Interpretations of Humanism in Recent Spanish Renaissance Studies

By Camillo, Ottavio Di | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview
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Interpretations of Humanism in Recent Spanish Renaissance Studies


Camillo, Ottavio Di, Renaissance Quarterly


The significant number of new editions of humanistic texts and the publication of articles and books relating to Renaissance humanism that have appeared in Spain during the last twenty years attest to a growing interest in this field. As a result of the unprecedented attention that humanism is now receiving, we are finally getting a more accurate picture of the impressive corpus of Latin writings, translations of classical works as well as of Italian humanist texts, letters, treatises, dialogues, and commentaries that were written during this period.(1) The spurious argument of whether there ever was a Spanish Renaissance (not to mention a Spanish humanism) - still obsessing the minds of many scholars only a few decades ago - has become in current studies a historical curiosity that is usually confined to a footnote, if even mentioned. In fact, studies on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanists or on topics related to humanism that would have seldom been undertaken a generation ago are now attracting a great deal of interest. This trend could not be more evident than in the varied investigations into different aspects of the cultural life of the fifteenth century, a century which until recently was clearly one of the least studied periods in Spanish history. There is no doubt that the catalyst for the reappraisal of this century is to be found in a few independent inquiries into the early development and diffusion of humanism; these studies were aimed at defining both the peculiar character of this movement as shaped by the national culture and its manifestation within the European context. Also contributing to this revival to a lesser extent was the concomitant effort of a number of historians who, at approximately the same time, began to extend their research into the study of political, social, and religious institutions as well as the economic organization of Castilian society. Though the cooperation of scholars from different disciplines has remained sporadic, the combined results of historians, philologists, and literary critics are uncovering the image of a society more culturally vibrant than previously thought. Not only are well-known authors and major historical figures undergoing a revaluation, but for the first time minor authors, female writers, poets, moralists, and lesser-known men of letters are being made the object of investigation. Still more important, the different approaches of recent studies are shedding new light on aspects of Spanish Renaissance culture as they focus on intellectual, literary, socio-political, and religious activity; literacy and the development of learning institutions; or the impact of print culture.

Foremost among contemporary students of Spanish humanism have been scholars of classical antiquity, the direct heirs, as it were, of Renaissance humanists. When Luis Gil Fernandez presented his paper, "El humanismo espanol del siglo XVI," during the Third National Congress of the Spanish Society of Classical Studies (1966), in many ways he was charting a new course in a field that up to that time had received at best passing attention. The novel approach with which humanism was considered in that paper became apparent the following year when it was published in the association's journal. The article in its final version had become an extensive monographic study in which the author departed from the traditional account of highlighting the merits of single humanists. Instead, Gil Fernandez focused his analysis on trying to understand the reasons behind what he believed to be the faltering evolution of the humanistic current during the Spanish Golden Age. He concluded that the fate of the movement in the sixteenth century was emblematic of the development of humanism throughout Spanish history.

The fact that humanism took hold with a very promising outlook at the end of the fifteenth century through the efforts of Nebrija and ended in disillusionment at the close of the sixteenth century with the death of Sanchez de las Brozas, persecuted by the Inquisition, moved Gil Fernandez to explore the underlying causes of the incomprehension and suspicion that surrounded most humanistic activity during this century.

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