René Descartes (1596–1650) has been called the Father of Modern Philosophy because of his work in philosophy, metaphysics, theology, and mathematics. Perhaps best known for the groundbreaking maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes lays out a method for creating solid foundations upon which he can build theoretical arguments—an epistemology known as Cartesianism. The Discourse moves from autobiography to philosophical tract and recounts how Descartes came to the thoughts and processes that redefined philosophy.
From René Descartes, A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Trans. Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 5–11, 28–30, 374.
The humanist and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) is best known for his Italian treatise, The Prince, on Renaissance city-state rulers—but his Discourses on Livy better clarify his republican ideals. In the response to Roman historian Livy, Machiavelli traces the origins of “good” republics. He comments on the maintenance of liberties, the role of religion, and the danger of societal fragmentation through conspiracy.
From Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy. Trans. Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 31–2, 53–6, 256–8, 275.
Francesco Guicciardini (1483–1540) was a wealthy lawyer with good political connections. Like many such figures in the Renaissance, he also had cultural and intellectual ambitions. In his later years he wrote a brilliant History of Italy that was one of the first works of history to combine the use of extensive archival records and a critical attitude toward political motivations and intentions. His History of Florence, however, is the work of a young man trying to feel his way in an unfamiliar discipline. Its most incisive passage is translated below and provides a closely observed portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492), who ruled Florence from 1469 until his death. (Guicciardini, of course, did not know Lorenzo personally, being only nine years old when the ruler died.)
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
An Italian astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) made many significant contributions to science—such as improvements to the telescope and work with sunspots—but is remembered for his support of a heliocentric model of the solar system. His conviction led him into conflict with the Catholic Church; he was accused of heresy and finished his days under house arrest. Aside from his astronomical texts, Galileo also corresponded with leading figures of his day. This letter, to the Benedictine mathematician Benedetto Castelli, addresses one of the main articles of the problem with Galileo’s heliocentrism: how to reconcile observable scientific fact with the words of the Bible, held to be literal and inviolable in 17th-century Italy.
From Galileo Galilei, Selected Writings. Trans William R. Shea and Mark Davie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 55–61.
An architect and fresco-painter in his own right—and even an apprentice to Michelangelo in his youth—Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) is most fondly remembered for his personal accounts of roughly two hundred celebrated artists of Renaissance Italy. Using art historical analysis, Vasari talks capably about the production and technical elements of paintings, ambitious architectural projects, metalworking, and sculpture. Charming anecdotes about the greats—Giotto, Michelangelo, Botticelli, etc.—bring to life the world inhabited by these incredibly talented individuals. The Life of Donatello (1386–1466) provides glimpses into the artistic temperament exemplified by Cellini (Document 11.6), while the Preface to Part III provides an overview of artistic development throughout the Renaissance.
From Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 147–9, 153–4, 159–60, 277–9, 281–3.
Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) was an Italian goldsmith and sculptor—and part-time soldier—who inhabited the thrilling art world dominated by masters like Michelangelo and Da Vinci. A member of the Mannerist school, Cellini was patronized by dukes, popes, and the French king; his “artistic temperament” meant that he was often in trouble with his fellow artists—he was accused of four homicides over the course of his life. This selection from his autobiography illustrates the way in which his artistic excellence framed his every experience and relationship, both personal and professional.
From Benvenuto Cellini, My Life. Trans. Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 24–9, 66–9, 124–5.
Ogier Ghiselin de Bosbecq
Ghiselin (1522–1592) was a Flemish ambassador who represented the Austrian Habsburgs at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566) in Istanbul. In 1581, he published an account of his time among the Ottomans as Itinera Constantinopolitanum et Amasianum (Travels in Constantinople and Asia Minor). A polymath, a sensitive observer of court politics, and an adventurous intellectual, Ghiselin also discovered a nearly intact copy of the autobiography of the Roman emperor Augustus which had been inscribed at Ankara, and he publicized the contents of this Monumentum Ancyranum for scholars around the world—and up to the present day. However, in this segment of his travel-narrative, he draws attention to the personal habits and behaviors of a contemporary emperor—and one who saw himself as the heir to the Romans as well as to the other monarchs who had held Constantinople/Istanbul.
Wayne S. Vucinich, The Ottoman Empire: Its Record and Legacy (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1965), pp. 127–129.
Thomas the Eparch and Joshua Diplovatatzes
The siege and conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet II (r. 1451–1481) was one of the turning points of world history. Unfolding over two months between April 5 and May 29, 1453, the siege exposed the inability of the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI to withstand a sustained and massive attack. Outnumbering the defenders 11 to 1, the Ottomans battered Constantinople’s walls with heavy cannons and took advantage of the natural weaknesses of the city’s geography. This account, told by two survivors and (self-proclaimed) eyewitnesses to the siege and its aftermath, details some of the specific stages of the defeat—and the suffering for Christians that came as a result.
trans. William L. North from the Italian version in A. Pertusi, ed., La Caduta di Constantinopoli: Le testimonianze dei contemporanei (Milan: Mondadori, 1976), 234–239, available online at https://apps.carleton.edu/curricular/mars/assets/Thomas_the_Eparch_and_Joshua_Diplovatatzes_for_MARS_website.pdf.