Renaissances and Humanism



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The Florentine Renaissance

It is now widely agreed the term "Renaissance", as applied exclusively to the cultural surge that began in fourteenth century Florence is a misnomer. In the previous section we described the educational and scientific development through the Middle Ages, including several  periods of increased cultural activity.  The Florentine resurgence beginning in the fourteenth century was mostly in literature and some of the visual arts that had been neglected for some time, and this development was in the context of a new socio-political situation. All of these factors contributed to an enhanced sense of humanism.


As the German emperors lost effective control of Northern Italy, many of the cities in this area became self-governing republics. Florence was one of these cities. Its wealth was mostly based on a widespread network of banking and commercial activities, and a group of families effectively controlled the political system. This system resembled republican Rome, with the signoria or governing council, composed mostly of members of the merchant families, taking the place of the Roman Senate.[1]




Vecchio Palace, Florence
Photo  © Margarita Gavaldá Romagosa

The man most responsible for a revival of interest in classical literature in the fourteenth century was Francesco Petrarcha (anglicized Petrarch). Petrarch was born at Arezzo in 1304, the son of a Florentine father. He started legal studies, but  he abandoned these to dedicate himself to the pursuit of literature. He  served in several clerical and diplomatic appointments at different cities in Italy and France, while his fame grew as a poet. His study of classical poetry awakened in him a deep admiration for the civilization of Greece and specially Rome. His extensive travels allowed him to search for and unearth classical manuscripts  that had been forgotten at old monastic libraries.


Humanist Circles

The humanities have a strong element of celebration, of the joy of shared humanity, of being alive and being part of a community. So, not surprisingly, the characteristic intellectual activity of this period was the informal gathering of friends, in contrast with the emphasis on university life of the previous two centuries. One of these groups gathered around the Florentine poet Bocaccio at the Augustinian monastery of Santo Spirito in Florence. Bocaccio had met Petrarch in 1350 and they maintained a friendship through visits and correspondence. The discussion group at the monastery included laymen as well as monks. Upon his death in 1375, Bocaccio bequeathed his library of classical works to the monastery.[2] In the 1380’s and early 1390’s, another circle of humanists met  at this same monastery of Santo Spirito, taking advantage of Bocaccio’s donated library. This group included Coluccio Salutati and his "disciples.”[3]


Coluccio Salutati was born in a province of the Florentine Republic in 1331. In 1335 his family moved to Bologna, where Coluccio studied to become a notary and served in several clerical positions. During the time that Salutati received his secondary education in Bologna there was a growing interest in the classics in this city, and some of his teachers transmitted this interest to young Coluccio.  In 1375 Salutati was appointed chancellor of Florence, and he remained in this office until his death in 1406. During the later stages of his life, Salutati became very good at mentoring younger men and inspiring in them the same passion for the classics that he had.[4]


Leonardo Bruni, a disciple of Salutati and also a chancellor of Florence, lauded the value of the humanities in building the human spirit: "those subjects that are related to life and behavior, which are called the humanities (studia humanitatis) because they become a man, and perfect him."[5] The earliest educational impact of this emphasis in the humanities occurred through the tutoring and private academies of individual humanists, but some courses in the humanities gradually began to be taught at Italian universities during the second half of the Fifteenth century.


Public Service

Salutati struggled his whole life with his dual and sometimes conflicting tastes for a retired life of learning and for public service. He wrote often on this subject, but remained ambivalent on it to the end. In a letter to a friend who was contemplating joining a monastery, he wrote in 1398:


I grant that the contemplative life is more sublime for its high level of thought; more delectable with the sweetness of tranquility and meditation; more self sufficient since it requires fewer things; more divine since it considers divine rather than human things; more noble since it exercises the intellect, the higher part of the soul, which among living things is the unique possession of man. I grant, finally, that it is more lovable because of itself and, as Aurelius says, that it is to be sought for love of the truth; nonetheless, the active life that you flee is to be followed both as an exercise in virtue and because of the necessity of brotherly love.[6]


Salutati was able to channel his understanding of the active life based on brotherly love into a Christian patriotism. He and Bruni, as chancellors, provided civic leadership. For them, the best way to serve one’s neighbor was by supporting and defending the city-state institution, which in turn looked after the common good of all the citizens. Bruni exalted the virtues of public service: "And when a free people are offered this possibility of attaining offices, it is wonderful how effectively it stimulates the talents of the citizens…"[7]


The Northern Renaissance

The renewed interest in classical civilization and the heightened sense of humanism spread from Florence to the rest of Europe, facilitated by the invention of the printing press. Perhaps the leading intellectual in Northern Europe during this period was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536). An emphasis that had begun at Florence was in the study of languages, including classical Greek which had had been largely neglected.  Erasmus provided leadership in this, personally creating a new translation of the New Testament into Latin.


Two educational philosophies were in competition at European universities  during the sixteenth century. The first philosophy was the traditional medieval approach of intellectual rigor, of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake The second one was the result of the influence of the renaissance humanists, with more of an emphasis on the "active life,” in service to society, as discussed above.[8] This issue was crystallized in the writings of Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), discussed in the next few sessions. Vives studied at Paris and taught at the universities of Oxford and Louvain. He met Erasmus at Louvain, and he was greatly influenced by him.


Solidarity and the Purpose of Knowledge

In 1531, Vives wrote a large volume on his views on education, The Transmission of Knowledge. In this work, Vives addressed all aspects of learning, but here we will concentrate on his contributions on the social value of knowledge.


Vives begins his book with a discussion on the development of early human civilization reflecting on the limitations of isolated individuals, [9] and how the advantages of civilization gradually provided some freedom for the mind to study and reflect. But for Vives, this freeing of the mind and the resulting curiosity and eagerness requires some harnessing and direction: "Now, this unbridled eagerness for knowledge had been carried very far, when, in the midst of the course, that on-rush of mental energy began to be checked by the most capable minds, while they considered what at length was to be the goal of such a wide and anxious course." [10] His answer to this question about the goal of knowledge is given a religious base, relating to the Christian teaching about the use of talents:


Certainly there can be nothing more pleasant to Him, than that we offer our erudition and whatsoever of His gifts we possess to the use of our fellow men, i.e. of His children, for whom God has imparted those great goods that to whomsoever they are allotted, they should be of use to the community at large... This then is the fruit of all studies; this is the goal. Having acquired our knowledge, we must turn it to usefulness, and employ it for the common good... With bold confidence, therefore, we must study all branches of knowledge for that use, for which they were appointed by God.[11]


The Knowledge Heritage

Vives is appreciative of the knowledge contributions from the classical world:


 I have always held that we must render the ancients our warmest thanks, for not withholding from us, their successors, the results of their study and industry… For how greatly do the discoveries of earlier ages and experiences spread over long stretches of time, open up the entrance to the comprehension of the different branches of knowledge?...[12]


Most Renaissance thinkers, including Vives, can be faulted for ignoring the continuity from antiquity through the middle ages, and undervaluing the medieval contributions, but these contributions were integral to the European university tradition, and thus part of Vives' education. Vives clearly acknowledges the additive and gradual nature of the building of the knowledge heritage:


In the beginning first one, then another experience, through wonder at its novelty, was noted down for use in life; from a number of separate experiments the mind gathered a universal law, which after it was further supported and confirmed by many experiments, was considered certain, and established. Then it was handed down to posterity. Other men added subject matter which tended to the same use and end. This material, collected by men of great and distinguished intellect, constituted the branches of knowledge...[13]


Each generation has the responsibility of insuring that its contributions to the knowledge heritage are recorded and preserved for future generations:  "And since he who has acquired learning not only wishes to be of use to those who come into his company and to those with whom he lives, but also to those who are distant from him, and to posterity, he will write down the thoughts of his mind in monumental literature to last for a long time to come…"[14]


And Vives emphasized the important role of the teacher in sharing and transmitting this heritage, which he considered to be a social responsibility: "It is the work of a learned man to pass on that same learning to others; and, as it were, from his own light to kindle light in the minds of others."[15]


The Branches of Knowledge

Vives provides a detailed treatment of some of the branches of knowledge and their social functions, including the social sciences, history and the professions of his time, medicine and law:


For all the humanities come under the head of wisdom; from it spring those sciences which the Greeks called Ethics, Economics, and Politics. These are subjects which the human intellect and the whole nature of man with impulses aroused by the Creator, necessarily found out and built up into organized knowledge. If they were excluded entirely, man would not live at all, and if removed in part he would live not a human life, but the life of a wild beast or a savage.[16]


The usefulness, nay also the necessity, of history is realized in daily life... no one would know how his ancestors came to the country he inhabits; no one's possessions would be certain and valid, were it not for the help of history. What am I to say of the great importance of history for the government of the commonwealth, and the administration of public business?... What knowledge can be preferable for the ruler of a state, or more expedient for any of his subjects to know? [17]


Let us now treat of medicine. This art has power of life and death over the bodies of men. To it a power is entrusted greater than any King or Emperor has ever possessed. Wherefore God and man demand that the physician himself should perform diligent work; they assert and require that he shall treat as wisely and affectionately as possible, those matters which are assigned to his good faith and authority![18]


The States and assemblies of men are all bound together by justice as if by glue. For justice is the preserver, and, as it were, the soul of all human society…Those who defend and interpret the laws, which have already been ordained and accepted, are called jurisconsults... it is the function and office of a true and thorough jurisconsult to explain the sense and spirit of laws, so as to discover the justice that is present in each law...[19]


[1] Charles G. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 13-15.

[2] Charles L. Stinger, "Humanism in Florence” in Albert I. Rabil, ed., Renaissance Humanism, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 179-180.

[3] Ibid., 181.

[4] Ronald G. Witt, Hercules at the Crossroads, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1983), 117.

[5] Leonardo Bruni, "A Letter to Niccolo Strozzi,” in Gordon Griffiths, et al., eds., The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni (Binghamton, New York: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1987), 252.

[6] Coluccio Salutati, "Letter to Peregrino Zambeccari” in Ronald G. Witt, ed., The Earthly Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 111.

[7] Leonardo Bruni, "Oration for the Funeral of Nanni Strozzi” in Griffiths, et al., eds., The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni, 125.

[8] John W. O’Malley, "The Jesuit Educational Enterprise in Historical Perspective," in Rolando E. Bonachea, ed., Jesuit Higher Education (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1989), 14-16.

[9] Juan Luis Vives, "The Transmission of Knowledge" in Vives: On Education, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), 12-13.

[10] Ibid., 16-17.

[11] Ibid., 283-284.

[12] Ibid.,, 8.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Ibid.,  299.

[15] Ibid., 283.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Ibid., 231-233.

[18] Ibid., 216-217.

[19] Ibid., 261-262.