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The Italian Renaissance 14th - 17th centuries

Michaelangelo's greatest sculpture, David.

Michaelangelo's greatest sculpture, David.

The "Mona Lisa" painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The "Mona Lisa" painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.

Leonardo Da Vinci's famed anatomy drawings of man.

Leonardo Da Vinci's famed anatomy drawings of man.

Florence, Italy

Leonardo DaVinci, Michaelangelo, and Botticelli are names that conjur up visions and thoughts of a time of rebirth in learning, literature, art, music, architecture, science, religion, and philosophy known as the Renaissance. This period of rebirth in the cultural life of Europeans spanned the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th centuries. It began in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe.

Historians agree that the ideas of the Renaissance had their origin in the late 13th century in Florence, Italy in the region of Tuscany. It is said the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Francisco Petrarch (1304-1374) as well as the paintings of Giotto de Bondone (1267-1337) ushered in a new wave of thinking and a fresh air in painting.

It is also believed that in 1401, the two architect geniuses Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi competed for the contract to construct the bronze doors of the Bapistery of the Florence Cathedral and this competition is what started the Renaissance in Florence, Italy. Ghiberti won, by the way.

And, it is also said that Coluccio Salutati's invitation to a Byzantine diplomat and scholar, Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) to come to Florence to teach Greek was what started the Renaissance in Florence, Italy. This action brought back the regular study of Greek texts back to western Europe curriculum.

Whichever one you wish to believe, the consensus is that the European Renaissance, the greatest cultural movement in the world literally to date, began in Florence, Italy. And why Florence, Italy? Because a "perfect storm" of factors led to Florence as the birthplace of the Renaissance:

  • the social and civic peculiarities of Florence
  • the political structure
  • the patronage of the de' Medici family
  • the migration of Greek scholars to Florence
  • the fall of Constantinople and ancient Greek texts coming from there through the Ottoman Turks

All these above factors lead to Florence, Italy being credited with the birth of the "rebirth" movement to hit Europe at this time.

Most of the other European countries at the beginning of the 14th century were ruled by authoritative monarchies. Italy, on the other hand was a series of independent city republics that took over the principles of capitalism. Capitalism worked well among the different city republics and this set off a vast unprecedented commercial revolution that preceded and financed the Renaissance.

Florence, Italy was coming off the Middle Ages as a great center for trading and banking. In fact, it was the trading and banking capital of Europe and the most important city in Europe from the 14th to 16th centuries. In this atmosphere, intellectual pursuits were ripe to happen as Florentines came in contact with all peoples of the world through trade and commerce. Florence, Italy was simply the richest city in all of Europe.

The intellectual learning of the Renaissance period became a bridge between the Middle Agles and the Modern Era. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits as well as social and political upheaval, it is best known for its artistic development and Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo are the two master artists from Florence, Italy that inspired the term "Renaissance man" as their talents crossed over into many intellectual areas. Photos of their greatest works are shown here.

"Wedding of the Virgin"  by  Rafael

"Wedding of the Virgin" by Rafael

"Sacred and Profane Love"  by Titian

"Sacred and Profane Love" by Titian

"David"   by  Donatello

"David" by Donatello

Rebirth of Learning

Because of the wealth the trade and commerce of Florence brought in to Italy, it meant large public and private artistic projects could be commissioned and individuals had more leisure time for study.

The Black Death or Plague that had hit Europe and also Italy from 1348-1350, caused a shift of world view and caused the intellectual and religious thinkers to dwell more one their lives on Earth, rather than on spirituality and the afterlife

Also, the de' Medici family, the leading banking family of Florence and a ducal ruling house, patronized, stimiulated and commissioned works of art from Da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Botticelli and went so far as to found the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to show all the artist's works. They also amassed a huge private art collection that rivaled some European kingdoms' collections.

The Renaissance brought forth the rebirth of learning in all the cultural areas: literature, art, music, architecture, science, religion and philosophy.

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There was a great shift in learning from religion or theology of the Middle Ages to humanism, the awareness and study of the secular world. Humanism was a new method of learning of studying the ancient texts in their original form and then appraising them through a combination of reasoning and empirical evidence, It consisted of the study of the five humanities:

  • poetry
  • grammar
  • history
  • moral philosophy
  • rhetoric

The purpose of studying the humanities was to create a universal man who had acquired both a combined intellect and physical excellence and who was capable of functioning in any situation. The education at this time was composed of ancient literature and history. The classics provided moral instruction and intensive understanding of human behavior. This resurgence of learning based on the classics was begun by Petrarch. It also included the flowering of Latin and the use of the vernacular in literature. Dante was the one who began using the Italian vernacular in his writings and from this time on, the Italian language solely was used in Italian literature. Therefore, the Italian spoken and written in Florence became the true Italian used all over Italy even today.

The Italians from the Humanist School were:

  • Niccolo Machiavelli who wrote, The Prince
  • Pico della Mirandola who wrote Defense of Thinking.
  • Matteo Palmieri who wrote On Civic Life.


Up until the Renaissance, paintings were done in one dimension. They were flat upon the canvas and had little perspective. The subject matter of the paintings, especially during the Middle Ages, were religious themes and depictions of scenes from the Bible.

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) changed all that. He introduced linear perspective into his paintings and changed the course of paintings forever. He was the first painter to see a painting as a window into space and formalized perspective as an artistic technique to be learned and copied by others.

Also, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) lead to a wider trend of realism in the arts. For the first time they painted everyday scenes as the subjects of their paintings instead of just religious themes based on the Bible. They were the first to depict the beauty of nature in their paintings.

The leading artists of the Italian Renaissance period were:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Michaelangelo
  • Rafael
  • Botticelli
  • Donatello
  • Titian

Each one of these artists used the new techniques mentioned above in their paintings forever changing how paintings were done.


Naturally, architecture would also be an artistic area that would change forever because of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi learned the discipline of mathematics, a new form of learning at this time, and applied it in the construction of his dome of the Florence Cathedral. This is the first time mathematical configurations had been used in the construction of anything.

With the emphasis on ancient Rome and Greece, the types of columns used in their ancient architecture were revived and used during the Renaissance. Tuscan, doric, ionic, corinthian, and composite columns were used in the construction of churches, cathedrals, palaces and government buildings. Arches both semi-circular and segmental were used in buildings and bridges. Before, vaulted rectangles had been used in Gothic construction of the Middle Ages. Now, both semi-circular and segmental arches were used to rebuild Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge, in Florence that spans the Arno River.


From the magic spells of the Middle Ages there came a great shift in science during the Renaissance movement. And who other than Leonardo Da Vinci to lead that shift - he became known as the "father of modern science." His observational drawings of anatomy and nature and his controlled experiments in water flow, medical dissection, and the systematic study of movement and aerodynanics all helped to develop the principle of the research method.

There was a great shift from Aristotellan natural philosphy to chemistry and the biological sciences, botany, anatomy and medicine. Scientific advancement occurred because there was a willingness to question the previous held truths and search for new answers. There were significant changes in the way the universe was viewed and the methods sought to explain natural phenomena.

Those who advanced the use of the scientific method during the Renaissance were:

  • Nicolaus Copernicus
  • Galileo Galilei
  • Francis Bacon


During the Renaissance movement there was a profound effect on contemporary theology and the way people perceived the relationship between man and God. Suddenly, noted theologians were questioning some of the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church that had such a hold and authority over all Europeans. The foremost theologians who were followers of the Humanist method were:

  • Erasmus
  • Zwingli
  • Thomas More
  • Martin Luther
  • John Calvin

During the Renaissance period, the Roman Catholic Church saw one of its most corrupt pope and family entrenched in power. Pope Alexander VI was of the Borgia family. The pope was dogged by continued accusations of corruption and accused of simony, nepotism, and fathering four illegitimate children while pope. These children Pope Alexander VI married off to gain power and lands for the church.

Many churchman such as Erasmus and Martin Luther were sick of the church and pope's corruption and proposed reforms for the Catholic Church. When these reforms were denied by the pope and the church this finally caused the Reformation and the break with the Catholic Church. The men listed above began their own religious beliefs and churches within Protestantism. Finally, the hypocritical practices of selling indulgences, for example, were free from the new religions and churches.

Many theologians now believed man was capable of a direct relationship with God and needed no intermediaries to plead for him and intervene in his relationship with God. Not, that some of these churches didn't propose their own rituals and rules, but the power that the Catholic Church held as the true church of Jesus Christ was forever broken. New theological thoughts and ideas now had opportunity to be heard without the messengers being excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

All of these cultural areas were affected by the rebirth of learning of the Renaissance period and the rebirth in Florence, Italy became the focal point of the movement. From Florence, the rebirth of learning fanned out to the other areas and countries of Europe. It slowly moved north, south, east and west, and by the 17th century, nearly every European country had experienced a rebirth of its own. But, Florence, Italy remained the hub of the Renaissance.

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 02, 2012:

Thanks! And, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Glen Nunes from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on July 02, 2012:

Great hub. The Renaissance was an interesting time, and you give a good introduction here.

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