Renaissance and Reformation Paul Oskar Kristeller
Rocco Rubini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0309


Paul Oskar Kristeller (b. 1905–d. 1999) was a German-Jewish historian of philosophy and one of the most influential Renaissance scholars of the 20th century. Together with a short list of colleagues, Kristeller redefined Renaissance studies after the Second World War, at a time when the so-called problem of the Renaissance and its viability as historiographical category and autonomy as historical period, was acutely felt within what was then a much narrower field of specialists. He is best known for his attempts to dignify and distinguish historical “humanism.” He formally accepted the critiques of the medievalists who denied an enlightened break in the 15th and 16th centuries, and he proceeded to formulate and publish in 1946 a theory that was controversial at the time: that “humanism” was not the dawn of the new philosophy of man but a mostly academic and scholarly movement formally tied to the medieval traditions of ars dictandi and ars arengandi. Taken together, the studia humanitatis (whose focus was on grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and, to an extent, moral philosophy) amounted to an educational reform and, thus, to a reorientation of the medieval subdivision of the liberal arts into the Trivium and Quadrivium. Kristeller’s interpretation of humanism, which strongly emphasized a distinction between rhetoric and philosophy, was influenced by his intellectual formation in Germany and, later, Italy. Kristeller’s notably hard-nosed approach to scholarship was first honed at the Mommsen-Gymnasium in Berlin, were he met Ernst Hoffmann (his teacher of Greek), whom he followed to Heidelberg for his university career. Here he studied with Heinrich Rickert, a prominent neo-Kantian whose methodology in historiographical research Kristeller embraced, and Karl Jaspers, who introduced him to existentialism. Both influences are at play in Kristeller’s dissertation on Plotinus, published in 1929. Having received what he perceived as a less-than- excellent assessment of his dissertation, Kristeller moved to Berlin and trained to become a schoolteacher of Greek and Latin (with no less than Werner Jaeger, Eduard Norden, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, and Richard Walzer). He subsequently returned his attention to philosophy and chose Marsilio Ficino as the topic of a Habilitationschrift advised by Martin Heidegger, whom he had met during a short stint in Marburg in 1926. Because of anti-Semitic laws enacted in Germany, Kristeller moved to Italy in 1934 and became the protégé of Giovanni Gentile, securing positions as lecturer of German at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and at the University of Pisa. In 1939, Kristeller was again forced to emigrate, this time to the United States, where he found a home at Columbia University in New York.

General Overviews

It has been a hallmark of Renaissance scholarship on humanism in the new century, a transition that coincided with the death of an older generation of scholars, to reappraise, in an act of soul-searching, past interpretive paradigms. In this context, the bio-bibliographical profile of German-Jewish émigré Kristeller is seemingly tailor-made to attract the attention of intellectual historians. While a comprehensive intellectual biography of Kristeller is still needed, recent research on his life and work (itself indebted to the publication of Bibliographia Kristelleriana, a complete bibliography of Kristeller’s work) is beginning to further our knowledge of the German and Italian academic communities in the 1920s and 1930s and the aspirations of a generation of émigré intellectuals raised in the interwar period. Monfasani 2006 is particularly useful in recovering Kristeller’s early ambitions as a “philosopher” and the biases and concerns present in his work on Plotinus and, especially, Marsilio Ficino, the subjects of his two book-length studies. Gli studi umanistici e l’opera di Paul Oskar Kristeller offers a detailed account of Kristeller’s philological training at a time in which he was considering different career options. Monfasani 2006 and Boutcher 2006, furthermore, detail the course of Kristeller’s intellectual pilgrimage from Germany to Italy and, from there, to the United States. Archival materials (especially correspondences) will become increasingly important in our historical contextualization of 20th-century intellectual life, and Tedeschi 2002, which comprises the annotated correspondence between Delio Cantimori and Roland H. Bainton (two scholars instrumental in Kristeller’s relocation to the United States), offers a model for future publication of archival materials (some editions of Kristeller’s papers are underway as of this writing). As for contextualizing and assessing Kristeller’s guiding research principles and ethos—in sum, the idea that Renaissance humanism was not a philosophical movement—Hankins 2001, Celenza 2004, and Rubini 2014 have found it useful to compare Kristeller to his foremost competitor in the field, Italian scholar Eugenio Garin (b. 1909–d. 2004), who held the opposite view (that Renaissance humanism was indeed “philosophical”) and who engaged Kristeller in a lifelong debate on the topic. Hankins 2001 and Celenza 2004 posit Kristeller and Garin at opposite ends of the spectrum of attitudes available to the intellectual historian of the Renaissance. If Celenza 2004 sees Garin and Kristeller exemplifying a “diachronic” and “synchronic” approach, respectively, Hankins 2001 sees Garin as an exemplary “lumper” (someone inclined to interpret the Renaissance in light of future epochs’ achievements) and Kristeller as a decisive “splitter” (someone who insists on taking the Renaissance strictly on its own terms). Meanwhile, Rubini 2014 traces Kristeller’s principles in Renaissance scholarship to the influence of neo-Kantian Wertphilosophie, a philosophy espoused and developed by Kristeller’s teacher, Heinrich Rickert, and he compares Kristeller and Garin on the grounds of their different approaches to the German tradition of Historismus (Droysen, Dilthey, etc.), a movement countered by Rickert and his school.

  • Boutcher, Warren. “From Germany to Italy to America: The Migratory Significance of Kristeller’s Ficino in the 1930s.” In Weltoffener Humanismus: Philosophie, Philologie und Geschichte in der deutsch-jüdischen Emigration. Edited by Gerald Hartung and Kay Schiller, 133–153. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2006.

    DOI: 10.14361/9783839404416

    A useful account of Kristeller’s life and intellectual vicissitudes while composing his influential (and only) monograph, Kristeller 1964 (cited under Monographs).

  • Celenza, Christopher S. The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians and Latin’s Legacy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

    This book investigates the 21st-century predicaments of Renaissance studies and dedicates a whole chapter (“Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Twentieth Century: Eugenio Garin and Paul Oskar Kristeller,” pp. 16–57) to a comparative contextualization of the works of Kristeller and his primary rival in the field of Renaissance humanism, Eugenio Garin.

  • Gilbhard, Thomas, ed. Bibliographia Kristelleriana: A Bibliography of the Publications of Paul Oskar Kristeller (1929–1999). Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2006.

    Indispensable tool for orienting oneself in the vast sea of Kristeller’s 700 or so publications in a career that spanned over seventy years. It includes a list of Festschriften (Appendix 1) and cites assessments and studies of Kristeller until 2002 (Appendix 2).

  • Gli studi umanistici e l’opera di Paul Oskar Kristeller. Milan: Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere, 2003.

    Collects proceedings from a conference dedicated to Kristeller in 2000, including important contributions on Kristeller’s formation as a classicist in Berlin (1928–1931) and on his work in textual bibliography.

  • Hankins, James. “Two Twentieth-Century Interpreters of Renaissance Humanism: Eugenio Garin and Paul Oskar Kristeller.” Comparative Literature 23 (2001): 3–19.

    A pioneering comparative assessment of Kristeller’s and Garin’s stances on Renaissance humanism.

  • Monfasani, John, ed. Kristeller Reconsidered: Essays on His Life and Scholarship. New York: Italica, 2006.

    The first and most comprehensive attempt yet to survey Kristeller’s life and scholarship. Includes contributions on Kristeller’s formative years in Germany and Italy, assessments of his contributions to distinct subfields in Renaissance scholarship (Renaissance Platonism, Renaissance universities, reception of ancient philosophies, etc.), and accounts of Kristeller’s tireless labors in the realm of textual bibliography.

  • Rubini, Rocco. The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226186276.001.0001

    Describes the role the Renaissance played in 19th- and 20th-century Italian intellectual life, devotes a chapter (“A Philosopher’s Humanism: Paul Oskar Kristeller,” pp. 293–354) to recovering the modern philosophical sources informing Kristeller’s assessment of Renaissance humanism.

  • Tedeschi, John, ed. The Correspondence of Roland H. Bainton and Delio Cantimori (1932–1966): An Enduring Transatlantic Friendship between Two Historians of Religious Toleration. Florence: Olschki, 2002.

    Delio Cantimori, especially, and Roland H. Bainton were two scholars close to Kristeller who facilitated his coming to the United States. Tedeschi’s thorough introduction, notes, and appendix (which contains letters written by Kristeller) help contextualize Kristeller’s life in the 1930s.

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