Cultural and Construction History of the Renaissance Essay

Pages: 20 (5800 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 40  ·  Level: Doctoral  ·  Topic: Drama - World

Cultural and Construction History of the Renaissance (1450 to 1600)

Cultural Environment

The European Renaissance between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries began in Florence. It was not a sudden rebirth from the Dark Ages, but approximates more a refocusing outward politically and intellectually. Europe had become more than a series of small principalities vying for hegemony. There were larger cities, a more educated population, and a growing technology that allowed states to concentrate on growth and improvement. Italian cities were freed from feudalism, and were more mercantile and less hinged around a monarch (Skinner 69). On a cultural level, the Renaissance signalled a rebirth of learning and educational reform. People returned to classical works and revised their position on Christianity. There was a rise in realism among artists, who used light and perspective in a more natural way. Philosophers such as Machiavelli portrayed political life realistically rather than idealistically. The change in mindset affected the political structure and management of the European people. It was a three-centuries-long cultural, social, and political movement and a revolutionary period for art, architecture, and literature (Leonard da Vinci -- Renaissance Man).

1.2 Relationship to Previous Period

The Renaissance continued the medieval rediscovery of the Roman and Greek traditions. It advanced technologies that changed the way populations congregated so that the urbanizing trend continued and increased. In art, realism prospered. The move toward capitalism and away from feudalism made further progress. Europe expanded through colonisation and trade. The Italian city-states thrived. In all these qualities the Renaissance gradually evolved from and moved along the same trajectory as the earlier medieval period (Starn 122 -- 4).

The term Renaissance factually means rebirth. It refers particularly to the rebirth of learning that began in Italy in the fourteenth century, spread to the north, including England, by the sixteenth century, and ended in the north in the mid-seventeenth century. Throughout this age, there was a massive renewal of interest in and study of traditional antiquity. Yet the Renaissance was more than just a rebirth (the Renaissance Period (1400-1600 C.E.). It was also an age of new discoveries, both geographical in the exploration of the New World and intellectual. Both types of discovery resulted in alterations of remarkable significance for Western civilization. In science, for instance, Copernicus (1473-1543) tried to prove that the sun rather than the earth was at the center of the planetary system, therefore drastically changing the celestial world view that had dominated ancient times and the Middle Ages. In religion, Martin Luther (1483-1546) disputed and in the end caused the separation of one of the major institutions that had united Europe all through the Middle Ages, the Church. In fact, Renaissance thinkers frequently thought of themselves as escorting in the modern age, as different from the ancient and medieval eras (General Characteristics of the Renaissance).

Study of the Renaissance might well center on five interconnected issues. First, even though Renaissance thinkers frequently attempted to connect themselves with classical ancient times and to distance themselves from the Middle Ages, important connections with their recent past, such as belief in the Great Chain of Being, were still much in indication. Second, throughout this period, certain important political changes were taking place. Third, some of the noblest ideals of the period were best articulated by the movement known as Humanism. Fourth, and associated to Humanist ideals, was the literary doctrine of imitation, significant for its ideas about how literary works should be fashioned. Finally, what later probably became an even more sweeping influence, both on literary creation and on contemporary life in general, was the religious movement known as the Reformation (General Characteristics of the Renaissance).

1.3 Contribution to Western Civilisation

Much of the debate regarding the Renaissance swirls around whether it was an improvement over Medieval European culture. The cultural legacy of the Renaissance was to expand the European worldview. The world became a large, complex, and discoverable place. Exploration became a leading idea. On the other hand, there was warfare, political persecution, and disease. Still, most of the artists and writers within the culture fully believed their era was completely new and different than anything that had gone before (Woods and Elmer). The gradual re-examination of the Roman and Greek heritage led directly to the modern age, and thus represented a significant Renaissance legacy in contemporary culture and thought. Figures such as Leonardo da Vinci paved the way for modernity (Osborne).

At the start of this period, the artists of the sixteenth century began to question convention and investigate the potential of art for art's sake. Unlike the prior thousand years of Christian art these bold, new innovators began to paint and sculpt humanity for its inherent beauty alone; and their public demanded more. While this movement took place within the confines of Roman Catholic Christianity, it served to challenge a lot of ancient conventions of the Church. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton all encouraged heliocentric ideas, mechanical philosophy, and the scientific method within an academically ambitious Europe (Sayler).

Money from the new middle classes went towards hiring artists and architects to create masterpieces in number and scale unrivaled till then. Artists such as Giotto, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Lotto, da Vinci, Michelangelo, to name a few, elevated art to a new height and shape of cultural expression. The Renaissance began to thrive in the kingdoms to the north of Florence as well, with new ideas and drive of change spreading along trade routes. Venetian Italy and the areas of the Netherlands also were altered by new ideas, aesthetics, and trade (the Renaissance - a Rebirth of Culture and Classical Ideas).

New academic movements stirred Western Europe as well during this time. Authors such as Sir Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam made distinguished contributions to a growing standard of western intellectual thought on humanism and the capacities of the person to reason and vie for themselves with the depths of the human spirit. A growing intellectual need took place to balance a world image dominated and directed by religion with a notion of a mankind's experience on earth as a breathing, thinking being exercising a measure of self determinism. The Renaissance looked to the past, to the established period, in order to push itself forward. An attraction to art and literature and thought from a previous age added to an era of new literary, artistic, and intellectual development for the Europeans (the Renaissance - a Rebirth of Culture and Classical Ideas).

Scientific Environment

The single greatest achievement of the Renaissance period could be said to be not a discovery or a theory, but the scientific method (Brotton). This emphasized observable empirical evidence as the way towards discovering and understanding natural laws and true causes. Use of the scientific method advanced biology, astronomy, and physics during the Renaissance. For example, dissection and a mechanistic view of anatomy gained popularity with Vesalius' De humani corporis fabrica. Many of the Renaissance discoveries remain basic to today's knowledge.

Although a religious perspective still held sway during the Renaissance, as seen in its artwork, many Renaissance theologians were influenced by the rising tide of humanism. Humanists expanded the study of texts to incorporate Greek, reading them in the original languages. This led to a more precise understanding of Greek philosophy. Significantly, Renaissance humanism shaped the intellectual landscape through the humanities, such disciplines as moral philosophy, history, and rhetoric. Humanism and Christianity merged in a fruitful and harmonious union. Pope Pius II was an example of this unity in which the teaching of humanism and Christianity were reconciled (Loffler 538 -- 42). Translations of the Bible were improved and less Catholic orthodoxy was used to interpret the texts. This laid the foundation for the rise of vernacular translations and the Protestant Reformation, which turned toward individualism.

Galileo Galilei (1564 -- 1642) was an influential mathematical scientist. In his book, II Saggiatore, he validates experimental empiricism. He writes,

"philosophy [i.e., physics] is written in this grand book -- I mean the universe -- which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth" (237 -- 8).

Galileo promoted knowledge for knowledge's sake and discovered, contrary to Catholic teaching, that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. This finding revolutionized astronomy, although he was persecuted for it (Singer 217).

Galileo used experiments as a research tool to verify truths rather than following the Aristotelian practise of demonstrating science from first principles. He gave mathematical demonstrations of his arguments. As mathematics did not readily lead to the discovery of causes, Aristotelian science's main concern, its usefulness was not immediately obvious (Feldhay 80 -- 133).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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