Toward the end of the 14th century AD, a handful of Italian thinkers declared that they were living in a new age. The barbarous, unenlightened “Middle Ages” were over, they said; the new age would be a “rinascità” (“rebirth”) of learning and literature, art and culture. This was the birth of the period now known as the Renaissance. For centuries, scholars have agreed that the Italian Renaissance (another word for “rebirth”) happened just that way: that between the 14th century and the 17th century, a new, modern way of thinking about the world and man’s place in it replaced an old, backward one. In fact, the Renaissance (in Italy and in other parts of Europe) was considerably more complicated than that: For one thing, in many ways the period we call the Renaissance was not so different from the era that preceded it. However, many of the scientific, artistic and cultural achievements of the so-called Renaissance do share common themes–most notably the humanistic belief that man was the center of his own universe.
The Italian Renaissance in Context
Fifteenth-century Italy was unlike any other place in Europe. It was divided into independent city-states, each with a different form of government. 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.
The New Humanism: Cornerstone 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 held great wisdom. Their secularism, their appreciation of physical beauty and especially their emphasis on man’s own achievements and expression formed the governing intellectual principle of the Italian Renaissance. This philosophy is known as “humanism.”
Renaissance Science and Technology
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. As a result, many Renaissance intellectuals focused on trying to define and understand the laws of nature and the physical world. For example, Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci created detailed scientific “studies” of objects ranging from flying machines to submarines. 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. (For this, Galileo was arrested for heresy and threatened with torture and death, but he refused to recant: “I do not believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use,” he said.)
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 Art and Architecture
During the Italian Renaissance, art was everywhere. Patrons such as Florence’s Medici family sponsored projects large and small, and successful artists became celebrities in their own right.
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 144 feet across, weighed 37,000 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. After the architect Leon Battista Alberti explained the principles behind linear perspective in his treatise Della Pittura (On Painting), it became one of the most noteworthy elements of almost all Renaissance painting. Later, many painters began to use a technique called chiaroscuro to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat canvas.
When Galileo died in 1642, he was still under house arrest. The Catholic Church did not pardon him until 1992.
The End of the Italian Renaissance
By the end of the 15th century, Italy was being torn apart by one war after another. The kings of England, France and Spain, along with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, battled for control of the wealthy peninsula. At the same time, the Catholic Church, which was itself wracked with scandal and corruption, had begun a violent crackdown on dissenters. In 1545, the Council of Trent officially established the Roman Inquisition. In this climate, humanism was akin to heresy. The Italian Renaissance was over.
Known as the Renaissance, the period immediately following the Middle Ages in Europe saw a great revival of interest in the classical learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome. Against a backdrop of political stability and growing prosperity, the development of new technologies–including the printing press, a new system of astronomy and the discovery and exploration of new continents–was accompanied by a flowering of philosophy, literature and especially art. The style of painting, sculpture and decorative arts identified with the Renaissance emerged in Italy in the late 14th century; it reached its zenith in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, in the work of Italian masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. In addition to its expression of classical Greco-Roman traditions, Renaissance art sought to capture the experience of the individual and the beauty and mystery of the natural world.
Origins of Renaissance Art
The origins of Renaissance art can be traced to Italy in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. During this so-called "proto-Renaissance" period (1280-1400), Italian scholars and artists saw themselves as reawakening to the ideals and achievements of classical Roman culture. Writers such as Petrarch (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) looked back to ancient Greece and Rome and sought to revive the languages, values and intellectual traditions of those cultures after the long period of stagnation that had followed the fall of the Roman Empire in the sixth century.
The Florentine painter Giotto (1267?-1337), the most famous artist of the proto-Renaissance, made enormous advances in the technique of representing the human body realistically. His frescoes were said to have decorated cathedrals at Assisi, Rome, Padua, Florence and Naples, though there has been difficulty attributing such works with certainty.
Early Renaissance Art (1401-1490s)
In the later 14th century, the proto-Renaissance was stifled by plague and war, and its influences did not emerge again until the first years of the next century. In 1401, the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378-1455) won a major competition to design a new set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of the cathedral of Florence, beating out contemporaries such as the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and the young Donatello (c. 1386- 1466), who would later emerge as the master of early Renaissance sculpture.
The other major artist working during this period was the painter Masaccio (1401-1428), known for his frescoes of the Trinity in the Church of Santa Maria Novella (c. 1426) and in the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine (c. 1427), both in Florence. Masaccio painted for less than six years but was highly influential in the early Renaissance for the intellectual nature of his work, as well as its degree of naturalism.
Florence in the Renaissance
Though the Catholic Church remained a major patron of the arts during the Renaissance–from popes and other prelates to convents, monasteries and other religious organizations–works of art were increasingly commissioned by civil government, courts and wealthy individuals. Much of the art produced during the early Renaissance was commissioned by the wealthy merchant families of Florence, most notably the Medici.
From 1434 until 1492, when Lorenzo de’ Medici–known as "the Magnificent" for his strong leadership as well as his support of the arts–died, the powerful family presided over a golden age for the city of Florence. Pushed from power by a republican coalition in 1494, the Medici family spent years in exile but returned in 1512 to preside over another flowering of Florentine art, including the array of sculptures that now decorates the city's Piazza della Signoria.
High Renaissance Art (1490s-1527)
By the end of the 15th century, Rome had displaced Florence as the principal center of Renaissance art, reaching a high point under the powerful and ambitious Pope Leo X (a son of Lorenzo de’ Medici). Three great masters–Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael–dominated the period known as the High Renaissance, which lasted roughly from the early 1490s until the sack of Rome by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain in 1527. Leonardo (1452-1519) was the ultimate "Renaissance man" for the breadth of his intellect, interest and talent and his expression of humanist and classical values. Leonardo's best-known works, including the "Mona Lisa" (1503-05), "The Virgin of the Rocks" (1485) and the fresco "The Last Supper" (1495-98), showcase his unparalleled ability to portray light and shadow, as well as the physical relationship between figures–humans, animals and objects alike–and the landscape around them.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) drew on the human body for inspiration and created works on a vast scale. He was the dominant sculptor of the High Renaissance, producing pieces such as the Pietà in St. Peter's Cathedral (1499) and the David in his native Florence (1501-04). He carved the latter by hand from an enormous marble block; the famous statue measures five meters high including its base. Though Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor first and foremost, he achieved greatness as a painter as well, notably with his giant fresco covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, completed over four years (1508-12) and depicting various scenes from Genesis.
Raphael Sanzio, the youngest of the three great High Renaissance masters, learned from both da Vinci and Michelangelo. His paintings–most notably "The School of Athens" (1508-11), painted in the Vatican at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel–skillfully expressed the classical ideals of beauty, serenity and harmony. Among the other great Italian artists working during this period were Bramante, Giorgione, Titian and Correggio.
Renaissance Art in Practice
Many works of Renaissance art depicted religious images, including subjects such as the Virgin Mary, or Madonna, and were encountered by contemporary audiences of the period in the context of religious rituals. Today, they are viewed as great works of art, but at the time they were seen and used mostly as devotional objects. Many Renaissance works were painted as altarpieces for incorporation into rituals associated with Catholic Mass and donated by patrons who sponsored the Mass itself.
Renaissance artists came from all strata of society; they usually studied as apprentices before being admitted to a professional guild and working under the tutelage of an older master. Far from being starving bohemians, these artists worked on commission and were hired by patrons of the arts because they were steady and reliable. Italy's rising middle class sought to imitate the aristocracy and elevate their own status by purchasing art for their homes. In addition to sacred images, many of these works portrayed domestic themes such as marriage, birth and the everyday life of the family.
Expansion and Decline
Over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, the spirit of the Renaissance spread throughout Italy and into France, northern Europe and Spain. In Venice, artists such as Giorgione (1477/78-1510) and Titian (1488/90-1576) further developed a method of painting in oil directly on canvas; this technique of oil painting allowed the artist to rework an image–as fresco painting (on plaster) did not–and it would dominate Western art to the present day. Oil painting during the Renaissance can be traced back even further, however, to the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (died 1441), who painted a masterful altarpiece in the cathedral at Ghent (c. 1432). Van Eyck was one of the most important artists of the Northern Renaissance; later masters included the German painters Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98-1543).
By the later 1500s, the Mannerist style, with its emphasis on artificiality, had developed in opposition to the idealized naturalism of High Renaissance art, and Mannerism spread from Florence and Rome to become the dominant style in Europe. Renaissance art continued to be celebrated, however: The 16th-century Florentine artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the famous work "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects" (1550), would write of the High Renaissance as the culmination of all Italian art, a process that began with Giotto in the late 13th century.
The Black Death arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. The people who gathered on the docks to greet the ships were met with a horrifying surprise: Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. They were overcome with fever, unable to keep food down and delirious from pain. Strangest of all, they were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus and gave their illness its name: the “Black Death.” The Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe–almost one-third of the continent’s population.
"The Black Death"
Even before the “death ships” pulled into port at Messina, many Europeans had heard rumors about a “Great Pestilence” that was carving a deadly path across the trade routes of the Near and Far East. (Early in the 1340s, the disease had struck China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt.) However, they were scarcely equipped for the horrible reality of the Black Death. “In men and women alike,” the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.” Blood and pus seeped out of these strange swellings, which were followed by a host of other unpleasant symptoms–fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches and pains–and then, in short order, death. The Black Death was terrifyingly, indiscriminately contagious: “the mere touching of the clothes,” wrote Boccaccio, “appeared to itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The disease was also terrifyingly efficient. People who were perfectly healthy when they went to bed at night could be dead by morning.
Understanding the Black Death
Today, scientists understand that the Black Death, now known as the plague, is spread by a bacillus called Yersina pestis. (The French biologist Alexandre Yersin discovered this germ at the end of the 19th century.) They know that the bacillus travels from person to person pneumonically, or through the air, as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats. Both of these pests could be found almost everywhere in medieval Europe, but they were particularly at home aboard ships of all kinds--which is how the deadly plague made its way through one European port city after another. Not long after it struck Messina, the Black Death spread to the port of Marseilles in France and the port of Tunis in North Africa. Then it reached Rome and Florence, two cities at the center of an elaborate web of trade routes. By the middle of 1348, the Black Death had struck Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and London.
Today, this grim sequence of events is terrifying but comprehensible. In the middle of the 14th century, however, there seemed to be no rational explanation for it. No one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one patient to another–according to one doctor, for example, “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick”–and no one knew how to prevent or treat it. Physicians relied on crude and unsophisticated techniques such as bloodletting and boil-lancing (practices that were dangerous as well as unsanitary) and superstitious practices such as burning aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar.
Meanwhile, in a panic, healthy people did all they could to avoid the sick. Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites. Shopkeepers closed stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, but even there they could not escape the disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people. In fact, so many sheep died that one of the consequences of the Black Death was a European wool shortage. And many people, desperate to save themselves, even abandoned their sick and dying loved ones. “Thus doing,” Boccaccio wrote, “each thought to secure immunity for himself.”
Because they did not understand the biology of the disease, many people believed that the Black Death was a kind of divine punishment–retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, fornication and worldliness. By this logic, the only way to overcome the plague was to win God’s forgiveness. Some people believed that the way to do this was to purge their communities of heretics and other troublemakers–so, for example, many thousands of Jews were massacred in 1348 and 1349. (Thousands more fled to the sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe, where they could be relatively safe from the rampaging mobs in the cities.)
Some people coped with the terror and uncertainty of the Black Death epidemic by lashing out at their neighbors; others coped by turning inward and fretting about the condition of their own souls. Some upper-class men joined processions of flagellants that traveled from town to town and engaged in public displays of penance and punishment: They would beat themselves and one another with heavy leather straps studded with sharp pieces of metal while the townspeople looked on. For 33 1/2 days, the flagellants repeated this ritual three times a day. Then they would move on to the next town and begin the process over again. Though the flagellant movement did provide some comfort to people who felt powerless in the face of inexplicable tragedy, it soon began to worry the Pope, whose authority the flagellants had begun to usurp. In the face of this papal resistance, the movement disintegrated.
The Black Death epidemic had run its course by the early 1350s, but the plague reappeared every few generations for centuries. Modern sanitation and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease but have not eliminated it.
The origins of the great civilization known as the Byzantine Empire can be traced to 330 A.D., when the Roman emperor Constantine I dedicated a "new Rome" on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium. Though the western half of the Roman Empire crumbled and fell in 476, the eastern half survived for 1,000 more years, spawning a rich tradition of art, literature and learning and serving as a military buffer between the states of Europe and the threat of invasion from Asia. The Byzantine Empire finally fell in 1453, after an Ottoman army stormed Constantinople during the reign of Constantine XI.
A New Rome
The term "Byzantine" derives from Byzantium, an ancient Greek colony founded by a man named Byzas. Located on the European side of the Bosporus (the strait linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean), the site of Byzantium was ideally located to serve as a transit and trade point between Europe and Asia Minor. In 330 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine I chose Byzantium as the site of a new Roman capital, Constantinople. Five years earlier, at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine had established Christianity (once an obscure Jewish sect) as Rome's official religion. The citizens of Constantinople and the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire identified strongly as Romans and Christians, though many of them spoke Greek and not Latin.
Though Constantine ruled over a unified Roman Empire, this unity proved illusory after his death in 337. In 364, Emperor Valentinian I again divided the empire into western and eastern sections, putting himself in power in the west and his brother Valens in the east. The fate of the two regions diverged greatly over the next several centuries. In the west, constant attacks from German invaders such as the Visigoths broke the struggling empire down piece by piece until Italy was the only territory left under Roman control. In 476, the barbarian Odoacer overthrew the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, and Rome had fallen.
Survival of the Byzantine Empire
The eastern half of the Roman Empire proved less vulnerable to external attack, thanks in part to its geographic location. With Constantinople located on a strait, it was extremely difficult to breach the capital's defenses; in addition, the eastern empire had a much shorter common frontier with Europe. It also benefited greatly from a stronger administrative center and internal political stability, as well as great wealth compared with other states of the early medieval period. The eastern emperors were able to exert more control over the empire's economic resources and more effectively muster sufficient manpower to combat invasion. As a result of these advantages, the Eastern Roman Empire–variously known as the Byzantine Empire or Byzantium–was able to survive for centuries after the fall of Rome.
Though Byzantium was ruled by Roman law and Roman political institutions, and its official language was Latin, Greek was also widely spoken, and students received education in Greek history, literature and culture. In terms of religion, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 officially established the division of the Christian world into five patriarchates, each ruled by a patriarch: Rome (where the patriarch would later call himself pope), Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Byzantine emperor was the patriarch of Constantinople, and the head of both church and state. (After the Islamic empire absorbed Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem in the seventh century, the Byzantine emperor would become the spiritual leader of most eastern Christians.)
The Byzantine Empire Under Justinian
Justinian I, who took power in 527 and would rule until his death in 565, was the first great ruler of the Byzantine Empire. During the years of his reign, the empire included most of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, as Justinian's armies conquered part of the former Western Roman Empire, including North Africa. Many great monuments of the empire would be built under Justinian, including the domed Church of Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia (532-37 A.D.). Justinian also reformed and codified Roman law, establishing a Byzantine legal code that would endure for centuries and help shape the modern concept of the state.
At the time of Justinian's death, the Byzantine Empire reigned supreme as the largest and most powerful state in Europe. Debts incurred through war had left the empire in dire financial straits, however, and his successors were forced to heavily tax Byzantine citizens in order to keep the empire afloat. In addition, the imperial army was stretched too thin, and would struggle in vain to maintain the territory conquered during Justinian's rule. During the seventh and eighth centuries, attacks by Persians and Slavs, combined with internal political instability and economic regression, threatened the empire. A new, even more serious threat arose in the form of Islam, founded by the prophet Muhammad in Mecca in 622. In 634, Muslim armies began their assault on the Byzantine Empire by storming into Syria. By the end of the century, Byzantium would lose Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt and North Africa (among other territories) to Islamic forces.
From Iconoclasm to Monasticism
During the eighth and early ninth centuries, Byzantine emperors (beginning with Leo III in 730) spearheaded a movement that denied the holiness of icons, or religious images, and prohibited their worship or veneration. Known as Iconoclasm–literally "the smashing of images"–the movement waxed and waned under various rulers, but did not end definitively until 843, when a Church council under Emperor Michael III ruled in favor of the display of religious images.
During the late 10th and early 11th centuries, under the rule of the Macedonian dynasty founded by Michael III's successor, Basil, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a golden age. Though it stretched over less territory, Byzantium had more control over trade, more wealth and more international prestige than under Justinian. The strong imperial government patronized the arts, restored churches, palaces and other cultural institutions and promoted the study of ancient Greek history and literature. Greek became the official language of the state, and a flourishing culture of monasticism centered on Mount Athos in northeastern Greece. Monks administered many institutions (orphanages, schools, hospitals) in everyday life, and Byzantine missionaries won many converts to Christianity among the Slavic peoples of the central and eastern Balkans (including Bulgaria and Serbia) and Russia.
Byzantium and the Crusades
The end of the 11th century saw the beginning of the Crusades, the series of holy wars waged by Western Christians against Muslims in the Near East from 1095 to 1291. With the Seijuk Turks of central Asia bearing down on Constantinople, Emperor Alexius I turned to the West for help, resulting in the declaration of "holy war" by Pope Urban II at Clermont (France) that began the First Crusade. As armies from France, Germany and Italy poured into Byzantium, Alexius tried to force their leaders to swear an oath of loyalty to him in order to guarantee that land regained from the Turks would be restored to his empire. After Western and Byzantine forces recaptured Nicaea in Asia Minor from the Turks, Alexius and his army retreated, drawing accusations of betrayal from the Crusaders.
During the subsequent Crusades, animosity continued to build between Byzantium and the West, culminating in the conquest and looting of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The Latin regime established in Constantinople existed on shaky ground due to the open hostility of the city's population and its lack of money. Many refugees from Constantinople fled to Nicaea, site of a Byzantine government-in-exile that would retake the capital and overthrow Latin rule in 1261.
The Fall of the Byzantine Empire & Its Legacy
During the rule of the Palaiologan emperors, beginning with Michael VIII in 1261, the economy of the once-mighty Byzantine state was crippled, and never regained its former stature. In 1369, Emperor John V unsuccessfully sought financial help from the West to confront the growing Turkish threat, but was arrested as an insolvent debtor in Venice. Four years later, he was forced–like the Serbian princes and the ruler of Bulgaria–to become a vassal of the mighty Turks. As a vassal state, Byzantium paid tribute to the sultan and provided him with military support. Under John's successors, the empire gained sporadic relief from Ottoman oppression, but the rise of Murad II as sultan in 1421 marked the end of the final respite. Murad revoked all privileges given to the Byzantines and laid siege to Constantinople; his successor, Mehmed II, completed this process when he launched the final attack on the city. On May 29, 1453, after an Ottoman army stormed Constantinople, Mehmed triumphantly entered the Hagia Sophia, which would become the city's leading mosque. Emperor Constantine XI died in battle that day, and the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire was complete.
In the centuries leading up to the final Ottoman conquest in 1453, the culture of the Byzantine Empire–including literature, art and theology–flourished once again, even as the empire itself faltered. Byzantine culture would exert a great influence on the Western intellectual tradition, as scholars of the Italian Renaissance sought help from Byzantine scholars in translating Greek pagan and Christian writings. (This process would continue after 1453, when many of these scholars fled to Italy from Constantinople.) Long after its "end," Byzantine culture and civilization continued to exercise an influence on countries that practiced its Orthodox religion, including Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, among others.