As we get into the mid-1400s there are developments in European society that make it feel like a truly new era. You may recall that the Renaissance means "rebirth," and historians have long believed it to be a return to the same exciting level of progress and achievement as Ancient Greece and Rome.
I am going to lay this out in two pages. This one will focus on general historical background and the visual arts. Part II: Music in the Renaissance will focus on the music.
As you digest all of this info, you might want to consult Assignment #11 which will ask you questions about both parts.
Age of Exploration
The Renaissance is the “Age of Discovery,” in which European nations begin to build powerful fleets of ships that can explore (and exploit) the rest of the globe in search of new goods, new markets, and cheap (or forced) labor.
Portugal begins to explore the coast of Africa in 1419, and of course Christopher Columbus sets sail for America in 1492, sponsored by the Spanish monarchs Isabella I and Ferdinand II.
These early efforts at international trade and colonization ushered in a new era of unprecedented wealth for European society.
Perhaps you remember from our earliest units that Medieval books were all handmade, and it was a typical monks' job to sit in the scriptorium and make new copies of treasured volumes.
Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press around 1439 made knowledge a commodity that anyone in the middle or upper classes could buy. This led to a large-scale shift in European intellectual culture.
In a bit of music trivia, the first printer of polyphonic music was a man named Ottaviano Petrucci (1466 – 1539). He's the Gutenberg for music.
Another major upheaval in the Renaissance era is the emergence of new, competing versions of Christianity which are collectively called Protestantism.
In 1517 Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door to his local church in Wittenburg, Germany. This was a list of arguments about what he thought the Catholics were doing wrong. In doing so, he invented Lutheranism, a new version of Christianity that rapidly became influential within the German-speaking world.
Also, in 1534 King Henry VIII of England became annoyed when the pope would not let him annul his first marriage. He responded by establishing the Church of England as another competing branch that was independent from Rome.
The existence of competing versions of Christianity changed the character of religion and intellectual life in the Renaissance. Ideas that had once been accepted as a given were now in dispute.
Humanism was an intellectual trend in the Renaissance that seems to have been a consequence of the printing press, among other things. In the Renaissance it became fashionable for an upper-class male to study the "classic" works of Ancient Greece and Rome. They would read Aristotle and Plato, and also a lot of Cicero, who was an expert on rhetoric.
The reason this is a significant shift is because in the Medieval era the Church was seen as the source of all knowledge and wisdom, and there was perhaps a sense that it was all in some way coming directly from God.
In the Renaissance they started to recognize that these pre-Christian figures from the Ancient world had accomplished great things, and that if you could study what they did, maybe you can be great as well. It was a human-centered view of intellectual value. This belief is also why the fields of art, literature and philosophy are still called "the Humanities" - it's supposed to be the reason we are doing what we are doing right now!
(Of course this does not mean that the people of the Renaissance were atheists. They were still very religious, and they would create custom textbooks that blended together the work of people like Plato with Christian thinkers.)
The artist as an individual genius
Leonardo da Vinci
The new focus on individual thinkers from the past also brought about a new appreciation for individual artists. In the Medieval era, everyone is more-or-less an anonymous craftsman, because being famous for creative work is not really a thing.
But now the people of the Renaissance recognized that there were geniuses in their midst who could create wonderful things. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is of course the classic "Renaissance Man" who was a great painter, sculptor and inventor.
I mentioned that exploration and trade made Europe very wealthy. European cities became centers of wealth and culture, and the most happening place in the Renaissance was Florence, Italy. Here is an illustration of Florence from 1493:
...and here is a photograph of what it looks like today. They've done a good job at preserving the overall character of the city.
In the modern pic you can see Florence's great cathedral, nicknamed "Il Duomo." The large dome on one end was designed by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi - at the time it was considered one of the wonders of the world. Even today engineers are not quite sure how they managed to construct it.
Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici
The most interesting and glamorous family in Florence was undoubtably the Medicis. They rose to prominence as tradesmen and bankers, eventually accumulating vast wealth and power, and they spent a lot of this money as patrons for the arts and humanities.
The Medicis were also the first family who were able to buy their way into the aristocracy, even though they were not of noble birth. One member of the clan (Maria de' Medici, 1575-1642) would even become the Queen of France.
The more things change...
There are a few aspects of Renaissance Europe that are still pretty Medieval. The structure of society is still feudal, with clear-cut distinctions between nobility, knights, priests and peasants, and the nobility became somewhat paranoid that people could somehow sneak into the upper class.
The basic unit of society is still the Medieval city-state (like Florence) - the larger nations aren't really very important yet.
The Renaissance sees a massive leap forward in the quality of painting and sculpting.
Medieval art is often charmingly naive-looking. Here's a fun scene from some sort of banquet.
This picture is supposed to be three-dimensional, but things look all wrong. The first thing that caught my eye was the pattern in the tablecloth, which just doesn't turn the right way. The two gentleman at the bottom are at a table that seems angled towards us, and the most important figures in the scene (off the the left) are drawn like giants.
Let us compare that with Raphael's School of Athens from 1510.
The architectural background here has been carefully worked out with a single vanishing point, so that it looks very realistic and detailed. The figures gathering together are also painted well.
The people standing here are supposed to be a who's who from Ancient Greece - Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Pythagoras, Diogenes, and more are all depicted. This of course shows the influence of Humanism in Renaissance culture.
(The Wikipedia page has a nice visual key at the bottom to show you who each figure is supposed to be.)
Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors 1533
Here is another painting that I think really sums up the Renaissance. These two gentlemen appear to be very successful and important, and you can see that they are very nicely dressed. Behind them are the technical tools they would have used to accomplish their dominant position in the world, including two globes, a quandrant and so on.
On the lower shelf are the cultural artifacts they would have carried with them in their travels, including a lute, a mathematical treatise, and a Lutheran psalmbook.
Of course the most striking detail is the figure at the bottom. This is a skull that has been stretched out and distorted. (If one stands to the side of the real painting, however, the skull appears normal.) Art historians would probably interpret this as a Memento mori, a reminder that death waits for us all. However, for me this also reflects the Renaissance obsession with technical innovation - I think Holbein is also saying "look at this cool thing I can do!"
Part II: Sacred Music in the Renaissance
Our next page will make some generalizations about the role of sacred music in the Renaissance, and a change in sound that comes with it.
Meanwhile, Assignment #11 asks you questions about both parts.