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The spirit of the Renaissance was expressed in literature as well as art. The poetry of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) powerfully expressed the principles of humanism extremely early in the budding Renaissance. Many scholars, in fact, date the beginning of the Renaissance to Petrarch's anointment as Poet Laureate. Giovanni Bocaccio stood at an almost similar stature as Petrarch. A Florentine, Bocaccio is most noted for writing the Decameron, a series of 100 stories set in Florence during the Black Death that struck the city in 1348. Boccaccio explores, in these stories, the traditions and viewpoints of various social classes, greatly based on actual observation and study.
Just as art and architecture flourished in the Renaissance, so too did literature. Ands similarly, just as art and architecture benefited from new techniques, literature experienced a massive boon from technology. In 1454, Johann Gutenberg published the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed by a machine using moveable type. The moveable-type printing press vastly changed the nature of book publishing, simultaneously increasing printing volume and decreasing prices. The process of printing spread throughout Europe, and was used extensively in Italy, where the humanist writers of the Renaissance had long sought a way to more easily express their ideas to the public. During the Renaissance, writers produced a greater volume of work than ever before, and with the lower prices and increased numbers of texts, these works reached an audience of unprecedented size. Literature became a part of the lives of the larger public, not just the few elite able to afford books, as had been the case before the advent of the printing press.
Many Renaissance writers studied the works of the ancient Romans and Greeks, coming to new, modern conclusions based upon their studies. One such writer was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. In 1484, Pico, as he was known, became a member of Florence's Platonic Academy. There he studied and tried to reconcile the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In 1486, he published a collection of 900 philosophical treatises, in which his conclusions often differed from those of the Roman Catholic Church. Pico's best known work, the "Oration on the Dignity of Man," describes his belief, contrary to church dogma, that people have free will and are able to make decisions affecting their destinies. Not surprisingly, the Church declared Pico a heretic; he was only saved from demise by the intervention of Lorenzo de Medici.
Niccolo Machiavelli rose to even greater literary prominence, and a prominence with a legacy more durable than Pico's. A Florentine statesment, Machiavelli rose to prominence during the Florentine Republic under Savonarola in 1498. After the Medici regained power in 1512, Machiavelli retired from government (involuntarily), moved to his estate outside Florence, and began to write. Convinced from his experiences in government that Italy could survive only if unified under a strong leader, in 1513, Machiavelli published The Prince, the best known piece of writing of the renaissance period. Perhaps also intended as a means to curry favor with the Medici leader of the moment, The Prince was intended as a guidebook for the eventual leader of all of Italy and as a reference for rulers everywhere. In its pages, Machiavelli argued that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved, and advocated that a "prince" should do anything necessary to maintain his power and achieve his goals.
The Renaissance focus on learning and the invention of printing in Europe fed each other. The search for more accessible, cheaper books led to the invention and proliferation of the printing press, which, in turn, led to the wide institutionalization of literature as an essential aspect of Renaissance life. In the eleventh century, the Chinese had developed a system of movable type that a printer could use and reuse. It is uncertain whether Gutenberg and his colleagues knew of this process or not. In any case, the final result was the same—books no longer had to be produced by the long and arduous process of transcription. With the printing press, books could be produced quickly and in mass quantity. Before long, printing presses had been constructed and were widely in use throughout Europe, bringing the price of books down and allowing more and more authors to be published and read. The invention of the printing press was a major step toward bringing the Renaissance, long the province of the wealthy alone, to the middle classes. In turn, as literacy rose, the middle class became involved in the intellectual discourse of the times, and opportunities for middle class contributions to the canon of literature, while still fairly slim, grew. The power of literature to encompass many classes was demonstrated by the Decameron, in which Boccaccio explores the habits and morality of the various classes of Florence.
As in the realm of art, writers felt a great tension between progressive humanism and Church doctrine, a tension that sometimes grew to the point of conflict. Pico was not the only writer of the times to be declared a heretic, as many wrestled with the fact that the factual findings of science and the philosophical conclusions of humanism did not correspond with the teachings of the Church. This undercurrent of dissent can be seen in many works throughout the Renaissance but is perhaps demonstrated in its clearest and most blatant form in Pico's "Oration on the Dignity of Man." Pico believed that man had free will and could make decisions, and that the study of philosophy prepared man to recognize the truth and make better decisions. He also believed that each individual could commune directly with God, and that the priesthood had falsely claimed this singular power. Pico's ideas, along with the arguments of others, became central to Protestant thought during the Reformation.
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