Renaissance


The Renaissance (French for "rebirth"; Italian: Rinascimento), was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. It encompassed the revival of learning based on classical sources, the rise of courtly and papal patronage, the development of perspective in painting, and advancements in science. The Renaissance had wide-ranging consequences in all intellectual pursuits, but is perhaps best known for its artistic aspect and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who have inspired the term "Renaissance men". There is a consensus, though not a unanimous one, that the Renaissance began in Florence in the fourteenth century. Various theories have been proposed to explain its origin and characteristics, focusing on an assortment of factors, including the social and civic peculiarities of Florence at this time including its political structure and the patronage of its dominant family, the Medici. The Renaissance has a long and complex historiography, and there has always been debate among historians as to the usefulness of the Renaissance as a term and as a historical age. Some have called into question whether the Renaissance really was a cultural "advance" from the Middle Ages, instead seeing it as a period of pessimism and nostalgia for the classical age. While nineteenth-century historians were keen to emphasise that the Renaissance represented a clear "break" from Medieval thought and practice, some modern historians have instead focused on the continuity between the two eras. Indeed, it is now usually considered incorrect to classify any historical period as "better" or "worse", leading some to call for an end to the use of the term, which they see as a product of presentism. The word Renaissance has also been used to describe other historical and cultural movements, such as the Carolingian Renaissance and the Byzantine Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man shows clearly the effect writers of antiquity had on Renaissance thinkers. Based on the specifications in Vitruvius's De architectura, da Vinci tried to draw the perfectly proportioned man. The Renaissance was a cultural movement that profoundly affected European intellectual life in the early modern period. Beginning in Italy, and spreading to the rest of Europe by the 16th century, its influence was felt in literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual enquiry. Renaissance scholars employed the humanist method in study, and searched for realism and human emotion in art. Renaissance thinkers sought out learning from ancient texts, typically written in Latin or ancient Greek. Scholars scoured Europe's monastic libraries, searching for works of antiquity which had fallen into obscurity. In such texts they found a desire to improve and perfect their worldly knowledge; an entirely different sentiment to the transcendental spirituality stressed by medieval Christianity. They did not reject Christianity; quite the contrary, many of the Renaissance's greatest works were devoted to it, and the Church patronized many works of Renaissance art. However, a subtle shift took place in the way that intellectuals approached religion that was reflected in many other areas of cultural life. Artists strove to portray the human form realistically, developing techniques to render perspective and light more naturally. Political philosophers, most famously Niccol? Machiavelli, sought to describe political life as it really was, and to improve government on the basis of reason. In addition to studying classical Latin and Greek, authors also began increasingly to use vernacular languages; combined with the invention of printing, this would allow many more people access to books, especially the Bible. In all, the Renaissance could be viewed as an attempt by intellectuals to study and improve the secular and worldly, both through the revival of ideas from antiquity, and through novel approaches to thought.


Assimilation of Greek and Arabic knowledge

Latin translations of the 12th century


The Renaissance was so called because it was a "rebirth" of certain classical ideas that had long been lost to Europe. It has been argued that the fuel for this rebirth was the rediscovery of ancient texts that had been forgotten by Western civilization, but were preserved in some monastic libraries and in the Islamic world, and the translations of Greek and Arabic texts into Latin. Renaissance scholars such as Niccol? de' Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini scoured the libraries of Europe in search of works by such classical authors as Plato, Cicero and Vitruvius. Additionally, as the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from Islamic Moors progressed, numerous Greek and Arabic works were captured from educational institutions such as the library at C?rdoba, which claimed to have 400,000 books. The works of ancient Greek and Hellenistic writers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and Plotinus) and Muslim scientists and philosophers (such as Geber, Abulcasis, Alhacen, Avicenna, Avempace, and Averroes), were imported into the Christian world, providing new intellectual material for European scholars. Greek and Arabic knowledge was not only assimilated from Spain, but also directly from the Middle East. The study of mathematics was flourishing in the Middle East, and mathematical knowledge was brought back by crusaders in the 13th century. The decline of the Byzantine Empire after 1204 - and its eventual fall in 1453 - led to a sharp increase in the exodus of Greek scholars to Italy and beyond. These scholars brought with them texts and knowledge of the classical Greek civilization which had been lost for centuries in the West.


Social and political structures in Italy


A political map of the Italian Peninsula circa 1494.The unique political structures of late Middle Ages Italy have led some to theorize that its unusual social climate allowed the emergence of a rare cultural efflorescence. Italy did not exist as a political entity in the early modern period. Instead, it was divided into smaller city states and territories: the kingdom of Naples controlled the south, the Republic of Florence and the Papal States the center, the Genoese and the Milanese the north and west, and the Venetians the east. Fifteenth-century Italy was one of the most urbanised areas in Europe. Many of its cities stood among the ruins of ancient Roman buildings; it seems likely that the classical nature of the Renaissance was linked to its origin in the Roman Empire's heartlands.

Italy at this time was notable for its merchant Republics, including the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Venice. Although in practice these were oligarchical, and bore little resemblance to a modern democracy, the relative political freedom they afforded was conducive to academic and artistic advancement. Likewise, the position of Italian cities such as Venice as great trading centres made them intellectual crossroads. Merchants brought with them ideas from far corners of the globe, particularly the Levant. Venice was Europe's gateway to trade with the East, and a producer of fine glass, while Florence was a capital of silk and jewelry. The wealth such business brought to Italy meant that large public and private artistic projects could be commissioned and individuals had more leisure time for study.


The Black Death


One theory that has been advanced is that the devastation caused by the Black Death in Florence (and elsewhere in Europe) resulted in a shift in the world view of people in 14th century Italy. Italy was particularly badly hit by the plague, and it has been speculated that the familiarity with death that this brought thinkers to dwell more on their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife. It has also been argued that the Black Death prompted a new wave of piety, manifested in the sponsorship of religious works of art. However, this does not fully explain why the Renaissance occurred specifically in Italy in the 14th century. The Black Death was a pandemic that affected all of Europe in the ways described, not only Italy. The Renaissance's emergence in Italy was most likely the result of the complex interaction of the above factors.


Cultural conditions in Florence


Lorenzo de' Medici, ruler of Florence and patron of arts. It has long been a matter of debate why the Renaissance began in Florence, and not elsewhere in Italy. Scholars have noted several features unique to Florentine cultural life which may have caused such a cultural movement. Many have emphasized the role played by the Medici family in patronizing and stimulating the arts. Lorenzo de' Medici devoted huge sums to commissioning works from Florence's leading artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

The Renaissance was certainly already underway before Lorenzo came to power, however. Indeed, before the Medici family itself achieved hegemony in Florentine society. Some historians have postulated that Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance as a result of luck, i.e. because "Great Men" were born there by chance. Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo were all born in Tuscany. Arguing that such chance seems improbable, other historians have contended that these "Great Men" were only able to rise to prominence because of the prevailing cultural conditions at the time.


The Renaissance's characteristics

Renaissance humanism


Humanism was not a philosophy per se, but rather a method of learning. In contrast to the medieval scholastic mode, which focused on resolving contradictions between authors, humanists would study ancient texts in the original, and appraise them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence. Humanist education was based on the study of poetry, grammar, ethics and rhetoric. Above all, humanists asserted "the genius of man... the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind." Humanist scholars shaped the intellectual landscape throughout the early modern period. Political philosophers such as Niccol? Machiavelli and Thomas More revived the ideas of Greek and Roman thinkers, and applied them in critiques of contemporary government. Theologians, notably Erasmus and Martin Luther, challenged the Aristotelian status quo, introducing radical new ideas of justification and faith.


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