The Renaissance

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Uffizi museum, Florence.

The Renaissance was a cultural “rebirth” that began in Florence, Italy, but spread to all of Europe from about 1300 to 1600.

During this time period, Europeans experienced a renewed interest in classical Greek and Roman civilization, and subsequently, in learning science, mathematics, literature, the arts and philosophy. Christianity played a strong role in the renaissance as can be seen in its influence in the birth of modern science. The term “Renaissance man” has come to mean a person who is remarkably well-rounded and learned in every subject, as this is what was expected of men during the Renaissance of the Nobility.


The Italian Renaissance

The Duomo of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence

The northern city-states of Italy were a perfect location for the Renaissance to occur, as Italian culture was built off of classical Greek and Roman civilization. They had become important and wealthy locations selling and trading during the Crusades, and Muslim and Byzantine learning had been brought to Italy also during the Crusades. Florence in particular was home to wealthy families willing to finance artists, mainly the prominent Medici family. Lastly, the fierce competition that existed between the different city-states brought out the best in people and created an environment in which initiative and creativity flourished.

This quote by Leon Battista Alberti, "men can do all things if they will" sums up the spirit of the Renaissance well. Three philosophies emerged during the Renaissance: individualism, humanism and secularism. All three contained similarities and overlapped with one another to form the main philosophy, humanism.


The most lasting legacy of the Renaissance was probably the outstanding artwork it produced. Especially in Florence and Rome, master artists emerged who produced astonishing works of art in sculpture, painting and architecture. The competitive spirit of the Italian city-states as well as the enormous wealth of families willing to patronize created a perfect environment for the flourishing of art.

Michelangelo's The Pietà

One of the first artists to incorporate new ideas into his artwork was Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) who brought unprecedented elements of realism in his paintings. Giotto, a typical Renaissance jack-of-all-trades, also designed the innovative campanile (bell tower) for the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral or simply "The Duomo" in Florence. Flemish artists introduced oil paints, and the technique of perspective was introduced by artists like Tommaso Masaccio and Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi also designed the duomo (dome) for the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, a breakthrough in engineering and architecture that showed Brunelleschi’s deep understanding of mathematics.

Donatello (1386-1466) was an influential painter and sculpture of the early Renaissance from Florence. He sculpted a bronze “David,” the first free-standing nude statue since the days of the Greeks and Romans, and another famous statue of St.George. Titian (Tiziano Vicelli) (1477-1576) was a painter with an unprecedented use of color and loose brushwork, evident in his stunning masterpiece The Assumption of the Virgin. Raphael (1482-1520) also mastered the use of color and painted beautiful frescoes in churches and for private patrons, the most famous of which may be The School of Athens, an interesting painting depicting Plato and Aristotle surrounded by their pupils. He inspired the two greatest artists of the Renaissance: Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Michelangelo (1475) is best known for his statue of David and for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an astounding fresco including over 300 Biblical figures, that took over 4 years to complete. He also sculpted amazing renditions of Moses and “the Pietà,” a poignant sculpture of Jesus in Mary’s arms after the crucifixion. Following Brunelleschi’s model Duomo in Florence, Michelangelo designed the dome for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although some say his earlier works (like David) reveal a humanistic outlook, later works (like the Pietà) reveal his deep and devout Christianity.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) embodied the “Renaissance man.” He was an architect, anatomist, sculptor, scientist, mathematician, musician, and painter. He created masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. He kept notebooks full of drawings such as Vitruvian Man, and his observations from dissecting human corpses. It is said that Leonardo could draw with one hand while at the same time painting with the other, and he wrote backwards in his notebooks, so they would have to be held up to a mirror to be read. He was way ahead of his time and created conceptual designs for many devices such as a flying machine and an armored tank. He was the first to come up with the ideas of the calculator and the use of solar power for energy.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa


Many authors produced influential literary works during the Renaissance. Dante was the writer whose works some historians date as marking the beginning of the Renaissance, and he is called the father of the Renaissance. He was an Italian writer who wrote in the vernacular, or common language, so his works gained popularity among ordinary people as well as scholars. His most famous work is The Divine Comedy, which describes in vivid detail the author’s journey through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and heaven (Paradiso). Although called a “comedy”, the book is anything but funny. This is because Dante was using the classical meaning of “comedy”, in which a story is not necessarily humorous, but ends happily and according to the divine will of God. In The Divine Comedy, Dante blends Greek Philosophy with Christian theology, in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Dante’s guide through Hell is Virgil, and the greatest sinners present in Hell are Judas Iscariot (Jesus’ betrayer) and Brutus (Caesar’s betrayer).

Along with Dante, Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) is considered a father of the Renaissance. He wrote beautiful poetry in Italian, but his books were written in Latin. His works and their focus on the classical philosophers inspired the humanism of the Renaissance.

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote The Prince, in which he explored the means by which a monarch can gain, retain, and increase his power. A prince must recognize the needs of the people, Machiavelli declared, and although his consensus was that it is better to be feared than loved, he

Michelangelo's David ...Men can do all things if they will.

additionally stated that it is ideal to be both feared and loved. Machiavelli served under Lorenzo Medidi of Florence, but was exiled. It was during his exile that he wrote The Prince. Today the word “Machiavellian” has come to mean any unreasonable philosophy by which “the end justifies the means.”

Civic Humanism

See also Republicanism and Machiavelli

Pocock (1981)traces the Machiavellian belief in and emphasis upon Greco-Roman ideals of unspecialized civic virtue and liberty from 15th-century Florence through 17th-century England and Scotland to 18th-century America. Thinkers who shared these ideals tended to believe that the function of property was to maintain an individual's independence as a precondition of his virtue. Consequently, in the last two times and places mentioned above, they were disposed to attack the new commercial and financial regime that was beginning to develop.[1]

The influential concept of civic humanism of German Renaissance scholar Hans Baron (1900-88) emphasized the male citizen's participation in the republic of Florence. He saw medieval religion as antithetical to this republicanism and denied religion any constitutive role in Renaissance culture. In medieval Thomism there is a broader concept of participation than that of Baron. Despite the supposed ignoring of religion by Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), he asserted that Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-92) reclaimed medieval spirituality in his late writings. Lorenzo's writings point toward a broader definition of participation to include human associations that focused on charity, thereby including men and women in participatory roles in society.[2]

Najemi (1996) examines Hans Baron's ambivalent portrayal of Machiavelli. He argues that Baron tended to see Machiavelli simultaneously as the cynical debunker and the faithful heir of civic humanism. By the mid-1950s, Baron had come to consider civic humanism and Florentine republicanism as early chapters of a much longer history of European political liberty, a story in which Machiavelli and his generation played a crucial role. This conclusion led Baron to modify his earlier negative view of Machiavelli. He tried to bring the Florentine theorist under the umbrella of civic humanism by underscoring the radical differences between The Prince (which seems to recommend the Prince should doing evil) and the Discourses (which recommends the citizens should do good) and thus revealing the fundamentally republican character of the Discourses. However, Baron's inability to come to terms with Machiavelli's harsh criticism of early 15th-century commentators such as Leonardo Bruni ultimately prevented him from fully reconciling Machiavelli with civic humanism.[3]


During the Renaissance there was an explicit self-awareness on the part of humanists, involving a disdain for medieval traditions and art forms, a rejection of scholastic philosophy, and a quest for a purer form of Latin, as discovered in the classics. Italy was the center of this new realization by 1300; by 1600 an expanded version was widely disseminated across western Europe. North of the Alps humanists like the Dutch Erasmus sought the reform of Christian society through classical education. They envisioned the rebirth ("re-naissance") of the Golden Age through the rebirth of good writing. As the tutors the European aristocracy, humanists saw their ideas accepted by the top ranks of the ruling classes.

Niccolo Machiavelli in the Uffizi.

French intellectual historian Pierre Bayle wrote a highly influential Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-1697), read by scholars across Europe, which promoted the incorrect notion that the rebirth of letters began in 1453 when the fall of Constantinople sent Greek scholars into exile in the West. (Greeks had come 200 years earlier.) During the Enlightenment, French historian Voltaire portrayed the Renaissance as a crucial stage in the liberation of the human mind from medieval superstition and error, as promulgated by the Catholic Church. Voltaire exaggerated the decline of traditional religion in the Renaissance, for most of the Italian humanists were devout Catholics. The Romantic movement of the 19th century, typified by the poet Robert Browning, explored with fascinated disapproval the pagan and immoral qualities of Renaissance man. Romantics, interested in the vital, heroic, and unconventional personalities of Renaissance artists, added the theme of the Renaissance as the invention of individualism.

In the 19th century, the great romantic historians Jules Michelet (1798-1874) focused on the French Renaissance and Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) interpreted at Italy. In both cases they assumed there had been an abrupt and fundamental change in society: the Middle Ages end and the modern world suddenly begins. Michelet abhorred the Middle Ages; Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) did not, but each explored the ways in which a dynamic Renaissance could develop from static medieval culture. Each historian brought his own personal history and ideals to his study of culture, cultural change, and the idea of modernism.[4]

Burckhardt articulated the single most fruitful idea about the Renaissance: "the discovery of the individual," which dominated historical writing for a century. His approach came under challenge from postmodern scholars in the 1970s. The contributions of the New Historicists, particularly literary historian Stephen Greenblatt, have made it impossible to approach the history of individualism in traditional humanistic terms. Accordingly, postmodern scholars now view the "individual" as a cultural construct rather than as an underlying human "essence" or "protagonist" in narratives of modernization or progress. Martin (1997) challenges the postmoderns and offers a new reading of the history of individualism in the Renaissance. He argues many New Historicist practices are inadequate because they tend to ignore long-term historical shifts in the Western European vocabulary of selfhood and to envision constructions of the self as shaped by a narrowly defined cultural context. The history of individualism in the Renaissance should be approached as a discursive field in which there was a new understanding of "prudence" as a strategy for concealing one's views and sentiments and a newly invented notion of "sincerity" that called for the expression of personal convictions and feelings. As a result of the tension between these two ideals, the Renaissance self came to be defined in increasingly expressive and individualistic terms. Because these ideals had a European-wide currency and developed over several generations, the origins of individualism cannot be traced in any exclusive manner to specific national contexts or particular moments in time. Rather than a return to traditional assumptions about the self, Martin's approach encourages discussions of individualism and identity to take into account two critical issues: the need to remain open to complex intellectual and cultural forces that transcend particular times and places, and the need to recognize that the Renaissance sense of interiority was often immune to precisely the sort of ideological manipulation that New Historicists have seen as decisive in the construction of identities.[5]

Bouwsma (1979) laments the virtual collapse in recent historiography of the venerable conception of the Renaissance as a decisive turning point in the drama of Western history and to the postmodern substitution for it of the vague notion of the Renaissance as an "age of transition" to the modern world. This shift is attributed to a general tendency in recent historiography to minimize process in favor of structure. However valuable in some respects, structuralist history is not well adapted to explain change, argues Bouwsma. As a result, it has undermined the dramatic organization of Western history and - since historiography cannot finally dispense with dramatic patterns of some kind - opened the way for a "myth of apocalyptic modernization" that rejects the relevance of all but the most recent past to the present. The traditional idea of the Renaissance, since it saw the modern world as the goal of linear history, was itself vitiated by apocalypticism. Detached from this metahistorical assumption, however, it is still useful to explain much (if not all) in contemporary culture, in the meaning of that term now common among anthropologists.[6]

Studying history

Medieval history was consisted primarily of descriptive chronicles. Humanism in created a new kind of historical writing, with attention to motives and causes, animated by a belief that the study of the past had direct applications to governance and military science, and a sense that historical change is best understood in the context of deep values. Leonardo Bruni, one of the earliest humanist historians, presents the history of Florence as a battle between tyranny and civil liberty. Sabellicus presents Venice as the successor of the ancient Greek ideal of the independent city-state. Political history was a seen as to statecraft argued by Machiavelli and Polydore Vergil.


The Renaissance Society of America formed in 1954 with about 700 members. It now has several thousand, and held its 54th annual meeting at the Renaissance Hotel in Chicago, 3-5 April 2008.[7]

See also

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, 1512.

Further Reading

  • Abbagnano, Nicola. "Renaissance Humanism" in Philip P. Wiener, ed. The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, (1974) online edition
  • Brotton, Jerry. The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), a famous classic; excerpt and text search 2007 edition; also complete text online
  • Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 1. The Renaissance (1903), older atticles by scholars complete text online
  • Campbell, Gordon. The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. (2003). 862 pp. online at OUP
  • Grendler, Paul F., ed. The Renaissance: An Encyclopedia for Students. (2003). 970 pp.
  • Fletcher, Stella. The Longman Companion to Renaissance Europe, 1390-1530. (2000). 347 pp.
  • Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. (1994). 648 pp.; a magistral survey, heavily illustrated excerpt and text search
  • Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Hattaway, Michael, ed. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. (2000). 747 pp.
  • Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. (2000). 197 pp. excerpt and text search
  • King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance (1991) excerpt and text search
  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar, and Michael Mooney. Renaissance Thought and its Sources (1979) excerpt and text search
  • Nauert, Charles G. Historical Dictionary of the Renaissance. (2004). 541 pp.
  • Patrick, James A., ed. Renaissance and Reformation (5 vol 2007), 1584 pages; comprehensive encyclopedia
  • Plumb, J. H. The Italian Renaissance (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Ross, James Bruce, and Mary M. McLaughlin, eds. The Portable Renaissance Reader (1977) excerpt and text search
  • Rowse, A. L. The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Ruggiero, Guido, ed. A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance. (2002). 561 pp.
  • Sider, Sandra. Handbook to Life in Renaissance Europe (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Rundle, David, ed. The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. (1999). 434 pp.; numerous brief articles online edition
  • Speake, Jennifer and Thomas G. Bergin, eds. Encyclopedia of the Renaissance and the Reformation. (2004). 550 pp.
  • Turner, Richard N. Renaissance Florence (2005) excerpt and text search


  1. J. G. A. Pocock, "The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: a Study in History and Ideology.: Journal of Modern History 1981 53(1): 49-72.
  2. Jane Tylus, "Charitable Women: Hans Baron's Civic Renaissance Revisited." Rinascimento [Italy] 2003 43: 287-307. Issn: 0080-3073
  3. John M. Najemy, "Baron's Machiavelli and Renaissance Republicanism." American Historical Review 1996 101(1): 119-129.
  4. Jo Tollebeek, "'Renaissance' and 'Fossilization': Michelet, Burckhardt, and Huizinga." Renaissance Studies 2001 15(3): 354-366.
  5. John Martin, "Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: the Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe." American Historical Review 1997 102(5): 1309-1342.
  6. William J. Bouwsma, "The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History." American Historical Review 1979 84(1): 1-15
  7. The 2008 program is online; the 2009 program is online; the 2010 meeting will be in Venice
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