Renaissance Italy's "First Responders": Humanists and the Humanities in an Age of Crisis

May 06, 2021

Emily O'Brien

Thursday, May 6, 5:30PM–7:00PM PDT, Via Zoom Webinar (Registration Required)

Organized and sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities

Register HERE

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italians endured the Black Death, climate change, banking collapse, chronic war, political turmoil and a Catholic Church in disarray. In the midst of these significant and overlapping crises, where did they turn for solutions? The humanities. As a curriculum of study, the humanities first emerged in the context of these crises. But more importantly, it emerged as a response to them. In this talk, Dr. Emily O’Brien will explore the many ways in which Renaissance Italian humanists served as first responders in an age of sustained crisis. They did so by translating a curriculum rich in history, rhetoric, moral philosophy, and poetry into practical tools and innovative solutions for tackling the problems of their day. More than just a tour of Renaissance Italy, this story carries a critical message for us today as we face the challenges of Covid-19 and our other 21st-century crises: now more than ever, we need the humanities.


Emily O'Brien is an Associate Professor in the History and Humanities Departments at SFU. Her research focuses on the intersection of politics and intellectual culture in fifteenth-century Italy and, in particular, in the Renaissance papacy.  She has published several articles and essays on the writings of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) and a monograph entitled The Commentaries of Pope Pius II (1458-1464) and the Crisis of the Fifteenth-Century Papacy (University of Toronto Press, 2015). Her current book project focus on civic consciousness and the reception of Cicero's De Officiis in Renaissance Italy.