watershed moments like the Fall of Constantinople or the discovery of
the New World can be considered definitive moments that began modern
history, from the point of view of people living in the late Middle
Ages and Early Modern period, modernity developed over the course of
centuries. In many ways, though, it could be said to being in
*Italy in the late Middle Ages was a collection of small kingdoms, city
states (many of them organised as republics), and the Papal States
centred around Rome.
*The Republics of Venice, Florence, and Genoa, and the Duchy of Milan
all grew wealthy from trade around the Mediterranean, particularly with
Asia through the Byzantine Empire. Spices, silks, and other rare
and precious trade goods flowed through Italy's city states to the rest
of Europe, and Italy grew rich in the process. Likewise, Rome was
a centre of learning, culture, and wealth due to its function as the
seat of the Pope, head of the Catholic Church.
*As these cities grew richer, their leading merchants had time for
hobbies—collecting curiosities and learning about the wider world,
beyond what was needed for mere survival. As they began
collecting antiquities and oddities, they began to develop an interest
in their own history, that of the ancient Roman Empire (as well as the
Greek culture that had so greatly influenced it). Likewise,
through trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East, Italians
became conversant with both ancient and modern Greek scholarship, as
well as Muslim science, which was then the most advanced in the world.
Later, after the Fall of Constantinople, many of the Eastern Roman
Empire's scholars fled to Italy, enlarging a flourishing scientific and
*These urban people also began to develop values different from those
of their rural and clerical cousins. They became less interested
in the spiritual world (although they remained devout Catholics), less
interested in military accomplishment and knightly ideals of virtue and
honour, less interested in the tight-knit communities of the peasant
villages—they no longer quite fit into the First, Second, or Third
Estates (and were, at some times, even considered a separate estate of
their own). Being less dependent on the success of the community
(and, in many way, being in competition with other members of it),
these city dwellers (or burgers, or bourgeoisie) became more focused on
themselves and on the world in which they lived (not their neighbours
or the world to come). These ideals also fit together with
classical Roman and Greek values, which honoured the educated,
enterprising individual, and said that 'man is the measure of all
*One of the most influential early scholars of classical literature was
the Florentine civil servant Francesco Petrarch. He sought out
ancient Latin documents and read them in the original, translating them
into Italian. He wrote poetry, creating a form known as the
sonnet, which many later poets would use. He, and those who
followed him, emphasised the study of what they called the
humanities—the works of man: literature, languages, poetry,
public speaking, and later art and architecture and knowledge for its
own sake. This was, many said, a rebirth of classical knowledge,
or a Renaissance. Pleased with their new approach to knowledge
and life, Petrarch and those who followed him called the preceding
epoch the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages.
*Not only was Petrarch from Florence, but so were many of the
Renaissance's greatest scholars and artists. This was due, in
part, to Florence's wealth, but in particular to the influence of the
most powerful and wealthy family in the city, the Medici family,
particularly Cosimo de' Medici, who brought the family to political
dominance of the city, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent.
He held Florence together, guaranteeing a stable government (which was
good for trade and allowed people time to study rather than fight), and
served as a patron for many artists. Many popes were also powerful and
*Art and architecture were reborn during the Renaissance, drawing from
classical ruins and concepts of mathematical perfection and symmetry
(which the mediaeval mind had found boring) and the concept of
Neo-Platonism, derived from the teaching of the ancient Greek Plato,
who taught that there were ideal (or perfect) forms of everything, and
which sought to depict ideal forms in art. It also led to an
emphasis on realism. Among other things, this led to the study of
the human nude, something previously discouraged by the Church.
It even led to the study of the human body below the skin through
dissection of cadavers, something regarded as sacrilege by the Church.
This focus on human perfection came from and added to the urban
elevation of the individual.
*Techniques such as perspective and shading, and the use of new oil
paints that reflected light, also allowed artists to make their works
*Among the great artists of the Italian Renaissance were Leonardo da
Vinci, Michaelangelo Buonarotti, Donatello, Fillipo Brunelleschi (all
from Florence), Raphael Sanzio, and many others. Great artists
became celebrities, and for the first time began to sign their names to
their art (previously artists had been seen as craftsmen who would not
sign their work any more than a blacksmith would sign a plow).
*Leonardo's fresco The Last Supper
is a masterpiece of Renaissance themes: it is deeply religious in
nature; it also emphasises the individual, as each person in the
painting has clearly detailed clothing, expression, and physical
features; it uses perspective to show the depth of the room; it also
uses the lines of the roof to emphasise the centrality of Christ;
symmetry is present everywhere, from the windows and ceiling designs to
the groups of apostles on either side of Jesus.
*The Mona Lisa is considered
another of Leonardo's masterworks. It is, by nature, centred on
an individual in a way that was uncommon in those days—it is so focused
on Lisa that she is even painted before an imaginary landscape, not a
local scene (as was typical). The shadows and shading of her face
give the portrait a rare sense of depth while the oiled highlights
shine for emphasis.
*Michaelangelo was a sculptor and painter, most famously of religious
scenes. Among his most famous accomplishments was painting the
ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II (formerly a general in
the Papal armies). This tremendous fresco took four years to
complete, depicts over 300 figures, and nine scenes from the Bible,
particularly about Creation, especially the creation of Man. He
also designed the dome on St. Peter's Basilica, although it was not
finished by the time he died.
*Donatello was one of the first great Renaissance sculptors, being the
first to create a life-size equestrian statue since the ancient world.
*Brunelleschi was an artist and architect, famous for designing
Florence's cathedral. He is also considered the inventor of
*Although not from Florence, Raphael was also a true Renaissance
artist. He was famous for his gentle portrayals of the Madonna,
but The School of Athens,
painted in the Vatican, is emblematic of the Renaissance: it
shows classical and Mediaeval scholars gathered in a Roman-style
chamber debating philosophy. The building is in the shape of a
Greek cross, which some have suggested was intended to show a harmony
between pagan philosophy and Christian theology. There are two
sculptures in the background. The one on the left is the god Apollo
holding a lyre. Apollo is the god of the Sun, medicine/healing, light,
truth, archery, and music. The sculpture on the right is Athena, in her
Roman guise as Minerva. Athena was the goddess of wisdom.
*Eventually, Renaissance ideas moved northwards, and great Dutch and
German artists began working with new methods. One of these was
Albrecht Dürer of Germany. He became a master of engraving
(etching a design on metal with acid, then making prints with those
metal plates), and printed both traditional religious scenes and, like
a good Renaissance man, scientific discoveries as well.
*The Renaissance was also a time of literary development, that was
spread throughout Europe after 1455 thanks to Johannes Gutenberg's
development of movable type for a printing press in Germany. In
the space of fifty years, Europe went from owning a few thousand books
to 15 to 20 million. Of course, the first book Gutenberg printed was
*Perhaps the book that best links the middle ages with the Renaissance is Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy
(published 1308-1321). It is not called a comedy because it is funny,
but because it features a mixture of epic, tragic, and dramatic plot
with a happy ending. It describes Dante's journey through the
Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. It thus follows Mediaeval
religious topics, but it details individuals (Dante put his enemies in
Hell) and their relationships (Dante is guided through Heaven by his
ideal woman, Beatrice; he was guided through Hell and Purgatory by
Virgil, a classical Roman poet). Furthermore, it was written, not
in Latin, but in Italian (at least, the dialect of Florence). In
many ways, it bridges the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
*Another important Italian writer was Giovanni Boccaccio, whose The Decameron
collected 100 short stories supposedly told by a group of travellers
fleeing the Black Death to pass the time. The stories tended to
depict everyday life, common folk songs, and traditional stories.
Many of them were pretty saucy, too. Besides collecting and
treating as literature the tales of regular folks (but still
individuals), it also inspired many later writings, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
*As the individual became important, many writers tried to describe how
individuals should live. One of the most influential of these was
Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier.
This book described the ideal aristocrat or wealthy merchant—a man who
is well-educated in many fields, a good speaker, athletic, poetic,
knowledgeable, but not arrogant. Such a well-rounded,
multi-talented person came to be known as a Renaissance Man. The
ideal woman offered a balance—she would be kind and graceful, lively
but not overbearing or showy. She should be beautiful, because in
this neo-Platonic world, beauty was a mark of goodness.
*Other writers tried to describe the nature of government. The most famous was Niccolo Machiavelli of Florence, author of The Prince,
designed to teach a ruler to gain and maintain his power (although this
did not, he said, apply to republics). A prince should be loved
and feared, but not hated. If need be, though, it is better to be
feared than loved, because people will obey someone they fear, and that
obedience leads to a stable, healthy, safe state in the long run.
Machiavelli did believe that a good state would be moral,
self-sufficient, and capable of self-defence (without using mercenaries
or the soldiers of allies). However, his work was also seen as
cynical and heartless by many, and Machiavellian has come to mean
sneaky, manipulative, and self-serving.
*In the Netherlands, Desiderius Erasumus spread humanism to Northern
Europe. He encouraged scholarship, and used his knowledge to
produce a new Greek translation of the Bible. This formed the
basis of later efforts at translating the Bible into English, German,
and other languages. He also wrote Paraphrases of the New Testament,
which summarised parts of the Bible for those who could not read the
whole thing. Even though he was a devout Catholic himself, he
became famous for publishing In Praise of Folly,
which satirised many flaws in the Catholic Church. Fortunately,
the pope at the time (Leo X) thought it was funny, but later opponents
of the Church would use it against future Popes.
*In England, a friend of Erasmus, Sir Thomas More described Utopia (or
'No Place') as an ideal society based on logic, reason, and
justice. It was orderly, rational, fair (justice was used to
eliminate the causes of crime rather than to punish criminals), not
avaricious (gold was used as chains to hold slaves in place so that
people would not value it but the government could still use it to
trade with other lands), and tolerant. However, this stability
came at the price of liberty, as there was no private property and the
government strictly controlled society. Some things in it, such
as easy divorce, euthanasia, and female priests, communal
land-ownership, and engaged couples seeing each other nude before
marrying to make sure they liked what they were getting were completely
opposite what More believed and acted upon in his daily life.
Overall, the book was a satire of government and society, demonstrating
both what could be better in society and how it could never truly be
*One of the most enduring of English Renaissance writers is William
Shakespeare—poet, playwright, actor, and director. With a wide
cast of unique characters, a great command of the English language (to
which he added hundreds of expressions and even many (perhaps 20,0000)
invented words and for which he helped standardise grammar and
diction), and a range of stories both invented and adapted from other
writers of fiction and history, his plays are still performed and
enjoyed to this day. Romeo and Juliet is sometimes considered the play that made romances a respectable subject for drama. Hamlet is probably the most discussed character in English literature.