The Renaissance has long been considered one of Europe’s most significant periods, with its outpouring of magnificent artwork, compelling literature, and new philosophical concepts still influencing audiences today.
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Occurring in the 15th and 16th centuries, it pulled Europe out of the ‘Dark Ages’ and towards the Enlightenment, through a world-altering return to ancient ideals. While the Renaissance had vastly far-reaching implications, it was in fact born in a small Mediterranean nation with an illustrious past – Italy.
Here are 5 reasons why the Renaissance began there, from its place in the ancient world to the role of the Vatican City.
1. It had been the heart of the Roman Empire
One of the key aspects of the Renaissance was its significant revival of the artistic and philosophical ideals of antiquity, particularly those of Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. Thus, where better to begin than the old epicentre of the Roman Empire? Italy was still littered with the ruined temples, sculptures, and frescoes of its glorious past, affording Renaissance artists a host of clear and immediate templates on which to base their work.
Prized statues of antiquity were continuously being unearthed in Italy throughout the period, giving artists such as Michelangelo new considerations on the human form. He was present at the excavation of Laocoön and his Sons in 1506, a vast sculpture once displayed in the palace of Emperor Titus and likely crafted between 27 BC and 68 AD.
Michelangelo was given special access to study it, and found it an inspiring example of how to depict the human body and its muscles in ways that did not necessarily display strength.
Laocoön and His Sons by sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus of Rhodes, c.27 BC – 68 AD LivioAndronico / CC
2. Extensive scholarly activity recovered vital ancient works
Despite being at the heart of the old empire and retaining many of its physical works, many of its ingenious texts had been lost to time, leaving a hugely important aspect of the Renaissance unaccounted for. It would take the fall of another great empire for many of them to resurface in Italy.
The Fourth Crusade of the 13th century had weakened the Byzantine Empire substantially, and in 1453 Constantinople at last fell to the Ottomans. Over this turbulent period, a huge community of Byzantine scholars were forced to flee into the north of Italy, bringing with them a host of classical texts preserved in their libraries.
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Humanist scholars from Italy then began searching monastic libraries for similar lost works. In the library of Monte Cassino near Rome, Boccaccio discovered influential work by the Roman historian Tacitus, while Poggio Bracciolini travelled monasteries in Switzerland, France and Germany looking for similar treasures.
At the abbey of St Galen he discovered a complete copy of the lost Institutio oratoria of Quintilian, while at the abbey of Cluny in 1414 a set of Cicero’s speeches were found and brought back to Italy.
The rediscovery of these works prompted new study into human thought and action by writers such as Petrarch and Dante, and likely influenced infamous political tracts such as The Prince by Machiavelli. These lost texts too influenced art, with Vitruvius’ rediscovered work on architectural and bodily perfection leading Leonardo da Vinci to create his Vitruvian Man, now one of the most recognisable artworks in history.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, c. 1492 Public domain
3. Its city-states allowed art and new ideas to flourish
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was divided into a number of city-states each with a powerful ruling family at its head. Such families include the Aragons of Naples, the Sforzas of Milan and the infamous Medicis of Florence.
The Medici family had a huge hand in the explosion of arts and culture that occurred in their city, leading Florence to be widely considered the home of the Renaissance itself. Founding the eminent Medici Bank in 1397, the family became valuable patrons to some of the country’s greatest artists.
Lorenzo de’ Medici supported the work of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century, while Medici Popes Leo X and Clement VII commissioned work from Raphael and Michelangelo, with the latter painting the world-famous Sistine Chapel on Clement VII’s request.
A 1493 woodcut of Florence featured in Hartmann Shedels Nuremberg Chronicle Public Domain
As families such as the Medicis were patrician rather than noble, many viewed them as friends of the people. Other merchant families were too allowed significant power and influence, including on the management of laws concerning banking, shipping and trade.
Much freer societies thus existed than in the cloistered monarchical and aristocratic systems of northern Europe, and ideas and cultures were more widely circulated. Not without some healthy competition, the magnificent city-states of Italy also competed for who could build the most beautiful cities and output the most breathtaking art, forcing a rapid explosion of fine works and culture to occur.
4. Vast trading links encouraged cultural and material exchange
As many of Italy’s powerful city-states were located on a peninsular of the Mediterranean sea, it became a hotbed for trading goods and ideas. Different cultures came through Italy’s ports every day as merchants from around the world interacted with those in the marketplace and inns they stayed in.
Trade routes as far as China and the Middle East terminated in Venice and Genoa, while routes from England and Scandinavia also operated frequently. Not only did this create a melting pot of cultures, it also made the city-states and their merchant class very wealthy, with access to a vast array of commodities.
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Some of the most literally important of these were the sale of pigments, used in the paints of Renaissance artists. Venice was the main point of entry for pigmented goods, from verdigris (green from Greece) to the rare lapis lazuli of Central Asia.
The vast range of colours at artists’ disposal allowed them to play with new and striking shades, achieving the vibrant artwork so iconic to the Italian Renaissance today.
5. The Vatican was a rich and powerful patron
With the Vatican City situated in Rome, the centre of the Roman Catholic Church brought with it massive wealth and influence. It collected the greatest minds of the day in its religious colleges who, plied with funds and texts, worked to further understand the relationship between man and God. Many of its popes commissioned talented artists to design and decorate their churches and palaces, with some of the Renaissance’s most sublime works emulating Catholic iconography and the stories of the Bible.
The Room of the Signatura within the Raphael Rooms, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. These frescos were completed by Raphael and his studio in 1508-9 on the commission of Pope Julius II. 0ro1 / CC
The ceiling of the Room of the Signatura by Raphael and his studio. Public domain
The Church and the Renaissance did not always live in harmony however. While the Papacy was surrounded by immense wealth, it was also couched in corruption. Renaissance thinkers began to question the idea of assigned power and the Church’s role in their relationship with God, as well as their increasingly secularised conduct.
Reversely, some members of the church found the Renaissance to be increasingly indulgent and frivolous, leading to events such as the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, in which vast amounts of books, cosmetics, and art was publicly burned in Florence by friar Girolamo Savonarola.
This conflict of ideas would be seen resolutely in the decades to come, as humanist concepts gradually disseminated throughout Europe and eventually gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five thesis to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, declaring the Catholic Church’s corruption – and his defiance of their authority – to all.