The Renaissance – Explore the Astonishing Rebirth of European History

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The Renaissance Painting

The Beleaguered Backdrop

From early Renaissance until mid-Renaissance (1400-1520 AD), the wealthy monarchies of Great Britain and France were still fighting the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) with each other. 

Differences gravitated around land and those who controlled what land. The rulers in England were members of the House of Plantagenet and in France it was the House of Valois. Each country felt they had right to the people, crops, goods, and the land that belonged to the other. What territories were going to become “vassal states” (subservient states) and which ones weren’t, became issues of ultimate importance. It was a long and bloody battle of power and might, but one that permit little input from the populations that worked the land, ran the mills, built the structures, and made the weapons for all of the armies to kill each other. 

Realizing they were just pawns for the wealthy nobles and notables, peasants under the antiquated feudal system rebelled in England in 1381. Although the rebels lost, the spirit of rebellion wasn’t dead. The Renaissance was a new age—a new dawn—and time for the old structures to crumble into history. Every subject of these domains craved upward mobility and freedom.

While England and France were sorting out their dying social systems, Italy was already progressing steadily into the Renaissance—the period of rebirth. Their peninsula was ideal for commerce from new and faraway lands. People from all over the known world were traversing Italy. 

 

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In their flowing gold-trimmed robes, people of every skin shade traded their wares of silver and gold, fine tapestries, spices to delight every taste, pigments made from foreign soils to thrill both artists and commoners alike. Renaissance marketplaces were like festive carnivals draped in silk and beads. 

Under the oppressive feudal system that once prevailed, the merchants had been reviled. No longer was that the case. The merchant classes were paramount, as they produced great beauty and physical buildings that towered over the heavy colorless stones of the dark and dreary castles of old. The ancient beauty of Roman sculptures, literary writings, and philosophies of Greece resurrected. The wealthy nobles were patrons of commerce and the improvement of the intellectual and artistic endeavors of their people. 

Because of trade, there was a thriving group of what would today be called the “middle class.” They had the luxury of spending time engaging in pleasurable pursuits. Because the stoicism of the past was dwindling, people enjoyed various entertainments, whether they be classical music or more banal delights.

This era was characterized by humanism. Humanism is a philosophy that focuses on the worthiness and virtues of the individual, regardless of class or status. The human body was considered beautiful in and of itself, not an occasion of evil for sexual perversion. 

People were again reading the Roman and Greek classics—the stories of the gods and their graces, but for their symbolisms, not worship. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Seneca’s Medea, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations once again hit the limelight. 

Then new Renaissance writers rose up like Erasmus (1466-1536) and Shakespeare (1564-1616). People were encouraged to read and write about the philosophical nature of man, metaphysics, the natural laws, the power of human emotion, and the meaning of life. Poetry rose high as an art form. The people learned the old philosophies of Plato, Epicurus, and Aristotle. Religion still played a dominant role but it was studied in a new light.

No longer did learning consist of blind repetitions of scripture, but learning became theology and there were analyses of different translations and studies of the scriptures in many cultures and traditions. Humanism propagated a proclivity for discussing and enhancing the good in man, rather than assuming he is an evil being in need of great punishment and condemnation. 

Objects of art, paintings, sculpture, and architecture glorified not only God but man. It was during the Renaissance that the strict traditions of Catholicism were challenged by others. During the 16th Century, Martin Luther tacked up his ninety-five theses on a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Following him, there were others—John Calvin, John Knox, William Tyndale, and Thomas Cranmer. Unfortunately, religion tends to stimulate hostility, persecution, and even warfare, which is what happened in England, France, and Spain. 

Medical knowledge started to grow after the superstitious practices of the past were abandoned. Once dissection was permitted by the predominant Christian religion, the understanding of disease and anatomy helped both physicians and artists. 

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) rendered extensive drawings of the organs and bones of the human body, not only for the sake of the artists, but for budding physicians. Bloodletting, though still practiced in some parts, was no longer the treatment of choice. 

William Harvey (1578-1657) studied the circulatory system and that led to suggested ways of treating certain conditions. Herbs were used as an aid for various disorders. Some were marginally effective. More information was discovered about bacteria and their role in the spread of disease. Cleansing agents such as wine was somewhat effective in killing bacteria. 

Science during the Renaissance was no longer the dark domain of magicians and sorcerers. Enlightenment had come, and the astronomers studied the skies—not to predict the future, but to chart their way on the great Mediterranean Sea and beyond. 

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) plotted the universe and proved that the motion of the earth and planets was heliocentric, that is, they revolved around the sun. Once the star positions were properly plotted, instruments could be invented that aided in navigation both on land and at sea. The astronomers also learned how to more accurately plot the growing seasons. 

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) combined the laws of physics and astronomy and developed a formulation for planetary motion that was much more accurate than those who had done that before. 

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) produced the theory of gravity, the three laws of motion, and also made a number of important observations about the relationship of light and color. Newton invented calculus.

Architecture during the Renaissance didn’t merely serve the purpose of fortification from potential enemies. It was a celebration of the magnificence of height, highly decorative, and displayed windows on the world. This society was open to the skies, to the earth, and the human beings who lived on it. 

Bernini (1598-1680) is perhaps one of the most noted architects of the Renaissance, but there were many others. He introduced a new more active and flamboyant form to the world of art—the Baroque. Like some of the other architects of the Renaissance, he not only designed buildings, but was city planner as well. His other pursuits were sculpture as well as painting. 

Italy, in particular, was a center for mathematical advancements. That was one of the first areas in Europe impacted by the Renaissance, as it was the center of commerce. Monetary systems were essential so merchants could conduct trade using the coins and currencies from many different countries. Banking and finance grew there, as there were needs for loans and with that a system of taxation. The Medici family was the largest and most successful banking entity of the time.

Art, sculpture, and painting flourished. Every building erected during the Renaissance showcased the work of many artists and artisans. The work followed the classical models, but there were some variations only characteristic of the artists themselves. Michelangelo (1475-1564) stands out as one of foremost versatile artists of the Renaissance, having sculpted, painted, and produced blueprints for architecture, including entire buildings, altars, and facades. Perhaps da Vinci was even more versatile, as he was also an inventor.

While Great Britain and France were strangling themselves in the Hundred Years War, Italy was geographically isolated from it. The immense crags and peaks of the Alps discouraged interference from the political factions that vied for control of the European continent. 

From the 9th Century onward, Italy was a conglomeration of city-states, each ruled by a king or a duke. Those rulers weren’t empire-builders like Charlemagne or the German Holy Roman Empire. The city-states were alliances of people, mostly with common commercial interests. The most important of the city-states were: the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Duchy of Modena, the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Florence, the Republic of Siena, the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sicily, and the Papal States.

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There’s No Art in War

Politics, as history attests, never changes by virtue of the perennial struggle of political factions. This was also true of the city-states of Italy. There were always struggles over power. Due to the rise of the merchant class, many of those conflicts were mediated by the influence of the merchant classes. France put an end to that. 

In 1492, the Italian League, which had been under the strong control of Lorenzo de Medici, collapsed when he died. Then the cultural and artistic development of Italy was slowed by the incursion of Charles VIII of France in 1494. 

Charles was succeeded by Louis XII who captured the Duchy of Milan in 1500, after which he annexed the Kingdom of Naples in 1516. Louis was succeeded by Francis I (1494-1547). 

Francis was now in control of Milan but wanted to bring the awesome wonders of the Renaissance to his native country of France. As a young scholar, he had been seeped in the humanism that characterized the Renaissance. 

In the early 16th Century, the beauty of the Italian Renaissance hadn’t quite reached France, and Francis bemoaned the fact that France didn’t even have so much as a finely crafted sculpture to call its own. So, he imported the Renaissance to France by luring in Leonardo da Vinci with his magnificent Mona Lisa. In addition, Francis brought in Rosso Florentino and Benvenuto Cellini promised to follow when his Italian project for Pope Clement VII was complete.

Francis I’s efforts was interrupted by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who craved control of all of Italy and its Papal States especially. The Pope, Pope Clement VII, allied himself with Francis I, who was already an avowed enemy of the emperor. 

Clement was related to the famous Medici family of Florence and the relationship between the popes and Italy was a strong one. The year was now 1527, and thousands of German, Spanish and even some Italian infantrymen raced in. Unfortunately, Emperor Charles V won the battle against the French. But that’s not the worst of what happened. 

The Holy Roman Emperor lacked the funds to pay his soldiers! Needless to say, they were angry so they coerced their sub-commander, Duke Charles III of Bourbon to lead them to Rome. Once the mutinous soldiers reached Rome, they half-destroyed the city and stole its precious treasures and destroyed the facades of many buildings, especially on Capitoline Hill in the heart of Rome. This destruction continued for an entire year. This horrendous event was called the “Sack of Rome.” 

Michelangelo and architects had to repair some of the destruction this sacrilegious act caused. Even today, some facades are still missing.

Curiously, it was Benvenuto Cellini—the sculptor whom King Francis had asked to introduce the Renaissance—who killed Duke Charles of Bourbon. Cellini was a temperamental artist who despised seeing the capital city with all its art turned in to rubble, its statues stolen, and its glittering marble ripped off the buildings of the noble city of Rome.

To make matters worse, the Pope had to escape to his summer residence at the Castel Sant’Angelo. Then the imperial troops raced across the stone bridge and imprisoned him there.

After the troops withdrew, the great Renaissance architect and sculptor, Michelangelo, and his crew were sent to Capitoline Hill to repair the damage. Their assignment was to replace the damaged facades and develop some stone décor for the revered buildings of central Rome. 

Michelangelo was shocked when he saw what had become of the administrative buildings of the great city of Rome and its main square. The once-gleaming area was littered with tents for the homeless; remains of rotting corpses still littered the marble flooring; stains from dried blood had dulled the slabs that once composed the piazza, and stones from the senatorial building were scattered about. 

The Renaissance found its beginning in Italy, but it looked more like the end, having been devastated by avarice and polluted by power. How did it thrive? This is the story of the people and the places that reawakened the good, the true, and the beautiful. 

It reignited where it began—with the people who made it happen, many of whom were in Rome and Florence. 

 

The Medici Funding of the Renaissance

Spread across the rolling hills and green spires along the tree-lines lies the stunning beauty of the brown and green hills of Tuscany in Italy. Capped by carved square turrets stand majestic castles with surrounding towns with red-tiled roofs. It is a serious land for the sprawling banking enterprise of the Medici family. 

Their overlords were the fathers of fiduciary accounting, controlling nearly all the industries in their monetary empire for over one-hundred years (1397-1499). The Medici Bank controlled the finances for the industries related to silk and cloth procurement and manufacturing, production, spinning and weaving, cleaning, mending, mining, wood finishing and dyeing. They engaged in international trade and currency exchange, bookkeeping, accounting, and ledger-keeping. The Medici’s had bank branches in the Papal States, Florence, Milan, Pisa, Rome, Venice, as well as foreign offices in Geneva, Avignon, Pisa, Bruges (Belgium), and London. 

The Medici’s bought control of the papal branch with a bribe. In exchange for influencing church officials to appoint Reverend Baldassare Cossa a cardinal, Cossa usurped Pope Gregory XII and became the “antipope,” Pope John XXIII (not the same as the Pope John XXIII in recent years). 

His throne was in Pisa, and there was another pope in Avignon, France. Because of the private agreement between the Medici family and the Church prelates, the papal branches were handled a little differently and included a commission for the head of the branches called the “depositario generale.” 

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The depositario generale was usually a prelate who was favored by the Medici’s. Popes could order textiles and other wares—even including artifacts and relics—at wholesale rates through a special exchange arranged for by the Medici Bank. The Italian coin of the day was the florin. Because it was made of pure gold, it is equal to fifty-six cents in today’s American currency. Of course, then as now, the price of gold fluctuates on the international market. 

Cosimo di Giovanni de Medici was the head of the Medici family when it rose into the glory of its power in the important republic of Florence. The Republic of Florence was a republic in name only. He controlled and manipulated decisions made by the elected municipal councils, and even those decisions made by the “Signoria” or chiefs of the province. 

One of the later popes, Pope Pius II, explained the true underlying nature of this so-called republic: Political questions are settled in Cosimo’s house. The man he chooses holds office. He it is who decides peace and war. He is king in all but name.

Interfamilial rivalries by the anti-Medici party of the Strozzi and Albizzi families, along with the fiery noble, Palazzo Veccio, forced Cosimo’s exile in 1433. He settled for just a year in Venice along with his son, Piero de Medici. 

Cosimo was a patron of learning and the arts, and that which fueled the Renaissance. While in Venice, he had an enormous library built for the people. Its architect was Michelozzo, who also designed many more structures for the city of Florence upon Cosimo’s reinstatement in 1434. Cosimo accomplished his reinstatement and return to Florence through manipulation of the leading republican body, the Signoria, and a purchase of favors from the noble families under them. 

Cosimo was extremely adroit with establishing a balance of power within the city-states of Italy, which provided the country with enough freedom to create majestic buildings and great works of art. 

It wasn’t an easy feat because of the ongoing Lombardy Wars that raged to control Venice and the Duchy of Milan in Northern Italy. The Lombardy Wars lasted on and off for thirty grueling years—1423-1454. The conflict also spread to Naples and included Florence as well—both of which were seats of the greatest treasures of sculpture, buildings, and paintings the world has even known. The Treaty of Lodi, signed in 1454, sealed that alliance for generations to come. 

Cosimo was also wise enough to include ecclesiastical officials in cordial affairs. He arranged for the Pope at the time, Pope Eugene IV, to hold his church councils right there in Florence, and invited the Eastern Holy Roman Emperor, John VIII, to visit and confer.

Cosimo and his family wanted Florence adorned with the architecture that would reflect simplicity and create pride. Cosimo hired the young Michelozzo, who apprenticed under the well-known Ghiberti and Donatello. 

Michelozzo had the unique ability to combine the ancient styles that harked back to old Rome with the upcoming Gothic styles of the day. The effect was magical and interspersed with color modestly placed. Michelozzo designed the austere Palazzo Medici. Cosimo and his family weren’t modest. They wanted their likenesses reproduced for the edification of all. So, within their palace, they had the painter, Benozzo Gozzoli, depict their likenesses as members of the Magi and their entourage. 

Cosimo was one of the first men in history to open a public library. The book collection consisted of manuscripts copied down the centuries by assiduous monks, like the Carolingian collection from the time of Charlemagne, works of Lucretius, Livy, Seneca, Plutarch, Cassio Dio, and many others. In addition, Cosimo sent out collectors to other parts of the world including Greece and Syria. The most noteworthy local humanist scholar, Nicolo de Niccoli, not only organized the collection but contributed to it.

Cosimo established the Platonic Academy. Cosimo’s philosophy incorporated that ascribed to by the humanists at the time. It was called “Neoplatonism,” because of its similarity to Plato’s philosophy. There were common elements between the Neo-Platonists and the Christians, specifically their beliefs in the divine principle of the “One.” Thy believed in a consciousness that could best be translated as the “intellect,” “thought,” “intelligence or the intellect.” 

According to them, all reality in its manifestations depended upon the higher principles of “being” itself. Matter and the diversification of organic beings is an emanation of the one in terms of something the senses can ascertain. 

That which is material has a beginning and an end. Matter is not immortal. The Neo-Platonists, for the most part, presented misleading postulates to explain the relationship between the soul and nature. Philosophers like Marsillo Ficino faithfully adhere to the purely ontological rationales, that is, “If you can conceive of immortality, it must exist.” 

Not all the Neo-Platonists believed that the soul actually resides within the body, but the body gives it a physical manifestation by which one can exist in the world. 

Piero the “Gouty” succeeded Cosimo in 1464, but had a very short reign of five years. He was called the “Gouty,” because he did have gout, and was bedridden much of his life. He officiated over Florence from his bedtable. He was despotic, as were many of the other Medici’s as well. 

Florence was supposed to be a republic and public resentment toward the Medici’s was fomenting. In addition, Piero’s attitude toward the handling of the loans within the Medici bank was so scrupulous and detail-oriented that he called in a lot of overdue loans. Compromise and negotiation would have been the better choice, but he was compulsive and tyrannical. Because so many of the merchants and even nobles were going bankrupt, a group planned a coup in 1466. 

A former advisor of Piero’s father, Diotisalvi Neroni, provided impetus to the coup and so did Borso d’Este, the Duchy of the city-state of Modena. Piero’s son and heir, the famous Lorenzo de Medici, surreptitiously investigated the rumors about this conspiracy and warned his father about it. Thus it was thwarted and the lands and wealth of the perpetrators were confiscated. 

During the following year, 1467, the Republic of Venice and the Duchy of Milan again stirred up in insurrection. One of the conspirators who had tried to stage a coup against Piero participated—Borso d’Este of Venice. He and some of the nobles and illustrious, but disloyal families of Florence despised the fact that the Medici’s were virtually ignoring the democratic nature of a republican form of government and wanted to rid the Italian peninsula of the Medici’s forever. 

What’s more, the Duke of Milan also coveted an expansion of their city-state. There were about thirteen thousand troops on each side. The carnage took place on the banks of the Idice River in Tuscany near Northern Italy. This was the first battle in Italy in which firearms were used, and resulted in seven hundred bloody casualties including one thousand horses, whose rotting corpses polluted the river waters for months to come. 

That pollution resulted in a loss of crops and destruction of farmlands and many sheep. Historians have determined that the outcome of the battle was indecisive. It did result in the Treaty of Lodi of 1454, which was a pledge among the warring city-states of Milan, Naples, Florence, Genoa, and the Papal States to maintain peace among them. 

The nobles of the peninsula realized that greater threats to peace lay outside Italy, such as the hegemonic desires of the Ottoman Turks from the East. The nobles rather than Piero the Gouty were responsible for the forty-year period of peace that followed and later became known as the Italic League. Piero was a sickly man who eventually developed lung disease in 1469 and died. His two sons, Lorenzo and Giuliano then took over the Republic of Florence. 

Banking in Italy then passed along to the two brothers. The people of Italy resented this total control to be in the hands of the tyrannical Medici’s. Florence, in particular, which was the heart of the Renaissance in Italy, was Medici-dominated. Florence, though, was supposed to be a republic, in which the people had some voting power. 

Most of the money the bank had control of was generated by the complex banking establishment for the Papal States. The influential Pazzi family wanted to wrest power away from the Medici’s. They were assisted by Pope Sixtus IV, his nephew, and Archbishop Salviati. Lorenzo and Guiliani were extremely popular among the people because they frequently held banquets and carnivals for public entertainment purposes. 

When the assassins attempted to slaughter the Medici brothers, they were only able to kill Guiliani, but his brother escaped. The guards captured the Archbishop. Despite the fact that Salviati was a Roman Catholic prelate, he was hung from a window in one of the towers, and the crowd hatefully tore his body apart! 

Lorenzo de Medici was called “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” as he was known for his benevolence. Above all the Italian rulers, he was a patron of the arts. During his reign, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Leon Alberti, as an author, rose to prominence and the world today is edified by their work. 

Lorenzo was succeeded by “Piero the Unfortunate.” He was truly unfortunate because he lived at the wrong time under unfortunate circumstances. The territorial jealousies within Italy and the envies of the neighboring country of France brought down the Medici’s. 

This had an enormous impact upon the proliferation of the arts and nearly halted the glorious artistic and literary accomplishments of the Renaissance. Even Michelangelo was forced to escape Rome.

In 1494, the older nemesis of the Medici’s, the Sforza family craved control of Milan and despised the peace of the Italic League because it left him less powerful. He conspired with King Charles VIII of France, who also had an old hereditary claim to Naples. He invaded Italy, and deposed the hapless Piero who drowned during his haphazard escape. In his place, the invaders appointed a wild and fanatical priest by the name of Girolama Savanarola. Artwork was smashed and burned in the city squares by this scrupulous man who made the people turn to a stoical adherence to religion. 

The arts and literature of the Renaissance experienced a reprieve during 1503-1521, under two successive popes—Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X. Even the great Michelangelo himself was called back to resume his magnificent work.

One of the most prophetic statements ever made in the history of the Renaissance was uttered by Pope Leo X: “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.”

What or who could that be? It was the arrival of the evil menace in Renaissance Europe—the Borgia’s.

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