Basic Ideas of the Renaissance

Filippino Lippi, Portrait of a Youth, c. 1485

What was the Renaissance?

The Renaissance was a period in which people started looking to the classical world (ancient Greece and Rome) with much admiration.  When they looked at history, they considered the classical world to have been a time of greatness, and that the fall of the Roman Empire (c. 476 A.D.) led Europe into a period of decline which they called the “Dark Ages”.  Beginning in the fifteenth century, many Italians thought that by reviving the ideas, art, and architecture from antiquity, they could bring about a “rebirth” of greatness in their own cities.  The result was the Renaissance, which is a word which means “rebirth”.

What was Renaissance humanism?

Humanism was a way of thinking that was popular in the fifteenth century and influenced much of Italian culture.  Humanists considered the individual to have great potential, and they thought that individuals reached their greatest achievement in ancient Greece and Rome.  Because of this, humanists wanted to recapture the greatness of antiquity and so they were at the forefront of trying to emulate the activities, art, and engineering of the classical world.  Many artists and architects, who may have been influenced by humanism or were hired by humanist patrons, borrowed ideas from ancient texts, from unearthed statues, or from old Roman buildings when they created new works.

What are the dates of the Renaissance?

Generally speaking, the Renaissance period in Italy dates from about 1400 to 1600. The beginning dates to 1401 with the competition for the bronze doors of the Florence baptistery. The fifteenth century is referred to as the “Early Renaissance”, and the years of about 1495 to 1520 are called the “High Renaissance”. The period from about 1520 to 1600 is called the “Late Renaissance”, but it is also called the “Mannerist” period. These dates are not set in stone, however, and you may see slightly different dates for these elsewhere. Also, Renaissance thinking and artistic practices did not influence all areas of Italy at the same time, so while Florence may have been fully in “Renaissance mode” by 1450, it would take a longer time before cities such as Venice adopted Renaissance ideas.

What came before the Renaissance in Italy?

The period from about 1200-1400 is sometimes called “Italian Gothic” or “Proto-Renaissance”.  Many great works of art and architecture were created during this time, such as Giotto’s Arena Chapel fresco cycle and the construction of the Florence Cathedral.  These works really start the push toward the Renaissance, though this push would be hindered by the catastrophic Black Death (c. 1347) which swept through Europe, killing millions of people.  Nevertheless, fourteenth-century Italy is an important time in the development of art and culture which would make later developments possible in the fifteenth century.


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