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The Renaissance

The “rebirth” of art, religion, and education in Europe is known as the Renaissance. We shall begin the study of the Renaissance with the last quarter of the thirteenth century. Not that the Middle Ages ended at this time and that then the Renaissance, in all its aspects, began. One cannot say when the Middle Ages gave place to the Renaissance. Indeed, in some respects, the Middle Ages are not over yet. They still subsist, stealing in silent currents along the subterranean ways of the world. It is impossible to date the bounds of an era with any degree of accuracy. Eras are not initiated with single dramatic events. In the great development of civilization there is nothing sudden, but rather is the change like that which takes place in a forest -birth, growth, and death go on almost unnoticed side by side.

There are always many foreshadowings of any intellectual movement. So, one must not expect to find the Renaissance, or any other important era, inaugurated by a striking event or a violent revolution. Only very gradually did the new dispensation take form and shape. It was not announced to a startled world by the blast of a sudden trumpet. During this time of rebirth, Renaissance thinkers dismissed the medieval period as a Dark Age of worthlessness. Instead, a style of classical age inspired a respect for order, perspective, proportion, and principles to the artist’s work. The Renaissance also had a time of rebirth in people’s religion and beliefs. The people became closer to God and began to worship Him in their own ways. There was a drastic change in education during this time also. A push for the citizen to become educated became a big deal. “Books were given out of any many libraries were developed in an attempt to educate their people.” (Ames-Lewis, p. 325-330).

Before attempting to answer the question it is important to consider what we mean by early Italian Renaissance. Unlike many periods in history the Renaissance has no obvious start and end dates, for the purposes of this assignment I will define the approximate period within which to look as about 1390 to about 1520.

In this brief survey of Europe the universities must not be overlooked. Until the rise of secular culture made the cities of chief importance in the social life of Europe the universities were the most potent of the intellectual forces. In them were to be found the acutest minds of the time drawn from every country and from every class. Far to the South lay Salerno, then as always chiefly a medical school. The great law school at Bologna gathered to itself vast numbers of students from every land and by its inculcation of the principles of Roman Law became a force in the decline of feudalism and the rise of the modern nations. The Mother University, the one that served as a model for others, was Paris, and there scholasticism made for itself a stronghold. In England there were Oxford and Cambridge. In Spain there was Salamanca, devoted especially to law, and quite aloof from its sister institutions of other countries. At the beginning of the Renaissance period Germany did not possess a single university. Prague was founded in 1348, and the same century witnessed the establishment of Vienna, Erfurt, Heidelberg, and Cologne. There were other schools of lesser importance such as Padua, Toulouse, and Montpellier; but altogether

The Renaissance truly changed the artwork, religion, and education throughout Europe. The European art emerged from its medieval precedents during the course of the thirteenth century. Before this time European artwork were based on fixed, conventional forms of art.

Let us first of all make a brief survey of the Europe of that day from Sicily to Scotland and from Cape Finisterre to the frontiers of Muscovy. At the dawn of the Renaissance, Christendom could claim only a small part of the world. The Mohammedan conquests had greatly diminished its extent since the seventh century. Christianity, as the ruling power, had been expelled from her most glorious seats - from Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, North Africa, and from a considerable part of the Spanish peninsula. The Greek and Italian peninsulas were hers, the German Empire, France, the northern part of the Spanish peninsula, the British Isles, the Scandinavian kingdom, and in a rather dubious way the outlying Slavic and Danubian kingdoms. In exchange for her old and illustrious strongholds she had fallen back upon the northern countries, “and all along her frontiers she maintained a spirit incessant watchfulness and sometimes of actual aggression.” (Ames-Lewis, p.124) But Christendom was divided within itself into two parts. There were the Greek Church and the Latin Church. In the Greek peninsula, and in Asia Minor, were to be found the adherents of the former, surrounded and submerged by the conquering Moslem; and here and there, too, in the turbulent Danubian and Slavic lands. To the Latin Church belonged the remainder and by far the greater part of Christendom.

Under those circumstances these areas of advancements became the major differences of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Renaissance created numerous improvements in literature since the Middle Ages. In medieval Europe literature was mainly written by the church, therefore used religion as the main topic, and was also written in Latin. Most people of the Middle Ages did not have the ability to use Latin, therefore made the books useless to ordinary people. Since the clergy dictated literary movement, it contained little or no criticism of either the church or politics. Renaissance was the era of literary revolution. People started to write books in the vernacular language. This made it more accessible to ordinary people. Literature began to criticize both the church and politics. Machiavelli’s “The Prince” rejected the standard Christian view that the state is subject to divine law, exemplifying the disappearing control of church over literature. Hand-written literature of the Middle Ages limited the amount of books and scripts that could be published.

At last, during the Renaissance, Johannes Gutenberg had an inventory breakthrough, the printing press. The first book that was actually published by Gutenberg was the bible, which was published in German vernacular and made understandable for the German people. The printing press greatly increased the number of literature that became published. This increased the popularity of books throughout Europe. During the Renaissance the literary works were mostly created by humanists. Humanist movement not only focused on the study of Greco-Roman literature, but also created the books imitating those of Greek and Roman classics. These works included “The Book of the Courtier,” by Baldssacre Castiglione, “The Prince,” by Niccolo Machiavelli, and many others, that covered wide variety of subjects including politics, art, and stories of romance, which became more and more popular throughout European society.” (Langer, p. 256) The Renaissance displayed many innovations in literature since the Middle Ages. Renaissance was the birthplace for many new artistic talents and advancements, opposing art, as well as literature, of the Middle Ages that was dominated by the church. In medieval Europe, almost all of the paintings portrayed a religious aspect. The artwork lacked realism, perspective, and were mainly painted on a solid background, primarily gold. Renaissance’s artistic movement was the will to bring back the Greco-Roman antiquity that was lost during the course of the Middle Ages. Great wealth and remains of the ancient Roman civilization sparked the rebirth of ancient art. Renaissance was the era in which the advancements in art became overwhelming. Artists became less controlled by papacy and began to experiment with light and shade to give more perspective. Other artists began to understand perspective and painted more realistic paintings. “Leonardo da Vinci was the first Italian artist to use oil paints. Sandro Botticelli created graceful paintings marked by vivid colors.”(Burke, p. 85)

Throughout the Early Renaissance period, there were three most important men who initiated the Renaissance. Donattello who reestablish the attitude toward the human body similar to that of classical antiquity and recapture the classical features in his work. Fillppo Brunelleschi, the master of architecture of this period, invented the scientific perspective; and Masaccio who established the Early Renaissance painting showed the human body in motion in his painting. Then, in the early 16th century in Europe marked a new phase of Renaissance when it reached its most glorious expression in its paintings, sculpture, and architecture known as “High Renaissance”. The Key monuments of the High Renaissance were produced between c.1495-1520. The different between the Early Renaissance and the High Renaissance is the Early Renaissance artists were limited by numerical ratios of musical harmony and the laws of linear perspective, but the High Renaissance artists were less concerned with rational order than with visual effectiveness. The artists of the High Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, achieved the perfection and harmony in their works. Artists in this period evolved a new drama and a new rhetoric to engage the emotions of their beholders. They developed paintings in the narrative style that demonstrated the body in a more scientific and natural manner. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most famous painters of this time who epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. He was taught by “Andrea del Verrocchio who was the greatest sculptor of the Early Renaissance period. Leonardo’s famous works of the Renaissance were the “Last Supper” and “Mona Lisa”. In his “Last Supper.”(Burke, p. 67)

Pictures became more realistic: people portrayed in the pictures looked more emotional, there were more details, and objects were placed more real in respect to one another. In the Northern Renaissance the painters tried to depict all the details in the picture. Artistic improvements made by the Renaissance artists drew the line that distinguished flamboyant Renaissance art from the dark medieval art. Marriage and family structure of the Middle Ages changed drastically as Europe entered the age of Renaissance. During the Middle Ages women were the property of the male. Late marriages were common, where the husband could be in his thirties and forties, while the wife was still in her teens. In the Renaissance these standards for women improved a small amount. Women began to gain more rights. Isabella D’Este became a ruler of Mantua after refusing her husband to meet the demands of the Venetians. This courageous act would not have been impossible in the Middle Ages, but in the Renaissance became the symbol of determination that women had. Isabella D’Este also proved the willingness of women to go to any limits to get out of their husbands’ control. In the Renaissance marriages started to be arranged by the families to gain control over the land.

The major differences of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance occurred in the areas that were most closely related to the culture: art, literature, and family structure. These areas were mostly affected because of their tight link with the church. Since the Renaissance was less patronized by the church and therefore acquired more broad area of opportunities.

A rich development of Western civilization marking the transition from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance refers to a rediscovery, by scholars (humanists) of Greco-Roman culture. The period prior to the Renaissance, the High Middle Ages, was marked by relative political stability, economic expansion, wide contact with other cultures, and a flourishing urban civilization. However, the High Middle Ages served only to establish the foundations for change and to develop the background for the new view of the world. The Italian Renaissance was a distinct period in time, noted for ushering in the modern civilization, characterized by the alteration of the political, economic, and social status. Renaissance civilization revamped the political scene from the Middle Ages into the modern age. The “despotism created during the Renaissance bestowed incomparable unity and power upon Europe through the individual” (Langer, 509). Leaders such as Viconti displayed tremendous strength and vitality. During the 14th century, people no longer received and respected the Emperors as feudal lords, but as “possible leaders and supporters of power already in existence” (Langer, 507). The reverence of the heads of government aroused feelings of patriotism in the hearts of the people. For the first time a modern political spirit of Europe can be detected. Political support or nationalism is still evident in today’s society and can be attributed to the Renaissance. The Renaissance also harbored secular ideas of the state. The Renaissance marked the transition from the ecclesiastical to secular outlook. The people began to search for answers and a growing emphasis on reason, rather than faith, became apparent. Historian Marsilius of Padua proclaimed that according to the writings of Aristotle “the Roman bishop called pope, or any other priest or bishop, or spiritual minister, collectively or individually, as such, has and ought to have no coercive jurisdiction over the property or person of any priest or bishop, or deacon, or group of them, an still less over any secular ruler or government, community, group, or individual” (Panofsky, p. 245). Therefore, the ecclesiastical should not lawfully exercise any political power. Furthermore, Niccolo Machiavelli went to extremes by stating that Christian virtues and politics would result in an unstable form of government. In concurrence with Machiavellian politics, Isaiah Berlin suggests that “to choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence...if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose”.

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Nevertheless, secular ideas of the state were fostered during the Renaissance and have become one of the most critical components to a successful, modern nation. Renaissance civilization also marked the birth of capitalism, the economic machine upon which the United States runs today. During the Renaissance, the economy went from feudal based to capitalist based. The revival of trade, urban life, and money economy had a dynamic influence in the midst of the agrarian feudal society of the high Middle Ages. As Panofsky puts it, “...the historians whose special interest was religion, philosophy, literature, science, or art have all to frequently striven to explain the developments in these fields without correlating them with the changes in the economic, social, and political structure of society” (556). The growth of a money economy brought changes in the whole character of urban economic and social organizations, still evident in modern times. Into this agrarian feudal society the revival of commerce and industry, accompanied by the growth of towns and money economy, introduced a new and alien element (Panofsky, p. 554). This element was capitalism. The effect of the new economy was to stimulate the existing medieval civilization, freeing it from the economic, social, and cultural restrictions, making possible the rapid development of the economy. The rise of capitalism in the Renaissance had measurable effects on the rest of the society. For instance, the fall of feudalism gave way to the rise of city-states or centralized territorial states. In addition, the universal authority of the church was shaken by the growing power of the national states, while its internal organization was transformed by the evolution of a monetary fiscal system.

Meanwhile, within the cities the growth of capital was bringing significant changes in the whole character of urban economic and social organizations. Considering all the changes inspired by capitalism, the result was an essential change in the character of European civilization. This new and extraordinary economic system known as capitalism would develop during the time of the Renaissance and would become the economic clockwork of modern America. Another distinct characteristic of the Renaissance present in today’s society is a strong emphasis on individuality. During the Middle Ages faith, illusion, and childish prepossession marked the common man. Men viewed themselves only as a member of some general category - race, people, party, family, or cooperation. In earlier times, the development of free personality could not be detected in Northern Europe; however, with the onset of the Renaissance, “man became a spiritual individual” (Copenhaver, p.108). Toward the close of the 13th century Italy was overwhelmed with individuality, a recurring theme of today’s society. A movement in which human values and capabilities were the central focus known as “humanism” characterized the time period. Individual spirit was beginning to appear in Europe, and in today’s society this is a very important, if not, necessary idea. It was the upbringing of humanism - this unfolding of the treasures of human nature in art and literature, which encompassed individuality.

Masterpieces were showing the individuality of Renaissance artists as well, would be a piece of art that sometime would take an artist his whole life to complete. Their masterpieces would be placed in cathedrals, on buildings and would cover entire walls and ceilings. Many of the paintings would tell a story, often from the Bible. The artist would spend years working to finish his masterpieces. “Often he would die before completing the paintings all the way.” (Copenhaver, p. 8-14). The status of artists rose as they began to work more for nobility and the wealthy. No longer anonymous, artists developed personal styles and experimented adventurously with new techniques

Often a job would be to paint a cathedral. This included the ceilings, altar, walls, and the floor. The artist would spend countless years completing his job to perfection (Rosci 25-24). Paintings, sculptures and buildings spread the artwork throughout Europe. Artist would be well known for their paintings. A patron would hire an artist and ask him to create a series of paintings or sculptures. The artist would be paid a great deal if he was loyal and worked hard for his patron (Murray and Murray 14). Artwork went trough a great change, but this wouldn’t be the only perspective that would be changed during the Renaissance. Religion also changed a great deal during the Renaissance. During the Dark Ages, which was the time period directly before the Renaissance, people began to drift away from Christianity. The Dark Ages sent many people into a time of depression. Artists sought ways to help people in their religious quest. They often would center their work on a religious theme. Their works would tell of Bible stories or pictures from the Bible. Religion became popular throughout Europe, and people began to worship on a regular basis. They would often visit the cathedrals many times a day to pray. People began to have a new respect for religion through artwork, writing, and song. The cathedrals were really important to the people of Europe. Cathedrals were a magnificent sight to the people, and they thought that they cathedrals were a main part of worship. They often had lectures based on the stories that were told on the walls, floors, and ceilings of the cathedrals. The cathedrals were kept open by donations from families, similar to the offertory given in today’s society. Many of the families had a pew in the cathedrals dedicated to their families.

Italian humanism to literature and scholarship made an impact, which has remained, in all regions of European civilization until the twentieth century. At the time of the Renaissance there was the appearance of a growing class of urban laymen had the leisure and means to secure a liberal education and to take an active part in every form of intellectual and aesthetic culture. To learn and appreciate culture showed the new concept that life was worthwhile to its own sake and not used for sheer preparation there after. People wished and were forced “to know all the inward resources of their own nature, passing or permanent; and their enjoyment of life was enhanced and concentrated by the desire to obtain the greatest satisfaction from a possibly very brief period of influence” (Rosci, p. 145). In accordance with Rosci, individualism inspired many people to achieve all that they could in their lifetimes - a very modern belief today where the sky is the limit. Italy, in the 14th century, was characterized by a distinct period in time known as the Renaissance. The Renaissance was not merely an extension of the Middle Ages, but rather the transitional period in which the increasing lay culture of the cities, the political centralization of the territorial states, and the dominance of the money economy replaced the feudal and ecclesiastical civilization of the modern world. The rediscovery of the classical Greco-Roman culture provided the world with great treasures. The people, inspired by the need for reform, abandoned the Middle Ages and entered into a time of great intellectual, social, political, religious, and economic reform. The humanistic development of individualism, the dramatic change in political ideas and construction, and the introduction of capitalism remained powerful concepts in modern society that originated in the Renaissance. Without question, the Renaissance civilization was the foundation of modern times.

The people soon adopted the printing press. In printing press, the letters in the book were placed on wooden blocks and a page was laid on the table. After all the letters formed all the words and were in place, the next occurred. Printers would then pour ink onto the blocks and stamp the pages. The words would be printed out on the page. After this was repeated for all the pages, they were gathered and bound together in a book. This made books become more popular and affordable by common people. Through this, libraries were formed, and people could obtain books easier. This “allowed people to become more educated and literate.” (Rosci, p. 19) The Renaissance was indeed a remarkable time period throughout Europe. It changed Europe a great deal and will be remembered throughout the future. Europe was suffering before this period and was in desperate need of a reformation. The Renaissance gave Europe just what it needed, a rebirth. Art work, religion, and education thrived through this period. The paintings and sculptures, in particular, were remarkable and illustrate great talent, beauty, and skill. “Renaissance is a word which is generally understood, but which few people would care to define very closely” (Murray 7). Although The Renaissance is hard to define, it will be remembered because it set Europe off to its modern day aspects, which can be viewed today.

On the political level, the church lost reputation and good name on “account of the notifying Babylonian Captivity and the ensuing Great Schism in the papacy.” (Kemp, p. 75) On the economic level, the increasingly widespread need for cash led to criticism of the church’s wealth. People objected that the church owned much land and bore heavily on its tenants but paid no taxes. Economic and political concerns came together in growing German resentment at sending money to maintain the pope in Rome. The church was also attacked on the intellectual level by the humanist study of classical antiquity, which spread north from Italy. Nicholas of Cusa proposed a heliocentric, which was the consideration of the sun as the center of the universe, theory of astronomy that undermined the acknowledged biblical outlook of creation. Literary humanists, such as “Conradus Celtes, Willibald Pirkheimer, Johann Reuchlin, and Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam encouraged linguistic purity in the study of biblical and other texts and satirized abuses in the church.”(Kemp, p. 257)

The invention of printing from movable type by Johann Gutenberg made it possible to produce Bibles, other books, and pamphlets in great quantity at low cost. As a result, the new learning could circulate widely, preparing the intellectual ground for the Reformation. Renaissance, classicism, and the Protestant Reformation profoundly and intensely influenced the arts of the 16th century and transmuted instruction, learning, and education. In painting and sculpture, the late Gothic style, characterized by religious devotion and love of fine detail, lingered on. Great effort was expended on stained-glass windows and altarpieces by such masters as the painters Matthias Gr?newald and Stefan Lochner and the sculptors Veit Stoss, Peter Vischer the Elder, Adam Kraft, and “Tilman Riemenschneider. Albrecht D?rer, who brought German painting to heights previously unknown, introduced the Renaissance style, marked by classical motifs and interest in the natural world, from Italy.”(Di Camillo, p. 156)

I would like to mention that there were some different theories and thesis concerning the emergence of Renaissance in a past couple of decades that were quite controversial. The thesis, briefly, is that between 1450 and 1600 artists working in Venice, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany were engaged in a complex conversation that had profound ramifications for art on both sides of the Alps. It’s a view that discredits the idea that the Italians single-handedly invented Renaissance art, except for oil paint, which was invented by the van Eycks and brought to Italy by Antonello da Messina, an Italian, or rather a Sicilian as his name tells us.

My personal opinion is that one should address Renaissance as a movement rather than a period, but want to point out that the movement itself was not unitary in character but experienced successive phases of imitation, mastery and conscious break with tradition, that might in turn become a prelude to another phase. Cultural change is thus both seamless and interwoven. How then does a “movement” relate to a period? Another important detail that should be stressed is that the Renaissance should not be identified with modernity. Does that perhaps imply that the movement must by some means be identified with a period? The singularity of the Renaissance remains to be defined in chronological terms. However, it could be perhaps suggested that as the Renaissance “recedes” from us, we should finally break up the tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern periods. Moreover, we should perhaps begin to see the Renaissance as a historical phenomenon, which has a complex and shifting relationship to other movements and other periods between the age of Giotto and the age of Galileo.

Ames-Lewis, F. The Intellectual Life of the Early Renaissance Artist. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.

Burke, P. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

Di Camillo, Ottavio. “Interpretations of the Renaissance in Spanish Historical Thought: The Last Thirty Years.” Renaisssance Quarterly (1996) Vol. 49, p. 53-65.

Kemp, M. Leonardo on Painting. New Haven and London, 1989.

Langer, Ulrich. “The Renaissance Novella as Justice.” Renaissance Quarterly (1999), vol. 52: p. 19-23.

Marco, L. Lives of the artists in Renaissance. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Panofsky, E. Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. Philadelphia: Harper and Row, 1969.

Rosci, M. Leonardo. New York: Mayflower Books, 1981.

Salvini, R. Michelangelo and Others. Chicago: Mel Press, 1998.

Copenhaver, B. Renaissance Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University, 1999.

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