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The Renaissance was the period from 1350-1600. The Renaissance began first in the city-states of Italy for many reasons. Although most of Europe had become a big economic crisis during the late Middle Ages, Italy managed to avoid everything and their towns remained important centers of Mediterranean trade and boost their production of textiles and luxury goods. Town life was bigger in Italy than in other parts of Europe.
Therefore, most Italians could easily discard feudalism and other medieval institutions.
Because Italy was wealthy and successful, they became independent city-states, each of which included a walled urban center and the surrounding countryside. The Italian city-states started a new social order. It was that wealth and ability mattered more than aristocratic titles and ownership of land. Wealthy merchants and bankers replaced the nobles in the upper class. Shopkeepers and artisans ranked below the wealthy merchants, forming a moderately prosperous middle class that employed a lot of poor workers. Most of these workers came from the countryside. And at the very bottom of the social ladder, were the peasants who worked on the country estates for the wealthy classes.
During the Renaissance, Italy was not under one government, but was divided into the city-states. Each of these were ruled by wealthy families whose fortunes came from commercial trading or banking. A lot of times, workers rebelled against the upper classes. Their demands for equal rights and lower taxes, however, remained unspoken. During the 1400s, social conflicts became so bad, that many city-states decided to turn over all political authority to one single powerful leader to restore peace. These leaders were known as signori. At times, city-states would have territorial disputes.
Since military service would interfere with conducting business and trade, the signori chose to replace citizen-soldiers with hired soldiers known as condottieri.
The major city-states were Florence, Venice, Rome and Milan. A banking family known as the Medici ruled Florence in the 1400s. The Medici rulers helped to keep the spirit of humanism alive in the city-state’s scholars and artists. With the spirit alive, Florence became known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Lorenzo de’ Medici (also known as “the Magnificent” as a result of the city’s prosperity and fame) ruled Florence from 1469-1492. He used his wealth to support artists, philosophers, and writers, and to sponsor public festivals. During the 1490s, Florence’s economic prosperity began to decline due to increasing competition with English and Flemish cloth makers.
During the 1500s, Rome was considered a leading Renaissance city. In Rome, the pope and the cardinals living in the Vatican made up the wealthiest and most powerful class. They often put political goals ahead of their religious duties. The most politically minded pope, was Alexander VI. He ruled from 1492-1503 when he died. Venice was known as the port city on the Adriatic Sea. Venice’s economic power was fading due to changing trade routes and Muslim invasions in the east. A good thing about Venice’s prosperity, was their political stability. An elected doge, or leader, ruled their republican government. Venice was highly known for it’s artistic achievements.
During the Renaissance, many artists experimented with new techniques. Renaissance art added perspective and depth on things. This made them more life-like and captivating.
They learned how to express subtle gestures, to reveal emotion. In their architecture, however, artists returned to the classic style. In doing this, they sought both comfort and beauty. The most famous Renaissance architect was Filippo Brunelleschi. In 1436, he designed the dome for the Cathedral of Florence. Up until then, noone had been able to come up with a design that would allow the roof to be supported without collapsing. He was considered the greatest engineering feat of the time. Renaissance sculpture also returned to classical ideas. However, in the Renaissance sculpture, it did not look stiff, but more like actual figures. Italian Renaissance painters left behind the flat, symbolic style of painting, to begin a more realistic style. This change first started in the early 1300s. In the 1400s, they started to add lighting and perspective, to give the pictures depth, and set the figures off from the background. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest Renaissance artists. He is best known for the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. In 1508, he was hired by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel with pictures from the Bible.
War helped spread ideas of different cultures. After France invaded Italy in 1494, they became fascinated with Italian Renaissance art and fashions. Some northern Europeans began to travel to Italy to study with Italian masters. This began the emergence of a newly educated middle class. The spread of knowledge lead to the invention of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg printed a complete edition of the Bible using moveable metal type. As a result of this invention, books were published quicker and less expensive. This never would have happened if they had not learned they ways of the Italians.
French architects combined medieval Gothic towers, and windows with the classical arches used by Italian artists to create châteaux, or castles. Many French Renaissance writers, borrowed much from the new literary forms from the Italian Renaissance. François Rabelais was France’s most popular Renaissance writer. He wrote on such subjects as law, medicine, politics, theology, botany, and navigation.
The wealthy towns of Germany and the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.) accepted the Italian Renaissance. Pieter Brueghel was an artist who combined Italian technique with the artistic traditions of their homelands. He painted realistic portraits, religious themes, landscapes, and scenes of daily life.
Renaissance ideas did not spread to England until 1485, when the Wars of the Roses ended. Thomas More was a statesman wrote a book that criticized the society of his day by comparing it with an ideal society in which everyone was equal and prosperous. The best-known English playwright was William Shakespeare. He drew ideas from medieval legends, classic mythology, and the histories of England, Denmark, and ancient Rome. He also dealt with human qualities such as jealousy, love, ambition, and despair so greatly that his plays are still well known today.
A German monk named Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. He was born in 1483, and was the son of middle-class townspeople. In 1505, he was almost struck by lightning in a thunderstorm. He thought this was God’s way of punishing him. In return for protection, he prayed that he would become a monk. Shortly afterward, he entered a monastery. Pope Leo X was trying to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and in order to raise money, he sold church positions to his friends and also authorized sales of indulgences. These were certificates issued by the church to reduce or even cancel punishments for a person’s sins. Luther preached against the sale of indulgences, and so on October 31, 1517, he hung a placard with 95 statements, on the door of the Wittenberg Church, criticizing indulgences and other church policies.
The Italian Renaissance truly had the biggest effect on the time period from 1300-1600. Bits and pieces were taken from it, to add to events that led from that. Therefore, if the Italian Renaissance hadn’t started it all, a lot less things would have been accomplished.