Renaissance Humanism

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Mark Cartwright
published on 04 November 2020
Available in other languages: Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish
Virtue Triumphant over Vice by Mantegna (by Andrea Mantegna, Public Domain)
Virtue Triumphant over Vice by Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna (Public Domain)

Renaissance Humanism was an intellectual movement typified by a revived interest in the classical world and studies which focussed not on religion but on what it is to be human. Its origins went back to 14th-century Italy and such authors as Petrarch (1304-1374) who searched out 'lost' ancient manuscripts. By the 15th century, humanism had spread across Europe.

Humanists believed in the importance of an education in classical literature and the promotion of civic virtue, that is, realising a person's full potential both for their own good and for the good of the society in which they live. The difficulty in defining humanism and its ever-evolving character have not prevented it being widely regarded as the defining feature of 1400 to 1600 Europe and the very reason why that period can be identified as a Renaissance or 'rebirth' of ideas.

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Defining Humanism

Humanism was a term invented in the 19th century to describe the Renaissance idea that directly studying the works of antiquity was an important part of a rounded education (but not the only part). From this position came the idea that the study of humanity should be a priority as opposed to religious matters (which need not be neglected or contradicted by humanist studies). Important classical ideals which interested humanists included the importance of public and private virtue, Latin grammar, techniques of rhetoric, history, conventions in literature and poetry, and moral philosophy. This education did not create an all-encompassing philosophy or worldview in its adherents. Someone who had a humanist education might be a Catholic or a Protestant, for example, and many students went on to study very different branches of thought such as theology, law, or medicine.

The idea really took off that the ancient world had something very valuable to teach the people of the 15th century.

In modern times, the term 'humanism' has gained a different meaning (a rational and non-religious way of life) and so to safeguard its original purpose, when applied to 1400-1600, it is often clarified as 'Renaissance Humanism'. It is important to remember, though, that Renaissance thinkers did not themselves use the term humanism, and neither did they agree on all subjects. Due to these problems of definition, some historians prefer to use the term studia humanitatis, coined by the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BCE) and revived by the Florentine scholar Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406). Studia humanitatis refers to studies which, rather than concentrating on religious matters, focus instead on what it is to be human, and more precisely, consider what is a virtuous individual in its widest sense and how may that individual fully participate in public life.

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The main elements of Renaissance humanism include:

  • an interest in studying literature and art from antiquity
  • an interest in the eloquent use of Latin and philology
  • a belief in the importance and power of education to create useful citizens
  • the promotion of private and civic virtue
  • a rejection of scholasticism
  • the encouragement of non-religious studies
  • an emphasis on the individual and their moral autonomy
  • a belief in the importance of observation, critical analysis, and creativity
  • a belief that poets, writers, and artists can lead humanity to a better way of living
  • an interest in the question 'what does it mean to be human'?

Six Tuscan Poets by Vasari
Six Tuscan Poets by Vasari
Minneapolis Institute of Art (Public Domain)

Origins of the Classical Revival

The humanist movement can be traced back to a trio of Italian authors who lived before the Renaissance period had even begun: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 CE), Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). All three would receive new interest in their work during the Renaissance when they were recognised as its founding fathers. Dante was the first, and his Divine Comedy (c. 1319), although a book with a central message on how to reach salvation, was a subtle shift from entirely religious-focussed works to those considering humanity's role in God's universe. The Divine Comedy had many overtly classical elements, from the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) acting as a guide to the many ancient historical figures mentioned.

Next came Petrarch, who was an equally religious man but in his work criticised some elements of the Catholic Church such as its corruption and excessive love of show. Petrarch rejected scholasticism which grimly held on to Church dogma and created endless rounds of fruitless debate amongst scholars. He made perhaps his greatest contribution to the study of antiquity by finding manuscripts which had become 'lost' in obscure monastic libraries. Amongst his famous discoveries were several works and letters by Cicero.

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Greek scholars fled the collapsing Byzantine Empire & brought classical texts with them to Europe.

Petrarch believed that a new golden age of thought and politics could be achieved by returning to the ideals of antiquity and by permitting poets and scholars to lead a revolution in education. His idea that the period in which he lived was an intermediary period between antiquity and this new dawn, what he called disparagingly 'a slumber' was latched onto by later Renaissance thinkers and did much to foster the idea that the Middle Ages was somehow a period of cultural darkness. Further, Petrarch's work with ancient manuscripts encouraged the scholarship of non-religious subjects with humanity at its centre, and this became a legitimate activity for intellectuals. Consequently, Petrarch is often cited as the father of humanism.

Giovanni Boccaccio also searched out 'lost' manuscripts relevant to antiquity. In addition, his Decameron (Ten Days), a collection of tales compiled between c. 1348 and 1353, appealed to later humanists because it dealt with everyday human experiences in great detail. Bocaccio also created works that were of great use to humanist scholars such as his Ancestry of the Pagan Gods.

Mary Harrsch (Photographed at the Capitoline Museum) (CC BY-NC-SA)

All three of these writers promoted the use of the Tuscan vernacular (at least in poetical works), and this eventually led to the dominance of Latin being challenged. Humanists, though, continued to favour Latin for scholarly purposes and modelled their Latin on that of Cicero for prose and Virgil for poetry. The arrival of the printing press in Europe in 1450 was another boost to the trio of authors mentioned above and the democratisation of knowledge. Renaissance humanism gave great importance to invention, and here, again, Dante with his creation of terza rima (poems formed of stanzas of three rhyming lines) and Boccaccio's innovative promotion in written form of the ottava rima (where stanzas are formed of eight 11-syllable lines) fit that sentiment perfectly.

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The Classical Ideal

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many Greek scholars fled the collapsing Byzantine Empire and brought classical texts with them to Europe, especially Italy. These were a very welcome addition to the Latin texts scholars like Petrarch had found in monastic libraries. Consequently, by 1515 the works of all major classical authors were available in print. Looking at these works as a whole, one idea which especially interested Renaissance thinkers was virtus (virtue or excellence) and civic duty. Petrarch had studied this half a century before but now the idea really took off that the ancient world had something very valuable to teach the people of the 15th century. Renaissance humanists now wanted to use, analyse, and critique ancient sources to improve one's public life in service of the state. Theoretical knowledge was not enough, what was gained from study had to be put into practice for the good of the state and all who lived in it. Consequently, the great question, what does it mean to be human that preoccupied Renaissance scholars provoked answers that included religious, philosophical, scientific, and artistic considerations.

It today seems rather odd that scholars took such an interest in ancient sources which might be considered outdated and irrelevant to contemporary society. For humanist thinkers, though, antiquity, as seen in so many newly discovered manuscripts, presented a fresh and vibrant alternative to the stagnant pool of thought so jealously guarded by the medieval church. The new horizons offered by these texts and the seemingly unbiased approach of ancient scholars in discussing and explaining the world without any preconceived ideas made the whole Renaissance process seem, like its very name indicates, an intellectual rebirth. Humanist scholars were not uncritical of ancient sources, on the contrary, just like many ancient thinkers, they approached any subject with critical analysis. Further, to approach a given subject objectively, one must be intellectually free and with this idea came that of the free-thinking individual, one unrestrained by religious or political bias. There were even those who thought that God had given humanity the world as a test, to make of it what they will and apply their virtue into making it a better place. In this way, humanism was not in opposition to religion for many thinkers, but it did lead to the idea of a morally-autonomous individual, which in turn led to individualism.

16th Century CE Flemish Book Printer
16th Century CE Flemish Book Printer
The British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA)

There was yet another reason to admire the ancients: their eloquence of argument. Cicero was taken as the example par excellence of superb writing in Latin. Rhetoric - another term that modernity has twisted out of all recognition from its original meaning - was then the art of presenting eloquent argument. Further, this was not merely a trick to be used by scholars in their writing, this was a tool to be used in everyday life. In other words, rhetoric is persuasion, and with persuasion comes power. Rhetoric could become the means by which humanists spread their ideas, persuading everyone from a literate merchant to the ruler of a dukedom that theirs was the best way to be educated, live, work, and rule.

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The Spread of Humanism

The printing press helped spread humanist ideas from their origins in Italy to the north of Europe. Indeed, the most celebrated humanist scholar of his day was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1469-1536). Erasmus believed that education was the answer to the Catholic Church's problems (and not a radical Reformation). To this end, he compiled editions of classical authors and provided a new Latin and Greek translation of the New Testament. Erasmus' sharp and critical examination of original texts to produce this, his textual analysis of current versions, and his interest in philology would be influential on other Renaissance scholars.

Although early humanists were often Christians, the movement's emphasis on critical inquiry did lead to an inevitable clash with Church authorities who depended on mass and uncritical acceptance of secondhand interpretations of doctrine. That some humanist scholars became champions of pagan texts was another bone of contention.

Desiderius Erasmus by Matsys
Desiderius Erasmus by Matsys
Quentin Matsys (Public Domain)

In the north of Europe, humanist scholars were more interested in religious reforms compared to elsewhere, hence their brand of humanism is often called Religious Humanism. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the English scholar and statesman, was one figure in this movement. A defender of the Catholic Church against the Reformists, he famously wrote Utopia in 1516 about an ideal society set on an imaginary island. More likely intended the work as a thinly-veiled criticism of the reign of Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547), but its radical presentation of a society where everyone works for the common good and shares equally in its success rang a note of recognition in the minds of humanist scholars elsewhere. The obvious link with Plato's Republic was another point of favour with the classical-loving humanists.

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A Humanist Education

Erasmus was important in one other area: education for everybody. It was all very well for scholars to debate the ideals of education in theory but more practical offerings were needed to achieve the humanist goal of widening education. Erasmus, therefore, wrote many textbooks such as his hugely popular On Copia (1512), which taught students how to argue, revise texts, and produce new ones. His 1521 On Writing Letters taught how to best write letters, aim for specific audiences, and employ eloquent expressions. Erasmus even produced guides for those wishing to establish a school and compiled recommended syllabuses.

Humanists emphasised the importance of an education which covered the liberal arts of rhetoric, moral philosophy, grammar, history, and poetry. Physical exercise, just like in ancient Greece, was also considered an essential part of a rounded education that resulted in young people being able to realise their potential and become good citizens. In addition, a humanist education continued for life, and it was never too late to learn its benefits, especially so for rulers.

Humanism in Science

Observing, analysing, and categorising the world around us was an important part of humanist thought, just as it had been in antiquity. For this reason, science made great leaps forward during the Renaissance, powered at first by developments in mathematics. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed that the solar system was heliocentric, amongst other innovative ideas, in his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, published in 1543. Copernicus was a classic Renaissance scholar as he studied the works of antiquity, observed what he could in the world personally, collated all that had been studied thus far in his field, and then came up with a new view of the subject at hand. Perhaps the greatest contribution humanism made to science was its thirst for answers and the confidence that they could be found through human endeavour.

The School of Athens by Raphael
The School of Athens by Raphael
Raphael (Public Domain)

Humanism in the Arts

Rulers like Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482 in Urbino and Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-1574) in Florence were great admirers of antiquity and built up impressive humanist libraries. They were, too, collectors of ancient art such as sculpture, sarcophagi, relief panels, and coins. Both men also became great patrons of the arts, encouraging humanist artists. This was a pattern imitated by rulers across Europe.

Renaissance painters and sculptors became very interested in classical mythology, sometimes even combining it with Christian themes such as subtly representing Venus as the Virgin Mary. Ancient thinkers were directly represented in art, perhaps most famously in the School of Athens fresco in the Vatican by Raphael (1483-1520).

There was, too, an appreciation of the skill of ancient artists, especially sculptors and their ability to capture reality in bronze or marble. Renaissance artists were keen to capture this reality themselves, a process going back as early as Giotto (b. 1267 or 1277 - d. 1337) and culminating with the hyper-realistic portraits by late Renaissance Netherlandish artists. Just like Renaissance writers, artists wanted not only to emulate the classical tradition but also to improve upon it. Consequently, the correct use of perspective became an ever-more precise endeavour for Renaissance artists. Artists were also convinced that their ancient counterparts had somehow discovered mathematical secrets of proportion, especially related to the human body.

Artists now gave emphasis to the human experience in their art. Portraits, for example, might include a classical book next to the sitter to emphasise their humanist tendencies. Even religious works of the period have a focus on the human figures and their story within the scene. Just as humanist writers knew full well the powerful effect of their words, so, too, artists knew the power they had to create a lasting aesthetic impression on the viewer. Perhaps there is no better example of this wow-factor than Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Finally, the emphasis on the individual within humanism found expression in the way artists now viewed themselves - superior artisans who used their intellect to study art and create masterpieces that would carry their fame for generations to come.

Loggia of Ospedale degli Innocenti by Brunelleschi
Loggia of Ospedale degli Innocenti by Brunelleschi
Sailko (CC BY-SA)

Humanism pervaded Renaissance architecture where buildings were designed that were elegant, symmetrical, functional, and harmonious with their surroundings, just as they had been in ancient Rome. Above all, buildings displayed the classical ratios of length and height.

Humanism, with its reverence for classical authors and what exactly a knowledge of antiquity can teach us found expression in the performance arts, notably in the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who was interested in characters that could reveal the breadth and depth of the human experience. Shakespeare is not perhaps taking any particular side in the humanist debates presented in his works but he does, at least, make full masterly use of that humanist power tool - language - to achieve his effects.

The Legacy of Renaissance Humanism

Humanism transformed education and rejuvenated the world of ideas and art with its discovery, promotion, and adaptation of classical works. It led to the creation of an international network of scholars linked by letters and books, the separation of church and politics, the critical examination of texts leading to the discovery of inaccuracies and even forgeries, and the creation of public libraries.

Perhaps inevitably, though, humanist scholars and thinkers began to divide into groups as they specialised into different areas of what was already a hopelessly broad area of human endeavour. There were realists against moralists, those who wanted to forget all about religion and those who did not, and those who were republicans and those who were royalists. There were humanists who thought the study of language an end itself while others thought it only a means to understand ideas. Some preferred a life of contemplation in contrast to those who still stuck to the idea of putting humanism into political practice. As science, the arts, history, philosophy, and theology all split away from each other, so Renaissance humanism came to an end, broken apart as scholarly specialisation won the battle against earning a comprehensive overview of the human condition.

Despite the breaking up of the humanist movement into its component parts, the essential idea that humans were worthy of serious study is one that has never gone away, of course. If anything, this idea has only widened and deepened. The subjects that were considered important to study in classical sources such as philosophy, history, and literature came to be collectively known as the humanities, and today, of course, they form major faculties in colleges and universities worldwide.

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.


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Questions & Answers

What is meant by Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance Humanism means an intellectual movement of the 15th century when there was a new interest in the classical world and studies which focussed less on religion and more on what it is to be human.

What is characteristic of Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance Humanists believed in the importance of an education in classical literature and the promotion of civic virtue, that is, realising a person's full potential both for their own good and for the good of the society in which they live.

How does Renaissance art and architecture reflect humanism?

Renaissance art and architecture reflect humanism in the emphasis on science and mathematics in creating art and buildings which are harmonious and which show a correct perspective and proportion.

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APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2020, November 04). Renaissance Humanism. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Cartwright, Mark. "Renaissance Humanism." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 04, 2020.

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Cartwright, Mark. "Renaissance Humanism." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 04 Nov 2020. Web. 13 Jul 2024.