During the Renaissance, people believed they were witnessing the birth of a new and promising era—a time in which civilization was being renewed. In Renaissance Florence, thinkers imagined their time to be a departure from the supposedly “Dark Ages.” In addition to reviving the lost culture, arts, and philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, this made Renaissance thinkers self-conscious about their place in history. It also made the Renaissance a state of mind.
As scholar Kenneth Bartlett emphasizes, “We must always remember that the Renaissance was a state of mind in so many ways: The concrete effects followed from those fundamental attitudes.” He also observes that the individuals of Renaissance Florence “believed that they could do anything, and, as a consequence, they did.”
Glimpsing a Universal Mind
The Renaissance belief in human potential was perfectly embodied in a single line by the distinguished writer, architect, and philosopher Leon Battista Alberti. Widely regarded as the original “Renaissance man,” Alberti boldly declared, “Human beings can accomplish whatever they wish, if they have the will.” (Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Leon Battista Alberti: “Human beings can accomplish whatever they wish, if they have the will.” Statue of Alberti holding architectural diagrams in Florence, Italy. Photograph copyright by Alberto Tullio.
This profound optimism about human nature sheds light on the prevailing mindset of the Renaissance. However, Alberti also acknowledged that achieving greatness was no easy feat. As he wrote, “No art, however minor, demands less than total dedication.”
This unwavering commitment is evident in Alberti’s remarkable accomplishments. Among his many achievements, Alberti mastered Latin and Greek. He also authored the first Renaissance handbook about painting, which contained the first explanation of linear perspective. (This book was drawn upon by many great artists, including Botticelli and Leonardo, whose work it shaped.) In addition, he wrote On the Art of Building, the first treatise on architecture in over a millennium. Alberti’s extensive contributions also included the first Italian grammar, philosophical works, and the invention of cryptography—the art of writing in code.
Alberti’s worldview was profoundly shaped by Stoic philosophy, leading him to assert that human excellence or virtue, when combined with unwavering hard work, could triumph over the whims of chance or Fortune. As he wrote, “To live a good life requires continuous hard work,” and “We tend by our work to some praiseworthy and glorious end.”
Optimism and Perseverance
Alberti offers a fascinating portrait of a Renaissance man who overcame significant adversity. And when someone faces challenges, the perseverance to keep moving forward—or even trying to—also reflects a kind of optimism. As Alberti explained, “Do not judge what you are unable to do until you have first tried; and if you did not do well trying, you will do better the next time.”
Born the illegitimate son of a wealthy father, Alberti received a quality education in his early years but remained estranged from his family. Tragedy struck during his college years when his father passed away, leaving him destitute. Although his father’s will provided an inheritance for Alberti, his relatives never fulfilled this obligation.
Perhaps to compensate for his circumstances, Alberti immersed himself in his studies, reaching the brink of mental exhaustion. During one such episode, he found himself unable to recall the names of everyday objects. However, Alberti discovered solace in the beauty of nature. As he wrote, the sight of flowers and picturesque landscapes often rejuvenated him, restoring his well-being.
As his life gained stability, Alberti recovered from these ordeals. Forsaken by his family, he relied on his innate talent, formidable willpower, and unwavering commitment to work. As a result, Alberti ascended to prominence and became one of the most revered figures of the Renaissance. Likewise, his exceptional skill as an architect was highly sought after, further cementing his legacy (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Detail of the façade of the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, designed by Leon Battista Alberti.
Recovering and Surpassing the Knowledge of the Ancients
It was Francesco Petrarch, the “Father of Humanism,” whose ideas set the Renaissance in motion. Born a century before Alberti near Florence, Petrarch arrived at a remarkable conclusion through his extensive study of ancient literature. He surmised that the corrupt society in which he lived could only be the result of a long-term collapse of civilization, brought on by barbarian invasions that culminated in the fall of Rome.
To explain this decline, Petrarch invented the idea of “the Dark Ages.” He posited that the artistic, intellectual, and moral achievements of classical civilization had been lost during this time. However, Petrarch, along with the Renaissance humanists who followed his lead, believed future generations could reclaim this knowledge. Armed with their faith in the civilizing power of classical literature and wisdom, they envisioned a better world and a new generation of ethical leaders born from the recovered knowledge of the past.
Indeed, Petrarch’s ideas framed the worldview of humanism and played a pivotal role in the emergence of the Renaissance. For example, his work inspired the passion of “book hunters,” who scoured remote monastery libraries to unearth the lost writings of ancient Rome. This quest for lost knowledge soon evolved into an even bolder endeavor: not only could the wisdom of the ancients be reacquired, but humanity might also surpass the legendary accomplishments of the ancients.
These ideas encouraged interest in ancient art and architecture to explode, sparking an obsession to recover the secrets of the past. In the early 1400s, Filippo Brunelleschi and his friend, the sculptor Donatello, ignited a trend by journeying to Rome to sketch, survey, and measure the surviving buildings of ancient Rome. This meticulous process enabled Brunelleschi to rediscover the building styles, proportions, and techniques characteristic of classical architecture.
After years of diligent work, Brunelleschi returned to Florence and put his newfound knowledge into practice. Emboldened by a profound sense of optimism, he designed and constructed the world’s largest, free-standing dome, with no external supports used during its creation. The dome, with a diameter of 149 feet and a total height surpassing 380 feet, majestically crowns the Cathedral of Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore) and continues to dominate the city’s skyline. Over the course of sixteen years, the dome was meticulously assembled from more than four million bricks, ultimately becoming a symbol of the entire city (Figure 3). Not only is Brunelleschi’s dome larger than those of the Pantheon, Hagia Sophia, and the U.S. Capitol Building, it remains the largest brick and mortar dome in existence today.
Figure 3. Built with over four million bricks atop the cathedral of Florence, Brunelleschi’s dome is a marvel of engineering and still the largest masonry dome in the world. The lower photograph, with visitors standing on top of the dome, illustrates its vast size.
An Optimistic Vision of Human Potential
Some medieval thinkers harbored a less-than-flattering view of human nature. This perspective was exemplified by Pope Innocent III in his book On the Wretchedness of the Human Condition, where he portrayed humans as depraved and wicked. He argued that the human body was shameful, characterized by nakedness, and ultimately sinful and disgusting.
By contrast, Renaissance thinkers adopted a much more favorable view of humanity. In a work entitled On the Dignity and Excellence of Man, one author extolled “the astonishing dignity of human nature and mankind’s unbelievable excellence.” Renaissance artists embraced the beauty of the human form, as evidenced by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. Likewise, the philosopher Pico della Mirandola celebrated human dignity and our capacity for self-creation. Renaissance thinkers believed that humans could shape their own destinies. Pico eloquently encapsulated this notion by asserting that humans had no predetermined place in creation. Rather, they could ascend to the level of angels (this is Renaissance optimism at its highest!) or sink to the level of vicious monsters. Pico maintained that humans had unlimited potential, be it for good or ill.
While I’ve been discussing “optimism,” the renowned art historian Sir Kenneth Clark often spoke about confidence. Indeed, optimism and confidence are closely intertwined. Clark observed that great periods of civilization are distinguished by their confidence. Likewise, he considered the Florentine Renaissance as history’s most extraordinary display of human confidence. Though he believed that civilization precariously hung by a thread, Clark optimistically noted that Western civilization “had been a series of rebirths.” Thus, he reasoned, even if the world should take a step backward, “Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves.”
Like the connection between optimism and confidence, the Renaissance sense of optimism goes together with the belief that human beings can create lasting works of greatness. The Italian Renaissance embodied these ideas and more, revealing the profound power of human potential and creativity (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Without an overwhelming sense of optimism and self-confidence, the greatest works of Renaissance art would never have been created.
Today, the remarkable minds and works of the Renaissance can continue to inspire and inform our endeavors. In our current, often pessimistic era, characterized by a diminished sense of human potential, we could greatly benefit from the profound optimism that shaped the Renaissance. Likewise, our entire society would benefit from a deeply rooted conviction that we, as human beings, can create great works of lasting value.