Understanding Renaissance Identity

The Renaissance allowed for identity to rise to a place of importance within Italian society. Being hailed as the age of the individual, the unique political, economic, and social climate of Italy during this time cultivated new ideas to emerge, and be ingested by the wealthy, and predominantly male upper class. As the Renaissance continued, the concept of self-identity flourished. Renaissance individuals identified themselves on the basis of education and the pursuit of knowledge, as made accessible to them by their gender or class.  

Renaissance Italians lived on a cultivated, historically rich soil. Fertilized with recollections of Ancient Rome, the people reflected on their past as a way of creating their future. The basis of Renaissance Italy was built on the ruins of Ancient Rome, both referring to physical matter and the academic, with a drive to look back and embody the values and intelligence that were seen in antiquity. This is demonstrated through the emergence of Renaissance Humanism. 

 Humanism in the Renaissance was a method of learning for the upper class. While humanism “contained many schools of thought,” at the forefront of this movement was the universal agreement among philosophers in the value of education and the role of it within human life. Humanists pursued eloquence, emphasizing ‘human’ arts, such as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy. They referred to ancient knowledge, documents, and ideas of the past in order to introduce the concept of human potential to their society. It frequently emphasized the ability to improve one’s station in life through one’s own efforts. This idea of a human being capable of great things, with the focus of education tangibly seen, shifted the center of one’s identity towards educational goals and a quest for knowledge.  

Prior to the introduction of humanism in Renaissance Florence, a large marker of identity was found in religion. This is not to say that religion deteriorated as a means of personal identification entirely, as many humanist scholars were religious. Humanism however did decenter the concept of faith, and the church, as the most important aspect of one’s life. Human beings were considered the nucleus of society. This is seen in the words of Jacob Burckhardt, where he writes that prior to the awakening of the human consciousness occurring in Italy, mankind’s intellect slept beneath a veil of “faith, illusion, and childish prepossession.” While Burckhardt’s opinions may seem extreme, this idea shows the new priorities of the Renaissance individual in contrast with earlier societies in the Middle Ages. In his opinion, the Renaissance was “the unfolding of the treasures of human nature in literature and art,” and ushered in an era of the evolved, mindful man. As human priorities continued to shift from a piously oriented sense of self into an individual one, education and the pursuit of knowledge became key factors concerning identity formation in Renaissance society.

Rooted in the academic pursuits and philosophy of the Humanists, the concept of Individualism flourished. Individualism further emphasized the idea of not only humans at the center, but taught that individual human beings were capable of limitless potential. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola emphasizes this in his work “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” This philosopher’s writings reveal a large breadth of knowledge, and he uses this in order to further develop the idea of the individual. Pico praised mankind, but argued that the excellence of humanity was not based on heavenly proximity, as had been argued in the past. Rather than being “wondrous” for being the closest organism to God, Pico wrote that human beings were wondrous due to their ability to operate through free will, and elevate themselves to heavenly realms through knowledge, debate, and philosophy. 

Pico argued for the use of knowledge and philosophy in order to operate the realm of both heavenly and social stratification, saying “If intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God.” He advocated for the purification of humans, and thus, their identities, through “the light of natural philosophy,” and wrote that “nothing is better than to attend … the exercise of debate.” The ultimate means of being an evolved human being was found through education, and the rigorous absorption of knowledge throughout one’s life. With it being the only means to change their status as human beings, Pico’s writing suggest that it was of utmost importance for an individual to be an intellectual. 

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s writings not only document the philosophy of individualism, they also highlight an example of how he himself personally identified. His focus on what constitutes an evolved man displays what was personally important to him in his own life. Throughout the piece, he highlights his many academic skill sets, and the diversity of his knowledge. He was multilingual, traveled, versed in the arguments of scholars like Plato, texts like Zoroaster, and ultimately identifies himself by his intellectual capabilities. When he writes that he is “but twenty-four” years old and arguing “the highest topics of philosophy and unfamiliar branches of knowledge,” his pride in his well learnedness is palpable. While his work is littered with religious reference, it ultimately glorifies himself, functioning as a testament to the Renaissance sense of self identity.  

Another example of Renaissance identity being defined through education appears in “The History of Florence.” Written by Niccolò Machiavelli, this passage was meant to glorify Lorenzo de’ Medici, and was paid for by the Medici family. In his account of Lorenzo, Machiavelli specifically identified the value that he placed on education. He writes that Lorenzo was “a great patron of learning and of literary men.” The fact that this was essentially a propaganda piece for a wealthy Florentine family signals that what was highlighted in it was of utmost importance to Lorenzo and the way he was perceived. Machiavelli also writes that this value of education even prompted men with “supernatural genius” to visit Florence and take up residence there, rather than “any other part of Europe.” Not only was the identity of Lorenzo de’ Medici identified, at least in part, by his value of knowledge, it also served to identify and elevate the state of Florence as a whole. 

It is important to note that the aforementioned examples of identity have been written by or about wealthy, male elites in the Renaissance. Intertwined with the ability to self-identify was the need for accessibility of the means to be able to do so. Men had the social standing to create their identities, and provided that they had the funding to do so, were able to pursue an education that elevated themselves in the eyes of men like Pico and others. Women on the other hand, had to be wealthy, and come from households that valued education, in order to transcend their status as a woman and be able to self-identify and pursue knowledge and education. In Leon Battista Alberti’s piece, “The Family in Renaissance Florence,” the refusal to educate women is blatant. This work was meant to function as an instructional manual for men to be able to control their households, property, and their wives. The advisor in this narrative, Giannozzo, claims that he would not let his wife even touch his books and records, let alone learn how to read. “Bold and forward females” who desire to be educated or well learned are condemned in this piece. The greater implication of Alberti’s work is the idea that women must be contained, and under the control of their husbands. The refusal of men to educate their wives indicates the necessity of having a suppressed wife, lacking in identity, in order to maintain the patriarchal power structure within Renaissance society.  

The example shown previously is not to say that all women were incapable of using education as a means of building their identity. Laura Cereta provides an example of female identity that hinged upon her education. In the same way that Pico displays himself to the reader, Cereta uses her knowledge and wit to define herself. Not only does describe herself, she articulates that other women are also fully capable of being identified in this way. She points to women like Inachian Isis, Zenobia of Egypt, and Sappho of Lesbos, identifying them through their knowledge and education. In her letter, she described other well learned women, identifying them by their education, while also asserting herself as an intellectual. Her boldest claim is that “Virtue only is acquired by ourselves alone; nor can those women ascend to serious knowledge who, soiled by the filth of pleasures, languidly rot in sloth.” Cereta argued that women, as shown by the many successful, smart, and wise figures she referenced earlier, were able to be exceptional, but had chosen to identify as lesser. She critiqued women who engage in activities that she considered foolish or futile, such as having an emphasis on physical appearance, or “indulging in dancing.” She did this in order to further assert her claim that women lived in a subjugated state based on what was partially their own choices, but that through education, they were fully capable of crafting their own identities and being regarded in the same way as men.

The economic status of Laura Cereta is worth mentioning when examining her letters. As a daughter of a wealthy family and more importantly, a humanist as a father, she had both the means and the social support to pursue education and knowledge in the first place. She was a unique product of her specific social circumstances, and a rare example of being able to overcome gender and patriarchal structures. The ability to identify oneself hinged upon the basis of sex, and the status of wealth, and how those two intertwined to produce access to education. One cannot accomplish this without at least one of these two qualifiers, explaining the argument that while education was the primary means of identifying oneself, the concept of self-identity required a high distinction within the hierarchy of Renaissance society. 

Following an examination of multiple texts, sources, and authors, it is seen that the role of education in the perception of the self was vital. Education was not only a form of self- identification in the Renaissance, but also a means to continuously evaluate the self and identity. The concept of not only describing oneself by one’s knowledge, but also always furthering oneself through philosophy and academics, is littered throughout Renaissance writings. Education functioned as the most important tool of identity, and further allowed for upward mobility by being able to further identify oneself through other means, such as through the arts, power, and public perception of oneself.