Lecture: The Renaissance and the Age of Discovery

The Renaissance

Burckhardts 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.

Age of Discovery

You should see a button for audio below. If you do not, please use another browser. The audio is me reading the lecture. You will need to read the documents from this page.

When I was in school, I recall having to trace the paths of the great European discoverers as they explored the coasts of what later became America. I also recall the story of Christopher Columbus. I learned he was an Italian who sailed for Spain, that Queen Isabella had pawned her jewels to finance his trip, that he had three ships, and that he was right when everyone else was wrong. He believed the world was round, but everyone else thought it was flat and that he would fall off the edge. He had believed that there were new lands to be discovered to the west, but no one believed him. He sailed anyway and was proved right, and that's how America was discovered. By implication, it was good to be like Columbus, to have the moral character to stand up to people when you were right and they were wrong.

All of this, I found out later, is wrong. Only the lines marking his routes were correct. Oh, and the number of ships.

Before Columbus

In 1453, the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople. It had been fought over for a long time with the Byzantine Christians. But now it was secured.

Constantinople was the wealthiest city in the western hemisphere. It was the crossover point between Europe and Asia. I had to use two pages from two different atlases to show all the trade routes of that time. The arrow marks Constantinople.

Trade routes

Now what I was told was that because the Ottoman Turks were Muslim, when they captured Constantinople they wouldn't let Christians go through, so that's why other routes to the east had to be found. Turns out that wasn't true either. What the Turks did was raise the taxes for moving goods through the city, and Europeans got no special privileges. This made the price of transport higher, which made the price of their goods higher in Europe, so they lost money. Yes, it's just basic economics.

At the same time, Iberia (the peninsula containing Spain and Portugal) were struggling with high taxes on goods also, which they were obtaining from west Africa. The big ones were gold and salt. They knew these came from the Sahara or southward, then were traded via Saracen and other Muslim traders to the West. Portugal's Prince Henry had the idea of cutting out the Muslim middlemen to trade directly with the west Africans. At the time, here was the knowledge of the world:

Ptolemy's map reconstructed

So in the late 15th century, Prince Henry (later known as The Navigator) began voyages down the west coast of Africa, seeking direct trade. He began in 1415, long before the Ottomans captured Constantinople. Africa, as you can see in the map, was not yet known south of the Sahara, but after Henry other Portugese took up the explorations, until by 1498 (six years after Columbus' first voyage), Vasco de Gama had rounded the cape of Africa and gotten to India.

In the 1480s, Columbus knew about these explorations and became convinced that he could sail west and get to the riches of Japan and China, and possibly India too.

The Technology

What made all this exploration possible was a ship which combined the best of maritime technology. The lateen boat (left) is still used today in the Indian Ocean and along the coast of Africa, as well as in the Mediterranean. Its triangular (lateen) sails made for easy maneuverability in and out of tight ports, and can pick up even the lightest wind. It also had a shallow draft, so it could move into shallow water ports. The square sail ship (right - this one is Viking) has a deeper draft to keep it from blowing over in strong ocean winds and currents, and the square sail can handle gale-force winds to move the heavy ship forward.


When  you combine the lateen sails with the square sail rigging, and balance the hull, you get the caravel, the ship that could maneuver on the coast, and cross an ocean.

Columbus' Discovery

Columbus, an Italian, began his quest by going to five of the great princes' courts in Italy, trying to raise money for his scheme. But Italy was full of Renaissance scholars who knew ancient science and geography. They all refused to finance the voyage because they did not know the Americas were there (no one did) but they did know the exact size of the earth.

It's a myth that Columbus believed the world was round while everyone else thought it was flat. Everyone since the Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians not only knew the world was round, but they had measured its circumference accurately in ancient times. (Just go out to Point Loma and look at the horizon line and you can see the world is round.) The mariners of the 15th century had a term for the point at which you will run out of food and water on your journey if you do not turn around and go back: "the ends of the earth". Since Europeans did not yet know of the presence of the American continents, but they did know the size of the earth, the presumption was that Columbus would have to cross many thousands of miles of open ocean, and could not survive with the amount of food and water one could carry on a caravel. Thus he would reach "the ends of the earth" and die. Perhaps this has been misinterpreted as falling off the edge?

(By the way, the stories of Columbus proving the earth was not flat derive from early 20th century efforts to make immigrant children fit into the American melting pot, and European heroes were part of that. It is easy to explain to small children how an Italian mariner showed everyone he was right and they were wrong by using the flat earth story.)

Since the educated Italians would not fund the voyage, Columbus went to Spain, which was just finishing up its Reconquista (kicking all the Jews and Muslims out of Spain in the name of pure Christianity). Isabella was a fervent Christian but knew nothing about geography. Columbus was able to convince her that the earth's circumference was small enough, and that Asia was big enough, that if he sailed 3,000  miles west he would get to Japan. As proof, he brought in a couple of skulls and some driftwood that had washed up on the beach, but no one could identify, so they must come from faaaaaar away.

Unfortunately for his reputation if not his discoveries, Columbus relied on outmoded, obscure calculations of the earth's circumference, which claimed it was a third smaller than it actually is. He also relied on Marco Polo's calculation of the size of Eurasia, which was wrong, claiming it was about a third larger than it is. (Understandable, since Polo and his father and uncle had walked from Italy to China twice, and it must have seemed huge!) These false calculations put the east coast of Asia about 3,000 miles west of Portugal. Lucky for him that the Americas were about 3,000 miles away, just at the "ends of the earth", and he found land. His crew was about to mutiny to return home.

Columbus believed he was on islands off the coast of India, because he really was a good mariner and he knew he had drifted southward in latitude. He reported back:

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Over four voyages, Columbus always believed he was in India, calling the natives Indians. But others knew that couldn't be right. One reason was the monkeys. Columbus crew brought back monkeys with prehensile tails. European and African monkeys do not have prehensile tails -- their tails are for balance, and they can't hold onto tree branches with them. But the new monkeys would hang from the palace fixtures with their tails. Soon everyone but Columbus realized that a truly new place had been discovered. But Columbus himself and those who followed focused on looking for gold (not much of which was there), and enslaving the natives to find it. In 1494, Spain appealed to the pope for a monopoly on exploration in the New World. In the Treaty of Tordesillas, a map was divided between a monopoly by Spain in the west, and Portugal in the east. The Portugese got Africa and India (and ,as it turned out, Brazil - which is why they speak Portugese in Brazil). By 1509, conquistadore Hernan Cortes had conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico, and colonization began in earnest.

As more and more native Americans were enslaved and died from disease, some Spaniards began to realize the ethical and moral implications of colonization. Bartolome de las Casas championed the Indians within Church arguments and debates about limiting the abuse of natives. He reported:

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The Columbian Exhange and Trans-Atlantic Slavery

On a macro level, two global regions that had been isolated from each other collided with great force in the New World. Historian Alfred Crosby has called the long-term transfer of plants, animals and diseases between these regions the "Columbian Exhange". This map gives an idea:

Columbian Exhange

The diseases (you can see the Mexicans suffering from smallpox in the lower left) killed off amazing numbers of Native Americans, because they had no immunity from long-term contact. This still happens today when an isolated tribe is discovered. Cortes considered their die-off as proof of God's support for the conquistadores. Many of those who didn't die ran away, using their knowledge of the terrain to escape. The result was that the Spanish, and later the Portugese in Brazil, didn't have enough labor to do the mining and farming necessary to make their new landholdings pay.

But in Africa, there was a source of labor. Since the 13th century, west African kingdoms had been expanding due to advanced political organization and domination of trans-Saharan trade routes. As these kingdoms expanded, they captured prisoners and traded them away. This provided both wealth for wars and got rid of populations that might rise up and cause trouble. These slaves were traded across the Sahara, and many had ended up in east Africa. Such slavery was not very abusive (despite the difficult trip) and slaves tended to be treated well in east Africa as part of the thriving economy there. High-class prisoners fetched higher values and were often able to pay their way to freedom for themselves or at least their children; lower-class prisoners were sold to do the work appropriate to their skills, be it silversmithing or farming. Muslim slave-traders dominated the trans-Saharan slave trade.

Europeans began arriving at west African ports and requesting slaves. It was handy for west African kingdoms, expanding inland and capturing prisoners of war, to trade these prisoners on the coast instead of to Muslim trans-Saharan traders. The character of the trade changed, and entrepreneurs on the west coast began journeying inland deliberately to capture people for what was becoming a trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The character of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was far more brutal than the trans-Saharan trade. Most interior Africans had never seen the ocean, much less a ship. They were piled in like animals, with no respect for class or language. Princes were chained next to peasants of different tribes, and all were treated as chattel. All would be put to mining or agricultural labor regardless of skill. Many threw themselves overboard, either not sure that the journey would ever end (it must have seemed like they had gone to hell) or unable to tolerate the treatment. But enough survived, and with their own disease immunity from Africa were able to reproduce. In Latin America, the children born to them were usually considered free, and intermarried despite various laws discouraging it. In North America, dominated by the 17th century by English and French, they became slaves in perpetuity, with their children inheriting their status.

Patterns of colonialism

voyages mapThese English and French, and the Dutch, concentrated on North America. The French explored and then controlled the Mississippi River Valley and east to Quebec, colonizing with adventurers and fur traders, and collaborating with natives. The English settled along the seaboard and in the far north. The Dutch set up a colony called New Amsterdam, later New York.

In the English colonies along the eastern seaboard, only the south had a labor issue and began importing slaves in the early 17th century. Families of religious dissenters settled in the north, creating small farms. Adventurers and merchants, and eventually farmers from central Europe, came to the middle colonies. In the north and middle colonies, it was more common to use indentured servants, who could make their own lives after seven years of service, and to use family labor.

As we've seen with everyone from the Mespotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, geography was a major factor in colonization. While trade could happen anywhere, large-scale settlement tended to occur in areas with similar climate to the home country. Thus we have British slave colonies in the Caribbean, but British homesteads in Massachussetts.


That's it - just chocolate, my favorite food. It came from Mexico, and was combined eventually with sugar from the Atlantic islands and milk from northern Europe to make my favorite drink. Chocolate houses, along with coffee houses, would later fuel the Enlightenment. Although I also understand that pizza, African yams, over a dozen different colors of potatoes, corn on the cob, and bacon are all important foods related to the Columbian Exhange, chocolate trumps them all.

Lessons of History

1. The discoveries made by Europeans around the world were motivated by money.

2. Columbus discovered the new world because he had bad information and was lucky, not because he knew things others did not.

3. The Columbian Exchange gave us slavery and chocolate.



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.