Renaissance and Humanism explained

The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Ucello, 1456 © 1997 RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

The term “Renaissance” is usually understood to mean the period that began in the XIV and ended approximately in the XVII century — something like a bridge between the European culture of the Middle Ages and the New Age. Although the term today is taken for granted, it was not the self-name of the era. The historian and artist Giorgio Vasari in “The Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects” (1550) used the term rinascita (literally “rebirth”) to contrast new art from Giotto to Brunelleschi, Alberti, Leonardo, Rafael, Michelangelo and other masters to the „barbarian Gothic style.” At the same time, he meant an artistic breakthrough, but not a return to ancient sources. But Francesco Petrarch, who is traditionally considered to be the first Renaissance writer, called first of all to resurrect the ancient canon, and most importantly, classical Latin, to cleanse the language of the layers of the barbarian Middle Ages. It is easy to see that these two authors under the “renaissance” had in mind fundamentally different things.

The humanist movement emerges as early as the 14th century in Italy, with Boccaccio and Petrarch, who search for Latin manuscripts for the purpose of an intellectual and moral erichment, accompanied by a taste for aesthetics. Thanks to the transit of Greek and Latin works due to the exodus of scholars in Italy at the approach of the Turks (fall
of Constantinople in 1453), we rediscover several badly known or forgotten authors, that we will retranslate from Arabic in Latin. (In the Middle Ages, clerics and scholars knew and copied ancient authors, such as Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid or Aristotle, Plato and Homer). The aesthetics of antiquity is an interest to princes (advised by some humanists) and wealthy Europeans, which leads to a number of important patronage and will promote the dissemination of art and humanistic ideas.

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1462-1563 © 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

The project of universities and schools with humanist influences gently see the light of the day, but not without pain. Theological Universities (and the Church), who do not appreciate that we want to change the scriptures and to facilitate access to it, strongly oppose it. As a consequence, these institutions do not have a homogeneous structure (place, teacher, etc.). Moreover as in Paris, for example – they can not
not always grant a degree, reserved for theological universities. Reflection on the way of teaching → grammar, dictionaries, manuals, glossaries. From 1530-1540, most European universities adopted this new system.

The philosophy of the humanist will raise some questions. The contradiction with Christianity, for example. Indeed, according to the thinkers, man is at the center of the universe and is called to realize the drawings of God with his own reason, aided by divine grace, which does not hinder human freedom as it is basically good, free and responsible. While Christianity speaks of original sin, of humility, of renunciation, of spirit of sacrifice. Moreover, the humanist criticizes the religion, become too demanding,
ritualistic because people have obscured and weighed down the message of Christ. We could say that the religion of the humanist is a mixture of the Gospel and Greco-Roman thought.

In the phantasy of antiquity, the humanist strives to darken the image of the Middle Ages, which has a rhetorical effect. Because if this period of Antiquity was so perfect, what can we invent, create more and better? Situation very well denounced by Rabelais: „by dint of marvel, we do not innovate”. Moreover, the admiration devoted to the great scholars of Antiquity pushes humanists to condemn and to abandon any hypothesis contrary to that of the Ancients. The inability to get out of the old Christian conception in relation to the interpretation of the visible world and the invisible one contributes to the
paralysis of scientific advances. Not to mention the lack of quality instruments.

Portrait of Lorenzo de Medici the Magnificent by Agnolo di Cosimo, 1555-1556 © Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Intimately linked to humanism, the Renaissance is also rooted in Italy. The beautiful and the true, the man of all, the rediscovery of antiquity are major points. It’s also the first excavations in archeology and the rediscovery of ancient theoretical texts of architecture. Religious subjects have an important place, but the different disciplines also open to lay subjects, such as landscapes (relation to nature) and portrait (because the human is in the center).

Usually the Middle Ages are accused of superstitions, whereas the Renaissance is considered the time of the victory of reason over prejudice. However, magic played an important role in the Renaissance picture of the world, and in the works of the fathers of this so-called “scientific revolution”. The inventor of the driveshaft, Girolamo Cardano and the physicist Galileo Galilei, composed horoscopes; astronomer and mathematician Johann Kepler tried to reform astrology; Astronomer Tycho Brahe, in addition to astrology, was passionate of alchemy, as well as Isaac Newton.

Renaissance was a very specific period of the European history, often considered as a myth, but also a bridge to the progressive future of the Modern Ages. We can talk a lot about this period, but to understand it, the information in this text in enough for the beginning.

Text by Claudiu Cătălin CREȚU

© The Bunget Arts & Culture


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