Humanism and Classicism
The Renaissance was a time of great achievements and prosperity. During the Renaissance, people moved out of the manor system of the medieval age and into the cities. The Renaissance brought the flourish of trade, business, market systems, and money. However, the true achievement of the Renaissance was in the arts. The bleak medieval ages had shut people out of the arts and reinforced Bible Christianity. Beginning with the 1400 s the perspective on the arts and philosophy began to change. Painters such as Michelangelo and Donatelo and writers such as Dante, Machiavelli, and Petrarch began the Renaissance with their deep and insightful works. Soon an era of enlightenment swept from Italy to all over Europe. Some say that the most important achievement of the Renaissance was the idea of perspective because it is used so frequently in art today. However, the Renaissance idea that is most evident today is the humanist views about a broad education curriculum and the church. Humanistic views about the study of history, literature, and religion are still used in schools today. Through humanism the great philosophers of the Renaissance studied the works of the Romans and Greeks. This study of the Greeks and Romans came to be known as classicism.
Humanism, in philosophy, is the attitude that emphasizes the dignity and worth of the individual. A basic premise of humanism is that people are rational beings who possess within themselves the capacity for truth and goodness. The term humanism is most often used to describe a literary and cultural movement that spread through western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries (Lucas 54). This Renaissance revival of Greek and Roman studies emphasized the value of the classics for their own sake, rather than for their relevance to Christianity.
The humanist movement started in Italy, where the late medieval Italian writers Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Francesco Petrarch contributed greatly to the discovery and preservation of classical works (Gilmore 12). Humanist ideals were forcefully expressed by another Italian scholar, Pico della Mirandola, in his Oration on the dignity of man. The movement was further stimulated by the influx of Byzantine scholars who came to Italy after the fall of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) to the Turks in 1453 and also by the establishment of the Platonic Academy in Florence (Lucas 25). The academy, whose leading thinker was Marsilio Ficino, was founded by the 15th-century Florentine statesman and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici. The institution sought to revive Platonism and had particular influence on the literature, painting, and architecture of the times (Lucas 27).
The collection and translation of classical manuscripts became widespread, especially among the higher clergy and nobility. The invention of printing with movable type, around the mid-15th century, gave a further impetus to humanism through the dissemination of editions of the classics. Although in Italy humanism developed principally in the fields of literature and art, in central Europe, where it was introduced chiefly by the German scholars Johann Reuchlin and Melanchthon, the movement extended into the fields of theology and education, and was a major underlying cause of the Reformation (Burckhardt 25).
One of the most influential scholars in the development of humanism in France was the Dutch cleric Desiderius Erasmus, who also played an important part in introducing the movement into England. There humanism was definitely established at the University of Oxford by the English classical scholars William Grocyn and Thomas Linacre, and at the University of Cambridge by Erasmus and the English prelate John Fisher. From the universities it spread throughout English society and paved the way for the great flourishing of Elizabethan literature and culture (Hadas 44).
History was a very important issue stressed by the humanists. The humanists encouraged the study of history, as to not repeat the same mistakes again. In the Middle Ages, history was not studied. The humanist believed that in the studies of history, one might discover successes and flaws of their ancestors. If someone knows how to become successful, then they will attempt to do it. If someone knows what will become a flaw, they will not attempt it. The humanist belief of studying history hinged on the above two statements. The typical humanist studied Greek and Roman writings, because they aspired to be like the Greeks and Romans. Since the Greeks and Romans were very successful at what they set out to do, humanists attempted to mirror some of their actions. For example, humanists began to take on a more worldly belief, rather than a spiritual one. Religion began to play an unimportant role in the daily life of a humanist. Humanists would rather mirror the Greeks and Roman and spend time on philosophy, prose, and poetry. Humanistic views on religion affected today’s views very much. So the humanists, by and large, acted as if Christianity were a myth conformable to the needs of popular imagination and morality, but not to be taken seriously by emancipated minds (Lucas 84).
The humanists accepted Christianity because it was a means of which to escape reality for normal people. However, since the humanists considered themselves to have free minds, they never took Christianity seriously. For these and other reasons there was a conflict between humanism and Christianity, but it was not dramatic or critical, but the danger was not an alternative, or rival, faith. Rather, it was the possibility of the substitution of worldly for spiritual values (Gilmore 59). The humanists came into conflict with Christianity because they believed in tangible things, and did not endorse things such as faith. Church officials realized that the humanists could undermine the entire Christian faith and set about trying to sway people’s beliefs. Preachers up and down the peninsula. . . attracting huge congregations and encouraging the burning of “vanities” – cosmetics, jewelry, false hair, indecent songs and pictures. (Gilmore 59).
The humanists were being suppressed by the priests of the Christian faith, because religion played a very important role in Italian’s lives. The priests did not want the emancipated humanists to succeed in making people drop their spiritual beliefs and endorse more worldly values. To ordinary people throughout Italy religion in the Renaissance still played much the same role – and provoked the same responses – as it had in the Middle Ages (Gilmore 60). One diary entry of Luca Landucci supports normal people’s reason for religion. “Our Lady of Impruneta was brought into the city, for the sake of obtaining fine weather, as it had rained for more than a month. And it immediately became fine (Gilmore 60).” People during Renaissance times still thought of religious items as charms, to ward off bad weather, as shown in this example. The use of charms and ceremonies was against what the humanists believed. The humanists reverted back to the ways of the Classics, believing that everything must have a logical scientific explanation. The humanistic views on religion eventually led to the creation of new religions, which did not necessarily agree with Christian doctrine.
Humanistic views on literature are also used by the modern educational system. The humanist believed that the best foundation for such a life was an education based on the ancient classical ideals, for he believed such ideals had developed in the Greeks and Romans a liberal attitude towards life (Hadas 157). After the Middle Ages, many of the Greek and Roman writings were lost, only to be rediscovered by the humanists. In the fifty years before the Turks took Constantinople, a few humanists studied or traveled in Greece, where many humanistic ideas and values originated from, if not all of them. The fall of Constantinople resulted in the loss of many classics previously mentioned by Byzantine writers as in the libraries of that city; nevertheless thousands of volumes were saved, and most of them came to Italy; to this day the best manuscripts of Greek classics are in Italy (Lucas 78). Since many of the books were brought into Italy, anyone with an open mind could have access to them. However, in order to read these writings, humanists stressed studies of the Greek and Latin languages. Greek and Latin had to be studied if someone decided to read the books, since no translations into the vernacular language were available. The decision to become bilingual is a decision that affected education today in a very large way. Every school requires that you take courses on a language that is not native to you. The humanists had a very large affect on the modern educational system as shown by their beliefs in the study of history, literature, and religion. If it had not been for the humanists, many of the studies of today would not exist.
The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained both all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life and the best models for a powerful Latin style. They developed a new, rigorous kind of classical scholarship, with which they corrected and tried to understand the works of the Greeks and Romans, which seemed so vital to them. Both the republican elites of Florence and Venice and the ruling families of Milan, Ferrara, and Urbino hired humanists to teach their children classical morality and to write elegant, classical letters, histories, and propaganda. In the course of the fifteenth century, the humanists also convinced most of the popes that the papacy needed their skills. Sophisticated classical scholars were hired to write official correspondence and propaganda; to create an image of the popes as powerful, enlightened, modern rulers of the Church; and to apply their scholarly tools to the church’s needs, including writing a more classical form of the Mass. The relation between popes and scholars was never simple, for the humanists evolved their own views on theology. Some argued that pagan philosophers like Plato basically agreed with Christian revelation. Others criticized important Church doctrines or institutions that lacked biblical or historical support. Some even seemed in danger of becoming pagans. The real confrontation came in the later sixteenth century, as the church faced the radical challenge of Protestantism. Some Roman scholars used the methods of humanist scholarship to defend the Church against Protestant attacks, but others collaborated in the imposition of censorship. Classical scholarship, in the end, could not reform the Church, which it both supported and challenged (Lucas 88).
In the end, it proved impossible to consummate the marriage of humanism and the Catholic condition. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a few humanists thought they could use their skills as scholars to reanimate the church. Humanist theologians insisted that the formal theology of the universities was far less valuable than a direct knowledge of the biblical text, and that the documents that supported the church’s privileges should be subjected to critical scrutiny, like any others. But even in the early Renaissance, these men came under fire from the professionals they criticized. And in the later sixteenth century, as the Protestants mounted their radical challenge to papal supremacy and Catholic orthodoxy, the Roman church became a center not only of scholarly inquiry but also of systematic censorship. Even the staff of the library took part in suppressing facts and ideas that proved inconvenient–like the fact that important documents of the canon law were fakes. By the end of the sixteenth century, the church was less interested in wedding humanism than in taming it.
In addition to the revival of ancient literature, the humanist movement also encouraged a revival of ancient philosophy. The medieval universities had been dominated philosophically by Aristotle, but the humanists insisted on the importance of other ancient philosophers as well–the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics, and most of all, the Platonists. The revival of Christian Platonism was the most important philosophical and theological movement of the later fifteenth century. Its chief protagonist was Marsilio Ficino, a Florentine humanist who had a number of patrons and followers in Rome. The volume on display is a presentation copy of Ficino’s letters (really letter-treatises on Platonic themes) to one of Ficino’s Roman patrons, Cardinal Francesco della Rovere. The portrait medallion by Francesco Rosselli depicts Cosimo de’Medici, Ficino’s most important early patron. An exchange of letters between Cosimo de’Medici and Ficino opens Book I (Greeley 21).
The humanists dedicated themselves to reviving antiquity–that is, to searching for, copying, and studying the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Poggio Bracciolini, a long-time employee of the church, was the most brilliant of the early fifteenth-century manuscript hunters. He braved what he described as the squalid, neglected libraries of Germany, Switzerland, and England in his quest for new texts. Later in the century, curial scholars began to collate–and digest–the new mass of material, and to translate vital Greek sources, like the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. Not all of these texts were clearly acceptable to Christians, or even consistently moral. But Roman intellectuals prized problematical works like the epigrams of Martial as well as moral ones like most of the dialogues of Plato. Vatican manuscripts enable us to follow the humanists at work, writing in the margins of their texts and then collecting and publishing their notes as scholarly works. These glimpses of how texts passed from script to print are among the Vatican’s most remarkable–and revealing holdings (Greeley 28).
The most famous and successful of these literary explorers was the papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered texts of Quintilian, Asconius, Valerius Flaccus, Lucretius, Silius Italicus, Ammianus Marcellinus and ten hitherto unknown orations of Cicero. This book, containing eight of these recovered orations, was copied by Poggio while book-hunting in Cologne and Langres during the summer of 1417. The colophon on fol. 49 verso may be translated, “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden in Gaul, in the woods of Langres, and having written it in memory of Tully [Cicero] and for the use of the learned” (Greeley 30).
In addition to the rediscovery of ancient Latin texts, an important goal of the humanists’ cultural program was the translation of ancient Greek literature into Latin. The knowledge of Greek spread rapidly among Italian humanists of the fifteenth century, thanks largely to the influence of Byzantine migr s and refugees, but was always something of a luxury; Latin remained the basic means of communication among the learned. Hence the interest of patrons and humanists alike in making the literature of the Greeks available to educated westerners in Latin versions. The volume on display was the first translation into a western language of Herodotus, “the Father of History,” the source and model for much of classical historiography, undertaken by the most famous Roman humanist of the mid-fifteenth century, the brilliant and controversial Lorenzo Valla. This was a presentation copy for Pope Pius II’s nephew, Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, a great Roman book-collector and a leading patron of fine calligraphy and book illustration.
The aesthetic qualities that were embodied in the visual arts and literature of ancient Greece and Rome served as ideals for various later European artistic movements. Its qualities include harmony and balance of form, clarity of expression, and emotional restraint. The Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries was the first attempt at a classical revival in the arts. Major productions of this period included the sculpture of Michelangelo, the paintings of Raphael and Titian, and the architecture of Palladio. These achievements provided the goals of artists throughout Europe during the next two centuries. The art of the French 17th-century painters Poussin and Claude was greatly influenced by their study of Renaissance and classical models (Lucas 102).
The Renaissance fostered an era of individualism and classicism. Classicism followed the humanist approach by trying to revive the works of the Greeks and Romans. Classicism and humanism essentially intertwine in their belief that the path to true enlightenment is the study of the past. Humanistic took classicism a step further to incorporate the belief of individualism.
The Renaissance was an era of great enlightenment and technological advancement into the future. Yet, the greatest achievement of the time was the embracement of the classics and the development of humanism. The humanists used their ideals of individualism and embracement of the classics to revive the writings and philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. Albert Camus once commented that, Its active representatives [humanists] became influential because they knew what the ancients knew, because they tried to write as the ancients wrote, because they began to think, and soon to feel, as the ancients thought and felt. The humanists and classicists tried to reproduce what the past and in turn spurned a high interest in the works of the past that lasts into modern times.