Expository Essay on Italian Renaissance Humanism

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Middlebury College
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Nations and societies develop not because of a predestined sequence but due to their ability to learn from history. This is to say that history forms the building blocks of society. Certainly, new civilizations do not erupt from anywhere rather people build on old events to try out new ways of living. This can be crystal clear when one examines Italian renaissance humanism. Humanism was an education program. It was a scholarly study of the early Christian manuscripts, Greek and Latin classics primarily for the joy of learning and in the hope that attained knowledge would positively impact contemporary society. Italian renaissance humanism was indeed an educational reform that was based on rhetorical tradition (Kristeller 65). It was characterized by liberal education presented in authoritative texts in Latin and Greek that taught rhetoric, history, grammar, poetry, and moral philosophy. This new educational movement began in the late 14th century and dominated the 15th and 16th centuries. The Italian renaissance humanism was informed by the calamities of the 14th century and was guided by the values of classical antiquity, individualism, secularism, and civic humanism which laid the foundation for modern European civilizations.

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The Italian renaissance humanism was a reactionary initiative to the blunders of the 14th century. The 14th century marked the end of the medieval ages. However, the middle ages did not end peacefully it was cut short by numerous disasters (Kristeller 65). Whereas the 12th and 13th centuries were characterized by stability, the 14th century was a period of unparalleled disaster in almost every hemisphere of European life and caused the medieval civilization to crumble paving way for the renaissance (Kristeller 65). Famine and disease that struck the continent were the root cause of the turbulence. Bad weather was experienced during the first two decades of the century leading to widespread crop failures. Chances of survival were further diminished by the bubonic plague that broke out (Kristeller 65). Such a plague had not been reported in Europe since the 5th century. The plague began in Italy causing a lot of deaths. Many deaths further led to an economic crisis as the demand for goods and services went down. Manufacturing companies collapsed and the trade was also on the verge of a critical depression (Tuchman 79). Also, in 1309, the prestige and power of the Catholic Church declined as the Pope was pressured by the French king to move from Rome to Avignon where he operated under monarchical leadership (Tuchman 79). It was then perceived as a mere tool of monarchy and the Papacy was cut off from the Papal States of Italy. Pope’s leadership was soon running short of funds and it chose to increase wedding, funeral, and baptism fees (Tuchman 81). More revenue was sought through the sale of indulgences which led to resentment among many followers who perceived Papacy as greedy (Leff 36).

The overwhelming crises of the 14th century shuddered people’s confidence in traditional society and thought. Many felt that society was getting older, exhausted, and perhaps dying. Famine and plague made everyone pessimistic about life. Dancing skeletons in form of paintings known as the dance of death became common art (Kaborycha 126). Likewise, there was diminishing hope and confidence in the church leadership that had then been hijacked by greedy individuals. Besides, economic depression had led to financial hardships. Overall the world was becoming apocalyptic. However, the people of northern Italy, especially intellectuals, viewed the calamities of the century from a different angle. They interpreted them as signs of an ending generation paving way for a new one or rebirth of the society (Kaborycha 126). The intellectuals decided to devise a new culture to replace the dying one and establish a new society through renewal, revival, and renaissance. To begin the journey, the intellectuals reflected on the middle ages as an era of decay, disaster, and corruption (Kaborycha 123). On the contrary, they saw the era of ancient Rome and Greece as the golden age of culture and civilization characterized by prosperity, joy, and learning. The intellectuals conceptualized that to renew and improve their societies they would better return to the golden age of ancient Rome and Greece and remake their image in the world (Kaborycha 123). This vision of discontinuing the corrupt middle age and bringing back the ancient culture led to the Italian renaissance humanism characterized by classical antiquity.

Classical antiquity was driven by the love of ancient Roman and Greek culture which was believed would be learned through examining their literature, sculpture, law, philosophy, politics, mythology, and architecture. The humanists thought that these studies would lead to knowledge and inspiration (Molho 351). The humanists stressed the need for a humanist educational program that would pay close attention to the above-mentioned subjects. The program came to be known as stadia humanitatis. Through the program, people learned rhetoric, grammar, history, poetry, and moral philosophy all purely based on the appreciation of Latin and Greek antiquity (Molho 351). Immediately following the collapse of the medieval ages, the humanists in Italy took the lead in artistic and intellectual culture in Europe. The humanist movement proved to be the most pervasive aspect of the Italian renaissance characterized by a widespread focus on the field of letters and learning (Molho 352). Humanists were guided by the enthusiasm for imitating all that was practiced by the ancient Romans and Greeks who had been successful in the prosperity of their societies. The rebirth of the society would be eventually achieved through learning classical literature with the standard of classical antiquity in its learning process. The humanist revolution was aided by the printing press which rapidly developed during the early 15th century. A renowned humanist who was central to classical antiquity was Petrarca famously known as Florentine Humanist. Leonardo Bruni, who also joined the movement, acknowledged that Petrarca was the first man to have sufficiently recognized the elegance of the lost ancient Roman and Greek lifestyle and put efforts to bring it back to life through classical literature (Molho 352). The classical studies, thus, marked the education of the time beginning around the 15th century and running through the 16th century.

Another critical value to the Italian renaissance humanism was individualism. The humanists were captivated by the humans and their potential. This was a total deviation from the medieval age culture where people were fascinated by Christian humility which dejected people from being self-absorbed (Kristeller 67). One was not allowed to take pride in his or her accomplishments. In fact, pride was categorized as one of the seven deadly sins (Kristeller 67). On the contrary, the 15th-century humanists valued and stressed for recognition of uniqueness, personality, genius, and the full realization of individual talents and capabilities. Scholars, artists, and sculptors were encouraged to work hard towards the full realization of their abilities (Kristeller 68). Also, the humanists advocate for the complete human entailing development of the soul and the body. This was contrary to the medieval period when the focus was on the soul only as the body was seen as a route to corruption. Humanists emphasized the appreciation of human beauty as exhibited in its physical form. The lives of humans were considered worthy of artistic recreation (Stevenson 321). Key artists who advanced this front to depict the beauty of the body through art were the famous Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian. The encouragement of individual development motivated individuals to make a difference in society through their efforts which would be recognized nationally.

Apart from classical antiquity and individualism, the Italian Renaissance humanists embraced the value of secularism. In the middle ages, humans had solely focused on faith and life after death. The humanists saw this idea as restrictive and could not allow a human being to be free in the world and realize his or her potential. The humanists encouraged the acquisition and development of knowledge through advancing human senses of sight hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching (Stevenson 322). The focus was to learn the actual world. Despite practicing Catholics, the humanists recognized that there was more to humans than religion. Secularism gave rise to naturalism in art. Naturalism was the idea behind famous paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titan, and Raphael of the 16th century. Their paintings demonstrated the ability to uncover the atomic structure of humans. Their motivation was the fact that being able to draw exhibit the past and the present is an indication of a new age of life (Kaborycha 123). The artists wanted to change the negative view of nature and create the perception that it is something dazzling and worth studying. The artists aimed to portray life as it was so that the pride and freedom of the body could be expressed.

Moreover, the Italian renaissance humanism emphasized the need to educate the entire society through civic humanism. Education was seen as carrying the potential to improve society (Molho 351). The ruling elites needed to be educated for that was the only means through which virtue, morality, and wisdom could be acquired. The humanist believed that art, sculpture, literature, and architecture would positively impact civil society.


Overall, the Italian renaissance humanism can be seen as a critical age in human history when man learned from past history to redefine his future civilization. Undoubtedly, the calamities that hit the Italians and the entire people of Western Europe during the 14th century awakened their senses and prompted them to reconsider their culture and morals. It was then that the humanists, who took charge of changing the society, aroused and evaluated the cultures that would lay a solid foundation for the prosperity of the society. The humanists looked back into ancient Greek and Roman lifestyles and identified with classical antiquity as a promising foundation of life. They then embraced learning of grammar, rhetoric, and classical literature as a foundation for spreading classical ideas and culture. To further ignite societal development, the humanists considered individualism, secularism, and civic education as means of encouraging self and societal fulfillment. Individualism would lead to recognition of individual efforts in the development of the society whereas secularism focused on the development of an individual both the soul and the body for the full realization of human beauty. Civil education was the ultimate goal of improving societies and the lives of the people.

Works Cited

Kaborycha, Lisa. A Short History of Renaissance Italy. Prentice-Hall, 2011.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance thought: the classic, scholastic and Humanist Strains. Vol. 2. Harper & Row, 1965.

Leff, Gordon. "Heresy and the Decline of the Medieval Church." Past & Present 20 (1961): 36-51.

Molho, Anthony. "Renaissance Italy: 1464-1534." Brown University (1967): 351-353.

Stevenson, Paula N. "How Humanism and Individualism Shaped the Italian Renaissance." Art and Life in Renaissance Venice, 2015: 321-322.

Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim. A distant mirror: The calamitous 14th century. Ballantine Books, 1979.

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