Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brian Jeffrey Maxson's "The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence"

Brian Jeffrey Maxson is Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies and an Assistant Professor of History at East Tennessee State University. His research focuses on the cultural and political history of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. His articles have appeared in Renaissance Studies and I Tatti Studies, among other journals. He has held fellowships from the Fulbright and Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Foundations and given invited lectures at the University of Oxford and the Ludwig Maximilians Universität in Munich.

Maxson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence, and reported the following:
“The archival documents related to the mission in 1477 also attest to the gift-giving function of the diplomat’s opening oration. The Florentine Signoria wrote to their diplomats and summarized the diplomats’ own description of their initial meeting.” Thus, page 99 of my book – The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence – focused on the donative function of humanist oratory in diplomatic rituals – donative in the sense that an eloquent oration served as a gift to a ruler with the expectation of reciprocity. Why was this an important observation to make?

Renaissance humanism was far different than the modern connotations associated with “humanism.” Rather than sharing a particular set of philosophical beliefs, Renaissance humanists were the founders of what today would be called the liberal arts – which, for the Renaissance humanists, comprised the study of history, poetry, grammar, rhetoric, and ethics. For over five hundred years these humanists made the successful argument that the humanities made up the most practical and marketable of the academic disciplines. Consequently, their curricula dominated western schools from around 1450 until the twentieth century. The educational success of the humanists overshadowed the enormous number of original writings also left by these figures, writings that have just begun to become accessible in languages other than Latin or to people outside the special collections of European libraries.

My book was concerned with the seeming paradox of the humanist program: a group, at first very small, of people became convinced that writing in a heavily stylized and often quite difficult style of Latin was the key to creating more ethical, more knowledgeable, and more competent rulers, citizens, and people. How could such a seemingly esoteric idea take on the truly transformative significance that humanism eventually had – in fact, there are still educational models that stress the same classical foundations that the humanists espoused in the 1400s. Page 99 of my book encapsulates part of my argument to answer that question. I argue that, unlike modern academics who must publish original scholarship in reputable places to survive in the academy, most Renaissance humanists were primarily concerned with applying their humanities-based, classically-informed education in spoken eloquence in ephemeral settings. Over the course of the Renaissance people began expecting orators to use at least a smattering of classical references in all kinds of speeches and to attempt to stylize the presentation along humanist models of good taste. In order to succeed in the political and social world people needed the ability to deliver humanist-styled orations and thus they themselves studied humanism and passed that learning onto their children. The change in expectations brought about by humanist oratory created a far more popular Italian Renaissance than has been recently assumed, built upon an intertwined foundation of learned interests, social rituals, political processes, power, and status.
Learn more about The Humanist World of Renaissance Florence at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue