The Renaissance, which means "rebirth", was a time in which significant contributions were made to western culture. Literature, art, philosophy, and political history and thought were expanded and glorified. The modern notion of individualism was born during this time. Instead of the medieval ideal of all glory going to God, people sought personal credit for their achievements. It all started in the Italian city-states, and with the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, the influence of the Renaissance spread throughout the continent of Europe, inspiring the Northern Renaissance.

Why Italy first?

Italy was the ideal place for the Renaissance to begin. Its economics were a significant factor. Italian wool and silk reached every part of the continent, and Italian bankers provided loans to European monarchs. Wealthy European merchants became important patrons of the arts, insisting on the development of secular art forms, such as portraiture, to display their wealth.

Geographically, Italy was ideal for the Renaissance. Located in the center of the Mediterrean, Italy had access to Greek culture in the east and Latin culture in the west. It was also the location of the old Roman Empire, in essence, the classical culture of the Romans and Greeks never truely left the peninsula.

During the Middle Ages, the towns of Northern Italy were controlled by the Holy Roman Empire; however, residents could basically decide their own fate. This led to a tremendously vibrant--and occasionally violent--political existence. Landed aristocracy often conflicted with a new class of merchant families, and both conflicted with the urban underclass, the popolo, who wanted a share of the political power. In Florence in 1378, the popolo staged a violent struggle with the government known as the Ciompi Revolt. This revolt rocked Florence, and for a breif period the poor retained control over the government. This revolutionary fever spread to other city-states, and soon city-states like Milan and Venice underwent political changes. Milan social tensions led to the rise of a tyrant called a signor. Florence and Venice remained republics after revolts, but they were dominated by a few wealthy families (oligarchy). The Medici's were one such family in Florence, who gained their wealth from banking and established themselves as behind-the-scenes rulers and later hereditary dukes of the city. Accompanying these internal conflicts, the city-states were constantly engaged in external rivalries and long-term warfare. By the mid-fifteenth century, the numerous city-states were condensed into a few dominant states: Florence, Venice, Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, and the papal states in central Italy. These political conflicts may have helped stir the creative energy that was so essential to the Renaissance.

Renaissance Art

One of the Renaissance's most notable contributions to the western culture is the fine arts. In the shift towards individualism, artists were now considered important individuals, whereas medieval artists were anonymous craftsmen. Artists sought prestige by competeing for the patronage of wealthy families who wanted to sponsor art that glorified their achievements.

A more naturalistic style emerged at the demand of the patrons, and the old practice of hierarchical scaling (figures in a composition were sized in proportion to their spiritual significance) was rejected. New techniques were developed, including chiaroscuro (the use of contrasts between light and dark to creat three-dimentional images), oil painting, and, probably the most important, single-point perspective. Single-point perspective is a style in which all elements within a painting converge at a single point in the distance, allowing artists to create more realistic settings for their work.

Architecture was increasingly influenced by classical motifs such as columns and simple symmetrical decorations. A noteworthy achievement of the Early Renaissance was the building of a dome over the Cathedral fo Florence by Filippo Brunelleschi, the first dome completed in Western Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The beginning of the High Renaissance is marked with the end of the fifteenth century. During this time, Rome replaced Florence as the great center of artistic patronage. While Florence experienced religious backlash against the new style of art, Roman popes became increasingly interseted in the arts and in beautifying the city and their palaces. Art began to change around the 1520s, the beginning of a period known as the Late Renaissance or Mannerism. This art showed distorted figures and confusing themes which may have been connected to the growing sense of crisis due to religious and political problems.

Important Renaissance Artists

There are three major High Renaissance Artists that are essential to be familiar with: Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Raphael (1483-1520) raphael.jpg

Raphael had a remarkable career, despite his premature demise at the age of 37. In his brief life, he was given some very important commisions in the Vatican palaces. A kindly individual, Raphael stands out for not being despised by his contemporaries. Besides his gentle images of Jesus and Mary, Raphael connects the classical past and his own times in his painting School of Athens, which portrays Aristotle and Plato standing in a classicl structure (Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are featured in the crowd) that uses the single-point perspective that characterizes High Renaissance style.

raphael's_school_of_athens.jpg School of Athens


Michelangelo (1475-1564)michelangelo.jpg

Michelangelo was skilled in numerous areas. Some of his masterpieces include his sculpture David, which was commissioned by Florence as propoganda to imspire the citizens in their long struggle against Milan, La Pieta, a sculpture of Mary holding Jesuse after his crucifixion, and his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were commissioned by Pope Julius II, who also commissioned Michelangelo to create his tomb. Julius II began to have doubts about the work as he rushed to have the revealing anatomy of some of the figures covered up with fig leaves, much to the anger of its creator. Overall, four different Popes commissioned Michelangelo. He enjoyed a very long life, and lived to see the style of art change from the harmony and grace of the High Renaissance to the tormented style of the Late Renaissance, as viewed in his final work in the Sistine Chapel Final Judgement.
Michelangelos_David.jpgDavid, Michelangelomichelangelo_pieta.jpg
La Pieta, Michelangelo

v Characterized not as representing a particular philosophical viewpoint but rather as a program of study.
v Francesco Petrarch: father of humanism
o Dissatisfied with his career and set about to study literary classics
o Coined the phrase “Dark Ages”
o Set out to find classical texts.
o Petrarch was engaged with Cicero
§ politician and philosopher whose writings account for the collapse of the Roman Republic
§ to write in the Ciceronian style was the goal of Petrarch
o his work proved inspirational for “civic humanists”
§ studied language
§ used their own classical education for the public good

The revival of Greek is one of the most important aspects of the Italian Renaissance. It played a great significance in the writings of Plato who held a great deal of interest for Renaissance writers. They were fascinated by his belief that ideals such as beauty or truth exist beyond the ability of our senses to recognize them and that we can train our minds to make use of our ability to reason. This positive Platonic view is found in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Humanist scholarships branched out in different directions. In Castiglione’s The Courtier a person would be a man who knew several languages, knew literature, and was skilled in the arts; known as the “Renaissance Man”. Lorenzo Valla realized that languages can tell a history all their own. He proved that the Donation of Constantine turned control of the western half of his empire over to the papacy and could not have been written by Constantine.

Women were also affected by the new humanist teachings. During the Renaissance many wealthy, secular women picked up reading and writing. Leonardo Bruni set up a women’s educational program including everything except the study of rhetoric and public speech, because these were only for the males. Chirstine de Pisan wrote The City of Ladies to counter the popular notion that women were inferior to men.
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