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As increasingly urban, educated, and secular populations became dissatisfied with medieval values—first (circa 1350) in the Italian republics and principalities and then later north of the Alps—they sought to recover the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient world. A new and remarkable self-confidence in human agency resulted, and it sparked an intellectual, cultural, and artistic revolution known as the Renaissance.
The Renaissance was a period defined less by a span of time than by the application of certain ideas to almost every aspect of life. About the mid-fourteenth century in Italy, people realized that the essential values of the Middle Ages no longer suited an environment that was increasingly urban, secular, mercantile, and educated. In particular, city-states, such as Florence and Venice, required a new perspective that validated the lives of the wealthy merchants who governed their communities.
The Italian city-states had been made wealthy as a consequence of the crusades and the recovery of long-distance commerce, with Italian merchants dominating the carrying trade between Europe and the crusader outposts in the Levant (eastern shore of the Mediterranean), ferrying men, equipment, food, and goods across the Mediterranean. The cities of Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi, and Venice dominated this trade, which attracted large numbers of Europeans to the Levant and the Byzantine Empire in the Near East and a few to the Far East. The most dramatic episode in this expansion of Italian trade and influence was the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) in 1204 by the crusader army of Baldwin of Flanders in northern Europe, an episode that the Venetians used to gain greater influence in the lucrative Eastern markets.
Other Italian cities benefited economically as well, again driven by the vast explosion of money available as a result of trade. Florence was not a seaport but produced the finest woolen cloth in Europe, a product greatly sought by luxury-loving northern Europeans. The huge profits from this trade permitted Florentine merchants to increase their wealth by lending surplus capital at interest, that is, to become bankers as well as merchants. Their banks gave the Italians a virtual monopoly over the money markets of Europe from the twelfth to the beginning of the sixteenth century. A direct consequence of this monopoly was the introduction of stable gold coins that could be used as reliable tender, free from the wild fluctuations of most medieval European coinage. The Florentines introduced the florin in the 1250s; the Venetians introduced the ducat in 1282. These currencies proceeded to dominate the economies of Europe for the next 250 years.
This wealth precipitated social and political problems, however. Merchants did not fit easily into the medieval worldview in which the clergy cared for souls and the landed nobility provided security and government. Tensions arose between the newly wealthy urban merchants—who were educated laymen but not noble—and the traditional ruling elite of the nobility. Venice escaped these tensions because it was surrounded by water with no landed territory dominated by nobles to cause friction; but Florence during the thirteenth century entered a period of great turmoil. The nobles resented the wealth and influence of those whom they considered to be their social inferiors, while the mercantile elite grew increasingly resentful of their lack of political control. The city became a battleground between the old and new elites, a division made more vicious because it was characterized by contemporaries as an ideological struggle between those who supported the sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire in Italy (the Ghibellines) and those whose allegiance was to the pope (the Guelfs). The former were generally old noble, landed families; the latter were generally newly enriched families who benefited from recent social mobility and the new mercantile economy.
Italy had not been a united nation since the collapse of the Roman Empire. North of the kingdom of Naples, Italy remained a mosaic of independent states, ruled by princes or oligarchies of powerful families who received their authority from the Holy Roman emperor or the pope. Because neither the emperor nor the pope enjoyed sufficient authority to suppress the other, Italy remained fragmented until the nineteenth century. However, for the development of the Renaissance, this fragmentation was beneficial because it encouraged competition for the best artists, architects, and writers, and it permitted a degree of economic, social, and political experimentation impossible elsewhere on the continent.
In Florence the Guelf party ultimately triumphed with papal support, and the city reaped the reward of becoming the banker for the pope and the church. The old feudal families were tamed, disenfranchised, and excluded from government through a mercantile coup d’etat in 1293 that created the republican constitution that would govern Florence throughout the Renaissance. The city became an oligarchy ruled collectively by all adult male citizens who belonged to the twenty-one recognized guilds. It had an elaborate mechanism to forestall tyranny, entrusted to a collective executive of nine men. Even after the Medici family managed to assume political hegemony (influence) in 1434 under Cosimo de’ Medici (the Elder, d. 1464), the city remained a functioning republic until the sixteenth century, with the head of the family merely manipulating policy behind the scenes. The greatest of the Medicis, Lorenzo the Magnificent (d. 1492), led the city through its celebrated efflorescence of culture and political influence, although he remained throughout his life only a leading citizen and not a prince.
The social, economic, and political revolutions of the thirteenth century in Italy obviously created powerful new groups of citizens with different ambitions and values from the old medieval world characterized by priests, knights, and peasants. The lives of citizens were secular; they were often highly educated and very cosmopolitan, having lived abroad in many places as merchants. Moreover, they were “new men,” without great names or natural authority to support them: they had made their own way in the world, and they searched for a value structure that could offer comfort to them as bankers who took money at interest, despite the injunctions against usury, who needed advice concerning the government of guilds and cities, who wanted advice on the conduct of families, and who needed a culture that reflected their particular circumstances and that spoke to their role in this world as engaged lay citizens.
Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch, 1304–1374) first articulated this search. Born into an exiled Florentine family, he was a poet, philosopher, cleric, and diplomat. In his Italian poetry he celebrated human love and the desire for fame while advocating good style in Latin to clarify and externalize individual experience. Finally, he was interested in himself and his fellow humans and their experience in this life. He made popular once more autobiography as a genre, and he stressed the validity of the exploration of one’s self and one’s world.
Petrarch found a model for his ideas and his style in the ancient world. Rome was, after all, an urban, mercantile, secular society, originally republican like Florence, and possessed of a great literature that explored the human condition. He solved the problem posed by pagan authors in a Christian society by stressing that they were good men as illustrated in their writings: ancient writers, such as the Roman Cicero (d. 43 BCE), could advise the contemporary world in matters of ethics, even though Christian belief was still required for salvation. The ancient world, then, could safely be adopted as a model for both secular life and art: it could be reborn (renaissance).
Wisdom of the Ancients
These revolutionary ideas changed the European perspective, spreading through Italian republics and principalities and then north of the Alps. Human experience was now celebrated, and this life was identified as something worth cultivating and studying. The ancients set a standard for Europeans first to emulate and then to surpass. To accomplish this, people had to recover the knowledge and wisdom of the ancient world; hence, the tools of philology (the study of language and word morphology), textual editing, archaeology, and numismatics were developed. To know their fellow human beings, people revived portraiture in sculpture and painting through the use of visually accurate anatomy and physiognomy (the art of discovering character from outward appearance). To reproduce what the eye sees as a tool to share people’s understanding of the external world, Brunelleschi invented linear perspective in Italy early in the fifteenth century, and Alberti codified it. Buildings conformed to the precepts of Vitruvius, the Roman architect, and the vocabulary of design and decoration was adopted from the ancients. Taken together, these ideas and practices constitute humanism, which became the central cultural and intellectual expression of the Renaissance; a direct consequence was a new and remarkable self-confidence in human agency. “Man is the measure of all things” and “Man can do anything he wills” became accepted beliefs within the humanist community.
This intellectual, cultural, and artistic revolution paralleled the economic and social revolution that was occurring. The virtual Italian monopoly on the lucrative long-distance luxury trade to the East galvanized peoples north of the Alps to find the means to challenge Italian economic dominance. The end of the Hundred Years’ War (1453) and the English Wars of the Roses (1485) stimulated northern commerce; the crusade of rulers Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain against the Moors of Granada created a united Spanish kingdom by 1492. Also, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 made Mediterranean trade more difficult and less profitable, even for Italians. Searching for a new route to the East, Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailing for Spain, encountered the Americas in 1492; the Portuguese began exploring the coast of Africa until Vasco da Gama succeeded in 1497 in establishing an ocean route between India and Europe.
These voyages and the commercial connections and newly discovered wealth they brought changed the shape of Europe forever. The center of power on the continent shifted away from the Mediterranean (literally once the center of the Earth, media terra) to the Atlantic seaboard. Spain, Portugal, France, England, and later the Netherlands became dynamic nations, expanding beyond Europe into the empires they were building around the world, extending long-distance trade to places in Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific never contemplated by the Italians.
The result was a renewed self-confidence among Europeans that included a reinforced belief in the power of human beings to comprehend nature. Practical experiments resulted from this belief: science presupposes the validity of human observation and the ability to interpret it. Newly discovered plants and animals from outside Europe could be depicted through exact illustrations made possible by the Renaissance tradition of naturalism in art; skills such as reliable cartography for navigation were facilitated by related concepts such as linear perspective. Altogether, Europe assumed an energetic, outward-looking attitude that drove the voyages of discovery and the expansion of trade—events that resulted in new knowledge through contact with other peoples as well as a reconsideration of the place of Europe in the world, as evidenced by texts such as the English statesman Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and the French essayist Michel de Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals (printed 1580). Finally, new ideas could spread quickly and reliably through printing, developed in Germany in the mid-fifteenth century.
The decline of the Renaissance followed the decline of the principles that animated it; just as the Renaissance reached different nations at different times, so its eclipse occurred later in the North than in Italy. Events such as the invasion of Italy by King Charles VIII of France (1494) and the ensuing six decades of warfare on the peninsula, together with the loss of control of the Eastern luxury trade and almost continuous war with the Ottoman Turks, sapped both the wealth and the confidence of Italians. Also, the Protestant Reformation (a movement during the sixteenth century to reform the Roman Catholic Church) caused a reaction within the Roman Catholic Church that often manifested itself in hostility to new or unorthodox ideas. The establishment of the Roman Inquisition (1542), the Index of Prohibited Books (1559), and the suppression of free inquiry in schools and universities made dynamic new ideas more difficult to accept. In the North the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), the wars between the Catholic Habsburg ruling house and Protestant princes in Germany and the Netherlands, and the struggle between Europe and the Turks led to a movement away from Renaissance ideals and the economic and social conditions that had given rise to them. Although humanism continued in the form of classical studies, courtly behavior, elite education, and cultural movements in art, architecture, and literature, its energy had been depleted and transformed by the religious, social, and political experiments of the Protestant Reformation, the Counter Reformation (a reaffirmation of the doctrine and structure of the Roman Catholic Church, partly in reaction to the growth of Protestantism), and the artistic and architectural style of the baroque.
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