Historiography: Renaissance (Petrarch, Biondo, Machiavelli & Guicciardini)

The Renaissance was a glowing period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic "rebirth" following the Middle Ages.

Generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art.

The nature, origins, and even existence of the Renaissance has been subject to intensive investigation since the early 20th century.

An important aspect of the "New Learning", as it was called, was the eager search for and an enthusiastic study of the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Humanists or those who took to the New Learning rejected the supernatural and put human interest and the mind of man paramount.

They were concerned more with man than with god, with refinement of life here on earth than in the problems of life hereafter.

Petrarch (1305–74 AD)

Petrarch was a Italian scholar, poet, and humanist whose poems addressed to "Laura", an idealized beloved, contributed to the Renaissance flowering of lyric poetry.

Petrarch's inquiring mind and love of classical authors led him to travel, visiting men of learning and searching monastic libraries for classical manuscripts.

From the time of Petrarch in the fourteenth century, the European mind began to experience changes of great magnitude.

Although he was "not exactly a historian", the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch illustrates much that was distinctive about the Renaissance attitude toward history.

He consistently held that his own age (Renaissance) had made a decisive break with the 10 centuries that followed the decline of the Roman Empire.

His true contemporaries were the historians and poets of Rome's Golden Age (70 BC-18 AD), to whom he addressed a series of letters.

He was regarded as the greatest scholar of his age.

Biondo (1388–1463)

Flavio Biondo was an historian as well as an antiquarian (a person who studies or collects antiques or antiquities).

Antiquarians such as "Petrarch" were interested in all sorts of relics of the past, material objects as well as texts - an interest that eventually led to social and economic history and even to "everyday history" and "history from below."

In his works on Roman antiquities Flavio Biondo virtually founded the field of archaeology.

His "Decades of History From the Deterioration of the Roman Empire", for example, introduced the concept of the decline of the Roman Empire and the idea of the Middle Ages as the period from 410 to 1410 AD.

In addition, he used the new textual criticism to eliminate many legends that had been accepted as facts in previous histories.

He stresses the continuity of European history from the fall of Rome in the fifth century to the Renaissance in the fifteenth, thus suggesting the schematic division of history into the ancient, medieval and modern.

Biondo, however, was not what his contemporaries called a "pure historian."

Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444 AD)

Leonardo Bruni has been called "the first modern historian".

The model of pure history was the - "Twelve Books of Histories of the Florentine People" - by Leonardo Bruni.

Although Bruni owed much to the chronicles kept by the Italian cities, he drew extensively from ancient historians and, having learned Greek, was one of the first Europeans since ancient times to read "Thucydides".

Bruni was greatly influenced by "Livy", who provided the paradigmatic account of how a city is founded and becomes great.

Bruni scrupulously (though not slavishly) followed Livy's example in his emphasis on politics - he found nothing worth relating for the year 1348 AD, when the Black Death first struck Florence (Italy) - and on individual character as the cause of historical actions.

He also restricted himself to the vocabulary that Livy used or could have used.

Bruni's central theme was - "the people of Florence".

His history followed a strong narrative line that described the rise to power of the Florentines and their victory in their war against "Milan", which Bruni believed was made possible by republican virtue, or civic humanism.

That same pride continued to animate other Florentine historians, even the apparently cynical "Machiavelli".

The budding historiography of Florence came into full bloom in "Machiavelli" and "Guicciardini".

Whereas Biondo, Bruni and Poggio Bracciolini wrote their histories in Latin, Machiavelli and Guicciardini wrote theirs in Italian.

Machiavelli (1469–1527 AD)

Whereas "Bruni" had written at the apex of Florentine power, Machiavelli's public career was marked by the desperate situation created by what he called "the calamity": the invasion of Italy first by the French in 1494 AD and later by the imperial forces of Charles V in 1527 AD.

As a diplomat and later secretary to Florence's ruling Council of Ten, Machiavelli observed and tried to influence the shifting alliances between the Italian city-states.

When the Medici family returned to power and ousted him from office, he turned to reflections on politics and history.

Machiavelli presented his thoughts on history as "a new route" that would provide instruction to the statesmen of his day by marshaling examples from ancient history.

Machiavelli held that human nature remained the same in every age and climate and therefore human events must ever resemble those of preceding times.

Machiavelli planned a comprehensive commentary on the first ten books of Livy's "History of Rome", though he completed his commentary of only the first three.

Machiavelli's second work was "The Prince" which wrought a revolution in political philosophy and which became a "manual for all rulers".

His third work, "The History of Florence", written at the suggestion of the pope, likewise wrought a revolution in historiography.

He gives a clear analysis of the families, classes and interests of Florence.

Guicciardini (1483–1540 AD)

Machiavelli's younger contemporary Francesco Guicciardini shared some of Machiavelli's attitudes but not his rationale for studying history.

One of the sharpest minds of the age, Guicciardini had already written a "History of Florence" when he was only twenty-seven.

In his "History of Italy", Guicciardini attempted to explain why Italy had been unable to resist foreign incursions.

Written in Italian, The "History of Italy", with the subtitle, "History of the Wars", in ten volumes, is Guicciardini's masterpiece.

It is the first history to view the European political system as a connected whole.

At any rate Guicciardini is far more accurate and reliable than Machiavelli.

Since Guicciardini, like almost all Renaissance historians, believed that historical change resulted from the virtue (or lack of it) of individuals, the ability to draw a brilliant character—at which he excelled—enhanced the explanatory power of his work.

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The Renaissance represented a totally new spirit, a new confidence in man's limitless capacities.

The Renaissance spirit made a great impact on historiography.

It could be seen in a return to the humanistic view of history, the emergence of the lay historian, a new interest in the remains of the past; an advance in historical criticism, and in the growth of a new school of humanistic historians such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini.