Renaissance now! : the value of the Renaissance past in contemporary culture

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Florence, where the Italian Renaissance began, was an independent republic. It was also a banking and commercial capital and, after London and Constantinople , the third-largest city in Europe. Wealthy Florentines flaunted their money and power by becoming patrons, or supporters, of artists and intellectuals.

In this way, the city became the cultural center of Europe and of the Renaissance. Thanks to the patronage of these wealthy elites, Renaissance-era writers and thinkers were able to spend their days doing just that. Instead of devoting themselves to ordinary jobs or to the asceticism of the monastery, they could enjoy worldly pleasures.

They traveled around Italy, studying ancient ruins and rediscovering Greek and Roman texts. To Renaissance scholars and philosophers, these classical sources from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome held great wisdom.

The Value of the Renaissance Past In Contemporary Culture

Humanism encouraged people to be curious and to question received wisdom particularly that of the medieval Church. It also encouraged people to use experimentation and observation to solve earthly problems.

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As a result, many Renaissance intellectuals focused on trying to define and understand the laws of nature and the physical world. He also created pioneering studies of human anatomy. Likewise, the scientist and mathematician Galileo Galilei investigated one natural law after another. By dropping different-sized cannonballs from the top of a building, for instance, he proved that all objects fall at the same rate of acceleration. He also built a powerful telescope and used it to show that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun and not, as religious authorities argued, the other way around.

However, perhaps the most important technological development of the Renaissance happened not in Italy but in Germany, where Johannes Gutenberg invented the mechanical movable-type printing press in the middle of the 15th century. For the first time, it was possible to make books—and, by extension, knowledge—widely available. Renaissance artists and architects applied many humanist principles to their work. For example, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi applied the elements of classical Roman architecture—shapes, columns and especially proportion—to his own buildings. The magnificent eight-sided dome he built at the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence was an engineering triumph—it was feet across, weighed 37, tons and had no buttresses to hold it up—as well as an aesthetic one.

Brunelleschi also devised a way to draw and paint using linear perspective. That is, he figured out how to paint from the perspective of the person looking at the painting, so that space would appear to recede into the frame. Later, many painters began to use a technique called chiaroscuro to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat canvas. By the end of the 15th century, Italy was being torn apart by one war after another. At the same time, the Catholic Church, which was itself wracked with scandal and corruption, had begun a violent crackdown on dissenters.

In , the Council of Trent officially established the Roman Inquisition. In this climate, humanism was akin to heresy. The Italian Renaissance was over. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! Subscribe for fascinating stories connecting the past to the present.

Renaissance Art: History, Characteristics

Humanists operating before Petrarch, called "Proto-Humanists," were mainly in Italy. They included Lovato Dei Lovati , a Paduan judge who may have been the first to mix reading Latin poetry with writing modern classical poetry to major effect. A hunger for bringing old texts back to the world was characteristic of Humanists.

This searching was vital because much of the material was scattered and forgotten. But Lovato had limits, and his prose style stayed medieval. His pupil, Mussato, connected his studies of the past to contemporary issues and wrote in the classical style to comment on politics. Francesco Petrarch has been called the Father of Italian Humanism, and while modern historiography plays down the role of individuals, his contribution was large.

Eloquence, which moved the soul, was the equal of cold logic. Humanism should be a doctor to human morals.


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The Proto-Humanists had been largely secular; Petrarch bought religion in, arguing that history can have a positive effect on a Christian soul. He has been said to have created the "Humanist program," and he argued that each person should study the ancients and create their own style. Had Petrarch not lived, Humanism would have been seen as threatening Christianity. His actions allowed Humanism to spread more effectively in the late 14th century. Careers needing skills of reading and writing were soon dominated by Humanists. In the 15th century in Italy, Humanism once more became secular and the courts of Germany, France, and elsewhere turned away until a later movement brought it back to life.

Humanism was becoming admired, and the upper classes were sending their sons to study for the kudos and career prospects. By the midth century, Humanism education was normal in upper-class Italy. Cicero , the great Roman orator, became the core example for the Humanists. His adoption jibed with a turn back to the secular. Petrarch and company had been politically neutral, but now some Humanists argued for republics to be superior to the dominant monarchies. Greek also became more common among the humanists, even if it often stayed second to Latin and Rome.

However, a huge amount of classical Greek knowledge was now worked in. Some groups wanted to adhere strictly to Ciceronian Latin as the model for languages; others wanted to write in a style of Latin they felt more contemporary. What they agreed on was a new form of education, which the rich were adopting. Modern historiography also began to emerge. The power of Humanism, with its textual criticism and study, was shown in when Lorenzo Valla proved The Donation of Constantine , ostensibly transferring much of the Roman Empire to the Pope, was a forgery.

Renaissance Now!

Valla and others pushed for Biblical Humanism—textual criticism and understanding of the Bible—to bring people closer to the word of God that had been corrupted. All this time Humanist commentaries and writings were growing in fame and number. But Humanist thinkers also began to consider humanity more: as creators, world-changers who made their own lives and who should not be trying to imitate Christ but finding themselves.

By the s, Humanism was the dominant form of education, so widespread that it was dividing into a range of sub-developments.