top of page

Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Quattrocento’ and ‘Il Cinquecento’/ Humanism and Renaissance


The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series aims to offer readers a complete overview of the rich and diverse Italian literary tradition. Through summary and description, this series will provide readers with an understanding of the works from different literary periods and diverse regions of Italy. It will cover both the classics and works by contemporary authors as well as those from lesser-known areas, providing a broad introductory survey to those who are interested in learning more about Italian culture and the country's literary works.

The Survey of Italian Literature 101 series is divided into seven chapters:

  1. Survey of Italian Literature 101: The Origins and ‘Il Duecento’/The Origins and the 13th Century

  2. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Trecento’/The Three Crowns

  3. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Quattrocento’ and 'Il Cinquecento’/Humanism and Renaissance

  4. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Seicento' and 'Il Settecento’/Baroque and Enlightenment

  5. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘L‘Ottocento’/Romanticism, Realism and Decadentism

  6. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part I/Crepuscolarism, Futurism and Hermeticism

  7. Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Novecento’ Part II/Post-war and the Novel

  8. Survey of Italian Literature 101: Italian Literature Today

Survey of Italian Literature 101: ‘Il Quattrocento’ and ‘Il Cinquecento’/ Humanism and Renaissance

The Renaissance was a time of great artistic and literary creativity in Europe and Italy, with numerous notable figures contributing to the cultural and intellectual landscape that marked a transition from the medieval to the modern era. It was characterised by a revival of interest in classical culture and saw a flourishing of the arts, literature, philosophy and science. The Renaissance saw the birth of new literary genres and the expansion of existing ones, particularly in poetry. Some of the most notable authors of the Renaissance were Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Machiavelli, who contributed significantly to developing Italian and European literature.

The works of these authors offer a glimpse into the cultural, political and intellectual developments of their time and provide a rich source of information on the themes and motifs that pervaded Renaissance literature. The themes of love, war, politics, and the fusion of ancient and modern cultures are just a few topics that these poets explored in their works. This article aims to offer a survey on Renaissance poets, focusing on their most relevant productions, themes, and contributions to the development of Italian literature.

Figure 1: Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter (Perugino, 1481-83)

‘Il Quattrocento’

Following the passing of prominent figures such as Petrarch and Boccaccio in the 14th century, which marked a period of literary flourishing, a significant deviation from this trend was observed in the 15th century. Many literary critics, such as Sansone (1960), Petronio (1968), Migliorini (1971) and Bruni (1994), considered this period as a time of decline and degradation of Italian literature history, referring to it as the "15th-century crisis". The shift away from prosperity, seen in the early decades of the 13th century, raised questions about the continuity of the literary progression during this period (Sapegno, 1956).

During the 15th century, the mentioned critics observed a marked shift in the attitudes of scholars towards the use of the vernacular as a literary language. This period was characterised by a rejection of the efforts made in the previous two centuries to elevate the status of the vernacular and embrace Latin as the preferred language of literary composition. As a result, the works of prominent figures such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarca were disdainfully regarded, with Leonardo Bruni famously referring to them as "poetry for shoemakers and bakers." This change in perspective towards using the vernacular represents a significant deviation from the literary traditions established in preceding centuries (Hankins, 1998). As a result, the Humanism movement, characterised by a revival of classical learning and culture, experienced significant growth and spread throughout Italy, facilitated by the widespread use of Latin. Cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan, and Naples emerged as key centres of the movement, followed by Urbino, Ferrara, and Modena, which played significant roles in this intellectual renewal (Genesini, 2022; Sapegno, 1956).

Figure 2: Chain map of Florence (Petrini, F. & Petrini, R., 1471–72)

The Humanists of the 15th century utilised a variety of Latin based on classical models, rediscovered through the works of prominent ancient authors such as Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. Florence was the birthplace of this movement, with Coluccio Salutati, a former student of Petrarch, regarded as the initiator of Florentine Humanism. Through his works, including the influential ‘L'Epistolario’, Salutati played a significant role in spreading the principles of the Humanism movement and contributing to the cultural renewal of the period.

‘L'Epistolario’ consists of 344 letters covering a wide range of themes. It is divided into two main categories: private letters to friends and acquaintances and public letters written on behalf of the Republic of Florence. The letters reveal much about the time's cultural, political, and intellectual life and are considered some of the best examples of humanist writing. Furthermore, they are a rich source of information about the intellectual and cultural changes in Europe during the Renaissance, including the revival of classical learning, the growth of secularism, and the development of humanism as a literary and philosophical movement. This work remains an essential document of the Humanism movement with a significant impact on cultural and literary development in the 15th century (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 3: Portrait of Coluccio Salutati (Di Giovanni, 1450)

Another notable figure in Humanism was Leonardo Bruni d'Arezzo, renowned for his translation of numerous works from Greek. The author of the ‘Historiae Florentini populi’, considered the first work of humanistic historiography, emphasised the role of history as a persuasive and educational instrument, serving as a teacher of civil prudence and political wisdom. The ‘Historiae Florentini populi’ (1415-44) was written in a classical style, drawing inspiration from authors such as Livy and Cicero, and is considered a seminal work in the development of humanistic historiography. The book is a meticulous study of Florentine history that combines classic style and modern analytical techniques. The text is seen as a pivotal point in the development of historical writing as Bruni brought a new, humanist approach to the genre, emphasising critical analysis, impartiality, and the use of primary sources. Bruni's contributions to the field of humanistic scholarship and his use of classical models and techniques highlight the significance of his role in the cultural renewal of the 15th century (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Lorenzo Valla is known for his critical assessments of the Catholic Church, regarded as a forerunner of the Reformation, as well as a proponent of Catholic texts revision. One of his most notable works is ‘De Voluptate’, in which he critiques the Stoic beliefs embraced by Christian ascetics. Valla argues that these beliefs neglected the divine and natural laws, while a cheerful and enjoyable existence, in line with morality, would not hinder the aspiration for the joys of paradise. This thesis was significant in the Humanism movement and highlighted Valla's contributions to the cultural and intellectual developments of the 15th century (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 4: Start of the text of Historiarum Florentini populi (Bruni, 1410-50)

The Neoplatonic Academy, dedicated to the study of Plato, was established in Florence. The movement was remarkable for its notable members, including Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, whose work significantly modelled the modern concept of man's dignity, laying the groundwork for modern philosophy that would later emerge during the Italian Renaissance. His contributions to the Neoplatonic Academy highlight the essential intellectual and philosophical advancements in the 15th century and their lasting impact on shaping modern thought (Genesini, 2022).

Despite the disdain for using the vernacular, there were still authors willing to continue Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch's intent to dignify the vulgar. For example, Leon Battista Alberti was renowned for promoting vernacular language in literature. He organised a public poetry competition in Florence, known as the ‘Certame coronario’, to showcase the potential of the spoken language. His main contribution is ‘I Quattro libri della famiglia’ (1433-40), written as a dialogue in the Florentine vernacular. The study compares the opinions of various members of the Alberti family to address the path to achieving the family's good, viewed as the foundation of society according to the Aristotelian perspective. The four books that follow the prologue address a range of topics, including the education of children, love and marriage, economic aspects of family life, and friendship, providing a comprehensive guide to family life and relationships (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 5: The School of Athens (Raphael, 1509–1511)

Lorenzo de' Medici, commonly referred to as Lorenzo the Magnificent, played a crucial role in promoting the new vernacular literature during the Renaissance period in Florence, where he served as a ruler from 1469 until his death in 1492. Under Lorenzo's leadership, Florence became a leading centre of art, literature, and learning, attracting many of the era's most prominent artists, including Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. He also supported humanist scholars and helped to advance the study of classical literature and philosophy. Additionally, Lorenzo played a crucial role in the political affairs of Italy, mediating disputes between various city-states and maintaining the balance of power. He was a patron of humanists and a close friend and protector of the literary community. Deeply rooted in the literary tradition of the 14th century, he was committed to the diffusion of his contemporary literature. Not only that, but he himself attempted to imitate the fashion in many of his own compositions, particularly in his youthful works, such as ‘I Canti carnascialeschi’, which includes the famous ‘Canzona di Bacco e Arianna’, a melancholic, evocative, and desperate ballad that showcases Lorenzo's literary prowess (Genesini, 2022).

Canzona di Bacco e Arianna, 1490, first two verses alongside the English translation:

Quant’è bella giovinezza,

Youth is sweet and well

che si fugge tuttavia!

But doth speed away!

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:

Let who will be gay,

di doman non c’è certezza.

To-morrow, none can tell.

Quest’è Bacco e Arianna,

Bacchus and his Fair,

belli, e l’un dell’altro ardenti:

Contented with their fate,

perché ‘l tempo fugge e inganna,

Chase both time and care,

sempre insieme stan contenti.

Loving soon and late;

Queste ninfe ed altre genti

High and low estate

sono allegre tuttavia.

With the nymphs at play;

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia…

Let who will be gay,

di doman non c’è certezza.

To-morrow, none can tell.

(Genesini, 2022)

In closing this century, it is imperative to reflect on the contributions of Matteo Maria Boiardo, best known for the chivalric narrative ‘Orlando Innamorato’ (1483-95), a poem in octaves that features themes of fantastic adventures, duels, loves, and magic. This work was widely popular and appreciated by both the educated and the general public in central-northern Italy, particularly in Ferrara. It represents an innovative merging of the two main pre-existing narrative strands, the Carolingian and the Breton cycles, bringing together elements of Charlemagne's paladins and the knights of the Round Table (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 6: Cover page of Orlando Innamorato (Brigna, 1655)

‘Il Cinquecento’

The themes of Humanism and the Renaissance, started in the 15th century, continued to be developed in the 16th century. The diverse experimentation of the humanistic period gradually gave way to a more standardised form and language. During this time, a significant shift in the usage of Italian vernacular took place as a result of declining economic exchanges between the cities of Italy. Local dialects regained prominence, while Italian was relegated to being used primarily as a court language. This solution was widely accepted by the literary circles of the time and profoundly impacted the development of the Italian language and its usage in literature. The works of Petrarch and Boccaccio, along with the linguistic theories of Bembo (‘Prose della volgar lingua’), became the model for the language of the time, setting a standard for future generations of writers and establishing a tradition that has had a lasting influence on the Italian language and culture. The importance of this period in the history of the Italian language and literature cannot be overstated, as it marks a pivotal moment in developing a unified language and a common cultural heritage. The ‘Accademia della Crusca’ establishment during this time solidified this shift and made the Italian language structured and standardised in the centuries to follow (De Sanctis, 2006; Genesini, 2022; Sapegno, 1956).

The Renaissance concept of the individual, inspired by classical literature and Neoplatonic philosophy, emphasised the potential and mastery of human beings over their own existence. During this period, Literature continued to explore the themes of chivalry and Petrarchan love poetry, while reinforcing the ideas of human dignity and excellence. The values drawn from these literary traditions emphasised the importance of demonstrating ingenuity and achieving an ideal of harmony and refinement in all aspects of life (De Sanctis, 2006; Genesini, 2022).

Figure 7: Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo (Vecellio, 1539-40)

A relevant figure of the early 16th century is Niccolò Machiavelli. In addition to his philological work that helped revive the study of classical texts and the Latin language, Machiavelli is well known for his political thought. Considered a representative of humanistic study, he is recognised for his innovative approach to politics and political science. Machiavelli's versatility and influence extend beyond his essay works and can be seen in his theatrical production such as ‘La Mandragola’, considered a classic of Italian dramaturgy and a powerful satire on the corruptibility of Italian society during the time. In ‘La Mandragola’ (1518), Machiavelli portrays the moral decay of Renaissance Italy through the characters, using irony and humour to highlight the social and political issues of the time. The play reflects the writer's beliefs on humanity and the way of power, presenting a realistic portrayal of the world where people act for personal interest and political power is often gained through manipulation and deceit. The timeless appeal of ‘La Mandragola’ lies in its ability to address universal themes of human behaviour and power relations, making it a significant work in the history of Renaissance literature and theatre (De Sanctis, 2006; Genesini, 2022).

Machiavelli's timeless masterpiece is ‘Il Principe’ [The Prince] (1513), where he puts forth the concept that the ideal prince should possess "fortune" and "virtue", as both are essential for successful governance. While "fortune" provides opportunities for power, "virtue" encompasses the means to exploit these opportunities to the fullest. The prince must also have charisma, balancing the two other elements, avoiding extremes of cruelty and passivity. The concept of "Machiavellism" stems from this work, referring to an individual who pursues their own interests through cunning and reason. In his evaluation of governance and consideration of its different applications, Machiavelli showcases his versatility and mastery of political philosophy (Genesini, 2022; Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 8: Cover page of the 1550 edition of Machiavelli's Il Principe (Machiavelli, 1550)

Ludovico Ariosto is the greatest exponent of courtly literature in the Renaissance. His writing style is characterised by a rich, imaginative narrative that is both playful and serious, reflecting the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. Through his characters and their actions, he explores themes of love, honour, courage, and folly, critiquing the extravagance and excess of the chivalric codes of his time (Genesini, 2022).

Ariosto's major work is ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1516), a chivalric epic poem that blends comedy, tragedy, and romance elements. It is meant to continue the unfinished poem ‘Orlando innamorato’ by Matteo Boiardo and is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance literature and a classic of Italian poetry. The poem is set in the court of Charlemagne and features a cast of legendary knights, including Roland and Bradamante, as they engage in a series of adventures and battles against Saracen enemies. The poem serves as a critique of the chivalric codes and extreme customs of the time while exploring the complexities of the human soul through the use of various characters, including the charismatic figure of Angelica. Angelica's beauty and virtue make her a desirable prize for knights, causing conflict and adventure as they compete for her love and hand in marriage. This is a common trope in medieval epic poems where a woman is a symbol of femininity and a plot device. Her character contributes to the romantic and chivalric atmosphere of the poem. The poem ultimately leads to deconstructing the binary opposition between pagans and Christians, with war being reduced to just one of the many threads running through the narrative, devoid of any ethical or ideological conflict. In addition to its literary achievements, "Orlando Furioso" is also notable for its sophisticated use of language and innovative verse forms, which helped to establish the sonnet as a dominant form of Italian poetry and exerted a lasting influence on the development of Renaissance poetry (Sambugar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022; De Sanctis, 2006).

Figure 9: Cover page of Orlando Furioso (De Ferrari, 1551)

Torquato Tasso is widely considered to be the second most relevant figure of the Renaissance period. His literary works reflect a blend of ancient and modern elements, as well as the Christianising perspective of the authoritative Church. ‘Le Rime’ (1567-81) represents a significant advancement in Renaissance literature, as it departs from the Petrarchan style and incorporates a more sophisticated use of rhetorical devices and rhythm, particularly with the implementation of enjambement. However, the central theme of the poems remains the motif of love, which Tasso skilfully incorporates into his writing (Sambugar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022; De Sanctis, 2006).

The five-act structure in ‘L'Aminta’ (1573-80) helps to create a focused and contained narrative structure that adheres to the Aristotelian principles of unity. Furthermore, the story maintains a clear and cohesive narrative by taking place in a single location over a single day. Finally, this structure enhances storytelling by providing a clear and effective way to communicate the central ideas and feelings to the audience, organising the narrative and ensuring that the major themes and emotions are displayed clearly and consistently, making the work more engaging and memorable for the audience (Sambugar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022; De Sanctis 2006).

Figure 10: Cover page of l'Aminta (1789)

Tasso's primary work is ‘Gerusalemme liberata’ [Jerusalem Delivered] (1559-81). This heroic-epic poem narrates the events of the First Crusade and the liberation of Jerusalem from the hands of the Saracens. The work exemplifies how Renaissance humanists sought to harmonise classical literary models with Christian values. Tasso's poem retells historical events and an allegory of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The narrative is structured according to the classical epic tradition, characterised by elevated language and tone, and a focus on the heroic deeds of the protagonist, in this case, Goffredo di Buglione. At the same time, he introduces elements of chivalric romance and courtly love into the narrative, creating a unique fusion of classical epic and medieval romance.

Furthermore, Tasso's work is significant for its emphasis on war's moral and ethical aspects. The poem portrays the Crusaders as military conquerors and moral exemplars who embody the ideals of justice, piety, and fortitude. The work can be seen as a testament to Tasso's humanistic vision, which sought to promote the ideals of Christianity through classical literary models (Sambugar & Salà, 2004; Genesini, 2022; De Sanctis, 2006).

Figure 11: Cover page of the first illustrated edition of the Gerusalemme Liberata (Carracci, 1590)

In conclusion, Italy's Renaissance was a period of remarkable literary and cultural growth. The works of Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Tasso, among many others, demonstrate the diverse themes and styles that flourished during this period. These writers explored the themes of politics, love, war, and morality in their works, and challenged the societal norms of their time. The concept of "virtue and fortune" as described by Machiavelli, the criticism of the immoderate customs of courtly society by Ariosto, and Tasso's fusion of the ancient and the modern through a Christianising vision, all add to the rich tapestry of Renaissance literature. Through their works, these writers have left us a lasting legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the world today.

The following five articles in this 101 series will further examine Italy's literary history, exploring notable authors and works that have shaped the country's literary legacy and regional literary traditions. This will deepen our understanding of Italy's literary evolution.

Bibliographical References

De Sanctis, F. (2006). Storia della letteratura italiana (1st ed.). BUR Biblioteca Univ. Rizzoli. (Original work published 1870).

Elfinspell: Lorenzo de’ Medici, Poems, Italian text and English translation with biographical Notes by Lorna de’ Lucchi, from An Anthology of Italian Poems 13th-19th century Matthew: capitolo; poetry, Renaissance Italian literature online text; 15th 16th century poetry, literature, (n.d.).

Genesini, P. (2022). Letteratura italiana 123. [Lectures notes retrieved at:

Hankins, J. (1998). Leonardo Bruni. Dialogi ad Petrum Paulum Histrum. Ed. Stefano Ugo Baldassarri. (Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, Studi e testi, 35.) Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1994. xxii 305 pp. IL 60,000. ISBN: N.a. Renaissance Quarterly, 51(3), 964-966. doi:10.2307/2901758

Sambugar, M., & Salà, G. (2004). GAOT - Generi autori opere temi (Vol. 1). La Nuova Italia.

Sapegno, N. (1956). Compendio di storia della letteratura italiana. Dalle origini alla fine del Quattrocento. La Nuova Italia.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Deborah Zaccai

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page