Exploring the arts of power and persuasion in the Renaissance

July 12 – 31, 2020

The Humanities cultivate our awareness of the many factors and forces that shape the actions and beliefs of individual or group through time.  Most of all, it strengthens our capacity to enter into the lives and thoughts of others so as to understand more fully, subtly, and sympathetically “what makes them tick,” a capacity that ultimately helps us be and do better in every aspect of our lives.

Director, Bill North

Letter from the Director

Dear Students and Families,

When describing the goals that shaped his work, the seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza remarked: “I have labored carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions.”

This project—to understand human actions in the fullness of their origins, progress, and consequences and to comprehend the dynamic world of ideas and sensibilities that inspires and is inspired by them—lies at the heart of the Humanities. It is a project that draws on many disciplines and many forms of human expression: from historical documents to religious and philosophical writings to literature to works of art and performances. Its sources and its questions lead humanistic inquiry to place particular emphasis on skills of observation, analysis, interpretation, imagination, and criticism. It teaches us how to examine and interpret small details to gain larger insights, to see the variety that exists within categories and generalities, and how to trace ideas and actions back to their origins.

The Humanities cultivate our awareness of the many factors and forces that shape the actions and beliefs of individuals or groups at a moment or through time. Most of all, it strengthens our capacity to enter into the lives and thoughts of others so as to understand more fully, subtly, and sympathetically “what makes them tick,” a capacity that ultimately helps us be and do better in every aspect of our lives.

In the Humanities Session of the Carleton Summer Liberal Arts Institute, we will develop these skills—along with a variety of techniques to share the results of our research with wider audiences—through an exploration of the Arts of Power in the Renaissance.

With my colleagues Pierre Hecker in English, Victoria Morse in History and History of Mapmaking, and Juliane Shibata in Studio Art and Art History, we will explore together the ways in which people in Renaissance Europe (especially England and Italy) sought to understand, represent, criticize and transform different forms of power and value. In particular, we will investigate the ways in which contemporaries in Renaissance Europe cultivated the historical, social, and visual imagination to shape and reshape their own societies.

We will examine closely a wide range of primary sources (in translation), including select plays of William Shakespeare (and their modern adaptations and stagings), the writings of Florentine political advisor Niccolò Machiavelli and his contemporaries, texts and full-scale reproductions of medieval and Renaissance maps, and a rich array of Renaissance images. Through our discussion of them, we will seek to understand the complex forms and functions of power, the connection between vision, knowledge, and truth, and how human beings have used drama, history, mapmaking, philosophy, and the visual and scientific arts to understand, control, and challenge their world.

Complementing these classes will be sessions devoted to developing your skills as observers and creators of visual materials. Field trips to a Shakespeare performance, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the James Ford Bell Map Library at the University of Minnesota round out our program.

Over the three weeks of the Institute, you will develop and present interdisciplinary, guided research projects in History (including art historical and philosophical topics), History of Mapmaking, or Literature and Theater. You will acquire and learn to use effectively tools and techniques of research, interpretation, and presentation essential to achieve the goal of humanistic research: to understand with depth and complexity the nature of human thought, action, and expression and to convey this understanding to others.

Carleton’s rich Library and Special Collections and other campus spaces will offer inviting contexts in which to study, perform, debate, and discover. At the end of the seminar, participants will present their work in a public symposium that will include oral and visual presentations and dramatic performances.

We look forward to working with you!


Bill North
Professor of History and Director of the SLAI Humanities Program

Writing Sample Requirement

Humanities Writing Sample

Each applicant to the Humanities Program must submit a writing sample along with their online application. The writing sample must be submitted during application process and an application will not be considered complete without the writing sample.

The writing sample should be a recent sample of your best academic writing for review by the Humanities Program Admissions Committee. Your writing sample should be a minimum of two pages long, typed and double spaced. The essay may be on any topic of your choice and should be of an academic nature. While not required, we suggest a literary analysis or research paper. If you have questions about the qualification of a writing sample please contact our office. 

When uploading the document to your application please note the following are supported file formats: .txt (plain text); .doc or .docx (Word); or PDF (portable document file).

Academic Credit Information

Summer Carls can earn up to six Carleton course credits (typically transfers as three semester credits) for successfully meeting faculty expectations and completing course requirements. In addition to receiving written feedback about course performance from faculty, students will receive one of the following three possible grade designations: satisfactory (S), credit (Cr), or no credit (NC). Formal academic transcripts are available upon request for Summer Carl alumni and will reflect the name of the course and grade earned.

Academic Structure

Of the multiple course topics listed on this page, Summer Carls will explore some topics in morning classes and one topic in an afternoon research group.

View SLAI’s Academic Structure Guide to learn more about how you can shape your program experience to fit your interests this summer.

2020 Courses and Faculty:

The World of Niccolò Machiavelli:

Exploring Power and Knowledge in the Renaissance

Niccolò Macchiavelli (1469-1527) grew up in one of the vibrant centers of humanistic investigation and artistic creativity—Florence. Contemporaries were recovering and reconstructing Greek and Roman pasts and using them as models and sources of inspiration and critique for speaking, thinking, and visual representation. No one engaged more vigorously in this dialogue with the past than Machiavelli as he reflected on and challenged ideas about political rule and community using the evidence of the ancients. 

In this course, we will explore the analyses of Machiavelli and others (men and women) of the forms and functions of power in this world and the place of knowledge in acquiring and maintaining power. We will watch as they use classical antiquity and contemporary history as different, but equally useful, tools with which to understand the force fields of authority, influence, and violence that surrounded them. What was power? What was authority? How were these gained and lost? What role did wealth, religion, gender, social status, and appearances play in the ability of individuals and groups to act? What form of knowledge did one need to succeed? And what did those who wielded power (or wanted to) have to learn from the past?

Throughout the course, students choosing history as their primary field will pursue individual research projects culminating in an extended research essay that they craft in consultation with the professor and an academic poster presentation based on this research.


Bill North

Professor Bill North

Fascinated by history and the classical tradition at Princeton University, Bill North went on to receive his Ph.D. in medieval history from the University of California in 1998. While at Berkeley, he developed a deep love for Italy and the city of Rome in particular and has lived for almost five years in the city.

Bill is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome and at Carleton co-directs an off campus study program in Rome with his colleague Victoria Morse. In his research and teaching, he is particularly interested in the dynamics—institutional and intellectual—of controversies, the creation and maintenance of institutional and political cultures, and the role of the past in creating and dismantling structures of authority and knowledge.

At Carleton, Bill teaches courses on the later Roman Empire, Byzantium, the early and central Middle Ages, while maintaining an active interest in Renaissance humanism and the methods and meaning of the recovery and study of the ancients. In each of his courses, he is excited to explore the opportunities offered by the interdisciplinary collaboration that is an essential part of the humanities.