In the autumn of 1416, the Tuscan intellectual Poggio Bracciolini was in Switzerland, attending the Council of Constance in his capacity as papal administrator. During his leisure time, he pursued his hobby of book-hunting, scouring monastic collections in the hope of unearthing rare manuscripts. In a visit to the ancient Benedictine monastery of St Gall, he struck gold.

There amid a tremendous quantity of books, which it would take too long to describe, we found Quintilian still safe and sound, though filthy with mould and dust. For these books were not in the library, as befitted their worth, but in a sort of foul and gloomy dungeon at the bottom of one of the towers, where not even men convicted of a capital offence would have been stuck away.1

Poggio’s letter, to the classical scholar Guarino da Verona, vividly conveys the excitement and sense of drama that surrounded discoveries of this kind. The principal work Poggio discovered on this occasion was Quintilian’s The Education of the Orator, the most complete classical treatise on rhetoric and a major source for Roman education, aesthetics, and values. Up to this point, Quintilian’s text had been known only in mutili, as philologists evocatively call incomplete manuscripts. The previous texts were, in Poggio’s words, ‘so fragmentary … so cut down by the action of time … that the shape and style of the man had become unrecognizable’. Poggio presents his discovery in dramatic terms, as a last-ditch rescue: ‘By Heaven, if we had not brought help, [Quintilian] would surely have perished the very next day.’

At the time of Poggio’s great discovery, Italian intellectuals’ quest to reconstruct the culture of classical antiquity was already more than a century old, and the movement was finally on the cusp of translating from a private, scholarly obsession, pursued by a dedicated network of enthusiasts, into something more institutionalized and widespread. The Renaissance started small. The origins of this classicizing movement—often known as ‘humanism’, for reasons explained below—can be traced to a small clique of late thirteenth-century intellectuals based in the university city of Padua, near Venice. The leading figures were Lovato Lovati, a judge, and Albertino Mussato, a notary, politician, and diplomat. Lovati and Mussato and their circles sought out classical texts, studied their metre and diction, and produced new Latin works in imitation of them, treading self-consciously in the ‘footsteps of the ancient poets’ (veterum vestigia vatum). 2 Lovati composed a series of metrical verse letters closely echoing Ovid and Horace, and produced an edition of Seneca’s tragedies, collating two manuscripts. Mussato composed the first post-classical secular tragedy, Ecerinis (c. 1314–15), depicting the blood-soaked career of the local warlord Ezzelino da Romano (d. 1259), portrayed in the play as literally the devil’s spawn. It was during this initial moment of the Renaissance that the first great classical textual discovery was made—that of Catullus’s elegant and licentious love poetry, which survived through the Middle Ages in a single manuscript. This surfaced in Verona at some time in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, discovered ‘under a bushel’, or basket, according to a Latin epigram of the time.3

One remarkable feature of this first dawn of humanism in Italy is that it occurred so early. Mussato (1261–1329) is an almost exact contemporary of the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), whose works represent the pinnacle of medieval poetic and intellectual culture in Italy. Lovati was born around a quarter of a century before Dante; his dates are c. 1240–1309. This serves as a reminder that the term ‘Renaissance’ is understood here as designating a cultural movement rather than a chronological period. It can also act as a reminder of the importance of geography in understanding Italian culture at this time. Where the Paduans Lovati and Mussato wrote exclusively in Latin, the Florentine Dante wrote principally in the vernacular. His few Latin works date from the time of his exile from Florence, after a long stay in Verona, close to Padua and another important centre for early humanism. Dante’s relationship with the classics is also quite different from that of his northern contemporaries. Vivid as his response was to those classical authors he knew well, especially Virgil and Ovid, he seems to have been content with what was essentially the school ‘grammar’ (i.e. literature) curriculum. He shows little of the impulse we see in Lovati and Mussato to seek out more arcane and less visited texts. As much as by the classics, Dante’s intellectual horizons were shaped by contemporary, scholastic university culture, especially theology, while his literary style mingles classical influences with the powerful legacy of medieval vernacular verse.

Dante’s, and Mussato’s, great successors, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio, born in the opening decades of the fourteenth century, were the heirs to both of these traditions, the medieval and the Renaissance. Petrarch produced the crowning work of the medieval tradition of love lyric in his Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Vernacular Fragments), also often referred to as the Canzoniere, or Songbook, while Boccaccio produced the first great prose masterpiece of Italian, the Decameron, drawing on the medieval tradition of novelle or fabliaux. Both writers also showed a zeal for classical culture reminiscent of the circles of Lovati and Mussato—Petrarch from the beginning of his career, Boccaccio especially during the second half of his. Both writers did important work in compiling and popularizing classical knowledge. Petrarch wrote a compilation of classical and biblical biographies, On Famous Men, which Boccaccio later complemented with his On Famous Women. Boccaccio also compiled a guide to classical mythology, The Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, prefacing the work with a powerful defence of the moral legitimacy of reading pagan poetry, despite its appearance, to a Christian, of being made up of ‘lies’. Petrarch was responsible for reviving several classical literary genres, such as the personal letter, the dialogue (On the Secret Cares of My Soul), and the historical epic (Africa). This last-mentioned text is one of the earliest neo-classical works to deal with a classical subject-matter (the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage)—a distinctly ‘Renaissance’ project, and one that helps underline the profound cultural gulf that separated Petrarch from Dante.4

Petrarch was similarly a precursor of the mature Renaissance in the range of his classical interests. Like Lovati’s circle, he was not content with the relatively thin diet of classic writings that survived in the medieval educational curriculum, and he devoted much energy to seeking out little-known texts. In 1333 in Lièges, he discovered Cicero’s oration Pro Archia, with its impassioned praise of the civilizing role of poetry and literature. A decade later in Verona, he came across a manuscript containing Cicero’s letters to Atticus—the work that inspired him to embark on his own vast and fascinating epistolary corpus, his most original and influential Latin work. While these are his chief ‘finds’, Petrarch also succeeded in laying his hands on numerous other rare classical works, exploiting his extensive network of friends in Italy, France, and Germany. He was an early reader of Catullus, of Propertius, and of Quintilian (in a mutilus version), and he painstakingly assembled the most complete manuscript of Livy’s History of Rome known in his day. Boccaccio followed his lead in this regard, seeking out rarities such as Tacitus’s Annals, Varro’s On the Latin Language, and Apuleius’s Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass).

In addition to their Latin scholarship, Petrarch and Boccaccio also played an important role in the early history of the study of Greek in the West. Both were keenly aware of the impossibility of understanding classical culture in any depth without direct knowledge of the Greek language. Petrarch made a first attempt to study Greek in Avignon in the 1340s with Barlaam (Bernardo Massari), an Italian-Greek scholar and theologian from Calabria, in southern Italy, where a strong tradition of Byzantine monasticism was found. Petrarch’s studies with Barlaam were not sufficient, however, to allow him to read a manuscript of Homer sent to him by a Byzantine diplomat, Nicholas Sigeros, in 1353; in his letter of thanks, Petrarch poignantly speaks of the manuscript remaining mute to him—or he deaf to it—even if he derives pleasure merely from gazing at the text.5 In the late 1350s and 1360s, a breakthrough seemed possible when Petrarch and Boccaccio made contact with another Greek-speaking Calabrian, Leontius Pilatus, and persuaded him to translate the Iliad and Odyssey and write commentaries on them. The results were uninspiring. Pilatus’s Latin was weak and his translation so literal that Petrarch confessed that beginning to read it had almost made him lose interest in Homer. Before the end of the fourteenth century, the northern humanist Antonio Loschi had offered to recast Pilatus’s prose crib in a more ornate Latin verse.6

The next important moment in the history of Greek study, more transformative in its effects, occurred in 1397, when the chancellor of Florence, Coluccio Salutati, invited the Byzantine scholar and diplomat Manuel Chrysoloras to teach Greek to the circle of young intellectuals who had gathered in Florence under Salutati’s aegis. Pilatus had already attempted to teach Greek in Florence in the 1360s, at Boccaccio’s instigation, but little had come of the initiative. Chrysoloras’s teaching, by contrast, had the effect of a lit fuse. Through his three years’ teaching in Florence, and his later teaching in Pavia and Venice, he produced a talented generation of Greek-literate scholars—the first in the West outside the residual Greek-speaking regions of southern Italy—who set themselves to translating, commenting, and imitating Greek texts. One of Chrysoloras’s most brilliant pupils, Leonardo Bruni, who eventually followed Salutati into the role of chancellor of Florence, translated Greek works by Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Demosthenes and wrote historical compendia based on Polybius, Procopius, and Xenophon. Bruni also drew extensively on Greek sources in his independent literary works, perhaps most famously in his Panegyric of the City of Florence (c. 1403–4), based on an encomium of Athens by the second-century sophist Aelius Aristides: one of the earliest Renaissance speeches composed in classicizing Latin and following classical rhetorical rules.

Bruni’s interest in classical oratory hints at the new direction the humanist movement would take in the fifteenth century. Throughout the whole of the previous century, even as it gained in momentum, the classicizing movement in Italy had remained a private, scholarly interest. Public documents and speeches continued to be written in medieval Latin, and according to formal rules drawn up in the ars dictaminis (‘art of letter writing’), a stripped-down version of classical rhetoric, laying much emphasis on rhythm (cursus). Salutati wrote his personal letters in an approximation to classical Latin, but his powerful public voice as Florentine chancellor differs little in style from that of his great thirteenth-century predecessor in the post, Dante’s mentor, Brunetto Latini. The classicizing interests of the humanists had not widely inflected school curricula, either, up to this point. Although we know of fourteenth-century university professors who were important conduits for humanism—such as the evocatively nicknamed ‘Virgil John’ (Giovanni del Virgilio) and ‘Rhetoric Peter’ (Pietro da Moglio, or Pietro della Retorica)—formal education, both at school and university level, remained largely medieval in character. Cicero’s rhetorical theory was taught at the University of Bologna, but as a complement to ars dictaminis teaching, and without any intent to encourage students to cultivate a classicizing style.

All this began to change in the very late fourteenth century and the early fifteenth, with the key generation being made up of men born in the 1370s, the first with the opportunity to learn Greek. Besides Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini, humanists of this generation included Pierpaolo Vergerio from Capodistria (now Koper, in Slovenia), the author of the first humanist educational treatise, On the Noble Manners and Liberal Studies fitted for Adolescents (1400–1402); the northern Italian scholars and educators Guarino of Verona and Vittorino da Feltre; and the Sicilian Giovanni Aurispa, who studied Greek in Byzantium, bringing back to Italy a remarkable collection of manuscripts, including the sole copy of two of Aeschylus’s plays to survive into the modern world. None of these men manifest the same dissonance between their private and public writings that we find with Salutati. Bruni, appointed chancellor of Florence in the 1420s, used his elegant classical Latin for public documents, as well as private letters, and was commissioned by the Florentine government to compose a classicizing History of Florence. Vergerio elaborated his educational views while working as tutor to the lord of Padua, and Guarino and Vittorino were invited, respectively, to Ferrara and Mantua, where they established rival schools. Aurispa also taught at Ferrara. Poggio, though a layman, spent his life in the service of the papacy, which was in these years reinventing itself in an ever more classicizing guise.

By 1450, from the amateur pursuit it had been a century earlier, humanism had become the establishment language of the Italian states: a means of triumphantly proclaiming continuity with the glories of the classical, and especially the ancient Roman, past. While not all humanist scholars were from elite backgrounds themselves—Poggio was the son of an apothecary, Guarino, the son of a blacksmith—it was the movement’s appeal to the peninsula’s wealthy elites that ensured its remarkable success. Roman history was seductive for Italian rulers because an archetype could be found for each and every modern regime. Republics like Florence, Venice, and Siena could mirror themselves in the great Roman republic described by Livy and extolled by Sallust and Cicero. Meanwhile, princes and popes could look to later periods of Roman history and imagine themselves a new Caesar or a new Augustus or Constantine or Trajan. Noblewomen, too, could find fresh and alluring archetypes within the ancient world. Bruni’s elegant humanist educational manifesto On Studies and Letters of the 1420s was addressed to Battista da Montefeltro, the educated and politically astute wife of the lord of Pesaro, on the Adriatic coast below Venice. The opening lines of the work airily sketch in classical precedents for the new cultural type of the learned and eloquent laywoman, mentioning Sappho, the Greek philosopher Aspasia, and Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus.7


Key to the dissemination of Renaissance learning was the radical educational reform introduced in this period by humanist teachers such as Guarino and Vittorino. The educational curriculum that the humanists introduced was based on the ancient Roman one, with rhetoric as its core subject—hence the excitement at Poggio’s rediscovery of Quintilian’s Education of the Orator. The model of education humanists distilled from their classical sources privileged what became known in this period as the studia humanitatis, or ‘studies of humanity’, a phrase of Cicero’s first picked up and used by Coluccio Salutati. These consisted of grammar (essentially, the study of the classical languages), rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy, the origin of the modern ‘humanities’. The studia humanitatis were conceived, with high earnestness, as a means of shaping the pupil as a self-conscious moral agent, possessed of a supple, historically informed understanding of human nature and affects, an advanced mastery of the Latin language, and the eloquence necessary to argue a case and to influence those around him for the good. Whether humanist education attained its moral ends may be disputed, but it certainly helped produce a distinctive cultural style in its pupils, characterized by rhetorical dexterity, a keen sense of history, and a profound reverence for the classical world.

It is from the notion of the studia humanitatis that the modern scholarly notion of ‘humanism’, current in academic discourse since the 1960s, takes its cue. The term humanista—non-existent in classical Latin—developed in the Renaissance as university slang for a teacher of the humanities. Academics today use the term more broadly, to designate Renaissance intellectuals engaged with the studia humanitatis, either as teachers or as scholars; or, still more broadly, to designate all those invested in the study and imitation of classical antiquity.8 Recently, it has been suggested that the term humanist be extended still further, to incorporate not merely those intellectuals possessed of the full linguistic and scholarly toolkit traditionally associated with humanism, but also those whose primary encounter with the new classical learning came about through secondary means such as translation.9

‘Humanism’ is often found in discussions of this period paired with or contrasted with ‘scholasticism’, and it is useful to have a grasp of both terms in understanding the cultural dynamics of the Renaissance. The term scholasticism is used to designate an intellectual movement that developed in the early universities of Europe, which began to be founded from the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.10 Like ‘humanism’, the term does not indicate a shared body of doctrine so much as an educational system and a critical approach to learning—in the case of scholasticism, one based on formal logic and disputation, tending to the abstract, and geared to the production of universal, general truths. As Aristotle’s logic, metaphysics, and natural philosophy began to become accessible in the West in Latin translation, via Arabic sources, the vast, collective endeavour began of assimilating this powerful body of thought to Christianity. In a theological context, the term scholasticism generally refers to the product of this assimilation: a strongly Aristotelian-inflected version of Christian thinking, especially associated with the figure of Thomas Aquinas (1225–74).

In considering the development of Renaissance humanism as an intellectual movement, it is important to recall that it grew up at a time when university culture was dominated by scholasticism. As humanism developed and gained confidence as a movement, polemics became common between these two very different intellectual styles or traditions, beginning with Petrarch’s amusingly irate diatribes of the 1360s, such as On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others. Scholastics accused humanists of a lack of logical rigour, and sometimes (as in Petrarch’s case) of ignorance. Humanists responded by deploring university philosophers’ use of jargon, their logic-chopping, their indifference to classical learning, their radically unclassical Latin. In addition to these essentially stylistic issues, Petrarch accuses scholastic philosophers of an inattention to core ethical questions he found better tackled by pagan moralists like Cicero and Seneca, and a failure to recognize the importance of eloquence in reaching and affecting readers’ hearts and minds.11 Lorenzo Valla, in the mid-fifteenth century, was still more trenchant on this score, arguing that scholastic philosophers came close to sacrilege or heresy in their reliance on rational means to probe the mysteries of God. Valla instead advocated a return to the rhetorical theology of patristic writers such as Lactantius and Jerome.12

Neither side ‘won’ this dispute. Although humanism established a foothold in the universities from the mid-fifteenth century, it did not replace Aristotelian scholasticism, which continued as a strong presence throughout the sixteenth century, with many thinkers influenced by both. If humanism did not triumph in its polemics with scholasticism, however, it certainly emerged from them strengthened. The challenge of constituting itself as an alternative to a very different, and institutionally entrenched, cultural and educational system forced humanism to interrogate itself and articulate its values. It was this, in large part, that gave humanism the character of a conscious ‘movement’, rather than simply a consonance of classicizing tastes.


It was not only texts that the Italian Renaissance unearthed in its quest for a closer knowledge of Graeco-Roman antiquity. The classical concerns of humanism brought with them a new interest in the surviving material artefacts of the ancient world—architectural fragments, statues, sarcophagi, vases, coins, inscriptions, of the sort that could be turned up with ease in many parts of Italy as foundations were laid for new buildings. That was in addition to remnants of antiquity still standing and visible—the Pantheon, for example, and the temple of Hercules Victor near the Tiber in Rome, both converted into churches in the early Middle Ages, or the abandoned Colosseum, where the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini talks of retiring one memorable evening for a terrifying exercise in black magic conducted by a renegade Sicilian priest.13

Interest in the material remains of classical antiquity is apparent from the dawn of the humanist movement in Italy. A late-antique sarcophagus uncovered in Padua some time before 1260 was revered as the tomb of the Trojan Antenor, the legendary founder of Roman Padua, or Patavinum. Around the turn of the fourteenth century, a Roman inscription came to light in the same city, seemingly referring to Patavinum’s most distinguished son, the historian Livy. Both these artefacts aroused keen interest within the classicizing circles of Lovati and Mussato. An arched stone structure that had been erected over the sarcophagus was restored in 1283, with a Latin inscription by Lovati, echoing Livy’s and Virgil’s allusions to the Trojan hero. Lovati also left instructions for his own burial alongside the Antenor shrine.14 The Livy inscription, meanwhile, was affixed to the walls of the Basilica of Santa Giustina and became a site of cultural pilgrimage. Petrarch presents his letter to Livy—one of an evocative series of ‘letters to the underworld’ he addressed to ancient authors—as written ‘in the vestibule of the Temple of Justina Virgo, and in view of your very tombstone’.15

Neither the Tomb of Antenor episode nor the Livian inscription episode says a great deal for early humanism’s historical and philological expertise. The Trojan foundation myth was, precisely, a myth, while to read the inscription as relating to the historian Livy involved a degree of wishful reading (the ‘T. Livius’ it refers to is a freedman named Titus Livius Halys, as the inscription clearly states). What is evocative in these early anecdotes is the impulse to ‘relicization’ apparent in the treatment of both finds, and the strong civic-patriotic impulse that inspired it. Padua was a city of considerable Christian charisma, housing the bones of the thirteenth-century Franciscan saint, Anthony of Padua, canonized in 1232, and those of the early Christian martyr, Justina. The lay veneration of Livy and Antenor evinced by the reverent treatment of their ‘relics’ conscripts them to the same logic of privileged memorialization enjoyed by these saints. Although the echoes of Virgil and Livy in Lovati’s epitaph for Antenor speak to a nascent classicizing sensibility, the cult of a semi-sanctified civic founder was near-ubiquitous in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy, speaking to the powerful connection the early Italian city-states felt to their classical roots. Perugia feted as its founder the Trojan prince ‘Eulistes’, who appears in a statue on the magnificent thirteenth-century fountain in the main city square, the Fontana Maggiore.16 Genoa went one better, claiming a Roman god as its founder: the two-faced Janus, god of gateways, with one face set to the future, one to the past.17

Traces of this same, patriotic response to Roman antiquity—though on a much grander, national scale—are apparent in an interesting anecdote that Petrarch tells of himself in a letter of 1355, recounting a diplomatic mission to Mantua in which he encountered the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Petrarch self-flatteringly recounts that Charles expressed an interest in his moral compendium of ancient history, On Famous Men, but that he was unable to gratify him with a copy of the work, since it was still unfinished. As a kind of proxy, he gave Charles ‘some gold and silver effigies of our princes inscribed with tiny, ancient letters, which were dear to me’—that is, coins depicting the ancient Roman emperors— ‘among which was an image of Augustus that seemed to breathe’.18 Petrarch presents his gift to the emperor as didactic in intent, and reports that he accompanied it with an exhortation: ‘Behold, Caesar, those you have succeeded; behold those you should strive to imitate and admire’.19

Setting the political context aside (many Italians were unhappy at Charles’s refusal to engage in the political tensions of the peninsula, despite his nominal position as overlord of northern Italy), this story is fascinating from the perspective of Petrarch’s attitude to antiquity and, more particularly, to classical art. Collecting ancient coins was not a common pastime at the time, as it would become by the fifteenth century. Petrarch may have cultivated his interest in Roman coins in imitation of Augustus, whose biography by Suetonius was an important source for his own self-fashioning (Suetonius tells us that among the gifts Augustus distributed at the feast of Saturnalia were ‘old coins of the kings’, probably the striking portrait coins struck by some Hellenistic kings).20 As his description of his gift to Charles shows, two aspects that interested Petrarch in these miniature artefacts were the style of their lettering—quite different from the Lombard and Gothic scripts common in his day—and the vividness of their portraiture, which must indeed have looked remarkable within a culture in which a tradition of realistic, individualized portraiture barely existed. Also interesting is Petrarch’s alertness to material portraiture as a potential vehicle for moral discourse; the coin-portraits here are credited with the same potential exhortatory efficacy as the missing verbal rhetoric of On Famous Men. It is noteworthy in light of this that the earliest recorded fresco-cycle of famous classical heroes, dating from the late 1360s or 1370s, was commissioned by Francesco I Carrara, lord of Padua, to whom Petrarch had been close in his last years.21

Petrarch’s interest in the look and feel of classical antiquity was taken up and amplified by his successors. Handwriting offers an interesting example. Petrarch was keenly aware of the different styles of writing found in modern, Gothic script, sometimes known as ‘blackletter’, and in the older scripts he encountered, in Roman inscriptions and coins, and in classical manuscripts dating from the Carolingian era. In a scathing letter, he criticized the modern script for its ‘luxuriance’ and decorative flourishes, arguing that script should be restrained (castigata), clear, and easy to read.22 Early fifteenth-century humanists put this into practice, developing an exquisite, neo-Carolingian script that they believed accurately reflected the handwriting of the ancients. The key innovators here were Poggio Bracciolini, who perfected the style now known as ‘humanist minuscule’, later adopted by printers as the basis for what we still call ‘Roman’ type (Fig. 3), and Niccolò Niccoli, who evolved a swifter, cursive style that is the basis of our modern ‘Italic’. These handwriting innovations were adopted first for classical and humanistic texts, while scholastic works continued to be written using the earlier, Gothic script, lending a visual dimension to the ‘two cultures’ division as the fifteenth century progressed (Fig. 4). The visual clarity and restraint of humanistic handwriting had a particular rhetorical force, since humanists characteristically thought of the difference between their language and that of the medieval scholastics in terms of ‘purity’ or ‘cleanliness’. Medieval Latin, for the humanists, was a language encrusted with ugly accretions, which it was the mission of the humanists to castigate or purge.


Fig. 3: Example of Roman typeface. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Letters (Epistolae ad familiares) (Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1471), 15r.


Fig. 4: Example of Gothic typeface. Gratianus’s twelfth-century law textbook, the Decretum, with the commentary of Bartolomeo da Brescia (Venice: Nicolaus Jenson, 1474), 141r.


By the time the new classicizing style of handwriting was beginning to become disseminated in the early fifteenth century, an artistic revolution was taking place in Italy that would transform the languages of architecture, painting, and sculpture in profound and lasting ways. This artistic renovatio may be compared to the intellectual and literary transformation wrought by humanism, and the two shifts demand to be considered together. Although the history of Renaissance art cannot be told as a pure narrative of classical rediscovery, the influence of classical artistic culture was certainly fundamental in this period. Artists increasingly looked to classical models for their formal inspiration, and patrons showed an increasing taste for classicizing artistic decorum, and even classical subject matter. Meanwhile, humanist intellectuals exhumed classical writings on Greek and Roman art and architecture, such as Pliny’s extensive discussion of classical art in his Natural History, and Vitruvius’s On Architecture. Inspired by these works, a new humanistic tradition of writings on art history and art theory began to appear.

The history of Renaissance art is a complex one, but there seems little reason to question the traditional narrative that locates the key turning-point in that history to Florence in the early decades of the fifteenth century and to the remarkable group of artists who flourished here. Foremost among these were the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the sculptors Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, all born in the 1370s–80s, and the painter Masaccio, born around 1401. The remarkable decade of the 1420s, when all these artists were active, saw the introduction of a new, classicizing style of architecture in Florence epitomized by Brunelleschi’s work for the Foundling Hospital building (Ospedale degli Innocenti), begun in 1419, with its round arches, precise use of the orders—Corinthian in this case—and its careful observation of geometrical proportion. In sculpture and painting, the most remarkable development of these years was the beginning of the use of perspective, apparent both in Masaccio’s paintings and in sculptural reliefs by Ghiberti and Donatello, such as the former’s second set of doors for the Florentine baptistery. By the 1430s, when the humanist Leon Battista Alberti—Florentine by descent, though born in exile—visited the city of his ancestors, he was able to marvel that the classical arts he had once thought dead were now flourishing anew. Alberti underlines the suddenness of this resurgence with wonder, positing it as more remarkable than anything the ancient world witnessed. Where ancient artists and architects had built on a long tradition, learning their art organically through imitation of existing models, the artists of his age had ‘no teachers, no examples’; they had created their new art from scratch.23

This last statement of Alberti’s is, of course, a hyperbole, and it is perfectly possible to trace a more gradualist version of the artistic Renaissance. The late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Italy had seen an earlier artistic revolution, with the painting of Cimabue, Pietro Cavallini, and Giotto, and the sculpture of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Arnolfo del Cambio, and Tino da Camaino. Some of these artists, especially the sculptors, show marked classical influences, and may be seen as anticipating fifteenth-century developments; Nicola Pisano’s pulpit for the baptistery of Pisa Cathedral (c. 1260), for example, contains a remarkable classicizing nude figure, based on representations of Hercules. In certain respects, fifteenth-century Florentine art may be seen as reaching back to this century-old ‘first Renaissance’, beyond Italian art’s more recent immersion in Gothic influences from northern Europe. This is especially the case with Masaccio, whose realism may be seen in part as an inspired re-visitation and updating of Giotto’s pictorial language, building on Giotto’s fundamental move towards an exploration of depth and mass in painting, his use of chiaroscuro for modelling, and his remarkable ability to express human affect through physical gesture and stance (Figs 5 and 6).

Another useful caveat to bear in mind when approaching Renaissance art is that the new classicism of the Renaissance did not in any sense simply displace or take over from Gothic, any more than humanism displaced scholasticism. The stylized elegance and decorativeness of the Gothic style had an enduring appeal for Renaissance Italians, competing with the more austere and intellectual, neo-Giottesque style pioneered by Masaccio. In the same decade when Masaccio began work on the Brancacci Chapel, the 1420s, the banker Palla Strozzi paid out the significant sum of 150 florins for Gentile da Fabriano’s lavishly gilded, richly ornate Adoration of the Magi, now in the Uffizi. More than 30 years later, Benozzo Gozzoli completed his fairy-tale image of the Procession of the Magi for Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, the effective ruler of Florence (Fig. 7). These are instances of works that may be unproblematically qualified as Gothic, but it is not difficult, either, to identify iconic Renaissance works that mingle classical and Gothic influences. One is Donatello’s David, of the 1430s, sculpted for Cosimo de’ Medici—the first freestanding bronze nude since antiquity (Fig. 8). The conception of the statue is classicizing, especially in its choice to portray the hero nude, and there are all’antica details in the sculpture such as the vanquished Goliath’s helmet, decorated with a frieze of Cupid and Psyche. David’s girlish, gracefully posed figure, with its decorative hat, however, owes as much to Gothic aesthetics as to classical. Later in the century, Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, discussed below, although classical in its subject matter, shows Gothic influences in its frieze-like composition and in its privileging of delicacy and sinuousness of line over the evocation of volume and spatial depth.


Fig. 5: Giotto di Bondone, The Meeting of Joachim and Anne at the Golden Gatec. 1305. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.


Fig. 6: Masaccio (Maso di San Giovanni), St. Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadowc. 1426. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.


Fig. 7: Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magic. 1459–63 (detail). Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence.


Fig. 8: Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi), David, 1428–32.

These examples are all from Florence, but the story of the Renaissance in art is not purely a Florentine one, even in the fifteenth century, let alone the sixteenth. A major Renaissance development such as the revival of the classical genre of the portrait medal, from the late 1430s onwards, was mainly the work of artists like the Pisan Antonio di Puccio (‘Pisanello’) and the Veronese Matteo de’ Pasti, working for northern and central Italian lords such as Leonello d’Este of Ferrara and Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini. Sigismondo Malatesta was also responsible for commissioning one of the most remarkable early Renaissance buildings, the so-called Tempio Malatestiano (‘Malatestine Temple’) in Rimini, begun around 1450 (Fig. 9): a classical remodelling of a Gothic Franciscan church, with a façade by Leon Battista Alberti based on the proportions of the Roman Arch of Augustus in the same city, and incorporating the first post-classical inscription based accurately on ancient prototypes in terms of its lettering and style.24Other important Renaissance buildings outside Florence in the second half of the Quattrocento include the remarkable classical arch added to the medieval fortress of Castel Nuovo in Naples, with its sculptural friezes based on Roman triumphal arches (Fig. 10); the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo, north of Milan, incorporating scenes of the labours of Hercules into its façade, along with biblical episodes; and the superb palace of Urbino, designed for the humanist prince Federico da Montefeltro, probably by the Dalmatian architect Luciano Laurana. By the end of the century, even Venice, which had long clung to the Gothic style of architecture, was acquiring its first Renaissance churches, such as San Michele in Isola and San Zaccaria, both by the Bergamasque architect Mauro Codussi. In the 1490s, the duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este, embarked on what was probably the most ambitious urban planning project to be realized in the fifteenth century: the vast extension to his city known after its patron as the Addizione Erculea (the ‘Herculean Extension’), with its wide, straight streets and monumental architecture. This includes the great ‘Diamond Palace’ (Palazzo dei Diamanti), designed by the Ferrarese architect Biagio Rossetti, with its light-reflecting façade made up of more than 8,000 diamond-cut marble blocks.


Fig. 9: Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, built to a design of Leon Battista Alberti; begun c. 1450.


Fig. 10: Triumphal arch of Alfonso I, Castel Nuovo, Naples, sometimes attributed to Francesco Laurana [Frane Vranjanin], 1453–68.

By the time of the Addizione Erculea, classicizing architectural styles were becoming virtually the norm across Italy for large public and private buildings, such as churches and palaces. What was inside these buildings was also increasingly classicizing—in the case of secular buildings, not merely in form, but also in subject-matter. As the humanistic educational curriculum became widely adopted by the elites across this period, illuminated classical manuscripts began to be in demand among wealthy patrons, and painters became more conversant with secular and classicizing subjects. Classically themed panel paintings, too, began to emerge as a recognizable sub-tradition, especially after the vogue for the showpiece study spaces known as studioli evolved in princely circles from around the mid-century.25 From this time onwards, we begin to see the kind of close collaboration between humanists and artists that would later characterize the sixteenth century, producing works that would consciously seek to emulate the complexity and layeredness of classical literature in paint or stone.


Fig. 11: Sandro Botticelli [Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi], Spring [Primavera], c. 1477.

A good early example of this tradition of classically themed art is Sandro Botticelli’s famous Primavera, painted in the 1470s for a junior branch of the Medici family (Fig. 11). The image draws on writings by Ovid, Horace, Seneca, and Lucretius, in a learned evocation of the Roman mythology surrounding the coming of spring. The ‘fable’ of the painting is so subtle and erudite—and so poetic—that it has been plausibly conjectured that the great humanist, poet, and Medici client Angelo Poliziano was involved in its elaboration.26 On the viewer’s right, Zephyr, the wind god, abducts the nymph Cloris and she transforms into the flower goddess Flora. On the left, Mercury, associated with spring in the ancient Roman calendar, ushers the season in, accompanied by the dancing Graces. In the centre, the love gods Venus and Cupid preside over all.

Although it is now reverently displayed in a museum as an independent work, evidence from inventories suggests that Botticelli’s Primavera, like many Renaissance works, was originally intended as a piece of site-specific room décor. It was intended to hang above a lettuccio—a day-bed, or settle, already presumably adorned with a carved back-piece or spalliera. The popularity of classical scenes for such elite domestic art from the mid-fifteenth century onwards is highly suggestive of the extent to which humanist interests had become diffused by this point. Scenes from Roman myth and history rivalled biblical and chivalric narratives as choices of subject-matter for the painted and sculpted furniture with which wealthy families furnished their homes, which, besides spalliere, included cassoni (marriage chests) and deschi da parto (‘birth trays’, used to bring sweets and gifts to women recovering from childbirth).27 The classical scenes on these furnishings were typically painted in a lively Gothic-influenced style with the figures dressed in contemporary garments (the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1460s cassone by Apollonio di Giovanni featuring the ‘Continence of Scipio’ offers an excellent example, as do Biagio d’Antonio’s cassone or spalliera panels illustrating the myth of Jason and the Argonauts in the Metropolitan Museum [Fig. 12]). Late in the century, however, it is also possible to find more formally classicizing works, such as a cassone of the 1480s or 1490s in the Metropolitan Museum with a gesso frieze representing the myth of Ceres and Proserpina. This looks forward to the sixteenth century, when carved friezes imitating ancient sarcophagi displaced painting as the norm of cassone design.

This shift in the direction of a stricter classicism is a notable trend in the later fifteenth century, and reflects Renaissance Italy’s ever deeper and more precise knowledge of the classical world. New archeological-artistic discoveries assisted this classicism. Around 1480, the first extensive and well-preserved example of Roman wall-painting was discovered, in the form of a wing of Nero’s buried Domus Aurea (Golden House) complex, excavated on the Esquiline Hill. Arduously exploring its cramped underground passages, scholars and artists imbibed the style of late imperial room decoration, with its fanciful ‘grotesques’, or grotteschi as they came to be known (literally ‘cave-paintings’, from the Domus’s cave-like rooms). Again probably in the 1480s, the Apollo Belvedere was unearthed: one of the greatest marble sculptures to survive from classical antiquity, and the first of a series of remarkable sculptural finds of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. These included fragments of a colossal, eight times life-size statue of Constantine, found in 1487, and the dramatic, writhing group of the priest Laocoön and his sons attacked by snakes, uncovered in 1506. While artists of the earlier Renaissance had drawn largely on relief sculpture and smaller free-standing bronzes for their knowledge of classical art, from this point they had direct access to the heroic tradition of marble statuary of which Pliny speaks in his Natural History. Michelangelo’s David, of 1501–4, the first colossal nude statue of the Renaissance, speaks to the potency of this new inspiration, as do his statues for the proposed tomb of Julius II, the Moses and Slaves of 1513–19.


Fig. 12: Biagio di Antonio, Scenes from the Story of the Argonautsc. 1465.

Prior to the final triumph of classicism in early sixteenth-century Rome, a monument to the dream of reborn antiquity in Renaissance art is Andrea Mantegna’s remarkable nine-canvas Triumphs of Caesar, probably painted between around 1486 and 1506 for the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Mantegna’s image of the Gallic triumph of Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. draws on accounts of this extravagant triumphal parade in Plutarch, Appian, and Suetonius, probably via the humanist Biondo Flavio’s treatise Rome Triumphant(1459), with its vivid descriptions of such rites. These textual sources were supplemented by the surviving representations of Roman triumphs on the Arches of Titus and Constantine in Rome. Mantegna synthesizes these sources into a dazzling profusion of detail, with Roman weapons, chariots, vases, trumpets, banners, garlanded sacrificial bulls, all portrayed in a plausibly ‘antique’ style. The result is a compelling imaginative evocation of Rome’s power and otherness, as well as an implicit celebration of the rising glories of the Italian courts (Fig. 13).

This classicizing trend in art found its apotheosis in Rome during the pontificates of Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere) and Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici), two of the greatest patrons of humanistic culture of the entire Italian Renaissance. Julius’s and Leo’s exalted vision of Rome’s destiny as the resurgent capital of Christendom is expressed in the boldness of their artistic and architectural commissions. Julius was responsible for the commission of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and Raphael’s Vatican stanzas, together with audacious schemes of urban planning, including the decision to tear down the venerable fourth-century Basilica of St Peter’s and to replace it with a modern design. Leo sponsored the continuation of Raphael’s decorative scheme in the Vatican, and commissioned the same artist to devise cartoons for ten great tapestries to hang in the Sistine Chapel below Michelangelo’s ceiling. Woven in Brussels, and incorporating lavish quantities of silver and gold thread, these were one of the most costly art commissions of the age. Less well known as a project of these years, but speaking richly of the classicizing bent of Roman culture, was an initiative Raphael was engaged on at the time of his tragically early death at the age of thirty-seven in 1520: a plan for a complete survey of the surviving monuments of ancient Rome, conducted according to the latest methods of architectural drawing and urban cartography. In true humanistic style, this was intended to serve both as an historical record of the greatness of antiquity, and as inspiration for new, Renaissance architecture to come.


Fig. 13: Andrea Andreani, with Bernardo Malpi, Elephants and a Man Lighting a Candelabrum, 1599; print after Andrea Mantegna, The Triumphs of Caesar, 1486–1506.


By the early decades of the sixteenth century, it was possible for a humanistically educated Italian aristocrat to classicize his lifestyle to a notable extent. He might live in a decent approximation of a Roman villa; he might speak and write in a passable reconstruction of Cicero’s Latin; he might plant classical statues of Greek gods in his courtyard, and attend performances of classical plays. It was even feasible by this period to conduct one’s sex life in a self-consciously classicizing manner. One of the most intriguing cultural novelties of early sixteenth-century Rome, discussed in Chapter 6, is the reappearance of the figure of the educated courtesan on the model of the ancient Athenian hetaira. We also find quite numerous references in humanistic writings to the kind of pederastic homoerotic relationships that Plato idealized as the perfect form of love: a case of an existing and widespread social practice, well documented in the judicial archives of Italian cities, being given a degree of cultural legitimation through the existence of a prestigious classical pedigree.28


Fig. 14: Leonardo da Vinci, Proportions of the Human Body according to Vitruviusc. 1490.

A question that naturally arises when we consider this ongoing classicization of Italian elite culture is the extent to which it implies a dilution of, or departure from, Christian values and Christian beliefs. To scholars of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, the notion of a ‘paganizing’ Renaissance seemed obvious and intuitive. The Italian Renaissance’s embrace of the classics seemed indicative of a shift in world-view from a medieval, religious, ascetic paradigm to something more worldly and materialistic. Changes in attitudes to the body appeared symptomatic of this. Where a familiar medieval religious stance conceived of the body as a corrupt and rotting ‘prison’ for the immortal soul, Renaissance art, like classical art, often glorifies the human body, seeing its proportions as reflecting the secret geometry underlying artistic and cosmic harmony and beauty. A famous expression of this is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of around 1490 exploring the relationship between the ideal human form and the ‘perfect shapes’ of the square and the circle (Fig. 14). The idea derives from Vitruvius’s architectural theory, which sees the human form as the model on which architectural proportion should be based.

The question of the degree to which the Italian Renaissance represented a decisive shift towards a secular, world-embracing model of culture is a complex one. One thing that can hardly be denied is that the entire period from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Italy saw a general secularizing cultural tendency, resulting from urbanization and economic development. This continued during the period of the Renaissance. The development of national and international trade; the growth of a banking and financial industry; the expansion of consumerism—all these led to a progressive acceptance of secular and materialistic values, such as the legitimacy of wealth acquisition and of conspicuous expenditure (or magnificence, in the language of the day). It is misleading, however, to represent this advance of secularism and materialism as locked into a zero-sum, agonistic relationship with the Church or with Christian values, even if the more ascetic strains in Christian thought condemned attachment to material possessions as sinful. The Church benefited very considerably from the growing wealth of the Italian cities and proved adept at devising means for servicing the consciences of the merchants and bankers who drove the urban economy. Much of the great religious art we admire in Italian churches and galleries was financed by men and women who had profited from trade and finance, and who wished to speed their passage through Purgatory by investing in spiritual goods such as prayer, charity, the saying of masses, and the endowment and beautification of places of worship.

One reason why it has been easy in the past to tell the story of the Italian Renaissance as one of progressive secularization is that studies of this period have often been selective in their emphases, giving particular salience to those figures who meet the secularization hypothesis best. A major focus of English-language scholarship on the Italian Renaissance in the second half of the twentieth century was the tradition of thought generally referred to as ‘civic humanism’—a tradition particularly centred in Florence, republican in character, and having as its chief figures politically engaged intellectuals such as Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, and Niccolò Machiavelli. The modernity of this tradition was seen as lying in its positive embrace of the active political life (vita activa civilis)—seen as equal or superior to the ‘contemplative life’ that had constituted the medieval monastic ideal. The writings of Bruni were celebrated as especially influential in articulating this new, secular and ‘active’ perspective. In a famous article of 1938, for example, the historian Hans Baron, key in formulating the notion of civic humanism, drew a sharp contrast between Bruni’s enthusiastic championing of Cicero as a Roman patriot and statesmen with medieval views of Cicero that cast him as a contemplative, world-denying sage.29

Interesting though the civic humanist tradition foregrounded by Baron and others undoubtedly is, to see this as representative of Italian humanism in general is misleading. As proof, we only need to compare Bruni’s career and intellectual production with that of his younger contemporary Ambrogio Traversari (1386–1439), born in Forlì, near the Adriatic coast, but resident in Florence for much of his adult life. Traversari, like Bruni, was one of the first humanists with a good knowledge of Greek, and he was deeply involved in the study of Greek and Latin antiquity. He wrote in Ciceronian Latin, and he moved in distinguished humanist circles; he was a close friend of Niccolò Niccoli, owner of the finest classical library in early fifteenth-century Florence, and of the important humanist patron Cosimo de’ Medici, for whom he translated Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers. Traversari even played a role in the Florentine artistic Renaissance in the 1420s, when he collaborated with Cosimo de’ Medici and his brother Lorenzo to commission a sculpture from Lorenzo Ghiberti.

While Traversari’s credentials as a humanist may hardly be doubted, he was very far from the model of lay state bureaucrat embodied by Bruni. He was a Benedictine monk, of the Camaldolese order, and his intellectual energies as a humanist were mainly taken up with work on the early Church fathers. Traversari translated numerous Greek patristic texts into Latin, most notably by St John Chrysostom, known as ‘golden-mouthed’ on account of his eloquence. Some patristic texts he even rediscovered, in monastic book-hunting expeditions reminiscent of Poggio Bracciolini’s. The work of Ghiberti’s that Traversari was involved in commissioning was a classicizing bronze reliquary in the form of an ancient sarcophagus, sculpted to house the remains of three third-century Christian martyrs. The casket stood in Traversari’s convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which, under his guidance, became an important locus for the confluence of humanism and spirituality sometimes referred to by the formula of docta pietas (‘learned piety’).30

Looking at Bruni and Traversari together, it seems arbitrary and anachronistic to speak of one as more ‘Renaissance’ than the other. Certainly, it would be distinctly odd to label a figure like Traversari ‘medieval’ simply because his intellectual interests were predominantly theological and devotional in character—just as we would not label Ghiberti’s reliquary as artistically ‘medieval’ simply because it was constructed to house the relics of saints. Traversari’s cultural profile, as a cleric committed to the studia humanitatis, was as novel in the fifteenth century as Bruni’s—indeed, more so, as fourteenth-century humanists had tended to be laymen, or at most in minor orders, like Petrarch. The rise of clerical humanism in the fifteenth century is one of the great signs of the success of the classicizing movement—an indication that the Church could not do without the intellectual technology humanism supplied. From the mid-fifteenth century, with Nicholas V and Pius II, Christendom had its first humanist popes.

One advantage of prising the story of the humanist movement away from the narrative of the rise of secularism is that it can help to account for the fact that ‘medieval’, other-worldly Christian values seem not only to have maintained themselves robustly throughout the entire period of the Renaissance, as traditionally understood, but also to have experienced a full-scale revival in the later sixteenth century, with the Counter-Reformation. The way in which this uncomfortable fact is conventionally dealt with is to portray the Counter-Reformation as a reactionary movement, which put an abrupt end to the Renaissance advance towards modernity (see Chapter 1). Once the relation between humanism and Christianity is understood in a more historically accurate manner, however, it becomes apparent that the Counter-Reformation was less a termination of the Renaissance than a continuation, albeit with changes of emphasis. The ‘two humanisms’ just detected, in Bruni and Traversari, were in equilibrium for much of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, while, in the later sixteenth century, the Christian model took ascendance throughout most of Italy, with the partial exception of Venice. The impulse that prompted a Counter-Reformation proto-archeologist like Antonio Bosio (c. 1576–1629) to spend his life scouring the catacombs in Rome for evidence of Paleochristian remains was not so different from that which inspired Traversari to hunt down forgotten patristic texts. There is no reason why we should not see this story as part of the Italian Renaissance in the same way as that of the discovery of Nero’s Golden House.


A useful notion in understanding Italian Renaissance intellectuals’ attitude to pagan antiquity is the linguistic concept of code-switching, used to describe the way in which bilingual or multilingual speakers move between languages in the course of a single conversation. We see much literal code-switching between Latin and the vernacular in sixteenth-century writings, most educated men being fluent in both. More than this, however, Renaissance Italians were adept at metaphorical, conceptual code-switching between Christian and classical culture, with their very different beliefs and values. If seriously interrogated on their beliefs, Renaissance Christians would happily have agreed that the Olympian gods did not exist, nor the Muses; that nymphs and dryads did not haunt the woods; that the world was not governed by the volatile and vindictive goddess Fortune, but by divine providence. For the purposes of art and literature, however, these strictures could be suspended. Renaissance Italians showed a marked ability to code-switch between the ‘true’ world of Christianity, and the ‘false’ one of paganism, moving between the two more or less seamlessly and drawing inspiration from both.

Nor was the true/false binary rigid. The argument that Graeco-Roman mythology, even if false on a literal level, could encompass allegorical truths had already been made by Boccaccio in the fourteenth century, but philosophical developments in the following century gave this claim a more robust grounding. One of the bodies of Greek philosophy that found its way to the West in the fifteenth century was the late, Hellenistic school of Platonic philosophy known as Neoplatonism—a version of Platonism that tended strongly towards the mystical and that is compatible with Christian monotheism in its positing at the centre of its metaphysics a supreme, transcendent One, identifiable with Good and Beauty. Ancient Neoplatonism was influential on early Christian theology, and Western Christians’ re-encounter with it in the fifteenth century had a powerful impact precisely because of its strange mixture of familiarity and exoticism. Here was Christian theology, or something very like it, but voiced in a seductively arcane manner, accessible only to an intellectual elite.

Drawing on this consonance, the Florentine philosopher and priest Marsilio Ficino, a client of the Medici, evolved a modern, Christianized version of ancient Neoplatonism in his influential Platonic Theology. Ficino also translated and commented on the works of Plato, Plotinus, and other Platonic philosophers. Ficino argued for a direct relationship between pagan and Christian wisdom, both of which were the product of divine revelation. God simultaneously transmitted his truth to the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament and the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegisthus, whom late Platonists claimed as the philosophical ancestor of Pythagoras and ultimately Plato. Both the prophets and Hermes communicated this truth ‘darkly’ (or ‘hermetically’), in fables and riddles, and only with the coming of Christ was the truth adumbrated in these mysterious early writings made plain.

The model of philosophical syncretism practised by Ficino was not without roots within medieval Christian culture; Plato and Aristotle feature among the sages foretelling the birth of Christ on the late thirteenth-century façade of Siena Cathedral, and myth had long told that the classical prophetesses known as Sibyls had predicted the birth of Christ. Within Ficinian Neoplatonism, however, these mysterious hints became a system, and one that proved flexible enough to encompass other languages of dark truth. In addition to the supposed teachings of Hermes Trismegisthus, translated into Latin by Ficino as the Corpus hermeticum, other texts that fed into Ficino’s tradition of prisca theologia (ancient theology) were the so-called Chaldean Oracles, thought to contain the wisdom of the Persian sage Zoroaster; Jewish Kabalistic writings (a special interest of Ficino’s disciple, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola); and a treatise on hieroglyphs attributed to a mysterious ancient Egyptian author, Horapollo. These ‘scriptures’, thought by Renaissance Neoplatonists to date from the remotest antiquity, were in fact mainly products of mystic philosophical traditions of the first to the fifth centuries C.E. A fascinating visual document of Neoplatonic religious syncretism is found in the suite of rooms in the Vatican decorated for the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI, by the Sienese artist Bernardino di Betto, known as Pinturicchio (‘the little painter’). The ceiling of one room contains representations of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, and the bull god Apis, a reincarnation of Osiris: a convenient way to unite the hermetic expression of sacred truths with glorification of the Borgia dynasty, whose heraldic emblem was a bull.

One convenient aspect of this Neoplatonic interpretive strategy was that it helped Renaissance Italians to domesticate some of those aspects of Roman religious mythology most disturbing to Christian morality, such as the so-called ‘loves of Jove’, more accurately termed serial episodes of rape and abduction, or Apollo’s macabre flaying of the satyr Marsyas, who had the temerity to challenge him to a musical duel. Seen through a Neoplatonic lens, these disturbing, violent myths became allegorical prefigurations of Christian truth. Jove’s abduction of the shepherd-boyGanymede, whom he carried off to Olympus in the form of an eagle, became an allegory of the Christian soul, rapt to heaven by God. Apollo’s flaying of Marsyas had a similar meaning, illustrating graphically how union with the divine involved a shedding of the mortal self, figured in Marsyas’s flayed skin. The possibility of a Christian meaning of this kind allowed Renaissance artists and poets to explore subject matter that would have been difficult to justify in its pure literal meaning. A classic example is Michelangelo’s startlingly sexual drawing of Jove’s abduction of Ganymede, which he sent in 1532 to the young Roman aristocrat Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, with whom he was erotically obsessed (Fig. 15).


Fig. 15: Giulio Clovio, copy after a lost drawing by Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Rape of Ganymede, 1532.

The Renaissance urge to conciliate ancient and Christian traditions of wisdom finds memorable artistic expression in Raphael’s decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican (1508–11). The room was designed to house Pope Julius II’s private library, and Raphael’s frescoes for it allude to the contents of an ideal papal library, embracing theology, philosophy, law, and poetry. One shows Mount Parnassus, crowned by Apollo and Muses, surrounded by the greatest classical and Christian poets; another, law, in the paired figures of the Emperor Justianian and Pope Gregory IX, the latter shown with the features of Julius himself. The two long walls figure Theology and Philosophy. The first, the so-called Disputation on the Sacrament, shows Christ in glory with the Virgin and the apostles, and below them an altar with the host, surrounded by Christian thinkers of all ages debating on the mystery of transubstantiation. Opposite this stands the most famous of all Raphael’s paintings, known as the School of Athens, representing an animated throng of pagan philosophers engaged in disputation, with Plato and Aristotle at their centre, in a vast, imposing classical architectural space (Fig. 16). The scheme of the room translates into visual terms a favoured rhetorical theme of Julius II’s papacy, of his Rome as a ‘new Athens’, embracing both ancient poetry and philosophy and Christian, revealed wisdom, reconciled in a harmonious whole.


Fig. 16: Raphael [Raffaello Sanzio], The School of Athensc. 1510–12. Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace.


Raphael’s luminous vision in the School of Athens is, of course, highly idealized. The reality of the relationship of Christian and pagan thought was considerably less harmonious, especially where the key figure of Aristotle is concerned. Despite the efforts of scholastics to Christianize Aristotle’s philosophy in the first, medieval phase of its reception in the West, there was much in Aristotle’s thought that was problematic for Christian thinkers. Most notably, Aristotle conceived of the universe as having existed from all eternity, rather than having been created, as was taught in Christian doctrine, and his De anima (On the Soul) is unclear on the crucial question of whether the soul is immortal. Aristotle’s commentators differed on this point, with the influential twelfth-century Spanish-Muslim commentator Averroes (Ibn-Rushd) contending that only a collective ‘possible intellect’ enjoyed immortality, while the souls of individual human beings perished with their bodies. Debate on this subject, which had begun in the thirteenth century, was reinvigorated in the fifteenth century by humanism, as Aristotle’s texts began to be studied in the original, and the works of early Greek commentators such as Themistius and Alexander of Aphrodisias began to be known.31

The danger of speculative Aristotelianism was one to which the Church was particularly sensitive, given the centrality of Aristotle within the university curriculum. In 1513, Julius II’s successor Leo X felt the need to reaffirm that belief in the immortality of the soul was Christian dogma, and to stipulate that philosophers teaching texts that explored contrary hypotheses should make it clear to their pupils that these ideas contradicted revealed truth. The Paduan university professor Pietro Pomponazzi, one of the most original thinkers of the age, supplied a first test for Leo’s bull with his treatise On the Immortality of the Soul (1516), which put the case for the ‘mortalist’ position quite robustly before concluding that reason is insufficient to resolve the dilemma, and that the Church’s truth should be preferred. Pomponazzi’s treatise proved predictably controversial—copies were even burned in Venice—but On the Immortality of the Soul was never banned. Even during the Counter-Reformation, Aristotelian philosophers continued to explore potentially heretical notions speculatively while protecting themselves by some variant of ‘double truth’ theory—the notion that the truths the Church teaches, attained through Christian revelation, may differ from the rational truths unaided human reason might reach.

Aristotelianism was not the only pagan philosophy that had the potential to trouble Christian belief systems. Others were Pyrrhonian scepticism, which taught that nothing could be known or rationally believed; and Epicureanism, which taught that the universe had come into being by chance, that the gods did not concern themselves with mortal affairs, and that the soul, like the body, was made up of material particles (‘atoms’) and hence that it perished on death. Both these philosophical schools became known for the first time in the fifteenth century, through texts such as Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers, which summarized the thought of ancient philosophers as well as recounting their biographies, and Lucretius’s compelling Epicurean philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, which was rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.

As was the case with Aristotelianism, we should not assume that the availability of ancient texts that contradicted Christian dogma was in itself sufficient to undermine the Christian belief system. Most Renaissance thinkers were too heavily invested in Christianity at a social, emotional, and intellectual level for their faith to be easily shaken; and a long tradition taught humanists to combine boundless admiration for classical culture with a conviction of its fundamental inadequacy, as the product of human reason operating alone without the aid of divine revelation. Humanists proved adept at incorporating elements of Epicureanism and scepticism into their thinking without feeling the need to respect the integrity of these philosophical systems in their original form. In his dialogue On Pleasure, Lorenzo Valla ingeniously misappropriated Epicurus’s doctrine that pleasure was the highest human end, using it in a profoundly un-Epicurean manner to argue for Christian heavenly beatitude as the true end of human life. Still more improbably, Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, a disciple of the fundamentalist preacher Girolamo Savonarola, drew on the ancient sceptic philosopher Sextus Empiricus to advance a Savonarolan religious agenda, arguing that the erroneousness of all philosophy and of human reason in general underlined the importance of the Scriptures as the only valid source of truth. 32


Despite the conciliatory and syncretistic tendencies of most Renaissance thinkers, it would be mistaken to speak of Christianity as having survived its prolonged encounter with the religious ‘Other’ of pagan antiquity entirely unscathed. New genies were let out of the bottle in this period, and older ones, like Averroism, gained new life and impetus. Awkward questions were raised, which it later proved difficult to suppress. An example of such challenging thinking was Pietro Pomponazzi’s On Incantations, left prudently unpublished during his lifetime, but brought out posthumously in Basel in 1556. This treatise supplied natural explanations for elements of contemporary Christian belief such as the existence of angels, demons, and miracles, while at the same time rehearsing a historical interpretation of the rise and fall of religions that comes close to concluding that Christianity, like previous such ‘laws’, will naturally wane over time. On Incantations was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, yet this ban did not prevent it from being taken up by seventeenth-century libertine thinkers, such as Giulio Cesare Vanini, who was executed for heresy in Toulouse in 1619. In a work purporting to condemn atheism, but generally considered to condone it, Vanini revisited Pomponazzi’s thought, and that of other controversial sixteenth-century authors such as Niccolò Machiavelli, representing them as atheists who regarded religion either as a pure political imposture, or as a collective fiction constructed on the basis of ‘miraculous’ phenomena that in fact stemmed from natural causes.33

Vanini’s citing of Machiavelli as an atheist was not without precedent in the sixteenth century. Already in the 1530s, well before Innocent Gentillet’s much-published Anti-Machiavel (1576), which popularized the notion of Machiavelli as devilish unbeliever, the English cardinal Reginald Pole was characterizing his works as having been ‘written by the finger of Satan’. Most modern commentators rightly regard this imputation of atheism as a distortion, emphasizing that Machiavelli is careful to disassociate himself from questions of dogma, and to address himself purely to the role of religion within social and political life. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see why Machiavelli’s political writings caused such outrage as they first began to circulate in print, five years after his death in 1527 (interestingly, evidence of their initial, manuscript reception within the political circles of his native Florence suggests that they had occasioned relatively little controversy there).34 A chapter in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (2.2) offers a coolly objective assessment of the respective virtues of the Christian and the ancient Graeco-Roman religions as ideological support-structures for political and military prowess, remarking that the pagan religion was superior in this regard, in that it glorified not ‘humble and contemplative men’—the saints—but great warriors and leaders of men. More troubling still was Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince that a ruler should systematically affect piety and moral virtue, while being prepared to act ‘contrary to faith, contrary to humanity, contrary to charity, contrary to religion’ when political circumstances demand.35

In the dedicatory letter of The Prince, Machiavelli identifies two contributory components in his thinking: his ‘long experience of modern things’ and his ‘continual reading of ancient ones’.36 When gauging the sources of his restlessly exploratory thinking, we must be careful to give due weight to both elements. As second chancellor of the Florentine republic between 1498 and 1512, Machiavelli was at the forefront of politics and diplomacy during a dramatic and volatile period in the Wars of Italy (see Chapter 3), and he observed the brutal, strongarm politics of the Borgia era from a front-row seat. At the same time, however, Machiavelli engaged deeply throughout his life in the study of classical history and thought, and we should not underestimate the role that his dialogue with the ancients played in the evolution of his thought. His engagement with Epicureanism, in the form of Lucretius, is documented by a manuscript copy he made of The Nature of Things in the 1490s; and there is evidence, too, for his engagement with the Greek historian Polybius, whose analysis of religion as an instrument of social discipline finds echoes in some of Machiavelli’s views.37 Even classical rhetoric, an indispensible tool for Renaissance political bureaucrats such as Machiavelli, offered models for a ‘realist’ analysis of political decision-making, setting moral considerations to one side to pursue the question of the material interest of the state.38


The extraordinarily protracted and intense experience of immersion in classical culture that lies at the root of what we call the Italian Renaissance left a powerful imprint on all aspects of elite cultural production, not only in Italy but throughout Europe. The classical world fascinated both for its similarity to modernity and for its intriguing and troubling otherness. It was both a mirror to the modern world and a fantasy parallel universe: an imaginative space in which thoughts that Christian doctrine would label as false and desires and imaginings that Christian social mores would condemn as deviant might be safely pursued under the guise of philosophical speculation, literature, and art.

This did not amount to anything that may be properly called ‘paganism’ or a rejection of Christianity; and the myth of a ‘pagan Renaissance’ is one of the many tendentious claims of nineteenth-century Renaissance historiography that modern scholarship has thoroughly laid to rest. Nonetheless, it seems undeniable that Renaissance thinkers and writers, through their prolonged double life in the pagan and Christian worlds, acquired a richly articulated, historically sedimented, contradictory and complex understanding of the world, founded on a kind of cultural ‘bilingualism’, to pursue my earlier linguistic metaphor of code-switching. While this did not weaken Christianity at any obvious level, it may certainly be seen within a longer historical perspective as having laid a conceptual basis for forms of relativistic thinking that would become more common in centuries to come.

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