THE RENAISSANCE PERIOD IN THE EUROPEAN CULTURE
Renaissance, period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the arts and in the classical past. The Renaissance began in 14th-century Italy and had spread to the rest of Europe by the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, the fragmented feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural economy and Church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed into a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and lay patronage of education, the arts, and music.
The term renaissance, meaning literally “rebirth”, was first employed in 1855 by the French historian Jules Michelet to refer to the “discovery of the world and of man” in the 16th century. The great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, in his classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), expanded on Michelet’s conception. Defining the Renaissance as the period between the Italian painters Giotto and Michelangelo, Burckhardt characterized the epoch as nothing less than the birth of modern humanity and consciousness after a long period of decay.
Modern scholars have exploded the myth that the Middle Ages were dark and dormant. The thousand years preceding the Renaissance were filled with achievement. Because of the scriptoria (writing rooms) of medieval monasteries, copies of the work of Latin writers such as Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca survived. The legal system of modern continental Europe had its origin in the development of civil and canon law in the 12th and 13th centuries. Renaissance thinkers continued the medieval tradition of grammatical and rhetorical studies.
In theology, the medieval traditions of Scholasticism, Thomism, Scotism, and Ockhamism were continued in the Renaissance. Medieval Platonism and Aristotelianism were crucial to Renaissance philosophical thought. The advances of mathematical disciplines, including astronomy, were indebted to medieval precedents. The schools of Salerno in Italy, and Montpellier in France, were noted centres of medical studies in the Middle Ages. See also Astronomy; Medicine; Philosophy.
The Italian Renaissance was above all an urban phenomenon, a product of cities that flourished in central and northern Italy, such as Florence, Ferrara, Milan, and Venice. It was the wealth of these cities that financed Renaissance cultural achievements. The cities themselves, however, were not creations of the Renaissance, but of the period of great economic expansion and population growth during the 12th and 13th centuries. Medieval Italian merchants developed commercial and financial techniques, such as bookkeeping and bills of exchange. The creation of the public debt, a concept unknown in ancient times, allowed these cities to finance their territorial expansion through military conquest. Their merchants controlled commerce and finance across Europe. This fluid mercantile society contrasted sharply with the rural, tradition-bound society of medieval Europe; it was less hierarchical and more concerned with secular objectives.
Breaks with Tradition
The Middle Ages did not, of course, end abruptly. It could be false, however, to regard history as perpetual continuity and the Renaissance as a mere continuation of the Middle Ages. One of the most significant breaks with tradition came in the field of history. The Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII (Twelve Books of Florentine Histories, 1420) of Leonardo Bruni, the Istorie fiorentine (Florentine History, 1525) of Niccolň Machiavelli, the Storia d’Italia (History of Italy, 1561-1564) of Francesco Guicciardini, and the Methodus ad Facilem Historiarum Cognitionem (Easy Introduction to the Study of History, 1566) of Jean Bodin were shaped by a secular view of time and a critical attitude towards sources. History became a branch of literature rather than theology. Renaissance historians rejected the medieval Christian division of history that began with the Creation, followed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the anticipated Last Judgement. The Renaissance vision of history also had three parts: It began with antiquity, followed by the Middle Ages and then the golden age of rebirth that had just begun. Whereas medieval scholars looked askance at the pagan Greek and Roman world, believing that they were living in the final age before the last judgment, their Renaissance counterparts adored the ancients, condemned the Middle Ages as ignorant and barbaric, and proclaimed their own age to be one of light and the rebirth of Classicism. This view was expressed by many Renaissance thinkers known as humanists.
The Renaissance idea of humanism was another cultural break with medieval tradition. According to the American scholar Paul Oscar Kristeller, this frequently misinterpreted term meant the general tendency of the Renaissance “to attach the greatest importance to classical studies and to consider classical antiquity as the common standard and model by which to guide all cultural activity”. Classical texts were studied and valued on their own terms, no longer serving merely to embellish and justify Christian civilization. The intense interest in antiquity expressed itself in a feverish and successful search for classical manuscripts: the dialogues of Plato, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the works of the Greek dramatists, poets, and Church fathers were rediscovered and critically edited for the first time. Because of emigrant Byzantine scholars, who, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, taught in Florence, Ferrara, and Milan, the study of Greek flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although the study of ancient literature, history, and moral philosophy sometimes degenerated into a slavish imitation of the classics, it was meant to produce free and civilized human beings, people of taste and judgment, citizens rather than priests and monks.
The perfection of the body by physical training, an ideal rarely acknowledged in the Middle Ages, became a prominent goal of Renaissance education. Humanistic studies, along with the great artistic endeavours of the age, were given encouragement and financial support by such leading families as the Medici of Florence, the Este of Ferrara, the Sforza of Milan, the Gonzaga of Mantua, and the dukes of Urbino, the doges of Venice, and papal Rome.
The recovery and study of the classics entailed the creation of new disciplines-classical philology and archaeology, numismatics, and epigraphy-and critically affected the development of older ones. In art, the decisive break with medieval tradition occurred in Florence around 1420 when linear perspective was scientifically understood, which made it possible to represent three-dimensional space convincingly on a flat surface. The works of the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the painter Masaccio are dazzling examples of the uses of this technique.
Donatello, who is considered the founder of modern sculpture, created the bronze David, the first life-size nude since antiquity. From the mid-15th century on, classical form was rejoined with classical subject matter, and mythological motifs derived from literary sources adorned palaces, walls, furniture, and plates. The ancient practice of striking medals to commemorate eminent figures such as the Florentine statesman Cosimo de’ Medici was reintroduced by Pisanello. Portraits of notable figures, emphasizing individual characteristics, were painted by Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, and Sandro Botticelli.
Science and Technology
Progress was also made in medicine and anatomy, especially after the first translation of many ancient works of Hippocrates and Galen in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most advanced Greek treatises on mathematics were translated in the 16th century, and advances made beyond the ancients included the solution of cubic equations and the innovative astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler. By the end of the 16th century, Galileo had taken the crucial step of applying mathematical models to the subject matter of physics. Geography was transformed by new empirical knowledge derived from explorations beyond Europe and from the first translations of the ancient works of Ptolemy and Strabo.
In the field of technology, the invention of printing in the 15th century began to revolutionize the dissemination of knowledge. Printing increased the quantity of books, helped eliminate errors, gave scholars identical texts with which to work, and turned intellectual endeavour into a collaborative rather than a solitary activity. The use of gunpowder transformed warfare between 1450 and 1550. Artillery proved devastatingly effective against the stone walls of castles and towns. The medieval army, led by cavalry and supported by bowmen, was gradually replaced by one made up of foot soldiers carrying portable firearms and masses of troops with pikes; such forces were the first standing armies of Europe.
In law the tendency was to challenge the abstract dialectical method of the medieval jurists with a philological and historical interpretation of the sources of Roman Law. As for political thought, the medieval proposition that the preservation of liberty, law, and justice constitutes the central aim of political life was challenged but not overthrown by Renaissance theorists. They contended that the central task of government was to maintain security and peace. Machiavelli maintained that the creative force (virtů) of the ruler was the key to the preservation of both his own position and the well-being of his subjects-an idea consonant with contemporary politics.
Italian city-states were transformed during the Renaissance from communes to territorial states, each of which sought to expand at the expense of others. Territorial unification also took place in Spain, France, and England. The process was aided by modern diplomacy, which took its place beside the new warfare when the Italian city-states established resident embassies at foreign courts. By the 16th century, the institution of permanent embassies spread northwards to France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire.
Renaissance churchmen, particularly in the higher echelons, modelled their behaviour on the mores and ethics of lay society. The activities of popes, cardinals, and bishops were scarcely distinguishable from those of secular merchants and political figures. At the same time, Christianity remained a vital and essential element of Renaissance culture. Preachers such as San Bernardino of Siena, and theologians and prelates such as Sant’Antonino of Florence, attracted large audiences and were revered. In addition many humanists were concerned with theological questions and applied the new philological and historical scholarship to the study and interpretation of the early Church fathers. The humanist approach to theology and scripture may be traced from the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch to the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus: it made a powerful impact on Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Some medievalists contend that the inflated eloquence and vapid Neo-Classicism of much humanist writing undermine the claim that the Renaissance was a turning point in Western civilization. Although these contentions are valid to some degree, the Renaissance clearly was a time in which long-standing beliefs were tested; it was a period of intellectual ferment, preparing the ground for the thinkers and scientists of the 17th century, who were far more original than the Renaissance humanists. The Renaissance idea that humankind rules nature is akin to Sir Francis Bacon’s concept of human dominance over nature’s elements, which initiated the development of modern science and technology. Medieval notions of republicanism and liberty, preserved and defended with classical precedents by Renaissance thinkers, had an indelible impact on the course of English constitutional theory and may have been a source for the conception of government espoused by the Founding Fathers of American constitutionalism. Above all, however, the Renaissance has bequeathed monuments of artistic beauty that stand as perennial definitions of Western culture. See also Renaissance Art and Architecture.