The research is devoted to the analysis of Renaissance history in Italy between 1400 and 1550. The contribution of the Italian Renaissance in the development of human civilization will be hardly ever evaluated. The historic and cultural values, as well as advances in all fields of life, have left a bright trait in the history of humanity and for sure occupy one of the most important pages in the history of human development. The outstanding masterpieces occupy the best places in the museums and art galleries all over the world and belong to mankind representing the prominent period in human history called Renaissance.
The Renaissance was a cultural current that deeply influenced European intellectual views in the early modern period. Taking origin in Italy, and expanding to the whole of Europe by the 16th century, its effect was related to literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual life. Renaissance scholars applied the humanist approach in their study and sought realism and human emotion in painting, architecture, and sculpture.
Renaissance thinkers searched for knowledge from ancient texts, typically written in Latin or ancient Greek. Scholars searched through Europe’s conventual libraries, seeking works of antiquity that had disappeared. In such texts they established a high will to develop and advance their worldly knowledge; an entirely different approach to the transcendental spirituality provided by medieval Christianity (Cole, 1987). They did not refuse Christianity; on the opposite, a large variety of the Renaissance’s masterpieces were dedicated to it, and the Church supported and encouraged many works of Renaissance art. However, a certain shift occurred in the way that scholars considered religion and that resulted in many other fields of cultural life (Cole, 1987).
Artists attempted to depict the human form realistically, improving techniques to render background, perspective, and light more naturally. In general, the Renaissance could be introduced as an effort by scholars to study and improve the secular and worldly, both through the ideas from antiquity and through the original approach to the way of thinking.
Origin of Renaissance in Italy
Northern Italy in the High Middle Ages
The Italian Renaissance was the basis of the Renaissance, a period of great cultural change and achievement in Europe that lasted for the period from the end of the 14th century to about 1600, marking the stage between Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cole, 1987).
The unique political situation of late Middle Ages Italy resulted in a statement of some scientists that its unusual social structure made possible a rare cultural development. Italy was not classified as uniting political structure in the early modern period. Instead, it was separated into smaller autonomous city-states and territories: the kingdom of Naples in the south, the Republic of Florence and the Papal States in the central part, the Genoese and the Milanese in the north and west, and the Venetians in the east (Valentiner, 1990). Fifteenth-century Italy represented one of the most urbanized parts of Europe. Various cities are located among the remains of the ancient Roman Empire; it could be argued that the classical spirit of the Renaissance was related to its origin in the Roman Empire’s heartlands.
Cultural Conditions in Florence
Italy at this time was known for its merchant Republics, including the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Venice. Despite, the fact that the ruling class was represented by oligarchs, the certain political freedom they allowed was favorable to academic and artistic improvement (Berenson, 1992). However, the location of Italian cities as great trading centers introduced them as intellectual crossroads as well. The prosperity such activities brought to Italy reflected that large public and private artistic ideas could be carried out and people had more leisure time for study (Bazin, 1988).
The Black Death in Florence
Another theory states that the effect of the Black Death in Florence influenced the worldview of people in 14th century Italy (Cole, 1987). Italy was extremely affected by the plague, and it has been mentioned that the familiarity with death made thinkers pay more attention to studying their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife. It has also been mentioned that the Black Death resulted in a new wave of devotion, indicated in the contribution to religious works of art (Bazin, 1988). However, this does not fully cover the question of why the Renaissance originated in Italy in the 14th century (Cole, 1987). The Black Death was a factor that influenced all of Europe, not only Italy. The Renaissance’s establishment in Italy appears to be the result of the complex interrelation of all mentioned aspects (Bazin, 1988).
Florence under Medici
There is no certain answer to why the Renaissance commenced in Florence, and not elsewhere in Italy (Berenson, 1992). Several features belonging to Florentine cultural life may have been a basis for such a cultural current. Some theorists state the role played by the Medici family in supporting and stimulating the arts. Lorenzo de’ Medici contributed huge sums to support the projects of Florence’s leading artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
The Renaissance certainly commenced before Lorenzo acquired power. Some theorists argued that the renaissance originated in Florence due to a coincident sequence, i.e. because “Great Men” were born there by chance (Cole, 1987). Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo were all originated from Tuscany. Stating that such coincident appears to be not influential, other scholars mention that these “Great Men” became able to achieve prominence due to the cultural conditions of that time (Bazin, 1988).
The focus of the research now shifts on the Renaissance impacts on Italian painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Renaissance Sculpture and Painting in Florence and Rome
In painting, the false starting influence of Giotto’s realism was interacted by a return to conservative late Gothic conventions (Cole, 1987). The Italian Renaissance in painting recommenced in Florence and Tuscany with the frescos of Masaccio then the panel paintings and frescos of Piero Della Francesca and Paolo Uccello improved the realism of their work by applying new techniques in background and perspective, thus depicting three dimensions in two-dimensional art more correspondently to the reality (Berenson, 1992). Piero Della Francesca created several treatises from a scientific perspective. The credible space made it possible to artists to focus on the accurate depicting of the human body and naturalistic landscapes. Masaccio’s works have plasticity unreachable up to that point in time (Cole, 1987). Compared to the flatness of Gothic works, his pictures were a breakthrough. At the end of the 15th century, especially in Northern Italy, artists also commenced applying new techniques in depicting light and darkness, such as the tone contrast obvious in a variety of Titian’s portraits and the reinvention and improvement of sfumato and chiaroscuro by Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgione (Cole, 1987). The first secular projects also refer to Renaissance (Bazin, 1988). Botticelli was one of the most prominent artists whose secular paintings came down to the present time, even though he was deeply religious and introduced a variety of traditional religious works as well (Berenson, 1992).
In sculpture, Donatello’s (1386–1466) research of classical sculpture resulted in his approach to classicizing positions (such as the contrapposto pose) and subject matter (like the nude – his second sculpture of David was the first free-standing bronze nude created in Europe since the Roman Empire.) The contribution made by Donatello affected all of his followers; the greatest of whom is Michelangelo, whose David of 1500 also presented a male nude sculpture (Berenson, 1992). Michelangelo’s David was created more naturally than Donatello’s and has greater emotional depth. Both sculptures are represented in contrapposto, their weight shifted to one leg (Bazin, 1988).
The period known as the High Renaissance represents the result of the aims of the earlier period and means the accurate representation of figures in space rendered with credible motion and in an appropriately decorous style (Berenson, 1992). The most famous artists representing this time period are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Renaissance Architecture in Florence and Rome
In Italian architecture, the Renaissance style was developed in Florence. Some of the earliest works indicating Renaissance features are Filippo Brunelleschi’s church of San Lorenzo and the Pazzi Chapel (Valentiner, 1990). The interior of Santo Spirito provides a new understanding of light, clarity, and spaciousness, which is a common characteristic of the early Italian Renaissance (Berenson, 1992). Its architecture is the result of the philosophy of Humanism, the enlightenment and clarity of mind as opposed to the darkness and spirituality of the Middle Ages (Bazin, 1988). The rebirth of classical antiquity can best be seen in the Palazzo Ruccelai. Here the pilasters stick to the superposition of classical orders, with Doric capitals on the ground floor, Ionic capitals on the piano nobile, and Corinthian capitals on the uppermost floor.
In Mantua, Leone Battista Alberti was creating in the new antique style, however, his culminating work, Sant’Andrea, was not started until 1472, after the architect’s death (Bazin, 1988).
The High Renaissance, as we call the style today, was presented to Rome with Donato Bramante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio and his new approach in centrally-planned St. Peter’s Basilica (1506), which is considered the most prominent architectural project of the era, affected by almost all leading Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Giacomo Della Porta (Berenson, 1992). The commencing of the late Renaissance in 1550 is noticeable by the creating of a new column order by Andrea Palladio. Colossal columns that were two or more stories tall decorated the facades.
By the fifteenth century, writers, artists, and architects in Italy understood the changes that were occurring and were using phrases like modi antichi (in an antique manner) or alle romana et alla antica (in the manner of the Romans and the ancients) to describe their work (Bazin, 1988). As to the term “revival,” Albrecht Dürer may have been the first to apply such a definition when, in 1523, he used Wiedererwachung (English: reawakening) to express Italian art (Berenson, 1992). The term “la rinascita” first appeared, however, in its broad definition in Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori Italiani (The Lives of the Artists, 1550-68). Vasari categorized the age into three stages: the first stage includes Cimabue, Giotto, and Arnolfo di Cambio; the second stage includes Masaccio, Brunelleschi, and Donatello; the third focuces on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. It was not just the growing knowledge and understanding of classical antiquity that reflected in this development, according to Vasari, but also the increasing desire to study and imitate nature.
End of the Italian Renaissance
The end of the Renaissance is as uncertainly marked as its starting moment. Some scholars claim that the power of the austere monk Girolamo Savonarola in 1497 represents the end of Florence’s prosperity; for others, the return of the Medici represents the commencing of the late stage in the arts called Mannerism. The brief rule of Savonarola resulted in the fact that many masterpieces were destroyed in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” in the center of Florence (Berenson, 1992). In 1542 the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition was established and a few years later the Index Librorum Prohibitorum prohibited a huge variety of Renaissance works of literature (Bazin, 1988).
A certain contribution was made by the so-called Italian Wars that resulted in fading of Italy and the Renaissance.
In conclusion, it could be stated that Renaissance is a historic age rather than a time with a defined start point and endpoint. The Renaissance can be (and occasionally has been) seen as a cultural current of scholars’ practices and ideas to which specific people and identifiable individuals variously responded in different times and places.
Bazin, Germain. Italian Painting in the XIVth and XVth Centuries. Trans. Mary Chamot. New York: French and European Publications, 1988.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Cole, Bruce. Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Schmeckebier, Laurence. A Handbook of Italian Renaissance Painting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978.
Valentiner, W. R. Studies of Italian Renaissance Sculpture. London: Phaidon Press, 1990.