One thing that I like about Renaissance humanists is that they never slavishly copied ancient Rome. They weren’t LARPers – they never wore togas, or revived gladiatorial combat, or made sacrifices to Jupiter, or discerned the will of the gods from the flight patterns of birds. No, they generally cherry-picked what they most admired (the form of the Latin language, fonts to set it in, and certain architectural details are the three that come most easily to mind). Most importantly, what they revived was a principle, that life was no longer to be a vale of tears, with one’s reward coming in the afterlife, but was meant to be lived – not in a hedonistic way, but a self-actualizing one: God gave us talents, and we honor God when we develop those talents. Since pagans didn’t have much of an afterlife to look forward to, their earthly life was all they had, and they were to use it for self-improvement and the gaining of personal glory. (Whether Romans actually lived by this principle is another question, but certain influential fifteenth-century Florentines certainly believed that they did.)
So in many ways the Renaissance was simply a “naissance,” a birth of something new, as people operated on the principle that they could do anything, because no one said they couldn’t. Mathematical perspective, for instance, was not something that the Romans ever invented, but Renaissance artists. (In other ways, of course, the Renaissance was simply a continuation of the Middle Ages, or so I am compelled to state by virtue of my membership in the medievalists’ guild.)
But speaking of art, I do think it’s a shame that art was such a dominant mode of self-expression in the Renaissance. The paintings and sculptures of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and everyone else mentioned in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists are usually the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word “Renaissance.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that Renaissance art is wonderful, but one regrets that science was not equally as fashionable among the humanists. (I read something once that claimed that scientific enquiry took a step backward in the Renaissance, overshadowed as it was by all the art and literature.) It would have made the Renaissance even better, say, if more people had taken up Leonardo’s engineering projects. As it stands contemporaries had to wait until 1590 before they could read Galileo’s De Motu (On Motion), part of what was now no longer the Renaissance, but the Scientific Revolution.