Chapter Summary

The idea that our modern world shares a clear connection to the world of the European Renaissance was first considered by the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt. In 1860, Burckhardt wrote his two-volume The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, an astounding work which, in many respects, has done as much harm as it has done good. Burckhardt colored the perception of this period and led many to believe that modern man was "born" in the Renaissance. The word renaissance means "rebirth"; however, one large question remains: for whom was this rebirth really a rebirth? Did the Renaissance affect all Europeans? Or just a select few? Answers to these broad questions are not terribly difficult. However, these questions are far more challenging because there is no singular Renaissance "style" that can be easily identified. The Renaissance was not a school or system of thought and action. At the very least, it embraced the work of thinkers and artists of very different attitudes, achievements, and approaches.

Beginning in the city-states of northern Italy, the Renaissance shed light on centuries of purported darkness. The civic humanists of Venice, Milan, and Florence glorified the work of their classical masters; they hoped that the virtues of the past would empower civic virtues in contemporary Italy and impact the future as well. Aristotelian logic, that great mainstay of the medieval world, was abandoned, and in its place came Plato and the Neoplatonists, breathing new life into the "new" world. The world of medieval Scholastic "logic-chopping" gave way to the sometimes more mystical, and clearly more human, endeavors of the humanists. In art, music, philosophy, and political theory, the new emphasis was on what was human; hence the word humanism has come to describe much of the Italian Renaissance.

There was another renaissance at work as well. In northern Europe (specifically, the Low Countries, France, and England), a Renaissance perhaps less concerned with secular concerns emerged. Its greatest spokesmen, like Erasmus and Thomas More, mocked the worldly concerns of state and church, and instead cautioned Europe that perhaps something even more fundamental had been lost from the historical past. Whereas the Italian Renaissance looked to the past to understand the present and move forward, the Christian humanists of the northern Renaissance looked to the past in order to mock and criticize the present. It was Erasmus who, after all, once wrote, 'St. Socrates, pray for me."