Around 1990, I wrote the first version of this essay and revised it every five years. By 2010, the essay was 45 pages long (including a separate essay on Renaissance humanist history). In August 2015, I was invited to write a short essay on Renaissance humanism for the Turkish-German arts magazine, Sabah Ülkesi. I spent two weeks condensing my longer essay, cutting many sections, and produced a 10 page essay. This version is somewhat longer (13 pp.) with additional sections on the Golden Age idea and on the three primary forms of humanism developed by court, church, and burgher society.
This essay can be found on my web site - www.socialhistoryofart.com – under the page “Essays by Period”. Scroll down to the section with my writings on 15th-century Italian art.
In its narrowest sense, humanism was an Italian Renaissance intellectual movement devoted to the study, revival, translation, and after 1450, the printing of classical literature. i It began in Florence in the mid-fourteenth century and spread through most Italian cities after 1400. With its uniquely urbanized aristocracy, Italy was the only region with the rich urban culture needed for humanism to flourish. It was also the only region where most major cities could proudly trace their ancestry back to ancient Rome. In Renaissance Florence, Milan, Siena, Naples, and Rome, the revival of classical architectural forms and humanist letters displayed not just a venerable history but a new, urban modernity, virtue, and power. For many reasons, Northern Europe remained inhospitable to humanism until the 1490s. Its aristocracy remained ensconced in their feudal estates. Few towns had Roman ancestry. And medieval monasticism was more deeply entrenched.
The spread of humanism was greatly assisted after 1450 by the technological revolution of printing. By transforming books from hand-written, luxury objects owned by wealthy elites to inexpensive, mass produced commodities, printing allowed writers to claim a new authority and social-climbing readers to assert a new knowledge, intellectual power, and humanist “inner nobility” tied to mind. The rise of printed images – woodcuts and engravings – was also important in spreading humanist classical forms and a growing scientific and technological knowledge (some of it rooted in the late Middle Ages).
To make classical literature an essential element in modern culture, early humanism focused much of its energies on changing the curriculum and on founding new schools to educate the sons of well-to-do families. By redefining education, humanism ended up transforming European consciousness and all high culture.
Despite its orientation toward the classical past, humanism was a forward-looking movement geared not toward scholarship for its own sake. Instead, it defined new educational, social, and moral values to help citizen-elites handle the challenges of modern urban life with its emerging market economy, ii its greater social mobility, its discovery of new worlds (medical, terrestrial, and astronomical), its proliferation of individual voices, and its technological and scientific innovations. All this took place within a larger political framework of slowly centralizing states where new, royal academies of sciences, letters, and arts spurred an explosion in knowledge.
Although rooted in late medieval developments, above all the rise of the city after 1100, iii humanism arose because late medieval monasticism and scholasticism (the theological culture of late medieval universities) was incapable of coping with the challenges, opportunities, and goals of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century life. With its strong commitment to civic and political engagement, humanism moved beyond traditional medieval oppositions between celestial and terrestrial, mind and body, contemplative and active, sacred and profane. Putting aside for a moment the more secular, late medieval world of chivalry and court culture, much medieval writing extolled the superiority of an inner life piously retreating from the sinful, outer world and spurning curiositas as ungodly. In sharp contrast, humanism located "true" piety and virtue in social and political engagement while grounding sanctity and virtue in outward actions and civic accomplishment. Chief among these were work, family, and politics. Instead of fleeing the world like sanctified monks and nuns, humanists challenged modern individuals to live virtuously in the midst of worldly danger and temptation.
In the end, humanism was less a fixed set of rules or guidelines than a new commitment to making sense of the changing social and political environment in which modern urban elites found themselves and to forging new habits of thought and action. As such, humanism was inherently flexible and adaptable. It improvised and evolved to meet new challenges and assumed distinct forms within different groups and regions at different historical moments. Even individual humanists like Poliziano could evolve considerably over a lifetime, moving from sensual mythological verse to a more pessimistic Christian humanism in old age. And politically alienated humanists could eventually renounce the active life. (The status of the humanist’s political engagement was a central problem debated in More’s Utopia).
The Three "Worlds" of Humanism: Politics, Morality, Nature With respect to the public sphere now seen as the loftiest, noblest arena of human achievement, humanism explored law, justice, and political philosophy, war, economics, and history (understood as moral and political philosophy). Humanism also produced comprehensive new discussions of the private sphere and morality - marriage, family, and sexuality - and the relation of private life to the well-governed state. In general, humanism (especially burgher humanism) saw the family as the cradle of all political and religious virtues and as the earliest "school" for the training of citizens and leaders. With its focus on improving earthly life, humanism also produced after 1500 an impressive scientific culture in areas such as anatomy and medicine, astronomy, geography, and botany. Much of this science was tied to practical political and economic benefits. Astronomy and geography served navigation, voyaging, conquest and trade. Botany assisted pharmacology and agriculture. Geology fed into mining, metallurgy and weaponry. Applied mathematics served finance and trade.
The spread of humanistic impulses into every imaginable arena masked the larger unity of humanism's three preoccupations: politics, morality, and natural science. All three realms were interwoven in humanist culture through traditional notions of macrocosm and microcosm - larger and smaller worlds united in a single harmony. In this traditional thinking inherited from classical antiquity and fundamental to medieval thought, the universe contained a variety of smaller worlds ranging from the earth to the state (or social body) to the human being. All of these overlapping spheres were seen as orderly “governments” where divine reason ruled over base matter, mind over body, intellect over the passions, educated persons over the "common man," free persons over slaves, men over women, and humans over animals.
More importantly, humanists reinterpreted these spheres by projecting modern urban values and experiences into cosmology, natural science, politics, human nature and biology. In this way, humanism naturalized and universalized itself just as medieval feudalism had reified aristocratic and monastic values. The fact that classical writers had already interwoven scientific discussions of nature, political discussions of the ideal city, and moral discussions of the virtuous, "well-governed" human being made it easier for Renaissance humanists to develop similar, all-encompassing discourses. While some Renaissance humanists admired the metaphysical traditions of Plato, most humanism looked to the more worldly philosophies of Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics (and to Plato’s more earthly concerns).
Whereas Platonic thinking devalued the bodily world, Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy offered Renaissance humanists the new ideal of virtuous living in the very midst of life’s turbulent “seas”. Divinely endowed with reason and sight to contemplate the visible order of the cosmos, Stoic man used reason to fashion a heroic moderation, order, and virtue – a tranquil self-government protected from the vagaries of Fortune. (By contrast, medieval writers such as Dante used Fortune’s implacable power and cruel indifference to reinforce the Vanitas of earthly ambitions, accomplishments, and pleasures.) The Stoics also praised the value of profitable labor and moderate bodily pleasures. For Renaissance humanists, the most influential of the Stoics was not the severe Seneca, who counseled an inner virtue detached from all social, economic, and political passions, but rather the moderate, politically engaged Cicero. His Stoic humanism offered a more appealing model for Renaissance humanists like Bruni, Manetti, and Erasmus who fused political and moral virtue while defending earthly ambitions. Stoic humanism was particularly central to the civic or burgher humanism of the Italian, republican city states (1350-1500) and to sixteenth and seventeenth-century, Northern commercial centers (Antwerp, Amsterdam).
Platonic Humanism: from Classical Homoerotic Metaphysics to Renaissance Heterosexual Aestheticism
Despite its metaphysical orientation, the impact of Platonic philosophy on humanism was not unimportant, especially because Plato was himself heavily focused political, moral, and educational virtues. Before 1500, Platonic humanism was more metaphysical than moral, as seen in the Florentine humanist, Ficino. After 1500, Platonism spread more widely as an aesthetic discourse of transcendent beauty but only humanists dramatically reinterpreted Plato’s intellectual universe to serve Renaissance values. Ignoring Plato’s sharp opposition between divine and bodily beauty, Renaissance writers after 1500 developed a ladder-like continuum between earthly and divine beauty which Plato only briefly described in the unresolved discussion of his Symposium. In Plato’s universe, the male contemplation of bodily beauty (present chiefly in young men and boys) led the loving masculine soul upward toward a perfect, intellectual beauty beyond all things visible.iv
After 1500, humanist writers such as Bembo and Castiglione and artists such as Michelangelo and Titian used Platonic metaphysics to raise, not lower the status of earthly beauty. While paying lip service to Platonic hierarchies of mind over body, these writers quietly reversed Platonic thinking to sanctify the very bodily realm which Plato had widely disparaged as a blind and ignorant materiality. (Here it helps to remember that Plato banished all artists from the ideal state because they doubled down on the false world of appearances.) While acknowledging the higher celestial realm, sixteenth-century Platonic writing focused on praising the divine beauty of the human body (and, to a lesser extent, the cosmic beauty of a sensual, pastoral nature). This was increasingly, the primary focus of much later Renaissance art, poetry, theater, and music.
In redefining the gender of beauty, Renaissance humanists also quietly changed Plato in another way. For Plato, it was the supreme beauty of boys and young men which attracted the greatest earthly admiration and which chiefly aroused the passion of earthly or celestial love. Although Plato intellectualized male beauty by connecting it to the supposedly intellectual nature of men (vs. irrational women who were unworthy of love), v he made no attempt to hide the homoerotic social values and aesthetic norms of ancient Greece. Passing quickly over same-sex love between women, Plato praised men who love men as the noblest of citizens. These males
“show their masculinity throughout their boyhood by the way they make friends with men, and the delight they take in lying beside them and being taken in their arms. And these are the most hopeful of the nation’s youth, for theirs is the most virile constitution.”
Ignoring the example of thousands of homoerotic classical sculptures, most Renaissance writers and artists invented a heterosexual version of Plato’s divine beauty. It was left to a minority of Renaissance artists, many sculptors, to forge a homoerotic aesthetic more true to Platonic philosophy and to Greco-Roman art. vi
Medieval Contemptus Mundi vs. the Renaissance Humanist Idea of the Dignity of Man It would be a grotesque simplification to reduce medieval thinking to the monastic virtue of contemptus mundi. The rise of urban preaching orders after 1250 and the explosion of courtly romance and love poetry after 1200 remind us that there was always more to the Middle Ages than monastic Vanitas. Nonetheless, Renaissance humanists found it expedient to define new humanist ideals by sharply contrasting them to a monastic writings on the misery of human existence from birth to death. vii From the 1430s, Florentine humanists began writing books with titles like On the Excellency and Dignity of Mankind. Dismissing monastic contemptus mundi, the new literature revived the Stoic sense of the divine proportion, rational order, clear purpose, and physical beauty of the whole cosmos ranging from the heavens and earthly landscape to the human microcosm and its bodily qualities. While many classical texts were important, one key passage came in Cicero's On the Nature of The Gods (Bk II) where Cicero developed a sixty-page description of the sacred order and beauty of the cosmos, of all natural things and beings within it, and of ingenious human inventions from architecture to writing. viii Collected and copied in fifteenth-century Italy, such classical texts inspired Florentine humanists in particular to develop a new, physical interpretation of the Christian idea of mankind "made in God's image". In contrast to medieval writers who saw only a spiritual resemblance based on the soul, Florentine humanists boldly redefined the natural and bodily world in Stoic terms as a visible theater of God's mind. Lorenzo Valla wrote,
"what nature has made and formed cannot be anything but holy and laudable ... Nothing can be found which is not ... completed, ordered, embellished with the greatest rationality, or beauty, or utility. The structure alone of our own body can be evidence of these qualities". ix In his On the Dignity of Man (1452), the humanist Manetti also grounded the beauty and utility of the human body in a larger natural sphere, comparing it to grasses, trees and their fruits such as flowers, leaves, fruit, oil, wine and balsam. Manetti even reinterpreted bodily labor in line with a humanist work ethic. Rather than a divine punishment for sin, work became a productive activity inseparable from notable accomplishments and tied to Aristotle’s idea of pleasure as something fundamental to human existence. A century before Protestant writers took up similar ideas, the work ethic was invented by early Renaissance Stoic humanists, all Catholic.
The Dignity of Man and the New “Inner Nobility”of Mind If the new humanist “dignity of man” turned sharply away from medieval monastic thinking, it also redefined medieval ideas of nobility from matters of birth to questions of education, inner character, and outer action. Nobility was now said to be an inner quality of mind or soul available to all educated persons whose noble (or divine) reason freed them from the “slavery” of bestial passions. True nobility was also connected to outward action tied to everyday life. Needless to say, the burgher class (prosperous, educated, non-aristocratic city-dwellers) eagerly embraced such humanist thinking. It allowed them to claim a new, inner nobility which they described as “true,” “natural” and superior to the “false” or “artificial” nobility of blood. Court humanists also took up the same humanist reason, free will, dignity and “inner nobility” as one more way to distinguish themselves from everyone below them on the social ladder.
The Humanist Synthesis of the Active and Contemplative Life
In giving new value to empirical experiences and metaphors, the humanist curriculum replaced medieval oppositions between inner and outer, contemplative and active, with a new inner virtue realized in the active life. This discourse extolled a wide range of "profitable" activities – public and private - benefitting the “commonwealth”. In the political sphere, this active life included princely rule, seafaring and empire building, republican citizenship, and large-scale commerce benefiting the general public. In the private arena, humanist virtue encompassed marriage, child-raising and household management. Although humanists like Alberti distinguished sharply between a “masculine” public sphere and a “feminine” private realm, they also overlapped these spheres into a larger, hierarchical order equivalent to the new harmony of mind over dignified body.
Humanism and the New Ethical Piety or "Living Godliness" Just as burgher humanists transformed ideas of nobility, they also redefined spirituality in new ethical terms of the virtuous, active life. For many humanists working outside church patronage, a "true" godliness expressed itself not in monastic retreat or in ecclesiastical, sacramental, or mystical notions of community. Nor were most humanists impressed by ceremonial acts of piety such as repeated prayers, indulgence collecting, pilgrimages, and the worship of relics or miraculous images. These ceremonial acts were frequently dismissed as mechanical, empty, superstitious, and lacking in social benefit. For burgher humanists especially, true piety appeared in the outward, everyday life of civic virtue, family commitments, diligent and profitable work, and civic obligation. Northern burgher humanists (Celtis, Erasmus) went so far as to reject medieval monastic piety with its withdrawal, chastity, and holy poverty. For many burgher humanists, monasticism was a timid retreat from worldly obligations concealed by a "false," hypocritical godliness. Small wonder many humanists were fiercely attacked by traditional monastic writers whose way of life, social prestige, economic privileges, and institutional power in universities was threatened by the cultural sea-change of Renaissance humanism.
Despite monastic attacks on humanism, Roman Catholic church culture shifted dramatically between 1450 and 1650 as humanistically educated popes, bishops, and cardinals hired humanists as mid-level church officials, writers, lawyers, diplomats, personal secretaries, and library directors. x After 1550, most Catholic church officials decorated their private residences almost exclusively with pagan imagery as seen at Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Villa Lante, Palazzo Farnese, Palazzo Barberini, and Villa Borghese. While conflicts between humanist and monastic/scholastic values continued through the seventeenth century, humanism was well established in church culture by 1550.
Golden Age Discourse as a Core Idea in Renaissance Humanism In Renaissance Europe, the idea of the Golden Age often referred back to the perfect early civilization of classical antiquity. Since the Renaissance saw itself as the rebirth of classical culture, the idea of the Golden Age was all but synonymous with the Renaissance understanding of itself.
Keeping in mind that every text and image developed its own take on the Golden Age, two basic traditions stand out for Golden Age discourse. The first extolled the perfection of human life at the beginning of existence while the second referred to a later moment of perfect civilization seen nostalgically from a still later period. The first approach looked back to an Eden-like nature at the beginning of time; the second admired ancient Rome (or Greece) as a highpoint in civilization, wisdom, and virtue. Despite different temporal locations, both types of Golden Age could be fused when fertile, pastoral landscapes were combined with classical deities tied to nature and culture such as Apollo or Venus. This mythological pastoral simultaneously evoked the earliest, unspoiled moments of human existence and the high civilization of Roman antiquity. Artistic examples of this double Golden Age include Botticelli’s Primavera, images of Parnassus by Mantegna and Raphael, and Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time.
Tradition I. Golden Age as perfect pastoral origins brought back by a modern ruler or state This form of the Golden Age usually appeared as an idyllic, inhabited, pastoral landscape suggesting peace, prosperity, and good government under the watchful eye of the shepherd (a classical metaphor for kings). The pastoral golden age often used a sunrise to allegorize the Golden Age theme of rebirth and renewal while recalling Apollo as a benevolent, cosmic ruler and a celestial model for earthly kings. (The solar ruler was a cliché in ancient Roman literature.)
Tradition II. Golden Age as Cultural Perfection (Rome) Reborn Following the example of ancient Roman poets like Horace and Ovid, Renaissance humanists opportunistically defined the Golden Age as a cultural rebirth and flourishing under the patronage of a wise, modern ruler, a philosopher-king. The Romans could look back to the cultivated example of ancient Athens. Renaissance humanists looked back overwhelming at ancient Rome. By the late fifteenth century, Italian humanists flattered their educated patrons as restoring a new Golden Age of learning and the arts. By defining the Golden Age in cultural terms, Renaissance writers and artists compared themselves favorably to their classical counterparts and elevated their own status as important agents of the new Golden Age. Classical gods tied to learning and the civilizing arts played a prominent role in the cultural Golden Age, especially Venus, Minerva, Mercury, and above all, Apollo, the god of music, poetry, and, more generally, the liberal arts as a whole.
Renaissance writers produced numerous variations on the theme of Golden Age, spinning it to meet present-day values and circumstances. As a theme of lost perfection, the Golden Age was eminently adaptable and was in many ways a blank screen onto which the present could project its own ideals. For the Medici family in the burgher republic of Florence, Golden Age imagery allegorized burgher marriage and mercantile prosperity in Botticelli’s Primavera. In courtly Ferrara run by a pleasure-loving duke, the Golden Age legitimized unbridled drinking, dancing, and reclining courtesans in Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians. In the more intellectual and modest universe of Isabella d’Este or the papal library of Julius II, the Golden Age took on a more sober aspect tied to ancient philosophy and the “noble” liberal arts (Mantegna and Raphael’s depictions of Parnassus).
Humanism, History, and the Secular Immortality of Fame Out of the praise for the "active life" came a new humanist concern with history and historical writing. A worldly literary category invented in classical antiquity, history glorified earthly rulers within a larger framework of classical moral and political philosophy. It died out in the Christian Middle Ages but returned with Florentine humanism where it modelled new histories of contemporary Italy. Through history and the patronage of enduring literary and artistic monuments, humanist culture defined a new, Renaissance, secular immortality of "fame" which reversed late medieval, monastic notions of "empty" human accomplishments withering in the face of an all-triumphant death. Henceforth, European elites including writers and artists consciously strove to leave an enduring mark on the world, a legacy of ambitious accomplishment and patronage. Among related developments, the rise of portraiture in Renaissance Italy was inseparable from the new culture of fame. Around 1500, artists began celebrating themselves with self-portraits, some proudly signed and dated and others with self-glorifying inscriptions. In the Moneychangers Guild in Perugia, Perugino frescoed a large self-portrait surrounded by depictions of twelve classical leaders and philosophers. Alongside was the inscription, “Perugino outstanding painter . . . the first to create art that was beautiful”. Forty years later, Michelangelo offered to make the Florentine church of San Croce famous by building a grandiose tomb monument . . . to himself.
The Humanist Life of the Mind and the Wise Rule of Rhetoric Once humanists redefined education as the pursuit of the broad, worldly knowledge needed for wise and virtuous governance, rhetoric assumed a new importance. Here Renaissance humanists revived the classical defense of rhetoric seen in Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian who praised speech as the outer expression of divine mind. Refuting Plato’s hostility to rhetoric as shallow, verbal trickery, Renaissance humanists made rhetoric a key liberal art fusing inner mind and outward action, wisdom with virtue, theory with practice. Rhetoric now vied with philosophy, or rather, joined it as a model of universal knowledge and worldly engagement. Beyond providing a critical tool for public life, rhetoric helped autocratic rulers govern peacefully through reason and persuasion rather than brute force. Sixteenth-century artists even envisioned Hercules ruling a unified body politic through speech. In Renaissance burgher republics like Florence where humanists staged speaking competitions in the Duomo, the new rhetorical ideal was inseparable from political wisdom and good government. As with all of the liberal arts tied to governance and noble mind, rhetorical ideals were closely tied to notions of masculine politics and rule. Women were forbidden from public speaking.
Humanism as a New Patriarchy
Renaissance humanist writings worked carefully to prevent women from participating in the public sphere of governance and in the professions. By defining the public sphere as a male domain and by confining virtuous women of all ages to the private realm, Renaissance humanism imprisoned upper and middle class women in a patriarchal family loosely grounded on the "traditional family values" of republican Rome. Although rudimentary education was available to most upper-class women at home, higher education was largely off-limits. Despite this, some nuns, noblewomen, and the daughters of humanists (Thomas More) achieved high levels of education. And some humanists wrote essays praising the education of women. Yet few women ventured to publish their writing. Through the mid-20th century, women writers (and artists) faced an uphill battle against hostile male colleagues and audiences, mainstream social opposition, and patriarchal institutions with closed doors. When humanists invariably deemed the mind as masculine and the unruly, carnal body as feminine, when Stoics humanists always defined virtue against effeminacy and weakness, the humanist world of mind remained a masculine realm profoundly discouraging to even the most ambitious women.
Despite these obstacles, thousands of upper-class women participated in the world of Renaissance humanist culture as educated patrons, artists, viewers, and private authors. The invention of printing and the growing flood of vernacular literature after 1500 allowed women (and ordinary men) new opportunities to read widely and, in a few cases, to publish. Thus printing worked against women, and for them. Even as it confirmed and circulated patriarchal values, printing allowed women new knowledge and a growing modicum of personal authority.
Before bashing Renaissance humanists for shackling women in new ways, one might remember that patriarchal structures were deeply entrenched in European social, political, and cultural life from antiquity to the late nineteenth century. Given the social realities of fifteenth-century Europe, no male-defined intellectual revolution could have significantly changed the status of women. At best, humanism helped educate many more upper and middle-class women. It gave new value to everyday female lives and experiences. And it replaced the monastic ideal of holy chastity and demonized female sexuality with positive views of conjugal sexuality, albeit within the patriarchal institution of marriage.
The Three Primary Modes of Humanism: Courtly, Church, and Burgher Humanism Court humanism stressed aristocratic political values such as cosmic order (seasons, months, zodiac, four elements), rule, unity, and hierarchy, vertical ties between celestial and earthly (cosmos and microcosm), absolutist politics (especially between 1550 and 1720), the interactions of gods, heroes, and kings, divine providence (history unfolding through divinely destined rulers), world history as a series of exemplary monarchies, genealogies, and linked empires (for example, Troy as the ancestor empire to Rome), fame as a new, secular immortality vanquishing death and misfortune, global exploration, travel, and empire, glorious warfare, equestrian superiority, epic poetry (rulers, battles, empires), mythology and mythological self-aggrandizement, sexual fantasy and male power, pastoral or classical “golden ages” of idyllic leisure and love, nature’s cornucopian wealth (land as wealth), sumptuous materials in art, and heroic or godlike, classical forms, especially those tied to imperial Rome. In the private sphere, court humanism celebrated courtly love, refined leisure (music, poetry, dance, art collecting, fashion, conversation), formal gardens, and the “universal” principle of higher civilization ruling over a lower nature, art over mundane reality. With its ties to divinity, truth, and morality, beauty was central to court culture and helped define the elevated position of beautiful people living in a beautiful world frequently unmarred by hardship, age, death, or tragedy.
Church humanism shared the monarchical values of court humanism but substituted religious for secular authority. Universal order, cosmic harmony, unity, and peace flowed down in a seamless, patriarchal hierarchy from one male god to one world to one pope to saints, bishops, missionaries, and priests before reaching the obedient worshipper. Church humanism also favored world history as an interconnected series of divinely ordained, triumphant, religious leaders from Old Testament patriarchs (Moses, David) and prophets to popes, emperors (Constantine), kings, and heroes (George). Sharing political values, church and court humanism often fused into a single, all-encompassing hierarchy of church and state.
Burgher humanism: Promoting the civic values of urban financial, commercial, and professional elites, burgher humanism (Alberti, Erasmus) was far more horizontal and communal than court or church humanism while quietly retaining its own, elevated place on the social ladder. By redefining nobility as an inner quality tied to education and mind, burgher humanism claimed an “inner nobility” and a philosophical (not political) dominion expressed outwardly in cultural patronage (literature, art, music, dance, and architecture). Here we see the social-climbing aspect central to burgher culture which often aped the aristocracy while representing lower-class life as ignorant, blind, earthy, material, and vulgar.
Despite the social climbing display of inner nobility, burgher humanism also defined a new ethical piety and virtue grounded in everyday life and roles – above all, the world of work, family, and civic commitment. Extending this ennobling and intellectualizing of everyday realities, burgher humanism spurred writers and artists to explore mundane subjects (peasants, landscape, daily life, still life) beyond the heroic world favored in court and church culture such as mythology, classical history, and religion. When burghers took up classical themes, they favored subjects tied to mind or love, not wealth, rule, power, conquest, and empire.
Burgher humanism generally revived ancient Stoic virtues of “masculine” simplicity, austerity, moderation, self-denial, utility, and hard work while denigrating pleasure, wealth, and leisure as a courtly and “feminizing” decadence, excess, and idleness. This helps explain why a burgher artist like Bruegel could celebrate diligent peasants in some works while ridiculing drunken or gluttonous peasants as “swine” in other images. Printing allowed burgher writers to translate humanist literature into a more widely accessible, user-friendly vernacular.
The Impact of Humanism on the Arts Humanism had a profoundly transformative impact on the visual arts, redefining them, introducing wildly mythological subjects and nudity after 1500, and spurring the establishment of art academies.
Humanism and the Invention of “Art” Italian humanists like Alberti redefined painting and sculpture from a medieval craft debased by manual labor to a noble, intellectual practice tied to divine mind, individual creativity, perspectival mathematics, rhetorically expressive bodies, and a wide array of literary knowledge (poetry, history, religion, philosophy, and natural science). Alberti also helped legitimize classical architecture as the only legitimate model for modern architecture. Within a century, humanist aesthetics culminated in a hyper-intellectual, philosopher-painter (Leonardo) and a sculptor-painter who based his entire aesthetic on the heroic, classical nude (Michelangelo).
With art redefined as a complex, intellectual universe, and with classical art and architecture held up as the highest form of artistic achievement, humanism also spurred the rise of art academies in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where students could learn the serious business of art making staring with the drawing of nudes and classical statuary.
Humanism and the Rise of Secular Subject Matter in Art Humanism unleashed the rise of secular subjects in Western art beginning with portraiture in the early fifteenth century. This classical category had largely disappeared in the middle ages because it was too worldly. (Portraiture also returned in fifteenth-century Northern Europe where humanism did not exist so other factors need to be cited as well.)
As humanism reached a new critical mass in the sixteenth century, patrons and painters churned out ten times as many portraits and hundreds of thousands of new, mythological images. The fact that most high Catholic officials decorated their private residences with erotic mythologies shows its widespread appeal. Even Stoic burghers enjoyed mythological scenes, many in the discreet form of small prints tucked away in albums. The heroic and/or erotic nude also exploded as a new, explicitly classical/humanist subject in the sixteenth century. This was true not just in mythological art where it was most welcome, but also in Christian art where moralizing warnings made it more, not less acceptable.
Humanism also spurred the rise of two more secular categories in sixteenth-century art, both of which increased exponentially in the next century. One was landscape painting, heavily grounded in classical pastoral and agricultural literature which Renaissance humanist writers were busy imitating after 1450. The other subject, seemingly less classical, was scenes of everyday life, especially comical scenes of low life, rowdy beggars, drunken peasants and laughing fools. While such scenes had some ties to late medieval satire, they were far more deeply rooted in classical comedy and satire and in the massive imitation of such texts by sixteenth-century humanists such as Brant, Erasmus, and Rabelais. In the seventeenth century, a fourth secular subject rose from the classical past: still life.
Humanism and One-Point Perspective Humanism also contributed indirectly to the development and rapid spread of one point perspective, a system for creating pictorial space mimicking individual perception yet based on mathematical principles. Invented by Brunelleschi around 1420, perspective greatly accelerated the ongoing trend in late medieval art toward greater naturalism. It brought the sacred into a familiar, three-dimensional, terrestrial world by constructing a single viewing space encompassing everything inside the painting and, by implication, everything outside reaching to the viewer’s eye. In this way, perspective created a continuous visual space extending from the farthest vanishing point in the image to the eye of the living beholder. Instead of a flat, abstracted, medieval surface with its own, visually disconnected, divine truth, perspective made paintings into windows onto a contemporary world. If knowing was believing in medieval art, seeing was believing in Renaissance art.
Whereas medieval writers frequently devalued seeing as a false, deceptive, and unreliable world of the senses, perspective redefined seeing as a carefully measured geometric order grounded in mathematics and higher mind. In this way, perspective conferred dignity and value on human seeing (especially artistic seeing), and, more generally, on empirical experience. Perspective was deeply grounded in humanist values in the way it reinterpreted both the higher arena of divine mind and the lower, empirical world of the senses. By bringing higher truth down into the lower world of seeing while raising up worldly seeing to the higher realm of mathematics and mind, perspective helped reconcile truth and seeing, mind and body. Transformed by perspective, seeing became a new form of empirical knowledge. Situated in the same city (Florence) and the same historical moment which produced humanism, perspective makes sense as an aesthetic system with close parallels to humanism. Both perspective and humanism dignified human experience and empirical reality.
Humanist Inner Nobility and the Burgher Artistic Patronage The humanistic praise of the freedom to ascend through virtue and the burgher humanist ideal of inner nobility tied to mind made artistic patronage all the more irresistible to social climbing burghers. High culture and artistic investment also allowed burghers to launder tainted commercial money into noble leisure free from all base economic passions. Like today’s oligarchs, the Renaissance financial class used humanist culture and art to ascend the social ladder. Classicizing art was the perfect vehicle to display an inner nobility.
Conclusion: Humanist Liberation / Humanist Enslavement With its profoundly hierarchical discourses about noble vs. base, free vs. enslaved, mind vs. body, humanist ideas on education and human nature were deeply informed with notions of class. The new nobility of mind was not for the lower classes nor was it commonly extended to women. The pioneering humanist, Boccaccio, insisted that women had little in the way of human dignity. For all its universal rhetoric of noble mind, human dignity, free will, and heroic ambition inscribed in a new cosmos, humanism perpetuated social inequities, ridiculed uneducated people as “beasts” and “slaves”, celebrated mythological rape as the “loves of the gods,” kept women in narrow roles, and reduced non-Europeans to primitive savages whose enslavement would only contribute to the general commonwealth.
i The best modern study of the Renaissance is John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, New York: Atheneum., 1994
ii This new economic order featured long-distance trade, credit finance, public bonds, larger markets, and international banking.
iii With the rise of the European city after 1100, late medieval culture shifted away from the rural universe of traditional feudalism and monastic piety with its holy poverty, chastity, and “contempt for the world” (contemptus mundi). This late medieval urban mentality translated Christianity into an everyday vernacular stressing the humanity of sacred figures, a new material piety embodied in the central sacrament of the Eucharist and in art works featuring a growing naturalism, and a vernacular preaching and emotionally-charged devotional literature aimed at educated Christians, not monastic theologians. Striking in its worldly orientation, this secularizing, late medieval Christian culture provided the fertile ground for the more radical cultural revolution of Renaissance humanism.
iv “And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. And this is the way, the only way, he must approach, or be led toward, the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him every mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung-that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lord that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself-until at last he comes to know what beauty is”. Plato, Symposium
v “But the heavenly Love springs from a goddess whose attributes have nothing of the female, but are altogether male . . . And so those who are inspired by this other Love turn rather to the male, preferring the more vigorous and intellectual bent.” Plato, Symposium
vi These included Donatello, Botticelli, Mantegna, Signorelli, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Bronzino, Cellini, Giambologna, and Dürer. The tradition ended with the decidedly earthy, homoerotic beauty invented by Caravaggio.
The Baroque master spurned higher truth for the virtuoso, self-referential illusionism and rhetorical effects condemned by Plato. Caravaggio’s art also cast aside divine beauty for a decidedly lowly, material world of dirty fingernails and feet, rotting fruit, and soiled bedsheets (Bacchus, Amor Victorious, Death of the Virgin, Madonna del Loreto). To be sure, Caravaggio’s early Lutenist is much more idealized. And his first version of the Inspiration of Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel may, as Irving Lavin suggests, play on the Platonic dichotomy between an outer, Socratic ugliness and an inner wisdom. This too, comes in the Symposium.
vii The chief example singled out was Innocent VIII, On the Misery of Mankind.
viii It begins as follows.
“Let us look first at the panorama of our own world which is set in the middle of the universe, a solid globe ... and clothed with flowers and herbs and trees and fruits, whose number is beyond belief and whose variety is without end. Look next at the cool perennial streams, the clear waters of the rivers, their banks all robed in living greens, the depths of the hollow caves, the rugged cliffs, the heights of the overhanging mountains, the vastness of the open plains. ... Think of all the various kinds of animals, both tame and wild! Think of the flight and song of birds! Think of the grazing flocks and herds and the woodlands full of life!
Then think of the human race, who have been appointed, as it were, to be the gardeners of the earth, who will not permit it to become a savage haunt of monstrous beasts or a wilderness of thorny scrub. Under their hands, the lands, the islands and the shores shine out, decked with their buildings and their cities.
If we could see all this panorama in a single glance with our eyes, as we can in thought, I believe that nobody, seeing thus the whole wide world, could doubt the handiwork of God."
ix Lorenzo Valla, On Pleasure, trans. M. de P. Lorch, New York, Abaris Books, 1977, p. 75.
x Some popes were notable humanists in their early career such as Pius II, Urban VIII, and Clement IX.