Renaissance Humanism

Reading about Renaissance humanism emphasized the fact that there was no true “humanist movement” or “philosophy” that characterized the Renaissance, humanism did greatly impact culture, education, publication and art throughout Europe during the Renaissance.  While it can be said that humanism emphasized the dignity of the human being in relation to the divine and helped shift the focus from the spiritual to the physical, there are truths and falsehoods inherent in that statement[1].  Humanism in the Renaissance was mainly a focus on education – or a group of teachers that focused on studia humanitatis – or liberal arts, which differed from the typical medieval scholasticism centered on natural sciences and theological implications[2].  Medieval education focused mainly on the trivium – grammar, rhetoric and dialectic[3].

The early humanist scholars, however, were not typically educators in a formal sense.  They were private individuals that viewed education differently and spread their ideas on to others.  They returned to a study of the classics, including Greek learning which was practically unavailable throughout the medieval period.  They wrote scholarly work and also wrote pieces in the vernacular which were easily distributed by the printing press thus making their work easily accessible to others[4].  An increase in education as well as the brewing religious conflict between Luther, the conflict in the Catholic church from the 14th century and Christian Humanist ideals (as studied from Augustine and highlighted by Erasmus) allowed for an explosion in printed materials not only in Latin, but in local vernacular languages as well[5].  Humanism also emphasized the need to do good in society, which allowed humanist scholars and thinkers to interact with their world and influence politics, learning and art – this civic humanism stressed the importance of practical careers and influence[6].  By embracing the idea that every person was responsible for and held loyalty to their families and by extensions their cities, countries, etc. patronage of education and the arts was a practical application of humanist ideals.


Leaders of city-states in Italy as well as elsewhere recognized the changing focus in art to naturalism and commissioned works by artists, becoming a patron of the artist and often taking an active role as the art that was commissioned was created[7].  The majority of art was created for specific patrons – typically well-off, noble families that were well off and could hire the services of a master craftsman.

[1] Richard K. Hines, “Humanism,” Washington State University, 1996, accessed February 26, 2016,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Merry E. Wisner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[5] Hines

[6] Hines.

[7] Wisner-Hanks.

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