Many important towns of Italy fell into ruin after the fall of the western Roman Empire. There was no unified government. Although the Pope was sovereign in his own state, he was not a strong political figure. Expansion of trade between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic countries, helped in revival of the ports on the Italian coast. The Italian towns saw themselves as independent city states. Florence and Venice were republics, and many other towns of Italy were court cities which were ruled by princes. the Italian towns were different from other parts of Europe because the clergy was not dominant and there were no powerful feudal lords. Rich merchants and bankers actively participated in governing the city. This helped the idea of citizenship to strike root. Even during rules of military despots, people of these towns felt the pride of being citizens.
The earliest universities in Europe had been set up in Italian towns. Law was a popular subject of study, which was now being studied in the context of earlier Roman culture. The new educational programme implied that there was much to be learnt beyond religious teaching. This new learning culture was labeled as ‘humanism’ by the historians of the nineteenth century. By the early fifteenth century, the term ‘humanist’ was used for masters who taught grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy. The term ‘humanities’ have been derived from the Latin term ‘humanitas’ had been used many centuries ago by the Roman lawyer and essayist Cicero (106-43 BCE). These subjects were not drawn from or connected with religion, and emphasized skills developed through discussion and debate.
Renaissance Man: This term is often used to describe a person with many interests and skills.
Humanists believed that a ‘dark age’ had set in after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Following them, later scholars assumed that a ‘new age’ had begun in Europe from the fourteenth century. The term ‘Middle Ages/Medieval Period’ was used for the millennium after the fall of Rome. They argued that in the ‘Middle Ages’ the Church had had such complete control over men’s minds that all the learning of the Greeks and Romans had been blotted out. The humanists used the word ‘modern’ for the period from the fifteenth century.
|5th–14th century||The Middle Ages|
|5th–9th century||The Dark Ages|
|9th–11th century||The Early Middle Ages|
|11th–14th century||The Late Middle Ages|
|15th century onwards||The Modern Age|
Through the ‘Middle Ages’ the monks and clergymen had been familiar with much of the writings of the Greeks and Romans. But they had not made these widely known. In the fourteenth century, many scholars began to read translated works of Greek writers like Plato and Aristotle. In fact, the Arab translators had carefully preserved and translated ancient manuscripts in Arabic. In addition to that, some European scholars translated works of Arabic and Persian scholars for further transmission to Europe. These were works on natural science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and chemistry. The curricula in universities continued to be dominated by law, medicine and theology. But humanist subjects slowly began to be introduced in schools.
Artists were inspired by the figures of ‘perfectly’ proportioned men and women sculpted many centuries ago during the Roman Empire. Italian sculptors further worked on that tradition to produce lifelike statues. Artists’ endeavor to be accurate was helped by the work of scientists. Artists went to the laboratories of medical schools so that they could study anatomy. Painters utilized the knowledge of geometry to understand perspective. They used proper combination of light shadow to create three-dimensional quality in paintings. The oil paint gave a greater richness of color to paintings than before. Influence of Chinese and Persian art can be seen in their depiction of costumes in many paintings. Thus, anatomy, geometry, physics, and a strong sense of what was beautiful have a new quality to Italian art. This art was later called ‘realism’ and the movement continued till the nineteenth century.
The city of Rome revived in a spectacular way in the fifteenth century. From 1417, the popes became politically stronger. They actively encouraged the study of Rome’s history. The ruins in Rome were carefully excavated by archaeologists. This inspired a revival of the imperial Roman style of architecture. It was now called ‘classical’. Popes, wealthy merchants and aristocrats employed architects who were familiar with classical architecture. Artists and sculptors were also employed to decorate buildings with paintings, sculptures and reliefs. Some artists were skilled equally as painters, sculptors and architects, e.g. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Filippo Brunelleschi (1337-1446). Another remarkable change was that from this time, artists were known individually, i.e. by name, not as members of a group or a guild.
Development of print technology was the greatest revolution of the sixteenth century. Print technology came from China. Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1458), a German, made the first printing press. By 1500, many classical texts, nearly all in Latin, had been printed in Italy. Print technology ensured that knowledge, idea, opinions and information moved rapidly and widely than ever before. Now, individuals could also read books. The humanist culture of Italy spread more rapidly from the end of the fifteenth century because of growing popularity of printed books.
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