The Italian Renaissance

Lisa Bowen-Moore

"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!"
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Modern art critics regard renaissance art as graphic narratives of political and social events that occurred in the 14th through 16th century Europe. Scholars believe that the renaissance expressed a cultural revival of classical antiquity. And then there are others who doubt the concept of 'renaissance' entirely. Gundersheimer argues that Wallace K. Ferguson's concept of de-emphasizing the idea of renaissance to favor a view of "Europe in transition" was an ideal point that should be explored. This observation by Gundersheimer based on Ferguson's idea may become influential. The 'problem with renaissance' was that some interests and activities may also be found in earlier periods and are not bound to the renaissance years exclusively. And the rate of change was more similar to that of a highly influential widespread culture based transition.

During the medieval era there were many contributions to the arts. The renaissance scholar Matteo Palmieri, writing in Florence in the 1430's considers the 100 years of the medieval era to be dark because of the lack of enlightenment in those years, in comparison of the "rebirth" and "renewal" of the renaissance. I think that the labeling of the medieval era as the dark ages helps to romanticize the achievements of the renaissance. Innovations during the medieval era were useful and unglamorous and easily forgotten.

The renaissance was one of the few eras in our history that emanated the true intellect of man. Genius developed from the advances in art, science, philosophy and mathematics. Never has there since been such a time in which an individual is given ample opportunity and time to perfect and master his craft above all other societal pursuits and obligations. According to a source in the Encarta Encyclopedia, "The term renaissance was coined by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1855, to mean 'rebirth.' It refers to the 'discovery of the world of man' in the 16th century." (Encarta Renaissance 1)

The renaissance period in art history corresponds to the beginning of the great western age of discovery and exploration, when a general desire and curiosity developed to examine all aspects of nature and the world. The artists of that time were no longer regarded as just artisans as they had been during the Medieval Age. They emerged for the first time as independent personalities, comparable to poets and writers. They sought solutions to formal and visual problems and many of them were also devoted to scientific experimentation.

Scholars of the late 14th and 15th century were highly interested in the rich cultures of ancient Greeks and Romans. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was an Italian poet who is considered the first "modern" poet. Some scholars believe that the renaissance was the beginning of our modern times. Petrarch was involved in the development of Italian as a literary language and his restoration of the classical Latin language earned him the reputation as the first great humanist. He refined the thought of 'right knowledge' and his instructions were models of eloquence in academics. Similar to Machiavelli theory of 'right power' that nobles and elites had the right to rule over the masses or "the vulgars." "Right knowledge" is the right of the elites and nobles to gain knowledge and to be highly learned men to instruct the masses.

"The literal meaning of 'humanism' in the renaissance was close to our term 'the humanities' today." (Gundersheimer 222) Humanism then meant, the affixing of the greatest importance to classical studies, and the consideration of classical antiquity as the common standard and model by which to guide all cultural activity. The humanist ideal of a liberal education added history, physical games and exercises to the medieval liberal arts studies. The studies of Petrarch were distinguished from scholastic philosophy and theology, by the name litterae humaniores ("more humane letters"). The first humanist school was begun in Italy (1373-1446) by Vittorino da Feltre at Mantua under the patronage of the Gonzaga court. Picco Della Mirandola, (1463-1494) an Italian humanist philosopher who traveled universities astonishing scholars with his knowledge, wrote Heptaplus, a mystical account of the creation of the universe.

Marsilio Ficino, (1433-1499) was an Italian philosopher and theologian who