The Renaissance: the Defining Era of Art

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The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were vital times for the development of a modern society. After the subsequent shift away from the Middle Ages, it became apparent that this era in world history would re-examine values that the ancient Greeks and Romans created. These values, although significant in the fundamental ideas of this developing society, made it clear that the role of the Renaissance in Europe would discover both old aspects that allowed for populations to thrive and interpret them to best fit the modern era of world history. The rediscovery of art, literature, and an emphasis on education from ancient Greece and Rome was formidable for the flourishing of 14th and 15th century values.

The values that were enacted upon during the Renaissance were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman Philosophers. These philosophical theories, many of which seldom were forgotten due to the Middle Ages, took the forefront of the rebirth of European society. Particularly, the movement of Humanism began the revival of philosophical and educational needs in society. The term, which was coined by Friederich Niethammer, created a system of education that focused on humanitarian issues rather than religious issues. This system of values established concepts that altered the way that people perceived their values in society. For instance, a subsection of humanism: great potential, which stated that humans have great potential rather than being innately evil, allowed for people to prioritize taking forth their own values and prioritizing the fact that they have the capability to do anything that they put their mind to. One of the most influential figures at this time, Machiavelli, considered these ideas in his political treatise, The Prince. Machiavelli mused on how one should “strive so to bear himself that greatness, courage, wisdom, and strength may appear in all his actions (Machiavelli XIX.3.2)”. The ability for people to thrive to prioritize themselves and work on values such as these fulfilled the idea that people should stray away from the idea of fixating on religion and focus on themselves. This era of human confidence lent itself to various aspects of society that benefited the world immensely.

The benefits of Humanism, such as establishing confidence became something significant in regard to education. Education, which was one of the key pieces of both ancient Greek and Roman empires lent itself to the Renaissance as well. Specifically, women were able to get an education which was uncommon in times prior to this. Although ancient Greek and Roman societies emphasized equality in regard to democratic societies, it is clear that this narrative did not necessarily include women in it.

However, the Renaissance introduced wealthy women to education and allowed for them to gain prevalence in society. Isabella d’Este, who is considered to be the “first lady of the Renaissance,” was able to help change societies’ standards about women and their education. As she was wealthy due to her relation to Italian leaders, she was able to get educated and knew Greek and Latin. By gaining an education, she was well versed in the arts as they became more popular in Europe, commissioning such a wide variety of artists that she is considered to be a patron to the arts. One of the most important parts of history is the ability for first-hand accounts of the era. D’Este wrote over 2000 letters discussion the Renaissance and other topics related to her experience as a woman during this time period. By giving historians such a vital key to what life was like during this time period, it is clear that Isabella d’Este was able to help conserve a part of history that might not have been as well-known without her: the beginning of female education to be normalized in society. Although d’Este is one example of women getting an education in the Renaissance, it is clear that she helped pave the way for education standards to be changed by society.

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Other than women, children of the elite and wealthy had the opportunity to become well educated as well. Upper Class children were given a liberal arts education; which ensured that they would be well rounded with regard to history, rhetoric, language, grammar, and philosophy. This provided children with the foundation needed to become philosophers, scholars, and educators: all of which were influential careers at the time. Although education was important in the classroom; the Renaissance allowed for the public to become skilled in various aspects of life, including art and literature, which elicited an intellectual culture of curiosity and questioning to become prevalent again.

Literature, in particular, shaped the future and the ability for all parts of society to begin to pose intellectual inquiries and determine the importance of society in their day to day lives. For instance, the printing press revolutionized the accessibility of education in society. Created by Johan Gutenberg, this device allowed for books to be mass produced; allowing for lower classes (such as merchants) to purchase books. By creating this, books no longer had to be copied by hand and distributed only to the rich, who could afford them. The masses now had the ability to become self-educated, which changed the notion that only the wealthy could be intelligent. Authors tended to focus on subject matter that would provide both commentaries on society; but also enlighten readers about humanity and ethics. Particularly, In the Praise of Folly, a societal critique by Erasmus noted on the corruptness in society. “Nor in this alone, which we only proposed by way of example, but in all his life, and without hypocrisy, does a holy man fly those things that have any alliance with the body and is wholly ravished with things eternal, invisible, and spiritual (…) I briefly show you that that great reward they so much fancy is nothing else but a kind of madness (Erasmus 16.1.1-6).” By referring to the corruptness in the Catholic Church, not only did his work allow society to critically think about those in positions of authority, but it also became a significant piece of literature for other members of society. Specifically, it has been noted that The Praise of Folly helped inspire Martin Luther to write the 95 Theses, which revolutionized the Catholic Church. Literature and learning proved to be important in the development of a newly created society, as it allowed for the people of the fourteenth and fifteenth century to become influenced by topics that were discussed centuries prior to the rebirth of literature.

Although literature was influential in the formation of the fourteenth and fifteenth century ideas, art became significant in the way that people were depicted. Rather than focusing on media of the Middle Ages, such as flat and dark depictions of people and religious figures; the Renaissance referred back to ancient Greek and Roman styles of art. Inspired by the Classical movement, which the Greeks and Romans relied on as they depicted hyper realistic sculptures and paintings of human subject matter; Renaissance artists began to revive this style of media and focus on adding value to their work. By reintroducing Realism and having the desire for perfection in their work, it is clear that artists fought for more relevance in their time period than years prior. Due to the fact that materials became more affordable and the upper class were able to commission artists for their work, it is clear that art began to make a comeback after being revitalized in this era.

Artists that grew popular during this movement had the ability to influence and inspire other artists at the time; however, some still have legacies that cement their names as the most famous artists of all time. Leonardo da Vinci, who painted the Mona Lisa, helped popularize the realistic style of artwork that seemingly went away during the Middle Ages. This work helped inspire millions of artists, including Rembrandt. Rembrandt, best known for being the “greatest painter in Northern Europe” at the time, was heavily inspired by Da Vinci’s The Last Supper to the point of replicating the piece in his personal style. The interworking of these artists helped define a movement. As Rembrandt’s work became prominent by simply depicting works of everyday life and common people, it inspired artists to prefer techniques that focused on Realism. The theme of Realism continues in Michelangelo’s work, which focused more on religious figures in juxtaposition to Rembrandt and Da Vinci. One of the most well-known paintings, The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, depicts biblical images in the Vatican. It showcases what artwork at this time symbolized with the immense amount of detail on each person painted. The usage of shading and the push for Realism, inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans, allowed for some of the most influential pieces in art history to be created.

The Renaissance truly is defining era of taking the past and using it to influence modern society. By reintroducing topics such as art, literature, and education; it is apparent that the Greek and Roman values began to infiltrate society and transform the population into more well-rounded people in comparison to the Middle Ages (where these aspects of society were not prominent at all). Art and literature created a starting point of the arts to grow in society again and for people of all classes to enjoy something that used to be exclusively for the upper class. Education became accessible to all types of people, which allowed for the general population to become better informed about those around them and the impact that certain decisions being made could impact them. Due to ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, it is apparent that the society that we live in today would be very different without their influence on the Renaissance: which completely defined modern society.

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