v27 #5 Collecting to the Core — The Renaissance: Secular and Sacred

by | Dec 7, 2015 | 0 comments

by Dr. Thomas M. Izbicki  (Associate University Librarian, Research and Instructional Services, Rutgers University; Renaissance Studies Editor, Resources for College Libraries)  <tizbicki@rci.rutgers.edu>

Column Editor:  Anne Doherty  (Resources for College Libraries Project Editor, CHOICE/ACRL)  <adoherty@ala-choice.org>

Column Editor’s Note:  The “Collecting to the Core” column highlights monographic works that are essential to the academic library within a particular discipline, inspired by the Resources for College Libraries bibliography (online at http://www.rclweb.net).  In each essay, subject specialists introduce and explain the classic titles and topics that continue to remain relevant to the undergraduate curriculum and library collection.  Disciplinary trends may shift, but some classics never go out of style. — AD

The Renaissance is not a tidy topic.  While often reduced to a trope in popular discourse, the Renaissance is a complex and rich scholarly subject that crosses disciplines and contributes to the understanding of Western civilization.  The cultural phenomena associated with it emerged in Italy, beginning in the early fourteenth century.  Dante Alighieri created monuments of literature in the vernacular.  Petrarch, attempting to recover the heritage of classical antiquity, created a periodization dismissive of the intervening Middle or “Dark” Ages that still persists.  Interpretation of the Renaissance, especially in its Italian cradle, was largely formed by Jacob Burckhardt’s 1860 work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.1  Burckhardt eschewed a traditional political approach for the study of Renaissance culture, especially art, as well as secular aspects of social institutions.  This foundational work serves as an early example of cultural history and created a popular image of the Renaissance which has endured.  The historical philosopher Ernst Cassirer placed the Renaissance at the origins of modern thought in his tome The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, first published in 1927 and translated into English in 1963.2  Cassirer, together with Paul Oskar Kristeller and John Herman Randall, Jr., translated and edited The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, which provides primary historical writings by leading thinkers of the time, including Petrarch.3  These humanists, most of them professional men of letters, played a key role in the development and interpretation of Renaissance thought.  Kristeller provides a comprehensive scholarly introduction to the philosophical, literary, theological, and scientific themes that flourished in the Renaissance in his Renaissance Thought and Its Sources.4  Consisting of fourteen essays based on original lectures, this work outlines the development of humanist, Aristotelian, and Platonist ideas.

In addition to these secular explorations, sacred interpretations of the Italian Renaissance have also emerged, proceeding along two different tracks: one emphasizes the continuity of medieval religious traditions; the other focuses on the absorption of earlier Christian sources and the emergence of a new humanist theology.  A starting point for the study of traditional religion in Renaissance Italy is the early fourteenth century, at the close of the late Middle Ages and during the time of DanteGeorge W. Dameron provides a partial overview of this period in Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante.5  Women’s religious roles are examined in a longer temporal context in Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, edited by Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi.6  By the fifteenth century, movements for reform and humanistic approaches to theology were very much alive, as Denys Hay outlines in The Church in Italy in the Fifteenth Century.7

During the Renaissance, two historical religious figures stand out: Catherine of Siena (1347-80) and Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444).  Both were influential theological figures during their lifetimes and are now canonized saints.  Catherine, a Dominican tertiary, was a mystic whom Pope Paul VI later declared a Doctor of the Church for her significant writings.  Catherine left more than 300 letters and 26 prayers that serve as primary historical, religious, and literary texts.  Her Dialogue, translated by Suzanne Noffke, is a discussion between a soul “rising up” and God.8  Bernardino was a priest and Franciscan who traveled throughout Italy preaching directly to the public, drawing huge crowds of people that enthusiastically received his sermons and often recorded his words.  Iris Origo’s The World of San Bernardino illustrates how deeply engaged Bernardino was in society and contemporary efforts to restore the role of the Catholic Church.9  His fiery preaching targeted moral degradation and groups he regarded as dangerous, including Jews, witches, heretics, and sodomites, as Franco Mormando shows in The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy.10

While Catherine of Siena’s mysticism and Bernardino’s evangelicalism serve as exemplars of traditional religious practice during this time, the emergent Latin humanism also included devotional aspects.  Petrarch, well known for his Italian poetry, was also engaged in Latin scholarship and is largely attributed for his significant role in developing humanist thought and promoting secular work in tandem with religious practice.  He wrote De otio religioso or On Religious Leisure and The Secret, both of which approached Christianity from a very personal and literary slant.11-12   Petrarch’s contemplative work was not always well received by the established public and political leaders.  In response to his writing, Coluccio Salutati, the chancellor of Florence, defended the use of classical texts, as Ronald G. Witt documents in Hercules at the Crossroads: The Life, Works, Thought of Coluccio Salutati.13  Employing literary scholarship for Christian purposes, including the creation of texts couched in elegant Latin, can be seen in both Florentine and Roman contexts.  In Florence, the most important figure for the recovery and translation of Patristic texts was the Camaldolese monk Ambrogio TraversariCharles L. Stinger explores Traversari’s impact in Humanism and the Church Fathers: Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439) and Christian Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance.14   The Roman adaptation of humanism was tied more directly to the papacy, as Stinger documents in The Renaissance in Rome.15  Literary creations in the Roman tradition included orations and sermons delivered before the popes using a proper Latin style.  John O’Malley offers the classic study of this oratory style and its influence in Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine, and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 1450-1521.16  The best summary of humanistic theology is Charles Edward Trinkaus’s In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought.17

Although the Renaissance flowered in Italy, it spread far beyond the borders and confines of that nation-state — geographically, politically, and theologically — into Northern Europe.  The transmission of humanist thought and methodologies outside Italy meant entering a different intellectual and religious milieu.  The religious scene in the North was dominated by devotional currents like the Devotio Moderna, which called for religious reform by emphasizing humility and piety.  Insights into this movement are found through translations of primary sources in Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings, edited by John H. Van Engen.18  The humanists also applied their methods of study to translating and analyzing biblical manuscripts.  In Humanists and Holy Writ: New Testament Scholarship in the Renaissance, Jerry H. Bentley tracks how the humanists’ interpretations of the original Greek scriptural text undermined the authority of the Latin Vulgate Bible and anticipated later biblical studies.19  Lewis W. Spitz follows the analogous work by German scholars in The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists.20  Finally, it should not be forgotten that this time period also featured Christopher Columbus’s transatlantic expedition.  The impact of discoveries in the New World on Europe’s intellectual presuppositions are featured in Anthony Grafton’s New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery.21

In the course of the sixteenth century, the religious issues of the Italian and northern Renaissance were submerged in larger developments.  Among these were the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, followed in subsequent centuries by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.  Italy suffered from ongoing wars between the French and Spanish crown, losing its economic and cultural preeminence.  The influence of the Renaissance’s humanistic theology was largely subsumed in responses to these challenges, though its legacy persists in the methods of humanistic study that remain active today.  The secular interpretations of Burckhardt and Cassirer have been modified but not entirely displaced.  The work of more recent scholars, especially Trinkaus and O’Malley, adds depth and nuance to the larger picture and illuminates the sacred aspect of humanists’ work.  Scholarly interpretations of the Renaissance — even considering ongoing debates regarding geography, periodization, and the concept of the Renaissance as a true period of “rebirth” — remain guided by classic works such as those discussed here.


  1. Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Random House, 2002.*
  2. Cassirer, Ernst. The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Dover Publications, 2000.*
  3. Cassirer, Ernst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall, Jr. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man: Petrarca, Valla, Ficino, Pico, Pomponazzi, Vives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.*
  4. Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. Edited by Michael Mooney. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.*
  5. Dameron, George W. Florence and Its Church in the Age of Dante. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.*
  6. Bornstein, Daniel, and Roberto Rusconi, eds. Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Translated by Margery J. Schneider. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.*
  7. Hay, Denys. The Church in Italy in the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2002.*
  8. Catherine of Siena, Saint. The Dialogue. Translated and with an introduction by Suzanne Noffke. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
  9. Origo, Iris. The World of San Bernardino. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.*
  10. Mormando, Franco. The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.*
  11. Petrarch, Francesco. On Religious Leisure. Edited and translated by Susan S. Schearer with an introduction by Ronald G. Witt. New York: Italica Press, 2002.*
  12. Petrarch, Francesco. The Secret. Edited and with an introduction by Carol E. Quillen. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2003.*
  13. Witt, Ronald G. Hercules at the Crossroads: The Life, Works, Thought of Coluccio Salutati. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1983.*
  14. Stinger, Charles L. Humanism and the Church Fathers: Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439) and Christian Antiquity in the Italian Renaissance. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.*
  15. Stinger, Charles L. The Renaissance in Rome. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1985.*
  16. O’Malley, John W. Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine, and Reform in the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 1450-1521. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1979.*
  17. Trinkhaus, Charles E. In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.*
  18. Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings. Translated and with an introduction by John H. Van Engen. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.*
  19. Bentley, Jerry H. Humanists and Holy Writ: New Testament Scholarship in the Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983.*
  20. Spitz, Lewis W. The Religious Renaissance of the German Humanists. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1963.*
  21. Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1992.*

*Editor’s note: An asterisk (*) denotes a title selected for Resources for College Libraries.

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