Associations, originally loosely organized and unofficial, formed from about the middle of the 15th century by local groups of Italian humanists to promote the growth of humanistic studies and in general the revival of ancient civilization. The use of the term "academy" was a reminiscence of the Platonic Academy of ancient Athens. From about 1540, local princes and city governments sometimes sponsored and encouraged such associations, which tended to become more formal than previously. The academies consisted of self-proclaimed leaders of intellectual life, and both before and after the age of public sponsorship, membership in them was a sign of belonging to the intellectual elite. The Roman Academy of the 15th century sprang up as an informal association among the humanists employed in papal administrative agencies. Pomponio Leto, one of the most erudite humanists of the day, was its central figure. Pope Paul II suppressed the group in 1468-1469, supposedly because its enthusiasm for ancient culture raised suspicions of pagan religious practices, but more likely because he suspected some of its members of political conspiracy. The organization revived under Popes Julius II and Leo X, both of whom had been associated with the earlier group, but Clement VII suppressed it in the aftermath of the imperial army's sack of the city of Rome in 1527. The most influential of the early informal academies was the so-called Platonic Academy of Florence, a loose association of intellectuals dominated by the philosopher Marsilio Ficino and devoted to the propagation of Plato's philosophy. This group included humanists like Angelo Poliziano and Cristoforo Landino but also wealthy patricians and politicians such as Bernardo Rucellai and Lorenzo de'Medici. By no means all assemblies of local notables and intellectuals called themselves academies: the informal gatherings in the gardens of Bernardo Rucellai in the late 15th century to discuss political questions, meetings that had an impact on the political thought of Niccolo Machiavelli, were never called an academy.
   By the 16th century, most large Italian cities had several academies, while even small towns had one or two. Most of this activity remained informal, and many academies were short-lived. Some academies specialized in one or a few defined fields of learning, such as Platonist philosophy or natural science; others took the whole of human learning as their subject. In a number of places, local rulers became the patrons of such groups. By 1600 several hundred academies had been founded in Italy, and some major cities had large numbers. For example, Rome in the 17th century had 132, a mark of its leading position in Italian cultural life in that period. By no means all academies were serious associations of scholars. Humor and recreation were often more important than scholarly activity. One that was scholarly was the Florentine Academy (about 1540), devoted to preservation of the Tuscan dialect as the literary language for all educated Italians. Its successor, the Accademia della Crusca, founded in 1582, pursued the same goal. There were academies for discussion and perfection of the fine arts, such as the Carracci academy founded at Bologna in the late 16th century to promote certain stylistic trends in painting, or the Accademia del Disegno in Florence. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, scientific academies like the Accademia dei Lincei at Rome (1603-1630) and the Accademia del Cimento at Florence (1657-1667) were important as centers for critical assessment of Aristotelian science that would not have been tolerated in the tradition-bound universities.
   From late in the reign of Francis I (1515-1547), French intellectuals encouraged their government to foster academies similar to the Italian ones. While most Italian academies remained essentially local, the growth of centralized royal authority in northern Europe led to the emergence of large, nationally organized academies founded and sometimes even financed by the royal government, such as the Académie Française (1634), devoted to literary and linguistic studies, the Académie Royale des Sciences (1666), devoted to natural science, and the Royal Society of London (1660), which fostered learning in general but increasingly focused its attention on natural science.
   The academies of Renaissance Europe were never conceived or organized as schools. Although formal lectures might be delivered, such as those of Ficino on Platonic philosophy, there was never a program of formal instruction. The academies were essentially gatherings of like-minded scholars to discuss ideas and problems in which the members had a shared interest. The most serious ones were historically important because they provided relatively informal settings in which controversial issues and new ideas could be discussed in a way that would have been impossible in universities and institutions dedicated to the instruction of youth.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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