The defining concept of the Renaissance was humanism, a literary movement that began in Italy during the fourteenth century. Humanism was a distinct movement because it broke from the medieval tradition of having pious religious motivation for creating art or works of literature. Humanist writers were concerned with worldly or secular subjects rather than strictly religious themes. Such emphasis on secularism was the result of a more materialistic view of the world. Unlike the Medieval Era, Renaissance people were concerned with money and the enjoyment of life and all its worldly pleasures. Humanist writers glorified the individual and believed that man was the measure of all things and had unlimited potential.

Humanism had far-reaching effects throughout Italy and Europe. The advent of humanism ended the church dominance of written history. Humanist writers secularized the view of history by writing from a nonreligious viewpoint.

The Humanists also had a great effect on education. They believed that education stimulated the creative powers of the individual. They supported studying grammar, poetry, and history, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and music. Humanists promoted the concept of the well-rounded, or Renaissance man, who was proficient in both intellectual and physical endeavors.

Humanist writers sought to understand human nature through a study of classical writers such as Plato and Aristotle. They believed that the classical writers of Ancient Greece and Rome could teach important ideas about life, love, and beauty. The revival of interest in the classical models of Greece and Rome was centered primarily among the educated people of the Italian city-states and focused on literature and writing.

During the Middle Ages in Western Europe, Latin was the language of the Church and the educated people. The Humanist writers began to use the vernacular, the national languages of a country, in addition to Latin.

Some important Italian Humanists are:

  • Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) was an Italian who lived in Florence and who expressed in his writings the belief that there were no limits to what man could accomplish.

  • Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch (1304-1374) was the Father of Humanism, a Florentine who spent his youth in Tuscany and lived in Milan and Venice. He was a collector of old manuscripts and through his efforts the speeches of Cicero and the poems of Homer and Virgil became known to Western Europe. Petrarch's works also led to the rise of people known as Civic Humanists, or those individuals who were civic-minded and looked to the governments of the ancient worlds for inspiration. Petrarch also wrote sonnets in Italian. Many of these sonnets expressed his love for the beautiful Laura. His sonnets greatly influenced other writers of the time.

  • Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444), who wrote a biography of Cicero, encouraged people to become active in the political as well as the cultural life of their cities. He was a historian who today is most famous for The History of the Florentine Peoples, a 12-volume work. He was also the Chancellor of Florence from 1427 until 1444.

  • Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote The Decameron. These hundred short stories were related by a group of young men and women who fled to a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death. Boccaccio's work is considered to be the best prose of the Renaissance.

  • Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) wrote one of the most widely read books, The Courtier, which set forth the criteria on how to be the ideal Renaissance man. Castiglione's ideal courtier was a well-educated, mannered aristocrat who was a master in many fields from poetry to music to sports.

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