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Italian Renaissance

The traditional historical characterisation of the Renaissance is the movement which occurred in northern Italy in the Italian city-states.

The Renaissance in Italy was intertwined with the intellectual movement known as Renaissance humanism and with the fiercely independent and combative urban societies of northern Italy in the 13th to 16th centuries.

The first 2-3 decades of the 15th century saw the emergence of an almost unique cultural efflorescence, particularly in Florence. This 'Florentine enlightenment' (Holmes) was a major achievement. It was a classical, classicising culture which sought to live up to the republican ideals of Athens and Rome. Sculptors used Roman models and classical themes. This society had a new relationship with the classical past. It felt it owned it and revived it. Florentines felt akin to 1st century BC republican Rome. Rucellai wrote that he belonged to a great age; Bruni’s Panegyric to the City of Florence expresses similar sentiments. There was a genuine appreciation of the plastic arts—pagan idols and statuary—with nudity, expressions of human dignity, etc.

A similar parallel movement was also occurring in the arts in the early 15th century in Florence—an avant-garde, classicising movement. Many of the same people were involved; there was a close community of people involved in both movements. Valla said that, as they revived Latin, so was Latin architecture revived, for example Rucellai’s Palazzo built by Alberti. Of Brunelleschi, he felt that he was the greatest architect since Roman times.

Sculpture was also revived, in many cases before the other arts. There was a very obvious naturalism about contemporary sculpture, and highly true to life figures were being sculpted. Often biblically-themed sculpture and paintings included recognizable Florentines.

This intense classicism was applied to literature and the arts. In most city-republics there was a small clique with a camaraderie and rivalry produced by a very small elite. Alberti felt that he had played a major part, as had Brunelleschi, Masaccio, etc. Even he admitted he had no explanation of why it happened.

There are several possible explanations for its occurrence in Florence:

1. The Medici did it—the portrait and solo sculpture emerged, especially under Lorenzo. This is the ‘conventional’ response: Renaissance Florence = The Medici = the genius of artisans = Renaissance
Unfortunately, this fails to fit chronologically. 1410 and 1420 can be said to be the start of the Renaissance, but the Medici came to power later. They were certainly great patrons but much later. If anything, the Medici jumped on an already existing bandwagon.

2. The ‘great man’ argument. Donatello, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo were just geniuses.
This is a circular argument with little explanatory power. Surely it would be better, more human and accessible to understand the circumstances which help these geniuses to come to fruition.

3. A similar argument is the ‘rise of individualism’ theory attributable to Burckhardt. This argues for a change from collective neutrality towards the ‘lonely genius’. Goldthwaite says it was part of the emergence of the family and the submersion of the clan system.
However, the Kents (F.W. and Dale) have argued that this was and remained a society of neighborhood, kin and family. Florentines were very constrained and tied into the system; it was still a very traditional society

4. Frederick Antal has argued that the triumph of Masaccio et al. was the triumph of the middle class over the older, more old-fashioned feudal classes, so that the middle class wanted painters to do more bourgeois paintings.
This doesn’t make sense. Palla Strozzi commissioned old fashioned paintings whereas Cosimo de’ Medici went for new styles in art.

5. Hans Baron's argument is based on the new Florentine view of human nature, a greater value placed on human life and on the power of man, thus leading to civic humanism, which he says was born very quickly in the early 15th century. In 1401 and 1402, he says Visconti was narrowly defeated by republican Florence, which reasserted the importance of republican values. Florence experienced a dramatic crisis of independence which led to civic values and humanism.
Against this we can say that Baron is comparing unlike things. In a technical sense, Baron has to prove that all civic humanist work came after 1402, whereas many such works date from the 1380s. This was an ideological battle between a princely state and a republican city-state, even though they varied little in their general philosophy. Any such monocausal argument is very likely to be wrong.

Kent says there is plenty of evidence of preconditions for the Renaissance in Florence. In 1300, Florence had a civic culture, with people like Latini who had a sense of classical values, though different from the values of the 15th century. Villani also had a sense of the city as ‘daughter and creature of Rome’. Petrarch in the mid-14th century hated civic life but bridged the gap between the 14th and 15th centuries as he began to collect antiquities. The 1380s saw several classicising groups, including monks and citizens. There was a gradual build-up rather than a big bang. Apart from the elites there was already an audience for the Renaissance. Florence was a very literate audience, already self-conscious and aware of its city and place in the political landscape.

The crucial people in the 14th and 15th century were

Their teachings reached the upper classes between 1410 and 1420 and this is when the new consciousness emerged. Brucker noticed this new consciousness in council debates around 1410; there are increased classical references.

Florence experienced not just one but many crises; Milan, Lucca, the Ciompi. The sense of crisis was over by 1415 and there was a new confidence, a triumphant experience of being a republic.

Between 1413-1423 there was an economic boom. The upper class had the financial means to support scholarship. Gombrich says there was a sense of ratifying yourself to the ancient world, leading to a snobbishness and an elite view of education, and a tendency for the rich wanting to proclaim their ascendancy over the poor and over other cities.

The early Renaissance was an act of collaboration. Artisans and artists were enmeshed in the networks of their city. Committees were usually responsible for buildings. There were collaborations between patricians and artisans without which the Renaissance could not have occurred. Thus it makes sense to adopt a civic theory of the Renaissance rather than a ‘great man’ theory.