Elliot Fernandez

Historian and Front-end developer

Renaissance and Humanism in Europe

Humanism was a movement for cultural renewal, which emerged in Italy in the 14th century and spread throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

Post on 30/06/2021 | Updated on 14/09/2022

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Humanism was a movement of cultural renewal that emerged in Italy in the 14th century. It spread throughout Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, and its cultural strand was the Renaissance. This movement revolved around the study and valorization of the classics.

Features of Humanism

In the 16th century, Humanism made an enormous footprint in the field of the arts and culture in general. The cultural renewal it brought about was based on the recovery of the elements of classical antiquity in all areas of culture: literature, art, thought, attitudes and behaviour. It flourished in Italy over two centuries (1350-1550) with differentiated territorial variables and urban impact. Humanism, as the driving force behind the more general phenomenon of the Renaissance, was initially restricted to the philological sphere.

Humanism and the Renaissance culture in Italy

The emergence of the Renaissance culture in the territories of central and northern Italy took place between the 14th and 15th centuries. This chronology coincided with the economic success of the city-states, as well as the dense commercial and cultural exchanges with the eastern Mediterranean.

The main centres of this cultural revival were:

The groups that played a leading role in Italian Humanism were three urban minorities:

  • The ruling oligarchies that were patronized by the Papacy (Rome), the Venetian patricians, the Medici (Florence), the Sforza (Milan), the Gonzaga (Mantua) or the Este (Ferrara, Modena and Reggio Emilia);
  • Intellectuals, scholars, secretaries, writers and educators (leading civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, gatherings and academies);
  • Visual artists recruited from among the guild craftsmen.

Education and humanist philosophy

The term “Humanism” has its etymological origin in “studia humanitatis”. The medieval university curriculum revolved around seven subjects:

  • Quadrivium (elementary arts): arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music;
  • Trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic (introduction to history and moral philosophy).

Great importance of philology and classical Latin:

  • A return to the study of classical Latin and its classics, such as Cicero (model against medieval vulgar Latin);
  • Revival of classical Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic;
  • Great interest in ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts in the private libraries of the Este, Gonzaga and Vatican families of the time. The Medici opened the first public library in Florence; in Venice, the figure of Cardinal Bessarion stands out;
  • A more refined translations of the classics were promoted. Development of philological criticism (in the quest of a more classical style and authenticity).
Biblioteca Laurenziana
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (Photo: Wikipedia.org)

The philosophical grounding of Humanism retained the medieval Aristotelianism laid down by Thomas Aquinas (reconciliation of reason and revelation). Thomistic Aristotelianism was key to the Catholic Reformation. Some philosophers doubted rational knowledge of the truths of revelation: the concepts would be only names (nominalism) without aspiring to represent the essence of the object.

Averroist Aristotelianism, which separated philosophy and faith (double truth, scientific and religious), was equally influential: it was received at the universities of Padua and Bologna. And Platonism was revived with a major impact thanks to the Latin translation of Plato’s Dialogues. The main propagator of Neoplatonism was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who wanted to reconcile it with Aristotelianism. Beauty and goodness, concepts that were strongly revalued.

Literature and history

The genres, works and their protagonists include:

Humanism and the Renaissance in Europe

Renaissance in Europe
Renaissance in Europe

The most important hubs of Humanism in 15th-16th century Europe were:

  • In Castilla: the city of Salamanca with Antonio de Nebrija (1444-1522): professor of Latin and rhetoric; he wrote “Gramática castellana” (1492), the first of a vulgar language. In Alcalá de Henares (1502), the first complete translation of the Polyglot Bible in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic was made;
  • In France: late and courtly humanism; scholasticism at the Sorbonne University. Key figures: Lefèvre de Étaples (1450-1537), mystic cleric, and Guillaume Budé (1467-1540), specialist in Greek and Latin (director of the library at Fontainebleau);
  • In England, Court movement; humanistic centres at Cambridge and Oxford. Key figures: John Colet (1467-1519), philological and historical study of the writings of St Paul; Thomas More (1478-1536), jurist and Royal Chancellor (1529-1532), author of “Utopia” (1516): ideal communitarian society.

Leading figures in Christian humanism

Italian Humanism was not only paganizing; in Northern Europe, many of its protagonists were committed to the study of the Holy Scriptures and the reform of the Church. Some leading Christian humanists were:

  • Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) was a Dutch theologian, a university student in Paris from 1495, and an indefatigable traveller with stays in Oxford, Cambridge, Italy, Louvain and Basel. He spread philological criticism applied to classical Greco-Roman texts, Holy Scripture and the Holy Fathers. Outstanding work:
    • “The Manual of a Christian Knight” (Louvain, 1503): Christian humanism of a secular and liberal disposition.
    • Critical dialogues: “In Praise of Folly” (1511).
    • Controversy: “Of Free Choice of the Will” (1524);
  • Alfonso de Valdés (sharp social criticism). Conference of theologians (Valladolid, 1527): persecution of Erasmists; Protestants expel him from Basel (1529): third sterile way. His works caused great impact: “Dialogo de Mercurio y Carón” (1529);
  • Joan Lluís Vives (1492-1539). Valencian, son of converted Jews: studied in Paris (1509-1512), disenchanted with scholasticism. Key stages in his life:
    • 1517-1521: meets Erasmus and the future Pope Adrian VI in Louvain;
    • 1523-1528: meets Thomas More at the English Court, as well as the humanists at Oxford;
    • 1528-1539: published 50 works (in Bruges). Multiple facets: Christian humanist, anti-scholastic philosopher, philologist, educator and pedagogue, anthropologist and social reformer. His commentaries on Augustine’s “City of God” (1522), which, like those of Erasmus, ended up on the Index of works banned by the Church, are particularly noteworthy.

The Arts and Science in the Renaissance

The visual arts

The 1500s saw the culmination of Renaissance art, as a result of the overcoming of the medieval spirit and the importance that humanism gave to artistic creation. The work of artists combined ancient and modern elements. They were organized in small groups or workshops, and it was considered work without the prestige of the liberal arts (these were mechanical).

Three artists stand out from the period: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1465-1564) and Raffaello (1483-1520).

Leonardo Da Vinci
Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci

Renaissance developments:

  • First stage: strict imitation of classical Greek and Roman models;
  • Second stage: creation of his own style, defined by the desire for creativity, perfection and beauty (characteristics of the Renaissance);
  • Third stage: total perfection.

One example is Giorgio Vasari, the Italian architect, painter and writer who underwent three stages during his artistic career:

  • Childhood: hesitation;
  • Youth: representative perfection;
  • Maturity or terza maniera: total perfection, grace and life in the previous stage.

The Renaissance evolved into two simultaneous final stages, the two trends in Renaissance art of the 1500s:

  • Classicism: rigour in following the models;
  • And Mannerism: alteration, seeking expressiveness and originality.


In the field of architecture, the revival of the classics was promoted: ruins and classical buildings in many cities, especially Rome; reprinting of the ten books on architecture by Vitruvius (1486), with his theory of proportions and the order of columns.

Among the most prominent architects of the period were:

  • Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472): from rhetoric and grammar he derived architectural concepts such as rhythm and harmony; from mathematics and geometry the knowledge of perspective;
  • Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475-1564): work on St. Peter’s Basilica (begun by Bramante in 1506) with the great dome on a drum (1557);
  • Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570): Venetian works in the Library of San Marco (1536-1553);
  • Andrea Palladio (1508-1580): civil architecture of the Venetian patricians (villas on the terraferma);
  • Jacopo Vignola: began the Church of the Gesù (1568), a prelude to the lavish Roman Baroque.
St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican with Michelangelo's dome
St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican with Michelangelo’s dome

In Italy, the recovery of archaeological remains stimulated architectural and town-planning recreation; in the rest of Europe, the penetration of the models was very slow and partial: the German and Dutch bourgeoisie identified their building models with their own municipal and republican tradition.


Classical recreation based on collecting antique pieces (magnates, popes, princes and intellectuals). Discoveries of classical works (Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön or Venus de Medici) and formal imitation and imitation of themes: busts and mythological representations.

Sculptors are outstanding:

  • Michelangelo: grandiose and dramatic, glorification of man (David, 1504 or Moses, from 1513 to 1516);
  • Leone Leoni (1509-1590): Milanese, (bronze and marble); portraits of the Spanish Habsburgs.


Idealized imitation of the classics (literary descriptions or in the imitation of sculpture: encouragement of portraiture as an independent genre).


  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): perfection of perspective with gradations of light and shadow (Sfumato). “Virgin of the Rocks” (1483), “Gioconda” (1503);
  • Titian Vecellio (1485-1576): colourful atmosphere, sensuality and light: official portraitist of the Spanish monarchy.

Science: knowledge and experimentation

During the Renaissance, a backwardness of creativity in the scientific domain existed. The origin of humanism was the abandonment of the quadrivium (the sciences) for the letters. Aristotelian scientific paradigm: basic conceptual framework with predominance of metaphysics over medieval philosophy (or physics). The main object of knowledge was being, not accidents (soul/body).

Despite the initial neglect of the sciences, there were some elements that facilitated new interest in scientific research:

  • The rediscovery of classical scientific and technical writings (Archimedes, Pliny or Vitruvius) and better translations (Hippocrates, Galen or Ptolemy);
  • The anthropocentrism of humanism led to the physical study of man and his material environment.

Thanks to Francis Bacon (1561-1326), science regained a central value. In the face of the Greco-Roman classics and ancient Christians, a preference for experimentation and scientific observation, the principles of the so-called Scientific Revolution.


Euclidean geometry became widespread in 1450. Luca Pacioli (“Summa de arithmetica, geometria. Proportioni et proportionalita”, 1494) established the basis of proportion, applicable to the visual arts.

In the field of algebra, John Napier (1595-1614) stands out. He developed logarithms. Mathematical knowledge applied to the trades and techniques of the time: progress in physics in military applications (artillery).


Initial bases for observational anatomy (dissection to university teaching), contrary to traditional Galenism.


  • Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564); professor in Padua and Pisa, “De humani corporis fabrica” (1543): 300 engravings, detailed description of the human body;
  • Gabriele Falloppio (1523/62);
  • Michael Servetus (1511-53). Field of physiology (internal functioning): minor blood or pulmonary circulation in “Christianissimi Restitutio” (1553).


The great astronomer of the Renaissance was Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543): a Polish canon and physician, he studied literature and law in Cracow, Bologna and Padua (1496-1506). His major work was “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (1543), the origin of modern astronomy, in which he defends the heliocentric theory as a hypothesis against the traditional geocentric theory of Ptolemy.

Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus
Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus

Copernicus’ work was the result of 25 years of study of the classical authors (the Pythagoreans and Aristarchus). The change of the general cosmological theory was very slowly assimilated (closed and hierarchical universe to homogeneous and infinite).

The motions of the sun and stars could be explained by admitting a double terrestrial motion: rotation and translation; Catholic theologians, Luther and Calvin, put biblical texts.

Copernicus’ work was continued by Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) in Prague, first observation apparatus: he contributed the idea (which he rejected as contrary to reason) that the planets could rotate in elliptical orbits.

Cultural practices


The printing house
The printing house

In the late Middle Ages, reading and writing was only available to a few. Even many people from the highest social classes were illiterate. The invention of the printing press in the Western world is attributed to Johannes Gutenberg, in the 15th century.

The printing press made the access to books and reading more accessible. During the 16th century, books, despite a still very modest circulation, stimulated interest in education and pedagogical theory (a central element of humanism); interest in the knowledge of letters, as well as usefulness, the ability to acquire knowledge. Did the scope of change reach the popular classes or only the privileged? In part, it reached everyone because it promoted education, propaganda (especially religious) and the development of popular tastes.

The number of literate people, although it is difficult to know, can be estimated from the signatures in public records. According to records in the French region of Narbonne, at the end of the 16th century there was a percentage of literate people according to their social status:

  • Bourgeoisie: 90%
  • Urban craftsmen: 65%
  • Rural population: 10/30%.

Throughout the 16th century, the literacy rate was on the rise, but it was not a linear process. Crises and demographic movements caused uprooting. Humanism was given a positive boost at the popular level by the struggle between the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; Protestants took literacy very seriously: the Bible, the basis of faith, became compulsory reading for the faithful.

Literacy made great progress in the Atlantic countries, more so than in the Mediterranean countries.

The impact of printing

The printing press opened a new era of knowledge. The ability to circulate information (now lean via the Internet) at the time was in the hands of intellectuals, churches and rulers; it was a huge communication machine.

  • 1430: first stage of typographic workshops (fine characters); wooden matrices or metal plates (short duration and heavy preliminary work).
  • 1450: Johannes Gutenberg (1495-68): movable type; metal type; Chinese (XI).
  • 1485: second generation of printers, defines the main centres.
  • 1500: 236 cities with printing establishments: 50%, ½ of southern Germany and ½ of northern Italy.

The spread of printing was particularly significant in Germany (1480-1520) in the valleys of the Rhine and Danube (Cologne, Strasbourg and Basel). And also in Italy: Venice (1490-1500), 1,500 works (500 in Rome, 260 in Milan and 150 in Florence).

Magnitudes of diffusion in book publishing:

  • 1450-1500: 15,000 to 30,000 incunabula, 815 million copies with print-runs of 500;
  • 1500-1600: 150,000-200,000, with a print run of a thousand copies: the book, more affordable.

The figure of publishers was created, who went beyond the technical concept of printers to promote works based on ideological criteria. They stand out:

  • William Caxton (died 1491): great promoter of English language;
  • Aldus Manutius (Venice, died 1515): Greco-Roman works and pocket-book editions.

Books and press

During the Middle Ages, the Church was key to shaping public opinion. In the 16th century, both Catholics and Protestants rediscovered their power of influence in society.

Another great battle took place over the printed word, for control of books (printers were persecuted), which provoked a strong emigration of publishers from Catholic countries to Protestant countries.

Literary genres:

  • Dominance of religious books (devotional or polemical). Example of a printing house in Paris (1598, 169 books published):
    • Literature, 32%;
    • Religion, 29%;
    • History, 16%;
    • Sciences and arts, 13%.

Book publishing was relatively expensive, although small print runs (1,000 copies, perhaps 1,500) were made. The most printed books during the 16th century were:

The dominant language of the first books was Latin. Between 1564 and 1600, 15,000 works were exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1/3 of them in German. The publication of pamphlets and leaflets was of great importance. Conflicts developed a direct, combative language (propaganda among the urban masses).

The periodical press was born: “Avvis”, merchants’ bulletins; from Venice to the Fuggers (1554-1565) or from Rome to the Duke of Urbino (1554 to 1605).

Here, censorship was set in motion. With the circulation of books and printed matter, the authorities became aware of the power of the media. England: first list of banned books (1529) as well as the licensing system imposed by Alexander VI in Rome (1492 to 1503) and the Catholic Monarchs in their Iberian dominions.


Many new universities sprang up between 1650-00. Most of them in the Catholic and Protestant spheres (in Castilla alone, 1575-20: 18 new universities).

In the Empire, the number of universities rose from 4 to 18 between 1400 and 1520. The Calvinist University of Leyden (1575), Douai (1562) and Leuven (in the Southern Netherlands are Catholic) stand out.

More students at universities: in Castilla (1560-1590) 10% increase, also Oxford (1550-1580) or Leipzig (1660-20). In the old institutions, new colleges for humanistic studies (Oxford and Cambridge).

Social extraction: many gentlemen want a touch of culture (1550-1620): Heidelberg, 5% graduate students. Touring manuals: university life, a journey rather than a period of formal training. Programmes: Introduction to humanistic studies and new philosophy, slow and difficult (1556 Hebrew expelled by Salamanca). Liberal arts studies (equivalent to Bachelor’s degree), followed by three higher faculties:

  • Law (civil and canon law): main discipline, leads to public service;
  • Theology;
  • Medicine: not very prestigious and very theoretical.

A new scientific method is introduced. Independent colleges and private academies and literary salons open in France and Italy (1550-1600): Accademia dei Lincei (1603).

Popular culture

Two cultural traditions in modern Europe:

  • Establishment of grammar schools and universities, for the group with the appropriate cultural tools and knowledge of Latin;
  • Dissemination of culture to the middle and lower classes through informal means, in churches, taverns or markets (vulgar).

Performances become popular: dance (in groups), song, prose performances (storytellers) and parody (satirical imitations); carnival.

Humanism led to changes in popular culture: the Reformation abolished Lent and Carnival. The Catholic Counter-Reformation redirected social habits and purified them of pagan elements and dubious particular ethics (spontaneity and generosity); tolerance of disorder.

All articles of the course:

  • Link Early modern Europe: an introduction
  • Link 16th century economy: the colonial expansion, agriculture and trade
  • Link Cities and Countryside in 16th century Europe
  • Link Renaissance and Humanism in Europe
  • Link The Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation
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