The Italian Renaissance

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! “Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2Modern art critics regard renaissance art as graphic narratives of political and social events that occurred in the 14th through 16th century Europe. Scholars believe that the renaissance expressed a cultural revival of classical antiquity. And then there are others who doubt the concept of ‘renaissance’ entirely.

Gundersheimer argues that Wallace K. Ferguson’s concept of de-emphasizing the idea of renaissance to favor a view of “Europe in transition” was an ideal point that should be explored. This observation by Gundersheimer based on Ferguson’s idea may become influential. The ‘problem with renaissance’ was that some interests and activities may also be found in earlier periods and are not bound to the renaissance years exclusively. And the rate of change was more similar to that of a highly influential widespread culture based transition. During the medieval era there were many contributions to the arts.

The renaissance scholar Matteo Palmieri, writing in Florence in the 1430’s considers the 100 years of the medieval era to be dark because of the lack of enlightenment in those years, in comparison of the “rebirth” and “renewal” of the renaissance. I think that the labeling of the medieval era as the dark ages helps to romanticize the achievements of the renaissance. Innovations during the medieval era were useful and unglamorous and easily forgotten. The renaissance was one of the few eras in our history that emanated the true intellect of man. Genius developed from the advances in art, science, philosophy and mathematics.

Never has there since been such a time in which an individual is given ample opportunity and time to perfect and master his craft above all other societal pursuits and obligations. According to a source in the Encarta Encyclopedia, “The term renaissance was coined by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1855, to mean ‘rebirth. ‘ It refers to the ‘discovery of the world of man’ in the 16th century. ” (Encarta Renaissance 1)The renaissance period in art history corresponds to the beginning of the great western age of discovery and exploration, when a general desire and curiosity developed to examine all aspects of nature and the world.

The artists of that time were no longer regarded as just artisans as they had been during the Medieval Age. They emerged for the first time as independent personalities, comparable to poets and writers. They sought solutions to formal and visual problems and many of them were also devoted to scientific experimentation. Scholars of the late 14th and 15th century were highly interested in the rich cultures of ancient Greeks and Romans. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was an Italian poet who is considered the first “modern” poet. Some scholars believe that the renaissance was the beginning of our modern times.

Petrarch was involved in the development of Italian as a literary language and his restoration of the classical Latin language earned him the reputation as the first great humanist. He refined the thought of ‘right knowledge’ and his instructions were models of eloquence in academics. Similar to Machiavelli theory of ‘right power’ that nobles and elites had the right to rule over the masses or “the vulgars. ” “Right knowledge” is the right of the elites and nobles to gain knowledge and to be highly learned men to instruct the masses. The literal meaning of ‘humanism’ in the renaissance was close to our term ‘the humanities’ today. ” (Gundersheimer 222)

Humanism then meant, the affixing of the greatest importance to classical studies, and the consideration of classical antiquity as the common standard and model by which to guide all cultural activity. The humanist ideal of a liberal education added history, physical games and exercises to the medieval liberal arts studies. The studies of Petrarch were distinguished from scholastic philosophy and theology, by the name litterae humaniores (“more humane letters”).

The first humanist school was begun in Italy (1373-1446) by Vittorino da Feltre at Mantua under the patronage of the Gonzaga court. Picco Della Mirandola, (1463-1494) an Italian humanist philosopher who traveled universities astonishing scholars with his knowledge, wrote Heptaplus, a mystical account of the creation of the universe. Marsilio Ficino, (1433-1499) was an Italian philosopher and theologian who set up the Platonic Academy with an endowment from Cosimo De Medici. New Platonism is similar to the humanist movement in that, New Platonism was attempting to equally combine Christian and Classical symbols.

Humanists were not atheists but were ultimately interested in human affairs and the human condition as related to all aspects of culture. Humanism is well defined in the following passage:”Just as the proponents of humanism wished to reform secular life by reviving the classics and making their study the core of education in civic virtue, so the adherents to a new revivalist spirit in religion sought to reform the Church and to inspire the believer by appealing to the teachings of primitive Christianity and the example of Jesus and the martyr saints.

The humanists went back to the Classical past, the religious revivalists to the Christian past. Both were reformists in spirit, who sometimes in combination, sometimes separately, would bring about the great changes we identify as the Renaissance and the Reformation. ” (Gardner 627)Some significant figures of the religious world that changed history during the renaissance were Saint Francis of Assisi, San Bernardino, and Girolamo Savonarola. Saint Francis of Assisi, (1182-1226) was an Italian mystic and preacher who founded the Franciscan Order.

Saint Bernardino of Siena, (1380-1444) was an Italian religious leader and theologian who joined the Observant Franciscans in 1402. Girolamo Savonarola, (1452-1498), Italian preacher and reformer who prophesized the end of the world in 1500, tried to uproot corruption. He succeeded in exiling the Medici family from Florence and he instituted the ‘Bonfires of the Vanities’. He was later declared guilty of heresy and seditious teaching, and sentenced to death. Manuel Chrysoloras (1355 – 1415) was another Byzantine scholar who was known for his Greek teachings in Florence as early as 1397.

Around that time, Brunelleschi was the age of 19, and he had just graduated from artists’ apprenticeship. Chrysoloras might have instructed him in the classics because Brunelleschi’s work shows to have been greatly influenced by Greek and Roman artists. Possibly, Chrysoloras lectured on the techniques of many of the famous Greek and Roman sculptors, painters and architects, like Vitruvius. Vitruvius, (70_? – 725BC) was a Roman architect and engineer who had written ten books of architecture. His techniques have been studied since the renaissance.

Brunelleschi’s trial panel that he submitted in the competition for the commission of the Baptistery Doors in Florence illustrates an expert technique in realism that had not been seen since Roman art. Cosimo de Medici, (1389-1464) a Italian banker and statesman who was the leader of the popular faction in Florentine politics may have been involved in the judging of the panels for the Baptistery Door in Florence. In the statement made by Gundersheimer, “A brave few headed eastward in search of instruction and manuscripts. Scholars increasingly traveled to the Greece and Constantinople in search of ancient manuscripts. The kinds of manuscripts that were sought were Greek instruction to life and history accounts like that of Livy, (59BC -17AD) a Roman historian, whose History of Rome is one of the basic sources of information about early Rome. The histories of Herodotus and Thucydides; and the works of the Greek dramatists; poets; church fathers and the dialogues of Plato. The rediscovery and editing of these documents were needed in order to further the goal of proper observations and studies through classical literature.

Some other people who are key to classical studies and the philosophy of humanist studies are detailed in the following paragraphs. Niccolo Machiavelli, (1469-1527) is a very important figure of the renaissance, he was a Italian historian who wrote letters of state instruction to the Medici family giving detailed indoctrination in the gain and possession of power. He is also known as the father of ‘political science’ /”power politics” and, for his duplicity and cunning. Aristotle, (3884-322BC) was a Greek philosopher and scientist who was one of the three most famous ancient philosophers.


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