A 19th-century Swiss historian named Jacob Burckhardt coined the term Renaissance (rebirth) for the big changes in thinking and the arts that took place in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The rebirth in question was of the world of the ancients, the Romans, and especially the Greeks. The writings and ideas of these civilizations seemed to offer meanings that were applied to every aspect of life — education, music, politics, painting, religion, even falling in love. Renaissance scholars called this new learning humanism — everything you'll ever need to know about being human.
Nowadays, a humanist is someone who doesn't believe you need religion in order to lead a good life and treat other people properly. In the Renaissance, a humanist was someone who studied the ancients in order to understand the human condition and the mind of God. Same word, two very different meanings.
Fifteenth-century Italy had all the ingredients for an artist's paradise. Rulers and rich merchants abounded, all with cash to spend and looking for some way of showing off their wealth to everyone else. What better than to get the latest Renaissance painter to come and decorate your reception area?
A city didn't even need to have a university to take advantage of the "new learning," as it was called. Venice's Aldine Press produced editions of all the great Greek authors for libraries across Europe. Pope Nicholas V founded the great collection of books that became the magnificent Vatican Library. Later, the new learning would penetrate the universities and take them over.
Francesco Petrarch: The man who loved books
Historians can't usually date movements and trends like the Renaissance from one event or person, but Francesco Petrarch has a good claim to having started off the Italian Renaissance. Francesco was the poet who developed the sonnet, but his real importance was as an avid book collector. Petrarch didn't just collect them; he used to sit stroking their pages and talking to them.
Digging around in attics and cellars in Florence, Petrarch found lots of old Latin manuscripts and was astounded by the purity of their language. The only Latin Petrarch or anyone else knew was the rather clumsy Latin of the Church and universities. Imagine for a moment that the only English you ever heard, the only English that existed, was the language of a firm of chartered accountants, and then you opened an old cupboard and found the complete works of Shakespeare. Soon, not an attic in Italy was safe from scholars prying open old chests and cupboards to see if any ancient documents were inside.
Spreading the new learning to the masses
In Petrarch's eyes, poetry and literature were for scholars only; his book collection formed the basis for the library of Florence's new university. However, one of Petrarch's followers, a scholar and civil servant called Coluccio Salutati, came up with a more far-reaching idea.
Salutati had come across the speeches of the great Roman lawyer Cicero. These documents were all top-quality stuff — lots of rhetorical flourishes and learned allusions — but what interested Salutati was that these were not composed for private reading or scholarly study, but for use in court, to get Cicero's clients off with a caution. Salutati liked that notion and called it negotium — applying your learning to practical life. Salutati became Chancellor of Florence and started writing his diplomatic correspondence in the style of Cicero. Soon, other states started to get interested in the new "humanist" scholarship being pioneered in Florence.
Florence soon became a major center of humanist scholarship, thanks to another scholar-Chancellor, Leonardo Bruni. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, many Greek scholars ended up in Florence and introduced the Florentines to some of the ancient Greek masters, like Aristotle in the original and the big new discovery, Plato. Forty years later, the whole Jewish population of Spain was kicked out, so now Hebrew scholars headed for Florence, too. The new learning was about to become very practical indeed.