Body (De humani corporis fabrica) (Basel: Johannes Oporinus, 1543).

Leonardo was unusual for his day in his investigative attitude to dissection, as a means of gaining new knowledge about the structure and functioning of the human body. Within university culture, dissection had traditionally been relegated to a pedagogical and illustrative role, providing visual evidence of a textually inscribed and implicitly unimprovable body of knowledge. Standard university practice was for technicians such as barber-surgeons to conduct dissections while the praelector in charge read and commented on Mondino’s work. By the early sixteenth century, however, attitudes were beginning to change in such a way that this static paradigm of knowledge came to seem obtuse. Medical humanism and the discovery of Celsus’s text had made scholars of medicine more aware of the ancient Alexandrian investigative tradition of anatomy embodied by Herophilos of Chalcedon. At the same time, contemporary advances in geography were spreading the idea that empirical investigation might expand knowledge beyond what was known to the ancients. Already in the field of botany and herbal medicine, Niccolò Leoniceno had published a provocative treatise (1492; revised 1509), pointing out numerous errors in Pliny’s Natural History, arising both from Pliny’s confusion of Greek terms for plants and his insufficient observation. Leoniceno’s work contains an interesting statement on the importance of empirical observation over authority in science:

Why did nature grant us eyes and the other senses, if not that we might see and investigate the truth with our own resources? We should not deprive ourselves and, following always in others’ steps, notice nothing for ourselves: this would be to see with others’ eyes, hear with others’ ears, smell with others’ noses, understand with others’ minds, and decree that we are nothing more than stones, if we commit everything to the judgment of others and decide on nothing ourselves.35

By the first decades of the sixteenth century, university studies of anatomy in Italy were beginning to move towards a more empirical paradigm, epitomized by medical professors’ increasing willingness to dirty their hands in the practice of dissection. An anatomy treatise by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi, published posthumously in 1535, dissents from Galen on a number of points, rooting its arguments in the author’s experience of dissection.36 More famously, in 1543, the great Flemish-born anatomist Andreas Vesalius (Andries van Wezel) published his influential treatise On the Fabric of the Human Body, based on dissections he conducted in Padua, and including an illustration of Vesalius himself in the act of dissecting an arm. Vesalius’s treatise is notable for its numerous corrections to Galen’s anatomical writings and its trenchant assertion that Galen’s errors derived from the fact that his knowledge of the interior of the human body was based on the dissection of animals, rather than humans.37 Although Vesalius, in humanist fashion, represented his modern practice as a return to antiquity, and specifically to the pre-Galenic, Alexandrian tradition of dissection-based anatomy, his correction of Galen met with some sharp opposition. Vesalius’s Paris-based former teacher Jacobus Sylvius (Jacques Dubois) punningly branded him Vaesanus (meaning a madman) and claimed that, rather than Galen being incorrect, we should rather assume that human anatomy had changed since Roman times.38 Despite such resistance, however, Vesalius’s empirical tradition flourished in later sixteenth-century Italy. Further advances in anatomical knowledge were made by Matteo Realdo Colombo, who collaborated with Michelangelo in the 1540s; by Gabriele Falloppio, famous for his discovery of the Fallopian tubes, though also the author of breakthroughs in the understanding of the anatomy of the head and ear; and by the embryologist Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente, whose pupils included William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood.


The histories of geography and of anatomy illustrate areas of Italian Renaissance culture in which the study of ancient texts combined with empirical observation to produce knowledge that might clearly be represented as an advance on that of the ancients. The nature of these fields made such judgments relatively easy. It was difficult by 1550 to deny that the moderns knew of lands of which the ancients had been ignorant; and it was equally difficult by 1600 to deny that modern anatomists knew the human body more accurately in certain respects than did Galen. By the later sixteenth century, Falloppio could compliment Herophilos’s greatness by describing him as the Vesalius of antiquity: a telling reversal of the long-established humanist commonplace that flattered modern thinkers or writers by describing them as the Socrates or the Virgil of their day.39

Within fields such as art and literature, the notion of progress was clearly more problematic, since it inevitably had to rest on subjective judgments of aesthetic value. This, however, did not impede the Tuscan artist and writer Giorgio Vasari, chief artistic advisor to the Medici court in the mid-sixteenth century, from elaborating a narrative of artistic progress sufficiently compelling and confident to shape the nascent disciplines of art history and criticism in ways that may still be felt today. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550 and then in a revised version in 1568, tells how Italian art emerged from crude beginnings in the thirteenth century to a point where it equalled the great achievements of the ancients. Still more stirringly, Vasari claimed that his contemporary Michelangelo Buonarroti reached beyond the highest achievements of antiquity. Equally titanic in his accomplishments as painter, sculptor, and architect, Michelangelo had left the legendary Greek artists lauded by Pliny far behind.

Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is one of the great books of the Italian Renaissance: formidable in its research and vast in its scope and ambition. It is also highly original in its conception, having no obvious classical or humanistic model. Collections of biographies of men prominent in particular fields were a popular genre, stemming back to works such as Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers and the Lives of the Ten Attic Orators long attributed to Plutarch. A Renaissance example, crafted in the form of a dialogue, is Lilio Gregorio Giraldi’s 1545 On the Poets of our Times.40 Vasari combines this biographical model with an ambitious cultural-historical narration of the evolution of the arts over time, structured as a process of growth and maturation. There are some parallels for this in Cicero’s account of the development of Roman oratory in his dialogue Brutus, in Pliny’s narration of the evolution of Greek and Roman art in the thirty-fifth book of his Natural History, and in Vitruvius’s history of the development of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders in the fourth book of his On Architecture, but none of these classical texts matches Vasari in the structural centrality they accord to the notion of progress.41 In a way that profoundly shaped the subsequent tradition of art history, Vasari narrated the story of Italian art between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries as one of maturation, with each age improving on the previous one. He organizes his artistic biographies into three broad chronological-stylistic eras and prefaces his discussion of the artists of each era with a general discussion of the characteristics of that age. The first era runs from Cimabue in the mid-thirteenth century down to the end of the following century, while the second encompasses the majority of the fifteenth century, from the heroic generation of Masaccio, Donatello, and Brunelleschi down to the time of Botticelli, and the third focuses on artists of the early sixteenth century (extending to the mid-sixteenth century in the expanded second edition). The divisions between the eras are not solely chronological. Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, and Pietro Perugino, all born in 1445 or 1446, are regarded as part of the second age, while Leonardo da Vinci, born only seven years later, ushers in the third and greatest age.

In a manner already established in evolutionary accounts of the arts in antiquity, Vasari represents the ascent of modern art partly in terms of advances in realism. After the initial quantum leap effected by Giotto, by comparison with his Byzantine ancestors (whom Vasari amalgamated into a single ‘Greek painter’), the fifteenth century saw a further stride forward with the development of linear perspective. By the later fifteenth century, painters could reproduce nature with an accuracy of which no previous age could have dreamed. The third age, however, pressed beyond this achievement, creating paintings and sculptures more beautiful than anything in nature. Vasari here echoes Neoplatonic thinking about art, which saw its vocation as that of capturing the essence or ‘Idea’ of an object, rather than the imperfect appearances of the material world.

Taken on its own terms, Vasari’s narrative of artistic development mimics the process of human development from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. The thirteenth-century emergence of art from its medieval doldrums is seen, however, not merely as a birth but a ‘rebirth’ or renaissance, so that the growth of Italian art is also a recapturing of an ancient maturity and formal perfection now lost. This was already an established humanistic model of cultural historiography, seen, for example, in Leonardo Bruni’s Life of Petrarch (1436), with respect to literary and intellectual culture. Where Bruni only appeared to envisage the moderns eventually equalling the attainments of antiquity, however, Vasari went further, confidently stating that the classical tradition had been superseded by the art of his own day. In this audacious cultural leap, Vasari was assisted by the fact that so much of classical visual culture had perished—including the Greek tradition of painting almost in its entirety—making direct comparisons between ancient and modern achievements less easy to make than in the case of literary culture. Even so, we should not underestimate the significance of Vasari’s assertion that modern art had come to equal that of antiquity, not as a piece of passing rhetorical hyperbole, but as a sober statement of fact.

It is interesting to consider the extent to which Vasari’s triumphalist modernism in the Lives is indebted to the influence of contemporary developments such as Vesalius’s correction of Galen and the growing sense among geographers and natural historians of the superiority of modern knowledge to ancient. It seems certain that he was aware of both, given the professional involvement of artists with the worlds of cartography and anatomy. At the time of the revision of the Lives for their second edition, Vasari was involved in an ambitious cartographic scheme for his patron, Cosimo I de’ Medici, intended to decorate the Guardaroba of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The project was effectively a ‘microcosm’, inspired by the same impulse to a theatricalization of knowledge as Aldrovandi’s museum, containing more than 50 maps, representing the entire known world, together with cabinets of natural specimens and artworks from the various continents, and celestial and terrestrial globes.42 Vasari’s description of the maps, which were planned in collaboration with the cosmographer and polymath Egnazio Danti, emphasizes their extraordinary precision and modernity. All are ‘measured with perfect accuracy and corrected after the most recent authorities’, including Ramusio. As Vasari confidently states, in the whole history of cartography, ‘no greater or more perfect’ scheme has ever been realized.43


By the later sixteenth century, the notion that antiquity represented an insuperable peak of cultural excellence that modernity could only strive to imitate had given way in several fields and disciplines to a more confident sense of the possibility of progress. In addition to the examples discussed here, others might easily have been selected—warfare, military architecture, surveying, cryptography, plastic surgery. This is not to mention astronomy, where the work of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe had begun to call into question the understanding of the structure of the universe that had prevailed since Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s day.

The field in which it was most difficult for a sense of progress to take root was Renaissance humanism’s original territory of literature, where the dazzling legacy of classical antiquity constituted a daunting obstacle. How could a modern writer equal the achievements of Homer, of Virgil, of Ovid, of Horace, of Cicero, especially when these figures came surrounded with the aura created by a millennium and a half of reverend commentary and citation? The problem was compounded by the fact that those modern writers who had the highest claim to rival the ancients—Dante, Petrarch in his lyric poetry, Lodovico Ariosto—were difficult to compare directly with their classical predecessors. This problem was especially marked in the cases of Dante and of Ariosto, in that they seemed to flout the rules of classical literature as Aristotle prescribed them and as theorists inferred them from classical practice. Dante came under fire for his lack of decorum, and his mingling of ‘low’ and high’ styles in a single poem; Ariosto for the digressive structure of his poem, which derived from medieval traditions. Some apologists of Ariosto, such as Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio, argued innovatively for a flexible and historically relativistic standard of literary excellence, so that Ariosto’s Orlando furioso should not be judged by the standards of classical epic but considered on its own terms, as a representative of a new genre, romance.44 This argument, however, struggled to make headway at a time when the Aristotelian ideal of unity of plot, articulated in the Poetics, was the object of new theoretical enthusiasm. It was not until Torquato Tasso, writing in the 1570s, produced his more classically regular Jerusalem Delivered that Italian critics could begin confidently to congratulate their culture on having produced the first true modern epic worthy of the name.

In two respects only could observers of Italian literary culture in the sixteenth century speak confidently of progress with respect to antiquity. One was a traditional one—that, for all its sophistication, classical literature was flawed on grounds of the intrinsic falseness of the religious beliefs that informed it, and that Christian literature was superior since it could serve as a direct vehicle for truth. This belief came to enjoy a new ascendancy in the Counter-Reformation era, as religious subject-matter became increasingly fashionable. New and assertive models of sacred literature evolved in this period, combining Christian subject-matter with humanistic and classicizing form: the sacred tragedy (a Jesuit specialism), the sacred epic, the sacred lyric—even, more unexpectedly, the sacred comedy.45 This new Christian literature was quite explicit in its claims to superiority over pagan literary production. A popular commonplace of Counter-Reformation literature, echoing the opening of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, unfavourably contrasted the muses of classical antiquity, their laurels now withered, with the new Christian muse, located in heaven, not on Mount Helicon.

The second respect in which modern literary culture might be seen as having progressed with respect to antiquity—and to the pre-Renaissance past in general—was technological. The late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a communications revolution on a scale to rival the emergence of digital and internet culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The accompanying cultural and social changes were similarly radical, and, to an extent, also similar in kind. The principal technological advances that drove the Renaissance communications revolution were, in chronological order, the development of woodcut printing for images, from around 1400; the development of copper-plate engraving, from around the 1430s; and the development of moveable-type metal printing for text, from around 1450. (These dates are for the European emergence of these technologies; all were available much earlier in Asia.) All three technologies are first recorded, within Europe, in Germany, but they spread very swiftly to Italy. Venice had by 1500 established itself as the chief publishing centre in Europe. A prior technological development, almost equally momentous for book history, was the introduction of paper in the late Middle Ages as a cheaper alternative to parchment and vellum. This spread northward from Muslim Spain and Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Fabriano, in the Marches, one of the most important Italian paper-making centres, is recorded as having two paper mills in operation already in 1283.

The impact of these technologies on Italian culture was vast. Most immediately, they served to disseminate written material far more widely than had ever before been possible and to reach far wider swathes of the population. Already in the 1460s, it has been calculated that the cost per page of printed books was around an eighth that of manuscripts, and the price of books came down consistently across the course of the following century and a half, as a result of technical advances, while at the same time wages and the cost of living generally rose through inflation. Where the earliest Italian printers in the 1460s asked six lire for 200 pages in quarto format, in 1592, a single lira would buy 150 pages in the same format.46 This was comfortably within a day’s wages for a craftsman or even a labourer. A master builder in Venice in the early 1590s earned more than 2 lire a day, up from a lira and a half in 1565. Over the same period, the wage of a semi-skilled worker in the same trade had increased from a lira to a lira and a half.47

As a result of these changes, books migrated from the status of luxuries to that of everyday possessions, even for people of relatively humble status. The Friulian miller Menocchio Scandella, whose 1599 trial for heresy was examined by Carlo Ginzburg in his classic 1976 study The Cheese and the Worms, showed knowledge in his depositions of around a dozen books, including the Bible in the vernacular, saints’ lives, popular history, Boccaccio’s Decameron, a translation of the fourteenth-century exotic travel narrative of ‘Sir John Mandeville’, and an Italian translation of the Koran.48 Higher up the social elite, we have evidence of intellectuals owning libraries vastly more extensive than anything even princes and popes had been able to assemble a century before. Niccolò d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, is recorded as owning 279 manuscripts in 1436. The library of the great Greek scholar Basilios Bessarion (d. 1472) amounted to around 800 manuscripts; that of Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino (d. 1482) around 1,100. By contrast, in the later sixteenth century, the humanist and bibliophile Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (1535–1601)—a private citizen, if a wealthy one—amassed a library in his house in Padua that amounted to more than 7,000 manuscripts and books.49

Together with written texts, mechanically reproduced visual images circulated widely in late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, at both an elite and a popular level. At the higher end of the market, the arts of engraving and woodcut became media of remarkable sophistication and beauty, capable of attracting the most talented artists of the day. Raphael collaborated with the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi to create reproductions of his own paintings, but also original works designed for the new medium. Titian did the same with both woodcuts and engravings, while Dürer and Parmigianino were both involved in the development of the fascinating sub-genre of the chiaroscuro woodcut, the first colour reproduction technology in the West. At the lower end of the social spectrum, woodcuts supplied cheap prints for domestic use, especially in devotion. An early example of this is the oldest surviving Italian woodcut, the so-called ‘Fire Madonna’ (Madonna del Fuoco), a hand-coloured xylograph depicting the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints, that was posted on the wall of a school in Forlì in the 1420s and ‘miraculously’ survived a fire there in 1428.

In addition to its importance for the history of literature and thought, the introduction of printing is important for the history of communication and the dissemination of news. Cheap print broadsheets and pamphlets served from the late fifteenth century to spread news of discoveries, battles, and portents, and to disseminate comments on current affairs. By the mid-sixteenth century, governments were utilizing print technology extensively for communicating with their citizens, where once they would have used oral means such as itinerant town criers. The new technology early proved its worth for ideological and propagandistic purposes, playing a key role, for example, in the religious controversies surrounding the Protestant Reformation. It has been alleged with some truth that the reason why the Reformation succeeded where previous reform movements had been successfully suppressed by the Church was that Luther’s texts circulated in print.50

Although print must take the starring role in the history of this period’s communications innovations, another novelty of the sixteenth century deserves mention here: the development of a robust and established system of circulating manuscript news sheets (avvisi), originating especially in Venice and Rome. These avvisi developed from the earlier system of merchant communications, of which documentary traces remain from the thirteenth century onwards. By the late sixteenth century, professionals known as novellanti or menanti dedicated themselves to the gathering and dissemination of news. Their reputation is evocatively conjured in a warning a dialogue of 1598 proffers to cardinals’ secretaries not to have anything to do with such men, who are capable of ‘taking the egg out of a chicken’s body, let alone a secret out of a youth’s mouth’.51 The availability of protojournalistic instruments such as avvisi contributed to the emergence of what might be called a protojournalistic public. In 1596, a proposal was made to the Bolognese Senate for a public reading room where avvisi would be available to read, and where they would be read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate. The public envisaged was ‘men of letters, gentlemen, citizens, and others who wish to hear and understand what is happening each day in various parts of the world’.52

The magnitude of these changes in culture and communications did not escape contemporary observers. Not all were happy to see this cultural transformation. Print introduced new protagonists into book culture, beyond the traditional manuscript culture figures of author, scribe, reader, patron—editors, printers, publishing entrepreneurs. It also introduced a market dynamic into the production of literature, paving the way for the emergence of professional authors who could support themselves through their pens. The taint of commerce concerned some aristocratic authors, who preferred to circulate their works by manuscript well into the print era. Talk of printers as mercenary and sloppy and of editors as ignorant became popular commonplaces among writers and intellectuals. Fifteenth-century scholars lamented that printers’ greed and carelessness had introduced hundreds of new errors into classical texts.53

More momentously, as the social reach of written culture expanded, the political and religious authorities became increasingly preoccupied with the potentially subversive effects of print technology and its role in disseminating unorthodox and critical ideas. Censorship practices began to be introduced in Italy from the early sixteenth century, at first on a local and relatively ad hoc basis; then, in an increasingly systematic and centralized manner. The first Index of Prohibited Books (a particularly severe one, later mitigated) was issued by Pope Paul IV in 1559. By the later sixteenth century, printers were required to submit their forthcoming books for pre-publication scrutiny by local ecclesiastical censors, who assessed them for religious unorthodoxy, and, to a secondary extent, for moral indecency. This undoubtedly had the effect of inhibiting some of the bolder and more controversial strains within Renaissance culture. Machiavelli’s works, for example, were officially banned after 1559, although they remained available under papal licence for those who could claim a legitimate need to consult them, notably rulers and military leaders.54

The rise of journalism in the later sixteenth century aroused the suspicions of the authorities as much as printed books—perhaps more, as it was less easily controlled. A bull issued in 1572 by Pope Gregory XIII complains that not only is humanity suffering from its customary vices, but new ones are arising by the day, unknown to previous eras. Among these new threats to the moral order is:

[a] sect of improperly curious men, who propose, receive, and scribble down everything concerning public and private affairs that comes to their notice, or that they themselves wilfully invent, concerning both domestic and foreign affairs, mingling together in complete disorder the true, the false, and the uncertain, so that one may say a new art has been instituted.55

Gregory’s bull introduced new punitive measures against menanti, reinforced by his draconian successor Sixtus V.

Despite these institutional attempts to curb the freedom of the press and to discipline its power, the impact of the new technology was still transformational. The market dynamic of the publishing industry encouraged literary and editorial innovation, as printers sought to enhance their trade by spiking the interest of readers. Humanists, following the example of Petrarch, had put together and circulated collections of their letters already in the fifteenth century, but the gossipy vernacular Lettere of Pietro Aretino, published in six volumes between 1538 and 1557, launched a new and seemingly inexhaustible vogue for works in this genre. Similarly, collections of poetry by various authors already circulated in manuscript in medieval Europe, but the lyric anthologies published by the dynamic and inventive Venetian publishing house of Gabriele Giolito from 1545 again proved wildly popular and spawned numerous imitations. Giolito is generally credited with the invention of the series of books, still known in Italian as a collana, a necklace, after the first instance of it, the Collana storica: a series of classical and modern historical writings that Giolito began to publish in 1563 with his editor Tommaso Porcacchi. Popular print genres in the mid- to late sixteenth century included richly illustrated emblem books, costume books, and books of lace patterns, along with collections and anthologies of all kinds: of speeches, jokes, games, cosmetic and culinary recipes, political axioms, medical ‘secrets’. Even the advent of the Counter-Reformation, which repressed some sectors of the printing industry, provided opportunities for enterprising publishers, who evolved attractive new religious products for their vernacular readership, such as rosary-themed books; anthologies of sacred dramas, lyrics, or saints’ lives; and meditations and ‘books of tears’ (lagrime), intended to structure readers’ personal spiritual experience.56

One especially evocative and characteristic late-Renaissance print genre is the selva, or ‘forest’—a kind of popular encyclopedia of general knowledge, pulling together a vast, often seemingly arbitrary mass of historical, scientific, and cultural information.57These derived from classical models such as Valerius Maximus’s hugely popular Memorable Sayings and Deeds, which went through more than 70 editions in the Italian sixteenth century in Latin and the vernacular. An example is Luigi Contarini’s 1586 Charming and Delightful Garden, in Which There May Be Found the Unhappy Ends of Many Famous Men; Diverse and Remarkable Examples of Virtue and Vice; the Deeds and Deaths of Prophets; the Names and Works of the Ten Sibyls; the Discourse of the Muses; the Origins and Campaigns of the Amazons; Marvelous Examples of Women; the Inventors of All Sciences and Arts; the Origins of Religions and Chivalric Orders; the Excellence and Virtues of Many Natural Cures; Some Injunctions of Popes … and the Seven Wonders of the World. Works such as these placed in vernacular circulation bodies of knowledge that, a century earlier, would have been available only to the learned. Together with translations of classical works, they enabled those with no Latin some second-hand access to the world of classical erudition, establishing a shared patrimony of secular ‘common knowledge’ that helped bridge the gulf between elite and popular culture.

As books became more available across the course of the sixteenth century and translations and divulgative works flourished, we begin to find a few authors commenting in interesting ways on the democratizing effects of print. A 1564 work by the ‘empiric’ doctor, popular medical writer, and pioneer of plastic surgery Leonardo Fioravanti, notes that, in the field of medicine, it was possible in the past for learned doctors to convince their patients of anything they wished:

… because there was a great shortage of books, and whenever anyone could discourse even a little in bus or bas [i.e. speak Latin], he was revered as a prophet and whatever he said was believed. But ever since the blessed printing press came into being, books have multiplied so that anyone can study, especially since the majority are published in our mother tongue.58

By making books available at a low cost, the blessed press has ‘awakened the world, which was sleeping in ignorance’.59 Where once only the wealthy could study, now ‘almost everyone can read, both men and women’, so that a day can be envisaged when ‘we will all be learned [dottori] together’.60 Fioravanti’s rhetoric of reawakening is markedly Burckhardtian, yet he locates the moment of revival at the moment of dissemination, not discovery. In his striking metaphor, the age of print marked the moment when ‘the kittens opened their eyes’.61

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