Before the Italian Renaissance, the education system in Europe was controlled by the Latin Church, which basically taught mostly religious doctrine. Then, beginning in the 1300’s, many scholars began to discover classic works by the likes of Plato and especially Cicero. Cicero, who was a Roman philosopher and statesman, studied something he called “humane studies.” Cicero influenced Francesco Petrarch, who started the renaissance revival of antiquity, when he discovered his lost letters. Petrarch also had a huge impact on many other people to come along later such as Boccaccio and Salutati. These humanists and many others thought that the medieval program of studies taught too much doctrine. Their goal was to establish a more classical program of studies and they saw themselves as reviving the ancient texts when they found and translated them. The humanists did not agree with the teachings of the university professors and they challenged their system at every level. They had their own ideas about the texts that should form the core of the humanist curriculum, which was based on Cicero’s studies. They were the subjects of grammar- specifically the scientific study of grammar which is called philology. Rhetoric- the art of speaking eloquently which would become crucially important especially in public speaking. Poetry- the purest form of literary expression and through poetry the inner-self can be released. History- they were very conscious of themselves being separate from medieval times. And ethics- which would be at the core of the renaissance humanist studies and covered all four above in a deeper sense. The people who studied this curriculum and the classics became to be known as “humanists.” They developed this new type of classical scholarship in which they tried to understand and translate the works of the Greeks and Romans. The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life. Their scholarship was one of the main factors in the start of the Renaissance.
After humanism had established itself as a formidable type of studies and it began to spread throughout Europe mainly by the traveling of these humanist scholars to and from Italy and the traveling of interested foreigners to Italy to see what all of the fuss was about. According to Dr. Peter Burke, “ The expatriate humanists were not missionaries and they did not particularly want to leave Italy. What geographers call the “push” factor was more important than the “pull” of foreign countries ” (4). Which means that some humanist left Italy because they were forced to. For example, two conspiracies forced Filippo Buonaccorsi and Luigi Alamanni out of Italy. Filippo was involved in a conspiracy against Pope Paul II and was forced to leave to Poland where he became very famous. Luigi was forced out of Florence for being involved in a conspiracy against the Medici family and fled to France to serve in Francis I court. Both went on to be successes in other countries because of their humanist training, which was becoming very desirable for the higher classes of people to learn in other European countries. Celio Secundo Curione wasn’t a conspirator but left for Switzerland in 1542 for fear of religious persecution. Burke said that “ Curion, an apparent Anabaptist, taught classics at Basel and translated Guicciardini’s History of Italy into Latin”(5). Making his contribution as a humanist. But most Italian humanists weren’t forced out of Italy but instead left for there own reasons. Many of them left to search for manuscripts because the discovery and translating of ancient manuscripts made them feel as if they were reviving these ancient texts. For example, Salutati, the humanist who was greatly influenced by Petrarch, found Cicero’s Familiar Letter’s. It was important for them to separate themselves from medieval period and translating and understanding these manuscripts helped them to do that. Some of these humanists who went to search for manuscripts included Poggio, Angelo Decembrio, and Pandolfo Collenuccio.
Several of the established Universities in Europe such as The University of Paris, Oxford University, and Cambridge University were able to attract some humanists to their respected schools to become teachers or lecturers. But none of the truly great humanists made the trek to go and teach. “Stefano Surigone of Milan and Lorenzo Traversagni of Savona” were among the humanists to do this. Burke does say that “ with the exception of the elder Beroaldo and Girolamo Aleandro, no first-rate humanist went to teach outside of Italy or served on a foreign court”(5). Even though there weren’t many first-rate humanists invited to teach abroad, many second-rate humanists were, which shows that there was an interest in humanism and its ideas during the period in many parts of Europe: from England to France to Germany. Many of the leading scholars of the day were invited to foreign courts to “teach their children, look after their books, and praise their achievements in Latin”, say’s Burke (6). The example of King Mathias Corvinus of Hungary who had a humanist education is a good one to show how many rulers were interested in inviting Italian humanists to their courts. He continues, “Mathias tried to attract Ficino to Hungary. The attempt was unsuccessful, but a friend of Ficino’s Francesco Bandini, did enter the king’s service. He also invited several other humanists to his court for various other jobs including, a librarian and someone else to write a history of his country. Henry VII and Francis I also commissioned Italian humanists to do similar jobs that Mathias had done. Mathias’s has been praised for his having brought “ the most men of Italy to Hungary”(6). Italian humanists were also convinced to travel abroad by local aristocrats that convinced them that it would be best for there careers. Leonardo Bruni was invited to England. Also, nobleman who had made their acquaintance while in Sicily invited Lucio Marineo and Pietro Martire d’Anghiera to Spain.
Humanism’s spread can’t be explained by just humanists leaving Italy to spread their knowledge abroad but also by the amount of foreigners that came to Italy during this period. One hundred and thirty two visitors came to Italy during this time including soldiers, merchants, diplomats, artists, and other scholars. Burke illustrates,” The curve of visitors is worth noting fourteen visitors in the first half of the fifteenth century, 44 between 1450 and 1499, a peak of 63 between 1500 and 1549, and between 20-30 from 1550 to1600” (7). Many of these visitors came to Italy to learn the humanist scholarship from the leading humanist that taught at several universities including, “the University of Pavia, the University of Ferrara, the University of Bologna, and especially the University of Padua.” Willibald Pirckheimer attended the University of Padua and is one of the most famous German humanists. In some cases, students would be sent to Italy to study canon law, which was common, but became interested in the humanist scholarship after meeting a humanist and changed their minds and later became humanists. The most famous example is that of Petrarch, which I explained in the first paragraph. Spitz had the example of, “ Rudolf Agricola from the Netherlands went to Italy in 1468 and began studying law at the University of Pavia but later moved to the University of Ferrara to engage in the studia humanitatis”( p.406). Several others who abandoned law for humanistic studies include Henrique Caiado, Conrad Mutianus, and Ulrich von Hutton who was a big supporter of Martin Luther. Hutton decided to change his program of studies after discovering the works of Lucian and Mutianus after discovering Plato. Other visitors to Italy that didn’t come to Italy to go to school usually came on diplomatic missions. While on the course of their mission they would meet a humanist and become interested in their ideas and also get books written by famous humanists. Robert Gaguin, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, and Sir Thomas Wyatt the famous poet.
There aren’t many records of visitor’s reactions to Renaissance Italy but one important one is that of Erasmus. Burke writes, “A letter of 1506 explains that he went to Italy to learn Greek. Years later, he laid more emphasis on the opportunity to visit libraries and scholars. Toward the end of his life, he declared the he had already wanted to visit Italy when he was seventeen, and contrasted the Italian learning of that time with the ‘“horrid barbarism”’ of the north”(8). Agricola also wrote a letter from the University of Pavia saying that, “ the holiest, greatest, and most serious men of genius were to be found in Italy.” It is evident that many of the foreign visitors to Italy were very impressed by the ideas that were expressed by the Italian humanists. In fact, many of them took books home with them. In many foreign libraries their are works by Italian scholar’s, which shows that Italian humanism did have an influence in other countries.
So far, I have been trying to explain the spread of Italian humanism by citing examples of humanist scholars leaving Italy for various reasons from exile to teaching. Also by showing examples of foreigners coming to Italy to continue there education and getting hooked on humanism. But not every visitor who came to Italy returned home converted to humanism. Italian humanists didn’t have support from everyone. Many writers and scholars throughout Europe were not interested in the humanistic movement. “It is important not to forget the existence of opposition, which was as much an obstacle to the dissemination of their ideas as the physical difficulties of communication”, comments Overfield (p 120-23). The communication obstacle is an obvious one. There weren’t any telephones to talk over long distances or computers to write down their ideas and until the invention of the printing press, no way to copy work and get it to large audiences. Without the invention of the printing press the spread of Renaissance and Reformation culture probably wouldn’t have spread to such a large audience. Communication was a major obstacle but Italian humanists also faced very strong opposition from scholars and teachers from other European Universities such as the University of Vienna, the University of Cologne, and the University of Paris. They didn’t like the scholarship that humanists taught especially the rhetoric and poetry which Overfield comments they thought they were “studies in vanity”(123). This academic opposition seemed to accompany the Protestant Reformation, which was especially hostile toward Italy since it held Rome, where the headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church is located. Given this information it’s not hard to see why Italian humanists had such a hard time getting their ideas heard during this period. Although the Reformation and the academic opposition from abroad did hamper the spread of Italian humanism it didn’t stop the movement. As a matter of fact, Martin Luther, who inspired and led the revolt against the Catholic Church and led the Protestant Reformation, actually encouraged efforts to establish a humanist curriculum at the University of Wittenburg. Luther was never a full-fledged humanist but he believed, “that the revival of antiquity was a necessary precondition of the Reformation” admits Dickens (Ch 3). The humanists did suffer a major defeat at the Council of Trent in 1563, where their translation of the bible from Greek to Hebrew was replaced by the Vulgate as the official translation. Also the Index of Prohibited Books held many important works by Italian humanists including Erasmus, known for his criticism of the church and thought to many as the most respected northern humanist of the 16th century. But even with all these things to overcome, Burke notes, “humanism did continue to appear in new books and to be taught in grammar schools from Rome to Geneva”(18). The Jesuit schools also embraced the importance of the classics in their curriculum. “They recognized that humanism had come to stay. So they mastered it, drained it of its dangerous content, and turned it into a decorative learning for the Roman Church and the Christian Prince,” writes Trevor-Roper (p.229). The Jesuit’s interest in the classics shows that humanism had finally made it through the negativity they faced with the same group earlier because they thought that some of their ideas were dangerous.
Humanism and Italian culture continued to spread through the Low Countries (Netherlands, Switzerland), into France, Germany, and the Iberian Peninsula. And finally over into England, where the fascination for Italian culture can be shown in several of William Shakespeare’s plays set in Renaissance Italy, such as, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Romeo & Juliet. Finally, Renaissance humanists had reached the goals that they had established when Petrarch and Boccaccio first started getting noticed. They were to establish a literary scholarship as a form of studies, to train individuals apart from the religious aspect of studies, the stress of classical studies, and to give a sense of identity to their own culture. Humanism spread through Europe rather quickly considering there weren’t really any ways to spread information until the invention of the printing press. It’s a miracle that it didn’t just fizzle out early in the 16th century.