Renaissance Background Information


The time and place
The Renaissance took place during a period of about 200 years. It began in the mid-1300s, and it lasted into the late 1500s. With the death of three of the greatest artists of the Renaissance Rafael in 1520, Michelangelo in 1564, and Titian in 1576 these amazing years drew to a close. The word renaissance means “rebirth” and it was given to this period because it was a time of new learning. It wasn't as if all that had happened during the dark ages in the medieval period was not important anymore. Learning and knowledge had taken place throughout Europe in the closing days of the medieval period.  Those changes continue to blossom among the city states of the Italian peninsula. The Renaissance was full of productivity, creative genius, and brilliant innovation in all areas of art and learning.

Italy as a center
Italy, largely because of its geographic location, easily became the crossroads and the center of the Renaissance. Located between Europe and Asia, it had fast access to sea. During the Crusades, trade routes between East and West opened up along the Mediterranean. Silks and spices were loaded into Italian vessels and unloaded at Italian ports. Italy also had an already experienced a tradition of great importance with the long and powerful Roman Empire which dominated Europe and beyond from about 750 BC to A.D. 470. Now a new interest group in the decaying ruins from those Roman times which marked Italy's greatest classical period. With the growth of great wealth made available by the church and the merchants, the cities of Italy competed in recalling their past glories. As they grew in power, the city states, as they became known, dominated Europe European commerce for much of the Renaissance.

Commerce and Wealth
It wasn't good luck that caused this rebirth in learning and creativity to start immediately. The urban communities in Italy were not totally destroyed by the Germanic tribes that invaded and conquered the Roman Empire in the West. These cities survived the difficult years of the dark ages, and they were successful throughout the late medieval period. Many of the important Italian cities had republican forms of government. Italy was also located in a prime spot in the Mediterranean, between the Middle East and the rest of Europe. Because of their good location, the Italian city states controlled the flow of trade from the Orient. Venice, Genoa, and Pisa were important Italian cities they carried on trade with Constantinople and the great Muslim kingdoms further east. Great fortunes were made as Italian merchant ships traded silks, spices, porcelains, carpets, colorful dyes, lacquer, glassware, pottery, pigments, exotic and rare woods, muslin, and even stallions from Arabia, and sold them to European marketplaces. The goods were in great demand by the rich and wealthy, who paid whatever it took to get what they wanted. Merchants became very rich trading these goods.

Growth of towns and trade
ith the growth of towns, the invention of bullets and cannon, and the Black Death which swept Europe, nobles lost their power and feudal life soon died out. These towns became the new centers of life. Craftsmen joined together in guilds to protect their interests. As trade with the East and the rest of Europe increased, some merchants grew very rich. This marked the beginning of capitalism in the Western world.  With the increase in trade over vast areas came a transformation from a barter economy to a money economy. Goldsmiths are rich and became bankers. And with such increasing wealth can leisure and a desire for the luxuries the great artists had to offer. Bankers and rich merchants, as well as wealthy church leaders, became great patrons of the arts and learning.

Artisans and patrons
Many of the rich merchants and bankers spent their money freely to show that they were rich and powerful. They built magnificent palazzos, and bought incredible works of art to decorate their homes. Some of these patrons were also princes, warlords, and tyrants who ruled various city states in Italy. Many of the great Renaissance artists had patrons who spent a lot of money on paintings, sculptures, and buildings.

Some artists could also work with different materials and make incredible works of art because they were so talented. Michelangelo sculpted masterpieces from raw marble, painted beautiful paintings, designed magnificent buildings, and wrote sonnets and poetry. There were many talented Renaissance artists, but no one could compare to Michelangelo. Most of the artists were born and raised in cities and very few came from the countryside. Many artists were from the sons of Masters in the different craft guilds. It was the workshops (or bottegas) that artist learned their skills.  The bottega was an energetic environment. The master and apprentices made fine furniture, chiseled decorative statues from blocks of stone, and painted portraits and canvases.

The Renaissance world was violent. Many of the powerful and rich Italian families were sensitive to their place in society and the power they held. They were easily insulted by even innocent comments, and they often responded with violence. The powerful families went at each other in hand-to-hand struggles with daggers and swords.  Many of the tyrants were dishonest and immoral. In order to keep their power, they were clever and sneaky, and they never showed mercy or kindness for an enemy. However, there were some rulers who were not cruel and violent. Ludovico Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, was a good ruler, and he was respected by his subjects. He encouraged the cloth trade in Mantua, built hospitals, bridged swamps and marshes, supported scholars, establish a printing press, reformed the laws, and ruled justly. The Duke of Urbino, Federigo da Montefeltro, also earned a good reputation for making his duchy a center for humanist study and scholarship.

The Renaissance Church and Martin Luther
On his first visit to Rome in 1511, Martin Luther, the German monk, went to every church altar in Rome and visited all the holy places. But his visit also shocked him. He saw that many of the church leaders did not practice what they preach, and this troubled him. He did not like that the church leaders had lives of luxury and made a lot of money through their offices, well telling others that they should not be greedy. He became very angry with the Renaissance popes of the church in Rome. The worst sin committed by Pope Alexander VI who sold church offices and offered bribes to become pope was the way he sinned in public. Alexander lived openly with his mistresses, helped his sons and daughter advance in their schemes, and use money from the church treasury to pay for his pleasures. Making matters even worse, many priests could not even read or perform the holy services. Others were busy selling indulgences (forgiveness for sins and promises of entry to heaven) that took hard-earned money from both peasants and rich people all throughout Europe.  Finally, Luther protested when he nailed Ninety-five  Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.

An awakening
When it came to making money, a new attitude began to take hold. For many years, people thought making and lending money or trading business was immoral. But during the Renaissance, people began to think about making money and becoming wealthy was a good way to live. It was a way to enjoy the rewards of hard work. People were not as worried about spiritual rewards as they would have been during the medieval period. Humanist scholars began to look back at the ancient Greeks and Romans for knowledge and guidance, and they began to celebrate life. People began to believe that anything is possible if great minds worked to reach goals and overcome challenges. The humanist scholars have the ancient world all around them to refer to. Scattered throughout Italy were ancient ruins, artifacts, written texts scrolls, statues, and art. Many ancient buildings and monuments were still standing. The philosophy, history, literature, mathematics, anatomy and medicine, geography, physics, politics and warfare of the ancient Greeks and Romans became steppingstones for Renaissance masters to build upon. This period would later become the foundation of modern Western civilization.

Changes in social structure
Since nobles had lost their power to the kings, the townspeople now look to their king and the new governments for protection from other towns. Merchants, craftsmen, artists, and scholars all needed law, order, and peace to carry on their work successfully. Many changes in society also resulted from a sudden burst of invention and discovery. Johan Gutenberg invented the first printing press with movable type. Now many books could be easily printed and information more readily passed throughout Europe. Europeans began to learn to read and wonder about what was beyond their own town. 

Driven by venture and a great appetite for the goods available in the East (not to mention the money that could be made from the sale of such goods), sailors began to discover vast lands beyond the coast of Europe and Africa. Although many feared the green sea of darkness, navigator such as Christopher Columbus set out to prove the theory is that the world was round and the East could be reached by sailing west.


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