This difficult word represents something more than merely being a favourite in the fevered mind of a history examiner. Without the Renaissance the world would now be a different place –not necessarily better or worse – but different.
What we know as the Renaissance flowered intellectually and artistically in Italy in the fourteenth century, and was in glorious full bloom in the sixteenth. The rest of Europe was profoundly influenced by it. The word is French, of course, and means ‘rebirth’. It indicates a revival of those values of the classical world that appeared lost in the rough and tumble of the ‘Dark Ages’.
The re-introduction of Latin as a lively language was one of the prime moments of Renaissance. Many scholars had thought that the language had vanished along with the Empire of Rome, vanquished by barbarity and barbarians. In the Rebirth, Latin recovered its strength, flexibility and adaptability
Fine art too appeared again, after a decline in the Middle Ages. Drawing, sketching, painting on canvas and wood, sculpture in stone and bronze flourished. Giotto broke with tedious traditions by using shading to create the impression of depth. The movement reached its greatest heights with Michelangelo. Cellini produced silver masterpieces. Caravaggio magically lit his paintings.
Even Man himself was reborn. The uomo universale was Renaissance Man, limitless in his capability for development – artistic, social or physical. Men like Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci were architects, engineers, inventors, painters and scientists gathered together in one skin. Brunelleschi is generally considered to be the first renaissance architect to realise that the Romans created beautiful buildings that were machines worked by the hand of man. They had central heating, and lavatories with a kind of flushing system. They used sloping, tiled roofs with guttering. Their position for dining might have been intensely uncomfortable, but their cooks produced dreamlike meals using fresh materials. So there was a Renaissance in cuisine too.
In sculpture, we find the beginnings of the Renaissance as far back as Pisano in the late 14th century, but he too had been influenced by Roman sarcophagi. In the opening years of the 15th century Donatello showed he had absorbed the spirit of antique sculpture, rather than just imitating it.
Perhaps it is hardest of all to define the Renaissance in painting, because precious little antique art had survived, except in the form of painted plates which had indeed survived because they were in daily use, and kept clean. We do know from ancient manuscripts that classical painters admired and copied Nature. Examine works by Giotto and Masaccio, who carried scientific vigour to great lengths in their representation. Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian inspired others to introduce the human figure in a state of nature in their pictures, but naturalistically so.
Where was this happening? Florence, Venice and Rome principally, but also in the ducal courts of Mantua, Urbino and Ferrara. The cradle of the Renaissance in 1425 was Florence. This was known as the ‘High Renaissance’, though Venice and Rome were equally important. Patrons were essential. The Medici family, the Popes (particularly Julius II and Leo X), the Viscontis, the d’Estes, even the Borgias encouraged and financed the artists.
Though it seems odd, the imagery of the Italian Renaissance needed time to filter out to the rest of Europe. The ‘Northern Renaissance’ was represented by Albrecht Dürer in the 15th century. Dürer considered it his mission to spread Italianate ideas among the sturdy but not always imaginative Germans.
Literature too had its place in the Renaissance. Petrarch, Dante and Boccacio flourished in Italy. In England, William Shakespeare leaned hard on Boccacio for his plots. Other poets explain that this was not plagiarism but development of a theme. Nevertheless, Shakespeare wrote only one play with a plot created by him. This was probably All’s Well that Ends Well.
Printing – developing and improving fast – played an integral part in the Renaissance as it spread. With printing came lithography, which meant that cultured people could now own cheap reproductions of works by great Masters. By now the Renaissance had inspired Montaigne and Rabelais in France, Erasmus in The Low Countries, Lope de Vega, Calderón and Cervantes in Spain (it has been said that Cervantes wrote the first novel ever written); Britain had Spenser, Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Francis Bacon, Chris Marlowe and Ben Jonson among a score of others.
The theatre had dramatists introducing classical form and restraint into what they wrote. The theatre itself was being reborn as an auditorium originally designed by Vitruvius before the time of Christ. Façade, amphitheatre, stage, proscenium arch, scenery, even backstage technique and lighting come from Roman antecedents. In the Renaissance this started in Venice when plays by Roman poet Terence were staged before an audience seated in an auditorium shaped like a horse-shoe facing a platform fronted by a proscenium arch. This became the model for all theatres across the Western world for the next 500 years.
The Renaissance led to brave men wanting to explore the world because it was mysterious and mostly unknown. Maps must be made, and cartography more accurate and scientific. Da Gama, Magellan and others made their discoveries and reported them to an astonished world. Astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo proposed new theories, dismaying religionists. Advances were made in biology, chemistry, physics and medicine. The brave new world of enquiry affected established Churches, and persecutions began again, just as they had existed in the time of the Romans. Even in that there was a Renaissance.
Whether or not rebirths continued after the 16th century is a matter for debate. Many sociologists think that from the seventeenth century the human race sank back into barbarism except in the world of music – the nineteenth century produced more composers and musicians of quality than at any other time in History. And it is a fact that in Britain after 2000, a tremendous revival in the teaching of classical Greek and Latin is surprising the educationalists, who thought they had stamped out classical learning.