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Renaissance (meaning "new birth" in French; the form "renascence" is also found) describes a revival in intellectual or artistic effort. In history, this term is used in particular for a period in European History between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. More generally, the term also applies to other bursts of creativity and cultural renewal, such as the so-called Harlem Renaissance in black New York City in the 1920s, the Irish literary renaissance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Carolingian Renaissance in eighth and ninth century Europe. This article is about the European Renaissance, "the great revival of art and letters, under the influence of classical models, which began in Italy in the 14th century and continued spreading throughout Europe during the 15th and 16th" centuries.[1]


Main Article: Humanism

Humanism is a group of ethical theories that place the human being at the center of our moral concern. It also refers to a literary and scholarly movement during the Renaissance led by scholars like Erasmus.

Humanists tend to believe that human beings can make progress through the application of human intellect without the need for religious authority. Many humanists also believe that "man is the measure of all things",[2] although some people like the ethicist Peter Singer have questioned humanist attitudes to animals. Humanism is derived from both Unitarian Universalism and from the philosophies of the Enlightenment.

Centers of Renaissance


Main Article: Italian Renaissance


During the 14th, 15th and 16th century, the Tuscan city of Florence had an unprecedented cultural boom and gradually became the epicentre of the Italian and European Renaissance. By 1425 Florence had a population of 60,000 and was an independently governed city-state. The town owed its prosperity mainly to a thriving wool industry and the manufacturing of woolen cloth. During the fifteenth century, the Medici, a family of merchants and bankers, gradually took control in the republic. The family mainly owed its wealth to Giovanni de 'Medici (1360-1429). Giovanni's son, Cosimo de 'Medici (1389-1464), enjoyed the support of the poorer strata of the population. While the republican institutions were upheld, he dominated politics. Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492), his grandson, especially enjoyed fame as a poet, connoisseur and patron. Some major Florentine writers like Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Machiavelli († 1527) helped shape the image of the Renaissance. Florence was also the base for Giorgio Vasari (1511—1574), who wrote the popular and influential Lives of the Artists, thereby establishing the standard view of the artistic side of the Renaissance, culminating in Michelangelo.


The great transformation of Rome began under Pope Nicholas V (1447), whose building efforts renewed much of the city. The humanist scholar Enea Silvio Piccolomini became Pope Pius II in 1458 and he encouraged the development of science and humanism. When the papacy fell under the control of wealthy families from the north, such as the Houses of Medici and Borgia, the spirit of Renaissance art and philosophy began to strongly influence the Vatican. Pope Sixtus IV continued the work of Nicholas V and also ordered the construction of the Sistine Chapel. The popes increasingly behaved as secular rulers and the Papal States were transformed by a series of "warrior popes" into a centralized powerful state. Pope Sixtus V in his turn stimulated a major Roman city expansion. Rome seemed to lose its independence in the field of sculpture by the disappearance of the Cosmati school. Its most notable 15th-century monuments were created by sculptors from other schools: Donatello, Antonio del Pollaiolo, Mino da Fiesole and Andrea Bregno. This led to a certain eclecticism, as artists often worked in their own style on the same monument. Rome itself yielded few sculptors of importance. Paolo Romano (also called "Taccone" or" "Tuccone") had a 'Roman preference' for arranging his sculptures in a circle, but much of his style was indebted to Isaia da Pisa. Neither can Giovanni Cristoforo Romano be considered a representative of a Roman school. He fled to Lombardy and worked there in the Milanese style. The most famous architect and sculptor in Rome was Michelangelo, but he was a Tuscan "immigrant" who spent some periods of his life in Rome.


Doge's Palace

Like Florence, during the Renaissance Venice was a republic. Actually it was rather a state that ruled over a part of the territory of today's Italy and a large part of the Adriatic coast, and controlled many islands. The stable political environment and the booming economy had well survived the Black Death and the collapse of its trading partner Constantinople. This healthy economy was, just as was the case with Florence, a major factor in stimulating the flourishing of the arts. It attracted a lot of artists to Venice where they could find wealthy patrons.

As a major trading port, Venice was also quite capable of finding markets for the products of the decorative arts. Scattered all over the republic one could find potters, glaziers, woodworkers, lace makers and sculptors who like the painters were able to secure a good income.

The government and the religious communities of Venice sponsored the creation of structures, decorations, statues and paintings. Also homes of wealthy individuals were often decorated as if they were small palaces with impressive facades, so this was another opportunity for artists to find patronage. With its wealth of Renaissance architecture and decoration, today Venice is still one of the main tourist attractions in Europe.

Venetian artists and craftsmen joined together in guilds, which ensured that members were properly paid for their services. There were guilds for wood carvers, stone workers, painters, etc. When we talk about the Venetian "School" of painting, this is to be taken quite literally. There were actually schools (scuola), each with its own style and technique, and they were very selective about who could join and who should be excluded. Together, they so rigidly protected and controlled the Venetian art market that it was even difficult to buy paintings produced outside the 'schools'.

The geographic location of Venice made it less susceptible to external influences and this probably contributed considerably to its unique distinctive artistic style. Art critics for example praised the remarkable "Venetian Light" that appeared in the paintings. All these factors and characteristics during the Renaissance led to the birth of a separate school of painting that has become known as the Venetian School. Early masters of the families were Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

Venice also produced its own independent school of sculptors. The Gothic style had many followers in Venice and its influence was still strong. This explains why there was a transition period in which Gothic elements were used next to typical Renaissance art motifs. Artists like Bartolomeo Bon (fl. 1450) belong to this category - he created the decoration of the Porta della Carta of the Doge's Palace. Pietro Lombardo's work (fl. 1500), including his tomb for doge Nicolo Marcello, already belongs to the naturalistic, classical phase of the Renaissance.


Main Article: French Renaissance

French Renaissance is a term used to describe the cultural and artistic movement that profoundly affected France from the late 15th century until the early 17th century. The period of the French Renaissance traditionally starts (roughly) with the French invasion of Italy in 1494 during the reign of Charles VIII and ends with the death of Henry IV in 1610.

A generally held view is that the Renaissance in France began with the expedition of Charles VIII to Naples. Louis XII and Francis I spent a lot of energy to seize possession of Italian provinces. The wife of Henry II was Catherine de' Medici, and her children, Charles IX and Henry III, became italianized French. In the period between 1494 and 1589 there was an ongoing cultural and diplomatic connection between France and Italy. Italians came to France as courtiers, ambassadors, businessmen and artists, the French upper class acquired a strong taste for Italian style, and the court adored the Italian culture and customs.

This Italian influence came to prominence in the school of Fontainebleau, under the patronage of king Francis I. The architectural style that was developed by Bullant, De l'Orme and Lescot however distinguished itself by a national personal touch, as demonstrated by the royal and princely palaces of Chenonceaux, Chambord, Anet Ecouen, Fontainebleau, the Louvre and elsewhere. The style that emerged was a mix of fantasy and richness of decoration, combined with purity of lines and a great feeling of space.

During the reign of Francis I, a lot of Italian painters visited France. Among them we find Francesco Primaticcio, Andrea del Sarto and Leonardo da Vinci. However, their inspiring example did not immediately yield an important French painting school. That would only happen in the next century when Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain with a mixture of Italian and Flemish influences became the undisputed representatives of the spirit of the classical revival.

French sculptors like Jean Goujon, Louis Cousin and Germain Pilon, on the other hand, were as much admired as Italian artists. Meanwhile the 'fine arts' flourished, including glass painting, goldsmithing, jewelry design, the making of engravings, tapestries, carvings, pottery and more.

French literature had responded promptly to the Renaissance influence. Philippe de Commynes, the historian who escorted Charles VIII on his expedition to Naples, differed from the earlier French chroniclers by a shrewdness and analytical style that was reminiscent of a Venetian ambassador. Even François Villon, his contemporary, was in fact already a modern poet because of the vividness with which he describes himself, in a way that we now call "realism".

But the decisive turn came with Pierre de Ronsard and his comrades of the Pleiade. It was their goal to raise the French vernacular to the level of the classics, making use of a variety of Italian verse forms. The refinement they envisioned they particularly found in the work of Francesco Petrarca.

Meanwhile, French classical drama was also developed by Étienne Jodell and Robert Garnier, reaching its apogee in Pierre Corneille and later Jean Racine. As in Italy, the classical unities of time, place and action were followed.

Translations from Greek and Latin into French followed in rapid succession at the beginning of this period. Jacques Amyot 's Piularch and his Daphnis et Chloe are among the finest examples of French prose from that era. And then of course there was the first of the essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who was also inspired by classical authors. François Rabelais' masterpieces are also considered to belong to the best works French literature has ever produced.

In general it may be said that France, between Flanders and Italy, succeeded in assimilating the best of both worlds in its own distinctive artistic style.



Low Countries

The Renaissance in the Low Countries, as elsewhere in Europe, was a flowering period of the arts and humanities. During the Middle Ages, the situation in the wealthy Flemish cities such as Bruges and Ghent in terms of cultural influence and fame was even comparable to that of the Italian republics. [3] Their 15th and 16th century architecture incorporated and blended elements of the style coming from Italy. Due to political instability and the religious wars of the 16th century the visual arts in the north developed later than in Italy or France. Some of the painters mentioned here do not fall within the boundaries that historians set for the Renaissance. However, the flowering of the northern painting was animated by the same vital spirit of the Renaissance. The brothers Van Eyck enriched European painting with the perfection of the oil painting technique, followed by Hans Memling, Quinten Metsys, Jan Gossaert and Lucas van Leyden. In the 17th century, painting in the Low Countries gained even more fame with the work of Peter Paul Rubens and Antoon van Dyck in the south, and in the north witch Rembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch landscape painters and the painters of domestic scenes and still lifes. Famous artists from this period include Albert Cuyp and Jacob van Ruisdael as painters of nature, and Gerard ter Borch II, Jan Steen, Gerrit Dou, Adriaen van Ostade and David Teniers who portrayed scenes of daily life.

The vernacular in the Low Countries initially benefited little from the new cultural life that earlier had raised Italian, Spanish, French and English to the rank of the classical languages. But humanism flourished in the north. Desiderius Erasmus played a leading role, as well as a long list of critical scholars and publishers like Justus Lipsius, Daniël Heinsius and Grotius, and the printers Plantijn and Elsevier. Leiden University emerged as the center of intellectual progress.


Civic Humanism

See also Republicanism and Machiavelli

Pocock (1981) traces the Machiavellian belief in and emphasis upon Greco-Roman ideals of unspecialized civic virtue and liberty from 15th-century Florence through 17th-century England and Scotland to 18th-century America. Thinkers who shared these ideals tended to believe that the function of property was to maintain an individual's independence as a precondition of his virtue. Consequently, in the last two times and places mentioned above, they were disposed to attack the new commercial and financial regime that was beginning to develop.[4]

The influential concept of civic humanism of German Renaissance scholar Hans Baron (1900-88) emphasized the male citizen's participation in the republic of Florence. He saw medieval religion as antithetical to this republicanism and denied religion any constitutive role in Renaissance culture. In medieval Thomism there is a broader concept of participation than that of Baron. Despite the supposed ignoring of religion by Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97), he asserted that Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-92) reclaimed medieval spirituality in his late writings. Lorenzo's writings point toward a broader definition of participation to include human associations that focused on charity, thereby including men and women in participatory roles in society.[5]

Najemi (1996) examines Hans Baron's ambivalent portrayal of Machiavelli. He argues that Baron tended to see Machiavelli simultaneously as the cynical debunker and the faithful heir of civic humanism. By the mid-1950s, Baron had come to consider civic humanism and Florentine republicanism as early chapters of a much longer history of European political liberty, a story in which Machiavelli and his generation played a crucial role. This conclusion led Baron to modify his earlier negative view of Machiavelli. He tried to bring the Florentine theorist under the umbrella of civic humanism by underscoring the radical differences between The Prince and the Discourses and thus revealing the fundamentally republican character of the Discourses. However, Baron's inability to come to terms with Machiavelli's harsh criticism of early 15th-century commentators such as Leonardo Bruni ultimately prevented him from fully reconciling Machiavelli with civic humanism.[6]


During the Renaissance there was an explicit self-awareness on the part of humanists, involving a disdain for medieval traditions and art forms, a rejection of scholastic philosophy, and a quest for a purer form of Latin, as discovered in the classics. Italy was the center of this new realization by 1300; by 1600 an expanded version was widely disseminated across western Europe. North of the Alps humanists like the Dutch Erasmus sought the reform of Christian society through classical education. They envisioned the rebirth ("re-naissance") of the Golden Age through the rebirth of good writing. As the tutors the European aristocracy, humanists saw their ideas accepted by the top ranks of the ruling classes.

French intellectual historian Pierre Bayle wrote a highly influential Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695-1697), read by scholars across Europe, which promoted the incorrect notion that the rebirth of letters began in 1453 when the fall of Constantinople sent Greek scholars into exile in the West. (Greeks had come 200 years earlier.) During the Enlightenment, French historian Voltaire portrayed the Renaissance as a crucial stage in the liberation of the human mind from medieval superstition and error, as promulgated by the Catholic Church. Voltaire exaggerated the decline of traditional religion in the Renaissance, for most of the Italian humanists were devout Catholics. The Romantic movement of the 19th century, typified by the poet Robert Browning, explored with fascinated disapproval the pagan and immoral qualities of Renaissance man. Romantics, whow were interested in the vital, heroic, and unconventional personalities of Renaissance artists, added the theme of the Renaissance as the invention of individualism.

In the 19th century, the great romantic historians Jules Michelet (1798-1874) focused on the French Renaissance and Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) interpreted at Italy. In both cases they assumed there had been an abrupt and fundamental change in society: the Middle Ages end and the modern world suddenly begins. Michelet abhorred the Middle Ages; Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) did not, but each explored the ways in which a dynamic Renaissance could develop from static medieval culture. Each historian brought his own personal history and ideals to his study of culture, cultural change, and the idea of modernism.[7]

Burckhardt articulated the single most fruitful idea about the Renaissance: "the discovery of the individual," which dominated historical writing for a century. His approach came under challenge from postmodern scholars in the 1970s. The contributions of the New Historicists, particularly literary historian Stephen Greenblatt, have made it impossible to approach the history of individualism in traditional humanistic terms. Accordingly, postmodern scholars now view the "individual" as a cultural construct rather than as an underlying human "essence" or "protagonist" in narratives of modernization or progress. Martin (1997) challenges the postmoderns and offers a new reading of the history of individualism in the Renaissance. He argues many New Historicist practices are inadequate because they tend to ignore long-term historical shifts in the Western European vocabulary of selfhood and to envision constructions of the self as shaped by a narrowly defined cultural context. The history of individualism in the Renaissance should be approached as a discursive field in which there was a new understanding of "prudence" as a strategy for concealing one's views and sentiments and a newly invented notion of "sincerity" that called for the expression of personal convictions and feelings. As a result of the tension between these two ideals, the Renaissance self came to be defined in increasingly expressive and individualistic terms. Because these ideals had a European-wide currency and developed over several generations, the origins of individualism cannot be traced in any exclusive manner to specific national contexts or particular moments in time. Rather than a return to traditional assumptions about the self, Martin's approach encourages discussions of individualism and identity to take into account two critical issues: the need to remain open to complex intellectual and cultural forces that transcend particular times and places, and the need to recognize that the Renaissance sense of inferiority was often immune to precisely the sort of ideological manipulation that New Historicists have seen as decisive in the construction of identities.[8]

Bouwsma (1979) laments the virtual collapse in recent historiography of the venerable conception of the Renaissance as a decisive turning point in the drama of Western history and to the postmodern substitution for it of the vague notion of the Renaissance as an "age of transition" to the modern world. This shift is attributed to a general tendency in recent historiography to minimize process in favor of structure. However valuable in some respects, structuralist history is not well adapted to explain change, argues Bouwsma. As a result, it has undermined the dramatic organization of Western history and - since historiography cannot finally dispense with dramatic patterns of some kind - opened the way for a "myth of apocalyptic modernization" that rejects the relevance of all but the most recent past to the present. The traditional idea of the Renaissance, since it saw the modern world as the goal of linear history, was itself vitiated by apocalypticism. Detached from this metahistorical assumption, however, it is still useful to explain much (if not all) in contemporary culture, in the meaning of that term now common among anthropologists.[9]

Studying history

Medieval history was consisted primarily of descriptive chronicles. Humanism in created a new kind of historical writing, with attention to motives and causes, animated by a belief that the study of the past had direct applications to governance and military science, and a sense that historical change is best understood in the context of deep values. Leonardo Bruni, one of the earliest humanist historians, presents the history of Florence as a battle between tyranny and civil liberty. Sabellicus presents Venice as the successor of the ancient Greek ideal of the independent city-state. Political history was a seen as to statecraft argued by Machiavelli and Polydore Vergil.

"Early modern" as alternative to "Renaissance"

The word "Renaissance," as a reference to European cultural trends in the 14th through 16th centuries, began to be used in French in 1828 and in English soon thereafter.[10] But in the 1940s, scholars, beginning with the French historians of the Annales school, began referring to that era of European history as the "early modern" period. This phrase, too, soon appeared in English, first among historians, and later in literary studies and other fields.

In current academic discourse, many scholars use the phrase "early modern" instead of "Renaissance." Among the reasons they may do so are:

1. To announce that they are studying not only cultural and political elites but also, as Vanderbilt English professor Leah S. Marcus puts it, the "commonplace lives of common people, economic trends, commercial practices, forms of popular entertainment, and popular 'mentality' -- either strands of culture that cut across class divisions or strands identified as nonculture by Renaissance humanism in its most purely elitist form"; [11]

2. To emphasize the continuity, from the early modern period to the modern and postmodern eras, of certain cultural and social trends, ranging from alienation to the indeterminacy of texts;

3. To distance themselves from a valorization of certain civilizations (especially Classical Greek and Roman) over others (especially the medieval period in Europe) that is allegedly implied by the term "Renaissance" itself (a "rebirth" of the classical ideals that had been lost or suppressed during the medieval "dark ages"); or

4. To suggest that they are engaged in interdisciplinary study, instead of restricting their concern to traditional disciplines such as history or literature.[12]


The Renaissance Society of America formed in 1954 with about 700 members. It now has several thousand, and held its 54th annual meeting at the Renaissance Hotel in Chicago, 3-5 April 2008.[13]

Further Reading

for a much longer guide, see the Bibliography subpage

  • Abbagnano, Nicola. "Renaissance Humanism" in Philip P. Wiener, ed. The Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, (1974) online edition
  • Brotton, Jerry. The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), a famous classic; excerpt and text search 2007 edition; also complete text online
  • Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 1. The Renaissance (1903), older atticles by scholars complete text online
  • Campbell, Gordon. The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. (2003). 862 pp. online at OUP
  • Grendler, Paul F., ed. The Renaissance: An Encyclopedia for Students. (2003). 970 pp.
  • Fletcher, Stella. The Longman Companion to Renaissance Europe, 1390-1530. (2000). 347 pp.
  • Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. (1994). 648 pp.; a magistral survey, heavily illustrated excerpt and text search
  • Hall, Bert S. Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe: Gunpowder, Technology, and Tactics (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Hattaway, Michael, ed. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. (2000). 747 pp.
  • Johnson, Paul. The Renaissance: A Short History. (2000). 197 pp. excerpt and text search
  • King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance (1991) excerpt and text search
  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar, and Michael Mooney. Renaissance Thought and its Sources (1979) excerpt and text search
  • Nauert, Charles G. Historical Dictionary of the Renaissance. (2004). 541 pp.
  • Patrick, James A., ed. Renaissance and Reformation (5 vol 2007), 1584 pages; comprehensive encyclopedia
  • Plumb, J. H. The Italian Renaissance (2001) excerpt and text search
  • Ross, James Bruce, and Mary M. McLaughlin, eds. The Portable Renaissance Reader (1977) excerpt and text search
  • Rowse, A. L. The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Ruggiero, Guido, ed. A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance. (2002). 561 pp.
  • Sider, Sandra. Handbook to Life in Renaissance Europe (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Rundle, David, ed. The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. (1999). 434 pp.; numerous brief articles online edition
  • Speake, Jennifer and Thomas G. Bergin, eds. Encyclopedia of the Renaissance and the Reformation. (2004). 550 pp.
  • Turner, Richard N. Renaissance Florence (2005) excerpt and text search


  1. Renaissance. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press (2014). Retrieved on 22 April 2014.
  2. Protagoras, 5th century BCE; see also Speake, Jennifer (2008). “MAN is the measure of all things”, A Dictionary of Proverbs, Fifth. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 441. ISBN 978-0-19-953953-6. OCLC 212857025. 
  4. J. G. A. Pocock, "The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: a Study in History and Ideology.: Journal of Modern History 1981 53(1): 49-72.
  5. Jane Tylus, "Charitable Women: Hans Baron's Civic Renaissance Revisited." Rinascimento [Italy] 2003 43: 287-307. Issn: 0080-3073
  6. John M. Najemy, "Baron's Machiavelli and Renaissance Republicanism." American Historical Review 1996 101(1): 119-129.
  7. Jo Tollebeek, "'Renaissance' and 'Fossilization': Michelet, Burckhardt, and Huizinga." Renaissance Studies 2001 15(3): 354-366.
  8. John Martin, "Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: the Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe." American Historical Review 1997 102(5): 1309-1342.
  9. William J. Bouwsma, "The Renaissance and the Drama of Western History." American Historical Review 1979 84(1): 1-15
  10. Oxford English Dictionary s.v. "Renaissance."
  11. Leah S. Marcus, "Renaissance/Early Modern Studies," in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: Modern Language Association, 1992), 41-63, at 44.
  12. Marcus, "Renaissance/Early Modern Studies."
  13. The 2008 program is online