Humanism, which was a major intellectual force behind the Renaissance, refers both to scholarly activities related to the revival, translation, and study of ancient texts, and to a body of new attitudes about man's nature and abilities.


Origin of the Term Humanist

The word "umanista" or "humanist" was first used in Italy in the fifteenth century to refer to teachers of the liberal arts like Vittorino da Feltre and Pietro Paolo Vergerio.  They followed the ancient Roman model of studia humanitatis, which was a secular course of studies that included poetry and history.  Its texts were the classics of Greek and Latin literature.


The Designation "Humanist"

In relation to the Renaissance, the designation of "humanist" is usually applied to individuals who were involved in humanistic pursuits, which were often scholarly in nature.  Individuals involved with the collecting, cataloging, translating, or publishing of books were humanists.  Humanists spanned a wide social range and included men of power like Pope Pius II and Federico II Gonzaga. Wealthy families employed humanists to educate their children, perform secretarial duties, represent them diplomatically, write local histories, acquire rare books or antiquities for their collections, and offer advice about the merits of individual artists.





New Approach to Classical Literature

A new approach to classical literature, which was the main focus of humanism, was adopted in the Renaissance.


In the Middle Ages, there had clearly been an awareness and appreciation of Greek and Roman authors.  Otherwise, ancient texts would not have been saved at all because this required incalculable hours of handcopying by monks.  Medieval scholars, mostly theologians, evaluated ancient texts in Christian terms, often quoting selections piecemeal.


What distinguishes Renaissance scholars from their medieval predecessors was a recognition that the passing of time imposed cultural barriers and that true understanding required studying earlier works in their entirety and within the context of the culture in which they were created.


Petrarch and His Influence

Petrarch was born in Arezzo in 1304 and grew up in Avignon, France, where the Papacy was located in the fourteenth century.  He lived in many places and traveled extensively in Europe, where he was welcomed in many of the most important courts.


In 1341 Petrarch was crowned Poet Laureate on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.  He was the first modern poet to be honored in this way.  Petrarch's best-known work is the collection of poems known as the Canzoniere.  These poems trace the path from the author's earthly love, Laura, to an idealized spiritual love.  He began to write the poems in the 1330’s and continued to write them until his death in 1374.


Petrarch led the way in taking ancient writers, artists, and architects on their own terms instead of saddling them with anachronistic Christian messages.  In an effort to expand his understanding of the ancient world, Petrarch collected Greek and Latin texts and put together an important library, which he bequeathed to the city of Venice in gratitude for the city having provided him with a house.


In order to better understand the original meanings of Plato, Aristotle, and Homer, Petrarch studied Greek and encouraged others like Boccaccio to do the same.


Ways of Studying Classical Literature

The classics of Greek and Latin literature were used as guides to literary form and ethical behavior.


Form. Authors of indisputable verbal eloquence like Cicero were taken as models of good writing.  In his own work, Petrarch attempted to follow ancient Roman rules of style and grammar. 


Content. Petrarch recognized the potential of classical literature to open men's minds and stimulate their spirits.  At the beginning of the Renaissance, humanists possessed a spirit of optimism arising from the perceived possibility that classical literature could offer models on which society could reform itself. 


New View of Man and the World

Under the influence of humanism, man was seen in a new light that emphasized his capacity to succeed and control his own destiny.  His image in art reflected self-confidence and a new dignity.


Man viewed the physical world with a new curiosity and an open mind that prompted him to observe its phenomena directly rather than accepting pronouncements regarding its nature from authoritative sources like Aristotle or the Bible.


In the sixteenth century, the optimism of this view of man faded in the face of political failures such as the fall of the Florentine republic in 1512 and military catastrophes such as the Sack of Rome in 1527.


Though aspects of the ancient Roman past had been reclaimed, it was realized that the cultural unity of the past was irretrievable.  In Venetian art, this was reflected by a kind of Arcadian nostalgia.





The Recovery of Ancient Texts

Numerous manuscripts of ancient works were recovered in the fifteenth century.  Many were discovered in remote monastery libraries, where they had been known only to the monks.  Petrarch discovered Cicero's letters in the library of the Cathedral of Verona, and the humanist Gian Francesco Poggio Brancciolini found a medieval manuscript of Vitruvius' De architectura in the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland.  Many other texts were brought from Athens and other Mediterranean cities that had been important in ancient times.


The fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the Turks of the Ottoman Empire conquered the capital city of the Eastern Orthodox Church, led to the flights of scholars who brought libraries of ancient texts with them.  One such scholar was Cardinal Bessarian, who left his collection of ancient manuscripts to the Republic of Venice in 1468.  Sixty years later, the city commissioned Jacopo Sansovino to build the Library of San Marco to house this important collection.


Improving Textual Accuracy

The newly imported and discovered writings enabled scholars to improve the philological accuracy of canonical texts by comparing different versions.  As copies of ancient texts were produced they had become increasingly corrupted because each new reproduction amassed the mistakes of all the earlier versions.  With the influx of fresh texts, scholars could begin to reverse this process.


Effects on Theology of Improved Text

The techniques used to improve the textual accuracy of Greek and Roman classics were later applied to Biblical texts and the writings of the Church fathers.


The publication of corrected Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) texts stimulated some Biblical scholars to question the theological basis of various points of Catholic dogma, and this doubt was a contributing factor in the Reformation.


Practical Benefits

A number of books that came to light had practical benefits.  The finding of Ptolemy's Geography in the fifteenth century, for instance, had a decisive impact on the science of cartography (map-making).


Architecture-Related Works

There were many references to architecture in ancient sources such as the letters of Pliny the Younger, but there was only one surviving architectural treatise, Vitruvius' De architectura, which was written in the first century BC.  Consequently, this work was extremely influential and served as a model for a number of Renaissance treatises on architecture.



Latin, which was the original language of Roman texts, was also the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and the universal language of scholars.  Consequently, mostly Latin versions of Greek or Hebrew works were available.  Roman Catholics used the Vulgate, St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible.


After printing was introduced, the first versions of ancient texts were in Latin, but by the sixteenth century, important works like the Bible and Plato's dialogues were available in their original languages.

Translations into the vernacular  (the everyday language spoken by a people) made many classical works accessible to those who could read but lacked a knowledge of Latin.






Printing was a mechanical method of reproducing text that was invented in China and Korea as early as the mid-eleventh century.  By the mid-fourteenth century, prints were being produced in the West through the use of woodblocks.  The ability to produce prints increased in the middle of the fifteenth century as paper had become readily available and more affordable thanks to the Chinese invention of its manufacture, which was introduced in Europe in the twelfth century.


Because humanism was a text-based movement, printing hastened its spread through Europe.  Printing also stimulated the development and spread of such diverse aspects of the Renaissance as religion and architecture.  Without a vehicle to transmit the ideas of religious reformers like Martin Luther, the timing and development of the Reformation would perhaps have been different.  Without the publication of architectural treatises, acceptance of notions like accuracy according to classical standards could not have become widespread.


Invention and Spread of the Printing Press

The invention of moveable metal type of uniform size seems to have taken place independently in several places in Europe around 1450, but the invention is traditionally credited to the German Johann Gutenberg.  His edition of the Bible, published in Mainz around 1455, was the first full-length book to be printed and the first one of very high quality.


The new invention of moveable type was coupled with the press technology that had been in use for textile printing during the past century.  The early printing press consisted of a large frame whose lower part held a tray containing face-up type and whose upper part, which was braced against the ceiling, held a screw mechanism that pressed a flat plate holding the face-down paper against the print tray.


Popularity of Printed Material

Printing technology spread rapidly, and a number of independent presses were established in European cities by the end of the fifteenth century.  The creation of texts through the use of the printing press was considerably less expensive than production by hand, and thus the spread of printing technology allowed a wider range of individuals access to the written word.  The existence of many literate persons of modest means, especially in Italy, created a demand for reading material.


Publishing Centers in Italy

Italy soon became the publishing leader of Europe.  The Italian literacy rate contributed to the demand for printed material, and Italian humanist scholars provided content.


The sites of the earliest presses were Subiaco (near Rome), founded in 1465, Rome, founded in 1467, and Venice, founded in 1469. Milan and Florence were also important publishing centers.  Much of the research done in Florence to establish correct versions of ancient texts was reflected in the city's publication of many first editions of those texts.


Venice's Pre-Eminence in Publishing

Venice, which had hundreds of presses, was the most important center of publishing in Europe until the late sixteenth century, when Paris took the lead.  The city's importance as a hub of international trade contributed to this fact.


Of the six-thousand-plus separate editions published in Europe in the second half of the fifteenth century, which are collectively referred to as the incunabula (books produced before 1501), 3,750 were produced in Venice.  Venetian presses produced the most first editions of Greek texts.


Aldus Manutius (1450-1515), who was the most important Venetian publisher of ancient texts, established the Aldine Press, the largest publishing house in Venice.  His press was particularly important for its publication of the first printed edition of many Greek works in the original Greek.  In 1513, he published Plato's dialogues in Greek.  (Their earlier publication in 1484 had been based on Marcilio Ficino's Latin translation.)  A scholar himself, Aldus learned Greek from eastern scholars who had fled Constantinople after the city fell to the Turks in 1453.  Aldus, who experimented with improvements in inks and papers, introduced the italic typeface.


Wealthy scholars of the Venetian region like Daniele Barbaro also contributed to Venice's pre-eminence in publishing.  As a scholar of classical antiquity, he was especially interested in Roman architecture.  He collaborated with Palladio on an edition of Vitruvius' treatise in 1556 and published Palladio's I quattro libri in 1570.  (In the realm of architecture, Daniele and his brother commissioned Palladio to build the Villa Barbaro, which was conceived as a Roman-style villa. Its interior was decorated by illusionistic paintings by Veronese.)


Italian Book-Making Practices

Several book-making practices that are still in use were first established in Italy.  These include the use of pasteboard covers, italic typefaces, and standard sizes based on the number of folds made to the large printed sheets.


These sizes are still known by the Italian names: folio, quarto, and octavo.  The text for two, four, or eight pages was printed on each side of a sheet, which produced four, eight, or sixteen numbered pages when bound and cut.


Today page edges are usually trimmed during manufacture, but until the twentieth century, many books were issued with folds along the top and side, which would be cut by the reader.



Censorship was introduced as part of the Counter-Reformation by Pope Paul IV.  In 1559 he initiated the Index of Forbidden Books, a list of books that were banned by the Church.  Despite the ban, some illegal copies were brought to Italy from the north.


The index included works by religious reformers like Martin Luther, whose tracts questioned the origin of much Catholic dogma, and political theorists like Machiavelli, whose book The Prince asserted the church and state should be separate and that the state should limit the power of religious institutions.





Local Availability of Antiquities

The physical remains of ancient Roman culture could be examined in many parts of Italy and the surrounding region.



Humanists began making archeological investigations in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, unearthing ancient statuary, artifacts, and in a few cases, wall paintings.  The men who undertook these projects could also be called antiquarians, a term denoting someone who has a taste for or devotion to antiquities.


As part of this growing interest in documenting antiquity, Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to make a survey of ancient Roman sites, and to produce a map of ancient Rome.


Important Archaeological Finds

Interest in antiquities was stimulated by the excavation of ancient Roman sites, which yielded important discoveries.


Domus Aurea. Of special importance to decorative painting in the sixteenth century was the Domus Aurea, which was excavated around 1480.  Its grotesques became an important component in Raphael's decorative painting, as illustrated by the ceiling of the Villa Madama.  


Apollo Belvedere. The Apollo Belvedere was found by the late fifteenth century and acquired by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere.  In 1509, after he became Pope Julius II and begun building the Belvedere Court, he installed the work in a sculpture court that he added to the Villa Belvedere.  Before this, it was known to have been displayed in the gardens of San Pietro in Vincoli. 


Laocoön. The unearthing of the Laocoön in 1506 was the most celebrated archeological event of the Renaissance. Giuliano da Sangallo, who had been called to the site by Pope Julius II soon after its unearthing, immediately recognized the Laocoön as the work described by the ancient Roman author Pliny.  Like the Apollo Belvedere, it was displayed in the sculpture court of the Villa Belvedere.  





Roman Subjects in Art

A grounding in classical literature fostered a taste among wealthy patrons for classically inspired subject matter in the decoration of domestic architecture.


Mythology. Works like Ovid's Metamorphoses, which contained many colorful stories about the gods, stimulated a fondness for paintings illustrating subjects from classical mythology. Among the most famous scenes based on mythology were Raphael's Triumph of Galatea, which Agostino Chigi commissioned for his villa, the Farnesina, and Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians which Alfonso d'Este commissioned for his studiolo in the family castle in Ferrara.


History. The writings of Greek and Roman historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy, and Tacitus were reflected in the popularity of scenes illustrating Roman history.  Such scenes might portray family members as important figures and suggest that the family's lineage extended back to the Roman emperors. 


Art Forms Imitating Classical Precedents

A number of classical art forms were imitated in the Renaissance, including two portrait forms.  The importance of portraiture in ancient Roman art is reflected in such Roman cultural traditions as revering family patriarchs and publicly honoring men of achievement.


Portrait busts. There had been a robust tradition of portrait busts in Roman times. These images were originally linked to the Roman custom of keeping wax death masks of family patriarchs in the tablinium, a room in the domus (city residence of upper-class Romans) that was devoted to the display of family images.  Except for tomb sculpture and miniatures, portraiture was less prevalent in the Middle Ages, when man's temporal importance was minimized.  The low degree of naturalism in the art of this period compromised the notion of an actual likeness.  In the Renaissance, portrait busts again became popular.  Like their ancient precedents, Renaissance busts were generally of marble, about life size, and realistic in varying degrees.  Portrait busts were also cast in bronze, but such works were far more expensive.  Among the most admired sculptors of portrait busts were Antonio Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano, and Verrocchio, who all worked in Florence in the second half of the fifteenth century.  In the next century, Michelangelo purposely imitated the ancient Roman portrait bust form for his tribute to Brutus, who feared that Caesar's ambitions threatened Rome's republican government.  (It should also be noted that in their revival of the portrait bust, Renaissance artists were in part influenced by a particular medieval genre, the reliquary bust, and the format of the earliest Renaissance portrait busts is something of a hybrid of ancient Roman and medieval reliquary forms.) 


Equestrian statues. In Roman times emperors like Marcus Aurelius were honored by free-standing, life-size or larger, equestrian statues of bronze that were erected in public places.  This form was first repeated in the Renaissance in portraits of condottieri, namely Donatello's Gattamelata and Verrocchio's Colleoni monument. Ludovico Sforza commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to make a colossal equestrian monument honoring his father, Francesco Sforza, who had been a successful condottiere, but it was not cast because Ludovico needed the bronze for weaponry.  


Free-standing nude statues. Life-size statues of nude males representing athletes and gods were part of the classical tradition in sculpture.  This form disappeared in the Middle Ages, when nudity ceased to be a celebration of human beauty.  Instead, it became associated with the sinfulness of Adam and Eve and with the future equality of all men before God on Judgment Day, when fine clothing and other trappings of worldly wealth would no longer buy privilege.  Although an appreciation of the male nude was exhibited in relief at the beginning of the fifteenth century by such works as Ghiberti's relief-carved figure of Isaac, the male nude was not realized in free-standing form until the 1430s when Donatello sculpted David for the courtyard of the Medici Palace in Florence.  In the next century, Michelangelo, whose works included such free-standing male nudes as David (1504), the Dying Slave (c. 1513), and the Victory (c. 1530), was famous for his portrayal of the beauty of the nude body.


Bronze figurines. In Hellenistic and Roman times, there had been a fashion for collecting cast bronze figurines.  Their subjects were generally drawn from mythology or genre, and their design often exploited bronze's inherent tensile strength and capacity to reproduce fine detail.  This tradition was revived in the Renaissance by such works as Pollaiuolo's Hercules and Antaeus and Giambologna's Mercury.  


The Collaboration of Humanists and Artists

By 1520, every major Italian court had its coterie of humanists.  This encouraged the collaboration of humanists and artists who were resident at the same courts.


In certain cases, humanists served as artistic advisors.  They devised intricate iconographies and allegorical schemes for various types of artistic commissions.


Primavera. Botticelli's allegory of spring, the Primavera, corresponds to the description in a letter written to Lorenzo de' Medici from Marsilio Ficino, a humanist in the circle of the Medici family and founder of the Platonic Academy, which stimulated the development of Neo-Platonism.


Sistine Ceiling. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, which may have been based on a program by papal relative Marco Vigero della Rovere, features scenes and figures from the Old Testament.  Figures from the ancient Classical world like sibyls (ancient female seers) were incorporated with Biblical figures like the Old Testament prophets.  Other ancient classical figures are the putti in fictive relief and the ignudi, Michelangelo's name for a category of male nudes. 


Introduction 3 of 7




Raphael's School of Athens, 1510-11. (Figure Identification)

Raphael's huge painting on one of the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura of the Vatican Palace depicts many of the great thinkers of ancient Greece, like the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who stand in the center, the mathematicians Pythagoras (left side), who holds a slate, and Euclid, who bends down to draw with a compass.  Standing in the niches on each side are statues of the Greek gods Apollo (left), who represents poetry and music, and Athena (right), who represents reason.  Accordingly, the more metaphysically inclined thinkers are on the left while the scientifically minded ones are on the right.