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definitions - Italian Renaissance

Italian Renaissance (n.)

1.the early period when Italy was the center of the Renaissance

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Italian Renaissance


The Italian Renaissance was the earliest manifestation of the general European Renaissance, a period of great cultural change and achievement that began in Italy around the end of the 13th century and lasted until the 16th century, marking the transition between Medieval and Early Modern Europe. The term Renaissance is in essence a modern one that came into currency in the 19th century, in the work of historians such as Jacob Burckhardt. Although the origins of a movement that was confined largely to the literate culture of intellectual endeavor and patronage can be traced to the earlier part of the 14th century, many aspects of Italian culture and society remained largely Medieval; the Renaissance did not come into full swing until the end of the century. The word renaissance (Rinascimento in Italian) means “rebirth”, and the era is best known for the renewed interest in the culture of classical antiquity after the period that Renaissance humanists labeled the Dark Ages. These changes, while significant, were concentrated in the elite, and for the vast majority of the population life was little changed from the Middle Ages.



The European Renaissance began in Tuscany (Central Italy), and centered in the cities of Florence and Siena. It later had a great impact in Venice, where the remains of ancient Greek culture were brought together, providing humanist scholars with new texts. The Renaissance later had a significant effect on Rome, which was ornamented with some structures in the new all'antico mode, then was largely rebuilt by humanist sixteenth-century popes. The Italian Renaissance peaked in the mid-16th century as foreign invasions plunged the region into the turmoil of the Italian Wars. However, the ideas and ideals of the Renaissance endured and even spread into the rest of Europe, setting off the Northern Renaissance, and the English Renaissance.

  Cultural achievements

The Italian Renaissance is best known for its cultural achievements. Accounts of Renaissance literature usually begin with Petrarch (best known for the elegantly polished vernacular sonnet sequence of the Canzoniere and for the craze for book collecting that he initiated) and his friend and contemporary Boccaccio (author of the Decameron). Famous vernacular poets of the 15th century include the renaissance epic authors Luigi Pulci (author of Morgante), Matteo Maria Boiardo (Orlando Innamorato), and Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso). 15th century writers such as the poet Poliziano and the Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino made extensive translations from both Latin and Greek. In the early 16th century, Castiglione (The Book of the Courtier) laid out his vision of the ideal gentleman and lady, while Machiavelli cast a jaundiced eye on "la verità effettuale della cosa"—the actual truth of things—in The Prince, composed, humanist style, chiefly of parallel ancient and modern examples of Virtù. Italian Renaissance painting exercised a dominant influence on subsequent European painting (see Western painting) for centuries afterwards, with artists such as Giotto di Bondone, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Titian. The same is true for architecture, as practiced by Brunelleschi, Leone Alberti, Andrea Palladio, and Bramante. Their works include Florence Cathedral, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini (to name a only a few, not to mention many splendid private residences: see Renaissance architecture). Finally, the Aldine Press, founded by the printer Aldo Manuzio, active in Venice, developed Italic type and the small, relatively portable and inexpensive printed book that could be carried in one's pocket, as well as being the first to publish editions of books in Ancient Greek. Yet cultural contributions notwithstanding, some present-day historians also see the era as one of the beginning of economic regression for Italy (there were some economic downturns due to the opening up of the Atlantic trade routes and repeated foreign invasions and interference by both France and the Spanish Empire).


History of Italy
Flag of Italy

  Northern and Central Italy in the Late Middle Ages

By the Late Middle Ages ( circa 1300 onward ), Latium the heartland of the Roman Empire, and southern Italy, was poorer than the north. Rome was a city of ancient ruins, and the Papal States were loosely administered, and vulnerable to external interference such as that of France and later Spain. The Papacy was affronted when the Avignon Papacy was created in southern France as a consequence of pressure from King Philip the Fair of France. In the south, Sicily had for some time been under foreign domination, by the Arabs and then the Normans. Sicily had prospered for 150 years during the Emirate of Sicily and later for two centuries during the Norman Kingdom and the Hohenstaufen Kingdom, but had declined by the late Middle Ages.

In contrast Northern and Central Italy had become far more prosperous, with the City-States among the wealthiest in Europe. The Crusades had built lasting trade links to the Levant, and the Fourth Crusade had done much to destroy the Byzantine Empire as a commercial rival to the Venetians and Genoese. The main trade routes from the east passed through the Byzantine Empire or the Arab lands and onwards to the ports of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Luxury goods bought in the Levant, such as spices, dyes, and silks were imported to Italy and then resold throughout Europe. Moreover, the inland city-states profited from the rich agricultural land of the Po valley. From France, Germany, and the Low Countries, through the medium of the Champagne fairs, land and river trade routes brought goods such as wool, wheat, and precious metals into the region. The extensive trade that stretched from Egypt to the Baltic generated substantial 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, stimulated by trade, allowed it to prosper. In particular, Florence became one of the wealthiest of the cities of Northern Italy, due mainly to its woolen textile production, developed under the supervision of its dominant trade guild, the Arte della Lana. Wool was imported from Northern Europe (and in the 16th century from Spain)[1] and together with dyes from the east were used to make high quality textiles.

The Italian trade routes that covered the Mediterranean and beyond were also major conduits of culture and knowledge. The recovery of lost Greek classics, and to a lesser extent independent Arab contributions, played an important part in the revitalization of medieval philosophy in the Renaissance of the 12th century, just as the refugee Greek scholars who migrated to Italy during the onslaught of the Ottomans against the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century were important in sparking the new linguistic studies of the Renaissance, in newly created academies in Florence and Venice. Humanist scholars searched monastic libraries for ancient manuscripts and recovered Tacitus and other Latin authors. The rediscovery of Vitruvius meant that the architectural principles of Antiquity could be observed once more, and Renaissance artists were encouraged, in the atmosphere of humanist optimism, to excel the achievements of the Ancients, like Apelles, of whom they read.


In the 13th century, much of Europe experienced strong economic growth. The trade routes of the Italian states linked with those of established Mediterranean ports and eventually the Hanseatic League of the Baltic and northern regions of Europe to create a network economy in Europe for the first time since the 4th century. The city-states of Italy expanded greatly during this period and grew in power to become de facto fully independent of the Holy Roman Empire; apart from the Kingdom of Naples, outside powers kept their armies out of Italy. During this period, the modern commercial infrastructure developed, with double-entry book-keeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt.[2] Florence became the centre of this financial industry and the gold florin became the main currency of international trade.

The new mercantile governing class, who gained their position through financial skill, adapted to their purposes the feudal aristocratic model that had dominated Europe in the Middle Ages. A feature of the High Middle Ages in Northern Italy was the rise of the urban communes which had broken from the control by bishops and local counts. In much of the region, the landed nobility was poorer than the urban patriarchs in the High Medieval money economy whose inflationary rise left land-holding aristocrats impoverished. The increase in trade during the early Renaissance enhanced these characteristics. The decline of feudalism and the rise of cities influenced each other; for example, the demand for luxury goods led to an increase in trade, which led to greater numbers of tradesmen becoming wealthy, who, in turn, demanded more luxury goods. This change also gave the merchants almost complete control of the governments of the Italian city-states, again enhancing trade. One of the most important effects of this political control was security. Those that grew extremely wealthy in a feudal state ran constant risk of running afoul of the monarchy and having their lands confiscated, as famously occurred to Jacques Coeur in France. The northern states also kept many medieval laws that severely hampered commerce, such as those against usury, and prohibitions on trading with non-Christians. In the city-states of Italy, these laws were repealed or rewritten.[3]

  Fourteenth-century collapse

  Italy in 1328.

The 14th century saw a series of catastrophes that caused the European economy to go into recession. The Medieval Warm Period was ending as the transition to the Little Ice Age began.[4] This change in climate saw agricultural output decline significantly, leading to repeated famines, exacerbated by the rapid population growth of the earlier era. The Hundred Years' War between England and France disrupted trade throughout northwest Europe, most notably when, in 1345, King Edward III of England repudiated his debts, contributing to the collapse of the two largest Florentine banks, those of the Bardi and Peruzzi. In the east, war was also disrupting trade routes, as the Ottoman Empire began to expand throughout the region. Most devastating, though, was the Black Death that decimated the populations of the densely populated cities of Northern Italy and returned at intervals thereafter. Florence, for instance, which had a pre-plague population of 45,000 decreased over the next 47 years by 25–50%.[5] Widespread disorder followed, including a revolt of Florentine textile workers, the ciompi, in 1378.

It was during this period of instability that the Renaissance authors such as Dante and Petrarch lived, and the first stirrings of Renaissance art were to be seen, notably in the realism of Giotto. Paradoxically, some of these disasters would help establish the Renaissance. The Black Death wiped out a third of Europe's population. The resulting labour shortage increased wages and the reduced population was therefore much wealthier, better fed, and, significantly, had more surplus money to spend on luxury goods. As incidences of the plague began to decline in the early 15th century, Europe's devastated population once again began to grow. The new demand for products and services also helped create a growing class of bankers, merchants, and skilled artisans. The horrors of the Black Death and the seeming inability of the Church to provide relief would contribute to a decline of church influence. Additionally, the collapse of the Bardi and Peruzzi banks would open the way for the Medici to rise to prominence in Florence. Roberto Sabatino Lopez argues that the economic collapse was a crucial cause of the Renaissance.[6] According to this view, in a more prosperous era, businessmen would have quickly reinvested their earnings in order to make more money in a climate favourable to investment. However, in the leaner years of the 14th century, the wealthy found few promising investment opportunities for their earnings and instead chose to spend more on culture and art.

Another popular explanation for the Italian Renaissance is the thesis, first advanced by historian Hans Baron,[7] that states that the primary impetus of the early Renaissance was the long-running series of wars between Florence and Milan. By the late 14th century, Milan had become a centralized monarchy under the control of the Visconti family. Giangaleazzo Visconti, who ruled the city from 1378 to 1402, was renowned both for his cruelty and for his abilities, and set about building an empire in Northern Italy. He launched a long series of wars, with Milan steadily conquering neighbouring states and defeating the various coalitions led by Florence that sought in vain to halt the advance. This culminated in the 1402 siege of Florence, when it looked as though the city was doomed to fall, before Giangaleazzo suddenly died and his empire collapsed.

Baron's thesis suggests that during these long wars, the leading figures of Florence rallied the people by presenting the war as one between the free republic and a despotic monarchy, between the ideals of the Greek and Roman Republics and those of the Roman Empire and Medieval kingdoms. For Baron, the most important figure in crafting this ideology was Leonardo Bruni. This time of crisis in Florence was the period when the most influential figures of the early Renaissance were coming of age, such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Masolino, and Brunelleschi. Inculcated with this republican ideology they later went on to advocate republican ideas that were to have an enormous impact on the Renaissance.


  International relations

  Pandolfo Malatesta (1417–1468), lord of Rimini, by Piero della Francesca. Malatesta was a capable condottiere, following the tradition of his family. He was hired by the Venetians to fight against the Turks (unsuccessfully) in 1465, and was patron of Leone Battista Alberti, whose Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini is one of the first entirely classical buildings of the Renaissance.

Northern Italy and upper Central Italy were divided into a number of warring city-states, the most powerful being Milan, Florence, Pisa, Siena, Genoa, Ferrara, Mantua, Verona and Venice. High Medieval 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 aligned itself with one faction or the other, yet was divided internally between the two warring parties, Guelfs and Ghibellines. Warfare between the states was common, invasion from outside Italy confined to intermittent sorties of Holy Roman Emperors. Renaissance politics developed from this background. Since the 13th century, as armies became primarily composed of mercenaries, prosperous city-states could field considerable forces, despite their low populations. In the course of the 15th century, the most powerful city-states annexed their smaller neighbors. Florence took Pisa in 1406, Venice captured Padua and Verona, while the Duchy of Milan annexed a number of nearby areas including Pavia and Parma.

The first part of the Renaissance saw almost constant warfare on land and sea as the city-states vied for preeminence. On land, these wars were primarily fought by armies of mercenaries known as condottieri, bands of soldiers drawn from around Europe, but especially Germany and Switzerland, led largely by Italian captains. The mercenaries were not willing to risk their lives unduly, and war became one largely of sieges and maneuvering, occasioning few pitched battles. It was also in the interest of mercenaries on both sides to prolong any conflict, to continue their employment. Mercenaries were also a constant threat to their employers; if not paid, they often turned 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—this occurred on a number of occasions.[8]

At sea, Italian city-states sent many fleets out to do battle. The main contenders were Pisa, Genoa, and Venice, but after a long conflict the Genoese succeeded in reducing Pisa. Venice proved to be a more powerful adversary, and with the decline of Genoese power during the 15th century Venice became pre-eminent on the seas. In response to threats from the landward side, from the early 15th century Venice developed an increased interest in controlling the terrafirma as the Venetian Renaissance opened.

On land, decades of fighting saw Florence, Milan and Venice emerge as the dominant players, and these two powers finally 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. This peace would hold for the next forty years, and Venice's unquestioned hegemony over the sea also led to unprecedented peace for much of the rest of the 15th century. In the beginning of the 15th century, adventurer and traders such as Niccolò Da Conti (1395–1469) traveled as far as Southeast Asia and back, bringing fresh knowledge on the state of the world, presaging further European voyages of exploration in the years to come.

  Florence under the Medici

Until the late 14th century, Florence's leading family were the House of Albizzi. Their main challengers were the Medicis, first under Giovanni de' Medici, later under his son Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici. The Medici controlled the Medici bank—then Europe's largest bank—and an array of other enterprises in Florence and elsewhere. In 1433, the Albizzi managed to have Cosimo exiled.[9] The next year, however, saw a pro-Medici Signoria elected and Cosimo returned. The Medici became the town's leading family, a position they would hold for the next three centuries. Florence remained a republic until 1537, traditionally marking the end of the High Renaissance in Florence, but the instruments of republican government were firmly under the control of the Medici and their allies, save during the intervals after 1494 and 1527. Cosimo and Lorenzo only rarely held official posts, but were the unquestioned leaders.

Cosimo de' Medici was highly popular among the citizenry, mainly for bringing an era of stability and prosperity to the town. One of his most important accomplishments was negotiating the Peace of Lodi with Francesco Sforza ending the decades of war with Milan and bringing stability to much of Northern Italy. Cosimo was also an important patron of the arts, directly and indirectly, by the influential example he set.

Cosimo was succeeded by his sickly son Piero de' Medici, who died after five years in charge of the city. In 1469 the reins of power passed to Cosimo's twenty-one-year-old grandson Lorenzo, who would become known as "Lorenzo the Magnificent." Lorenzo was the first of the family to be educated from an early age in the humanist tradition and is best known as one of the Renaissance's most important patrons of the arts. Under Lorenzo, the Medici rule was formalized with the creation of a new Council of Seventy, which Lorenzo headed. The republican institutions continued, but they lost all power. Lorenzo was less successful than his illustrious forebears in business, and the Medici commercial empire was slowly eroded. Lorenzo continued the alliance with Milan, but relations with the papacy soured, and in 1478, Papal agents allied with the Pazzi family in an attempt to assassinate Lorenzo. Although the plot failed, Lorenzo's young brother, Giuliano, was killed, and the failed assassination led to a war with the Papacy and was used as justification to further centralize power in Lorenzo's hands.[10][11]


Renaissance ideals first spread from Florence to the neighbouring states of Tuscany such as Siena and Lucca. The Tuscan culture soon became the model for all the states of Northern Italy, and the Tuscan variety of Italian came to predominate throughout the region, especially in literature. In 1447 Francesco Sforza came to power in Milan and rapidly transformed that still medieval city into a major centre of art and learning that drew Leone Battista Alberti. Venice, one of the wealthiest cities due to its control of the Adriatic Sea, also became a centre for Renaissance culture, especially architecture. Smaller courts brought Renaissance patronage to lesser cities, which developed their characteristic arts: Ferrara, Mantua under the Gonzaga, Urbino under Federico da Montefeltro. In Naples, the Renaissance was ushered in under the patronage of Alfonso I who conquered Naples in 1443 and encouraged artists like Francesco Laurana and Antonello da Messina and writers like the poet Jacopo Sannazaro and the humanist scholar Angelo Poliziano.

In 1417 the Papacy returned to Rome, but that once imperial city remained poor and largely in ruins through the first years of the Renaissance.[12] The great transformation began under Pope Nicholas V, who became pontiff in 1447. He launched a dramatic rebuilding effort that would eventually see much of the city renewed. The humanist scholar Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini became Pope Pius II in 1458. As the papacy fell under the control of the wealthy families, 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 nature of the Renaissance also changed in the late 15th century. The Renaissance ideal was fully adopted by the ruling classes and the aristocracy. In the early Renaissance artists were seen as craftsmen with little prestige or recognition. By the later Renaissance the top figures wielded great influence and could charge great fees. A flourishing trade in Renaissance art developed. While in the early Renaissance many of the leading artists were of lower- or middle-class origins, increasingly they became aristocrats.[12]

  Wider population

As a cultural movement, the Italian Renaissance affected only a small part of the population. Italy was the most urbanized region of Europe, but three quarters of the people were still rural peasants.[13] For this section of the population, life was essentially unchanged from the Middle Ages.[14] Classic feudalism had never been prominent in Northern Italy, and most peasants worked on private farms or as sharecroppers. Some scholars see a trend towards refeudalization in the later Renaissance as the urban elites turned themselves into landed aristocrats.[15]

The situation was very different in the cities. These were dominated by a commercial elite; as exclusive as the aristocracy of any Medieval kingdom. It was this group that was the main patron of and audience for Renaissance culture. Below them there was a large class of artisans and guild members who lived comfortable lives and had significant power in the republican governments. This was in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe where artisans were firmly in the lower class. Literate and educated, this group did participate in the Renaissance culture.[16] The largest section of the urban population was the urban poor of semi-skilled workers and the unemployed. Like the peasants the Renaissance had little effect on them. Historians debate how easy it was to move between these groups during the Italian Renaissance. Examples of individuals who rose from humble beginnings can be instanced, but Burke notes two major studies in this area that have found that the data do not clearly demonstrate an increase in social mobility. Most historians feel that early in the Renaissance social mobility was quite high, but that it faded over the course of the 15th century.[17] Inequality in society was very high. An upper-class figure would control hundreds of times more income than a servant or labourer. Some historians feel that this unequal distribution of wealth was important to the Renaissance, as art patronage relies on the very wealthy.[18]

The Renaissance was not a period of great social or economic change, only of cultural and ideological development. It only touched a small fraction of the population, and in modern times this has led many historians, such as any that follow historical materialism, to reduce the importance of the Renaissance in human history. These historians tend to think in terms of "Early Modern Europe" instead. Roger Osborne[19] argues that "The Renaissance is a difficult concept for historians because the history of Europe quite suddenly turns into a history of Italian painting, sculpture and architecture."

  Renaissance end

  Giulio Clovio, Adoration of the Magi and Solomon Adored by the Queen of Sheba from the Farnese Hours, 1546.

The end of the Renaissance is as imprecisely marked as its starting point. For many, the rise to power in Florence of the austere monk Girolamo Savonarola in 1494-1498 marks the end of the city's flourishing; for others, the triumphant return of the Medici marks the beginning of the late phase in the arts called Mannerism. Other accounts trace the end of the Italian Renaissance to the French invasions of the early 16th century and the subsequent conflict between France and Spanish rulers for control of Italian territory.[20] Savonarola rode to power on a widespread backlash over the secularism and indulgence of the Renaissance –[21] his brief rule saw many works of art destroyed in the "Bonfire of the Vanities" in the centre of Florence. With the Medici returned to power, now as Grand Dukes of Tuscany, the counter movement in the church continued. In 1542 the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition was formed and a few years later the Index Librorum Prohibitorum banned a wide array of Renaissance works of literature, which marks the end of the illuminated manuscript together with Giulio Clovio, who is considered the greatest illuminator of the Italian High Renaissance, and arguably the last very notable artist in the long tradition of the illuminated manuscript, before some modern revivals.

Equally important was the end of stability with a series of foreign invasions of Italy known as the Italian Wars that would continue for several decades. These began with the 1494 invasion by France that wreaked widespread devastation on Northern Italy and ended the independence of many of the city-states. Most damaging was the May 6, 1527, Spanish and German troops' sacking Rome that for two decades all but ended the role of the Papacy as the largest patron of Renaissance art and architecture.[12]

While the Italian Renaissance was fading, the Northern Renaissance adopted many of its ideals and transformed its styles. A number of Italy's greatest artists chose to emigrate. The most notable example was Leonardo da Vinci who left for France in 1516, but teams of lesser artists invited to transform the Château de Fontainebleau created the school of Fontainebleau that infused the style of the Italian Renaissance in France. From Fontainebleau, the new styles, transformed by Mannerism, brought the Renaissance to Antwerp and thence throughout Northern Europe.

This spread north was also representative of a larger trend. No longer was the Mediterranean Europe's most important trade route. In 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India, and from that date the primary route of goods from the Orient was through the Atlantic ports of Lisbon, Seville, Nantes, Bristol, and London. These areas quickly surpassed Italy in wealth and power.


  Literature and poetry

The thirteenth-century Italian literary revolution helped set the stage for the Renaissance. 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 Provençal. 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.

  Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), the author of The Prince and prototypical Renaissance man. Detail from a portrait by Santi di Tito.

With the printing of books initiated in Venice by Aldus Manutius, an increasing number of works began to be published in the Italian language in addition to the flood of Latin and Greek texts that constituted the mainstream of the Italian Renaissance. The source for these works expanded beyond works of theology 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 world view. Christianity remained a major influence for artists and authors, with the classics coming into their own as a second primary influence.

In the early Italian Renaissance, much of the focus was on translating and studying classic works from Latin and Greek. 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 Greeks into their own works. Among the most emulated Romans are Cicero, Horace, Sallust, and Virgil. Among the Greeks, Aristotle, Homer, and Plato were now being read in the original for the first time since the 4th century, though Greek compositions were few.

The literature and poetry of the Renaissance was 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 by 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 storytellers who have fled to the outskirts of Florence to escape the black plague over ten nights. The Decameron in particular and Boccaccio's work in general were a major source of inspiration and plots for many English authors in the Renaissance, including Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

Aside from Christianity, classical antiquity, and scholarship, a fourth influence on Renaissance literature was politics. The political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli's most famous works are Discourses on Livy, Florentine Histories and finally The Prince, which has become so well known in Western society that the term "Machiavellian" has come to refer to the realpolitik advocated by the book. However, what is ordinarily called "Machiavellianism" is a simplified textbook view of this single work rather than an accurate term for his philosophy. Further, it is not at all clear that Machiavelli himself was the apologist for immorality as whom he is often portrayed: the basic problem is the apparent contradiction between the monarchism of The Prince and the republicanism of the Discourses. Regardless, along with many other Renaissance works, The Prince remains a relevant and influential work of literature today.


  Petrarch, from the Cycle of Famous Men and Women. ca. 1450. Detached fresco. 247 × 153 cm (97.24 × 60.24 in). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Artist: Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla (ca. 1423–1457)

One role of Petrarch is as the founder of a new method of scholarship, Renaissance Humanism. Humanism was an optimistic philosophy that saw man as a rational and sentient being, with the ability to decide and think for himself, and saw man as inherently good by nature, which was in tension with the Christian view of man as the original sinner needing redemption. 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 carried his copy of Homer about, at a loss to find someone to teach him to read Greek. An essential step in the humanist education being propounded by scholars like Pico della Mirandola was the hunting down of lost or forgotten manuscripts that were known only by reputation. These endeavors 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 of Antiquity were translated from Greek and Latin into the contemporary modern languages throughout Europe, finding a receptive middle-class audience, which might be, like Shakespeare, "with little Latin and less Greek".

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.


According to some recent scholarship the 'father of modern science' is Leonardo Da Vinci whose experiments and clear scientific method earn him this title, Italian universities such as Padua, Bologna and Pisa were scientific centres of renown and with many northern European students, the science of the Renaissance moved to Northern Europe and flourished there, with such figures as Copernicus, Francis Bacon, and Descartes. Galileo, a contemporary of Bacon and Descartes, made an immense contribution to scientific thought and experimentation, paving the way for the scientific revolution that later flourished in Northern Europe. Bodies were also stolen from gallows and examined by many like Vesalius, a professor of anatomy. This allowed them to create accurate skeleton models and correct previously believed theories. For example many thought that the human jawbone was made up of two bones, as they had seen this on animals. However through examining human corpses they were able to understand that we actually only have one.

  Sculpture and painting

In painting, the false dawn of Giotto's Trecento realism, his fully three-dimensional figures occupying a rational space, and his humanist interest in expressing the individual personality rather than the iconic images,[22] was followed by a retreat into conservative late Gothic conventions.[23]

The Italian Renaissance in painting began anew, in Florence and Tuscany, with the frescoes of Masaccio, then the panel paintings and frescos of Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello which began to enhance the realism of their work by using new techniques in perspective, thus representing three dimensions in two-dimensional art more authentically. Piero della Francesca wrote treatises on scientific perspective. The creation of credible space allowed artists to also focus on the accurate representation of the human body and on naturalistic landscapes. Masaccio's figures have a plasticity unknown up to that point in time. Compared to the flatness of Gothic painting, his pictures were revolutionary. At the turn of the 16th century, especially in Northern Italy, artists also began to use new techniques in the manipulation of light and darkness, such as the tone contrast evident in many of Titian's portraits and the development of sfumato and chiaroscuro by Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione. The period also saw the first secular (non-religious) themes. There has been much debate as to the degree of secularism in the Renaissance, which had been emphasized by early 20th-century writers like Jacob Burckhardt, based on, among other things, the presence of a relatively small number of mythological paintings. Those of Botticelli, notably The Birth of Venus and Primavera, are now among the best known, although he was deeply religious (becoming a follower of Savonarola) and the great majority of his output was of traditional religious paintings or portraits.[24]

In sculpture, Donatello's (1386–1466) study of classical sculpture lead to his development of classicizing positions (such as the contrapposto pose) and subject matter (like the unsupported nude – his second sculpture of David was the first free-standing bronze nude created in Europe since the Roman Empire.) The progress made by Donatello was influential on all who followed; perhaps the greatest of whom is Michelangelo, whose David of 1500 is also a male nude study; more naturalistic than Donatello's and with greater emotional intensity. Both sculptures are standing in contrapposto, their weight shifted to one leg.[25]

The period known as the High Renaissance represents the culmination of the goals of the earlier period, namely the accurate representation of figures in space rendered with credible motion and in an appropriately decorous style. The most famous painters from this phase are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Their images are among the most widely known works of art in the world. Leonardo's Last Supper, Raphael's The School of Athens and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling are the textbook masterpieces of the period.[24]

High Renaissance painting evolved into Mannerism, especially in Florence. Mannerist artists, who consciously rebelled against the principles of High Renaissance, tend to represent elongated figures in illogical spaces. Modern scholarship has recognized the capacity of Mannerist art to convey strong (often religious) emotion where the High Renaissance failed to do so. Some of the main artists of this period are Pontormo, Bronzino, Rosso Fiorentino, Parmigianino and Raphael's pupil Giulio Romano.[26]


  St. Peter's Basilica. The dome, completed in 1590, was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti, architect, painter and poet.

In Florence, the Renaissance style was introduced with a revolutionary but incomplete monument in Rimini by Leone Battista Alberti. Some of the earliest buildings showing Renaissance characteristics are Filippo Brunelleschi's church of San Lorenzo and the Pazzi Chapel. The interior of Santo Spirito expresses a new sense of light, clarity and spaciousness, which is typical of the early Italian Renaissance. Its 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 Rucellai. Here the pilasters follow the superposition of classical orders, with Doric capitals on the ground floor, Ionic capitals on the piano nobile and Corinthian capitals on the uppermost floor.

In Mantua, Leone Battista Alberti ushered in the new antique style, though his culminating work, Sant'Andrea, was not begun until 1472, after the architect's death.

  Bramante's Tempietto in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, 1502

The High Renaissance, as we call the style today, was introduced to Rome with Donato Bramante's Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio (1502) and his original centrally planned St. Peter's Basilica (1506), which was the most notable architectural commission of the era, 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.


In Italy during the 14th century there was an explosion of musical activity that corresponded in scope and level of innovation to the activity in the other arts. Although musicologists typically group the music of the Trecento (music of the 14th century) with the late medieval period, it included features which align with the early Renaissance in important ways: an increasing emphasis on secular sources, styles and forms; a spreading of culture away from ecclesiastical institutions to the nobility, and even to the common people; and a quick development of entirely new techniques. The principal forms were the Trecento madrigal, the caccia, and the ballata. Overall, the musical style of the period is sometimes labelled as the "Italian ars nova." From the early 15th century to the middle of the 16th century, the center of innovation in sacred music was in the Low Countries, and a flood of talented composers came to Italy from this region. Many of them sang in either the papal choir in Rome or the choirs at the numerous chapels of the aristocracy, in Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Ferrara and elsewhere; and they brought their polyphonic style with them, influencing many native Italian composers during their stay.

The predominant forms of church music during the period were the mass and the motet. By far the most famous composer of church music in 16th century Italy was Palestrina, the most prominent member of the Roman School, whose style of smooth, emotionally cool polyphony was to become the defining sound of the late 16th century, at least for generations of 19th- and 20th century musicologists. Other Italian composers of the late 16th century focused on composing the main secular form of the era, the madrigal: and for almost a hundred years these secular songs for multiple singers were distributed all over Europe. Composers of madrigals included Jacques Arcadelt, at the beginning of the age, Cipriano de Rore, in the middle of the century, and Luca Marenzio, Philippe de Monte, Carlo Gesualdo, and Claudio Monteverdi at the end of the era. Italy was also a centre of innovation in instrumental music. By the early 16th century keyboard improvisation came to be greatly valued, and numerous composers of virtuoso keyboard music appeared. Many familiar instruments were invented and perfected in late Renaissance Italy, such as the violin, the earliest forms of which came into use in the 1550s.

By the late 16th century Italy was the musical centre of Europe. Almost all of the innovations which were to define the transition to the Baroque period originated in northern Italy in the last few decades of the century. In Venice, the polychoral productions of the Venetian School, and associated instrumental music, moved north into Germany; in Florence, the Florentine Camerata developed monody, the important precursor to opera, which itself first appeared around 1600; and the avant-garde, manneristic style of the Ferrara school, which migrated to Naples and elsewhere through the music of Carlo Gesualdo, was to be the final statement of the polyphonic vocal music of the Renaissance.


  1. ^ Jensen 1992, p. 95
  2. ^ Burke 1999, p. 232
  3. ^ Burke 1999, p. 93
  4. ^ Jensen 1992, p. 97; see also Andrew B. Appleby's "Epidemics and Famine in the Little Ice Age." Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Vol. 10 No. 4.
  5. ^ Olea, Ricardo A, Christakos, George, "Duration of Urban Mortality for the 14th-Century Black Death Epidemic", Human Biology, Jun 2005. The population level of Florence is controversial see also Ziegler (1969, pp. 51-52), Chandler 1987, pp. 16-18, and Gottfried 1983, p. 46
  6. ^ Lopez, Robert Sabatino. "Hard Times and Investment in Culture."
  7. ^ Baron, Hans. "The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance". Princeton University Press, March 1, 1966. ISBN 0-691-00752-7
  8. ^ Jensen 1992, p. 64.
  9. ^ Crum , Roger J. Severing the Neck of Pride: Donatello's "Judith and Holofernes" and the Recollection of Albizzi Shame in Medicean Florence . Artibus et Historiae, Volume 22, Edit 44, 2001. pp. 23-29.
  10. ^ Jensen 1992, p. 80
  11. ^ Peter Barenboim, Sergey Shiyan, Michelangelo: Mysteries of Medici Chapel, SLOVO, Moscow, 2006. ISBN 5-85050-852-2
  12. ^ a b c Burke 1999, p. 271.
  13. ^ Burke 1999, p. 256.
  14. ^ Jensen 1992, p. 105.
  15. ^ Burke 1999, p. 246.
  16. ^ Jensen 1992, p. 104.
  17. ^ Burke 1999, p. 255.
  18. ^ Pullan, Brian S. (1973). History of early Renaissance Italy:From the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-0304-X. OCLC 613989155. 
  19. ^ Osborne, Roger, Civilization: A New History of the Western World, Pegasus Books, New York 2006 p. 181.
  20. ^ Osborne, Roger, Civilization: A New History of the Western World Pegasus, NY, 2006
  21. ^ Cast, David. "Review: Fra Girolamo Savonarola: Florentine Art and Renaissance Historiography by Ronald M. Steinberg". The Art Bulletin, Volume 61, No. 1, March 1979. pp. 134-136.
  22. ^ Hayden B. J. Maginnis, Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation (1997)
  23. ^ Ethan Matt Kavaler, "Renaissance Gothic: Pictures of Geometry and Narratives of Ornament," Art History, Feb 2006, Vol. 29 Issue 1, pp 1-46
  24. ^ a b Frederick Hartt, and David G. Wilkins, History of Italian Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture (2003)
  25. ^ Sarah Blake McHam, ed. Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture (1998)
  26. ^ Jane Turner, ed. Encyclopedia of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist Art (2000)


  • Baron, Hans. The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
  • Burckhardt, Jacob (1878), The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S.G.C Middlemore [1]
  • Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Capra, Fritjof. (2008), The Science of Leonardo. Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance. Doubleday ISBN 978-0-385-51390-6
  • Cronin, Vincent
  • Hagopian, Viola L. "Italy", in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN
  • Hay, Denys. The Italian Renaissance in Its Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Jensen, De Lamar (1992), Renaissance Europe
  • Jurdjevic, Mark. "Hedgehogs and Foxes: The Present and Future of Italian Renaissance Intellectual History," Past & Present 2007 (195): 241-268, Shows Humanism has been the main concern of historians recently; Discusses the works of William Bouwsma, James Hankins, Ronald Witt, Riccardo Fubini, Quentin Skinner, J. A. Pocock, and Eric Nelson.
  • Lopez, Robert Sabatino, The Three Ages of the Italian Renaissance Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970.
  • Pullan, Brian S. History of Early Renaissance Italy. London: Lane, 1973.
  • Raffini, Christine, Marsilio Ficino, Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione: Philosophical, Aesthetic, and Political Approaches in Renaissance Platonism. Renaissance and Baroque Studies and Texts, v.21, Peter Lang Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-8204-3023-4

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