BMCR 2020.03.54

The reception of antiquity in Renaissance humanism

, The reception of antiquity in Renaissance humanism. Brill's New Pauly - Supplements, 8. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2018. xxiv, 548 p.. ISBN 9789004299924. €261,00.

After the list of the numerous contributors of the book, the volume offers an “Introduction”, followed by the useful “Notes to the User”, explaining how the book can be read, particularly its system of internal references with arrows and brackets, which refer to many other articles or names and to the bibliography in the volume. After the lists of “Abbreviations” and “Illustrations” come the articles themselves, from “Academy” to “Jakob Wimplefing”. At the end of the book, the reader finds three very complete indexes of “Persons”, “Places”, and “Subjects”.

In the Introduction, the authors give a definition of the historical and cultural concept of “Renaissance Humanism”. “Renaissance” is understood as a wide historical period spanning three centuries (1350-1650), which is seen not as the revival of pagan Antiquity but as the first phase of the Western European modern period. This period begins with the dissolution of the medieval monarchy and the appearance of a new political order and ends with the setting up of absolutism. Even though this period “resists clear periodization”, it has given birth to “epoch names” in the field of the history of art based on style which are still operational, so that the “Renaissance” can be divided into four, or rather three moments, if we decide to leave “Proto-Renaissance” (14th century, with Giotto and his “imitation of nature”), aside: “Early Renaissance” (15th century, regarded as a “combination of antique and traditional medieval elements”), “High Renaissance” (the first three decades of the 16th century, and the “ability to imitate reality in or through art in accordance with ancient ideas”), and “Late Renaissance” (the second part of the 16th century, from 1530 onwards—the period of Mannerism and the Baroque which distanced themselves from “the classical codex of norms”).

The cultural concept of “Humanism” emerges in this long period of time, and is treated here as a movement which embraces all the spheres of culture that were determined by the reception of Antiquity: this concept is not reduced to education and must be distinguished from medieval Latin humanism, which is still dependent, according to the authors, on dogma and the Church. Emerging at the same time as the “Renaissance”, the concept of “Humanism” was born with Petrarch (1304-1374), who obviously had his own approach: despite the survival of medieval forms, of which he was perfectly conscious, the sceptic Florentine poet paved the way for a new education, trying to replace the Christian one with the studia humanitatis and to develop a more comprehensive field of matters and disciplines: that is to say, literature, architecture, art, philosophy and other sciences. After this first “Humanism” period (which begins with Petrarch and goes on until the end of the 15th century), a second one emerges, in the first half of the 16th century, with the appearance of the Reformation (“the Humanism of the High Renaissance”), and a third and last one, in the second half of the 16th century (“Late Humanism”). This cultural movement, in perpetual rivalry with several factors stemming from medieval culture but also riveted to the elites because of the importance of the Latin language, finally died for internal and external reasons: among them, we can mention the obligation of the humanists to be in the service of rich protectors or institutions and their incapacity to remain independent, the crisis of religion and the victory of Christianity over “Humanism”, and, finally, the development of medicine and new sciences which deeply questioned “book knowledge”.

Both the periodization of the Renaissance and definition of Humanism could give the impression that well-known problems in both are not considered; nevertheless, the numerous and very well-informed entries or articles reveal the richness and complexity of the intricate relationship of the two concepts in relation to the Ancient World.[2] Far from simplifying the issue, the book gives a subtle and informed idea of the evolving place of Latin and Greek languages, literatures and cultures in this long “Renaissance” period.

There are three types of entries: “Topics”, “Persons”, and “Places”. As far as the “Topics” are concerned, the presentation of the lemma varies in accordance with the subjects, whose specificity cannot always be treated in the same way. For example, the lemma “Music” is interesting because of the importance of music in the humanist world and because, at least at the beginning of the period, the ancient musical sources had not yet been discovered, so that it could be difficult to explain what part ancient music played during the Renaissance and, consequently, to devote much of the lemma to Antiquity. This explains why the article is composed of four parts that are not directly connected with the Ancient world: “Music and Humanism”, “Music in the Humanist Thought”, “Musical Theory” and “Composition Practice”. Nevertheless, the humanists themselves (Ficino, among them) did not overlook the influence of Antiquity on the music of their time, and recognized that the ancient texts, as they came to light, had a deep influence on Renaissance music. So, each part of the lemma manages to include all that had been said about music in the ancient texts as they were being discovered. This is a first type of topic: a subject or theme shared by the two periods but not really mastered in the Renaissance because of an apparent lack of sources.

A second type of topic is solely the Renaissance one, like “Discovery, Rediscovery”. Its relationship to Antiquity is so great that the theme must be meticulously treated by several specialized authors within the same article: the discovery/rediscovery of “Greek literature”, of “Latin literature”, of “Ancient architecture” and of “Ancient art”. As a consequence, a third type of topic, which specifically belongs to Antiquity, like “Greek”, for example, gets several entries: “Greek”, “Discovery, Rediscovery”, or even “Translation”. This implies a very precise and complete treatment of the theme across the book.

In general, most of the lemmata follow a well-established framework that can be easily recognized by the reader. For most topics, the plan is more or less the following: definition or concept and ancient origins; “Renaissance” theory and method; practice and evolution over the course of time. If the topic was already present during Antiquity, the reader can follow its whole development, its importance during the “Renaissance” and the new directions and perspectives implied by the period. If the topic is very complex and rich, the authors decided to treat it in several articles. For example, “Architecture” is such a rich entry that its specific lemma is not only very long and thoroughly discussed but also connected to other lemmata, which are indicated to the reader with an arrow: “Architectural ornament”, “Architectural theory”, “Bridge architecture”, “Discovery, Rediscovery”, “Religious architecture”, “Palace architecture”. This modus operandi is expected because of the encyclopedic approach of the volume. Thus, the reader accesses very reliable and thorough information on a topic, and above all a more complex approach to the two basic concepts, “Humanism” and “Renaissance”.

A slight reservation may be made, insofar as the authors (most of them German) decided to point out the importance of “Renaissance Humanism” in Italy and in the Northern countries, with less interest in a more Western European Humanism (English, French and Spanish). For example, out of nearly fifty personalities who get their own lemma, four are from England, three from France, none from Spain—to say nothing of the startling absence of women, since only Olympia Fulvia Morata (1526-1555), who was born in Italy and died in Germany, is present. A reader might wonder why Shakespeare has his own lemma and not Montaigne. The same remark can be made concerning the “Places”: out of the twelve cities chosen for an entry, six cities belong to the German or Flemish area (Augsburg, Basel, Erfurt, Leiden, Leuven, Vienna), four belong to Italy (Florence, Mantua, Rome, Venice) and only two to England (London, Oxford).

Despite this reservation, the volume is a very important contribution to our knowledge of the period and of European humanism. It is an indispensable tool for all readers, from the passionate and curious to the specialists and researchers.


[1] Der Neue Pauly Supplemente 9. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung & C. E. Poeschel Verlag Gmbh, 2014.

[2] As has been well-shown by Jean-Marie Le Gall, Défense et Illustration de la Renaissance, (Paris, PUF, 2018), who sums up all the reproaches levelled at the “Renaissance”; two of the major problems raised by this very complex and tormented period are periodization in relation to the Middle Ages and the significance of “Humanism.”