Self Definition in the Early Renaissance

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The European Renaissance, beginning in the fourteenth-century and extending through the seventeenth-century, not only ushered in an upswell of new ideas and concepts about society but it crucially began one of the first known periods of a mass push to self identify. Additionally, the reintroduction and widespread comprehension of classical texts provided new avenues for individuals to reflect on how they can define themselves after an era of indiscriminate death caused by the plague — coupled with the explosive growth and diversification of the European economy spurning social stratification based on trade/class as well as further entrenching women’s role in domestic partnerships within an urbanizing populace. Despite the seismic shift in European thought, Christianity continued to dominate the public and private lives of individuals either directly as followers or indirectly as outcasts. However, irrespective of how a person preferred to explain one’s self, individuals were broadly defined by a set of predetermined factors including their gender, class, and religion all of which combined to form the real core of their existence.

Men and women during the Renaissance were innately defined by their gender. A person's gender in most cases orchestrated the education they received, the role they held within the family, the opportunities available to them outside of the family, and nearly every other facet of their life. Society defined people by their gender, but individuals also took the step to define themselves by their gender. In a searing letter to a fictionalized drunk man, Laura Cereta highlighted this issue by stating that both men and women naturally share equal thought capacity, but women have allowed cultural standards to suppress their ability. Cereta asserts, “The explanation is clear: women have been able by nature to be exceptional, but have chosen lesser goals… Even worse, we are content with our condition.” Despite biological factors that would enable women to be intellectual equals the established roles for women have continually defined women externally. Moreover, women, according to Cereta, are independently defining themselves by these standards and by their gender by accepting roles prescribed to them. In short, by accepting their roles, women have taken the step to define themselves through a false narrative.

In her letter, Cereta writes in broad terms and by doing so, overlooks Duchess Isabella d’Este who, like Cereta, received a formal education to surpass the established role given to women like her. However, d’Este remained steadfast in defining herself through her gender and femininity.  The role gender played in how d’ Este defined herself is seen through a portrait of the Duchess completed in 1536 by the artist Titian. Isabella in Black, as it is now referred to as, was painted entirely from written descriptions of the Duchess. Additionally, a portrait painted in 1511 was also loaned to Titian to be used as an artistic guide but more importantly, as an example of how d’Este wanted to be defined. The painting, which juxtaposed d’Este against an endlessly black background, emphasizes the youthfulness of a woman who was sixty-two and described by others as overweight and showing signs of her age at the time.

Furthermore, the viewer’s eye is drawn to d’Este’s rosy cheeks and supple jaw, which counter her stern and infallible facial expression that glances past her audience. The viewer is forced to address the stunning opulence of d’Este as her gilded headdress, and puffed pelt is attention-grabbing. However, these details do not independently explain how or why d’Este defines herself through her gender. By choosing to represent herself as a young woman, d’Este is defining herself by factors sourced directly from her gender. For women in this era, youth was aligned with the ideas of capability, fertility, virtuosity, and in the simplest terms, it represented the opposite of old age/fragility. d’Este’s sense of self originated from her societal standing as a ruler hence prompting her to define herself in terms that secured her authority. Lastly, Isabella d’Este’s preference to define herself as a young woman and emphasizes her female qualities instead of masking them alludes to the overall importance her gender had in defining herself not just as a ruler but as a person.

Isabella d’Este was not alone in defining her leadership and individualism through physical traits. Other Renaissance nobility similarly used physical qualities to define themselves, such as Lorenzo de Medici emphasizing his maturity and wisdom through an aged faced or Charles V directing attention to his crotch to hint at his masculinity and ability to reproduce., However, none are as evident in how their gender defined them, because unlike d’Este, they were not pushed to define themselves by their gender. Finally, I defined gender as a binary construct, and that understanding is no longer applicable today it was widely believed to be so during the Renaissance; even Catalina de Erauso who did not accept this binary definition still relied on their gender as a defining factor whether it be male or female.

Individuals have always found a source of identity through their occupation or their class in society, and the Renaissance was no different. However, the rapidly expanding economy created an increasingly stratified class system which provided new opportunities for a person to redefine themselves in comparison to a more static system such as Feudalism. An excellent example of how a person defined themselves via their occupation comes in the form of a novella by Antonio Manetti. The Fat Woodworker by Manetti examines the nature of how a person identifies themselves by removing all factors people traditionally use to identify themselves. Filippo Brunelleschi, the antagonist of the story, “pranks” his friend Manetto through a series of tricks meant to confuse Manetto into thinking he is a debtor named Matteo. While imprisoned, Manetto, now Matteo, sees Giovanni di Messer Francesco Rucellai and pleads with him, “Good man do you know of a man who is known as the Fat One who works as a woodworker around the corner from Piazza di San Giovanni? Tell me.” Giovanni tells Manetto that he does know the Fat One (another name given to Manetto), but by admitting this he also confirms to Manetto that he is not whom he believes to be and is Matteo. In his utter desperation to prove that he is who he is, Manetto uses one defining characteristic to define himself: his occupation. Identity sourced from occupation provides a certain level of individual mobility and re-identification, and while occupation-based identity was not a Renaissance idea, the social environment of the era applied further emphasis to one’s craft. A person’s craft was pivotal to how they identified, because it translated to their political standing, their marital opportunities, the options available to them, and was a clear barometer of their place in society.

As the novella develops and Manetto is joined by his “brothers”  a priest is brought to Manetto to help guide him in accepting that he is Matteo. Taking instructions from the priest Manetto willingly accepts that he is, in fact, Matteo: “At that instant, the Fat One has absolutely no doubt that he was Matteo. He responded to the priest that he was prepared to do as much as he could of what he was told.” Unlike the previous evidence pointing Manetto in the direction of Matteo, Manetto immediately accepts the instruction provided through the religious figure. This alludes to the central concept in which Manetto defines himself, which is his religion. Manetto can not deny the definitive nature religion plays, and therefore, he willingly accepts. He defines himself within the confines of his baptism and appears to follow that blindly even redefining himself because of religion.

Another striking example of how religion played a defining role in the lives of Renaissance men and women comes in the form of the 1957 Swedish historical fantasy The Seventh Seal written by Ingmar Bergman. Bergman infused post-WWII existentialism into his fourteenth-century fantasy, and by doing so, he emphasized the central tether religion played in how individuals defined themselves. The film follows protagonists Antonious Bloch as he duels with Death in a game of chess and as the story develops, Bloch attempts to channel Bergman’s existential denial of God into the certainty of death. The peak of Bloch’s existentialism comes through a confession he unknowingly gives to Death; Bloch proclaimed, “In our fear, we make an idol and call it God.” While these ideas on God and death are not directly in line with religious concepts of the era, they do work as a narrative tool that displays the real importance of religion. Post realization Bloch continues down a path searching for knowledge and answers to the meaning of his existence. Bloch continually attempts to push himself away from God, but the religious core of him is too entrenched as revealed in the penultimate scene. In the face of actual death, Bloch prays for salvation alluding to the significant role God and religion will always play in defining himself. Despite the series of events that could have dismantled his faith, Bloch is defined by his religion and resorts back to it in his final moments, therefore, making it a real pillar of his identity. Religion is such an essential self-defining quality for individuals during the Renaissance that both Bloch and Manetto opt to define themselves through religion despite alternative redefining options that could have better outcomes.

By removing the aspects of gender, class, and religion from a Floretinian man or a Venetian woman of the Renaissance, how would they define themselves? Familial bonds, worldly knowledge, and even ideas — other possible avenues for a person to define themselves — are primarily determined or at least influenced by these three admittedly basic tenets. However, the fundamental underpinnings of individual definition allude to a broader duality and struggle of the Renaissance: an intellectual revolution can only be taken as far as the individuals orchestrating it will allow it to go. The Renaissance for all of its accomplishments was still restrained by preexisting cultural hang-ups that can all be traced back to the fundamental way in which individuals define themselves.