World History Unit 1, Lesson 3: The Italian Renaissance
The Italian Renaissance was a period in Italian history that covered the 14th through the 17th centuries. The period is known for the development of a culture that spread across Europe and marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity with proponents of a “long Renaissance” arguing that it started around the year 1300 and lasted until about 1600 while some fields accept a Proto-Renaissance beginning around 1250.
The French word renaissance means “rebirth”, and defines the period as one of cultural revival and renewed interest in classical antiquity after the centuries during what Renaissance humanists labeled as the “Dark Ages”. The Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari used the term “Rebirth” in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550, but the concept became widespread only in the 19th century, after the work of scholars such as Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt. Historiographers have proposed various events and dates of the 17th century, such as the conclusion of the European Wars of Religion in 1648, as marking the end of the Renaissance.
Beginning and Spread of Italian Rennaissance
The Renaissance began in Tuscany in Central Italy and centred in the city of Florence. The Florentine Republic, one of the several city-states of the peninsula, rose to economic and political prominence by providing credit for European monarchs and by laying down the groundwork and foundation in capitalism and in banking.
Renaissance culture later spread to Venice, heart of a Mediterranean empire and in control of the trade routes with the east since its participation in the crusades and following the journeys of Marco Polo between 1271 and 1295. Thus Italy renewed contact with antiquity which provided humanist scholars with new texts. Finally the Renaissance had a significant effect on the Papal States and on Rome, largely rebuilt by humanist and Renaissance popes such as Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503) and Julius II (r. 1503–1513), who frequently became involved in Italian politics, in arbitrating disputes between competing colonial powers and in opposing the Protestant Reformation which started c. 1517.
The Italian Renaissance has a reputation for its achievements in painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, music, philosophy, science, technology, and exploration. Italy became the recognized European leader in all these areas by the late 15th century, during the era of the Peace of Lodi (1454–1494) agreed between Italian states. The Italian Renaissance peaked in the mid-16th century as domestic disputes and foreign invasions plunged the region into the turmoil of the Italian Wars (1494–1559); however, the ideas and ideals of the Italian Renaissance spread into the rest of Europe, setting off the Northern Renaissance from the late 15th century.
Explorers and Scientists
Italian explorers from the maritime republics served under the auspices of European monarchs, ushering in the Age of Discovery. The most famous among them include Christopher Columbus (who sailed for Spain), Giovanni da Verrazzano (for France), Amerigo Vespucci (for Portugal), and John Cabot (for England). Italian scientists such as Falloppio, Tartaglia, Galileo and Torricelli played key roles in the scientific revolution, and foreigners such as Copernicus and Vesalius worked in Italian universities.
Writers, Poets, and Historians
Accounts of Renaissance literature usually begin with the three great Italian writers of the 14th century: Dante Alighieri (Divine Comedy), Petrarch (Canzoniere), and Boccaccio (Decameron). Famous vernacular poets of the Renaissance include the epic authors Luigi Pulci (author of Morgante), Matteo Maria Boiardo (Orlando Innamorato), Ludovico Ariosto (Orlando Furioso), and Torquato Tasso (Jerusalem Delivered, 1581).
15th-century writers such as the poet Poliziano (1454-1494) and the Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) made extensive translations from both Latin and Greek. In the early-16th century, Baldassare Castiglione laid out his vision of the ideal gentleman and lady in The Book of the Courtier (1528), while Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) cast a jaundiced eye on “la verità effettuale della cosa”—the effectual truth of things—in The Prince, composed, in humanistic style, chiefly of parallel ancient and modern examples of virtù.
Historians of the period include Machiavelli himself, his friend and critic Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) and Giovanni Botero (The Reason of State, 1589). The Aldine Press, founded in 1494 by the printer Aldo Manuzio, active in Venice, developed Italic type and pocket editions that one could carry in one’s pocket; it became the first to publish printed editions of books in Ancient Greek. Venice also became the birthplace of the Commedia dell’Arte.
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527) was an Italian diplomat, philosopher, and historian who lived during the Renaissance. He is best known for his political treatise The Prince (Il Principe), written about 1513. He has often been called the father of modern political philosophy and political science.
For many years he served as a senior official in the Florentine Republic with responsibilities in diplomatic and military affairs. He wrote comedies, carnival songs, and poetry. His personal correspondence is also important to historians and scholars of Italian correspondence. He worked as secretary to the Second Chancery of the Republic of Florence from 1498 to 1512, when the Medici were out of power.
Machiavelli’s name came to evoke unscrupulous acts of the sort he advised most famously in his work, The Prince. He claimed that his experience and reading of history showed him that politics have always been played with deception, treachery and crime. He also notably said that a ruler who is establishing a kingdom or a republic, and is criticized for his deeds, including violence, should be excused when the intention and the result is beneficial. Machiavelli’s Prince has had a mixed reaction. Some considered it a straightforward description of the evil means used by bad rulers; others read in it evil recommendations to tyrants to help them maintain their power. Even into recent times, some scholars, such as Leo Strauss, have stated that the opinion that Machiavelli was a “teacher of evil” should be taken seriously.
The term Machiavellian often connotes political deceit, deviousness, and realpolitik. Even though Machiavelli has become most famous for his work on principalities, scholars also give attention to the exhortations in his other works of political philosophy. While much less well known than The Prince, the Discourses on Livy (composed c. 1517) has been said to have paved the way of modern republicanism. It has also significantly influenced authors who have attempted to revive classical republicanism, including Hannah Arendt.
Artists, Architects, and Musicians
Italian Renaissance art exercised a dominant influence on subsequent European painting and sculpture for centuries afterwards, with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael (1483-1520), Donatello (c. 1386-1466), Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337), Masaccio (1401-1428), Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455), Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-1494), Perugino (c. 1446-1523), Botticelli (c.1445-1510), and Titian (c. 1488-1576). Italian Renaissance architecture had a similar Europe-wide impact, as practiced by Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), and Bramante (1444-1514). Their works include the Florence Cathedral (built from 1296 to 1436), St. Peter’s Basilica (built 1506-1626) in Rome, and the Tempio Malatestiano (reconstructed from c. 1450) in Rimini, as well as several private residences.
The musical era of the Italian Renaissance featured composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594), the Roman School and later the Venetian School, and the birth of opera through figures like Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in Florence. In philosophy, thinkers such as Galileo, Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) emphasized naturalism and humanism, thus rejecting dogma and scholasticism.
House of Medici
The House of Medici was an Italian banking family and political dynasty that first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century. The family originated in the Mugello region of Tuscany, and prospered gradually until it was able to fund the Medici Bank. This bank was the largest in Europe during the 15th century, and it facilitated the Medici’s rise to political power in Florence, although they officially remained citizens rather than monarchs until the 16th century.
The Medici Bank, from when it was created in 1397 to its fall in 1494, was one of the most prosperous and respected institutions in Europe, and the Medici family was considered the wealthiest in Europe for a time. From this base, they acquired political power initially in Florence and later in wider Italy and Europe. They were among the earliest businesses to use the general ledger system of accounting through the development of the double-entry bookkeeping system for tracking credits and debits.
Influence on the Church
The Medici produced four popes of the Catholic Church—Pope Leo X (1513–1521), Pope Clement VII (1523–1534), Pope Pius IV (1559–1565) and Pope Leo XI (1605)—and two queens of France—Catherine de’ Medici (1547–1559) and Marie de’ Medici (1600–1610). In 1532, the family acquired the hereditary title Duke of Florence.
In 1569, the duchy was elevated to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany after territorial expansion. The Medici ruled the Grand Duchy from its inception until 1737, with the death of Gian Gastone de’ Medici. The grand duchy witnessed degrees of economic growth under the early grand dukes, but was bankrupt by the time of Cosimo III de’ Medici (r. 1670–1723).
The Medicis’ wealth and influence was initially derived from the textile trade guided by the wool guild of Florence, the Arte della Lana. Like other families ruling in Italian signorie, the Medici dominated their city’s government, were able to bring Florence under their family’s power, and created an environment in which art and humanism flourished. They and other families of Italy inspired the Italian Renaissance, such as the Visconti and Sforza in Milan, the Este in Ferrara, the Borgia in Rome, and the Gonzaga in Mantua.
The Medici family have claimed to have funded the invention of the piano and opera, financed the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica and Santa Maria del Fiore, and were patrons of Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli, Galileo and Francesco Redi among many others in the arts and sciences. They were also protagonists of the counter-reformation, from the beginning of the reformation through the Council of Trent and the French wars of religion.
House of Borgia
The House of Borgia was a Spanish-Aragonese noble family, which rose to prominence during the Italian Renaissance. They were from Aragon, the surname being a toponymic from the town of Borja, then in the Crown of Aragon, in Spain. The Borgias became prominent in ecclesiastical and political affairs in the 15th and 16th centuries, producing two popes: Alfons de Borja, who ruled as Pope Callixtus III during 1455–1458, and Rodrigo Lanzol Borgia, as Pope Alexander VI, during 1492–1503.
Especially during the reign of Alexander VI, they were suspected of many crimes, including adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). Because of their grasping for power, they made enemies of the Medici, the Sforza, and the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, among others.
The Borgias were also patrons of the arts who contributed to the development of the Renaissance. The Borgia family stands out in history as being infamously steeped in sin and immorality, yet there is evidence to suggest that this one-dimensional characterization is a result of undeserved contemporary critiques.
Previous Lesson: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire
Next Lesson: The Catholic Church
Lesson 5: Absolute Monarchy
Lesson 1: Fall of Rome to the Middle Ages
Unit 2: The Age of Exploration
Unit 3: Revolutions Around The World
Unit 4: Political Change
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