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Renaissance Humanism and the Movement's Key Components

Updated on January 13, 2018

The Renaissance, understood to be the period of Western history from 1300-1600, is one of great debate for historians; whether that debate be centralised around its relevance, length, value and even existence[1]. It is therefore only natural the key components under which it prevailed are assessed in terms of not only what aspects were most important, but also the relationships between them and how their composition determined the bigger picture. It is fair for one to assume the emergence of new ideologies and philosophical thought was a monumental component in forming what has come to be known as the revival of classical antiquity[2]. However, it is also important to consider the significance of the movement’s origins and influence in Europe, along with the impact of cultural elements and the role of religion. Only in doing so can the components at the heart of Renaissance Humanism be explained, contrasted and ranked.

One of the key components of Renaissance Humanism was, inarguably, the emergence of a new set of ideologies and values. Such beliefs are encompassed in the following quote by Swiss historian, Jacob Buckhardt:

“Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation - only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the State and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.”[3]

It was in this era that individualism nuanced, as the strict religious focus and unobtainability of education present in the Middle Ages transitioned into the revival of classical learning and innovation once seen in Ancient Greece and Rome. Consequently, the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence became integral to the movement, along with individual talents and the elevation of one’s mind[4].

Intrinsically linking was the resurgence of studia humanitatis, where poetry, rhetoric, grammar, ethics and history were studied with the belief that they would enable the individual to study their potential as humans and achieve a fulfilled vita activa, and vita contemplativa[5]. Such practices thus proved to be key components of Renaissance Humanism as they formed the ideological foundations of the movement and reflected the priorities of its participants; books, liberty and the expansion of education[6].

Key players can also be identified through this period of rediscovery and reflection where Petrarch, believed to be the first great humanist, summarised the movement’s notions in the statement:

"And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not."[7]

In using the words of the Christian classic, Augustine, Petrarch denotes that “man and his soul are the true standard of intellectual importance”[8]. Neo-Platonism and Aristotlelianism were also branches of philosophy practiced within Renaissance Humanism, further highlighting the influences of Greek thought and the importance of classical thinking to the movement.

Another key component was religion; a topic which has been largely debated by scholars with some arguing the Reformation was an integral development within the Renaissance and others suggesting it was of a different era and held little relevance to the movement[9].

Regardless, religion can be used to identify the role of key players such as, again, Petrarch. Proto-humanists potentially represented ideas of the Renaissance being a development of secularity, with humanism being thought of as the doctor to human morals. Petrarch on the other hand introduced the concept that, upon studying the ancients, individuals should be entitled to create their own style of worship reflective of themselves and that tension between Christian-Renaissance ideology need not exist[10].

Such practice would also justify the editing of sacred texts in universities to inform Biblical criticisms and history, as such documents came to be interpreted as a product of their time and no longer sacred. Therefore, whilst religion was perhaps not as important as beliefs due to its more polarised nature (in terms of relevance to the movement in the eyes of scholars and levels of secularity), this component still retains value as it further illustrates the significance of key players and proves testament to individualism and personal liberty.

Similar to religion, whilst the arts may not have been the most key component of Renaissance Humanism, paintings such as The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein held a mirror to society and reflected developments in ideological belief, in turn providing the movement with its face[11].

Much of the artwork developed during this period was considered devotional, with many painting being used as altarpieces during Catholic rituals. Not only were the Catholic Church major patrons of the arts however, but wealthy merchant families such as the Medici (another key player in Renaissance Humanism) commissioned much of the art produced during the initial stages of the Renaissance[12]. Rome, which displaced Florence as Italy’s art hub following the Medici’s exile, also saw the emergence of the three great masters of the High Renaissance; Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Much of their artwork expressed classical ideas of realism, the beauty and mystery of nature, alongside traditional Greco-Roman expressions. It is thus important to consider that, whilst beliefs perhaps best explain Renaissance Humanism, the arts still prove to be a vital component as they possessed the capability of illustrating the movement and identifying its defining characteristics.

Lastly, it is fundamental that geographical spread and continental influence is viewed as a key component of Renaissance Humanism as this aspect is indicative of its origins, means of travel and universal power. This component’s importance has also been supported by British historian, Peter Burke, who proclaimed:

“It would be difficult to understand the cultural and social developments of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries without reference to these preconditions.”[13]

It is valid to argue the Renaissance’s birthplace was Italy; a country home to the remains of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, thus naturally being of ideological importance as Roman culture was believed to hold the key to modern human identity. Italian merchants also proved to be skilful in preserving independence, but also in opening lucrative Mediterranean roots. This anchors the concept that, whilst Renaissance Humanism was central to Italy, it was not exclusive to it and perhaps even relied on expansion for its survival.

This spread of Humanism mostly took place between 1450-1500, when monarchs competed in commissioning the highly sought-after artists emerging from Renaissance Italy to create portraits and sculptors. The movement also spread through humanists in exile, alongside Italian patrons working abroad. Proof of its spread can be seen in that kings such as Henry VIII encouraged Humanism within Englishmen, a Humanist school was established in Geneva, Humanism was viewed as the most effective way of studying scripture in France and Erasmus, one of the sixteenth century’s leading humanists, was born in the Netherlands; further testament to the development’s influence in Europe. Consequently, geography proves to be a key component of Renaissance Humanism not only for the contextual understanding it provides, but also as it captures the influence of the Italian-based movement, as well as the ways each culture imitated Renaissance practices.

As important it is to discuss the components previously alluded to, it is valuable to have an additional understanding of the political and societal structure during this period. This does not necessarily mean this aspect was a key component of Renaissance Humanism, however it does aid in contextualising the components previously mentioned and can therefore allow for a better-informed judgement.

Otto of Freising, a German bishop visiting Italy in the twelfth century, is said to have observed a decline in Feudalism to the extent where society was largely based on commerce and merchants. This holds geographical significance as it was the innovation and intellect of merchants which solidified Venice as Europe’s gateway to Eastern trade and, in turn, enabled Italy to finance art projects[14].

Anti-monarchical thinking was also presented in Renaissance artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, which was intended to portray the virtues of republicanism, good administration and justice. It is therefore clear that not only did art symbolise ideological development, but also political.

To conclude, Renaissance Humanism proved to be a movement containing a profusion of components; the majority of which intrinsically linking to represent a piece of the bigger picture. The significance of religion proves harder to asses for the grey area it has evoked surrounding not only whether the movement was a time of irreligion or religious uphold, but also whether it even held any relevance to the Renaissance. Though this should not undermine the component, as not only can religion provide a more informed understanding of influential figures during this era, but it is also representative of ideology in practice.

Nonetheless, components such as the arts and geography perhaps prove to be more key to Renaissance Humanism as, whilst each subject most likely retains internal disagreements, both can generally be viewed as more black and white and thus make pinpointing their significance less complex. As previously alluded to, it is valid to argue the arts were a highly important component of Renaissance Humanism for its symbolic nature and ability to present developing ideological, and political, thought visually. Similar to religion, art also saw the emergence of individuals who would come to be seen as iconic to the movement. Likewise, the geographical spread of Renaissance Humanism additionally proved to be a significant component as by studying its movement, further contextuality is provided as to where the revival stemmed from and to what extent Europe converged with Italian society, ideologically and in trade.

However, it is valid to argue the belief system behind Renaissance Humanism served as the epicentre of the movement for it provided the framework on which other key components based their survival. Without the surge of interest in Classical scholarship and values catalysed by the consensus of experimentation, vitality and renewal, it is fair to say progression from the Middle Ages would not have taken place with such momentum. The ability to capture the light, shadow, perspective and realism of humans, animals and objects within art might not have been achieved until centuries later, autonomy in religion may not have been as distinguishable and Italy would have most likely lacked the same levels of European influence had the Greek philosophy of “man is the measure of all things” not been adopted in fifteenth century Florence. The argument can therefore be made that whilst religion, the arts and geographical spread are key components of Renaissance Humanism, with the arts and geographical spread possessing greater significance than religion, ideology and belief proved to be the backbone of such components and the heart of the movement, thus making it paramount.


[1] Kristeller, P. (1961). Renaissance thought. New York: Harper & Row, p.1.

[2]Ruggiero, G. (2006). A companion to the worlds of the Renaissance. Oxford, England: Blackwell, p.Introduction.

[3] Burckhardt, J. and Middlemore, S. (1878). The civilisation of the period of the renaissance in Italy. London: C.K. Paul & Co., pp.81-82.

[4] Brown, A. (2013). The Renaissance. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, p.Pt. 4.

[5] Lombardo, P. (1982). Italica. American Association of Teachers of Italian, pp.83-92.

[6] Brown, A. (2013). The Renaissance. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, p.30.

[7] Petrarca, F., Robinson, J. and Rolfe, H. (1898). Petrarch. New York & London, p.317.

[8] Kristeller, P. (1961). Renaissance thought. New York: Harper & Row, p.125.

[9] Kristeller, P. (1961). Renaissance thought. New York: Harper & Row, p.70.

[10] Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017). Petrarch | Italian poet. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Petrarch [Accessed 13 Nov. 2017].

[11] Nationalgallery.org.uk. (2017). Hans Holbein the Younger | The Ambassadors | NG1314 | National Gallery, London. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors [Accessed 13 Nov. 2017].

[12] Burke, P. (1997). The Renaissance. New York: St. Martin's Press, p.Pt. 2.

[13] Burke, P. (1997). The Renaissance. New York: St. Martin's Press, p.Pt. 1.

[14] Ruggiero, G. (2006). A companion to the worlds of the Renaissance. Oxford, England: Blackwell, p.Pt. 2.

© 2018 Lauren Eales

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