Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
About Lesson

Learning Outcomes

Upon the successful completion of the unit, the learners will be able to:

  • understand the socio-economic and political factors that led to the emergence of the Renaissance in Europe.
  • examine the ideas and background of the development of Humanism.
  • become aware of the leaders and their ideas in Humanism.
  • evaluate literary, artistic, and scientific achievements.


Protagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, placed humans at the centre: “Man is the measure of all things of things that are they are, and of things that are not that they are not” – meaning that sensory appearances and beliefs are objective truths, not subjective opinions. Again, he says: we know which things are good or bad, just or unjust, or beautiful or ugly, because each of these qualities is determined or constituted by our own attitudes. He asserted: “As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.”
  • Humanism was the dominant intellectual movement of the Renaissance. Scholars are of the opinion that it was originally spread in Italy in the 14th Century, arrived in maturity in the 15th century, and spread to the rest of Europe with the opening of the 16th century. It then became the dominant intellectual philosophy of Europe in the 16th century. This movement was based on Neo-platonic philosophy which emphasised the primacy of human values over those of feudal and ecclesiastical institutions. The humanists believed that the human mind was capable of thinking for itself without relying on divine authority and traditional institutions. In brief, humanism made man the measure of all things in society.
    Geographically, the origin of humanism can be traced to Italy. The original centre was in Florence. Initially it was a philosophical movement deriving its inspiration from Plato’s Republic (Neo-Platonism). Some of the prominent members of the neoplatonic academy were Marsilio Ficino and Picodella Mirandola. Ficino tried to find commonalities between Plato’s thought and Christianity. He agreed with Plato that the soul was not subject to death and that after leaving this world, it would be united with God. A hunger for bringing old texts back to the world was characteristic of Humanists.
    5.2.1 Humanism
    Humanism was a term invented in the 19th century to describe the Renaissance idea that the study of humanity should be a priority as opposed to religious matters. Important classical ideals which interested humanists included the importance of public and private virtue, Latin grammar, techniques of rhetoric, history, conventions in literature and poetry, and moral philosophy. This education did not create an all-encompassing philosophy or worldview in its adherents. Humanism sometimes refers to ‘Studia humanitatis’ which means that rather than concentrating on religious matters, one should focus on what it is to be human, and more precisely, consider what is a virtuous individual in its widest sense and how that individual fully participates in public life.
    The main elements of Renaissance humanism are:
  • an interest in studying literature and art from antiquity
  •  an interest in the eloquent use of Latin and philology
  •  a belief in the importance and power of education to create useful citizens
  • the promotion of private and civic virtue
  •  a rejection of scholasticism
  •  the encouragement of non-religious studies
  • an emphasis on the individual and their moral autonomy
  • a belief in the importance of observation, critical analysis, and creativity
  •  a belief that poets, writers, and artists can lead humanity to a better way of living
  •  an interest in the question ‘what does it mean to be human’?

5.2.2 Classical Revival
The humanist movement owes its mould to the Italian trio who lived in the pre- Renaissance period. They are Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francesco Petrarch (1304- 1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). Because of their unique contributions, they were recognized as its founding fathers. Dante through The Divine Comedy (1319) discussed a central message on how to reach salvation. It was a subtle shift from entirely religious-focused works to those considering humanity’s role in God’s universe.
Petrarch was a religious man, but in his work criticised the abuses in the Catholic Church such as its corruption and excessive love of show. Petrarch rejected scholasticism which grimly held on to Church dogma and created endless rounds of fruitless debate amongst scholars. He made perhaps his greatest contribution to the study of antiquity by finding manuscripts which had become ‘lost’ in obscure monastic libraries. He regarded the period in which he lived as an intermediary period between antiquity and this new dawn (Slumber).
Giovanni Boccaccio also searched out ‘lost’manuscripts relevant to antiquity. In addition, his Decameron (Ten Days), a collection of tales compiled between 1348 and 1353, appealed to later humanists because it dealt with everyday human experiences in great detail. Bocaccio also created works that were of great use to humanist scholars such as his Ancestry of the Pagan Gods. All these three writers promoted the use of vernacular language, Italian (at least in poetical works), and this eventually led to the dominance of Latin being challenged. The arrival of the printing press in Europe in 1450 was another boost to the trio mentioned above and the democratisation of knowledge.
From the discussion above stated you may have basic and preliminary information about the contributions of the Italian Trio. Let’s look into the individual contributions of these founding fathers of humanism in brief.
Dante contributed to the development of humanism, the use of the vernacular in literature and challenged the hegemonic nature of the Church and these helped to generate the cultural and intellectual changes known as the Renaissance, which brought about the real transformation of world order.








Fig 5.2.1 Dante holding the Divine Comedy, painting in 1465

  •  Dante’s decision to put his con- temporaries in Hell in his master- piece The Divine Comedy, reflects humanism, since he respects both his friends and enemies as individuals. All of these characters have their own distinct personalities, and Dante makes them stand out from the collective group of their fellow sinners.
  •  The Divine Comedy forms one of the most influential works of medieval literature as it explores ideas of the afterlife in medieval Christian belief. It imparts an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso).
  • It is also a ‘universal journey’. The purpose of his narrative, as he states in his Epistola a Cangrande, is to transport all of man- kind from the state of misery to real happiness. The plot of the poem is that a man, generally assumed to be Dante himself, is enabled to undertake a journey which leads him to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. He has two guides, Virgil, the epic poet from his own country, who guides him through Hell and Purgatory and Beatrice who takes him to Paradise (most of the poet- ic work of Dante was inspired by his chaste love for Beatrice with whom fell in love when they were both aged 9 and continued to love till his death).
  • The moral lesson of The Divine Comedy is that evil is to be punished and good rewarded. Dante gives an introspective tool for all to measure the deeds of all, even of his own. In his visits to the land of the dead, Dante follows his classical ancestors in epic poetry such as Homer in his Odyssey and Virgil in his Aeneid. But his poem has more in common with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the only other Christian epic poem.
  •  In Dante’s Inferno, a prerenaissance work which is the first part of his epic poem Divine Comedy, reveals the seeds of Renaissance humanism. Humanist prime focus is on ‘here and now’ (the present) rather than the afterlife and believes in rationality over spirituality. Humanists pay more attention to people than God.
  •  Dante wrote Inferno while in political exile from Florence. He used it as a vehicle to express his political beliefs and take comfort in imagining bad ends for even his enemies. However, the poem’s main purpose, quoting Mil- ton, is to “justify the ways of God to Men.”
  • The Italian style: Florentine Tus- can became the ‘lingua franca’ of Italy through the popularity of The Divine Comedy. This made Florence the creative hub of the Renaissance. It also influenced the language of Dante’s literary descendants Boccaccio and Petrarch.
  •  As people become less interested in thinking about God, the after- life, and the saints and more interested in thinking about them- selves, their natural world, and the here and now, humanism starts its growth.
    Petrarch is rightly regarded as the father of Humanism for his influential philosophical attitudes and the compilation of classical texts.
  • He travelled extensively over Eu- rope and during these travels, he collected crumbling Latin manuscripts. His discoveries, especially Cicero’s letters, helped spark the Renaissance.
  •  He shaped the nascent Human- ist movement a great deal by the internal conflicts and musings expressed in the writings which were seized upon by renaissance humanist philosophers and argued continually the following years.
  •  His work ‘Secretum Meum’ points out that secular achievements did not necessarily preclude an authentic relationship with God. Because, according to him, instead God had given hu- mans their vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to their fullest.
  •  Being a devout Catholic, he did not see a conflict between realising humanity’s potential and having religious faith.
  • He believed in the immense moral and practical value of the study of ancient history and literature, the study of human thought and action.
  •  His major works which reflect religious and philosophical inter- ests include On Illustrious Men, ‘The Epic Poem Africa’ , ‘the Au- tobiographical Treatise Petrarch’s Secret’, ‘De Vita Solitaria’ (The Life of Solitude), and ‘Epistolae Metricae’ (Metrical Letters).








Fig 5.2.2 Laura and Petrarch

  •  Petrarch’s poems addressed to Laura, an idealised beloved with whom he fell in love at the age of 23, contributed to the flowering of lyric poetry. His chaste and silent love for Laura who was outside his reach continued even after her death until his death. He is the originator of the sonnet, a poem of 14 lines in particular metrical pattern. He wrote more than 300 sonnets as well as other short lyr- ics and one long poem addressed to Laura. Those included in his Canzoniere are divided into Rime in vita Laura (263 poems) and Rime in morte Laura (103 poems). Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura have inspired the love-sonnet cycles of Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare.
  • His influence on European literature was enormous and lasting. His deep consciousness of the Classical past as a source of literary and philosophical meaning for the present was of great importance in paving the way for the Renaissance.
    Boccaccio was considered to be one of the great mediators between the classical world and Renaissance Italy. Along with Petrarch, he laid the foundations of Renaissance humanism.His encyclopaedia on classical myths did much to generate interest in Ancient history and culture and persuaded many to study Greek-Roman civilization.

    Fig 5.2.3 19th century painting of The Decameron by John Waterhouse
  •  Boccaccio popularised the works of Homer in Florence, and this persuaded many to study the works of the poet who sang of the destruction of Troy and the adventures of Odysseus. He was one of the first Italians to cele- brate the Greeks and their culture. He wrote a biography of Dante and delivered the first public lec- tures on The Divine Comedy in 1373-74.
  • In his works, his characters are struggling with circumstances and using their reason and fore- sight to improve their lot in life. In his masterpiece the Decameron (1348-53), he shows young peo- ple enjoying and celebrating life even though the Black Death is raging all around them. The Decameron (which means ten day’s work) is the most perfect example of Italian classical prose and was influential in promoting the humanistic worldview in the Re- naissance. It begins with the flight of 10 young people (7 women and 3 men) from Florence, which was afflicted with plague. They retire to a well-watered country- side, where they spend their time, among other things by telling stories for the next fortnight. The story telling takes ten days and each of them tells ten stories, thus making a total of 100 stories.
    5.2.3 Spread of Humanism
    The establishment of the printing press helped spread humanist ideas from Italy to other parts of Europe. One of the most celebrated humanists Desiderius Erasmus believed that education was the answer to the Catholic Church’s problems. So he compiled editions of classical authors and provided a new Latin and Greek translation of the New Testament. His sharp and critical examination of original texts, textual analysis of current versions, and interest in philology were positively influenced by other Renaissance scholars. Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (1509) epitomised the moral essence of humanism in its insistence on heartfelt goodness as opposed to formalistics devotion. As the early humanists were Christians, their emphasis on critical inquiry inevitably led to clashes with Church authorities. As the church men demanded uncritical mass acceptance of divine doctrines, they strongly reacted to these criticisms. That some humanist scholars became champions of pagan texts was another bone of contention.
    In northern Europe, humanist scholars were more interested in religious reforms. This humanism is often called Religious Humanism. English scholar and statesman, Sir Thomas Moore was one figure in this movement. His brilliant work Utopia in 1516 deals with an ideal society set in an imaginary island. It was a political critic of the reign of Henry VIII of England but its radical presentation of a society for the common good and its success rang a note of recognition among humanist scholars elsewhere. The obvious link with Plato’s Republic was another point of favour with the classical-loving humanists.
    The humanist goal for the spread of the movement was based on the idea of widening education. Erasmus, therefore, wrote many textbooks such as his hugely popular On Copia (1512), which taught students how to argue, revise texts, and produce new ones. Humanists emphasised the importance of an education which covered the liberal arts of rhetoric, moral philosophy, grammar, history, and poetry. Physical exercise, just like in ancient Greece, was also considered an essential part of education.
    5.2.4 Humanism in Science
    Followed by a rational movement through education, Humanism influenced the field of science as well. Observing, analysing, and categorising the world around us was an important part of humanist rational thought. So, the field of science had made a sharp leap during the Renaissance. It was powered at first by developments in mathematics. The scientific philosopher of the west, Rene Descartes, argued that one of the most important tools for studying the natural sciences was mathematics. His method for arriving at logical conclusions was called ‘Deductive reasoning’. His contentions were the following:
    1. That whatever we can think about, conceived of in our minds, exists and is true (Theory of Doubt – cogito, ergo sum- I think therefore I exist). Des- cartes’ statement -cogito, ergo sum – I think therefore I exist – forms the basic principle of his ‘Theory of Doubt’. It states that the beginning point of any question of existence may start with a definite and concrete reality. The world, universe or god may exist. But we can have the only proven evidence of exis- tence is the definiteness of our own ex- istence, that is, I think therefore I exist. Because the proof for my existence is the cognition of my mind itself.
    2. Since we can think and conceive of God, we must take it that God exists.
    3. On the question of whether we should rely on our senses, he said that God would not play false with us, would not lead us astray.
    According to Descartes there were two types of reality. One was the ‘thinking substance’, the mind. The other was ‘extended substance’, which meant anything outside the mind and which could be measured. This idea is described as ‘Cartesian Dualism’.
    ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’ by Nicolaus Copernicus, published in 1543 created a storm in astronomy. He proposed in this book that the solar system was heliocentric. He was regarded as a classic Renaissance scholar as he studied the works of antiquity, observed what he could in the world personally, collated all that had been studied thus far in his field, and then came up with a new view of the subject at hand. Galileo Galilei was responsible for the subsequent development of astronomy. He was largely influenced by the Platonic ideas and challenged the Aristotelian system of the universe. He was able to project a new picture of the universe because of his greatest discovery, the telescope. His study highlighted the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and established the fact that the earth was like any other planet, thus giving a whole new perspective on the solar system. These ideas of Dialogue were not tolerated by the church which put him on trial for heresy.
    Later on, modern science was institutionalised by the efforts of William Harvey noted for the circulation of blood, Robert Boyle known for his laws on temperature and by Robert Hooke, a famous biologist. Perhaps the greatest contribution humanism made to science was its thirst for answers and the confidence that they could be found through human endeavour. The scientific revolution was an important aspect of humanism as it led to the rise of Empiricism. According to this method knowledge was to be acquired through scientific methods and speculations of general laws.
    5.2.5 Humanism in the Arts and the Renaissance

Fig 5.2.4 Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

It was in art that the Renaissance attained its highest achievement. In the hands of men like Leonardo da Vinci in Italy, it became almost a science, capable of exploring nature. Art was practised according to mathematical principles of balance, harmony and perspective. In Italy, Renaissance was preceded by a period of “proto-renaissance” in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio belonged to this period. The word Renaissance means “rebirth (French)” and generally the year 1453 is considered as the starting point of the Renaissance. Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, was captured by the Turks in 1453. Many scholars in the east fled to Italy carrying with them important books and manuscripts and a rich tradition of Greek scholarship. This gave a tremendous boost to humanism. High Renaissance art flourished in Italy during the period of about 35 years from the early 1490s to 1527 when Rome was sacked by imperial troops. This period was dominated by three great artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)









Fig 5.2.5 Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian painter, sculptor, architect and engineer exemplified the proper Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper (1495-98), the monumental wall painting in the monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie and Mona Lisa (1503-19) were the most acclaimed paintings of the Renaissance. Mona Lisa depicts a half-body portrait of a woman with a distant landscape visible as a backdrop. The synthesis achieved by Leonardo between the woman and the landscape has made this mysterious painting one of the most discussed paintings of all time. In Last Supper, Leonardo portrayed a moment of high tension when surrounded by his apostles, Jesus says: “one of you will betray me.” It showed the conflict between Jesus who sits lonely and in a state of serenity whereas the apostles are agitated except for Judas who partakes in this secret knowledge. Some of the other notable works of Leonardo include Adoration of the Magi (1482), Virgin of the Rocks (1483-86).

Fig 5.2.6 The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vici

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Fig 5.2.7 Michelangelo

Michelangelo (full name, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet and he was considered the greatest living artist in his time. He was the first artist in the west to have a biography published during his lifetime. He thought of himself primarily as a sculptor. His most notable sculpted works include the Pieta (1499), at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City and David (1501- 04) at a cathedral at Florence, both made in marble. Such works reveal a tendency to bend rules of anatomy and proportion to achieve a higher truth. But his most famous work is the giant ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It was completed in four years, from 1508 to 1512, and presents an incredibly complex but philosophically unified painting that blends traditional Christian theology with Neoplatonism.

Fig 5.2.8 The Pieta (1499), sculpture by Michelangelo at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

Fig 5.2.9 Ceiling fresco (mural painting) of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican by Michelangelo

Raphael (1483-1520)
Raphael (full name, Raffaelo Sanzio) was an Italian painter and architect. His greatest work The School of Athens (1508-11) was painted in the Vatican at a time when Michelangelo was working on his fresco at Sistine Chapel. He is also well known for the paintings of the madonnas (several paintings of Virgin Mary with child Jesus). Renaissance painters and sculptors became very interested in classical mythology, sometimes even combining it with Christian themes such as subtly representing Venus as the Virgin Mary.

Fig 5.2.10 Raffaelo Sanzio
Ancient thinkers were directly represented in art, perhaps most famously in the School of Athens fresco in the Vatican by Raphael.

Fig 5.2.11 Madonna del Prato by Raphael
The ancient artist’s skill and ability to capture reality in bronze or marble were largely appreciated. Renaissance artists were keen to capture this reality. Just like Renaissance writers, artists wanted not only to emulate the classical tradition but also to improve upon it. Consequently, the correct use of perspective became an ever-more precise endeavour for Renaissance artists. Artists were also convinced that their ancient counterparts had somehow discovered mathematical secrets of proportion.

Fig 5.2.12 Sistine Madonna by Raphael
Artists of Renaissance gave emphasis to the human experience in their works. Even religious art during this period has a keen focus on the human figures and their experiences within the scene. As the writers knew full well the powerful effect of their words, the artists recognized the power they had to create a lasting aesthetic impression on the viewer. The most outstanding example of this was Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Superior artisans of this time used their intellect to study art and create masterpieces that would carry their fame for generations to come.
Buildings were designed as elegant, symmetrical, functional, and harmonious with their surroundings and displayed the classical ratios of length and height. The reverence for classical authors and a knowledge of antiquity found expressions in the performance arts, notably in the plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare did not take any particular side in the humanist debates presented in his works but made full masterly use of that humanist power tool – language – to achieve the effects.
The humanists owe a lot to their Greek predecessors for the development of philosophy and social theories. Followed by Aristotle’s speculation of ‘man is a social animal’, St. Thomas Aquinas developed a hierarchical structure of authority and the obligation involved in man’s relationship towards god and the temporal ruler. Perhaps the new philosophy of Neo- Platonism was an attempt to break the edifice of scholasticism.
Niccolo Machiavelli was the next humanist who contributed to the political philosophy of the modern west. His most popular work is The Prince. This political treatise sought to examine the forms of political and military action which were likely to ensure a ruler’s political survival. He justified the use of deceit and treachery as essential for the functioning of a successful government. Therefore, the idea that the ‘end justifies the means’, became the main inference even today. Ultimately, the Renaissance created a new language, a new spirit and ethos. The political thinkers and scholars spread such ideas and philosophy to a wider public that created a new intellectual awakening.


  • The Renaissance was an age of genius and gave particular importance to individual endeavours.
  •  It was a great period of enquiry and critical re-examination of beliefs that had been held for centuries. This was a time when philosophers, poets, art- ists, and humanist scholars focused their attention on the role and destiny of man, the limitations imposed by the intractable movement of time.
  •  The deepest among them gave tremendous importance to human experience and the singularity of each human life.
  •  Humanism was the dominant intellectual movement of the Renaissance and it sprouted in Italy
  •  Humanism was a term invented in the 19th century to describe the Renaissance idea that the study of humanity should be a priority as opposed to religious matters.
  •  The humanist movement owes its hold to the Italian trio who lived in the pre-renaissance period. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Petrarch (1304-1374), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) were recognized as its founding fathers.
  • The establishment of the printing press helped spread humanist ideas from Italy to other parts of Europe.
  • Ultimately, the Renaissance created a new language, a new spirit and ethos. The political thinkers and scholars spread such ideas and philosophy to a wider public that created a new intellectual awakening.

Objective Type Questions

1. What is meant by the term humanism?
2. Who were the Italian trio responsible for the birth of Humanism?
3. Whose work triggered the modern literary theory?
4. What is the meaning of the word ‘mimesis’ used by Plato?
5. What is meant by the concept ‘Renaissance’?
6. Which of the following Italian city-states is considered the ‘birthplace of the Renaissance’?
7. Which ancient classical civilization was an important influence on the Renais- sance humanists?
8. What is the artistic technique that is used to show depth and distance on a flat surface?
9. Who is the author of Divine Comedy ?
10. Who is the author of the work Secretum Meum?
11. Who is the author of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres?

Answers to Objective Type Questions

1. A humanity-centred view of the universe 2. Dante – Petrarch – Boccaccio
3. Ferdinand de Saussure
4. Representation
5. Rebirth of Greek and Roman culture 6. Florence
7. Greek and Roman civilizations
8. Realism
9. Dante
10. Petrarch
11. Bacon


1. Prepare an appreciation report of the achievements in art and architecture during the renaissance humanistic period.
2. List out literary achievements of the humanist period.

Suggested Readings

1. Andrews, S. Eighteenth-Century Europe: The 1680s to 1715, Longman, 1964.
2. Bernal, J.D., The Social Function of Science, G. Routledge, 1993.
3. Campbell, Gordon. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance. OUP, 2019.
4. Celenza, Christopher S. The Intellectual World of the Italian Renaissance. CUP, 2020.
5. Hale, J.R. The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance. Thames & Hudson, 2020.
6. Hale, J.R. Renaissance Europe: The Individual and Society 1480-1520, Uni- versity of California Press, 1971.
7. Gilmore, M. The World of Humanism 1453-1517, Harper, 1952.
8. Rundle, David. The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Hodder Arnold, 2000.