Renaissances and Humanism






Knowledge Rev.

Historical Timeline

Index by Topic

Return to Main Page

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 .

At the University of Louvain in Belgium,  a wealthy canon donated to the university the funds needed in order to set up a "Trilingual" college in which there would be taught the three biblical languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew), based on the advances in philology that had been made in recent decades. This was opposed by some faculty members in the conservative theology department. Erasmus, who had some influence on the university, had to personally intervene, resulting in the successful establishment of the new college within the framework of the university (1517). [8]

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.[9] This issue, which is the central theme of this website, was crystallized in the writings of Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540):

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.[10]

Vives and the Knowledge Heritage

The above quoatation is from Vives' most important work, On the Transmission of Knowledge. Vives studied and taught at Louvain and several of the other major universities in Europe, but he was not satisfied with any of these experiences, so he deciced to write this large volume to present his views on knowledge and education:

When I reflected that there is nothing in life more beautiful of more excellent than the cultivation of the mind through what we call branches of learning...  I determined to write on the subject, as far as my powers let me...[11]


For 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]


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]


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."[14]

[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] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science (Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978), 60-62.

[9] 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.

[10] Juan Luis Vives, "The Transmission of Knowledge" in Vives: On Education, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), 283-284.

[11] Ibid., 6.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Ibid.,  283.