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Italian Renaissance


Defining the Renaissance is like trying to nail Jello to a wall: it’s an impossible task. When it began and ended, what started it, and even what it was is still being debated by historians today. What we do know is that the Renaissance was a chunk of time in European history lasting from about the late 1300s to about the early 1600s. So, around two hundred and fifty years. During this brief period of time a lot happened that set Europe on a path for the modern world.


What started off as a humanist movement to bring Europe out of the so-called "Dark Ages" ended up spreading to other areas such as art, music, religion, science, and overseas exploration. By the time the Renaissance came to an end da Vinci had painted  the Mona Lisa, Shakespeare had written his plays, Gutenberg's printing press churned out books faster than ever before, Columbus has bumped into the Americas, and Martin Luther had shattered the unity of the Catholic Church.


What the Renaissance Isn't

One of the most annoying things about history is that the Renaissance often gets turned into a big Easter egg hunt. But instead of colored eggs, the history books tell you that Europeans were on the prowl for lost works of art and literature. But that's just ridiculous. It's not like one day people just woke up in a blind panic wondering where they had stashed that poetry from Cicero or that giant statue that used to sit in the imperial palace. 


The Renaissance was more like a fashion trend, like skinny jeans. Think about how fashion trends work. "In" one generation "out" the next and back "in" again. The same is true with historical events. The Renaissance was a rebirth in the sense that Europeans began to sit up and take notice of the achievements of their Greek and Roman ancestors. When writers were in need of some inspiration they looked back to the classics.  When artists ran into a mental block they just took a peek at the statues and buildings that lay in ruins around them. 


Classical writers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil-- and a bunch of other names that you probably have never heard of-- had fallen out of popularity over the last thousand years. But thanks to the painstaking work of Christian monks and Islamic scholars, these books hadn't been lost, they had just been sitting on some dusty shelf of some remote monastery. The humanists set about to change that.


To those folks who brought about the Renaissance, the medieval period was nothing but a thousand year period filled with ignorance, superstition, and ugly churches. It was the Renaissance people who called it "the Dark Ages".


The Renaissance thinkers living in the late 1200s and early 1300s were a pretty pessimistic bunch about the times that they were living in. But who could blame them? The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a time filled with famines, religious corruption, Mongol invasions, the Hundred Years War, and ended with the Black Plague as its grand finale. In the eyes of the early Renaissance men, European society had sunk so low that things only could get better. But in order to move forward, you sometimes have to look back. Back to a time when Europe was in a golden age of culture. 


"The Thinker" created in 1901 by sculptor Auguste Rodin,  shows a man in deep mental concentration and has become the most famous iconic statue for thinkers and philosophers everywhere.

One of the biggest changes that came out of humanism is that women were allowed to get a formal education. Unlike in the middle ages, wealthy people began to see education as necessary to being well-rounded. 

Humanism is In Baby!


If the Renaissance were a car, humanism would be its engine. Starting in the 1300s, humanist thinkers began a direct assault on a style of philosophy known as scholasticism which was all the rage throughout the universities of Medieval Europe. The scholastics taught their students using an ancient technique known as the dialectic method--developed by the Greek philosopher Plato. Put simply, the dialectic method teaches students how to debate by disproving the logic of your opponent's argument


But medieval debates weren't like the ones that you might find today between two political candidates. There was no emotional appeal, no name calling, no mud slinging.  Instead,  picture of a debate taking place between the Vulcan people of Star Trek (Doctor Spock's people) and you get the picture. Medieval debates were just two speakers using nothing but cold, hard facts to prove that their thesis was the most logical. Scholastic debates were downright mind-numbing events.


Scholastics also spent hours debating logical puzzles, like this one: If all fish live in the water, and a trout is a fish, then a trout must live under water. That's the kind of crap that scholastics did in logic class. 


In addition to having the boring debate, the Humanists also trashed the scholastics for believing that there was such a thing as an absolute truth. In the medieval world, knowledge was something that came from God. Scholastics had only one truth, one right answer to the big questions of the day. And the way that you discovered that truth was through reading the works written by the experts and holding debates on subjects ranging from geometry and astronomy to grammar and logic. I mean seriously, can you imagine debating the rules of geometry in your high school math class? Just thinking about it sends chills down my spine.


In humanist schools, subjects like logic were replaced with classes that taught their students rhetoric and eloquence. Basically, the humanists believed that it didn't matter how true your argument was if no one was convinced by it.  


Therefore, students learned how to debate by being able to persuade their audience. Whether or not you were telling the truth was not all that important. This is not to say that humanists were not concerned with ethics and morals. They just believed that there was more than one way to look at a problem. 




Humanists and their view of Humans...

Humanists flat out rejected the idea that anyone could know anything with absolute certainty. At best, people could make an educated guess using multiple points of view. And so, the humanists started their own schools to compete with the scholastic schools. Voila! The Rensaissance was born. 


In the classrooms of these new humanist schools the central focus was on humans. Humans were being praised for their achievements. 


This was sharp turn away from the medieval view which was dominated by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Not to say that the humanists weren't religious. Most of them were. Some of them even became Pope. But the new Renaissance thinking was about putting the spotlight  directly on humanity. In the medieval world the focus was not on your achievements in this world but in getting yourself prepared for the next one. The medieval church taught that taking pride in your achievements was sinful. The humanists took the view that it was okay to show off the talents that God gave you. 


Humanism caught on and spread like the cold virus in a kindergarten classroom, especially among the educated elites of Europe.  What started off in a few Italian city-states ended up in all parts of western Europe. Humanist schools competed with the old scholastic schools, teaching students to think for themselves.


The renaissance humanists and their fancy new ideas wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground had it not been for the support of individuals with very deep pockets. Italy's rich and powerful saw something in the new humanist ways that the old school was missing. Mainly, that humanism taught you how to win people over  by the sheer force of your personality. This was a useful skill for aspiring polticians to have. And so, the wealthy families sent their kids to humanist tutors, not scholastic ones.


Humanism 1: Scholastics: 0


Renaissance Humanism

Living the Renaissance


Life during the Renaissance wasn't all kittens and oil paintings. It's true that the Renaissance changed the way Europeans saw themselves. For example, people living before the Renaissance refered to their landmass as Christendom. The realm of Christianity. It was only after the Renaissance that people started calling the place 'Europe'. 


It wouldn't be unfair to call the Renaissance a club run by elists. Less than 10% of the population could read or write in their own language in the year 1500. The Renaissance was a top down movement sponsored by rich bankers and university educated elites. 


While it's true that the Renaissance gave people a chance to move up in life that didn't exist in Medieval times, it's probably safe to say that this applied to the rich and middle classes. 


For the vast majority of people living throughout the 1400s and 1500s they would have hardly been able to tell you that much had changed at all. Peasant farmers weren't reading the works of Gailieo or admiring the nude statues of Michaelangelo. They were too busy trying to eke out a living on land owned by wealthy landlords.  


The peasants lived in small villages in the countryside. Their entire 35 years of life were spent at backbreaking labor. Their homes were made of wattle and mud with a thatch roof. The entire family literally lived in a pigsty. The  upper room was for the humans while the lower one was where the goats, pigs and chickens slept. You can imagine that the homes of peasants smelled ripe. Add to the overall bad hygenie, flea infestations, and rat problems that were common to every peasant home and you get a good picture of how the Renaissance wasn't so great for everyone who lived it. 

The Renaissance was a far different place for those who were poor. The peasants who still made up 90% of the population, worked the land and lived the way their ancestors had in medieval times. 


The rich during the Renaissance found life far easier The wealthy had more free time to devote to leisure activities like hunting, hawking, and sports.  

Investigate Renaissance Florence

"One might say (the banker's money)
basically funded the Renaissance"
-Ludovica Sebregondi, art historian
Why Italy?


The Renaissance didn’t happen in Italy by accident. Geography and politics played a big hand in shaping the Renaissance. The Italian Peninsula being well...a peninsula, is surrounded by water. It also happens to be centrally located to North Africa, Spain, the Middle East, and the rest of Europe. Its great location made Italy the perfect nucleus for trade. And as we all know trade brings wealth.


The road to the Italian Renaissance was paved in the medieval period. During the twelfth century, a medieval industrial revolution began to spring up that took Italy in a new direction. The textile industry began to boom. The textile industry requires a large pool of workers and so thousands of peasants and serfs left their master's estates and fled to the cities in search of a job. The increased population led to the rebirth of Italian cities. 


As with other industrial revolutions in history, a few people became fabulously wealthy. This wealth created a demand for more wealth. And banks sprung up to meet the demand, for a fee of course. Banking and textile industry turned Italian cities into centers of trade and wealth. Not satisified with sharing with their lord or king, the urban elite decided to take matters into their own hands and used their wealth to recruit an army to declare their independence. Italy was soon divided into dozens of city-states that all competed for wealth and glory. 


By the 1300s, cities like Venice, Milan, and Florence were in fierce competition to see who would become the baddest, wealthiest, and most beautiful in the land. At the head of these Republics were very rich families who often made their money by getting into the banking and trade business. There’s only so much luxury that one ruler can buy for himself before people start to gossip. After all, who needs two gold-plated fountains anyway?


Banking and trade brought about a new class of merchants who were incredibly wealthy but were not of noble birth. In those days, notn having a title attached to your name meant that you were a nobody. It didn't matter how much money your family had or how nice your house was, you couldn't buy your way into nobility. Well, not until the Renaissance anyhow. 


The merchant class was what we would call "new money"  today. They used their wealth to show off, building themselves huge palaces filled with beautiful art. They dressed in fancy clothes, hired famous artists to paint just for them, and when they threw a party they didn't use old recycled music- no, they hired a composer to write a piece just for them. These merchants become patrons (supporters) of great artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo  Donatello, and the other famous icons.



The Medici

The Medici family were the Bill Gates and Henry Fords of Renaissance Italy. One of the wealthiest banking families in Europe, the Medicis loaned money to popes and kings.  (Having God's representative on earth in your debt was never a bad thing).

The most famous of all of the Medici was Lorenzo. Lorenzo was groomed to take over the family business with a formal education in Greek, Latin, and philosophy (like all boys from wealthy families). But, Lorenzo was also exposed to new ideas not being taught in school. Humanism was a new and radical departure from the medieval thinking. Humanists taught that God wanted people to use reason and logic to find out things for themselves. This exposure would stay with Lorenzo for the rest of his life.

Like all Medici men, Lorenzo was expected to take over running the city of Florence. But, Lorenzo never held a public office in the Florentine Republic. The Medici preferred to rule behind the scenes, more like the mafia than a politician.

Lorenzo's tale reads like an awesomely bad soap opera. His brother was killed in an assassination attempt involving none other than Pope Sextus IV. His brother died (the one who was pals with Machiavelli) but Lorenzo managed to escape.  Another plot involving the Pope and the King of Naples had Florence on the defense once again. Lorenzo was known as being a charmer and  managed to talk his way out of a war. The Pope's plan to get rid of the Medicis was foiled and Lorenzo ruled Florence until his death in 1492.


For the rest of his life, Lorenzo dedicated a good chunk of his family's fortune to the arts. He became a patron of some of the most famous minds of the Renaissance like da Vinci and Michelangelo. His library was the envy of Europe; he sent out scholars to collect as many manuscripts as they could find. He even embraced Gutenberg's printing press at a time when other cities laughed at the invention. With the Medici wealth, Lorenzo (the Magnificent) would make Florence one of the greatest centers of the Renaissance.

"What I have dreamed in one hour is worth more than what you have done in four".- Lorenzo de Medici
(talk about ego)

Why the Renaissance Matters
with accepting the answers given to them by the church and the educated elite, humanists taught Europeans to read the classics satisfiedHow does an intellectual movement from 600 years ago relate to those of us living in the 21st century? Good question, thanks for asking. The Renaissance changed the way Europeans saw themselves and their place in the world. No longer works of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Bible, and find the answers for themselves. 
Martin Luther to question the teachings of the Catholic Church and ultimately start his own branch of Christianity known as Lutheranism. Humanist scientists like Copernicus, Boyle, and Galileo also questioned the established scientific truths and created the scientific method. What Renaissance-inspiredThe high school science student hasn't been drilled with this thinking? Writers like Shakespeare and Thomas More (the guy who wrote Utopia) drew their inspiration from humanist thinking. Their writing focuses on the good and bad of human character in the hopes of building a better society. 



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