Renaissance Humanism Maricela Hernandez



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Renaissance Humanism


Maricela Hernandez
AP World History
May 31, 2011

Renaissance Humanism

Maricela Hernandez

AP World History

May 31, 2011
The Renaissance is more than often associated with the cultural movement that developed during the late thirteenth and early fifteenth centuries. This time period in Italy’s history--and Europe’s in general--is credited to having been the starting point of the modern world, at the end of its reign. The term Renaissance in itself means “rebirth” or “revival” in Italian and these translations can be applied to more than just this societal evolution that many reflect upon today. In Italy, human values and concerns were “rediscovered”, having already existed in earlier times as the philosophical view of humanism. Humanism was a perspective of life that focused more on worldly matters, and whilst still held a belief in God, concentrated more on man’s knowledge and achievements. During the Renaissance, humanism was revived--in a sense--through the excavation of ancient Greek and Roman culture, incorporated through art, literature, philosophy, science, and impacted primarily Italy’s civilization by changing the way men viewed themselves, the world, and God. No longer was artwork flat and restricted; nor were past ideologies ignored and writing merely for spreading the word of the Church and no more did God play such a pivotal role as in the Middle Ages. The restoration of humanism during the Renaissance was a reform so grand, that it would continue to resonate throughout history.

The time of classical antiquity during European history was one of strife, but contained many accomplishments as well. Their were great men of philosophy, art, writing, mathematics, science, and exploration. However, the Medieval civilization was intensely influenced by religion and theology, and many felt this spiritual guidance had lessened due to plagues, death, and overall social unrest. Numerous believed that God was punishing them and could find no absolution from their devotion to their Savior, despite how the “medieval church was the custodian, not only of spiritual and ethical values but also of most of the knowledge and culture of the period” (Major, 2). But, with the growing uncertainty over religion and the depleting faith within various followers, men began to question their lives and principles.

“Men sensed that things were not going as they should--in either church or state--and longed for some sort of regeneration, some sort of revival. Rome, once secular as well as the spiritual capital of the world, became the focus of these aspirations. Men yearned for the rebirth, the renaissance, of Rome’s past glories.” (Hale, 16). Although Roman culture became the center for the restoration of humanism, Greece was also targeted as a history mine. The humanism reform mainly resurfaced from this ancient civilization. Scholars scoured over discovered texts of great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Searching for old works was the basis of humanism, since the study of the classics was primarily involved. With this influx of studying ancient philosophies, the literate men of the Renaissance were able to see that the values of men then and now were, in fact, quite similar. The realization that mankind wasn’t as evil as the church claimed them all to be sprouted the way for individualism--a belief that an individual had the liberty to thought and action. Thus intellect was held in high regard, especially for those who found and raked knowledge from these Greek ideals.

An important Italian man to consider was Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch) who lived during the late thirteenth century and is eminently famous for having written Canzoniere. He avidly studied the Latin classics and devoted himself to writing literature. Petrarch “admired [Latin classics], and in a multitude of polished Latin epistles and in numerous Latin poems of his own he strove to imitate the form and re-express the content of his cherished models. By daily example and precept he urged his contemporaries to study the classics and to perfect their Latin style.” (Hayes, 102). However, his vivacious interest in ancient Latin works wasn’t just alone his, but shared by another named Giovanni Boccaccio known for his Decameron. These two men are often credited with being some of the first humanists, having paved the way for many other scholars to examine Latin and Greek literature. With these few exemplifying role models, it’s no wonder humanism spread so rapidly throughout Europe and enlightened other starved minds.



Humanism’s incorporation not only in Italy, but all over Europe, was a vast movement that began spreading the belief that these ancient texts were humane--their allure was their humanness and the idea that the theological and supernatural not be so highly regarded as in the Middle Ages. During these sparse centuries, their were numerous clerics and wealthy nobleman that strove to attain copies of past manuscripts and textbooks from the Roman civilization and create their personal libraries from these works. They “spent fortunes to find and copy great works and to make them available to the public” (Hale, 24). With these countless efforts of recovery, many more people were able to acquire and read this buried literature of philosophy and prose. An example of these actions is credited to Federico da Montefeltro, or the Duke of Urbino, who busied his own team of scribes, and amassed about him a grand library. Perhaps one of the best after the Vatican’s knowledgeable court, essentially founded by Pope Nocholas V, who obtained volumes upon volumes of ancient books for the Vatican’s library. “The collecting of classical manuscripts soon became a profession or a fad, and many a rising commercial capitalist gathered together a classical library…greedily… With collecting, went buying, selling, copying, and publishing of the old manuscripts” which ultimately forged the spreading of humanism through literature (Hayes, 104).

Meanwhile, art also played an important role in the fusion of humanism, allowing artists to embody the ideals of Greece and Latin philosophy into their artwork and masterpieces. Although the art of the Renaissance underwent a major change, it aided the illiterate who could grasp the general idea of what humanism was. In the Middle Ages, art had been primarily about the religion of Christianity, and although this aspect remained with the artists of the Renaissance, artwork had become much more focused on the beauty and excellence of its design. Raphael’s fresco “The School of Athens” depicts the great minds of Greece gathered together, probably discussing their theories, which portrays how classical knowledge was admired by the Renaissance artists and glorified.

With the movement of these expanding ideals, philosophies were “rediscovered’ in a sense and morals were adjusted to fit the changing educational system for scholars and children alike. Leon Battista Alberti wrote of various subjects, including the mannerisms of family life. Mainly he is known for having written about art techniques such as perspective and geometry, emphasizing also the necessity of an artist learning literature in order to better his success. “I would say the business of a painter is this: to draw with lines and dye with color... so that viewed from a certain distance and central position their bodies seem to be in relief and very similar,” he stated in his On Painting, found in Holt’s A Documentary History of Art, going on to say, “But it would please me that the painter, to grasp all these things, should be a good man and versed in literature.” This shows just how serious various artists were in raising their intellect and how important literature had become. “The ideal family atmosphere should not direct children toward a life of scholarly seclusion or wealthy exclusiveness, but toward a responsible commitment to the state” (Hale, 53). With the youth being steered towards commitment and given the sacred texts of Cicero and Seneca to study, they were taught to be ready for anything in life, rather than being pressure to devote their lives to God--ideals that challenged the Roman Catholic church. An exceptional challenger to the Church was a German monk named Martin Luther who protested against the Catholic Church’s indulgences through his 95 Theses. He encouraged many to read the Bible in order to grasp the depth of Christianity--an act of individualism-- and thus, encouraged humanism and literacy simultaneously.

Throughout the Renaissance, humanism had a very large impact on all levels of society. But, the cultural aspect of this time period seems to have been the most impacted. Artwork began to portray humanistic ideals, whether the artist intended to depict such values or not. It showed just how rooted these principles of man were in Italy. Portraits became less flat and the focus was upon the human body’s anatomy--or rather the beauty held within the human figure. Artwork didn’t really center on the spiritual realm of God and without religion’s restrictions, many artists were able to artistically express themselves, especially with nudity. “But Renaissance writers praised man himself as a creator. They played down the sinfulness he was born with and emphasized his ability to think and act for himself, to produce works of art, to guide the destiny of others” (Hale, 17). With this belief downplayed, gradually the church felt the loss of its power. With man learning that he could create things as well--despite religion insisting God had created him--the faith in the spiritual world diminished. “Although religion was still a great force, man thought less of the spiritual world, of life after death, of heaven and hell, and more of this life and of worldly things--clothes, houses, pleasure” (Gail, 16).

On top of this change in art and literature--and philosophy of course--science was also impacted. The Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, allowed scientists to base their observations and theories on the world about them and mathematics. In the Middle Ages, inquisitions had been based off of values settled by the church, but with a rising emphasis on human reasoning, scientists and religious figures began disagreeing fiercely with one another. A man who was contradicted by the church--and published his findings exclusively--was Nicholas Copernicus. His revival of the heliocentric theory that the sun was centered at the universe, and not the Earth, went against the church’s belief of the geocentric theory--that Earth was at the center of the universe. Despite the further dissipating influence of the Roman Catholic church, Galileo Galilei believed that science and religion could coexist. “I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture…but I do not feel obliged to believe that the same god who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them,” from Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christiana, found in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo by Stillman. Despite his effort in trying to show that the church and science didn’t necessarily have to disagree with one another, his efforts were in vain. Humanism’s focus on individualism and the liberty of free thought mostly affected the aspect of culture--which includes religion--and science. The weakening power of the church was a definite impact and its signs could be seen in the unrestrained expression in literature, art, education, and science.

The revival of humanism during the Renaissance through Greek and Roman study, its incorporation through the distribution of copies of old textbooks and producing artwork, and its impact, all allowed for this cultural movement to continue existing throughout history. The lessening faith in the church and religion really did show just how modern time was evolving--a drastic change considering the basis of God in the Medieval Ages. However, although many still believed in the divine and the afterlife in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, men still sought to live their lives to the fullest, focusing more on worldly things and pleasures, than the supernatural. “As we have seen, the Renaissance was an explosion of interest in human learning, in knowledge of this world rather than the next” (Gail, 92). Thus, humanism during the Renaissance affected the lives of Italians and changed their ways of living, not just on this peninsula, but all over Europe as well.

Works Cited

Galilei, Galileo, and Drake Stillman. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. Translated and Edited. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957. 181-183. Print.
Hale, John R. Great ages of Man A History of the World’s Cultures Renaissance. N.Y.: Time-Life Books, 1965. 16-53. Print.
Hayes, Carlton J.H. A Political and Cultural History of Modern Europe. 1. N.Y.: The Macmillan Company, 1916. 102-04. Print.
Major, J. Russell. The Age of the Renaissance and Reformation a Short History. U.S.A.: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1970. 2. Print.
"The Early Renaissance in Italy." Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Ed. Edward I. Bleiberg, et al. Vol. 4: Renaissance Europe 1300-1600. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 363- 376. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 31 May 2011.

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