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• Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472)- Born in Genoa, the illegitimate child of a Florentine banker, Alberti was the first humanist “Renaissance Man”- author, artist, architect, philosopher, and priest. He received the best education available to elite men of Middle Ages, studying at Padua and then at the University of Bologna, specializing in law. His treatise Della Pittura (On Painting) applied classical optics and geometry to the study of perspective in the visual arts. His 1452 ten volume Ten Books of Architecture was the first architectural treatise of the Renaissance, and he designed over half a dozen monuments and buildings in Florence and throughout Italy. Over the course of his long and varied career he also dabbled in cryptography, astronomy, geography, navigation, political commentary, poetry, and linguistics, among other things.
• St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226)- Italian Catholic friar and the founder of the Franciscan Order and the Poor St. Clares. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, and his early life was one of frivolity, squander, and petty vices. He became a soldier for Assisi, and while on campaign in 1204 he received a vision that inspired him to abandon his wasteful, worldly life for a life of poverty, and he soon after departed for a pilgrimage to Rome. After returning to Assisi he received another vision in the Church of St. Damiano, in which an icon of Christ spoke directly to him: "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins." He sold some of his dad’s cloth to fund the church’s repair. Enraged, his father attempted to make him abandon his new spiritual life with threats and beatings. St. Francis publicly renounced his father, stripping himself of the fine his father had purchased him, revealing the penitential hairshirt he’d secretly worn underneath. He amassed a huge following and his order received the official recognition of the Church from Pope Innocent III in 1210. Even in his new life of spiritual poverty and peace Francis involved himself in worldly affairs: in 1219, in midst of Fifth Crusade, he went to Egypt to attempt to convince the sultan to convert to Christianity. The two spoke amicably of war, peace, and religion, and when he returned home he made a revolutionary call for the Franciscans to go live peaceably among Muslims of Holy Land as alternative to holy war, hoping to convert them with kindness rather than the sword.
• Christine de Pizan (1363-c.1430)- Born in Venice to the court physician and astrologer of the Republic of Venice, Christine was arguably Europe’s first female professional writer. Shortly after her birth her father, Thomas de Pizan, accepted a position with the court of French king Charles V and moved the family to Paris, where Christine spent most of her life. Resultantly, she was much better educated than most women of her time. She married a French royal secretary at age 15, bearing three children, but was widowed only ten years later. Lawsuits and complications held up her inheritance, and she turned to writing to support her mother and family. Between 1393 and 1412 she wrote over 300 love ballads, which found favor in the wealthy patrons of the French court. At the turn of the 15th century she turned her attention to the status of women in medieval society, and began to write against prevalent misogynist attitudes and practices, attempting to dispel stereotypes about women. Her Book of the City of Ladies (1405) was written in response to Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, which repulsed her with its misogynist references to women’s weakness, fickleness, and superficiality. “This thought,” she wrote, ‘inspired such a great sense of disgust and sadness in me that I began to despise myself and the whole of my sex as an aberration in nature.” The book takes the form of a vision of the Virtues--Reason, Rectitude, and Justice- who change her mind with a survey of the most famous and accomplished women on history, thus refuting stereotypes and claims to inferiority of women.
• Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)- Florentine statesman, poet, philosopher. His greatest and most famous achievement, La Commedia (labeled “Divine” by Dante’s admirer and successor Giovanni Boccacio) is an three-volume poem in which Dante takes a tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, allegorizing the Christian soul’s journey to God. The Inferno opens: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Dante, in this moment of spiritual foundering and potential crisis of faith, is rescued by the Roman poet Virgil, of whom Dante says: “Thou art my master, and my author thou, thou art alone the one from whom I took the beautiful style that has done honour to me.” Virgil leads the Florentine through hell, purgatory, finally leaving him at the gates of Paradise (he cannot enter as a pagan born before Christ’s saving sacrifice), where Dante beholds the face of God, achieving a fleeting flash of understanding of creation, God’s plan and the hierarchy of heaven. Dante populates the afterlife with mythological and historical figures from classical Greece and Rome, biblical figures, and his contemporaries in medieval Italian politics. La Commedia is a touching and beautifully executed examination of the Christian’s struggle to understand and accept God’s justice and judgment, but it is also a biting commentary on the corruption Dante saw throughout Italian politics and the papacy. Exiled from Florence in 1301 when his political faction was defeated by supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, Dante spent the rest of his years wandering from the home to patron to patron, never seeing his beloved home city again- he wrote the entirety of La Commedia in exile. You can see glimpses of his bitterness over his fate most starkly in Inferno- when Dante and Virgil are passing by a fiery pit in which simonists (church officials who bought their offices) are eternally tormented, a condemned pope of the past mistakes Dante for Pope Boniface VIII- the pope who was currently alive and in office, whose political ambitions led to Dante’s exile!
Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Ed. Manuel Komroff. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926.
Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York: Persea, 1990.
Lewis, R.W.B. Dante. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Grafton, Anthony. Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance. Cambridhe: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Jennifer Lynn Jordan is an author and medieval blogger. She is also a doctoral student in medieval history and teaching fellow at SUNY Stony Brook.