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Humanists emphasized living a good earthly life rather than a life of penance (sorrow for or action to atone for sins) aimed toward an afterlife. In addition, there was growth of individualism, or a focus on personal rather than religious or political interests.
Petrarch One of the earliest humanists, sometimes called the Father of Humanism, was an Italian poet and scholar named Petrarch (1304–1374). He saw the Middle Ages as a period of darkness when knowledge of classical civilization was in decline. (Later historians would call this time the Dark Ages.)
A lover of language, Petrarch searched for forgotten Latin manuscripts in monastery libraries and private collections of the wealthy throughout Europe. One key discovery was Letters to Atticus by the Roman statesman and orator Cicero (106 B.C.E.–43 B.C.E.), which gave insights into political life in classical Rome. Petrarch, followed by many later humanists, adopted Cicero as a model for writing in Latin. Though he appreciated Latin, Petrarch was among the first scholars of his era to write in the Italian vernacular, or everyday language of his region.
Stemming from his work with ancient manuscripts, Petrarch developed new philological approaches, or scholarly methods of analyzing texts with a focus on the history of language. One famous use of philology occurred in 1440 when Lorenzo Valla demonstrated that an important Roman Catholic document, the Donation of Constantine, supposedly written by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, was a forgery, because its language was not the 4th-century Latin the emperor would have used.
Petrarch also admired Cicero’s life as an engaged citizen. As a humanist, Petrarch focused on how people behaved. He criticized medieval thinkers who focused more on scholarly issues of logic than on everyday concerns of ethics.
Marsilio Ficino Another important Italian Renaissance humanist was Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). In a similar way to how Petrarch intensely studied Latin and the works of Cicero, Ficino studied Greek and the works of Plato (c. 428 B.C.E.–c. 348 B.C.E.). Ficino connected Plato’s philosophy to more recent Christian theology. He translated Plato’s known writings into Latin, and scholars used those translations for hundreds of years.
Ficino was interested in the idea of Platonic love—an intense, spiritual love that is unconcerned with money, power, or romance. “Artists in each of the arts seek after and care for nothing but love,” Ficino wrote. To finance his studies and translation projects, Ficino had the backing of the rich and politically powerful Medici family. (See Topic 1.5 for more about the Medici family.)
Pico della Mirandola The goal of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463– 1494) was to take philosophical views (often competing views) and blend them. This goal was made possible by his remarkable education, which saw him study philosophy and languages (including Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic) in the major learning centers of the day: Paris, Bologna, Padua, and Florence. His famous humanist work “Oration on the Dignity of Man” wove together many ideas from other and earlier schools of thought to describe his idea of the place of humans and their relationship to God in the order of the world.

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