On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

By Douglas Biow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Reflections on Professions and Humanism
in Renaissance Italy and the Humanities Today

HUMANISM, I MAINTAINED IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER, WAS A LANGUAGEbased educational and cultural program in Renaissance Italy that did not, in point of fact, have a particular professional bent to it. Yet humanists in Renaissance Italy, the vast majority of them of course being men, did have professional identities, even if humanism itself was “not,” as Lisa Jardine emphatically observes, “job-specific.”1 Humanists typically worked as secretaries, notaries, chancellors, ambassadors, courtiers, editors, and schoolteachers in private, civic, courtly, business, and ecclesiastical settings. They thus tended to occupy, as Paul Oskar Kristeller observed long ago, certain professions throughout the Italian Renaissance, and many pursued careers in the legal, medical, and religious fields.2 There is also strong evidence that humanism in Italy emerged out of the notarial profession, although “the beginning humanists,” Ronald G. Witt has shown, “did not intend to displace medieval Latin with classicizing Latin” all at once but first experimented with their new style in poetry and “other genres of private rhetoric.” Only later, according to Witt, did humanists in Italy extend their influence to other more public forms of rhetoric as humanism achieved widespread appeal and humanists could express themselves in different, more culturally entrenched genres with greater freedom, given the “institutional constraints” within which they operated.3 Italian humanists at the origins, then, had professional identities as they put into practice their arts as forms of determinate, rational, rule-bound, communicable, and reliable knowledge. And while there may not have been much give-and-take between humanism and professions at the outset, there was eventually a fruitful exchange between the two in the mid-fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, from roughly the time that Petrarca shaped humanism as an innovative program outside the academy, particularly with his highly choreographed coronation oration trumpeting the profession of the poet, to the time that humanism had become so thoroughly disseminated and institutionalized as an educational program that

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