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The Isms

Many eras throughout history are studied in light of the values, ideals, and schools of thought that symbolize them. The Renaissance can be studied in light of what some historians lightheartedly refer to as the “isms”: humanism, secularism, and individualism. The influence of the three may not have been as apparent during the Renaissance as they are to historians looking back, but the three isms together help capture and illustrate the spirit found in the art, literature, and culture of the Renaissance.


The greatest intellectual movement of the Renaissance was the studia humanitatis, or humanism. Humanism figures greatly into why historians equate the Renaissance with the rebirth of classical ideas. Perhaps more often than most people realize, medieval scholars did use classical texts in their studies, but not until the Renaissance did scholars devote their entire careers to the rediscovery of Greek and Roman texts and the study of Greek and Latin. By reviving the classical texts and studying the languages using the classical texts as primary sources, Renaissance scholars indeed revived many of the ideals and values that the classical civilizations held in high esteem.

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Humanism is a school of thought emphasizing the importance of man, man's greatness, and man's potential, or the cultural movement of the Renaissance that emphasized rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman ideas, ideals, and values.

Initially, humanism hardly included more than the study of rhetoric and literature as part of the educational model for elite Italians. That would change as humanists moved education away from the futile philosophy and semantics of scholasticism, a centuries-old approach to education that involved the critical reading, analysis, and then discussion between teacher and students about classical texts. Despite living amongst the ruins of ancient Rome, most Italians never thought twice about the great civilization that lay beneath them. Italians later took notice, though, when the father of humanism sought to better his world by embracing the cultural and moral values of Rome and the blueprint for government laid out by the ancient Romans.

Francisco Petrarch (1304-1374) hoped to change the world by bringing back the glory of Rome. He could arguably be classified as an intellectual snob for the way he looked down his nose at all things medieval. After all, according to Petrarch, very little of intellectual value came out of the several centuries of European history before his lifetime. Petrarch hoped that a renewed interest in classical Rome would bring about a change for the better. For Petrarch, Italy ideally would rediscover and then adopt the long-forgotten culture of Rome. In fact, Petrarch devoted much of his life to learning Latin and translating classical texts. He even wrote and distributed letters in Latin in hopes of inspiring others to fall in love with the language and culture as he had. Petrarch believed that if those around him consumed the ancient culture the way he did, they literally would begin to recreate the culture and live the way the Romans did. He believed that the teachings of the moral philosophers of Rome, those who didn’t just teach virtue but taught people to be virtuous, were just what Italy needed in the fourteenth century. To some extent, his dream was realized.

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Francisco Petrarch coined the phrase Dark Ages to describe the barbaric, uncivilized world that existed between the fall of Rome and his day and age in Italy. Historians have long fought over whether that age really was “dark."

Petrarch probably shouldn’t receive all the credit for the revival of classical ideals such as honor and virtue in Italy during the Renaissance, but he deserves a great deal. Those who came after Petrarch embraced the classical spirit, and humanism manifested itself in many places. The educated elite, especially in Florence, made the classical languages and texts part of their educational curriculum. Painters turned from the medieval techniques and themes and painted heroes of old. Sculptors created marvelous figures of marble and bronze. Even architects used arches and columns so often found in antiquity.

On another level, for many scholars and historians, humanism is synonymous with the glorification of humanity and its potential. Also part of humanism was the fascination with the beautiful creation or work of art called the human body. It should be no surprise to anyone that this ideal was plucked right out of classical Greece and Rome. Classical artists and sculptors created magnificent works of art that depicted nude, muscular, heroic men, and classical writers told tales of great men who went on great adventures.

This elevated view of humanity resurfaced during the Renaissance. Pico della Miran- dola (1463-1494), in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, passionately maintained that man’s potential had no limits and that man was the pinnacle of God’s creation. The writers and artists and politicians of the Renaissance, including Mirandola, were more than gifted and they knew it. Many believed their work rivaled the greatest that Rome had to offer. Perhaps they were right. Or perhaps they simply were celebrating the Renaissance man, his achievements, and his potential for greatness.


The prestige of the Church took a major hit during the Middle Ages after its involvement in such scandalous affairs as the Babylonian Captivity. Also, the Church’s inability to launch a successful crusade and to stop the devastation of the Black Death did little to enhance the image of the Church and religion. As a result, the Church lost importance in the lives of many Renaissance Europeans. People began to focus more on the secular, the things of this world, than on religion and things related to the afterlife.

Obviously all of Italy did not turn its back on religion. However, a marked difference in attitude did surface.

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Secularism placed less emphasis on the religious and supernatural and more emphasis on things of the earthly world.

After the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death, many Europeans adopted an “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude. They started to realize that their days were numbered and that there were no guarantees in their already-tough lives. Generally speaking, Renaissance man cared far more about such worldly things as wealth, fashion, and art than did medieval man, which accounts at least partially for the resurgence of interest in art and architecture.

A few writers such as Lorenzo Valla went even further and argued that pleasing the senses and feeding man’s appetites should be perfectly acceptable. Unquestionably, the Renaissance spirit embraced this secular attitude. Even the Church bought into this to some extent. Many cardinals and popes were great patrons of art and architecture, not to mention fans of an extravagant lifestyle.


With the focus shifting away from religion and more toward man during the Renaissance, it should be no wonder that individualism appeared during this time. Humanism focused on the greatness of all humanity, but individualism shined the spotlight on the individual. In other words, the writer was as important as the manuscript, the artist was as important as the artwork. The Renaissance celebrated the genius of man so it was only natural that great individuals basked in the limelight.

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Individualism is a school of thought emphasizing the importance of the individual.

Individualism helps explain the dramatic increase in the number of portraits commissioned during the Renaissance. Rich people loved nothing better than to look at large, beautiful paintings of themselves— and famous artists loved nothing more than to receive huge kudos for their work.

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