The men of letters of this period may be divided into three groups: First were the conservers of classical culture, heirs of Petrarch’s humanistic enthusiasm for the classical past; second were the vernacular writers who took the path marked out by the Decameron, from Chaucer at the close of the fourteenth century down to Rabelais and Cervantes in the sixteenth; and third were the synthesizers—philosophical humanists who tried to fuse Christianity, classicism, and other elements into a universal human philosophy.
The devoted antiquarians of the fifteenth century uncovered a remarkable number of ancient manuscripts. They ransacked monasteries; they pieced together the works of Cicero, Tacitus, Lucretius, and other Latin authors; they collected Greek manuscripts through agents in Constantinople. To preserve, catalog, and study these literary treasures, the first modern libraries were created. Cosimo de’ Medici supported three separate libraries in and near Florence and employed forty-five copyists. Humanist popes founded the library of the Vatican, and even the minor duchy of Urbino in northern Italy had a humanist court and a major library.
Greek scholars made the journey from Byzantium to Italy. One of the earliest of them, Manuel Chrysoloras (1368-1415), came to Italy to seek help for the beleaguered Byzantines against the Turks and remained to teach at Florence and Milan. He did literature a great service by insisting that translations into Latin from the Greek should not be literal, as they had been in the past, but should convey the message and spirit of the original. The revival of Greek studies reached maturity in the 1460s with the emergence of the informal circle of Florentine humanists known as the Platonic Academy. The Greek language, however, never equaled Latin in popularity because of its difficulty, a fact that discouraged interest in the Greek drama and led most humanists to study Plato in Latin translation.
Lorenzo Valla (c. 1407-1457) represented classical scholarship at its best. Valla passed much of his adult life in Rome and Naples. Petty and quarrelsome, he also commanded both immense learning and the courage to use it against the most sacred targets. He even criticized the supposedly flawless prose of Cicero and took Thomas Aquinas to task for his failure to know Greek. His own expert knowledge of the language led him to point out errors and misinterpretations in the Vulgate (St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible), and thereby to lay the foundation for humanist biblical scholarship.
Valla’s fame rests above all on his demonstration that the Donation of Constantine, one basis for justifying papal claims to temporal domination, was a forgery. He proved his case by showing that both the Latin in which the Donation was written and the events to which it referred dated from an era several centuries after Constantine. When Valla published this expose in 1440, he was secretary to Alfonso the Magnanimous, king of Aragon, whose claim to Naples was being challenged by the papacy on the basis of the Donation itself.
The philosophical humanists aspired not only to universal knowledge but also to a universal truth and faith. They were centered at Florence, attracted by the Platonic Academy founded in 1462 by Cosimo de’ Medici, who entrusted the commission of translating Plato to Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), a medical student turned classicist who also translated some of the Neoplatonists’ works. The opportunity for stressing the compatibility of Neoplatonism with Christianity exerted a strong attraction on Ficino and his circle.
Ficino argued that religious feeling and expression were as natural to humanity as barking was to dogs. Humanity, he wrote, has the unique faculty called intellect. He coined the term Platonic love to describe the love that transcends the senses and may lead to mystical communion with God. Ficino seemed to be attempting a synthesis of all philosophy and religion.
The attempt was pressed further by Ficino’s pupil, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Pico crowded much into his thirty-one years: He knew Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; he studied Jewish allegory, Arab philosophy, and medieval Scholasticism. Pico’s tolerance was as broad as his learning. In his short Oration on the Dignity of Man, he cited approvingly Chaldean and Persian theologians, the priests of Apollo, Socrates, Pythagoras, Cicero, Moses, Paul, Augustine, Muhammad, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.
Together with Ficino, Pico helped to found the humane studies of comparative religion and comparative philosophy. He strengthened Ficino’s idea that humanity was unique—the link between the mortal physical world and the immortal spiritual one. This concept lay at the core of Renaissance style.
However, the person who epitomized the most mature expression of the impulse to draw on all wisdom was Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). He studied and taught at Oxford and Cambridge, at Paris, and in Italy, and he particularly relished the free atmosphere of small cities like Louvain in the Low Countries, Basel in Switzerland, and Freiburg in the Rhineland. Building on Valla’s scholarship, Erasmus published a scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament.
He compiled a series of Adages and Colloquies to give students examples of good Latin composition. Most influential was his satirical The Praise of Folly, in which he contrasted the spontaneous natural reactions of the supposedly foolish with the studied and self-serving artificiality of those who claimed to be wise. Erasmus mocked any group inflated by a sense of its own importance—merchants, philosophers, scientists, courtiers, clerics, and kings.
Erasmus coupled a detached view of human nature with faith in the dignity of humanity. He joined a love of the classics with respect for Christian values. He had little use for the fine-spun arguments of Scholasticism and was a tireless advocate of what he called his “philosophy of Christ”—the application of the doctrines of charity and love taught by Jesus.
Yet his edition of the Greek New Testament raised disquieting doubts about the accuracy of the Latin translation in the Vulgate and therefore of Catholic biblical interpretations, and his attacks on clerical laxity implied that the wide gap between the lofty ideals and the corrupt practices of the church could not long endure. Both his fidelity to the Christian tradition and his humanist convictions committed Erasmus to the position that the only worthy weapons were reason and discussion. Perhaps because he sought compromise, he has also become enormously popular with twentieth- century humanists.
The medieval values still evident in some writings of the period were gone in the works of the Frenchman Francois Rabelais (1490-1553). Rabelais studied the classics, particularly Plato and the ancient physicians, practiced and taught medicine, and created two of the great comic figures of letters—Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. The two are giants, and everything they do is of heroic dimensions. The abbey of Theleme, which Gargantua helps to found, permits its residents a wildly unmonastic experience:
All their life was spent not in lawes, statutes or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds, when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. . . In all their rule, and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed, DO WHAT THOU WILT-
To Rabelais free will meant self-improvement on a grand scale. Gargantua exhorts Pantagruel to learn everything, he is to master Arabic in addition to Latin, read the New Testament in Greek and the Old in Hebrew, and study history, geometry, architecture, music, and civil law. He must also know “the fishes; all the fowls of the air; all the several kinds of shrubs and trees, . . . all sorts of herbs and flowers that grow upon the ground; all the various metals that are hid within the bowels of the earth.” “In brief,” Gargantua concludes, “let me see thee an abyss, and bottomless pit of knowledge.”**
Rabelais leaned heavily on oral traditions and other forms of popular culture. He discovered the people who spoke and wrote in the vernacular; he enjoyed the carnival atmosphere of ordinary life, and he put popular forms together with his knowledge of the classics, theology, medicine, and law. He drew upon folksongs, ballads, and German and French chapbooks, with less than customary respect for the barriers between types of audiences. He understood that there was an underculture of wanderers, sailors, women, who desired and created their own literary forms. By depicting them in his writings, he was at once a humanist who truly saw the unity among all people, an innovator producing a new genre, and a subversive whose language brought popular culture to academic respectability.
In a sense Rabelais personified the tension between the carnal and the spiritual in Renaissance life, for he drew upon both. He saw himself as an exponent of the “philosophy of Christ,” yet the very word Rabelaisian came to mean bawdy, vulgar, even obscene. He understood how the peasantry, in particular, ritualized the tension in their lives in both Lent and Carnival. Carnival was a time of holiday, an end in itself, with emphasis on food, violence, and sex. (Came meant that “meat” could be eaten before the long Lenten fast; carve also meant “the flesh,” in the sexual sense.) Symbols of lust were openly displayed at Carnival; aggression was expressed toward animals, women, and Jews; and the widespread use of costumes freed men and women to reverse roles, to justify disorder, and to do things for which they would not be blamed, since, even if recognized behind their masks, they were not “themselves.”
Against Carnival, traditional popular culture set Lent, as shown in a famous painting by Pieter Brueghel, Combat of Carnival and Lent (1559). While Carnival was represented as a gross man eating and drinking licentiously, Lent was depicted as a thin woman, going without food or sex, that is, depriving herself of whatever was most valued for pleasure. Religious reformers increasingly sought to distinguish Lent from Carnival, to use the popular pastimes of the peasantry for didactic purposes.
The Catholic reformers sought to modify, the Protestant reformers to eliminate, Carnival. In this tension between the mortification of Lent and the release of Carnival, both so intense in Rabelais, the diversity of Renaissance life is well revealed; in the triumph of Lent in the seventeenth century, the success of the Reformation would be demonstrated.