Renaissance humanism


Renaissance humanism is the modern name for a powerful intellectual current in the Renaissance period, first inspired by Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). It had a prominent center in Florence and spread throughout most of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.

First and foremost, Renaissance humanism was a literary educational movement. The humanists advocated a comprehensive educational reform, which they hoped would lead to the optimal development of human abilities through the combination of knowledge and virtue. Humanistic education was intended to enable people to recognize their true destiny and to realize an ideal humanity by imitating classical models. A valuable, truthful content and a perfect linguistic form formed a unity for the humanists. Therefore, they paid special attention to the cultivation of linguistic expression. Linguistics and literature played a central role in the humanist educational program. The focus was on poetry and rhetoric.

A defining characteristic of the humanist movement was the awareness that it belonged to a new epoch and the need to distance itself from the past of the previous centuries. This past, which began to be called the “Middle Ages,” was contemptuously rejected by authoritative representatives of the new school of thought. In particular, the humanists considered the late medieval scholastic teaching to be misguided. They opposed the “barbaric” age of “darkness” with antiquity as the paramount norm for all areas of life.

One of the main concerns of humanist scholars was to gain direct access to this norm in its original, unadulterated form. This resulted in the demand for a return to the authentic ancient sources, succinctly expressed in the Latin catchword ad fontes. The search for and publication of lost works of ancient literature was considered particularly meritorious, and was pursued with great commitment, leading to spectacular successes. With the discovery of many textual witnesses, the knowledge of antiquity was dramatically expanded. The fruits of these efforts were made available to a wider public thanks to the invention of printing. As a result, the influence of the cultural heritage of antiquity on numerous spheres of life of the educated greatly increased. Moreover, with the discovery and indexing of manuscripts, inscriptions, coins and other found material, the Renaissance humanists created the preconditions and foundations for the study of antiquity. In addition to cultivating the scholarly languages of Latin and Greek, they also concerned themselves with vernacular literature and gave it significant impetus.

The term “humanism” was introduced by the philosopher and educational politician Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer (1766-1848). Niethammer”s educational pamphlet Der Streit des Philanthropinismus und Humanismus in der Theorie des Erziehungs-Unterrichts unserer Zeit (The Controversy of Philanthropinism and Humanism in the Theory of Educational Instruction in Our Time), published in 1808, caused a stir. He described as humanism the basic pedagogical attitude of those who do not judge the subject matter from the point of view of its practical, material usability, but strive for education as an end in itself, independent of considerations of usefulness. In this context, the acquisition of linguistic and literary knowledge and skills plays a central role. A decisive factor in the learning process is the stimulation provided by the intensive study of “classical” models, which one imitates. This educational ideal was the traditional one, generally prevailing since the Renaissance. Therefore, around the middle of the 19th century, the intellectual movement that had formulated and implemented the program of education conceived in this way in the Renaissance epoch began to be called humanism. As a cultural-historical epochal term for a long period of transition from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period, “humanism” was established by Georg Voigt in his 1859 work Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums oder das erste Jahrhundert des Humanismus.

The word “humanist” is first attested toward the end of the 15th century, initially as a professional designation for holders of relevant chairs, analogous to “jurist” or “canonist” (ecclesiastical lawyer). It was not until the early 16th century that it was also used for non-university educated people who saw themselves as humanistae.

The educational program and its literary basis

The starting point of the movement was the concept of humanity (Latin humanitas “human nature”, “that which is human, that which characterizes man”), which had been formulated in antiquity by Cicero. The educational efforts that Cicero called studia humanitatis were aimed at shaping humanitas. In ancient philosophical circles – especially with Cicero – it was emphasized that man differs from the animal by language. This means that in the learning and cultivation of linguistic communication he lives his humanity and allows the specifically human to emerge. Therefore the thought was obvious that the cultivation of the linguistic expressiveness makes the human being only really a human being, whereby it lifts him also morally and enables to philosophize. From this it could be concluded that the use of language at the highest attainable level is the most fundamental and noblest activity of man. From this consideration, the term studia humaniora (“the more human studies” or “the studies leading to higher humanity”) arose in the early modern period to designate education in the humanistic sense.

From this perspective came the appreciation of language as the instrument of self-expression of human rationality and the unlimited capacity of man to convey meanings. At the same time, language appeared as the medium by which man not only experiences his world, but also constitutes it. Starting from such lines of thought, the humanists came to the assumption that there was a necessary connection between the quality of linguistic form and the quality of the content communicated through it, in particular that a text written in poor style was also not to be taken seriously in terms of content and that its author was a barbarian. Therefore, medieval Latin was severely criticized, with only the classical models, especially Cicero, as the standard. Especially the technical language of scholasticism, which had departed far from classical Latin, was despised and ridiculed by the humanists. One of their main concerns was the purification of the Latin language from “barbaric” adulterations and the restoration of its original beauty. Language art (eloquentia) and wisdom were to form a unity. According to humanist conviction, studies in all fields flourish when the language is in bloom, and they decay in times of linguistic decline.

Accordingly, rhetoric as the art of linguistic elegance was upgraded to a central discipline. In this field, Quintilian was the authoritative authority for the humanists, along with Cicero. One consequence of the increased appreciation of the art of oratory was the rhetoricization of all forms of communication, right down to manners. Because many spokesmen of the humanist movement were teachers of rhetoric or appeared as orators, the humanists were often simply called “orators” (oratores).

One problem was the tension between the fundamentally positive evaluation of the art of speech and philosophical or theological efforts to establish truth. The question arose whether an unconditional affirmation of eloquence was justified, although rhetorical brilliance can be misused for deception and manipulation. The objection that eloquence is inevitably associated with lying and that truth speaks for itself even without oratorical adornment was taken seriously by humanists and discussed controversially. Proponents of rhetoric proceeded from the basic humanist conviction that form and content could not be separated, and that valuable content required beautiful form. They believed that good style was a sign of appropriate thinking, and that unkempt expression was also unclear. This attitude dominated, but there were also representatives of the opposite thesis, who believed that philosophy did not require eloquence and that the search for truth took place in an eloquence-free realm.

From the humanists” point of view, the cultivation of language reached its climax in poetry, which therefore enjoyed the highest esteem among them. As with Cicero for prose, Vergil was the authoritative model for poetry. The crown of poetry was considered the epic, so many humanists tried to renew the classical epic. Often the epics were commissioned by rulers and served to glorify them. However, occasional poetry was also widespread, including birthday, wedding, and funeral poems. North of the Alps, poetic travelogues (hodoeporica) were popular. In accordance with the ideal of the poeta doctus, the poet was expected to have the expertise of a universally educated person, which was to include cultural as well as scientific and practical knowledge. The art of literary correspondence and literary dialogue were also highly valued. Dialogue was considered an excellent means of exercising acumen and the art of argumentation. Letters were often collected and published; they then had a belletristic character, were partly edited for publication or freely invented. Their distribution also served the self-promotion and self-stylization of their authors.

Anyone who adopted such a view and was able to express himself elegantly and flawlessly orally and in writing in classical Latin was considered by the humanists to be one of their own. A humanist was expected to have mastered Latin grammar and rhetoric, to be well versed in ancient history and moral philosophy as well as ancient Roman literature, and to be able to write poetry in Latin. On the extent of such knowledge and, above all, on the elegance of its presentation depended the rank of the humanist among his peers. Knowledge of Greek was highly desirable but not necessary; many humanists read Greek works only in Latin translation.

The enduring international dominance of Latin in education was attributed to its aesthetic perfection. Despite this dominance of Latin, however, some humanists also strove to use the spoken language of their time, the vernacular. In Italy, the suitability of Italian as a literary language was an intensely debated topic. Some humanists regarded the vernacular, the volgare, as inferior in principle, since it was a corrupted form of Latin and thus a result of linguistic decay. Others saw Italian as a young language capable of development and in need of special care.

The intense humanist interest in language and literature also extended to the Oriental languages, especially Hebrew. This formed a starting point for the participation of Jewish intellectuals in the humanist movement.

Since the humanists believed that all people should be educated as much as possible, active participation in humanist culture was open to women. Women emerged primarily as patrons of the arts, poets, and authors of literary letters. On the one hand, their achievements received exuberant recognition; on the other hand, some of them had to deal with critics who rebuked their activities as unfeminine and therefore unseemly.

The basic requirement of the educational program was the accessibility of the ancient literature stock. Many of the works known today were lost in the Middle Ages. They had survived the fall of the ancient world only in isolated copies and were available only in rare copies in monastery or cathedral libraries. These texts were largely unknown to medieval scholars before the beginning of the Renaissance. The humanist “manuscript hunters” searched the libraries with great zeal and discovered a large number of works. Their successes were enthusiastically hailed. The finds, however, were generally not ancient codices, but only medieval copies. Of the ancient manuscripts, only a few had survived the centuries. By far the greater part of the ancient writing that has survived to the present day was saved by the copying activities of the medieval monks despised by the humanists.

Philosophical and religious aspects

Ethics dominated in philosophy. Logic and metaphysics took a back seat. By far the majority of humanists were philologists and historians rather than creative philosophers. This was related to their conviction that knowledge and virtue arise from direct contact of the reader with the classical texts, provided that they are accessible in an unadulterated form. There was a conviction that orientation to models was necessary for the acquisition of virtue. The qualities sought were rooted in pagan antiquity, supplanting Christian medieval virtues such as humility. The humanistic ideal of personality consisted in the combination of education and virtue.

In addition, there are other features that are cited to characterize the humanistic view of the world and of man. These phenomena, which one tries to capture in a catchword-like way with terms like “individualism” or “autonomy of the subject”, however, refer to the Renaissance in general and not only specifically to humanism.

In earlier stages of the scholarly study of Renaissance culture, it was often claimed that a characteristic of the humanists was their distanced relationship to Christianity and the church, or that it was even an anti-Christian movement. Jacob Burckhardt, for example, regarded humanism as atheistic paganism, while Paul Oskar Kristeller stated only a repression of religious interest. Another direction of interpretation distinguished between Christian and non-Christian humanists. More recent research paints a differentiated picture. The humanists proceeded from the general principle of the universal exemplariness of antiquity and thereby also included the “pagan” religion. Therefore, they usually had an unbiased, mostly positive relationship to ancient “paganism”. It was common for them to present Christian content in classical-antique garb, including relevant terms from ancient Greek and ancient Roman religion and mythology. Most of them were able to reconcile this with their Christianity. Some were probably Christians in name only, others pious according to church standards. Their ideological positions were very different and in some cases – also for reasons of expediency – vague, unclear or wavering. They often sought a balance between opposing philosophical and religious views and tended toward syncretism. Among them there were Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics, Epicureans and adherents of skepticism, clerics and anticlericals.

One powerful concept was the doctrine of the “ancient theologians” (prisci theologi). It said that great pre-Christian personalities – thinkers like Plato and wisdom teachers like Hermes Trismegistos and Zarathustra – had acquired a precious treasure of knowledge about God and creation thanks to their efforts at knowledge and divine grace. This “old theology” had anticipated an essential part of the world view and the ethics of Christianity. Therefore the teachings of such masters had the rank of sources of knowledge also from the theological point of view. A spokesman for this form of reception was Agostino Steuco, who in 1540 coined the term philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy). This is understood as the conviction that the central teachings of Christianity are philosophically comprehensible and correspond to the wisdom teachings of antiquity.

Frequently, the humanists complained about the illiteracy of the clergy and especially of the religious. Although there were monks among the humanists, in general monasticism – especially the mendicant orders – was a major opponent of humanism because it was strongly rooted in an ascetic, worldly mindset characterized by skepticism about worldly education. With their ideal of a cultivated humanity, the humanists distanced themselves from the image of man that dominated in conservative circles and especially in the monastic orders, the basis of which was man”s wretchedness, sinfulness and need for redemption. The unsophisticated monk who lets ancient manuscripts decay in the dirt of his ramshackle monastery represented the typical enemy image of the humanists.

Although the humanists were aware of the general misery of human existence, which was omnipresent in medieval thought, they did not, like the monks, draw from this the consequence of orienting themselves entirely toward the Christian expectation of the afterlife. Rather, in their milieu, a positive, sometimes enthusiastically held assessment of human qualities, achievements and possibilities asserted itself. The idea was widespread that the cultivated human being resembled a sculptor or poet, since he formed himself into a work of art. This was connected with the idea of a deification of man to be striven for, to which man was predisposed by his nature. He could realize such an unfolding of his possibilities in freedom and self-determination. One of the spokesmen of the optimistic current was Giannozzo Manetti, whose pamphlet On the Dignity and Excellence of Man, completed in 1452, emphasizes in its title two key concepts of humanistic anthropology, dignitas (dignity) and excellentia (excellence). In addition to the dominant confident view of the world and humanity, however, there was also the skepticism of some humanists who pointed to the experience of human weakness, folly, and frailty. This gave rise to controversial debates.

Several qualities were named as characteristics and proofs of man”s dignity and his unique special position in the world: his ability to know everything; his almost unlimited power of research and invention; the linguistic ability with which he can express his knowledge; his competence to order the world and his associated claim to dominion. With these qualities, man appeared like a small god whose mission it is to act on earth as a recognizing, ordering and shaping power. An essential aspect of this was man”s position in the “middle” of the world, in the midst of all the things to which he stands in a relationship, between which he mediates and which he connects.

With regard to the assessment of man”s ability to take his fate into his own hands, there was a contrast between humanism and the Reformation. This was particularly sharp in the dispute over the freedom of the will vis-à-vis God. According to the humanist understanding, man turns toward or away from God through the power of his free will. Martin Luther protested against this in his treatise De servo arbitrio, in which he vehemently denied the existence of such free will.

Many cosmopolitan humanists such as Erasmus and even Reuchlin turned away from the Reformation. The issues raised by Luther, Zwingli, and others were too much in the realm of dogmatic medieval thought for them; the renewed dominance of theology among the sciences put them off. Other humanists detached themselves from ancient studies or used them only for biblical interpretation, partly because they no longer wanted to follow Italian models for political-religious reasons. Instead, they actively intervened in the confessional dispute and used the German language. Thus a national humanism developed, especially among Luther followers such as Ulrich von Hutten.

Understanding history

Renaissance humanism produced significant works on the theory of history for the first time; before that, there had been no systematic examination of questions of historical theory.

While in the preceding period the understanding of history was strongly influenced by theology, humanistic historiography brought a detachment from the theological perspective. Historical events were now explained in inner-worldly terms, no longer as the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation. A central aspect here was also the humanistic emphasis on ethics, the question of right, virtuous behavior. As in antiquity, history was seen as a teacher. The exemplary attitudes and deeds of heroes and statesmen, impressively described in historical works, were intended to inspire imitation. The wisdom of role models was expected to provide impulses for solving contemporary problems. In this context, historians were faced with a tension between their literary creative will and moral goal on the one hand and the requirement of truthfulness on the other. This problem was discussed controversially.

An essential innovation concerned the periodization. The “reconstruction” of the idealized ancient culture led to a new division of cultural history into three main epochs: antiquity, which had produced the classical masterpieces, the subsequent “dark” centuries as a period of decay, and the epoch of regeneration ushered in by humanism, which was glorified as the present Golden Age. This tripartite scheme later gave rise to the common division of Western history into antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times. It meant a partial departure from the hitherto prevailing view of history, which was determined by the idea of translatio imperii, the fiction of a continuation of the Roman Empire and its culture until the future end of the world. Antiquity was increasingly perceived as a closed epoch, with a distinction being made between a period of prosperity that lasted until about the fall of the Roman Republic and a period of decadence that began in the early imperial period. This new periodization, however, referred only to cultural development, not to political history. The capture and sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, an event more significant in terms of cultural history than military, was cited as a serious turning point. Also, the death of the late antique scholar and writer Boethius (524

A new historical criticism is connected with the periodization. The humanistic perception of history was determined by a double basic feeling of distance: on the one hand, a critical distance to the immediate past, which was rejected as “barbaric,” and on the other hand, a distance to the leading culture of antiquity, whose renewal was only possible to a limited extent under completely different conditions. This awareness, in connection with the humanistic source criticism, made possible a higher sensitivity for historical processes of change and thus for historicity in general. One recognized language as a historical phenomenon and began to classify the ancient sources historically and thus to put them into perspective. This was a development in the direction of the demand for objectivity of modern historical science. This, however, was opposed by the basic rhetoric and moral objectives of humanistic historiography.

In many cases, the historiography and historical research of the humanists was combined with a new kind of national self-confidence and a corresponding need for demarcation. In the reflection on national identity and in the typology of peoples, there was some glorification of the own and devaluation of the foreign. The humanist discourse on the nation took on a polemical orientation as early as the 14th century with Petrarch”s invective against the French. When scholars regarded themselves as representatives of their nations, comparisons were made and rivalries acted out. Numerous humanists were concerned with the glory of their countries. Italians cultivated pride in their special status as descendants of the classical antique models and in the international dominance of the language of Rome. They echoed the ancient Roman contempt for “barbarians” and looked down on the peoples whose ancestors had once wiped out ancient civilization in the Migration. Patriotic humanists of other origins did not want to be left behind in the contest for glory and rank. They tried to prove that their people was no longer barbaric, because in the course of its history it had risen to a higher culture or had been led there by the present ruler. Only in this way had they become a nation. Another strategy was to counter the decadence of the ancient Romans with the naturalness of their own ancestors, which was seen as unspoiled.

Imitation and independence

A difficult problem arose from the tension between the demand to imitate the classical antique masterpieces and the striving for one”s own creative achievement. The authority of normative models could have an overwhelming effect and inhibit creative impulses. The danger of a purely receptive attitude and the associated barrenness was perceived and addressed by innovatively minded humanists. This led to rebellion against the power of norms, which was perceived as oppressive. Of a different opinion were the scholars, who condemned any deviation from the classical model as a sign of decay and barbarization. These participants in the discourse argued aesthetically. For them, leaving the framework set by the imitation of an unsurpassable pattern was tantamount to an unacceptable loss of quality. The discussion of the problem of imitation and independence occupied the humanists throughout the entire Renaissance period. The question was whether it was at all possible to equal the revived antique models or even to surpass them with original works of one”s own. The comparison between the achievements of the “moderns” and those of the “ancients” provided an occasion for cultural-historical reflection and resulted in different assessments of the two eras. In addition, it raised general questions about the justification of authority and norms and the valuation of past and present, tradition and progress. The opinion was widespread that one should enter into productive competition (aemulatio) with antiquity.

The controversy was primarily ignited by “Ciceronianism”. The “Ciceronians” were stylists who not only considered ancient Latin to be par excellence, but also declared Cicero”s style and vocabulary to be solely authoritative. They believed that Cicero was unsurpassed and that the principle of preferring the best in all things should be applied. This restriction to the imitation of a single model, however, met with opposition. Critics saw in it a slavish dependence and objected to the restriction of freedom of expression. A spokesman for this critical direction was Angelo Poliziano. He believed that everyone should first study the classics, but then strive to be himself and express himself. Extreme forms of Ciceronianism became the target of opposing ridicule.

Need for fame and rivalries

A striking trait of many humanists was their strong, sometimes exaggerated self-confidence. They worked for their own fame and post-fame, literary “immortality”. Their need for recognition showed itself, for example, in the urge to crown poets with the poet”s wreath. An often-trodden path to fame and influence consisted in bringing to bear the linguistic art acquired through humanistic training in the service of the powerful. This resulted in a variety of dependency relationships between humanist intellectuals and the rulers and patrons by whom they were promoted and for whom they served as propagandists. Many humanists were opportunistically minded; their support for their patrons was venal. They put their rhetorical and poetic skills at the disposal of those who could honor it. In the conflicts in which they took sides, they were easily persuaded to change fronts by enticing offers. They thought that with their eloquence they had the decision over the fame and post-fame of a pope, prince or patron in their hands, and they played out this power. With ceremonial and pompous speeches, poetry, biographies and historical works, they glorified the deeds of their patrons and presented them as equal to those of ancient heroes.

The humanists were often at odds with one another. With invectives (vituperative writings) they attacked each other without restraint, sometimes for trivial reasons. Even leading, famous humanists such as Poggio, Filelfo and Valla polemicized excessively and did not leave a good hair on the opponent. The adversaries portrayed each other as ignorant, vicious, and malicious, combining literary criticism with attacks on the private lives and even the family members of the reviled.

Important professional fields of activity for humanists were librarianship, book production, and bookselling. Some founded and managed private schools, others reorganized existing schools or worked as home teachers. In addition to the field of education, the civil service and especially the diplomatic service offered professional opportunities and chances for advancement. At princely courts or in city governments, humanists found employment as councillors, secretaries, and heads of chancelleries; some worked as publicists, festival orators, court poets, historians, or educators of princes for their employers. An important employer was the church; many humanists were clerics and drew an income from benefices or found employment in church service. Some came from wealthy families or were supported by patrons. Only a few were able to earn a living as writers.

Initially, humanism was aloof from university life, but in Italy in the 15th century humanists were increasingly appointed to chairs of grammar and rhetoric, or special chairs were created for humanistic studies. There were separate professorships of poetics (poetry theory). By the middle of the 15th century, humanistic studies were firmly established in Italian universities. Outside Italy, humanism was not able to establish itself permanently at universities in many places until the 16th century.

Italian Renaissance humanism was formed in the course of the first half of the 14th century, and by the middle of the century its basic features had been formed. Its end as an epoch came when, in the 16th century, its achievements had become self-evident and no new groundbreaking impulses emanated from it. The catastrophe of the Sacco di Roma, the sack of Rome in 1527, was perceived by contemporaries as a symbolic turning point. Around that time, according to today”s classification, the High Renaissance in the visual arts ended, and at the same time the heyday of the attitude to life associated with Renaissance humanism. However, Italian humanism remained alive until the end of the 16th century.


The term “prehumanism” (prehumanism, protohumanism), which is not precisely defined, is used to describe cultural phenomena in the 13th and early 14th centuries that point ahead to Renaissance humanism. Since this direction did not shape its time, one cannot speak of an “epoch of prehumanism,” but only of individual prehumanist phenomena. Moreover, the term is controversial; Ronald G. Witt considers it inappropriate. Witt thinks that it is already humanism. Accordingly, Petrarch, who is considered the founder of humanism, is a “third-generation humanist.”

“Pre-humanism” or pre-Renaissance humanism originated in northern Italy and unfolded there in the 13th century. The impulse came from the reception of ancient poetry. When admirers of ancient poetry began to aggressively justify the “pagan” masterpieces against the criticism of conservative ecclesiastical circles, a new element was added to the traditional cultivation of this educational material, which can be described as humanistic. A pioneering role was played by the Paduan scholars and poets Lovato de” Lovati (1241-1309) and Albertino Mussato (1261-1329), who were already working philologically, and the poet and historian Ferreto de” Ferreti († 1337), active in Vicenza, who owed his clear and elegant style to the imitation of the models Livius and Sallust. Mussato, who had written Ecerini”s reading tragedy based on Seneca”s tragedies, received the “poet”s crown” in 1315, renewing the ancient custom of crowning outstanding poets with a laurel wreath. According to his conviction, the classical ancient poetry was of divine origin. Thus, elements of Renaissance humanism were already anticipated at that time.


Renaissance humanism began around the middle of the 14th century with the activities of the famous poet and lover of antiquity Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). Unlike his predecessors, Petrarch sharply and polemically opposed the entire scholastic educational system of his time. He hoped for an incipient new cultural flowering and even for a new age. This was to be linked not only culturally but also politically to antiquity, to the Roman Empire. Therefore, Petrarch enthusiastically supported the coup d”état of Cola di Rienzo in Rome in 1347. Cola was himself educated, fascinated by Roman antiquity, and a brilliant orator, thus partially anticipating humanistic values. He was the leading figure of an anti-aristocratic current that aspired to an Italian state with Rome as its center. The political dreams and utopias failed because of the power relations and Cola”s lack of realism, but the cultural side of the renewal movement, represented by the politically more cautious Petrarch, won lasting acceptance.

Petrarch”s success was based on the fact that he not only articulated the ideals and aspirations of many educated contemporaries, but also embodied the new spirit of the age as a personality. In him, the most distinctive features of Renaissance humanism are already fully developed:

Strongly influenced by Petrarch was the somewhat younger poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). He too discovered manuscripts of important ancient works. His basic humanist attitude is particularly evident in his defense of poetry. According to his conviction, poetry deserves the highest rank not only from a literary point of view, but also because of its role in the acquisition of wisdom and virtue. In it, ideally, the art of language and philosophy unite and reach their perfection. Boccaccio considered the pagan poets as theologians, since they proclaimed divine truths. In poetic language he saw not an instrument of the human, but of the divine in man.

The heyday in Florence

Florence, as an outstanding center of art and culture, was the nucleus of humanism. From there came decisive impulses for philology as well as for philosophy and humanistic historiography. Humanists who came from Florence or were educated there carried their knowledge to other centers. The prominent role of Florentine humanism remained until the 1490s. Then, however, the influence of the anti-humanist monk Savonarola, dominant in the period 1494-1498, had a devastating effect on Florentine cultural life, and the turmoil of the following period hampered its recovery.

Florence did not have a strong scholastic tradition, as the city did not have a first-rate university. Intellectual life took place largely in loose circles of discussion. This open atmosphere provided favorable conditions for a humanistic culture of discussion. The office of Chancellor of the Republic had been held by humanists since Coluccio Salutati, who held it from 1375 to 1406. It offered the incumbent an opportunity to demonstrate to the public the benefits of intertwining political and literary activity and thus the state-political benefits of humanism. Salutati made use of this opportunity with great success in his missives and political writings. Through his scientific, cultural, and political achievements, he made Florence the main center of Italian humanism, of which he was one of the leading theorists.

Another great advantage for Florentine humanism was the patronage of the Medici family, which played a dominant role in the political and cultural life of the city from 1434 to 1494. Cosimo de” Medici (“il Vecchio,” † 1464) and his grandson Lorenzo (“il Magnifico,” † 1492) distinguished themselves by generous patronage of the arts and sciences. Lorenzo, himself a gifted poet and writer, was considered the model of a Renaissance patron.

However, the Platonic Academy in Florence, allegedly founded by Cosimo on the model of the ancient Platonic Academy, did not exist as an institution; the name “Platonic Academy of Florence” was invented only in the 17th century. In fact, it was only the circle of students of the important Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Ficino, who was supported by Cosimo, aspired to a synthesis of ancient Neoplatonism and Catholic Christianity. He devoted himself with great diligence to translating ancient Greek writings into Latin and to commenting on the works of Plato and ancient Platonists.

Ficino”s circle included the extensively educated Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who knew Arabic and Hebrew, advocated the compatibility of all philosophical and religious traditions, including Islamic ones, and was a prominent exponent of the Christian Kabbalah. Pico”s speech On the Dignity of Man is among the most famous texts of the Renaissance, although it was never delivered and was published only after his death. It is considered the programmatic writing of humanistic anthropology. Pico derived the dignity of man from the freedom of will and choice, which distinguishes man from all other creatures and thus establishes his uniqueness and image of God.

Outstanding representatives of Florentine humanism were also Niccolò Niccoli († 1437), an avid collector of books and organizer of the acquisition and study of manuscripts; Leonardo Bruni, a disciple of Salutati and as chancellor 1427-1444 continuator of his policies, author of an important account of the history of Florence; Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439), who translated from Greek and, as a monk, was an exceptional figure among the humanists; his disciple Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459), who translated from Hebrew, among other languages; and Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), who wrote poetry in Italian, Latin, and Greek and excelled in textual criticism. Other important humanists who worked temporarily in Florence were Francesco Filelfo, Poggio Bracciolini, and Leon Battista Alberti. Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-1498) was the first bookseller of great style. He was extraordinarily resourceful in obtaining manuscripts of all kinds and had them calligraphically copied by dozens of copyists to meet the demand of humanists and princes who were building libraries. He also wrote a collection of biographies of outstanding personalities of his time, with which he strongly influenced the ideas of posterity about Renaissance humanism.

Civic humanism” refers to the use of humanist journalism in the struggle for a republican constitution and against the “tyrannical” autocracy of a ruler. In addition, the representatives of this movement showed a general appreciation of a civic will to create rather than a retreat into a contemplative private life, and later also an affirmation of civic prosperity, which was no longer seen as an obstacle to virtue, and a revaluation of Italian as a literary language. This attitude made itself felt in Florence, with the chancellor Coluccio Salutati playing a pioneering role. The republican conviction was rhetorically effectively represented by the chancellor Leonardo Bruni, thoroughly justified and underpinned by historical philosophy. The main issue was to defend against the expansionist policy of the Milanese Visconti, who also had their position explained by humanists and were, in the view of their Florentine opponents, sinister despots. The Florentines emphasized the advantages of the freedom that prevailed in their system, while the Milanese insisted on order and peace, which were due to subordination to the will of a ruler. This contrast was sharply highlighted in the journalism of both sides.

The term “civic humanism,” coined by historian Hans Baron beginning in 1925, has become commonplace but is controversial among scholars. Opponents of the “Baron thesis” claim that Baron idealizes the politics of the humanist Florentine chancellors and follows their propaganda, that he draws too far-reaching conclusions from his observations, and that his comparison with 20th-century history is inadmissible. Moreover, he does not take into account the imperialist character of Florentine politics.


For the humanists, Rome was the epitome of the adorable. As the center of humanism, however, Rome lagged behind Florence and only began to flourish around the middle of the 15th century. At the same time, the strongest stimuli came from Florence and its surroundings. Most humanists living in Rome depended on employment in the Curia, usually in the papal chancery, sometimes as secretaries to the popes. Many were secretaries to cardinals. Some of the coveted offices in the chancery were venal life positions. Much depended on how humanist-friendly each reigning pope was.

Roman humanism was given a strong boost by Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) with his far-sighted cultural policy. He brought renowned scholars and literary figures to his court, arranged for translations from Greek and, as an avid book collector, created the basis for a new Vatican library. Pius II (Enea Silvio de” Piccolomini, 1458-1464) had emerged as a humanist before his election as pope, but as pontiff found little time to promote culture. Pius II rebuilt his native town of Corsignano into the ideal Renaissance city, which was named Pienza after him. It is considered the first example of so-called humanist urban planning – a suggestion that other Italian cities took up and that eventually spread throughout Europe.Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Julius II (1503-1513) and Leo X (1513-1521) proved to be very humanist-friendly. However, already under Leo a decline set in. A serious setback was the Sacco di Roma in 1527.

Leading figures in Roman humanism of the 15th century were Poggio Bracciolini, Lorenzo Valla, Flavio Biondo and Julius Pomponius Laetus. Poggio († 1459) was the most successful discoverer of manuscripts and earned a high reputation with spectacular finds. He wrote moral-philosophical dialogues, but also spiteful diatribes. Much attention was paid to the literary collections of his letters, valuable as sources of cultural history. Like many other scholars of foreign origin, Poggio saw Rome only as a temporary residence. Valla († 1457), mortal enemies with Poggio, was a professor of rhetoric. He made significant advances in linguistic analysis and source criticism and stood out for his unconventional views and provocative spirit. Biondo († 1463) made groundbreaking achievements in the field of archaeology and historical topography of Italy, especially Rome. He also included medieval Italy in his research and worked to systematically record remains of antiquity. With his encyclopedia Roma illustrata he created a standard work of antiquity. Later, Pomponius († 1498) was also active in this field, and as a university teacher he inspired a large group of students to study antiquity. Around 1464 he founded the oldest Roman academy, the Accademia Romana, a loose community of scholars. One of his students was the distinguished archaeologist Andrea Fulvio. The academy fell into a serious crisis in 1468 and was temporarily closed because Pope Paul II suspected individual humanists of seditious activities. This pope”s harsh action against the Academy was an uncharacteristic, temporary disruption in the otherwise rather unproblematic relationship between the Curia and humanism; in the College of Cardinals, the accused humanists found zealous and successful advocates.

Of the younger Roman humanist communities of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the most prominent were devoted to the cultivation of a Latinity modeled on Cicero”s and to neo-Latin poetry. Rome was a stronghold of Ciceronianism; in it, the needs of the papal chancery met the inclinations of the humanists. Even theological texts were formulated with Cicero”s vocabulary. The self-representation of the papacy was permeated in form and content by the anticizing spirit of the humanists active in the Curia. In their texts, Christ and the saints were praised like ancient Roman heroes, the Church appeared as the successor of the Roman Empire, and the popes were paid homage like new emperors. Thus, pagan and Christian culture merged into one.

The strictly Ciceronian humanists Pietro Bembo († 1547) and Jacopo Sadoleto († 1547) gained considerable influence at the Curia as secretaries of Leo X. Bembo, who was descended from Venetian nobility, was also active as a historian and rose to the rank of cardinal. In 1525, in his influential magnum opus Prose della volgar lingua, he presented a grammar and stylistic theory of the Italian literary language. As classical models to be imitated in Italian, he established Petrarch for poetry and Boccaccio for prose.


In the Kingdom of Naples, humanism lived on the favor of kings. Humanist court historiography served to glorify the reigning Aragonese dynasty.

King Robert of Anjou, who ruled Naples from 1309 to 1343, had already been inspired by Petrarch”s educational efforts and had established a library, but it was Alfonso V of Aragon (Alfonso I of Naples, 1442-1458), the most brilliant patron among the princes of Italy at that time, who made humanism at home in Naples. He offered humanists, who had made themselves disliked elsewhere by their bold and challenging appearance, a place to work in his realm. Among his favorites was Valla, who lived temporarily in the Kingdom of Naples and, under Alfonso”s protection, was able to direct fierce attacks against the clergy and monasticism. It was also during this period that Valla accomplished his most famous scholarly achievement: he exposed the Donation of Constantine, an alleged deed of gift from Emperor Constantine the Great to Pope Sylvester I, as a medieval forgery. This was at once a blow to the papacy, a triumph of humanistic philology, and a favor to King Alfonso, who was at odds with the pope. In Naples, Valla also wrote the Elegantiarum linguae Latinae libri sex (Six Books on the Intricacies of the Latin Language), a manual of style fundamental to the standardization of humanistic Latin, in which he described in detail the merits of the Latin language. Antonio Beccadelli, who had made himself hated in ecclesiastical circles with his erotic poetry, which was sensational for the time, was also allowed to work in Naples. A loose circle of humanists formed around him, which – in a broad sense of the word – is called the “Academy of Naples”.

Alfonso”s son and successor Ferdinand I (1458-1494) continued to promote humanism and established four humanist chairs at the university. The actual founder of the Academy was Giovanni Pontano (after him it is called Accademia Pontaniana. It was characterized by particular openness and tolerance and a wide variety of approaches and fields of research, and became one of the most influential centers of intellectual life in Italy. The famous Naples-born poet Jacopo Sannazaro († 1530), who continued Pontano”s tradition, worked at the court and in the academy.


The Duchy of Milan, which included the university city of Pavia, provided a breeding ground for humanism in the ducal chancery and at the University of Pavia under the rule of the House of Visconti, which lasted until 1447. Otherwise, however, there was a lack of impetus. In Milan, more than elsewhere, the humanists” role as propagandists in the service of the ruling house was paramount. Antonio Loschi, Uberto Decembrio and his son Pier Candido Decembrio were active at court in this sense. The most prominent humanist in the duchy was Francesco Filelfo († 1481), who distinguished himself by his consummate knowledge of Greek language and literature and even wrote poetry in Greek. Filelfo”s many pupils were credited with a number of editions of the classics. He was not rooted in Milan, however, but only lived there because he had had to leave Florence for political reasons, and returned to Florence in his old age.

Under the ducal dynasty of the Sforza, which ruled from 1450, humanist culture also benefited from the political and economic upswing, but as a center of intellectual life Milan lagged behind Florence, Naples and Rome. The turmoil following the French conquest of the duchy in 1500 was devastating for Milanese humanism.


In the Republic of Venice, humanism was dependent on the goals and needs of the ruling nobility. What was desired was stability and continuity, not the scholarly feuds and polemics against the scholastic tradition that were common elsewhere. Humanistic production was considerable in the 15th century, but it did not match the political and economic weight of the Venetian state. A conservative and conventional streak prevailed; scholars produced solid scholarly work, but original ideas and stimulating controversies were lacking. Venetian humanists were defenders of the city”s aristocratic system. Traditional religiosity and Aristotelianism formed a strong current. An outstanding and typical representative of Venetian humanism was Francesco Barbaro († 1454).

Later, the most prominent figure was the printer and publisher Aldo Manuzio, who worked in Venice from 1491-1516 and also published Greek text editions. His production, the Aldines, was groundbreaking for book printing and publishing throughout Europe. Manuzio”s publishing house became the center of Venetian humanism. Philologists met in the publisher”s Neoacademia. This “academy” was a discussion group, not a permanent institution.

Other centers

At the courts, which competed with each other culturally, humanism found generous patrons in many places. Among the rulers who were open to humanist endeavors, the most prominent were:

Greeks in Italy

Among the factors that influenced Italian humanism was the crisis of the Byzantine state, which ended with its collapse in 1453. Greek scholars came to Italy temporarily or permanently, partly on political or ecclesiastical missions, partly to teach Greek to the humanists. Some decided to emigrate because of the disastrous situation of their homeland, conquered in stages by the Turks. They contributed to the philological indexing and translation of the Greek classics. Large quantities of manuscripts were purchased by Western collectors or their agents in the Byzantine Empire before its fall. Giovanni Aurispa, who acquired hundreds of codices on his travels to the East in the early 15th century and brought them to Italy, was particularly prominent in this regard. These texts exerted a strong fascination, because the humanists were convinced that all cultural achievements were of Greek origin.

In the West, a number of works by Greek-speaking philosophers had already been translated into Latin by the 13th century. These late medieval translations usually followed the rigid principle of “word for word” without regard to comprehensibility, let alone style. Therefore, there was an urgent need for new translations that could be understood by non-specialists and read fluently. Much of Greek literature became accessible for the first time in the West through humanist translations and text editions. These newly opened treasures included Homer”s epics, most of Plato”s dialogues, tragedy and comedy, the works of famous historians and orators, and medical, mathematical, and scientific writing.

The pioneering role in this field also came to Florence. The beginning was made by Manuel Chrysoloras, who arrived in Florence in 1396 as a teacher of Greek language and literature. He founded the humanistic translation technique and wrote the first elementary Greek grammar of the Renaissance. At the Council of Ferrara

Balance of the antiquity and literary achievements

The Italian humanists were mainly active as writers, poets and scholars of antiquity. Therefore, their main achievements were in the fields of literature, classical studies, and the communication of ancient educational goods. These include, in addition to pioneering text editions, grammars and dictionaries, the founding of epigraphy, initiated by Poggio Bracciolini, and numismatics. Humanists were also pioneers in the field of historical topography and regional geography. The enthusiasm for antiquity they kindled aroused a strong interest in the material remains of antiquity, which found particularly abundant nourishment in Rome. Popes, cardinals and princes built up “antique collections” that also served representational purposes: One could show wealth, taste and education with it.

With regard to the quality of linguistic expression in Latin, the Renaissance humanists set new standards that remained valid beyond their age. Their philological and literary activity was also fundamental for the establishment of Italian as a literary language. Numerous previously lost literary works and historical sources from antiquity were discovered, made accessible to the public, translated and annotated. The classical study of antiquity was founded; both philology and historical research, including archaeology, received trend-setting impulses and were given their form valid for the following centuries. The demand for a return to the sources (“ad fontes”), to the authentic, became the starting point for the emergence of philological-historical science in the modern sense. It also had an impact on theology, because the humanistic philological approach was also applied to the Bible. This biblical research is called biblical humanism. Biblical humanism, to which Lorenzo Valla gave the impetus, was usually connected with a polemical turning away from scholastic theology.

Thanks to humanist educational efforts, knowledge of Greek, which had previously been extremely rare, spread, making it possible for the first time since the fall of antiquity in the West to understand and appreciate the Greek root of European culture in its particular idiosyncrasy. In this, the achievements of the Italian humanists and the Greek scholars working in Italy were groundbreaking. By the 16th century, the teaching of Greek language and literature had been established at the larger Western and Central European universities through dedicated chairs and was an integral part of the curriculum at many high schools. Alongside this, interest in Hebrew studies and in the study of Oriental languages and cultures, as well as ancient Egyptian religion and wisdom, was also awakening.

Writing reform

Renaissance culture owed a fundamental reform of writing to the humanists. Petrarch already advocated a typeface that was “precisely drawn” and “clear,” not “dissolute” and “indulgent,” and that did not “irritate and tire” the eyes. The fractured writings common in the late Middle Ages displeased the Italian humanists. In this field, too, they sought a solution in recourse to an older, superior past, but the alternative they chose, the humanistic minuscule, was not developed from an ancient typeface. It was based on imitation of the early medieval Carolingian minuscule, in which many of the found manuscripts of ancient works were written. As early as the 13th century, the Carolingian minuscule was called littera antiqua (“ancient script”). Coluccio Salutati and especially Poggio Bracciolini contributed significantly to the design of the humanistic minuscule, which from 1400 onwards took on the form from which Renaissance antiqua then emerged in letterpress printing. In addition, Niccolò Niccoli developed the humanist cursive, on which the modern script is based. It was introduced into letterpress printing by Aldo Manuzio in 1501.

From Italy, humanism spread throughout Europe. Italian carriers of the new ideas traveled north and established contacts with local elites. Many foreign scholars and students went to Italy for educational purposes and then carried the humanist ideas to their home countries. A very important role in the spread of the new ideas was also played by the printing press and the lively international correspondence among the humanists. The intensive correspondence fostered a sense of community among the scholars. The councils (Council of Constance 1414-1418, Council of Basel

The receptiveness to the new ideas varied greatly in the individual countries. This can be seen in the varying speed and intensity of the reception of humanist impulses and also in the fact that in some regions of Europe only certain parts and aspects of humanist ideas and attitudes to life found resonance. In some places, the resistance of conservative circles to the reform efforts was strong. Everything that was transmitted changed in the new context; adaptation to regional conditions and needs took place in processes of productive transformation. Today one speaks of “diffusion” of humanism. This neutral expression avoids the one-sidedness of the equally common terms “cultural transfer” and “reception,” which emphasize the active and passive aspects of the processes, respectively.

North of the Alps, the spread of humanism as well as its decline took place with a time lag. While modern accounts of Italian Renaissance humanism tend to go only as far as the first half of the 16th century, research in the German-speaking world has established continuity into the early 17th century. For the Central European educational and cultural history in the period between about 1550 and about 1620, the term “late humanism” has become common. The temporal delimitation of late humanism and its independence as an epoch are disputed.

German-speaking countries and the Netherlands

In the German-speaking world, humanistic studies spread from the middle of the 15th century, with the example of the Italians being decisive everywhere. In the initial phase, it was primarily the courts and chancelleries that emerged as centers. The personal carriers of the spread were Germans who studied in Italy and brought Latin manuscripts with them on their return home, and Italians who appeared north of the Alps as founding figures. A key role was played by the Italian humanist Enea Silvio de” Piccolomini, who served as diplomat and secretary to King Frederick III in Vienna from 1443 to 1455 before his election as pope. He became the leading figure of the humanist movement in Central Europe. His influence reached into Germany, Bohemia, and Switzerland. In Germany he was considered a stylistic model and was the most influential humanist writer until the late 15th century. One of the most important cultural centers north of the Alps was Basel, which had a university since 1460. Competing with Paris and Venice, Basel became the capital of humanist printing in early modern Europe, and in the 16th century, thanks to the cosmopolitanism and relative liberality that prevailed there, it was a rallying point for religious dissidents, especially Italian emigrants, who contributed their scholarship.

Tacitus” rediscovered Germania gave impetus to the development of the idea of a German nation and a corresponding national feeling. This was expressed in the praise of the Germans, the appreciation of virtues considered to be typically German: Loyalty, bravery, steadfastness, piety and simplicity (simplicitas in the sense of unspoiled, naturalness). Such self-assessment was a popular theme among German university orators; it shaped the humanist discourse on a German identity. In doing so, the humanists emphasized the German possession of the imperium and thus of primacy in Europe. They claimed that the nobility was of German origin and that Germans were morally superior to the Italians and French. German inventiveness was also praised. They liked to refer to the invention of the printing press, which was considered a German collective achievement. Theoretically, the claim to national superiority encompassed all Germans, but in concrete terms, the humanists focused only on the educated elite.

German and Italian “itinerant humanists”, including the pioneer Peter Luder, were active at German universities. The confrontation with the scholastic tradition, which the humanists fought as “barbaric,” was tougher and more tenacious than in Italy, since scholasticism was strongly rooted in the universities and its defenders were slow to retreat. A variety of conflicts arose, leading to the production of a rich polemical literature. These disputes reached their climax with the polemics surrounding the publication of the satirical “Dunkelmännerbriefe,” which served to ridicule the antihumanists and caused a great stir beginning in 1515. Cologne University was considered a stronghold of antihumanist scholasticism, while Erfurt was a rallying point for German humanists. The new studia humanitatis were a foreign body in the conventional university system with its faculties, and were therefore initially not incorporated but affiliated. The establishment of humanistic subjects and the appointment of the teaching staff there posed a challenge to the traditional teaching organization and university constitution. Such decisions often took the form of intervention by the authorities.

In Germany and the Netherlands, the first outstanding representatives of an independent humanism that emancipated itself from Italian models were Rudolf Agricola († 1485) and Konrad Celtis († 1508). Agricola impressed his contemporaries above all by his extraordinarily versatile personality, which made him a model of humanistic art of living. He combined scientific studies with artistic activity as a musician and painter, and was distinguished by his very optimistic view of human capabilities and his restless quest for knowledge. Celtis was the first important neo-Latin poet in Germany. He was at the center of a wide network of contacts and friendships that he created during his extensive travels and cultivated through correspondence. His project of the Germania illustrata, a geographical, historiographical and ethnological description of Germany, remained unfinished, but the preliminary studies had an intense after-effect. He strengthened the cohesion of the humanists by founding communities of scholars (sodalitates) in a number of cities.

The German king Maximilian I, elected in 1486, vigorously promoted the humanist movement as a patron of the arts and found eager supporters among the humanists, who gave him journalistic support in the pursuit of his political goals. In Vienna, Maximilian founded a humanist poetry college in 1501 with Celtis as its director. It was part of the university and had four teachers who taught poetics, rhetoric, mathematics, and astronomy. The degree was not a traditional academic degree, but a poet”s coronation.

In the early 16th century, the Dutchman Erasmus of Rotterdam was the most respected and influential humanist north of the Alps. Of great consequence was his effort to obtain a pure, unadulterated version of the New Testament by recourse to its Greek text. His writings in the field of life advice found an extraordinarily strong echo – also outside of scholarly circles. Erasmus lived in Basel from 1521 to 1529, where he published his works in cooperation with the publisher Johann Froben, who was a friend of his, and where he developed an intensive editorial activity. Among the most notable leaders of the humanist movement in Germany at the time were the jurists Konrad Peutinger (1465-1547) and Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530), who, in addition to their scholarly activities, also took on political and diplomatic tasks as imperial councillors. Peutinger wrote legal opinions on economics, with which he became a pioneer of modern national economics. The historians Johannes Aventinus (1477-1534) and Jakob Wimpheling (1450-1528) were also groundbreaking, as was the philosopher, Greek scholar and Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who wrote the first Hebrew grammar. The historian and philologist Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547) made a valuable contribution to the flourishing of German historiography with his critical judgment. The publicist Ulrich von Hutten (he combined humanistic scholarship with patriotic goals and a cultural-political nationalism. In the next generation, the Greek scholar and educational reformer Philipp Melanchthon (he was called Praeceptor Germaniae (“Teacher of Germany”). As an academic organizer, he had a lasting influence on the organization of schools and universities in the Protestant world, and as an author of school and study books, he became a pioneer in didactics.

In 16th-century German humanism, increasing emphasis was placed on school pedagogy and classical philology. From the middle of the century, humanistic material became compulsory in both the Protestant and Catholic school systems. This development led on the one hand to a strong broadening of education, but on the other hand also to a schooling and scientification that pushed back the creative element of the original educational ideal. Finally, the one-sided concentration on the scholastic and scientific reception of antiquities brought the impulse of Renaissance humanism to a halt.


Petrarch spent a large part of his life in France. His polemics against French culture, which he considered inferior, provoked fierce protest from French scholars. Petrarch stated that there were no orators and poets outside Italy, that is, no education in the humanist sense. In fact, humanism did not take root in France until the late 14th century. A pioneer was Nicholas of Clamanges († 1437), who taught rhetoric and won fame at the Collège de Navarre, the center of early French humanism, beginning in 1381. He was the only significant stylist of his time in France. In his later years, however, he distanced himself from humanism. More enduringly, his contemporary Jean de Montreuil (1354-1418), an admirer of Petrarch, internalized humanist ideals. The influential theologian and ecclesiastical politician Jean Gerson (1363-1429) wrote Latin poems modeled on Petrarch”s, but stood aloof from the ideas of the Italian humanists. The public impact of French early humanism remained low.

The turmoil of the Hundred Years” War (1337-1453) inhibited the development of humanism. After the end of the fighting, it flourished from the middle of the 15th century. The main contribution was initially made by the rhetoric teacher Guillaume Fichet, who set up the first printing press in Paris and published a rhetoric textbook in 1471. He anchored Italian humanism at the Paris University. Fichet”s student Robert Gaguin († 1501) continued his teacher”s work and replaced him as the leading figure of Parisian humanism. He pursued a consciously nationally oriented approach to history.

Classical studies in France received a boost from the efforts of Jacques Lefèvre d”Étaples (Latin: Jacobus Faber Stapulensis, † 1536), who contributed significantly to the knowledge and study of Aristotle”s works, among other things, with text editions, translations and commentaries. He also pursued philological studies of the Bible, which earned him the bitter enmity of Parisian theologians. Another important scholar of antiquity was Guillaume Budé (1468-1540), who earned great merit as a Greek scholar and as an organizer of French humanism. His research on Roman law and his work De asse et partibus eius (On the Asse and its Parts, 1515), a study of coinage and the units of measurement of antiquity and, at the same time, of economic and social history, were groundbreaking. Budé was secretary to Kings Charles VIII and Francis I and used his office to promote humanism. As director of the royal library, which later became the national library, he promoted its expansion. It was mainly on his initiative that the Collège Royal (later the Collège de France) was founded, which became an important center of humanism. The Collège Royal formed an antipole to the anti-humanist current at the University of Paris, whose representatives were conservative theologians. Among the literary humanists, the poet and writer Jean Lemaire de Belges, who was inspired by Italian Renaissance poetry, stood out. Politically and culturally, he took a nationalist stance, as did Budé and many other French humanists.

King Francis I, who reigned from 1515 to 1547, was considered by his contemporaries to be the most important promoter of French humanism. Numerous authors of the 16th century considered the flowering of humanist education to be his merit.


In England, the beginnings of humanistic thinking were already evident in the Franciscan milieu in the early 14th century. However, actual humanism was not introduced until the 15th century. Initially, both French and Italian, and in the late 15th century also Burgundian-Dutch influence had a formative effect. An important promoter of humanism was Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (1390-1447).

At the universities, thanks in part to the teaching of Italian humanists, humanistic thinking slowly gained acceptance in the course of the 15th century, despite resistance from conservative circles. At the same time, numerous non-church educational institutions (colleges, grammar schools) were founded, which competed with the old church schools. Unlike the Italian humanists, the English avoided a radical break with the scholastic tradition. They strove for an organic development of the traditional system of university education by incorporating their new ideas.

Toward the end of the 15th century and after the turn of the century, there was a striking upswing in humanistic education. In the early 16th century, Erasmus became the preeminent stimulus. Among the leading figures was the scholar John Colet (1467-1519), who had studied in Italy, befriended Erasmus, and emerged as a school founder. The royal court physician Thomas Linacre († 1524), also educated in Italy, spread knowledge of ancient medical literature among his colleagues. Linacre”s friend William Grocyn († 1519) brought biblical humanism to England. The most famous representative of English humanism was the statesman and writer Thomas More († 1535), who served as a royal secretary and diplomat and assumed a leadership position as Lord Chancellor from 1529. In 1531, Morus”s disciple Thomas Elyot published The boke Named the Governour, a treatise on state theory and moral philosophy. In it, he set forth humanistic educational principles that contributed significantly to the formation of the gentlemanly ideal in the 16th century.

In political theory, the strongest impulses in the 16th century came from Platonism. The English humanists dealt intensively with Plato”s doctrine of a good and just state. They justified the existing aristocratic social order and sought to improve it by advocating a careful education of the children of the nobility according to humanistic principles. Humanistic education was to be among the characteristics of a gentleman and political leader. This tendency toward meritocratic values was not easily compatible with the principle of the rule of the hereditary nobility. The humanists were confronted with the question of whether the acquisition of humanistic education could qualify one for advancement to positions normally reserved for nobles and whether a member of the aristocratic ruling class who was not willing to be educated was putting his inherited social rank at risk, i.e., whether education or ancestry was ultimately the decisive factor. The answers varied.

Iberian Peninsula

On the Iberian Peninsula, the social and educational conditions for the development of humanism were relatively unfavorable, so its broad cultural impact remained weaker than in other regions of Europe. In Catalonia, the political connection with southern Italy that arose as a result of the expansionist policy of the Crown of Aragon facilitated the influx of humanist ideas, but there, too, there was no broad reception. One of the main obstacles was the widespread ignorance of the Latin language. Therefore, the reading of vernacular translations formed a focal point of the engagement with ancient culture. Translation activity had already begun in the 13th century at the suggestion of King Alfonso X. Juan Fernández de Heredia († 1396) initiated translations of works by important Greek authors (Thucydides, Plutarch) into Aragonese. Among the ancient Latin writings translated into the vernacular languages, moral philosophical works were prominent; Seneca in particular was widely received. In the Kingdom of Castile, the poets Juan de Mena († 1456) and Iñigo López de Mendoza († 1458) founded Castilian poetry modeled on Italian humanist poetry and became classics. An important impulse for the cultivation of the Latin style was the introduction of rhetoric as a subject at the University of Salamanca in 1403.

Spanish humanism experienced its heyday at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries. In this epoch, its most important representative was Elio Antonio de Nebrija († 1522), a professor of rhetoric educated in Bologna, who returned to his homeland in 1470 and began teaching at the University of Salamanca in 1473. He advanced the humanist reform of Latin teaching with his textbook Introductiones Latinae, published in 1481, created a Latin-Spanish and a Spanish-Latin dictionary, and published the first grammar of the Castilian language in 1492.

Nebrija fought aggressively for the new scholarship. He came into conflict with the Inquisition when he began to deal philologically with the Vulgate, the authoritative Latin version of the Bible. He wanted to review the translations of the biblical texts from Greek and Hebrew into Latin and apply the newly developed humanistic textual criticism to the Vulgate. This project brought the Grand Inquisitor Diego de Deza on the scene, who confiscated Nebrija”s manuscripts in 1505. However, the scholar found a like-minded protector in the open-minded Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, who saved him from further harm. Cisneros also promoted humanism institutionally. He founded the University of Alcalá, where he established a trilingual college for Latin, Greek and Hebrew in 1508.

In the 16th century, repressive state and ecclesiastical measures pushed back humanism. The Inquisition brought the temporarily strong enthusiasm for Erasmus to a halt. Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540), one of the most important Spanish humanists and a fierce opponent of scholasticism, therefore preferred to teach abroad.

Humanism gained a foothold in Portugal even later than in Spain, not until the end of the 15th century. Portuguese students brought humanist ideas from Italy and France to their homeland. There had already been isolated contacts with Italian humanism in the first half of the 15th century. The Sicilian itinerant scholar and poet Cataldus Parisius lived as a secretary and prince educator at the Portuguese royal court in Lisbon from 1485 and introduced humanist poetry there. Estêvão Cavaleiro (Latin Stephanus Eques) wrote a humanist Latin grammar, which he published in 1493, boasting that he had thus liberated the country from the barbarism that had previously prevailed. In the following period, comparisons between Portuguese and Latin were popular from the point of view of which language was entitled to primacy.

Hungary and Croatia

In Hungary, individual contacts with Italian humanism occurred early on. The contacts were favored by the fact that the House of Anjou, which ruled in the Kingdom of Naples, also held the Hungarian throne for a long time in the 14th century, thus establishing close relations with Italy. Under King Sigismund (1387-1437), foreign humanists were already active as diplomats in the Hungarian capital of Buda. A key role in the emergence of Hungarian humanism was played by the Italian poet and educational theorist Pietro Paolo Vergerio († 1444), who lived in Buda for a long time. His most important student was Johann Vitez (János Vitéz de Zredna, † 1472), a native of Croatia, who developed extensive philological and literary activity and contributed much to the flourishing of Hungarian humanism. Vitez was one of the educators of King Matthias Corvinus and later became the chancellor of this ruler, who ruled from 1458 to 1490 and became the most important promoter of humanism in Hungary. The king surrounded himself with Italian and local humanists and founded the famous Bibliotheca Corviniana, one of the largest libraries of the Renaissance. A nephew of Vitez, Janus Pannonius († 1472), educated in Italy, was a famous humanist poet.

In the 16th century, John Sylvester was one of the most prominent humanists in Hungary. He belonged to the current that took its cue from Erasmus. His works include a Hungarian translation of the New Testament and the Grammatica Hungaro-Latina (Hungarian-Latin Grammar), the first grammar of the Hungarian language, printed in 1539.

In Croatia, the Turkish threat also overshadowed intellectual life. Croatian humanists engaged in resistance against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and wrote numerous Latin speeches “against the Turks”. In view of the front line against the Muslim Turks, there was a strong awareness of the togetherness of the Christian states, and the Christian tradition was emphasized. Among the most notable representatives of humanism in Croatia was the important poet Marko Marulić (Latin Marcus Marullus, 1450-1524), who is considered the “father of Croatian literature.”


In Poland, humanistic activity began in the 15th century. In 1406, the first Polish chair of rhetoric was established at the University of Cracow. Beginning in the 1430s, works by Italian humanists found a growing readership, and around the middle of the century domestic poetic production in Latin began. A prominent representative of Polish humanist historiography was Jan Długosz (1415-1480). Around the middle of the 15th century, the humanist educational program prevailed at the University of Kraków, but the scholastic tradition was still making itself strongly felt as a counterforce in the 16th century.

In 1470, the Italian humanist Filippo Buonaccorsi (Latin Callimachus Experiens), suspected of conspiring against the Pope in Rome, fled to Poland. His arrival ushered in a new phase in the development of Polish humanism. As a statesman who enjoyed the confidence of the Polish kings, he shaped Polish domestic and foreign policy.

Influenced by Florentine Neoplatonism was the scholar and poet Laurentius Corvinus († 1527), a student of Konrad Celtis. He wrote a textbook of the Latin language and ensured the spread of humanism in his native Silesia. John a Lasco, a student of Erasmus, brought to Poland the variant of humanism shaped by his teacher.

Bohemia and Moravia

In Bohemia, an initially still very narrow and limited reception of Italian humanism began with John of Neumarkt († 1380), the chancellor of Emperor Charles IV. Charles was king of Bohemia from 1347 and made his residence city of Prague a cultural center. John admired Petrarch, with whom he corresponded avidly. However, the style of the imperial chancellery and literary texts of that era was still strongly influenced by the medieval tradition and not at the linguistic level of contemporary Italian humanism.

In the 15th and early 16th centuries, the most prominent representatives of Czech humanism were the diplomat John of Rabenstein. The most notable representatives of Czech humanism were the diplomat John of Rabenstein or Rabstein (Jan Pflug z Rabštejna, 1437-1473), who had studied in Italy and amassed a huge library, the famous poet Bohuslav Hasištejnský z Lobkovic (Bohuslaus Hassensteinius, 1461-1510), who was also educated in Italy and is still appreciated for the excellent style of his Latin letters, and the poet and writer Jan Šlechta ze Všehrd (1466-1525).

The most important humanist in Moravia was Augustinus Moravus (Czech Augustin Olomoucký, German Augustin Käsenbrod, 1467-1513). Moravian humanism received strong impulses from Konrad Celtis, who stayed in Olomouc in 1504. An Olomouc humanist circle organized itself in the Sodalitas Marcomannica, which was also called Sodalitas Maierhofiana.

The main concern of Renaissance humanism was educational and scientific reform. Therefore, its aftermath, insofar as it can be considered independent of the general aftermath of the Renaissance, primarily concerned education and science. Major achievements were the general raising of the level of education in the field of linguistic and historical subjects and the formation of a new urban bourgeois educational class. In cooperation with princes and other patrons, the humanists established important libraries and educational institutions. In the numerous learned societies, pioneering forms of intellectual exchange and cooperation were developed.

At the universities in the 15th century, humanism was still largely confined to the “artistenfakultät”, the faculty of the “artes liberales”. There, however, theologians, lawyers and physicians also had to complete a propaedeutic course of study before they could turn to their subjects. As a result, humanistic instruction achieved an extraordinarily broad impact. In the 16th century, the humanistic way of thinking and working increasingly made itself felt in the other faculties as well. In some educational institutions, the study of Greek and Hebrew took its place alongside fundamentally improved Latin instruction. The Collegium trilingue (“trilingual college”) in Leuven, which began teaching in 1518, was groundbreaking in this respect.

In Italian humanism in particular, but also among the German followers of studia humanitatis, educational efforts were combined with a vociferous polemic against scholastic teaching, which was denounced as alien to life and useless; some of the questions dealt with there were absurd. One of the main accusations was that scholastic writing did not make people better, that it did not contribute to the formation of character. In addition, the scholastics were accused of a lack of critical spirit, which was shown in their uncritical adoption of the positions of authorities. The assertiveness of humanism in this conflict led to a fundamental change in education.

Medical humanism

In the medical faculties, there was a demand for recollection of the authentic Greek sources. The exclusive appeal to ancient medical authorities (“medical humanism”) meant turning away from the Arabic authors who had played an important role in medieval orthodox medicine. Thanks to the philological and scientific-historical development of the original texts, however, it turned out that the contradictions between the ancient authors were more weighty than the previous harmonizing tradition had made clear. Thus the authority of the classics was shaken by their own works. This development contributed to the fact that in the course of the early modern period, the appeal to the authority of the “ancients” was increasingly replaced by an orientation towards empirical facts, the trust in nature as the oldest authority.

Legal humanism

From the very beginning, Italian humanism was sharply opposed to jurisprudence, as early as Petrarch. The humanists” criticism of scholasticism found a particularly broad surface of attack here, because weaknesses in the scholastic method of working were especially conspicuous in this area. The legal system had become increasingly complicated and opaque due to the proliferating activity of glossators and commentators in Roman law and of decretists and decretalists in canon law. The commentaries of the leading scholastic civil lawyer Bartolus de Saxoferrato († 1357), who interpreted Roman law, were held in such high esteem that they almost had the force of law. The criticism of the humanists was directed against this. They complained that the original source of law, the ancient Corpus iuris civilis, had been buried by the mass of medieval commentaries. The jurisprudence taught in the universities was full of sophistry and formalism far removed from life. Moreover, the medieval legal texts were linguistically cumbersome. The scholastics were accused of insufficient command of language and insufficient knowledge of history.

One of the main goals of legal humanism was to eliminate the belief in the authority of medieval commentaries. The demand to return to the sources was also made here. In the field of law, it referred to the Corpus iuris civilis, the late antique codification of Roman law that was authoritative in the Middle Ages. The doctrinal opinions of commentators were to be replaced by what immediately emerged as the meaning of the authentic ancient source texts when they were reasonably considered. The prerequisite for this was that the surviving form of the Corpus iuris civilis was subjected to textual criticism in the manner customary in humanistic philology.

Humanist scholars did not stop at the elimination of textual corruptions, but extended their criticism to the corpus itself. Lorenzo Valla found contradictions in it and recognized that this collection of texts in part did not correctly reflect the older legal provisions. The French humanist Guillaume Budé († 1540) continued Valla”s source-critical work. The insights thus gained sharpened his view of the time-dependent nature of all legislation. Classical Roman law could no longer be regarded as the written result of human reason”s knowledge of supra-temporal truths.

From the results of the critical investigations, the need for reform arose from a humanistic point of view. Since the initiative came from France, where Guillaume Budé played a key role, the new legal doctrine was called mos gallicus (“French approach”) to distinguish it from the traditional doctrine of the Italian scholastics, mos italicus.

In the application of the law, the mos gallicus, created according to philological criteria, could hardly displace the practice-oriented mos italicus, which took local customary law into account, so that there was a separation of theory and practice; theory was taught as “professorial law” at the universities, practice looked different. In the course of the 16th century, the mos gallicus spread into the German-speaking area, but was able to establish itself there only to a very limited extent.


The humanists, dealing with the theory of pedagogy, formulated the new ideal of education. They started from the first book of the Institutio oratoria Quintilian and from the treatise On Child Education, erroneously attributed to Plutarch. The influence of Pseudo-Plutarch”s writing fostered the tendency toward mildness, forbearance, and consideration that distinguished humanistic education from the stricter one of the preceding period. However, the humanist pedagogues also emphasized the harmfulness of spoiling.

A defining element was the predominance of Latin, with particular emphasis on practicing Latin eloquence (eloquentia). Most time and effort was devoted to this learning objective. An important role was played by the school drama, which served the active learning of the Latin language. Plays written by humanist authors, often dealing with biblical material, were rehearsed by the students for performance. From the middle of the 15th century, performances of ancient comedies by Plautus and Terence, as well as tragedies by Seneca, were part of Latin lessons.

Greek took a back seat to the dominant Latin. The mother tongue and other vernacular languages were usually not subjects of instruction. Mathematics and science were often neglected or disregarded altogether. The value of sport was theoretically recognized in pedagogy, but in the schools the positive assessment of physical exercises did not develop a broad effect.

The orientation of pedagogy toward ethical goals set limits to the understanding of history, for attention was not primarily focused on history as such, but on its literary treatment and the moral and practical uses of knowledge of history. The focus was on the actions of individual personalities and military events, while economic, social, and legal factors were usually treated superficially. History was established as an independent subject only hesitantly, later than the other humanistic subjects.

Among the leading educational theorists was Pietro Paolo Vergerio († 1444), who considered knowledge of history even more important than moral philosophical and rhetorical knowledge. His treatise De ingenuis moribus, a program of humanistic education, was the most influential educational writing of the Renaissance. Vergerio wanted to renew the educational ideal of Greek antiquity and emphasized gymnastics in addition to linguistic-literary, historical, ethical, and musical instruction. He considered it important to take into account the talents and preferences of the students. Vittorino da Feltre (1378-1446) and Guarino da Verona (1370-1460) conceived and practiced a reform pedagogy recognized as exemplary. Their schools were famous and had a catchment area that extended beyond Italy. The important educational theorist Maffeo Vegio († 1458) wrote the treatise De educatione liberorum et eorum claris moribus, a comprehensive exposition of moral pedagogy. He emphasized the pedagogical importance of imitating a role model, which was more important than instruction and admonition. In the German-speaking world, Rudolf Agricola († 1485), Erasmus of Rotterdam († 1536), and Jakob Wimpheling (1450-1528) were the main advocates of humanistic pedagogy. Gradually, the scholastic school system was replaced by a humanistic one.

Since the Reformation, too, in its own way strove for a return to the original and authentic and fought scholasticism, there were agreements with humanist goals. The replacement of the traditional ecclesiastical school system by a communal one in the Protestant areas was in line with humanist demands. Most reformers were committed to humanistic education. They ensured that curricula at universities and high schools were designed accordingly. The extraordinarily influential humanist and theologian Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) formulated and implemented a concept that placed knowledge of ancient languages at the center of educational efforts. He organized the Protestant school and university system, wrote textbooks, and was called Praeceptor Germaniae (“Teaching Master of Germany”). An important pedagogue and school reformer was the Strasbourg grammar school rector Johannes Sturm (1507-1589), who wrote programmatic writings on teaching and education in addition to school and textbooks. As a humanist, Sturm assigned a central role to rhetoric, which he regarded as a method of knowledge and a basic science, and therefore placed particular emphasis on the practice of eloquence. His texts influenced numerous school foundations and school organizations.

On the Catholic side, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) emerged as a pioneer of educational reform. He emphasized the importance of teaching history and called for education according to students” individual aptitudes. In the countries of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit school became established from the second half of the 16th century, leading to a widespread standardization of education. The Latin-language Jesuit theater served to advertise Jesuit education, in which humanistic educational goals were combined with Catholic ones. The Jesuits proceeded with a pronounced pedagogical sense of mission. The basic humanistic conviction was widespread among them that only the educated person was morally good.

All humanists were convinced that the beautiful went hand in hand with the valuable, the morally right and the true. This principle was not limited to language and literature, it was applied to all areas of creative work and life. Everywhere an aesthetic point of view asserted itself. Even in antiquity, visual art and literature were frequently analogized. Humanist art theorists took up the parallelization and looked for analogies between the principles of visual art and those of language art. Painting was considered “silent poetry.” The evaluation of artists was guided by the standards of literary and rhetorical criticism. As in all other fields, the ancient criteria and standards of value applied here as well. Therefore, it seemed desirable for the artist to deal with the theoretical foundations of his work. Artists who were concerned with art theory, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti and Leon Battista Alberti, demanded a scientific education of the visual artist in all liberal arts, i.e. his integration into the humanistic educational system.

In humanist circles, the idea prevailed that the literary renewal of ancient splendor through humanism corresponded to a parallel revival of painting after a dark period of decay. Giotto was praised as a pioneer who had restored painting to its former dignity; his achievement was considered analogous to that of his younger contemporary Petrarch. However, Giotto”s style could not be attributed to imitation of classical models.

Humanism exerted a great attraction on many artists who associated with humanists. However, one can speak of concrete effects of humanism on the visual arts only where ancient aesthetic theory became significant for artistic creation and the humanist appeal to the exemplary nature of antiquity was extended to works of art. This was particularly strong in architecture. The authoritative classicist was Vitruvius, who had developed a comprehensive theory of architecture in his work Ten Books on Architecture, which, however, corresponded only partially to the Roman building practice of his time. Vitruvius had been known throughout the Middle Ages, so the discovery of a St. Gall Vitruvian manuscript by Poggio Bracciolini in 1416 was not sensational. However, the intensity with which humanists and artists in many cultural centers of Italy dealt with Vitruvius – sometimes together – in the 15th and 16th centuries was momentous. They adopted his concepts, ideas and aesthetic standards, so that one can speak of a “Vitruvianism” in Italian Renaissance architecture. The humanist and architect Fra Giovanni Giocondo published an exemplary illustrated edition of Vitruvius in Venice in 1511. In the following years, Vitruvius” work also became available in Italian translation. In 1542, the Accademia delle virtù was formed in Rome, dedicated to the cultivation of Vitruvianism. Among the artists who studied Vitruvius were the architect, architectural and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Bramante, Raphael and – during his stay in Italy – Albrecht Dürer. Leonardo da Vinci also referred to Vitruvius in his famous sketch of human proportions. The leading architect and architectural theorist Andrea Palladio developed his independent ideas in discussion with Vitruvius” theory. He collaborated with the humanist and Vitruvian commentator Daniele Barbaro.

Leon Battista Alberti, who as an architect planned an ideal city to be founded with utopian features, combined his architectural vision with a conception of the state. In his theory of art, the beauty of art appears as the visible expression of a spiritual order, which also underlies his ideal state, which is itself a work of art. Art is placed on a moral foundation; it has to contribute essentially to a good conduct of life, to the attainment of virtue, toward which all human striving should aim.

In painting and sculpture, the reception of antiquity played a key role. New theories emerged from the study of ancient art literature. Groundbreaking were Leon Battista Alberti”s treatises De pictura (On the Art of Painting, with Depiction of Central Perspective, 1435) and De statua (On the Statue, 1445). Alberti”s painting treatise influenced Leonardo da Vinci”s Trattato della pittura. Painters and sculptors studied ancient works and forms, with pattern books and, in the 16th century, printmaking providing knowledge where personal inspection was not possible. The monumental statue of David by Michelangelo is one of the works that testify to the artist”s engagement with ancient models.

17th and 18th century

A radically opposing position was taken by the philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who considered humanistic studies superfluous and even harmful. He denied humanism philosophical significance and opposed the high esteem of rhetoric, whose suggestive character clouded the clarity of thought.

The humanistic tradition established in the educational system offered the public cause for criticism in its representatives. A popular target of ridicule was the figure of the pedantic, unworldly schoolmaster or university teacher, who was accused of the sterility of his education, his fixation on book knowledge, and of being arrogant and unfit for life.

The increasing interest in the natural sciences and the associated awareness of progress led to doubts about the absolute exemplariness of antiquity. In the Querelle des anciens et des modernes (“Dispute of the Ancients and the Moderns”), the achievements of modern art, literature and science were compared with those of classical antiquity in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some participants in the discourse were convinced of the superiority of the “moderns,” but this did not necessarily lead to a turning away from the humanistic ideal of education. The primacy of humanistic values in education was not threatened. In the humanities, the historical image and value system of the humanists remained dominant.

In the late 17th century, influential figures such as the prominent historian Christoph Cellarius and the Enlightenment philosopher Pierre Bayle saw the Renaissance humanists” departure from medieval thought as an important advance. Humanistic education continued to be considered indispensable. Even in the 18th century, Enlightenment spokesmen combined a negative assessment of the Middle Ages with a benevolent evaluation of Renaissance humanism and its educational ideal.

In the course of the 18th century, Neuhumanism developed within the framework of the Enlightenment. The Neo-Humanists sought a stronger emphasis on Greek alongside Latin, which continued to be intensively cultivated. The influential archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) advocated the absolute primacy of Greek. Leading New Humanists were Johann Matthias Gesner (1691-1761) and Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729-1812).


One fruit of Neuhumanism was the founding of modern classical studies by Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824). Wolf”s concept of a comprehensive science of “classical” antiquity, the core of which was the mastery of classical languages, and his conviction of the superiority of ancient Greek over other cultures prove him to be a follower and further developer of core ideas of Renaissance humanism.

A sharp critic of Renaissance humanism was Hegel. He criticized that humanistic thinking remained stuck in the concrete, the sensual, in the world of fantasy and art, that it was not speculative and did not advance to genuine philosophical reflection. Hegel, however, emphatically held on to the humanistic ideal of education.

The work of Georg Voigt was fundamental to the scientific study of humanism. In his two-volume work Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums oder Das erste Jahrhundert des Humanismus (The Revival of Classical Antiquity or The First Century of Humanism, 1859), he described the early humanists” view of the world and humanity, their values, goals and methods, and their dealings with each other and with their opponents. Voigt emphasized the fundamental newness of the humanist attitude, the break with the past. The influential cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, who in 1860 sharply distinguished humanist culture from medieval culture in his standard work Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien (The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy), also expressed this view. In doing so, he himself adopted a humanist perspective, describing the beginning of the Renaissance as a cessation of “barbarism.” For his own present, Burckhardt professed the preservation of humanistic education, whose decline he deplored.

In the period that followed, Voigt”s and Burckhardt”s assessment largely prevailed and shaped the public”s view of humanism. The question of the extent to which humanism actually represented a break with the past and the extent to which there was continuity has been one of the main topics of research ever since. Medievalists point out that core elements of Renaissance humanism were already to be found in the Middle Ages in some form, sometimes even in distinctive manifestations. From the perspective of the history of science, the question is whether and, if so, how humanism significantly influenced the development of the natural sciences.

In the course of the 19th century, classical studies itself increasingly shook the foundation of the humanist and neo-humanist concept of education: the notion of a self-contained, unified, perfected, and par excellence ancient “classicism.” The most influential ancient historian, Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), did not think humanistically at all. A leading representative of this period of upheaval in the history of education was the Greek scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931), who represented the humanist view in some respects, but radically denied it in others. He stated, “Antiquity as a unity and as an ideal is gone; science itself has destroyed this belief.”

In the philosophy of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger emerged as a critic of Renaissance humanism, which he accused of having propagated a concept of humanitas that did not capture the essence of man. Ernst Cassirer (1927) judged differently, who emphasized and appreciated the unity and “continuous agreement” of the Renaissance culture, which existed between the inner intellectual development and the “manifold forms and shapes of the outer life”. Cassirer quoted approvingly a statement by the historian Ernst Walser, who thought that the “great common bond that embraced all humanists” was neither individualism nor politics nor a world view, “but merely artistic feeling.

The study of Renaissance culture in the 20th century was greatly influenced by the work of numerous scholars who emigrated from Germany during the National Socialist era and then provided significant impulses in their new places of work. Among them were Paul Oskar Kristeller, Ernst Cassirer, Hans Baron, Erwin Panofsky, Raymond Klibansky, Gerhart B. Ladner, Edgar Wind and Rudolf Wittkower. Among the cultural historians active in this field, Kristeller, who taught at Columbia University in New York, held a prominent position in terms of productivity, influence, and scholastic impact. He conducted humanism research primarily as a science of manuscript and textual transmission and created one of the most important working tools with his manuscript catalog Iter Italicum.

In the United States, humanistic studies experienced a boom after World War II; Departments of Renaissance Studies were created at many universities there, and the American Renaissance Society became the leading international organization of its kind with its conferences.

Italian research was driven primarily by scholars with a philosophical focus; the work of Giovanni Gentile, Eugenio Garin, and Ernesto Grassi was influential. An important impetus for German scholarship also came from Italy: Ernesto Grassi founded the Centro italiano di studi umanistici e filosofici in Munich in 1948, which later became the Seminar for Renaissance Intellectual History and Philosophy at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, one of the few German centers for Renaissance studies. In 1972, the German Research Foundation founded the Commission for the Study of Humanism, which organized annual workshops until 1986. A leading role was played by the Marburg Romance scholar August Buck, who was considered the doyen of German humanism research.


General introductions and manuals

Essay Collections

Auxiliary means


Legal humanism

Biblical Humanism

Aesthetics, relationship to art









Iberian Peninsula

Hungary and Croatia


Bohemia and Moravia

Reception and research history


  1. Renaissance-Humanismus
  2. Renaissance humanism