The Rise of Civic Humanism in Europe

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The Rise of Civic Humanism in Europe

Why Civic Humanism started in Florence

Humanism can be defined as a revival of interest in classical learning in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which created the cultural environment for the artistic innovations and developments known as the Italian Renaissance.  Classical Greek and Roman writers were rediscovered, re-evaluated, and re-assessed.  It can be argued that humanism owed its inception to a change of emphasis in the theory or education current at that time.  The term ‘studia humanitatis’, from which the word humanist is derived, meant the study of certain clearly-defined disciplines: Grammar, Rhetoric, History, Poetry and Moral Philosophy, based on a close analysis of leading classical authors.  The important point is that humanists scrutinized Greek and Roman civilizations in order to understand their values in their original context, and then to incorporate them into their own ideas about life and art.  Throughout the Middle Ages, certain classical writers, predominantly Latin, had formed a substantial part of the diet of all educated men.  They had, however, been deemed to be explicable in medieval terms.  Humanists were attempting to understand the ancient world though its own eyes; and they were acutely aware of the distinction.

For many years, historians assumed that the Renaissance began with the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in 1453, when Greek scholars fled to the West, bringing with them many previously unknown documents of antiquity.  It now seems fairly confidently asserted that many of the essential features of the Renaissance, and certainly humanism, predate this period by some considerable length of time.  It was 1396 when Manuel Chrysoloras, a distinguished Byzantine scholar, was appointed to teach Greek in Florence.  Recognizable groups of humanists were meeting in Padua, Verona, Vincenza, Venice, Milan, Florence and Naples around 1300.  Aristotle first came to Christian Europe via Jewish and Arabic sources.  His works were banned at the University of Paris as early as 1210.  Bearing the stigma of paganism, he was at first regarded with suspicion.  However, medieval Christianity, largely through the efforts of Thomas Aquinas, managed to assimilate him and Christianize him so that he became, in time, part of orthodox Roman Catholic philosophy.  It must be stressed that Thomas Aquinas was no humanist, and this only proves that Aristotle was influential long before the fifteenth century.  One of the major tenets of humanism was an ability to appreciate classical writers without trying to interpret them through a superimposed Christian framework.  It has been described as a secular movement, that is secular compared to the Middle Ages, but it does seem as if this may be too clear a distinction.  One sample study(1) suggests that the proportion of Italian paintings with secular subjects rose from 5% in 1420, to 20% in 1520.  This hardly argues for a change in direction, but does show a shift in priorities.

In the same way, another of the much disputed results of the study of humanities, to wit the rise of a cult of individualism, can be accepted if it is presented as a difference in emphasis, rather than a totally new idea.  There are some grounds for supposing that medieval man, because he saw his universe as hierarchical and theocentric, was more interested in ensuring the salvation of his soul than in expressing and identifying himself as a unique human being.  Renaissance man does seem to have been more concerned with his life upon earth.  Although individualism as a concept is difficult to grasp or define, it is one of the factors which allows for a logical evolution from Petrarch’s literary humanism to civic humanism.  Burckhardt(2), one of the leading protagonists of individualism as a contributory theme to the Renaissance, felt towards the end of his life that he had overstressed it as an issue.  But there can be seen to be a link between an idea of self-importance, when combined with a certain secularism, which would reasonably lead to a greater involvement with the affairs of state. 

Petrarch did an enormous amount to popularize humanistic scholarship and literary style.  He kept himself aloof from all civic claims, particularly in his later years, but he did, as one of his most positive contributions towards an eventual civic humanism, emphasize that moral philosophies had a practical relevance to life.  He had a high regard for the writings of Cicero, and because of his own success as an author, he extended Cicero’s sphere of influence.  Petrarch’s discussions of ancient philosophy followed the model which Cicero provided.  Cicero was, above all, a public man, concerned with oratory, statesmanship and the law, all of which are matters distinctly within the public arena.

The twelfth century was a time of considerable economic growth in Italy, which, either as a cause or an effect, ran concurrent with a population explosion.  It was a trading and a banking nation, whose culture was determined by practical matters.  It already had, by the twelfth century, a considerable urban population.  People were merchants, artisans and small manufacturers.  Their social structure was  less constrained, more mobile, that those of the more rigidly hierarchical and predominantly agricultural communities of most of the rest of medieval Europe.  Then too, city-republics were its dominant form of political organization in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  By the end of the fourteenth century, the majority of these republics had lost their independence, but a tradition of an autonomous urban way of life survived, together with an educated laity.  This was a relatively sophisticated society, tailor-made to absorb Cicero’s ideas about the traditional Roman virtues of public service, and the pre-eminence of the statesman’s career within a republican constitution.

Siegal(3) in his article entitled “Civic Humanism” or Ciceronian Rhetoric?, argues that the most vigorous intellectual life in Italy always revolved around the study of Law and Rhetoric.  It had never been as involved with the more metaphysical, scholastic philosophy, which became so important in Northern Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  While, as Siegal says, medieval Italian rhetoric was quite different from Ciceronian humanism, it was a similar enough discipline to provide a logical progression.  Then too, when Scholasticism did begin to be debated in Italy, at the end of the thirteenth century, Aristotelian philosophy would also, as a consequence, have achieved an importance.  Leonardo Bruni, for one, translated both Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics in the early years of the fifteenth century.  Aristotle was, par excellence, the advocate of the active civic man.  It can, therefore, be seen that, given the prevailing social and political climate of Italy, a literary revival of the classics would be bound to evolve in time into a civic significance

There does seem to be one single matter which is not disputed.  In the beginning of the fifteenth century, there was an extra-ordinary flowering of the visual arts which began its life in Florence.  It then spread throughout the whole of Italy, but for more than half a century, Florence of predominant.  Peter Burke’s(1) survey indicates that although Tuscany had only 10% of the population, she produced 26% of what he calls ‘the creative elite’.  It is now fairly commonly believed that one of the reasons for this was that Florence was also the home of Civic Humanism.  It is of interest, therefore, to establish why Florence, of all the cities in Italy, was the most susceptible to a civic revival, and why it, of all places, produced this great period of scholarship and art.

Many theories have been advanced, but most of them do not pertain only to Florence.  It was, indeed, one of the most populous and prosperous cities in Western Europe.  It had been a wealthy city for some time, and it can be argued that the Black Death, the plague year in the middle of the fourteenth century, by controlling a population which might otherwise have become too vast to be economically viable, had left more money in the hands of those who survived.  It could well be deemed that intellectual and artistic creativity pre-suppose a society with enough time and money to indulge in such matters.  However, Florence was by no means the richest city in Italy.  Consequently, an overriding economic explanation does not appear to adequately account for Florence’s peculiar pre-eminence.

Florence was, of course, a city of cloth makers, involved with both buying and selling.  Its people were technically proficient and exceptionally numerate in medieval terms.  Many of the important innovations of the Renaissance were to do with methods of calculation of mathematical perspective, which demanded a degree of numerate perception.  However, in Venice in particular, but also in many other Italian cities, an interest was taken in the statistics of imports and exports.  Double entry book-keeping was widespread.  Italians were, first and foremost, traders.  Then too, Florence was rich in artisans of all descriptions, because of the amount of public works undertaken there.  While this was undeniably important, in that it provided a reservoir of skilled craftsmen, there is no evidence to suggest that an equal amount of building was not being done elsewhere.  These were not particularly Florentine phenomena.

What was unique to Florence was its political structure, its republican constitution and its social mores.  By the beginning of the fifteenth century, Florence and Venice were the only two great republican city states left in Italy, and their systems provide almost a paradigm of contrasts.  The Venetians were not considered to be politically adult until they were 25, and the average age of the Doge on his election was 72.  The city did not readily admit change, and whilst arguably a far sounder structure than the Florentine one, it was not as innovative.

Florence, on the other hand, can be judged to have had an unstable political system.  Machiavelli(4) certainly comprehensively damned it, despite his much praise for republicanism.  Florentines enjoyed political rights at the age of 14.  The chief magistrates held office for only two months at a time.  As a result, far more Florentines were actively engaged in political life, in civic affairs, than in Venice.  It was also a nation of shop-keepers, with a more malleable social framework, and there is at least some suggestion that, because it was a smaller community than Venice, its population was more inclined to intermingle.  But, above all, Florence was a republic with a tradition of participation.  It was especially well-placed to identify itself with Roman republican traditions, and Cicero’s ideals of public service.  It is, thus, not surprising that civic humanism flowered there.

As can be expected, there have been many arguments among historians about the precise reason why civic humanism gained such an ascendancy at that particular time.  Therefore, it might be worth establishing those matters which are, at least for the most part, not disputed.  Firstly, two of the major figures of Florentine humanism in the last years of the fourteenth century and the first years of the fifteenth, were Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Buni.  Both men wrote with conscious pride about Florence as a direct descendant from Roman republicanism, and both men deemed it a special honour and significance to be citizens of Florence.  Secondly, in 1402, Florence narrowly escaped defeat by Giangaleazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan; not, it may be added, because of any brilliant Florentine military strategy, but because the Duke died.  Thirdly, the Renaissance in visual arts really got underway during this time.  In 1402, Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition to complete the Bronze Doors in Florence.  His work showed clear indications of classical influence, and is judged by many to be the first example of Renaissance sculpture.  Masaccio began his very short painting career in 1401, also in Florence, and he, too, was demonstrably influenced by the classical.  In 1419, Brunelleschi began the city’s first classical building, the Foundling Hospital.  Bruni’s works, The Dialogues and Panegyric to the City of Florence, were written very early in the fifteenth century.  Professor Hans Baron(5) saw in these writings proof of a definably distinct Florentine civic humanism.   He argued that they showed a very clear divide between the old intellectual literary humanism, to which, according to him Salutati subscribed, and a new spirit of civic pride, identity and patriotism.  He believed that this was, specifically, the result of the political dramas of 1402.  In order to prove his point, has involved himself in a series of debates about a very precise dating of Bruni’s works.

While in no way contradicting Baron’s central thesis, i.e. that political threats invoke active patriotism, it does seem unnecessary to fix so particularly on one year.  Florence had been under attack, one way or another, for many years.  Salutati was appointed Chancellor as far back as 1375, a post he held until his death in 1406.  One of his specified duties was to use his eloquence in defence of Florence against her numerous foes.  It seems more reasonable to agree with Dr George Holmes(6) that Florence’s awareness of her civic identity arose as a result of a succession of crises throughout the end of the fourteenth century and the first years of the fifteenth.  Very likely, the events of 1402 did constitute some of the most serious threats to her liberty; without doubt Giangaleazzo’s death was the subject of much rejoicing; still it does seem a little difficult to believe that a victory achieved solely through an opponent’s accidental death would be the matter for much pride.  The Florentines could also not have been immediately certain that Giangaleazzo’s successor would prove as incompetent as he did.  For an historian to concentrate on such a short period of time seems fraught with danger.

Added to which, all this negates the influence of Salutati, who had been Chancellor for seventeen years before the fateful year of 1402.  It pre-supposes him to have been a man who compartmentalized his humanism, made it a private matter when it already seems clear this it was a doctrine of particular practical relevance to Florence, and it is agreed that Salutati was a notable humanist and a civic, and public man. Apart from the sheer improbability of such a course of action, all evidence seems to point to the opposite direction.  One of his oft-quoted sayings is:  “What is it to be a Florentine, except to be both by nature and law, a Roman citizen.”  That is, very definitely, the utterance of a committed civic humanist.  He is known to have encouraged younger classical scholars.  He was the patron of at least two other leading and civic humanists, Bruni and Bracciolini.  The Byzantine scholar, Chrysoloras, was appointed to teach Greek in Florence in 1396, which was during Salutati’s time.  The competition for the Bronze Doors, which Ghiberti won, and which was indicative of active civic participation in matters of art, was well underway in 1401.  The tensions of 1402 may have boosted civic pride, but humanism was already a very active civic force.  Salutati left behind him a flourishing and well-established circle of men imbued with the values of participatory republicanism.  More than any other man, he can be deemed to have been responsible for a recognisable and Florentine civic humanism.

Thus, it can safely be concluded that old traditions and mores synthesized with even older ones, and that firstly Florence, and then all of Italy, brough forth great men and great achievements.  Italy was the home of the Renaissance, in part because Italian society was malleable enough to admit to new ideas.  It had a relatively sophisticated and urban lifestyle, which was not as strictly regimented as many other medieval communities.  Tradesmen and merchants were not constrained in quite the same way as those living within the more rigid hierarchies of predominantly agricultural economies.  Consequently, its artists and theoreticians were allowed a greater degree of social mobility and status.  Italy’s intellectual institutions were adaptable to a practical application of the philosophical thought of the ancient world.  Its people had sufficient time, money and expertise to fructify an artistic revolution.  Literary humanism evolved naturally into civic humanism, and civic humanism produced the environment to initiate great art.  Florence, in particular, was at the forefront of this creative flowering, because it was uniquely placed to associate its city’s constitutions with those praised by Cicero, who also, incidentally, wrote at a time when the institutions he venerated were about to dissolve as viable entities.  Florentine civic humanism, in immediate matters, a political failure, did leave more than enough behind to justify Bruni’s claims that a culture produces of its best in the free climate of republicanism.  To put it in its most simplistic terms, in this place and at that time, the intellectual, the social and the political coalesced into a tremendous burst of creation.

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  1. Burke, P. The Italian Renaissance – Culture and Society in Italy, Polity Press (2013)
  2. Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, Penguin Classics (1990)
  3. Siegal, J., “Civic Humanism” or Ciceronian Rhetoric? Past and Present No. 34 (1966)
  4. Machiavelli N. The Prince, Penguin Classics (2014)
  5. Baron, H., Leonardo Bruni: ‘Professional Rhetorician’ or ‘Civic Humanist’? Past and Present No. 36 (1967)
  6. Holmes, G., The Florentine Enlightenment 1400-1450, Clarendon Paperbacks, (1992)

Berki, R.N., The History of Political Thought – A short introduction,  Rowman and Littlefield, (1977)

Dickens, A.G., The Age of Humanism and Reformation, Prentice Hall, (1972)

Sabine, G.H., Thorson, T.L., A History of Political Thought, The Dryden Press (1973)

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