A diagram of Italy showing the major cities in a 15th-century manuscript, Aix-en-Provence, BM, 1452

The Italian Renaissance cannot be understood without the Italian humanist movement. Humanism was, in the fewest possible words, a rediscovery of the classical past and a desire to transform the present by confronting it to Latin and Greek antiquity. Humanism was about new tastes, new desires, new activities, the unwitting fashioning of a new world while trying to recover a lost one.

Humanism was born in Italy and then spread to Northern Europe. Most scholars highlight a paradox here: Humanism was born and grew in the unlikeliest soil. Medieval Italy was not the breeding ground for the classical culture which Humanism and then the Renaissance required in order to have the impact they did. The first generation of humanists did not move within a rich book culture. Historians point out that the Italian literary landscape, compared with France, England or Germany, was much poorer and underdeveloped. Italy did not have the centres of scholarship like those existing in Paris, Oxford or Avignon. If you wanted to read the classics in the 12th and 13th centuries, you wouldn’t go to Italy. And yet, humanism did not sprout in Paris or Oxford or Cambridge, but in Padua, Florence, Venice, Mantua and Rome. The first humanists were not the Petrarcas and the Boccaccios of the 14th century, but the lawyers, notaries and document-handling civil servants of the 13th century, whom urbanism, secularism, rhetoric, civil governance and high literacy pushed to look forward to new horizons by peeking back into the past. Italian Renaissance humanism flourished because of seed falling on unlikely soil.

When Petrarch, who’s generally but inaccurately regarded as the father of humanism, joined the game, the humanist project was way underway: the taste for the classical past was growing strong, Ciceronian style was turning viral and more and more ancient Latin authors were being studied for their own sake. Western Europeans were slowly beginning to feel the distance between themselves and the ancients.

The humanist project was founded by an unlikely crew – figures crossing the worlds of politics, business and letters. Albertino Mussato, a Paduan born in the 1260s, epitomizes this entire development. A statesman and a diplomat, Albertino was also a remarkable man of letters. His play ‘Ecerinis’ was the first tragedy written since ancient times. His words gave the best motto Renaissance humanism could ever have: ‘Veterum vestigia vatum’ – [to follow] in the footsteps of the ancient poets. This is also the title of a book by Ronald Witt, one of the best intros to Renaissance humanism.

The great innovation of the Renaissance begins and ends with careful cultural backtracking, a picking up of old scents, which are nothing more than the beautiful paradox of wholesome cultural change: by stepping backwards, one moves forwards.

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