The term renaissance literally means rebirth, and in fact this was a rebirth, a rebirth of civilization. For hundreds of years Europe had been in a state of decay, dominated by an all-powerful Roman Catholic Church, individuality, intellectualism, and free thought had been suppressed. War, diminishing resources and the dreaded plague had taken their toll upon the populations of Europe. It was not until an economic boom and a recovery in population in Italy, that the renaissance first shed its rays of the rebirth, and the beginning of modern humanity and consciousness.
The Renaissance vision of history ad three parts: It began with antiquity, followed by the Middle Ages and then the golden age of rebirth that had just begun. Old medieval scholars, who looked at the world with a Church dominated world view, looked at the pagan Greek and Roman world, and believed that they were living in the final age before the last judgment. Renaissance scholars adored the ancients, condemned the Middle Ages as ignorant and barbaric, and proclaimed their own age one of light and the rebirth of the classical heritage. Many Renaissance thinkers known as humanists expressed this view.
The Renaissance idea of humanism was another break with medieval tradition. Classical texts were studied and valued on their own terms, no longer serving to justify the Christian faith and civilization. The great interest in antiquity led to a successful search for classical manuscripts. Greek dramatists, poets, and church fathers were rediscovered for the first time. Although the study of ancient literature, history, and moral philosophy grew into imitation of the classics, it was meant to produce free and individualistic human beings, rather than pawns of the Universe and Church.
The Italian Renaissance was an urban phenomenon, a product of cities that flourished in central and northern Italy, such as Florence, Ferrara, Milan, and Venice. It was the wealth of these cities that financed Renaissance cultural achievements. The cities themselves, however, were not creations of the Renaissance, but of the period of great economic expansion and population growth during the 12th and 13th centuries. Medieval Italian merchants developed commercial and financial techniques, such as bookkeeping and bills of exchange. Their merchants controlled commerce and finance across Europe. This mercantile society was quite a contrast form the rural, tradition-bound society of medieval Europe.
This new wealth, unseen in the history of man, created a new cosmopolitanism in the Italian cities. People uprooted from their traditional homes and moved to the cities in search of financial gain and a new life. With these secular ideas taking the front place of the medieval mind, pursuits such as wisdom, education, beauty, power, and wealth, began to surpass the humility of man in the God centered universe. Italian Cosmopolitanism nurtured the human mind, and the tenants of humanism such as individuality, free thought, and intellectualism. These tenants helped foster the renaissance into a rebirth of human civilization.
Events in Italy at the end of the Middle Ages set in motion a series of social, political, and intellectual transformations that culminated in the Renaissance. These included the increasing failure of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire to provide a solid basis for the spiritual and material life, the rise in importance of city-states and national monarchies, the development of national languages, and the breakup of the old feudal structures. These factors helped Italy become a center for new thought.
Italian history and Italy s proximity to the ancient lands of antiquity, such as the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece, created a spirit of independence and freedom in the Italian people. Wealth and personal cultivation in Italy revived a great interest in their glorious past. Relics of this past remained throughout Italy, and one did not have to travel far to feel the presence of it. The past was drawn upon to provide inspiration for Italian culture. Ancient manuscripts were discovered and rediscovered. The Greek and Roman worlds were intertwined with each other throughout ancient history. With the discovery of one great culture led to the discovery of another.
During the Italian renaissance, great advances in fields such as the arts, sciences and literature were achieved. Starting in Italy, the renaissance would later spread with inventions such as the printing press, encompassing almost all of Europe. The achievements in the renaissance would create the cornerstones for Western Civilization. Modern thought, science, literature, mathematics, and art all began with the renaissance. Italy s wealth, cosmopolitanism, location, and history played an important role in activating the renaissance movement. The time leading up to renaissance period, Italy was the financial, military, and spiritual leader of Europe. It was inevitable then, that the renaissance would start there, ushering Europe out of the middle ages and into a new period of growth and dominance.
The Western Experience, (McGraw-Hill College.,1999) pp. 392-413; 379-84
Jacob Burkhardt, The culture of the Renaissance in Italy (1878) extract
De Lamar Jenson, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and ResoulutionI (Lexington, Mass., 1992) Introduction