In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literary Criticism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Humanist Background
  • Imitation
  • The Vernaculars
  • The Art of Poetry
  • The Defense of Poetry

Renaissance and Reformation Literary Criticism
William M. Russell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0212


A product of the revival of classical Greek and Roman culture known as humanism, Renaissance literary criticism took root in defenses of poetry and dialogues on language and literary imitation in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries. It reached maturity, however, and first achieved independence as a discourse in 16th-century Italy, where the recovery of Aristotle’s Poetics occasioned a series of commentaries that extended to the elaboration of comprehensive theories of poetry, such as that of Lodovico Castelvetro (b. 1505–d. 1571), and to the application of these theories to vernacular works by Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, and others. The influence of Italian criticism meanwhile spread swiftly across Europe, where such figures as Joachim Du Bellay (b. 1522–d. 1560) and Philip Sidney (b. 1554–d. 1586) enlisted it, along with the other resources of humanism, in the establishment of vernacular traditions of literature and criticism. Fundamentally classical, Renaissance criticism showcases its debts to Horace, Aristotle, and Plato, roughly in that order. But it was the questions left unanswered by these authorities that crucially led Renaissance critics to synthesize, adapt, and extend classical poetics to meet the demands of contemporary Christian writers and readers. Going back to Dante, their first priority was the defense of poetry against the incursions of its ancient and modern opponents and the defense of the vernacular as a poetic medium. Defending poetry entailed defining it and establishing its formal criteria, both of which hinged on imitation. Following Aristotle, critics tended to define poetry itself as an imitation, the status, source, and purpose of which they debated with recourse to other classical philosophers, critics, and rhetoricians. Invoking Horace and plying the formalism of Aristotle and such rhetorical treatises as the Institutio oratoria of Quintilian, ambitious critics such as Julius Caesar Scaliger (b. 1484–d. 1558) composed encyclopedic artes poeticae that sought in unprecedented ways to systematize the art of poetry with standards of prosody, figure, and genre derived from classical models. The question of which models to imitate, and how, gave rise to heated disputes over the imitation of Cicero, the employment of quantitative meter and rhyme, and the relative merits of romance and epic. Renaissance literary criticism thus reflects the intellectual culture of the age by confronting at every turn the complex dynamics of imitation, both practically and theoretically.

Introductory Works

Readers new to the subject will quickly gain a sense of the themes and trajectory of Renaissance literary criticism from Wimsatt and Brooks 1957. Spingarn 1963 remains useful as a broad book-length introduction despite its age and the limitations noted by Weinberg and in Brazeau 2020 (see Humanist Background).

  • Spingarn, Joel Elias. A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance. Introduction by Bernard Weinberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

    Schematically surveys in three parts the development of critical traditions in Renaissance Italy, France, and England, with Italy receiving the most attention. Argues that Renaissance literary criticism sought principally to justify imaginative literature. Weinberg’s introduction offers a helpful caveat lector on Spingarn’s “unphilosophical” (p. viii) methodology. Originally published in 1899; reprinted often.

  • Wimsatt, William K., Jr., and Cleanth Brooks. “The Sixteenth Century.” In Literary Criticism: A Short History. By William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Cleanth Brooks, 155–173. New York: Vintage, 1957.

    Addresses in twelve tight, quotation-packed pages the forms, themes, and history of Italian, French, and English literary criticism from the cinquecento recovery of Aristotle’s Poetics to Sidney’s Defence, which receives special attention.

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