| Chapter Summary
Chapter 13: The Italian Renaissance
In the late fourteenth century, the
Renaissance began to emerge in Italy. This chapter surveys the developments
in thought and art that transformed Italian culture and ultimately redefined
the course of Western civilization.
The Renaissance revived classical learning
in a way that broke with the medieval Christian outlook. Though not anti-Christian,
Renaissance individuals embraced the possibilities of this life rather than
focusing on the hereafter. Further, instead of renouncing earthly endeavors
for contemplation of God, these elites cultivated personal excellence, sought
the recognition of their achievements, and explored their own personalities.
This individualism was expressed through mastery of the classics. Like the
thinkers of the Twelfth-Century Awakening, Renaissance scholars valued classical
learning. However, unlike their medieval precursors, these scholars delved
more deeply into classical texts and appreciated them for their own sake.
Renaissance scholars assumed that classical authors could teach them much
about life, civic duty, and graceful self-expression. However, these thinkers,
unlike their medieval forebears, did not take the classics as timeless wisdom,
but studied them critically in their historical context.
The Renaissance unfolded in a politically
fragmented Italy. Except for forty years of relative peace, the peninsula
was torn by warfare among the Italian states and, from 1494 to 1559, between
France and Spain. During the early fifteenth century, humanism emerged in
Florence and became the principal vehicle of the classical revival. With
the patronage of the powerful Medici family, Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo
Bruno defined the studia humanitatis as an educational program based
on the study of Greek and Roman authors. The goal of their civic humanism
was to train aristocratic men for public affairs. Glorifying Dante, Petrarch,
and Boccaccio as crucial forebears, both men stressed the study of classical
languages, grammar, religion, moral philosophy, history, and poetry. Men
and women alike could study these subjects, but only men could take up rhetoric,
science, and mathematics.
Though humanism was not itself a philosophy,
it prompted notable works of philosophy, history, and political and social
thought. Instructed by Byzantine scholars, many humanists mastered Greek
and explored Platonism and Aristotle in the original. Under the influence
of Greek philosophy, humanists including Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and
Pompanazzi developed increasingly secular ideas about ethics, the human soul,
and the power of reason. Humanists often consulted ancient historians for
moral and political guidance, cultivating a critical historical awareness
that they applied in their own historical writings. Florentine secular humanism
suffered a short but violent Christian reaction led by Savonarola. After
his fall, humanism found two of its most important expressions in the work
of Machiavelli and Castiglione. Scrutinizing history and contemporary politics,
Machiavelli developed a secular theory of the state in which rulers maintain
civil order through coldly pragmatic policies. This political ideal addressed
the realities of sixteenth-century politics, as did Castiglione's social ideal.
By defining the broad, versatile attributes of the courtier and court lady,
Castiglione put the humanist ideal of well-rounded individuality at the service
of princely rule.
Renaissance art broke with the medieval
past by emphasizing the human form and the natural world. Alberti and Vasari
articulated this break by, respectively, establishing the principles of mathematical
perspective and defining the Renaissance as a distinct age, a cultural rebirth
after the period of medieval decay. During the Early Renaissance, sculptors,
architects, and painters all made the human figure and its proportions the
center of their work. Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio all adapted the
principles of linear perspective to their respective arts, while Donatello
revived the classical tradition of free-standing sculpture. To capture further
how the eye sees the world, Masaccio developed aerial perspective, while both
he and Donatello realistically modeled the shapes of their figures. Brunelleschi
embodied Renaissance ingenuity by creating an innovative dome for the Florence
Cathedral. Other painters—including Fra Fillipo Lippi, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio—experimented
with a variety of techniques, including the use of sensual color, sculptural
precision of line, and Flemish-influenced realism.
High Renaissance artists absorbed their
precursors' innovations and adapted them to a style marked by classical balance,
simplicity, and harmony. Leonardo da Vinci pioneered the new style in painting,
developing circular motion and pyramidal design to arrange figures both realistically
and harmoniously. Michelangelo introduced a new degree of emotional and physical
tension into sculpture and, as painter of the Sistine Chapel, skillfully adapted
the proportions of his figures to fit the contours of the space while giving
them monumental weight and definition. He also excelled as a poet and an
architect, executing his revision of Bramante's plan for St. Peter's in Rome.
Raphael brought harmonious pyramidal design to its highest refinement in his
Madonna-and-Child paintings and monumental School of Athens. The Venetian
style revolutionized color by introducing oil paints. Titian developed this
style by modeling his figures through color rather than line, using tone to
create individualized portraits. Tintoretto pointed toward Mannerism with
his unusual perspective lines and unearthly light.
Fueled by sixteenth-century political
and religious upheaval, Mannerism fractured High Renaissance harmony and balance.
Painters including Parmagianino and El Greco cultivated discord and instability,
distorted human proportions, and employed eccentric colors. Sofonsiba Anguissola
gained fame as a painter of psychologically insightful portraits, and Vasari
distinguished himself as both a painter and architect.
During this period, music underwent
no profound transformation. Italian composers produced sacred and secular
music in medieval polyphonic styles. However, in the sixteenth century, intermezzi,
initially composed as interludes during plays, emerged as a distinct form
that pointed the way toward opera. Further steps toward opera were taken
by the members of the Florentine camerata, who experimented with music
that would both facilitate and emotionally complement the recitation of texts.
Renaissance art and thought decisively
broke with the medieval world view. By embracing secular reason and emphasizing
earthly human achievement, Renaissance thinkers introduced the modern outlook
still familiar to us today. Further, by envisioning history as an evolution
from bloom to decay to rebirth, these thinkers established the idea of progress
that continues to shape our notions of history.