Renaissance humanism was a response to the utilitarian approach and what came to be depicted as the "narrow pedantry" associated with medieval scholasticism. Humanists sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy.
According to one scholar of the movement,
Early Italian humanism, which in many respects continued the grammatical and rhetorical traditions of the Middle Ages, not merely provided the old Trivium with a new and more ambitious name (Studia humanitatis), but also increased its actual scope, content and significance in the curriculum of the schools and universities and in its own extensive literary production. The studia humanitatis excluded logic, but they added to the traditional grammar and rhetoric not only history, Greek, and moral philosophy, but also made poetry, once a sequel of grammar and rhetoric, the most important member of the whole group.
Humanism was a pervasive cultural mode and not the program of a small elite, a program to revive the cultural legacy, literary legacy, and moral philosophy of classical antiquity. There were important centres of humanism in Florence, Naples, Rome, Venice, Genoa, Mantua, Ferrara, and Urbino.
Some of the first humanists were great collectors of antique manuscripts, including Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio, Coluccio Salutati, and Poggio Bracciolini. Of the four, Petrarch was dubbed the "Father of Humanism" because of his devotion or loyalty to Greek and Roman scrolls. Many worked for the Catholic Church and were in holy orders, like Petrarch, while others were lawyers and chancellors of Italian cities, and thus had access to book copying workshops, such as Petrarch's disciple Salutati, the Chancellor of Florence.
In Italy, the humanist educational program won rapid acceptance and, by the mid-15th century, many of the upper classes had received humanist educations, possibly in addition to traditional scholasticist ones. Some of the highest officials of the Catholic Church were humanists with the resources to amass important libraries. Such was Cardinal Basilios Bessarion, a convert to the Catholic Church from Greek Orthodoxy, who was considered for the papacy, and was one of the most learned scholars of his time. There were several 15th-century and early 16th-century humanist Popes one of whom, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II), was a prolific author and wrote a treatise on The Education of Boys. These subjects came to be known as the humanities, and the movement which they inspired is shown as humanism.