Toward the end of the 14th century, Italy ushered in a new era of intellectual and creative exploration. Established political and cultural norms were questioned, and exciting new innovations in art, music, literature, and science took hold and flourished.
This was the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, a time its proponents deemed a brand new age of modern thinking, and the end of “backward” notions inherited from the Middle Ages.
But historians, theorists, and Italian studies students know that defining the precise contours of this movement is challenging. There is much contention over precisely when and where the Renaissance began, and which elements combined to spark its inception.
That being said, there are a few key factors that are widely recognized as catalysts in the creation of the Italian Renaissance. Here is a look at three of them.
Humanism, the Pursuit of Knowledge, & the “Ideal Man”
Have you ever heard of the term “Renaissance Man?” It’s used to describe an exceptionally well-rounded person whose talents span many different disciplines. Think Leonardo da Vinci and his extraordinarily diverse abilities in engineering, painting, mathematics, geology, astronomy, writing, music, paleontology, and cartography. Da Vinci truly epitomizes the Italian humanistic notion of the “ideal man.”
In late 14th century Italy, the emerging philosophy of humanism challenged the dominant approach to scholarship and learning, which were heavily influenced by the medieval Church. Humanists believed that humans themselves were capable of defining their own moral beliefs, role in political life, and routes to intellectual growth.
Questioning the accepted wisdom of the Middle Ages, Italian humanists like Pico della Mirandola led the movement to recover and emulate the texts, learning, and language of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanists saw secular classical antiquity as the time when humans were most encouraged to achieve an “ideal” state of intellectual, moral, and civic being.
Seeking to revive those values, humanists reached out for new ways to solve human problems, acquire new knowledge, and seek self-betterment.
Students of Italian studies in Italy will explore in detail how humanism and its new definition of the “ideal man” played a key role in sparking the intellectual, philosophical, and artistic innovations of the Italian Renaissance.
The Printing Press & the Mass Communication of Revolutionary Ideas
Wondering how Italian humanists got their hands on a wide selection of ancient Greek and Latin texts? Two main drivers helped make many of these lost or forgotten documents available. The first was the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which drove fleeing Greek scholars (who had carefully preserved the ancient scrolls) into Western Europe. The second was Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press not long before the Greek scholars streamed into Europe.
The printing press helped replicate and disseminate the ancient texts across Italy and throughout Europe—and with them, the influence of Renaissance humanism.
Gutenberg’s press launched an era in which revolutionary ideas like humanism could spread quickly
Italy’s Wealthy New Middle Class Invests in Italian Artists
The Italian Renaissance is universally known for masterful and innovative painting, sculpture, and architecture. But other than the humanistic drive for new knowledge and invention, what sparked this era of prolific artistic production?
Leading up to the Renaissance, Italy enjoyed great economic success as a hub of commerce and trade. Political changes saw “new men” come to power in the city states—traders, bankers, and other members of the middle class who were eager to demonstrate their wealth and influence.
One way they achieved this goal was by commissioning ostentatious artistic masterpieces. This arrangement worked out well for burgeoning Renaissance artists, like Brunelleschi, Donatello, and della Francesca. Through a well-funded system of patronage, these and many other artists were free to create and innovate, advancing understanding of linear perspective, human anatomy, and architectural engineering.
This period also helped extend the influence of humanism, as many buildings and fine art projects drew inspiration from classical antiquity.
For example, Brunelleschi’s first major commission, the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (“hospital of the innocents”) was based in part on classical Roman architecture.
If you’re planning a trip to Florence while you study abroad in Italy, be sure to visit Brunelleschi’s hospital masterpiece in the Piazza Santissima Annunziata, as well as his famous Renaissance cathedral, Santa Maria dei Fiori. And of course, the Eternal City has no shortage of beautiful Renaissance churches, palaces, frescoes, paintings, and sculptures.
Hoping to study Italian Studies in Rome, where you’ll learn more about the country’s rich history, immerse yourself in local culture, and visit important historical sites?
Visit John Cabot University online to learn more about our unique Italian Studies program, and the application process!