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The Italian Renaissance Still Matters: A Compilation of Recent Studies (September 2022): Learned Contexts

By Brian Jeffrey Maxson

Learned Contexts

Alongside the famous art of the Renaissance, a learned movement known as humanism flourished. Humanism focused on the study and imitation of the classical world, especially in the kinds of disciplines now associated with the humanities. Scholars have done a lot work in this area, editing new texts—whether original works or out-of-date Renaissance editions of classical authors—to highlight this field of thought. One noteworthy example of this is Catalogus Translationum et Commentariorum, an ongoing scholarly serial that publishes volumes aimed at the reception of classical authors during the medieval, Renaissance, and early modern periods. The 12th and most recent volume, Ovid, Metamorphoses, by Frank Coulson, Harald Anderson, and Harry Levy, focuses exclusively on Renaissance readers, manuscript copies, and printed editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In addition to new philological studies, some new works reintroduce once famous but now almost forgotten figures: for example, statesman, orator, author, and translator Giannozzo Manetti, examined by David Marsh in his book Giannozzo Manetti, and author and architect Leon Battista Alberti and his many different writings, detailed in Timothy Kircher’s Living Well in Renaissance Italy. In a similar vein, Patrick Baker’s Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror recounts how Renaissance humanists understood the history of their own movement. New archival research has been combined with these sorts of foundational works to show that learned culture during the period appealed to far more people from a much greater range of backgrounds than previously thought. Everyday Renaissances by Sarah Ross and The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence by this author are both worthwhile examples. In addition, Renaissance ideas themselves were much more diverse than previously believed. Whereas people previously saw the medieval period as focused on Aristotle and the Renaissance as under the purview of Plato, new work shows that the Italian Renaissance embraced Plato and many other thinkers while also maintaining a major interest in Aristotelian thought, a line of thinking exemplified in Eva Del Soldato’s Early Modern Aristotle and David Lines’s Aristotle’s Ethics in the Italian Renaissance (ca. 1300–1650).

In the past, the Renaissance focus on the humanities made the period difficult to fit into standard narratives of the history of science and medicine. It seemed that people during the Renaissance were content to accept written authorities, apparently content to draw their information about health from Galen and seemingly uninterested in the sorts of empirically driven experiments at the heart of STEM fields today. Recent studies have overturned these old stereotypes, revealing fascinating and complicated new stories. Recent studies in the history of medicine can provide examples. John Henderson’s Florence under Siege, for instance, chronicles how governments and religious groups organized sophisticated responses to public health crises. Hannah Marcus’s Forbidden Knowledge details how doctors in Italy worked with and around the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church to maintain access to the latest medical discoveries. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey’s Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy looks at individuals and the proactive steps they took to live healthy lives, which changed throughout the Renaissance. Moreover, medicine as a practice involved many different people. Women, for example, played active roles in managing people’s health, a topic Sharon Strocchia treats in Forgotten Healers. Additionally, new areas of study, such as the history of food, often tie back to the history of medicine because of period conceptions about gastronomy and spices, as in Paul Freedman’s Out of the East and Allen Grieco’s Food, Social Politics and the Order of Nature in Renaissance Italy.

Works Cited