Historians sometimes have an infuriating tendency to write as if only a single thing can be happening at once. In my field, the intellectual history of the early modern age, this has manifested itself as a tripartite separation of the period into Renaissance (15th–16th centuries), scientific revolution or Cartesian age of reason (17th century) and Enlightenment (18th century). This has its origins in the somewhat mystical history writings of 19th-century neo-Hegelians, who believed that each age is characterised by a zeitgeist, one usually represented by its ‘greatest’ thinkers. And while modern historians are for the most part not Hegelians, many of them have doggedly (and some even dogmatically) adhered to these shorthands, despite all the evidence pointing to far more continuity in intellectual life across centuries than was once appreciated.
The emphasis on continuity in The Italian Renaissance and the Origins of the Modern Humanities by the renowned historian of Italian humanism Christopher Celenza thus comes as a welcome intervention. ‘Humanism’ is of course another ambiguous word. At its most basic, it was a project of intellectual reform that