Humanism: a definition

Central to the emergence of the humanistic movement in Western Europe was an assessment of man as the standard measure of the universe. An emblematic image of this assessment is Leonardo da Vinci's representation of man within a cosmological circle, pointing to the importance of the notions of perspective and proportion in locating man's nature and body at the intersection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. (Other documents to be shown include: a manuscript illumination representative of the typically two-dimensional character of medieval iconography, side by side with several paintings from the Italian tradition as examples of the three-dimensional character of humanistic iconography).

Scientific discoveries

Innovations in the art of navigation fostered the expansion of man's view of the world, allowing for the discoveries of other lands, other customs, and other civilizations. (Documents to be shown: representation of the map of the globe dating from the mid 15th century, side by side with a map of the globe dating from the mid 16th century; visual documents on the various dignitaries associated with Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World; images of "salvages" in America; excerpts from Montaigne's Essay "On Cannibals").

Technical innovations

At the heart of humanistic thought was a deep-seated belief in man's creative capacity to produce tools and machines that could contribute to the betterment of life and, hence, to the development of an ideal society. (Documents to be shown: Leonardo's sketches--airplane, self-propelled vehicle, helicopter, parachute, swing-bridge--and their scale models as reconstructed in the Clos-Lucé museum; excerpts from Rabelais's description of the Thélème abbey).

Philological Humanism

From Gutenberg to Erasmus down to Guillaume Budé, recognition of the "democratic" value of the Book fostered the belief in the universal accessibility of learning and knowledge. (Documents to be shown: Gutenberg's press; Durer's two hands holding a book; portraits of nobles holding a book; excerpts from Rabelais's description of Pantagruel's reading list).

Re-naissance: a definition

The humanistic program included the recognition of the value of learning foreign and ancient languages, which generated a renewed interest in, and admiration for the culture of classical antiquity, along with a desire to contribute to its "re-birth." (Documents to be shown: contemporary editions of works from classical antiquity; paintings inspired by classical subject matters; representation of the Greek and Latin inscriptions on the ceiling of Montaigne's study room at Montaigne castle).

Renaissance in France

A potent testimony to the influence exerted by Italian humanism was its effect on the French kings at the turn of the century who attempted to conquer Italy: whereas their expeditions turned into a military defeat, these also qualify as a cultural victory to the extent that they contributed to the introduction of humanistic art and thought in France. (Documents to be shown: portraits of the French kings under consideration; of the Italian artists whom they commissioned; of the Loire castles).

French humanistic poetry

The Loire region was soon to become a focal region for humanistic activities, witness writers such as Du Bellay and Ronsard, who initiated the creation of a group of star poets that designated itself as "La Pléiade." At the core of French humanistic poetry was the determination to imitate and emulate both their ancient ancestors and Italian contemporaries. (Documents to be shown: editions of ancient poets such as Pindar; Du Bellay's "Defense and Illustration de la Langue Française"; houses of Du Bellay and Ronsard in the Loire region; landscapes of the Loire region as illustrations of their source of poetic inspiration; Ronsard's ode "Mignonne allons voir," with musical background of Josquin des Pres's polyphonic accompaniment).

Militant humanism

That the Pléiade poets had initially called themselves "the Brigade" is in itself proof of the eventually disrupting social consequences generated by the humanistic movement. Of particular importance in this respect was an emphasis on freedom and autonomy as integral to learning and knowledge, and the resulting belief in one's capacity to interpret any and all documents, including the Holy Scriptures. (Documents to be shown: Gutenberg's Bible; Luther's Articles of Faith; Calvin's "Institution de la Religion Chrétienne"; Galileo's trial and judgment; excerpts from Ronsard's "Discours des Misères" and from Agrippa d'Aubigné's "Les Tragiques").

GOAL: This introductory course by means of integrated documentation will serve to illustrate the circumstances in which French humanism failed to produce the ideal society envisaged in the principles of the Renaissance. On the basis of this presentation, other topics of exploration will invite students to consider:

Back to my Home Page