Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.08

Patrick Baker, Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror. Ideas in Context, 114.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. ix, 335.  ISBN 9781107111868.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Marianne Pade, Danish Academy at Rome (

Publisher's Preview

Humanists have been called the protagonists of the Renaissance. Even so, ever since the middle of the last century, scholars have been in disagreement about how to characterise Renaissance humanism. Moroever, there have been acrimonious arguments regarding the very concept of the Renaissance, to the point where it has even been questioned whether it is in fact meaningful to use the term about the period of European history that began around the middle of the fourteenth and ended roughly three hundred years later, depending on which part of Europe we look at. In view of the vast literature on these questions, and of the heated debates that have unfolded over the years, it is courageous to make yet another attempt at capturing the essence of Renaissance humanism, yet this is exactly what Patrick Baker sets out to do in this learned, thought-provoking and well-written book.

Baker maintains “that no broad study has yet been undertaken into what humanists thought humanism was” (p. 3)—and to my knowledge he is right. Through a series of close textual studies, Baker attempts to reconstruct humanist identity by asking what humanists thought was important about humanism, how they viewed their own history, what goals they formulated, and what triumphs they celebrated. Sources for the humanists’ views on these matters are easy to come by, as their letters, prefaces and dedications, ceremonial speeches, biographies and works of history are filled with meta-criticism and comments on the content, nature, and progress of humanism. Baker has wisely chosen to focus on a well-defined corpus of texts, namely a handful of treatises, biographical collections, and dialogues that provide global accounts of the humanist movement. These accounts began to appear during the fourth decade of the fifteenth century.

Baker’s text-driven approach, the way he pays attention to what humanists thought was important about what they were doing, has the advantage of emphasizing essential characteristics of humanism, of focusing on what humanists themselves discerned as central to their identity. His close reading of programmatic passages contained in his corpus shows how the revival of classical Latinity is central to the humanists’ project. It was, so to speak, the point of departure for a broader cultural and moral programme and thus in a way inverse to our understanding of the mechanisms of civilization: “Whereas we tend to view cultural excellence as the product of social stability, economic prosperity, political power, and military might, the humanists believed it to be the premise to these latter conditions” (p. 5).

Baker’s claim—“that no broad study has yet been undertaken into what humanists thought humanism was”—may seem surprising, as it is a commonplace of historical method that any object of inquiry must first be understood on its own terms before it can be understood on ours. In spite of this, post-World War II scholarship on Renaissance humanism has often reflected contemporary concerns to an alarming degree, and scholars have seen humanists in turn as fervent republicanists, educational and moral reformers, and as participants in a professional movement of novi homines attached to the disciplines that comprised the studia humanitatis.

The introduction to the book (pp. 1-35), contains a well-read, critical Forschungsbericht where Baker presents the more influential historiography of the Renaissance and Renaissance humanism from the last 150 years and with admirable clarity identifies the greater currents in this ocean of scholarship. The panoramic overview begins with Georg Voigt’s Die Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums, oder, Das erste Jahrhundert des Humanismus (1859/1893) and then goes on to discuss Jacob Burckhardt’s Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860) and the works of scholars such as Hans Baron, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Eugenio Garin, Paul Grendler, Robert Black, Hanna Holborn Gray, Ronald G. Witt, Christopher G. Celenza. Though all these scholars discuss Renaissance humanism, according to Baker only two studies have been specifically devoted to the self-conception of the humanists, Charles Trinkaus’ 1960 article on Bartolomeo della Fonte’s inaugural orations at the University of Florence in the 1480s, (“A Humanist's Image of Humanism: The Inaugural Orations of Bartolommeo della Fonte,”  Studies in the Renaissance  7, no.  (1960): 90-147) and John M. McManamon’s Funeral Oratory and the Cultural Ideals of Italian Humanism (1989). Baker notices the broad and unsatisfying split between Italian and Anglo-American scholarship and concludes that the vast differences between the various schools of thought suggest that the definition of humanism is today as open a question as it was when first taken up.

At the end of the introduction Baker addresses the terminological problem that all students of Renaissance humanism face, namely that humanists did not actually call themselves “humanists” but instead employed a wide variety of words such as oratores, poetae, and litterati. The term is now often used for the sake of convenience, though it is both anachronistic and easily comes to convey notions of vague human values or humanitarianism. To solve this problem, Baker proposes to compile a lexicon of the terms humanists did use. But who counts as a humanist? Baker here seems to have landed in a hopeless terminological conundrum, but as he points out, both modern scholars and the humanists themselves have normally agreed as to who made up the core group of the movement. Among them are the six authors whose writings constitute Baker’s corpus, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Biondo Flavio, Bartolomeo Facio, Gianozzo Manetti, Paolo Cortesi, and Marcantonio Sabellico.

Baker discusses these authors in the four central chapters of the book, Ch. 1 “The renaissance of eloquence”, Ch. 2 “The scholastic studia humanitatis and the hagiography of humanism”, Ch. 3 “The triumph of Cicero”, and Ch. 4 “Philology, printing, and the perfection of humanism”, summing up his results in Chapter 5, “Humanism in the mirror”. The main body of the book is followed by an appendix on “The pantheon of humanism” that enumerates the humanists treated in the sources for Baker’s study. After the bibliography, follows the useful index of names and core concepts`.

In the first chapter, Baker focuses on three thematically related texts from the 1440s and 1450s, Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s and Bartolomeo Facio’s De viris illustribus and Biondo Flavio’s Italia illustrata. They depict humanism as a movement for the revival of classical, especially Ciceronian, Latin, nurturing a more general interest in the arts and culture of classical antiquity. The next chapter considers Giannozzo Manetti’s writings, thus providing a Florentine view on humanism that surprisingly—at least to this reader—turns out to be less representative of broader trends than much previous scholarship has led us to expect. Aspects that make Manetti different from the other authors considered in the book, are an interest in vernacular poetry, a concern for spirituality, and the striving for Christian virtue. He is also less eager to distance humanism from scholasticism. The two following chapters deal with two influential texts from the end of the 1480s, namely Paolo Cortesi’s De hominibus doctis and Marcantonio Sabellico’s De latinae linguae reparatione. As Cicero did in his Brutus, the two authors describe the work of their humanist predecessors as evolutionary stages on the way to the triumphant Latinate humanism of their own day that resulted from the restoration of classical Latin eloquence. In Chapter 5, Baker then attempts to arrive at a synthesis regarding humanist self-conception in fifteenth-century Italy by comparing the various views of humanism presented in the previous chapters. His object is to identify the shared traits that the humanists themselves mention as central to their identity as humanists. And as Baker points out, the humanists’ own accounts of the movement differ greatly from most modern interpretations. They did not describe humanism as a political ideology, a philosophy of life, or a vision of man; instead they saw humanism primarily as a linguistic enterprise, as the attempt to restore classical Latinity and reconquer Latin eloquence. The pursuit of eloquence was of course motivated by a desire to equal the greatness of classical, especially Roman antiquity and, as was the case in classical times, implicitly comprised assumptions about human and cultural excellence. For the authors treated by Baker in the book the implications of this vary: for some it meant a renewal of a backward and barbarous Italy, for others the pursuit of eloquence was the path to personal moral perfection, whereas still others saw the humanist project as a way to achieve a common Italian cultural identity that might even lead to a reversal of Italy’s political decline.

In an important subchapter on “The language of humanism” (pp. 238-240), Baker focuses on the Latin terms used by humanists to describe themselves. In the corpus of texts examined by him, humanists most consistently called themselves oratores and poetae (the latter term only about writers of poetry); other terms were homines docti and litterati. They called humanism, or their own core activities, “studia eloquentiae and studia doctrinae (Cortesi), studia litterarum (Piccolomini and Manetti), bonae litterae (Biondo and Sabellico), bonae artes (Facio, Manetti, Cortesi), honestissimae artes (Cortesi), at times even studia humanitatis.” (p. 229). Baker here seems part of a trend that could be called ‘the language turn’ of Neo-Latin studies. For far too long Neo-Latin has been viewed as a second-rate copy of classical Latin and thus devoid of linguistic interest. However, during the last couple of decades this has gradually started to change. More systematic lexicographical work on Neo-Latin began with René Hoven’s 1994 Lexique de la prose latine de la Renaissance. Johann Ramminger’s Neulateinische Wortliste: Ein Wörterbuch des Lateinischen von Petrarca bis 1700 went online in 2003 and is constantly updated—and much work is being done on specific aspects of Neo-Latin lexicon, though publications on Neo-Latin syntax are scarce. Because of Baker’s attention to the Latin vocabulary of his sources it would have been interesting if he had done more to relate his findings to recent work on Neo-Latin. If, for instance, he had consulted the lemma humanistas in the Neulateinische Wortliste (compiled by the present author, 2010), instead of Ernout and Meillet, Dictionnaire etymologique de la langue latine (4th ed. 1967), he would undoubtedly have noticed how widely the term studia humanitatis was used by fifteenth-century humanists. But this is a minor point.

Obviously, Baker’s corpus is limited in its scope, and further research may produce differently nuanced results. However, with his methodologically stringent approach, his familitarity with the huge literature on fifteenth-century Italian humanism, and his mastery of the Latin sources, Patrick Baker actually achieves what he set out to do, namely to offer us a new and stimulating answer to an old and vexing question: how to define the essence of Renaissance humanism? I recommend his book to all students of Italian Renaissance humanism.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010