Renaissance Humanism

Francesco Petrarca
Epistolae familiares
Venice: Joannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis, 1492

The Epistolae familiares of Petrarch (1304-1374) reflects the author's emphasis on concrete human experience and his love of classical antiquity ­ attitudes which became characteristic of the revival of classical learning which he helped set in motion. By composing letters to ancient Greek and Roman personalities as if they were still alive, Petrarch hoped to revive the individuality, beauty, and purity which he perceived in the classical works. He felt that the lessons of the ancients could serve to invigorate the moral life of Christendom and to lighten a world beset by disease, famine, and other woes. This incunable edition of the Epistolae familiares includes the first eight of the twenty-four books comprising the collection.

Giovanni Boccaccio
Il Filocolo
Gualdo, Italy, 1456

Much of the genius of the early Renaissance humanists lay in their ability to reinterpret and embellish a variety of classical and medieval texts and traditions. Among the earliest writings of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), a close friend of Petrarch, was Il Filocolo, a romance in prose based upon the popular medieval French tale, Fleur et Blanchefleur. Interweaving elements of classical mythology and enriching the plot with his own acute observations on human nature, Boccaccio described the loves and adventures of the Spanish prince Florio and the Roman girl Biancofiore. Written at the request of his mistress Fiammetta, Il Filocolo is notable for its innovative use of Italian prose and for the ways in which it presages Boccaccio's later masterpiece, the Decameron.

Leone Battista Alberti
De re aedificatoria
Italy, ca. 1485

Leone Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was the prototype of the Renaissance "universal man," combining the vocations of humanist, athlete, engineer, architect, courtier, musician, and mathematician. A clear synthesis of so many skills is to be found in De re aedificatoria (1452), a work which became the basic text of Renaissance architecture. Alberti blends insights gained from long study of classical sources and models, such as Vitruvius, with an innovative architectural technique based upon mathematical principles and musical harmonies. Alberti brought his theories to fruition by designing churches in Rimini and Milan, and the Rucallai palace in Florence. This manuscript of De re aedificatoria was probably produced in a Sicilian center or in a Neapolitan scriptorium.

Leonardo Bruni
De primo bello Punico
Italy, ca. 1450-1470

The political history of early fifteenth-century Italy, especially the attacks of Milan on Florence, fostered a heightened consciousness of Italy's past among Florentine humanists. In their discussions over the fate of ancient republics and monarchies, they found a flexible medium for articulating the problems of contemporary governments. Thus the original work by Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) on the first Punic war, which is found in this fifteenth-century manuscript, represents a critical moment in the development of Florentine civic humanism. Through his application of the skills of a classicist to more immediate problems, Bruni had a great influence upon the growth of modern historiography.

Opera [Greek]
Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1495 ­ 98
Five volumes

The invasion of Greece in the fifteenth century by the Turkish armies caused great alarm amongst nascent humanist circles in Europe. Fearing the destruction of Greek literature, Aldus Manutius (1450 ­ 1515), a noted scholar, procured from his student Alberto Pio, prince of Carpi, the funds required to establish a printing house at Venice and, in 1489, began the editing of classical texts. Aldus later issued a remarkable five-volume series containing the works of Aristotle and others, executed in a superb Greek type which surpassed in quality any previous attempts. Volume I contains the Organon, while other works by Aristotle, as well as those of Galen, Philo Judaeus, Theophrastus, and Alexander Aphrodisaeus, are found in the other four volumes.

Scriptores astronomici veteres
Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1499
Edited by Franciscus Niger

Although the great advances in astronomy were not made until the first half of the sixteenth century, Scriptores astronomici veteres, a collection of Greek and Roman astronomical texts, was published with great foresight by Aldus Manutius in 1499. The volume includes previously unpublished works by Aratus of Soli and Proclus, whose writings became influential during the Renaissance. The work of Aratus continued the tradition of the astronomical writings of Eudoxos of Cnidos, a pupil of Plato. Proclus, known as the great exponent of later Neoplatonism, was one of the first writers to discuss the precession of the equinoxes and the annual eclipses of the sun. Thomas Linacre, the renowned English humanist, provided a translation of Proclus' De sphaera; other humanists such as William Grocinus contributed letters and introductions to this remarkable collection.

Diogenes Laertius
De vita et moribus philosophorum
Italy? fifteenth century?

The fifteenth-century interest in Diogenes Laërtius (fl. 222 ­ 235) represents a significant chapter in the transmission of classical Greek learning to the Latin West. De vita et moribus philosophorum was not generally available in Latin until Ambrosius Traversarius made a complete translation for Cosimo de Medici in 1435. Laërtius, with his lively, anecdotal style, provided an entertaining alternative to standard literary biographies such as St. Jerome's De viris illustribus (ca. 390). This manuscript is one of many which were eagerly passed from hand to hand before printing made another form of distribution possible with the first Latin incunable edition at Rome ca. 1472.

Domizio Calderini
Commentaria in Martialem
Italy? fifteenth century

The compactness and variety of the epigrams of Martial (40-ca.104) made him one of the most popular authors during his own and later times. A skilled observer, he used his wit and penetrating insight to render all aspects of Roman society into sharply condensed statements. His critical view of a cosmopolitan society proved most attractive to humanists such as Domizio Calderini (ca. 1444 ­ 1478), who produced his Commentaria in Martialem at Venice in 1474. By the age of twenty-four, Calderini had received great praise for his study of letters and was summoned to a professorship in Rome by Pope Paul II. He was later designated Apostolic Secretary by Pope Sixtus IV. Calderini, best known for his commentaries on classical authors, was also versed in mathematics, jurisprudence, and philosophy. In this contemporary manuscript, written in a Neapolitan hand, the quoted words from the epigrams appear in red. The text is adorned with over 700 decorated initials.

Basel: Johann Froben, 1532
Translated by Marsilio Ficino

Marsilio Ficino (1433 ­ 1499) was the most influential representative of Renaissance Platonism. Together with Alberti, Pico della Mirandola, Cosimo de Medici, Politian, and Landino, he founded the Platonic Academy in Florence. Although several works of Plato had been available in Latin translations prior to the fifteenth century, Ficino made the first complete translation of the Platonic corpus into a Western language (1484). This publication marks a major point in the intellectual history of Europe. The work was of such high quality that it remained in general use until the eighteenth century. The sixth edition, emended by Simon Grynaeus (1493-1541), was issued by Johann Froben (1460 ­ 1527), one of the greatest printers and publishers of the period, who employed the renowned Erasmus as literary advisor and proofreader.

Lupold von Bebenburg
Germanorum veterum principium zelus et
fervor in Christianam religionem deique ministros
Basel: Johann Bergmann, 1497
Edited by Sebastian Brant

A great deal of the early success of the German humanists was due to their articulation of a national spirit. Their convictions about Germany's ancient culture and role as successor to the Roman Empire helped secure for them badly needed patronage. Thus they revived not only ancient authors on Germany such as Tacitus, but also medieval writers who had exalted the Holy Roman Empire and had discussed the relationship between German kingship and imperial dignity. Sebastian Brant 1457-1521), the Strassburg humanist and author of Das Narrenschiff (1494, edited a treatise by the canon lawyer and political theorist Lupold von Bebenburg (ca. 1297 ­ 1363) which emphasizes the prominence of Germany and the Empire in Christendom and their venerable and close connection with the Christian faith. In delineating the roles of the spiritual and secular powers in Christian society, Lupold had sought to provide a modus vivendi between the papacy and the Empire.

Konrad Celtes
Panegyris ad duces Bavariae
[Augsburg: Erhard Ratdolt, 1492]

While less scholarly than Brant's edition of Lupold, Panegyris ad duces Bavariae, composed by Konrad Celtes (1459-1508), represents those acts of homage to rulers which often won humanists the patronage they sought in vain from universities. Celtes, a student of Rudolph Agricola (1443-1485), led the wandering life of a Renaissance scholar and was instrumental in the diffusion of the new learning north of the Alps. The dukes of Bavaria acknowledged Celtes and his program of humanistic study by adding a humanist faculty to their university at Ingolstadt, just as the Habsburg emperor Maximilian had done at the University of Vienna. Celtes' poetic achievements also won him the honor of being the first poet laureate of Germany, a distinction conferred upon him by the emperor Frederick III in imitation of ancient Roman practice.

Priamus Capotius
Oratio metrica in alma Lipsiensi universitate habita
[Leipzig: Martin Landsberg, 1487-88]

Following the establishment of humanist faculties at German universities by Celtes and others, a number of Italian humanists came to aid in the instruction of the new fields of learning. When Celtes left the University of Leipzig, his associate Priamus Capotius (d. 1517) was invited to fill the vacant chair of literature, thus becoming one of the earliest exponents of classical studies in the north. Prior to his appointment, Capotius had composed Oratio metrica, a dithyramb in which he extolled the virtues of the founder of the University of Leipzig, Frederick of Saxony. Using a range of heroic verse, classical allusions, and Christian sentiments, the Oratio predicts future glory for Frederick and his lineage. Best known for his work on Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, Capotius promoted the systematic study of both sacred and secular texts at a critical moment in the diffusion of Renaissance learning.

Johann Reuchlin
De rudimentis hebraicis
Pforzheim: Thomas Anshelm, 1506

The growth of Renaissance learning in the universities and schools of Germany met with the opposition of the obscurantists, those Schoolmen who were opposed to the humanistic methods and ideas. Johann Reuchlin (1455 ­ 1522) had been central Europe's leading scholar of Greek and Latin classics but later in his life turned to the study of Hebrew and to biblical criticism. After research on medieval rabbinic grammatical and exegetical traditions, Reuchlin issued in 1506 his De rudimentis hebraicis, a Hebrew grammar and lexicon. Reuchlin's work soon became a major issue in a controversy which erupted between German humanists and obscurantists on the eve of the Reformation. Whereas Reuchlin hoped that De rudimentis would promote investigation into the texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the Vulgate, many of his contemporaries feared that it would hinder their attempts to convert the Jews. In response, the obscurantists launched a campaign to confiscate all Jewish books, particularly the Talmud. The obscurantists harassed Reuchlin for years, eventually losing the debate both in the courts and in the eye of a public now absorbed with Luther's challenges.

[Ulrich von Hutten et al. ]
Epistolae obscurorum virorum
[Mainz? ca. 1516 ­ 17]

Reuchlin was by no means without resourceful friends during his confrontation with the obscurantists. A number of young admirers composed letters purporting to come from the casuistic philosophers and monks who opposed Reuchlin. The first volume of Epistolae obscurorum virorum, composed by Crotus Rubeanus and others, appeared in 1514-1515; the second volume, issued in 1516 ­ 1517, is attributed largely to Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523). The Epistolae, an enduring classic of literary satire, dealt Reuchlin's foes a crushing blow from which they could not recover. As outrageous parodies of the unsophisticated Latinity and medieval attitudes of the obscurantists, they were highly successful. Inventing names for the correspondents, von Hutten and his colleagues used latinized forms such as Franciscus Genselinus (Franz Gosling) and Lupoldus Federfusius (Lupold Featherstuffer) to belittle the stature of their opponents.

Hans Sachs
Nachred das grewlich laster,
sampt seinen Zwelff eygenschafften
Nuremberg: Wolfgang Formschneider, ca. 1535

This early edition of "Rumors Concerning Evil Slander and Her Twelve Qualities" was composed by Hans Sachs (1494 -1576), the most popular German poet of the sixteenth century. Using rhymed couplets, Sachs spun an allegory depicting the woes that proceed from Evil Slander, here personified as a woman. The woodcut, probably derived from the central figure in Dürer's "Nemesis," portrays a blindfolded woman with tresses made of snakes, wings of peacock feathers, and trailing a fiery ball which symbolizes the devastation spread by slander. She offers a lidded cup with her right hand, but in her left hand she conceals a knife. Sachs was a colorful personality. After studying the Classics until the age of fifteen, he became an apprentice cobbler, taking to the roads throughout southern Germany and the Rhine country. A prolific author, he claimed to have written several thousand works including Meisterlieder, tales and fables in verse, and Shrovetide plays.

Desiderius Erasmus
De ratione studii
Leipzig: Valentin Schumann, 1521

One of the great issues confronting humanists of the sixteenth century was the nature of education. Private schools of the period followed outmoded medieval models and were often staffed by ignorant and cruel teachers. When humanists such as John Colet (ca. 1466 ­ 1519) sought to establish public schools for children, they discovered that the available textbooks for educating the young were inadequate for beginners because of their length and complexity. At the request of Colet, Erasmus (who was then teaching Latin and Greek to Cambridge students) composed an essay, first published in 1511, in which he set forth his views concerning the ideal schoolmaster and method of education. The teacher, notes Erasmus, "should not merely be a master of one particular branch of study," but must have "travelled through the whole circle of knowledge." Such an instructor "might give boys a fair proficiency in both Latin and Greek in a shorter time and with less labor than the common run of pedagogues take to teach their babble." Erasmus' own textbooks would soon replace many of the antiquated medieval manuals.

Lorenzo Valla
De elegantiis
latinae linguae
Paris: Simon Colinaeus, 153329
Theodore Gaza
Introductionis grammaticae
libri quatuor, Graece
Basel: Valentin Curio, 1529

The educational needs of the new humanistic curricula were admirably met by two standard textbooks of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Theodore Gaza's Introductionis grammaticae and Lorenzo Valla's De elegantis latinae linguae. Both of these works were highly praised by Erasmus who, in his De ratione studii, remarked that "amongst Greek Grammars that of Theodore Gaza stands admittedly first," and, as for Latin, there was "no better guide than Lorenzo Valla." Valla (1407-1457) applied an innovative critical examination to the forms of Latin grammar and the rules of Latin style and rhetoric ­ thus providing a sound basis for the analysis of language, historical documents, and ethical opinions. The Greek grammar by Theodore Gaza (ca. 1400-1475) was the first modern manual to include syntax, and was used by Erasmus at Cambridge and Guillaume Budé (1467-1540) at Paris. Both works were frequently reprinted, Valla's seeing fifty-nine editions between 1471 and 1536. The 1529 edition of Gaza, edited by Valentin Curio, includes Latin translations by Erasmus, Conrad Heresbach, Jacob Tusanus, and Richard Croke.

Dirk Schrevel
Palaemon, sive diatribe scholasticae
Leiden: Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir, 1626

One important aspect of the development of the institutions of higher learning is its close relationship with the history of printers and booksellers. Diatribe scholasticae, a well-organized discourse on the goals and methods of higher education, was composed by Dirk Schrevel, rector of the University of Leiden, and published by the renowned firm of Bonaventura and Abraham Elzevir in 1626. Schrevel, a Dutch humanist born at Haarlem in 1572, served as rector from 1625 to 1642, a period during which the University underwent its greatest expansion, attracting illustrious scholars from all of Europe. The Elzevir family acted as official printers to the University for most of the seventeenth century, and many faculty members edited or wrote books for the firm during this time.

Jacopo Filippo Tomasini
Gymnasium Patavinum
Udine: Nicolas Schiratt, 1654

Gymnasium Patavinum, compiled in 1654 by Jacopo Filippo Tomasini (1597 - 1654), describes the history and customs, the degree programs, library, faculty, and alumni of the University of Padua. Founded in 1222 as a result of the migration of students from Bologna, the institution soon developed into one of the foremost schools in Italy and a renowned center of scientific studies, with a long and illustrious list of professors and students. Under the Venetian Republic, of which Padua was a part, the University enjoyed its greatest prosperity: buildings were erected and the program expanded with a school of medicine (1543), a botanical garden (1545), and an anatomical theater (1594).

Friedrich Lucae
Europäischer Helicon
Frankfurt a. M.: Samuel Tobias Hocker, 1711

Friedrich Lucae (1644 ­ 1708), historian and theologian, wrote extensively on the development of royal and aristocratic institutions in Europe. Of noble Silesian background, Lucae travelled throughout the Continent, visiting dukes and barons, yet often supporting himself as pastor to various congregations. After his death in 1708, a manuscript of his was found and subsequently published as Europäischer Helicon. A comprehensive and systematic treatise on education, it outlines the foundation, charter, degree programs, faculty, physical environment, growth, and decline of numerous European colleges and universities ­ some of which no longer exist. Lucae's work thus represents a valuable source for research on the history of education in Europe prior to the eighteenth century.