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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529)
Baldassare Castiglione was born on December 6, 1478, at Casatico near Mantua, Italy. An Italian diplomat, knight, and courtier, Castiglione served in the court of Urbino for a good part of his life, observing and taking part in its elegance. He recorded a fictional dialogue to represent the best of court life in his Book of the Courtier (1528). This book was highly influential, setting the standard for the behavior of the elite, which was to comport oneself with a casual nonchalance, giving the impression that one’s learning and grace are natural talents, effortlessly expressed. He explains, “Therfore that may be said to be a very art that appeereth not to be art, neyther ought a man to put more dilgence in any thing then in covering it: for in case it be open, it loseth credit cleane, and maketh a man litle set by” (as translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561).

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Castiglione died at the height of his fortune on February 7, 1529.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536)
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was born in October of 1466 or 1467, an illegitimate child whose parents died of the plague. He was put into a monastery, where he was ordained for priesthood. However, Erasmus became a scholar and one of the first humanists and did not join the priesthood. He initially supported the Reformation but abandoned the movement when it led to religious conflict. Influenced by Valla’s Book of Elegances, a Latin grammar, Erasmus studied Latin classics of the pagan authors of ancient Greece and Rome. He also became interested in education, partly in reaction to his own brutal treatment at the hands of his early schoolteachers, and he wrote a collection of sayings, Adages, for use as a Latin textbook. Erasmus proposed that schools follow the education precepts of classical Roman Quintilian (c. 35–c. 99), to train orators by focusing first on their personal integrity, then on their persuasive skills. To this end, Erasmus suggested that students practice extemporaneous writing to encourage candidness, thus departing from the traditional school model in which the schoolmaster read from a single text while students copied the lectura (reading) word for word. With his great faith in the power of words, Erasmus considered religious feeling to stem from a direct reading of the scriptures, which he felt had a nearly magical ability to influence people to follow the example of Christ. Like Luther, whom he at first admired, Erasmus felt that the key to religious feeling was the change of heart that could occur when a person reads the scriptures, not from unthinking obedience to the rituals of a corrupt church. Erasmus was a humanist in his faith that humans can achieve piety through their own endeavors, as well as in his passion for Latin rhetoric. He combined humanist scholarship with reformist ideology.

Erasmus died July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland.

Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499)
Marsilio Ficino was born in Florence, Italy, on October 19, 1433, and began his student life as a scholastic, studying the traditional Aristotelian philosophy. However, he underwent a religious epiphany during which he decided that Plato’s philosophy was a divine revelation designed to prepare the pagan world for the arrival of Christ. Ficino’s somewhat antithetical beliefs were symbolized in two votive candles he kept in his room: one in front of a picture of Plato and another in front of an image of the Virgin Mary. He studied Greek and read and translated into Latin the complete works of Plato as well as the works of the Neoplatonists, Greek Platonic scholars (primarily Plotinus) of the third century A.D. The Neoplatonists expanded Plato’s philosophy to describe a system in which humans live in a state of “sleep” in this world and must go through several phases to reach a state of hyperconsciousness, the final stage achieved by the soul, which is beyond the level of reasoning.

During the forty years that he was translating Plato and the Neoplatonists, Ficino held informal lectures for interested scholars at his home in Florence, which became known as the Platonic Academy. Ficino’s gatherings and written works helped to spread Plato’s ideas among the humanists. He himself, however, was not a true humanist, since his interests lay in the philosophy of Plato; he ignored the philological aspects that preoccupied most of the true humanists, and he did not pay scrupulous attention to authenticating his sources, as most of the other humanists did. Ficino also had an interest in the occult and magic. He also studied the Jewish mystical book called the Cabala (written in Hebrew) and the hermetic tracts of the Egyptians as well as the (lost) works of Pythagoras. His enthusiastic belief that these works held divinely inspired ancient secrets that passed through Plato proved infectious to his followers. Ficino has been accused of elitism because his brand of gnostic Christianity gave his followers a sense of superiority, since it required a great amount of study to become initiated into its secrets.

Ficino died in Corregio on October 1, 1499.

Sir Thomas More (c. 1478–1535)
Sir Thomas More was born around February 7, 1478, in England. He authored the satire Utopia, an imaginary state loosely based on ideas from Plato’s Republic, among other classical sources. This work was written in the beginning of More’s life, before he became Lord Chancellor and then became embroiled in the king’s “great matter,” wherein King Henry VIII granted himself sovereignty over the Church of England so that he could command that the Church condone his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn and try to beget an heir with her. More foresaw that this crisis in English history would inevitably lead to a schism between church and state and so refused to provide the public support that Henry wanted. Henry charged More with treason and ultimately had him beheaded.

More was a strong proponent of humanist ideas, having befriended Erasmus on one of the latter’s visits to England. More used his significant skills in Latin oratory to defend the study of classical Greek other secular literature against Scholasticism. He felt that studying the ancient classics better promoted knowledge and virtue than did the traditional fare of Scholasticism, with its emphasis on disputation of minor points of theology. Nevertheless, More remained very much a medieval thinker and scholar, steeped in scholastic learning, despite his liberal acceptance of the new humanist ideas. Even though, as befits a humanist, More eschewed monastic study and happily entered the world of politics, statesmanship, and law, he was a product of the scholastic form of education, since he relied upon the skills he learned in scholastic disputation. Convicted of treason on false evidence, More was beheaded on July 6, 1535. He was widely admired for his sincere religious piety, especially after his martyrdom.

Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374)
Francesco Petrarch was born July 20, 1304, in Arezzo, Italy. Known as the “Father of Humanism,” Petrarch promoted the study of works by Cicero (106–43 B.C.) and Virgil (70–19 B.C.) as models of Latin eloquence. He actively sought new manuscripts of their work, along with those by other classical Roman writers such as Quintilian and Seneca, and his travels across Europe uncovered a number of hitherto lost works by Cicero and others. Petrarch valued Cicero for his ideas about morality, oration, and the purpose of education as a means to train good citizens. It was Petrarch who identified the decline of the Roman Empire as a historical event, and he defined the period of history after its fall as a “dark age,” or a “Middle Age” between the golden era of antiquity and the current “rebirth” of antiquity in Petrarch’s own time. By this it was meant that ancient texts were once again valued for their unique contribution to human history. Petrarch is perhaps best known for his sonnets of timeless beauty inspired by a mysterious woman he calls simply “Laura,” who did not return his love.

Petrarch died on July 18, 1374, in Arqua, Italy.

Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494)
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born February 24, 1463. He was a brilliant student who gave up his share of the Mirandola ancestral property in order to pursue his education by traveling to the major universities of Europe. He, like Ficino, became enamored of the mystical Jewish Cabala, and he once bought a stash of fake Hebrew manuscripts purported to contain ancient secrets. He sought to construct a universal religion among Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and he believed that Platonist philosophy could be reconciled to their main ideas. When he returned from his educational saga, he wrote nine hundred theses on a wide variety of topics and challenged any and all scholars to join him in Rome to dispute them. No one came, for the Church determined that some of his propositions were heretical. He had to flee to France for a time until it was safe to return. Pico della Mirandola says in his opening to the theses, which came to be known as Oration on the Dignity of Man (1496), that “nothing in the world can be found that is more worthy of admiration than man.” His work served as a manifesto for the humanist movement in that it promulgated the idea that man should take his rightful place as the center of the universe yet also exhorted man to give up worldly aspirations and physical pleasure to seek peace through the contemplation of God.

Pico della Mirandola died November 17, 1494.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498)
Girolamo Savonarola was born on September 21, 1452. He was a charismatic monk from Ferrara, Italy, who preached fiery sermons in Florence on the subject of proper piety. An accomplished orator and rhetorician, Savonarola quickly became famous for his sermons and drew large crowds. Even though Savonarola was not a humanist himself, he influenced the work of Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, who were in Florence when he was preaching there. His sermons called for a “bonfire of the vanities” in which were burned all heretical books, images, and objects of vice. Savonarola was charged with heresy by the Church; he was excommunicated, then tortured, hanged, and burnt at the stake on May 23, 1498.

Lorenzo Valla (1405–1457)
Lorenzo Valla was born in Rome, Italy, in 1405. He was a philologist who disputed the validity of the claim that the Emperor Constantine (306–337), who converted to Christianity and made Constantinople into a haven of Christian ideology, had donated half of his empire to Pope Sylvester for curing his case of leprosy. Valla’s argument rested on linguistic evidence, the first argument of its kind. Among other evidence, he proved the donation document a forgery by exposing anachronisms (words that did not exist in the fourth century) in the Latin text. Valla also wrote Elegantiae (or Book of Elegances), a Latin grammar book that sought to improve the quality of spoken and written Latin, with over three thousand examples of correct Latin usage (elegances). Valla, along with Petrarch, sought a revival of classical Latin in its purest form; Renaissance philologists considered the classical period as a golden age of the Latin language that was followed by a period of degeneration when vernacular languages flourished and Latinists lost their interest in the pure forms of the language. Valla’s legacy to Humanism was to initiate the field of textual criticism, which studies the authenticity of texts and seeks to correct errors that creep into manuscripts when they are copied.

Valla died in Rome on August 1, 1457.

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