HIST 101 Lecture Outline (Spring 2023 – Week 15)

HIST 101




Michael Wood, “Art of the Western World, 3: The Early Renaissance” (56:08 min.):



Cultures, pp. 407-421 (Rebirth or culmination?; the political and economic matrix; the Renaissance achievement)

Sources, pp. 203-211 (Petrarca, “Letter to posterity;” Ariosto, “Orlando Furioso;” Machiavelli, “Discourses on Livy”)


The Renaissance:

A “rebirth” of interest in Classical culture, including philosophy, art, architecture, literature, and history, began in Italy around 1350, spreading out across Europe to c. 1550. Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch, 1304-74), considered the “father of humanism,” wrote a Letter to Posterity in which he declared that he was repelled by his own times, and had spent much of his life thinking about earlier eras, especially Classical antiquity.

However, the Renaissance — including three of its major icons,  classicism, humanism, and modern statecraft — can be seen as the culmination of medieval culture, not its antithesis.

The cult of Classical learning began in the monasteries of late Antiquity, and flourished again in the Carolingian and medieval worlds. What was new in the Renaissance was the fervor with which scholars searched for surviving Classical texts, believing them to embody all that was best in human intellectual achievement. Also new was the knowledge of Greek in the West: for the first time in a millennium, Western scholars were able to read Greek texts directly, rather than in Latin (or Hebrew or Arabic) translation.

The value of humans and their potential was not unknown in the medieval world, but the humanism of Renaissance scholars such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, author of the “Oration on the Dignity of Man,”  revered the inherent dignity of each person, and gloried in the extraordinary breadth and depth of human potential, and in humanity’s unique freedom to choose our own destinies and to achieve whatever we wish.

The very modern statecraft of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on the pragmatic skills of governance rather than on morality or virtue, also had medieval origins, such as in the political thinking of Marsiglio of Padua, 1275-1342), who wrote in Defensor pacis (“Defender of Peace”) about about the purpose of the state, the powers of the ruler, and the rights of the ruled.

Renaissance Italy was a patchwork of city-states and other small powers, ruled by aristocratic dynasties or merchant oligarchies. The enormous wealth of these rulers and ruling elites enabled them to glorify themselves by becoming the patrons of scholars, artists, architects, and writers, and thereby stimulating an intellectual (Classicizing), artistic (including representational art and linear perspective), and literary (including vernacular prose and poetry) rebirth in Italy that led what was to become a pan-European Renaissance.

Primary sources:

Francesco Petrarca (1304-74), “Letter to posterity:”  The first Western  autobiography since St. Augustine’s Confessions. Describes his life up to age 41, including his strengths and weaknesses; his studies; his gradual switch from poetry (he was famous for his sonnets) to moral philosophy and the study of Classical antiquity; his friendship with kings and other princes; being crowned Poet Laureate by the Roman Senate; his clerical status.

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533), “Orlando Furioso” (1517): A continuation of the early medieval epic poem, “The Song of Roland,” in which Orlando (Roland) falls deeply in love with a pagan princess, and goes mad when he learns that she loves a Muslim, not him. He leads a savage life of destructive and self-destructive frenzy until his wits are miraculously restored when he breathes from the magical pot that contains his wits.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Discourses on Livy (c. 1517): Machiavelli, a humanist and statesman, is best known for The Prince, his cynical treatise on the amoral art of princely politics. In Discourses on Livy, however, he champions republican ideals, not aristocracy or monarchy. Says that the papacy has prevented the unification of Italy, which has made Italy weak and vulnerable to attack.


NO CLASS TODAY. Instead, Lillian and I will be holding extended office hours during the usual class time. Feel free to drop by (Holton 320) to talk about the class, or about history, or about UWM’s History major. We’d be delighted to see you!