Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Profession, Renaissance Idea of

  • Douglas BiowEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1146-1


Having a profession, and thus having a professional identity, increasingly mattered in late Renaissance Italy, above all in the sixteenth century. At the same time, there was a growing sense of the value of something that we might in retrospect reasonably call “professionalism,” even if that particular term was certainly not part of the available discourse of the period.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

Having a profession (fare una professione) meant in Renaissance Italy that you could literally profess (profiteri is the Latin infinitive), you felt entitled to speak out on various matters to which you could claim mastery in your daily working life – as a doctor, a theologian, or a lawyer – to take three long-standing, recognized “professioni” of, before, and after the period in question. Accordingly, the term “profession” could be used as a virtual synonym for “art” (Italian arte, Latin ars), with the term “art” understood – like the concept of techne from the time of the ancient Greeks – as a highly specialized, determinate, rational, communicable, reliable, teachable, and often rule-bound form of skillfully applied and socially valued knowledge. More precisely, in the strictest sense of the term, a “professione” signified the area of expertise practiced by someone with significant training in it, while an “arte,” at least as the concept unfolded historically, typically signified the form of knowledge that the practitioner put into practice in the course of expertly working in the profession. So the two terms – arte and professione – could indeed be set side by side in the same phrase without being seen as entirely redundant in meaning. Put differently, in theory we can say that an art as a form of knowledge put into practice (the know-how of rhetoric, say, which allows one to be a rhetorician) underpins a profession as an area of expertise (actually being a rhetorician who applies that knowledge of rhetoric with admirable skill). But a profession (being a rhetorician) does not underpin an art (rhetoric). Nevertheless, in reality the two terms were used often enough interchangeably in Italian Renaissance culture, where “artes” can also refer to guilds, such as the 21 major and minor “arti/artes” of Florence and where one of the definitions synthetically applied to the term “professione” in the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (Lexicon of the Academicians of the Crusca, 1612) is, in fact, “ars.”

Innovative and Original Aspects

In thinking about Renaissance Italy, it would certainly be a mistake to talk about “professionalism” in the precise modern, sociological sense of the term: in order to signal the organizing, controlling, and credentialing of exclusionary labor in the full-blown capitalist economies associated with the large, complex, bureaucratic nation states of the west in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. That said, it would be correct historically to use the term “professionalism” in a broader sense: in order to signal how a widespread interest in professions and professional identity did indeed intensify greatly in the brokerage, patronage, guild-controlled, gift-giving, and proto-capitalist market economies of the small but increasingly bureaucratic courts, republics, princedoms, and duchies of late Renaissance Italy. In the sixteenth century, both practitioners and non-practitioners alike, after all, wrote an unprecedented number of treatises – far more than any prior century – directly addressing what was required in order to succeed in everything from being an ambassador, courtier, prince, cardinal, soldier, and secretary to that of a sculptor, architect, painter, metallurgist, engineer, cook, goldsmith, surgeon, medic, and steward. In the process of doing so, these practitioners and non-practitioners self-consciously spoke about what it meant to have specifically a “professione,” and they articulated at the same time rivalries among “professioni.” As a result, the sixteenth century in Italy experienced what has been called a profound shift in a “rhetoric of profession,” with rhetoric here understood not just as the formal art of persuasion but as a discourse that is bounded with traceable topoi (commonplaces) and that is historically and culturally determined.

Impact and Legacy

This shift in a rhetoric of professions involved, among other things, a marked attention to professional self-definition; a truly broad-based cultural exploration, leveling, and secularization of professions; an increased attention to the value of vocational choice and work as a source of happiness and self-worth; a popularizing of these issues through the commercial press and in the vulgar tongue; an astonishing proliferation of the topic of professions in a variety of less learned cultural forms, from encyclopedic compendia to chronicles, to jokes, to civic rituals, to carnival songs, and to parlor games; and an extraordinary increase in – as well as cultural acceptance of and resistance toward – different professions as indeed professions. This widespread investment in professions culminated toward the end of the sixteenth century in Tomaso Garzoni’s cornucopian La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (The Universal Piazza of All the Professions in the World, 1585/1587), a massive, quirky, and encyclopedic book that covered virtually every profession under the sun, from that of the Petrarchan-modeled, humanist scholar ensconced in his study to, at the opposite end of the social spectrum, that of the lowly street cleaner or, for that matter, even the conniving street charlatan. We can thus legitimately talk about Italy possessing by the end of the sixteenth century something akin to what sociologists have called a “system of professions” long before professionalism, as we have come to understand it in the academy today, took hold in the modern, post-Enlightenment era.


Primary Literature

  1. Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca. Accessed online. http://vocabolario.sns.it/html/index.html

Secondary Literature

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of French & ItalianThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marco Sgarbi
    • 1
  1. 1.University Ca' Foscari VeniceVeniceItaly