The Renaissance is unique among the periods of European history in that its nature, its importance, and even its very existence have been sources of doubt and of debate among students. The whole question as it had developed from the fifteenth century to the 1940s has been set forth in a book by Wallace K. Ferguson, and has been dealt with by other writers; but the discussion still goes on, and each serious student of the period has to come to terms with the question.

As we have seen, the idea of a rebirth or a revival of art and of letters goes back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Writers, scholars, and artists thought that they were witnessing a renewal of much that had long been dead or dormant. Over the centuries the notion took root and expanded, until eventually the word Renaissance came to be used, as it still is, to designate an entire historical epoch. The use of this one term to refer to an age indicates the belief that all the diverse phenomena of that age intellectual, artistic, religious, even economic and political had enough traits in common to be included under one heading.

The most influential formulation of this point of view was given in 1860 by the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which remains the most significant book ever written on the subject. For Burckhardt, Renaissance Italy did represent a distinctive epoch in the history of civilization though it is a gross misconception to claim, as has been done, that he was unaware of the importance of the Middle Ages. For him, the Italian of the Renaissance was "the first-born among the sons of modern Europe," different from those who had lived before him. His character had been formed not solely by the influence of the classics, but by the combination of "the revival of antiquity" and "the genius of the Italian people."

This new man was above all an individual, according to Burckhardt, no longer, as in the Middle Ages, identified by his membership in some corporate group. One section of Burckhardt's book is entitled "The Development of the Individual." One of the forces tending to a development of individuality was found in the political conditions of Renaissance Italy, and to these conditions Burckhardt devoted the first section of his book, "The State as a Work of Art." By this expression he meant to convey the idea that politics in Renaissance Italy was governed by rational calculation, the conscious adaptation of means to ends. He also found in the Renaissance a heightened interest in the world of nature and of man, including both the outer and inner aspects of human character. Using an expression of the French historian Michelet, he entitled one section of his book, "The Discovery of the World and of Man." Burckhardt's conception of the Italian Renaissance had, and still has, enormous influence. The English writer John Addington Symonds reached similar conclusions independently of Burckhardt. In his multivolume work, Renaissance in Italy, he examined in detail many aspects of the period politics, art, literature, religion. For him, as for many others, the history of the modern world was a history of freedom, and the first step in the attainment of this freedom was the Renaissance. He conceived of it as a sudden leap forward from what he conceived of as the darkness and bondage of the Middle Ages, rather than a natural growth from medieval foundations. This view, though less sophisticated than Burckhardt's in its navet and romanticism, helped to impart to the Renaissance, now viewed as an epoch in European history, a special glamour that contrasted to the dismal gloom associated with the Middle Ages. This view never had the field to itself, however. The Romantic movement had endowed the Middle Ages with its own kind of appeal, as the writings of Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle illustrate. The Gothic Revival had left England with some striking nineteenth-century imitations of medieval architecture, including the Houses of Parliament. The great wave of nationalism that Napoleon's conquests helped to arouse had stimulated study of the medieval past of the European nations; the Monumenta Germaniae Historica is a good example. Burckhardt himself, as a young man, was capable of tears when he visited the great Gothic cathedral of Cologne.

Consequently, a number of scholars suggested modifications to Burckhardt's picture. He had paid no attention to economic developments, perhaps because of his well-known disgust for the industrialism of the nineteenth century in which he lived; others emphasized the economic background of the Renaissance. Indeed, under the pervasive influence of the economic interpretation of history, some students have come to regard the economic conditions as the most important factor in Renaissance civilization.

Another field which Burckhardt neglected because, by his own admission, he did not feel competent to deal with it is the history of science. This subject has received increasing attention in recent years inevitably, no doubt, in a civilization profoundly affected by both the scientific and the historical outlook and thus a great deal of work has been done on the history of Renaissance science and the place of the Renaissance in the development of science. The term "the scientific revolution" has come into common use to designate the great developments that began with the work of Copernicus and others in the sixteenth century.

Above all, the supposed contrast between medieval darkness and the sudden emergence of the dawn of the Renaissance an idea that is itself a legacy of the Renaissance has proved untenable. Much attention has been devoted to the civilization of the Middle Ages, and the tremendous achievements of the period are now appreciated at their full value. It is clearly seen that in the Middle Ages great creative energies were at work and the foundations of modern European civilization were laid. Out of this background arose what we call Renaissance culture, not as a sudden change but, in most respects at least, as a natural evolution. Some medievalists have gone so far as to deny that there was anything that could be called a Renaissance. Others, more moderate in their views, found earlier movements to which they applied the term Renaissance. Among these medieval movements, they discovered the Carolingian Renaissance centering on the figure of Charlemagne, and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. At the same time, it was found that not everything that happened during the period of the Renaissance was the harbinger of a new age. The Dutch historian Huizinga in his work called in the English translation The Waning of the Middle Ages, examines France and the Low Countries in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and finds there numerous evidences, not of a civilization in process of birth, but of a civilization coming to an end. In fact, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries have come to be seen as the end of the medieval civilization, a period, in many respects, of upheaval and breakdown.

Much attention was also devoted to the Renaissance outside Italy. There was nothing really new about this. The invention of printing and the fame of Reuchlin had caused Germans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to claim proudly that learning had crossed the Alps. Rabelais in sixteenth-century France heralded the dawn of a new light, and the expression la renaissance des lettres (the rebirth of letters) was used in France from about the same time. Burckhardt himself did not pay attention to the Renaissance outside Italy; in fact, in a letter he wrote to his friend Paul Heyse, he dealt rather scornfully with the idea of a Renaissance in France. However, the Renaissance is now regarded as a European movement, in which Italian influences were combined with native traditions to produce a distinctive mix in each country. Much of the remainder of this book will deal with the Renaissance outside Italy. But this broadening of the concept has produced another set of problems. One of them is chronological: Since the Renaissance arrived at different times in different places, when can it be said to have begun and ended? In England, Milton is now regarded as a Renaissance figure, and this would continue the period well into the second half of the seventeenth century.

If the scientific revolution is considered part of the Renaissance, and if Newton's Principia, published in 1687, is a culminating point in it, this would reinforce the idea that the Renaissance, at least in some places, continued until nearly the beginning of the eighteenth century. But in this case it would seem to include many developments that depart drastically from the "spirit of the Renaissance," as usually conceived. For example, such a chronological scheme places in the Renaissance period Luther, Calvin, and a host of other leaders of the Protestant Revolt together with their thousands of followers. It also places the umbrella of the Renaissance over the Catholic Reformation or Counter Reformation. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, both of these movements were inspired by a deep religious zeal and a concern for the state of the church, which were far from the secularism that is often identified with the Renaissance.

This leads to a consideration of the question, long discussed, of the "paganism" of the Renaissance and of humanism. The view that the leading figures of the Renaissance and many of the leading representatives of humanism were pagans and that they abandoned Christian faith is no longer tenable. One of the pieces of evidence presented for this conclusion is the use by the humanists of expressions from classical antiquity to identify Christian doctrines.

It does indeed appear strange to us to find God referred to as Jupiter, but this usage can more properly be described as silly rather than as blasphemous. Such usages are really no more than literary conventions or fads, part of the fashionable jargon accepted in humanistic circles. In some cases, they were imposed by a reluctance to use any word not sanctioned by classical precedent; this meant an attempt to adapt a pagan language to uses for which it was not fitted.

In the rejection of the pagan view of the Renaissance, it has been suggested that humanism was a Christian movement. The argument has even been put forward that it was a Christian reaction against a wave of scientific naturalism and secularism that had come into Europe during the Middle Ages. This last position was taken by Giuseppe Toffanin, who distinguished between humanism and the Renaissance: The latter he found to proceed from the same currents against which humanism reacted. A more balanced and more convincing view is that the humanists were conforming Christians and that they were not irreligious, let alone pagan; they were simply dealing with other subjects, and, therefore, religion did not play the chief role in their writings. This point of view, which has been set forth by Professor Kristeller, does not exclude the likelihood that for many of them their religion did not always go very deep. But this has undoubtedly been true for a good many people at all times, so it has no particular significance. It must also be remembered that there were, among the leaders of the Renaissance and of humanism, many sincerely and even devoutly religious men. Petrarch and Michelangelo are two notable examples of this. So the Italian Renaissance is not to be looked on as a revolt against religion. Even less is this true in the northern Renaissance, as will be shown later.

A misconception that has helped give some life to this myth is that to glorify man is to turn away from God, as if the only way to glorify God is to debase His creatures. Some distinguished modern theologians have found in the Renaissance the beginning of a fatal separation of God and man, which in its ultimate consequences is held responsible even for such horrors as fascism. This too seems an extreme view. The Renaissance glorification of man did not need to detract from the glory of God.

This glorification of man seems undeniable. The noble beings that look out at us from the paintings of Raphael and Piero della Francesca, the statues of Donatello, Verrocchio, and Michelangelo, and the works of numerous other artists bear witness to this. The writings of poets and humanists add further evidence. Much of this is summed up in the proud words of Leon Battista Alberti, "...men can do anything with themselves if they will."

Burckhardt's contrast between the corporate consciousness of the Middle Ages and the individualism of the Renaissance is, of course, overdrawn; nevertheless, individualism is characteristic of the Renaissance outlook. The awareness of the uniqueness of each individual personality produced the numerous portraits of the period, which in many cases help us feel that we have gained real insight into the character of the subjects. What student of the Renaissance can forget Federigo da Montefeltro, after seeing him in the portrait by Piero della Francesca or in the other representations of him that still exist? (see page 61) Certainly there was some element in the atmosphere that was propitious to the development and unfolding of the human faculties. It takes no special knowledge of the period to call to mind any number of men distinguished by their accomplishments in more than one field of activity. Michelangelo has been discussed in the previous chapter. We think also of Giotto and Raphael, who were both painters and architects; Piero della Francesca, painter and mathematician; Machiavelli, historian, political analyst, and writer of plays and stories; and so on. Castiglione's Courtier envisages an individual who is accomplished in many fields; an ideal of all-around accomplishment was clearly not regarded as impractical or unrealistic.

From all this comes the concept of the universal man, dedicated to the fullest expression of all his faculties. Two such men stand out especially: Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) was a member of a distinguished Florentine family that had been caught up in the city's internal political conflicts, with exile as the consequence. Therefore, he did not see Florence until after 1428; yet he always looked on it as the ideal city. He exemplified the same sort of civic humanism that characterized Leonardo Bruni, believing that man was bound to serve the commonwealth. These ideas he expressed in his book Della famiglia (On the Family). This book was written in Italian, although Alberti could and did write also in Latin. One of his aims was to further the use of the vernacular language, and to this end he established competitions for poets writing in Italian, with prizes for the winners. He was also well acquainted with the humanistic learning of the day, an eager student of the classics. He was, moreover, a man of great physical strength and athletic prowess. He loved nature and he loved the beautiful in human beings. As we have had occasion to observe, he was a distinguished architect with a great influence on other architects, and he was a writer on artistic theory, the first great art theorist of modern times. His book on painting recorded the artistic revolution of early fifteenth-century Florence, and served as a textbook for painters eager to appropriate the gains of the Florentines. He wrote a little essay on sculpture, and an elaborate and influential treatise on architecture.

But the most famous of the universal geniuses of the Renaissance was Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). As we have seen, his work in painting, though relatively slight in bulk, was epoch-making in its importance. He also had a great influence on sculpture and architecture through his plans and drawings, though none of his work survives. But art claimed only a part of his activity and energies. He had a boundless curiosity about nature and sought to penetrate its innermost workings. A survey of his numerous extant drawings shows him to have been interested in what we would call botany, physiology, geology, and zoology. The influence of his anatomical drawings gives him a claim to be regarded as the founder of the modern study of anatomy.

In addition to his drawings, he kept voluminous notebooks. These were not discovered and studied until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so they cannot be said to have helped guide the course of scientific discovery, but they helped to further disclose the range of his interests. They reveal the great importance he attached to mathematics. "Let no man who is not a mathematician read the elements of my work."6 He dealt with various branches of physics and was deeply interested in the subject of flight. The behavior of water what we would call hydraulics received a great deal of attention from him. His geological interests extended to paleontology. Fossil remains and their locations led him to conclude that the earth was very old, in contradiction to the accepted ideas of his time, and in bold disagreement with the thinking of the church.

He was also interested in artistic theory. The so-called Treatise on Painting consists of scattered remarks in the notebooks assembled and published after his death. Leonardo had himself intended to organize his notes into treatises on various subjects, but he never got around to it. In addition to his theoretical studies, he also devised machines for various practical purposes, even though these inventions normally did not progress beyond the drawings he made of them. The letter he wrote to Ludovico the Moor of Milan, recommending himself to the latter, reveals something of his own conception of his usefulness, at least to the rulers of states. What he stresses most, in listing his capabilities, is his expertise as a military engineer and deviser of weapons. He can build bridges, destroy any fortress, "contrive various and endless means of attack and defence," and so forth. In time of peace, he can construct buildings, "carry out sculpture in marble, bronze or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever can be done, as well as any other, be he who may." At the end of the letter, he commends himself to Ludovico "with all possible humility."7

An equally exalted view of man's powers, glory, and dignity may be found in the Neoplatonic philosophy cultivated in Florence by Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and their circle. The Florentine interest in Plato was stimulated by the presence of Greek scholars in the city for the church council in 1439 (See Chapter 2). Cosimo de' Medici, attracted by these scholars, had set out to further the study of Plato's writings. He chose Marsilio Ficino, the son of his personal physician, to lead this enterprise. Ficino was trained for the task, became head of the Platonic Academy which Cosimo founded and the chief fountainhead of the currents of Neoplatonic thinking which spread far and wide from Florence. He translated and wrote commentaries on the writings of Plato himself and of many of the ancient Neoplatonists. A friend and collaborator of Ficino's was the brilliant young nobleman Pico della Mirandola. The philosophy of these men, although much affected by Plato and the Neoplatonists, was in fact eclectic. They drew on what they knew of Oriental thought, and were influenced also by the so-called Hermetic writings, associated with the legendary figure of Hermes Trismegistus, an Egyptian sage who was the earliest of all the great wise men and who was supposed to have influenced Moses. Unlike some of the other Renaissance scholars, Ficino and Pico did not scorn the scholastic tradition of the Middle Ages. Above all, they were faithful and devout Christians; Ficino was a priest, and Pico, in his later years, came under the spell of Savonarola. Their humanistic interests, their Christian faith, and their receptivity to all the traditions of knowledge inspired in these men, especially Pico, a rather touching desire to find points of agreement among these traditions. It was especially urgent for them to be able to reconcile the sacred truths of Christianity with pre-Christian thought. Hence, they sought the conception of an underlying truth that had been glimpsed and taught by wise men throughout the ages. This accounts for the attraction of the Cabala, a doctrine based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. By means of the proper exegesis, the student could find in the Hebrew words a doctrine that anticipated and coincided with the teachings of Christianity.

Pico della Mirandola was a devotee of the Cabala, a believer in the unity of knowledge, and an upholder of the dignity of man. In 1486 he proposed to defend at Rome nine hundred philosophical and theological theses. As an introduction to the planned disputation, he wrote an oration, which has come to be known as his Oration on the Dignity of Man. Although the disputation was never held, the Oration remains as a concise statement of some of his leading ideas, including his distinctive interpretation of the time-honored conception of the "Great Chain of Being."

It had been held that man occupies a definite place in the chain, participating in the distinctive qualities of every type of being and thus holding the universe together. Pico, however, places man outside the chain. He represents the Almighty as having created all forms of existence except man and giving each of them a place in the chain. Man He creates last, to be a witness of His nature. But the chain is already full. Man, therefore, is made free to find his own place. He can rise to the greatest heights and be as the angels, or he can descend to the depths like a beast. Thus Pico vindicates man's infinite potential and his freedom. It was also considerations of man's freedom and dignity that led Pico to reject, at least in some respects, the teachings of the astrologers. He refused to believe that man's destiny was controlled by the stars, because this too would have been an encroachment on man's dignity. On the other hand, he did believe in the occult powers of the heavenly bodies, but it was his conviction that man could control them, not vice versa. Man was capable of being a magus, a wonder-worker who, through knowledge of the forces at work in the universe, could make use of these forces.

Pico's characteristic ideas about man, his nature, and his place in the cosmos are found also in his Heptaplus, an elaborate interpretation of the first twenty- seven verses of the first chapter of Genesis. This passage, which is, of course, an account of the creation, is subjected to a seven-fold exegesis in which Pico attempts to show, by means of allegorical interpretations and the use of numerous traditions, that Moses (whom he regards as the author) has revealed all the basic facts of the nature of the universe. The universe is made up of three levels of being, rising from the material world through the celestial to the supercelestial or intelligible. Man is a fourth world, including and repeating the specific nature of each of the others. As man is made for God, so everything else is made for man. Man is "the bond and union" of the other three worlds. Quoting from the Hermetic writings, Pico says, "A great miracle...is man!" Man, formed in the image and likeness of God, is served and loved by all the creation.

Ficino, the older friend and in some ways the teacher of Pico, had many of the same ideas. Like Pico he was first a Christian and found man's true end to be the immortal bliss of the soul when it reaches salvation. He translated the Hermetic writings into Latin. He had a mystic doctrine of love as the bond that holds the universe together. His desire to reconcile Christianity with non- Christian traditions, especially the Platonic, is shown in the title of one of his books, the Theologia Platonica. In summary, we can say that there runs through the Italian Renaissance a current of thought emphasizing man's beauty, dignity, and infinite possibilities; though it is seen that man's very freedom to cultivate these possibilities can be abused. Man's character, made for perfection and nobility, can sink to depths of misery and degradation. It is also clear that this emphasis on man's glory need not conflict with Christian devoutness and the glory of God.

This brings us to the question of the relationship of the Italian Renaissance to the Middle Ages. This is not so much a problem created by history as a problem created by historians. The term Renaissance is a concept, which has proved reasonably useful in designating a phase of European civilization. The same can be said of the term Middle Ages, and of the words medieval and modern. Such labels are useful to us only when we keep their limitations firmly in mind. They are not real entities, and they are not even completely accurate as designations of the phenomena they represent. In the Renaissance there are both internal contradictions and points of continuity with the Middle Ages.

For instance, the Renaissance and the modern world are characterized by the presence and growth of cities. Yet the development of towns and their distinctive institutional structure is also a medieval phenomenon. To say that these towns are medieval or modern would be little more than a play on words, without real significance. Similarly, the old argument as to whether Dante belongs to the Middle Ages or to the Renaissance is another meaningless word game.

Yet changes did take place, and it is convenient to sum up these changes by the word Renaissance. Perhaps it would also be safe to say that the rate of change was more rapid than it had been for several centuries. On the other hand, the period we call the Renaissance contained a number of elements normally referred to as "medieval." This is also true of the post-Renaissance era, though not to the same extent.

We also need to devote some attention to the relationship of the Italian Renaissance to the Northern Renaissance. There are several questions involved here. Did Renaissance civilization cross the Alps from Italy, or were the northern movements indigenous, thus independent of Italian influence? Was the Northern Renaissance more religious and more reform-minded than the Italian? Was there, indeed, any essential difference between the two?

All these questions have been answered in different ways. The most balanced answers to them that are now possible would seem to be these. First, there definitely was Italian influence in the north; one of many proofs is the influence of Petrarch on French and English poetry. At the same time, there were variations from one region to another, caused by the intermingling of local traditions with the Italian. With respect to the religious and moral aspects of the Italian and northern movements, there is no way to measure and compare them, as far as the personal character of individuals is concerned. What can be said is that the northern humanists made religious and moral reform a more central part of their program than the Italians had done. For instance, Erasmus was probably no more serious in his Christianity than Petrarch, but the reform of church and morals played a greater part in his aims and purposes than in those of his great predecessor. Finally, with respect to possible differences between the Italian Renaissance and the corresponding movements in the north, as far as this question has not already been answered: In Italy the preoccupation with aesthetic form, with beauty of style in expression in all media, was probably greater in the north. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it does point to an important difference. The differences, however, were matters of degree, not of kind. Basic continuities and resemblances always remained.

One of the most intriguing questions about the Renaissance though it may never be possible to give a complete answer to it concerns the reasons for the extraordinary efflorescence of creative power that it witnessed. In the city of Florence especially, the period from Dante to Michelangelo was filled with such a galaxy of talent as no other city except Athens has ever produced in so short a period and so narrow a space. How are we to account for this extraordinary phenomenon? Certainly it is not enough to point to the changing economic and social conditions of the time. The facts of an urban environment and a society dominated by laymen do not explain literary and artistic genius, political and historical insight, or philosophical activity. Like produces like; social and economic conditions produce social and economic effects. The most that might be claimed in this connection is that the evolving society of Renaissance Italy provided a more favorable environment in which creative ability and talent might flourish. Even this modest affirmation must be carefully qualified; it can no longer be asserted confidently that the increased wealth of a capitalistic bourgeois society created a surplus that made possible the patronage of artists and writers. For one of the discoveries of modern scholarship is that much of the period of the Italian Renaissance was a period of economic depression, in which the indices of prosperity and population show a decline from the high point, which had been reached at about the time the Black Death first struck that is, the middle of the fourteenth century. An ingenious attempt has indeed been made to explain patronage of the arts in terms of a declining economy. But whatever the state of the economy, it still cannot provide a complete explanation for the presence of greatness.

We see that the problem is more than Italian, for on the wider European stage a rich variety of extraordinary individuals left their mark. Perhaps one or two tentative suggestions may be made. For one thing, in spite of examples to the contrary, the suspicion persists that conditions of freedom have something to do with the unfolding of human faculties. Florence in the Renaissance may not have been a completely free society Indeed, where could such a society be found? but it did possess a republican tradition and a love and appreciation of what freedom meant. Such intangibles are not negligible. It is also worth asking whether the Renaissance faith in man's powers may not have helped to unlock those powers. May it not be true that the tendency to exalt the human capacities was a cause, as well as a result, of the era's achievements? In recent times, experiments with school children have shown that these children respond to the expectations of their teachers. The conclusion may be that men have great stores of unusual ability and talent and that certain conditions can unlock them and help them to develop freely. Possibly Leon Battista Alberti was stating a great truth when he said that "...men can do anything with themselves if they will."