Introduction | Painting | Sculpture | Architecture | The Northern Renaissance | Bibliography

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Ghent Altarpiece, van EyckThe Renaissance is a French word, meaning rebirth. A more accurate description, however, might be to say revival or innovation. This is because it was not only a time of reviving classical antiquity, but also a time of new ideas and thinking. These changes were not only in art and architecture, but also in philosophy. It is the period of time in Europe around 1400 and 1600, and it guided the Medieval world into a modern one. The Renaissance is said to have began in Italy, in the Tuscan region. When, in 1453, the Ottoman Empire conquered the capital city of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was no longer a stable one, and there was a large exodus of Greeks to Europe. They brought with them their ideas, art, and texts. These new thinkers were a source of inspiration for Europe at this time, especially in the heart of the Renaissance in places like Florence. Science was making leaps and bounds as well, which led to a change in how people thought about themselves and the world. When people change how they think, it only makes sense that religion would change as well, and it did. The legacy of the multi-talented people of the Renaissance lives on in our phrase "Renaissance man". Realism reaches new heights, with mathmatical perspective finally figured out perfectly. This, and better understanding of human anatomy make for paintings and sculpture as accurate as photographs. No longer do these things look "not quite right", and the public is happy with this change. These people craved classical Greek and Roman works, which were known for their stark realism. This notion, and perhaps the entire movement, grew out of the humanistic attitudes of Italy.
In the Dark Ages, and Middle Ages, philosophers had a gloomy perspective on life. Philosophers now began to make themselves seperate from the church, and took on a more hopeful viewpoint. They were confident of man's (and even woman's) role as influential in their own lives and the world. It was now felt that humans could improve themselves, achieve greatness in many areas and be in control of themselves. Man became a figure in art more than before, though religious figures still featured heavily. Now that man was able to make himself sucessful and move up in the world, a new class began to emerge. Merchants, who made wealth for themselves based on skill, craftmanship and economic savvy rose from peasant life. Bankers, on the other hand, made huge amounts of money by lending money and later extorting it. They become incredibly rich people off the backs of others. It changed the way money worked, as now people could make far away purchases without fear of robbery.
One family of bankers was the famous Medici family. They were not just very rich, but also had a huge interest in the arts. Lorenzo de' Medici by Girolamo MacchiettiTheir comissions were plentiful and included masterpieces such as Donatello's David. Living in Florence, probably the two most well-known patrons of this family were Lorenzo the Magnificent and Cosimo the Elder. Lorenzo was a sponser of the great Michelangelo Buorarroti, and was the one to expose him to a huge collection of antique sculpture which belonged to the family. Not only that, but Lorenzo was also a patron of Leonardo da Vinci. After he died, Savonarola was able to rise to power and this climaxed in the Bonfire of the Vanities where many works were destroyed. Cosimo the Elder sponsered both Donatello and Fra Angelico. The Medici's housed all of their artwork in the architecture they also comissioned such as the Palazzo Medici and the Belvedere. Their contributions over hundreds of years are too numerous to comprehend.
All these new people with money made cities very common. Concentrations of people who could afford houses meant everyone was near eachother, and creativity abounded in cities like Florence. These places gave rise to amazing artists, all influencing and being influenced by eachother. Florence was an important place because it was able to assimilate the past like the Middle Ages never could. The people there were advanced enough to appreciate old works for what they were, and copy them while adding their own spin. Knowing this, it is easy to see why these innovative city-states such as Florence were the heart of the Renaissance.