First, what exactly do we mean by the Renaissance? In general terms, a renaissance is the revival of interest in something from the past. In the case of the Renaissance, it refers to the rebirth of the art, architecture, and literature of Classical antiquity, specifically Ancient Greece and Rome. In part, the Renaissance was a re-exploration of the great civilizations of the past. The impact of the Roman Empire was still apparent long after the fall of the Western portion of the empire in the 5th century. Indeed, the Eastern portion, the Byzantine Empire, was still limping along by the 14th century. The fall of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1453, would aid the spread of Greek texts as scholars fled the city.
Many of these texts would be studied by renaissance humanists. Humanism is a philosophy that elevates human reason, agency, and freedom, often outside of religious structures. The Renaissance was not necessarily atheistic in nature–Christianity was viewed as good and just, although its usefulness extended solely to moralisms, not as an ultimate guide and explanation of life.
So, how did this period of Renaissance start? In the late 14th century, Europe had been ravaged by wars and the devastation wrought by the Black Death. The plague had some important consequences which laid the foundations for the Renaissance to take place. One was to weaken the prestige of the church; the inability of the clergy to prevent or stop the devastation led some to begin to question the church. Another was the greater access to education to those previously locked out. The large decrease in population resulted in economic circumstances that allowed lower-class families to send their children to school. The Black Death did not directly cause the Renaissance, but it helped to create the conditions which made it possible.
The beginning and end of the Renaissance is the subject of some debate among scholars, but a broadly accepted view is that the phenomenon began in Florence in the 14th century. Florence was one of several city-states in northern Italy at the time. (Italy as we know it today wasn’t formed until the latter part of the 19th century.) The delicate balance of power between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States gave the Italian cities a large degree of freedom from outside influence. Many of the cities, particularly Venice and Genoa, grew incredibly wealthy through trade. Unlike the kingdoms of, say, France or England, the Italian city-states were not bound by the same constraints of feudalism.
The source of Florence’s wealth was through the production of high-quality cloth, the finest in Europe, and through banking. Florence handled the papal finances, bringing enormous sums of money into the city’s coffers. This surplus of wealth was needed to sustain the city’s thriving arts movement. With great wealth and independence, Florence was poised to become a major regional power; however, the city’s quite unique form of government needed a guiding ideology. Feudal kingdoms of the time had an informal, often loosely-applied code of conduct in chivalry. Florence would need to look not to her feudalistic contemporaries, but to the great Roman Republic of the past.
One of the men most responsible for reviving interest in the Greeks and Romans was Francesco Petrarch, the son of a Florentine exile. Petrarch never actually visited his ancestral hometown but lived a rather nomadic life in northern Italy. He was inspired by the surviving works of the Ancient Roman statesman Cicero, who is considered to have been one of Rome’s greatest public speakers. In 1345, Petrarch discovered letters in the Verona Cathedral that Cicero had written to his good friend Titus Pomponius Atticus. As he read through them, he realized he had uncovered elements of Cicero’s private, more “human” character, which was quite different from his well-known public persona. The spread of Cicero’s extensive writings, which included treatises on classic rhetoric, philosophy, and politics, is thought by some to have been the spark that ignited the Renaissance period. Petrarch, as well as Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, and Boccaccio, also provided major literary contributions during this time reflecting their ideas of Humanism.
This time period would also be filled with a vast flourish of art, architecture, and various large-scale projects; all things that required a substantial amount of money to support. As it happens, Florence, Italy, was ruled by one of the richest and most influential families in Europe, the Medici family. The Medici family moved to Florence in the 12th century and soon rose to power. Cosimo and his grandson Lorenzo were the de facto rulers of Florence for the latter half of the 15th century. The Medicis were, like other prominent families, enthusiastic patrons of the arts. As well as commissioning artistic works, the family backed the completion of the Florence Cathedral’s dome. The dome was a triumph of engineering at the time, masterminded by Filippo Brunelleschi. Great construction projects and works of art became a way for the elites to express their wealth, and the lure of commissions brought the continent’s most talented artists to the city. This new wave of artists were students of Classical sculpture and arts, instigating a revival of Greek and Roman aesthetics.
The names Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael might sound familiar to some Western audiences thanks to the popularity of a certain turtle-themed cartoon. Of course, the Renaissance men were neither warriors of any kind nor were they particularly friendly with one another.
Donatello was born much earlier than others, in 1386, and was famed for his sculptures across a long career in Northern Italy. Leonardo da Vinci, born just outside Florence in 1452, was a man of many talents, and was considered the quintessential Renaissance man. As well as producing what is arguably the most famous painting to have ever been created in the Western World, the Mona Lisa, da Vinci conducted research into a broad array of subjects from anatomy to engineering. He also sketched concepts for machines that were centuries ahead of their time. Leonardo spent around a decade in the 1480s in nearby Milan working for the duke before returning to his hometown at the turn of the century. His final years were spent in the employment of Francis I, the King of France. His work made him famous in his own lifetime and continues to inspire the generations which have followed.
Michelangelo, born in 1475, was reportedly not a fan of Leonardo but he reserved most of his loathing for a younger contemporary, Raphael, born in 1483. Their rivalry was in part the product of fierce competition for commissions but also had a personal element. Where Michelangelo was temperamental and difficult to work with, Raphael was charming and gregarious. Michelangelo lived an austere, simple existence of complete dedication to his craft. Raphael was no less dedicated to his work but certainly enjoyed the finer things life had to offer.
Michelangelo was primarily known for his abilities as a sculptor and was not a noted painter when he was commissioned by the pope to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist was reluctant to take on such a formidable job and even suspected a plot to ruin his reputation was afoot. In fact, he was sure Raphael was among the conspirators who imposed an impossible task on him. The Pope was insistent, and Michelangelo spent almost four years creating one of the finest works of the Renaissance. The task that he thought was to be his ruin instead became, alongside his sculpture David, his masterpiece.
The Italian Renaissance burned brightly but briefly. The period came to an end when the Medici family was overthrown in Florence and the King of France, Charles VIII, invaded Italy in 1494. A later date of around 1550 is also offered for the end of the Italian Renaissance, but the underlying reasons are much the same. The Italian Wars were a period of incessant conflicts between shifting alliances involving France, the Habsburgs, the Pope, and the city-states in the 15th and 16th centuries. The conflicts were the source of instability and declining fortunes of the Italian states.
The Renaissance next spread to France, championed by the energetic rule of Francis I, who, as we learned earlier, brought the elderly Leonardo to his kingdom. Francis was a patron of the arts and of letters; he amassed a gigantic collection of rare books and texts which he granted scholars free reign to use. The National Library of France, which was established in 1461, was reinvigorated under the reign of Francis. Today the library holds more than 40 million items.
Beset by lengthy wars with France and a devastating civil war in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Renaissance didn’t really take hold in the British Isles until near the end of the 15th century. The Muscovy Company, the world’s first major trading company, was founded in England in 1555. The accumulation of wealth via this company financed its exploration of the world and supported the arts.
Perhaps the first name that comes to mind when thinking about the arts in Renaissance-era England is William Shakespeare. The English playwright was an accomplished dramatist and is remembered for his keen understanding of human emotions and his ability to write compelling characters. A man of relatively humble origins, he arrived in London from rural Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1580s. Over the course of a productive 15-year period, he produced what are considered to be some of the English language’s finest works. Another major cultural and linguistic landmark from the period came from the sponsorship of King James.
The first king of both Scotland and England, James inherited the English crown after Elizabeth I died without an heir. James was never able to fully integrate his two kingdoms; it would be another century before the kingdom we recognize today as Britain would be formed. Shortly after his coronation as king of England, James commissioned a translation of the Bible into English in 1604. It was a formidable project which had been unsuccessfully attempted in the past. The end result was a masterwork of translation, which, aside from a handful of revisions, remained the standard for three centuries.
Making the Holy scripture more accessible actually got its start a century earlier, when Johannes Gutenberg developed the modern printing press in 1440. The design greatly improved the efficiency of earlier models and made possible the rapid publication of books and spread of new ideas. Seeking to make books available to everyone, he set up shop in an abandoned monastery in Strasbourg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, and got to work on his device.
He was initially backed financially by a lawyer and goldsmith named Johann Fust but was later sued by his patron over a lack of progress. While he did not individually profit much from his innovations, Gutenberg’s lasting legacy ensured subsequent generations would benefit greatly from his work. Around 200 Gutenberg Bibles were printed between 1450-1455, and today they are a priceless collectible. A single page of an original Gutenberg Bible is worth over $100,000.
The printing press also facilitated the spread of another major driving force for change in Europe: The Protestant Reformation. The author of the 95 Theses, Martin Luther, remarked, “Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.”
The Spanish Renaissance received a major push as the Iberian Peninsula experienced a fundamental cultural and religious shift with the completion of the Reconquista in 1492. That most pivotal of years also saw Columbus leave on his expedition and the publication of the first grammatical text, Gramatica de la lengua castellana (“Grammar of the Spanish Language”). The Spanish Renaissance was expressed in art, architecture, and literature drawn from a variety of sources. The great wealth plundered from the New World funded artistic ventures drawing inspiration from Flanders, Granada, and Italy, as well as the construction of El Escorial in 1563. The original design of the complex came from a student of Michelangelo, Juan Bautista de Toledo and was drawn from Roman designs. Exhausted by the project, de Toledo died before its completion and the task was seen through by Juan de Herrara.
The period also saw the publication of the first modern novel, Don Quixote, in 1605 by Miguel de Cervantes, a former soldier. The novel was partly based on de Cervantes’s experiences in the army and his captivity in Algiers at the hands of the Barbary pirates. Elsewhere in Habsburg Europe, the area we refer to today as the Low Countries was experiencing a significant upturn in fortunes. Maritime trade brought the area into contact with Italy, and with that contact came the spread of the Renaissance. As well as the usual forms of art, architecture, and literature, the Low Countries also experienced significant advances in science.
A Belgian physician named Andreas Vesalius was a pioneer in medical research, and a noted expert in human anatomy and dissection, often demonstrating public dissections for medical students. Vesalius published his various findings in stunning detail in his book On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Volumes in 1543, paving the way for further discoveries in the centuries to come.
In the same year, mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus presented the idea of a heliocentric model of the universe in his book “On the revolution of heavenly spheres”. The prevailing model of the time was the geocentric model as presented by Ptolemy centuries earlier. There were many different issues with this model, and the rules and explanations needed to fully support it were becoming more and more complicated as the years went on. The heliocentric view quickly resolved several of these issues and began to take hold as the new standard model of the solar system.
The Renaissance petered out by the end of the 17th century. The effects of lengthy and devastating religious warfare and the impact of the Counter-Reformation, supported by the might of the Habsburg dynasty, saw the revival of Greco-Roman ideas fall from favor. The overall impact of the Renaissance upon European history remains an area of debate among historians.
It is only with the passage of time that we in the present day can assess the importance of the Renaissance. The period has been seen by some as the bridge between the medieval period and the modern era. The real legacy of the Renaissance is in the great works of art left behind and in instigating the gradual shift in thought from the divine to the secular. Centuries later, we can trace some origins of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment to the foundations laid by the rebirth of Greco-Roman art and literature in the Renaissance period.
Okay, before we go, let’s go over a few review questions!
1. Which of the following men are generally connected with the beginning of the Renaissance?
A. Leonardo da Vinci
B. William Shakespeare
C. Martin Luther
D. Francesco Petrarch
The correct answer is D! It is believed by some that Petrarch’s discovery of Cicero’s letters is what kickstarted the Renaissance in Italy.
2. The Renaissance was a period that started as a recovery from ___________.
A. The Black Death
B. The Protestant Reformation
C. The Reconquista
D. The Counter-Reformation
The correct answer is A! The plague had some important consequences which laid the foundations for the Renaissance to take place. One was to weaken the prestige of the church, and the other was the greater access to education to those previously locked out.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!