In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni

In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni

In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni

In the Footsteps of the Ancients: The Origins of Humanism from Lovato to Bruni


This monograph demonstrates why humanism began in Italy in the mid-thirteenth century. It considers Petrarch a third generation humanist, who christianized a secular movement. The analysis traces the beginning of humanism in poetry and its gradual penetration of other Latin literary genres, and, through stylistic analyses of texts, the extent to which imitation of the ancients produced changes in cognition and visual perception.

The volume traces the link between vernacular translations and the emergence of Florence as the leader of Latin humanism by 1400 and why, limited to an elite in the fourteenth century, humanism became a major educational movement in the first decades of the fifteenth. It revises our conception of the relationship of Italian humanism to French twelfth-century humanism and of the character of early Italian humanism itself.

"In the Footsteps of the Ancients is the recipient of the Jacques Barzun Prize 2001 in Cultural History of the American Philosophical Society.

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From the twelfth to the early sixteenth century, the major lay intellectuals of western Europe were in Italy. Whereas elsewhere on the subcontinent ecclesiastics controlled educational institutions and intellectual life generally, in Italy, primarily in the northern and central parts of the peninsula, laymen played a major role from the early twelfth century and became dominant after 1300. Lay intellectuals were largely associated in earlier centuries with legal studies, but after 1300 there emerged an intellectual movement, Italian humanism, which ultimately established laymen's lives as equal in moral value to those of clerics and monks. The methods and goals of humanist education, already well-defined by the early fifteenth century, were to become the underpinnings of elite education in western Europe down to the nineteenth.

Despite the central importance of the humanist movement for the evolution of western European society, the present study maintains that our current understanding of the first century and a half of its development has been misconceived in a number of significant ways. A serious re-examination of humanism's early history makes it possible to understand its genesis, its subsequent development to the midfifteenth century, and the distinctive characteristics that set it off from its earlier analogue, usually referred to as “twelfth-century French humanism.” A brief chronology of my own thinking on the subject should serve to explain the reasons for my dissatisfaction with contemporary scholarship on the origins and early stages of humanism and to illuminate the approach that I have taken to the problem.

My original interest in the issues of humanism's origins and growth was sparked by Paul Oskar Kristeller's classic definition of the Italian humanists as essentially rhetoricians and heirs to the tradition of the medieval dictatores. In contrast with the tendency of previous scholars to speak generally of humanism as offering a philosophy of life, Kristeller developed a definition of humanism based on the professional role of the humanists in fourteenth-and fifteenth-century . . .

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