§ 62. The Intellectual Awakening.
The discussions, which issued in the Reformatory councils and which those councils fostered, were a worthy expression of an awakening freedom of thought in the effort to secure relief from ecclesiastical abuses. The movement, to which the name Renaissance has been given, was a larger and far more successful effort, achieving freedom from the intellectual bondage to which the individual man had been subjected by the theology and hierarchy of the Church. The intelligence of Italy, and indeed of Western Europe as a whole, had grown weary of the monastic ideal of life, and the one-sided purpose of the scholastic systems to exalt heavenly concerns by ignoring or degrading things terrestrial. The Renaissance insisted upon the rights of the life that now is, and dignified the total sphere for which man’s intellect and his aesthetic and social tastes by nature fit him. It sought to give just recognition to man as the proprietor of the earth. It substituted the enlightened observer for the monk; the citizen for the contemplative recluse. It honored human sympathies more than conventual visions and dexterous theological dialectics. It substituted observation for metaphysics. It held forth the achievements of history. It called man to admire his own creations, the masterpieces of classical literature and the monuments of art. It bade him explore the works of nature and delight himself in their excellency. How different from the apparent or real indifference to the beauties of the natural world as shown, for example, by the monk, St. Bernard, was the attitude of Leon Battista Alberti, d. 1472, who bore testimony that the sight of a lovely landscape had more than once made him well of sickness.
In the narrower sense, the Renaissance may be confined to the recovery of the culture of Greece and Rome and the revival of polite literature and art, and it is sometimes designated the Revival of Letters. After having been taught for centuries that the literature of classic antiquity was full of snares and dangers for a Christian public, men opened their eyes and revelled with childlike delight in the discovery of ancient authors and history. Virgil sang again the Aeneid, Homer the Iliad and Odyssey. Cicero once more delivered his orations and Plato taught his philosophy. It was indeed an intellectual and artistic new birth that burst forth in Italy, a regeneration, as the word Renaissance means. But it was more. It was a revolt against monastic asceticism and scholasticism, the systems which cramped the free flow of bodily enthusiasm and intellectual inquiry. It called man from morbid self-mortifications as the most fitting discipline of mortal existence here below, and offered him the satisfaction of all the elements of his nature as his proper pursuit.
Beginning in Italy, this new enthusiasm spread north to Germany and extended as far as Scotland. North of the Alps, it was known as Humanism and its representatives as Humanists, the words being taken from literae humanae, or humaniores, that is, humane studies, the studies which develop the man as the proprietor of this visible sphere. In the wider sense, it comprehends the revival of literature and art, the development of rational criticism, the transition from feudalism to a new order of social organization, the elevation of the modern languages of Europe as vehicles for the highest thought, the emancipation of intelligence, and the expansion of human interests, the invention of the printing-press, the discoveries of navigation and the exploration of America and the East, and the definition of the solar system by Copernicus and Galileo,—in one word, all the progressive developments of the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, developments which have since been the concern of modern civilization.
The most discriminating characterization of this remarkable movement came from the pen of Michelet, who defined it as the discovery of the world and man. In this twofold aspect, Burckhardt, its leading historian for Italy, has treated the Renaissance with deep philosophical insight.
The period of the Renaissance lasts from the beginning of the 14th to the middle of the 16th century, from Roger Bacon, d. 1294, and Dante, d. 1321, to Raphael, d. 1520, and Michelangelo, d. 1564, Reuchlin, d. 1522, and Erasmus, d. 1536. For more than a century it proceeded in Italy without the patronage of the Church. Later, from the pontificate of Nicolas V. to the Medicean popes, Leo X. and Clement VII., it was fostered by the papal court. For this reason the last popes of the Middle Ages are known as the Renaissance popes. The movement in the courts may be divided into three periods: the age of the great Italian literati, Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, the age from 1400–1460, when the interest in classic literature predominated, and the age from 1460–1540, when the pursuit of the fine arts was the predominant feature. The first age contributed immortal works to literature. In the second, Plato and the other classics were translated and sedulously studied. In the last, the fine arts and architecture offered their array of genius in, Italy.
To some writers it has occurred to go back as far as Frederick II. for the beginnings of the movement. That sovereign embodied in himself a varied culture and a versatility of intellect rare in any age. With authorship and a knowledge of a number of languages, he combined enlightened ideas in regard to government and legislation, the patronage of higher education and the arts. For the varied interests of his mind, he has been called the first modern man. However, the literary activity of his court ceased at his death. Italy was not without its poets in the 13th century, but it is with the imposing figure of Dante that the revival of culture is to be dated. That a Renaissance should have been needed is a startling fact in the history of human development and demands explanation. The ban, which had been placed by the Church upon the study of the classic authors of antiquity and ancient institutions, palsied polite research and reading for a thousand years. Even before Jerome, whose mind had been disciplined in the study of the classics, at last pronounced them unfit for the eye of a Christian, Tertullian’s attitude was not favorable. Cassian followed Jerome; and Alcuin, the chief scholar of the 9th century, turned away from Virgil as a collection of lying fables. At the close of the 10th century, a pope reprimanded Arnulf of Orleans by reminding him that Peter was unacquainted with Plato, Virgil and Terence, and that God had been pleased to choose as His agents, not philosophers and rhetoricians, but rustics and unlettered men. In deference to such authorities the dutiful churchman turned from the closed pages of the old Romans and Greeks. Only did a selected author like Terence have here and there in a convent a clandestine though eager reader.
In the 12th century, it seemed as if a new era in literature was impending, as if the old learning was about to flourish again. The works of Aristotle became more fully known through the translations of the Arabs. Schools were started in which classic authors were read. Abaelard turned to Virgil as a prophet. The Roman law was discovered and explained at Bologna and other seats of learning. John of Salisbury, Grosseteste, Peter of Blois and other writers freely quoted from Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Ovid and other Latin authors. But the head of Western Christendom discerned in this movement a grave menace to theology and religion, and was quick to blight the new shoot with his curse, and in its early statutes, forced by the pope, the University of Paris excluded the literature of Rome from its curriculum.
But this arbitrary violence could not forever hold the mind of Europe in bonds. The satisfaction its intelligence was seeking, it did not find in the subtle discussions of the Schoolmen or the dismal pictures of the monastics. When the new movement burst forth, it burst forth in Italy, that beautiful country, the heir of Roman traditions. The glories of Italy’s past in history and in literature blazed forth again as after a long eclipse, and the cult of the beautiful, for which the Italian is born, came once more into free exercise. In spite of invasion after invasion the land remained Italian. Lombards, Goths, Normans had occupied it, but the invaders were romanized much more than the Italians were teutonized. The feudal system and Gothic architecture found no congenial soil south of the Alps. In the new era, it seemed natural that the poets and orators of old Italy should speak again in the land which they had witnessed as the mistress of all nations. The literature and law of Greece and Rome again became the educators of the Latin and also of the Teutonic races, preparing them to receive the seeds of modern civilization.
The tap-root of the Renaissance was individualism as opposed to sacerdotal authority. Its enfranchising process manifested itself in Roger Bacon, whose mind turned away from the rabbinical subtleties of the Schoolmen to the secrets of natural science and the discoveries of the earth reported by Rubruquis or suggested by his own reflection, and more fully in Dante, Marsiglius of Padua and Wyclif, who resisted the traditional authority of the papacy. It was active in the discussions of the Reformatory councils. And it received a strong impetus in the administration of the Lombard cities which gloried in their independence. With their authority the imperial policy of Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick II. had clashed. Partly owing to the loose hold of the empire and partly owing to the papal policy, which found its selfish interests subserved better by free contending states and republics than by a unified kingdom of Italy under a single temporal head, these independent municipalities took such deep root that they withstood for nearly a thousand years the unifying process which, in the case of France, Great Britain and Spain, resulted in the consolidation of strong kingdoms soon after the era of the Crusades closed. Upon an oligarchical or a democratic basis, despots and soldiers of fortune secured control of their Italian states by force of innate ability. Individualism pushed aside the claims of birth, and it so happened in the 14th and 15th centuries that the heads of these states were as frequently men of illegitimate birth as of legitimate descent. In our change-loving Italy, wrote Pius II., "where nothing is permanent and no old dynasty exists, servants easily rise to be kings."
It was in the free republic of Florence, where individualism found the widest sphere for self-assertion, that the Renaissance took earliest root and brought forth its finest products. That municipality, which had more of the modern spirit of change and progress than any other mediaeval organism, invited and found satisfaction in novel and brilliant works of power, whether they were in the domain of government or of letters or even of religion, as under the spell of Savonarola. There Dante and Lionardo da Vinci were born, and there Machiavelli exploited his theories of the state and Michelangelo wrought. The Medici gave favor to all forms of enterprise that might bring glory to the city. After Nicolas V. ascended the papal throne, Rome vied with its northern neighbor as a centre of the arts and culture. The new tastes and pursuits also found a home in Ferrara, Urbino, Naples, Milan and Mantua.
Glorious the achievement of the Renaissance was, but it was the last movement of European significance in which Italy and the popes took the lead. Had the current of aesthetic and intellectual enthusiasm joined itself to a stream of religious regeneration, Italy might have kept in advance of other nations, but she produced no safe prophets. No Reformer arose to lead her away from dead religious forms to living springs of spiritual life, from ceremonies and relics to the New Testament.
In spreading north to Germany, Holland and England, the movement took on a more serious aspect. There it produced no poets or artists of the first rank, but in Reuchlin and Erasmus it had scholars whose erudition not only attracted the attention of their own but benefited succeeding generations and contributed directly to the Reformation. South of the Alps, culture was the concern of a special class and took on the form of a diversion, though it is true all classes must have looked with admiration upon the works of art that were being produced.
It was, then, the mission of the Renaissance to start the spirit of free inquiry, to certify to the mind its dignity, to expand the horizon to the faculties of man as a citizen of the world, to recover from the dust of ages the literary treasures and monuments of ancient Greece and Rome, to inaugurate a style of fresh description, based on observation, in opposition to the dialectic circumlocution of the scholastic philosophy, to call forth the laity and to direct attention to the value of natural morality and the natural relationships of man with man. To the monk beauty was a snare, woman a temptation, pleasure a sin, the world vanity of vanities. The Humanist taught that the present life is worth living. The Renaissance breathed a cosmopolitan spirit and fostered universal sympathies. In the spirit of some of the yearnings of the later Roman authors, Dante exclaimed again, "My home is the world."
-Philip Schaff, The Middle Ages, 1294-1517, vol. 6 of The History of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.