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

  • Introduction

Renaissance and Reformation Academies
Simone Testa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0428


Academies were one of the most influential social and cultural phenomena of the early modern period. The fashion of creating academies started in Italy in the early 15th century and spread to the rest of Europe. While it initially referred to a place, “Academia” or “Accademia” came to indicate many kinds of formal or informal groups, the gathering of such groups, or the activities they promoted. “Accademia” as a form of spontaneous association of learned individuals, separated from universities or from religious groups, was used by circles of humanists in early Quattrocento Tuscany, and spread to the rest of the Italian peninsula, to the point that between 1430 and 1700, there were hundreds of academies, in big cities as well as in small centers. They engaged in all sorts of disciplines, such as history, geography, poetry, music, theater, rhetoric, politics, diplomacy, medicine, mathematics, physics, engineering, etc., and generally promoted knowledge as a collaborative effort. “Accademia” defined a social space where a group of people gathered to share their spare time, information, and knowledge, initially without necessarily drafting membership rules or statutes. As they constituted forms of learned sociability, academies varied greatly through space and time, and interests, and (at least in Italy) they tended to be short-lived. Many academies in Italy acquired playful names, such as Oziosi (The Idle Ones), Intrepidi (The Intrepid Ones), Abbandonati (The Abandoned Ones), and Gelati (The Frozen Ones), and they often adopted an emblem, or impresa; that is, a picture with a motto. Several academies were the creation of young men in their late teens and early twenties. Many required their members to adopt playful names related to the general name of the academy and its impresa. Many selected a patron saint and asked for the protection of a living patron, generally a member of the clergy or the nobility. Different from other associations, such as confraternities or guilds, many academies facilitated the diffusion of their activities in the form of networked publications. Academies proudly declared on their publications, either in manuscript or in print, the name of the academy and the names of academicians. In this way, academies facilitated the importance of belonging across intellectual circles, which made them more famous than other kinds of groups. By the end of the 16th century, it was impossible for any learned man living on the Italian peninsula to ignore the social space of the “accademia.” Later on, the model of Italian academies influenced the creation of similar groups in other European countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and England. In general, however, transalpine academies tended to be more long-lasting, more structured, dependent on political power, and keener to produce collaborative research that met with the celebration of the utility of knowledge promoted by the cultural goals of the late 17th and 18th centuries. In general, the representation of Italian academies through the centuries met both good and bad judgments. Lately, the phenomenon is being reevaluated in light of current forms of social networks. It is the intention of this contribution to include all gatherings that gave themselves the name of “academy,” whether or not they drafted rules and regulations, published books, used the vernacular Italian language in their publications, or gave themselves and their members humorous names.

Interpretations of the Phenomenon From the 16th to the 21st Century

This section lists the comments on academies written while the phenomenon was growing and expanding, between the 16th and the 18th century. Then, it covers the critics of academies, in Italy, France, and Germany, from the late 16th to the late 18th centuries. Subsequently it illustrates interpretations of the phenomenon in the 19th, and 20th centuries. While 18th and 19th-century critics exercised a long-lasting influence, mostly negative, on the scholarly interpretation of the academic movement, several 20th-century studies inverted the commonly shared interpretation of academies as symbols of the Italian cultural decadence. The section also includes a subsection on British and North-American interpretations of the Italian academic movement and their influence. The section comes to an end with the current interpretation of academies as social networks. Needless to say, the present contribution can only go as far as proposing a structure through which it is possible to contextualize the numerous essays and monographs that, through the centuries and in different languages, attempted to make sense of a particularly broad, and yet elusive, cultural and historiographical problem.

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