Italian Renaissance and the Greco-Roman World

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The Relationship between the Renaissance and the Greco-Roman World

The term “renaissance”—a French word meaning “rebirth”—refers to the reawakening to the artistic and philosophical ideals of ancient Greece and Rome that took place in Europe, marking the end of the Middle Ages. As Paul Johnson states in his book, The Renaissance: A Short Story, “If the term has any useful meaning at all, it signifies the rediscovery and utilization of ancient virtues, skills, knowledge, and culture.” (Johnson 5) The rediscovery of the ideals of antiquity shaped the lives of people of all socio-economic levels throughout Europe, and its effects can be seen in the literature, art, architecture, and philosophical discourse of the time.

It can be argued that in order for a rebirth to take place, Europe must have been in a primitive, destitute state from which it needed to emerge. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire left Europe divided. In the east, “Romania”—or what would later be referred to as the Byzantine Empire—were the remaining vestiges of the eastern Roman Empire, and was made up of areas of southeast Europe, southwest Asia, and the northeast corner of Africa. And while it is difficult to pinpoint the precise end of the western Roman Empire (De Imperatoribus Romanis…) , the Holy Roman Empire was solidified by the late 900s, and encompassed areas of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and parts of France, Italy and Poland. From this time forward, Western Europe is often described as being in the Middle Ages—a time in between the glory of civilized antiquity and the triumph of early modern times.

The ways in which the philosophic and artistic values of antiquity were revived in Western Europe are multiple and varied. One way was the rediscovery of the Greco-Roman texts. Throughout the Middle Ages, the papacy “began ambitious programs for the education and moral improvement of the clergy.” (Johnson 8) This meant that members of the clergy, such as priests and monks, made up the majority of the educated people in Europe; a number of them become some of history’s most respected and admired intellectuals. They were prodigious scribes, and their endeavors made Latin “the lingua franca…of the learned class.” (Johnson 9) The institutions created by the Catholic Church to educate the clergy eventually gave way to the creation of universities. As Johnson suggests, this created the perfect time and place for the ancient texts of Greece and Rome to be studied in-depth. (Johnson 11) In some cases, many of the great texts of the Greco-Roman world were buried deep in other parts of Europe. For example, Byzantine scholars were met with respect and enthusiasm as they made their way to Western Europe. In fact, Greek scholar Manuel Chrysoloras is often credited as having sparked interest in Greek literature for many Western European intellectuals. Other Greek and Roman texts made their way to the west through Arabic scholars who lived in the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in the southern parts of Spain known then as Al-Andalus. However, the Muslim heritage of these intellectuals meant that the Catholic Church often viewed those texts with suspicion. (Johnson 10) In whatever manner the Greco-Roman texts fell into the hands of Western European scholars, their existence laid the groundwork for the humanist movement. Humanism began simply with the teaching of classic Latin literature, but eventually evolved into a concrete philosophical movement. Humanists believed that the ideals of the Greco-Roman world as expressed through its great writers and philosophers held “all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life.” (Rome Reborn…) Humanists held, above all, that each and every individual had the ability to understand the world and to find truth through reason, and that people could depend on their own internal sense of morality. This...
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