Mellon Engaging Humanities

As a fellow for the Mellon Engaging Humanities initiative at UCSB, I took an interdisciplinary course during summer 2019 called “The Self Before Selfies: The Birth of Individualism” taught by Professors Brad Bouley and Patrick McHugh. This page features the major essays written for the course.

For journals / reading responses written for the course, click here.


  • Essay 1 | Historical Analysis: Answers how people defined themselves in the Renaissance
  • Essay 2 | Literary Analysis: Examines Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey through an existential lens.

Essay 1 | In Hindsight: The Individual

The Renaissance was a period of cultural rebirth that sought to revive ancient thought from the Greek and Roman worlds, embracing the idea that knowledge could be gained by going ad fontes.[1] The period reflects a new engagement with worldly ideals rather than the sole focus of following a divine being and the church. Thus, the emergence of the individual sprouted with humanist ideals, embracing education in the arts and humanities and exploring what it means to be human. As the idea of the individual established its place in society,  it was evident that it was comprised of several elements with each revealing certain details about a person and his or her identity. During the Renaissance, individuals were characterized by their sense of social belonging, social rank, and potential to transcend those means.

Ironically, an important aspect of being an individual is achieving social acceptance and having a sense of social belonging. In The Fat Woodworker by Antonio Manetti, the pressure to be accepted is prevalent when Manetto the Fat One rejects what he knows because of what others have to say. As the victim of a prank, Manetto is convinced that he is not himself and is instead another named Matteo. At first, he is firm and insists that, “[they had] taken [him] by mistake… [He was] not who [they thought he was].”[2] Manetto trusts that he knows who he is but conforms after public recognition and talks with authority figures. Instead of continuously protesting that Manetto is not Matteo, he is shamed into conforming by Matteo’s brothers, the priest, and his reputation as he is warned that “[w]orthy men [do not] act this way.”[3] Manetto was compelled to comply with his changed identity. Even when the true Matteo shares his version of mistaken identity, Manetto keeps quiet and plays along with Filippo di Ser Brunellesco’s antics. “The Fat One [did not] say a word. He was like a person possessed…”[4] He could have easily revealed that his experiences mirrored Matteo’s, but he is silent. His omission of the truth expresses his need for acceptance. If Manetto shared his version of the story, he would have been labeled a fool or fesso for falling for the prank. Similarly, he could have been viewed as a madman. Either way, it would not bode well for the Fat One. In these instances, Manetto is a clear example of needing others to validate his individuality.

The notion of social acceptance is further validated in Leon Battista Alberti’s “The Family in Renaissance Florence.”The manuscript emphasizes appearances and social reputation through a conversation between Giannozzo and Lionardo. They discuss what it means to be a successful family man by defining women’s roles in the household, asserting that it is a woman’s place to maintain the house and not embarrass her husband. Giannozzo dictates how a man should domesticate a girl so that she knows how to become a mother and wife. This is significant since his reputation depends on it. The practice was that a wife should “[u]se every means to appear to all people as a highly respectable woman. To seem less would be to offend God, [her husband], [the] children, and [herself].”[5] The order he presents this shame not only indicates a woman’s intended place and her husband’s manipulative rhetoric, it shows that the family’s collective image is more important than how a woman feels about her image.

As such, women should not wear makeup because “in their petty vanity, that their immodest appearance excites numerous and lustful men. Such men all besiege and attack such a girl… until at last the unfortunate wretch falls into real disgrace. From such a fall she cannot rise again without the stain of great and lasting infamy.”[6] Essentially, Giannozzo is declaring that his wife and her behavior reflects on him. If he cannot keep his wife in check, it effeminates him, endangering his manhood. What is worse than a man perceived as anything but masculine?

Portrait of Isabelle d’Este by Titian

Furthermore, social rank was a defining feature of the individual. Figures like Charles V, the Medici’s, and Isabelle d’Este had their portraits catered to the image they wished to project. Being in the public eye meant the images they portrayed were crucial to their statuses. It had to display virility, power, and legacy. d’Este’s portrait by Titian depicts her as youthful, despite the painting having been done when she was in her sixties.[7] In fact, she was so dissatisfied with Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of her that she requested one to paint her in youth. As a woman in a position of power, the stakes were much higher; women were held to higherstandards simply for being women.Her desire for a young image and insistence that she has one demonstrates how significant her appearance was perceived. A youthful image at an older age implied that her presence would remain for years to come. Powerful women could not redefine themselves by their social rank, instead they were bound to it.

On the other hand, women who were not in a position of power were also restricted by their social rank. As Alberti demonstrated in “The Family in Renaissance Florence,” a woman’s status was entirely dependent on her chastity and husband, since, in comparison to men, there were not many honorable occupations that a woman could hold. Laura Cereta, a feminist writer and humanist, shares how a woman’s status limits her in a male dominant society. Cereta was not as bound to the cult of domesticity as other women since her father was an elite scholar who provided an education for her. Her use of writing and reading acts as a tool to challenge gender roles. In her work “Letter to Bibulus Sempronius,” Cereta describes women’s excellence by listing the women who exemplified success, comparing a few to Homer and Vigil to “compel [men and women] to concede that nature imparts equally to all the same freedom to learn” [8]   This argument vouches that gender does not limit the potential of universal man, even though for society it defines how well an individual can do.

With that in mind, Cereta’s writing advocates for the transcendence of universal man. She lectures that “knowledge is not given as a gift but is gained with diligence,” reminding readers that they are limiting themselves with the constructs of social rank and gender.[9] This feminist work acknowledges the patriarchal constraints while revealing some enablement on behalf of women. She declares that “…women have been able by nature to be exceptional but have chosen lesser goals.”[10] This transparency oversimplifies the oppression women faced in the Renaissance. Cereta’s education was a rare opportunity, so her family’s status of wealth clouds her vision. Regardless of the blame, the fact remains that the capability of humankind “has generously lavished its gifts upon all people, opening to all the doors of choice…”[11] Ultimately, a person’s potential is not established by his or her social rank, but it is dependent on the individual’s ability to gain knowledge and utilize it.

Similarly, this growth is documented in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. He declares that “man’s place in the universe is somewhere between the beasts and angels, but, because of the divine image planted in him, there are no limits to what man can accomplish,” meaning that mankind is essentially better off than other creatures and beings because man possesses free will.[12] This revolutionary thought speaks to the potential of people and their abilities to improve their stations, transforming them from fesso to furbo. The notion of transcendence requires that man accept the moral responsibility of becoming self-aware and move towards self-improvement. Only then can man “fill [his] well-prepared and purified soul with the light of natural philosophy, so that man may at last perfect [the mind and soul] in the knowledge of things divine.”[13] Social institutions like the church and social stratification were responsible for confining people to their labels, and della Mirandola challenges the construct that people needed the church to be well off in the earthly life and the next. A common thread between della Mirandola and Cereta is drawing on knowledge from the ancient world and with this thought, mankind is empowered. 

In essence, the individual was impacted by the public and social status. In addition, the humanist movement required that the individual outsmart those categories and rise above. With an emphasis on rhetoric, poetry, history, and ethics, individuals in the Renaissance were to be mindful of their positions. Only through their efforts would they have been able to excel. Surveying works like “The Fat Woodworker,” “Letter to Bibulus Sempronius,” and “Oration on the Dignity of Man” reveal the emergence of individualism and its definitive features for people of all statuses. It is said that only hindsight is 20/20 vision. Going ad fontes gave those in the Renaissance the opportunity to engage with the world around them, and today it provides scholars looking with modern lenses the tools needed to discover the individual.

  • [1] Brad Bouley. “Early Renaissance in Florence.” Lecture, Phelps Hall, August 7, 2019.
  • [2] Antonio Manetti, The Fat Woodworker, (Italica Press, Inc, New York, 1991), 7-8.
  • [3] Manetti, 25.
  • [4] Manetti, 42.
  • [5] Leon Battista Alberti, “The Family in Renaissance Florence,” (University of Toronto Press Incorporated, New York, 2011), 129.
  • [6] Alberti, 129.
  • [7] Brad Bouley. “Images of Power.” Lecture, Phelps Hall, August 12, 2019.
  • [8] Laura Cereta. “Letter to Bibulus Sempronius: A Defense of the Liberal Instruction of Women,” in The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance, ed. by Kenneth R. Bartlett, (University of Toronto Press, New York, 2011), 197.
  • [9] Cereta, 197.
  • [10] Cereta, 198.
  • [11] Cereta, 198.
  • [12] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. “Oration on the Dignity of Man” in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. by Ernst Cassirer, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago), 227.
  • [13] della Mirandola, 229.