World History 1 268 - 17.1.4 The Renaissance

The fall of Constantinople was lamented in Europe as signaling that no significant force remained to counter the Muslim advance westward. For many historians, it also marks the end of the European Middle Ages. As the Byzantine Empire collapsed, many Greeks sought refuge in other lands, often wealthy merchants and state officials who brought their riches with them. Many settled in Italy, especially in Venice and Rome. Those who came to Venice were assisted by Anna Notaras, a wealthy Byzantine noblewoman who had taken up residence in the city before Constantinople fell.

Byzantine scholars, theologians, artists, writers, and astronomers also fled westward to Europe, bringing with them the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome that had been preserved in the eastern half of the Roman Empire after the western half fell. Among the texts they brought were the complete works of Plato and copies of Aristotle’s works in the original Greek. Access to these and other writings, many of which had been either unknown in western Europe or known only in the form of Arabic translations that arrived at the time of the Crusades, greatly influenced the course of the Italian Renaissance.

The Renaissance, which means “rebirth” in French, was a period of intellectual and artistic renewal inspired by the cultural achievements of ancient Greece and Rome and marking the dawn of the early modern world. It began in the city-states of northern Italy that had grown wealthy through trade, especially trade with the Ottomans. Beginning in the 1300s, scholars there turned to the works of Western antiquity—the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans—for wisdom and a model of how to live (Figure 17.15). Among these scholars was Petrarch, who encouraged writers to adopt the “pure” Classical Latin in which the poets and lawmakers of the Roman Empire had written instead of the form of Latin used by medieval clergy. He advocated imitating the style of the Roman orator Cicero and the foremost of the Roman poets, Virgil.

An image of a painting of wavy bluish-green water is shown with a blue sky in the background and tall green trees at the right. In the middle of the image, a pale, naked woman with long red, curly hair stands at the front of a giant golden colored scalloped shell. Her long hair blows to the right of the image and she holds some of her hair in front of her pelvis and her hands partially cover her breasts. In the left portion of the image a man in blue cloths covering his pelvis and draped from his shoulders is floating in the air holding a naked woman with a brown cloth tied around her shoulders. She has red hair and pale skin. Both have dark wings and are blowing white air at the naked woman in the shell. Pink flowers with green leaves are falling around the man and woman. In the right of the image a woman with long curly and braided orange hair is dressed in a white dress decorated with black flowers. She appears to be floating close to the shore and holds a large light red cloth with decorations all over toward the naked woman in the shell.
Figure 17.15 Sandro Botticelli’s 1485 painting The Birth of Venus shows the Roman goddess of love and beauty perched on a seashell after having emerged from the water. During the Renaissance, the depiction of scenes from Greek and Roman mythology became common in European art. (credit: modification of work “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Petrarch has been called the father of humanism. Humanism was a movement born in Italy in the fourteenth century that focused on the study of human beings, human nature, and human achievements, as opposed to the study of God. Humanists stressed the beauty and dignity of humanity instead of focusing on its sinful, “fallen” nature. They believed the classical worlds of ancient Greece and Rome could provide contemporary people with untold wisdom and a model for life.

Beyond the Book

The Arnolfini Portrait

Humanism influenced the manner in which people were depicted in works of art as well as the types of people who were portrayed. Many of the subjects of Renaissance paintings were wealthy members of the merchant class. Merchants might appear as worshippers in paintings with religious subject matter, but many paintings of the period also depicted such people in secular settings as well, often in a manner meant to display their wealth. This 1434 painting, by Jan van Eyck, an artist from the Netherlands, is believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (Figure 17.16). The image may have been painted to commemorate the Arnolfinis’ marriage. Mrs. Arnolfini (her exact name is unknown) is not pregnant. The fashions of the time featured gowns with cloth gathered at the front to give the illusion of a large belly, very different from what is considered stylish today.

An image of a painting is shown. A man and a woman are shown standing in a room with a dark red bed with a canopy on the right and a red covered wood piece of furniture in the background. The floor is brown wood and a richly decorated rug can be seen at the foot of the bed. A large round mirror hangs on the back wall with notches in the dark frame. A chandelier hangs down from the ceiling in the middle and a window is seen at the left. Round orange objects are seen laying on the window sill as well as on a table in front of the window. The man is on the left and wears a large black brimmed hat, has a pale face, large nose, and wears long blue and purple robes trimmed in fur at the edges. His left hand extends to the woman whose right hand is palm facing up in his left hand. She wears her brown hair up in cones at the sides of her head covered in a lace trimmed white cloth, long rich green layered dress with blue sleeves showing out from the cloak. She has a pale face and wears a necklace. A small brown furry animal with a short tail is at their feet and a pair of clogs with black straps is shown in the bottom left corner of the image.
Figure 17.16 This oil painting, believed to represent the merchant Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini and his wife at their home in Bruges, was painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck. (credit: modification of work “The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • What details in the painting may indicate that the Arnolfinis are wealthy people?
  • In what ways do the values of humanism seem to have influenced this painting?
  • Why may artists of the time have included members of the merchant class in their paintings?

Before the arrival of Byzantine scholars and their copies of Plato and Aristotle, Italian humanists had focused primarily on the study of rhetoric and ethics. They displayed little interest in metaphysics, the philosophical study of the nature of existence. Access to Plato’s complete works changed that, and many scholars were influenced by Byzantine Neoplatonism, an intellectual movement that sought to synthesize the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoic philosophers, and Arabic philosophy. One of the most important of the Italian Neoplatonists was Marsilio Ficino, who translated all of Plato’s works from ancient Greek to Latin and synthesized Platonic thought with the teachings of Christianity.

In the Neoplatonic conception, the universe was an ordered hierarchy with God, “the One,” at the top, and everything else existing as “emanations” of God at descending levels with the earth at the bottom. If God was perfect, the physical world in which humans lived was least perfect. However, Ficino argued, the human soul existed at the center of the universe, because it combined aspects of both the godly world and the physical world in which humans lived. Because humans possessed a soul, they were thus the center of creation. Ficino’s ideas fit well with the humanist perception of human beings as special creatures and worthy of study.

Another Neoplatonist, Nicholas of Cusa (Nicholas Cusanus), also had a profound effect on the Italian Renaissance and one of its most important legacies, the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Greek philosopher Aristotle had stressed the study of the world through direct observation, a method known as empiricism. For Plato, however, the world of ideas, of abstract concepts, was superior to the components of the physical world. Thus, mathematical thought was superior to sensory observation as a way of arriving at ultimate knowledge of the “truth” of the world. Nicholas also stressed that mathematical knowledge of the world was superior to knowledge derived from mere observation. He went so far as to state that through mathematics, humans could know the very mind of God.

The idea that the physical world could best be understood through mathematical formulas was espoused by Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer who believed the model of the universe that made the most sense mathematically was the true model. It was through mathematics that Kepler discovered three of the laws of planetary motion and was able to explain how the planets moved in the heliocentric, or sun-centered, model of the universe earlier proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus (Figure 17.17). This was the same view of the universe held by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei: the true nature of the universe could be discovered only through mathematics.

An image of a drawing is shown. In the middle a black circle is shown with a dot in the middle and the word “Sol” below it. Nine rings are drawn around the middle circle, getting bigger as the rings go out. Each ring is labelled, from the outer ring going in: I. Stellarum Fexarum iphaera immobilis.; II. Saturnus anno XXX. Reuoluitur.; III. Iouis. XII. Armorumreuolutio.; IIII. Martis bima reuolutio.; A ring is skipped with no labelling; V. Telluris (after this word there is a dot on the ring and a circle drawn with the word “Terra” inside and a small drawing of a crescent moon) cumorbelunari anma reuolutio.; VI. Venus nonimeltris. VII. Mercury. LXXX. Vierum.
Figure 17.17 In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a model of the universe with the sun at the center, which differed from the medieval Ptolemaic model with the earth in the center. Copernicus’s model does not show any planets beyond Saturn. In his model, beyond Saturn there are only fixed stars. (credit: modification of work “Image of heliocentric model from “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”” by Nicolaus Copernicus/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Although the Neoplatonists did not value Aristotle’s empiricism, they did not completely cast his ideas aside. First, his concept of “virtue” influenced the humanists’ idea of human excellence. And his emphasis on acquiring knowledge through observation influenced scientists in fields other than astronomy. Observation of nature became of importance not only to scientists but also to the visual artists of the Renaissance. The fifteenth-century Florentine painter Masaccio was the first to incorporate the principles of linear perspective into painting (Figure 17.18). The use of linear perspective had been a “secret” known to the ancient Greeks and Romans but lost and then “rediscovered” by the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi, whose drawings inspired Masaccio. This technique created a sense of realism in visual imagery that had been lacking in medieval art. Later artists such as Leonardo da Vinci conducted studies of animal and human anatomy to make their works more realistic. Michelangelo went beyond attempting to make human beings look realistic and instead idealized the body, in keeping with the new position into which the thinkers of the Renaissance had elevated humans.

An image of a faded and worn painting is shown. At the bottom of the painting, a rectangular coffin is shown on a stone slab with a skeleton lying on top. Faded words are etched in the wall behind the skeleton. Two gray columns with orangish trim at the top and bottom are on either side of the coffin holding up an off-white floor. Coming off the floor, two steps are shown. On the bottom step a person kneels on either side – a man with a large nose dressed in light red robes and head covering on the left and a woman in dark robes and head covering on the right. On the next step a person stands at either side – a woman on the left in long dark robes and a gold halo around her head and on the right a man in light red robes and brown hair and a golden halo around his head. In between them a man hangs on a cross dressed in a dirty white loincloth and long brown hair. His arms are outstretched and nailed to the cross. Behind the man on the cross a figure stands in long red and blue robes, gray hair and beard, and halo around his head. Long white columns come out of the second step and turn into a light red arch over the figures of the man on the cross and the man behind the cross. The arched ceiling above the figures is bluish green and faded. A faded and worn white column frames both sides of the archway in a rectangle with light red etched beams across the top.
Figure 17.18 The fresco Trinity with the Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist, and Donors, painted around 1427 in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, shows Masaccio’s use of linear perspective to create a realistic image of the interior of a building. (credit: modification of work “Holy Trinity” by Masaccio/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

These short videos from Khan Academy discuss Filippo Brunelleschi’s experiment with linear perspective and demonstrate how linear perspective works. There is also an interactive feature that enables you to experiment with linear perspective.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax