3.5: Renaissance Literature


The 13th century Italian literary revolution helped set the stage for the Renaissance. Prior to the Renaissance, the Italian language was not the literary language in Italy. It was only in the 13th century that Italian authors began writing in their native vernacular language rather than in Latin, French, or Provençal. The 1250s saw a major change in Italian poetry as the Dolce Stil Novo (Sweet New Style, which emphasized Platonic rather than courtly love) came into its own, pioneered by poets like Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Guinizelli. Especially in poetry, major changes in Italian literature had been taking place decades before the Renaissance truly began.

With the printing of books initiated in Venice by Aldus Manutius, an increasing number of works began to be published in the Italian language, in addition to the flood of Latin and Greek texts that constituted the mainstream of the Italian Renaissance. The source for these works expanded beyond works of theology and towards the pre-Christian eras of Imperial Rome and Ancient Greece. This is not to say that no religious works were published in this period; Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy reflects a distinctly medieval world view. Christianity remained a major influence for artists and authors, with the classics coming into their own as a second primary influence.

At Florence the most celebrated Humanists wrote also in the vulgar tongue, and commented on Dante and Petrarch and defended them from their enemies. Leone Battista Alberti, the learned Greek and Latin scholar, wrote in the vernacular, and Vespasiano da Bisticci, while he was constantly absorbed in Greek and Latin manuscripts, wrote the Vite di uomini illustri, valuable for their historical contents and rivaling the best works of the 14th century in their candor and simplicity.

Renaissance Literature

The earliest Renaissance literature appeared in 14th century Italy; Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli are notable examples of Italian Renaissance writers. From Italy the influence of the Renaissance spread at different rates to other countries, and continued to spread throughout Europe through the 17th century. The English Renaissance and the Renaissance in Scotland date from the late 15th century to the early 17th century. In northern Europe the scholarly writings of Erasmus, the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Edmund Spenser, and the writings of Sir Philip Sidney may be considered Renaissance in character.

The literature of the Renaissance was written within the general movement of the Renaissance that arose in 13th century Italy and continued until the 16th century while being diffused into the western world. It is characterized by the adoption of a Humanist philosophy and the recovery of the classical literature of Antiquity and benefited from the spread of printing in the latter part of the 15th century. For the writers of the Renaissance, Greco-Roman inspiration was shown both in the themes of their writing and in the literary forms they used. The world was considered from an anthropocentric perspective. Platonic ideas were revived and put to the service of Christianity. The search for pleasures of the senses and a critical and rational spirit completed the ideological panorama of the period. New literary genres such as the essay and new metrical forms such as the sonnet and Spenserian stanza made their appearance.

The creation of the printing press (using movable type) by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s encouraged authors to write in their local vernacular rather than in Greek or Latin classical languages, widening the reading audience and promoting the spread of Renaissance ideas.

The impact of the Renaissance varied across the continent; countries that were predominantly Catholic or predominantly Protestant experienced the Renaissance differently. Areas where the Orthodox Church was culturally dominant, as well as those areas of Europe under Islamic rule, were more or less outside its influence. The period focused on self-actualization and one’s ability to accept what is going on in one’s life.

Italian Renaissance Literature

The pinnacle of Italian literature occurred in the transition to the Renaissance/Reformation period, which is to say during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The three most well-known Italian authors of this time were Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the latter covered in the previous module. Each foreshadowed the humanism of the fourteenth century: 1) Dante via his epic poetry, particularly his magnum opus The Divine Comedy), which details the protagonist’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven thus providing a detailed account of the medieval Christian view of the universe; 2) Petrarch through his lyric poetry that initiated the revival of classical literature and earned him the moniker as the “father of humanism”; 3) Boccaccio by way of his prose masterpiece the Decameron, which reworked folktales via a realism of dialogue and characterization indicative of what would become common practice during the Renaissance. These authors all offered an optimistic view of human dignity, value, and ability to prevail over natural (and even supernatural) forces, which, again, foreshadows the Renaissance worldview.

Another author of note is Christine de Pizan (1364 – 1430), who was the most famous and important woman thinker and writer of the Renaissance era. Her father, the court astrologer of the French king Charles V, was exceptional in that he felt it important that his daughter receive the same quality of education afforded to elite men at the time. She went on to become a famous poet and writer in her own right, being patronized (i.e. receiving commissions for her writing) by a wide variety of French and Italian nobles. Her best-known work was The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she attacked the then-universal idea that women were naturally unintelligent, sinful, and irrational. Instead, she argued, history provided a vast catalog of women who had been moral, pious, intelligent, and competent, and that it was men’s pride and the refusal of men to allow women to be properly educated that held women back. In many ways, the City of Ladies was the first truly feminist work in European history, and it is striking that she was supported by, and listened to by, elite men due to her obvious intellectual gifts despite their own deep-seated sexism.

In the illustration above, Christine de Pizan presents a copy of The City of Ladies to a French noblewoman, Margaret of Burgundy. The illustration itself is in the pre-Renaissance “Gothic” style, without linear perspective, despite its approximate date of 1475. This is one example of the relatively slow spread of Renaissance-inspired artistic innovations.

France, Spain, and England

The foremost French author of the Renaissance/Reformation era is Michel de Montaigne, the first great modern writer (and perhaps greatest all-time writer) of the essay, which can be defined as “a short prose examination of a subject”; indeed, Montaigne himself coined the term “essay” (from the French “essai”, meaning “attempt”). Prior to Montaigne, who established the essay as one of the most popular methods of Western expression, only a handful of ancient philosophers had embraced the form. Montaigne’s essays, written over the late sixteenth century, explore such profound human themes as friendship, ethics, and death.

Spanish literature culminated during the Spanish Golden Age (ca. 1500-1650), the literary pinnacle of which is occupied by Miguel de Cervantes, foremost author in the Spanish language. As noted earlier, the “formative age” of the novel spanned ca. 1500-1800; Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote (published in the early seventeenth century), is considered the greatest and most influential novel of this period. Don Quixote follows the comical adventures of a retired gentlemen who, in a state of idealistic madness fueled by medieval romances, embarks on a series of delusional chivalric quests.

The late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries also witnessed the most renowned figure in all of literature: William Shakespeare, the greatest dramatist of all time. Shakespeare’s repertoire consists of some three dozen plays, conventionally divided into comediestragedies, and histories (tragedies drawn from English history); the tragedy Hamlet is often singled out as his masterpiece. In addition to plays, Shakespeare composed over 150 sonnets.