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Italian Renaissance



By the 14th century, there was a marked DECLINE IN MEDIEVAL INSTITUTIONS AND IDEAS.

The FEUDAL STRUCTURE WAS WEAKENING before the growing power of the middle class, which sided with the new monarchs and thrived on the revival of trade and the growth of towns.

The threat of armies using GUN POWDER was revolutionizing warfare at the expense of armor-clad knights.

Heresy and schism racked the CHURCH and its temporal power was increasingly being CHALLENGED BY AGGRESSIVE NATIONAL MONARCHS.

An EMPTY FORMALISM replaced the creativity that had given the 12th and 13th centuries their unique forms of expression.

Although asceticism remained a pious ideal, it gained few adherents among the acquisitive townspeople.

Scholars still held learned disputations at the universities, but scholasticism was unable to satisfy the growing INTEREST IN MAN AND SOCIETY.

In art, the Gothic style, superb in its balance and restraint, had given way to exaggeration and flamboyance. Decoration and ornamentation became ends in themselves.



The Renaissance is a French term that means “rebirth.” 

It describes the cultural style that developed in the Italian city-states during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Its seeds may be found) in the conditions that brought wealth to the uban centers of northern Italy (Venice, Florence, Milan, Genoa):

Trade and industry

The political structure of independent city-states

Capitalism (banking and investments)

The new wealth supported creative activity and encouraged art, architecture, literature, and critical thinking.


The Renaissance was a secular (non-religious) movement.

Sophisticated Italian, urban society no longer found medieval ideals of other-worldliness and asceticism satisfactory.  

Searching for new modes of expression, thinkers and artists found what they wanted in the CLASSICAL LEGACY of GREECE AND ROME.

They emphasized the importance of INDIVIDUAL HUMAN BEINGS and LIFE ON EARTH.

They adhered to the optimistic belief that INDIVIDUALS could perfect themselves through study and form perfect societies.


The Renaissance was built on NEW POLITICAL IDEAS.

City-states received special privileges. They could elect officials, make laws, and raise taxes. 

Republican governments involved more widespread participation and made people less willing to accept the authority of emperor or pope. Consequently, many people abandoned the old medieval ideas.

Restrictions against freedom of thought and deed broke down when people began to express their own ideas about life and art.


HUMANISM was an important feature of the Renaissance.

This philosophical perspective focused attention on the individual

It reflected the philosophy that HUMAN BEINGS ARE NOBLE CREATURES endowed with dignity and the intelligence to understand the world about them.

Early humanists included:


Collected ancient manuscripts.

Popularized ideas about classical works.

Got others interested in collecting manuscripts.

Taught that the educated person should study history, languages, literature, and ethics.

Giovanni Boccaccio

Wrote both poetry and prose.

Most famous work: Decameron which contains stories making fun of feudal customs and the church.

The IDEAL RENAISSANCE MAN was a many-sided individual -- someone like Leonardo da Vinci, a talented painter who:

Studied geology, chemistry, and anatomy

Designed buildings, canals, and weapons.

Was a keen observer of nature and humankind.

Dissected human corpses to discover muscle structure

Studied plants and other animals in minute detail.



In a sense, the Renaissance is the history of individual men expressing themselves in art, poetry, science, religion, and exploration.  The  SPIRIT OF THE RENAISSANCE was in direct contrast to that of the Middle Ages:


Emphasis on the afterlife (this life was unimportant)

World was a place of temptations and evil

Individuals limited by RULES AND PROHIBITIONS


Emphasis on the here and now

 World was filled with opportunities

Individuals free to express themselves

LAWLESSNESS and political confusion.
Strongly AMORAL CHARACTER of society.
Tendency of men to regard themselves as ABOVE THE LAW.

In the Italian cities the newly wealth class of TRADERS, BANKERS, AND MANUFACTURERS conspicuously displayed their wealth and bolstered their social importance by patronizing artists and scholars.

Among the most famous patrons were members of the MEDICI FAMILY who, by acting as champions of the lower classes, ruled Florence for 60 years (1434-1494)) behind a façade of republican forms.

Other PRINCES AND DESPOTS of Italian city-states patronized the arts, and the people were eager to sponsor artists.

In the 16th century, THE POPES outdid secular rulers in the splendor of their court.

Alexander VI (1492-1503), the father of the unscrupulous poisoners Cesare and Lucretia Borgia, was a target for criticism because he devoted more time and thought to furthering the fortunes of his family than he did to religious matters.

Wealthy families actively sought to control the papacy, and the Medici succeeded in placing two of their members in this office.

 A Renaissance artist had the benefits of the security and protection offered by his patron and enjoyed a definite advantage from working exclusively on commission.

The revival of learning characteristic of the Renaissance was in direct contrast to that of the Medieval period.




Felt inferior to the ancients
Looked up to the ancients as son to father or pupil to teacher.
Quoted the classics because they agreed with the ancients.


Saw himself equal to the ancients.

Hailed the ancients boldly as man to man or friend to friend.

Quoted the classics, not because they agreed with the ancients, but because the ancients agreed with them.



Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999