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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Italian Individualism During the Renaissance, Was it Good or Bad for Art and Literature?

Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. I Peter 5:5 With the power of the church before the Renaissance, individualism was only a “sleeping child” by then.

I. Introduction

Pride was believed to be the root of all evil. With the Holy Roman Catholic church during the middle ages, humility was the theme and supreme virtue for everything, specially morally and intellectually. “Self-confidence the worst of sins” (McGiffert, 1931, p. 9) and it was believed that the fall of Satan was due to self-love, self-confidence, and preference of on ways and opinions of humans over by those of the Church. It was during the Middle ages. It changed during the Renaissance, especially with the outbreak of humanism and individualism.

The skills of talented individuals that were hidden prior Renaissance in a strongly Catholicized Italy started to sprung. In fact, according to Shanahan (1992, p.53) the Renaissance can be seen as a time during which the authorized self of the Christian tradition realizes its full potential, one consequence of which is a burst of creative energy in art and literature, another an eagerness to explore and discover both the physical world and humankind itself, a third a willingness to tolerate and accept difference and variety of the widest possible kinds. That was the idea of individualism. However, the question is, was this individualism during the Renaissance a positive factor when the Italian art and literature are concerned?

Was human achievement a good thing to look at and what it made to the Italian art and literature during the period? Since individualism has brought humans their “authorized self” (Shanahan, 53) to bloom and with the inherent and strong Christian tradition among Italians, that moment in history can be viewed at the peak of everything, including art and literature.

II. The Renaissance Italy
According to Taylor & Murrav (1930, p. xvi) the Italian Renaissance was an “exciting period, and can be truthfully conveyed only with some sincere imaginative excitement.” With this statement, we can only imagine what did happen in Italy during this era. In terms of education and learning, it was further considered by Taylor & Murrav (1930, p. 76) as an era of triumph and enthusiasm owed much to the peculiar condition of this very University teaching of humanism--classes in a state of flux, free and ductile, in which pupils and teachers could both give and take. By this time, the place of learning such as universities are considered market for ideas, unlike the traditional learning methods where the insegnante was the only one who may be considered correct all the time and pupils have no chance of sharing their own thoughts.

In fact in its definition, (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2003), Renaissance is considered as “the humanistic revival of classical art, architecture, literature, and learning that originated in Italy in the 14th century and later spread throughout Europe.” With its origin in Italy, it can be viewed that this is the region that was most influenced and what is meant by the word “humanistic revival”? Was humanism related to individualism in this period? To gain greater understanding and to find answers to these questions, the concept of “individualism” must be thoroughly examined first. But to have an overview what it is about, Blaney (1957, p. III) noted that "the meaning of the intentions and goals proclaimed by Renaissance and Humanism is made clear: the emancipation of man as a human, rational being." And indeed that emancipation or the liberation gave humans the spirit and value of individualism, to have greater authority upon themselves, explore their skills and capabilities.

III. Individualism
Only during the Renaissance that “the authorized individual and the tradition from which the individual had sprung enjoyed concurrent dominance, the spectacle of individual achievement is a broad and dizzyingly brilliant one.“(Shanahan, 53) because during this time the concept of individualism was at its height emphasizing one’s personality, talent, abilities, uniqueness, brilliance, and full development of his overall capabilities. It was something like a cold water for the thirsty and a delicious food for the hungered. The hunger and thirst that were caused by a very long years of Catholic repression of these mentioned human competences.

What is really this individualism? No matter how this word is defined, the importance of self is emphasized in it. According to the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, (individualism, 2003) it is the “belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence” or a “doctrine advocating freedom from government regulation in the pursuit of a person's economic goals” holding that “ the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the state or social group”
It is worth noting that individualism has eventually became the theme of Western civilization, much more so in Italy where the seat of Roman Catholic Church, the institution that "had a fierce revulsion to belief in formal dogma and the repression" (Taylor & Murrav, 1930, p. 238) was so strong. The central heart of this individualism, which was more powerful than a mere definition, according to Shanahan (p.56) lies in the psychological experience with which we began: the sense of “a clear distinction between my being and that of other people”. The significance of this experience is greatly increased by our belief in the value of human beings themselves. Humanism may not be the same thing as individualism . . . but they are at least first cousins, for a respect for the dignity of man is naturally accompanied by a respect for individual man. And humanism was the “offspring” of Renaissance according to Blayney (1957, p. III) and so was individualism.

Talking about respect, which is an inherent distinction of individualism, it would easy to tell that indeed this concept (of individualism) was something so good. But was it? Or the “concurrent dominance and the spectacle of individual achievement” (Shanahan, 53) simply caused dizziness to those who can take advantage of it?

Although individualism seems to imply that, “while thought may validate existence, it cannot validate itself: the individual's own perceptions may not provide sufficiently reliable information for the conduct of life” (Shanahan, 1992, p. 20). Without the proper guidance, individuals are left out there and how they really determine and validate that what they were doing was correct? As Shanahan further explained, an individual may simply think or tell, "I think, therefore I am -- but since I am not at all certain about the validity of what I think, how can I be certain about what I am?" This is one doubt that questioned the acts of individuals during that time.
In fact Burckhardt (1943, p. 64) seems to imply that moral lassitude and religious decay, citing murder, adultery, vengeance, brigandage, and political license, the degeneration of the religious practice of its members into reliance on ceremony that often approached, and even embraced, superstition, and the decline in morality are all attributable to "excessive individualism," and "these fundamental defects” of the Renaissance character at the same time a condition of its greatness. These were on the morality and religious aspect of individualism Renaissance, but how about individualism upon art and literature in the Italian Renaissance?

III. Individualism in Italian Art During Renaissance
Who would not acknowledge the paintings of Masaccio, the architectural works of Brunelleschi, and the sculptures of Donatello? All these Italians lived and their works happened during the Renaissance period. And with individualism, the “change in the social status of the artists” (Gilbert, 1997) are observable while new ideals and methods for art were systematized in the theoretical writings of the artist Leon Battista Alberti. Individualism has caused the full development of the artists’ talents, pushing their capabilities to the limits.

Individualism has resulted the so called classification between artists as “mechanical arts” or “liberal art”, the latter being more superior or with “higher level” (Gilbert, 1997) than the former. This classification (or discrimination?) are observable in the works of the great art masters Titia and Michaelangelo. But since individualism has been accepted and blooming that time, the better works of these more acclaimed artists “by the force their personality and genius” caused them to be in the highest of the status gaining respect and fame that their prdecessors rarely could have gained.

“The idea of artistic genius became popular; Michelangelo was called "divine" because of the greatness of his creative powers.” (Gilbert, 1997) Those who attained this kind of fame and status, like Michaelangelo and Da Vinci, their names themselves in the piece of artwork are valuable.

IV. Literature in Italian Renaissance and Individualism
The revival of the classic literature was viewed to have came slowly” (Taylor & Murrav, 1930, p. 17) during the Renaissance. Literature have yielded the “Chansons de. Geste” (Taylor & Murrav, 1930, p. 10) the inexhaustible hybrid romance of Arthur and Tristram and the Grail, chronicles of naïf intensity, clotted with colors as violent as blood, as clear as flowers; and wrought verse-forms.

On the other hand, Cicero was revived not because of their greater individualists’ enthusiasm for antiquity but because of their new focus on man, with whom Cicero had been completely preoccupied (Black, 2001, p. 20). However, after sometime Brunetto Latini came and he was “one of the first to quicken with the real Renaissance passion for things antique in life and literature”(Taylor & Murrav) followed by Nicolai Pisano who caught “from sarchophagi the language of ancient drapery.” And who can miss the achievement of Machiavelli? This person was a “conscientious official and ardent patriot who was daring enough to find lessons for his troubled time and country” (Bush, 1959, p.90) in the pages of his Livy.

When Italian literature is being talked about and Renaissance and individualism are discussed, one name that stands out is that of Machiavelli. According to Gilbert (1997) Machiavelli’s political and historical works are very important from a literary standpoint, because of the vigor, clarity, and eloquence of their prose style” What is so admiring about this individual is the fact that his genius extended beyond politics and history. He also wrote plays, poems, and stories. Only with recognition and consent of individualism one can be able to do these things; maximization of talents.

V. Conclusion
Given the successes of the artists and literary figures and the increasing quality of works in art, individualism in Italian Renaissance was for the greater good. Although there were contentions against modernism and the growing immorality caused by individualism during that time, in the aspect of art and literature there were not so much of the bad side, aside from (maybe) the overwhelming fame those artists and literary geniuses gave gained!

Individualism of the Italian Renaissance figures have made their works claim honor and recognition, not only n Italy, or Western Europe, or in other European nations but to the rest of the world. With the beauty and the highest quality of those works they deserve the reputation that they have until these days.

Machiavelli, Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci will always stay in the books of art and literature forever and their works, as long as theseworks survive, will always be there to be admired and studied. Indeed, individualism made its good effects not only during those days and to those who became renowned but in general, individualism has made humanity better through the contributions of those geniuses and talented individuals in the past.

Black, R. (2001). Humanism and Education in Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Tradition and Innovation in Latin Schools from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Blayney, I. W. (1957). The Age of Luther: The Spirit of Renaissance-Humanism and the Reformation (1st ed.). New York: Vantage Press.

Burckhardt, J. (1943). Force and Freedom: Reflections on History (J. H. Nichols, Ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Bush, D. (1959). The Renaissance and English Humanism: Modern Theories of the Renaissance. In The Renaissance: Medieval or Modern?, Dannenfeldt, K. H. (Ed.) (pp. 86-90). Boston: D. C. Heath.

Gilbert, W. (1997). Renaissance and reformation. Carrie Donated Ebooks. 23 May 2008. .
individualism. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved May 25 2008 from.

McGiffert, A. C. (1931). Protestant Thought before Kant. New York: C. Scribner's sons.
renaissance. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved May 25 2008 from

Shanahan, D. (1992). Toward a Genealogy of Individualism. Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press.

Taylor, R. A., & Murrav, G. (1930). Invitation to Renaissance Italy. New York: Harper & Brothers.

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