Building Something Together: The Renaissance Program in Florence

The achievements and promise of the first Renaissance Program in Florence, Italy.

By Stefano Baldassarri

Stefano Baldassarri is a leading scholar of Renaissance humanism and the director of the International Studies Institute in Florence. He offered these unprepared remarks at the conclusion of the first Renaissance Program in Florence, held in November of 2023.

First of all, every time I have guests at ISI Florence — people coming to our university consortium from Australia, Japan, and the United States, here or at our other facility — I always thank them.

Furthermore, I always ask them: “What can we do for you?”

Well, this time I think that you — and particularly David and Chandi — have done a lot for all of us, and for each other. I believe it has been a series of very useful, stimulating, and also very convivial events and meetings.

The frescoed ceiling of the hall at Palazzo Rucellai where one of our meetings took place. In the fresco, the figures of Mercury (Reason) and Venus (Love) are prominent. The scene refers to the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid. Fresco by Gian Domenico Ferretti (1750).
Participants of the first Renaissance Program in Florence came from around the world to learn about the ideas of Italian humanism that shaped the Florentine Renaissance — and to discover a sense of intellectual companionship with kindred spirits.

Watch “Building Something Together” — the video above featuring Stefano Baldassarri on the Renaissance Program — or continue reading the transcript of his thoughts below.

For the Renaissance humanists, creating a more humane and beautiful world was a never-ending work in progress: “It is a beautiful world, but we must try to make it even more beautiful.” — Giannozzo Manetti

The Renaissance Program seeks to continue this task. We develop educational programs with the goal of deepening human experience, enhancing society, and laying a foundation for lifelong learning.

This leads me to a kind of quotation.

I don’t remember it by heart, but it’s a passage from Giovanni Rucellai’s Zibaldone, his diary, which he kept for about 30 years.

The original copy is upstairs, on the second floor, where the Rucellai live, and there’s a particular passage in that book, which contains a bit of everything. I mean that the book contains all sorts of things, including reminders to himself, like: “Remember to get your shoes fixed; go to the cobbler . . . buy some bread, pay off that debt and get those other monies back . . .”

In any case, there’s a passage where Rucellai says: “I am particularly proud of having built this palace because I want it to become a meeting place, a venue for humanists.”

And I think we are true to the spirit of this passage, aren’t we, to this dream that Giovanni Rucellai had? I don’t want to boast, of course, as I believe humility is the mother of all virtues. But we are, or we try to be, today’s humanists (right?), in the sense that humanists tried to also promote a humane education.

We have talked a lot about sensitivity these days, about kindness, and these are not details; they are not appendices. I believe this is the essence of what we should be doing, as teachers and as educators. It is our mission.

I would also like to say another thing. I am particularly happy to be here and to spend time with you because I never try to take anything for granted. And what we have been doing these days, if I may quote a good American novelist, we could call “the precious ordinary” — am I wrong?

During Covid, we realized the preciousness of what we had considered ordinary — meeting people, going out to lunch, shaking hands, and eating together. We thought these were everyday activities, but in reality, they are invaluable experiences that define our humanity.

And this idea of conviviality is one of the values, as you reminded us yesterday, David, when we went to that villa, that the humanists tried to promote. So, I think it would be important to keep this spirit alive.

Celebrating “the precious ordinary” — sharing meals and good conversations together during the program.
The Medici Villa in Fiesole, overlooking Florence. Italian humanists used to meet at this beautiful location, which included the first formal garden attached to a Renaissance villa. These individuals included Lorenzo de’ Medici, Angelo Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and others.
Participants of the Renaissance Program relaxing and conversing on a terrace at the Medici Villa overlooking Florence.

Building Something Together as a Work in Progress

Then, there is what we have done these days, that is: trying to build something together.

I have the impression — and I don’t wish to sound romantic or preachy — that people have tended to isolate after Covid.

For example, it always strikes me when people say, “Well, it would be nice to come to Palazzo Rucellai or Villa i Tatti, or any other villa — but is it possible to follow this event remotely?” And these are people who live in Florence and who could be, for example, only a 10-minute walk from that place.

I think that is a pity.

I am not saying that it is a threat to civilization, but I sense something that could have some negative consequences, particularly for students.

Many students have been traumatized by Covid. Some of them now have a different attitude and have had difficulty returning to what we would call normality or “normal life.” They are more introverted. They are more fearful than before.

This is a challenge that we, as teachers, as educators, must address by sharing the values that we have discussed over these days.

This work is, as the humanists said, a project in the making. And I think it is beautiful to be contributing to a work in progress, to something that is not finished and definitive (am I wrong?).

As [Giannozzo] Manetti said: “It is a beautiful world, but we must try to make it even more beautiful.”

That was precisely the last reflection I wanted to share.

The British Institute of Florence — one of our meeting places, where we discussed, “What It Meant to Be Human in the Renaissance.”
Faculty of the first Renaissance Program from right to left: David Fideler (founder), Chandi Wyant, and Stefano Baldassarri.

Contributing to Future Generations

Finally, I am pleased, that you recorded the program, David.

This way, we will have something that will remain for a while, something we can pass on to future generations or to anyone who wants to listen to what we have said these days.

I also hope that there will be other editions of this program, to improve on what we have done today and over the entire week. And I hope this is not an isolated event, but the beginning of something that we can realize and build together.

So, once again, thank you very much!

And especially thank you, David, because you have really been the director of this event. Chandi and I and everyone else, with our questions, have only tried to contribute to your project. But you did a great job. Indeed, you conceived 99 percent of the program. So, thank you!

About the Author

Stefano Baldassarri is the director of the International Studies Institute in Florence, a widely respected scholar in Renaissance studies, and the author and translator of many works pertaining to the Renaissance. He is also an advisor to the Renaissance Program.

His many published works include the much-loved Images of Quattrocento Florence: Selected Writings in Literature, History, and Art (Yale University Press) and his translation of Manetti’s Biographies (Harvard University Press), which includes Renaissance biographies of Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Socrates, and Seneca.

Further Reading

About the Renaissance Program

Renaissance Program Logo

Based on the humanistic ideas of classical philosophy and the Italian Renaissance, the work of the Renaissance Program is based on modern scholarship but differs in one significant way:

While modern academics focus on what we can learn about thinkers from the past, our approach is based on what we can learn from the thinkers of the past.

This, in fact, was the approach of the Renaissance humanists: to learn from the past to enhance the present, and to create a better world.

The Renaissance Program is also the publisher of a free, online web magazine, Living Ideas Journal, at

David Fideler, founder of the Renaissance Program, thanking its friends and supporters at the first program in Florence.

The 2023 Renaissance Program in Florence gratefully acknowledges the help and support of our friends in Florence and around the world who have helped to make this event possible, including the International Studies Institute (ISI Florence), the British Institute of Florence, The Social Hub in Florence, the owners of the Medici Villa in Fiesole, Plato‘s Academy Centre in Athens, the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents program at the University of Amsterdam, the Temenos Academy, and other friends and supporters.

Without this support and encouragement, the Renaissance Program in Florence would not have been possible.

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