A combined economic and social system that defined the Middle Ages. Under
feudalism, societal classes were hierarchically divided based on their position
in the prevailing agrarian economy. The system produced a large number of
scattered, self-sufficient feudal units throughout Europe, made up of a lord and
his subservient vassals. These feudal lords constantly battled during the early
middle ages, their armies of peasants facing off to win land for their lords.
Humanism was the philosophical backbone of the Renaissance, emphasizing the
potential for individual achievement and stipulating that humans were rational
beings capable of truth and goodness. In keeping with the principles of
humanism, Renaissance scholars celebrated the works of the ancient Greeks and
Romans for their own sake, rather than for their relevance to Church doctrine.
Neoplatonism sought to reconcile humanism with Christianity, to blend the
teachings of Plato
and other ancient philosophers with
the teachings of the Church. Neoplatonism flourished throughout Italy as the
primary philosophy by which artists rationalized their more secular works.
The term 'nephew' (nipote, in Italian) was applied to the children, which though
claimed as those of the pope's siblings, were understood to be the pope's own
illegitimate children. The fathering of illegitimate children was common
practice throughout the history of the Papacy, but during the Renaissance,
especially under corrupt popes such as Pope Sixtus IV, the position of the
papal nephew rose to new heights, as nephews were given influential positions
and high salaries. This practice of nepotism was one way in which the Church
became morally discredited during the Renaissance.
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
was a guidebook for the
ruler Machiavelli hoped would eventually unite Italy to drive out foreign
threats. The Prince
argues that it is better for a ruler to be feared
than loved, and has served as a handbook by European leaders for centuries since
its publishing in 1513. SparkNote on the Prince
One of the first writers of the early Renaissance, Giovanni Boccaccio, a
Florentine, is most noted for writing the Decameron,
a series of 100
stories set in Florence during the Black Death that struck the city in 1348.
Boccaccio explores, in these stories, the traditions and viewpoints of various
social classes, greatly based on actual observation and study.
One of the Few notable women of the Renaissance, Lucrezia Borgia was the
daughter of Pope Alexander VI, who used her as a pawn in his attempts to
gain political power. He married her first to the duke of Milan, then to the
illegitimate son of the King of Naples, and finally to the duke of Ferarra,
where she became an influential member of the court.
A well-known painter of the Renaissance, Botticelli was one of a circle of
artists and scholars sponsored by the Medici in Florence. He was fascinated by
Neoplatonism, and many of his works are seen as great examples of applied
Brunelleschi was one of the great sculptors and architects of the early
Renaissance. His most famous contribution was the design of the dome of the
cathedral of Florence, which still dominates the Florentine skyline today.
Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor during the early sixteenth century, was, by
genetic good fortune, heir to Spain, Burgundy, the Netherlands, Austria, and
Naples, as well as being claimant to Milan by imperial right. His forces
harassed the Italian city-states for years, finally gaining dominance over much
of Italy in the settlement of Bologna, in 1530.
Isabella d'Este was perhaps the most powerful and most intelligent woman of the
Renaissance. She mastered Greek and Latin and memorized the works of the
ancient scholars, all the while excelling in the arts of singing, dancing, and
playing musical instruments. As the duchess of Mantua, she exerted a great
amount of influence over the politics, social life, and economics of the city,
even ruling by herself when her husband had been captured in battle.
Leonardo da Vinci
Perhaps the greatest single figure of the Renaissance, Leonardo excelled in
painting, sculpting, engineering, biology, and many other fields. He traveled
around Italy, and eventually France as well, making observations on nature and
seeking commissions. Many of his contributions were ideas for inventions which
were not built until long after his death. His most famous completed work, the
is the most famous portrait ever painted.
The greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, Donatello was born Donato di
Niccolo di Betto Bardi. Donatello studied under both Ghiberti and
Brunelleschi, and went on to create several masterpieces for Cosimo de
Medici in Florence. His most important work is the David,
depicts the Hebrew king in the classical style of a Greek god. David
the first freestanding nude figure sculpted since the Roman era. Donatello went
on to create the first bronze statue of the Renaissance, showing an incredibly
realistic soldier on horseback.
In 1423, Francesco Fosari became doge of Venice. He ruled with excessive
grandeur and exercised far greater power than had past doges, aggressively
pursuing a policy of western expansion. To torment and control the doge, the
Venetian Council of Ten falsely accused his son, Jacopo, of treason, and began a
long process during which Jacopo was exiled, readmitted, tortured, and exiled
again. Finally, when the Council of Ten forced Fosari to resign, affirming its
power over the monarch.
Ghiberti was one of the earliest sculptors of the Renaissance. He developed
techniques for showing perspective that greatly influenced his followers
throughout the Renaissance. Ghiberti sculpted a pair of bronze doors to a
church in Florence which remain one of the greatest-admired treasures of the
Giotto was one of the first painters of the Renaissance. He did groundbreaking
work in the realm of perspective and realism. Giotto's techniques were
instrumental in pursuing the goals of Renaissance art, and they greatly affected
the artists who followed.
Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press in Germany in 1454, and
printing the first book, the Gutenberg Bible,
ushering in the age of the
printed book, during which books became cheaper and more accessible to the
Niccolo Machiavelli may be the most famed writer of the Renaissance. His most
well known work, The Prince
is a political handbook arguing that it
is better for a ruler to be feared than loved.
Masaccio, a nickname meaning 'Messy Tom', was born Tomasso Guidi. Masaccio is
credited with mastering perspective, and was the first Renaissance artist to
paint models in the nude, often using light and shadow to define the shape of
his models rather than clear lines. Masaccio's best known work is a scene from
the Bible called The Tribute Money.
Cosimo de Medici
In 1434, Cosimo de Medici consolidated the power of Florence in his and his
family's hands, beginning the reign of the Medici that would last in Florence
until the end of the Renaissance. Cosimo built up strong connections throughout
Italy and Europe in his capacity as a banker, and applied the wealth of Florence
in patronage of artistic and intellectual endeavors.
Lorenzo de Medici
Lorenzo de Medici, known as 'Il Magnifico,' was Cosimo's grandson. Lorenzo
lived more elegantly than had Cosimo, and enjoyed the spotlight of power
immensely. Under his control, the Florentine economy expanded significantly and
the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort and protection than it had
before. During the period of Lorenzo's rule, from 1469 to 1492, Florence became
undeniably the most important city-state in Italy and the most beautiful city in
all of Europe.
Michaelangelo was one of the greatest artists of the High Renaissance. At a
young age his talent was spotted by Lorenzo de Medici and he was brought up in
the Medici palace. He went on to create some of the most famous works of the
Renaissance, carving the Pieta
and painting the walls and ceilings of the
Francesco Petrarch is often referred to as the founder of humanism. As one of
the first humanist writers he explored modern life through the lens of the
ancient Romans and Greeks, influencing with his works the later renaissance
writers and the spirit of the times.
Pico was a philosopher and writer of the Renaissance. His most famous work is a
collection of 900 philosophical treatises in which he expresses his belief in
the free will of man and the ability of individuals to commune with God without
the medium of a priest. Pico was declared a heretic, and only saved from demise
by the intervention of Lorenzo de Medici.
Pope Alexander VI
Rodrigo Borgia, who took the name Alexander VI upon rising to the papacy in 1492
and ruled until 1503, was a corrupt pope bent on the advancement of his family
through the political ranks of Italy. While
pope he turned many away from the church with his actions, and his reign is
considered by some to be the darkest era of the Papacy.
Pope Clement VII
Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) ascended to the papal throne in 1523, following
Pope Leo X. He arose during troubled times and proved a moral man but a
poor administrator, and his lack of political skill eventually led to the sack
Pope Julius II
Pope Julius II (1503-1513) ascended to the papal throne in 1503, and presided
over the beginning of Rome's Golden Age. He ended the long string of highly
corrupt pontiffs and began the massive project of rebuilding St. Peter's
Pope Leo X
Pope Leo X (1513-1521) was the son of Lorenzo de Medici. A truly enlightened
leader and patron of the arts, he followed the reign of Julius II, ascending to
the throne in 1513. Pope Leo X continued the work begun during Julius II's
pontificate, rebuilding all of Rome, and most specifically, St. Peter's
basilica. His one grave error was to authorize the sale of
indulgences to finance this project, an action
which prompted the beginning of the Reformation
Pope Nicholas V
Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) ascended to the Papacy in 1447 and took the first
steps necessary in resurrecting Rome. He began the rebuilding of Rome as a
Renaissance city, supporting the arts and reviving the city's economy.
Pope Sixtus IV
Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) is known for both the great steps taken under his
rule to rebuild Rome and his great corruption. Pope Sixtus IV instituted
nepotism as a way of life in Rome, and ran the Papacy as a family operation.
Hailed as the greatest painter of the Renaissance, Raphael, born Rafaello Sanzi,
worked in Rome under papal commissions from Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X,
decorating much of the Vatican. The most widely known of the series of murals
and frescoes he painted is the School of Athens,
which depicts an
imaginary assembly of famous philosophers. He was considered so important by
his contemporaries that when he died at the premature age of 37 he was buried in
Savonarola attracted a following starting in 1491, when he began preaching
against the worldliness and paganism of the Renaissance. He led the ousting of
the Medici from Florence in 1494, and assumed power, drafting a new draconian
constitution, and attempting to revive the medieval spirit. He ordered burned
many books and paintings he considered immoral. In 1495, Savonarola called for
the deposal of Pope Alexander VI, was declared a heretic, and burned at the
Ludovico Sforza played the part of the archetypical Italian Renaissance prince,
surrounding himself with intrigue and corruption. Though Ludovico was not the
rightful duke of Milan and was known to use coercion and manipulation to achieve
his political goals, for a time the city of Milan flourished in his care. Under
Ludovico, known as 'Il Moro," Milan became extraordinarily wealthy and its
citizens participated in a splendid and excessive social culture.
Titian was the most famous Venetian artist of the Renaissance. Born Tiziana
Vecellio, in the Italian Alps, he moved to Venice early in life to study.
Titian distinguished himself through the use of bright colors and new techniques
that gave those colors greater subtlety and depth. Between 1518 and 1532 he
served as court painter in Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino. In 1532, he became the
official painter to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in which role he dabbled
mainly in portraiture.
The Golden Age refers to the period from 1503, when Pope Julius II ascended to
the papal throne, to the sack of Rome in 1527, during which both the Papacy and
the city of Rome prospered greatly. Pope Julius II and his successor, Pope Leo
X, renewed faith in the morality of the Papacy and oversaw the most successful
period of the rebuilding of Rome, during which artists flocked to the city in
hope of a papal commission.
Sack of Rome
Because of Pope Clement VII's inept negotiating, the angry imperial army
surrounded Rome on May 5, 1527 demanding that the Pope pay a ransom. When he
refused, and called the citizens of Rome to arms, the army besieged the city. By
one o'clock p.m. on May 6, the mercenary soldiers had taken the city. The sack
of Rome led to the subjugation of all of Italy to Imperial-Spanish control, and
the end of the Renaissance.