This is the second part of the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia’s explanation of the Renaissance. We can see that the corruption in the Vatican and Royalty lent a hand to the evil revolution of the bad part of the Renaissance. The counterreformation of the Council of Trent and the Jesuit Order took the good from the Renaissance and condemned the bad and expunged it from the Catholic Church.
“In Germany the first stages of revived learning had been free from Italian dissoluteness and heathen doctrines. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa reformed the Church, while promoting philosophy by his own speculations and collecting manuscripts. Rudolf Agricola (1443-85) united the study of the ancients with devotion to Holy Scripture; von Langen, consummate Latinist, remodelled the schools of Westphalia; he was cathedral provost at Deventer. The illustrious Wimpheling, born in 1450, taught education in principle and practice on orthodox lines. He was Reuchlin’s master, a geniune scholar, zealous against the newly-imported unchristian ways of the so-called “poets”; and when Luther rose up, Wimpheling opposed him as he had opposed the encroachments of Roman Law. With Reuchlin we are plunged into debate and controversy; but he, too, was sincerely religious, and in 1516 he triumphed at Rome over his adversaries, gaining thereby a victory for Hebrew erudition, which in other ways the popes had taken into favour.
Many Humanists, by and by, made common cause with the Reformation; Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin, were eminently learned. But the Renaissance never was absorbed into any theological movement; reforming zeal scattered libraries, emptied universities, and too often threw back education, until its first fury was spent. The spirit of which Puritanism is a complete expression had no affinity with Classic literature; at its touch the world of art, of dramatic poetry, of painting, sacred or secular, of Humanism in life and outside of schoolbooks, fell into dust. Heine (Ueber Deutschland) saw that the Reformation was, in effect, a Teutonic answer to the Renaissance; and we now perceive that, while the dogmas of Luther and Calvin have lost their hold upon men’s hearts, the revival of letters is broadening out into a transformation of democracy by means of culture: hic labor, hoc opus; the question of how to reconcile a perfectly-equipped human life with an ascetic religion and the demands of freedom for all, is one which none of the Reformers contemplated, much less did they succeed in resolving it.
Among Frenchmen, to whom we owe the word renaissance, that problem was not mooted at first. The Italian, Aleandro, coming to Paris in 1508, gave lectures in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He was made rector of the university. Aleandro became a strenuous opponent of Luther; and the Sorbonne is charged by Mark Pattison with persecuting the great printer, Robert Estienne (1503-59), though he always obtained license to sell his bibles and testaments. The Sorbonne objected, however, to any publication of Scripture without approved Catholic notes; and this in a day which might be justly termed on of rebuke and blasphemy. France had its own type of Humanist in that extraordinary man, Rabelais (1490-1553), a physician, priest, and obscene jester whose book is the glory and the shame of his native tongue. Rabelais, treating the Christian religion as a creed outworn, falls back upon a kind of liberal Platonism; he would leave men to their instincts and the joy of life. Much the same philosophy, though in graver tones, is insinuated by Montaigne (1533-92) in essays tinged with scepticism and disenchantment. These two writers, who lie beyond the spring-tide of the revival, opened in France the anti-Christian war which has lasted, with growing violence, down to our time. But the seventeenth century witnessed an adaptation of the classical forms to literature and preaching by Catholics of genius, by Pascal, Boussuet, Racine, and Fenelon, which yielded a highly original blending of religion with eloquent prose and refined verse. In general, nevertheless, we shall probably allow Taine’s convention that the influence of the Classics (Latin rather than Greek always) on French education has not been favourable to Christianity.
At Rome and “incredible Liberty” of discussion prevailed under the spell of the Renaissance. Lord Acton quotes well-known instances. Poggio, the mocking adversary of the clergy, was for half a century in the service of the popes-Filelfo, a pagan unabashed and foul, was handsomely rewarded by Nicholas V for his abominable satires. Pius II had the faults of a smart society journalist, and took neither himself nor his age seriously. Platina, with whom Paul II quarreled on political grounds, wrote a vindictive slanderous book, “The Lives of the Roman Pontiffs”, which, however, was in some degree justified by the project of reformation in “head and members” constantly put forth and never fulfilled until Christendom had been rent in twain. Yet Sixtus IV made Platina librarian of the Vatican. It is equally significant that “The Prince”, by Machiavelli, was published with papal licence, though afterwards severely prohibited. This toleration of evil bore one good consequence: it allowed historical criticism to begin fair. There was need of a revision which is not yet complete, ranging over all that had been handed down from the Middle Ages under the style and title of the Fathers, the Councils, he Roman and other official archives. In all these departments forgery and interpolation as well as ignorance had wrought mischief on a great scale.
In 1440 Lorenzo Valla counselled Eugenius IV not to rely upon the Donation of Constantine, which be proved to be spurious. Valla’s tract was printed by Ulrich von Hutten; it became popular among Germans, and influenced Luther. But it opened to this enemy of the temporal power a place in the household of Nicholas V. For another commencement of criticism we are indebted to the same unpleasant but sharp-sighted man of letters. It was Valla who first denied the authenticity of those writings which for centuries had been going about as the treatises composed by Dionysius the Areopagite. Three centuries later the Benedictines of St. Maur and the Bollandists were still engaged in sifting out the true from the false in patristic literature, in hagiology, in the story of the foundation of local churches. Mabillon, Ruinart, Papebroch, and their successors have cleared the ground for research into the Christian origins; they have enabled divines to consider a theory of development, the materials of which were hopelessly confused when Valla tilted against the Donation itself, accepted and deplored as a fact by Dante. How great that confusion was, the Benedictine editions of the Fathers, which largely put an end to it, abundantly show: the “authentic and necessary evidences of historical religion” could not be given their full value until this work was done. It called for a disposition at once literary and critical, which the old method of training did not create and scarcely would tolerate. But this chapter falls outside the limits of our subject.
It is remarkable that the healthy Christian use of ancient literature was destined to be taught by a Spanish reforming saint, himself not learned and certainly no dilettante. This was Ignatius Loyola, whose antecedents did not promise him the inheritance which Bembo and the other Ciceronian pendants had turned to such ill account. St. Ignatius, who began his order in Paris, who walked the same streets with Erasmus, Calvin, and Rabelais, did the most astonishing feat recorded in modern history. He reformed the Church by means of the papacy when sunk to its lowest ebb; and he took the heathen Classics from neo-pagans to make them instruments of Catholic education. Spain had been but little affected by the Renaissance. In temper crusading and still medieval, its poetry, drama, theology, were distinguished by qualities peculiarly its own. The Italian manner had not yet imitators at its court when Ignatius wrote chivalrous sonnets to an unknown lady. His intensely practical turn of mind led him to employ every talent in the Divine service; and he saw that learning, if it could be cleansed from its present stains, would not only adorn but defend the Holy Place. He had looked into the lighter productions of Erasmus; they gave him a shock; but he recognized the power, if not the charm, which Humanism wielded over young imaginations. His militant company took up again, without distinctly perceiving it, the task that Erasmus intended and Petrarch had set before Italians two hundred years previously.
In May, 1527, Rome was laid waste, its churches profaned, its libraries pillaged, by a rabble of miscreants. “But”, said Cardinal Cajetan, “it was a just judgment on the Romans.” The pagan Renaissance fell, stricken to death; it was high time for the Counter-Reformation to begin. The Council of Trent and the Society of Jesus took in hand to distinguish between what was permissible and what was forbidden in dealing with literature. The Roman Index was established by Paul IV. A rigorous censorship watched over the Italian printing press. By 1600 German importation of books across the Alps had ceased. If we would reckon the greatness of the change now wrought, we may compare the “Orlando Furioso” of Ariosto, dedicated in 1516 to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, with Tasso’s “Gerusalemme”, especially as revised by the poet himself, and at the dictation of the Roman censor, Antoniano. It was a change so marked that Scalinger termed the Italians generally hypocrites; but we know from the calendar of saints at this time and other sources how much had been done to check the wild licence of thought and speech in the Peninsula. Giordano Bruno, renegade and pantheist, was burnt in 1600; Campanella spent long years in prison. The different measures meted out to Copernicus by Clement VII and to Galileo by Paul V need no comment. The papacy aimed henceforth at becoming an “ideal government under spiritual and converted men”. Urban VIII was the last who could be deemed a Renaissance pontiff (1623-44).
St. Ignatius, alive to the causes which had provoked many nations into revolt from the clergy, made learning, piety, and obedience governing principles in his plan of reform. The old system of arts and teaching was already growing obsolete, previous to 1450. Humanism had begun to take the place of Scholasticism. Vittorino da Feltre (1378-1446), a devout layman, set up his classes at Mantua in 1435 on the basis of good Latin, including poetry, oratory, Roman history, and Stoic discipline. He gave an all-round training: social, physical, religious. At Venice and Ferrara his friend Guarino (1370-1460) was another eminent schoolmaster, mighty in Greek. We have seen how Erasmus by example and by criticism advanced the cause of literature, which was henceforth acknowledged as the proper subject of a liberal education. A gentleman-the cortegiano whom Castiglione described-ought to be proficient in the language of antiquity; such was the idea of the public school everywhere; and such it remains in England to this day.
The Jesuit Order, springing up after 1530, not founded on the tradition of Benedict or Dominic, adopted this view, and their “Ratio Studiorum” (1599) was, in consequence, a literary classical scheme. The first of their colleges arose at Coimbra (1542); in Paris they had the Hotel de Clermont; in Germany they began at Ingoldstadt. The German College at Rome, due to St. Francis Borgia, like the Roman College of the Society itself, the English and other houses governed by them, attested their zeal for learning and their success in controversy.
The Fathers were always cultivated men; they taught “a good silver Latin”: and they wrote with ease, though scarcely with such idiomatic vivacity as we admire in Erasmus and Joseph Scaliger. Soon they possessed a hundred houses and colleges; “For nearly three centuries”, says a recent critic, “they were accounted the best schoolmasters in Europe.” Bacon’s judgment can never be passed over: “As for the pedagogical part, the shortest rule would be, consult the schools of the Jesuits; for nothing better has been put in practice.” (De Augment., VI, 4).
They established free day-schools, devised new schoolbooks, expurgated objectionable authors, preached sound doctrines in a clear Latin style, and bestowed even upon the technicalities of medieval logic in a certain grace. Some, like Mariana, wrote with native power in the classic forms. But their most telling man in the field of theology is Petavius, who belongs to France and the seventeenth century. His large volumes on the Fathers may be compared in point of language with Calvin’s “Institutes” and the “Augustinus” of Jansen. They discard the method familiar to Scotus and St. Thomas; they furnish to some extent criticism as well as history. And they suggest the development of dogma with an approach to its philosophy, which neither Bossuet nor Bull could quite comprehend.
All these things form part of “that matured and completed Renaissance” whereby the evil was purged out which had made it perilous in the same degree to faith and to morals. Nicholas V and other popes did well in not refusing to add culture, even the finest of the Greek, to religion. Their fault lay in the weakness which could not resist pagan luxury and a frivolous dilettantism. Now serious work was undertaken for the good of the Church. Gregory XIII reformed the calendar; the text of the canon law was corrected under Sixtus V and Clement VIII the Latin Vulgate after years of revision attained its actual shape; and the Vatican Septuagint came forth in 1587. Baronius, urged by St. Phillip Neri, brought out eleven folio volumes of “the greatest church history ever written”. The Roman Breviary, enlarged and edited anew, was republished by authority of St. Pius V and Urban VIII.
But the Renaissance had indulged its “pride of state, of knowledge, and of system” with disastrous consequences to our Christian inheritance. It trampled on the Middle Ages and failed to understand that in them which was truly original. The Latin of Cicero which urban VIII cultivated, the metres of Horace, did grievous wrong to the prose and verse of our church offices, so far as they were altered. The showy architecture now designed, though sometimes magnificent, was not inspired by religion; before long it sank to the rococo and the grotesque; and it filled the churches with pagan monuments to disedifying celebrities. In painting we descend from the heaven of Fra Angelico to the “corregiosity” of Corregio, may, lower still, for Venus too often masquerades as the Madonna. Christian art became a thing of the past when the Gothic cathedral was looked upon as barbarous even by such champions of the Faith as Bossuet and Fenelon. Never did a poet inspired by Renaissance models-not even Vida nor Sannazzaro-rise to the sublimity of the “Dies Irae” never did that style produce a work equal to the “Imitation”. Dante triumphs as the supreme Catholic singer; St. Thomas Aquinas cannot be dethroned from his sovereignty as the Angelic Doctor, still, as regards faith and philosophy, he is the true “master of those that know”.
But Dante and St. Thomas lived before the Renaissance. It was not large or liberal enough to absorb the Middle Ages. Hence its failure at the beginning as a philosophic movement, its lack of the deepest human motives, its superficiality and its pedantries; hence, afterwards, its fall into the commonplace, and the extinction of art in vulgarity, of literature in empty rhetoric. Hence, finally, the need of a French Revolution to teach it that life was something more serious than a “Carneval de Venise”, and of Romanticism to discover, among the ruined choirs and in the neglected shrines which men had scornfully passed by, tokens of that mighty medieval genius, Catholic, Latin, Teuton, and French, misunderstanding of which was the folly, and the spoiling of its achievements the crime, that we must charge upon the Renaissance in the day of its power. “It remained for a later age”, says one who glorified it, “to conceive the true method of effecting a scientific reconciliation of Christian sentiment with the imagery, the legends, the theories about the world, of pagan poetry and philosophy” (Pater, “Renaissance”, 49). Not less did it become the task of Goethe, Scott, Chateaubriand, Ruskin, of Friedrich Schlegel and the best German critics, to show that European culture, divorced from the Middle Ages, would have been a pale reflection of dead antiquity.”
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.