What Was The Italian Renaissance All About?

Around 1340, a series of catastrophes happened in Florence, Italy. Banks and merchants went bankrupt. The government was collapsing. Crops were failing.  And then, in 1348, there was an epidemic known as, “the black death”. This bubonic plague infected many people in the city. At that time, China was trading extensively with Italy and other European countries. Many people in China were suffering from this plague. This deadly condition finally reached the province of Florentine, where Florence was the main city. It was believed that an Italian merchant ship, brought the rat and flea illness from China to Italy. More than half of the population of the Florence area died because of it.

the black death

The Renaissance was a time of coming out of this “darkness”. The people had had enough bad luck. They needed a rebirth of education, science, the arts, and a positive way of thinking. Florence was the perfect city for this renaissance change to happen.

Florence seemed to have always played an important role in the progress of the world for centuries. Major changes were taking place at the beginning of the 14th century in Florence. Florence was an Italian city that had been around for over 2000 years. By 1300 to1340, life in Florence and the surrounding area known as Florentine, was beginning to improve. Florentine had political stability, economic strength, and it was expanding in population. Artistic achievement was prospering also.

The people of Florence reacted in two ways to the bubonic plague. Some people believed that God was sending them a message, telling them not to behave in such sinful ways, and curtail their bad actions. Other Florentine people believed that the plague was a sign for them to enjoy life even more, and that they should try new things and take more risks. Many of these people wanted to bring back the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome, such as Roman stone roads, literacy, art that focused on all people, and a Government made up of responsible, hard-working members of society. All of these changes were to become known as the Italian Renaissance.

The Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was born. It is my opinion that Florence Italy played a key role in maintaining and perpetuating this Renaissance movement, because of its location in Europe, the state of its economy, the significance of the guilds, the education of the citizens, the importance of art, and the presence of the Roman Catholic Church.

Florence Italy became the gateway for a rebirth of great ideas at the beginning of the 14th century. Ideas were coming from all directions, as the Renaissance began, and Florence was in the center of all this action.

florencemapold1300

Florence was first settled in 59 BC by the Romans as a military base. The Romans needed access to Gaul, which later became France, and Florence was the perfect location for the Romans to build a military base. Florence was in the northern part of Italy, on the Arno River. The Arno River began in the Apennine Mountains in the middle of northern Italy, and flowed west through Florence toward Pisa on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Rome was a few hours to the south and Greece was Southeast in the Mediterranean Sea. The Alps mountains bordered Florence in the north, and Europe was to its west. Africa was to the south of Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. Florence was in the perfect location for trade between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

In early Renaissance Italy, powerful city-states were the form of government. Wealthy families were in control of everything. Florence was a city-state, governed by many wealthy families such as the Albizzis and the Medicis. The Medicis played a major role in the development of Florence by financially supporting new ideas.

Santa Mario Cathedral

There was an important church in Florence at this time. It was a cathedral that was built in the 5th century, but by the 14th century, it was crumbling with age. All of the citizens of Florence cared a lot about the Santa Mario cathedral, as it was known. It had a hole in the roof that needed fixing. The wealthy families in charge of the church, decided to fix the roof. They organized a contest to find someone who could do the repairs with style and class. Many architects came from far and wide with their ideas about this important construction. In the end, an unknown hot tempered goldsmith, by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi, was chosen to do the job. His ideas were creative and original, unlike all the rest.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence, constructed between 1296

Brunelleschi was a master at his craft, and Cosimo de Medici, liked his idea of constructing an elliptical dome over the hole. The repairs were started in 1296 in Gothic style, and the structure was completed in 1436. It was the largest brick dome ever constructed, and many local people assisted with the construction of the project. Everyone was proud of their cathedral and it became famous throughout Europe.

During the 14th Century, a third of the population of Florence was involved with the wool trade, with over one hundred wool shops in the city. The guild of wool merchants was the most powerful of the all the guilds, and it ran the cities textile trade, with St. Luke being its patron Saint. In Florence, the quality and the quantity of the local wool was not sufficient. To compensate, raw wool was imported from Spain, France and England, English wool being the most prized of all. These countries supplied a better quality of wool than what came from Flanders. Along with the best wools, they also had the best wool dies, which they imported from the Orient. Later in the 14th century, they would import silks that also came from the Orient. The Florentines were so good at this textile work, that they even bought in inferior textile products from the cities of the north. The Florentine wool workers would re-work the material, ending up with a better cloth.

14th century Wool Dress

The textiles produced in Florence were sold to markets in Italy, Northern Europe, and the Levant, which was a large geographical area, at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. Countries like Iraq, Syria, and Jordan were in the Levant.

This patronage social system of wool trade again unified the population of Florence. The people felt more worthy and successful. Patronage was a social system that developed very gradually for hundreds of years prior to the Italian Renaissance. People, because of their specific skills, came together to learn from each other. It helped everyone involved.

Cosimo II de Medici, Michelangelo, and the Guilds

Between the 14th and the 17th century, groupin like-minded people into guilds, peeked in importance. As an example, Galileo, in his lifelong career as a mathematician and scientist, benefitted from his patronage or connections with the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cosimo II de Medici.

704cosimo-de-medici

Prominent people such as the Grand Duke and Cosimo II de Medici, created Guilds. They had the money and authority to do this. In Florence, patronages or guilds were associated with the church. The church had a great deal of power over the Italian people, and like the rich families, they were rich also. Prior to the beginning of the Renaissance, bishops were competing with wealthy families to become patrons over the land owners. Guilds or patronages were not an option. Florence’s social hierarchy was based on which guild you be- longed to. Even the very poor, found themselves as part of this system. To obtain upward mobility in Florentine, you had to do it through the guild system. Everyone wanted notability and credibility.

The Medici family was in charge of the wool trade guild. If you were part of that guild, you would obtain your importance and respectability from the Medicis. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. He was a good example of an artist who benefitted from belonging to a guild. His patron was Pope Julius II. By the time Michelangelo died, Florence’s artists thought of him as important as the Pope in Rome.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

The wealthy people controlled the guilds. They benefitted by sponsoring several clients. The more people you had in your guild, the more money the public thought you had, so the more prestige and power it gave you. As a result, the guilds and their patrons were cate- gorized. During the Renaissance in Florence, the guilds were set up as separate corporations. The highest ranking seven guilds were known as “Arti Magian”. “Art Median” were the five middle ranking guilds, and then there were nine minor guilds, called, “Arti Minori”.

The quality control of these guild groups was controlled politically. Florence became one of the richest cities at that time because of this system of who did what and which guild you belonged to. The Cloth Makers Guild began in Florence in 1150, and the Medici’s controlled that guild. There were seven guilds in total at this time. If you wanted to join a certain guild, it would help if your father was already a mem- ber of it. You definitely had to be very skilled at the appropriate craft for that guild. You also had to pay a tax or joining fee and work as an apprentice. Guilds protected their members and provided them with good working conditions and they would also look after the guild member’s family. The Guild even had watchmen to oversee any work. Each guild had a reputation to uphold and the guild leaders demanded quality work from their members. As a result, the members and their families thrived. People started to move out of the poorest ranks of society and become more prosperous. The middle class was being reborn similar to what happened in ancient societies such as in Egypt.

As time passed, a hierarchy of guilds developed. The most important guilds became known as, “Supreme magistrates of the State”. They had their own coat of arms, banners, and even a strict pecking order of importance within. The patronage life style provided people with opportunities to feel worthy again. The “Dark Ages” had been a bad time, and people needed something to make them feel excited about life again.

Humanism, Leonardo Bruni, and the Return Of Great Thinking

The aristocracy wanted to bring back the great ideas of ancient Greece and Rome, and they needed the majority of the population to think creativity and intelligently to do this. Humanism was the name for this new modern way of thinking. Humanism began in Florence around 1350.

leonardo bruni

Leonardo Bruni, who lived between 1370 and 1444, was an Italian humanist, historian, and statesman. He and other Humanists wanted as many citizens as possible, to be able to read, write, and speak with elegance and clarity. This would allow them to partici- pate in civic life, and be part of the decision making process. The Humanists got many of their new ideas about learning from reading Roman and Greek writings.

By the middle of the 15th century, the rich and wealthy families and church personnel, who had easy access to books and libraries, were receiving a humanist education. The church leaders spent a lot of time translating the Bible from Latin into German and English. They needed all the ideas they could find about the importance of faith, in a world that was becoming more realistic and more reasonable.

15th century bible

Old manuscripts reappeared and were translated into common languages, so because of these, lots of great classic ideas were being reborn. The Italian people wanted to bring back the lost classical cultures of the Greeks and the Romans. Sculptors used Roman ideas and classical themes. They appreciated the plastic arts, such as anything three dimensional, and the pagan architecture. They wanted to bring back nudity, and they did.

Because of this economic growth, there was more opportunity for art. The rich were able to support art scholarships. Opportunities were many. There was collaboration between architects, artisans, and artists. New buildings appeared. Committees were set. Lots of collaboration happened to get the jobs done efficiently.

With the expanding northward of trade, wealthy merchants were more than happy to support artists. This support always got the blessings from the Monarchs of other European countries, like England and France. When any art work was completed, people from all levels of society felt proud.

king francois I

About this time, King Francis I, of France, invaded Italy. This enabled him to import artists like Leonardo de Vinci. The King spent lots of money, using many artists to build fancy palaces and produce art to decorate them. The King named these times, zeitgeist or “The Spirit of the age.” By now, the Renaissance movement had spread to Germany, England, and Scandinavia.

In the early 1300’s, religion and art were starting to combine. Churches were built and they were then decorated by the artists with artwork, such as artists like Giotto. He did paintings on ceilings called, frescoes, which were very popular. He also painted on wooden panels. He expressed a definite tension in the people, that were in his compositions. His works were a true revival of classical ideals and an expression of the new humanity. Some remember him as the father of early Renaissance.

arena chapel Lamentation

The Council of Trent had a huge influence on the art world at this time as well. It was the Catholic Church’s response to Reformation. Between 1545 and 1563, this church council met in Trent and Bologna in northern Italy. The Catholic Church began to realize now that art played an important role in society, so they used paintings, sculptures, and writings to convey the religious message. This increased the importance of artists. Some of the paintings, done by the artists, represented the lives of the Saints. The Catholic Church encouraged viewers to model their own behavior after them.

The printing of handbooks on religious themes became popular as well, and the reader was encouraged to get involved with the scriptures. One of these handbooks involved spiritual exercises, which advised readers to use all of their five senses. These exercises would help the reader imagine the feelings of the biblical characters and the early saints.

Sculptors in the early Renaissance took a page out of the Greek and Romans book and made sarcophagi copied from the third century Roman art. These sarcophagi appealed to the wealthy patrons of the Roman upper crust. On the sarcophagi panels, there were images of the seasons, and displays of the harvesting of grapes and wheat, which were two very important crops. The churches took this as a sign that referred to the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Ghent Altar Piece

One of the many themes in Renaissance paintings was the expulsion of Adam and Eve, from the Garden of Eden. An example of this was displayed on the famous Ghent altar piece. This triptych was painted by Van Eyck, an early Netherlandish painter, who worked in Bruges. He was considered one of the most significant northern Renaissance artists of the 15th century.

the ghent altarpiece

This popular theme was also painted by other artists of the Renaissance such as Cranach and Rubens.

Donatello’s David Statue

Another famous piece of art from the mid-15th century, was the statue of David, by Donatello. This bronze statue depicts an athletic-looking boy, posing in the nude, with his left foot on the decapitated head of Goliath. This statue signalled the return of nude sculpting.

donatello's david statue

It was the first such work in over one thousand years, and is one of the most important pieces of art in Western history. It was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici and was considered a classical piece of Renaissance sculpture.

The Laocoon

In 1506, a statue was discovered called, “the Laocoon”. It was Laocoon and his two sons. Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo to the scene to see it, and he then ordered it brought to the Vatican, where it still sits to this day.

laocoon

The story goes that Laocoon stabbed the Trojan horse with a spear, and for this he and his two sons were attacked by sea serpents. This Laocoon statue had significant impact on Italian Renaissance art, and on sculpting in general.

Martin Luther & the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther was born in Germany in the late 14 century. He was one of the most influential figures in Christian history. He began the Protestant Reformation. What he did, was to question some of the basic views of the Catholic Church. This was to lead to Luther and his followers splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church counteracted this reformation, by forming a council that would look at the concerns put forth. This council was given the name of “The Council of Trent.”

The Council of Trent discussed religious images rejecting erotic and false doctoring or subject matter. This was done fearing recognized the power of the painted image, more so than the spoken word. In the Catholic Church’s view, a painting was an effective tool for inspiring and a teaching the masses.

martin luther's 95 theses

In 1517, Luther nailed to the door of a Catholic Church, 95 points that he thought that the Catholic Church had got wrong. Highlights of the 95 points was the paying of indulgences to the Catholic Church. Indulgences meant that anybody who had sinned just had to pay money to the Church, and their sins were forgiven. The slate was wiped clean so to speak. The Roman Catholic Church was pretty upset over this, because it meant that it was now making less money. Luther was called a heretic, and was ejected from the church. This caused a lot of people, who had the same views as Luther, to be very upset. A lot of Northern European countries split away from the Catholic Church and set up their own churches, such as the Reformed Church and the Lutheran Church.

At this time in England, King Henry VIII, split from the Catholic Church, but for a different reason. He wanted to divorce his wife, and the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow him to do that. Protestants and Catholics, which were two different ways of looking at religion, were the end result.

A Much Needed Change

The Italian Renaissance was a time of much needed positive change for the people, and the city of Florence was the perfect fit for this rebirth to take place. Not just because of its location, but Florence had many other positive qualities. It had smart banking families, like the Medici’s, who were experts with the handling of money and politics.

florence italy renaissance

The structure of the trades, and how the guilds were organized, was a very successful patronage idea from the past. Many people were involved in the wool trade and wool shops were a popular sight. Education was a big factor and people were now able to read, write, and pass on information. People from all levels of society were thought of as more human.

Art, and its community, had become very important too. All forms of art were used by the Roman Catholic Church to communicate the Church’s ideas to the faithful. Religious leaders liked this idea. Florence Italy had become one of the wealthiest cities in all of Europe and it is still known today for its creativity and positive people.

Video Resources

More about the black death:

More on the Renaissance:

More about Santa Mario Cathedral:

More about the Medici family:

Top 20 Michelangelo quotes:

More on Humanism in Italy:

More on Francis I:

More on the Ghent Altar Piece:

More on Donatello’s David Statue:

More on the Laocoon:

More on Martin Luther:


Renaissance Bibliography

1. “Florence Cathedral.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Cathedral.

2. ”History: Reformation for Kids.” History: Reformation for Kids. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

3. “Humanism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Humanism.

4. ”Il Duomo.” Brunelleschi’s Dome. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

5. “Renaissance — Focus on Florence.” Renaissance — Focus on Florence, www.learner.org/interactives/renaissance/florence.html.

6. “Renaissance for Kids.” History: Renaissance for Kids, www.ducksters.com/history/renaissance.php.

7. “Renaissance.” History: Renaissance Science for Kids, www.ducksters.com/history/renaissance_science.php.

8. “Renaissance Textiles Florence.” Renaissance Textiles Florence, belovedlinens.net/fabrics/renaissance_florence_textiles.php.

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