The Italian Renaissance
The Renaissance was a period in Europe after the Middle Ages (400's-1400's). It started in the late 1300's in Italy and continued for two centuries. The French word 'renaissance' means 'rebirth.' People began to look back at the architecture and art of Classical times in Greece and Rome. There was a renewed interest in studying the cultures of those two civilizations.
There are at least two reasons why the Renaissance began in Italy. First, Italy's location put it halfway between the East and West. Ideas could spread all over by means of merchants and sailors. Italy was, of course, the home of the Roman culture which had also taken over the Greek. Italy was surrounded by remnants of classical culture. The Middle Ages, those centuries before the 1300's, were dark. Knowledge seemed to be dead. Life was dull. People were ready to return to a life that was full of classical beauty and art.
The second reason that the Renaissance began in Italy is that the country had a wealthy merchant class. Most of the other European countries were farming oriented. The wealth of a person was in land ownership. In Italy, however, land ownership did not provide wealth. Merchants became wealthy by trading all over the Mediterranean area.
The Bubonic Plague hit Italy in the 1300's. Over 60% of Italy's residents died. Many of these were laborers. The wealthy merchants needed common laborers. There was a lack of them so the laborers could ask for higher wages. Thus, the common man earned now more money. Since the wealthy could not find enough laborers at this time to expand their businesses, however, they used their money to buy artwork and invest money in artists and writers.
The Italian Renaissance centered in the city-states of Florence, Venice and Milan. A city-state is a city which is mostly independent from rule by any country. The achievements of this period were mainly in literature, music and art, but also in philosophy, science and architecture. The Florence Cathedral and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome were built during this time. Both returned to the classical Greek and Roman style.
The Aldine Press founded by Aldo Manuzio, developed Italic type and the invention of a small, portable book. Manuzio was also the first to publish books in Ancient Greek. Scholars searched for ancient manuscripts and renewed their interest in the Greek and Roman authors. The architectural principles of the Roman Vitruvius were studied again.
Italian merchants and bankers succeeded in building up wealth through trade and banking. They became the rulers of the Italian city-states. Any laws which hindered trade in any way were rewritten by the wealthy class. Under them, in the city-states, was a class of artists and craftsmen who made a decent living. In the early period of the Renaissance, artists did not receive much fame. Later, the famous men could charge higher fees and be much more influential. The ideals of the Renaissance really affected only the top layer of people, though. Nearly 3/4 of the people throughout Italy were peasants or laborers.
The end of the Italian Renaissance occurred in the late 1500's. Italy endured a foreign invasion by the French in 1494. Many of the city-states lost their independence. In 1527, Spanish and German troops invaded Rome and destroyed the greatest patron of classical art and architecture, the Pope and his staff.
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