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Renaissance Humanism Collage

Renaissance Humanism - History and Concepts

Started: 1400
Ended: 1580
Renaissance Humanism Timeline


The Discovery of Classical Texts

In Europe, as early as the 9th century, many classical texts were being "rediscovered" by society's leading thinkers who would contribute to the rise of Renaissance Humanism. Most notably studied was De architectura, the first century BC treatise by the Roman architect Vitruvius. Employing mathematical proportions for architecture, the human form, and all artistic design, Vitruvius developed what was called the "Vitruvian Triad," or virtues of unity, stability, and beauty. The text informed the Carolingian Renaissance and influenced a number of leading thinkers, including the theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholar Albertus Magnus, and the poets Petrarch and Boccaccio. However, it had subsequently been overlooked until Poggio Barccioline, a Florentine humanist, found a copy in the Abbey of St. Gallen in Switzerland in 1414 and, subsequently promoted it to Florentine humanists and artists. It became foundational to the architects Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti, Bramante, and Palladio, as well as the artist Leonardo da Vinci, and has become part of the artistic canon to the 21st century.

Andrea del Castagno's Francesco Petrarca depicts the influential poet among the nine portraits of his Cycle of Famous Men and Women (c. 1450) at the Villa Carducci.

The 14th century poet Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch in English, has been dubbed both "the founder of Humanism," and "founder of the Renaissance." After discovering the letters of the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, he translated them, leading to their early and important influence among Italian intellectuals, scholars, and artists. He was also the first writer to compose his works in the vernacular rather than the traditional Latin.

Leon Battista Alberti's façade of Santa Maria Novella (1456-1470) in Florence applied classical inspired ideals and architectural principles to the church's pre-existing medieval design.

Influenced by Vitruvius and a number of his contemporaries, the humanist Leon Battista Alberti became the primary theorist of architecture and art in the Early Renaissance. His three works, De Statua (On Sculpture) (1435), Della Pittura (On Painting) (1435), and De Re Aedificatoria (On Architecture) (1452) codified the concepts of proportion, the contrast of desegno, line or design, with colorito, coloring, and Brunelleschi's one-point perspective. A noted painter, poet, classicist, mathematician and architect, Alberti's books were the first contemporary classics of Renaissance Humanism. His writing also defined the ideal of the "universal man," as expressed in his motto, "A man can do all things if he will."


This detail of Benozzo Gozzoli's fresco The Journey of the Magi (1459-1461) depicts Gemistus Plethon as part of a procession, including the Medici and other Florentine notables, to venerate the Christ Child.

With the introduction of Plato's work, Platonism and Neoplatonism became a primary force in Renaissance Humanism. The Byzantine scholar Gemistus Plethon introduced the works of the Greek philosopher Plato at the 1438-39 Council of Florence and influenced Cosimo de' Medici, the head of the ruling Florentine family, who attended his lectures. Marsilio Ficino, an Italian scholar and priest, was also influenced by Plethon, dubbing him "the second Plato," and, subsequently with Cosimo's support, began translating all of Plato's work into Latin for the first time, which he published in 1484. As art historian James Hankins wrote, "Ficino's Platonic revival was among the most original and characteristic of Quattrocentro philosophy," and his influence grew to extend far beyond Florence. As a result, Renaissance Humanism emphasized aesthetic beauty and geometric proportions, derived from Plato's ideal forms.

This detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's fresco Angel Appearing to Zacharias (1486-1490) depicts the Renaissance Humanists, Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano, and Demetrio Chalkondyles (from left to right)

Traditionally, it has been thought that, following the Council of Florence, Cosimo de' Medici sponsored what was called the Platonic Academy (also known as the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy), meant as revival of Plato's Academy led by Ficino. Other members of the group included Gentile de'Becchi, Poliziano, Cristoforo Landino, and Pico della Mirandola. However, contemporary scholarship has begun to refute this, finding it a legend, based upon a mistranslation of Ficino's writing and developed in later 16th century works promoting the reputation of the Medici. In any case, Florence was the dynamic hub of Renaissance Humanism, as new works from the group appeared. Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) has been called the "Manifesto of the Renaissance," as he emphasized the dignity and value of individual human life for its own sake, independent of religious thought.

The Italian City State

Cristofano dell'Altissimo's Portrait of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1560-1605) depicts the de facto ruler of Florence.

The development of Renaissance Humanism was profoundly connected to the rise of the urban middle class in the Italian city-state, as shown in Florence's dubbing itself, "The New Athens." The Florentine republic, ruled by the merchant class rather than a hereditary monarch, saw itself as akin to the classical republics of Greece and Rome. The Medici family, who became the de facto and sometimes official rulers of Florence for the next two centuries, derived their great wealth from the textile trade and the local wool industry, but much of their influence throughout Italy and later Europe was based upon banking. In 1377 Giovanni di Bicci de Medici had founded the Medici Bank, the first "modern" bank, and various political alliances were formed in the following centuries, bankrolling noble families throughout Europe. Though Giovanni's son Cosimo never held an official office, in power and influence, he was, in effect, the ruler of the city. His view of his role was essentially humanistic, emphasizing knowledge, an aesthetic sense, and individualism, combined with civic power and pragmatic wealth. A noted collector of classical texts and patron of the scholars who studied and translated them, he was also the leading patron of the arts, and, believing in the power of a humanistic education, established the first public library. Private patronage, evincing a belief not only in the unique genius of an artist but of the exceptional knowledge and taste that commissioned the work, became a dominant factor. At the same time, as historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming noted, Renaissance Humanism introduced "the new idea of self-reliance and civic virtue - civic and mundane," which involved the populace on every level rather than the medieval models of contemplative religious life or chivalric knights and kings.

High Renaissance

Raphael's Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511) compellingly reveals the individual who dominated the age.

The term, High Renaissance, coined in the early 19th century, to denote the artistic pinnacle of the Renaissance, referred to the period from 1490-1527, defined by the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (known as Michelangelo), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (known as Raphael), and Donato Bramante. Humanism fueled the era's artistic achievement, as Pope Julius II envisioned Vatican City as the cultural center of Europe, reflecting the glories of Christendom and rivaling the splendor of ancient Rome. A leading art patron, he commissioned Raphael to paint religious and classical frescoes in his papal residence and Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, combining biblical scenes with figures taken from Greek mythology.

The widespread humanist belief in the ideal of the Renaissance man, and the artist as a genius, meant that the leading artists created masterworks in a number of fields, from painting to architecture to scientific invention to city planning. Michelangelo was profoundly influenced by the discovery of the classical sculpture Laocoon (c. 42-20 BC), an excavation he supervised under the Pope's patronage.

Northern European Renaissance

Hans Holbein the Younger's Portrait of Erasmus (1523) is as art historian Stephanie Buck wrote, “an idealized picture of a sensitive, highly cultivated scholar.”

In Northern Europe, while influenced by the Italians, Renaissance Humanism was primarily connected with the works of the Dutch Desiderius Erasmus and the German Conrad Celtis. A Catholic priest, Erasmus was called "the Prince of the Humanists," and his wide ranging work included new translations from Greek and Latin of The New Testament (1516), In Praise of Folly (1511) a satirical look at religion, and Adagia (1508) a collection of Latin and Greek proverbs. He argued for what he called "the middle way," a path bridging knowledge and faith, as well as Christianity and Humanism. Northern European Humanists had a great influence upon the development of the Protestant Reformation, as the emphasis on a person's pursuit of knowledge, reason, and a study of the liberal arts, extended into religion, developing a focus on the individual's relationship with God, rather than a mediating church. As a result less emphasis was given to classical texts and to classical subject matter, and the focus was often on ethics, the individual in society and community, and observation of the natural world and ordinary human life. Portraiture and self-portraiture, landscape painting, and genre scenes or elements, became distinguishing features of Northern European Renaissance art that was led by the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Jan van Eyck.

Concepts and Trends

Renaissance Man

The concept of the Renaissance Man was first advanced by the architect Leon Battista Alberti as he wrote of the Uomo Universale, or Universal Man, reflecting his belief that "a man can do all things if he will." The ancient Greeks, many of whom were polymaths excelling in philosophy, mathematics, engineering, and art, were seen as role models. Alberti himself exemplified the concept as he was also a leading poet, mathematician, scientist, classicist, cryptographer, and linguist and known for his physical prowess and skill as a horseman. As the critic James Beck wrote, "to single out one of Leon Battista's 'fields' over others as somehow functionally independent and self-sufficient is of no help at all to any effort to characterize Alberti's extensive explorations in the fine arts."

This facsimile from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus (1478-1519) shows his design, including water wheels and Archimedean screws, for an irrigation system.

Many of the Renaissance's leading artists excelled in a number of fields, as seen by Michelangelo's work in sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry, or Brunelleschi's architectural designs. Informed by his knowledge of mathematics, perspective, and engineering, Leonardo da Vinci became legendary as the model of the Renaissance Man. His discoveries crossed the fields of science, music, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, and cartography, being surpassed only by his artistic achievements. As art historian Helen Gardner wrote, "his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote." When Giorgio Vasari published his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), the ideal was further established and forever linked to the concept of the artist as an almost divinely inspired genius. Rather than skilled craftsmen, artists were seen as having an innate and exceptional gift that, driven by tireless curiosity and an inexhaustible creative imagination, could conquer any task.

At the same time, another effect was a valuing of the individual, irrespective of class or wealth, as the gift of genius could strike anywhere. The English Renaissance poet and playwright Shakespeare expressed this sentiment perfectly in Hamlet (1603): "What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals."


As the historian Paul Oscar Kristeller wrote, Humanists saw the classical legacy as "the common standard and model by which to guide all cultural activity." As the philosophy took hold, an emphasis on education in the humanities and the liberal arts spread throughout society. The word humanism originated in the Italian phrase, studia humanitatis, or study of human endeavors, introduced by Leonardo Bruni who wrote History of the Florentine People (1442), considered the first modern history book. He divided history into three periods: Antiquity, Middle Age, and Modern, and saw the Middle Age as a dark age, even though that era was defined and dominated by the Christian church. Humanism, combined with a study of classical texts, became a secularizing influence, developing a new curriculum that saw the modern age as awakening from a dark age to the light of antiquity.

Scientific Inquiry

Leonardo da Vinci's Studies of the Arm showing the Movements made by the Biceps (c.1510) is one of his many anatomical studies.

The dialogues of Plato introduced humanists to Socrates, who was famously reported to have said that he was the wisest of men only because he knew nothing. His philosophical method emphasized inquiry and challenging assumed knowledge with an ardent round of questioning. As a result, Humanism valued skepticism, enquiry, and scientific exploration, countering its other impulse toward reverence of antiquity. As a result, observation of natural phenomena and experimentation drove the humanists: for example artists including da Vinci and Michelangelo studied human anatomy, engaging in autopsies on corpses, even though forbidden by the Catholic church. Art and science became equally important and often codependent endeavors.

Later Developments

Many of the concepts of Renaissance Humanism, from its emphasis on the individual to its concept of the genius, the importance of education, the viability of the classics, and its simultaneous pursuit of art and science became foundational to Western culture. As a result, subsequent artistic eras often defined themselves in comparison or in reaction to the principles, subject matter, and aesthetic values and concepts of Humanism.

Mannerist painting, reacting against Renaissance Humanism's classical ideals of proportion and illusionistic space, created disproportionate figures in flat often-crowded settings with uncertain perspective. In contrast, the art of the Baroque period returned to classical principles of figuration and perspective, while emphasizing naturalistic rather than idealized treatments. Yet, both Mannerism and Baroque eras built upon the mythological subject matter of Humanism, though further secularizing it, and took individualism as a tenet that drove the movement toward the psychological and the idiosyncratic.

This back and forth continued in subsequent eras, as the Rococo period, known for its light-hearted and pastel depictions of the individual in aristocratic life or in genres focused on ordinary people was followed by the Neoclassical period, which, once again, emphasized the classical principles and heroic subject matter of ancient Rome. Nevertheless, the concepts of Renaissance Humanism continued to be foundational and were subsequently developed, as the spirit of experimentation, inquiry, and discovery fueled the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. Individualism developed into the feeling and imagination of the Romantic era, and, combined with the concept of the republic and civic virtue and public education, informed American independence and the French Revolution.

As historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming noted, Renaissance Humanism advanced "the new idea of self-reliance and civic virtue" among the common people, combined with a belief in the uniqueness, dignity, and value of human life. As historian Charles G. Nauert wrote, "this humanistic philosophy overthrew the social and economic restraints of feudal, pre-capitalist Europe, broke the power of the clergy, and discarded ethical restraints on politics...laid the foundations for the modern absolute, secular state and even for the remarkable growth of natural science."

Artists like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, and architects like Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Palladio, were viewed as masters informing subsequent generations of artists, whether reinterpreting their works or challenging them. For instance, Salvador Dalí revisited both Albrecht Dürer's iconic Rhinoceros print and da Vinci's Last Supper in Surrealist configurations. Cindy Sherman photographed herself in the pose of Caravaggio's Sick Bacchus, while Nat Krate has reconfigured da Vinci's work in her Vitruvian Woman (1989).

Key Artists

  • The architect and sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the foundational figures of the Italian Renaissance.
  • Botticelli's images represent the pinnacle of the cultural flourishing of Renaissance Florence, a prosperous society that epitomized beauty and virtue.
  • Universally lauded as one of the greatest artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci is known for his contributions to the Renaissance period in the form of portraits and religious paintings. Da Vinci was the eponymous "Renaissance Man," proficient not only in art, but also in mathematics, science, and technology.
  • Albrecht Dürer was a German painter and printmaker whose introduction of classical motifs whose iconic works secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance.
  • Michelangelo was the legendary Italian Renaissance artist famous for his sculpters of David and his Pieta, and he is perhaps best known for his large-scale painted frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
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Do Not Miss

  • Emphasizing drama and depth, the Renaissance techniques of Chiaroscuro, Tenebrism, and Sfumato allowed artists like Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt to illuminate visual narratives out from the shadows.
  • Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists rejuvenated the arts with a more humanistic and individualistic treatment that spawned on of the most creative revolutions in the arts.
  • The High Renaissance, the epitome of Italian art before the modern era was the exemplified in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael - among others.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Renaissance Humanism Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 19 Oct 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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