Italian Renaissance: The Events that Preceeded the Period

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The renaissance is that time when changes and improvements occurred in Europe between the 14th and 16th century, and was full of extraordinary achievements of great philosophers, poets, painters, architects and scientists. Margaret King (a scholar, and author of “the Renaissance in Europe”) describes the Renaissance, in her book as more of a cultural movement associated with that society that was itself the core of many factors and aspects: commerce, arts, scientific discovery, violence, peasant migrations, famine, plague, invasion, ETC…. This, eventually, spread from Italy to the rest of the continent, influencing the development route that the Western society took. Before reaching Europe’s golden era, the whole place has gone through a rough time, where they had to deal with the Black Death that invaded every country and caused the death of about 25-40 % of the population. And then all its consequences of famine, economic turmoil, violence and political instability. Not to forget to mention the “hundred years’ war” and the struggle with social disruption.

In the fourteenth century, the peninsula of Italy didn’t achieve a centralised, united state. The central part was under the papacy control. The north parts were independent of any political authority. The republic of Florence was one of those independent republics that would play a crucial role in the movement later. It all started when the trade roads choose the Italian ports, due to its convenient geographic location, to reach the northern and western parts of Europe, coming from the Middle-East and North Africa. Furthermore, Florence has become a very busy trade center that took the state into a remarkable economic blast, which led to a great industrial development. Along with all the merchants and the goods, tradesmen brought some of the Roman and Greek scholars and books, which sparked a lot of the Italian students’ and scholars’ interests.

On the other side, many of the medieval countryside traditions have changed into a more productive, city-state kind of lifestyle. The peasant migration from the villages to the cities began, in order to find a better life for them and for their offspring; male children were sent to master craftsmen to learn different local trades, some went to the universities, and some others wealthy peasants started to own lands. All that paved the way for a middle urban society to show up with more money and more freedom. On the industrial side, by the beginning of the 15th century, the Florentine woolen industry revived. Simultaneously, other luxurious industries established and expanded, such as: silk, metal and precious stones items. Printing press was started and books were printed and got an increasing demand as many people had the will and the money to read more. This contributed significantly to the renaissance presence at the time. Mining had a breakthrough; new digging and metal-separation technologies were implemented; silver, copper and iron were manufactured.

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Humanism came in after, which is defined as another intellectual movement focused on the study of the “classics”. The classics are the ancient Greek and Roman scholars and philosophers’ work. Nonetheless, it began with the recovery of the vernacular poetry. Petrach was one of the earliest Humanists who had a great influence on the humanism students and others’ work. He was called “Father of Humanism”. Giannozzo Manetti, another humanist, described it as a cultural and multidisciplinary momentum that included natural philosophy, theology, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music.

Humanists, in general, were mostly teachers in schools and universities, secretaries in the chancelleries of the Italian cities, rhetoric’s professors. Some others, on the other hand, served the courts of princes and popes. The initial main goal of humanists is to examine the studies of humanity i.e.: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral ethics, having “the classics” as their reference. At the time, education followed the utilitarian approach which focused on benefiting the elite and wealthy families or persons. This was another point on the humanists’ list to correct, as they went against this approach and brought their alternative one that targeted all levels of citizens by providing proper and equal education to enable them to speak and write fluently, so that they can engage more efficiently in the civic life in order to build a stronger society.

To carry that on, humanists built schools, after their ideas and believe gained popularity, to educate children. The main taught subjects were liberal studies and arts, for example: philosophy, music, poetry, astronomy… which were considered the key to freedom. While the ancient Greeks were their main reference, The Italian humanists implemented the Greek’s physical training into their schools, such as: archery, swimming, hunting, and dancing. Although one of the humanists’ goals is to integrate equal education system, it did not happen at once! Even though it seemed that the society was willing to change, its ability to accept the changes was slow and during the 15th century those schools were only for the elite and wealthy children; that would change over time, however. The Platonic Academy, an example of the humanists’ schools, that was built in Florence by Cosimo De’ Medici, revived the work of Plato, whose work was the base of a lot of humanists’ studies.

The humanists’ interest did not stop at the literary aspect, but it shifted towards arts, painting, and sculpture. As we can expect it also took influence from the Roman and Greek style; however, it had its own characteristics. In their painting, they used oil instead of tempera – colours mixed with egg. They introduced light/shadow, smoked edges and 3D paintings, which was unheard of at the time. The main topic was still religion-based, but they moved from using golden backgrounds to have more natural ones. They added more details to the figures and made it seem more like a realistic picture. The idea of representing death and mortality, that was brought as a result of the plague, disappeared and the artists tend to represent the beauty of humans and human’s body. The illustration of nudity was revived after it was illegal, which was noticed in sculptures as well. The work would show regular people standing in natural poses, sometimes naked.

Going back to the 13th century, when the Church, the pope especially, had reached the most powerful state. The public lives tended to be very religious and even for students; theology was the highest field of study that the person can study. Moreover, when an author wanted to publish an article or a book, it had to be read by someone in authority in the church in order not to have anything against the church or the pope published to the public. For instance, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian renaissance nobleman and philosopher, wrote a defense on his 900 thesis; however, he was not allowed later on to publish because 13 of his thesis were condemned by the pope. Thus, all 900 theses were banned universally from being published.

Then many events led the church and the pop to lose their supreme power and control, starting with the conflict between the King Philip IV and the pope, then the appearance of three popes at a time, the conciliar movement later. By this the humanists’ struggle would decrease greatly that would allow them to achieve their goals eventually, and would give the public more freedom of speech and believe. All in all, just like any other evolutionary movement, Humanism and Humanists had work their way out of the darkness and it is clear that they accomplished their ultimate goals at the end. Mainly they managed to take the society to its modern civic form. And after that the French revolution would take place to carry out the same message of success which was led by education, learning, and adaption.

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