Home Up Petrarch Dignity of Man


Up Avignon Papacy Hundred Years War Plague Renaissance Voyages Reformation


     Thomas J. Kehoe, Harold E. Damerow, and Jose Marie Duvall,
Exploring Western Civilization to 1648: A Worktext for the Active Student. (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1997) pp. 411 - 436.

            “Renaissance” means “rebirth” in the French language.  The Renaissance was a rebirth in many different ways.  It began in Northern Italy about 1350 right after the Black Death had ravaged the country, killing from a third to half the population.  One of the earliest pieces of Renaissance literature was the Decameron written by GIOVANNI BOCCACCIO (1313-1375).  The Decameron is a compilation of 100 short stories told by 10 men and women who journeyed to a country villa to escape the plague which was ravaging Florence in 1348. Unsure whether they would catch the deadly disease, these young men and women did not pray or volunteer to take care of the sick in the city.  They told each other racy stories about worldly pleasures.  Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the vernacular or everyday language of Italian.

            The Renaissance was a rebirth in a second sense.  It was a rebirth of classical learning and a rediscovery of ancient Rome and Greece.  Renaissance artists and scholars looked back to this Classical past.  They deliberately rejected the scholarship and religious thought of the Middle Ages.  For them, the Middle Ages were a Dark Age.  Nothing original and creative had happened since the fall of Rome.  They sought to imitate the art of Classical Greece with its realistic depiction of the human form.  They thought that the classical Latin written by Vergil, Cicero, or Julius Caesar was much superior to the Church Latin spoken during their own time.  They wanted to purify Latin of its medieval corruptions.  In the process of doing so, ironically, they helped to destroy the living Latin of the Middle Ages and turned it into the dead  language which it is today.

            The Renaissance was a rebirth of the human spirit, a rebirth of creativity.  While taking the classical past as its model, the Renaissance was one of the most creative periods in human history, comparable only to the Golden Age of Hellenic Athens in the fifth century before Christ.  Florence has often been called the Athens of the Renaissance because so many great artists were born or worked there.

Italian Beginnings

            The Italian Renaissance marks an important turning point in human history.  Just as the Germanic invasions of the fifth century of our era marked the end of the Classical Period of history and ushered in the Middle Ages, so the Renaissance is the beginning of our own Modern Period of history and marks the ending of the Middle Ages.  There are some contemporary scholars who have suggested that we are now in a post-modern period, but, if so, whatever new age may be in the works, its characteristics have not become clear.  In most ways, our age continues to be a product of the Renaissance.

            What, then, is the Renaissance and why did it begin in Italy?  One can often define an age, era, epoch, or period by comparing and contrasting it to another.  The Middle Ages were an Age of Faith.  In the West, the religion of Christianity gave definition to the Middle Ages.  The search for salvation was the primary motivation for most people within Christendom.  The Middle Ages was God-centered.  In contrast, the Renaissance, and the Modern Period of which it is a part , is man-centered.  It is secular rather than spiritual.  This does not mean that religion and salvation are not important today, but they are not the focal point of most people’s lives.

            The Middle Ages were a relatively static period.  Society was predominantly agrarian.   It was ruled by a warrior nobility.  Manorialism provided the economic underpinnings and feudalism gave a limited political stability.   The Roman Catholic Church with its priests, monks, and bishops formed the First Estate.  The pope was not only a spiritual leader but a powerful political force.  During the High Middle Ages, medieval towns and feudal monarchy added further elements to what has been called the Medieval Synthesis.  The ideal of the Middle Ages was a universal Church within a universal Empire.  While never realized, it remained an ideal. 

            This medieval synthesis broke down shortly after 1300.  The Holy Roman Empire under the Hohenstaufen dynasty had been destroyed by the Papacy and its allies.  But the political might of the Papacy had itself been crushed by the ruthlessness of the rising French Monarchy.  The Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon, apparently under French tutelage, and remained there during the initial phase of the Renaissance till 1377.  The Italian peninsula was free temporarily from outside interference, the Empire, the Papacy, and other major powers.  The Avignon Papacy was followed by the Great Schism, when two or sometimes three popes denounced each other, until 1417.  But France, in turn, became embroiled in the Hundred Years War with the English monarchy from 1334 to 1453. 

            When one age ends and another begins, there are cross currents.  The declining or Late Middle Ages are usually dated from 1300 to 1500.  It should be noted that this time overlaps with the Renaissance.  The glass is either half empty or half full.  It depends on one’s perspective.

            The Renaissance started in Italy because these crises within Christendom benefitted Italy.  It gave Italy an independence and freedom which it had not previously enjoyed.  It must also be noted that the ruins of Roman civilization where more visible in Italy than elsewhere.  The Italians had never quite forgotten that heritage even during the Dark Ages.  Urban life had never disappeared entirely in Italy, the way it had in the rest of Europe.  And when trade and towns revived, the Italian communes had flourished most of all.  As we have noted earlier, the Lombard League had fought the centralizing efforts of the Hohenstaufen emperors and had become virtually independent city states.  Feudalism and a landed nobility had never become as entrenched in Italy as elsewhere.

            Renaissance writers were wrong to slander the Middle Ages as a Dark Age.  We have seen how varied that 1000-year period of history was.  They also overemphasized just how radical a break they were making with the medieval past.  In many ways the Renaissance built on the culture of the High Middle Ages.  DANTE ALIGHIERI (1265 - 1321) is considered to be a figure of the Middle Ages, yet he wrote his Divine Comedy in the Florentine dialect and thereby created the literary language of modern Italian.

            The Renaissance began in the Italian city-states because they had the wealth from the commerce and trade of the Middle Ages. For some time, Venice had outfitted the crusaders and was the conduit for the silk and spice trade from India and China. Furthermore, the Byzantines and the Moslems cross-fertilized these urban city-states with their cultural ideas. Merchant banking families, such as the Medici in Florence, were able to profit from these commercial endeavors and became the ruling elite. These wealthy bankers were able to finance and patronize the arts, providing employment for the famous painters, sculptors, and architects of the time.

            In addition, Italy had many reminders of the Roman past: the road network, the aqueducts, the public buildings, the monuments. Wealth, a standing heritage from the past, the freedom of the urban elite society—all of these factors contributed to a shift in attitude, which would soon include respect and admiration for the classical age.

The Political Situation in Italy

            Italy divides naturally into three regions:  North, Central, and South.  In the South after the destruction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty ultimately led to the establishment of a Kingdom of Sicily ruled by Spain and the Kingdom of Naples ruled by France.  This once prosperous and culturally advanced region became impoverished by foreign misrule.  It also brought Spain and France into Italian politics.  Foreign intervention and occupation increased after 1490 with the invasion by Charles VIII.  In the center, the Papal States were ruled by the popes.  Even during the Avignon Papacy, nominal control was maintained by the papacy.   In the North, a miniature state system had formed by the time of the Renaissance.  The Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, The Republic of Florence, the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy with its capital at Turin  were the main “Powers” in the North.  Compared to the national States that developed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Spain, France, England, Prussia, Russia, these were small city-states.  Indeed, the North Italian state system can be compared to that of ancient Greece.  Perhaps this relative smallness is what stimulated the individualism and creativity in both ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy.


            “Humanism’ is the name given to the basic philosophical orientation of the Renaissance.  It entailed, as we have already said, a strong desire to recover and understand the classical heritage of Rome and Greece.  This interest in the past was more than an antiquarian’s curiosity.  There was the belief that much of importance for the present could be learned from the past.  For example, many of the Italian city states had been republics which were being torn apart by class struggles and were becoming tyrannies.  Rome had been a republic until internal strife transformed it into the principate.  What lessons could be learned from Roman history?  The humanists wanted to re-examine classical history without the distorting lenses of Christianity.  The Romans had been pagans.  What had these pagan practices been?  What did Stoics like Cicero really say?

            FRANCISCO PETRARCH (1304-1374), is known as the Father of Humanism.  He labeled the Middle Ages as “a time of darkness.”   Petrarch’s goal was to unearth classical writings. He discovered fragments of Livy’s Roman History, as well as the letters and orations of Cicero in old monasteries and churches.   His scholarship set a standard of excellence for other humanists to emulate.  In Latin, he wrote Letters to the Ancient Dead and Lives of Illustrious Men,  which glorified his Roman heroes of the past. His greatest honor was to be crowned poet laureate by the King of Naples. No poet had been awarded this honor since Roman times. Petrarch is, however,  best remembered for his poetry, Sonnets to Laura (1360),  which were written in Italian rather than Latin.  He was almost ashamed of these writings.

            Another Latin scholar LORENZO VALLA (1406-1457) developed the technique of critical textual analysis through the use of language (philology). Valla proved that a document allegedly written in the fourth century A.D., The Donation of Constantine, could not have possibly been written then. It used  Latin words unknown in the fourth century.  It was, instead, an eighth century forgery. Valla’s On the False Donation of Constantine (1444) was a thorough textual investigation and influenced many subsequent scholars.   Although he had discredited important papal claims to territorial sovereignty over the entire Western Roman Empire and spiritual authority over the whole Christian church, the Renaissance pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) hired Valla to be Apostolic Secretary.  Nicholas V shared the ideals of the humanists and  founded the Vatican Library as a repository for ancient manuscripts.   The Vatican Library today houses the world’s largest collection of classical writings.

            There was also the attraction of classical art.  Roman sculpture was so much more lifelike than the flat, stylized figures in Medieval paintings.  Painting should not be merely  allegorical or a teaching device for Christianity.  The individual persons were valuable in themselves.  Humanists were interested in mankind.  They were man-centered, rather than God-centered.

            Humanism also appealed to the upper bourgeoisie which dominated the Italian city-states and had a fierce civic pride in their communities.  Classical ideals of beauty appealed to them.  Many were attracted to to Neoplatonism.


            Neoplatonism was a movement that blended of classical thought with Christian doctrine and sometimes astrology. The Neoplatonists formed an unofficial academy in Florence under the patronage of COSIMO DE MEDICI and the inspiration of MARSILIO FICINO (1433-1499) and PICO DELLA MIRANDOLA (1463-1494). Ficino translated Plato’s works from Greek to Latin. The Academy even held birthday parties for Plato. Many famous artists, such as Michelangelo and Botticelli, became advocates of Neoplatonism. Pico penned the “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” which accorded humans a special rank in the universe, somewhere between the beasts and angels. But because of the spark of divinity implanted in man by God, there are no limits to what man can accomplish. “...O supreme generosity of God the Father, O highest most marvelous felicity of man! To him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills.”  Here again you have the emphasis on man and his potential in this world.


            One memorable humanist historian and forerunner of modern political thought was NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI (1469-1527). He looked at the realities of politics, not the ideal Christian moral behavior that was promulgated in the Middle Ages. He wrote a “how to” book that has been read and followed by many past rulers, such as Napoleon. In it he describes unscrupulous, amoral behavior by rulers in the pursuit of defending their state. He holds that rulers use any means to gain power and princes may have to be deceitful to maintain power. Machiavelli also suggests that fear may keep the state together:

Here the question arises; whether it is better to be loved than feared or feared than loved. The answer is that it would be desirable to be both but, since that is difficult, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved, if one must choose. For on men in general this observation may be made: they are ungrateful, fickle, and deceitful, eager to avoid dangers and avid for gain, and while you are useful to them they are all with you, offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons so long as danger is remote, as we noted above, but as it approaches they turn on you... Men have less hesitation in offending a man who is loved than one who is feared, for love is held by a bond of obligation which, as men are wicked, is broken whenever personal advantage suggest it, but fear is accompanied by the dread of punishment which never relaxes.

            Do you think generally men possess the personality traits that Machiavelli describes? The term Machiavellian has since stood for power politics which may include bad faith, treachery, and dishonesty in diplomatic dealings. Machiavelli wrote The Prince (1513) while in exile from his beloved city-state of Florence. He dedicated it to one of the Medicis, the family who had been responsible for his exile, in a possible bid to return to that town. His work gave new meaning to the realities of power politics. If the safety of the state is at stake, he advises the Prince to use any means, including force, to gain and retain power. Many of the monarchs of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries seemed to have acted in the way Ma-chiavelli predicted they would. Do today’s rulers?


            Over the 200-year period of the Italian Renaissance, from 1350 to 1550, new techniques evolved in the fields of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Figures show emotion in their movement and facial expressions. The beauty of the human body reveals itself, as it did to the classical Greeks, in the nude as an art form. In what was called naturalism, artists focused primarily on showing the beauty of nature. The laws of linear perspective, making flat two-dimensional drawings appear as three-dimensional, are discovered. Along with the invention of oil paint (rather than quick-drying tempera or wet plaster painting), shading areas and the use of shadows are introduced. Because of the use of oils on a canvas medium, the artist could now blend color, create a haze, and work much longer and more effectively.

            Although painting still focused on the religious themes of the Middle Ages, a change gradually occurred in the figures and subjects of the times. It was a Florentine, GIOTTO DI BONDONE (c.1266/76-1337) who broke away from the stiff, expressionless, elongated figures of Byzantine and medieval art. He developed “foreshortening”* of figures arranged to tell a story with movement and emotion. His frescoes (wall paintings made with fresh plaster) included scenes from the lives of Christ and of St. Francis of Assisi. Other Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo, studied Giotto’s work.

            LORENZO GHIBERTI (1378-1455) won a design competition for bronze doors to a baptistery in Florence in 1401. For 50 years, Ghiberti worked on his panels depicting Old and New Testament scenes. The panels, called “The Doors of Paradise” by Michelangelo, required 16 castings per panel until they achieved Ghiberti’s standard of perfection. Besides Ghiberti, other skillful artists used the laws of linear perspective discovered by FILIPPO BRUNELLESCHI (1377-1446), who designed the dome of the Florentine Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore. Although he borrowed from Roman architects, he still used innovative techniques, including a self-supporting double shell to bear the weight of the 27,000 ton Cathedral dome, which had a diameter of over 130 feet.

            Among Brunelleschi’s circle of friends was DONATELLO (1386-1466), another Florentine. Donatello gave birth to a full-size equestrian bronze statue, the Gattamelata, the first since Roman times. His free-standing bronze statue of David is notable for its nudity and realistic detail—quite unlike medieval models.

            Donatello worked in both marble and bronze. The Florentine sculptor, LUCA DELLA ROBBIA (c.1400-1482), used both marble and clay in his works. He established a family workshop that originally used enameled terra cotta (ceramic clay) to produce decorative accessories to larger marble sculptures. Later, terracotta became a popular medium for Madonnas, altar-pieces, and other religious subjects. A Madonna by ANDREA DELLA ROBBIA (1435-1525), the highly-skilled nephew of Luca, is pictured in this book.

The High Renaissance

            The creative genius of Renaissance art reached its peak with the well-known Italian names of Raphael, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, who dominated Renaissance art in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, a period called the High Renaissance. Much of their work has never been equaled. These artists were no longer the craftsmen from medieval times, but “all-around” geniuses who took on a “superhero” status to the people of their times. For emphasis, Michelangelo was called “The Divine One.” These artists were celebrated like rock or movie stars are today.

            Achieving balanced composition (one side must equal the other), mathematical proportions, awe-inspiring colors, RAPHAEL SANTI (1483-1520) excelled in painting tender, sweet Madonnas with the infant Jesus, using live Italian women as models. Some of the Madonnas, like the Alba Madonna and The Sistine Madonna, have appeared on modern Christmas cards. His portrait of Pope Leo X illustrates psychological insight into character, whereas his fresco The School of Athens painted on the walls of the Vatican Library shows balance, harmony, and the use of the laws of perspective. The classical philosophers Plato and Aristotle, framed in a series of Roman arches, are surrounded by famous philosophers and scientists: Socrates, Euclid, Ptolemy, and their students. This fresco proclaims the spirit of humanism interwoven with classical inspiration.

            LEONARDO DA VINCI (1452-1519) worked on one of the most famous paintings of all time, La Giaconda better known as the Mona Lisa for about four years, and still left it in an unfinished state. Besides being a consummate artist, da Vinci dissected cadavers to learn anatomy. His notebooks, written backwards so one has to use a mirror in order to read them, illustrate skeletal and muscular structures of humans, birds, plants, and technological innovations far ahead of his time, including sketches of the submarine, tank, and machine gun battery. Because da Vinci was so well respected, his ideas helped to promote the growth of science.

            Many art historians and critics acclaim MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564) to be the greatest sculptor of all time. Believing his figures were imprisoned in blocks of marble, he just had to release them. The Pieta, sculpted when Michelangelo was only 26 years old, portrays the emotion of Mary cradling a dead Christ in her arms. The citizens of Florence paraded the 18-foot marble statute of David around the city for three days in triumph and ecstasy before according it a place of honor in front of the city hall. Both the Medici rulers of Florence and the popes recognized Michelangelo’s talents and fought for his services. He received commissions from four popes. Employed by Pope Julius II (1503-1513), Michelangelo spent four years crouching, standing, lying on a scaffold, paint dripping into his eyes and face, in order to paint and create he Sistine Chapel. Over 340 powerful figures adorn the huge ceiling (128 by 44 feet); the scenes include God Dividing the Light from Darkness, The Creation of Adam, and The Flood. His architectural genius must also be recognized, and the designs of the Laurentian Library and the dome of St. Peter’s stand as monuments to his universal accomplishments.  


            In his later years, Michelangelo was tormented by his desire for eternal salvation. His sculptures and paintings changed from the classical Greek style of balance, correct proportion, and harmony to one of emotional exaggeration. The bodies become elongated, contorted, and full of powerful feelings. For example, in The Deposition, Christ’s twisted torso is held up by Joseph of Arimathea, who resembled Michelangelo. This style of art is referred to as MANNERISM, “in the manner of Michelangelo.”

            Some of the most interesting artists of the Mannerist school are El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopuli, c.1541-1614), who was born in Crete and did his most notable work in Spain, and the Venetian painter Tintoretto (1518-1594). Working on enormous canvasses, TINTORETTO theatrically painted religious themes including The Crucifixion and other aspects of Christ’s passion. One project he undertook was reminiscent of Michelangelo. Tintoretto painted Old Testament scenes, such as Moses Striking Water from the Rock, on the ceiling of a room. EL GRECO used elongated figures, bizarre colors, such as green skin, and movement to heighten the viewer’s emotion. An art historian would say that El Greco (the Greek) was a forerunner of modern surrealist painting; his work was not appreciated in his time period. Look at the Laocoon at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. or The View from Toledo at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and see what feelings they evoke within you.

            A one-time pupil of Michelangelo was BEVENUTO CELLINI (1500-71) whose statue, Narcissus, shows clearly the influence of mannerism. Cellini, however,  had diverse styles and occupations. He was an exquisite goldsmith, and a vivid, candid writer, as well as a sculptor. Cellini described the making of his most famous sculpture, the bronze Perseus, in his Autobiography, parts of which are presented at the end of this chapter.

Northern Renaissance Art

            The first northern painter who paid extreme attention to detail and symbolism was JAN VAN EYCK (c.1390-1441). For example, The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) has a little terrier in the foreground whose every hair is meticulously painted, showing dark and light contrasts. His photographic-like pictures, which illustrate his development of oil paint as a medium, satisfied his wealthy patrons’ desires for portraits. Two other northern artists who excelled in portrait painting were German, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). DURER (sometimes called the German Leonardo) used the art form of engraving in metal and wood with exceptional artistry. He was honored wherever he traveled throughout Europe. HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER illustrated Erasmus’s book In Praise of Folly His introspective portraits of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII, Christina of Denmark, and Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Protestant reformer, are masterpieces from the time period when there were no photographers.

Erasmus and More

            Other scholars in northern and western Europe sought to apply humanistic methods to the study of Christianity. These scholars care-fully identified and edited the texts on which Christianity is based. DESIDERIUS ERASMUS (1469-1536), a Dutch monk, seeking to create a more perfect world, stressed church reform based on Christian ideals. His advice was sought on a variety of questions, for he was the leader of a group that criticized the weaknesses and abuses of the Church. Erasmus of Rotterdam, as he was called, introduced humanism into Eng-land during his term as a scholar at Oxford. His most famous work, In Praise of Folly, is a satire on the frailties and foibles of all classes of mankind; he delighted in poking fun at monks and other members of religious orders. He is known as a Christian humanist because his emphasis is on reforming and educating within the Church. A contemporary of Martin Luther, Erasmus debated Luther in 1524-1525 over the issue of free will. Erasmus argued that man has control over his salvation, whereas Luther’s position is that only God has the ultimate authority in the afterlife. Not capitulating to Luther, Erasmus remained an independent thinker to the end. His objective was to reform the Church from within, returning to the original message (simple piety) of Jesus and the apostles. Because of this Prince of Humanists’ scholarship, his New Testament editions in Greek and Latin were used by Protestant re-formers as a basis for their translations of the Bible.

            A friend of Erasmus was the English statesman and author, SIR THOMAS MORE (1478-1535). More went on several diplomatic missions for King Henry VIII of England and served as his Lord Chancellor. However, More was executed by Henry in 1535 after his former Lord Chancellor, a loyal Catholic, had refused to recognize the king as the supreme head of the Church of England. More’s most famous work was Utopia, which literally means “no place.” On this imaginary island, land is held in common, religious toleration is granted, and every-body receives an education. No wonder utopia has come to mean an ideal but unrealizable state! The book was intended as a satire to criticize the oppression of the poor and other social evils of More’s day.

National Literature

            Spain and England developed a national literature that should be familiar to you. The modern play Man of La Mancha is based on Spain’s most brilliant novel, Don Quixote. Written by MIGUEL DE CERVANTES (1547-1616) as a satire on chivalry, Don Quixote and Man of La Mancha focus on a romantic knight’s quest for adventure while his faithful, practical squire, Sancho Panza, keeps telling his master to see things as they really are and not as he imagines them to be. Ironically, at the novel’s conclusion, the roles are reversed, so that the reader obtains the insight that perhaps the two points of view are necessary for man/woman’s being. The song “The Impossible Dream” high-lights the idealism of a Don Quixote—”To dream the impossible dream...”

            Representative of English literature is the gentleman most English-speaking critics consider the world’s greatest playwright, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616). Writing and producing 37 plays in his lifetime, Shakespeare epitomized the ideal of the “universal man” of the Renaissance. As a poet, psychologist, and dramatist, he is unmatched. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, prince of Denmark, emphasizes the Renaissance view of man and his potential in this world when he says in Act 2, Scene 2:

            What a piece of work is 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!

            There are other examples of national literature. In France, FRANÇOIS RABELAIS (c.1494-1553) wrote a satirical series about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel that poked fun at the institutions of his time, especially the Catholic Church and Scholastic learning. Monasticism and Scholasticism were the chief targets of another satire, Letters of Obscure Men. ULRICH VON HUTTEN (1488-1523), a German humanist, was a major contributor to this last work.

Invention of the Printing Press

            The spread of the Renaissance throughout Europe was helped along by the invention of the printing press attributed to Johann Gutenberg (c.1398-1468) and others. Gutenberg used moveable metal type in a device derived from a wine press to print whole pages. Books, and the ideas contained in them, became available to a much wider audience since they no longer had to be laboriously copied by hand. Literacy for the masses became feasible.

            The first book printed was the Bible, about 1455 in Mainz, Germany. The Bible, Biblical commentaries, and the works of Desiderius Erasmus and Lorenzo Valla were used by the Protestant reformers in their attacks upon the established Catholic Church. We will soon meet Martin Luther, who wanted every man and woman to be able to read and to interpret the Bible for himself or herself. This was possible only after the invention of the printing press.


Internet Links to Renaissance Art

   Below are two WEB sites on Renaissance Art.


The Web Gallery of Art


Olga's Gallery