Monthly Archives: April 2015

My Renaissance Education

"Massimiliano a scuola", Gian Pietro Birago?, from Libro di Grammatica di Massimiliano Sforza, Milano, Biblioteca Trivulziana, Public Domain
“Massimiliano a scuola”, Gian Pietro Birago?, from Libro di Grammatica di Massimiliano Sforza, Milano, Biblioteca Trivulziana, Public Domain

“These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel, and when we visit the countryside.”

In this passage, Cicero was talking about the studia humanitatis/humanities.  Petrarch, my homeland’s famous poet, discovered this speech, Pro Archia, and  I owe my wonderful education in the humanities to both of these great men of letters.

My tutor tells me how education has changed since the time of Petrarch. Instead of studying logic (as students did 200 years ago), we focus on history, Greek, moral philosophy, and poetry, as well as the traditional subjects of grammar and rhetoric.

Why the changes? These days, educated people believe Cicero’s words that “history is the witness of the times, light of truth, teacher of life, life of memory, and announcer of the past,” and that poetry teaches us good habits and guides our character.

I’m fortunate to live in this enlightened age, and doubly fortunate, as a girl, to be able to study these subjects.



Rebirth/ Rinascimento/ Renaissance

Study for the Head of Leda (c. 1505 - 1507), by Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain.
Study for the Head of Leda (c. 1505 – 1507), by Leonardo da Vinci. Public Domain.

My father and my tutors keep telling me how fortunate I am to live here, where we speak the Italian tongue, and now, after our philosophers, writers, artists, and so many others have progressed beyond the ways of the past. They say we’re living in a time of rebirth (rinascimento).

I first heard about rebirth in church, when the priest read a Bible story about a man named Nicodemus, who asked Jesus how he could be born again. Jesus replied that if Nicodemus wanted to see God’s kingdom, he must be born again by God’s Spirit. I had to ask my parents what that meant–what a wonderful mystery!

So thankfully, God’s gift of spiritual rebirth has been available for centuries to anyone who believes.

But this new idea of rebirth is different. I asked my father and my tutors what rinascimento means, practically speaking. How is my life different than if I’d been born before this movement began?

My tutors admit that for people without an education, not too much has changed, but a revival of learning has transformed the world of ideas and arts since Petrarch began to write poetry in the common tongue (instead of Latin) back in the 1300s. Scholars began to translate works by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and a new interest in human achievements (not only religion) has flourished ever since.

Paintings now show real people in true-to-life settings (sometimes from Greek mythology, as well as Bible stories). Artists portray their subjects’ emotions.

My father tells me that, like the great Leonardo da Vinci, scientists conduct experiments and physicians study anatomy. If ancient theories and treatments are proven ineffective, they’re discarded.

My tutors tell me they teach different subjects than earlier generations of students would have learned—but that’s too much to talk about now. I’ll write more about my studies next time.



Modesta da Pozzo

Modesta playing the lute, artist unknown, public domain
Modesta playing the lute, artist unknown, public domain


The excitement of another Venetian Easter has passed, and my thoughts have turned again to what I’ll do when I finish my schooling. I’ve wondered if I’d ever find a woman whose career I’d want to emulate, but then my tutor recommended I study poetry with Modesta da Pozzo, a rising young poet in Venice. I’ve loved to read and write poetry since my first schoolmaster introduced me to it. From the ancient Greeks to my compatriots Dante, Petrarco, and Boccaccio, I enjoy them all.

When I met Modesta da Pozzo, I was shocked to discover she’s only six years older than me. Her parents died when she was very young, but her extended family looked after her well. She credits her interest in poetry to her grandfather (who gave her books and urged her to read and write poetry), her brother (who taught her what he learned at Latin school), and her uncle (who took her in and supported her efforts as a poet after her grandparents died). They all did a wonderful job—I’ve never met a woman as talented and thoughtful as Modesta. She’s not only a gifted poet who writes in Latin and the common tongue, but she also plays the lute, sings, and sews.

Now Modesta will help me improve my own verse. Someday maybe schoolgirls will read my poems and remember me, just as I’ll never forget Modesta.