In western Europe during the Middle Ages, the legacy of Greece and Rome had not been forgotten. Aristotle was the supreme philosophical authority. Plato's works were less well-known; but his reputation was great, and his ideas and outlook had penetrated to medieval thinkers, partly through his Timaeus, partly through the writings of others, especially St. Augustine. Virgil was revered and read. Nevertheless, despite the attention paid to these and other classical authors, it is proper to speak of a classical revival in the Renaissance.

An intense search was carried on for classical writings that had disappeared from circulation. The study of Greek, which had largely lapsed in the West, was resumed, and the body of classical Greek literature was recovered and studied. Classical authors were looked to as models of style, and the ideas of ancient philosophers found adherents. The world of antiquity was regarded as an age of greatness that had been followed by one of decline. It was hoped that by following in the footsteps of the ancients, it might be possible to rise from the decadence of the present to a higher plane. We have seen something of this in the case of Machiavelli. In the areas of literature and education, this endeavor was carried on largely by a class of professional classical scholars who came to be referred to as humanists.

Humanism derives from the Latin word humanitas, which carries the connotation of the highest human faculties and the type of intellectual culture that develops these faculties. The humane studies aimed at training men to take their place in society and public life. Cicero, one of the great Roman humanists, states in the De officiis (On Moral Duties) that men are set apart by reason and speech, which enable them to live together in society. Renaissance humanism, following the ancient tradition, was largely oriented toward rhetoric, the art of correct expression. Rhetoric was important in the life of the ancient city-states, where each citizen could attend public assemblies and try to persuade his fellows by his skill in oratory. Rhetoric had a moral purpose, since by effective expression the orator was supposed to persuade to good action. The education of the orator in antiquity was largely literary and linguistic. Renaissance humanists followed in this tradition by concentrating on a special set of subjects: oratory, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. Thus humanism did not cover all fields of knowledge and was not equally interested in all aspects of the works of classical antiquity. Nor did humanistic education comprise all the educational activity of the age by any means.

The term humanism has not been defined in the same way by all. The preceding discussion is based on the ideas of Paul Oskar Kristeller, one of the most distinguished scholars in the field. Others give the term a broader definition. For the sake of an introductory survey like this, it may be permissible to go a bit beyond the narrow definition and include some writers, not strictly humanists, who were concerned with the problem an absorbing one in the Renaissance of the nature of man and his place in the universe.

It was in Italy, because of the persistence of the classical tradition there, that Renaissance humanism first grew up. As early as the later years of the thirteenth century, in several places, a more accurate understanding of the ancient writers becomes evident. The bearers of this understanding were often lawyers, whose study of the Roman civil law provided them with access to the spirit and institutions of Rome, and led them to the study of Roman history and literature. The city of Padua was one of the important early centers of humanistic study. The great figure who did most to give the decisive impulse to these developing tendencies was Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (1304-74), who has been called the "father of humanism." Though of Florentine parentage, he was born in Arezzo, where his father, a member of the proscribed White faction, was then living in exile. When Petrarch was about eight years old, the family moved to Avignon, then the seat of the papacy. In his writings, Petrarch expressed hatred for the corruption of the place. It was here that he first saw Laura, the woman he loved and celebrated in his poetry. From an early age he was attracted to the study of the classics, a study his father tried in vain to discourage. At his father's bidding, Petrarch attended the University of Montpellier for four years to study law, and later continued his studies in the same subject at Bologna. He was never attracted to legal study, and abandoned it on the death of his father in 1326. For several years he lived in and near Avignon, much of the time in his country home at Vaucluse about fifteen miles from the city. In 1341 he went to Rome to be crowned with the laurel wreath of poetry. This honor, conferred upon poets in antiquity, had been revived or continued in medieval Italy. Petrarch apparently had schemed to get this honor, although he later told the story in such a way as to make it appear that it was unsolicited and came as a surprise. Although he became known for his Italian love poems to Laura, these would not have gained him the laurel. For this he needed something more serious, written in Latin. He had been writing an epic on the Second Punic War, entitled Africa, which was not finished and had not been published. Few people, if any, could have seen it, and yet it was chiefly on the strength of this work that he was crowned. He also received Roman citizenship, of which he was very proud. For him, filled as he was with memories of antiquity, Rome still was, or ought to be, the center of the world. "What else is all history," he once wrote, "but the praise of Rome?" From then on, he spent much of his time in Italy, until he moved there permanently in 1353.

Meanwhile, he became acquainted with Cola di Rienzo and followed his remarkable career with great interest. At first Petrarch was enthusiastic, hoping Cola would be able to restore something of the ancient glory of Rome. His enthusiasm shows both his feeling for Rome and his political navet. In time he became disillusioned with Cola, as his career proceeded to its tragic end. In 1352, when Cola had been sent to Avignon by the emperor, he asked to see Petrarch, who refused to meet him. Yet Petrarch always praised Cola for what he saw as his attempt to liberate Rome, and regretted that it had not succeeded. During the last two decades of his life (1353-74), Italy was Petrarch's home. For a while he lived in Milan, where he had been invited by the ruler Archbishop Giovanni Visconti, though some of his friends were unhappy that he would accept a tyrant's patronage. Later he lived in the territories of Padua and Venice. From 1370 he lived in the Euganean hills, in the domains of the rulers of Padua, the Carrara family. His death came on July 19, 1374.

He never accepted any position that might keep him from his real work, study and writing. He could have had an important position in the church, perhaps a bishopric or even the red hat of a cardinal, but he refused to compromise his freedom. It was his voluminous writing that gave him his immense prestige and made him the friend and valued guest, not only of the rulers of Italian city-states but also of the king of France and the Holy Roman emperor, and caused lesser men to feel honored to receive a letter from him. His writings in Italian will be discussed elsewhere; it was his Latin works that were the primary basis for his standing among the great and the learned. (He never succeeded in learning Greek, and was unable to form an adequate concept of Greek history and civilization.) One of the chief purposes of his literary efforts was the revival of the glories and the ideals of ancient Rome, by conveying to his contemporaries a knowledge of that great age. He had a practical purpose in doing this: He hoped that the examples of ancient greatness would elevate the sadly deficient standards of his own age. His equipment for this task included a knowledge of Roman history and literature remarkable for the period in which he lived. Perhaps as important, or even more so, was his remarkable capacity for imaginative reconstruction and sympathy for the men and events of ancient Rome. He could feel the presence of the great figures of antiquity, not as symbols or abstractions but as living, individual personalities. According to a great authority, Pierre de Nolhac, Petrarch was the first person in centuries to understand Cicero's character. He wrote an extraordinary series of letters to classical authors, including not only Cicero but Virgil, Homer and others, praising their virtues and achievements and chiding them for their faults and weaknesses. He must be regarded as one of the guides to the modern historical consciousness, which endeavors to see the past as alive and to know and experience it, as far as may be, on its own terms.

Not only the content of the Roman authors but also their form was important to Petrarch. He revolted against the style of the scholastic writers of the Middle Ages and advocated a return to a classical manner of expression. He developed his own distinctive Latin style, which, while it is not like that of any ancient writer, is indisputably his own. Humanism had practical aims. This can be seen in Petrarch's attitude toward philosophy. He had no use for the abstract philosophy of the scholastics, who, in addition to using language that he considered barbarous, dealt with problems that to him seemed abstract and irrelevant, problems of metaphysics, natural philosophy, and the nature of knowledge, or epistemology. The only branch of philosophy that concerned him was moral philosophy, which did something useful by teaching men how to live. Aristotle, so much admired by many of his contemporaries and in many ways by Petrarch himself, he nevertheless criticizes: Aristotle, he says, defines virtue, but does not impel one to follow it.

He attacked the scholastic concern for logic; logic, says Petrarch, should come early in one's training and not at the end of it.

He was also the first great Renaissance seeker and collector of classical manuscripts. His library may have contained over two hundred volumes, mostly classical works. On his travels he always looked for new books to add to his collection. He was especially eager to find works that had been lost; his great discovery was Cicero's Letters to Atticus.

In some ways Petrarch's most interesting creation was himself. All his study and work went into making a self-conscious, unique personality, which can still, after six hundred years, impress itself vividly upon us. It is difficult to think of anyone for centuries before his time and not many since whom we can know as well as we can know him. His intense consciousness of himself is shown in his unfinished Letter to Posterity. This was to be the last of his published letters, which remain an important source of information about his life, aims, and character. He was aware of the originality of the Letter to Posterity. In it he gives a comprehensive picture of himself, describing his family, his temperament, and his physical appearance, and then giving an account of his experiences. It is clear from this, as from other evidence, that he was a man conscious of his own eminence and easily disturbed by criticism, seeing himself as someone apart from the herd, though at the same time eager for its approval. He was also a man of great personal warmth, with a gift for friendship.

The most intimate glimpses of Petrarch's mind and personality probably come from his Italian poems, which will be discussed later. But one little book, which he called his Secretum, is also significant for its self-revelation. It is written in Latin and consists of a series of imaginary dialogues between Petrarch himself and St. Augustine, to whose works he was very much attached. Augustine here plays the part of Petrarch's conscience, and there is some remarkably acute self-analysis on Petrarch's part. He pleads guilty to cupidity, ambition, and lust, and there is a discussion of his acedia, a black melancholy that sometimes possesses him for days. His worst sins are his love of Laura and his love of glory, the desire for human praise and an undying name. Augustine exhorts him to turn from such thoughts and think of his soul and of preparation for death. It is doubtful Petrarch ever managed to subdue his desire for fame and glory. That he felt it as a sin shows that his moral standpoint was that of a devout Christian, strongly affected by the ascetic ideals of the Middle Ages. He was always faithful to the church and to religion, no matter how critical he was of the corruption of the Curia at Avignon. As he grew older he turned more and more to religious literature and meditation. One of his most beautiful poems is his address to the Blessed Virgin (Vergine bella), and many of his writings deal with moral subjects. To the accusation that he was a good man but not very learned, he replied that if he had the choice, he would prefer to be good. We have given a rather large amount of space to Petrarch, partly because so much is known about him, but chiefly because he is so important, both in himself and in the precedents which he set. The humanists who come later were in many respects his followers, and his outlook and attitudes have exercised a formative influence on subsequent generations.


It was the aim of the humanists to bring to light the fullest possible knowledge of classical antiquity. It soon became clear that two basic prerequisites for this enterprise were the recovery of as many classical writings as possible and the study of Greek.

Many classical writings were irretrievably lost; others, for example Livy's History of Rome, had only partially survived. There were others of which a few copies or perhaps only one still existed, but were buried in a monastic library or some other location where they had been neglected and left unread for years. It was the aim of the humanists to search for all such works. Where two or more copies existed, there were invariably differences between them. It must be remembered that all were hand-written, and it was necessary to develop techniques of textual criticism, that is, of systematic study of the relationships between manuscripts in order to establish the most accurate possible text. It was the humanists who brought to light virtually all the classical writings that are known today and who laid the foundations of the science of textual criticism, still vitally important in Biblical study and many other areas as well as in the field of classical scholarship.

Some of the manuscript hunters and discoverers may be mentioned here. Boccaccio, faithful friend and disciple of Petrarch in this field, discovered some works of Ovid and Martial, and perhaps acquired the manuscript of Varro on which all other known manuscripts of that author are based. He was also the first humanist to be familiar with Tacitus, and may have acquired a manuscript containing a substantial amount of that author's works.

The Council of Constance, referred to already in another connection, holds an important place in the recovery of ancient manuscripts. The leading figure in the quest at Constance was Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459). At the time when he attended the council, he was in the service of the papacy. From Constance he made several manuscript-hunting expeditions into parts of Switzerland, France and Germany. His discoveries included a number of Cicero's orations, a complete copy of Quintilian's Institutio oratoria (The education of an orator) and the poem of Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the nature of things). Four of Cicero's orations that he found are not known to exist in any other copies; he may, therefore, have preserved them from being lost forever.

By 1433 the main body of the surviving Latin classics had been made available. In the meantime the recovery of classical Greek literature in the original language had begun. From 1397 to 1400, in Florence, a learned Greek, Manuel Chrysoloras, taught the language to some of the most brilliant and promising scholars in the city. One of them was Leonardo Bruni, who used his knowledge of Greek to translate books by several authors, including Demosthenes, Plutarch, Xenophon, and especially Plato and Aristotle. Another distinguished pupil of Chrysoloras was Guarino Guarini, or Guarino da Verona, who later became one of the most distinguished humanist teachers. He lived from 1403 to 1408 in the household of Chrysoloras in Constantinople, mastering Greek and acquiring Greek manuscripts. Something will be said later about his work as an educator.

The spreading knowledge of the Greek language in Italy stimulated a search for Greek manuscripts. Before the coming of Chrysoloras, very few such manuscripts had existed in Italy, but during the fifteenth century this deficiency was made up, until all the principal poets and prose writers, and many minor authors, were represented. Italians went to the East, where such manuscripts were available, and brought them back. Guarino collected more than fifty during his stay in Constantinople. The greatest collector of Greek works was Giovanni Aurispa, who, in 1423, on his return from Constantinople to Italy, possessed a library of 238 manuscripts, most of which were classical Greek works. With the invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century, it became possible to turn out in large quantities texts of classical writings. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the great bulk of all known classical literature, both Greek and Roman, came from the press. Although printing was not an Italian invention, most of the first editions of the classics were printed in Italy until about the time of the Sack of Rome. The greatest of the early Italian printers was Aldo Manuzio of Venice, whose work will be more fully discussed in Chapter 9.

However, it became clear that, in recovering the knowledge of antiquity, books were not the only source of information; knowledge could also be gained from coins, inscriptions, and the monuments and other physical remains of the ancient world. Thus a beginning was made in the studies of numismatics, epigraphy and archaeology. Cola di Rienzo and Petrarch had glimpsed the historical importance of the ruins of ancient Rome and deplored the way that they had been neglected and pillaged. Poggio Bracciolini collected inscriptions in Rome, and in one of his books described the ancient ruins. Cyriacus of Ancona (c.1391-c.1455) was interested in ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, and works of art; he described his mission as being "to wake the dead." Flavio Biondo (1392-1463), historian and archaeologist, finished a book in 1446 on the topography of imperial Rome, Roma instaurata and in 1453 there appeared his Italia illustrata, which did the same for all Italy and became the basis for all subsequent work in the field. The humanists came to enjoy a considerable prestige. One sign of this is that they were employed for important public offices, such as chancellor of Florence. The Florentine chancellor was in charge of the city's correspondence with other states, and the position came to he held by leading humanists. The first of these was Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), who held the post from 1375 until his death. He was also the center of the Florentine humanistic circle and in that capacity exerted considerable influence on some of the leading intellectuals of the time. He was largely responsible for the invitation to Chrysoloras to come to Florence. Leonardo Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, both future Florentine chancellors and leaders of the humanistic movement, were in their youth disciples of his, as were many others who attained scholarly distinction. Salutati was a conscious and active promoter and member of the humanistic movement. In a letter he wrote when very young to a friend of Petrarch, Francesco Nelli, he makes the claim that through the efforts of Petrarch and Nelli, the Muses are returning to their songs and the springs of inspiration are gushing once more. This is one of the earliest references to a revival of letters, which helped to establish the idea of a rebirth or Renaissance. When the new learning, or humanism, was attacked, he came to its defense. On several occasions he wrote defenses of poetry against its detractors basing his justification partly on moral grounds by the assertion that the poet's task is to praise virtue and attack vice. He also asserted that poetry should be interpreted allegorically, a doctrine that had been held by Petrarch, in whose opinion poetry was to teach important truths indirectly. The idea was a familiar one; in the Divine Comedy, Dante expected the reader to dig beneath the surface for the deeper meanings. At the time of his death, Salutati was working on a defense of poetry; in the part that he finished, he declared poetry to be the greatest of all the arts and sciences, and the summation of them.

Salutati was religious and patriotic, and the two things went hand-in-hand for him. He believed that man best served God in active participation in public life rather than in solitary contemplation. "The fairest things on earth," he wrote, "are the fatherland and one's friends." This devotion to public service, exemplified in his life as well as his writings, was part of the civic humanism referred to earlier, and exemplified also by Bruni and others who loved and served the state while at the same time pursuing their studies. In accordance with his combination of civic activism and religious and moral earnestness, he felt, like Petrarch, that the only valuable branch of philosophy was moral philosophy, and he helped to establish this as the standard humanist position. Salutati was a devout Christian. In spite of his admiration for the classical authors, he condemned their philosophy when it contradicted Christian doctrine. The ancients, according to him, went astray with their erroneous belief that a virtuous life was possible without God. In spite of his devotion to the active life, he also wrote of the joys of monasticism.


In the hands of a genius, humanism could become a powerful force. Its critical method and outlook, when applied to the ancient writings, meant a return to the original texts, stripped of errors of transmission and of the traditional interpretations or misinterpretations that had developed over centuries. This method could be extended beyond classical scholarship and applied to a wide range of institutions and ideas. This is all exemplified in the work of Lorenzo Valla (1407-57), possibly the most brilliant Italian humanist.

Valla was born in Rome and spent his last years there as a papal secretary and professor at the university. He also taught at Padua and served Alfonso the Magnanimous of Naples. Though he was a priest, the boldness and independence of his thought brought upon him accusations of heresy. He never denied the doctrines of the church, and in one respect may seem more narrowly orthodox than some of the other humanists; for, while they often sought to reconcile Christian teachings with the ideas of ancient philosophers, Valla rejected this endeavor. He consistently asserted that there could be no reconciliation between pagan and Christian thought, and his works contain condemnations of philosophy.

In 1431 he published a treatise On Pleasure, a title he changed to On the True Good. In it three speakers, a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Christian, discuss the nature of the true good. His Christian speaker regards the Epicurean position as closer to the Christian than the Stoic position, and some of Valla's critics accused him of really favoring the Epicurean view over the Christian. This is probably untrue, and the Christian point of view is no doubt Valla's own. Between 1435 and 1443 he wrote a dialogue On Free Will, in which he tackled the old problem of reconciling man's freedom with God's omnipotence. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then how does man have any choice between good and evil? And, if man has no capacity to make such moral choices, is it fair to punish him for choosing wrongly? Another way of putting the problem is to say that there seems to be a conflict between God's power and His goodness. If He could have saved man from sin and did not, then His goodness is in question; if He wanted to save man and could not, then it is His power that seems to be called into doubt. One of Valla's solutions to the problem is to make a distinction between God's foreknowledge and his will. The fact that God knows what will happen does not cause it to happen. This distinction is offered as a way of saving man's freedom of will as well as the divine justice. However, the dialogue goes on to declare that God has given to men and animals certain natures, and that they will act according to those natures; this has the effect of restricting the freedom of the will he has previously claimed. Apparently Valla was aware of his failure to solve the problem, because at the end he urges trust in God rather than reliance on reason; what we need is faith, humility, and charity.

For Valla, language was supremely important, and rhetoric was the most important study. He referred to Latin as a sacrament, as something having a divine character. He was a profound student of the language, and realized that words had been twisted out of their original meanings and that it was essential to strip off the accretions to find out what the classical writers had really said. Thus he saw the importance of philology as a tool for understanding the past. One of his most influential works was his Elegantiae linguae latinae (Elegances of the Latin Language), which was first printed in 1444 and by 1550 had appeared in over sixty editions. His purpose was to teach a correct understanding of classical usage, partly to enable his contemporaries to write correctly but chiefly to aid in the understanding of the classical authors.

He applied his critical faculties beyond linguistics in a book on the monastic life (De professione religiosorum) written in 1442. Here he concluded that there is only one level of moral perfection for Christians, and that the monastic life cannot improve on this. Many criticisms were leveled at monks for not living up to their rules; Valla goes much further, and takes a more radical stand, in attacking the whole monastic idea, not merely the abuse of it.

Another work of great importance was his Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum (Notes on the New Testament). Not published in Valla's lifetime, it was later found and published by Erasmus, and was based on a comparison of the received text of the New Testament, the Latin Vulgate, with the original Greek. Valla used at least three Greek manuscripts for his notes, which were grammatical rather than theological, and he found in the Latin text a number of faulty renderings of the original. He insisted theologians must start with the grammatical sense of a Biblical passage in interpreting its meaning a radical departure from the highly figurative readings of the Bible that were standard in the Middle Ages. This approach entitles him to be considered one of the founders of modern Biblical scholarship. He had only contempt for scholastics who wrote on the New Testament without knowing Greek.

Valla also cast doubt on, or denied altogether, the authenticity of certain writings that had been long accepted by Christians, for example, the supposed correspondence between St. Paul and Seneca. Probably his most famous work today is his treatise on the Donation of Constantine, which he produced in 1440 in the service of Alfonso the Magnanimous of Naples, who was at the time in conflict with the pope. The Donation is a document that purported to come from the hand of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Constantine, having been healed of leprosy by Pope Sylvester, grants to the papacy what amounts to dominion over the western half of the Roman Empire. Actually, it was an eighth-century forgery, but it had been accepted into the canon law and served as one of the bases for papal claims to temporal dominion. Valla was not the first to question it; several others, including Dante, had done so. Valla's attack is the most famous, and made impossible any further defense of the Donation. He uses a number of different types of argument to show up the falsity of the document: arguments based on common sense, on historical analysis, and on the actual wording of the Donation. There are no records of the gift in the histories of the time, for example; this is one of his historical arguments. But the most striking line of reasoning, and the one that most effectively shows the practical importance of humanistic method, is his examination of the language in which the Donation is written. Because of his thorough knowledge of classical Latin, he shows through numerous examples and not without sarcasm that nobody writing Latin in Constantine's time would have written that way. It was, therefore, done much later, and in barbarous Latin. Thus humanism and scholarship become weapons in the search for truth, and an important contribution is made to the methods of modern historical research.


The humanists made great contributions to the writing of history in the modern sense. Valla, as we have seen, did much to establish critical methods for the study of the past. He studied it from the sources and without the religious preconceptions that had dominated historical writing for centuries. The most important influences on the writing of history in Christian Europe were probably the Bible and Augustine's City of God. From these arose the conception of human history as the unfolding of the divine purpose in human affairs. Medieval chroniclers sometimes accepted uncritically into their works miraculous events, as was also true of lives of the saints, a popular form of biographical literature.

This is not to deny that valuable historical writing was done in the Middle Ages, or that there is anything inherently wrong with the interpretation of history from the Christian point of view; many distinguished scholars today present forceful arguments in favor of such an interpretation. However, it remained for the Renaissance to establish modern canons of critical investigation of the past. The Italian humanists were first in this field.

In entering the new world of historical thought, the Renaissance writers were assisted by the example of the ancients, whom they took as their models. Of the great ancient historians, it was probably Livy who meant the most to them Livy, the patriotic Roman, holding up to his fellow countrymen the virtues of their ancestors in order to inspire them to emulation, to help them cherish their heritage and learn from the past. The humanist historians also were patriotic, writing the history of their cities or of Italy. They believed this history as a source of moral and political lessons for citizens and statesmen. They concentrated, like their classical models, on political and military matters and on the actions of outstanding personalities. In addition, they adopted the classical practice of putting in the mouths of their characters speeches for which the text was not available in any documents, but which were intended to be appropriate to the occasion and the character of the speaker. The biography, in the tradition of Plutarch and Suetonius, was a congenial form in the atmosphere of individualism that characterized the Renaissance.

The historians saw the decline of Rome as the essential precondition to the rise of modern Italy and its city-states. Thus the medieval period acquired a great deal of significance, and provided the first historical justification of the Middle Ages. For such writers, whose interests were political and military, their own age did not mark a sharp break with the Middle Ages, but rather continued a development begun with the fall of ancient Rome. The critical break and the new beginning were located at the end of antiquity. Those writers concerned more with the history of art and literature had a different point of view. For them, the period that followed the breakdown of Rome was likely to be seen as a period of decline, and their own age as a time of revival or rebirth. Petrarch himself was seen as the inaugurator of a revival of letters. As we shall see later, a similar conception was applied to art, with Giotto as the man who "brought painting back to life." It was in Renaissance Italy that the term Middle Ages was coined in the Italian form Medioevo. The humanist historians took a step in the direction of modern historical writing by rejecting the supernatural as a historical force, much as a present-day historian, though he may espouse a religious interpretation of history, will, in his strictly historical writing, stick to what can be proved from the documents.

The humanists wrote history on the human plane, seeking the causes and meaning of events in human motives and conditions. The Florentine humanists of the fifteenth century made a profound discovery; they saw the connection between the state of politics and society, on the one hand, and cultural achievement on the other. They considered that the greatness of their city, with the rebirth of arts that had been lost, was a consequence of its political freedom. Leonardo Bruni found a relationship between Roman freedom and Roman literature: With the loss of freedom in the transition from republic to empire, the creative vitality of the Romans was lost. Bruni's great contribution to historical writing was his History of the Florentine People. He followed Cicero in referring to history as the guide of life (magistra vitae) and in asserting that the two most important requirements for history are accuracy and distinction of style. Like the ancients, Bruni considered history a branch of literature. He was a fervent Florentine patriot (though, like some other zealous Florentines, he was not a native of the city) and a believer in Florentine freedom, and his history is pervaded by his republican sentiments. Florence he saw as a second Rome, inheriting the place of Rome itself. In his use of materials, Bruni showed modern aspects; he rejected miracles and legends, even those in the works of the ancient classical authors. He used materials from the Florentine archives, applied critical standards to the judgment of his sources, and sought the underlying causes of events.

The history of Italy as a whole was written by Flavio Biondo, in his work on Italy from the decline of the Roman Empire. Like his other books, this one was based on indefatigable research and filled with facts. Unlike Bruni's history, it does not live up to the humanistic ideal of history as literature; the style is ponderous. Valuable and widely read, it helped to establish the fall of the Roman Empire as the end of a historical epoch and the beginning of a new one. He may, therefore, be called one of the first medievalists. Like Bruni, he celebrated the rise of the cities, which had restored the dignity of Italy. Thus these fifteenth-century humanist historians, writing in Latin, helped to establish the ideals and methods of historical study upon which the great Italian historians of the next century, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, were to build.


In the field of education, as elsewhere, humanists aimed at the revival in a form applicable to their own time. In the process of adapting and developing ancient ideas, they founded a liberal education in the modern world.

As we have seen, humanism was in the rhetorical tradition, which emphasized correct expression as preparation for public life. This applies particularly to education. The educational theory of ancient Rome emphasized the training of the orator, and the orator, in a famous description by Cato, was a "good man skilled in speech." Thus the ability to speak well must always be accompanied by moral goodness. Cicero, in his work De oratore (55 b.c.), required also a knowledge of the accomplishments of the Greeks as part of the education of a Roman. An influential work in the Renaissance was Quintilian's Institutio oratoria (The education of an orator, c. a.d. 95), of which the first complete copy was found by Poggio at the Council of Constance, although incomplete texts had been available earlier. He defined the orator as "the man who can really play his part as a citizen and is capable of meeting the demands both of public and private business, the man who can guide a state by his counsels, give it a firm basis by his legislation, and purge its vices by its decisions as a judge."

As a successful teacher he knew that learning must be voluntary, that it must be interspersed with holidays and games, and that the pupil's health and vigor should be attended to. He was opposed to the harsh corporal punishments, which were common in his day and long afterward. The humanist educators of Renaissance Italy followed these Roman ideas carefully, adding the element of training in Christianity. The traditions of chivalry also left an imprint on educational practice. All these points are clearly illustrated in the earliest important humanist educational treatise, the De ingenuis moribus (On Noble Customs and Liberal Studies) of Pier Paolo Vergerio, written at the end of 1401 or in 1402 and dedicated to the son of the ruler of Padua, a member of the Carrara family. His educational program encompasses moral and religious training, together with physical fitness and instruction in the bearing of arms. As for the academic, or liberal studies, he defines them as follows:

We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practise virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind which ennoble men, and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only.5

These studies include history, moral philosophy, and eloquence as the most important subjects. Literature (or "letters"), grammar, logic, and rhetoric are also included. Poetry and music are valuable for recreation. He also finds room for arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and "the knowledge of nature," showing that what we call science was not to be neglected, though it occupied a secondary position. He also recommended that the special aptitudes and abilities of each student be noted, and that his education be adapted to his individual character. This treatise was influential and widely read. Other educational theorists repeated the same themes, with different emphases. Leonardo Bruni wrote a little tract about 1405 on the education of women; he stressed religious and moral training, with the classical writers and the church fathers as the authors to be studied. The Renaissance saw an improvement in the educational and social status of women, who at least among the upper classes were sometimes given a humanistic education and an honored position in society.

Vittorino da Feltre at Mantua and Guarino da Verona at Ferrara put into practice the ideas we have discussed. Both emphasized training in correct expression; the study of classical Latin and Greek; the well-rounded training of the mental, moral and physical aspects of their pupils; and preparation for public life. Their training was not professional; they left that to others, who would teach their pupils later. They would have agreed that a humanistic, or liberal, education was eminently practical, since it fitted the pupil whatever his future profession to take his place in society. Just as humanism was not the only form of intellectual activity of that period, so humanistic education was not found everywhere; indeed, most schools were not in the hands of humanists, but it was the humanistic ideal that was to set the pattern for education, especially higher education, until fairly recent times.


A detailed portrait of the ideal product of a humanistic education may be found in Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) of Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529). The court, which forms the setting for the book's conversations, is the court of Urbino, governed at the time by the Montefeltro family. As in the case of Ferrara and Mantua, some of the smaller Italian states governed by hereditary ruling families made important contributions to the culture of the age. The cultivated life of the court of Urbino is reflected in the Courtier, in which all the participants in the conversations are real persons. Presiding over them is the duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga an instance of the honored place occupied by women in at least the upper reaches of Italian Renaissance society. The conversations are supposed to have taken place in March 1507, at a time when most of the characters in the book were, in fact, at Urbino. Castiglione began writing the book about 1508, and worked on it intermittently for years; it was not printed until 1528.

The conversations are represented as continuing for four successive evenings, and are, therefore, divided into four books. The purpose of the discussion is to find the qualities needed to be a good courtier. Because of the dialogue form, it is possible for the author to present varying points of view on the topics that come up, but one opinion normally wins out and thus enables us to perceive Castiglione's true thoughts on the matter. It is decided that a perfect courtier ought to be of noble birth. His chief profession is that of arms. He must be neither too tall nor too short. He should be outstanding in horsemanship, tournaments, hunting, swimming and other martial and athletic activities. He should always be modest about his attainments, and should always strive to give the impression that no special effort or long practice is required for them. The courtier should use the Italian language well, and should be able to use other modern languages; he should, of course, be well educated in the classical tongues. Besides all this, he should be skilled in the use of several musical instruments, and be able to draw and paint. But the most important quality of the courtier is goodness. The question of morality is involved with his service to his prince. The courtier must reverence and serve his prince, to be sure, but without flattery, and never in dishonest matters. If he finds that his prince is wicked, he must forsake him. Many other topics are covered, including dress, bearing and gestures, friendships, recreations and humor.

There is, in the third book, a discussion of the attributes of the ideal gentlewoman, the counterpart of the ideal courtier. She must be beautiful, chaste, wise, witty, gentle, and virtuous. She must be skilled in letters, music, painting, dancing and sports, but always modest. The tone is very laudatory of women and their abilities and accomplishments.

Toward the end of the work, in the last book, the question is raised whether the courtier can love. If he has acquired all the skills and knowledge that have been prescribed, he will no longer be young. Does this mean that the love of woman will no longer be possible for him? To this question, Pietro Bembo, one of the most distinguished humanists and scholars of the time, provides a long and eloquent answer, which is something of a climax for the whole work.

Bembo's answer is not original; it is based on Socrates' exposition of the nature of love in Plato's Symposium, modified in two respects: it deals with the love of men for women; it has been given a Christian character. Bembo describes a love which ascends from the plane of the senses through various stages to the pure love of God, the embodiment of all beauty. This conception of a supersensual, spiritual love, expressed most fully by the Florentine Neoplatonists, was to have a great career in the Renaissance, and not just in Italy. Dante and Petrarch had already expressed it; Michelangelo embodied it in his art; many others paid at least lip service to it. Renaissance thought and literature cannot be fully appreciated without realizing how widespread and pervasive the idea of courtly love was.