The Italian Renaissance: Part One, The Background
Book: Ancient Times
Author: Robert A. Guisepi
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:
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.
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."