Education in the Renaissance

Education during the Italian Renaissance was carefully programmed to create students who were well-balanced and who embodied the values of their society. What, exactly, was this educational program and why was it so successful?

Renaissance painting of a university classroom

Any society, including ours, institutionalizes its fundamental values and principles through systems of education. The system of Renaissance education was so successful that it survived well into the 20th century. Up until the First World War, those who enjoyed elite education could know they read the same books; could complete one another’s Latin and Greek quotations. It was believed that with the knowledge of greats—that is the ancient writers—you could be a proconsul of an empire, a captain of industry, or a general, or an admiral. You could do anything as long as you had the knowledge of classical antiquity and a good, correct Latin style behind you.

Basic Latin Grammar

The vernacular was not taught as a language at all. It was believed that you would learn your native tongue at home…

How did this belief develop, and how was it actually practiced during the Renaissance? Initially, boys were taught at home. Those in the elite classes had tutors within their own households, and in these households, tutors were often extremely respected individuals. At about the age of five, boys were introduced to basic Latin grammar. When grammar was discussed, it was always Latin grammar. The vernacular was not taught as a language at all. It was believed that you would learn your native tongue at home, through your nurse, through household conversation, through interaction with your friends. But Latin grammar was taught because Latin was to be an alternate first language. It was to be part of your general approach to life, and it was to be the language with which you communicated with those of equal rank and the language that was seen as the most subtle and appropriate for high thought and high activity.

relief sculpture depicting Renaissance education
Renaissance students learned grammar by reading Priscian

The standard Latin grammars from antiquity were continuously used—Donatus, Priscian—those that had educated the ancient Romans were used to educate Renaissance boys a millennium later. These texts were used as a kind of example, as a series of collections of phrases, sentences and words that could then be applied as the child began to develop his own vocabulary and style. The early texts were things like Caesar’s Commentaries—still one of the basic texts in the teaching of Latin today, and the Vulgate, that is St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible.

More Difficult Texts

The Aeneid was seen as not just a poem, the Aeneid was seen as, in some ways, a mythological history of the Italian people…

After a boy has acquired enough knowledge to be able to read Caesar and the Vulgate relatively easily, more difficult texts were added. These were often poetic, such as the Aeneid of Virgil. The Aeneid was seen as not just a poem, the Aeneid was seen as, in some ways, a mythological history of the Italian people, the foundation of Rome, the mythological connection with the ancient Trojans, as well as great poetry.

By the time a student had completed a comfortable reading of the Aeneid and some of the basic and some of the simpler prose orations of Cicero, it was possible then to move on to more difficult and complex texts, as young teenagers, very difficult Latin texts—for example, the historian Sallust would be added. The difficulty of style and the complexity of the ideas would drive the student to think a little bit more deeply about some of the ideas present in these books.

Morally Ambiguous Authors

frontispiece of Ovid's Metamorphoses
Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Then the morally ambiguous authors were added once it was seen that a boy had reached an age where he could make some form of moral distinction. In this instance, Ovid probably was the most important. Ovid, whose Metamorphoses was one of the most read books of the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance, and whose wonderful stories were not difficult to learn. At the same time, they provided a kind of frame of reference for mythological ideas that galvanized art as well as the imagination.

By the mid-15th century, Greek was introduced as well. It was seen as necessary because so many of the ancient Latin authors were dependent upon, and knew, Greek—Cicero being a classic example. Cicero not only referred to Greek texts constantly, but he actually spoke in Greek. Greek, then, was seen as important because it was a foundation for the idea of Classical wisdom and learning.

Mathematics and the Sciences

Frontispiece of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis
Pliny’s Historia Naturalis

Other subjects were introduced as well by the time the boy reached 12 or 13 years of age. Some of these were the ones that we associate with a modern curriculum, but from a very different perspective. Science, per se, was not stressed during the Renaissance. But, nevertheless, science was taught because the ancients were interested in science. In particular, a book that every boy read was Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, which contained not only wonderful stories of science and geography, but everything from the making of papyrus, to the nature of the inhabitants of those worlds south of the equator, where the Romans didn’t really go.

Many of the boys in elite households, especially in mercantile cities like Florence or Venice, had to know arithmetic because they were going to be merchants.

Arithmetic was important because it was a practical subject. Many of the boys in elite households, especially in mercantile cities like Florence or Venice, had to know arithmetic because they were going to be merchants. They were going to be responsible for large mercantile organizations. They had to make sure their accounts balanced. So, arithmetic was taught and basic abacus use was applied to make sure that some of the more complicated sums could be done quickly.

Geometry was taught as well. Now, geometry was seen in two ways: It was seen as a practical subject, so that a boy who might have ambitions to be a military commander could, in fact, trace the trajectory of a cannonball, could make diagrams of a field of battle, and estimate the distances from one line to another, or from one part of his army to another. But geometry was also seen as an abstraction and an important abstraction. Geometry was seen as an absolute truth, something that reflected almost God’s plan for humanity because the truths of geometry are absolute, like the truths of religion.

portrait of Nicholas Copernicus
Nicholas Copernicus

Many boys were taught astronomy because, in the first instance, it was necessary to understand astrology. Astrology was something of a Renaissance obsession. The belief that you could learn something about yourself and perhaps even about the future by studying the stars was strongly believed in the ancient world, and Renaissance scholars adopted them largely as well. Astrology was also important for understanding classical poetry, where many allusions are based upon astrological images. But astronomy was also practiced for its own sake, and by the early decades of the 16th century, Nicholas Copernicus, published De Revolutionibus—On the Revolution of the Celestial Bodies. His book provided the precondition for Galileo in the next century, and determined that, in fact, the sun had to be the center of the universe, rather than the earth.

Copernicus and his ideas didn’t come from nowhere. They came from a relatively sophisticated knowledge of how the heavens moved, and that we have to credit Renaissance education for providing.

From the lecture series The Italian Renaissance
Taught by Professor Kenneth Bartlett, University of Toronto



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