The Humanist Tradition in the West
There is no simple explanation of why the Renaissance, in the sense of a rekindling of interest in the ancient world, should have begun in Italy a century before it spread to the rest of Europe. But two obvious factors stand out. One is that much of the history of antiquity had been played out on Italian soil, in Rome where the ruins of the Forum, the Colosseum and the Baths still bore silent witness to its power; in the Greek-speaking cities of the south like Syracuse; in the countryside of central and northern Italy where antique statues, coins and inscriptions were constantly turned up by the ploughman.
The other was the exceptional development of the Italian cities as a result of commercial expansion. Florence, Genoa, and Venice had become the economic leaders of Europe, and by the year 1300 there were twenty-three cities in north and central Italy with a population of 28,000 or more, the majority of them city-republics in a feudal world of peasants and monarchies. This relatively high proportion of the population living in towns, with an unusual degree of autonomy and a corresponding involvement in trade, industry and politics—even when it expressed itself in factions and feuds—acted as a forcing house for urban culture and produced a class of educated laymen with a self-confidence hardly known elsewhere in Europe, except in Flanders where similar conditions prevailed. It is true that in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries most of the city-states (though not Florence or Venice) came under the rule of single families and that in the mid-fourteenth century (like the rest of Europe) they suffered economic decline and the loss of a third of their population from the Black Death—so that in 1400 the Italian population was well below that of 1300. But the tradition of an educated laity and the vitality of urban life survived and were essential conditions for the spread of humanism. As Peter Burke puts it: 'No cities, no Renaissance.'
Of course we are talking about a handful of people in what today we should regard as a small town. The population of Venice, Milan and Naples in the fifteenth century hardly exceeded 100,000, Florence and Bologna no more than 50-60,000. Rome, with a population of around 25,000, was a local market-town in 1400 and was only turned into the capital of the Renaissance by the Popes in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Other centres of Renaissance humanism and art—Urbino, Ferrara and Mantua—never had more than 20-30,000 inhabitants. But size—as the other contemporary example of the Low Countries or that of fifth-century Athens shows—is no index of achievement. Peter Burke, making a rough count of the creative elite of Italy between 1420 and 1540—humanists, writers, artists, architects, musicians and scientists—gives a figure of 600. Enlarge that figure to take account of an earlier generation and it would still be well short of a thousand. Add those who cannot be identified, and then those to whom their writing and art appealed-the all-important patrons and clients, the Medici, the Este family of Ferrara, the Venetian patricians, above all the Popes; the amateurs, the dilettanti and hangers-on—and it is still a group of a few thousand, spread over a couple of centuries. Yet their achievements and impact on posterity have few equals, the solid basis of that myth of the Renaissance which sceptically-minded historians have chipped at but failed to demolish.
Among Burke's 600, the humanists number no more than a hundred, and this conforms to the modern usage of the term by historians of the Renaissance, confining it to men versed in the knowledge of Latin, less commonly of Greek as well, who used their skill to make a living as lecturers, teachers, tutors in noble or wealthy families, secretaries responsible for official correspondence and speeches in the Papal curia and other courts and chancelleries. Through them and their writings there spread amongst the educated classes of the Italian cities an enthusiasm and taste for the ancient Mediterranean world of which they felt themselves the heirs. Out of this in turn developed a new mixture of culture, not an imitation but a new style of thought and feeling, not least of looking, which later came to be seen as distinctive and to which the nineteenth century gave the name humanism.
The ability to write a purer and more elegant form of Latin, modelled on authors like Cicero, to which the humanists themselves attached so much importance, has left behind a great quantity of unoriginal and unreadable prize compositions. But to lay the foundations of humanistic scholarship was a lasting achievement. From amateurish beginnings in the thirteenth century, gradually building up a large fund of knowledge, the humanists recovered lost texts from monastic libraries; developed the techniques of textual criticism to emend corrupt editions and created classical archaelogy with the systematic study of Roman remains. They greatly improved Western knowledge not only of Greek as a language, but, through the translation of Greek texts, of Greek thought and literature for those who knew only Latin, producing a complete translation of Plato's works for the first time and even in the case of Aristotle more accurate versions than the Middle Ages had possessed.
When one reflects on how much in civilization depends on the ability to determine whether documentary records, the statements or claims they make, are genuine or false—to distinguish the authentic from forgeries—it is possible to recognize how great a contribution was made by those who first created the tradition and established the standards of philological scholarship.
But the studia humanitatis (the study of the humanities), like the equally misleading word rhetoric which formed a part of them, was not concerned only with the linguistic and textual techniques of studying Latin and Greek texts. It was concerned with their subject matter as well—with the poetry of Vergil (and later of Homer); with the histories of Livy and Tacitus (later of Thucydides); with the discussion of Stoicism and moral philosophy in Cicero (later with Plato's dialogues). From the humanists' letters it is still possible to recapture the excitement of exploring a new continent, building up piece by piece the image of a very different civilization from their own, seen as a coherent and completed cycle passing from obscurity through empire—first Greek, then Roman—to decline and breakdown.
As the ancient world gradually took shape out of their studies, it came to be recognized as an alternative source of models not only for rhetoric and literature, the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, but for the most important art of all, that of living, both private (the art of bearing up under adversity) and public (the art of statecraft).