By Joseph Byrne
Journals of the Georgia Association of Historians, Vol.18 (1997)
Introduction: That Francesco Petrarch was the first Renaissance humanist, that he was the first modern man, and that he ushered in a new period of European history known as the Renaissance is the boilerplate of general survey courses as they move from the middle ages to the modern world. Indeed, Petrarch dramatically embodied many aspects of the transition, and thus he strides across our histories, a figure like the ancients’ Athena or Michaelangelo’s Sistine Adam, his humanism seemingly ‘new born and perfect.’ His life and writings seem to sketch a clear break with the medieval and a foundation for the modern, and provide a simple answer to a very difficult question of historical development.
In support the generalist’ viewpoint, no modern specialist of whom I am aware denies the importance of Petrarch in the definition, development and dissemination of early Renaissance humanism, and each has his or her own list of his most important contributions. Nonetheless, the specialist has come to understand and appreciate the immediate historical context of Petrarch’s accomplishments by focussing on the late urban, literate and lay milieu of his northern Italy, and its peculiar cultural and intellectual expression in what is variously described as pre-humanism, protohumanism or early humanism. The undeniable fact is that the cultural roots of Italian Renaissnce humanism, which Petrarch himself inherited, recognized and built upon, developed over the two generations before his birth in 1304.