Some familiarity with the literary works of ancient Rome continued from late antiquity throughout the Middle Ages, but even well-educated medieval scholars were familiar with only those parts of Latin literature that seemed germane to their own society, and they knew at first hand almost none of the literary masterpieces of ancient Greece. In addition, medieval thinkers often understood the works of ancient authors in ways that impress modern students as strangely anachronistic. The work of Petrarch revived interest in rediscovering the whole corpus of ancient Latin literature—that is, the "classics"— because he and his followers identified Roman literature with the sophisticated, highly civilized society that had produced it, and longed to restore familiarity not only with that literature but also with the values reflected in it. Thus the classics became "the classics" because they were thought to be markers of high civilization. The Petrarchan dream of restoring the power and culture of ancient Rome was closely linked to enthusiasm for discovering, diffusing, and learning from the writings of the ancient authors — that is, from the classics.
   This reverence for ancient literature was one of the principal characteristics of the Italian Renaissance, and while it began to mature only with the lifetime of Petrarch, evidence of its growth in northern Italy can already be found in the writings of a number of influential authors of the late 13th century. Beginning with the work of Petrarch himself, the classicizing humanist scholars of the 14th and 15th centuries rediscovered unknown works even of classical Latin authors who had been relatively well known in the Middle Ages, such as Cicero, while works of other ancient Latin authors whose works were virtually unknown, such as Livy and Quintilian, were brought to light by Petrarch's successors. The restoration of a knowledge of Greek language by the teaching of Manuel Chrysoloras at the turn of the 15th century opened the way to a parallel rediscovery of Greek classical literature. The invention of printing in the mid-15th century diffused the rediscovered Latin and Greek classics (along with other books) among the educated classes of all of western and central Europe.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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