An Analysis of the Influence of the Renaissance

Abstract

This paper offers an in-depth analysis on the time period known as the Renaissance and how it has influenced society as a whole. The question that prompted this research to take place was “How did the Renaissance change the world of art and the world itself?” To be specific, this paper analyzes a multitude of different disciplines and discusses the impact that the Renaissance had on them. This paper focuses on how Humanism brought us the Renaissance and how the Renaissance influenced and impacted not only the world of art, but also the world of science and all that it had to offer.

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This paper focuses on individuals as well as ideas, which were cultivated during the Renaissance and then went on to continue to grow after the end of that era.

For many people, the Renaissance era is simply an obscure time period that produced exceptional art for us to enjoy. While the art that was produced during this time was indeed phenomenal, the reality is that the Renaissance was so much more than that. This time period allowed us to progress leaps and bounds into the future, and has made a lot of what we consider normal in present day, possible.

Most scholars agree that the Renaissance took place between the fourteenth century and the sixteenth century, while some postulate that the Renaissance never truly ended. By definition, Renaissance means “rebirth”, and that is truly what occurred during this time frame. Prior to the Renaissance, humanity endured a stagnant and dull period where no intellectual growth seemed to occur (Guisepi). This period, known as the Middle Ages, began with the decline of the Western Roman Empire. There are several characteristics that define the Middle Ages for scholars. To begin with, society was extremely religious, and often looked only to God and his Church for answers to all problems they would experience. As a result, the people who lived during this time were not believers in science and were more likely to believe in superstitions. It was also a widely held belief during the Middle Ages that the more land someone owned the more power they were entitled to. In addition to the previously stated characteristics, it is also important to understand that during this time war was prevalent, as were “invasions” of people into areas they were not native to.

The Renaissance began during the fourteenth century in Italy. Scholars believe that the reasons it began in Italy and not in a different country in Europe is because Italy had a climate that favored change, freedom in regards to politics, and a set language. (Guisepi) Italy was also located in an excellent area and served as an international trading center. (Osman, 1996) This was in stark contrast to other countries at the time who were still living semi-barbaric lifestyles. During the Middle Ages, cities in Italy were changing into City-States, which allowed them to operate as independent economic and commercial areas. This evolution of City-States during the Middle Ages meant that Italy was not one unified country but rather many smaller nations that were being independently governed. (Osman, 1996) During this time, Italy began to evolve into the country that would lead us into the Renaissance period. Luxury Goods were traded with many other countries and territories and the Italian Textile industry was able to grow allowing the artisans to perfect many different techniques. This trade brought with it not only goods and services, but also ideas from many different cultures. They obtained knowledge in a wealth of areas including mathematics, science, astronomy, and medicine. Trade was growing, and as a result there was an increased need for educated individuals to staff the different industries. The church began to lose its control over education and society as a whole, as that power slowly shifted to traders and bankers. (Osman, 1996)

Although Italy is credited with starting the Renaissance, there were other individuals outside of Italy that were forward thinkers and contributed to the rebirth. One example of these contributors is Roger Bacon, a man who began to think what modern science would be like. There was also emperor Frederick II, who aimed to create a new society that would practice tolerance. These men and others like them were, unfortunately, ahead of their time and were subsequently eliminated by papal forces. Not too long after these men had passed and their thoughts were considered buried, a new force began to attempt its break for freedom.

In Italy, a man named Dante Alighieri published an epic poem, a work of art that was written in the modern language of that time. (Guisepi) Humanity began to wake up from the slumber that had enshrouded it for so long.

Another poet, Francesco Petrarca, continued on the path forged by Dante. Francesco Petrarca, sometimes referred to as Petrarch, lived during the 1300’s in Italy and spent his time studying the poets and writers of antiquity. He was especially taken with Cicero and once wrote:

From my early youth…I gave myself wholly to Cicero….At that age I was incapable of understanding what I read, but I took so much delight in the harmonious disposition of the words that any other book I read or heard read seemed to me to give off a graceless, discordant sound. (Osman, 1996, p. 35)

As a result of his studies, Petrarch often tried to emulate the writers of antiquity in his own writings. He began to form the belief that how something is written and in what style is equally as important as what exactly is written. (Osman, 1996) Petrarch mentored a man named Giovanni Boccaccio, born in 1313, who shared a love of writing and all that it involved. He went on to invent a new class of literature that was written in the common language of the people. These three men studied and produced writing that was not the norm, and they did this before the Renaissance officially started.

In addition to producing written works, Petrarch also founded Humanism. Humanism is a school of thought that places a higher importance on the human being than it does on the supernatural or divine aspects of life. Humanist beliefs were born from two separate sources: The Catholic Church, who believed God to be at the top of the hierarchy and humans to be beneath him, and the teachings of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who always believed humanity to be the most important aspect of life. In the fourteenth century, these two areas forged together and Humanism was born. Although Humanism did place an emphasis on the human being, it did not mean that those who belonged to this school of thought were rejecting the Church or God. Many of those who proclaimed themselves to be Humanists also belonged to the Church and looked for ways to combine Humanism with what the Church would preach. (Osman, 1996)

Humanism was an important school of thought that led to the emergence of the Renaissance. The accomplishments of Petrarch and Boccaccio and their distinct ability to revive the works of the ancients provided the foundation that was necessary for the Renaissance to finally emerge. Humanistic thought allowed individuals to separate themselves from the Church and develop their own thoughts and ideas. Through Humanism, the Renaissance was truly able to flourish and become what we now know it to be.

The Renaissance is typically split into three separate eras: Early, High and Late. The Early Renaissance is when it all began, and is typically believed to have started sometime between 1350 and 1400. The Early Renaissance was when the thinkers and scholars of that time decided they were “living in a new age” and had determined that this new age would produce new literature, art and culture. (History, 2010) During the Early Renaissance, Florence quickly emerged as the leading center of this movement. Wealthy Florence residences became patrons of the various forms of art, which allowed the different artists to spend their time solely producing art and not wasting time on menial jobs. They were able to travel all around the country and examine ancient texts and ruins. Artists were then able to translate what they learned from the ruins and texts into their different works of art. For example, Brunelleschi studied the ruins of ancient Rome and the used what he learned in his own architecture and sculpting. (Osman, 1996) He contributed his knowledge and ability by creating the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. This dome combined medieval techniques, classical style and Brunelleschi’s own brand of genius. Brunelleschi is also known for creating his own style, called linear perspective. In this style of art, a flat work of art is like a framed window that opens out onto a different three-dimensional world with its own unique spatial relationships. This technique went on to influence many other artists in the early Renaissance, such as Masaccio. (Osman, 1996)

The next era is known as the High Renaissance. It is believed that this part of the Renaissance took place between 1450 and 1515. During this time Renaissance thought and creations were at its peak. Great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael Santi were creating their great works that would be revered for generations. Scientists such as Paracelsus and Copernicus were revolutionizing their respective fields. Humanity was enjoying an enriched life that involved the arts and education.

In 1450, at the start of the High Renaissance, the Gutenberg printing press was invented in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg. This invention occurred at a crucial time in history, and was capable of transporting ideas quickly through Europe. (Renaissance, 2018) With the introduction of this new technology, humanity found itself in a unique position for the first time. Texts from Petrarch and Boccaccio, the fathers of the Humanist school of thought, were now able to be reprinted and distributed to a multitude of readers. This caused a renewed interest in this topic, and stoked the fire of the Renaissance time period.

During the High Renaissance, due to the wider availability of texts and individuals ability to read and interpret things on their own, the teachings of the Catholic Church began to be questioned. This led us to what is now known as the Protestant Reformation, and ushered in the third era: The Late Renaissance.

The Protestant Reformation was led by Martin Luther, a monk who began to question the teachings of the Catholic Church. (Renaissance, 2018). It began in 1517 when Martin Luther published his “95 Theses”. It centered on ideas such as purifying the church and the belief that the Bible should be the sole source of “spiritual authority”, and expressed Martin Luther’s distaste for the sale of Indulgences. The reformers used the printing press to promote their ideas and gain followers and supporters. (The Reformation, 2009) The Late Renaissance saw an influx of wealth into Europe. Those who were already wealthy became wealthier. Eventually what was known as the Renaissance began to fade away. It was no longer a new and passionate movement. The world of art and science would continue to change, but perhaps not as rapidly as it had during the Renaissance.

Art and Architecture are two of the most familiar products of the Renaissance. In order to understand completely the importance of the art in the Renaissance period, it is necessary to understand what came before it. Gothic Art is art that was produced during the Middle Ages, the time frame immediately preceding the Renaissance. Gothic Architecture features tall interiors, stained glass, and linear qualities. Column statues outside of churches were standard elements for buildings constructed during this time. Gothic Architecture spread through all sorts of buildings including churches, town halls, and even homes. (Stokstad, 1995) During the Gothic Art time frame, other distinctive art forms such as poetry also featured distinct characteristics. During this time, poets focused their poems on a concept known as Courtly Love which was the illicit relationship between two people, one of whom was often betrothed to another. This style of poetry influenced the social habits of the time.

Once the Renaissance began, society started to see a change in many different aspects of their culture. Italy began to see its economy flourish and the art industry began to grow and change as well. Artisans considered the classical works for their own inspiration. Like previously stated, Filippo Brunelleschi was one such artisan. He designed the dome to still include Gothic features such as using stone ribs to support the vault of the dome. (Stokstad, 1995) In addition he used innovative new designs, such as including an oculus at the top and implementing a crowning structure that modeled ancient Roman norms. These innovations ensured safety and made the dome cost effective. Once the dome was completed, an artist named Baccio d’Agnolo designed the gallery inside of the dome. Although impressive, the dome was not the only notable piece of architecture constructed during this time. Noble families and families with wealth also commissioned the greatest architects during this time to build their palaces. These palaces included a façade that had a huge door, stonework, marble carvings, and often the family coat of arms. Most Renaissance era building drew inspiration from the architecture of Greek and Roman buildings, often including things such as columns and entablatures. (Stokstad, 1995) Many buildings contained open courtyards that served as an escape from the busy city streets.

Sculptures and Paintings were a huge focus of Renaissance art. Nanni di Banco created statues that were displayed in three of Orsanmichele’s niches. The setting of these sculptures resembles a typical Gothic Cathedral, but the statues themselves have more of a Romanesque feel to them. They feature solid bodies that are wearing figure-hugging clothing, and they sport hair and beards that are stylized. Donatello created his infamous statue David during this time as well, which is considered the oldest life-size nude in European art since the classical era. The sculptures during this time showcased the human body in all of its glory, and did so in a way that was not present in the era that preceded it.

Fresco painting, the style that involved painting on wet plaster, was hugely popular during the Renaissance and the skilled artists who specialized in that were in high demand. The painting style of the Renaissance, which featured volumetric forms, space that was defined according to perspective, and referenced classical styles, did not replace the preceding Gothic style quickly. Rather, this style slowly gained traction until it began to be seen all over Europe. (Stokstad, 1995) Print making and Book printing also began to flourish during this time. The Single-Sheet print and the Illustrated Book are two specific products of this time. (Stokstad, 1995)

During the Renaissance period, art and artists had developed a reputation and a following. One such artist was a man name Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was born in 1452 in Tuscany. He did not receive any formal education or training, but was apprenticed by Andrea del Verrocchio at the age of 15. Although his actual artistic output was low, due in large part to political strife and war, he did create two of the most well-known paintings: The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. (Leonardo da Vinci, 2009) Another artist who was considered immensely important during this time was Michelangelo. Michelangelo was born in 1475 in Caprese, but moved to Florence shortly after his birth. He was apprenticed by Domenico Ghirlandaio, and shortly after he was contracted by the Medici family and offered an invitation to live in their home. (Michelangelo, 2010) During his stay with the Medici family, Michelangelo was surrounded by other intellectuals and artists, which afforded him an opportunity to grow and learn. He was commissioned to sculpt a Pieta for Cardinal Jean Bilheres, and he managed to carve an intricate depiction of the Virgin Mary and her dead son using only one block of stone. After carving this sculpture, he was contracted to carve what is now one of his most famous sculptures: David. This sculpture is a shocking 17 feet tall and is considered by many scholars to be “nearly technically perfect” (Michelangelo, 2010). In 1508 Michelangelo was contracted again, but this time it was for an ambitious painting project in the Sistine Chapel. This project that includes twelve figures and scenes from Genesis, took four-years to complete. Michelangelo worked until his death, but as he aged his focus shifted from painting and sculpting to architecture. He surpassed typical life expectancies of the time and died in 1564 and the age of 88. (Michelangelo, 2010)

Contrary to popular belief, the Renaissance was not solely a time for artistic growth and development. It was also a time when scientific theories and ideas began to develop. There are several scientific thinkers that left a mark on society during this time. One of these scientific thinkers was a man named Paracelsus.

Paracelsus was born in 1493 in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. (Bynum, 2012) His philosophy when it came to science and thinking was to disregard what the ancients stated and to instead formulate your own thoughts through your own experiences. He was a chemist who held the belief that all of existence broke to three elements: salt, sulfur, and mercury. He was one of the first people to actually view a disease as being separate from the person suffering, which was in contrast to the ideas of Hippocrates and Galen who considered diseases to simply be a result of imbalances in the body. (Bynum, 2012) His thoughts and dedication revolutionized how diseases were viewed and helped to shape that area for the present.

Another one of these thinkers was a man named Andreas Vesalius who, like Paracelsus, encouraged others to explore on their own and come up with their own thoughts and ideas. Vesalius revolutionized anatomy and uncovered secrets about the human body that had yet to be discovered. As an anatomy enthusiast, he specialized in dissection. He was the author of De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which was an immensely detailed depiction of the human body in a way that had not been completed thus far. (Bynum, 2012) In his works he corrected the scientific thinkers that came before him, specifically Galen. The information that he discovered and recorded was useful even decades after its initial discovery, and it helped to pave the way in the study of anatomy.

During the Renaissance period another man was also at the forefront of scientific thought: Copernicus. At the time when Copernicus lived it was a widely held belief that the Earth was the center of the universe. During his studies, Copernicus built a roofless tower on an island that permitted him to study the stars and skies with greater clarity. From his studies, he created the theory that it was actually the sun that was the center of our universe. He wrote a manuscript detailing this theory in 1514, but did not dare to publish it. (Bynum, 2012) He continued to work on his theory for an additional thirty years after writing his manuscript. He created a model that showed us the stars were actually further away than was previously believed to be. In 1542, shortly before his death, he decided to finally publish his manuscript titled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (Bynum, 2012). However, at the time he was very sick so he entrusted the publishing to a priest he considered a friend, and that priest passed on the responsibility to another priest, Andreas Osiander. Osiander believed that Copernicus’ ideas were dangerous and thus took it upon himself to include a preface, posing as the author, stating that the information presented in the book was not true. Despite these actions, the manuscript encouraged more exploration of astronomy, and influenced two important individuals: Tyco Brahe and his assistant Johannes Kepler.

Brahe began his studies of the skies in 1560 after viewing an eclipse. While observing the sky in 1572 he notices a new star and used that knowledge to form his theory that the “heavens were not changeless” but rather were continually changing with time. (Bynum, 2012) Much like his predescessor Copernicus, Brahe constructed an observatory on an island off of Denmark. He used this observatory to study the skies, and in 1577 he followed a comet which allowed him to formulate the idea that objects in the sky were not fixed in their own spheres. (Bynum, 2012) He moved to Prague and opened an observatory there and then hired an assistant, a man named Johannes Kepler. Although Brahe was inspired by Copernicus, it is important to note that he never personally accepted the idea that the Sun, not Earth, was the center of the Universe.

Kepler, unlike his associate Brahe, did agree with Copernicus that the Sun was the center of the Universe. He was gifted with all of Brahe’s notes when he died in 1601. With his former associates’ notes and his own ideas, Kepler took astronomy into an “entirely different direction”. (Bynum, 2012) He gifted the astronomy community with three concepts that came to be known as Kepler’s Laws. First, that planets do not move in circles but rather they move in ellipses. Second, that planets move faster when they are closer to the Sun and it is the curve of the arc made as the planet moves that is constant, not the speed. Third, that there is a special relationship between the amount of time a planet takes to revolve around the Sun and its distance from the Sun. (Bynum, 2012) The above stated laws and the rest of Kepler’s work helped future generations see that the archaic idea of “perfect circular motion” in the skies and heavens was wrong. (Bynum, 2012) His work also allowed us to calculate the distance of the planets in the Solar System, which in turn helped us to gain a sense of just how large our Solar System is.

The influence that the Renaissance had was surprisingly far reaching. This time period was so much more than just “art”. While art did play a significant role, we also saw immense growth and change in a variety of other areas such as commerce, societal norms, and science. The influence of this time period stretched across land and sea, and it crossed centuries as well. We can still experience some of the effects of the Renaissance in present day, and without the many contributions of the Renaissance icons, our lives would likely be very different today. Without the artistic risks and successes of the Renaissance artists, we would likely not have the eclectic and varying art styles that we have become accustomed to seeing. Without the forward thinkers in the scientific fields, we would likely be much farther behind in many areas such as astronomy and anatomy. Without the effort put forth by these individuals, the lives that we have become comfortable with, would likely not exist. Western Civilization gained a lot of its facets from the Renaissance, as did worldwide society.

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