THE BEGINNING OF THE RENAISSANCE In the late 1300s, so many people died of plague, starvation, and warfare that the population dropped significantly all across Europe. At the same time, improvements in agriculture helped farmers produce so much that food prices dropped, giving citizens more money to spend on other things, such as cheap books published on Gutenberg’s printing presses or luxury items, like paintings and sculptures to beautify their homes. Trade blossomed as Europeans produced goods from the natural resources in their areas and sold them to eager buyers.
Some of the wealthiest European trading communities were located in Italy, although it wasn’t called Italy in the Middle Ages. Instead, the Italian boot held several large city-states in the north, and a variety of kingdoms and the Papal States in the middle. The south was mostly farmland. The northern cities of Venice, Milan, and Florence became centers for commerce and wealth. The Catholic Church, nobles, artisans (who created products like leather goods, woven cloth, gold and silver merchandise), and merchants (men who bought and sold these goods for a profit) dominated society. Venice, which had access to the sea, built its economy on shipbuilding and trading with ports as far as the Near East and Egypt. Milan’s economy was built on farm products, silk, and weapons, while Florence became famous for banking and for excellent wool cloth.
As the economy and society changed, new ideas began to appear, and interest in the arts, literature, science, and learning returned and grew stronger. We call this era in history the Renaissance, from the French word for “rebirth.” The Renaissance first arose in Italy, thanks to its cities, trade, and wealthy merchants.
Artists began looking to the past for inspiration. They admired the artifacts from ancient Greek and Roman culture – the statues, beautiful building and temples. Although many of these items had been damaged from warfare, they were still beautiful and reminded those who saw them of the advanced civilization of Rome. People also became interested in the ideas of the ancient world, which they rediscovered by reading Latin and Arabic texts. These books inspired thinking, educated men to make further advances in science, art and philosophy.
Although religion was still extremely important in European life, the Renaissance movement was more secular, that is, focused on this world, not on heaven and what happens to us after we die. A movement called
humanism developed, which celebrated the achievements of humans - living people - rather than focusing on God. Many historians date the beginning
of the Renaissance to the works of writers Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarch. They both wrote in the everyday language of the people instead of Latin.
Some humanists focused on society. Baldassare Castiglione, (cah-steel-YOH-nay) an Italian nobleman, wrote a book describing how the perfect Renaissance man or woman should behave. Another Italian, Niccolo Machiavelli, was inspired by the political violence of his times to write The Prince, which advises rulers to do whatever is necessary to keep in power, even if it is cruel, harsh and extreme.
Scientists like Galileo Galilei and Nicholas Copernicus suggested that the Earth was not the center of the universe, which conflicted with the view of the church. Galileo was arrested for expressing his ideas.
The artwork of the Renaissance showed new levels of expertise, and much of this work is still greatly admired. During this period, wealthy people became patrons of the arts and used art as status symbols. In Florence, the ruling Medici family and especially Lorenzo de Medici gave artists, intellectuals, and musicians huge sums of money for their work.
Leonardo da Vinci achieved greatness in many areas, among them painting, engineering, science, and architecture. Two of his paintings became extremely famous, Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He also came up with ideas for a flying machine, a tank, and a machine gun. Many of these ideas would work as he intended, but he lacked the materials necessary to build them. Leonardo also designed and built canals and a machine to cut threads in screws.
During this period, artists wanted to paint the real world as realistically as possible. They began to use perspective, a technique for representing three-dimensional objects on flat surfaces. Their artwork looked very different from that of the Middle Ages. The Italians painted directly on the walls and ceilings of homes and churches in a technique called fresco painting. Powdered colors were mixed with egg and brushed onto damp plaster, where the soaked into the surface. Many frescoes are still as bright and alive as they were when they were painted over 500 years ago.
A painter and architect still admired today is Raphael. He painted both religious and classical subjects, but died young from a fever.
Michelangelo Buonarotti was an accomplished sculptor who was able to make very lifelike human statues. His statue David is still unsurpassed. He also painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and created many other masterpieces in painting, sculpture, and architecture.
As in other areas, Renaissance building design reflected the renewed love of ancient Greek and Roman ideas. The most famous architect was Donato Bramante, who designed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
THE RENAISSANCE SPREADS NORTH
In the 1200s and 1300s, most of Europe’s cities were in Italy. By the 1500s, however, large cities had also grown in northern Europe, including London, Paris, Amsterdam, and others. Trade connections, traveling artists and scholars, and the development of printing helped spread Renaissance ideas to the newer northern cities.
Trade in northern Europe was dominated by the Hanseatic League, a merchant organization that operated from the 1200s to the 1400s. The league worked to protect members from pirates, and made shipping safer by building lighthouses and training ship captains. This group helped spread ideas as well as goods. Ideas were also spread by Italian artists who fled from the fighting taking place in Italian cities, as well as by scholars from the north who went to Italy for education and then returned with humanist ideas.
In the mid-1400s, a German named Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type, made of metal letter plates locked into a wooden press. This made it possible to quickly print text on both sides of a sheet of paper. Until this time, the only way to produce a book was by hand. Now books and other printed material could be produced much more quickly and cheaply. Soon, printers appeared in many other cities. Scholars had access to ideas more rapidly. Also, more people were inspired to learn to read, which further spread the ideas of the Renaissance.
PHILOSOPHERS AND WRITERS
Northern philosophers such as Desiderius Erasmus combined humanism with Christian ideas to create Christian humanism. Erasmus encouraged a pure and simple Christian life, stripped of politics and elaborate church ritual. He also stressed the importance of educating children. His writings added to the growing discontent with the Catholic Church.
Humanism was also introduced in England. One English humanist was Sir Thomas More. He wrote the famous book Utopia, which described a perfect but nonexistent society based on logic. His book also criticized the society and government of his time. We still call an ideal society a “utopia.” The greatest English writer of the Renaissance was the playwright and
poet William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman writers as well as more recent authors. Shakespeare’s works displayed complex human emotions and a deep understanding of language His words and themes made his plays appeal to everyone, both the wealthy and the uneducated commoners. Through his plays, Shakespeare helped spread the ideas of the Renaissance to a mass audience. His dramatic plays were a shift from the religious morality plays, which brought Bible stories to life, that had become popular during the Middle Ages. By the time of his death in 1616, London was the scene of a thriving theater district.
ARTISTS IN THE NORTH
German artist Albrecht Dürer (DOOR-uhr) visited Italy in the late 1400s. There, he learned the techniques of realism and perspective. After returning to Germany, he influenced many German Renaissance painters with this new style. His work also had some features that were unique to the northern Renaissance. For example, like many northern European painters he used fine-tipped brushes and oil paints. This allowed a great deal of detail to be added to paintings, such as the texture of fabric and fur, or the tiny image of objects reflected in a mirror.
In the area of the Netherlands known as Flanders, painters developed a unique style known as the Flemish School. This style was perfected by painter Jan van Eyck. His work often showed landscapes or everyday scenes at home. Van Eyck paintings contained symbolism, such as a ray of light to indicate God’s presence in the scene.
In the 1500s Flemish artist Pieter Brughel (BROYguhl) the Elder used Italian techniques. But he also painted scenes of everyday life, very different from the mythological scenes of Italian painting