By Michael Sauter
The term Renaissance is French and means rebirth. It is identified most closely with Italy in the fifteenth century, but also includes France, the Low Countries and parts of Germany and England in the early sixteenth centuries. As I mentioned in the first lecture, the Renaissance was, supposedly, the moment when European culture was reborn, after the darkness of the Middle Ages. This begs the question, of course, of what exactly was being reborn in European culture. The general answer is the return of classical pagan themes in literature, art, and architecture. The leaders in this recovery were, of course, Italians, including Petrarch, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi, just to name a few. Though you should keep in mind, as I noted last week, that there was a vigorous cultural interchange between Italy and the Low Countries at least in terms of artistic technique.
We moderns are particularly enamored today of the artwork that resulted from the Renaissance’s cultural reappropriation of the classical past, but it is important to recall that the Renaissance in Italy came at the end of a long medieval process of appropriating the remnants of the classical legacy. Beginning already with St. Augustine in the fourth century, we see an emerging Christian Europe that was in dialogue with the pagan past, especially its literature. There was much for the Christian world to use in the classical tradition, and the medieval church led the way in recovering classical techniques and ideas, in order to make use of them. This process reached its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the Church made a supreme effort to ingest the rediscovered works of Aristotle into its repertoire, making full use, for example, of Aristotle’s logic for the first time.
The medieval church’s repeated attempts to incorporate classical culture were, therefore, the foundation of the European Renaissance. There is no understanding Burckhardt’s Renaissance in Italy without recognizing the medieval rhythms that underlay it. Now, however, I want to concentrate more narrowly on the question of, why here? Why Italy? The simple answer is that by the end of the High Middle Ages, Italy was the most densely populated and commercially advanced region in Europe. But it was also the most politically fragmented, and this is our entrée into the explosion of creativity that appeared in fifteenth century Italy.
In general, the Renaissance was an adaptation to the crises of the late Middle Ages. By the mid-fifteenth century, most of Italy had moved out of the medieval Holy Roman Emperor’s control. In addition, the Pope had become nothing more than a territorial prince seeking to extend his control over as much of Italy as possible. This basic situation was a product of two factors, one political and the other economic: 1) The medieval battle between the Popes in Rome and the Emperors in Germany had made it possible for many medieval Italian towns and cities to gain political independence from their local lords. 2) Towns in northern Italy sat right in the middle of Europe’s most significant trade routes, the one to the Middle East. The most famous example of this is Venice, which became immensely wealthy and politically powerful due to trade with the Levant. (Venice was, in fact, a huge troublemaker. The so-called Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) never made it to the Holy Land, but was diverted to Constantinople in the service of Venetian trading interests. The crusaders sacked the city and stole many priceless manuscripts and works of art, much of which returned to Venice, where it remains.)
From here I am going to follow three separate, but interrelated themes. The first is the rise of the intellectual conditions for the cultural aspects of the Italian Renaissance. The second is the appearance of the Italian state system. Once I have discussed these two themes, I will pursue the third issue, Renaissance Humanism.
Unlike anywhere else in Europe, Italian towns were extremely amenable to absorbing classical influences. First, northern Italy’s main political unit was the city-state, which made the classical political tradition especially attractive. Second, Italians were literally surrounded by the classical heritage. There was no way to avoid absorbing it. Third, Italian universities had never succumbed to the preeminence of theology that was apparent in medieval universities in France and England. In Italian universities such as Bologna and Padua, law and medicine remained higher faculties, competing with theology for resources and intellectual preeminence. Finally, Italy’s political fragmentation meant that the peninsula needed an extraordinary number of secretaries to keep track of basic business. The scribes who did this work, known as dictatores, had studied law and medicine at Italian universities before heading to work for a prince or city. They became interested in rhetoric and literary style, and looked to classical examples to improve their own writing.
The Renaissance’s origins can, thus, be traced to a group of educated people interested in improving their prose style. These people looked to ancient writers such as Seneca and Cicero, seeking to import ancient Latin rhetorical flourishes into their own writing. The general interest in improving one’s prose style created an early literary sphere, in which people were judged by and could even become famous for their use of language. One example is Francesco Petrarca, a.k.a. Petrarch, who went from being a modest chaplain to Italy’s most sought after writer among the various Italian courts.
Petrarch’s work was sought after for its fluid style, but for our purposes, we are interested in the ideas that his style made popular. Petrarch discovered a quality in himself that we will call affective. It is an emotional response to the literary culture of antiquity that we today would call aesthetic. (The term aesthetic is an eighteenth-century neologism first coined by a German writer named Friedrich Jacobi.) This affective aspect must be contrasted with the cerebral nature of medieval scholasticism. Whereas, the scholastics ignored, even feared, the literary part of pagan culture, Petrarch reveled in pagan style. And along with this interest in style came ancient values that emphasized individual virtue and sterling public conduct for its own sake.
For Petrarch the ancients were not dead, but with him. He wrote a collection of letters entitled “Letters to the Ancients,” in which he declared himself to be closer in spirit to the long-dead pagans than his scholastic contemporaries. Petrarch felt a gulf between himself and the ancient past that led him to seek its recovery. This is a completely new view of time, in fact, a modern tri-partite one. Where the medieval church saw its relation to the ancient world in terms of continuity, Petrarch saw a radical break and a roughly 1000 year gap between him and the ancient world: hence, antiquity, the middle ages, modernity. The middle ages had to be overcome, and for Petrarch the way to do so was to reach back and recover the pagan world. That is, read Cicero and Seneca, and set the theologians aside.
Petrarch’s emphasis on style took political form in the work of a man named Coluccio Salutati. In the late fourteenth century Salutati immigrated to Florence and later became the town’s chancellor, a job that required him to draw up official documents, which he rendered in the new Latin style. Salutati is important not only because his texts circulated to other Italian cities, but he also gave institutional support to the study of Latin and Greek. Salutati, for example, brought a Greek scholar named Chrysolorus from Constantinople to Florence. Chrysolorus came to Florence with a load of Greek and Latin manuscripts that had long been forgotten in the west. In addition, he also taught a circle of intellectuals Greek, which proved important for Western Europe’s rediscovery of Plato, about which I will say more later.
Now we need to consider these intellectual changes in the context of Italy’s cities. You will recall from the last lecture that cities were the most dynamic places in Europe. In Italy the most dynamic part of cities was the rise of urban merchant elites, whose presence threatened settled medieval structures, and this is crucial for understanding Renaissance Italy’s political arrangements. First, the people who became wealthy during the thirteenth century wanted to share power with the existing urban nobility. Second, as the economy of these cities expanded, the cities increased in population. This meant that the cities need to gain control of their surrounding agricultural areas, and as the various cities expanded outward into the countryside, they eventually bumped into each other, leading to a series of wars and the rise of the classic Renaissance figure, the strongman, or signore. You will see this person clearly in Machiavelli’s The Prince.
The emerging conflict had two important effects. First, some cities won out over their neighbors and the winners created small and medium-sized states that covered all of northern Italy down to Rome. This included the Pope, who was also a territorial lord, in addition to being the head of the Catholic Church. (As an aside, I should note that the resulting political fragmentation would not, ultimately, be resolved until 1870, when the recently unified Kingdom of Italy invaded the Papal States and banished the Pope to what is now Vatican City.) Second, these regional states were led by a new kind of person and in a new political context. Whereas earlier governments had been divinely ordained, at least in theory, the new leaders owed their positions to their respective populaces. A signor was usually called to power either to protect the city against an aggressor, or to be the aggressor.
A classic instance of this process is the Visconti family in Milan. The Visconti first achieved prominence in Milan during the eleventh century, obtaining the hereditary office of Viscount of Milan. By the early 14th century, the family had gained complete control of the city and led Milan into aggression, attacking and absorbing the surrounding regions into a Lombard state. The Visconti reached their height with the reign of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), who was a clever administrator and ruthless ruler. As an administrator, he encouraged the training of government officials at the University of Pavia; as a ruler, he not only overthrew neighboring dynasties, such as the Scala dynasty in Verona, but also bought the title Duke of Milan from the Holy Roman Emperor to legitimize his position. One of his more cunning maneuvers, in which he tricked his uncle into greeting him outside Milan’s walls and then arrested him as a prelude to having him murdered, even made its way into Chaucer’c Canterbury Tales.
As the new Duke of Milan’s power grew, it soon looked like he would take over all of northern Italy through his judicious use of power and diplomacy. The Duke would attack those cities who resisted, but offer advantages to those towns that submitted willingly, as was the case with Pisa, Siena, and Bologna. Only Florence stood in his way, but then he died of the plague in 1402, just before executing an attack on the city. Gian Galeazzo is the origin of the great Prince myth. The idea was that the prince should always add to his territories in order to make himself and his state greater. Others did their best to follow this rule, especially the Visconti’s successors in Milan, the Sforza, and Italy remained a violent, chaotic place throughout the fifteenth century.
There were two exceptions to this trend toward the strongman, Venice and Florence, though neither city it should be noted brought peace to Italy. Unlike Milan, Venice and Florence maintained their popular institutions longer. Venice solved the medieval problem of new money versus old money by accepting the new into the government before slamming the door shut on everyone else. By the fifteenth century, it was still a republic, but one that was run by an increasingly closed oligarchy. Moreover, the nature of Venetian wealth began to change, as the merchant elite invested their money in land as opposed to trade. The rise of Ottoman strength in the East limited Venetian opportunities for commerce.
Florence, by contrast, preserved the appearance of Republicanism longer, though it really became despotic under the Medici family (1434-94). The Medici had no official position in Florence, but wielded power subtly, by acting as political bosses, distributing patronage to people who would do what they wished of them. The Medici resisted becoming open political strongmen, because Florence had a powerful Republican ideology. This ideology was created, in part, due to Florentine resistance to the Visconti of Milan.
Until now, I have been talking about the Renaissance’s intellectual origins. Now I want to direct our attention to its fruits, the most important of which is called Humanism, or what we may better put as the rediscovery of Man. I use the term Man deliberately here, since the Renaissance did not discover Woman. A masculine view of humanity dominated this period.
Humanism as it was formulated in fifteenth-century Italy had three components: 1) A new ideal of life, 2) A new view of education, and 3) the emphasis on critical techniques. These three things are most closely associated another Chancellor of Florence, Leonardo Bruni. According to the great German émigré historian Hans Baron, Bruni had a decisive effect on the perception of the self and its relationship to political life in Florence. Baron associated this shift with the conflict between Florence and Milan. Florence, a small republic, mobilized all its energies to repel the attack from its aggressive neighbor and Baron saw this mobilization as a crystallizing moment. Suddenly, republics were better than dictatorships, which inspired many Florentines to reach back to ancient Rome to find themselves.
Much as the Greeks discovered themselves by repulsing the Persians in the Persian Wars (492-449 BC), the Florentines identified and then cultivated their own unique sense of self. Central to this discovery is the emergence of the idea of the citizen. Bruni, for his part, took from antiquity the value that the citizen should devote his energies to serving the community and he put this in opposition to the traditional medieval veneration of life in the monastery, where prayer and contemplation were prized over action in life. Although monasticism had long been in decline across Europe, its ideals had not yet been effectively challenged. Bruni, however, held that the best life was that of the citizen. The man should have a family, raise children, and nurture them in a form of civic virtue--that is devotion to their community.
This emphasis on the active citizen was a powerful challenge to the medieval world, and it is the foundation of what we today call Republicanism. Turning on the trend toward the countryside that dated back beyond the fifth century, the Florentines announced confidently that the life lived in the city was better than that lived in the country. One humanist named Lorenzo Valla went so far as to announce that a prostitute was more useful to society than a nun. This emphasis on the active life was built on the Renaissance conception of what life in the Roman Republic had been like.
To fifteenth-century eyes, Virtus Romana came to mean personal excellence and the rational capacity to act in public. The Italian term virtú, which you will encounter in the work of Machiavelli, conveys the duty that each citizen had to serve the community. This service was defined broadly, well beyond the political realm. Bruni, for example, refused to be embarrassed by riches. In his view, the true citizen should not shun riches, but should pursue them avidly, and then use the acquired wealth to improve urban life. In Bruni’s eyes, only a free Republic in which individuals could seek their fortunes and then put them at the public’s disposal guaranteed a vibrant public life. This notion of the citizen embedded in a community provided a rich political and literary legacy that still reaches into our own day. Those among you who are interested in the implications this had for political theory should look at the classic text The Machiavellian Moment by John Pocock.
Now I want to tie all of this together by looking more closely at Italy’s humanists. I mentioned Lorenzo Valla earlier in connection with his view of the social utility of prostitutes. There was, of course, much more to Valla than this flippant comment. In the fifteenth century, he stood at the center of the new humanist movement, which was rooted in the development of new critical linguistic techniques. Valla was heir to the dictatores, in that he took their interest in classical texts and changed it into a sense for the history of language. His greatest contribution came in his establishing that the so-called Donation of Constantine was a forgery.
For centuries the church in Rome had claimed that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope secular control over the western empire, and it used a text supposedly by Constantine to prove it. Using his extensive knowledge of ancient Latin, Valla was able to show that this text was written in the eight century and not in the fourth century, as purported. The key piece of evidence was the inclusion of the word satrapes, which means fief, but which, according to Valla did not exist in the fourth century. The Donation was, therefore, a forgery.
Valla discovered the historical nature of words. He took a dim view, however, of linguistic change, seeing Medieval Latin as a corruption, rather than evolution in the language, as we today would put it. In his view, language had to be improved in the face of time’s ravages, and the only way to do this was to go back and study classical languages with an eye to improving modern ones. Among other things, Valla’s insistence on looking carefully at the historical nature of words inspired a subsequent generation of biblical critics such as Erasmus, who subjected the Bible itself to historical linguistic analysis. I will say more about that next time.
Now I want to finish by picking the Plato’s return in the Renaissance that I broached earlier, because it brings together the three themes of intellectual forebears of the Renaissance, the role of the Italian state, and the rise of Humanism that I set up earlier. Let’s begin here by looking back. Until the twelfth century, Europe’s intellectual life was dominated by study of the few Platonic texts that had survived Rome’s decline. However, when Aristotle’s corpus was rediscovered and then translated into Latin during the twelfth century, Europe’s intellectual life underwent a massive change, with Aristotelian logic coming to dominate all aspects of European intellectual life.
It is in this context that we must return our attention to the arrival of Chrysolorus in Florence, because he not only brought with him Greek texts that had been lost to the Latinized west, but he also taught scholars Greek, which allowed them direct access to the Greek past, including Plato. Leonardo Bruni was Chrysolorus’ most distinguished student, and he translated at least 5 of Plato’s dialogues into Italian. Although Bruni later turned away from Plato’s opposition to rhetoric, having an alternate philosophical corpus complemented the Renaissance attack on the medieval past. Now, not only could one be opposed to Medieval Latin, one could also criticize medieval philosophy with an author of equal historical stature. One major result of this new interest in Plato was the founding of the so-called Platonic Academy in Florence by Cosimo de Medici and Marsilio Ficino. Ficino is the most important figure in the return of Plato. Borrowing from Plato’s idea that everything flowed from a single source, Ficino held that Man’s soul was endowed with all the levels of reality. He understood man as a small world within a large one. This is called the microcosm/macrocosm distinction. Ficino reintroduced mysticism into the Renaissance view of man, allowing the civic humanists to see mystical aspects to the human being. This is an ideal philosophy for the courtier, whose role is to be creative. In fact, the belief that Man has a certain mystical quality is the cornerstone of the Renaissance conception of the dignity of man. Along these lines the most important person is Ficino’s friend and colleague Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who in 1486 published the famous text De hominis dignitate oratio (Oration on the Dignity of Man). Pico became the greatest exporter of Platonic mysticism into European culture. His interest in exploring the mystical aspects of the early Christian writers and his belief that medieval Aristotelianism had undercut the religious experience set European thought on a completely new path, freeing European culture from what had become a narrow approach to philosophical logic. We cannot go further into this theme here, but we will pick it up again next time with the Christian Humanists and the Reformation.