Renaissance and Reformation The Origins of Humanism
Ronald G. Witt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0223


Italian humanism began in the northern third of the Italian peninsula, which constituted the southern kingdom of the Holy Roman Empire. Except for legal commentaries on Roman and canon law and practical manuals of letter writing, this area of Italy made almost no contribution to European culture before the 13th century. In contrast, a significant change in the culture of the area occurred then. While legal studies and practical rhetoric retained their importance, the composition of Latin and vernacular poetry flourished, the translation of ancient Latin literary and scholarly work became an industry, and natural science and theology emerged as topics of major interest. Whereas in northern Europe intellectual life was dominated by clerics throughout the Middle Ages, from at least the early 12th century, laymen in this area of Italy played a significant role in what scholarly and literary work was produced. At least by the second half of the 13th century, they constituted the majority of grammar teachers and professors at the universities. It is fair to say that the buoyant Italian culture of the 13th century was, with the exception of theology and canon law, largely a lay enterprise. When laymen approached the writings of the ancients, therefore, they came to these works with different questions from those of northern European clerics. The evolution of Italian humanism, grounded as it was on the study and imitation of the ancients, was marked from its beginnings with the concerns of lay society. Herein lay its claim to be a major progenitor of the modern world.

General Overviews

Since Georg Voigt and Jacob Burckhardt (see Burckhardt 1960 and Voigt 1960), mid-19th-century scholars considered Renaissance humanism (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on Humanism for the definition) to have begun with Petrarch. Subsequent research revealed, however, that he had been preceded by two generations of writers devoted to the study and imitation of ancient Latin literature and history. These writers have traditionally been termed “pre-humanists,” but the distinction between the two terms has never been defined. Witt maintains that although Petrarch surpassed his predecessors in the depth and breadth of his knowledge of ancient authors and in the extent to which he mastered ancient Latin, the earlier writers were nonetheless humanists in that they were deeply committed to the study of the ancients and achieved a measure of distinction in their ability to imitate ancient Latin style (Witt 2000). Black 2006 considers Witt’s stylistic criterion to be too narrow and relies rather on the scholars’ commitment to ancient literature and history as the basis for defining an early humanist. Weiss 1970 is the first to conceive of early humanists as a group.

  • Black, Robert. “The Origins of Humanism.” In Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism. Edited by Angelo Mazzocco, 37–71. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2006.

    Black considers that Witt’s use of the commitment to ancient Roman poetic style as the litmus test for the humanist unnecessarily results in excluding a wide circle of learned writers devoted to rhetorical, philological, and literary studies concerned with Classical Antiquity.

  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: New American Library, 1960.

    Originally published in 1860; available in other editions. For the first time this work conceptualized the Renaissance as a period of Italian history running from 1300 to 1600—that is, not as a revival of interest in one field of learning or another, but as a totally new culture reflected in every aspect of life. Humanism, beginning with Petrarch, was only one manifestation of the new attitude toward man and the world.

  • Voigt, Georg. Die Wiederbelebung des classisches Altertums: Oder der erste Jahrhundert des Humanismus. 2 vols. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1960.

    Originally published in 1856, Voigt’s description of the history of Italian humanism from Petrarch to the end of the 15th century was a monumental achievement of mid-19th-century scholarship.

  • Weiss, Roberto. The Dawn of Humanism in Italy: An Inaugural Lecture. New York: Haskell, 1970.

    Originally published in 1947. Weiss is the first scholar to present a synthetic analysis of the work of the two generations of humanists prior to Petrarch in the northern Italian cities.

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

    The author argues that pre-humanism is really the equivalent of pre-Petrarchan humanism, and that humanism began in Padua in the late 1260s with Lovato dei Lovati, who not only discovered unknown pagan literary texts but also demonstrated his commitment to ancient Roman poetic style by writing a series of poems closely modeled on Ovid and Horace. Albertino Mussato in the next generation mastered classicizing prose. The ability to write classicizing Latin constituted the key to entering the intellectual and emotional world of the ancients.

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