How did the Renaissance contribute to the development of new ideologies in Europe?
This new culture has been termed humanism by the 19th century scholars but it does not appear in the writings of the Renaissance period. There was a term called humanistic studies, meaning academic subjects favored by humanists. It may be noted that by the first half of the 15th century, the word ‘humanist’ designated masters who taught academic subjects like grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.
Earlier, Cicero had used humanists (humanities and arts) as a substitute for the Greek Paideia, or culture. He wanted to show that it was only human beings who were capable of this knowledge about their own selves.
While conceived as a new philosophy of life or a glorification of human nature in secular terms, Renaissance humanism eludes precise definition. More than a heightened sense of individualism, the main characteristic, was the new pattern of historical consciousness that occurred to 14th century poet Petrarch.
After many centuries of barbarian darkness, the sense of being deeply engaged in the restoration of true civilization is clearly rendered by Petrarch as well as Salutati, Poggio, Valla and Ficino to name a few. These are the leading personalities in the history of Italian humanism. They assumed that a dark age had set in after the decline of the Roman Empire due to the invasion of the barbarians.
Leonardo Bruni’s work covering the period from the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 A.D. to the writer’s own time betrayed this new sense of modernity. The newness of their age was entwined with a conscious imitation of the works of the ancient Greek and Roman writers. A certain consciousness of the novelty of their time turned the great figures of renaissance into believers in progress of the society.
A cultural and moral regeneration of Christian society was a dream of Petrarch. This new society was to be based on the union of eloquence and philosophy and hence had important implications for education. We can observe three types of schools other than the universities and schools conducted by religious orders exclusively for their own members in-late medieval and renaissance Italy.
Moreover, in many towns of northern Italy communal schools began to appear in the 13th century. These schools in small towns ensured that competent preparation for university study would be available for the sons of the ruling elites. It may be noted that despite the growth of humanism in the 14th century, the curriculum of these schools did not change much. Thus, the medieval curriculum aroused the contempt of Petrarch and virtually all later humanists.
During the renaissance a loosening control of religion over human life began. Thus, renaissance created conditions for the emergence of a secular ideology and focused on humanism. At this point, it is important to know how, and to what extent, this secular opening was created. It is true that humanism challenged the conventional authorities of the academic world but it did not necessarily imply that it posed a challenge to Christian faith or to Catholic orthodoxy.
For instance, Petrarch expressed doubts about his own spiritual beliefs, but he never doubted the truth of Christianity. Similarly, Salutati did support the active secular life for most people and followed that course in his own life, but he still respected the monastic ideals. Moreover, he and his’ family were attached to a revivalist movement in the 1390s which was based on traditional forms of devotion.
Thus, the interpretation of the inherent and general religiosity of Renaissance humanism is to a large extent a contribution of 19th century historiography. It is true that renaissance Italians were strongly attracted to material wealth, to power, and to glory but those who preferred to live a happy and successful life were not necessarily irreligious, even though humanism as a culture of the talented urban people in the wealthy Italian town was giving rise to a secular morality.
As a result of such intellectual interest, the humanists were able to develop a new understanding of man in society. The moral basis of this ideal was derived from the belief in man’s capacity to understand truth on the strength of his reason and worldly sense.
The intellectuals of the renaissance had inherited this idea from classical learning. Machiavelli believed that pursuit of glory was a perfectly human virtue. In the work of the historian Buckhardt, we find about the development of the individual as an-aspect ofthis new consciousness, attributing this to the material life and political culture of the Italian city states. We learn that this new consciousness created the ideal of the universal man where the individual personality and private achievements of the individual were recognized.
In addition to the pursuit of glory, the self-development of an individual personality through cultivation of ‘arts and sciences’ emerged as another social ideal. This introduced a great flowering of creative activity. The other side of the same coin was the cult of artistic personality an ideal which figures prominently in Vasari’s Lives who linked artistic excellence to a psychology of achievement.
Similarly, Plutarch had presented before the humanists a vision of man in society whose achievements were results of their pursuit of glory and entwined with a certain conception of virtue. The idea was attractive and powerful because of its intense realism.
Apart from the secularist and individualist .aspects of humanism, the Renaissance is also realistic. For instance, attempts in paintings were made to represent everything as it appeared. Earlier, realism was not totally absent but had been relatively unimportant. In the first phases of humanist culture (in the 14th and 15th centuries), painters increasingly attempted to reproduce reality, casting ‘off preconceived ideas _about what was morally or religiously acceptable.
Moreover, in sculpture also people were individualized, with recognizable faces, whereas the art of the preceding centuries had been a component of an architectural background.
In the changed context sculpted images presented man according to his newly-won vision of himself as an independent and free personality, displaying a certain pride in the beauty of the body, both the male and, in view of the conventions of the preceding age, the female too. Even women now seemed to regain some stature as an individual person, in whose body the perfection of God’s creation was made as visible as in the male.
With trade and travel, military conquest and diplomatic contacts, the new culture of the Italian towns and courts was linked with the world beyond. Humanism and the Renaissance were elite phenomena for both south and north of the Alps.