The Renaissance Problem

Renaissance is dear to my heart. I volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement and I often think about the significance of the European Renaissance.

Renaissance means rebirth in French. It is often stated that the European Renaissance started in Florence, Italy. Then, why do we use a French word to refer to that period? I visited Florence last spring for the first time and I can see why. The city of Florence gave me the impression that she is very proud of its medieval history but not so much of her role in the Renaissance. Yes, there are museums filled with art from the Renaissance period but nowhere in the city was Renaissance advertised. I did not see a single cafe named after Renaissance. The book I bought [1] to learn about Florence did not mention the Renaissance.


Renaissance artists and humanist scholars were expressing a revolt against the dogma of the church in Middle Ages. They expressed this revolt by reviving the art forms and the philosophy of the classical period. Today, we interpret Renaissance as a progressive movement but in those days they achieved progress by going backward in time, by remembering the ancient teachings and re-inventing art using ideas from the classical period.

I have a feeling that the modern Italian society, Florence particularly, is as religious as ever and people see Renaissance as a passing phase rather than a glorious rebirth. The quiet revolt against the church dogma found full expression in France. This must be one of the reasons why Leonardo da Vinci lived in Paris in his later years. We use a French word to describe that period because Paris owned the Renaissance and Florence did not.


Among the Italian cities, I think Venice is the only one who is proud of her contributions to the Renaissance. Venice does not emphasize Renaissance either but Renaissance is in the air in Venice. You breathe it. There is something else in the air. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is high concentration of vital energy in Venice. I cannot say the same thing about Florence even though she is sunnier (literally and figuratively) compared to Venice.


After I came back from the trip, I started reading on the history of Italian Renaissance. To my great surprise, I learned that the scholars have similar views about the Italian attitude towards Renaissance. They call it “The Renaissance Problem”.

What scholars are saying

In 1878, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt published a famous article [2] defining the Italian Renaissance as a major historical period, distinct from Middle Ages. Burckhardt’s article is still the primary reference on Renaissance. He emphasized the rise of the individual and the acceptance of the secular culture and values, especially those derived from antiquity as the defining features of Renaissance.

The collection of essays in the book “Italian Renaissance” [3] (B.G.Kohl and A.A.Smith eds.) is probably the most accessible academic resource.

B.G.Kohl and A.A.Smith point out that Renaissance was limited to the cultural elite.

Not all sectors of the population participated equally in Renaissance culture, which was produced by an educated and privileged elite. Left out were the poor, peasants and workers, and especially women. Increasingly, then, scholars are viewing the Renaissance not as a widespread and thorough transformation of society but as initiating only a few aspects of modernity: monumental change in scholarship, secular values, and aesthetics.” [3]

The surge in artistic, literary, and scientific investigation that occurred in Florence in the 14th-16th centuries was precipitated by Florentines’ preoccupation with money, banking and trade and with the display of wealth and leisure. Added to this, the crises of the Catholic church (especially the controversy over the French Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism) along with the catastrophic effects of the Black Death were to lead to a re-evaluation of medieval values, resultant in the development of a humanist culture, stimulated by the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. This prompted a revisitation and study of the classical antiquity, leading to the Renaissance. Florence benefited materially and culturally from this sea-change in social consciousness.” [4]

Every scholar has an agenda of course. I am no exception. The way I see and interpret the Renaissance is colored with my own world view. This is a good thing. Different interpretations are necessary to understand this complex period in history. I would like to remind you some other aspects of Renaissance that scholars tend to ignore.

Role of Byzantines

The southern Italy had been colonized by the Greeks in the eighth century BC. Archimedes the leading scientist of classical antiquity lived in Syracuse between 287-212 BC.  Much later, the Byzantine Empire had ruled parts of Southern Italy until 1071.  In the 14’th century the advance of Ottoman Turks in the Balkans pushed many Greeks and Albanians to cross the Adriatic to Italy in search of safety. Before and after the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Turks in 1453 the wealthy and educated citizens of Thessalonica and Constantinople immigrated to Venice and Florence. They brought with them their private libraries containing books of ancient wisdom. These Greek immigrants contributed to the revival of the ancient Greek wisdom, especially the revival of the teachings of Plato.

In his article titled “Byzantines in Renaissance Italy” Jonathan Harris [5] says that

Yet the image of the Byzantine exiles as venerable scholars fleeing with their books under their arms represents both an exaggeration and an understatement. It exaggerates the part played by individual Byzantines in the revival of Greek learning in Italy, while ignoring the vast majority of the emigres, who were involved in no scholarly activity whatsoever.” [5]

Thus the Greek emigres who reached Italy during the fifteenth century were by no means all scholars: they ranged from exiled royalty to carpenters and mercenaries. Yet there can be no doubt that some of them played an important part in spreading a knowledge of the classical Greek language and ancient Greek literature in Italy. There was a good reason for this: reading classical Greek and even composing in the same style were an integral part of Byzantine higher education. Whereas in the West secular education had tended to die out in the early Middle Ages, in Byzantium it was sustained.” [5]

Neoplatonism of the Laurentian Period of Florence

In Gene A. Brucker’s words:

Neoplatonism was the unofficial ideology of the Laurentian Florence; its teachings were particularly suited to the atmosphere which then prevailed in aristocratic society. The deprecation of man’s physical nature and the exaltation of the spirit; the view of the body as the soul’s terrestrial prison; the concept of ascencio, the soul’s struggle upward to achieve unity with God: these ideas appealed to many cultured Florentines who were disenchanted with traditional Christian teaching, and indifferent to the civic orientation of early Quattrocento humanism.” [6]

The Laurentian period refers to the height of the de Medici leadership in Florence (second half of the 15’th century) exemplified by the personality of Lorenzo de Medici the grandson of Cosimo de Medici. The Quattrocento period is the early 15’th century.

Impact of Books and Libraries

In the Middle Ages, libraries were generally located in monasteries, which (although public buildings) often offered limited access to books, and were focused on religious texts. During the Renaissance, libraries in Florence, Venice, Rome and Paris started to include public reading rooms in which visitors could read and do research. With the advent of the printing press and better paper, many more books were being stored. Other objects, such as maps, globes and skulls also became commonplace in libraries during this time.” [7]

By creating public reading rooms the civic leaders of Florence, Venice, Rome and Paris greatly accelerated the Renaissance process. The dream of a public library became a reality much later, however.

With the help of his agents, both he [Cosimo de Medici] and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent brought back books from Europe and the Near East to Florence where they were studied and translated by those in his humanist circle. These books were added to the collection of Niccoli Niccolo, that Cosimo had deposited at San Marco [monastery] in 1444. Niccolo was indebted to his friend Cosimo, who followed through on Niccoli’s dream to found a public library. It wasn’t however until much later and after other acquisitions and library mergers that the dream of a more public library became a reality. The library, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana opened in 1571 and is housed in the cloisters of the San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence.” [8]

Hermetica: Ancient Teachings of Tehuti

One of my favorite books is “The Hermetica” by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy [9]. They argue that the spiritual teachings of Tehuti (Hermes Trismegistus) were lost in “dead weight of academic translations, Christian prejudice and Occult obscurities”. They observe that all previous versions of Hermetica in English language are “very dense, impenetrable, and loaded down with notes and subtext that make them difficult to digest.” They prepared a version of Hermetica that truly reflects the spiritual teachings of Tehuti. In this book they also explain the role of Hermetica in the formation of the Renaissance mentality in Europe. I whole-heartedly recommend this book.

Philosophical, spiritual, religious, metaphysical and scientific influence of the mythical personality Tehuti on the world culture is immense. Tehuti was deified by ancient Egyptians and he was accepted and respected by all societies in the Near East. He is mentioned as the source of knowledge and inspiration in all mystical and esoteric traditions in the Near East.

During the Greek rule of Egypt, Tehuti was identified as Hermes of Greek mythology.  Tehuti is also identified as the Hermes Trismegistus of Hermetica. Prophet Idris mentioned in Quran was most probably Tehuti. In Jewish esoteric tradition Tehuti is sometimes identified with the mysterious prophet Enoch.

Tehuti is credited with the invention of the sacred hieroglyphic writing. In ancient Egypt he was known as the scribe of gods (Neteru). In Greek mythological description he was the dispatcher of divine messages.

Tehuti taught astronomy, architecture, geometry, medicine, metaphysics and spirituality to the ancient Egyptians. The books attributed to Tehuti became collectively known as “Hermetica”. These books were rediscovered in 15’th century Florence and helped to inspire the Renaissance.

Many famous personalities in the Western world mentioned Tehuti (Thoth, Hermes) as a great influence on their intellectual life. Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Botticelli, Roger Bacon, Paracelcus, Thomas More, William Blake, Kepler, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Walter Raleigh, Milton, Victor Hugo, Carl Jung are only some of the names, the list is endless.

The influence of Tehuti in Islamic mysticism cannot be ignored. Prophet Muhammad is said to have seen prophet Idris (Tehuti) during his most profound spiritual experience (Isra and Miraj).

12’th century Iranian Sufi philosopher Yahya Suhrawardi claimed that Tehuti’s philosophy was transmitted through Pythagoras and Plato, and in the Middle East through the Zoroastrian Magi. This philosophy reached him through his own teacher the Sufi mystic Al Hallaj. Both Al Hallaj and Suhrawardi were executed by the orthodox Islamic authorities.

Hermetica arrives in Florence

In my own estimation Tehuti lived 6 thousand years ago. The collection of books called Hermetica reflects his original teachings but they were written much later. The Hermetica collection was collated in Alexandria, Egypt during second and third centuries before Common Era. The libraries in Alexandria, at its height, contained half a million scrolls. The libraries in Alexandria contained books on Pythagorism. Chaldean oracles, Greek myths, Platonic and Stoic philosophy, Judaism, the Greek mystery schools, Zoroastrianism, astrology, alchemy, Buddhism and of course the ancient Egyptian religion.

When the libraries of Alexandria were burned scholars and sages fled to the newly emerging Arab culture, taking Hermetic writings with them [9].

The Islamic empire of Arabs was very tolerant of different cultures and new learning in the beginning. A university called “House of Wisdom” was established in Baghdad in the beginning of the 9’th century. Many Greek and Indian works in philosophy and mathematics from the classical period were translated into Arabic. But later, the dogmatism crept in as it happens with all organized religions and the Arab empire became very intolerant. The owners of the Hermetic books were searching for a safe haven for their books and most of these books found their way to Florence in the 15th century. Perhaps the first arrival was due to the efforts of Cosimo de Medici. One of his agents came across Hermetica in 1460 and brought the books to Florence. The timing was fortuitous; the printing press arrived in Florence few years later and Hermetica spread to all over Europe after that.

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy claim that Hermetica was a major influence on the Renaissance mentality. Earlier we saw how Neoplatonism became the unofficial ideology of the Laurentian Florence. Neoplatonism incorporates the essence of Tehuti teachings. The role of Hermetica in the formation of the “Renaissance Man” is undeniable.

“As in Alexandria a thousand years ago, the Renaissance viewed science, art, literature and religion as parts of a united whole to be studied together.” [9]

Florence the Melting Pot 

I would like to mention one more factor. Florence was a melting pot. Florence was very cosmopolitan in the 15th century. Anytime a place becomes a melting pot a new cultural synthesis emerges representing human progress. Anatolia, India, Ancient Egypt, Florence and more recently America are examples of this historical phenomenon.

When I say cosmopolitan I am not just talking about the migration of workers from the surrounding areas and countries to be employed in the cloth industry in Florence. I am also talking about involuntary migration in the form of slavery. Not many people know about this. There was slavery in Europe in the Middle Ages. The slaves did not arrive from Africa. They were brought to Florence from the Black Sea region.

“For an inland city fifty miles from the sea, Florence was very cosmopolitan. Merchants from Catalonia, southern France,  and the Adriatic port cities, as well as a handful from more distant places, formed part of the transient population. The cloth industry attracted hundreds of workers from Germany and the Low countries, many of whom settled permanently in the city. The most unusual element in this city was the slaves from the Black Sea region .” [6]

“The soldiers recruited for the city’s defense came from every part of the Italian peninsula and also from Germany and Hungary.” [6]


[1] Firenze, Octavo, ISBN: 88-8030-096-2

[2] Jacob Burckhardt, “The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy” (1878), trans. S.G.W.Middlemore, revised by R.Norton

[3] B.G.Kohl and A.A.Smith,  “Italian Renaissance” (1995), Heath, ISBN: 0-669-28002-X



[6] Gene A. Brucker, “Renaissance Florence” (1969), University of California Press, ISBN: 978-0-520-04695-5

[7] Felan Parker (interview with Paul Nelles):

[8] Jana Borchardt:

[9] Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, “The Hermetica”, Parcher & Penguin (1997), ISBN 0-87477-950-2


About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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