The Renaissance is an era in Western, or European history, that began around 1400 in Italy and moved north to
England over the course of 200 years. It was an Era characterized by a new flowering of inquiry in all areas
of human culture, the establishment of national states, and the emergence of luxurious courts. Examples of the
latter two are the Duchy of Burgundy, England, the Holy Roman Empire, plus the many Italian states - the
foremost of which were the Medici in Florence.
The Era derives its name from the French word for re-birth. The Italian, Giorgio Vasari, established the term
Rinascita (re-birth)in a publication in 1550. The first use of the French word Renaissance occurred in
the French Encyclopedie in 1751-72.
The Italians perceived a resurrection of the classic spirit after a thousand years of barbarism that occurred
in the third, fourth and fifth centuries with the invasions of the Huns, Goths, and Visigoths. But now
"The sunshine of the Italian spirit would break through the northern mists;
men and women would escape from the prison of medieval fear;
they would worship beauty in all its forms, and
fill the air with the joy of resurrection.
Italy would be young again."
Durant, pp. 67
First and foremost it took money. Lots of "filthy lucre" to be able to improve one's mind, create art,
and to study the classic works of ancient Greece and Rome. These profits came from skillful managers, underpaid
laborers, and hazardous journeys for trade to the Far East. In short, the classic investment of buy low, sell high.
Those who took the correct calculated risks reaped profit and thus obtain discretionary income.
A list of the characteristics of the period:
- Breakdown of Feudalism
- As feudal society broke down they looked back to the ancient world for ways to improve life
in the 15th and 16th centuries. Northern Italy was surrounded by classic Roman culture in the
architecture, sculpture, and language. It had never fully implemented feudalism, but had subjected
its nobles to its cities and the merchant class.
- An example of the yearning for the classic world is this excerpt from Baldassare Castiglione's
The Courtier written in 1528:
- "I would have him more then passably learned in letters, at least in
those studies in which we call the humanities. Let him be conversant
not only with the Latin language, but with Greek as well, because of
the abundance and variety of things that are so divinely written therein."
- Development of Town Life, Mercantilism, and Luxurious National Courts
- Seaports took on a new vitality and commerce. Venice and other towns in Northern
Italy were more urban and industrial than most other regions of Europe. It was also
the route of choice for trade between transalpine Europe and the East.
- Examples of the new luxury were in the courts of Phillip II, Francis I, Philip the Handsome,
and Louis Duke of Savoy, plus the villa of the Medici.
- Harmonious Complete Structures
- The new emphasis was on balance and proportion. New developments in perspective, rounded arches
and domes, and the natural human form in art. Examples are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
- Flowering of Secular Art
- The artist was given a high position and allowed to look elsewhere than God and spiritual matters for
inspiration. Man became the measure of all things as indicated in these two excerpts:
- "I have set you in the center of the world, so that from there you may more
easily survey whatever is in the world. We have made you neither heavenly nor
earthly, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, more freely and more honorably
the molder and maker of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever form you
shall prefer... O supreme generosity of God the Father! O highest and marvelous
felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever
Pico della Mirandola's The Dignity of Man, 1486, (God speaking to Adam)
- "A prince should also show himself a lover of excellence by giving preferment to gifted men and honoring those
who excel in some art. Besides he should encourage his citizens... in trade and agriculture and every other occupation
of man. A citizen should not hesitate to increase his property for fear it will be taken away from him or to open a new
business for fear of taxes. On the contrary the prince should offer rewards to those who undertake to do these things
and to anybody who thinks of improving in any way his city or his dominion. Besides this, at suitable times of the year
he should engage the attention of the people with festivals and shows. And because every city is divided into guilds or
wards, he should take account of these bodies, meet with them sometimes, and give in person an example of humanity
Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, 1513.
- Challenge of Accepted Beliefs
- These challenges came about in three areas:
- The Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and others.
- The new exploration and discovery as medieval Europe re-establishes contact with the rest of the world through
Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. Money rears its head again. These guys were looking for another route
to the Far East and its riches.
- The new science as exhibited by Galileo Galilei, Andreas Vesalius, Nicolaus Copernicus and others.
Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization, Part V. The Renaissance, Simon and Schuster, New Your, 1953
Laudon, Robert, Handbook for the History of Western Music: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, University of
Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1977.