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The Italian Renaissance Period: The Birthplace of Modern Western

The Italian Renaissance period marked a significant shift in European culture and society. Explore the politics art, literature, & philosophy of this era with this informative guide. 

italian renaissance art period

The Italian Renaissance Period: The Birthplace of Modern Western Civilization

THE modern as opposed to the medieval outlook began in Italy with the movement called the Renaissance. At first, only a few individuals, notably Petrarch, had this outlook, but during the fifteenth century it spread to the great majority of cultivated Italians, both lay and clerical. In some respects, Italians of the Renaissance--with the exception of Leonardo and a few others-had not the respect for science which has characterized most important innovators since the seventeenth century; with this lack is associated their very partial emancipation from superstition, especially in the form of astrology. Many of them had still the reverence for authority that medieval philosophers had had, but they substituted the authority of the ancients for that of the Church. This was, of course, a step towards emancipation, since the ancients disagreed with each other, and individual judgement was required to decide which of them to follow. But very few Italians of the fifteenth century would have dared to hold an opinion for which no authority could be found either in antiquity or in the teaching of the Church.

What was the Italian Renaissance?

The Italian Renaissance was a period of cultural and intellectual growth that began in Italy in the 14th century and lasted until the 17th century. It was marked by a renewed interest in classical art, literature, and philosophy, as well as a shift towards humanism and individualism. The Italian Renaissance is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Western civilization, as it laid the foundation for many of the cultural and intellectual movements that followed.

The legacy of the Italian Renaissance.

The Italian Renaissance period left a lasting legacy on Western civilization. Its emphasis on humanism, individualism, and reason paved the way for the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. The art and literature of the period continue to inspire and influence artists and writers today. The Italian Renaissance also played a significant role in the development of modern political theory and the concept of the nation-state. Its impact can be seen in everything from our education system to our legal and political institutions.

The Humanist Movement and Its Impact on Political Thought.

The Humanist movement was a key aspect of Renaissance philosophy and had a significant impact on political thought. Humanists believed in the importance of individualism, reason, and education. They emphasized the value of human beings and their potential for greatness, which led to a shift away from the traditional focus on divine authority and towards a more secular approach to politics. This movement paved the way for the development of modern political theory and the idea of democracy.

The renaissance political impact

To understand the Renaissance, it is necessary first to review briefly the political condition of Italy. After the death of Frederick  II in 1250, Italy was, in the main, free from foreign interference until the French king Charles VIII invaded the country in 1494. There were in Italy five important States: Milan, Venice, Florence, the Papal Domain, and Naples; in addition to these there were a number of small principalities, which varied in their alliance with or subjection to some one of the larger States. Until 1378, Genoa rivalled Venice in commerce and naval power, but after that year Genoa became subject to Milanese suzerainty.

Milan, which led the resistance to feudalism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, fell, after the final defeat of the Hohenstaufen, under the dominion of the Visconti, an able family whose power was plutocratic, not feudal. They ruled for 170 years, from 1277 to 1447; then, after three years of restored republican government, a new family, that of the Sforza, connected with the Visconti, acquired the government, and took the title of Dukes of Milan. From 1494 to 1535, Milan was a battle-ground between the French and the Spaniards; the Sforza allied themselves sometimes with one side, sometimes with the other. During this period they were sometimes in exile, sometimes in nominal control. Finally, in 1535, Milan was annexed by the Emperor Charles V.

The Republic of Venice stands somewhat outside Italian politics, especially in the earlier centuries of its greatness. It had never been conquered by the barbarians, and at first regarded itself as subject to the Eastern emperors. This tradition, combined with the fact that its trade was with the East, gave it an independence of Rome, which still persisted down to the time of the Council of Trent ( 1545), of which the Venetian Paolo Sarpi wrote a very anti-papal history. We have seen how, at the time of the fourth Crusade, Venice insisted upon the conquest of Constantinople. This improved Venetian trade, which, conversely, suffered by the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. For various reasons, partly connected with food supply, the Venetians found it necessary, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to acquire considerable territory on the mainland of Italy; this roused enmities, and led finally, in 1509, to the formation of the League of Cambray, a combination of powerful States by which Venice was defeated. It might have been possible to recover from this misfortune, but not from Vasco da Gama's discovery of the Cape route to India ( 1497-8). This, added to the power of the Turks, ruined Venice, which, however, lingered on until deprived of independence by Napoleon. 

The constitution of Venice, which had originally been democratic, became gradually less so, and was, after 1297, a close oligarchy. The basis of political power was the Great Council, membership of which, after that date, was hereditary, and was confined to the leading families. Executive power belonged to the Council of Ten, which was elected by the Great Council. The Doge, the ceremonial head of the State, was elected for life; his nominal powers were very restricted, but in practice his influence was usually decisive. Venetian diplomacy was considered exceedingly astute, and the reports of Venetian am. bassadors were remarkably penetrating. Since Ranke, historians have used them as among the best sources for knowledge of the events with which they deal. 

Florence was the most civilized city in the world, and the chief source of the Renaissance. Almost all the great names in literature, and the earlier as well as some of the later of the great names in art, are connected with Florence; but for the present we are concerned. with politics rather than culture. In the thirteenth century, there were three conflicting classes in Florence: the nobles, the rich merchants, and the small men. The nobles, in the main, were Ghibelline, the other two classes Guelf. The Ghibellines were finally defeated in 1266, and during the fourteenth century the party of the small men got the better of the rich merchants. The conflict, however, led not to a stable democracy, but to the gradual growth of what the Greeks would have called a "tyranny." The Medici family, who ultimately became. the rulers of Florence, began as political bosses on the democratic side. Cosimo dei Medici ( 1389-1464), the first of the family to achieve clear preeminence, still had no official position; his power depended upon skill in manipulating elections.

He was astute, conciliatory when possible, ruthless when necessary. He was succeeded, after a short interval, by his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent, who held power from 1469 till his death in 1492. Both these men owed their position to their wealth, which they had acquired mainly in commerce, but also in mining and other industries. They understood how to make Florence rich, as well as themselves, and under them the city prospered. 

Lorenzo's son Pietro lacked his father's merits, and was expelled in 1494. Then followed the four years of Savonarola's influence, when a kind of Puritan revival turned men against gaiety and luxury, away from free-thought and towards the piety supposed to have characterized a simpler age. In the end, however, mainly for political reasons, Savonarola's enemies triumphed, he was executed and his body was burnt ( 1498). The Republic, democratic in intention but plutocratic in fact, survived till 1512, when the Medici were restored. A son of Lorenzo, who had become a cardinal at the age of fourteen, was elected Pope in 1513, and took the title of Leo X. The Medici family, under the title of Grand Dukes of Tuscany, governed Florence until 1737; but Florence meanwhile, like the rest of Italy, had become poor and unimportant.

The temporal power of the Pope, which owed its origin to Pepin and the forged Donation of Constantine, increased greatly during the Renaissance; but the methods employed by the popes to this end robbed the papacy of spiritual authority. The conciliar movement, which came to grief in the conflict between the Council of Basel and Pope Eugenius IV ( 1431-1447), represented the most earnest elements in the Church; what was perhaps even more important, it represented ecclesiastical opinion north of the Alps. The victory of the popes was the victory of Italy, and (in a lesser degree) of Spain. Italian civilization, in the latter half of the fifteenth century, was totally unlike that of northern countries, which remained medieval. The Italians were in earnest about culture, but not about morals and religion; even in the minds of ecclesiastics, elegant latinity would cover a multitude of sins. Nicholas V ( 1447-1455), the first humanist Pope, gave papal offices to scholars whose learning he respected, regardless of other considerations; Lorenzo Valla, an Epicurean, and the man who proved the Donation of Constantine to be a forgery, who ridiculed the style of the Vulgate and accused Saint Augustine of heresy, was made apostolic secretary. This policy of encouraging humanism rather than piety or orthdoxy continued until the sack of Rome in 1527.

Encouragement of humanism, though it shocked the earnest North, might, from our point of view, be reckoned a virtue; but the warlike policy and immoral life of some of the popes could not be defended from any point of view except that of naked power politics. Alexander VI ( 1492-1503) devoted his life as Pope to the aggrandizement of himself and his family. He had two sons, the Duke of Gandia and Caesar Borgia, of whom he greatly preferred the former. The duke, however, was murdered, probably by his brother; the Pope's dynastic ambitions therefore had to be concentrated on Caesar. Together they conquered the Romagna and Ancona, which were intended to form a principality for Caesar; but when the Pope died Caesar was very ill, and therefore could not act promptly. Their conquests consequently reverted to the patrimony of Saint Peter. The wickedness of these two men soon became legendary, and it is difficult to disentangle truth from falsehood as regards the innumerable murders of which they are accused. There can be no doubt, however, that they carried the arts of perfidy further than they had ever been carried before. Julius II ( 1503-1513), who succeeded Alexander VI, was not remarkable for piety, but gave less occasion for scandal than his predecessor. He continued the process of enlarging the papal domain; as a soldier he had merit, but not as the Head of the Christian Church. The Reformation, which began under his successor Leo X ( 15131521), was the natural outcome of the pagan policy of the Renaissance popes. 

The southern extremity of Italy was occupied by the Kingdom of Naples, with which, at most times, Sicily was united. Naples and Sicily had been the especial personal kingdom of the Emperor Frederick II; he had introduced an absolute monarchy on the Mohammedan model, enlightened but despotic, and allowing no power to the feudal nobility. After his death in 1250, Naples and Sicily went to his natural son Manfred, who, however, inherited the implacable hostility of the Church, and was ousted by the French in 1266. The French made themselves unpopular, and were massacred in the "Sicilian Vespers" ( 1282), after which the kingdom belonged to Peter III of Aragon and his heirs. After various complications, leading to the temporary separation of Naples and Sicily, they were reunited in 1443 under Alphonso the Magnanimous, a distinguished patron of letters. From 1495 onwards, three French kings tried to conquer Naples, but in the end the kingdom was acquired by Ferdinand of Aragon ( 1502). Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I, kings of France, all had claims (not very good in law) on Milan and Naples; all invaded Italy with temporary success, but all were ultimately defeated by the Spaniards. The victory of Spain and the Counter-Reformation put an end to the Italian Renaissance. Pope Clement VII being an obstacle to the Counter-Reformation, and, as a Medici, a friend of France, Charles V, in 1527, caused Rome to be sacked by a largely Protestant army. After this, the popes became religious, and the Italian Renaissance was at an end.

The game of power politics in Italy was unbelievably complex. The minor princes, mostly self made tyrants, allied themselves now with one of the larger States, now with another; if they played the game unwisely, they were exterminated. There were constant wars, but until the coming of the French in 1494 they were almost bloodless: the soldiers were mercenaries, who were anxious to minimize their vocational risks. These purely Italian wars did not interfere much with trade, or prevent the country from increasing in wealth. There was much statecraft, but no wise statesmanship; when the French came, the country found itself practically defenceless. French troops shocked the Italians by actually killing people in battle. The wars between French and Spaniards which ensued were serious wars, bringing suffering and impoverishment. But the Italian states went on intriguing against each other, invoking the aid of France or Spain in their internal quarrels, without any feeling for national unity. In the end, all were ruined. It must be said that Italy would inevitably have lost its importance, owing to the discovery of America and the Cape route to the East; but the collapse could have been less catastrophic, and less destructive of the quality of Italian civilization. 

The philosophy of the Italian Renaissance.

The Renaissance was not a period of great achievement in philosophy, but it did certain things which were essential preliminaries to the greatness of the seventeenth century. In the first place, it broke down the rigid scholastic system, which had become an intellectual strait jacket. It revived the study of Plato, and thereby demanded at least so much independent thought as was required for choosing between him and Aristotle. In regard to both, it promoted a genuine and first-hand knowledge, free from the glosses of Neoplatonists and Arabic commentators. More important still, it encouraged the habit of regarding intellectual activity as a delightful social adventure, not a cloistered meditation aiming at the preservation of a predetermined orthodoxy.

The substitution of Plato for the scholastic Aristotle was hastened by contact with Byzantine scholarship. Already at the Council of Ferrara ( 1438), which nominally reunited the Eastern and Western Churches, there was a debate in which the Byzantines maintained the superiority of Plato to Aristotle. Gemistus Pletho, an ardent Greek Platonist of doubtful orthodoxy, did much to promote Platonism in Italy; so did Bessarion, a Greek who became a cardinal. Cosimo and Lorenzo dei Medici were both addicted to Plato; Cosimo founded and Lorenzo continued the Florentine Academy, which was largely devoted to the study of Plato. Cosimo died listening to one of Plato's dialogues. The humanists of the time, however, were too busy acquiring knowledge of antiquity to be able to produce anything original in philosophy.

The Italian Renaissance was not only a time of great artistic and literary achievement, but also a period of significant philosophical development. Humanism, a philosophical movement that emphasized the importance of human reason and individualism, emerged during this time. Italian philosophers such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei made significant contributions to fields such as political theory, natural philosophy, and astronomy. The ideas and values of the Italian Renaissance continue to influence modern Western civilization.

The art of the Italian Renaissance.

The art of the Italian Renaissance is perhaps the most well-known aspect of this period. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael created some of the most iconic works of art in history during this time. The art of the Italian Renaissance was characterized by a focus on realism, perspective, and human anatomy, as well as a renewed interest in classical themes and motifs. Some of the most famous works of art from this period include Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Humanism in the Italian renaissance

The Renaissance was not a popular movement; it was a movement of a small number of scholars and artists, encouraged by liberal patrons, especially the Medici and the humanist popes. But for these patrons, it might have had very much less success. Petrarch and Boccaccio, in the fourteenth century, belong mentally to the Renaissance, but owing to the different political conditions of their time their immediate influence was less than that of the fifteenth-century humanists.

The attitude of Renaissance scholars to the Church is difficult to characterize simply. Some were avowed free-thinkers, though even these usually received extreme unction, making peace with the Church when they felt death approaching. Most of them were impressed by the wickedness of contemporary popes, but were nevertheless glad to be employed by them. Guicciardini the historian wrote in 1529:

Guicciardini history of Florence - "No man is more disgusted than I am with the ambition, the avarice, and the profligacy of the priests, not only because each of these vices is hateful in itself, but because each and all of them are most unbecoming in those who declare themselves to be men in special relations with God, and also because they are vices so opposed to one another, that they can only co-exist in very singular natures. Nevertheless, my position at the Court of several popes forced me to desire their greatness for the sake of my own interest. But, had it not been for this, I should have loved Martin Luther as myself, not in order to free myself from the laws which Christianity, as generally understood and explained, lays upon us, but in order to see this swarm of scoundrels put back into their proper place, so that they may be forced to live either without vices or without power." 

This is delightfully frank, and shows clearly why the humanists could not inaugurate a reformation. Moreover, most of them saw no half-way house between orthodoxy and free thought; such a position as Luther's was impossible for them, because they no longer had the medieval feeling for the subtleties of theology. Masuccio, after describing the wickedness of monks and nuns and friars, says: "The best punishment for them would be for God to abolish purgatory; they would then receive no more alms, and would be forced to go back to their spades." †But it does not occur to him, as to Luther, to deny purgatory, while retaining most of the Catholic faith.

The wealth of Rome depended only in small part upon the revenues obtained from the papal dominions; in the main, it was a tribute, drawn from the whole Catholic world, by means of a theological system which maintained that the popes held the keys of heaven. An Italian who effectively questioned this system risked the impoverishment of Italy, and the loss of the position of Rome in the Western world. Consequently Italian unorthodoxy, in the Renaissance, was purely intellectual, and did not lead to schism, or to any attempt to create a popular movement away from the Church. The only exception, and that a very partial one, was Savonarola, who belonged mentally to the Middle Ages. 

Most of the humanists retained such superstitious beliefs as had found support in antiquity. Magic and witchcraft might be wicked, but were not thought impossible. Innocent VIII, in 1484, issued a bull against witchcraft, which led to an appalling persecution of witches in Germany and elsewhere. Astrology was prized especially by freethinkers; it acquired a vogue which it had not had since ancient times. The first effect of emancipation from the Church was not to make men think rationally, but to open their minds to every sort of antique nonsense. 

Morally, the first effect of emancipation was equally disastrous. The old moral rules ceased to be respected; most of the rulers of States had acquired their position by treachery, and retained it by ruthless cruelty. When cardinals were invited to dine at the coronation of a pope, they brought their own wine and their own cup-bearer, for fear of poison. * Except

Savonarola, hardly any Italian of the period risked anything for a public object. The evils of papal corruption were obvious, but nothing was done about them. The desirability of Italian unity was evident, but the rulers were incapable of combination. The danger of foreign domination was imminent, yet every Italian ruler was prepared to invoke the aid of any foreign power, even the Turk, in any dispute with any other Italian ruler. I cannot think of any crime, except the destruction of ancient manuscripts, of which the men of the Renaissance were not frequently guilty.

The literature of the Italian Renaissance.

While the art of the Italian Renaissance is widely celebrated, the literature of this period is equally important. Italian writers such as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, and Boccaccio produced some of the most influential works of literature in history during this time. The Italian language itself was standardized during the Renaissance, and many of the works produced during this period helped to shape the modern Italian language. Some of the most famous works of literature from this period include Dante's Divine Comedy and Petrarch's sonnets.

Common subjects of Italian renaissance art

Outside the sphere of morals, the Renaissance had great merits. In architecture, painting, and poetry, it has remained renowned. It produced very great men, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli. It liberated educated men from the narrowness of medieval culture, and, even while still a slave to the worship of antiquity, it made scholars aware that a variety of opinions had been held by reputable authorities on almost every subject. By reviving the knowledge of the Greek world, it created a mental atmosphere in which it was again possible to rival Hellenic achievements, and in which individual genius could flourish with a freedom unknown since the time of Alexander. 

The renaissance short summary

The political conditions of the Renaissance favoured individual development, but were unstable; the instability and the individualism were closely connected, as in ancient Greece. A stable social system is necessary, but every stable system hitherto devised has hampered the development of exceptional artistic or intellectual merit. How much murder and anarchy are we prepared to endure for the sake of great achievements such as those of the Renaissance? In the past, a great deal; in our own time, much less. No solution of this problem has hitherto been found, although increase of social organization is making it continually more important. 

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