The Italian Renaissance



            The term “Renaissance,” meaning “rebirth,” is used by scholars to describe the scholarly and cultural achievements of Europeans from the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries. It was a time period marked by a very conscious awareness that people were living in a new age.


            The first person to write about this new age was an Italian physician and poet, Francesco Petrarch, who saw himself living in a period which ended the gloominess of the Medieval (“middle”) age. He considered the first two centuries of the Roman Empire as the peak of human civilization. People living in the Middle Ages had seem themselves as continuing the glories of Rome, but Petrarch saw that glory lost with the barbarian invasions. To him, Europe had entered a period which he denominated the “dark ages.” He also considered this the “middle” age between the glories of the Classical Era and his own time. Many writers and artists of the Renaissance followed his example by speaking with contempt of the Medieval Period.


            The Italian Peninsula seemed uniquely suited for this rebirth. Its geographic placement in the Mediterranean made it a focal point for trade between East and West. Although the Roman Empire had long since crumbled, the elaborate road system of the empire still remained. As a result, Italy sat at the crossroads of the Western and Eastern trade routes. The city of Rome, now one tenth its size in the Pax Romana was headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church following the Babylonian Captivity. The church was the single unifying entity throughout the continent. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many classical scholars who had lived in that city fled to Italy; and brought their learning and books with them. For this reason, one might reasonably argue that the Renaissance was primarily a "transplanting" rather than a "rebirth."


            Italy was not united; but rather consisted of a series of independent city-states which did not trust and frequently warred with each other. The northern Italian cities were communes, associations of free men who ruled the community. Renaissance Italians were held a passionate patriotic attachment to their own city, which precluded the possibility of unification. Five prominent entities dominated: Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States (ruled exclusively by the Pope), and the Kingdom of Naples.


Venice had grown wealthy from its merchant marine fleet which had a virtual monopoly on Eastern trade. Venice had provided transportation for the participants in the Fourth Crusade and were influential in diverting it to attack Constantinople. Venice had profited immensely from the sack of the Byzantine Capital. The development of a square sail had made it possible to ship year round. Venetian shippers typically transported goods directly from buyer to seller; for instance, English wool might be purchased in Northern England and resold in North Africa. The risk in these enterprises was tremendous; but the gigantic profits made it worth while.


Rome was largely controlled by the Papacy following the return of the Popes to Rome. Some Renaissance Popes contributed to the new movement; however the Renaissance Popes were mostly interested only in power and wealth for themselves.




The Borgia represent one of the most notorious families in European History. Eleven were Church Cardinals; three became Pope, and one a Queen of England. They were distinguished more by their caprice than their piety.


Two of his Children became famous: (1) His son, Cesare Borgia, who was made a cardinal by his father, but left Orders to build an empire for himself. He murdered his older brother and his sister’s second husband; He attacked areas around Rome to build his empire, and did so with revenues provided by his father. After his father’s death, his source of funds dried up, and the new Pope (Julius II) was his father’s enemy. His empire crumbled quickly, and he died in Prison in 1507.


On one occasion, a group of prisoners were brought into St. Peter’s Square before Alexander. Cesare was by his side. The prisoners were not sure if they were to be pardoned or condemned. Instead, Cesare took a rifle and shot them one by one, after which their bodies were thrown into the Tiber River. After the shooting, Alexander complemented his son on his aim.


 (2) Lucretia Borgia – The Queen of Mean. She was married three times in arranged marriages; although one marriage was annulled because it had not been consummated (never mind she was evidently pregnant at the time.) She gave a new meaning to “getting around,” as long as there was something in it for her. Rumors have persisted of an incestuous relationship between her and her brother; although there is no evidence of the fact. She is traditionally remembered for a hollow ring she wore on her pinkie finger which she used to poison the wine of her dinner guests.


Moral of the story: if a sexy woman with a big pinkie ring offers you a glass of wine, turn it down.



Even so, Rome played an integral part in the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo all worked in Rome.


Florence: Located on the Arno River, Florence is the city most associated with the Italian Renaissance; in fact it is known as the Cradle of the Italian Renaissance.   Several factors led to its prominence: It was the home of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccacio. Machiavelli was born there as well as the Italian philosopher, Marsilio Ficino. It was a thriving textile town which became wealthy in the woolen trade, but remarkably educated. Out of a population of roughly 100,000; over eight thousand children attended school.


The Medici:  The Medici family (dé Medici)) were the most powerful and influential citizens of Florence during the Renaissance, and were influential in its development. The Medici family dominated Florentine political history for over 300 years. They controlled a well established textile business, but were most famous as bankers. They were the Pope’s bankers for many years, and earned a fortune collecting church taxes; but also loaned money to the crown heads of Europe. They invested heavily in a variety of business interests, including the alum markets which had been controlled by the Pope (they insisted on receiving a controlling interest as a condition of handling the Pope’s banking) and operated branches in a number of other cities, including Naples, Rome, even Geneva, Switzerland.


The first leading figure in the family was Cosimo Dé Medici (1389-1464).  Cosimo knew that political power depended upon financial success, and exercised it boldly. However, he believed that the rich must give something back to their communities. He gave contributed heavily to the community in the form of patronage of the arts. Unlike many other business people, the Medici were comfortable with their income, and did not strive to make endlessly large sums.


Cosimo developed an interest in art and architecture which he believed would enhance his family’s “honor.” As a result, he patronized many artists and sculptors. His grandson, Lorenzo dé Medici, (1449-1492) encouraged and supported a number of artists, including Filipo Lippi, Botticelli, and Michelangelo by commissioning works of art from them.


The De Medici family were so influential (and wealthy) that two of its members were elected Pope: Leo X and Clement VII, who later was to deny Henry VIII permission to divorce Catherine of Aragon and thus precipitate the English Reformation.




The Renaissance manifested itself in new attitudes towards human beings and the world. During the middle ages, recognition of individual accomplishment was rare. Christian humility had discouraged praise of the self; as ones major concern should be salvation in the next world, rather than fame in the present. Medieval writers had studied ancient texts merely as a way to know God, and scholars had interpreted the classics in a Christian sense, often finding points of agreement between the two. A classic example is the use of Aristotle to explain transubstantiation.


During the Renaissance, Individualism became important. Individualism stressed the personality, uniqueness, even genius of the individual either as artist, athlete, painter, scholar, etc. One’s personal abilities should be fully realized, not melded into a communal whole. Individuals developed a burning desire for fame and achievement.


A renewed interest in classical learning developed during the Renaissance. Much of this took the form of the old Latin classics. This renewed interest in “new learning” became known as humanism. The Romans had spoken of humanitas to describe the combination of wisdom and virtue. They believed that the study of humanitas would make people more civilized and humane. Those who pursued this new philosophy were known as humanists.  The humanists studied the classics to understand human nature. They considered human beings as made in the image and likeness of God; therefore they were inherently good, not inherently bad, as medieval thinkers had believed.  Humanist studies were called “liberal,” because they made men free; hence “liberal arts.” They were humane, because they “perfect men…those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth traits and develops those highest gifts of body and of mind, which ennoble men,” according to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola; hence the study of the liberal arts is commonly referred to as the “humanities.”


Humanists loved classical learning, particularly the purity of its Latin. They rejected the Latin of the Middle Ages as corrupt and became more and more concerned with form, rather than content, as correctness was importance. They also espoused secularism, a concern with the material world, rather than the next. Their emphasis was on the here and now. Examples of humanist thinking:



            Contrast this with the flagellants of the Plague era.


 Valla is considered the father of historical criticism, as he determined that the “Donation of Constantine” (which purportedly gave a large portion of Western Europe to the Pope after Pope Sylvester I supposedly cured the Roman Emperor Constantine of leprosy) was a fake. This greatly weakened the Pope’s claims to territorial authority.


Valla also wrote On the Elegances of the Latin Language (1444) which became the standard textbook for the study of classical Latin. However, his most influential work was his Annotations on the New Testament. The official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church at the time was called the Vulgate (so called because it was written in vulgar—common—Latin.) The Vulgate had been translated by a St. Jerome, and having been translated by a Saint was considered holy—therefore unimprovable. Valla demonstrated many errors in the language of the Vulgate. His work was important to Desiderius Erasmus who wrote a new translation of the New Testament




In 1512, the Medici suddenly returned to power and Machiavelli lost his job, as he was considered an enemy of the Medici, a characterization that was likely unfair.

He was imprisoned and tortured, but later allowed to retire to a small farm outside Florence when Lorenzo dé Medici’s son, Giovanni, was elected Pope Leo X in 1513. He spent the next fifteen years writing, often wearing the robes of state which he had worn in better days.


His most important work (and one of the most important of the Renaissance) was The Prince, which was written to flatter (and perhaps gain favor) with the Medici. In The Prince, Machiavelli states his belief that a strong ruler was necessary to protect Italy from instability. He therefore instructs a despot in the art of gaining and holding power. He argues that a prince must act like a lion and a fox: He should have the strength of a lion, and the cunning of a fox to avoid being trapped. He must be prepared to “lie, dissemble, and even murder while appearing to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, and religious” if necessary to maintain power.


Other political thinkers had adopted Aristotle’s position that politics was a branch of ethics. Machiavelli said people were basically corrupt and evil; therefore rulers had to act in a way that would be totally inappropriate for a private person. One must rule not on the basis of how things should be, but how they actually are. The sole test of a good government was whether it was effective. He stated, rather boldly, that the reality of power must take precedence over standards of good and evil:


For a man who, in all respects, will carry out only his professions of good, will be apt to be ruined amongst so many who are evil. A prince therefore who desires to maintain himself must learn to be not always good, but to be so or not as necessity may require.


 One of his more famous pronouncements (adopted by Advance Placement teachers everywhere) is that “it is better to be feared than to be loved, if one must choose.”


Machiavelli never suggested that a ruler should be completely amoral; but he did argue that practical politics cannot be restricted by moral standards. It is perhaps a corruption of his writing that led to the word Machiavellian to enter the English language, an adjective to describe those who are devious, corrupt, or crafty; a philosophy in which the end justifies the means.


Renaissance thinkers and artists often demonstrated mastery in more than one field of endeavor. A prime example is Michelangelo, who excelled not only as a painter but also as a sculptor. The ultimate example is Leonardo Da Vinci who was an artist as well as a scientist. Hence a person who is considered an expert in more than one field is commonly known as a "Renaissance Man," or Renaissance person, if one wishes to be politically correct. In many circles to call one a Renaissance person is the highest complement that one can pay another.


Renaissance Art


The artistic accomplishments of the Renaissance attract more admiration than any of its other features. Again, Florence led the way, however Rome, Milan, and even Venice benefited from Renaissance creativity. Much of the artwork of the Renaissance was sponsored by wealthy individuals, often as luxury items to display and impress guests. It was a common belief that one could demonstrate wisdom by making good use of one’s riches; so wealthy patron’s frequently commissioned works of art to confirm their moral leadership. The importance of art is illustrated by Dante’s comment that “Art is the grandchild of God.”


Renaissance architects, painters, sculptors and musicians made striking departures from the conventions of the Medieval period. They were influenced by the culture of humanism, and often created realistic works; attempting to capture what the human eye actually saw. Sculptors, inspired by classical models, sought greater naturalism in their work. Medieval people believed that only God created, and there was no particular value in artistic originality. Renaissance artists and thinkers considered a work of art as not only unique; it could be a strike of genius.


 Renaissance artists did not meet the modern concept of the “struggling artist.” Many wee quite wealthy, since they were paid handsomely for their commissions. At a time when one could live very luxuriously on 200 ducats per year, Leonardo da Vinci was making 2,000 ducats per year. Michelangelo was paid 3,000 ducats to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; and refused pay for work on the Basilica of St. Peters, as he didn’t need the money.


An example of the high regard in which renaissance artists were held is illustrated by a visit paid to the painter Titian (1477=1576) by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. When Titian dropped his brush by accident, Charles stooped over to pick it up.


Renaissance artists attempted to portray reality, showing the human body (warts and all) as it really was, rather than the stiffness and artificiality that had constituted medieval art. Female figures were often plump, (considered beautiful at that time) and males muscular. Nudity which was seldom shown in medieval art became commonplace. Religious subject matter dominated the Renaissance, but in time the subject matter of art grew increasingly secular. Classical themes, such as the lives and loves of the pagan gods and goddesses, became more and more popular. Classical sculptures, typically of the Greek and Roman gods, were often nude and portrayed figures with athletic bodies. This same theme--physically fit nudes--is often portrayed in Renaissance painting and sculpture. Even religious figures are given the bodies of Greek Gods. A typical example is Michelangelo's statue of David, which is completely nude; yet presents as a very fit, athletic, muscular young man.


Two important concepts of Renaissance Art:


Realism: Artists sought to demonstrate the world and human beings in a realistic way, the way God had created them. They should be portrayed in a “natural” way; hence realism is often termed naturalism. This echoed renaissance thinking that human beings were basically good; after all, they were God’s highest creation. Renaissance art often portrays the facial expressions of individuals, often portraying an almost psychological profile.


An example is Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, in which shame at their nakedness and devastation at their disgrace is evident. Such an expression of emotion would never manifest itself in Medieval art.


Additionally, Realism in the Classical sense led to the frequent portrayal of nude men and women, portrayals which were anatomically correct. At times, the portrayal seems almost scientific. Objects of everyday life often appear as background items.


Perspective: Perspective, the linear representation of time and space, was a means of enhancing naturalism.  It added a third dimension of distance to painting on a flat surface. This was often done by painting objects or persons in the background smaller than those in the forefront, thus creating the illusion of space. Often, windows or other objects in the background create a three-dimensional appearance. The technique was first used by Brunelleschi, who found that he could create an illusion of depth by making figures in the background of a picture smaller than those in the front.


Renaissance painters often painted on wet plaster, using pigments ground and mixed with water. This approach allowed the paint to be absorbed into the plaster and become part of the wall itself. It was known as the “fresh” approach. In Italian, fresco. Renaissance artists were not ashamed to sign their work, and often painted themselves in the background. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, he appears as St. Bartholomew.


Important Renaissance Painters, Sculptors, Architects


Giotto: (1266-1337) was one of the first Western painters to capture actual human emotions. His paintings are often quite realistic. He was greatly influenced by St. Francis of Assisi and his reverence for nature.  Dante, Boccacio, and Petrarch pronounced Giotto the greatest painter of his day.


Examples of his work:



Masacchio: (Tommaso Guidi) 1401-1428):  Was obsessed with “things of art, and indifferent to money, clothes, or even food. He was a master at perspective and psychological portrayal. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael all studied his work. His work contains much attention to backgrounds, landscapes.


Examples of his work:



Sandro Botticelli: (1444-1510):  Botticelli received much of his training from Fra Filippo Lippi, a protégé of Cosimo dé Medici. He worked alongside Leonardo da Vinci when the latter was a young man. Rather than frescos, Botticelli painted with oil. Many of his paintings depict classical pagan scenes, often reflecting the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses.


Examples of his work:



Leonardo da Vinci: (1452-1519): The ultimate “renaissance man.”  He was a great painter, sculptor, architect, and also made contributions to engineering, military science, anatomy, botany, geology, geography, hydraulics, and aerodynamics. His Notebooks contain designs for airplanes, parachutes, helicopters, screw propellers, machine guns, canal locks, etc. At his death, he was frustrated that he had not done more. Leonardo was left handed, and often wrote his notes backward.  He had not received a classical education, and as a result did not speak or write Latin. His acclaim was such that his homosexuality did not deter his popularity.


Examples of his work:



Michelangelo Buinarroti: (1475-1564): His father discouraged him from sculpting, saying he would be nothing more than a stone-cutter. This remark never left him, and he often signed his work, “Michelangelo the stone cutter.” His most famous work is the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter’s Church, Rome, which depicts nine scenes from the book of Genesis. He also was a renowned sculptor, his most famous work, the statue of David, was commissioned by the city fathers. He was a bitter rival of Leonardo da Vinci, and the two men often criticized each other’s work ruthlessly.


Examples of his work:


Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520): Studied under Leonardo. Many of the women in his paintings depict his mistress, Margherita.


Examples of this work:



Also see:


Caravaggio: David with the Head of Goliath


Gazzoli: Journey of the Magi


Mantegna: Adoration of the Magi.


Donatello: Sculpted the first free standing nude since antiquity. The famous statue of David.


Filippo Brunelleschi: 1377-1446) Famous as a painter for the use of perspective, and also as an architect, who revived classical themes. One of his most famous works is the Church of St. Mary of the Flowers in Florence.