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Italian Renaissance

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The Italian Renaissance was the opening phase of the Renaissance, a period of great cultural change and achievement from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century following the Middle Ages. See also Medieval Italy . The Renaissance was first focused in Northern Italy with its centre in the city of Florence. It then later spread south having an especially great impact on Rome, which was largely rebuilt. From Italy it spread into the rest of Europe, a period that is known as the Northern Renaissance.

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Northern Italy in the 14th century was divided into a number of warring city states, the most powerful being Milan, Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Genoa, and Venice. Central and southern Italy, the heartland of the Roman Empire, was far poorer. Rome was a city largely in ruins and the Papal States were a loosely administered region with little law and order. Partially because of this, the Papacy had relocated to Avignon, France.

Northern Italy was further divided by the long running battle for supremacy between the forces of the Papacy and of the Holy Roman Empire. Each city would be aligned with one faction, but would also be internally divided between the two sides. Warfare between the states was common, but invasion from outside Italy was less so.

The states of northern Italy were the wealthiest in Europe. The main trade routes running from the east passed through Byzantium or the Arab lands and onwards to the ports of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. These states built powerful navies. The inland city states profited from the rich agricultural land of the Po River valley. Florence became extremely wealthy from the textile business that imported wool from Northern Europe and dyes from the east to make high quality clothing. In an age when armies were primarily comprised of mercenaries these city-states could field considerable forces, despite their low populations.

The extensive trade that stretched from Egypt to the Baltic generated significant surpluses that allowed significant investment in mining and agriculture. Thus, while northern Italy was not richer in resources than many other parts of Europe, the level of development made for much higher returns.

The surplus from trade also made Northern Italy the centre of European finance. The Florentine Florin became the de facto currency of international trade and Florence became the capital city of European banking. This produced a new class of aristocrats who won their positions through financial skill. By necessity they were erudite. Powerful guilds gave the skilled tradesmen, who were essential to the city's wealth, much power in government.

The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge. From Constantinople, recently Christianized Spain, and the Arab lands came much of the preserved ancient learning of the classical era. From Egypt and the Levant the scientific, philosophical, and mathematical thinking of the Arabs entered Northern Italy. The region also was sitting just to the north of the remnants of Roman civilization, and if one hunted long enough ancient manuscripts could be found, architectural principles observed, and art styles examined.

The end of feudalism is a central element of the Renaissance, and Northern Italy, with the exception of the region around Milan, was far less feudal then the rest of Europe. The landed nobility was consistently weaker than the urban patriarchs. The increase in trade during the early Renaissance enhanced this characteristic. The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities tended to self-catalyse or served to catalyse each other. For example, the demand for luxury goods lead to an increase in trade, which lead to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods.

While Dante, Petrarch and the other stirrings of the Renaissance occurred in the first half of the 14th century, that era of turmoil saw little opportunity to develop these new ideas. The rise of Ottoman power disrupted the east, reducing the flow of trade. In 1345, England defaulted on its loans causing turmoil in the banking sector and destroying two of the largest banks. Two years later the Black Death would sweep Europe and the dense urban centres were especially hard hit. Widespread disorder followed, including a revolt of Florentine textile workers, the ciompi , in 1378.

Paradoxically some of these disasters would further enable the Renaissance to arrive. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire at the expense of Byzantium caused an influx of wealthy and educated Greek refugees from the east, who brought with them knowledge of classical Greek learning.

The Black Death would wipe out a third of Europe's population, but the new smaller population would be much wealthier, better fed, and with more surplus to spend on luxury goods like art and architecture. As incidences of the black plague began to decline in the earth 15th century, Europe’s devastated population once again began to grow in size. This new demand for products and services, and the reduced number of people able to provide them (due to the deaths caused by the plague) put the lower classes in a more favourable position. Furthermore, this demand also helped create an increasing class of bankers, merchants, and skilled craftsman. It should also be noted that the horrors of the Black Death, and the seeming inability of Church to provide relief would contribute to a decline of church influence, another significant factor in contributing to the Renaissance.

The collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi banks would open the way for the Medici to rise to prominence in Florence.


The ethos that began in Florence reached its peak under the Medici, a wealthy banking family that became major patrons of art and architecture. It quickly spread from Florence to the neighbouring states. In 1447 Francesco Sforza came to power in Milan and rapidly transformed that still medieval city into a major centre of art and learning. The other major power was Venice, which controlled the Mediterranean Sea, after defeating long time rivals Pisa and Genoa. The city also became a centre for Renaissance culture, especially architecture.

In 1378 the Papacy returned to Rome, but that once imperial city remained poor and largely in ruins through the first years of the Renaissance. The great transformation began under Pope Nicholas V who became pontiff 1447. He launched a dramatic rebuilding effort that would see much of the city renewed. As the papacy fell under the control of the wealthy families from the north, such as the Medici and the Borgias the spirit of Renaissance art and philosophy came to dominate the Vatican. Pope Sixtus IV continued Nicholas' work, most famously ordering the construction of the Sistine Chapel. The popes also became increasingly secular rulers as the Papal States were forged into a centralized power by a series of warrior popes.

The end of the Renaissance is as imprecisely marked as its starting point. For many, the rise to power in Florence of Girolamo Savonarola in 1497 marks the end of the city's flourishing. This austere monk rode to power on a widespread backlash over the secularism and indulgence of the Renaissance – his brief rule saw many works of art destroyed in the "Bonfire of the Vanities" in the centre of Florence. The most common date for the end of the Renaissance throughout Italy is May 6, 1527, when Spanish and German troops sacked Rome. This invasion of the peninsula was the beginning of several centuries of domination by foreign powers. However the years after the invasion still saw the production of Renaissance art and architecture, and for music history the end date for the Renaissance is usually given as 1600, or even 1620.

Politics and warfare

The first part of the Renaissance saw almost constant war on land and sea as the city states vied for pre-eminence. On land this warfare was fought primarily by armies of mercenaries known as Condottieri. These bands of soldiers were drawn from around Europe, but especially Germany and Switzerland. The mercenaries were not willing to risk their lives unduly and war became one largely of sieges and manoeuvre with few pitched battles. It was also in the interest of mercenaries on both sides to prolong any conflict and this would continue their employment. Mercenaries were also a constant threat to their employers. If they were not paid they would turn on their patron. If it became obvious that a state was entirely dependent on mercenaries the temptation was great for the mercenaries to take over the running of it themselves and this occurred on a number of occasions.

At sea the conflict was fought by the fleets of the Italian city states. The main contenders were Pisa, Genoa, and Venice. After a long conflict the Genoese succeeded in reducing Pisa. Venice proved a more powerful adversary, and while at first relatively equal, the Genoese fleet was destroyed in a Venetian assault in 1380, and from then on Venice was pre-eminent.

On land, decades of fighting saw Florence and Milan emerge dominant. These two powers set aside their differences and agreed to the Peace of Lodi in 1454, which saw relative calm brought to the region for the first time in centuries. The peace would hold for the next forty years. Venice's unquestioned hegemony over the sea also lead to unprecedented peace for much of the 15th century.

Science and philosophy

Petrarch is considered by many to be the founder of a new method of scholarship known as Renaissance Humanism. Humanism saw man as a rational and sentient being with the ability to decide and think for himself. This was a rejection of the Catholic Church's vision of souls as the only absolute reality, which was then seen as mystical and imaginary. It saw man as inherently good by nature which is in contrast to the Christian view of man as the original sinner who must be redeemed. It provoked fresh insight into the nature of reality, questioning beyond God and spirituality, and provided for knowledge about history beyond Christian history.

Petrarch encouraged the study of the Latin classics and also Greek literature. An important step was thus the hunting down of ancient manuscripts, many of which had been lost or forgotten. These endeavours were greatly aided by the wealth of Italian patricians, merchant-princes and despots, who would spend substantial sums building libraries. Discovering the past had become fashionable and it was a passionate affair pervading the upper reaches of society. I go, said Cyriac of Ancona , I go to awake the dead!.

As the Greek works were acquired, manuscripts found, libraries and museums formed, the age of the printing press was dawning. The works were translated from Greek and Latin into the contemporary modern languages throughout Europe finding a receptive audience.

While concern for philosophy, art and literature all increased greatly in the Renaissance the period is usually seen as one of scientific backwardness. The reverence for classical sources further enshrined the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of the universe. Humanism stressed that nature came to be viewed as an animate spiritual creation that was not governed by laws or mathematics. At the same time philosophy lost much of its rigour as the rules of logic and deduction were seen as secondary to intuition and emotion.

It would not be until the Renaissance moved to Northern Europe that science would be revived, with such figures as Copernicus, Francis Bacon, and Descartes. They are often described as early Enlightenment thinkers, rather than late Renaissance ones.

Literature and poetry

Prior to the Renaissance, the Italian language was not the literary language in Italy. It was only in the 13th century that Italian authors began writing in their native language rather than Latin, French, or Provenšal. The 1250s saw a major change in Italian poetry as the Dolce Stil Novo (Sweet New Style, which emphasized Platonic rather than courtly love) came into its own, pioneered by poets like Guittone d'Arezzo and Guido Guinizelli. Especially in poetry, major changes in Italian literature had been taking place decades before the Renaissance truly began. Indeed, the 13th century Italian literary revolution helped set the stage for the Renaissance. [1]

Niccol˛ Machiavelli (1469 - 1527), the author of The Prince and protypical Renaissance man. Detail from a portrait by Santi di Tito .
Niccol˛ Machiavelli (1469 - 1527), the author of The Prince and protypical Renaissance man. Detail from a portrait by Santi di Tito .

An increasing number of works began to be published in the Italian vernacular. Simultaneously, the source for these works shifted away from religion and towards the pre-Christian eras of Imperial Rome and Ancient Greece. This is not to say that no religious works were published in this period: Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy reflects a distinctly medieval worldview. Christianity remained a major influence for artists and authors, with the classics coming into their own as a second primary influence.

In the early Renaissance, especially in Italy, much of the focus was on translating and studying classic works from Latin and Greek. Both the cultures were highly admired in the Renaissance, especially after the newly-labeled Dark Ages. Renaissance authors were not content to rest on the laurels of ancient authors, however. Many authors attempted to integrate the methods and styles of the ancient greats into their own works. Among the most emulated Romans are Cicero, Horace, Sallust, and Virgil. Among the Greeks, Aristotle, Homer, Plato, and Socrates were also heavily emulated by Renaissance authors.

The literature and poetry of the Renaissance was also largely influenced by the developing science and philosophy. The humanist Francesco Petrarch, a key figure in the renewed sense of scholarship, was also an accomplished poet, publishing several important works of poetry. He wrote poetry in Latin, notably the Punic War epic Africa , but is today remembered for his works in the Italian vernacular, especially the Canzoniere , a collection of love sonnets dedicated to his unrequited love Laura. He was the foremost writer of sonnets in Italian, and translations of his work into English by Thomas Wyatt established the sonnet form in that country, where it was employed William Shakespeare and countless other poets.

Petrarch's disciple, Giovanni Boccaccio, became a major author in his own right. His major work was the Decameron, a collection of 100 stories told by ten tellers who have fled the black plague over ten nights. The Decameron in particular and Bocccaccio's work in general were a major source of inspiration and plots for many English authors in the Renaissance, including Geoffrey Chaucer and Shakespeare, and beyond.

Aside from Christianity, classical antiquity, and scholarship, a fourth influence on Renaissance literature was politics. The political philosopher Niccol˛ Machiavelli is an important Italian author. His most famous work is The Prince, which has become so well-known in Western society that the term "machiavellian" has come into use, referring to the self-serving attitude advocated by the book. However, most experts agree that Machiavelli himself did not fully embrace the tactics in his book, making "machiavellian" a slightly inaccurate term. Regardless, along with many other Renaissance works, The Prince remains a relevant and influential work of literature today.

Sculpture, painting, and architecture

Main articles: Early Renaissance painting, Renaissance architecture

Sculpture was the first of the fine arts to display Renaissance traits. Donatello (1386 - 1466) was one of the most notable sculptors of the early Renaissance. His statue of David shows a study from the nude. About a century later Michelangelo develops figures that are completely independent of any architectural structure surrounding them. His statue of David is also a nude study; Michelangelo's David however is moving in a more natural way. Both sculptures are standing in contrapost, their weight shifted to one leg. This posture is typical of Renaissance sculptures.

Renaissance painting is known for its use of perspective, realism, and movement away from religious themes, which were omnipresent in medieval art. The human body and natural landscapes became the centre of attention. Piero della Francesca is noted for painting from an aerial perspective. Masaccios figures have a plasticity unknown up to that point in time. Compared to the flatness of gothic painting, his pictures were revolutionary. Less well known names from the Early Renaissance period include Paolo Uccello, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli. The most "refined" works were produced in what is called the Renaissance Classicism. The most famous painters from this time period are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Their images are among the most widely known works of art in the world. The Last Supper, the Scuola di Atena and the Holy Family all feature a perspective, lively and natural presentation of people and landscapes.
Renaissance painting evolved into Mannerism around the mid 16th century. Mannerism depicts mostly landscapes and portraits, with few religious themes. Figures become more elongated and their movements appear artificial.

Like painting, Renaissance architecture was inspired by the Classical. In Italy, the Renaissance style first started to develop in Florence. Some of the earliest buildings showing Renaissance characteristics are Filippo Brunelleschi's sacral buildings S. Lorenzo and the Pazzi Chapel. The interior of S. Spirito expresses a new sense of light clarity and spaciousness, which is typical of the early Italian Renaissance (1420 to 1500). The architecture reflects the philosophy of Humanism, the enlightenment and clarity of mind as opposed to the darkness and spirituality of the Middle Ages. The revival of classical antiquity can best be illustrated by the Palazzo Ruccelai . Here the columns follow the classical orders. The columns are topped by Doric capitals on the ground floor, Ionic capitals on the first floor and Corinthian capitals on the second floor.

The Renaissance style developed to its fullest at around 1500 in Rome. St. Peter's Basilica is the most notable building of the era. Originally planned by Donato Bramante, who was one of most prominent architects of the time, the building was influenced by almost all notable Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Giacomo della Porta . The beginning of the late Renaissance in 1550 was marked by the development of a new column order by Andrea Palladio. Colossal columns that were two or more stories tall decorated the facades.

Music and dance

Main articles: Renaissance music, Renaissance dance

Classical music is said to come from the Renaissance period if it was written between approximately A.D. 1400 and 1600. Defining the end of the period is easier than defining the beginning, since, unlike other arts, there was no revolutionary shift in musical thinking at the beginning of the 15th century, and the process by which music acquired "Renaissance" characteristics was a gradual one.

One of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance music was the increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance. Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century: the beginning of the 15th century showed simplification, with the voices often striving for smoothness.

Towards the end of the 15th century, polyphonic sacred music had once again become complex, in a manner correlating to the stunning detail in the painting at the time; this was followed in the early 16th century by another trend towards simplification.

In the late 16th century secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism. Meanwhile, beginning in Florence, musicians also turned to the classical world with an attempt to revive the dramatic and musical forms of Ancient Greece, through the means of monody, a form of declaimed music over a simple accompaniment.


Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45