History of the Renaissance
RENAISSANCE, (Fr., new birth, from Lat. renascens, pres. p. of renasci, to be born again), or REVIVAL OF LEARNING. A name usually applied to the transition from mediaeval to modern methods of study and thought, the mediaeval method being that of subjection to authority, to absolutism in church and state, which were one, to the end that, through obedience to the powers external to himself but representing God, man might be saved. The scholastic discipline of this period had sharpened men's critical sense, and political events in which the representatives of the Church were involved clamored for criticism. An awakening historical sense, stimulated by the influx on western Europe, both before and after the capture of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks, of Eastern scholars with their somewhat different culture and of manuscripts, began to weigh the claims of universal monarchy and indivisible Christendom. Meanwhile the European mind, which had lain under the spell of the philosophy of realism, with its indifference to the phenomena of everyday experience and its contempt for the individual as compared with the authority of traditional institutions, encountered a new philosophy, that of nominalism, which had found expression in the Englishman William of Occam in the first half of the fourteenth century and later became a vital force in the political theories of Marsiglio of Padua. The essence of this new way of looking at things is the importance of the individual, his right to think and organize as may seem best to him. Hence new theories of church and state, as expressions of the newly dignified individual, became permissible. In religious affairs we see the application of this principle in the fearless criticism of the prevailing conditions by Wiclif in England, Huss in Bohemia, and all their sympathizers, organized or not, throughout Europe. This central idea is that the most important fact of Christianity is the membership of the individual Christian in a community of which Christ alone is the head, consequently organized forms of human authority in religion are nonessential and may be totally wrong. The only necessary authority is that of Scripture, and the inevitable result of this is the right of individual interpretation with all its consequences. From Wiclif on through the whole period of the Reformation the Bible is the common source of appeal for the most diverse forms of opposition to the Roman system.
Parallel with this development in religion is the intellectual process we call the revival of learning. Wiclif's Italian contemporary, Petrarca, subjected to a sweeping criticism all the existing forms of the science of his day: the scholastic philosophy, the science of astrology, the study of the law and of medicine, the practice of teaching. To this mass of tradition Petrarca opposed the principle of individual study and observation. Yet he too, like the religious reformers, must have his authority, and he found it in the classic literature. The ancients stood to him for types of a higher manhood, with larger, freer, and truer conceptions of life. They seemed to him free from the superstitious slavery to traditions which he saw around him. His own struggling individualism found its justification in what he imagined to be the perfected individualism of the ancient world. His own poetic gift found its chief satisfaction in the poetic charm of ancient literature; even the prose of Cicero seemed to him to have a wonderful rhythm long before he could understand it. Then, precisely as the religious reformers insisted that the Bible should be studied without restraint of doctrine or tradition and made use of the printing press to offer it, in vernacular translations, to the people, so Petrarca found his chief mission in collecting, collating, copying, and publishing the. texts of the classical authors. Still further, as the translations of Wiclif and others were made, not from the original tongues, but from the imperfect Latin authorized version (Vulgate), so Petrarca had to be content with Latin versions of the Greek authors. In both cases the authority they reverenced came to men in an imperfect form, but in both the spirit of a new time is perfectly evident. Wiclif is the first apostle of the Protestant Reformation, and Petrarca is the first great teacher of the revival of learning.
Petrarca, a champion of scientific method, was also, after Dante, the chief creator of the modern Italian language. The literary use of the modern tongues, the natural utterance of the free layman, is, equally with the more sympathetic study of the ancient world, an element in the great reaction against a purely clerical and Latinized culture. This double intellectual life of Petrarca is shared by all his humanistic contemporaries and immediate followers. Giovanni Boccaccio is known to posterity chiefly through his Italian prose tales, but his own special pride was in the service he rendered to classical learning by his laborious encyclopædic works-the Genealogy of the Gods, a dictionary of mythology, and his Dictionary of Classical Geography. These books served as a groundwork of classical studies for the youth of two centuries to come. Boccaccio died as professor of the Divine Comedy at the University of Florence, another illustration of the equality of the modern and ancient literatures in the estimation of Renaissance Italy.
Petrarca applied to learning for the first time what we have learned to call the collector's instinct. Much of the classic literature was already known, but until Petrarca no one had thought of searching for more. Through his widely extended personal relations in all the countries of Europe he was able to employ willing hands to bring the long-forgotten manuscripts out of their hiding places, to have them sent to him, procure copies of them, compare these with the originals, and thus learn wherein they needed correction. Many indications in already known writings pointed to others not yet discovered and thus made possible intelligent search after these lost treasures. All this work was carried on by Petrarca and his contemporaries with the fresh enthusiasm that belongs only to an interest freed from any professional quality, but it soon became the serious pursuit of men who gave their lives to it and thus laid the foundations for a new profession, unknown to the Middle Ages, the profession of the scholar, pure and simple. These men were devoted to learning for its own sake and ready to leave to others its application to practical things.
The same passion of discovery appears also in the field of archaeology. The Middle Ages had pitilessly despoiled the remains of ancient buildings to gain material for their own constructions and had destroyed without scruple the choicest works of antique sculpture. Now, following the indications of what remained above ground, Petrarca and his followers began to seek for what was hidden. They gave the first feeble impulse to the vast activities of modern research. To them the owe the beginnings of both the libraries and the museums of modern Europe.
In the generation following Petrarca the influence of the New Learning makes itself widely felt in many forms of activity. Men whose early training had been chiefly as scholars came to be sought for services of every kind. Coluccio Salutato, one of Petrarca's most ardent admirers and imitators, spent his life as secretary of the Republic of Florence, at a time when the little state was involved in the most complicated relations with all the powers of Europe. It was his duty to write the elaborate Latin essays which were then the chief medium of diplomacy, and his fame rests upon the elegance and purity of this imitated classicism. Poggio Bracciolini filled for life a similar place in the papal chancery, and was no less approved and applauded because his caustic humor reveled in ribald obscenities. Niccolò Niccoli was the business centre of the Florentine group of scholars, the earliest type of the modern book collector and publisher. Ambrogio Traversari, general of the Order of Camaldoli, devoted much time to studying and editing the works of the ancients. Francesco Filelfo was the earliest specimen of the haughty pedant, learned beyond others in all the detail of scholarship but without the creative, power that had marked the pioneers. He touched the schoolmasterly stage of the revival when the work of discovery had largely been done and when the chief distinction of the scholar was to be gained by a kind of technical skill quite independent of any largeness of mental equipment.
It is at this stage that one begin to see the results of the great expansion of interest due to the study of Greek. Petrarca had deeply felt the importance of this study and had bemoaned his incapacity to engage in it. Greek was still a living tongue in parts of southern Italy, and communication with the East was frequent enough, but Boccaccio, who seems really to have made the effort, found it impossible to procure suitable instruction. The men of the next generation, however, set themselves more earnestly to work; Greek teachers began to hear of the golden opportunities in the rich Italian towns, and Italian youths sought instruction at the ancient school of Athens. The earliest and most influential of these Greek teachers was Manuel Chrysoloras (died 1415), a man of distinction in the public service at Constantinople, brought over to Italy by his duties in this capacity and then employed as teacher of Greek at Florence. Another Greek of later influence was John Argyropulos (died c.1489), who was successively rector of Padua and professor at Florence and finally at Rome. Of Italians who illustrated the highest application of ancient culture to the development both of Italian literature and the perfection of classic learning, we may mention Guarino (died 1460), the teacher of Lionello d' Este, Poliziano (died 1494), who instructed Pietro de' Medici, and Lorenzo de' Medici (died 1492).
Circumstances favored a rapid spread of the new culture. The Italian cities, grown rich under democracy, but somewhat tired of its responsibilities, had been passing into the control of that extraordinary series of despotic rulers who united with a brutal unscrupulousness of character a taste for the best in literature and art without a parallel. It was one of the chief claims to power for a new-made tyrant like Cosimo de' Medici that he provided the means of existence for talent of every sort. Even the bloody ruffians who one after another held power in Milan made places for scholars and artists, maintained libraries, and encouraged learned research. The ancient universities of Bologna, Padua, and Salerno were reinvigorated by the healthful breath of the New Learning and stimulated by the rivalry of the new schools founded by the younger republics. The papacy, with a free hand after the Council of Basel (1431-49), passed into the control of a series of men like Nicholas V, Pius II, and Leo X, in whom the interest in learning and art was an absorbing passion. Under these favoring conditions a certain flippancy of character came to be associated with the cleverness of the fifteenth-century scholars. Without formally renouncing their allegiance to Christianity, many felt the desire to reproduce in themselves the content of mind of their beloved Greek philosophers and were as openly antagonistic as was politic to the usurper Christianity. While paganism had by no means disappeared during the Middle Ages, its survivals and outbreaks had been either unconscious or accompanied by a sense of guilt. But now paganism found itself about to be reinstated as of more ancient right and therefore nobler birth than its rival. It is at this point that the counter-reformation strikes at both the Reformation in the North and the Church's enemies near at home. The Council of Trent assembles in 1545 and Dolet is burned in Paris in 1546. Bartholomew, Smithfield, autos-da-fé, Alva's treatment of the Netherlands, the burning of Bruno in Rome, are so many attempts to crush the rebirth of man's spiritual independence, which had manifested itself most clearly in the reformulation of religious belief; its political expression, checked in Italy by the act of Charles V in placing the peninsula under a Spanish hegemony, was destined to be suppressed by the hostile forces of church and state for over two centuries. It is in art, therefore, that the Renaissance can be said to have had its first and most complete expression, in art nourished by the treasures of antiquity rediscovered and revalued by the humanists. The wonders of the cinquecento are most numerous in Italy, but France had her Rabelais Spain her Cervantes, and England her Shakespeare.
A change came over the spirit of the New Learning when it passed to the more serious, less artistic and more, deeply religious peoples of the North. The impulse which led young Germans and especially young Englishmen to cross the Alps and study the ancient classics under Italian teachers was largely the desire to find the very best means to acquire such training as would help them in the professions. There is in the North little of the affected Aestheticism of the later Italians. Such men as those whom Erasmus found in England at the end of the fifteenth century-John Colet, later dean of St. Paul's, founder of the most important boys' school in England and interpreter of Christianity by the method of a rational criticism; Grocyn the most important agent in introducing the teaching of Greek into England; Thomas Linacre, founder of the London College of Physicians; and Thomas More, a busy lawyer, king's counselor, and social reformer-suggest a type of man totally different from the members of the Florentine Academy. Yet all these men drew their intellectual inspiration from Italy and were free to acknowledge their debt. Erasmus himself, with all his biting satire and his ready criticism of many serious things, was primarily the preacher of a sane rationalism based upon sound learning, and by this he always meant the learning of the New Method. One of the services of the northern humanism was the revival of the study of Hebrew on a scientific basis. What we have said of the medieval study of Latin applies equally to that of Hebrew. It had been pursued by Jewish scholars with a view to the perpetuation of their racial institutions, but it had not been in any sense an instrument of culture. Johann Reuchlin, an elder contemporary of Luther and Erasmus, was the first to call attention to the importance of Hebrew in a complete scheme of Christian scholarship. He aroused a storm of opposition from the same obscurantist elements that had always been ready to persecute Jews as inevitably hostile to all that bore the Christian name. He found his support wholly in the circle of enlightenment that had spread itself outward from the study of the Greek and Latin classics as a means of civilization. The best expression of this incident in the struggle is found in the Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum (q.v.) (Letters of the Men of Darkness), a galling satire of the Reformation period, in which the old scholastic method was held up to derision.
The first quarter of the sixteenth century saw the capture of most of the great universities of the North by the new spirit. At Paris the Sorbonne still defended the ancient faith by the ancient methods, but the Collège de France, founded by Francis I, became a seat of enlightened instruction. At Louvain, one of the most solid bulwarks of the scholastic theology, a new school was established with the help of Erasmus.
The Renaissance may be defined as a period of increased activity of men's powers, due to the breaking down of those forces which had kept them in leash. This activity displayed itself most characteristically in the revival of learning, which gave the Reformation its tools. See HUMANISM.
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XIX (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 687-689.