The Italian Renaissance was called the beginning of the modern age. The word Renaissance itself is derived from the Latin word rinascere, which means to be reborn. Many dramatic changes occurred during this time in the fields of philosophy, art, politics, and literature. New emphasis was placed on enjoying life and the world around you. Talented individuals sought self-gratification through art, literature, and architecture, and their achievments would influence future generations for centuries to come.
This great new movement was originated and centered in Italy, and without Italian contribution, would never have launched European society into the dawning of a new era. At the beginning of the Renaissance, Italy was divided into some 250 self- governing city-states, ranging from small towns of 2,000 individuals, to some of the largest cities in Europe of that time, such as Florence, Milan, and Venice, each with 100,000 citizens each. These city-states were loosely organized under the Pope, ruling out of Rome, although he had no real political control over the divided Italy.
During the mid- 1300s and early 1400s, many large Italian cities came under the control of one family, such as the Visconti and later the Sforza families in Milan. The form of government established by the ruling families of the various Italian cities came to be known as signoria, with the chief official being called the signore. Soon , elaborate court systems, controlled by the ruling families, began to spring up in each city-state. At these courts, leading artists, intellectuals, and politicians gathered under the sponsorship of the signore and families.
Other city states had a form of republicanism, such as Florence and Venice did. In these cities, a group of upper class families controlled the government, and often looked down upon the common residents of the town, considering them to be inferior. A Venetian observer wrote about Florence during this time: \”They are never content with their constitution, they are never quiet, and it seems that this city always desires change of constitution as so the government changes every fifteen years\”(Cole p. 218)
In Florence, which is perhaps considered the most important center of Renaissance learning in history, the Medici family dominated the ruling class. Under Medici domination, Florence became a signorial power and a cultural gem stone. It was during the reign of Lorenzo de’ Medici , that many great painters, sculptors, and architects flocked to the Medici family looking for sponsorship, knowing that Lorenzo was a great supporter of the arts. It was at this point, during the 1430s, that the Renaissance, and many of its core philosophies, truly began to take off in Italy.
Humanism was considered to be the most significant intellectual movement of the Renaissance. As its name implies, humanism was a philosophy that was characterized by its blending of the concern of the history and actions of all human beings, and their influence in the world, with religious duty. Prior to Renaissance thinking, medieval Europe considered life to be sinful and should despised, and that people should only be concerned about their duty to God and the afterlife. The humanists thought that every person has respect and worth and should therefore command the respect of every other person.
The humanistic movement began during the early Italian Renaissance with the rediscovery of the writings of the classical Greeks and Romans, which were not only models of literary style, but considered guides to the understanding of life. The first, and most recognized, pioneers of humanism were Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio. Petrarch became known for his poetry, which can be described, like all humanistic writing, to be very realistic, critical, and more often than not satirical. Petrarach’s style is close to those of the classical authors he studied, expressing his view accurately through the use of characters.
He once said of his writing, \” The style is the man. \”(Burke, p. 127) His most famous contributions to the world of literature are his string of sonnets addressed to \”Laura\”, who appears as a real person, rather than a religious symbol, as in most European writings. Giovanni Boccacio studied and wrote at about the same time as Petrarch, is best known for his masterpiece Decameron, which consists of 100 stories organized to give the impression of a total view of society. Like Petrarch, he gave accurate depictions of real life characters and situations.
He described a group of men and women fleeing from a plague infested Florence to the countryside. In seclusion, they hold story telling sessions that tie into Boccacio’s own view of society. Another development in the field of humanism was the courtier system, which was influenced by the interaction between humanist philosophers and the signorial courts of the city-states. These humanists began to develop ideas about the proper conduct of courtiers, or the noble men and women of the courts.
In 1518, Baldassare Castiglione, the most renowned humanist involved with the courtier movement, completed The Book of Courtier, which was based on his experiences at the court of Urbino, Italy. This refined book of manners was printed in several languages and influenced the courtiers throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. It also greatly influenced eductional theory in England during the Renaissance. Perhaps the most renowned and highly recognized achievements during the Renaissance in Italy were in the field of the fine arts.
During the Middle ages, painters and sculptors tried to give their works a spiritual quality, wanting people to focus on the deep religious meanings of their works of art. They were definitely not concerned with making their artwork look lifelike, as can be depicted by famous artwork of many medieval painters. Renaissance writers wanted to portray the world realistically in a natural state, with life-like people showing real emotions. During the early 1300s and 1400s, several particular artisans stood out among the masses. Giotto is considered the first artist to portray nature realistically.
He produced many frescoes with characters that showed real emotions and had realistic settings. All Renaissance painters would take after Giotto’s work. Brunelleschi was the first Renaissance architect to revive the Roman style of architecture. He incorporated arches, columns, and other elements of classic architectue in his famous designs. One of his best known buildings, the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, was the first building to be designed with such elements. Brunelleschi is also credited with the invention of linear perspective, a mathamatical system painters could use to show space and depth on a flat surface.
Masaccio is most noted for using Brunelleschi’s techniques in a series of frescoes designed for the Church of Santa Maria de Carmine in Florence. The scenes in his paintings realistically showed Biblical scenes of drastic emotional intensity. The sculptor Donatello was one of the first sculptors that tried to realistically portray the dramatic art form of the human body. His masterpieces include three statues of David, who is portrayed nude as a pure youth after slaying Goliath. As time went on into the 1400s and 1500s, three men, Michealangelo, Rapheal, and Leonardo da Vinci dominated the field of the fine arts.
Their artwork was refined and masterful, and played a great role in defining the Italian Renaissance. Michealangelo is known as probably the greatest artist of the Renaissance, excelling in painting, poetry, sculpture, and architecture. Michealangelo was well known for capturing the essence of the human body, an achievement well sought after in the Renaissance. The list of his achievements is endless, although he is most recognized for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his infamous statue of David, and The Last Judgement, a painting so powerful, that an observer at the unveiling claimed the Pope fell to his knees and began to pray.
Aston p. 147) Rapheal was most noted for his definition of perspective and complicated use of color. One of his greatest works, School of Athens, shows a humanistic influence of classical Greek and Roman models, showing a group of Greek philosophers studying about a group of stone pillars. He is also famous for his superbly detailed paintings of Madonnas, his most revered being The Small Cowper Madonna. Finally, there is Leonardo da Vinci, the model of the Renaissance Man, who is someone who excels in all areas of art and science.
Burke p. 176) Two of his most famous paintings include the portrait Mona Lisa and his fresco, The Last Supper. He felt strongly about painting and defended his right to create works of art. When certain critics at the time called painting the work of a mechanic, Da Vinci retorted, \”You have set painting among mechanical arts!… If you call it mechanical because it is by manual work that the hands represent what imagination creates, your writers are setting down with the pen what originates in the mind… \”(Burke p. 68)
Da Vinci made detailed drawings of human anatomy and skeletal structure, as he tried to understand how the human body worked. His expertise on this subject matter, recorded in well-documented notebooks, lives on to this day. With the focus in the Italian Renaissance being, individual achievement, self gratification, and the quest for public appraisal and political power, changes occurred in the nature of politics. People who wanted fame and power in this new world of humanism and self-righteousness had to deserve it. No longer did a supreme authority, such as the pope, appoint officials and leaders.
The authority rested in the hands of the person willing to take charge. This approach to gaining wealth and power can be described as Machivellian, named so by the influence of ideologist Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote one of the most influential political books of all time, called the Prince, which is considered the most lasting work on Italian Renaissance. In his novel, Machiavelli writes of \” cruelty, well used or badly used,\” and warns the compassionate and humanistic prince \”not to make bad use of this compassion\”. (Burke p. 6)
Machiavelli expanded on his belief in the Prince, that Italians should behave with ferocity when it comes to politics, and should back up that ferocity with a unified force. Machiavelli’s principles have had a profound effect on the way Europe and the rest of the world have viewed politics over centuries, and truly show the Rennaissance’s uncanny trait of promoting individualism and social Darwinism. The Italian Renaissance has made a major impact on the rest of Europe, leaving an intellectual and artistic heritage that remains important.
The humanist themes that developed Renaissance Italy helped shape the Reformation and influenced many great European thinkers during the Enlightenment. Its artwork and architecture has defined reality and influenced artists well into the 20th century. The new ideas that were developed by Machiavelli surrounding politics had greatly influenced monarchies and governments of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and still studied today. If the Italian people had not paved the way for the Renaissance in the rest of Europe, the reality we live in would not be the same.