The Literary Arts

   The ideal of Renaissance humanistic education was the production of the uomo universale, or "universal man." The universal man contained within himself knowledge and all the skills of the various arts, from grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, to art, music, poetry, and architecture. It is from the uomo universale that we get our expression, "Renaissance man."

   No history of Renaissance literature can actually do it justice without an appreciation of the universality of poetry throughout the Renaissance. There really is no such thing as professional writers or poets in our sense of the word; ideally, any product of a humanistic education—which is just about every educated male by the High Renaissance—is accomplished at the arts of language, especially poetry. The high culture of the Renaissance, then, is a culture literature and literary production. Most major figures of the Renaissance, including the Medicis and the popes, were active in literary production. Lorenzo de'Medici, for instance, is both a highly productive and talented poet.

   It is a world of poetry in the Italian Renaissance—it's fair to say that the Italian Renaissance is more a world of poetry and literature than a world of visual arts. This poetry, however, can be very rule-bound and very formulaic. In the modern world, we prize "genuineness" (whatever that means) in literature, particularly poetry. Renaissance readers and audiences, however, seemed to be more inclined to understand poetry in terms of genres, conventions, and poetic skill. A writer could easily compose a pile of love sonnets even if he weren't in love; that doesn't matter, for the virtue of the poetry lay in invention, that is, the discovery of types of expression and genres or arguments to express a particular emotion, spiritual state, or intellectual idea. One also judges the poetry based on the writer's skill in subverting or changing conventions. As with mannerism in art and architecture, from the very beginning, Italian Renaissance poetry is about drawing attention to conventions and styles and how they can be played with or even completely subverted.

The Sonnet and Poetry Sequence

   No literary form is more characteristic of the Renaissance than the sonnet and the sonnet sequence. A fourteen line lyrical poem, the Italian sonnet had a rigid rhyme scheme that divided the sonnet more or less into two separate halves. The first half, eight lines with the rhyme scheme abbaabba, is called the octet; the second half, six lines with the rhyme scheme cdccdc or some variant, is called the sestet. This is called the Petrarchan sonnet after Petrarch whose sonnet sequence on his love Laura became the model for sonnet writing for the next three hundred years.

   Unlike other forms of poetry popular at the time, the sonnet was a small lyric poem that focussed on emotions or thoughts in a small instant of time. There is no narrative or sense of duration in a sonnet; it is, rather, a single complex concept or experience. The sonnet sequence, on the other hand, began in Italy in the middle ages with poets such as Dante. Between each sonnet, Dante would narrate the circumstances that led to each sonnet, somewhat like women's court writing in Heian Japan. Petrarch revolutionized the sonnet sequence by taking the narrative out; all that was left was a sequence of sonnets on the same subject. In Petrarch's case, the sonnets focussed on his love Laura and its emotional, intellectual and spiritual consequences. There is no story, per se, just a stream of diverse and contradictory emotions and thoughts. Petrarch does not approve of this love; following Augustine, he conceives of this love as a spiritual distraction and suffering.

   The Italian sonnetteers that followed Petrarch did not necessarily share his condemnation of love, but Petrarch had laid down a pattern for the poetry sequence: the exploration of the diversity and contradictions in human emotion and spirituality. Sonnet sequences aren't so much love poems as they are poems about love and the range of emotions and experiences that they evoke. Eventually the sonnet sequence became more about imitating different conventions in talking about love; these ranged from self-pity to happiness to outright parody, such as turning love language on its tail. However, with the Neoplatonic celebration of love for an individual as a vehicle to rise to God, the Italian sonnet sequences took on a very serious and semi-religious philosophy towards love.

Epic Poetry

   Although we barely read it today, the most prized and respected literature of the Renaissance was epic poetry, usually written in Latin. The recovery of the classics also involved the full recovery of the poems of Homer which, along with the Aeneid of Vergil, were regarded as the great literary products of the classical age. Only very special poets dared to imitate them.

   Petrarch himself gave it a try by trying to write a Latin epic poem on Scipio Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic War in Rome. But he never finished it, and the history of the epic in Italy is one long series of partly finished projects and long-forgotten poems.

   While not strictly epic poetry, another long narrative poetic form that thrived in the Renaissance was the romance which had had a long and fruitful history in the middle ages. The most common them of romance narratives were the adventures of a wandering knight; the theme of most romances was not bravery, but rather the spiritual and worldly negligence of the knightly world. Perhaps the greatest work of literature in the Italian Renaissance was Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Orlando Insane) , a sprawling and witty romance on the jilted love and madness of Orlando, the great knight of Charlemagne. Ariosto intended the romance to be the conclusion of another sprawling romance, Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love), but his own poem went on forever in length. The romance is a masterpiece of Renaissance thinking. While the medieval romance condemns the spiritual negligence and worldliness of its hero, the Orlando Furioso revels in it and presents a world where the human perspective and the human interest in knowledge are sources of greatness.


   Throughout the middle ages, drama and theater only dealt with sacred subjects, such as biblical stories. Profane drama was either unheard of or only performed in burlesque. Classical dramatists were virtually unheard of in the middle ages. All the great dramatists of antiquity, such as the Greek playwrights Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, and the Roman comedy writers such as Plautus and Terence, were only discovered by humanists in the Renaissance. Although classical drama is more read and studied in the modern period than other classical literature, in the Renaissance it was a distinct last place to epic poetry, lyric poetry, and philosophy. So drama isn't well represented in Renaissance literature.

   The first dramatist to imitate classical models in Italy was Giangiorgio Trissino, who was a wealthy humanist with an encyclopedic knowledge. Among other things, he was famous as a Neoplatonic philosopher and poet. He, like many others, attempted to write an epic poem, L'Italia liberata dai Goti (Italy Liberated from the Goths) which, though it's a poem about Justinian's reconquest of Italy, is mainly an encyclopedia of Trissino's knowledge of every possible subject, including mathematics and architecture. He wrote the first Italian tragedy, Sofonisba , in 1514; although it caused a sensation, tragedy never really developed in Italy as it would do in England in the late sixteenth century.

   Comedy, though, was a different matter, and the Italians produced some classic literature in the history of comedy. The most famous and influential of these comedies was Niccolò Machiavelli's La Mandragola (The Mandrake). Written in colloquial Italian, the play concerns efforts to dupe an old man of his money. The plot itself is driven by many of the same principles that Machiavelli outlined in The Prince , his treatise on political philosophy. Like the ideal ruler, the world of La Mandragola is one in which dishonesty and self-interest pay off.


   Perhaps the most popular work of literature in the Renaissance next to Petrarch's works was Baldesar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier from 1516. Castiglione was a count and a diplomat and his book is not really about literature or philosophy. Rather, it is in the form of a debate over the ideal behavior of aristocratic men and women across a variety of situations and subjects, including love. The closest modern analogy is a book of etiquette, but The Book of the Courtier is more about human nature underlying aristocratic behavior.

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man
Agnolo Bronzino
Portrait of a Young Man

   The Book of the Courtier outlines the ideal man as a uomo universale , or as a person expert in a wide variety of knowledge and skills. Most important to the cultured person is a certain ease or facility with situations, knowledge, love, and skills; Castiglione called this quality sprezzatura, and the idea stuck to the aristocratic sense of self for the next several centuries. In fact, the twentieth "cool" is ultimately an descendant of Castiglione's aristocratic sprezzatura .

   Castiglione was the first European writer to theorze about women's social roles outside the home. While he does not give women the same place of importance as men, he does stress education, accomplishment, and the same type of sprezzatura that he demands of men. Since the book is a debate among several parties, including women, it's difficult to say what Castiglione's opinion is. The Third Book, however, is an extended argument by several characters on the equality of women to men in every area. Castiglione is, however, only talking about aristocratic and wealthy women. On the subject of the non-aristocratic classes he remained silent.

World Cultures

1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999