Even though renaissance is the French word for rebirth, the Renaissance period began in Italy with its concepts spreading throughout Europe. The Renaissance period saw a resurgence in the arts and science after the stagnation of the Dark Ages.
Without the endeavours and discoveries of the Renaissance period, Europe would not be the cultural and scientific powerhouse that it is today. And much of what draws tourists to Italy had its beginnings in the Renaissance period. Renaissance art works have the longest queues!
The 15th and 16th centuries are usually cited as the dates of the Renaissance period although some historians believe it had an earlier beginning.
In this summary of the Renaissance, I’ll look at the beginnings of the period along with the major artists and scientists who left their mark.
THE BEGINNING OF THE RENAISSANCE
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was invaded and fragmented. In the following centuries, influential city states developed. The Republic of Florence and the Republic of Venice were the best known.
The beautiful city of Florence is where the Renaissance period is said to have begun. Florence was a centre of trade which resulted in a vibrant local economy. Some families became wealthy as a result of this trade, none more so than the Medici family. The Medici family set up their own bank and pioneered many innovations in accounting that are still used in modern banking. Four popes came from Medici stock.
But it was the support the Medici family and other wealthy families gave to the arts that they are best remembered for. Sponsoring artists to create custom-made art pieces and elaborate buildings was how wealthy families displayed their wealth and proved their success. Renaissance era art works may not look like your idea of bling but that’s essentially what they were.
The Medici family were patrons of two of the most famous artists of the Renaissance period: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Leonardo da Vinci was a multi-tasker, producing sculptures and architectural works. Born in Tuscany and educated in Florence, da Vinci also worked in Milan for the Sforza family and in Rome for the Medici popes. Leonardo’s most famous works are The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, and The Baptism of Christ. The works are now located in Milan, Paris and Florence respectively.
Michelangelo was also a Tuscan-born multi-tasker, producing works of sculpture and architecture. During his apprenticeship and early working life he was based in Florence. As well as being appointed architect for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, famous works by Michelangelo include the statue of David, the Pieta, the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel which includes The Creation of Adam.
Other artists supported by the Medici family include Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Raphael and Donatello.
Botticelli also worked for the Vespucci family and his most notable works, Primavera and The Birth of Venus, are two of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance period. Both are housed in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s great galleries.
Filippo Brunelleschi is said to be founder of Renaissance architecture, combining engineering skill with custom design. The majority of his main works are located in Florence, most notably the San Lorenzo Basilica and the iconic red brick dome of Florence Cathedral.
While Rome has a number of Renaissance era structures, listed in my Rome Landmarks post, Florence is the main centre of Renaissance architecture. Along with Brunelleschi’s masterpieces listed above, other Renaissance structures in Florence include the Medici Palace, Pitti Palace, the Uffizi Gallery and Santa Maria Novella Basilica.
Renaissance architecture in other parts of Europe include Kronborg and Rosenborg castles in Denmark, Wawel Castle in Krakow, El Escorial in Spain and parts of Munich Residenz in Germany. El Escorial is the largest Renaissance building in the world.
Dante Alighieri was a Florentine writer in the latter part of the Dark Ages whose works inspired many Renaissance writers.
Machiavelli’s The Prince is possibly the most famous work of literature of the Italian Renaissance. It’s an instruction manual for achieving and maintaining power through unfair and deceptive methods, giving rise to the phrase Machiavellian.
Non-Italian Renaissance writers include William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Desiderius Erasmus and Miguel de Cervantes.
RENAISSANCE SCIENCE & DISCOVERY
Artists were not the only ones experimenting in the Renaissance. The era found a renewed interest in the sciences all over Europe.
Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa but his family moved to Florence during his childhood. Galileo was also a recipient of Medici support. He pioneered the telescope to prove the Copernicus theory that the planets revolve around the sun. He made a number of other discoveries in observational astronomy that irked the church authorities. Johannes Kepler was a German astronomer who was also inspired by Copernicus.
The scientific discovery that revolutionised Renaissance communications was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. This is credited for distributing Renaissance ideas to a wider audience around Europe.
Renaissance discovery was not only limited to laboratories and no summary of the Renaissance can exclude the Age of Exploration. Spain and Portugal dominated overseas exploration. Unfortunately, the outcome of exploration didn’t always benefit the destinations, with widespread exploitation a main feature. Renaissance explorers include Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco da Gama.
SUMMARY OF THE RENAISSANCE
The Renaissance was a period of ardent cultural and scientific rediscovery. Many examples of Renaissance art and architecture are with us to this day. A visit to Florence is a must for Renaissance scholars.
But the power and excesses of the Roman Catholic Church during the Renaissance proved a step too far for some. Believing that the Catholic Church had deviated from traditional Christian practice, Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses document in Germany challenged the ecclesiastical status quo.
And thus began the Reformation, another major period in European history.