Top 10 Books on the origins of the Italian Renaissance

Petrarch 14th century poet and humanist.

The Renaissance was one of the greatest flowerings of artistic works in history. Artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael, to mention just two. The reasons behind this cultural flowering are still much debated. The following list of books offer some theories on the reason for this period of artistic and cultural achievement.

1. Gene Bruckner, Renaissance Italy. (University of California Press, 1983).

This work offers a survey of the Renaissance in Florence, which was one of the great artistic and cultural centres of the time. Bruckner argues that the Renaissance in Florence was a result of a new elite of merchants and lawyers and their fascination with Ancient Rome and Greece. The believed that the past was a golden age and in trying to revive the culture of Rome and Greece, they helped to initiate the Renaissance in Florence and also in Italy.

2. Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance, Culture and Society. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2014).

This work takes a close look at the specific culture and society of renaissance Italy. The author asserts that the cultural changes that led to the Renaissance were as a result of a unique series of factors in Italy. They include a dynamic economy, popular participation in civic government and a society that was relatively secular in its outlook. These factors led to new ideas about humanity and its potential and led many to create a culture that was a marked departure from fatalistic medieval views and one that placed a greater emphasis on 'the individual and people’s ability to improve their circumstances'.[1]

3. Guido Ruggiero. The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (Cambridge University Press, 2015). This work is by Italian historian, Guido Ruggiero and he argues that there was no legitimate source of authority in Italy and the Church was widely reviled as corrupt. This vacuum allowed people more freedom because they were not expected to conform to any agreed upon cultural norms. People tried to make their lives a work of art, inspired by the examples of the Ancients. The main thesis of the book is that for the first time in centuries, Italian society, between the 14th and 16th century, encouraged individualism and this directly led to the Renaissance.

4. Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1988).

Power and Imagination argues that the unique culture of the Renaissance that fostered the great artistic achievements in world history was a result of the basic egalitarian nature of the city-states. The elites in these city-states were not members of the nobility or traditional elite and to legitimize their authority they sponsored great works of art. Another crucial factor was the flourishing 'civil culture in these city-states'. This led to the development of the humanist class, who were often lawyers and civil leaders, who had a secular outlook and popularised the ideas of Rome and Greece.

image of Pietro Malatests- a mercenary and ruler of Rimmini, typical of the Renaissance elite.

5. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Penguin Classics) Third Printing Edition, (Penguin Books Hamondsworth, 2000).

This remains a very influential work on the Italian Renaissance and especially the origins of the Renaissance. It was published in the 19th century by one of the most acclaimed historians of the century. Burckhardt believed that there were several interlinking causes of the Renaissance. He believed that the elite was willing to become the patrons of great artists because they believe that they could 'legitimize their rule'.[2] Many of the rulers of city-states, such as the Sforzas in Milan, were often tyrants or leaders of mercenary forces and they used art to persuade people they were the legitimate rulers. The Renaissance developed in a largely secular culture, because of the corruption of the church and this created an environment, where people could talk and create, relatively freely. Burckhardt also believed that the Italian preoccupation with arête or excellence, mean that people strove to great work of art and indeed ‘to turn their lives into art’.

6. M.J. Gill. The Italian Renaissance: The Origins of Intellectual and Artistic Change Before the Reformation. (Routledge, New York and London, 1990).

This work indicates that the origins of the Italian Renaissance rest in the specific civic needs of the city-states. They needed administrators, who were versed in Latin, and this indirectly led to the rise of the humanist, who disseminated the ideas of the Classical World. The needs of the city-state meant that a new culture needed to be developed. This was, in turn, to lead to civic communities’ patronage of the arts, in order to foster a new civic culture, that turned to the classical world rather than the teachings of the Church.

7. Charles G. Nauert. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (New Approaches to European History)- Updated Edition (Cambridge University Press: London, 2006).

This work is a comprehensive study of the Renaissance in Europe. It identifies the humanist as being the decisive influence on the development of the cultural shift and a change in people’s attitudes to society and life. He traces humanism's emergence in the unique social and cultural conditions of fourteenth-century Italy and its gradual spread throughout the rest of Europe. The humanists were a cultural elite, whose preoccupations with the classical world, led to a new way of looking at the world. The Humanists believed that the world was not just a ‘vale of tears’ contrary to the teachings of the Church. This led to people, to profound cultural changes and the belief that the world could be improved. The author shows how, despite its elitist origins, humanism became a major force in the popular culture and fine arts in Italy and beyond.

8. Stark, Rodney, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success , (New York, Random House, 2005).

The thesis of the book is that the merchants and the elite of the city-states were all bound in with the trade. Trade encouraged a more rational view of the world and this led to the 'secularization of the world-view of many', especially in the elite[3]. Increasingly people used reason to explain the world and this led to a release of creativity and the flowering of culture that became known as the Renaissance.

9. Reynolds, L. D. and Wilson, Nigel Scribes and Scholars: A guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1974).

This work is concerned with the transmission of Latin and Greek manuscripts, since the end of the Ancient World. This book presents the theory, which is shared by many, that the increasing availability of ancient manuscripts, especially from Byzantium, meant that the ideas of Rome and Greece became more widely known and these inspired people to take a new approach to life. Inspired by ideas of the Ancient World, people tried to emulate it and this led to the creation of a new culture that nurtured many great artists, thinkers and scientists.

10. John Aldington Symons. Renaissance in Italy, 7 vol. (1875–86).

This once influential work is a good example of the traditional view of the origins of the Renaissance. Symonds, argues that it was a result of a move away from a religious view of the world and to a more rational world-view. This allowed artists to develop new ideas and new forms and encouraged the humanists to develop a new conception of society. This theory was once widely accepted and was possibly first proposed by Voltaire. Symonds book is useful because it will allow to understand how scholarship on the Renaissance has changed overtime.


  1. Burke, Peter,The Italian Renaissance, Culture and Society. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2014),p. 141.
  2. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Penguin Classics) Third Printing Edition, (Penguin Books Hamondsworth, 2000), p. 67)
  3. Stark, Rodney, The Victory of Reason, (New York, Random House, 2005), p.89