Lecture: The Renaissance

Burckhardt's bookThe Renaissance was invented by Jacob Burckhardt in his book "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" (1860). I know that seems like a funny thing to say, but in his book about the wonderfulness of the Renaissance, he came up with the idea of this as a separate era. I've mentioned that we are chronologically challenged here, because the Late Middle Ages have pretty much the same dates (1300-1500) as the Renaissance (1350-1500).

But the other thing that Burckhardt did, to which I take much offence, is to invent the Middle Ages. Burckhardt saw the classical past of Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of human existence, surpassed only by the era where those ideas were revived. Everything that came in between, from the "fall of Rome" (that is, the migration of the Germanic tribes into the West) to Petrarch's letters, was just in the "middle". He saw this huge era (about 500-1350) as being a morass of superstition, Church control, and groupthink. In this class, of course, we know different -- the Middle Ages was a time of community, innovation, artistic advancement, economic expansion, and technological miracles (at least up until the Black Death). How could he diss the era of the cathedral, the fulling mill, and the translation of Aristotle?

What Burckhardt emphasized, and what we emphasize, is the culture that developed first in Italy and later spread northward. The Renaissance, up to a point, is where things become a little more modern.

Classicism and humanism

After the plague swept through Europe, the southern regions experienced a little bit of warming and a more immediate recovery than the north. This may have been because of the well-draining soil and the exposure to the warmer Mediterranean, but it meant that normalcy returned to Italy sooner than elsewhere. Italy at this time was controlled by competing city-states, each run by a prominent merchant family.

Most historians use Petrarch to present the beginning of the Renaissance. Petrarch wrote letters to dead people, particularly Roman men of letters like Cicero and Virgil. He wrote about how awful his own era was, how marked by barbarism and superstition. He longed for the classical past, where men achieved great deeds as individuals (in fact, he may have been longing for virtus, which Machiavelli would change to virtú).

Classicism, as with Petrarch, was key to the origins of the Renaissance. Classicists focused on the recovery of works written in ancient Greek and Roman times. Petrarch collected Greek and Roman scrolls, and scholars like Poggio Brocciolini travelled around Europe visiting monasteries to find hidden works. This wasn't easy, as you can see:

James Burke: Books in monasteries

But there was more to the Renaissance thought than just recovering classical works. First, those works weren't always in their original form - they had often been copied and recopied, usually in the centers of Islamic learning in Spain and the eastern Mediterranean. There the knowledge, particularly in the scientific works, had been added to. So much of the science that came "back" into Europe was significantly enhanced, not just translated.

And it wasn't just a matter of recovering esoteric ideas about philosophy, either. Classicism was the beginning, but it evolved into humanism. The information being recovered had at its heart a pre-Christian method about what people could understand, and what people could accomplish, here and now on earth. The old works predated the dominance of the Roman Church and the communitarianism of feudal life. In classical works, men did great deeds: Pericles of Athens, Julius Caesar of Rome. Medieval Europeans read about accomplished leaders and powerful elites who propounded great ideas and had historical influence.

This reading and discussing of pre-Christian works influenced the worldview of literate people. This was especially true in the Italian city-states, where merchant families began to see their governing and competition within a framework of human endeavor. The leaders of Genoa and Venice saw themselves as the leaders of states and empires.

And it's hard to determine cause and effect here. Did the Medicis rise to power because they were exposed to the classics? Or did they become commercially powerful and use the humanism that developed from classicism to justify and expand that power?

Certainly what developed was something different, that had nothing to do with just humanism, the belief that man could achieve great things. For the commercial cities of Italy, historians begin referring to "civic humanism". Civic humanism combines the belief in human endeavor with loyalty to your city-state. Venetians adopted St Mark as their patron and saw Venice as the finest place in the world. Florentine families patronized great artists and architects to show their wealth and make their city beautiful. Without all this money, there would not have been a Renaissance in art at all.


The big question for historians is: how deep did this humanism go? We tend to see the Renaissance as the origin of two elements we value today: individualism and secularism. Individualism is easy to find in art and in high politics - we know the names of Michaelangelo and Cesare Borgia because they wanted  them to be known. But we don't know the names of humble craftspeople, and the humanism in the great cities was based on your role in the state, not on who you were as a person. Secularism (life apart from religion) also seems obvious in a time of humanism, but is actually hard to find. Most of the great works of art of still of religious subjects. So why do we believe this was a great time for the individual and secular life?

Partly because of Renaissance philosophy, which reached a zenith in Pico della Mirandola. Pico explained that there was a ladder of all creation, with angels at the top and earthly things (rocks, maybe) at the bottom. Man is in between, and he can choose to go up the ladder toward the angels, or down toward the beasts. The choice is not made by God, but by the person. God made the ladder, God put man in the middle, God gave man the choice.

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Machiavelli went beyond this, writing a book about the skills necessary to be a powerful prince in Italy. The work is famous for its lack of referral to ethics, morality, God or religion (except to say that a prince should be seen going to church). Even more than Pico, Machiavelli leads us to believe that the Renaissance was a secular time.

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To Castiglione, who wrote a gentler guidebook for how to be a good courtier at the court of a prince, what was needed was talent in a wide variety of areas, such as dancing, manners, fencing, writing, scholarship -- what it took to be a "Renaissance man". Again, the focus is clearly on this life, this world, and what an individual needs to achieve success.

And if we combine this with the new painting styles, which set their religious subjects on contemporary streets and with the faces of the people at the time, and which used the new science to obtain perspective, things begin to look more modern.

Mouse over the picture for image annotations and explanations:

Perspective: James Burke on how they did it (explained in a way non-scientists can understand):


And there was even emerging an expectation regarding the education of women, who were often neglected intellectually unless they were in a monastery or convent. In fact, the role of abbess, the head of an abbey of nuns, had been one of the highest vocations for women in the Middle Ages. But as early as the 15th century, arguments were forming for educating women better, at least those of elite status. Here's Christine de Pisan from her book of 1405:

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Religious feeling and response

I'm afraid I cannot completely buy into secularism as a primary force during the Renaissance, and it's not just because some of the best artworks feature the Virgin Mary. According to Bill Moyers in his documentary on Florence, the humanist focus caused people to lose their moorings. If God was not a primary force, then what was? Were people really on their own in a world that featured such appealing aspects as plague, war and political power struggles? If man was alone, did that not make him responsible for everything? Moyers talked to author Sidney Alexander:

Moorings Lost: Bill Moyers Power of the Past - Florence

SavonarolaNot everyone went along with the free-for-all secular ideas either. Girolamo Savonarola was a monk in Florence who was very upset about the total lack of morality he saw everywhere. The wealthy families were engaged in an orgy of consumerism that pulled everyone away from God. He staged Bonfires of the Vanities, where people would bring out their expansive paintings, mirrors, and fabrics and throw them on the fire, vowing to return to a simpler Christianity. In 1494, when the French king overthrew the Medici family, he became the main power in Florence, creating a republic and trying to reform the Church. Eventually the papacy came after him and he was executed as a heretic.

But his extraordinary popularity during his time attests to the fact that many were uncomfortable with the immorality that seemed inherent in humanism.


How socieities view sex is not only part of how they define morality, but it helps us understand the concerns of society. You may recall how in the Middle Ages the Church had huge penitentials for sexual sins, speaking to the wide variety of activity. As Savanarola saw, the wealth and secularism of the time led to a loosening of sexual mores.

The Renaissance has been called "The Age of Bastards", because the usual method of birth control was withdrawl and because children were highly valued in the century after the Black Death. Veronica FrancoThe popes of this time, who were certainly supposed to be celibate, had mistresses and children in the papal palace. There were even Church-run brothels for priests and bishops in Rome.

Prostitution was extremely popular. Veronica Franco, a Venetian courtesan, charged an average of a week in a worker's wages for just a kiss. She's pictured here, in a painting by Tintoretto from 1575. Like the courtesans of ancient Greece, Franco was not just a sexual entertainer, but also accomplished in the arts and hospitality. She was also a poet.

Homosexual activity increased, often celebrated as a revival of Greek and Roman culture among the elite.

In 1495, a new disease appeared in Europe -- syphilis. Although some blamed the crew of Christopher Columbus for bringing it from the New World, I find it unlikely that it could have spread that widely from a batch of crew members in only three years. It was a very virulent sexually-transmitted disease, which could cause sterility and insanity. Condoms, made of animal intensines or skin, became popular as a result.

Renaissance Sculpture

Reviving the Greco-Roman ideals also happened in sculpture. Here my favorite example is the David. In the Bible, David was an underdog who fought the giant Goliath and won. Venice has St. Mark as its patron, but Florence had David. Florence saw itself as an underdog beset by more powerful enemies.

The David of Donatello can be compared to the David of Michaelangelo to show not only this character as an image of Florence, but also two different styles of art and patronage during the Renaissance.

Donatello's David was made for a private client for his personal collection. It gracefully captures that time of life that was considered ideal in both ancient Greece and the Renaissance -- the time when a boy becomes a man.

It was created for the Medici for their palace, and is thought to be the first free-standing nude of a male since classical times.

David stands with his foot on the head of Goliath, whom he has just defeated.

Donatello David frontDonatello David back

Michaelangelo's David was meant to be displayed in the public square, as a community symbol.


Both works are free-standing statues, and have Renaissance detail and knowledge of the human body (medical schools were dissecting corpses, providing a lot of information about skeletal and muscular structure).

But they have very different styles. Donatello's is graceful and beautiful, his posture almost lazy since he has already achieved victory. Michaelangelo's is strong and focused, ready to face the giant.

In addition to the difference between lovely and strong, and between private and public art, the two statues also show us the way that biblical subjects can be used to represent very earthly things.

That's why it's best to see the Renaissance not as a time of only worldliness, but a time when medieval Christianity and the classical past encountered each other and were moved forward to reflect the new economy and politics of the era.

We'll see this also in the Reformations, which will appear to be wholly religious but also have very wordly aspects.

Michaeleangelo's David

Video to watch

This is the whole video from which the clip above is excerpted. You should print and fill out this study guide as you watch.

Florence: Power of the Past


Lessons of History

1. The Renaissance began with classicism, the recovery of classical works via the Islamic learning centers.

2. A major part of this recovery included science that made possible artistic perspective.

3. The Renaissance was not as secular as most people think.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.