1.2: Renaissance Men: First in Italy and Later in Northern Europe

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321): The Father of Modern Poetry

As the usual start-date for the Renaissance is 1300, Dante is often viewed as a transition figure between the Middle Ages and the birth of the “modern” in the Renaissance. A poet and philosopher, Dante wrote an epic poem of 100 chapters or “cantos” now called The Divine Comedy. Despite its title, the book is not particularly comic: it describes a vision of Dante’s journey through Hell (“Inferno” in Italian) and then upwards into Purgatory and finally ascending into Heaven. Dante is guided by the ancient poet Virgil, and meets a lot of famous classical and Biblical figures, in addition to his own contemporaries on his journey. (Dante puts his enemies in Hell and his heroes in Purgatory or Heaven.)

The work, therefore, certainly has a “Dark Ages” theme: how to live a good life so that one can avoid Hell and enter Heaven. However, the way it is written makes it modern: as most scholars and writers all over Europe were associated with the Church, the best language to write in was Latin, the language of the Church. Dante was the first Westerner in a long time to write an epic poem in the language of the people. This “language of the street” and the common people in any society is called the vernacular. By writing in the vernacular, Dante stressed that his writing was for everyone, not just the scholars. Dante’s work, therefore, changed the audience of literature and led, eventually, to increased literacy and learning for all society.

Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468): The Man Who Made the Modern World

On the turn of the millennium (Dec. 31, 1999), the History Channel released a list of the most influential people who shaped the previous one thousand years. German printing-press developer Gutenberg was #1. If the division between the ancient and modern world is the shift from individually-written texts to printed texts, then Gutenberg is the man who made this possible in Europe. Block printing had been developed long before (China was among the first countries to develop it). Gutenberg’s contribution was the increased efficiency of a movable-type printing press. Movable-type enables the same block of letter stamps to be re-arranged again and again. This led to increased efficiency of book production, which led to cheaper books, which led to greater literacy. However, like Dante, Gutenberg is a transition figure from the Middle Ages: his first work printed with his press was not secular, but the Bible. (However, the Bible translated into his vernacular of German.) With Gutenberg’s press, the ideas of the Italian Renaissance and every cultural movement that followed in Europe were spread much more quickly.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): The Definition of a Renaissance Man

Leonardo da Vinci is acknowledged today as a genius, but in his own time he was viewed as an unreliable artist with little discipline. Although he was hired by many patrons early in his career, he often got bored with projects and failed to complete them, despite the damage to his finances and his reputation. However, the paintings that he did finish are acknowledged as revolutionary. Da Vinci used realism and the use of perspective to portray human details, even when the paintings are depicting religious figures. His most famous painting—perhaps the most famous portrait ever—is not of a religious figure: the Mona Lisa focuses on one woman’s face and her mysterious expression.

Leonardo’s sketchbooks demonstrate the Renaissance Man spirit: he wrote about and sketched everything that interested him: from dissected animals to “grotesque” (ugly) people on the streets to designs for weapons and technology, to the poetry of Dante. His knowledge of mathematics, biology, and physics made his artwork that much more life-like. Leonardo also demonstrates the transition from the Italian Renaissance to the Northern Renaissance that occurred during the 16th century. At the very end of his life, having dissatisfied patrons throughout the Italian city-states, he accepted an offer from Francis I, king of France, to be his “court philosopher” and pretty much do whatever he wanted. Near the end of his life, he became obsessed with mathematical designs.vinci-1

Niccoló Machiavelli (1469-1527): The Dark Side of Humanism

Only slightly younger than DaVinci, Machiavelli had much more success than Leonardo with impressing patrons. However, Machiavelli did not offer patrons his artistic or engineering skills: instead, Machiavelli advised leaders on how to rule people more effectively.

The humanist twist: rather than advise leaders to act always in a moral, “Christian” way, Machiavelli infamously emphasized the ends over the means. That is, whatever is most effective for maintaining power is justified: intimidation, inciting fear among the citizens, using deceit and being two-faced, or even killing off one’s rivals. The phrase “Machiavellian” now refers to a political figure that is focused on power, no matter the moral cost. Question: How is this still humanism?

St. Thomas More (1478-1535): Set the Bar High

One of the early figures of the English Renaissance, St. Thomas More was part of a movement called “Christian humanism,” which attempted to align the goals of humanism with Christian values. Thomas More was famously stubborn about his religious views (we’ll find out why this got him into so much trouble later), and set the goals of human society very high: perfection. His book Utopia, titled in Greek and written in Latin, was meant for scholars and not common people but, nonetheless, emphasized a “perfect” society for everyone. As anyone who knows their Greek will tell you, however, More did not mean for the “perfect” society to be put into reality: “utopia” means “no place.” Even though perfection is unattainable, More argued, by describing perfection we can see how far we have to go and what we have to do to make ourselves and our society better.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569): Keep It Real

(Flanders is a region of Europe between France and Germany, and folks from that region are called “Flemish.”) Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel further emphasized the secular focus of the Italian Renaissance. Unlike many Italian artists, Pieter painted scenes of common people—not Biblical figures or nobility, but peasants and other “street people.” He often focused on individual features and flaws of his characters with a keen eye for detail: for instance, in Peasant Wedding, a little boy on the floor sneaks some food before it is served to the adults seated at the tables. The fact that upper-class patrons enjoyed these “cute” detailed scenes opened up the doors for presenting all types of people in artwork.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616): Acting Real

Shakespeare is considered the greatest playwright in the English language, and demonstrates how Renaissance ideas were shifting from the Renaissance Men to everybody by the time of the 17th century. Shakespeare’s plays, written for everybody (nobility and “groundlings”) present very complicated characters that change over time and possess very relatable flaws. Even though the plotlines of most of Shakespeare’s plays were “borrowed” from historical and classical sources (in the spirit of the Renaissance), the characters were completely original and still intrigue and puzzle audiences today. Actors portraying Shakespeare’s characters struggle in determining their motivations for their actions and the deeper meaning of events—just like real people struggle with the same about their own lives. Shakespeare’s writing represents a big step forward from the artificial “stock characters” of older drama to more humanistic theater.

As you can see above, these “Renaissance Men” all inspired more people to be more interested in themselves: not just their souls, but their own behavior and society on Earth. However, this increased attention to secular matters would eventually swing back to spiritual criticism…