Renaissance humanism

From Academic Kids

An important element in Renaissance private and civic life (reflected too in scholarship); was the cultural movement and world-view known as Humanism, which had its origins in the unique urban culture of Italy, and was quickly taken up in the equally urbanized society of Flanders. Humanism had two fields of expression, which were highly compatible. Social or civic humanism, which placed central emphasis on human autonomy, was particularly appropriate to the republican ideology of Florence. Leonardo Bruni's Panegyric is a great expression of this philosophy. The emancipated and literate upper bourgeoisie of the independent Italian communes adapted 14th-century Burgundian aristocratic culture and manners to an intensely patriotic civic life centered on extended families. Humanism was a pervasive cultural mode, not merely the product of a handful of geniuses, like Giotto or Leon Battista Alberti.

In the complementary intellectual field, the studia humanista taught by the umanista (grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy) was prevalent in schools and universities during the Renaissance. Neo-Platonism replaced the Aristotelianism of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and attempts were made to join the great works of Antiquity with Christian values in a syncretic Christian humanism. Ethics was taught independent of theology, and the authority of the Church was tacitly transferred to the reasoning logic of the educated individual. Thus humanists constantly skirted the dangers of being branded as heretics. There was a great interest in recovering lost manuscripts in classical Latin, but interest in Greek only revived in the late 15th century. Humanism was not necessarily anti-Papal: the greatest of the humanist popes is probably Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Pius II.

In the North of Europe especially, the humanist emphasis on the individual mind encouraged a flowering of mysticism as much as rational secular values.

Early 15th-century humanists were interested in classical Latin and not in medieval Latin, which was a different and simpler language with many neologisms. Renaissance scholars perceived ‘Gothic’ Latin as barbarous; they wanted to return to ‘Ciceronian’ Latin. Theirs was a highly pedantic approach to philology — they were technical and professional students of language — it was a radical departure aiming to understand the language and its structure on its own terms, to penetrate the truth of the ancient texts. They were textual scholars seeking the original text and in many cases saved the original texts from obscurity.

Humanism offered the necessary intellectual and philological tools for the first dispassionate analysis of texts. An early triumph of textual criticism by Lorenzo Valla revealed the Donation of Constantine to be an early medieval forgery produced in the Curia. This textual criticism began to create real political controversy when Erasmus began to apply it to biblical texts, in his Novum Instrumentum.

Kristeller, Siegel and Haskins argue that it was just an educational programme — humanists could hold a variety of views, not all of them republican. F.W. Kent argues that the philological interests and pedantry were not ideological but reflected a desire to live the republican ideal to the full — this leads to a particular view of the city’s place in the world. For example, Niccolò Niccoli ate only off antique tableware and his use of Latin was obsessive, yet contemporaries agreed he was a crucial figure in persuading Florentines that the classical arts were important, that they had an urgent primacy over the modern age.

Ernest Gombrich wittily said the Renaissance had its origins not so much in the discovery of Man as in the discovery of diphthongs (1967 Essays presented to Rudolf Wittkower on his sixty-fifth birthday).de:Renaissance-Humanismus


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