Medieval Studies Early Italian Humanists
Brian Maxson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0283


Early Italian humanists already were pursuing many of the innovations and themes characteristic of their better-known counterparts of the 15th and 16th centuries. Decades before the traditional “father of humanism” Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), writers such as Lovato dei Lovati and Albertino Mussato were fascinated by the study, emulation, and critical assessment of the classical world. Sparked by the needs of the urban societies of the 13th-century Italian Peninsula, Lovato dei Lovati turned toward Antiquity for stylistic models to follow. From his more localized influence, the numbers of early humanists expanded, especially in Padua and Verona. By the early trecento at the latest their writings were generating acclaim across the Veneto, as evidenced by the coronation with the poet’s laurel of Albertino Mussato in Padua in 1315. Works of poetry, history, drama, and others flowed from their pens, even as many of their writings are no longer extant. These late duecento and early trecento figures differed from later writers in several important ways, even as they established a foundation and context for later, better known humanists like Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati, and Leonardo Bruni. Early Italian humanists, for example, made some important manuscript discoveries. They read and critically assessed new and familiar classical works. They tried to emulate the style of classical works in their original writings. However, key differences remained between these early humanists and their later counterparts. Unlike 15th-century humanists, early Italian humanists lacked knowledge of Greek and, thus, were limited to classical writings available in Latin. Philological developments by early Italian humanists were rudimentary, and most manuscript discoveries were to come only later. Humanists in the 15th century mostly rejected these earlier writers as part of their movement’s history. Much of the 20th-century scholarship argues for the inclusion of these writers within the humanist canon and assesses the innovations of early Italian humanists in relation to the work of Petrarch or later writers. More recent work has turned to analyzing their lives and writings on their own terms and publishing new editions of texts.

General Overviews

Overviews of early Italian humanists usually focus on questions about the origins of humanism, while overviews of Italian humanism rarely provide in-depth treatment of the early humanists. Witt 2000 in many ways builds upon the work of Roberto Weiss, particularly essays in Weiss 1949 and ideas underpinning Weiss 1988. Both Weiss and Witt argue that treatments of late duecento and early trecento humanists should shed the prefix “pre” or “proto” and be considered full members of the humanist movement. Black 2002 offers some alternative points to Witt’s readings. Milner 2012 provides a clear summary of earlier historiographical disagreements. Lee 2018 accepts the inclusion of the early Italian humanists within the humanist canon, and this approach allows the author to focus on the importance of empire in early humanist writings. Mazzocco 2006 is notable for its inclusion of no less than three essays on the early Italian humanists in this book focused on Renaissance humanism more generally. Apart from Mazzocco 2006, most general overviews of Renaissance humanism devote little space to humanists before Petrarch. Paradigmatic and synthetic books, such as Baron 1966, Nauert 2006, Celenza 2018, and others, each differ in their specific treatment of humanism before Petrarch, but they all place their focus on later developments.

  • Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

    Originally published in two volumes in 1955. The classic formulation of the idea of civic humanism, an argument that claims Renaissance humanism was intimately tied to the culture of Italian republics, especially Florence. Baron acknowledges the existence of humanists before Petrarch but argues that their development was stunted by the fall of Italian republics in the early trecento.

  • Black, Robert. “Review of In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni by Ronald G. Witt.” Vivarium 40.2 (2002): 272–297.

    DOI: 10.1163/156853402320901849

    In this review essay Black tweaks and/or disputes several claims in Witt 2000. The essential points of debate are ably summarized in Lee 2018.

  • Celenza, Christopher S. The Intellectual World of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Celenza argues that debates over language and philosophy formed crucial components of the humanist movement during the long 15th century. The book includes Dante in its narrative but does not discuss the early Italian humanists.

  • Lee, Alexander. Humanism & Empire: The Imperial Idea in Fourteenth-Century Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199675159.001.0001

    A comprehensive examination of the changing idea of empire in the works of 14th-century humanists. The book is groundbreaking in its primary source usage and is a must-read volume for those interested in early Italian humanists. Its historiographical foil remains Baron’s now largely debunked arguments about the correlation between humanism and republicanism (see Baron 1966).

  • Mazzocco, Angelo, ed. Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.

    Collects essays from leading scholars of humanism, effectively offering a snapshot of accepted paradigms and points of disagreement in the field at the turn of the 21st century. Unlike most synthetic books, nearly a quarter of its content focuses on the period before 1350.

  • Milner, Stephen J. “The Italian Peninsula: Reception and Dissemination.” In Humanism in Fifteenth-Century Europe. Edited by David Rundle, 1–30. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2012.

    Although ostensibly focused on later centuries, Milner devotes nearly half his article to the topic of pre-Petrarchan humanism. A clear and succinct summary of current understandings of the topic.

  • Nauert, Charles G., Jr. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511808388

    Still the standard introductory text to humanism for students. The text briefly mentions Lovato dei Lovati and Albertino Mussato as “pre” humanists, but, in fact, the narrative starts with Petrarch.

  • Weiss, Roberto. Il primo secolo dell’umanesimo. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1949.

    Includes an essay on Geremia da Montagnone, one on Geri d’Arezzo, and a final one on Petrarch, in addition to appendixes that publish most of the extant writings from and evidence on Geri d’Arezzo. Weiss’s inclusion of these figures within the humanist movement, because of their study and approach to classical authors, has proven very influential in the current field.

  • Weiss, Roberto. The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

    Views humanism through the lens of antiquarianism and archaeology. Although the story begins with the early Italian humanists, Weiss argues that critical innovations in historical perspective and criticism came about only in the 15th century.

  • Witt, Ronald G. In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2000.

    A masterful synthesis of humanism in the 13th and 14th centuries that argues for the importance of style and the movement’s origins in grammar as opposed to rhetoric. This book is the essential starting point for all topics related to early Italian humanism.

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