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history of Europe: The RenaissanceFew historians are comfortable with the triumphalist and western Europe-centred image of the Renaissance as the irresistible march of modernity and progress. A sharp break with medieval values and institutions, a new awareness of the individual, an awakened interest in the material world…
Origins and rise of humanismThe term Middle Ages was coined by scholars in the 15th century to designate the interval between the downfall of the Classical world of Greece and Rome and its rediscovery at the beginning of their own century, a revival in which they felt they were participating. Indeed, the notion of a long period of cultural darkness had been expressed by Petrarch even earlier. Events at the end of the Middle Ages, particularly beginning in the 12th century, 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 stable and unifying framework for the organization of 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.
While the spirit of the Renaissance ultimately took many forms, it was expressed earliest by the intellectual movement called humanism. Humanism was initiated by secular men of letters rather than by the scholar-clerics who had dominated medieval intellectual life and had developed the Scholastic philosophy. Humanism began and achieved fruition first in Italy. Its predecessors were men like Dante and Petrarch, and its chief protagonists included Gianozzo Manetti, Leonardo Bruni, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Lorenzo Valla, and Coluccio Salutati. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 provided humanism with a major boost, for many eastern scholars fled to Italy, bringing with them important books and manuscripts and a tradition of Greek scholarship.
From Italy the new humanist spirit and the Renaissance it engendered spread north to all parts of Europe, aided by the invention of printing, which allowed literacy and the availability of Classical texts to grow explosively. Foremost among northern humanists was Desiderius Erasmus, whose Praise of Folly (1509) epitomized the moral essence of humanism in its insistence on heartfelt goodness as opposed to formalistic piety. The intellectual stimulation provided by humanists helped spark the Reformation, from which, however, many humanists, including Erasmus, recoiled. By the end of the 16th century the battle of Reformation and Counter-Reformation had commanded much of Europe’s energy and attention, while the intellectual life was poised on the brink of the Enlightenment.
Artistic developments and the emergence of FlorenceIt was in art that the spirit of the Renaissance achieved its sharpest formulation. Art came to be seen as a branch of knowledge, valuable in its own right and capable of providing man with images of God and his creations as well as with insights into man’s position in the universe. In the hands of men such as Leonardo da Vinci it was even a science, a means for exploring nature and a record of discoveries. Art was to be based on the observation of the visible world and practiced according to mathematical principles of balance, harmony, and perspective, which were developed at this time. In the works of painters such as Masaccio, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Titian; sculptors such as Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Michelangelo; and architects such as Leon Battista Alberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Andrea Palladio, Michelozzo, and Filarete, the dignity of man found expression in the arts.
In 1401 a competition was held at Florence to award the commission for bronze doors to be placed on the baptistery of San Giovanni. Defeated by the goldsmith and painter Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello left for Rome, where they immersed themselves in the study of ancient architecture and sculpture. When they returned to Florence and began to put their knowledge into practice, the rationalized art of the ancient world was reborn. The founder of Renaissance painting was Masaccio (1401–28). The intellectuality of his conceptions, the monumentality of his compositions, and the high degree of naturalism in his works mark Masaccio as a pivotal figure in Renaissance painting. The succeeding generation of artists—Piero della Francesca, the Pollaiuolo brothers, and Verrochio—pressed forward with researches into linear and aerial perspective and anatomy, developing a style of scientific naturalism.
The High RenaissanceHigh Renaissance art, which flourished for about 35 years, from the early 1490s to 1527, when Rome was sacked by imperial troops, revolved around three towering figures: Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo (1475–1564), and Raphael (1483–1520). Each of the three embodied an important aspect of the period: Leonardo was the ultimate Renaissance man, a solitary genius to whom no branch of study was foreign; Michelangelo emanated creative power, conceiving vast projects that drew for inspiration on the human body as the ultimate vehicle for emotional expression; Raphael created works that perfectly expressed the Classical spirit—harmonious, beautiful, and serene.
Although Leonardo was recognized in his own time as a great artist, his restless researches into anatomy, the nature of flight, and the structure of plant and animal life left him little time to paint. His fame rests on a few completed works; among them are the Mona Lisa (1503–05; Louvre), The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1485; Louvre), and the sadly deteriorated fresco The Last Supper (1495–98; Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan).
Raphael’s greatest work, The School of Athens (1508–11), was painted in the Vatican at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel. In this large fresco Raphael brought together representatives of the Aristotelian and Platonic schools of thought. Instead of the densely packed, turbulent surface of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Raphael placed his groups of calmly conversing philosophers and artists in a vast court with vaults receding into the distance. Raphael was initially influenced by Leonardo, and he incorporated the pyramidal composition and beautifully modelled faces of The Virgin of the Rocks into many of his own paintings of the Madonna. He differed from Leonardo, however, in his prodigious output, his even temperament, and his preference for Classical harmony and clarity.
Competition from MannerismThe Renaissance as a unified historical period ended with the fall of Rome in 1527. The strains between Christian faith and Classical humanism led to Mannerism in the latter part of the 16th century. Great works of art animated by the Renaissance spirit, however, continued to be made in northern Italy and in northern Europe.
Seemingly unaffected by the Mannerist crisis, northern Italian painters such as Correggio (1494–1534) and Titian (1488/90–1576) continued to celebrate both Venus and the Virgin Mary without apparent conflict. The oil medium, introduced to northern Italy by Antonello da Messina and quickly adopted by Venetian painters who could not use fresco because of the damp climate, seemed particularly adapted to the sanguine, pleasure-loving culture of Venice. A succession of brilliant painters—Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese—developed the lyrical Venetian painting style that combined pagan subject matter, sensuous handling of colour and paint surface, and a love of extravagant settings. Closer in spirit to the more intellectual Florentines of the Quattrocento was the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who experimented with optics, studied nature assiduously, and disseminated his powerful synthesis of Renaissance and Northern Gothic styles through the Western world by means of his engravings and woodcuts.