The following essay was written as part of a series of historical analyses attempting to understand lesser known impact mechanisms of what is considered today as “popular history.” The essay was written in 2001, at North Park University, for a course in World History taught by Professor Theodora Ayot.
The Renaissance is a period in history that boggles us. The Renaissance is perhaps, the quintessential period of time before the Reformation, which eventually led to the Enlightenment. The Renaissance is a period of time re-instituting an ancient belief in the human spirit, “the spirit of the Renaissance,” drawn from the days of the olden city-states of the Grecian world. But historians are left perplexed why the Renaissance came about, and how. To many scholars, the Renaissance burgeoned because of a total acknowledgment of the human spirit as a more divine force than of the divine forces in the church. Many scholars agree that the Renaissance came about because of a group of brilliant individuals inspired by some general trend – the artists and poets and musicians of the Italian and Germanic states. I wish to delve even further than these scholars, and attack what I believe was the central nexus of thoughts for the inspiration of the Renaissance: Florence.
But first, I must shed some background light on the city-state, and the apparatus of which this “Flower of Italy” sprang into so much of an inspiration to the figures of the artistic Renaissance. Perhaps, the major cause of Florence’s power rested in the fall of the Byzantine Empire, when the Turks invaded and conquered the fragile and politically torn city. Actually, we should move farther back, before the Christian Crusades, in the tenth century when Byzantine was disheveled because of a conspiracy over an iconoclastic ideal. During this time, many of the artists of Byzantium emigrated from the city onto the lands of Italy, where they took residence. They moved throughout the countryside, to Rome, and father up to Florence, Venice, and Milan. Many took residence in the countryside, where they could practice their art without resistance from the church.
It was during this time that the Byzantium style of art – that of gold, fresco, and extraordinary color, invaded the mainland of not only Italy, but the Holy Roman Empire. In Italy, this style of art became well-known and accepted. These immigrated artists began to teach others about the Byzantine style. The Church, as well, was beginning to grow past the signatories of the Holy Roman Empire, and the fallen Byzantium. The Church began to utilize the Byzantium style to adorn their churches, and artists became a high price and a worthy profession.
Also in Italy, the Romanesque style of art became a common staple among artists. The Romanesque style was a combination of native Italian and Byzant art, a coalescing of art from Nordic, Celtic, Byzant, and Turkish styles of art. The Romanesque style emphasized ornamental and decorative patterns, spirals, ribbons, and expressive lines.
Farther north, in the Holy Roman Empire, in central France, the great cathedrals were being built, or already were built. Many of these cathedrals, such as Chartres and Notre Dame, used Roman figurine-sculpture (the Holy Roman Empire) to adorn the walls and the high ceilings. These sculptures were humanistic in every sense – inspired by the architects and sculptors of Rome; they emphasized the natural body and the divine sense of being of the saints. Eventually, as the Byzantine art spread up into France, the Gothic style, as it was called, came down, partly due to intrigue, and partly due to a political upheaval in France that dismounted Louis VII from the throne of France, and began the unstable period of the Angevin Empire. The Gothic artists moved down to Italy to learn the Byzantine and Romanesque styles of art, and the Byzantine and Romanesque artists moved up to learn the Gothic style.
In this coalition of artists and art, especially the converging of Byzant and Gothic art, a new realization was formed. Artists who were native to the Byzant art began to experiment in the humanistic Gothic style, merging the two. When Byzantium finally fell, by this time the interest and artistic endeavors had moved beyond the golden city. For years, the cities of Florence, Venice, and Milan, had been re-routing the trade routes to Byzantium. Because of the political strife in Byzantium, traders wanted less to do with the fallen city, and instead, began to trade with these emerging Italian city-states. One cannot say a certain city was any faster than any other in regards to recognizing the stream of artistic thought. One can say that it was in central and northern Italy that this new thought began to emerge – the precise place where the Gothic artists and the Byzant/Romanesque artists were sure to meet.
Venice and Milan were both very important cities in the world of the Renaissance, although they did not hold more importance that the politically unstable city-state of Florence, the “flower of Italy.” Florence is located between the two cities, a natural trade route between Venice, Milan, and Rome. During the political unrest of a fallen Byzantium, and of a reforming Empire to the north, the Italian cities broke away and formed their own governments and lands. They formed militias and took surrounding lands in their control. They stayed out of each other’s pockets, generally. Most of the strife in these cities was inner – other people vying for power among the city governments.
For a majority of her Renaissance life, Florence was ruled by the family Medici. The Medici family refused to actually take a significant title in the ruling of Florence when they came into power, and instead, began to branch out as bankers, artisans, and patrons to the arts. In the years 1270 through 1280, Florence had an economic boom. The population increased, new buildings and structures were designed and implemented, and an influx of Angevin (Gothic) artists moved into the city because of the prosperity. The merchant guilds grew to such power, that in the ten years of the economic boom, they gained power over the government and formed the arti maggiori and the arti minori.
The arti maggiori was composed of seven guilds: lawyers, notaries, clothiers, wool-crafters, silk merchants, money dealers, and furriers. The arti minori was composed of twenty-five less important shopkeeping and artisan guilds. Five of these guilds were asked to take part in governance of the city, known as the arti medie. Guilds were often formed out of families. The father would apprentice his son and daughter in the craft, whatever that certain craft may be. And the knowledge would pass onto the next generation, and so forth.
The most well-known figure of the Renaissance was Petrarch. In our contemporary society, we know Petrarch mostly for his love poetry, but more importantly, Petrarch was a teacher. He believed in the revitalization of the Greek Classical culture, and taught his pupils an enthusiasm on Classical learning. He would often bring in people from Byzantium to teach his pupils the importance of classical learning. However, he was not the only one interested in humanism and the classical studies. Because of the influx of Gothic art (what remained of the humanistic studies of the Roman Empire), others began to take interest as well.
The Church had begun to take an interest in classical studies, and began to adorn the Byzantine styled sanctuaries with Gothic art. The artists Cimabue and his pupil Giotto were major benefactors and inspirations to this new influx of art. The artist Gentile de Fabriano, a man who specialized in Romanesque and Byzantine art, trained a man named Jacopo Bellini, who later with the artist Antonio Vivarini, was to create an artist academy in Venice to train young pupils. Some of the pupils of this Venetian academy were no less than Giovanni Bellini and Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and Giorgione Barbarelli. Giovanni Bellini, the son of Jacopo Bellini, trained Titian Vecelli and Tintoretto. These are names that will forever be remembered in the archives of Renaissance art. Their work can be found across all of Italy, from Rome all the way into the northern tip of Milan.
Perhaps the most important person, in the entire Renaissance, was a man named Cosimo de Medici. He was a man of his time, a banker who loved the classical studies more than anything. He was a wealthy man and the leader of Florence during the classical revival and humanism period. He bought many classical manuscripts and brought Greek and Roman sculptures to his city, for the education of his citizens and those in his surrounding countryside. He founded the first public library in the convent of San Marco, where the Renaissance artists Fra Angelico, his pupil Fra Filippi Lippi, and his son Filippino Lippi, had painted art that was soon to sweep the entire citizenry of Florence. Their artwork was one of a combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, and the progressive and controversial Gothic art.
Cosimo was also a worthy patron of the arts. Perhaps one reason why Florence was the leader in the Renaissance is not because of some divine happening or miracle of the mind, but because of money. Because of the trade increase in Florence and the fall of Byzantium, Florence now traded much in that classical trade which flourished prior in Byzantium – mainly, gold, silk, and stone. Merchant guilds sprang from the dust around Florence that specialized in goldsmithing, clothing, and stonework. Many of these families that specialized in the art of goldsmithing, especially, were adequate and able artists, who wished to move beyond mere Romanesque decoration, and move into a more lively and volatile field: painting and sculpture. Cosimo de Medici was a patron to many of these up-and-coming artists. The architect Brunelleschi, the painters Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi and the sculptors Ghiberti, Donatello, and Luca della Robbia were among his most brilliant of artists that he acted as patron. And he was not the only patron of the arts – but he did act as a sufficient role-model for the rest of the city. Many other wealthy men and women in Florence became patrons, because of Cosimo’s influence.
These men, especially Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Ghiberti, became teachers in Florence, and took in many pupils. They taught this art of classical studies and classical art, with the infusion of Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic art. They created workshops for young students to come and study with them. Sandro Botticelli was the work of one of these workshops. His teacher was Fra Filippo Lippi. Botticelli then trained Fra Filippo Lippi’s son, Filippino Lippi, in the art. And these three were not the only teachers. Their forming of workshops within the urbanized Florence became commonplace. Some of the most important teachers of the Renaissance were Domenico Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Veracchio, and Pietro Perugrino (a pupil of Veracchio).
It can be argued that Lorenzo de Medici, otherwise known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, was the most important influence of the Renaissance, besides his father, Cosimo. However, in my respective opinion, Lorenzo could never have become the great man that he was if not for his father. It’s really a matter of opinion, in that sense. Lorenzo de Medici was perhaps the greatest patron of the arts in Florence. He not only supported ventures within his own city, but he also had ventures as far as Milan, and had formed artistic workshops and artistic communities in these two respective cities. Beneath Lorenzo’s guidance and money, the most well-known and crafted of artists emerged: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto. These four were not the only artists that Lorenzo supported, but were perhaps the most well-known in their time. During this time of the Medici patronage, the Church was also acting in full, scouring Florence, Milan, and Venice for artists, architects, and sculptors to help build the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and flourish the church with art.
Leonardo da Vinci was trained by Andrea del Verocchio and the scientist Toscanelli. He was a versatile man, and stood for a true Renaissance man: not only a man of the arts, but of science, philosophy, and theology. Leonardo was also a politician, and a resourceful teacher. He established a school for his particular brand of art – combination of biology, mathematics, and artistic aesthetics, named after his respective self. He also was an architect and an engineer, who helped create siege engines and towers for Florence during the brief exile of Lorenzo de Medici. He was a man who loved his city more than anything, beyond petty politics and empirical disagreements.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was twenty years younger than Leonardo da Vinci, and through most of his life, strove to meet his awesome figure. He was trained by Ghirlandaio, and received the support of Lorenzo as a patron. He was a brilliant sculptor, and completed miracle after miracle, what other sculptors dare not do. His most inspiring work, the Pieta, was carved out of a single block of marble. This was a block of marble that no other sculptor in the entire city of Venice was willing to touch, because of its beauty, danger, and impossibility. Michelangelo was also a spiritual man who loved the Church. Although he was not the only artist who painted in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, he was the first, and the inspiration for many more following him. Michelangelo’s wife, Vittoria Colonna, was also a brilliant painter.
Raphael Sanzio, many consider to be the greatest painter of his time. He was trained under the auspices of Pietro Perugrino, otherwise known as Pietro Venucci. Raphael was a genius, who died young at the age of thirty-seven. His most ambitious works were done in Rome, under the work of the Pope.
By the time that Raphael dominated the artistic scene, the Medici of Florence was dying away. When Lorenzo the Magnificent died, the patronage of Florence fell apart, and the artists and sculptors and scientists left Florence to head to more amiable places. Florence was not a very nice place to live anyways – the corruption and familial practice of constant exilement was not something than most Florentines enjoyed. Even the Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri was exiled from Florence for his political views.
However, in Rome, the Medici family still reigned. In fact, during the Medici control over Florence, many of the Medici had succeeded as Pope and other important positions such as Cardinals and Bishops. So, when Lorenzo died, and the patronage of Florence fell, the arms of Rome welcomed the artists. Venice and Milan continued to thrive for many more years. The Renaissance, by this time, had solidified in the north, where it had been expanding its influence in the French and Germanic areas. When the Gothic artists moved south, the Byzantine and Romanesque artists moved north, to establish what would be the next Renaissance in the northern areas.
In addition to the artists of the Renaissance, advancements in humanistic music, theology, and science were advocated. Music began to expand into more territories, besides the monastical and troubadour tunes of the pre-Renaissance. Palestrina and Monteverdi were main figures of the musical rise in the Renaissance, writing sensual and more complicated themes. Politics also rose, especially in the form of Machiavelli and his book, The Prince. A secular humanism had invaded Italy, and expanded itself in the attitude of the people of Italy.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the Renaissance was the patronage of certain powerful men, and the shifting of ideas and trade routes. The urbanization of Florence, Venice, and Milan was also very key in the expansion of thought. When people gather together in meeting, ideas become communal, and science, technology, art, and religion grow and evolve. People are no longer alone; farming on isolated terraces, but instead are face-to-face with each other everyday. They walk on the same streets, drink the same water, and feel the same pain that their next-door neighbor feels.
Florence was the center of activity for the Renaissance world. Within Florence came a rebirth of ideas from a past world forgotten because of war, hate, and culturalization. And with the culmination and coalescing of ideas, Florence became the leader in the grafting of the humanistic qualities to the modern world. To this day, Florence remains the capture of a period of time when men were not afraid to dream. To this day, we call Florence, the “Flower of Italy,” and make pilgrimages to the ancient city in unabashed wonder at the works completed. For walking through Florence, is like walking through a field of knowledge, so unadulterated, that it shines.
DeWald, Ernest, Italian Painting, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1961
Gilbert, Creighton, Michelangelo, McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1967
Steedman, Amy, Knights of Art, T.C. & E.C. Jack 1907