The Renaissance in Italy

J. Rich

The Italian Renaissance was called the beginning of the modern age. The word Renaissance itself is derived from the Latin word rinascere, which means to be reborn. Many dramatic changes occurred during this time in the fields of philosophy, art, politics, and literature. New emphasis was placed on enjoying life and the world around you. Talented individuals sought self-gratification through art, literature, and architecture, and their achievments would influence future generations for centuries to come. This great new movement was originated and centered in Italy, and without Italian contribution, would never have launched European society into the dawning of a new era.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, Italy was divided into some 250 self- governing city-states, ranging from small towns of 2,000 individuals, to some of the largest cities in Europe of that time, such as Florence, Milan, and Venice, each with 100,000 citizens each. These city-states were loosely organized under the Pope, ruling out of Rome, although he had no real political control over the divided Italy.

During the mid- 1300s and early 1400s, many large Italian cities came under the control of one family, such as the Visconti and later the Sforza families in Milan. The form of government established by the ruling families of the various Italian cities came to be known as signoria, with the chief official being called the signore. Soon , elaborate court systems, controlled by the ruling families, began to spring up in each city-state. At these courts, leading artists, intellectuals, and politicians gathered under the sponsorship of the signore and families.

Other city states had a form of republicanism, such as Florence and Venice did. In these cities, a group of upper class families controlled the government, and often looked down upon the common residents of the town, considering them to be inferior. A Venetian observer wrote about Florence during this time:

"They are never content with their constitution, they are never quiet, and it seems that this city always desires change of constitution as so the government changes every fifteen years"(Cole p.218)

In Florence, which is perhaps considered the most important center of Renaissance learning in history, the Medici family dominated the ruling class. Under Medici domination, Florence became a signorial power and a cultural gem stone. It was during the reign of Lorenzo de' Medici , that many great painters, sculptors, and architects flocked to the Medici family looking for sponsorship, knowing that Lorenzo was a great supporter of the arts. It was at this point, during the 1430s, that the Renaissance, and many of its core philosophies, truly began to take off in Italy.

Humanism was considered to be the most significant intellectual movement of the Renaissance. As its name implies, humanism was a philosophy that was characterized by its blending of the concern of the history and actions of all human beings, and their influence in the world, with religious duty. Prior to Renaissance thinking, medieval Europe considered life to be sinful and should despised, and that people should only be concerned about their duty to God and the afterlife. The humanists thought that every person has respect and worth and should therefore command the respect of every other person. The humanistic movement began during the early Italian Renaissance with the rediscovery of the writings of the classical Greeks and Romans, which were not only models of literary style, but considered guides to the understanding of life. The first, and most recognized, pioneers of humanism were Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio.

Petrarch became known for his poetry, which can be described, like all humanistic writing, to be very realistic, critical, and more often than not satirical. Petrarach's style is close to those of the classical authors he studied, expressing his view accurately through the use of characters. He once said of his writing, " The style is the man."(Burke, p.127) His most famous contributions to the world of literature are his string of sonnets addressed to "Laura", who appears as a real person, rather than a religious symbol, as in most European writings.

Giovanni Boccacio studied and wrote at about the same time as Petrarch, is best known for his masterpiece Decameron, which consists of 100 stories organized to give the impression of a total view of society. Like Petrarch, he gave accurate depictions of real life characters and situations. He described a group of men and women fleeing from a plague infested