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Renaissance Humanism, An Invention of the Mind That Sounded Good But Didn't Quite Work

This article was published in January, 2007 under the following title:

Renaissance Ideas: Classical Humanism, Embraced Then Rejected

Feeding much of intellectual thought during the Early Renaissance was the concept of classical humanism, a movement based on human worth and dignity and man's place in the natural world. It was believed by those proponents of Renaissance humanism that within the classics of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were laid out the models of moral living and learning which all men should follow.

With this thought in mind, prominent Italian families of important city-states such as Florence, Urbino, Venice, Milan, and Ferrara began to employ classical scholars of humanism to educate their children in the basic studies and morality. This process began late in the fourteenth century.

One famous Italian Renaissance artist, Raphael Sanzio, was raised in this elite court environment of humanist philosophy and art. His father, described by Vasari as a man of culture, was Giovanni Santi, court painter to Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Like Raphael, Michelangelo Buonarroti was also surrounded by humanist scholars and artists when he lived in the luxurious Florentine household of Lorenzo de Medici, also known as 'Lorenzo the Magnificent.' Lorenzo's young son, Giovanni de Medici, would eventually become Pope Leo X.

Not only were children being educated in the humanist tradition, influential Renaissance scholars of humanism were also actively working within the papacy by the fifteenth century. They were engaged in writing official religious correspondence and otherwise serving the needs of the church. Conflicts arose, however, between Renaissance scholars of humanism and church leaders as Christian theology did not always dovetail well with pagan humanist thought.

'Ciceronianism' in the High Renaissance

Renaissance humanism reached its zenith during the High Renaissance in the papacy of Medici Pope Leo X early in the sixteenth century. The near worship of the ancient Roman orator Cicero by literary scholars of humanism in Rome became known as 'Ciceronianism.' Chief among those literary scholars were Leo X's papal secretaries, Pietro Bembo and Jacopo Sadoleto, who wanted to standardize Latin usage and enforce such usage through papal authority. Carrying the idea of Ciceronianism to an extreme, Pietro Bembo reportedly swore to speak no word not used by Cicero.

In the sixteenth century torn between two schools of thought, the papacy found itself in a difficult situation attempting to defend itself against the rise of Protestantism. Unable to reconcile Renaissance humanism with Christian Catholic theology, the church eventually lost interest in melding the two, having to face a much bigger challenge presented by Martin Luther.

This is a multi-part series about new ideas that came about during the Renaissance. Some ideas were brand new, and some were "re-inventions" of old ideas. The Renaissance was a time of experimentation like no other, a complex brew of thoughts and ideas. Some ideas worked, and some didn't, but they all added to the flavor of the times, and for that we can be grateful.

Brenda Harness, Art Historian


Brenda Harness is a practicing artist, art historian, and former university teacher writing about a variety of topics pertaining to art and art history. Visit her at Fine Art Touch.

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