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Albert Rabil Jr.

"The Significance of 'Civic Humanism' in the Interpretation of the Italian Renaissance"

(excerpts from Renaissance Humanism: Foundations, Forms and Legacy, vol 1, Humanism in Italy, ed. Albert J. Rabil Jr, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1988, chapter 7, pp. 141-79, reprinted in The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader, ed. Keith Whitlock, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2000, pp.31-54)

p. 32: What does the glorification of civic life and the construction of an earthly city by man mean? It means the validation of human activity of all kinds and, with this validation, the belief that activity takes precedence over contemplation inasmuch as it keeps human beings rooted in practical human concerns [...] [T]he prologue of Leon Battista Alberti's Della famiglia [On the Family] asks the question whether human failure or success depends on fortune or on human character. His answer is unequivocal: fortune triumphs only over those who submit to it. The Romans, he argues, did not triumph over many barbarous nations by luck but by the strength of their own virtues. These virtues were, primarily, concern to do good works and keep the traditions of their fatherland, and 'as long as they possessed lofty and pious spirits, grave and mature counsel, perfect faith and loyalty toward the fatherland-- as long as concern for the public good outweighed with them the pursuit of private ends, as long as the will of the state overruled the individual's desires' -- so long did Rome prosper. But ' as soon as unjust desires counted for more in Italy than good laws, and the hallowed habits of restraint, the Latin empure grew weak and bloodless.' Fortune cannot rob us of our character, and as long as we possess nobility of soul we can ascend to the highest peaks of human achievement and glory. Alberti goes on to say that what is true of empires is true also of families, and he wishes to exhort his own kinsmen to maintain the traditions that enabled the family to rise to greatness in the past.

Individual greatness is part of cultural greatness. And cultural greatness is the product of many generations working always with the future in view. [...] Human beings achieve personal greatness by having in mind the greatness of the community of which they are a part.

The source of this new attitude was the studia humanitatis [studies of the humanities]. Through their labors in philological criticism, humanists for the first time discovered a distance between the past and the present. It was this humanist discovery that brought to awareness the fact that a break had occurred and gave rise to the need to define the present as against the past. The sense of separation created the need to build anew --on the past but differently from the past. [...] 'Thanks to litterae [letters] the mind unfolds and enlarges itself. An while it enriched itself with untold treasures, it learns to respect the value of other minds and to live in human society. Wisdom, far from incarcerating itself in an ivory tower " lives in cities, flees solitude and longs to be of help to as many men as possible."'

/p. 33: [H]umanism is much more than an antiquarian movement, it represents an alliance between the man of thought and the man of action,... this alliance finds its fullest expression in Florence where scholarship was joined with a republican civic spirit,...this civic humanism spread throughout the cities and courts of Italy during the Quattrocento, it did so it profoundly affected attitudes and developments in the arts and sciences. [...]Hans Baron has made the question of civic humanism the central preoccupation of his scholarly career. [...] And it is Baron's formulation that has been so widely discussed in the interpretation of Renaissance humanism during the past generation.

Baron begins with two important assumptions. First, as he says, 'we have learnt to interpret the coming of the early Renaissance also as a fundamental transformation in Weltanschauung.' This view...reinforces Burckhardt's contention that there is a fundamental discontinuity between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Something must therefore account for it. Second, as Vasari long ago recognized, there were two Renaissance in art, but only the second of them, in early Quattrocento Florence, established the new Renaissance Weltanschauung [world view]. But if the Renaissance really began in Florence at the beginning of the Quattrocento there must be som connection between this beginning and humanism.

Baron discovered the connection in 'civic humanism,' which appears in his earliest writings in German and English. In his edition of Bruni's works in 1928 he argued that from Salutati to Ficino humanists in Florence were identified with the wealthy ruling families, shared their interests, and developed a positive evaluation of social activity. Such a development was only possible in a republic; humanists who patronized the courts of despots were contempuous of the business enterprises of the Florentine burgher and extolled the life of leisure. Thus civic humanism cannot be separated from Florence's republican political tradition, for it could have developed in no other environment.

The actual transition he traces in two articles published in English in 1939. In one, entitled "Franciscan Poverty and Civic Wealth as Factors in the Rise of Humanistic Thought," he demonstrates that in the thought of all Trecento humanists-- above all in Petrarch, but also in his Florentine disciples-- the attitude toward wealth and the active political life is ambivalent. Petrach extolled poverty when he lived at Vaucluse but not after he moved to the court of Milan. Petrarch cites Cicero and Seneca in whose writings the Stoic wise man eschews riches in favor of a life of solitude and independence, and he finds these views echoed in writer after writer. Such an attitude was out of step with the feeling of the Florentine citizens, who could not be reconciled to a humanism of this kind. In fact a new view emerged in 1415 in Francesco Barbaro's treatise On Wifely Duties, "the first time that we meet with expressions of the genuine civic spirit in humanistic literature." In it he describes possessions as useful for many purposes, especially for our descendants. Shortly afterward, Bruni's apology for wealth rediscovered the civic character of Aristotle's Politics and the positive evaluation of wealth in Aristotle's Ethics....

/p. 34: Baron thus established his thesis that the transformation we call the Renaissance that occurred in early Quattrocento Florence applied not only to the history of art but also to the humanist movement. But the question remains: What caused the transformation? Why was there suddenly a new appreciation for the positive values of wealth and of Cicero the philosopher-stateman? Whence arose civic humanism? In his major work on the subject, published in 1955, Baron ascribed the cause to Florence's conflict with Milan, culminating in a war fought between 1400 and 1402 in which Florence avoided Milanese conquest.

The possibility of conquest by Milan posed a threat to Florentine autonomy almost continually after 1350. Milan was ruled by the Ghibellines, men who had been appointed by the emperors and who made themselves tyrants when Hohenstaufen rule came to an end.... The leading force against the Ghibellines was the papacy, now in exile at Avignon, allied with Guelf (bourgeois) cities like Florence. More often than not (though not consistently) Florence saw itself as a defender of the church and supporter of its policies. In 1377, however, the papacy, preparing to return to Rome from its extended exile in Avignon, sent legates ahead to assert strong leadership (in effect tyrannies) in the areas surrounding Rome. Florence soon found itself at the head of a central-Italian league fighting in the "War of the Eight Saints" against the dangers of attack from the papal state. The outcome of this war was to strengthen the tendency of the Florentines to regard themselves as the leaders of the free city-states.

During the 1380s Milan continued to expand southward and to incorporate smaller city-states into its orbit of power. Neither Rome nor Venice would aid Florence but were content to let Florence bear the burden of opposition to Milan. Florence did so --between 1390 and 1392 and again between 1397 and 1398. The latter struggle ended in a treaty that did not, however, guarantee the safety of the city-states allied with Florence, and within two years Milan had annexed them all. In 1400, therefore, Florence was isolated; only Bologna stood as a buffer between Milan and Florence. With a sense of desperation, Florence hired a mercenary army of German knights, led by Rupert of the Palatinate, the newly elected pretender to the imperial throne. The Visconti, however, defeated Rupert in October 1401, before he could make his way very far into Italy. Milan was now at the height of its power, and Florence seemed doomed. In the spring of 1402 (when the armies could once again campaign), the Milanese entered Bologna. By /p. 35: June nothing lay between the Milanese army and Florence. The Florentines expected to see the enemy before the gates any day. Yet the signal for attack was not given, probably because the Visconti had defeated its other enemies by a show of might and by propaganda, waiting for treachery and defection to undermine a city. But the moment came and went. For the plague erupted in northern Italy, carrying off the Milanese tyrant, Giangaleazzo Visconti, on 3 September. Milanese expansion was altogether halted, at least for a time, by his death.

The Florentines "credited their almost miraculous salvation more to the brave stand which they alone had made than to the sudden removal of the tyrant from the scene." The fact that Florence had met the crisis alone was decisive for the climate of that city. "When the crisis had passed, the real issue of the Florentine-Milanese contest stood revealed: out of the struggle had come the decision that the road was to remain open to the civic freedom and the system of independent states which became a part of the culture of the Italian Renaissance."

The effects of this event on the humanists were immediate and decisive. In a History of Florence, 1380-1406, written in 1407, Gregorio Dati asserted that "all the freedom of Italy lay in the hands of the Florentines alone, that every other power had deserted them." To the humanists, Florence had become the city of freedom. This view is nowhere more evident than in Leonardo Bruni's Panegyric to the City of Florence (which Baron dates 1403-4 rather than as previously believed, 1400) and his second Dialogue to Peter Paul Vergerius (which Baron dates 1405 rather than 1401)....

Bruni also argued in dialogue 2 that the republic had given rise to men of great talent in many fields but that "after the republic had been subjected to the power of one man [i.e. the Roman Emperor], those brilliant minds vanished as Cornelius Tacitus says." This judgement was new, both because no one had consistently maintained it in the past and because it rested on a new historian, Tacitus, who had only recently been rediscovered throught the manuscript at Monte Cassino brought to Florence by Boccaccio. In Tacitus himself the judgment quoted by Bruni had been a secondary one, for he had accepted the imperial monarchy as a historical necessity and, indeed, became a guide for monarchical publicists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bruni selected a facet of Tacitus congenial to his new point of view.

In his Panegyric Bruni maintained further, following the lead of Salutati, that Florence had been founded during the days of the Roman Republic, before the /p. 36: corruption of the empire had set in. It was the Roman army under Sulla in the first century B.C. that founded Florence. By the time Bruni came to write his history of Florence some years later, he added to his arsenal of reasons for Florence's establishment during the Roman Republic the discovery of the part the Etruscan city-states played in pre-Roman times. Thus Florence had originally been a city with free blood running in its veins. To the argument Vergil, Horace, and other great writers lived during the reign of Augustus, Bruni replied that they had been raised under the Republic.... Finally, the freedom of these city-states was stifled by the Roman Empire and reemerged after its fall. Thus the resurgence of Florence in contemporary times has its roots in the earlier energy of the city in republican Rome. Machiavelli developed this conception of Bruni's that a wealth of human energies had been stifled by the Roman Empire but came to the fore again with the rise of free city-republics. Not until the triumph of monarchic absolutism in the latter part of the sixteenth century was this republican interpretation of Roman history in Florence challenged.

Baron argues further that this change in political preference from monarchy to republic involved at the same time a deeper underlying change in intellectual vision, in other works, that the humanism that emerged in Florence could only have emerged under the conditions of a free city-state. Not only so, but this new civic humanism became determinative for the whole of humanism during the Quattrocento: the essence of Italian humanism in general during the Quattrocento was Florentine civic humanism....

/p. 38: Baron summarizes this period as follows:

Humanism, as molded by the Florentine crisis, produced a pattern of conduct and thought which was not to remain limited to Florentine humanists. From that time on there would exist a kind of Humanism which endeavored to educate a man as a member of his society and state; a Humanism which refused to follow the medieval precedent of looking upon the Rome of the emperors as the divinely guided preparation for a Christian "Holy Empire" and the center of all interest in the ancient world; a Humanism which sought to learn from antiquity by looking upon it not melancholically as a golden age never again to be realized, but as an exemplary parallel to the present, encouraging the moderns to seek to rival antiquity in their vernacular languages and literatures and in many other fields. Whereas such an approach to the past and to the present had nowhere been found before 1400, it became inseparable from the growth of Humanism during the Renaissance.

These qualities of civic humanism became the chief contributions of humanism to the subsequent development of the West. Baron continues," Renaissance Humanism would by no means occupy the place in the growth of the modern world that is rightly attributed to it had those traits ever disappeared again after they had emerged from the early-Quattrocento cristis." For "although this type of socially engaged, historically-minded, and increasingly vernacular Humanism far from exhausts the rich variety of the humanistic movements of the Renaissance /p. 39: in many respects it was the salt in the humanistic contribution to the rise of the modern state."

To state this point in the strongest possible way, Baron wants to maintain that without civic humanism, which grew on Florentine soil --and could only have grown in a republican atmosphere-- the western world would not now have as part of its heritage political pluralism in both thought and form, an orientation toward the future rather than toward the past, or vernacular literatures. It is in these senses, rather than in "the discovery of the world and of man," as Burckhardt would have it, that the Italian Renaissance represents the birth of the modern world.


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