The Renaissance

The Renaissance

Historians studying the society, economy and political fabric of the Renaissance see both a break and continuity with Europe’s past.

The background of the Renaissance occurred amidst an economic depression, social unrest and malaise in religious life.

In the 14th and 15th centuries there had been drought then famine and when the Bubonic plague hit in 1348-49 the European population was in a very weakened condition and the plague killed 50% of the population.

In the 50 years after the plague the European work force became disorganized and declined in size and social power.

By 1400 European society, economy and its political institutions were in poor condition.

The seeds of Europe’s recovery were planted in Italy in the difficult years of the 14th century.

Italy exerted increasing influence over the rest of Europe.

Italians set the style in architecture, sculpture, painting, literary taste and educational philosophy.

Northern Europeans flocked to Italy to learn the arts of civilization. Italian sailors were among the leaders of the late 15th century explorations.

There were many reasons for the leadership of Italy leading Europe out of the Middle Ages and into a new era.

First cities had begun to flourish there from as early as the 10th century, when the rest of Europe was being feudalized. Because of the cities feudalism had never been very strong in Italy.

Also the conflict between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire had prevented the creation of a unified monarchy in Italy and many medieval institutions did not develop there.

Finally, Italian cities were large enough in population, wealthy enough and had sufficient political and geographical independence to recover quickly from disasters such as the plague.

The dominant activity in the northern Italian cities was international trade. A third of the population of Florence was engaged in the importation of wool and the making of finished cloth, and the selling of it in foreign markets.

While cities in northern Europe controlled the territory immediately around them, the political power of the Italian cities extended much further beyond their walls, and this control of substantial territories made them urban-principalities or city-states.

The northern Italian cities were entirely independent and were ruled for the most part by despots. Though despots were for the most part despotic to their political opponents they were usually careful to satisfy the majority of the population.

The despots commonly improved the city’s defense works, strengthened its defenses, devised efficient systems of taxation and tightened internal security.

It was also common for despots to try to gain the support of their people by waging wars on neighboring cities.

By the early 15th century Italian city states had begun to maintain ambassadors at the courts of reign states to keep rulers in constant touch with governments that were potential allies or enemies.

In the second half of the century the five leading states in the peninsula—Venice, Milan, Florence, the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples—had established a balance of power.

The "balance of power system" worked on the unwritten understanding that no one of the five states must be allowed to gain enough power to threaten the others.

This machinery of diplomacy and the balance of power idea spread to the rest of Europe.

By the mid-16th century resident ambassadors were common throughout central and western Europe and a rough balance of power had been established between the two most powerful states, France and Spain.

Milan was the largest city of the Po Valley, it had a diversified economy and came close in uniting all of northern Italy under its power.

Venice was the greatest commercial power of the peninsula and it had the oldest republican institutions, it had no despots but was ruled by a small council of ten.

Florence emerged during the 11th century and its society and politics were dominated by the wealthy merchant-bankers and textile manufacturers.

But Florence seemed to be always troubled by political intrigues and conspiracies.

Victorious parties repeatedly tampered with the constitution in an effort to perpetuate their power.

During the Middle Ages, courtliness was considered the result of high birth, but the Renaissance ideal of the courtier admitted the self-made man.

There was considerable social and economic mobility in Renaissance society.

The honor that the Italian Renaissance society gave to the individual person amounted to the creation of a new ideology: individualism.

The commercial economy of Italy gave people liquid wealth which permitted them to move from place to place more easily than if their wealth had been in landed estates.

People who did not like the politics or social atmosphere of one city could move to another.

This social mobility solved some problems but created others. Such as a lack of social stability and the decline of patronage since people were on the go so much.

Painters benefitted for they had the ability to have many patrons in different cities and therefore could develop their own artistic tastes and were not dependent on the largesse of only one family.

The second theme of this new urban civilization in Italy was its predominantly secular tone. It was not Christian or pagan, but was concerned with the things of this world.

The secularism of the Italian Renaissance society consisted of two components—a preoccupation with worldly affairs, and a contempt for false spirituality and asceticism.

The 3rd main theme of Italian urban society was its enthusiasm for classical antiquity. Knowledge of the classics was a mark of true gentility in a nobleman.

Humanists scholars searched the ancient monastic libraries for copies of classical literary texts and preserved the books copied during the Carolingian age.

The humanists initiated a revolution in educational theory and practice for the main educational base had been the intellectual standards of the clerical orders.

Like the monastic schools the humanists taught reading, writing and arithmetic, but also the liberal arts such as the study of literature, philosophy and athletic. They practiced the idea of a sound mind sound body.

The 4th mark of the Italian Renaissance was its historical self-consciousness. Medieval historians and their readers viewed history as a continuum divided into epoches by significant events in the relationship between god and man.

Petrarch and his humanist successors in the 15th century recognized that the Roman culture that they identified with was essentially alien from their own and this realization revolutionized the Europeans’ conception of their past.

The Italians saw in their own scholarly activity a revival or rebirth of classical civilization and were highly conscious fo their position in history of their historical mission.

The ideals of the Renaissance family life were those of upper class urban families.

Italian men married rather late and their wives were usually much younger that they. Hence widows were almost as common as widowers.

Usually a widow did not remarry, and a man was advised to discourage his wife from remarrying by leaving his property to her.

However, many women did remarry and Renaissance families were often very large and households could contain the children of several marriages.

Young wives had to cope with difficult circumstances for often their husbands older children were nearly as old as they were.

The young wife also had to take in her husband’s illegitimate children and sometimes those of his or her own brothers and sisters.

Since men traveled often making business trips it was common for the wife to be the head of her own household.

Children went through many dislocations and traumas. Infants were normally put out to wet-nurses, usually peasant with whom they stayed for two years.

When they returned to the household in the city they had to be reintegrated into the family and had to get to know their siblings and their parents. Many diaries attest to the fact that this was a horrendous emotional shock for the young children.

From 3 to 7 children were almost exclusively under the mother’s care. The father was distant and was usually rather old. The father was the disciplinarian and who would also arrange the boys education.

For boys formal education meant being sent to a boarding school after 5 to 7 years they were placed as apprentices with a merchant or a banker.

For girls, education meant study at home, not only in the household arts but also in reading and writing for women needed to be literate in order to run the affairs of their households.

Women were expected to come to their marriages with dowries and in Florence and many other cities parents could invest in dowry banks.

These institutions worked like a modern plan for building college funds; the parents made a deposit when their daughter was very young and the fund grew through the accrual of interest until it was redeemed.

Once in awhile the bank would fail and the girls lost their dowries and their chances for a good marriage.

Women of the middle class shared many of the same duties as their husbands and all in all the life of a woman in the Renaissance was difficult.

In terms of social and political thought the greatest political theorist of the period was Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). He combined a wide reading in the classics, particularly history with extensive experience in political life.

He served in Florence as an ambassador and as secretary of state. In 1512 the Medici family regained control of Florence and he was exiled to his country estate.

in retirement the read political history and reflected on the reasons for the political breakdown of governments and states.

His most famous essay was The Prince and here he described political life as he thought it should be by focusing on how the ruler should rule.

Machieavelli asks the key question is it better to be loved than feared. And he answers that it is much safer to be feared than loved when one has a choice.

Also the prince should inspire fear in such a way that he avoids hatred and he can avoid this by not taking his subjects property or their women.

This book highlights his belief that Italy needs a strong and centralized state. But he did not favor a dictatorship, but believed that a constitution must suit the character of the people it served and thought that an educated and sensible populace could achieve the ideal of strength and unity under a republican constitution.

The arts flourished during the Renaissance. Painting reached a high point in this period.

The first striking characteristic of Renaissance painting and sculpture was that they were practiced separately from architecture. While religious themes remained dominant painters increasingly portrayed scenes from classical myth and literature.

The classical influence also affected sculpture and since Roman times no sculptor had created a free-standing nude figure. Donatello’s David was the first of its kind to portray David in the nude. Michelangelo would also do this in his David.

These works and others revived the Greco-Roman ideal of the human form and brought back the classical ideal of beauty which is still dominant in Western society.

A second characteristic of Renaissance art was the heightened individuality and social prestige of the artist for now the artist was a man of genius who stood outside normal human society.

In order to attain higher realism in their works of art Italian painters studied the laws of spatial perspective and human anatomy. Painters also studied human psychology in order that they could capture the true emotions and understand the significant moments of the scenes they painted.

The lonely artistic and scientific genius Leonardo d Vinci (1452-1519) was a student of nature and human psychology and anatomy. In his notebooks he drew designs for mechanical devices such as helicopters and automobiles. He also conducted studies of perspective, light, and optics. In his greatest work The Last Supper he went against tradition and chose depict not the moment when Christ told the apostles "this is my body", but the much more dramatic one when he announces that "one of you will betray me." The psychological state of each apostle is then carefully portrayed

This tendency to choose the psychological charged moment was characteristic of Renaissance painting.

Now while the wealth of Italy was based on trade and industry as for centuries, the urban communities of the peninsula provided the commercial link between the rich Mediterranean civilizations and Western Europe.

The wealth of northern Europe was based on agriculture and minerals, while some regions such as Flanders engaged in textile production.

While Italian rulers were building city-states based on the wealth derived from their monopoly of Mediterranean trade, northern and western European rulers were building nation-states based on new industries and trade routes.

Throughout the 15th century great technological advances such as clocks, mills, cranes and the improved performance and capacity of ships formed the basis of a new burst of economic activity.

But new industries such as canon fonding and printing required large initial investments in plant facilities and machinery.

From the start these industries were organized as capitalistic enterprises in which accumulated wealth was deliberately used to create new wealth.

The new industries also needed and attracted free laborers who could be employed for a wage and dismissed when business slacked off.

Because of this a large and free labor force that was mobile was created and for the first time labor was subjected to the uncertainties of the international economy.

This new free labor society was wealthier, but also more unstable than the medieval society based on agricultural and craft work.

Progressive landlords tried to introduce the new capitalistic system in agriculture. From the late 15th century an increasing number of landlords tried to stimulate wool production for the textile mills, especially in England. The landlords would fence in or "enclose" the common lands of villages.

These "Enclosure Acts" essentially ruined small farmers for the purpose of the act was to convert farm land into pasture land for sheep.

Tens of thousands of families were forced off their lands and created a growing class of vagabonds who steadily migrated to urban areas throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

Manufacturers and industrialists now had a large supply of extremely cheap labor at their disposal as these rural migrants formed a permanent underclass in the cities.

By the 16th century town governments built prisons and work houses to lodge the vagabonds.

Wealth derived from the new industries tended to concentrate in few hands in few places.

For a brief period the most powerful bankers on the continent were the Habsburgs of Austria and through them you could invest in Austrian mines, Spanish colonies and carry on dealings with every part of the continent.

From 1576 to 1576 Antwerp became the banking center of Europe and then for over a century after 1576 Amsterdam took over the role of being the center of European banking and finance. Thus, by the late 16th century the financial power of Europe was shifting northward from Italy due to this proto-industrialization and proto-capitalism occurring in northern Europe.

The reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula had been carried out by several political powers led by the kings of Castil and Aragon. By the end of the 13th century only the kingdom of Grenada remained in Moslem hands, but the reconquest came to a standsill.

In the 14th and early 15th centuries the peninsula was torn apart by war and anarchy as the Christian powers struggled for control.

Then in 1469 a momentous marriage was arranged between Fredinand or Aragon and Isabella of Castile. This union did not end the inter-Christian fighting but both husband and wife carried out foreign and domestic policies that would later lead to a unified Spain.

In the late 15th century a second marriage greatly affected the position of Spain in European politics. The Emperor Maximillan and Mary of Burgundy had a son, Philip, who was heir to Austria thorugh his Habsburg father and to the Netherlands through his mother.

Philip married Joanna, the duaghter of Fredinand and Isabell and their son, Charles evetually became king of Spain, ruling from 1515-1556.

Still in the 15th century Spain was nwither a united or a wealthy country as all the old kingdoms were fiercely provinical despite the united monarchy.

But Spanish armies were among the best in Europe and later the discovery of the New World would bring in a steady stream of gold and silver which surpassed all previous dreams of wealth. As a Result Spain would become the leading power in 16th century Europe.