HIST 100: Part 5

The Renaissance

Prof. Sheila ffolliott


The period in Western civilization that is called the Renaissance (ca. 1350-1550) was one in which some people believed that they were living in a new age, different from (and better than) what they called the Middle Ages: that millennium, from about 350 to 1350, that separated them from the ancient world. Some also viewed it as a time of recovery, both from the Black Death and the social upheavals that had characterized the 14th century, and a “rebirth” (for that is the meaning of Renaissance) of the ancient Greco-Roman culture that they drew upon. The term “Renaissance” probably resonates most powerfully for us because of its cultural achievements in the visual arts and literature. Hello, I am Professor Sheila ffolliott and I do research and teach courses in art history of the Renaissance. Today, I shall discuss some of the people, events, and achievements of the Renaissance and consider if it was really more a historical period or an idea. Before we proceed, let me make a quick change of costume.

You may wonder why I’m wearing my academic robes. They are adapted from what scholars wore in the Middle Ages. And it is scholars who invented and promoted the defining ideas of Renaissance, a fundamental event in Western Civilization.

Look at this portrait of Thomas More, Renaissance scholar and Lord Chancellor of England. More wrote a book called the Utopia in 1516. In it he describes an imagined ideal society and ever since similar attempts to portray or establish such communities have adopted this name. Notice how More wears a hat and robes similar to those I’m wearing. Renaissance women, however, as I shall mention later on, would not have worn such clothing, nor would they have had professional careers as professors.

The development we know as the Renaissance began in the 14th century, when the ruins of ancient Rome inspired the 14th c. Italian scholar Petrarch (1304-74) to think of that far distant civilization. Then, at the beginning of the 15th century, a Florentine scholar, Leonardo Bruni, applied the term “Middle Ages” to the period between antiquity and his own lifetime, which he saw as different. This was because a few scholars rediscovered much of the knowledge produced in the ancient world, which was largely unknown known during the previous centuries. With an almost Indiana Jones-like intensity, scholars explored monastery libraries like this one, where, during the middle ages, monks painstakingly copied and recopied the texts of Aristotle, Plato, and other ancient thinkers, but which were little known. I’ll talk more specifically about their interests and its impact in a few moments, but first I want to share with you the very personal reaction of a 16th-century scholar, Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence author of a treatise on political power, The Prince, and other works.

Machiavelli got inspiration for many of his ideas from reading the work of ancient thinkers. He is wildly enthusiastic about his great good fortune in being able to spend time reading. In a letter he wrote a friend, after completing The Prince in 1513, he describes his typical day and, in particular, the reverence he holds for the life of the mind. Here are his words: “When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed I enter the ancient courts of ancient men where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. .... and for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them...”

Note how Machiavelli likens his opportunity to read ancient authors to actually conversing with them, as if they were alive. In fact Petrarch pioneered this idea and a similar attitude appears in the work of another Italian scholar, Poggio Bracciolini. With the same emotional intensity as Machiavelli, he describes his experience finding the writings of an ancient Roman author, Quintillian, gathering dust and neglected in what he describes as a dungeon. Poggio too characterizes this discovery as if he had found the man himself. Such scholars clearly held the pursuit of learning in high regard. Many people living in the 15th-16th centuries would be envious that so many people can attend college today. Now enough of these robes…

That’s much better. My remarks on the Renaissance will focus on Italy, although the ideas propelling it certainly reached many other parts of the Europe, where they took on particular local characteristics. I’ve divided this discussion into 5 parts. If you are watching this on tape, you can pause the tape at any point during the lecture, but I would recommend that you stop after each section. You can then look over your notes and review any readings before going on to the next part.

We begin (1) in Florence with the inventors of the Renaissance. I’ll be talking first about a 16th-century artist and historian, Giorgio Vasari, but it is important to recognize that he simply picks up the ideas of 14th and 15th-century scholars who were the true inventors of the concept. We’ll consider their worldview and their motivations, in particular the group of scholars known as the humanists and their reform of the educational curriculum. Then (2) I’ll have a conversation with my colleague, Professor of Mathematics, Daniele Struppa, on the mathematical innovations that were an important part of these changes. Part 3 moves us to Rome and the world of the Popes and the Church. Then (4) we’ll compare the lives of Renaissance men and women, and we’ll (5) end with a conversation with another colleague, Professor Jeffrey Stewart, on the meaning of the term Renaissance; examining if it was, in fact, a distinct and unique historical period? Or one of many similar periods, like the Carolingian Renaissance? Was it a movement, affecting only a small part of the population? Or is it primarily a myth?

The Inventors of the Renaissance: Vasari and the Humanists

We start our investigation of the inventors of the Renaissance in Florence. This map indicates the main political divisions at the end of the 15th century. We focus primarily on the middle of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula, for at this point what became a united Italian nation in the 19th century was a group of independently governed city-states. Florence and its territories are marked in green. We’ll also examine Renaissance Rome, the city that had been the capital of the ancient Empire. It was now part of the Papal States, marked in yellow. The small city-state of Urbino is also located here. The other major powers were the Venetian Republic, the Duchy of Milan, and the Kingdom of Naples, allied with Spain.

Each of these entities had its own government: some, like Florence and Venice were republics, with a limited form of representative government. Others, like Milan and Naples, were hereditary principalities. The Pope was the elected head of the Church and at the same time the political ruler of the Papal States.There are many reasons for beginning in Florence. In the first place, the Renaissance was an urban rather than a rural phenomenon. Then, many of its prime intellectual and artistic movers were Florentines or were employed by Florentines. Even after the ravages of the Black Death and labor unrest in the 14th century, the city was healthy economically, even though it lacked a seaport. Its commercial success came from international banking and the manufacturing of high quality woolens. Gregorio Dati, who wrote a history of Florence in the 15th century, provides an explanation of Florence’s prosperity, which is in your reader. Note how he attributes Florence’s success in part to the geographical situation of the city and in part to what he considers to be the inborn character of its citizens. We’ll return later to a consideration of why Florence received the starring role in the way in which the history of the Renaissance has been written, but you can see from this 15th-century analysis that the Florentines had a high opinion of their own abilities.

Because I am an art historian, it is easiest for me to demonstrate one of the changes that characterize the Renaissance by looking at art works and by turning to the influential work of the first art historian to write about them, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). Born near Florence, and employed by the Medici—the most powerful Florentine family—Vasari was a painter and an architect. In 1568 he wrote a multi-volume book, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in which he organized biographies of individual artists into three parts, each of which he introduced with a Preface. Your reader contains his prefaces to parts two and three.

Vasari’s work was the first systematic history of art, and, as such, it represents an important milestone in Renaissance history. It is important to recognize the structure he gave his book, for it is revealing about the kind of historical narrative that he wanted to create. Vasari wrote biographies of individual artists, thereby acknowledging the distinctive achievements of each. He then organized these separate lives into three distinct periods, introduced by prefaces in which he described the common characteristics of their artworks and also placed their work—as he sees it—into a larger narrative about what happens to art over time.

Vasari’s method for compiling this history of artists—by writing biographies of individuals, in which he describes their personalities, their achievements, and their genius—resembled the work of his contemporaries who wrote the histories of rulers, generals, or other influential people. All these writers imitated the biographical model for writing history developed in the ancient world, by Plutarch, one that stressed the significance of individual action so that the reader would find examples to emulate. Such an emphasis on the individual has been one of the traditional hallmarks of the Renaissance, used to demonstrate what has been described as a new consciousness not seen in the Middle Ages. We’ll return to this issue at the end of this lecture.

There are several reasons why Vasari can help us understand the phenomenon of the Renaissance. First he articulated the view that his own age constituted a distinct period, different from that preceding it. Now remember what I said earlier, that Vasari did not invent this notion: 15th century scholars had already made this point. In a letter in your reader, Marsilio Ficino, borrowing a concept he had read in Plato, applied the term “Golden Age” to the time in which he lived, because he saw around him “such a wealth of golden intellects.” Vasari, like Poggio Bracciolini, also made clear his view his own age was better than that preceding it (now called the Middle Ages), because artists and scholars were looking back to the what they regarded as superior culture of antiquity for inspiration.

Let’s try to look at some artworks from Vasari’s point of view. In his book, he set out the proposition that art progressed, from an ancient high, exemplified in works like this. Now, drawing from paintings in the National Gallery, here in Washington, let’s look at what Vasari considered to be the medieval low point in art, exemplified by works this Byzantine Madonna, the Italian term for the Virgin Mary. If Vasari preferred the style of the ancient statue, can you see why he had little regard for Byzantine art, for he described it in unflattering terms as having “unbroken outlines, starring eyes, feet on tiptoe, sharp hands, absence of shadow, and other Byzantine absurdities.” Vasari also did not like what he deemed the artificiality of placing figures against a background of gold. After such a low, Vasari concludes that, with renewed interest in looking to antiquity for models to imitate, art managed to pull itself out of this slump and, in fact, reach perfection in his own day.

To affirm this sense of progression, he used a biological metaphor, suggesting that art died and was reborn. Of course this fits in precisely with the idea of Renaissance, literally meaning “rebirth” in French. You have in your reader a short selection by a 15th-century precursor of Vasari, Matteo Palmieri, who made a similar point: “For some centuries now the noble arts, which were well understood and practiced by our ancient forebears, have been so deficient that it is shameful how little they have produced.”

Let’s continue our look at some of Vasari’s specific opinions about art. He divided his biographies of Italian artists into three periods: corresponding to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. His prefaces—you have excerpts in your reader—describe (1) the characteristics of each period, (2) what distinguishes one from another, and (3) why, in his view, art “got better” over time.

Period one: For Vasari, Giotto was the first real innovator. Let’s examine why, using a work by one of his followers, Agnolo Gaddi, that is in the National Gallery. This is the central panel from a large altarpiece (a devotional painting associated with an altar). In it we see the Virgin Mary, enthroned, and holding her son, Jesus, standing in her lap, surrounded by angels. The background is gold leaf, as it was in the Byzantine Madonna that Vasari didn’t like, because it seemed so unnatural.

Please look at the way in which Gaddi organized his painting. Notice the scale. The figure of Mary is much larger than the others—she dominates the work for a very logical, but not naturalistic, reason: because of her theological importance. In this respect Gaddi adheres to some of the conventions that were prized in Medieval art.

But now let’s look at what Vasari appreciates and why he characterizes Giotto and his followers as innovators. Even though Gaddi paints on a two-dimensional surface, he creates the illusion that we’re looking at something three-dimensional. The throne is depicted as if it were standing in a space: it overlaps some of the angel’s haloes. Additionally, the angels’ haloes overlap one another and Mary’s figure seems to have weight—because of Gaddi’s manipulation of light and shade. Look closely at Mary’s neck and the drapery, especially on the foreground angels, and Gaddi’s attempt to imitate the way in which light strikes three-dimensional figures. The figures’ proportions are not quite what we might expect in nature and their gestures seem awkward. Here is what Vasari said about the period in which Giotto and Gaddi worked: “In the first and oldest period ... art evidently fell a long way short of perfection and, although they may have shown some good qualities, [they] were accompanied by so much that was imperfect that they certainly do not deserve a great deal of praise. All the same, they did mark a new beginning.” So to paraphrase Vasari, the first period, the 14th century, initiates this Renaissance, this rebirth. In your reader look for other remarks he makes about the painters of this 1st period and their relation to their predecessors.

Now let’s look at an example of a painting by an artist from the second period of Vasari’s scheme, the 15th-century painter Fra Filippo Lippi. It is a similar subject, the Madonna and Child, but here she is not enthroned, but rather we see the upper half of her body standing in a niche and she holds her child on a ledge in front of her. Have you noticed some changes? The Madonna and Child seem to have been rendered in much more normal human proportions. Additionally the child assumes a more natural childlike pose. Also the figures themselves take up most of the space, and the artist has manipulated the light and shade on the flesh and drapery to suggest three-dimensionality much more subtly than Gaddi. Vasari sees Lippi and his 15th-century contemporaries demonstrating “a considerable improvement in invention and execution, with … better style, and a more careful finish … artists cleared away the rust of the old style, along with the stiffness and disproportion characteristic of the ineptitude of the first period.”

Now let’s look at a work representative of Vasari’s third period, the 16th century. Remember that for Vasari art reached perfection during this time. The example here is by Raphael, and it is another composition with the Madonna and Child. Notice how in this work the figures’ poses seem even more naturalistic than in the previous painting. And they are in a landscape setting outdoors. Their proportions more closely resemble those of normal human beings. Note also how Raphael manipulates the paint to make even more gradual transitions from light to dark, on the bodies and draperies, than Gaddi and Lippi had. This demonstrates his success at creating an even more three-dimensional illusion on a two dimensional surface. See also how Raphael’s figures are idealized: the Madonna’s face is a perfectly symmetrical oval. For Vasari, Raphael was “the most graceful” of all painters, who “selected the best qualities from ancient and modern masters ... and equaled the faultless perfection of figures painted in the ancient world.”

So let’s reexamine Vasari’s opinions. The qualities that he sought in art indicate a new desire for realism—figures that look more like human beings—than the art of the previous period. But we must be careful to place Vasari’s remarks into the context of the times, for the Byzantine and Medieval artists were not less ‘able’ than those of the Renaissance. They had different artistic goals, which Vasari, who was looking for skill in rendering naturalistic figures based on ancient models, did not appreciate.

Vasari compared the developments he saw in the visual arts to academic subjects. He argued that the visual arts should be regarded as an activity requiring learning and thought, not simply a craft, as the arts had been regarded in the Middle Ages. He said that he saw: “the same progression in other branches of learning [as he saw in art, simply corroborating]: the fact that the liberal arts are all related to each other.” Here Vasari, who advocated the imitation of ancient art, shows his familiarity with—and support for—the new educational curriculum that was an important feature of those changes that characterized the movement called “The Renaissance” in the 15th century. The passion for ancient knowledge that I referred to in the beginning, helped to change the educational curriculum and that, in turn, produced a new type of educated man.

As Renaissance scholars got more familiar with what it was they were discovering (and I again refer you to the Poggio Bracciolini text in your reader in which he expresses his admiration for the work of ancient writers and deplores the way in which their works were neglected in the monastery), they took into account that these texts were manuscripts, i.e. they had been hand copied by scribes, as Professor Miller explained. And they noticed variations in the transcriptions, as not all the scribes copied the words identically. So they worked to establish authoritative versions of these ancient texts and, with the invention of moveable type printing in the middle of the 15th century (and here you see a recreation of the earliest press and a page of the Bible printed by Gutenberg) permitted them to establish standard versions of texts that were accurate and reproducible. The Italian scholars tended to interest themselves in the writings of ancient thinkers, while their counterparts in Northern Europe applied this method of textual criticism to the Bible. Printing, of course, would have a tremendous impact on the dissemination of all kinds of information. By 1500 Europe could boast of 1,000 printing presses; thus began a transformation of the modes of communication. In this respect the Renaissance was a precursor of our own information age.

These pioneering scholars are known as the humanists. This name derives from their interest in studying the fields, known in Latin—the scholars’ language of the time— as the studia humanitatis, today called the Humanities. These scholars borrowed this term from Cicero, the Roman orator Professor Mattusch told you about, who used it to refer to the body of literary works that an educated and civilized human being needed to be familiar with in order to act fully in the public arena. These subjects, including grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, politics, and moral philosophy, were also called the “Liberal Arts” or “Liberal Studies,” as you will note from two selections in your reader: the 15th century letter by Ficino and the 14th century letter by Vergerius, who explained why they had this name. “We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man” (liberal here relates to ‘liberty,’). The humanists believed that these subjects provided the best preparation for a moral and active life. Here, in a detail from a large decorative painting in a Florentine church are portraits of some of Florence’s leading humanists: on the left is Marsilio Ficino, author of the letter in your reader describing “the golden age” in which he saw himself living. The man on the far right is a teacher of Greek, for these scholars’ ideal curriculum stressed Latin and Greek. This was necessary, of course, to read the ancient books, many of which were not yet translated into modern languages, and study poetry, ethics, history, and rhetoric (the art of public speaking).

In the Middle Ages, many people had instead studied highly specialized fields like law. What was new is that these humanities/ liberal studies were considered important to prepare the educated man for anything, not just a specialized field. This legacy from the Renaissance—a well-rounded general education—still holds true today.

Some of these humanist scholars held teaching positions and we can imagine Florentine youths studying under their tutelage. This relief sculpture, in fact, appears in a prominent location right next to Florence Cathedral. As you see from several of the texts in your reader, advocating these new emphases in education is a key feature of this era and something that Florence was proud of. Florence was a center for banking and manufacturing: there were 270 workshops weaving fine woolens that were marketed in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Florence also had developed silk production, with silkworms brought back from China. The markets that still offer wonderful goods today had their origins in a much earlier time. Even in the late medieval city, Florence’s main bridge was lined with shops. Highly successful merchants and bankers like these depicted here amassed sufficient income to commission artists to paint their portraits on the walls of churches they supported. This detail of a larger religious narrative makes clear who paid for the painting. In your reader are two quotations concerning why Florentine businessmen with means became art patrons. One comes from the diary of Giovanni Rucellai who explains why he spends money as he has, saying that “earning and spending are among the greatest pleasures that men enjoy in this life.”

The other selection comes from a biography of Cosimo de’ Medici, the first really important member of that influential family, and builder of a new family palace that served both as domicile and business center. Read these selections and consider what motivated the wealthy men of the Renaissance to spend money, both on themselves and on charity. According to Cosimo’s biographer, he may have been motivated to help fund a monastery because “he became increasingly aware ... that some of his money had been acquired not quite cleanly.” This reminds us that Christianity remained an important social force, together with this developing interest in the ancient world. It is also important to recognize that, although the population of Florence was about 40,000 in the 15th century, only a few of its citizens (about 600) were able to influence its government. A series of councils, which met in this building, drew their potential membership exclusively from the merchant and especially the powerful banking families, like the Medici. Now, before moving to Part two, let’s review the main points covered so far:

  • Interest in antiquity changed both the curriculum for study and the visual arts.

  • Florence, primarily because of its economic base, was where the Renaissance got underway.

We’ll now move to Part Two.

Merchants And Measurements: Important Mathematical Innovations

In his Preface to Part III of the Lives of the Artists, where he described the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, Vasari listed five qualities that he saw embodied in the work of the 16th century artists. These include rule (by which he meant measuring antique sculpture and architecture and basing modern works on the ancient ones) and proportion. Both these qualities that he sought in good art have a clear relationship with mathematics. New developments in mathematics were also key to the merchants and bankers of 15th-century Italy. Those who did not undertake a liberal arts education often studied specialized mathematics for business, for Florence’s economic growth was key to the development of the Renaissance.

Earlier I spoke with my colleague, Daniele Struppa, Professor of Mathematics and we discussed the implications of advances in mathematics on the era of the Renaissance.

ffolliott: Why is the history of math important to understanding western civilization, especially in the Renaissance period? Struppa: I believe the answer has to do with what we define to be western civilization. I am not sure whether there is unanimous agreement among historians on how to define this subject, but at least in my view Western Civilization is that body of knowledge that has been generated in the attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions, which the Greeks had first brought to our attention. It seems to me that Greek civilization has to do with discovering the logos (some universal principles) in all things. Western civilization, in my opinion, is the continuation of such a search. If you accept, at least temporarily, this point of view, then it is clear why mathematics is central to Western civilization. Mathematics was for the Greeks the first and foremost form of education, as Plato pointed out in the Republic. Mathematics (in its quadrivious form, which includes arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry) is the foundation for Greek thought, and the major success in the Greeks’ attempt to discover the logos. Thus the evolution of mathematics, and especially the evolution along problems outlined by the Greeks, is central to Western Civilization. ffolliott: Borrowing from the 15th-century humanists, Vasari clearly portrayed his own age as distinct from and an advance over the previous era. He described developments in the visual arts, characterizing them as having marked a new beginning in the 15th century. Can we say that mathematics, as well, experienced a “Renaissance?” during this time period? Struppa: There is no doubt that mathematics began a new phase in Europe around the middle of the 15th century. As we know, the Romans had not emulated the pinnacles of mathematics reached by the Greeks, and one could say that during the Roman empire, and the “dark ages” as well, math did not develop in any significant way in the western world. But the invention of the printing press changed this state of torpor, by making available works that had not been available in the past. By the end of the 15th century there were 30,000 new editions available to western Europe, and though few of them were of mathematical interest, they did provide the basis for further developments. Interestingly enough, the rediscovery of the Greek classics was not as important as the Latin translation of the Arab treatises on algebra and arithmetic. This was partially due to the difficulty of reading Greek, and partially to the complexity of the work of the Greeks. It is therefore possible to say that renaissance mathematics did in fact have two important components

  1. The rediscovery of Greek mathematics (in particular the Elements of Euclid) but also the work of Pappus. This provided the bases for the development of projective geometry, and the theory of perspective.
  2. The birth of algebra, along the Arab tradition whose better-known name is the one of al-Khw-‚rizmÓ (from which we take the word “algorithm”). Interestingly enough, much as projective geometry was stimulated by the needs of the painters, so algebra took a whole new interest due to the needs of merchants to perform increasingly complicated computations.

ffolliott: Tell us more about algebra and its relationship to the budding commerce. Can you please clarify this connection, maybe with some examples? Struppa: Sure. Let me begin by saying a few words about al-Khuwarizmi's work. The title of his important book was His‚b al-jabr wíal muq‚la, from which we take the word “algebra”. We don't know the exact meaning of the title, but the work “al-jabr” seems to indicate the “completion” process that was used to solve various kind of equations. Other scholars believe that the word “jabr” was Assyrian and meant “equation” so, as you can see, we are a little shaky on this ground! This book was written around the 800, but is considered the foundation for the algebra as developed in Italy during the renaissance. The first Italian translation of the al-jabr dates back to 1464, and it is fair to assume such a translation was a significant influence on Fra Luca Pacioli’s important algebra treatise of the European renaissance. This work (1494) has the title “Summa de arithmetica, geometrya, proportioni, et proportionalità”. It is worth pointing out that Pacioli tutored the children of a rich Venetian merchant, and saw the importance of the commercial use of arithmetic. It is interesting to note that in 1489 a German scholar (Johann Widmann) published a text on commercial arithmetic (the first book, apparently, in which the signs of + and - appear). Widmann, from what we know, had himself a manuscript copy of the al-jabr. Struppa: You ask me to provide some examples of the use of algebra during the renaissance. According to some scholars, the actual interest in algebra in the Arab world was due to their complex inheritance law. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by some of the examples that are given in al-Khw-‚rizm ís work. As to the reason for algebra and arithmetic in Europe, one of the motives for its study was the desire to replace the old computations (based on the abacus and on roman digits) with a more recent approach based on Arabic (or Hindo-Arabic) digits. ffolliott: And what about the other area of mathematics you mentioned, projective geometry? Did it begin from painting, and was then formalized by mathematicians, or did it begin with mathematicians? Struppa: You raise an interesting point, though the answer is that neither of your two “proposals” is the correct one. We do know that the changing nature, and purpose, of painting during the renaissance was posing new challenges to the painters. In particular, we know that the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi, builder of this cupola, paid great attention to the question of how to represent on a plane (on the canvas, for example) three-dimensional objects. From what we know, the first formal and explicit formulation of the problem was given by Leon Battista Alberti in his Della Pittura of 1435, where he shows a concrete method (known as costruzione legittima). So, I would like to answer your question by saying that the birth of perspective was one of those great interdisciplinary moments in the history of western thought. Mathematicians and artists coexisted within the same person (Alberti, Piero della Francesca, author of De prospectiva pingendi (On Painting in Perspective), and Leonardo da Vinci.), and therefore, at least at the very beginning, it is virtually impossible to differentiate between art and mathematics.When we look at this Annunciation in the National Gallery, for example, by a follower of Piero della Francesca, we see the mathematician, where the mathematically calculated perspective system is clearly evident. ffolliott: Thank you very much Dr. Struppa. So clearly the Renaissance experienced innovations in mathematics, in other parts of the curriculum, as well as in the visual arts. And notice how all these developments intersect with urban commerce. Let’s now return to our discussion of the Renaissance by moving to Rome to consider the Church and the institution of the Papacy.

The Papacy and Institutional Religion

In our pluralistic society, with our constitutional provision for the separation of Church and State and freedom of religion, it is difficult to imagine a time in which everyone adhered to a single religious faith, organized into a Church. But in Western Europe before the 16th century there was only one Church. The small Jewish minority in Europe did not have the full rights of citizenship in most places. Moslems had lived and worshipped in Spain, but by the end of the 15th century they were defeated and driven out. There were also domestic slaves from Africa and elsewhere. Everyone with full rights belonged to the Church and at its apex was the Pope, an elected head who behaved like a king. As you know from Professor Miller, because the Pope was elected and functioned both as a head of state and as the head of the Church, he was often involved in European politics In this illustration, we see the Pope receiving the Queen of Naples, much as a King would have done. The Church was becoming a highly centralized institution, with a sizable bureaucracy staffed by Cardinals, high Church officials appointed by the Popes. The Cardinals in turn elected new Popes. Recall from the map that the Pope was the ruler of a state as well as the head of a church. The pope returned to Rome in 1415, after being in Avignon for the time known as the Great Schism, discussed by Professor Miller. He took on a leadership role in the city of Rome, which had been neglected, as well as for the Church. Some of the Renaissance popes had been educated with the new liberal arts curriculum and took an interest in fostering the humanities. Here we see a depiction of Pope Sixtus IV (pope from 1471-1484) appointing a humanist scholar to be the head of the Vatican Library, which was established by an earlier pope, Nicholas V, in order to accommodate the vast repository of over 9,000 manuscripts and books. The others present are all his Sixtus’s relatives, who have received high positions.

In this respect, the popes behaved like their secular counterparts in that they used their positions to benefit their families. Right in front of Pope Sixtus, wearing the red robes of a cardinal, is his nephew who would become Pope, and take the name Julius II. This fresco, therefore, makes a clear statement about the Renaissance papacy. In this case, rather than have himself portrayed in a religious setting, the Pope appears cultivating the new learning and, at the same time, furthering the interests of his own family, in a practice henceforth known as “nepotism” from Latin words meaning nephew and grandson. Sixtus IV also built a new chapel at the Vatican the area of Rome where the church of St. Peter’s, marking the tomb of that saint and traditional first pope, stands. At the lower left is the Sistine Chapel, named for its builder. It was the Pope’s private chapel, but it also served as the site where the College of Cardinals met to elect a new pope. The decorations, in this chapel, on Biblical themes, were for a small but highly important audience. In your textbook you’ll find an illustration of one of the most famous decorations in this space, the ceiling painted by the Florentine artist Michelangelo. The ceiling decoration was commissioned by Sixtus’ nephew, Pope Julius II (1503-1513).

Julius II had a grandiose vision for the Papacy. He was a warrior, leading troops into battle against various enemies who sought territory in the Papal States. He was also committed to transforming the Vatican into what he thought would be a worthy complex to represent the newly invigorated capital of Christendom. Although he was Pope for only 10 years, his vision not only changed the appearance of many parts of the Vatican, but these actions—intended to provide the Church with splendid quarters—together with what were considered excesses (e.g. the nepotism) helped, in fact, to bring about the split in the Church that Professor Holt will describe to you in the next lecture. You can get an idea of what some of the problems were from the Erasmus text about Pope Julius in your reader. Clearly this Northern European Humanist scholar did not approve of this Pope’s priorities.

Let’s look at two examples of Julius’ grand ideas, because they embody many important notions about the Renaissance. First he wanted to rebuild the church of St. Peter’s. The old St. Peter’s, built by Constantine—the first roman emperor to espouse Christianity in the 4th century—would have resembled this early Christian church, Santa Sabina, which Professor Butler discussed. Julius didn’t think it the proper setting. He, like Vasari, regarded medieval architecture negatively: lacking the monumentality of the ancient and insufficiently splendid. Nor did Old St. Peter’s provide adequate space for his tomb, which he commissioned Michelangelo to design—the personal monument another indication of the age’s emphasis on individual action and the fame that it can bring. Pope Julius set the idea of building a new church in motion, but it took over a century to complete.

This late 16th century image shows the new St. Peter’s nearing completion. On the left, an Egyptian obelisk (brought to Rome as a trophy in an ancient war) is erected in a prominent position in front of the church. If you notice all the workmen assembled to move the obelisk, you can imagine how expensive an undertaking the church building project itself would have been. The Popes needed to raise money to pay for the building, and their methods of fundraising didn’t meet with approval in all parts of the Christian world. The new church, as eventually completed, is much larger than the old and strongly resembles an ancient Roman Imperial building, with large-scale columns, arches, pediments, and a dome. This, of course, illustrates another Renaissance idea: to recreate the buildings associated with the new Christian Empire of the Church using the styles of the ancient Roman buildings.

Julius also redecorated his living quarters in the Papal palace. In one room, that probably served as his personal library, he commissioned the painter Raphael, whose Madonna we looked at a short while ago, to decorate the walls.One of his frescoes illustrates an ideal grouping of ancient philosophers, presented as though they are conversing. The painting later acquired the title The School of Athens, suggesting that this was the way in which the great Greek philosophers actually got together to exchange ideas. It does represent those ancient thinkers whose works so appealed to inquiring minds of the 15th and 16th centuries, but they didn’t all live at the same time, so such a gathering can only be imaginary. But this is consistent with the way that Petrarch, Poggio Bracciolini, and Machiavelli addressed those ancient writers whose works they read as if they were still alive. This fresco creates an ideal setting for Julius to read the works and imagine himself in the midst of ancient authors.

We can even identify some of the figures. At the center, under the arches, stand Plato and Aristotle, side by side (identified by the titles on the books they hold). These two Greek philosophers represented for the Renaissance the two main philosophical currents. But present also are people who we may not now regard primarily as philosophers. Notice the man bending over a slate on the lower right hand corner. We mentioned him earlier: he is Euclid, the geometrical, working out a theorem. Nearby holding a globe is Ptolemy, the geographer mentioned by Professor Mattusch.

See how the designation philosophy applied then to what we would now separate out into science, mathematics, and other fields. As Dr. Struppa said, this would have made no sense in the Renaissance, as the same practitioners were expert in more than one field. What this fresco clearly celebrates is the Renaissance reverence for the knowledge created by the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans (with the addition of some scholars from the Arab world, whose ideas also contributed significantly to Western Civilization).

The Renaissance Popes considered themselves to be the ideal modern guardians of the sum total of knowledge: both that gleaned from the ancient world (as represented in The School of Athens) and that from the Judeo-Christian tradition (as represented in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel). The works of many of the figures represented in this fresco remain key texts in the intellectual history of Western civilization.

To review:

  • The Renaissance popes consolidated power in Rome.
  • Their educations made them want to synthesize knowledge from both the ancient and the Judeo-Christian traditions: important sources for the development of Western civilization.
  • Their ideas about an appropriate grand setting for the Church motivated them to commission artists and architects to undertake large projects and they had wonderful talent to draw from.
  • Some of their actions were viewed negatively: emphasizing the worldly aspects of the Church instead of the spiritual.

Men’s And Women’s Lives during the Renaissance

The Renaissance was, like our own era, a great period for the production of how-to books. These books, and other kinds of evidence, help us understand the lives of men and women of that period. Such books were written for the elite, a relatively small group, representing, perhaps 5% or less of the total population of western Europe at this time. In rural areas the peasantry made up the balance, while in the cities, like Florence, there were instead about 30-40% of workers (in the cloth trade) and a similar sized middle class of shopkeepers and artisans providing consumer goods. So what was the ideal man of the Renaissance supposed to be like? Let’s examine what such books have to say about members of the elite class.

First let’s visit a small Italian town, Urbino, whose ruler was very much admired in the Renaissance. Federico da Montefeltro (1444-1482) was singled out for mention in Ficino’s letter about the “Golden Age.” He was also the subject of a biography by Vespasiano di Bisticci, the Florentine writer who had also written a biography of Cosimo de’ Medici, quoted earlier. Federico, depicted wearing ancient Roman armor), was a man who had risen up the social ladder because of his military success and was made a Duke by Sixtus IV.

Vespasiano devoted the bulk of his biography to military feats, but then turns to praising Federico for his learning, saying that “it is difficult for a leader to excel in arms unless he be, like the Duke, a man of letters, seeing that the past is a mirror of the present.” Note how Vespasiano attributes the actions the Duke undertook directly to his studies. Recall what I said earlier about the ancient and Renaissance attitude that history was written to provide examples for imitation? Vespasiano then enumerates the subjects the Duke studied: history, the Bible, theology, rhetoric (public speaking), philosophy, logic, and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics. He also studied geometry, mathematics, and architecture and took a keen interest in rebuilding the ducal palace at Urbino. He built a library there and supported artists and Humanist scholars, with whom he is said to have debated successfully on these scholarly topics. The Latin inscriptions lining the courtyard of his palace celebrate his achievements in war and in learning.

Although Urbino is a small town, the atmosphere that the Duke fostered there produced several important Renaissance artists and thinkers, including the painter Raphael, whose works we looked at earlier, and the writer on manners, Baldassare Castiglione. His influential book (Book of the Courtier, 1508-1516) is a fictionalized description of life at this very court. Castiglione describes how to be a good Courtier [someone in service to a prince, providing a good way to rise in status]. The book is in dialogue form, with various courtier characters, male and female, offering opinions about the required qualities. Observe how, in the excerpt from Castiglione’s book in your reader, the characters begin their discussion of what makes the ideal male courtier with skills in arms (and the virtues seen to go along with them, like courage). Then they turn to learning, especially “those studies that we call the humanities”: precisely what Duke Federico was known for.

The qualities for which the Duke was praised exemplify what in the Renaissance were the skills and virtues that men needed to participate in an active public life: whether in the military, in government, or in commerce. So Florentine men like Piero de’ Medici, from the powerful banking family that virtually controlled Florence at this time, or Francesco Sassetti, head of one of the branches of that bank, had similar educations and similar expectations of what they would do.

In works of art like the Sassetti portraits, men and women of the elite class are represented in parallel positions. Francesco Sassetti of Florence, and his wife, Nera Corsi, appear on either side of religious works they commissioned for a family chapel in a Florentine church. However, despite the fact that they occupy similar positions in this fresco, their lives were not parallel or equal: rather they were sharply differentiated as to occupation. The humanist educational program advocated an active politically involved life for men. Financially successful, Sassetti, like his peers, did work that required him to be out and around the city.

Vespasiano did not write the biography of the Battista Sforza, Duchess of Urbino. But we know that she and her counterparts, like Nera Corsi, had very different lives from those of their husbands. The different destiny intended for elite women is seen first in their education.

In your reader, note the advice that the Florentine humanist, Leonardo Bruni, wrote to another aristocratic lady, Baptista Malatesta, in 1405. He proposes that she not study Arithmetic, Geometry, or Rhetoric, because he cannot see how these skills will be useful to her (as they would be for her brothers). Instead, he advocates her studying religion and morals, in order to inculcate those virtues deemed appropriate to women: e.g. modesty. Similarly, he advises her to study history because “from History … we draw our store of examples of moral precepts.” While history provided appropriate subject matter for both men and women, the ideal exemplars would be gender-specific.

The view that women’s lives are to be different from men’s is corroborated in the following century in the advice that one of Castiglione’s characters gives about the proper demeanor of a courtly woman. In the selection in your reader, she is admonished to be “very unlike a man; for just as he must show a certain solid and sturdy manliness, so it is seemly for a woman to have a soft and delicate tenderness, with an air of womanly sweetness in her every movement.” He too suggests that she study “religion and our duties in the world.”

What were the duties of the aristocratic wife of the Renaissance? She could expect a marriage arranged to forge alliances between families, not to suit her personal wishes. The average age of a Renaissance bride was 17-20, while grooms were in their 30s. You can get a good sense of what some of the desirable qualities were, from the point of view of the prospective husband, from reading the letters from a 15th-century mother—Alessandra Strozzi—to her son that are in your textbook. In describing some of the marital possibilities for him, she shows concern for who her father is, the size of her dowry, her appearance, and the fact that she can dance and sing.

The groom’s family expected her to bring a dowry—financial resources contributed by her family. Sometimes this meant that families with many female children could not afford to have them all married. The lack of a potential marriage—not a religious vocation—is one of the principal reasons why girls entered convents during this period.

In a “how-to” book on the family (1435-44) in your reader, by the same author who wrote the treatise on painting we referred to earlier, Leon Battista Alberti states that the primary duty of a bride was to bear and raise children to increase the family (meaning her husband’s family). Alberti too is concerned with her appearance, mentioning that “beauty in a woman must be judged not only by the charm and refinement of her face, but still more by the grace of her person and her aptitude for bearing and giving birth to many fine children.” Childbirth was the realm of women—midwives assisted and afterwards female friends and relatives of the new mother paid a ritual visit and brought gifts, much as we see here in a late 15th-century painting in Florence that illustrates the birth of the Virgin Mary, but sets it in a Florentine patrician palace of the 15th century, with its antique-inspired decoration. Many women, in fact, died in childbirth, so it was cause for celebration when mother and infant were both healthy. 1n 15th-century Florence, in fact, 45% of children died before the age of 20.

The aristocratic wife would be expected to run her household. We can imagine her living in a palace like this one, the 14th-century Palazzo Davanzati. The family’s living quarters occupied the upper stories of the building. The ground floor was devoted to business and storage. The wife’s world would have focused on the palace interior, organized around a central courtyard that brought in protected light and air.

Although a few elite women bucked this trend and studied all the humanities, like their brothers, and wrote, painted, composed music, or even governed states, this happened in only a very few cases. Also, the lives of middle class and working class women differed in that most worked outside the home, in markets or in cloth production.

Review: The norms for men and women of the Renaissance differed. Elite men’s lives changed, but women’s lives did not differ substantially from the Middle Ages. Men were educated broadly to lead active public lives, while women, who were expected to bear and raise children, were taught how to comport themselves to bring honor to their families.

The Idea of the Renaissance

Now, after we have examined some aspects of life in 15th and 16th-century Italy, let’s return to a consideration of the term Renaissance itself. Does it describe a historical period, quite distinct from the Middle Ages that preceded it? Or does it better describe a cultural movement, one, perhaps, that not everyone participated in? We need to examine the historiography of the Renaissance, that is the way in which it has been described and interpreted over time. We’ve looked at some primary sources provided by writers of the period—Ficino, Bracciolini, Vasari, and others—who argued that they were living in a new age and that it was distinctive and better than that preceding it. How did their views affect the writing of history in later times?

One of the major proponents of the idea that the Renaissance was a major new period characterized by several differences, including a new emphasis on the individual, was the 19th-century Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, who wrote an influential book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). An excerpt of his book is in your reader. Notice how Burckhardt, in describing the differences he sees in the Renaissance states that in the prior Middle Ages: “human consciousness ... lay dreaming or half awake.” Here he adopts precisely the same sorts of metaphors used by the inventors of the Renaissance like Vasari, who described art as having died and needing to be reborn!

Burckhardt also asserted that in the Renaissance man recognized himself as an individual … as the Greeks had done. And that in the 14th century “Italy began to swarm with individuality.” He takes it further, suggesting that no one “was afraid of singularity, of being and seeming unlike his neighbors.” Now we have seen how certain individuals were praised for their singular accomplishments, like the Duke of Urbino or Vasari’s artists. But does Burckhardt’s overall thesis, that “no one was afraid of singularity” seem right to you, considering what we said about the differing lives of elite men and women? Women were very carefully monitored and exhorted to conform to a behavioral norm.

Later historians probed the validity of Burckhardt’s assertions. In the first place, subsequent researchers have relied on a broader range of sources in their investigations. They have looked beyond the words of humanist scholars to ascertain how the majority of European citizens of this time period actually lived. In the second place, as Peter Burke, a contemporary historian—whose critique of Burckhardt’s classic work appears in your reader—has stated: modern historians do not “accept the scholars and artists of the period at their own valuation.”

Research has shown how many of these scholars and artists, as I stated at the beginning, were Florentines or were employed by Florentines, including the wealthy and powerful Medici. We must, therefore, regard their writings as, in part, attempts to boost the position of Florence and of the Medici family, who supported many of them. This is certainly the case for Vasari, who wanted to elevate the status of artists and whose model of the artist as an innovative genius whose works retain a unique character still resonates today in the way in which many people look at art. And recall how the Florentines advertised the teaching of the humanities in the relief sculpture in a prominent public location near Florence’s cathedral. According to Burke, they created a myth about themselves, and it is one that has remained powerful. But they were hardly the first to do so. Recall what Professor Mattusch said about the self-promotion seen in sculptural program of Parthenon in 5th-century Athens, built in the ancient world that the Renaissance wanted to emulate.

As Burke also said, “the 19th-century myth of the Renaissance is still taken seriously by many people. Television companies and organizers of package tours still make money out of it.” See for yourselves. Look up “Renaissance” in the phone book or on the Internet and you’ll probably find the name of a cruise line, a hotel chain, a real estate company, and many other businesses.

Why does this idea hold so much power? To explore that question, I’ve asked my colleague Professor Jeffrey Stewart to share his views. He teaches a course on the idea of the Renaissance and is an expert in the American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.

ffolliott: “Who first used the term Renaissance to describe the Harlem movement?”

Stewart: The first person to use the term Renaissance to describe the Harlem movement was Alain Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, and a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Locke was also a literary critic, who like Vasari, wrote about the writers and artists of his period, Black America during the 1920s, and depicted that period as a renaissance of Black culture. Locke connected the Renaissance idea and Black life in Harlem when he edited a special issue of a national reform journal, Survey Graphic, and titled that issue: “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” published on March 1, 1925. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement that brought us the poetry of Langston Hughes, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston, the music of Duke Ellington, and the visual art of Winold Reiss and Richmond Barthe. It was a movement of self-conscious awakening among Black artists to the beauty of African and African American culture that was not celebrated in America, generally speaking, in the nineteenth century. Locke had studied the Italian Renaissance as a student at Oxford and had been inspired by Jakob Burckhardt's notion of the renaissance as a historical period in which European civilization was reborn and human consciousness was liberated from the constraints on self-expression imposed by the church in the Middle Ages.

ffolliott: Why did Locke use the term and find it meaningful? Stewart: Locke used the term in two ways. First, he saw real parallels between the Italian and the Harlem Renaissances, even as he admitted that the art produced by the Italian renaissance was much greater than anything produced in the Harlem. But when one put that aside, there were some startling parallels, from a sociological perspective. Both movements were urban rather than rural. Both rebelled against the power of the church, which was a particularly strong institution in both Italy and the African American community. Like Renaissance Humanists, Locke recommended that African American artists look back to African art for inspiration, just as the Renaissance artists had looked back to classical Greek sculpture for their models. Like Jakob Burckhardt, Locke saw the Renaissance as the birth of individuality for the first time for African Americans, who had been thought of en masse as “them” for hundreds of years. Take a look at this portrait of a black woman and child, done by Winold Reiss, a German artist, whom Locke commissioned to illustrate the Survey Graphic and the book, The New Negro, an expanded version of the Survey Graphic issue. Here Reiss has taken the Madonna and child image, which is so dominant in the Italian Renaissance, and translated it into an icon of black motherhood. But he has also produced a human, moving portrait of an individual African American woman and child. Reiss's portraits epitomized what Locke—after Burckhardt—would argue was one of the accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance, to represent African Americans as individuals, after decades of being represented en masse as stereotypes. In that sense, Reiss's work did for the Harlem Renaissance what Vasari argued Raphael's work did for the Italian Renaissance—move away from iconic to humanistic representations of people. Now, I know from research that I have done on this portrait that the child in the picture is not actually the child of the woman portrayed. So, it is important to realize that Reiss and Locke are constructing an image, creating a myth, if you will, of the Renaissance in Harlem. But that myth cannot exist without something of substance to back it up. In that sense, just as Burckhardt believed that a new man or personality emerged in Italy during the renaissance, so too Locke argued that the Harlem Renaissance produced a “New Negro,” who was “vibrant with a new psychology,” a “new spirit,” which was not only “awake” among the elite, but also “in the masses.”

ffolliott: What was the second way that Locke used or meant the term Renaissance?

Stewart: Locke took this concept or myth—whichever you believe it to be—of the Renaissance and argued that Black civilization had also been in a kind of deep sleep or “Middle Ages” for centuries after Europeans had forcefully removed Africans and their culture from Africa and transported it to America during the Atlantic slave trade. It is worth remembering that in the late 15th century, when Michelangelo was about to carve David and the other wonderful sculptures that he produced, Columbus was landing on Hispañola, enslaving the Native Americans, and beginning European imperialism and domination of the rest of the world, a process that disrupted the lives of Africans, Asians, and Native Americans, but also brought European ideas like the Renaissance to those peoples. Some of the peoples who were colonized in the period from 1600 to 1900 sought to rebel, especially against English imperialism by calling their movements “renaissances”--a rediscovery of their own heritage, their “classical past,” their sense of identity, from which they had been separated by colonialization. These peoples began the process of reconstructing their identity and their heritage through poetry, novels, drama, paintings, and sculpture that celebrated their distinctive culture. We see this nicely illustrated in another portrait by Winold Reiss of Langston Hughes, sometimes referred to as the “poet laureate of the Negro race.” Here, again, is the portrait of an African American as a serious individual; but added in the background is an abstract rendering of Black culture in Harlem, especially the blues, the music of the working class in Harlem. Langston Hughes is posed as a kind of preserver or interpreter of working class black life and the blues culture they have created, whose formal characteristics he represents in the poems that appear in the book before him. In that sense, this poet of the Harlem Renaissance, unlike the poet or artist of the Italian Renaissance, is engaged in an act of resistance and reclamation. And Hughes in particular is part of a group of artists who not only want to portray Black people as individuals, but also represent the culture of the masses as containing some of the high art of American culture. In that sense, the Renaissance of the 1920s is also part of the movement towards greater appreciation of vernacular culture, a movement that began in the Italian Renaissance, but which was really a big part of the Irish Renaissance, with its appreciation of Celtic folk culture.

ffolliott: What about the philosophical question as to whether the Renaissance is a historical period or something else?

Stewart: For Locke, I believe, the Renaissance was more than simply a historical period. The Renaissance was a way of thinking, a way of looking at one's past as part of a rebirth in pride in one's people in the present. Renaissance thinking was primarily idealistic thinking, a view of the world as something one can construct and reconstruct through the agency of one's artistic creativity. A renaissance was a period of national awakening and pride; but it was also a commitment to Universalism, to expressing the travail and struggle of one's life and times in forms that transcended the particular circumstances of their creation, and spoke to generations that came afterwards. And in that sense, I believe the Harlem and Irish and Indian Renaissance are all part of the Renaissance idea that we more normally associated with Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. For the renaissance idea is not unique to 15th century Italy, but perhaps a kind of universal metaphor of how a society renews itself.


Historians are certain to continue to debate the idea of the Renaissance. But I think we can conclude that the ideas and cultural achievements associated with this movement happened following and during a period of great economic growth that provided money for certain people to be able to commission works of art and support the activities of scholars and poets as never before. These people also had an interest in the products of the ancient world and reintroduced classical ideas to education, mathematics, literature, art, law, and civic life; but they did not throw out their religious beliefs. In this respect, then, the Renaissance helped to consolidate some of the basic ideas of Western civilization—for example, the importance of the individual—that are still very much with us.

The literary and artistic products of this period, produced by men like Michelangelo and Shakespeare, have become examples against which the creative endeavors of others are measured and have inspired others to attach the name “Renaissance” to their own cultural movements. At the same time, in institutions like the Papacy, Renaissance culture enhanced the power of the men at the top, and they used their positions to further their own interests. And not everyone approved of or benefited from these changes, as you will learn next from Professor Holt.