Renaissance, Renaissance, or Renaissance are the terms used to identify the period of European history roughly from the mid-14th century to the end of the 16th century. Scholars, however, have not reached a consensus on this chronology, with considerable variations in dates depending on the author. Although the transformations were quite evident in culture, society, economics, politics and religion, characterizing the transition from feudalism to capitalism and signifying an evolution from medieval structures, the term is more commonly used to describe its effects on the arts, philosophy and the sciences.
It was called Renaissance because of the intense revaluation of the references of Classical Antiquity, which guided a progressive softening of the influence of religious dogmatism and mysticism on culture and society, with a concomitant and growing appreciation of rationality, science, and nature. In this process, the human being was invested with a new dignity and placed at the center of Creation, and for this reason the main current of thought of this period was given the name of humanism.
The movement first manifested itself in the Italian region of Tuscany, with the cities of Florence and Siena as its main centers, from where it spread to the rest of the Italian peninsula and then to virtually all the countries of Western Europe, driven by the development of the press and the circulation of artists and works. Italy has always remained the place where the movement presented its most typical expression, but Renaissance manifestations of great importance also occurred in England, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Iberian Peninsula. The international diffusion of Italian references produced in general an art very different from its models, influenced by regional traditions, which for many is best defined as a new style, Mannerism. The term Renaissance was first registered by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century, a historian who strove to place Florence as the protagonist of all the most important innovations, and his writings exerted a decisive influence on later criticism.
For a long time the period was seen in the United States and Europe as a homogeneous, coherent, and always progressive movement, as the most interesting and fruitful period since antiquity, and one of its phases, the High Renaissance, was consecrated as the apotheosis of the previous long search for the most sublime expression and the most perfect imitation of the classics, and its artistic legacy was considered an unsurpassable paradigm of quality. However, studies in recent decades have revised these traditional views as unsubstantial or stereotypical, and have seen the period as far more complex, diverse, contradictory, and unpredictable than had been assumed over generations. The new consensus that has taken hold, however, recognizes the Renaissance as an important milestone in European history, as a phase of rapid and relevant change in many domains, as a constellation of cultural signs and symbols that defined much of what Europe was until the French Revolution, and that remains highly influential even today in many parts of the world, both in academic circles and in popular culture.
Humanism can be pointed out as the main value cultivated in the Renaissance, based on concepts that had a remote origin in Classical Antiquity. According to Lorenzo Casini, “one of the foundations of the Renaissance movement was the idea that the example of Classical Antiquity constituted an invaluable model of excellence on which modern times, so decadent and unworthy, could look to repair the damage done since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was also understood that God had given only one Truth to the world, the one that produced Christianity and that it alone had preserved in its entirety, but fragments of it had been granted to other cultures, the Greco-Roman culture standing out among them, and for this reason what remained of Antiquity in bibliography and other relics was held in high esteem.
Several elements contributed to the birth in Italy of humanism in its most typical form. The memory of the glories of the Roman Empire preserved in ruins and monuments, and the survival of Latin as a living language are relevant aspects. The works of grammarians, commentators, physicians and other scholars kept in circulation references to classicism, and the training of lawyers, secretaries, notaries and other officials generally required the study of Latin rhetoric and law. The classical heritage had never entirely disappeared for the Italians, and Tuscany was strongly associated with it. But while this cultivation of the classics had survived there, it was poor compared to the interest generated by ancient authors in France and other Nordic countries at least since the ninth century. When the classicist fashion began to decline in France at the end of the 13th century, it began to heat up in central Italy, and it seems that this was due in part to French influence. Petrarch (1304-1374) is traditionally called the founder of humanism, but considering the existence of several noteworthy precursors, such as Giovanni del Virgilio in Bologna, or Albertino Mussato in Padua, rather than a founder, he was the first major exponent of the movement.
More than a philosophy, humanism was also a literary movement and a method of learning that had a wide range of interests, in which philosophy was not the only and perhaps not the predominant one. It placed a higher value on the use of individual reason and the analysis of empirical evidence, in contrast to medieval scholasticism, which was basically limited to consulting the authorities of the past, mainly Aristotle and the early Church Fathers, and debating the differences between authors and commentators. Humanism did not discard these sources, and a not insignificant part of its formation derives from medieval foundations, but it began to re-examine them in the light of new propositions and a host of other ancient texts that were rediscovered. In the Encyclopedia Britannica”s description,
Humanism was consolidated from the 15th century on, mainly through the writings of Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo Valla, Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Rudolph Agricola, Pico della Mirandola, Petrus Ramus, Juan Luis Vives, Francis Bacon, Michel de Montaigne, Bernardino Telesio, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella and Thomas More, among others, who discussed various aspects of the natural world, of man, of the divine, of society, society, the arts, and thought, incorporating a plethora of references from antiquity put into circulation through previously unknown texts – Greek, Latin, Arab, Jewish, Byzantine, and others – representing schools and principles as diverse as Neoplatonism, hedonism, optimism, individualism, skepticism, stoicism, epicureanism, hermeticism, anthropocentrism, rationalism, Gnosticism, cabalism, and many others. Along with all this, the resumption of the study of the Greek language, entirely abandoned in Italy, made it possible to re-examine original texts by Plato, Aristotle and other authors, generating new interpretations and more accurate translations, which changed the impression that was made of their body of ideas. But if humanism was remarkable for what it influenced in the fields of ethics, logic, theology, jurisprudence, rhetoric, poetics, arts and humanities, for the work of discovery, exegesis, translation and dissemination of classical texts, and for the contribution it made to Renaissance philosophy in the areas of moral and political philosophy, according to Smith et alii most of the specifically philosophical work of the period was carried out by philosophers trained in the ancient scholastic tradition and followers of Aristotle and by metaphysicians followers of Plato.
The brilliant Renaissance cultural and scientific flourishing placed man and his logical reasoning and science as the measures and arbiters of manifest life. This gave rise to feelings of optimism, positively opening man to the new and encouraging his spirit of research. The development of a new attitude toward life left behind the excessive spirituality of the Gothic and saw the material world with its natural and cultural beauties as a place to be enjoyed, with an emphasis on individual experience and man”s latent possibilities. Moreover, the Italian democratic experiments, the growing prestige of the artist as a scholar and not as a simple craftsman, and a new concept of education that valued each person”s individual talents and sought to develop man into a complete and integrated being with the full expression of his spiritual, moral, and physical faculties, nurtured new feelings of social and individual freedom.
The theories of perfectibility and progress were discussed, and the preparation that the humanists advocated for the formation of the ideal man, one of body and spirit, at the same time a philosopher, a scientist and an artist, expanded the medieval teaching structure of the trívio and the quadrívio, creating in this process new sciences and disciplines, a new concept of teaching and education, and a new scientific method. During this period, several scientific instruments were invented, several natural laws and physical objects previously unknown were discovered, and the very face of the planet changed for Europeans after the discoveries of the great navigations, taking physics, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, engineering, philology and several other branches of knowledge to an unprecedented level of complexity, efficiency and accuracy, each contributing to an exponential growth of the total knowledge, which led to conceiving human history as a continuous expansion and always for the better. This spirit of confidence in life and man links the Renaissance to Classical Antiquity and defines much of its legacy. The following passage from François Rabelais” Pantagruel (1532) is often quoted to illustrate the spirit of the Renaissance:
Despite the idea that the Renaissance could make of themselves, the movement could never be a literal imitation of ancient culture, because it all happened under the mantle of Catholicism, whose values and cosmogony were quite different from those of ancient paganism. Thus, in a sense, the Renaissance was an original and eclectic attempt to harmonize pagan Neoplatonism with the Christian religion, eros with charitas, along with Eastern, Jewish and Arabic influences, and where the study of magic, astrology and the occult played an important part in the elaboration of systems of discipline and moral and spiritual improvement and a new symbolic language.
If before Christianity had been the only path to God, grounding the whole explanation of life and the world and providing justification for the prevailing social order, the humanists would show that there were many other paths and possibilities, that they did not seek to deny the essence of the creed – this would have been impossible to sustain for a long time, all radical denials at that time ended in violent repression – but transformed the interpretation of dogmas and their relations to life and social dramas. This gave religion more flexibility and adaptability, but meant a decline in its prestige and influence on society as man became a little more emancipated from its tutelage. Medieval thought tended to see man as a vile creature, a “mass of rottenness, dust and ashes,” as Peter Damian put it in the 11th century. But when Pico della Mirandola appeared in the 15th century, man already represented the center of the universe, a mutant, immortal, autonomous, free, creative and powerful being, echoing the older voices of Hermes Trismegistus (“Great miracle is man”) and the Arab Abdala (“There is nothing more wonderful than man”).
On the one hand, some of these men saw themselves as heirs to a tradition that had disappeared for a thousand years, believing that they were in fact reviving a great ancient culture, and even feeling a little like contemporaries of the Romans. But there were others who saw their own era as distinct from both the Middle Ages and antiquity, with a way of life never seen before, and often proclaimed as the perfection of the centuries. Other currents advocated a perception that history is cyclical and has inevitable phases of rise, apogee, and decline, and that man is a being subject to forces beyond his power and does not have complete mastery over his thoughts, capacities, and passions, nor over the length of his own life. And there were the malcontents, who did not appreciate the rapid secularization of society and the ostentation of the rich, and preached a return to medieval mysticism and austerity. Recent research has shown that the multiplication of eclectic works, idiosyncratic methodologies, divergent opinions, the ambition for encyclopedic knowledge, and the redefinition of aesthetic and philosophical canons and codes of ethics, generated so much debate at the time that it has become clear that Renaissance thought was much more heterogeneous than previously believed, and that the period was so dynamic and creative, among other things, because of the volume of controversy.
The Renaissance has often been described as an optimistic age – and documentation shows that it was so viewed in its time in influential circles – but when confronted with life outside the books its philosophers always struggled to cope with the clash between the Edenic idealism they proposed as man”s natural inheritance, a being created in the likeness of God, and the brutal harshness of political tyranny, popular revolts and wars, epidemics, endemic poverty and hunger, and the chronic moral dramas of ordinary, real man.
In any case, the optimism that was sustained at least among the elites would be lost again in the 16th century, with the reappearance of skepticism, pessimism, irony, and pragmatism in Erasmus, Machiavelli, Rabelais, and Montaigne, who venerated the beauty of the ideals of Classicism but sadly realized the impossibility of their practical application. While part of the criticism understands this change of atmosphere as the final phase of the Renaissance, another part has defined it as one of the foundations of a distinct cultural movement, Mannerism.
The Renaissance is usually divided into three major phases, Trecento, Quattrocento, and Cinquecento, corresponding to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, with a brief interlude between the last two called the High Renaissance.
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The Trecento (14th century) represents the preparation for the Renaissance and is basically an Italian phenomenon, more specifically from the Tuscany region, and although in several centers there was an incipient process of humanization of thought and a move away from the Gothic, such as Pisa, Siena, Padua, Venice, Verona, and Milan, in most of these places the governing regimes were too conservative to allow significant cultural changes. It fell to Florence to assume the intellectual vanguard, leading the transformation from the medieval to the modern model. But this centralization in Florence would only really become clear at the end of the Trecento.
Identifying the founding elements of the Italian Renaissance necessarily involves studying Florentine economics and politics and their social and cultural impacts, but there are many obscure aspects and the field is fraught with controversy. However, according to Richard Lindholm, there is a fairly broad consensus that the economic dynamism, the society”s flexibility in the face of challenges, its ability to react quickly in times of crisis, its willingness to accept risks, and a heated civic sentiment on a large scale were all determining factors for the cultural, architectural, and artistic flourishing that was unfolding and strengthening.
The production system was developing new methods, with a new division of labor and progressive mechanization. The Florentine economy was mainly driven by the production and trade of fabrics. It was an unstable but dynamic economy, capable of making radical adaptations in the face of unforeseen events such as wars and epidemics. A favorable period began around 1330, and after the plague of 1348, it emerged renewed and even more vigorous, offering fabrics and clothes of high luxury and sophistication.
Since the previous century, society in Tuscany saw the growth of a middle class that was financially emancipated by the organization into guilds, guilds of trades that monopolized the provision of certain services and the production of certain materials and artifacts. In Florence they were divided into two categories: the Major Arts (Furriers, and Physicians and Apothecaries) and the Minor Arts, which included a large number of less prestigious and profitable trades, such as the Arts of Fishermen, Taverneurs, Shoemakers, Bakers, Gunsmiths, Blacksmiths, and so on. The Wool Art, for example, controlled the production, dyeing, and trade of woolen cloth, curtains, garments, and yarns, including import and export operations, controlled the quality of the products, set the prices, and warded off any competition. The others worked in the same way. The guilds were many things: a mixture of trade union, brotherhood, school for apprentices in the trades, mutual aid society for members, and social club. The Guilds became rich and powerful, maintained sumptuous chapels and altars in the principal churches, and erected monuments. They all acted in remarkable harmony, having common goals, and practically dominated the conduct of public affairs through their delegates in civic councils and magistracies. The various guilds in each city together employed almost the entire economically active urban population, and not being a member of the guild of one”s trade was an almost insurmountable impediment to professional success, due to the strict control they maintained over markets and labor supply. On the other hand, belonging offered obvious advantages for the worker, and the success of this model allowed the population for the first time to acquire home ownership on a large scale, a development that was accompanied by a greater interest in the arts and architecture.
Their leaders generally owned large private companies, had great prestige, and rose socially also by assuming public positions, by patronage of the arts and the Church, and by building mansions and palaces to live in, forming a new patriciate. The great businessmen often held parallel interests in exchange houses, the forerunners of banking, and moved fortunes by financing or managing the estates of princes, emperors and popes. This empowered bourgeoisie became a mainstay of government and a new market for art and culture. Families of this class, such as the Mozzi, Strozzi, Peruzzi and Medici, would soon join the nobility and some would even rule states.
In this century Florence experienced intense class struggles, a more or less chronic socioeconomic crisis, and suffered a clear decline in power throughout the century. It was a time when states invested much of their energies in two main activities: either they were attacking and plundering their neighbors and taking their territories, or they were on the other side, trying to resist the attacks. Florence”s domains had long been under threat; the city was involved in several wars, mostly losing, but at times achieving brilliant victories; several important banks went bankrupt; it suffered plague epidemics; the rapid alternation in power of opposing factions of Guelphs and Ghibellines, engaged in bloody disputes, did not permit social tranquility nor the establishment of long-term political-administrative goals, all being aggravated by popular uprisings and the impoverishment of the countryside, but in the process the urban bourgeoisie would make democratic trials of government. Despite recurring difficulties and crises, Florence would reach mid-century as a powerful city on the Italian scene; in the last century it had been larger, but it still subordinated several other cities and maintained an important merchant fleet and economic and diplomatic links with several states north of the Alps and around the Mediterranean. It should be noted that the democracy of the Florentine republic differs from modern interpretations of the term. In 1426 Leonardo Bruni said that the law recognized all citizens as equal, but in practice only the elite and middle class had access to public office and some real voice in decision-making. Much to this is due to the almost constant class struggle of the Renaissance.
On the other hand, the emergence of the notion of free competition and the strong emphasis on trade structured the economic system along capitalist and materialist lines, where tradition, including religious tradition, was sacrificed before rationalism, financial speculation and utilitarianism. At the same time, the Florentines never developed, as in other regions happened, a moral prejudice against business or against wealth itself, considered a means to help one”s neighbor and to participate actively in society, and indeed they were aware that intellectual and artistic progress largely depended on material success, but since avarice, pride, greed and usury were considered sins, the Church associated itself with the interests of the business community by assuaging conflicts of conscience and offering a series of compensatory mechanisms for slips.
The notion had been incorporated into the doctrine that forgiveness of sins and salvation of the soul could also be won through public service and the beautification of cities and churches with works of art, in addition to the practice of other virtuous actions, such as ordering masses and sponsoring the clergy and brotherhoods and their initiatives, things that were as salutary for the spirit as they were useful for increasing the prestige of the donor. Indeed, charity was an important social cement and a guarantee of public safety. In addition to sustaining the embellishment of the cities, it was due to the large patronage and the small alms that the poor were supported, the existence of hospitals, asylums, schools, and the financing of many administrative demands, including wars, which is why the States always had a strong interest in the good functioning of this system. A pragmatic and secular culture was strengthened in various ways, along with the contribution of humanists, many of them advisors to princes or in charge of high civic magistracies, which transformed society and directly influenced the art market and its forms of production, distribution and valuation.
Even if Christianity was never seriously questioned, at the end of the century a period of progressive decline was beginning in the Church”s prestige and in the ability of religion to control people and offer a coherent model of culture and society, not only because of the secularizing political, economic and social context, but also because scientists and humanists would start looking for rational and demonstrable explanations for the phenomena of nature, questioning the transcendental, traditional or folkloric explanations, and this both weakened the religious canon and altered the relationships between God, man and the rest of Creation. From this clash, continued and renewed throughout the Renaissance, man would re-emerge good, beautiful, powerful, magnified, and the world would come to be seen as a good place to live.
Florentine democracy, however imperfect, was eventually lost in a series of external wars and internal turmoil, and by the 1370s Florence seemed quickly headed for a new lordly government. The mobilization of the powerful Albizzi family interrupted this process, but instead of preserving the communal system it assumed political hegemony and installed an oligarchic republic, with the support of allies from the upper bourgeois patriciate. At the same time, an opposition was formed, centered on the Medici, who were beginning their rise. Despite the brevity of these experiments in democracy and the frustration of many of their ideal goals, their emergence represented a milestone in the evolution of European political and institutional thought.
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After Florence had experienced moments of great brilliance, the end of the Trecento had found the city beset by the advances of the Duchy of Milan, had lost several territories and all former allies, and had its access to the sea cut off. The Quattrocento (15th century) opened with Milanese troops at the gates of Florence, having ravaged the countryside in the preceding years. But suddenly in 1402 a new episode of plague killed their general, Giangaleazzo Visconti, and prevented the city from succumbing to the fate of much of northern and northwestern Italy, triggering a resurgence of civic spirit. From then on, local intellectuals and historians, also inspired by the political thought of Plato, Plutarch and Aristotle, began to organize and proclaim the discourse that Florence had shown a “heroic resistance” and had become the greatest symbol of republican freedom, besides being the master of all Italian culture, calling it The New Athens.
Combining the achievement of independence with the philosophical humanism that was gaining momentum, came together some of the main elements that ensured Florence remained in the political, intellectual, and artistic forefront. However, by the 1420s the working classes were deprived of most of the power they had gained, and surrendered to a new political landscape, dominated throughout the century by the Medici government, a government that was nominally republican but in fact aristocratic and lordly. This was a disappointment to the bourgeois in general, but it strengthened the custom of patronage, fundamental to the evolution of classicism. The social tension was never completely stifled or resolved, and it always seems to have been another important ferment for the city”s cultural dynamism.
The expansion of local production of luxury fabrics ceased in the 1420s, but markets recovered and expanded again by mid-century in the trade in Spanish and Oriental fabrics and in the production of more popular options, and notwithstanding the usual periodic political upheavals, the city went through another period of prosperity and intensified artistic patronage, reconquered territories and bought the domain of port cities to restructure its international trade. It gained political primacy throughout Tuscany, although Milan and Naples remained constant threats. The Florentine bourgeois oligarchy then monopolized the entire European banking system and acquired aristocratic luster and great culture, and filled its palaces and chapels with classicist works. The ostentation generated discontent in the middle class, materialized in a reversion to the mystical idealism of the Gothic style. These two opposing trends marked the first half of this century, until the petty bourgeoisie abandoned its resistance, making possible a first great aesthetic synthesis that would overflow from Florence to almost the entire Italian territory, defined by the primacy of rationalism and classical values.
Meanwhile, humanism was maturing and spreading in Europe through Ficino, Rodolphus Agricola, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Mirandola, and Thomas More. Leonardo Bruni inaugurated modern historiography, and science and philosophy progressed with Luca Pacioli, János Vitéz, Nicolas Chuquet, Regiomontanus, Nicolau de Cusa, and Georg von Peuerbach, among many others. At the same time, interest in ancient history led humanists such as Niccolò de” Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini to scour the libraries of Europe for lost books by classical authors. Many important documents, in fact, were found, such as Vitruvius” De architectura, speeches by Cicero, Quintilian”s Institutes of Oratory, Valerius Flacco”s Argonautica, and Lucretius” De rerum natura. The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors also made available to European scholars a large collection of texts by Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and Plotinus, preserved in Arabic translations and unknown in Europe, and of Muslim works by Avicenna, Geber and Averroës, contributing markedly to a new flowering in philosophy, mathematics, medicine and other scientific specialties.
Johannes Gutenberg”s perfecting of the printing press in the middle of the century greatly facilitated and cheapened the dissemination of knowledge to a wider public. The same interest in culture and science caused great libraries to be founded in Italy, and sought to restore Latin, which had become a multiform dialect, to its classical purity, making it the new lingua franca of Europe. The restoration of Latin derived from the practical need to intellectually manage this new Renaissance library. At the same time, it had the effect of revolutionizing pedagogy, as well as providing a substantial new corpus of syntactic structures and vocabulary for use by humanists and literati, who thus clothed their own writings with the authority of the ancients. The interest of the elites in collecting ancient art was also important, stimulating studies and excavations that led to the discovery of several works of art, thus driving the development of archeology and influencing the visual arts.
Additional vigor in this process was injected by the Greek scholar Manuel Crisoloras, who between 1397 and 1415 reintroduced the study of the Greek language in Italy, and with the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 many other intellectuals, such as Demetrius Calcondilas, George of Trebizonda, John Argirópulo, Theodore Gaza and Barlaon of Seminara, emigrated to the Italian peninsula and other parts of Europe, spreading classical texts of philosophy and instructing humanists in the art of exegesis. A large proportion of what is known today of Greek-Roman literature and legislation was preserved by the Byzantine Empire, and this new knowledge of the original classical texts, as well as their translations, was, according to Luiz Marques, “one of the greatest operations of appropriation of one culture by another, comparable in some measure to that of Greece by the Rome of the Scythians in the second century B.C. It reflects, moreover, the passage, crucial to the history of the Quattrocento, from the intellectual hegemony of Aristotle to that of Plato and Plotinus. In this great influx of ideas, the entire structure of the ancient Paideia, a body of ethical, social, cultural and pedagogical principles conceived by the Greeks and designed to form a model citizen, was reintroduced in Italy. The new information and knowledge and the concomitant transformation in all areas of culture led intellectuals to feel that they were in the midst of a phase of renewal comparable to the brilliant phases of ancient civilizations, as opposed to the previous Middle Ages, which came to be regarded as an age of obscurity and ignorance.
The death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492, who had ruled Florence for almost thirty years, and who gained fame as one of the greatest patrons of the century, plus the collapse of aristocratic rule in 1494, signaled the end of the city”s golden phase. Throughout the Quattrocento Florence was the main – but never the only – hub for the spread of classicism and humanism to north-central Italy, and cultivated the culture that came to fame as the most perfect expression of the Renaissance and the model against which all other expressions were compared. This laudatory tradition grew stronger after Vasari launched in the 16th century his Lives of the Artists, the inaugural milestone of modern art historiography, which attributed the clear protagonism and superior excellence to the Florentines. This work had wide repercussions and influenced the course of historiography for centuries.
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The High Renaissance chronologically encompasses the final years of the Quattrocento and the first decades of the Cinquecento, being roughly delimited by the mature works of Leonardo da Vinci (from c. 1480) and the Sack of Rome in 1527. In this period Rome took the artistic and intellectual forefront, leaving Florence in the background. This was due mainly to papal patronage and a program of urban renovation and embellishment, which sought to revitalize the former imperial capital, inspired precisely by the glory of the Caesars, of which the popes considered themselves the legitimate heirs. At the same time, as the seat of the Papacy and platform for its imperialist pretensions, its condition of “Head of the World” was reaffirmed.
This was further reflected in the recreation of social and symbolic practices that imitated those of antiquity, such as the great triumphal processions, the sumptuous public festivals, the minting of medals, the grandiloquent theatrical performances, full of historical, mythological and allegorical figures. Rome had hitherto produced no great Renaissance artists, and classicism had been planted through the temporary presence of artists from elsewhere. But as masters of the stature of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bramante settled in the city, a dynamic local school was formed, making the city the richest repository of High Renaissance art.
At this time, classicism was the dominant aesthetic current in Italy, with many important centers of cultivation and diffusion. For the first time antiquity was understood as a defined civilization, with its own spirit, and not as a sequence of isolated events. At the same time, this spirit was identified as very close to that of the Renaissance, causing artists and intellectuals to feel that they could dialogue on an equal footing with the masters of the past whom they admired. They had finally “mastered” the language they had received, and could now use it with more freedom and understanding.
Over the centuries a broad consensus has formed that the High Renaissance represented the maturing of the most cherished ideals of the entire previous Renaissance generation, humanism, the notion of art”s autonomy, the transformation of the artist into a scientist and a scholar, the quest for fidelity to nature, and the concept of genius. It received the name “High” because of this allegedly exemplary character, of the climax of a continuous upward trajectory. Not a few historians have recorded passionate testimonies of admiration for the legacy of the artists of the period, calling it a “miraculous,” “sublime,” “incomparable,” “heroic,” “transcendent” epoch, being clothed by critics with an aura of nostalgia and veneration for a long time. As it has done with all the old consensuses and myths, recent criticism has taken it upon itself to further deconstruct and reinterpret this tradition, considering it a somewhat escapist, aestheticist, and superficial vision of a social context marked, as it has always been, by enormous social inequalities, tyranny, corruption, vain wars, and other problems, “a beautiful but ultimately tragic fantasy,” as Brian Curran observed.
This overvaluation has also been criticized for being based excessively on the concept of genius, attributing all relevant contributions to a handful of artists, and for identifying as “classical” and as “the best” only a certain aesthetic current, while the review of evidence has shown that both Antiquity and the High Renaissance were much more varied than the hegemonic view claimed.
However, it has been recognized the historical importance of the High Renaissance as a historiographical concept that was more but still is very influential, and it has been acknowledged that the aesthetic standards introduced by Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, especially, established a canon different from their predecessors and extremely successful in its acceptance, likewise becoming referential for a long period. These three masters, despite recent revisionism and the consequent relativization of values, are still widely regarded as the highest expression of the period and the most complete embodiment of the concept of Renaissance genius. Their style in this phase is characterized by a highly idealized and sumptuous classicism, which synthesized select elements from especially prestigious classical sources, deprecating the realism that some Quattrocento currents still practiced. According to Hauser,
Throughout the popes” exile in Avignon the city of Rome had gone into great decline, but since their return the previous century the pontiffs had sought to reorganize and revitalize it, employing an army of archaeologists, humanists, antiquarians, architects, and artists to study and conserve ruins and monuments and to beautify the city so that it would once again be worthy of its illustrious past. If it had become a habit for many Renaissance people to claim that they were living in a new Golden Age, according to Jill Burke, never before had this been reaffirmed with such vigor and commitment as did Popes Julius II and Leo X, who were primarily responsible for making Rome one of the greatest and most cosmopolitan European artistic centers of their time, and the main purveyors of the idea that in their generation the centuries had reached their perfection.
The corollary of the change of mentality between Quattrocento and Cinquecento is that while in the former form is an end, in the latter it is a beginning; while in the former nature provided the patterns that art imitated, in the latter society will need art to prove that such patterns exist. The most prestigious art became heavily self-referential and removed from everyday reality, although it was imposed on the people in the main public spaces and in official discourse. Raphael summarized the opposites in his famous fresco The School of Athens, one of the most important paintings of the High Renaissance, which resurrected the philosophical dialogue between Plato and Aristotle, that is, between idealism and empiricism.
The classicism of this phase, although mature and rich, managing to mold works of great power, had a strong formalistic and retrospective charge, and for this reason has been considered by some recent critics as a conservative rather than progressive tendency. Humanism itself, in its Roman version, lost its civic and anticlerical ardor and was censored and domesticated by the popes, turning it, in essence, into a philosophical justification for their imperialist program. The code of ethics that was imposed among the illustrated circles, an abstract construction and social theater in the most concrete sense of the term, prescribed moderation, self-control, dignity, and politeness in everything. Baldassare Castiglione”s The Courtier is its theoretical summation.
Despite the code of ethics that circulated among the elites, the contradictions and flaws of the dominant ideology today are obvious to researchers. Rome”s beautification program has been criticized as a destructive rather than constructive initiative that left a number of works unfinished and unnecessarily razed or modified authentic monuments and buildings from antiquity. This society remained authoritarian, unequal and corrupted, and judging from some evidence, it seems to have been abnormally corrupted, so much so that its coeval critics considered the sacking of the city in 1527 a divine punishment for its crimes, sins and scandals. In this sense, the other important “textbook” of the period is Machiavelli”s The Prince, a tutorial on how to rise to power and stay there, where he declares that “there are no good laws without good weapons,” making no distinction between Power and Authority, and legitimizing the use of force for citizen control. The book was a fundamental reference for Renaissance political thought in its final phase and an important inspiration for modern state philosophy. Although Machiavelli is sometimes accused of coldness, cynicism, calculating, and cruelty, so much so that the expression “Machiavellian” comes from him, the work is a valuable historical document as a comprehensive analysis of the political practice and dominant values of the time.
Events such as the discovery of America and the Protestant Reformation, and techniques such as the movable type press, transformed the culture and worldview of Europeans, at the same time as the attention of all Europe turned to Italy and its progress, with the great powers of France, Spain, and Germany desiring its sharing and making it a field of battle and plunder. With the invasions that followed, Italian art spread its influence over a vast region of the continent.
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Cinquecento and Italian Mannerism
The Cinquecento (16th century) is the ultimate phase of the Renaissance, when the movement transforms and expands to other parts of Europe. Following the sack of Rome in 1527 and the Protestants” challenge to papal authority, the continent”s political balance was upset and its sociocultural structure was shaken. Italy suffered the worst consequences: besides being invaded and sacked, it ceased to be the commercial center of Europe as new trade routes were opened by the great navigations. The whole panorama changed, as Catholic influence declined and feelings of pessimism, insecurity and alienation emerged, which characterize the atmosphere of Mannerism.
The fall of Rome meant that there was no longer “one” center dictating aesthetics and culture. Markedly differentiated regional schools appeared in Florence, Ferrara, Naples, Milan, Venice, and many others, and the Renaissance then spread definitively throughout Europe, transforming and diversifying profoundly as it incorporated a varied body of regional influences. The art of long-lived artists such as Michelangelo and Titian recorded in great style the passage from an era of certainty and clarity to one of doubt and drama. The intellectual and artistic achievements of the High Renaissance were still fresh and could not be readily forgotten, even if their philosophical substratum could no longer remain valid in the face of new political, religious, and social facts. The new art and architecture that was made, where names like Parmigianino, Pontormo, Tintoretto, Rosso Fiorentino, Vasari, Palladio, Vignola, Romano, Cellini, Bronzino, Giambologna, Beccafumi, although inspired by Antiquity, reorganized and translated its systems of proportion and spatial representation and its symbolic values in restless, distorted, ambivalent, and precious works.
This change had been in the making for some time. By the 1520s, the papacy had become embroiled in so many international conflicts and the pressure around it was so great that few people doubted that Rome was doomed, considering its fall only a matter of time. Since well before the disaster of 1527, Raphael himself, traditionally seen as one of the purest representatives of the moderation and balance considered typical of the High Renaissance, in several important works had conceived the scenes with such strong contrasts, the groups with so much movement, the figures with such passionate expression, and in such unnatural and rhetorical positions, that according to Frederick Hartt he could be placed not only as a forerunner of Mannerism, but also of the Baroque, and had he lived longer would doubtless have accompanied Michelangelo and others in the complete transition to a style consistently different from that of the early part of the century.
Vasari, one of the leading scholars of the Cinquecento, did not perceive a radical solution of continuity between the High Renaissance and the following period in which he himself lived, he considered himself still a Renaissance man, and in explaining the obvious differences between the art of the two periods, he said that the successors of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael were working in a “modern style,” a “new way,” which sought to imitate some of the most important works of antiquity that they knew. He was referring mainly to the Laocoon Group, rediscovered in 1506, causing a huge sensation in Roman artistic circles, and the Belvedere Torso, which at the same time was beginning to become famous and much studied. These works exerted a wide influence on the early Mannerists, including Michelangelo, yet they belong not to the Classical period, but to the Hellenistic, which in many ways was an anti-Classical school. Nor did the Renaissancers understand the term “classical” as it was understood from the 18th century onward, the expression of an ideal of purity, majesty, perfection, balance, harmony and emotional moderation, the synthesis of all that was good, useful and beautiful, which they identified existing in Ancient Greece between the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. It is difficult to determine how the Renaissance perceived the differences between the contrasting aesthetic currents of Greco-Roman culture as a whole (the “Antiquity”), almost all the works of Antiquity to which they had access at that time were Hellenistic and Roman re-readings of lost Greek models, a very eclectic formal repertoire that incorporated multiple referents from almost a thousand years of Greco-Roman history, a period in which there were various and dramatic changes in taste and style. They seem to have seen Antiquity more as a monolithic cultural period, or at least as one from whose iconographic collection they could draw elements chosen at will to create a “usable Antiquity,” adapted to the demands of the time. The critic Ascanio Condivi reports an example of this stance in Michelangelo, saying that when the master wanted to create an ideal form, he was not content to observe just one model, but sought out many and drew from each the best features. Raphael, Bramante and others are reported to have used the same approach.
However, after the 17th century and for a long time Mannerism was seen as a degeneration of authentic classical ideals, developed by artists who were disturbed or more concerned with the vagaries of a morbid and futile virtuosity. Many later critics attributed the dramatism and asymmetry of the period”s works to an exaggerated imitation of the style of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano, but these traits were also interpreted as a reflection of a troubled and disillusioned era. Hartt pointed out the influence of Church reform movements on the change in mentality. Recent criticism understands that cultural movements are always the result of multiple factors, and Italian Mannerism is no exception, but it is considered that it was in essence the product of conservative courtly environments, complex ceremonialism and eclectic, ultra-sophisticated culture, rather than an intentionally anti-classical movement.
In any case, the polemic had the effect of splitting Mannerist scholars into two main currents. For some, the spread of Italian influence over Europe in the Cinquecento produced plastic expressions so polymorphous and so distinct from those of the Quattrocento and the High Renaissance that it became a problem to describe them as part of the original phenomenon, seeming to them to be in many ways an antithesis of the classical principles so cherished by earlier phases, and which would define the “true” Renaissance. Thus, they established Mannerism as an independent movement, recognizing it as an exquisite, imaginative, and vigorous form of expression, an importance enhanced by its being the first school of modern art. The other critical strand, however, analyzes it as a deepening and enrichment of the classical presuppositions and as a legitimate conclusion of the Renaissance cycle; not so much a denial or distortion of those principles, but a reflection on their practical applicability at that historical moment and an adaptation – sometimes painful but generally creative and successful – to the circumstances of the time. To make the picture even more complex, the very identification of the characteristic features of Mannerism, as well as its chronology and its applicability to regions and areas other than the visual arts, have been the center of another monumental controversy, which many consider unresolvable.
Besides the cultural changes brought about by the political rearrangement of the continent, the 16th century was marked by another great crisis, the Protestant Reformation, which overthrew forever the ancient universal authority of the Roman Church. One of the most important impacts of the Reformation on Renaissance art was the condemnation of sacred images, which depopulated northern temples with pictorial and sculptural representations of saints and divine personages, and many works of art were destroyed in waves of iconoclastic fury. With this the representative arts under Reformist influence turned to profane characters and nature. The papacy, however, soon realized that art could be an effective weapon against Protestants, assisting in a wider and more seductive evangelization of the masses. During the Counter Reformation, new precepts were systematized that determined in detail how the artist should create religious-themed works, seeking to emphasize emotion and movement, considered the most intelligible and attractive resources to win the simple devotion of the people and thus ensure victory against the Protestants. But if on the one hand the Counter Reformation gave rise to more commissions for sacred art, the former freedom of artistic expression that had been seen in earlier phases disappeared, a freedom that had allowed Michelangelo to decorate his huge panel of the Last Judgment, painted in the heart of the Vatican, with a multitude of naked bodies of great sensuality, even if the profane field remained little affected by censorship.
The Cinquecento was also the founding era of the first Academies of Art, such as the Academy of the Arts of Design in Florence and the Academy of St. Luke in Rome, an evolution of the artists” guilds that established Academicism as a system of higher education and a cultural movement, standardizing learning, stimulating theoretical debate, and serving as an instrument of governments for the dissemination and consecration of not only aesthetic, but also political and social ideologies. The Mannerist art theorists deepened the debates promoted by the previous generation, emphasized the connections of the human intellect with divine creativity, and gave prestige to diversity. For Pierre Bourdieu, the creation of the academic system meant the formulation of a theory in which art was an embodiment of the principles of Beauty, Truth and Good, a natural extension of the ideology of the High Renaissance, but the Mannerists were open to the existence of various valid standards, which allowed creators great freedom in various aspects, especially in profane art, free from the control of the Church. The emphasis in the academies on technical improvement and constant reference to established ancient models also served to shift part of the main interest from saying something to showing how well something had been said, presenting the artist as a scholar. The influence of the academies would take a while to take hold, but during the Baroque and Neoclassicism they came to dominate the entire European art system.
The Renaissance was historically much extolled as the opening of a new era, an era illuminated by Reason in which men, created in the image of the Divinity, would fulfill the prophecy of reigning over the world with wisdom, and whose marvelous works would place them in the company of heroes, patriarchs, saints, and angels. Today it is understood that social reality did not reflect the high ideals expressed in art, and that this exalted ufanism surrounding the movement was largely the work of the Renaissance themselves, whose intellectual output, which self-presented them as the founders of a new Golden Age, and which placed Florence at the center of everything, determined much of the direction of later criticism. Even subsequent anti-classical movements, such as the Baroque, recognized in the classics and their Renaissance heirs valuable values.
By the mid-nineteenth century the period had become a major field of scholarly inquiry, and the publication in 1860 of Jacob Burckhardt”s classic The History of the Renaissance in Italy was the crowning achievement of five centuries of historiographical tradition that placed the Renaissance as the initial milestone of modernity, likening it to the removal of a veil from the eyes of humanity, allowing it to see clearly. But Burckhardt”s work appeared when a revisionist tendency of this tradition was already felt, and the repercussion it caused only accentuated the polemic. Since then a mass of new studies has revolutionized the way ancient art was studied and understood.
Tradition and authority were put aside in favor of the preferential study of primary sources and more critical, nuanced, contextualized, and inclusive analyses; it was realized that there was much more diversity of opinion among the Renaissance themselves than had been thought, and that much due to this diversity is owed the dynamism and originality of the period; the rapid advances in scientific techniques of dating and restoration and of physicochemical analysis of materials allowed numerous traditional attributions of authorship to be consolidated, and many others to be definitively abandoned, significantly reorganizing the map of artistic production; new chronologies were defined and artistic individualities and their contributions redefined; new routes of diffusion and influence were identified, and many important works were rediscovered. In this process, a number of historiographical canons were overturned, and the very tradition of dividing history into defined periods (“Renaissance,” “Baroque,” “Neoclassicism”), came to be seen as an artificial construct that distorts the understanding of a social process that is ongoing and creates inconsistent conceptual stereotypes. Moreover, the study of the entire historical, political and social context has been and is being greatly deepened, placing cultural expressions against a valued backdrop in a way that keeps updating and becoming more plural.
Thus, many historians began to conclude that the Renaissance had been burdened with an overly positive appreciation, and that this automatically, and without solid justification, devalued the Middle Ages and other periods. Much of the modern debate has sought to determine whether it did indeed represent an improvement over the previous period. It has been pointed out that many of the negative social factors commonly associated with the Middle Ages – poverty, corruption, religious and political persecution – seem to have worsened. Many people who lived through the Renaissance did not think of it as a “Golden Age,” but were aware of serious social and moral problems, such as Savonarola, who unleashed a dramatic religious revival in the late 15th century that caused the destruction of numerous works of art and ultimately led to his death at the stake. Johan Huizinga argued that the Renaissance in certain respects was a period of decline from the Middle Ages, destroying many things that were important. For example, Latin had managed to evolve and stay quite alive by then, but the obsession with classical purity interrupted this natural process and caused it to revert to its classical form. For Jacques Le Goff and others of his school the Renaissance was a period in which continuities from the Middle Ages were more important than ruptures – including the permanence of the concept of the divine right of kings and the rituals of the sacred monarchy, the technical bases of material production, the conception of history, of the search for authority in the ancients, of thinking about the foundations of society and its division into three orders, and of the dominant role of the Church – and pointed out that the idea of a renaissance and the desire for a return to an idealized Golden Age located in antiquity pervaded European culture until after the French Revolution; in fact several “renaissances” flourished before and after the Italian one, in particular Carolingian, Ottoman, and Neoclassical. Many scholars have pointed out that in this phase economic recession predominated over prosperous periods, but others counter by saying that this seems to have been a European phenomenon and not specifically Italian or Florentine, while Eugenio Garin, Lynn Thorndike, and several others consider that perhaps the scientific progress made was actually far less original than is supposed.
Marxist historians have preferred to describe the Renaissance in materialist terms, arguing that the changes in art, literature, and philosophy were only part of the general trend away from feudal society toward capitalism, which resulted in the emergence of a bourgeois class that had the time and money to devote to the arts. It is also argued that the recourse to classical references was at that time often a pretext for the legitimization of the purposes of the elite, and the inspiration in republican Rome and especially in imperial Rome would have given rise to the formation of a spirit of competitiveness and mercenarism that the upstarts used for an often unscrupulous social climb.
Beginning with the emergence of the modern avant-garde in the early twentieth century, and then in several successive waves of reheating, recent criticism has extended the relations of the cultural Renaissance to virtually every aspect of the life of that period, and has been interpreting its legacy in such various ways that the old consensuses have crumbled on many particular topics. The definite impression has been preserved, however, that in many domains the period was fertile in masterful and innovative achievements and that it left a deep imprint on the culture and society of the West for a long time to come.
Although recent criticism has strongly shaken the traditional prestige of the Renaissance, valuing all periods equally and appreciating them for their specificities, this has at the same time made possible an extraordinary enrichment and broadening in the understanding that we have of it today, but that prestige has never been seriously threatened, mainly because the Renaissance, in an undeniable way, was one of the foundations and an essential part of modern Western civilization, and is a reference still alive today. Some of its most important works have also become icons in popular culture, such as Michelangelo”s David and The Creation and Da Vinci”s Mona Lisa. The number of studies on the subject, which is growing by the day, and the continuing heated controversy on numerous aspects, show that the Renaissance is rich enough to continue attracting the attention of critics and the public alike.
Even with widely diverging opinions on particular aspects, today it seems to be a consensus that the Renaissance was a period when many deeply held beliefs taken as true were put under discussion and tested through scientific methods of investigation, inaugurating a phase in which the predominance of religion and its dogmas was no longer absolute and paved the way for the development of science and technology as we know them today. Subsequent political thought would not have been articulated without the humanistic foundations consolidated in the Renaissance, when philosophers looked to Antiquity for precedents to defend the republican regime and human freedom, updating ideas that had a decisive impact on jurisprudence, constitutional theory and the formation of modern states.
In the field of visual arts, resources were developed that made possible an immense leap forward from the Middle Ages in terms of the ability to represent space, nature, and the human body, resurrecting techniques that had been lost since antiquity and creating new ones from then on. The architectural language of palaces, churches, and great monuments that was established from the classical heritage still remains valid today and is employed when one wishes to lend dignity and importance to modern building. In literature, the vernacular languages became worthy of conveying culture and knowledge, and the study of the texts of the Greco-Roman philosophers disseminated maxims that are still present today in the popular voice and that encourage high values such as heroism, public spirit, and altruism, which are fundamental building blocks for the construction of a more just and free society for all. The reverence for the classical past and its best values created a new view on history and founded modern historiography, and provided the basis for the formation of a system of education that then extended beyond the elites and still today structures the school curriculum of much of the West and underpins its social order and systems of government. Finally, the vast artistic production that survives in so many European countries continues to attract crowds from all parts of the world and is a significant part of the very definition of Western culture.
With so many associations, no matter how hard scholars try to shed light on the subject, it remains riddled with legends, stereotypes, and passion, especially in the popular view. In the words of John Jeffries Martin, head of the History Department at Duke University and editor of a large volume of critical essays published in 2003, where he summarized the evolution of historiography and trends in more recent criticism,
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In the arts, the Renaissance was characterized, in very general lines, by the inspiration in the ancient Greeks and Romans, and by the conception of art as an imitation of nature, with man having a privileged place in this panorama. But more than an imitation, nature had to, in order to be well represented, go through a translation that organized it under a rational and mathematical viewpoint, as a mirror of a divine order that it was up to art to unveil and express, in a period marked by a lot of intellectual curiosity, an analytical and organizing spirit, and a mathematization and scientification of all natural phenomena. It was a time of grandiose aspirations, the artist approached the scientist and the philosopher, and the humanists aspired to an encyclopedic knowledge; important standardizing treatises and diverse essays on art and architecture appeared, laying the foundations for a new historiography and a new approach to the creation process. All the arts benefit from scientific advances, introducing improvements in techniques and materials in various fields. Noteworthy, for example, is the recovery of the lost wax casting technique, making it possible to create monuments on a scale unheard of compared to medieval bronzes, and the popularization of optical and mechanical mechanisms as aids to painting and sculpture. On the other hand, science benefits from art, raising the level of precision and realism of illustrations in scientific treatises and in the iconography of historical figures, and taking advantage of ideas about geometry and space launched by artists and the impulse to explore and observe the natural world.
The Greco-Roman canon of proportions once again determined the construction of the human figure; the cultivation of the typically classical Beauty also returned. The study of human anatomy, the growing assimilation of Greco-Roman mythology in visual discourse, and the reappearance of the nude, free of the taboos in which the subject had been covered in the Middle Ages, extensively renewed the iconography of the painting and sculpture of the period, and opened vast new fields of formal and symbolic research, favored the exploration of different emotions and moods, influenced fashion and manners, stimulated collecting, antiquarianism, and archaeology, and created a new visual tradition of lasting influence, while civil and private patronage provided the means for an extraordinary flowering of profane art. Interest in the representation of the natural also revived the tradition of portraiture, which after the fall of the Roman Empire had been largely abandoned.
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The production system
The artist in the Renaissance was a professional. Until the 16th century documented examples of works created outside of the commission system are extremely rare, and the massive majority of professionals were connected to a guild. Florentine painters belonged to one of the Major Arts, interestingly, that of the Physicians and Apothecaries. Bronze sculptors were also a distinguished class, belonging to the Art of Silk. The others, on the other hand, belonged to the Minor Arts, such as stone and wood artists. All of them were considered professionals in the mechanical arts, which in the prestige scale of the time were below the liberal arts, the only ones in which the nobility could engage professionally without dishonor. The guilds organized the system of production and trade, and participated in the distribution of orders among the various private workshops maintained by masters, where many helpers were employed and where disciples were admitted and trained in the craft. The postulant”s family paid for most of their training, but they received some help from the master as they became capable of performing their duties well and collaborating effectively in the commercial business of the workshop. Women were not admitted. The apprenticeship was exhaustive, rigorously disciplined, and lasted many years. Besides studying the techniques of the trades, the students were servants for cleaning and organizing the studio and other tasks at the discretion of the master, they collaborated in the training of younger students, and before completing the course and being admitted to the guild no student could receive orders in his name. There were artists who did not maintain a permanent workshop and remained traveling through various cities on temporary jobs, joining already organized groups or recruiting helpers in the very city where the work was to be done, but they were a minority. Maintaining a fixed base, on the other hand, did not prevent workshops from receiving commissions from other places, especially if their masters were renowned.
The contribution of Renaissance artists is best remembered for the great altars, the monuments, sculptures and paintings, but the art workshops were enterprises with a very varied market. In addition to large works for churches, palaces, and public buildings, they attended to smaller and more popular commissions, decorated private, civic, and religious festivals and events, created theatrical scenery and costumes, luxury clothing, jewelry, and painted coats of arms and emblems, and emblems, flags, processional banners, made armor, weapons, mounts, and decorated household utensils, and a host of other items, and many kept stores open to the public permanently, where they displayed a showcase of the house specialties.
Artists in general were poorly paid, there are many reports of poverty, and only the masters and their chief helpers achieved a comfortable situation, some masters even became rich, but their income was always subject to a very fluctuating market. Throughout the Renaissance the humanists and the leading artists carried out systematic work to emancipate the artistic class from the Mechanical Arts and install it among the Liberals, succeeding in this considerably, but not completely. The custom of recognizing the superlative talent of an artist existed before; Giotto, Verrocchio, Donatello, and many others were praised enthusiastically and widely by their contemporaries, but until Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo appeared, no artist had been the object of the flattery of the powerful to such a high degree, almost reversing the relationship of authority between employee and employer, and between the elite and the plebs, and this was due as much to the change in the understanding of the role of art as to the awareness of these artists of their worth and their determination to have it recognized.
The greatest contribution of Renaissance painting was its new way of representing nature, through such mastery over pictorial technique and center point perspective that it was able to create an efficient illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Such an achievement meant a radical departure from the medieval system of representation, with its staticity, its depthless space, its figurative schematism, and its symbolic system of proportions, where the most important characters were larger in size. The new parameter established had a mathematical and physical foundation, its result was “realistic” (in the sense of creating an illusion of efficient space), and its organization was centered on the observer”s point of view. In this can be seen a reflection of the popularization of the principles of rationalism, anthropocentrism and humanism. The visual language formulated by the Renaissance painters was so successful that it remains valid today, and is considered by many people to be the most natural way of representing space.
Renaissance painting is in essence linear; drawing was now considered the foundation of all the visual arts and its mastery a prerequisite for every artist. The study of the sculptures and reliefs of antiquity, which provided the basis for the development of a large repertoire of themes and body gestures and postures, was very useful for this, but direct observation of nature was another important element. In the construction of painting, line conventionally constituted the demonstrative and logical element, and color indicated affective states or specific qualities. Another differential in relation to the art of the Middle Ages was the introduction of greater dynamism in scenes and gestures, and the discovery of shading, or chiaroscuro, as a plastic and mimetic resource.
Giotto, working between the 13th and 14th centuries, was the greatest painter of the early Italian Renaissance and the main pioneer of the naturalists in painting. His revolutionary work, in contrast to the production of late Gothic masters such as Cimabue and Duccio, made a strong impression on his contemporaries and would dominate all Italian painting of the Trecento, for its logic, simplicity, precision and faithfulness to nature. Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Taddeo Gaddi continued Giotto”s line without innovating, although in others progressive characteristics were mixed with elements of the still strong Gothic, as seen in the work of Simone Martini and Orcagna. Giotto”s naturalistic and expressive style, however, represented the vanguard in the visuality of this phase, and spread to Siena, which for a time passed ahead of Florence in artistic advances. From there it spread to northern Italy.
In the Quattrocento, the representations of the human figure acquired solidity, majesty, and power, reflecting the feeling of self-confidence of a society that was becoming very rich and complex, forming a multifaceted panel of trends and influences. But throughout most of the century, art would reveal the clash between the ultimate echoes of spiritual and abstract Gothic, exemplified by Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Benozzo Gozzoli and Lorenzo Monaco, and the new organizing, naturalistic and rational forces of classicism, represented by Botticelli, Pollaiuolo, Piero della Francesca and Ghirlandaio.
In this sense, after Giotto, the next evolutionary milestone was Masaccio, in whose works man has a clearly ennobled aspect and whose visual presence is decidedly concrete, with efficient use of the effects of volume and three-dimensional space. He made an important contribution to the articulation of the modern visual language of the West; all the major Florentine painters of the next generation were influenced by him, and when his work was “rediscovered” by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, it gained even greater appreciation, remaining in high demand for six centuries. For many critics he is the true founder of the Renaissance in painting, and it has been said of him that he was “the first who knew how to paint men who really touched their feet to the earth.”
In Venice, another major center and perhaps Florence”s main rival in this century, there was a group of illustrious artists, such as Jacopo Bellini, Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio, Mauro Codussi, and Antonello da Messina. Siena, which had been part of the avant-garde in earlier years, was now hesitating between the spiritual appeal of the Gothic and the profane allure of classicism, and was losing momentum. Meanwhile also in other regions of northern Italy classicism was beginning to strengthen, through Perugino in Perugia; Cosimo Tura in Ferrara, Pinturicchio, Melozzo da Forli and Mantegna in Padua and Mantua. Pisanello was active in a large number of cities.
One should also remember the renewing influence on Italian painters of the oil painting technique, which in the Quattrocento was being developed in the Netherlands and had reached a high level of refinement, making it possible to create much more precise and sharper images with a much more subtle shading than that achieved with fresco, encaustic, and tempera, a novelty that had an important impact on portraiture and landscape painting. Flemish canvases were highly appreciated in Italy for precisely these qualities, and a great number of them were imported, copied, or emulated by the Italians.
Later, in the High Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci penetrated the terrain of ambiguous and mysterious atmospheres with a sophisticated oil technique, while strongly combining art and science. With Raphael, the classicist system of representation reached a grandiose scale, creating imposing illusionistic architecture and scenery, but he also translated into his madonnas a previously unknown sweetness that soon became very popular. In Venice Titian stands out mainly, exploring new chromatic relationships and a freer, more gestural painting technique. Michelangelo, crowning the process of exaltation of man, in the Sistine Chapel took it to an inflated expression of the mythical, the sublime, the heroic and the pathetic. Many others left important contributions, such as Correggio, Sebastiano del Piombo, Andrea del Sarto, Jacopo Palma, Giorgione and Pontormo.
But this phase, of great formal balance, did not last long, and would soon be profoundly transformed, giving way to Mannerism. With the Mannerists, the whole concept of space was changed, perspective was fragmented into multiple points of view, and the proportions of the human figure were distorted for expressive or aesthetic purposes, formulating a more dynamic, vibrant, subjective, dramatic, precious, intellectualist, and sophisticated visual language.
In sculpture the signs of a revaluation of a classicist aesthetic are old. Nicola Pisano around 1260 produced a pulpit for the Baptistery of Pisa, which is considered the forerunner manifestation of the Renaissance in sculpture, where he inserted a large male nude representing the virtue of the Fortress, and it seems clear that his main inspiration came from observing Roman sarcophagi decorated with reliefs that existed in the Cemetery of Pisa. His contribution, although limited to very few works, is considered as relevant to the history of sculpture as Giotto”s was to painting. In fact, Giotto”s art is largely indebted to Nicola Pisano”s research.
His son Giovanni Pisano and other important followers, such as Arnolfo di Cambio and Lapo di Ricevuto, would take valuable lessons from their contact with classicism, but their style progresses unevenly in this regard. Giovanni would later dominate the scene in Florence, Pisa and Siena in the early fourteenth century, creating other important nudes, including a female one that reproduces the classical model of the Venus pudica, and would be one of the introducers of a new genre, that of the painful cruxifixes, of great drama and wide influence, until then uncommon in Tuscany. His versatile talent would give rise to works of clean and pure lines, such as the portrait of Enrico Scrovegni. His Madonnas, reliefs, and the pulpit of Pisa Cathedral are, on the other hand, much more moving and dramatic.
In the mid-century Andrea Pisano gained notoriety as the author of the reliefs on the south door of the Baptistery in Florence and architect of the Cathedral of Orvieto. He was master of Orcagna, whose tabernacle in Orsanmichele is one of the masterpieces of the period, and of Giovanni di Balduccio, author of an exquisite and complex funerary monument in the Portinari Chapel in Milan. His generation was dominated by the influence of Giotto”s painting. Despite the advances promoted by a number of active masters, their work still reflects an intersection of currents that would be typical of the entire Trecento, and Gothic elements are still predominant or important in all of them.
Towards the end of the Trecento, Lorenzo Ghiberti appeared in Florence, author of reliefs in the Baptistery of St. John, where classical models were strongly imposed. Donatello then led the advances on several fronts, exerting a wide influence. His main works include statues of Old Testament prophets, of which Habakkuk and Jeremiah are among the most impressive. He also innovated in equestrian statuary, creating the Gattamelata monument, the most important of its kind since that of Marcus Aurelius, from the second century. Finally, his brazen, wooden penitent Magdalene of 1453 is an image of pain, austerity, and transfiguration that had no parallel in its time, introducing a poignant sense of drama and reality into statuary that had only been seen in Hellenism.
In the next generation, Verrocchio stands out for the theatricality and dynamism of his compositions. He was a painter, sculptor, scenographer, and decorator, one of the Medici”s main favorites. His Christ and St. Thomas has great realism and poetry. He composed a Child with a dolphin for the Neptune Fountain in Florence which is the prototype of the serpentinate figure, which would be the most prestigious formal model in Mannerism and Baroque, and with his Lady with a bunch of flowers he presented a new bust model, including the arms and half the body, which became popular. His greatest work, the equestrian monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, is an expression of power and strength more intense than the Gattamelata. Verrocchio exerted influence on many painters and sculptors of the 15th century, including Leonardo, Perugino and Raphael, and is considered one of the greatest artists of the century.
Other notable names are Luca della Robbia and his family, a dynasty of potters, creators of a new technique of glazing and vitrification of ceramics. A similar technique, majolica, had been known for centuries, but Luca developed a variant and successfully applied it to large-scale sculptures and decorative sets. His invention increased the durability and strength of the pieces, preserved vivid colors, and allowed outdoor installation. Luca was also a noted sculptor in marble, and Leon Battista Alberti placed him among the leaders of the Florentine avant-garde, along with Masaccio and Donatello. The great popularizers of the ceramic technique, however, were his nephew Andrea della Robbia and his son, Giovanni della Robbia, who enlarged the dimensions of the sets, enriched the chromatic palette and refined the finish. The technique was kept as a secret for a long time.
Florence remained the center of the avant-garde until the appearance of Michelangelo, who worked for the Medici and in Rome for the popes, and was the most influential name in sculpture from the High Renaissance to the mid-Century. His work moved from the pure classicism of David and Bacchus to Mannerism, expressed in vehement and dramatic works such as the Slaves, the Moses, and the nudes in the Medici Chapel in Florence. Artists such as Desiderio da Settignano, Antonio Rosselino, Agostino di Duccio, and Tullio Lombardo also left works of great mastery and importance, such as Lombardo”s Adam, the first life-size nude known since antiquity.
The Renaissance cycle closes with Giambologna, Baccio Bandinelli, Francesco da Sangallo, Jacopo Sansovino and Benvenuto Cellini, among others, with a style of great dynamism and expressiveness, typified in Giambologna”s Abduction from the Sabines. Outstanding artists from other European countries were already beginning to work along clearly Italian lines, such as Adriaen de Vries and Germain Pilon, spreading the Italian taste over a large geographical area and giving rise to various syncretic formulations with regional schools.
Sculpture was present everywhere, in the streets as monuments and ornaments of buildings, in the halls of nobility, in churches, and in the simplest home there was always a devotional image. Vases, furniture, and everyday implements of the elite often had carved or engraved details, and miniatures such as commemorative medals can be included in this field. In this period, technical resources were developed that allowed an immense leap forward from the Middle Ages in terms of the ability to create free forms in space and to represent nature and the human body, and the publication of several treatises and commentaries on this art introduced methodologies and theories that broadened the understanding of the field and grounded it with a more scientific conceptualization, founding an influential critical tradition. The improvement of sculpture techniques allowed the creation of works on a scale only known in antiquity, and the civic spirit of the Florentines stimulated the invention of new models of public monument, a typology associated with another understanding of man”s representational capacity as a social and educational practice.
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In general, the music of the Renaissance does not offer a panorama of abrupt breaks in continuity, and the whole long period can be considered the terrain of the slow transformation from modal to tonal universe, and from horizontal polyphony to vertical harmony. The Renaissance was also a period of great renewal in the treatment of voice and orchestration, in instrumental and the consolidation of purely instrumental genres and forms with the dance suites for balls, and there was great demand for musical entertainment at every feast or ceremony, public or private.
In compositional technique the melismatic polyphony of the organons, derived directly from Gregorian chant, is abandoned in favor of leaner writing, with voices treated in an increasingly balanced manner. Early in the period the parallel movement is used sparingly, accidentals are rare but harsh dissonances are common. Later the writing in three voices begins to feature triads, giving an impression of tonality. Descriptive or programmatic music is attempted for the first time, rigid rhythmic modes give way to isorhythm and freer, more dynamic forms such as the ballad, chanson and madrigal. In sacred music, the mass form becomes the most prestigious. The notation evolves to adopt lower value notes, and towards the end of the period, the interval of thirds becomes accepted as consonance, when previously only the fifth, octave and unison were.
The precursors of this transformation were not Italian, but French like Guillaume de Machaut, author of the greatest musical achievement of the Trecento in all of Europe, the Mass of Notre Dame, and Philippe de Vitry, much praised by Petrarch. Of the Italian music of this early phase very little has come down to us, although it is known that the activity was intense and almost entirely in the profane field, the main sources of scores being the Codex Rossi, the Codex Squarcialupi and the Codex Panciatichi. Among its representatives were Matteo da Perugia, Donato da Cascia, Johannes Ciconia, and above all Francesco Landini. Only in the Cinquecento did Italian music begin to develop its own original characteristics, being until then very dependent on the Franco-Flemish school.
The predominance of northern influences does not mean that Italian interest in music was small. In the absence of musical examples from antiquity to emulate, Italian philosophers such as Ficino turned to classical texts by Plato and Aristotle for references so that music worthy of the ancients could be created. In this process a significant role was played by Lorenzo de” Medici in Florence, who founded a musical academy and attracted several European musicians, and by Isabella d”Este, whose small but brilliant court in Mantua attracted poets who wrote simple poems in Italian to be set to music, and there the recitation of poetry, as in other Italian centers, was usually accompanied by music. The preferred genre was the frottola, which already showed a well-defined tonal harmonic structure and would contribute to renew the madrigal, with its typical fidelity to text and affections. Other polyphonic genres such as the mass and the motet by now make full use of imitation between the voices, and all are treated in a similar way.
Important Flemish composers work in Italy, such as Adriaen Willaert and Jacob Arcadelt, but the most famous figures of the century are Giovanni da Palestrina, Italian, and Orlando de Lasso, Flemish, who set a standard for choral music that would be followed throughout the continent, with a melodious and rich writing, of great formal balance and noble expressiveness, preserving the intelligibility of the text, an aspect that in the previous period was often secondary and was lost in the intricate complexity of counterpoint. The impression of his music matches the idealistic grandeur of the High Renaissance, flourishing in a phase when Mannerism was already strongly manifested in other arts such as painting and sculpture. At the end of the century, three great figures appeared, Carlo Gesualdo, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Claudio Monteverdi, who would introduce advances in harmony and a sense of color and timbre that would enrich the music, giving it a Mannerist expressiveness and drama and preparing it for the Baroque. Monteverdi in particular is important for being the first great operist in history, and his operas L”Orfeo (1607) and L”Arianna (1608, lost, only one famous aria remains, the Lament) represent the noble sunset of Renaissance music and the first great milestones of the musical Baroque.
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The permanence of many traces of Ancient Rome in Italian soil has never ceased to influence the local building plastics, whether in the use of structural elements or materials used by the Romans, or in keeping alive the memory of classical forms. Even so, in the Trecento, Gothic remained the dominant style, and classicism would only emerge strongly in the following century, amid a new interest in the great achievements of the past. This interest was stimulated by the rediscovery of classical bibliography considered lost, such as Vitruvius” De Architectura, found in the library of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1414 or 1415. In it, the author exalted the circle as the perfect form, and elaborated on the ideal proportions of the building and the human figure, and on symmetry and the relationship of architecture to man. His ideas would then be developed by other architects, such as the first great exponent of architectural classicism, Filippo Brunelleschi, who also took his inspiration from the ruins he had studied in Rome. He was the first to use modern architectural orders in a coherent way, establishing a new system of proportions based on the human scale. It is also due to him the precursory use of perspective for the illusionistic representation of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane, a technique that would be deepened enormously in the centuries to come and would define the entire style of future art, inaugurating a fertile association between art and science. Leon Battista Alberti is another architect of great importance, considered a perfect example of the Renaissance “universal man”, versatile in various specialties. He was the author of the treatise De re aedificatoria, which would become canonical. Other architects, artists, and philosophers added to the discussion, such as Luca Pacioli in his De Divina Proportione, Leonardo with his designs of centered churches, and Francesco di Giorgio with the Trattato di architettura, ingegneria e arte militare.
Among the most notable features of Renaissance architecture is the resumption of the centralized temple model, designed on a Greek cross and crowned by a dome, mirroring the popularization of concepts from Neoplatonic cosmology and with the concomitant inspiration of relic buildings like the Pantheon in Rome. The first of its kind to be built in the Renaissance was perhaps San Sebastiano in Mantua, Alberti”s work of 1460, but left uncompleted. The model was based on a more human scale, abandoning the intense verticalism of the Gothic churches and having the dome as the crown of a composition that excelled in intelligibility. Especially when it comes to the structure and construction techniques of the dome, great achievements were made in the Renaissance, but it was a late addition to the scheme, wooden roofs being preferred. Of the most important are the octagonal dome of Florence Cathedral by Brunelleschi, who used no ground-supported scaffolding or concrete in construction, and that of St. Peter”s Basilica in Rome by Michelangelo, already from the 16th century.
Before the Cinquecento there was no word for architects in the sense they are understood today, and they were called master builders. Architecture was the most prestigious art of the Renaissance, but most of the leading masters of the period, when they began their practice in the building arts, were already reputed artists but had no training in the field, and came from sculpture or painting. They were called upon for the great projects of public buildings, palaces, and churches, and popular architecture was entrusted to small builders. In contrast to medieval practice, characterized by functionality and irregularity, the masters conceived buildings as works of art, were full of ideas about divine geometries, symmetries, and perfect proportions, were eager to imitate Roman buildings, and created detailed drawings and a small-scale wooden model of the building, which served as a blueprint for the builders. These designs were structurally and plastically innovative, but paid little attention to their practical feasibility and the needs of daily use, especially in the distribution of spaces. It was the builders who had to solve the technical problems that arose in the course of the work, trying to maintain the original design, but often making important adaptations and changes along the way, if the design or some part of it proved impractical. According to Hartt, when large and complex works such as churches began, builders were seldom sure that they could make it to the end. However, some masters worked on it for long years and became great experts on the subject, introducing important technical, structural and functional novelties. They also designed fortifications, bridges, canals and other structures, as well as large-scale urban planning. Most of the many Renaissance town plans never came to fruition, and of those that were started none went very far, but they have been a source of inspiration to town planners of all generations ever since.
On the profane side aristocrats such as the Medici, the Strozzi, the Pazzi, ensured their status by ordering the construction of palaces of great grandeur and originality, such as the Pitti Palace (Brunelleschi), the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (Michelozzo), the Palazzo Rucellai (Alberti) and the Palazzo Strozzi (Maiano), all transforming the same model of the Italian medieval palaces, with a more or less cubic body, floors with high ceilings, structured around an inner courtyard, with a rustic facade and crowned by a large cornice, which gives them an aspect of solidity and invincibility. More purely classical forms are exemplified in Giuliano da Sangallo”s Villa Medici. Interesting variations of this model are found in Venice, given the flooded characteristics of the terrain.
After the leading figure of Donato Bramante in the High Renaissance, bringing the center of architectural interest from Florence to Rome, and being the author of one of the most model sacred buildings of his generation, the Tempietto, we find Michelangelo himself, regarded as the inventor of the colossal order and for some time architect of the works of St. Peter”s Basilica. Michelangelo, in the view of his own contemporaries, was the first to challenge the hitherto established rules of classicist architecture, developing a personal style, for he was, according to Vasari, the first to open himself up to true creative freedom. He represents, then, the end of “collective classicism”, quite homogeneous in its solutions, and the beginning of a phase of individualization and multiplication of architectural languages. He paved the way, by the immense prestige he enjoyed among his own, for the new generation of creators to carry out countless experiments from the classical canon of architecture, making this art independent from the old ones – although largely indebted to them. Some of the most notable names of this era were Della Porta, Sansovino, Palladio, Fontana, Peruzzi and Vignola. Among the changes this group introduced were the relaxation of the structure of the frontispiece and the annulment of the hierarchies of the old orders, with great freedom for the employment of unorthodox solutions and the development of a taste for a purely plastic play with forms, giving much more dynamism to internal spaces and facades. Of all the late Renaissance Palladio was the most influential, and is still today the most studied architect in the world. He was the creator of a fertile school, called Palladianism, which lasted, with ups and downs, until the 20th century.
With the growing movement of artists, humanists and teachers between the cities north of the Alps and the Italian peninsula, and with the wide circulation of printed texts and works of art through reproductions in engraving, Italian classicism began in the mid-15th century a stage of diffusion across the continent. Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, soon recognized the potential of the prestige of Italian art to promote their royal images, and were decisive agents for its intensive dissemination beyond the Alps. But this happened at the beginning of the 16th century, when the Renaissance cycle had already matured for at least two hundred years in Italy and was already in its Mannerist phase.
Thus, it should be noted that there was no such thing as a Quattrocento or High Renaissance in the rest of Europe. In the Cinquecento, the period when European Italianization reached a peak, regional traditions, even if to some extent cognizant of classicism, were still heavily steeped in styles already obsolete in Italy, such as Romanesque and Gothic. The result was very heterogeneous and richly hybrid, it produced the opening of multiple paths, and its analysis has been filled with controversy, where the only major consensus that has been formed emphasizes the diversity of the movement, its wide irradiation, and the difficulty of a coherent generalist description for its manifestations, from the perspective of the existence of regional and national schools with strong individuality, each with a specific history and values.
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The Renaissance influence via Flanders and Burgundy had existed since the 15th century, as noted in Jean Fouquet”s output, but the Hundred Years” War and plague epidemics delayed its flowering, which occurs only after Charles VIII”s French invasion of Italy in 1494. The period extends until about 1610, but its end is tumultuous with the wars of religion between Catholics and Huguenots, which devastated and weakened the country. During its tenure France begins the development of absolutism and expands by sea to explore America. The focal center was established in Fontainebleau, seat of the court, and the School of Fontainebleau was formed there, integrated by French, Flemish and Italians such as Rosso Fiorentino, Antoine Caron, Francesco Primaticcio, Niccolò dell”Abbate and Toussaint Dubreuil, being a reference for others such as François Clouet, Jean Clouet, Jean Goujon, Germain Pilon and Pierre Lescot. Leonardo was also present there. Despite this, painting knew a relatively poor and little innovative development, more focused on precious detail and virtuosity, no French artist of this period acquired a continental fame as so many Italians achieved, and classicism is only perceptible through the Mannerist filter. On the other hand, a style of decoration emerged that was soon widely imitated in Europe, combining painting, relief stuccoes, and carved wood elements.
Architecture was one of the most original French Renaissance arts, and no buildings comparable to the great French palaces such as those at Fontainebleau, Tuileries, Chambord, Louvre, and Anet appeared in the whole of Europe outside Italy, most of them with large formal gardens, the architects Pierre Lescot and Philibert de l”Orme standing out, strongly influenced by the work of Vignola and Palladio, advocates of a purer classicism, and organizers of symmetrical facades and plans. In any case, their classicism was not in fact pure: they reorganized the classical orders in different ways, created variants, dynamized the plans and volumes, and placed great emphasis on luxuriant and whimsical decoration, contradicting the principles of rationality, simplicity, and formal economy of the more typical classicism, as well as preserving local traditions characteristic of the Gothic.
In music there was a huge flowering through the Burgundian School, which dominated the European musical scene during the 15th century and would give rise to the Franco-Flemish School, which would produce masters such as Josquin des Prez, Clément Janequin and Claude Le Jeune. The French chanson of the 16th century would play a role in the formation of the Italian canzona, and its Musique mesurée would establish a pattern of declamatory vocal writing in an attempt to recreate the music of the Greek theater, and would favor the evolution towards full tonality. A genre of sacred music distinct from its Italian models also appeared, known as chanson spirituelle. In literature, Rabelais, a precursor of the fantastic genre, Montaigne, popularizer of the essay genre where he is one of the greatest names to this day, and the Pleiadian group, with Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay, and Jean-Antoine de Baïf, who sought a vernacular updating of Greco-Roman literature, the emulation of specific forms, and the creation of neologisms based on Latin and Greek.
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Netherlands and Germany
The Flemish had been in contact with Italy since the 15th century, but only in the 16th century does the context change and become characterized as Renaissance, and is relatively short-lived. In this phase the region becomes richer, the Protestant Reformation becomes a decisive force, opposed to the Catholic domination of Charles V, leading to serious conflicts that would divide the area. The commercial cities of Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges strengthen contacts with northern Italy and commission works or attract Italian artists, such as the architects Tommaso Vincidor and Alessandro Pasqualini, who spent most of their lives there. The love of printmaking brought numerous reproductions of Italian works to the region, Dürer left an indelible mark when he passed through, Erasmus kept Humanism alive, and Raphael had tapestries executed in Brussels. Vesalius made important advances in anatomy, Mercator in cartography, and the new press found in Antwerp and Louvain conditions for the foundation of publishing houses of great influence.
In music the Netherlands, along with northwestern France, become the main center for all of Europe through the Franco-Flemish School. In painting it developed an original school, which popularized oil painting and paid enormous attention to detail and line, while remaining very faithful to sacred themes and incorporating its Gothic tradition into Italian Mannerist innovations. Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hieronymus Bosch were its precursors in the 15th century, and soon the region would make its own contribution to European art, consolidating landscape painting with Joachim Patinir and genre painting with Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Aertsen. Other notable names are Mabuse, Maarten van Heemskerck, Quentin Matsys, Lucas van Leyden, Frans Floris, Adriaen Isenbrandt, and Joos van Cleve.
Germany boosted its Renaissance by fusing its rich Gothic past with Italian and Flemish elements. One of its first masters was Konrad Witz, followed by Albrecht Altdorfer and Albrecht Dürer, who was in Venice twice and was deeply influenced there, regretting having to return north. Together with the scholar Johann Reuchlin, Dürer was one of the major influences for spreading the Renaissance in central Europe and also in the Netherlands, where his famous engravings were highly praised by Erasmus, who called him “the Apeles of the black lines”. The Roman school was an important element in the formation of the style of Hans Burgkmair and Hans Holbein, both from Augsburg, visited by Titian. In music, it is enough to mention Orlando de Lasso, a member of the Franco-Flemish School settled in Munich who would become the most celebrated composer in Europe in his generation, to the point of being dubbed a knight by Emperor Maximilian II and knighted by Pope Gregory XIII, something extremely rare for a musician.
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The influence of the Renaissance in Portugal extends from the mid-15th century to the late 16th century. Although the Italian Renaissance had a modest impact on art, the Portuguese were influential in broadening the worldview of Europeans, stimulating humanistic curiosity.
As a pioneer of European exploration, Portugal flourished in the late 15th century with its navigations to the East, earning immense profits that made the commercial bourgeoisie grow and enriched the nobility, allowing luxuries and the cultivation of the spirit. Contact with the Renaissance came through the influence of wealthy Italian and Flemish merchants who invested in maritime trade. Commercial contact with France, Spain, and England was assiduous, and cultural exchange intensified.
As a major naval power, it attracted experts in mathematics, astronomy, and naval technology, such as Pedro Nunes and Abraão Zacuto; cartographers Pedro Reinel, Lopo Homem, Estevão Gomes, and Diogo Ribeiro, who made crucial advances in mapping the world. And envoys to the East, such as the apothecary Tomé Pires and the physician Garcia de Orta, collected and published works on the new local plants and medicines.
In architecture, the profits from the spice trade in the first decades of the 16th century financed a sumptuous transitional style, which blends marine elements with Gothic, Manueline. The Monastery of Jerônimos, the Tower of Belém and the window of the Chapter of the Convent of Christ in Tomar are the best known, Diogo Boitaca and Francisco de Arruda the architects. In painting, Nuno Gonçalves, Gregório Lopes and Vasco Fernandes stand out. In music, Pedro de Escobar and Duarte Lobo, besides four songbooks, among which the Cancioneiro de Elvas and the Cancioneiro de Paris.
In literature Sá de Miranda introduced Italian verse forms; Garcia de Resende compiled the Cancioneiro Geral in 1516 and Bernardim Ribeiro pioneered bucolicism. Gil Vicente fused them with popular culture, relating the changing times and Luís de Camões inscribed the deeds of the Portuguese in the epic poem Os Lusíadas. Travel literature, in particular, flourished: João de Barros, Castanheda, António Galvão, Gaspar Correia, Duarte Barbosa, Fernão Mendes Pinto, among others, described new lands and were translated and disseminated by the new press. After participating in the Portuguese exploration of Brazil, in 1500, Amerigo Vespucci, agent of the Medici, coined the term New World.
The intense international exchange produced several humanist and cosmopolitan scholars: Francisco de Holanda, André de Resende and Damião de Góis, friend of Erasmus, who wrote with rare independence in the reign of Manuel I; Diogo and André de Gouveia, who made important reforms in education via France. Exotic reports and products at the Portuguese Factory in Antwerp attracted the interest of Thomas More and Durer to the wider world. In Antwerp, Portuguese profits and knowledge helped fuel the Dutch Renaissance and the Golden Age of the Netherlands, especially after the arrival of the cultured and wealthy Jewish community expelled from Portugal.
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In Spain, the circumstances were in many points similar. The reconquest of Spanish territory from the Arabs and the fantastic influx of wealth from the American colonies, with the associated intense commercial and cultural exchange, sustained a phase of unprecedented expansion and enrichment of local art. Artists such as Alonso Berruguete, Diego de Siloé, Tomás Luis de Vitoria, El Greco, Pedro Machuca, Juan Bautista de Toledo, Cristóbal de Morales, Garcilaso de la Vega, Juan de Herrera, Miguel de Cervantes and many more left remarkable work in classical or mannerist style, more dramatic than their Italian models, since the spirit of the Counter-Reformation had a stronghold there and, in sacred writers like Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, and John of the Cross, great representatives. Particularly in architecture the luxuriant ornamentation became typical of the style known as plateresque, a unique synthesis of Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance influences. The University of Salamanca, whose teaching had humanist molds, plus the settlement of Italians such as Pellegrino Tibaldi, Leone Leoni, and Pompeo Leoni injected additional force into the process.
The later Renaissance even crossed the ocean and took root in America and the East, where many monasteries and churches still survive today, founded by the Spanish colonizers in centers of Mexico and Peru, and by the Portuguese in Brazil, Macau, and Goa, some of them now World Heritage Sites.
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In England, the Renaissance coincides with the so-called Elizabethan Age, of great maritime expansion and relative internal stability after the devastation of the long War of the Roses, when it became possible to think of culture and art. As in most other countries in Europe, the still-living Gothic heritage mingled with references from the late Renaissance, but its distinctive features are the predominance of literature and music over the other arts, and its validity until about 1620. Poets like John Donne and John Milton research new ways of understanding the Christian faith, and playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe move nimbly among themes central to human life – betrayal, transcendence, honor, love death – in famous tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare), and Doctor Faustus (Marlowe), as well as on their more prosaic and lighthearted aspects in charming fables like A Midsummer Night”s Dream (Shakespeare). Philosophers like Francis Bacon unveil new boundaries for abstract thought and reflect on an ideal society, and in music the Italian madrigalesque school is assimilated by Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, and many others, acquires an unmistakably local flavor, and creates a tradition that remains alive today, Alongside great sacred polyphonists such as John Taverner, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis, the latter leaving the famous motet Spem in alium, for forty voices divided into eight choirs, a composition unparalleled in its time for its mastery in the management of huge vocal masses. In architecture, Robert Smythson and the Palladianists Richard Boyle, Edward Lovett Pearce and Inigo Jones stood out. Their work had repercussions even in North America, making disciples in George Berkeley, James Hoban, Peter Harrison, and Thomas Jefferson. In painting the Renaissance was received mainly through Germany and the Netherlands, with the major figure of Hans Holbein, later flourishing with William Segar, William Scrots, Nicholas Hilliard, and several other masters of the Tudor School.
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History, Philosophy and Aesthetics
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Arts and Sciences