FC76: The Italian Renaissance (c.1400-1550)


FC76 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #2115.
...everything that surrounds us is our own work, the work of man: all dwellings, all castles, all cities, all the edifices throughout the whole world, which are so numerous and of such quality that they resemble the works of angels rather than men.  Ours are the paintings, the sculptures; ours are the trades sciences and philosophical systems. Gianozzo Manetti, 1452

Introduction: why Italy?

On rare occasion one comes across a period of such dynamic cultural change that it is seen as a major turning point in history.  Ancient Greece, and especially Athens, in the fifth century B.C. was such a turning point in the birth of Western Civilization.  The Italian Renaissance was another.  Both were drawing upon a rich cultural heritage.  For the Greeks, it was the ancient Near East and Egypt.  For the Italian Renaissance, it was ancient Rome and Greece.  Both ages broke the bonds of earlier cultural restraints and unleashed a flurry of innovations that have seldom, if ever, been equaled elsewhere.  Both ages produced radically new forms and ideas in a wide range of areas: art, architecture, literature, history, and science.  Both ages shined brilliantly and somewhat briefly before falling victim to violent ends, largely of their own making.  Yet, despite their relative briefness, both ages passed on a cultural heritage that is an essential part of our own civilization.  There were three important factors making Italy the birthplace of the Renaissance.

  1. Italy's geographic location.  Renaissance Italy was drawing upon the civilizations of ancient Greece and especially Rome, upon whose ruins it was literally sitting.  During the Middle Ages, Italians had neglected and abused their Roman heritage, even stripping marble and stone from Roman buildings for their own constructions.  However, by the late Middle Ages, they were becoming more aware of the Roman civilization surrounding them.  Italy was also geographically well placed for contact with the Byzantines and Arabs who had preserved classical culture.  Both of these factors combined to make Italy well suited to absorb the Greek and Roman heritage.

  2. The recent invention of the printing press spread new ideas quickly and accurately.  This was especially important now since many Renaissance ideas were not acceptable to the Church.  However, with the printing press, these ideas were very hard to suppress.

  3. Renaissance Italy, like the ancient Greeks, thrived in the urban culture and vibrant economy of the city-state.  This helped in two ways.  First, the smaller and more intimate environment of the city-state, combined with the freedom of expression found there, allowed a number of geniuses to flourish and feed off one another's creative energies.  Unfortunately, the city-state could also be turbulent and violent, as seen in the riot scene that opens Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Secondly, the Italian city-states, especially trading and banking centers such as Venice and Florence, provided the money to patronize the arts. Therefore, the wealth and freedom of expression thriving in the urban culture of Italy both helped give birth to the Renaissance.


 literally means rebirth, in this case the rebirth of classical Greek and Roman culture.  The traditional view of the Renaissance was that it suddenly emerged as a result of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which drove Greek scholars to seek refuge in Italy and pass classical culture to Italy.  Historians now take this as too simplistic an explanation.  For one thing, knowledge of Greek and Roman culture had never completely died out in medieval Europe, being kept alive during the Dark Ages in the monasteries, and during the High Middle Ages in the growing universities.  Secondly, a revived interest in classical culture can be traced back to the Italian authors, Dante and Petrarch, in the early 1300's.  Thus the Italian Renaissance was more the product of a long evolution rather than a sudden outburst.

Still, the term "renaissance" has some validity, since its conscious focus was classical culture.  The art and architecture drew heavily upon Greek and Roman forms.  Historical and political writers used Greek and Roman examples to make their points.  And renaissance science, in particular, relied almost slavishly upon Greek and Roman authorities, which was important, since it set up rival authorities to the Church and allowed Western Civilization to break free from the constraints of medieval thought and give birth to the Scientific Revolution during the Enlightenment.

New patterns of thought

Whether one sees the Renaissance as a period of originality or just drawing upon older cultures, it did generate four ideas that have been and still are central to Western Civilization: secularism, humanism, individualism, and skepticism.

  1. Secularism comes from the word secular, meaning of this world.  Medieval civilization had been largely concerned with religion and the next world.  The new economic and political horizons and opportunities that were opening up for Western Europe in the High and Late Middle Ages got people more interested in this world.  During the Renaissance people saw this life as worth living for its own sake, not just as preparation for the next world.  The art in particular exhibited this secular spirit, showing detailed and accurate scenery, anatomy, and nature, whereas medieval artists generally ignored such things since their paintings were for the glory of God.  This is not to say that Renaissance people had lost faith in God.  Religion was still the most popular theme for paintings.  But during the Renaissance people found other things worth living for besides the afterlife.

  2. Humanism goes along with secularism in that it makes human beings, not God, the center of attention.  The quotation at the top of this reading certainly emphasizes this point.  So did Renaissance art, which portrayed the human body as a thing of beauty in its own right, not like some medieval "comic strip" character whose only reason to exist was for the glory of God.  Along those lines, Renaissance philosophers saw humans as intelligent creatures capable of reason (and questioning authority) rather than being mindless pawns helplessly manipulated by God.  Even the term for Renaissance philosophers, "humanists", shows how the focus of peoples' attention had shifted from Heaven and God to this world and human beings.  It also described the group of scholars who drew upon the more secular Greek and Roman civilizations for inspiration.

  3. Individualism takes humanism a step further by saying that individual humans were capable of great accomplishments.  The more communal, group oriented society and mentality of the Middle Ages was giving way to a belief in the individual and his achievements.  The importance of this was that it freed remarkable individuals and geniuses, such as Leonardo da Vinci to live up to their potential without being held back by a medieval society that discouraged innovation.

    Besides the outstanding achievements of Leonardo, one sees individualism expressed in a wide variety of ways during the Renaissance.  Artists started signing their paintings, thus showing individualistic pride in their work.  Also, the more communal guild system was being replaced by the more individualistic system of capitalism, which encouraged private enterprise.

  4. Skepticism, which promoted curiosity and the questioning of authority, was largely an outgrowth of the other three Renaissance ideas.  The secular spirit of the age naturally put Renaissance humanists at odds with the Church and its purely religious values and explanations of the universe.  Humanism and individualism, with their belief in the ability of human reason, raised challenges to the Church's authority and theories, which in turn led to such things as the Protestant Reformation, the Age of Exploration and the Scientific Revolution, all of which would radically alter how Western Europe views the world and universe.  These four new ideas of secularism, humanism, individualism, and skepticism led to innovations in a variety of fields during the Renaissance, the most prominent being literature and learning, art, science, the Age of Exploration, and the Protestant Reformation.

Literature and learning

 throughout the Middle Ages were centered on the Church.  Consequently, most books were of a religious nature.  There were Greek and Roman texts stashed away in the monasteries, but few people paid much attention to them.  All that changed during the Renaissance.  For one thing, increased wealth and the invention of the printing press created a broader public that could afford an education and printed books.  Most of these newly educated people were from the noble and middle classes.  Therefore, they wanted a more practical and secular education and books to prepare them for the real world of business and politics.

In response to this, new schools were set up to give the sons of nobles and wealthy merchants an education with a broader and more secular curriculum than the Church provided: philosophy, literature, mathematics, history, and politics.  Naturally much of the basis for this new curriculum was Greek and Roman culture.  Classical authors such as Demosthenes and Cicero were used to teach students how to think, write, and speak clearly.  Greek and Roman history were used to teach object lessons in politics.  This curriculum provided the skills and knowledge seen as essential for an educated man back then, and served as the basis for school curriculums well into the twentieth century.  Only in recent decades has a more technical education largely replaced the curriculum established for us in the Renaissance.

Along the same lines, a more secular literature largely replaced the predominantly religious literature of the Middle Ages.  History, as a study of the past (Greek and Roman past in particular) in order to learn lessons for the future, was emerging.  So was another emerging new discipline deeply rooted in history: political science.  The father of this discipline was Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527).  His treatise on governing techniques, The Prince, urges the prince to carry on with whatever ruthless means were at his disposal.  This serves as a stark contrast to St. Augustine's concept of the "just war."

Another book of a secular nature was Castiglione's The Courtier, which spelled out the ideal education and qualities of a nobleman attending a prince's court.  Unlike the usually illiterate and rough mannered medieval noble, Castiglione's courtier should be versed in manners (such as not cleaning one's teeth in public with one's finger).  This ideal of the well-rounded "Renaissance Man" hearkens back to the Greek ideal of a well-rounded man and has continued to this day.


 is the one field most people associate with the Renaissance since it saw the most radical innovations and breaks with the Middle Ages.  Medieval art was religious in tone and for the glory of God.  As a result, artists neglected mundane details, thus making the art flat and lifeless.  Faces and bodies were cartoon like, having no individual features or anything approaching anatomical detail.  Other details such as background, perspective, proportion, and individuality were all virtually unknown.

Renaissance art contrasted sharply with medieval art in all these respects.  More paintings were on secular themes, especially portraits.  And even the religious paintings paid a great deal of attention to glorifying the human form and accomplishments.  Starting with Giotto in the early 1300's, Renaissance artists increasingly perfected and used such things as background, perspective, proportion, and individuality.  In fact, Leonardo's detail was so good that botanists today can identify the kinds of plants he put into his paintings.

Although painting was especially prominent during the Renaissance, other art forms also flourished. For example, architecture broke somewhat with the medieval Gothic style during the Renaissance.  However, it was less innovative and relied more heavily on classical forms, in particular columns, arches, and domes as well as building on a massive scale.  Possibly the supreme example of this is the dome of St. Peter's in Rome which was designed by Michelangelo and towers 435 feet from the floor.  Music in the Renaissance saw developments that would later blossom into classical music.  Instruments were improved and the whole family of violins was developed.  Counterpoint (the blending of two melodies) and polyphony (interweaving several melodic lines) also emerged during this period.


 saw little advancement, but it was also important for future developments.  In particular, classical authorities were discovered who contradicted Aristotle, whose works were accepted by the Church almost as gospel.  Finding conflicting authorities forced Renaissance humanists to ask questions that would lead to developing new theories, which in turn would lead to the birth of modern science in the 1600's and 1700's.

The Age of Exploration

 also showed Renaissance ideas at work.  It was secular in its interest in the world.  It certainly displayed skepticism by challenging accepted ideas about the world.  And the fact that it pitted individual captains against the forces of nature shows it was both humanistic and individualistic.

The Protestant Reformation

 was one other result of the Italian Renaissance.  The spirit of skepticism challenged the authority of the Church, thus opening the way for much more serious challenge later posed by the Protestants.  The Protestant Reformation, in turn, would pave the way for new patterns of thought in social, political, economic, and scientific matters.

The Italian Renaissance is generally seen as lasting until about 1500, when Italy's political disunity attracted a devastating round of wars and invasions that ended its most innovative cultural period.  However, in the process, the invaders took the ideas of the Italian Renaissance back to Northern Europe and sparked what is known as the Northern Renaissance.