The origins of the Renaissance  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Renaissance literature, Renaissance art, Renaissance, Quattrocento

Most historians agree that the ideas that characterized the Renaissance had their origin in late 13th century Florence, in particular with the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), as well as the painting of Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). Some writers date the Renaissance quite precisely; one proposed starting point is 1401, when the rival geniuses Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi competed for the contract to build the bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral (Ghiberti won). Others see more general competition between artists and polymaths such as Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Masaccio for artistic commissions as sparking the creativity of the Renaissance. Yet it remains much debated why the Renaissance began in Italy, and why it began when it did. Accordingly, several theories have been put forward to explain its origins.


Latin and Greek Phases of Renaissance humanism

Greek scholars in the Renaissance

In stark contrast to the High Middle Ages, when Latin scholars focused almost entirely on studying Greek and Arabic works of natural science, philosophy and mathematics, Renaissance scholars were most interested in recovering and studying Latin and Greek literary, historical, and oratorical texts. Broadly speaking, this began in the fourteenth century with a Latin phase, when Renaissance scholars such as Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati (1331 – 1406), Niccolò de' Niccoli (1364 – 1437) and Poggio Bracciolini (1380 – 1459 AD) scoured the libraries of Europe in search of works by such Latin authors as Cicero, Livy and Seneca. By the early fifteenth century, the bulk of such Latin literature had been recovered; the Greek phase of Renaissance humanism was now under way, as Western European scholars turned to recovering ancient Greek literary, historical, oratorical and theological texts.

Unlike the case of Latin texts, which had been preserved and studied in Western Europe since late antiquity, the study of ancient Greek texts was very limited in medieval Western Europe. Ancient Greek works on science, math and philosophy had been studied since the High Middle Ages in Western Europe and in the medieval Islamic world, but Greek literary, oratorical and historical works, (such as Homer, the Greek dramatists, Demosthenes and Thucydides and so forth), were not studied in either the Latin or medieval Islamic worlds; in the Middle Ages these sorts of texts were only studied by Byzantine scholars. One of the greatest achievements of Renaissance scholars was to bring this entire class of Greek cultural works back into Western Europe for the first time since late antiquity. This movement to reintegrate the regular study of Greek literary, historical, oratorical and theological texts back into the Western European curriculum is usually dated to Coluccio Salutati's invitation to the Byzantine diplomat and scholar Manuel Chrysoloras (c.1355 – 1415) to Florence to teach Greek, his knowledge of the Greek language was of significant importance. Another Greek Byzantine scholar of importance was Demetrius Chalcondyles (14241511) who taught Platonic philosophy and the Greek language in Italy for a period of over forty years; at Padua, Milan and Florence. Among his pupils were Johann Reuchlin, Janus Lascaris, Poliziano, Leo X, Castiglione, Giglio Gregorio Giraldi, Stefano Negri, and Giovanni Maria Cattaneo.

The fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, accompanied by the closure of its schools of higher learning by the Ottoman Turks, brought many other Greek scholars to Italy and beyond, who brought with them Greek manuscripts, and knowledge of the classical Greek literature, some of which had been lost for centuries in the West.

Social and political structures in Italy

The unique political structures of late Middle Ages Italy have led some to theorize that its unusual social climate allowed the emergence of a rare cultural efflorescence. Italy did not exist as a political entity in the early modern period. Instead, it was divided into smaller city states and territories: the Kingdom of Naples controlled the south, the Republic of Florence and the Papal States at the center, the Genoese and the Milanese to the north and west respectively, and the Venetians to the east. Fifteenth-century Italy was one of the most urbanised areas in Europe. Many of its cities stood among the ruins of ancient Roman buildings; it seems likely that the classical nature of the Renaissance was linked to its origin in the Roman Empire's heartland.

Historian and political philosopher Quentin Skinner points out that Otto of Freising (c. 1114 - 1158) , a German bishop visiting north Italy during the 12th century, noticed a widespread new form of political and social organisation, observing that Italy appeared to have exited from Feudalism so that its society was based on merchants and commerce. Linked to this was anti-monarchical thinking, represented in the famous early Renaissance fresco cycle Allegory of Good and Bad Government in Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (painted 1338–1340) whose strong message is about the virtues of fairness, justice, republicanism and good administration. Holding both Church and Empire at bay, these city republics were devoted to notions of liberty. Skinner reports that there were many defences of liberty such as Matteo Palmieri’s (1406–1475) celebration of Florentine genius not only in art, sculpture and architecture, but “the remarkable efflorescence of moral, social and political philosophy that occurred in Florence at the same time”.

Even cities and states beyond central Italy, such as the Republic of Florence at this time, were also notable for their merchant Republics, especially the Republic of Venice. Although in practice these were oligarchical, and bore little resemblance to a modern democracy, they did have democratic features and were responsive states, with forms of participation in governance and belief in liberty. The relative political freedom they afforded was conducive to academic and artistic advancement. Likewise, the position of Italian cities such as Venice as great trading centres made them intellectual crossroads. Merchants brought with them ideas from far corners of the globe, particularly the Levant. Venice was Europe's gateway to trade with the East, and a producer of fine glass, while Florence was a capital of silk. The wealth such business brought to Italy meant large public and private artistic projects could be commissioned and individuals had more leisure time for study.

Black Death

One theory that has been advanced is that the devastation caused by the Black Death in Florence, which hit Europe between 1348 and 1350, resulted in a shift in the world view of people in 14th-century Italy. Italy was particularly badly hit by the plague, and it has been speculated that the familiarity with death that this brought caused thinkers to dwell more on their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife. It has also been argued that the Black Death prompted a new wave of piety, manifested in the sponsorship of religious works of art. However, this does not fully explain why the Renaissance occurred specifically in Italy in the 14th century. The Black Death was a pandemic that affected all of Europe in the ways described, not only Italy. The Renaissance's emergence in Italy was most likely the result of the complex interaction of the above factors.

In the wake of the black death, reduced population left work-forces depleted: this tended, throughout Europe, to give workers more bargaining power, particularly skilled workers. This led to a shift of power away from rulers and towards workers and merchants, particularly in smaller states (such as composed Italy at the time). Thus, regardless of its spiritual and psychic impact, the plague's economic (and consequent political) legacy may have helped set the scene for the Renaissance.

Cultural conditions in Florence

It has long been a matter of debate why the Renaissance began in Florence, and not elsewhere in Italy. Scholars have noted several features unique to Florentine cultural life which may have caused such a cultural movement. Many have emphasized the role played by the Medici, a banking family and later ducal housefamily, in patronizing and stimulating the arts. Lorenzo de' Medici (1449 – 1492) was the catalyst for an enormous amount of arts patronage, encouraging his countryman to commission works from Florence's leading artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

The Renaissance was certainly underway before Lorenzo came to power; indeed, before the Medici family itself achieved hegemony in Florentine society. Some historians have postulated that Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance as a result of luck, i.e. because "Great Men" were born there by chance.

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