Introduction to Renaissance

"The Renaissance" used to be refreshingly easy to understand. It could be plausibly described as a simple and obvious cultural "rebirth" (the literal meaning of renaissance) of advanced civilization after nearly a thousand years when cultural barbarism and political and social chaos had blighted the lives of European peoples. The Renaissance seemed to mark the rediscovery by Western Europeans of the lost cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Both to scholars and to educated readers who viewed human history from the perspective of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Renaissance marked the decisive moment when "progress" toward a better state of the world—toward modernity— began, starting in Italy and eventually spreading across the Alps. This was the understanding found in Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). He stated flatly that the Renaissance Italian was "the first-born among the sons of modern Europe." The same basic idea had already been expressed in the works of the first great literary and intellectual figure of the Renaissance, the Italian humanist Petrarch. As anyone could see, the period described as "the Renaissance" produced some of the masterpieces of modern Western Civilization: the art of the High Renaissance masters (Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael), the books and poems of Renaissance literary giants (Petrarch, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare), the classical scholarship of those who recovered many forgotten treasures of Latin literature and virtually everything we now possess of the literary treasures of ancient Greece (except Aristotle, who had been discovered 200 years earlier). These centuries (roughly 1330 to 1640) produced masterworks that the educated classes of modern Europe and the Americas regarded as a living part of their own culture.

This was the conventional view of the Renaissance, and for many readers, even well educated ones, it still prevails. But there is a difficulty with it: although it includes many valid judgments on specific points (for example, there really was a spectacular rediscovery of the literary heritage of classical antiquity), it is basically untrue—untrue on many grounds, but especially because of its total misunderstanding of the culture and society that immediately preceded the Renaissance, the Middle Ages. The fatal flaw of Burckhardt’s picture of the Renaissance is that it took as its point of departure a medieval age that never existed. It is true that in the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman Empire, a long period of violent disorders and cultural decline occurred. But some of the classical heritage was preserved, and by the late 11th century, the worst days were past. In the 12th and 13th centuries, western Europe created new and effective political institutions, a powerful if worldly institutional church, a prospering and expanding economy, a rapidly growing population, and a fresh, creative cultural life. The centuries that built the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of western Europe, that recovered the writings of Aristotle and assimilated their main ideas, and invented the university as a center for high-level education most assuredly were not barbarous. If there ever had been a "Dark Age," it was already past during the great centuries of medieval civilization.

The weaknesses in this traditional but distorted picture of the Middle Ages were already being revealed by a remarkable flowering of medieval studies that was under way even when Burckhardt wrote. As the achievements of the Middle Ages became increasingly well understood, it became hard to regard the Renaissance as simply a rediscovery of "civilization" after centuries when it had somehow got lost. By the 1930s many medieval specialists questioned whether there was ever any Renaissance at all. If there was, maybe it took place during the 12th century, not the 14th, an idea suggested in the title of the influential book by the American medievalist Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927). In 1940, the Canadian scholar Wallace K. Ferguson called the Renaissance "the most intractable problem child of history"; and his landmark historiographical study The Renaissance in Historical Thought (1948) traced the rise, maturation, and fall of the traditional concept of the Renaissance—Burckhardt’s Renaissance. A generation of graduate students (including the present writer) pondered what had come to be known as "the Renaissance problem." The very term "Renaissance" became debatable, and many scholars avoided using it at all. The "Renaissance" seemed dead, a term without utility.

And yet, not quite. Whatever the ins and outs of scholarly fad and fashion might dictate, those three centuries that the 19th century confidently called "the Renaissance" really had existed. The artists, poets, classical scholars, philosophers, theologians, and politicians whose acts and writings made the period memorable really did do—write—think things that affected all subsequent history, not only European history but the history of the whole world. Ferguson himself did not give up on either the Renaissance or the traditional label. He simply wanted to clarify it and set it onto a sound historical basis. His historiographical masterpiece began by demonstrating that the concept of a Renaissance was a product of the Renaissance itself, not the creation of an Enlightenment anticlerical like Voltaire or a French romantic like Jules Michelet or a Swiss internationalist like Burckhardt. The humanists—that is, the cutting-edge intellectuals of the period, such as Petrarch—were the inventors of the claim that a rebirth of high civilization, inspired and partially caused by recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of classical antiquity, was taking place and that they themselves were the creators of this new civilization. Led by Petrarch, they declared that the Middle Ages in their entirety were nothing but a "Dark Age."

Their claim was false or exaggerated as an account of the past, but it was extremely powerful as a value judgment. What was valid in this claim was an unprecedented insight into the nature of historical change, an idea totally lacking in either ancient or medieval times. Petrarch was the first man of any age to realize that the admirable civilization of ancient Greece and Rome had perished during the turmoil that followed the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The culture that grew up during the following centuries may not have been unrelievedly "dark," as he contended, but it certainly was different. The Middle Ages—what Petrarch defined as the "modern age," since he felt still trapped in it— were a distinct (and in his opinion, inferior) civilization, and while he believed that his own society could be vastly improved by learning about antiquity and capturing the mysterious spirit that had made ancient Rome great, he was never so naive as to believe that the dead civilization of ancient times could literally be brought back to life. What could be done, he believed, was to create another high civilization, distinct from the medieval one, that would draw on the riches of antiquity but would be something different from both antiquity and the Middle Ages. A new modern age — our modern age—could be founded and was being founded by himself (no false modesty here!). From the perspective of this new era, the "dark" in-between period would be a "middle" age, and this idea of Petrarch’s is the actual source of the term "Middle Ages," which was first used during the 15 th century.

Petrarch certainly undervalued the achievements of those "middle" or "medieval" centuries. But he was right to think that that period had overlooked and misunderstood many valuable achievements of the ancients, and he was convinced that the "modern"—that is, medieval — society into which he was born was unspeakably barbarous, corrupt, and disorderly. Petrarch and the generations of humanistic disciples who pursued his dream of a cultural and social revival deliberately set out to do two things: first, to denounce their own time (that is, the age they were trying to leave behind); second, to investigate the riches of ancient literature and so to discover not just additional facts about the Greeks and Romans but the "secret," conceived as an internal spirit, a moral factor, that had made the small cities of Athens and Rome (especially Rome) able to dominate the whole Mediterranean world and to create and preserve for centuries the greatest civilization the world had ever known.

The obvious first move was to rediscover the forgotten texts of antiquity that provided evidence about the "secret," the internal dynamic, that had enabled ancient societies to achieve so much. Beginning with Petrarch himself, humanists rummaged through monastic and cathedral libraries, scoured the surviving book collections of the Byzantine Empire, and came up with what they thought was pure cultural gold: forgotten works of some major Latin authors who had been fairly widely known throughout the Middle Ages (such as Cicero and St. Augustine); works by other major Latin authors who had been known only at second hand or from fragmentary quotations in other authors (such as the rhetorician Quintilian and the historian Tacitus); and total rediscovery of the whole body of ancient Greek literature that is now known to classical scholars but (with one exception, Aristotle) had been virtually unknown throughout the Middle Ages. Only a handful of western Europeans between the seventh century and the end of the 14th could read Greek. Thanks to a great Byzantine scholar, Manuel Chrysoloras, who came to Italy and trained a cadre of talented Italian humanists to read Greek, 15th-century Italian readers were suddenly immersed in the treasures of one of the greatest literatures in human history, the literature of classical Greece. From the 15 th century through the 16th, because of the hard work of Italian scholars who had learned Greek, classical and Hellenistic Greek literature became available in Latin translations that all educated men (and a handful of privileged women) could read: all of the great tragic and comic dramatists; Greek epic and lyric poetry (including Homer); major historians like Herodotus, Thucy-dides, and Polybius; works of prose fiction and pastoral romance.

As an extra bonus for a Christian society, command of Greek language also made available the original Greek text of the New Testament and the writings of the early Greek Fathers of the Christian Church, whose works had been little known in the medieval West. In philosophy, previously little but Aristotle’s works had been known. Since the 13th century these had become the methodological foundation of scholasticism, one of the aspects of medieval "barbarism" that the humanists wanted to destroy or at least modify radically. Now translators made available all the works of other classical philosophers, especially Plato, who previously had been known mainly from references in the works of Latin authors. Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine philosopher who completed the first translation of the whole body of Plato’s works, also translated the works of Plato’s later disciples, the Neoplatonists, and he drew on these sources to create his own Christianized version of Neo-platonic philosophy, which had great influence in the 16th and 17th centuries, not only on professional philosophers but also—and more importantly—on the poets of all later centuries. If the classical literary tradition as a whole had any value at all for the later development of European civilization, its availability depended on the ancient Latin and Greek texts discovered, edited, and (after the 1450s) printed by humanist scholars.

It is difficult for our unclassical age to realize how profoundly the culture of Europe and America was shaped by this classical heritage. The gain from the humanists’ work was not merely quantitative but also qualitative: more was known about ancient thought and society, but in addition, that knowledge was understood in a new way. Typically, medieval thinkers had combed through the ancient texts they knew in order to pick out isolated passages that seemed to bear on some topic they wanted to understand. They regarded such discrete passages as valid statements of the opinion of a particular author on a particular question; they assembled these selections into great, topically organized anthologies. Each selection was taken to be the totality of what such and such an ancient authority (Aristotle, for example) had to say on a particular question under discussion (the immortality of the soul, for example). This was the way in which scholasticism, the intellectual method of the medieval university, functioned. But from the time of Petrarch, some humanists realized that there was a major flaw in this approach to ancient texts. The method was reductive, treating the isolated passage cited as "the opinion" of a particular writer, containing the fullness of his opinion. There was no attention to what the words quoted might mean when viewed in the context of the original source, nor any interest in what the original author’s purpose had been and what the extracted words might have meant to the author and his intended audience. The method was ahistorical, totally unaware of the context of a quotation. Inevitably, therefore, since scholastic writers tended to take their "authorities" not out of the original literary source but out of anthologies, medieval use of the ancients often distorted their meaning. Medieval thinkers’ un-awareness that ancient civilization was different from their own blinded them to the original meaning and often led them into crude, anachronistic misunderstandings.

As they struggled to understand their rediscovered sources, Renaissance humanists developed a sensitivity to the historical situation in which those sources had been produced. They developed a new, historically based critical sense and abandoned the naivete and gullibility typical of medieval authors. They perfected critical methods—both linguistic and historical—for detecting misinterpretations, interpolated or omitted passages, even outright forgeries that medieval thinkers had accepted uncritically. This development reached a peak in the middle and later 15 th century in the humanistic scholarship of Lorenzo Valla and Angelo Poliziano and continued to develop in the 16th century in the scholarly writings of humanists like Erasmus and, at the end of the Renaissance, the French scholar Josephus Justus Scaliger. The skeptical, critical mentality typical of modern Western thought (a trait very little evident in even the most brilliant medieval authors) stems as much from the critical method of Renaissance humanists as from the slightly later demolition of ancient and medieval scientific beliefs by the great pioneers of modern science such as Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton.

Renaissance thinkers also gained from their new approach to classical authors many specific ideas that continued to play a role in subsequent Western culture — for example, an appreciation of the active life, as distinguished from the contemplative ideal of the Middle Ages. The humanists’ reconsideration of the Roman statesman Cicero led them to understand two ideas that had escaped his medieval readers: first, that a mature and educated person has a moral obligation to participate actively in the social and political life of the community—thus the authority of Cicero called in question the value of a withdrawn, contemplative life such as the life of a monk; second, this moral obligation of a citizen is best fulfilled in a republican political system and not in a monarchy.

The historian Hans Baron contended that early humanism as developed by Petrarch in the 14th century did not become historically significant until the citizens of the republic of Florence (one of the few surviving republics in Renaissance Italy) drew inspiration from this "civic" and republican element in Roman culture during the city’s fight to preserve its independence in the early 15 th century and therefore adopted the humanistic cultural and educational program because it supported and propagated Roman civic values. Even in a predominantly monarchical Europe, a current of republican political principles lurked under the surface of humanism, occasionally becoming visible in the historical writings of Leonardo Bruni, in the political philosophy of Niccolo Machiavelli, and again, much later, in the republican ideology that emerged during the English civil wars of the 1640s. Baron’s concept of civic humanism has been criticized by other scholars. Yet even one of his most persistent critics, Paul Oskar Kristeller, insisted that the central focus of humanist education was not abstract philosophical speculation but moral philosophy and the related study of the arts of effective communication, grammar, and rhetoric—precisely what Baron viewed as the educational preparation needed for leaders of a self-governing republic. Humanist teachers from the 15 th through the 17 th century attacked traditional medieval education for its concentration on abstract and impractical subjects like metaphysics and natural science, insisting that humanistic schools prepared citizens more adequately for real life by teaching them to understand their moral obligations as citizens and imparting the skills of effective speaking and writing (that is, the skills cultivated in humanistic schools) in order to prepare them to participate in public life, whether as citizens of a self-governing republic or even as advisers of a monarch.

As Baron’s critics have correctly pointed out, the humanists’ ideal of an obligation to engage in public service and their conviction that a moral and rhetorical (that is, humanistic) education was the best preparation for life was not applicable only to citizens of republics like Florence. Florence may have led the way in the adoption of humanist expression and humanist education by its dominant class, but monarchical courts like the duchy of Milan soon saw the utility of the new learning for their needs and began employing humanists as secretaries and counsellors to their rulers and as educators of their children. Humanism quickly became the cultural ideal of courtly societies like those at Mantua and Ferrara, where humanist schoolmasters founded influential schools to educate the sons (and even an occasional daughter) of the ruler and his closest advisers. This courtly adaptation of Renaissance culture was what made it attractive to the royal courts of northern Europe in the 16th century. Any latent republican implications of humanistic education remained discreetly out of sight unless unusual circumstances arose, such as the chaotic Italian political scene faced by Machiavelli’s fellow Florentines or the collapse of the Stuart monarchy in 17th-century England.

Readers of Renaissance literature must understand that the humanists’ quest for "renaissance" and "rediscovery" of the ancient past was conceived not as airy theory but as something needed in practical life. Our science-oriented society easily forgets that before the 18 th and 19th centuries, scientific studies as pursued by university students of Aristotle seemed abstract, totally inapplicable to real life. Eloquence seemed useful; physics did not. The humanists’ rejection of the medieval heritage was not a game; it was a demand for a better world, one more like the great world of antiquity.

This hostility to the Middle Ages can be understood only in terms of a reaction to the political and social chaos left behind in Italy after the final collapse of the medieval Holy Roman Empire in the 13 th century. Violent internal struggles tore apart the self-governing urban societies of northern and central Italy. By the 14th century, most of them had resolved this political instability by accepting the rule of a signore — an authoritarian ruler who solved the problem of political disorder by suppressing political life. Only Florence, among the larger Italian cities, retained a considerable degree of free political life, and historians have speculated whether there is any relationship between this somewhat disorderly but relatively free political condition and the remarkable emergence of Florence from the late 14th century as the major center for the development of humanistic culture and the new Renaissance style of art. Frequent wars among the Italian states placed them all in jeopardy. The two greatest members of the Medici family that dominated 15th-century Florence struggled to limit these political rivalries and to preserve peace in order to prevent intervention by non-Italian powers. The whole Italian political system collapsed in 1494 when the king of France invaded Italy in order to assert his hereditary claim to the kingdom of Naples, and then was promptly driven out by a counter-invasion dispatched by King Ferdinand of Spain. More than 60 years of intermittent warfare between France and Spain for mastery of the Italian peninsula followed, ending in 1559 with the victory of Spain and the beginning of a Spanish domination of Italy that lasted until the 18 th century. Whoever won the contest, the Italians lost. The deep vein of pessimism that marks the writings of the two greatest political philosophers of the Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini, is a result of the dawning awareness that Italy no longer controlled its own political destiny.

The undercurrent of pessimism that inspired the humanists’ dream of cultural and political renaissance also reflects discontent with the condition of the church. The idea that the Renaissance was anti-Christian or pagan is another of the myths perpetrated by 19th-century writers pursuing 19th-century goals. There is much evidence of deep religious devotion throughout Europe in this period, but the ecclesiastical institution—the church as represented by its leaders —was the subject of constant complaint and repeated waves of agitation for reform. The papacy had emerged more or less victorious from its struggles with the medieval German emperors, but it had also emerged deeply enmeshed in political and other material interests that led to neglect of spiritual matters. The popes of the Renaissance centuries functioned more often as shrewd political manipulators and ambitious territorial princes than as inspiring spiritual leaders. Through most of the 14th century, the popes did not even reside in Italy. A line of French popes established residence at Avignon (1309-1377) in what is now southeastern France. Scholars like Petrarch and saints like St. Catherine of Siena deplored the popes’ abandonment of their proper capital and their immersion in worldly politics, and their call for reform of the church from top to bottom began with a demand that the papacy must return to Rome.

Yet when this return did occur in 1377, it was promptly followed by an even worse crisis. A disputed papal election left the church divided between two rival popes. This Western Schism (1378-1417) persisted for more than a generation and caused great turmoil in the life of the church. This spiritually devastating situation was resolved only by the extraordinary expedient of a general council convened at Constance by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. The council was successful in dethroning the rival popes (by then, there were three contenders) and finally reunited the church by electing Martin V, a pope acceptable to all major parties. The schism undermined the prestige of the papacy; it set loose in Europe the doctrines of Conciliarism, which challenged the medieval idea of unlimited papal power. Although those who summoned the council sought not only to secure the election of a single pope but also to ensure sweeping reform of the whole church, once the new pope felt secure in his office, he began evading or ignoring the many promises of reform and power-sharing that he had made in order to secure election. Indeed, the popes in the later 15th century became even more enmeshed in the pursuit of wealth and political power than their predecessors. Reform of the church remained an unresolved issue that helped to prepare the way for the collapse of Christian unity during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Concern about political turmoil in Italy and about the corruption of the church was not the only reason why humanists longed to draw on the wisdom of antiquity in order to improve their own world. The 14th century experienced a severe economic downturn that some historians regard as the onset of a severe and persistent economic depression. The beginnings of a great drop in population can be documented even before the Black Death, the terrible plague that struck much of Europe between 1348 and 1350 and killed about a third of the population. A great financial crisis also predated the plague: in the early 1340s, both of the biggest international trading and banking companies in Florence, the Bardi and the Peruzzi firms, became bankrupt, and business and industry in the most highly developed parts of Europe (Italy and Flanders) suffered great losses. Historians still debate what impact (if any) the depressed economic conditions had on the development of the new Renaissance culture.

Other important developments that help to explain the desire for cultural and social renewal include the political collapse of the three major European monarchies of medieval Europe. The strong German monarchy of the earlier Middle Ages never recovered its power after the death of Frederick II in 1250. The royal and imperial title had been transformed into a weak elective monarchy in which the emperor had little direct authority over the country as a whole and most real power was in the hands of regional princes, prince-bishops, and self-governng cities. In France, the strong monarchy of the 13 th century became unstable and faction-ridden, especially after King Edward III of England initiated the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which was really a whole series of wars involving not only the English king’s attempt to secure the French royal title but also a series of internal civil wars among the higher ranks of the French aristocracy that for a time in the 1420s and 1430s seemed likely to end in the permanent division of France between the English king and the duke of Burgundy. France ultimately avoided this disaster and managed to drive out the English, but the country needed at least a generation of internal rebuilding before it could regain its leading role in European politics and cultural life. England eventually also paid a heavy price for its invasion of France. The financial burdens of the war and quarrels about the blame for the final defeat in 1453 led to a series of civil wars among the great English nobles, commonly known as the Wars of the Roses. They ended in 1485 with the military victory of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who began the process of restoring royal power and stabilizing English government, a process that continued fairly successfully, but unevenly, through the whole 16th century, the period when English Renaissance culture reached its full development.

An important development of the late 15th century was the spread of interest in humanistic learning and Italian Renaissance art into northern Europe. This process began slowly and haltingly, but by the early 16th century, the new Renaissance culture was established in France, England, the Netherlands, and Germany, and had even extended its influence to the eastern borderlands of Latin Christendom, the kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary. The mechanisms for this migration of Renaissance culture across the Alps (and across the Mediterranean to Spain and Portugal) were well established. One of them was the international character of Italian commerce from the 13 th century. The trading and banking operations of Italian businessmen spread far beyond Italy. By the 14th century, large colonies of Italian merchants were settled in London, Paris, Lyons, Barcelona, but above all in the cities of Flanders and Brabant, the most economically developed region of northern Europe. Italian firms established branches and subsidiaries in many of these centers. They not only imported and exported merchandise but lent money, especially to rulers who could do them favors. The bankers were inevitably involved in the exchange of money, which became a highly profitable part of their business. The profitability of their business, especially their exchange activity, depended on having the latest information on political and economic events, both at home in Italy and in the transalpine markets; hence information of many sorts constantly flowed back and forth, keeping the insiders of the business world informed of the latest news. The Italian staff of the foreign branches often spent years living abroad and forming personal and cultural relations as well as economic relations with people in the host countries. Italians abroad naturally promoted interest in the art and literature of their homeland, and they also developed interest in the culture of the host countries.

The Catholic Church was another avenue of cultural transfer. By its very nature it was an international organization, with a highly centralized administrative curia at Rome that required the constant shuttling of prelates, diplomats, and financial agents back and forth between Rome and the royal courts and ecclesiastical centers of Catholic Europe. Italian prelates and their staff travelled to the north, sometimes as transient visitors but also as long-term residents, often holding valuable church offices in non-Italian regions. Many of these clerical travellers were men of education and talent. They naturally brought with them their native Renaissance interests, which they continued to pursue in the presence of their hosts. Northern clerics travelled to Rome to petition for papal appointments or to pursue litigation in the church’s elaborate judicial system. Some of them had their eyes opened by the wealth, splendor, luxury, and size of Italian cities. Even when tinged with envy and resentment, northern reactions showed awareness that Italy had developed a distinctive new model of civilization.

At least as important as this network of international ecclesiastical connections was the allure of Italian universities for northern students. Italian universities were essentially schools of law and medicine, reputedly the best and certainly the most prestigious in Europe. Ambitious and privileged students from north of the Alps came there in increasing numbers, determined to get at Bologna or Padua or one of several other schools doctorates in law or medicne that would enhance their careers back home. Foreign students rarely came intending to study humanistic subjects; Ferrara was a rare exception to this rule, thanks to the great reputation of its leading teacher of humanities, Guarino Guarini. But even though they came to study law or medicine, these foreigners spent several years living in cities dominated intellectually by humanism. They lived in the midst of the artistic culture of the Renaissance. Many of them were permanently won over to the new learning and the new art they saw in Italy.

German students were the most numerous group, though students came from as far away as Scandinavia and Scotland. Every one of the early humanists who pioneered the integration of humanistic studies into German schools and universities had lived in Italy. Peter Luder studied under Guarino at Ferrara and spent at least 20 years in Italy. Rudolf Agricola spent a decade there, studying law at Padua and humanities at Ferrara and then becoming organist at the cultivated Renaissance court of the duke of Ferrara. Conrad Celtis spent less time— two years —in Italy, but he met the philosopher Marsilio Ficino at Florence and the humanist Pomponio Leto at Rome. While he resented the arrogant pose of superiority that many Italians affected, his avowed goal when he began teaching in Germany was to arouse his fellow Germans to capture the leadership in humanistic learning from the Italians. The same story could be told of the pioneers of Renaissance learning in Spain (where their own king ruled Sicily and Naples), England, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland. In all of these countries, well-connected graduates of Italian universities rose to wealth and power in royal and ecclesiastical administrations. Once they became rich and influential, such Italian-educated men used their wealth and leisure to encourage interest in humanism and to patronize Renaissance art in their homeland. Thus study in Italy became an important mechanism fostering the growth of interest in Renaissance culture by ambitious youths in each country. France is somewhat exceptional. The incipient humanistic movement led by the royal chancellor, Jean de Montreuil, was devastated by his assassination during a palace revolution in 1418 and by the disasters of renewed English invasion. Not until the English had been expelled in 1453 and a new monarch had spent a generation rebuilding the nation was France in a position to pursue interest in Renaissance culture. When it did, the prestige of its own universities made study in Italy less appealing. The first two effective leaders of early French humanism, Guillaume Fichet and Robert Gaguin, had not studied in Italy, though both of them felt the attraction of the new Renaissance learning.

International relations and dynastic marriages also stimulated northern interest in the new Renaissance culture. The ruling classes of Italy and northern Europe operated in the same political universe and the same marriage pool. The French invasion of Italy in 1494—often mistakenly taken to mark the beginning of the Renaissance in France—had its roots in dynastic marriages between members of the French royal family and Italian princesses. The peak of Renaissance influence in Hungary occurred in part because the Hungarian king, Matthias Corv-inus, was married to Princess Beatrix of Naples, whose presence and Italian entourage helped to make the royal court at Buda a brilliant center for the diffusion of italianate culture. In Poland also, the marriage of King Sigismund I to Bona Sforza, a daughter of the duke of Milan, made Italian influences powerful at the royal court in Cracow. While Bona was only moderately interested in literature and humanistic scholarship, she actively influenced royal patronage of the visual arts and music and of course favored artists who worked in the Renaissance style. In Hungary, Poland, and also Bohemia, most of the earliest humanists were men who had studied in Italy. Even at times when the royal courts were preoccupied with other matters, native bishops who had studied at Italian universities actively promoted the Renaissance learning.

In all parts of Europe, the new art of printing worked to diffuse texts (both classical and contemporary) and speed the diffusion of ideas. Especially important was the ability of printing to reproduce drawings accurately, for illustrated books and engraved prints acted to spread awareness of Italian Renaissance art, both through woodcut imitations of Italian masterpieces and through the production of original prints engraved by the Italian artists themselves, who found a new market in printmaking. The greatest artist of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer, made his first trip to Italy in 1494 because both printed copies of Italian art and word-of-mouth reports from travellers convinced him that it would be worth his while to spend a year studying the art of Italy before he settled down in Nuremberg. He met important painters like Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, and his two Italian trips played a major role in transforming him from a promising young painter in the traditional northern style into the great genius of German Renaissance art.

The northern humanists seem to have focused their attention much more strongly than their Italian counterparts on the problem of religious reform. The French humanist Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples and the Dutch humanist Erasmus were the outstanding leaders of this movement. Erasmus in particular became a truly international figure during the second decade of the 16th century. His "philosophy of Christ," a program of a moderate, gradual reform of the church through humanistic education of future curial officials and bishops, may or may not have had a chance to produce meaningful reform, but it had a great appeal to idealistic young humanists of the early 16th century. This development was interrupted by the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation at the end of 1517. The Reformation did not destroy humanism and Renaissance culture, but it significantly changed their direction, not only in the regions that became predominantly Protestant but also in those that remained Roman Catholic. Martin Luther himself was educated in the scholastic theology of the late Middle Ages, but he was interested in humanism and made humanistic educational reform (both at the university level and in the Latin grammar schools) a significant part of his reform program. The Renaissance and the Reformation came to be intertwined in complex ways. Nearly all of the major leaders of the Reformation except Luther himself began their careers as young, enthusiastic followers of Erasmus’ dream of a moderate humanistic reform within the structures of the old church. But at some early point, each of these leaders became converted to "Evangelical" (i.e., Lutheran) as distinct from "evangelical" (i.e., reformist Catholic) belief. Without the humanists, Luther would never have found the talented collaborators who transformed the Reformation into a mass movement that in parts of Germany and Switzerland, and later in other regions, swept away the authority of the medieval church.

The Reformation goal of regenerating the corrupt contemporary world by recapturing the spirit of early Christianity as found in the Bible was a true product of the Renaissance, but it was simultaneously something else, a religious ideology and a popular social movement that produced lasting changes never envisioned by the pre-Reformation humanists. Yet Renaissance humanism also had an impact on the revived Catholicism of the 16th century. While moderate reformist humanism was almost exterminated by the triumphant conservatives who dominated the papal curia and the Council of Trent from the 1540s, major elements of the humanist educational program, including study of classical languages and literature and even some critical study of the Bible and patristic literature, were cautiously adopted. By the end of the 16th century, the schools of the new Jesuit order were active in much of Catholic Europe and offered some of the best humanistic education available.

The Renaissance is also one of the greatest periods in the history of art. Although Renaissance critics like Giorgio Vasari regarded the striking changes in style between late-medieval artists like Duccio and Cimabue and the works of Giotto and such great masters of High Renaissance art as Michelangelo as a simple case of rediscovering how to make good art after centuries of artistic incompetence, the true story is far more complex. The artistic Renaissance involved a rethinking of the nature and purpose of art, not just a "rediscovery" of something that had been forgotten. If the story told about Filippo Brunelleschi by Vasari is true, and Brunelleschi after losing a major competition to a rival sculptor really did go off to Rome and spend time measuring the proportions of ancient buildings and statues, then perhaps his new mastery of vanishing-point perspective is an example of literal rediscovery of an ancient skill that had been lost. Yet no known work of ancient art matches the sophisticated treatment of perspective that emerged suddenly, within about a decade, in the work of Brunelleschi and his Florentine contemporaries Donatello and Masaccio. There can be no doubt that Brunelleschi and his peers carefully studied the art of classical antiquity. Yet there is plenty of evidence of medieval artists who also studied ancient works. The true spirit of Renaissance art (like the Renaissance in general) sprang from other sources as well as from the example of ancient Rome, and it involved a change in outlook more than simple rediscovery.

The real driving force behind early Renaissance art was the hunger of a wealthy Italian society for artistic beauty. The works of Giotto, and later on, the works of Donatello or Masaccio are not mere repetitions of ancient art, and their creators responded not to some abstract ideology of classical style but to the artists’ desire to please themselves and the patrons who paid them. Early Renaissance art conformed to the tastes of a society that was deeply engaged in making a living, rearing its families, and defending its cities from rival powers. So art had to appeal to the tastes of substantial, hard-working, and well-to-do people. These people, like most of the artists, were also pious Christians who wanted their art to reflect their own values, both worldly and otherworldly. Saints outnumber pagan heroes and gods in the paintings of the early Renaissance. Art of the Quattrocento, though influenced by Antiquity, was made for the citizens of the day, and many of the greatest commissions came from religious confraternities and guilds and even city governments, not from effete intellectuals driven only by some abstract commitment to a mythical Antiquity. The painters and sculptors themselves were not men of great erudition, and when in the later Renaissance aristocratic intellectuals did call for art that depicted classical myths and heroes, the artist needed guidance from the prince’s humanistically educated subject in order to treat classical themes in a properly classical way. Renaissance art was shaped by the ancient past, but it grew out of the life of its own times; and the men (and the few women) who made it were experts in refined manual skills and the artful composition of images, not in humanistic learning. Behind the shift from the art of the early Renaissance, with its reflection of a world similar to the life of its own time (in the works of Masaccio, for example), to the coterie art of the Medicean intellectuals of Florence in the 1480s (illustrated by Sandro Botticelli, with his classicized imagery that could be decoded only by the educated elite), there was a change in political and social conditions, not just acquisition of more knowledge about ancient myths. In the end, the greatness of Renaissance art was a product of the turbulent energy and creative power of the society that produced it.

If Renaissance art is difficult to reconcile with the notion that the Renaissance was simply a recovery of ancient civilization, Renaissance music confounds facile explanations even more sharply. First of all, no one then or later really knew what ancient music sounded like, though humanists’ study of ancient texts and works of art did produce a few hints about performance practice and instrumentation. Second, even ancient musical theory, the one aspect of music that was written down in texts that people could read, was imperfectly known. In the Middle Ages, the work De institutione musica / Introduction to Music by the sixth-century author Boethius was the only ancient text on music that was widely known. His account presented music in terms of abstract numerical relations and cosmic harmony. It made music a branch of philosophy but gave no guide to music that people could listen to. Humanistic translation of Greek texts during the 15th and 16th centuries produced additional knowledge about ancient musical theory, but the main effect of this added information was not a revolution in composition and performance but a series of poisonous squabbles between contemporary theorists. Some (such as Vincenzo Galileo, father of the famous scientist) demanded strict observance of classical standards, while others (such as Gioseffo Zarlino) defended medieval musical developments such as counterpoint even though no ancient authority mentioned them.

A third reason why the story of "Renaissance music" cannot be told in terms of simple rediscovery is the location of the center of musical innovation. All other Renaissance cultural innovations began in the cities of Italy and eventually spread to Europe north of the Alps. But in music, the decisive innovations began in northern France and the Burgundian Netherlands and spread south to revolutionize the music performed in the churches and secular courts of Italy. The names of the pioneers of Renaissance music are French and Flemish: Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prés, Heinrich Isaak, Jacob Obrecht, Adrian Willaert, and Rolandus Lassus. All of them were trained in their northern homelands; all of them at some point served the dukes of Burgundy or the kings of France. But nearly all of them spent a major portion of their careers in Italy, attracted by the lavish support available at the courts of rulers like the dukes of Milan and Urbino or at great ecclesiastical establishments like the basilica of St. Mark at Venice or the court of the popes at Rome. They not only composed and performed but also taught, exerting a revolutionary impact on native Italian musical traditions and training a generation of Italian disciples like Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni Palestrina, and Claudio Monteverdi. Thus the flow of influence in music ran contrary to that in art, humanistic scholarship, and vernacular literature—from north to south. The Italian musicians of the late Renaissance do reflect one direct influence from humanist culture. Efforts to stage ancient Greek dramas in an "ancient" manner led to the combination of music and drama, a process that led directly in the work of Gabrieli and Monteverdi to the invention of opera, one of the great art forms passed by the late Renaissance to the post-Renaissance world of the 17th century.

The proper date for the end of a dictionary focused on the Renaissance is even more debatable than the date for its beginning. Scholarly convention has long identified the lifetime of Petrarch (1304-1374) as the beginning of the Renaissance. If the true hallmark of the Renaissance is devotion to the humanists’ dream of recovering the works of ancient civilization and then using this recovered knowledge to inspire and guide a revitalization of the contemporary world, it seems that this rather naive faith in the regenerative power of the classical heritage was waning during the closing decades of the 16th century, even though the remarkable mastery of classical languages and literature, and also the sophisticated techniques of linguistic and historical criticism developed by humanistic scholars, lived on into the 17th and subsequent centuries. Michel de Montaigne, for example, had remarkable classical learning and used countless examples from ancient authors to illustrate his meaning, yet he pointedly refused to accept ancient examples as definitive, and he privileged his own personal experience above the alleged wisdom of antiquity. When, a generation later, one comes to Francis Bacon, who also had a fine humanistic education but who explicitly declared that in his opinion the "ancients" did not represent the mature, accumulated wisdom of the human race but instead reflected the callow, immature youth of humanity, one might well declare that (for him at least) the Renaissance was over. Even so, certain figures of later date have been conventionally regarded as expressions of Renaissance civilization. John Milton, for example, despite his late date, was so constantly guided by the inspiration of classical literature based on his Renaissance education that he usually ranks as a major figure (the last one) of the English Renaissance.

Readers should not be dismayed by the evidence of disagreement and debate among modern scholars reflected in this introduction and in some of the articles in this topic. A close and honest look into any other historical period—classical Greece, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution—would reveal the same degree of disagreement. History is messy, inconsistent, conflicted; after all, history is the work of human beings. The challenge to thoughtful readers is to join the debate and learn to appreciate the efforts of people in other places and other ages to face and solve their problems.

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