Renaissance is the rebirth of the mind, of learning, of education. This intellectual revolution began in the early part of the 14th century, most notably in Florence, Italy. The time of Renaissance had arrived. It was a literary movement among the learned and mostly upper class that sought to recapture the classical past of Rome and to recreate it. The Greek civilization was later considered very important too.
Petrarch was the early pioneer who was fascinated by the language, literature, architecture and art of the ancient classical civilization. He put forward a study of humanity called studia humanitates (meaning liberal arts) that formed the philosophy of humanism.
It was a gradual revolution that slowly spread throughout Europe, France, Germany and Spain by the end of the 15th century and into England by the start of the 16th.
Its philosophy was in direct contrast to the previous centuries where group effort and team work was the fundamental basis of civilization. Now with the Renaissance, a new concept of individualism was being introduced and these were based on the talents and hard work of the individual. Artists began painting self portraits and signing them with their own names, writers would create autobiographies and give themselves the credit and they believed all these new works as caused by individual genius.
Key to all of this was education, and they believed it to be vital to not only to the individual, but to society as a whole. In this day, this belief still holds true, and so our education systems and sources of information and knowledge all can trace their roots back to the Renaissance.
Part of their new intellectual thinking was in creating ideals for human behavior. As they pondered and developed these ideas, the conclusion was that the ‘ideal’ Renaissance man came out to be quite different to the ‘ideal’ Renaissance woman. This essay shall explore some of those differences and show what the ideal man and ideal woman is.
We begin with three visual elements to consider. Firstly, the self portrait of Albert Dürer in 1500 shows a sturdy well kept man giving the illusion of strength, confidence and purpose. His fur coat makes him appear rich and is well made.
The so called Simonetta from the workshops of Botticelli around 1444 – 1510 shows the profile image of a lady of the age. She appears very dainty, beautiful and well dressed. Her hair is platted and very well kept.
And thirdly, Andrea del Verrocchio’s sculpture of General Bartolommeo Calleoni shows a proud and strong man ready for battle in his armor. His stance is one of power and authority (as it should being the leader) and he appears to be looking out surveying the battle field.
The Renaissance was primarily about enlightenment, a new understanding, and so education proved to be the foundation and key.
Within 13 years of one another, two letters were written by humanists to nobles indicating what type of learning would be required by men and women.
For the men, the letter to Ubertinus of Padua written in 1392 by Peter Paul Vergerius indicates what is important for men to learn. Firstly, history was the most important “on grounds both of its attractiveness and of its utility, qualities which appeal equally to the scholar and to the statesman.” Moral philosophy is the second important subject in order “to teach men the secret of true freedom.”
The logic of the first two subjects was that together “…one shows what men have said and done in the past, and what practical lessons we may draw therefrom for the present day.” With men still being the dominant sex in leadership and headship, this type of learning is very important.
The third discipline to learn is eloquence “which indeed holds a place of distinction amongst the refined arts.”
In contrast, although women should learn history, it is in a different context. The letter from Meonardo Bruni to Lady Baptista around 1405 suggests that history be learned simply “to understand the origins of our own history and its development; and the achievements of Peoples and of Kings.” There is no responsibility in that learning, simply the knowledge will suffice, no need to apply it as men should.
Bruni believes that the primary discipline for women is learning religion and the literature that goes along with it “affords her the fullest scope for reverent, yet learned inquiry”. Again, there is no responsibility in the learning; it is there for her to learn in order to continue to be subjected to the man.
The final discipline for a lady is poetry and poets.
Already, it is apparent that the two sexes have very different roles within Renaissance society and accordingly, the subject matter of both is quite different.
In terms of behavior and demeanor, Baldassare Castiglione had the following to say in his ‘manual’ for each sex from The Courtier 1508 – 1516.
The men were to be of arms, meaning to “be known among the others as bold, energetic, and faithful to whomever he serves.” He is to be well educated and to be conversant in both Latin and Greek because there is much to learn from literature written in both. The logic in these studies was to make him confident and fluent and thus a strong person. Despite these many learnings and behaviors he was to undertake, he must also essentially be modest.
In contrast, women were to be less bold and strong, they were to be tender, sweet and graceful amongst other things. Effectively, she was to be subservient to the man and apparently for his pleasure. She should be educated in order to provide conversation to entertain a man.
For a ruler, in Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince in 1513, he describes the appropriate behavior and learnings of a ruler. Although history, once again is a common discipline to learn, in this context it is the learning of great men and leaders in the past who were successful in warfare and applying these principles. This leads onto the primary learning of the ruler, and that is the art of warfare and its associated teachings. If a ruler was to lose sight of this, he will most likely lose his state.
He should therefore also try to attain the respect of his followers, preferably through one of fear and love, but if love is not possible, then it is safer to be feared. If he is to lead his army into battle, he will need to do it with his men obeying him for the right reasons.
Leon Battista Alberti’s autobiography sometime after 1460 tries to present himself as the ‘ideal’ Renaissance man. He appears very learned and dedicated in literature (which he calls letters) and when he needs a break from this delves into art where he strove to become a big name. In fact he states that “His genius was so versatile that you might judge all the fine arts to be his”, which is in direct contrast to Baldassare that “in this as in everything else, to be cautious and reserved rather than forward…” So Alberti is coming across as rather boastful, which would probably explain why he proceeds to talk about how resented he is within society.
However, he had a sense of humor by writing a funeral oration for his dog!
Polydore Vergil’s Anglia Historia around 1540 portrays King Henry VII of England as the perfect Renaissance ruler. He is described as being a very attractive and slender man, who was wise and prudent. Brave when tough challenges came his way, but gracious, generous and just. Despite preferring peace, he was also successful in war.
Good Queen Bess, Queen Elizabeth I was the complete opposite of how an ideal Renaissance woman should have been. Daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Bolyen, she had a hard beginning to her life, and for her to inherit the throne, it looked an extremely unlikely event. Henry was obsessed with siring a male heir and when he finally begat one, the reign of this son lasted only 6 years before death took him. Elizabeth finally took the crown and became one of the longest serving monarchs in English history. Her rule was not only long, but overall very successful and strong. The restoration of Protestantism to the English church, the start of the colonization of the Americas and defeat of the Spanish Armada were some of the highlights in a very accomplished reign. It wasn’t dubbed the Golden Age for nothing.
Her father Henry would no doubt have been proud of her accomplishments, but perhaps still disappointed that his long planned dynasty had failed in the very next generation. Elizabeth was never to marry, she was married to her country so great was her devotion. She was the Virgin Queen and one of the strongest rulers England had ever known.
Two years before her death, she addressed her parliament for one last time in what would become known as The Golden Speech. In it are examples of how strong she was, and how this strength shows how unlike the ideal Renaissance woman should be. Richard Cavendish in the November 2001 History Today magazine in an article called ‘Queen Elizabeth I’s Golden Speech’ describes her as “Highly intelligent, maddening, and enchanting, she staged a one man show in which, beautifully costumed and blazingly bejeweled, she created a starry image for herself as Gloriana, Spenser’s faerie queen, as the ‘chaste and fair’ Diana, virgin and huntress of the moon, as Astraea, the personification of justice or ‘Albion’s golden sun.”
Certainly these words from her Golden Speech highlight this wonderful description, “There will never Queen sit in my seat with more zeal to my country, care to my subjects and that will sooner with willingness venture her life for your good and safety than myself.” Ideally, these would have been the feats and words of a king, not a queen and it is in this way that Elizabeth was not the ideal Renaissance woman. She was the ideal man.
To conclude, the time of the Renaissance was a period where mankind reawakened to himself. After nearly 1000 lost years after the rule of the Romans, mankind has rediscovered the direction and momentum that perhaps should have followed the Romans. Instead man and society in the west had fallen back and now was being restarted again.
Men and women alike found for themselves that education, culture and the sciences led to a more civilized society and so this developed into ideals and standards by which each sex should strive to attain. The documents examined do provide us with those standards, and perhaps a few of them are overzealous in their writings in that they portray certain figures as being absolutely perfect, which of course it is not possible for man to be this way. And so, a more objective and general outlook must be applied to such documents in order to obtain a clearer picture.
However, the Renaissance led to better standards and provided men and women alike a goal in which to aim for, and these goals and ideals pave the way for growth to become a better and more informed race.