Back to the Renaissance
Where would we be today as a society without the humanistic approach brought by the Renaissance? It’s a fearsome thing to ponder, but also a very relevant inquiry. We could very well still be enduring the Middle Ages, making very few intellectual and societal advances while mostly relying on the Church for everything we desire to know. Instead, we are where we are now because of the gradual advancements in the ways people were able to more freely use their minds during the Renaissance.
It lasted roughly from the late 13th to the early 17th century and came after almost 1,000 years of the Dark Ages, a period of cultural and economic decline in Europe. The Renaissance abandoned the lifelessness of the Dark Ages by setting the stage for a cultural ‘rebirth’ which progressed toward defining the meaning of Humanism, and redefining what art, science, and religion should be.
The movement began in Florence, Italy, for several reasons; the most paramount being the amount of financial stability the country could contribute to a movement as massive as the Renaissance. The wealth of Florence and other cities in Italy accumulated in the hands of the middle and upper classes of bankers and merchants, who proved to be increasingly successful during this period, and “flaunted their money and power by becoming patrons, or supporters, of artists and intellectuals” (History.com Editors). Additionally, “many of the paintings during the High Renaissance era were commissioned by the Medici family, or those who had links with them, such as the Sassetti or the Tornabuoni” (Bensalhia). Besides the wealth of individuals, Italy was becoming richer day by day because of the amount of trade they were able to do in accordance with Asia and Europe, using their ideal location to their advantage. Other factors included the fact that Italy was run under an independent-republic government and desired to go back to their roots in Rome in order to recommence their previous culture and build upon the eminence that once thrived there during the Roman Empire.
Humanism, the cultural philosophy and newfound curriculum that backed the Renaissance, sprang up in revolt of the autocratic spirit of Medieval Catholicism and serves as an antithesis to Scholasticism. Where Humanism’s purposes were “to be a moralizing, practical approach to knowledge as useful to man, to improve human nature, to inculcate human virtues”, Scholasticism’s purposes were to “pursue abstract, rational intellectual truth about God, to learn about creation (mankind as part of creation), and redemption” (Washington.edu Editors). Humanism revived classical learning from the past by incorporating Latin and Greek texts into the university curriculum as well as making it crucial to study the artistic and scientific views of their ancestors in Rome. By doing this, Humanism transferred much of the overpowering control of the Church into the hands of individuals because they had now gained the ability to reason and judge subjects from a morally humanistic standpoint and go to great lengths in order to manifest the fresh creative power they had gained.
Scholars sometimes claim that humanists rejected religion because they “rejected the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church” (New World Encyclopedia Editors). However, these men were very religious and were able to view the importance of man and the corruption of the Church. “In all their writings, they placed human experiences ever more directly at the center of explanation,” rather than God, Fate, or myth. Still, they were notably religious men, even clergy or other servants of the Church” (Karant-Nunn, Susan, & Lotz-Heumann). These men were not out to destroy the Church or to banish religion from education. All they desired was to enlighten people about the fact that they could practically look within themselves for esteem and intellect without having to rely solely on God, and more importantly, the Church. Francesco Petrarch, often credited as the ‘Father of Humanism’, lived from 1304 to 1374, primarily in Avignon, Italy.
As a young boy, he developed a fascination for ancient Roman history and the Latin language. However, his father had staunch expectations of Petrarch to study law. So, Petrarch attended the University of Bologna in Italy. Upon his father’s death in 1326, Petrarch immediately ceased his law studies and returned to his hometown where he began investing his time in poetry. This choice was what he spent the rest of his life studying and creating. By abandoning a scholastic curriculum to pursue his passion, he paved the way for Humanism. Others followed in his footsteps, indulging in the arts and the study of Roman history. Humanism in its entirety proved to be vitally important in advancing a culture that seemed so entrenched in its present state of subjection by the Church.
Art from the Renaissance was particularly remarkable because although humanistic interests were already present in art during the late medieval times, Humanism was able to completely break through the barrier during the Renaissance era. This allowed artists to express revolutionary ideas in their work. “In the visual arts, humanism stood for the emergence of the individual figure, in place of stereotyped, or symbolic figures, greater realism and consequent attention to detail; as reflected in the development of linear perspective and the increasing realism of human faces and bodies…, and an emphasis on and promotion of virtuous action…” (Visual-arts-cork.com Editors). With the opportunity now existing, many men with astounding artistic abilities came forward to create pieces that spoke to spectators in ways that they are still considered of high prominence today.
In the Early Renaissance period (1400-1479), the famously wealthy Medici family dominated Florence, Italy, and commissioned much of the Early Renaissance art that is of great importance to the entire movement. Art during this period was transformed to go beyond the popular two-dimensional aspects of work. Artists instead began experimenting with new styles such as perspective, proportion, emotion, naturalism, and realism, which all changed how art was created and perceived. “New subject matter evolved beyond the traditional religious stories that had historically dominated art. This included battle scenes, portraits, and depictions of ordinary people. Art was no longer a way to solely elevate the devotional but became a way to document the people and events of contemporary times, alongside the historical” (Seiferle and Nichols).
Humanism was the defining factor behind the movement of focus toward the value of human characteristics and modern historical events occurring around them on Earth and away from the Church. One significant piece of work during the Early Renaissance was ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ by Masaccio, created in 1425. While medieval works depicting Adam and Eve were “expressionless and static,” Masaccio’s “reveal a great deal of emotion” (History lists.org Editors). The Early Renaissance was a time when it became important to reveal emotion among other things, greatly contributing to the humanistic principles newly valued at the time. During the High Renaissance period (1475-1525), Humanism had been in use in art for a little over a century and was evolving mainly within the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Raphael, all of whom are famous for their extraordinary works during this time. These men each have discrete characteristics which make them grand centerpieces for the time period they are recognized for assisting in generating. “Leonardo was the ultimate Renaissance man, a solitary genius to whom no branch of study was foreign; Michelangelo emanated creative power, conceiving vast projects that drew for inspiration on the human body as the ultimate vehicle for emotional expression; Raphael created works that perfectly expressed the classical spirit—harmonious, beautiful, and serene” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia). The ventures that these men undertook at this time were profound, and their work represents the epitome of the Renaissance. The way each artist was able to incorporate such emotionally evoking human-like characteristics into their work helped to progress the rebirth of how humans interacted with their grand abilities and emotions.
Science gradually advanced during the Renaissance as it first began to deviate from being based upon religion and instead upon tangible experiments and experiences in which earthly things could be evaluated fairly with logic. This caused the two subjects to be separated into divergent fields so that science could stray further away from religion than it ever had before. “According to medieval scientists, matter was composed of four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—whose combinations and permutations made up the world of visible objects” (Peters, Edward, and Hermann Aubin). Since the Church desired that people, even scientists, obtain their scientific knowledge only from the institution, grasp on the subject was exceptionally elementary and limited. Once the Renaissance came along and the spread of common knowledge and literacy occurred, so did the comprehension of science.
In terms of inventions during the Renaissance, the Gutenberg press had to be the single most influential of the time. In 1440, Johan Gutenberg created the ability to print mass amounts of press in short amounts of time, making it possible to distribute information more efficiently than ever before. “A single press could churn out 3,600 pages a day, resulting in an explosion of literature and ideas unprecedented in history” (Telegraph Editors). Without the invention of the printing press at this very time, it could be argued that the Renaissance would not have been as successful as it was with the enhancement of the spread of information to mass amounts of people for enlightenment to take place. Other significant inventions included the thermometer by Galileo in 1593, the musket in Spain in the 1500s, and the pendulum by Galileo.
There was a diverse assortment of highly intelligent men who dominated the field of scientific discovery during the Renaissance. Nicolaus Copernicus is often considered paramount in importance for his theory about the solar system being heliocentric, which laid the foundation for later scientists. Rather than placing Earth at the center of the solar system as the preceding Ptolemaic system had, he proposed a theory in 1543 that positioned the Sun at the center, with the seven planets revolving around it. He also contended that “the distance from the Earth to the Sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars [and] the apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes” (New Mexico Museum of Space History Editors). These groundbreaking ideas, which have been proven accurate and continue to hold true, advanced the field of astronomy significantly and paved the way for successive scientists to further develop astronomical understanding in correlation with his work.
Galileo Galilei, another pivotal scientist of that era, built upon Copernicus’s ideas and made important discoveries of his own, albeit not without facing significant opposition. His detection of Jupiter’s moons solidified his faith in Copernicus’s discoveries. “In 1616, Galileo developed his theory of the tides, working under the (incorrect) assumption that high and low tides are caused by the movement of the Earth around the Sun and its rotation on its own axis. He regarded his theoretical construct as proof that the heliocentric system was correct” (Renn and Valleriani). However, Galileo’s continuous efforts to verify the heliocentric system drew the ire of Roberto Bellarmino, who insisted Galileo cease proclaiming the heliocentric theory as fact. Ultimately, Galileo faced severe interrogations and threats of torture and was compelled to publicly renounce Copernicus’s theory. He was consequently placed under house arrest until his death in 1642. Just like Galileo and Copernicus, numerous other scientists made significant discoveries during the Renaissance that greatly contributed to the burgeoning scientific revolution, helping to illuminate ideas that had been under scrutiny since the dawn of time.
4. Religion: Religion during the Renaissance changed dramatically because of the spread of new ideas and especially because of the importance of Humanism at the time. At the beginning of the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church completely controlled life in Europe and benefitted from it. The Church was becoming more corrupt year by year. It was run by the wealthy and prominent governing people of Europe who taxed the common people in order to direct the funds to themselves and the Church. Popes had both spiritual and political power in Europe.
It soon became obvious that there was a severe need for a ‘reformation’ of religion as some people felt that the Church no longer represented how they felt about their own faith. The Protestant Reformation began with a monk by the name of Martin Luther. He sparked the movement when he posted his ’95 Theses’ on the front door of a Church in 1517. Indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church ignited Luther’s flame against their corrupt practices as it entailed taking money from devout religious folk and in return, promising them that their deceased relatives in purgatory would be sent straight to Heaven.
Luther had been engaging in public arguments and speaking very publicly against the Church. “In January 1521, a papal decree was published under which Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. Under normal circumstances, this sentence would have meant a trial and, most likely, execution. But these were no ordinary times. Both Frederick the Wise and widespread German public opinion demanded that Luther be given a proper hearing” (Orta). When asked to reconsider his arguments against the Church, he remained staunch in his position and fought for what he vehemently believed in.
Because of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, Luther’s retaliation writings against the Church continued to spread rapidly amongst the population of Europe despite his absence. Also during this time, the printing press allowed the Bible to be mass printed and translations of the text allowed people to read from the Holy book itself, without being required to decipher it through the interpretations of a Priest or Church official which was significant to the religious movement.
Eventually, Lutheranism sprouted out of his movement as did the “Protestant” movement in which people continued to build up their own forces and protest the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. Luther’s successful movement in educating people about the Church and standing by his accusations is truly what led the Protestant Reformation during the renaissance to transform religion.
Out of the power grab from the Catholic Church came the creation of innumerable denominations of Christianity that evolved over time and still exist today. The breakup of the Church can also be viewed as the reclaiming of power by the general population. The Protestant Reformation happened to be the major component of the favorable outcome of the Renaissance due to the opportunities it created for intellectuals who were now able to individualize and advance themselves more than ever before.
Many factors came together in order for the Renaissance to take place, but the main reason it could revitalize an entire era was the fact that much of the Church’s power was repossessed and redistributed to European citizens. Without the Reformation and influential figures such as Galileo and Luther, among many others, who stood their ground against the corrupt Church, this power shift would not have occurred and much of the Renaissance’s greatness could never have been realized. The spread of humanism in itself revived Europe, rebuilding the spirits of men. This allowed them to understand their inherent value and partake in various fields such as art, science, and religion, making these subjects more accessible for intellectual exploration. Vast improvements were made in the daily lives of many people over the few centuries that this era spanned.