A note on Humanism

The Renaissance brought with it a new way of looking at the world. Since Constantine the Great and his Edict of Milan in 313, the church had been a dominant force in the social and political lives of most of the population of Europe. As the Catholic clergy became more wealthy and powerful the church became more corrupt until it surpassed itself with the creation of the Inquisition in twelfth century France.

By the fourteenth century a new movement of educated and financially stable secular citizens throughout the Italian peninsula were looking to the Classical era as a benchmark for the standard of the arts. A revival was underway with a new focus on the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and philosophy with a concentration on the human experience from a secular rather than a religious viewpoint. Power was shifting away from the church towards a new breed of royalty. Families like the Medici in Florence and the Ferrara at Este were educated, progressive and enlightened. This new social force was the foundation of what we now call Humanism and adherents were expected to set their standards for art, politics and customs by those of the Greek and Roman masters.

It was felt by some, notably Archbishop Bernardino Cirillo and the composer and music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino  that their contemporary music lacked the ability to move the listener emotionally. Although Zarlino was of the opinion that the extant polyphony was emotionally equal with that of their classical forbears, music had for some time suffered neglect and had been taken for granted. He commented in his 1558 treatise “Istitutioni Harmoniche”, “…everyone tore it apart and treated it badly with many unworthy manners”.

It was thought that a review of the music of antiquity would help to raise music to the heights previously scaled, and the mores of the new Humanist movement seemed to suit their ideals perfectly.

Although music came under scrutiny by the Humanist movement a little later than poetry or literature it wasn’t considered inferior to the other liberal arts and the second half of the fifteenth century saw a significantly renewed interest in the music theory of ancient Greece, with many treatises on the subject being studied as literature in its own right.