GR 12.11 E
Culture and Civilization
The Renaissance Period in the European Culture
May 26, 2000
Renaissance, period of European history that saw a renewed interest in the arts and in the classical past. The Renaissance began in 14th-century Italy and had spread to the rest of Europe by the 16th and 17th centuries. In this period, the fragmented feudal society of the Middle Ages, with its agricultural economy and Church-dominated intellectual and cultural life, was transformed into a society increasingly dominated by central political institutions, with an urban, commercial economy and lay patronage of education, the arts, and music.
The term renaissance, meaning literally “rebirth”, was first employed in 1855 by the French historian Jules Michelet to refer to the “discovery of the world and of man” in the 16th century. The great Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, in his classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), expanded on Michelet’s conception. Defining the Renaissance as the period between the Italian painters Giotto and Michelangelo, Burckhardt characterized the epoch as nothing less than the birth of modern humanity and consciousness after a long period of decay.
Modern scholars have exploded the myth that the Middle Ages were dark and dormant. The thousand years preceding the Renaissance were filled with achievement. Because of the scriptoria (writing rooms) of medieval monasteries, copies of the work of Latin writers such as Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and Seneca survived. The legal system of modern continental Europe had its origin in the development of civil and canon law in the 12th and 13th centuries. Renaissance thinkers continued the medieval tradition of grammatical and rhetorical studies. In theology, the medieval traditions of Scholasticism, Thomism, Scotism, and Ockhamism were continued in the Renaissance. Medieval Platonism and Aristotelianism were crucial to Renaissance philosophical thought. The advances of mathematical disciplines, including astronomy, were indebted to medieval precedents. The schools of Salerno in Italy, and Montpellier in France, were noted centres of medical studies in the Middle Ages. See also Astronomy; Medicine; Philosophy.
The Italian Renaissance was above all an urban phenomenon, a product of cities that flourished in central and northern Italy, such as Florence, Ferrara, Milan, and Venice. It was the wealth of these cities that financed Renaissance cultural achievements. The cities themselves, however, were not creations of the Renaissance, but of the period of great economic expansion and population growth during the 12th and 13th centuries. Medieval Italian merchants developed commercial and financial techniques, such as bookkeeping and bills of exchange. The creation of the public debt, a concept unknown in ancient times, allowed these cities to finance their territorial expansion through military conquest. Their merchants controlled commerce and finance across Europe. This fluid mercantile society contrasted sharply with the rural, tradition-bound society of medieval Europe; it was less hierarchical and more concerned with secular objectives.
Breaks with Tradition
The Middle Ages did not, of course, end abruptly. It could be false, however, to regard history as perpetual continuity and the Renaissance as a mere continuation of the Middle Ages. One of the most significant breaks with tradition came in the field of history. The Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII (Twelve Books of Florentine Histories, 1420) of Leonardo Bruni, the Istorie fiorentine (Florentine History, 1525) of Niccoln Machiavelli, the Storia d’Italia (History of Italy, 1561-1564) of Francesco Guicciardini, and the Methodus ad Facilem Historiarum Cognitionem (Easy Introduction to the Study of History, 1566) of Jean Bodin were shaped by a secular view of time and a critical attitude towards sources. History became a branch of literature rather than theology. Renaissance historians rejected the medieval Christian division of history that began with the Creation, followed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the anticipated Last Judgement. The Renaissance vision of history also had three parts: It began with antiquity, followed by the Middle Ages and then the golden age of rebirth that had just begun. Whereas medieval scholars looked askance at the pagan Greek and Roman world, believing that they were living in the final age before the last judgment, their Renaissance counterparts adored the ancients, condemned the Middle Ages as ignorant and barbaric, and proclaimed their own age to be one of light and the rebirth of Classicism. This view was expressed by many Renaissance thinkers known as humanists.