A question of time and place

The city of Padua, one of the birthplaces of Renaissance humanism, from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (World Chronicle), 1493

Movements start with simple ideas developed by people with a vision. Unlike ideas, movements need momentum, and the space in which they can grow. They need people at the right time in the right place.

The Reformation is unlikely to have taken off in places like Italy or Spain. The constitutional movement pioneered by Magna Carta would’ve probably failed outside England and a couple of other places.

For the humanist movement of the 14th and 15th centuries, it is hard to see how it would’ve grown the way it did outside the Northern and Central Italian cities. And it is unlikely to have been kickstarted by anyone else other than the notaries and lawyers of Padua, Florence, Mantua or Urbino.

It shouldn’t be surprising that it was the lawyers. As a lawyer friend of mine quipped during a lecture on Renaissance Humanism, late-medieval Italy was the only time and place where lawyers enjoyed a positive reputation. In hindsight, of course. There’s no escape from the plight of the infamia causidici, the infamy of being a lawyer. But I digress.

The reason why the legal profession became the spark and centre of the humanist movement, the renewal of culture grounded in the rediscovery and implementation of ancient Roman culture – was that Italian lawyers and notaries were the right people in the right place at the right time. They were the professionals of the word, of rhetoric, of letter-writing. They were untouched by the Aristotlemania which had taken the universities captive, they were immune to the scholasticism which is reigning in all other areas of literare knowledge and scholarship. They were the adventurous type, pragmatic and experimental. They were the ones on the lookout for old manuscripts of new knowledge, of old writings of new ways of doing things. And doing, for a lawyer, passed through the written word, the words of Cicero and other ancient Roman authors.

The Italian cities gave them the platform to explore these novalties, which historically were older than anything they knew, but felt as recent as quantum physics is to us. The political arrangement of the Italian city states, with their elective, though by no means democratic, mechanisms and institutions, allowed them to deploy the rediscovered wisdom of the ancients in new ways, changing the culture of the spaces they inhabited. And most of all, they were already living and working among the ruins of the ancient world, tough that world was buried deep beneath their feet.

The Renaissance started in Italy because revival humanism had been a homegrown movement. And in time, they changed the whole world.

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