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An Exploration of Renaissance Humanism in Relation to Art

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With the nailing of the ‘Ninety-five Theses’ upon the Wittenberg Cathedral by the German monk Martin Luther, an uprising against the Catholic Church was raised. Soon, people began to really question the Catholic Church’s almost dictatorial attitudes, and the Protestant religion was created. Bearing its roots from the word ‘protest’, the new religion and its protest was facilitated by the invention of the printing press, which was present in every city, and too the younger generation of students who were increasingly attending heterodox universities/schools.

With inceptors of the Protestant Reformation requiring support, soon patronage was sought and later found in the form of lords, barons, and members of the upper classes. This could probably be considered a short-term effect of the Protestant Reformation; the shift in power and the increase of secular beliefs. Furthermore, one of the more overt long-term effects is the creation of new Christian religions apart from Catholicism, such as Anglicanism. Too, dissent pertaining religious orientation amongst countries’ people increased significantly, one of the main causes for the Thirty Years’ War.

Johannes Gutenberg (b. 1400, d. 1468) lived in the Holy Roman Empire in the electorate of Mainz during the early Renaissance period. Largely credited with the invention in c. 1440 of the mechanical movable type printing press, he was instrumental in the development of the Age of Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution. Fifty-four years later, Aldus Manutius, a Venetian scholar, humanist, and educator, founded the Aldine Press, which published several famous works, such as a five-volume folio edition of Aristotle. Thus, Manutius initiated the printing of books in Venice, with Latin and Greek texts able to be published in growing numbers to constitute the Italian Renaissance, instigating a great emphasis upon classicism and understanding of ancient texts amongst scholars.

Furthermore, early works published by the Aldine Press did not include many religious works. Instead, the literature of the Italian Renaissance drew much from science and philosophy, both developing fields at the time. An instrumental man pertaining humanism in the early Italian Renaissance was Francesco Petrarch. Regarded by many as the ‘father of the Renaissance’, his most prominent work Secretum meum, notes that the vast human intellectual and creative potential was bestowed by God to be used to its fullest, irrespective of secular achievements. This introspective thinking greatly influenced the nascent development of humanism throughout the Italian Renaissance, contributing to other great works such as those of Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch’s disciple.

Politics too was influenced greatly by the mass production of the printing press throughout Italy, as scholars sought to make use of the ancient and emerging texts now at their disposal. One such scholar was Niccolò Machiavelli (b. 1469, d. 1527), who lived in the Republic of Florence. His most famous work, The Prince, which was dedicated to the patriarch (at the time) of the renowned Medici family, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, gained much attention due to its rather revolutionary views on politics republicanism. In his book, it is suggested that the ‘new leader ’ must carefully balance the greater interests of the people, and his controversial consequentialist view of “the end justifies the means” is still debated about today. In the end, The Prince was banned by the Catholic Church due to its controversial views and analysis of politics, as it was placed on the Index Liborum Prohibitorum.

A prominent Italian banking family and political dynasty, the House of Medici originated in modern-day Tuscany. The Medici family ruled the signoria of Florence, at the time a region of much growth in the arts field, supporting the Pope, however, this had not always been the case. Only with the prospering of the Medici bank, founded by Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, did the family rise to a noble and lordly status. This enabled the Medici family to gain control of not only the region of Florence but arguably more importantly, the region’s economy too. With the Renaissance being a time of ‘new birth’, re-discovery of classical elements, and the invention of new ones, the Medici family was in a prime position to capitalise upon their upper socio-economic status, through patronage.

By the year 1469, Lorenzo de’ Medici had become the head of the Medici bank, and sought to divert from previous methods of operation. This meant ‘abandoning’ the family banking business, which would later lead to the decline of the Medici bank and too the House of Medici, and rather, developing the vast patronage network whose foundations were laid by his grandfather, Cosimo. Lorenzo created a Humanist academy, along neo-Platonic lines, in Florence, which Michelangelo attended, in effect ‘carving’ the superb artists and sculptors of the near future. Leonardo da Vinci even lived with the Medici family during 1480 and enjoyed the security of patronage for the entirety of his life. Works by prolific and prominent artists and sculptors, such as Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo, were all commissioned by Lorenzo; the mark he has left upon Renaissance art as it is now considered in the modern world is indelible. It is hard to imagine the modern world without great works of Renaissance art, and hence it is hard to imagine the modern world without Lorenzo de’ Medici and indeed the Medici family.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Humanism’ as: n. Frequently with capital initial. A European intellectual movement or climate of thought from the 14th to the 16th cent., which was characterised in scholarship by attentiveness to classical Latin (and later Greek), in neo-Latin and vernacular literature by the creative imitation of ancient texts, in education and public life by the promotion of some or all of the wide range of cultural ideals which these texts were supposed to transmit, and in the fine and applied arts by creative response to Roman and Greek artefacts or principles.

This was to be attained through the studia humanitatis, the Latin for ‘the study of humanities’, in modern terms, grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. As mentioned in Part B of this Extended Investigation, Petrarch, a member of the Early Renaissance, is regarded as the Father of Humanism, due to his dedication and ‘reverence’ of ancient Roman and Greek literature and texts. Too mentioned in Part B, with the invention of the movable type printing press by Gutenberg, scholars and commoners alike were able to study and investigate, and learn in an unparalleled way, particularly in Florence, Naples, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Mantua, Ferrara, and Urbino – the centres of Renaissance Humanism.

By the mid-15th century, many upper-class Italian families had received Humanist educations, probably in addition to Scholastic educations. These upper-class Italian families were probably influenced by the senior church figure and ‘ruler’ of the time, the Pope. Most notably, Pope Pius II wrote a significant work, a treatise, named, The Education of Boys, which focussed solely upon the benefits and details of a Humanist education, later to be known as the study of Humanities. Soon, Italian Humanism spread to the Low Countries and the other regions of the civilized Western world.

In the following paragraphs, Renaissance Humanism will be further explored, in relation to several examples provided by the great artists of the Renaissance era.

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Renaissance Humanism placed great emphasis upon Realism. Though initially developing separately, by the re-appearance of Humanism in the Renaissance, particularly in Italy, the two began to intertwine, co-existing in a mutual discourse. A notable artist who paid particular awareness pertaining Realism was Giotto di Bondone, an early Renaissance artist of Florence. Through painting many frescoes and panel paintings in tempera, inclusive of decorations in the Chapels of Assisi, Rome, Padua, Florence, and Naples, his focus on reviving ancient Roman Realism techniques is overt. In the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua, The Nativity adorns one of the walls as a fresco, depicting the birth of Jesus (c. 1305-06).

Even his contemporary, the afore-mentioned Boccaccio, wrote in his Decameron;

“there was nothing in Nature—the mother and ruling force of all created things with her constant revolution of the heavens—that he could not paint with his stylus, pen, or brush or make so similar to its original in Nature that it did not appear to be the original rather than a reproduction. Many times, in fact, in observing things painted by this man, the visual sense of men would err, taking what was painted to be the very thing itself.”

Renaissance art, too, placed great emphasis upon Anthropocentricity and Individualism the bestowal of paramount attention to humans and their experiences. Renaissance Individualist artists would seek to exact the precision and dignity of human portraits, the paintings of significant men such as Lorenzo de’ Medici provide extremely, almost photographically accurate depictions of the men themselves. By diverging slightly into the discipline of science, still however maintaining roots in art, it can be understood that polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci too placed great emphasis upon Anthropocentricity. da Vinci’s ‘The Vitruvian Man’ exemplifies Individualism in every sense.

The diagram of the human body as encapsulated by Leonardo da Vinci, a 15th-century polymath, supported by notes based on the works of Vitruvius, a Roman 1st century BC architect, is pictured; an in depth explanation is not necessary as the topic has been covered extensively in class. Provided, however, is a concise explanation of details within the specimen. A man is depicted in two superimposed positions, inscribed within a circle and a square with a form of measurement beneath. Particular detail has been given to external anatomical features of the human body, such as proportional limbs and a symmetrical face. The text is written in mirror writing, and the full translation is below:

“(UPPER SECTION) Vitruvius, architect, puts in his work on architecture that the measurements of man are in nature distributed in this manner: that is a palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, four cubits make a man, a pace is four cubits, a man is 24 palms and these measurements are in his buildings.

If you open your legs enough that your head is lowered by one-fourteenth of your height and raise your hands enough that your extended fingers touch the line of the top of your head, know that the centre of the extended limbs will be the navel, and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle.

The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man; from the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of a man; from below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man; from above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man; from above the chest to the hairline is one-seventh of the height of a man. The maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man; from the breasts to the top of the head is a quarter of the height of a man; the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of the height of a man; the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height of a man; the length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man; the root of the penis (sic) is at half the height of a man; the foot is one-seventh of the height of a man; from below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man; from below the knee to the root of the penis is a quarter of the height of a man; the distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows and the hairline are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.”

Why a diagram of a human body? Why not a plant, or an animal? The answer is simple. Individualism was held in high esteem during the Renaissance period. Patrons such as Lorenzo de’ Medici would provide financial support and support by means of social status (although artists and polymaths were quickly gaining upper social statuses at the time). It is no wonder that da Vinci would choose the physical anatomical properties of the human body to represent in what is now one of his most famous works. Vitruvius believed that the ideal human should be eight heads in height, hence too representing the Renaissance pursuit for Order and Rationality. Da Vinci utilised his mathematical knowledge in the book Divina Proportione, which he co-authored/illustrated with Luca Pacioli.

To conclude, Humanism was one of the Renaissance Ideals partly due to the emphasis placed upon Classicism and also eminent people such as Petrarch. Humanism has placed an indelible mark upon not only literature, science, and the various other disciplines of the Renaissance, but too the modern way of study. Forsaking human conflict, discontinuity, and the like, the Humanist Movement is now considered as one of the greatest movements of all time. I conclude this essay with an introspective and philosophical quote from Petrarch, considered to be the ‘Father of Humanism’:

“Often I have wondered with much curiosity as to our coming into this world, and what will follow our departure.”


  1. 2019. Leonardo da Vinci. 14 September 2019. (accessed September 2019).
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica. Italian Renaissance. 2019. (accessed September 2019).
  3. Encyclopædia Brittanica. Humanism. 2019. (accessed September 2019).
  4. Oxford University Press. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2019. (accessed September 2019).
  5. The Faculty of History, University of Oxford. The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  6. The Faculty of Theological Studies, University of Oxford. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  7. Wikimedia. “Copernicus’ Model of the Universe.” The Model of the Universe as Theorised by Nicolaus Copernicus. n.d.

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