Renaissance Humanism History and Characteristics

Bryoney Hayes, Jessica Whittemore
  • Author
    Bryoney Hayes

    Bryoney Hayes earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Old Dominion University. Bryoney graduated with a B.A. in English (Journalism) in 2010 and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics in 2012. After graduation, she taught English in both South Korea and Qatar. She is midway through an Advanced Search Engine Optimization Certification Program.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Whittemore

    Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Explore renaissance humanism art, and understand its meaning as an art. Learn the important works of humanism, and their characteristics. See origins and history. Updated: 03/30/2022

Table of Contents


Leonardo DaVinci

Renaissance humanist painting The Mona Lisa is illuminated by a black lantern held by a single arm.

Definition of Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance Humanism is a movement that started in Italy in the 14th century, and swept through the entire continent of Europe over the next 200 years. Renaissance Humanism developed as a response to the Middle Ages. This was a grim time in Europe. The Bubonic Plague terrorized Asia and Europe in the mid-1300s, eventually killing more than 20 million people. The dominant, governmental system of the time, feudalism, was not exactly centered around human rights and freedoms, given that it was designed to ensure that many working poor people swore fealty to a few wealthy rulers.

But what is renaissance humanism? The term renaissance humanism refers to the critical study of classic texts in order to determine what it means to be human. This is a radical shift because before this movement, even nonreligious texts were read through the constraints of religion. However, in the 14th century, the works of three writers were considered key in bringing the notion of what it means to be human into the forefront of human consciousness. These men are Petrarch, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), and they are widely considered to be the fathers of renaissance humanism.

Renaissance humanists were interested in learning what it means to be a human being, and how to live a virtuous life, and participate in society. They sought the answers to these questions by studying ancient literature and art. Renaissance humanists were also interested in using language well, especially Latin. They encouraged non-religious studies, and emphasized the power that education had in creating citizens capable of performing civic duties. Renaissance humanists believed that artists, poets and writers ,were able to lead humanity toward a better way of living. This is due to renaissance humanists' belief in creativity, critical analysis and observation. This movement also reflected a strong belief in each individual person's moral autonomy, and it rejected scholasticism, which was a popular dogmatic philosophy taught at the time.

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Origins of Humanism

Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio each contributed to the development of humanist ideology before the movement even began. Dante's most famous work, ''The Divine Comedy'' (written around 1319), was about salvation and hell. However, it shifted the focus onto man's autonomy and humanity's role in the universe that God created. Petrarch facilitated the start of humanism in two ways: first, though he was a religious man, he was critical of some aspects of the Catholic Church in his work. Second, Petrarch found many ancient manuscripts that placed humanity, rather than religion at its center, including the work of ancient Roman philosopher, Cicero. He believed that the time he lived in was sandwiched between the past and modernity. He thought that by studying ancient manuscripts and allowing writers and poets to lead education, a golden age of politics and thoughts could be achieved. Giovanni Boccaccio also searched for previously-lost classical manuscripts. He also created early works like his ''Decameron.'' This work is comprised of ten detailed accounts of human experiences that were compiled between 1348 and 1353. Later, humanists also looked toward his work ''Ancestry of the Pagan Gods.''

Before the Renaissance era began people lived lives that were rigid and limited. The church was at the center of art and culture, at that time, and the feudalist political system meant that people lived and died in their feudal lands. One of the reasons that renaissance humanism was able to take hold and spread among people was through increased interaction due to events like the Crusades, and via trade routes like the Silk Road before the renaissance formally began. At the same time, events like the end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453 also allowed for Renaissance ideas to spread beyond Italy and through France and England. Furthermore, the Black Death with its astronomical death toll caused many Europeans to question their religious beliefs as their prayers went unanswered during the 14th century.

Renaissance Humanism Characteristics

As with any movement, renaissance humanism shares some specific facets. Renaissance humanism was characterized by:

  • A reinvigorated interest in classical texts and education
  • Heightened emphasis on the individual human and moral responsibility
  • The need for widespread and comprehensive education, which they called the studia humanitatis
  • The renaissance humanist movement grappled with Christian themes. Renaissance humanist scholars, artists, writers, and poets sought to understand humanity's place in God's world, with the emphasis placed on humanity.
  • Renaissance humanist scholars also thought it important to be critical of the thoughts and ideas.
  • Humanist scholars and writers also revered the eloquent use of language, particularly Latin.
  • In art, renaissance humanists liked to depict the human form with heightened realism to emphasize God's image.

It's also worth noting that the Renaissance marked a period of increased art patronage. Wealthy Florentine citizens like the Medici family backed many artists of the time, seeing it as participation in an artistic revolution. Many wealthy merchants would commission works of art to hang as markers of success.

Important Works of Humanism

There are many important works of humanism that have impacted western art and thought for more than half a millennium. One doesn't need a comprehensive art education to be familiar with the work of Italian inventor, painter and architect Leonardo da Vinci, who lived from 1452-1519. His painting The Mona Lisa, hangs in the Louvre in Paris to this day. The idea that ''the ends justify the means'' is from The Prince, written by Italian renaissance writer and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived from 1469 to 1527. Italian artist Sandrito Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus, around 1485. Michelangelo (1475-1564) isn't just the name of a Ninja Turtle; he was an Italian artist who painted The Sistine Chapel, and sculpted famed statue, and study of the human form David. Likewise, Italian renaissance artist Donatello contributed a sculpted rendition of the Bible's David some time between 1430 and 1440, but his was made from bronze. The School of Athens was painted by Italian painter Rafael around 1510.

As renaissance humanism spread throughout Europe, it inspired poets, artists, and writers from different countries. The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffery Chaucer (1343-1400), remains a staple of English Literature classes. ''Paradise Lost,'' by John Milton (1608-1674) is another renaissance humanist poem that remains a part of the present-day literary cannon. History's most famous surviving playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived during renaissance humanism's later years. His plays and sonnets have continued to inspire modern-day artists, like the 2021 film West Side Story, which is based on Shakespeare's most famous play, ''Romeo and Juliet.''

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a simple definition of humanism?

Humanism is a movement that started in the 14th century. Its central focus is on the exploration of what it means to be human; how to live a virtuous life; and, how to participate in the public sphere.

What is meant by Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance humanism refers to the movement that took hold in Europe from roughly the 14th-16th centuries. It started in Italy, and spread via trade and the printing press. Renaissance humanism places emphasis on the beauty, and value of a human's individual life.

What was the focus of Renaissance Humanism?

Renaissance humanism was characterized by a reinvigorated interest in classical texts (read with a critical eye). Education was believed to be good for society, as a whole, so it was promoted during this time. Overall, the renaissance humanist movement placed emphasis on the individual human, their moral responsibilities, and how to lead a virtuous, public life.

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