St. Peter's Basillica

St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica Sancti Petri), Vatican, a great example of Renaissance architecture; photo credit Bryan Grasser

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The term "Renaissance" was coined by French nineteenth-century historians who, when reviewing the marvelous literary, artistic and philosophic achievements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially in Italy, viewed the era literally as a rebirth of civilization.  The idea of a renewed appreciation of the classical civilizations of the past was an important break from the Christian church which had always looked with disdain, to put it mildly, upon the pagan past of Ancient Greece and Rome.

The Renaissance was a rather amorphous cultural, artistic, literary movement that began in northern Italy in the fifteenth century--some scholars claim an earlier date. It was a "rebirth" of learning and a return to the literature and humanistic studies of the ancient world. It was not a single movement, but a series of currents in the arts and the academy.

From its origins in the Italian city-states of Florence, Milan, Venice, etc, the movement spread throughout Europe.

When scholars approach the study of the Renaissance, humanism is the most common term that is usually applied to the intellectual movement associated with the era. Humanism was inspired by the Ancient Greek focus on the beauty of the human body.  (The Church had long taught that the human body was the source of evil.)

Humanists searched the literature of ancient Greece and Rome for answers about beauty, the meaning of life and the value of the individual.  This was a daring undertaking because that literature had been produced by pagans, who were not in good favor with the Christian church.  The novelty was that the humanists could not find the answers they sought in the centuries of Christian literature, so they went back to the pre-Christian centuries.  This profoundly altered Western attitudes.

Originally humanism meant nothing more than an interest in classical Greek and Latin civilization, but in time it became more of an approach to, an understanding of, life. It was a reaction against the scholasticism of the middle ages and a reaction against the church. Humanists were secular thinkers and artists, and generally not part of the church

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), "man can do all things if he but wills them." That's much different than the church's teaching of "God can do all things."

Humanists might also point to the quote by Protagoras (a Greek sophist, 420? BCE-490? BCE), "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not."

"A humanist is one who has a love of things human, one whose regard is centered on the world about him and the best that man has done" (Edward Kennard Rand)

Some important Renaissance individuals: 

  • Francesco Petrarca (aka Petrarch, 1304-1374) is usually considered the father of humanism.  (But note how much earlier he lived than the focal point of the Renaissance, 1450-1550!) Petrarca was a student of classical Latin and researched classical Latin texts. His most important literary work was Il Canzoniere, (aka Rerum vulgarium fragmenta) sonnets and love poems to Laura. (Petrarca saw an unknown woman that he called "Laura" in church one day, and it inspired him to write these poems as he pursued her hand.) The poems were written in the vernacular, Italian, not in classical Latin or church Latin.
  • Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), completed his Decameron in 1353, one hundred tales of love and sex written in the vernacular Italian (not in classical Latin or church Latin). He is considered the father of Italian prose.
  • Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine diplomat who published his major political philosophical work, Il principe (The Prince) in 1513. The book was an analysis of the methods to gain and hold political power and has since become famous for its rejection of moral and ethical behavior in politics. According to Machiavelli, the state was a human creation and the duty of the prince was to keep it strong. Above all, the prince must learn not to be good. "From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved than feared, or feared more than loved. The reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting." Machiavelli examined politics from a secular point of view and in secular terms, not in terms of divine governance.

Three important Renaissance artists (There were many others.)--you can search the web for images of their creations. Art is probably the area that is most associated with the Renaissance. You should look for a focus on man and nature, individualism, creativity.

  • Leonardo (Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, 1452-1519), often known as a Renaissance man because of his creations in painting, sculpture, drawing, engineering, invention. See his fresco of The Last Supper, 1495-98, in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Very little of the actual fresco remains. See also his
    La Gioconda (1513?) in the Louvre Museum.
  • Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520) was one of the great painters of the Renaissance. See his School of Athens in the library of Pope Julius II. He also worked for a short time as an architect supervising the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. His unfinished Transfiguration (1520) is now in the Vatican Museum. He was buried in the Pantheon.
  • Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564) was perhaps the finest sculpture in history. See his sculpture of David (1501-04), now in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. He painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican between 1508 and 1512. See also his painting of The Last Judgment (1534-1531) which covers the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. As an architect he supervised construction of St. Peter's Basilica.

Finally, when we look at the broad sweep of history, the Renaissance is usually considered the time of transition between the classical world and Middle Ages and the Modern World. This is largely because of the secularism and humanism of the intellectual and artistic developments of the Renaissance.


Some recommended online lectures and websites:

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