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Italy Part One

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Northern Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance: Part One, The Background

Book:        Ancient Times

Author:      Robert A. Guisepi

Date:        2004



Renaissance Thought And Art, 1300-1600




     In Italy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries thinkers and

artists began to view the thousand years that had elapsed since the fall of

Rome as the "Dark Ages" - a time of stagnation and ignorance - in contrast to

their own age which appeared to them wise and beautiful. They exuberantly

proclaimed that they were participating in an intellectual and aesthetic

revolution sparked by the "rebirth" (renaissance) of the values and forms of

classical antiquity. Modern historians have accepted the term Renaissance as a

convenient label for this exciting age of intellectual and artistic revival,

which continued through the sixteenth century. But since the Renaissance had

deep roots in the Middle Ages, which also made rich contributions to

civilization, in what ways can the Renaissance be said to signify a "rebirth"?


     First of all, there was an intensification of interest in the literature

of classical Greece and Rome. This Classical Revival, as it is called, was the

product of a more wordly focus of interest - a focus on human beings and on

this life as an end in itself rather than a temporary halting place on the way

to eternity. Renaissance scholars searched the monasteries for old Latin

manuscripts that had been unappreciated and largely ignored by medieval

scholars, and they translated hitherto unknown works from Greek into Latin,

the common language of scholarly discourse. Thus the humanists, as these

scholars were called, greatly added to the quantity of classical literature

that had been entering the mainstream of Western thought since the Middle

Ages. Second, while Renaissance scholars found a new significance in classical

literature, artists in Italy were stimulated and inspired by their study and

imitation of classical sculpture and architecture.


     But the spirit of the Renaissance was not characterized by a mere cult of

antiquity, a looking backward into the past. The humanists of the Renaissance

were - except for a lack of interest in science - the harbingers of the modern

world, enthusiastically engaged in widening the horizon of human interests.

Renaissance culture strikingly exhibits belief in the worth of the individual

and the desire to think and act as a free agent. The Renaissance spirit was

admirably summed up by the Florentine humanist Leon Battista Alberti, when he

declared, "Men can do all things if they will."


     In some respects every age is an age of transition, but it may be fair to

state that the Renaissance marks one of the major turning points in Western

civilization. The dominant institutions and thought systems of the Middle Ages

were in decline; scholasticism, church authority, and conformity were on the

wane. A more modern culture that depended on individualism, skepticism, and

ultimately on science was taking its place.


     The Renaissance originated in the cities of central and northern Italy.

We shall begin with a description of the new secular interests and values that

rose in these urban centers, then note the relationship between these urban

interests and the Classical Revival and flowering of art, and conclude with a

discussion of the spread of the Renaissance as it crossed the Alps to France,

Germany, and England. It was in England that the underlying optimism and

dynamism of the entire Renaissance period was epitomized by Shakespeare:


                              O, wonder!

          How many goodly creatures are there here!

          How beauteous mankind is! O brave new


          That has such people in't! ^1


[Footnote 1: The Tempest, act 5, sc. 1, lines 182-185.]


The Italian Renaissance: The Background


     The culture of the Italian Renaissance did not arise in a vacuum.

Historians today find a clue to the intellectual and esthetic changes of the

age in economic, social, and political change.


The "Brave New World" Of The Italian City-States


     We have seen in chapter 10 that during the twelfth and thirteenth

centuries of the High Middle Ages a new economy and a new society emerged in

western Europe. Commerce and a money economy revived, towns arose and became

self-governing communes, and townspeople constituted a new middle class, the

bourgeoisie. While Italy had been one of the leaders in these twelfth- and

thirteenth-century developments, during the next two centuries it moved

dramatically ahead of the rest of Europe.


     During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the city-states of northern

and central Italy experienced a tremendous growth of population and expanded

to become small teritorial states. These included the Papal States, where the

restored authority of the popes extinguished the independence of many little

city-states in central Italy. Feudalism had died out in Italy during the

twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


     Unlike the French nobility, who spent their time participating in the

vigorous court life of their fellow nobles, the Italian nobles moved to the

cities and joined with the rich merchants to form a patrician ruling class.

Together they successfully fought off the German emperors Frederick Barbarossa

and Frederick II. By 1300 nearly all the land of northern and central Italy

was owned by profit-seeking urban capitalists who produced for city markets.

In the large export industries, such as woolen cloth, a capitalistic system of

production was emerging - the "putting out" system in which the

merchant-capitalist retained ownership of the raw material and paid others to

work it into the finished product. Additional great wealth was gained from

commerce, particularly the import-export trade in luxury goods from the East.

So much wealth was accumulated by these merchant-capitalists that they turned

to money-lending and banking. From the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries,

Italians monopolized European banking. It is no wonder that in this

prosperous, worldly Italian society, money transformed values and became a new

virtue, celebrated in poetry:


          Money makes the man,

          Money makes the stupid pass for bright, ...

          Money buys the pleasure-giving women,

          Money keeps the soul in bliss, ...

          The world and fortune being ruled by it,

          Which even opens, if you want, the doors of


          So wise he seems to me who piles up

          What more than any other virtue

          Conquers gloom and leavens the whole spirit. ^2


[Footnote 2: Quoted in Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination: City States in

Renaissance Italy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 83.]


     These economic and political successes made the Italian upper-class

groups strongly assertive, self-confident, and passionately attached to their

city-states. Literature and art reflected their self-confidence. Poets

described them riding "self-assuredly through the streets"; every major

sculptor and painter produced their portraits, sometimes tucked away in

corners of religious paintings; and architects affirmed their importance by

constructing their imposing palaces - the palazzi of the Medici, Rucellai,

Pitti, and Pazzi families, for example, still standing in Florence.


     Furthermore, the humanists provided them with an ideology. The humanists'

focus on individuals and society, and their insistent theme of "the dignity of

man," were entirely in keeping with the outlook, manners, and accomplishments

of the dominant urban groups. These groups patronized the new more secular art

and the new secular values, both largely alien to the church-dominated culture

of the Middle Ages.


Renaissance Patrons


     The despots and the wealthy merchants, bankers, and maufacturers

conspicuously displayed their wealth and bolstered their own importance and

that of their cities by patronizing artists and humanists. Most of the latter

were provided with governmental, academic, and tutorial posts.


     Renaissance artists had the benefit of the security and protection

offered by their patrons and enjoyed the definite advantage of working

exclusively on commission. Artists knew where their finished work would

repose, in cathedral, villa, or city square. This situation contrasts with

some later periods, when artists painted as they wished and then attempted to

sell the work to anyone who would buy it.


     Among the most famous patrons were members of the Medici family who, by

acting as champions of the lower classes, ruled Florence for sixty years

(1434-1494) behind a facade of republican forms. Lorenzo de' Medici, who was

first citizen of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492, carried on his

family's proud traditions and added so much luster to Florence that he became

known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. When he added up the principal expenditures

made by his family between 1434 and 1471 for commissions to artists and

architects, as well as for charities and taxes, and it came to the astounding

total of 663,755 gold florins, he remarked: "I think it casts a brilliant

light on our estate and it seems to me that the monies were well spent and I

am very well pleased with this." ^3


[Footnote 3: Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination, p. 243.]


     The Renaissance popes, with few expections as worldly as their fellow

citizens, were lavish patrons who made Rome the foremost center of art and

learning by 1500. What Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) said of himself applies to

most of the Renaissance popes through the pontificate of Clement VII

(1523-1534), who was a member of the Medici family: "In all things I have been

liberal: in building, in the purchase of books [the Vatican Library is still

one of the world's greatest], in the constant transcription of Greek and Latin

manuscripts, and in the rewarding of learned men."


International History Project