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READ: The Renaissance

Narratives of the Renaissance often portray its cultural achievements as uniquely European. Let’s evaluate these narratives and look for global connections in Renaissance art.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the author, what was the Renaissance?
  2. What did Renaissance thinkers and artists in Italy believe they were doing?
  3. According to the author, how did historians in the nineteenth century use the Renaissance to build narratives?
  4. How did different types of people experience the Renaissance?
  5. How did trade help start the Renaissance?
  6. How does the author use connections with the Islamic world to challenge the narrative that the Renaissance was all about reviving Greek and Roman culture?
  7. What does the author argue that the painting, “The King’s Fountain,” shows us about life in Renaissance Europe?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How does your interpretation of the Renaissance change if you explain it through each of the three course frames?
  2. How would you describe the Renaissance to somebody who knew nothing about it? Use evidence from the article to support, extend, or challenge the idea of a uniquely European cultural movement that started in fourteenth-century Italy.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Renaissance

Two men of European descent dressed in extravagant clothing lean against a shelf full of instruments and globes. In the foreground at the bottom is a distorted human skull.
By Bennett Sherry
Narratives of the Renaissance often portray its cultural achievements as uniquely European. Let's evaluate these narratives and look for global connections in Renaissance art.

Renaissance narratives

The Renaissance was a cultural movement in late medieval and early modern Europe. Most historians agree that it started in the Italian city-state of Florence in the fourteenth century. Some historians think it reached its peak in the late sixteenth century, but these dates vary. From the Italian city-states, the Renaissance spread across Europe.
The Renaissance produced dramatic changes in European art, architecture, and culture. It reshaped artistic, societal, and religious norms as medieval Europe's connections with the rest of Afro-Eurasia increased. Artists like Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci embraced realism and individualism in styles that moved away from the religious focus of medieval art. Humanist scholars like Francesco Petrarch combined ideas from Christianity with the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. Humanists believed that human achievements were as important as religious theory. Architects imitated the style of Roman and Greek ruins to create new architectural marvels in wealthy Italian city-states. The artists and writers of the Italian Renaissance believed they were creating something totally new by reviving the teachings of the ancient world.
But were they? Did Italian Renaissance artists and thinkers create something new and uniquely European?
In an open-air building with many ornate archways there is a large gathering of philosophers who are engaging in various activities such as conversing, writing, reading, and thinking.
The School of Athens, by Raphael adorns one of the walls in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. The painting features Greek philosophers including Plato and Aristotle. © Getty Images.
The term Renaissance (French for "rebirth") was coined by European historians in the nineteenth century. These historians began portraying the Renaissance as something uniquely European, supporting narratives about the "rise of the West." In these narratives, the Renaissance's return to ancient Greek and Roman culture is presented as the beginning of Europe's rise to global power. Narratives of European cultural superiority were then used to justify the expansion of European empires.
But as a student of history, you know that challenging narratives is central to the work of historians. So let's evaluate the narratives of the Renaissance. To do that, we need to answer some questions: Who participated in the Renaissance? Where did it take place? And why did it start?

Renaissance "man"

The Renaissance was important—if you were a wealthy, educated man. For most people living in Europe, the Renaissance was not something they experienced or noticed. It was a movement of and for the wealthy and the elite in European societies. A small class of merchants and aristocrats participated in this cultural movement, and most of them were men.
Yet, women were not silent in this period, and they did help shape the Renaissance. Christine de Pisan, for example, wrote dozens of works of poetry and political theory, arguing for women's education. Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine de' Medici wielded significant political power. There were plenty of others, such as Marguerite de Navarre and Sofonisba Anguissola, who were patrons of the arts and artists themselves. Like the men of this movement, these women came almost exclusively from the upper classes, their works directed at the courts of French monarchs and Italian princes. Today, the phrase "Renaissance Man" is used to describe someone who has broad knowledge in many topics. Yet, many women participated in the Renaissance through their writing and art. Still others exercised political power, collected art, and patronized artists. Among the wealthy classes, at least, it seems there were plenty of "Renaissance Women."
Did the Renaissance really happen? Well, that depends who you ask and where you look. If you look at art, literature, and—as we'll see below—trade and the merchant class, there were huge transformations. But for most peasant farmers—who made up the vast majority of the population—not a lot changed. For most people outside a privileged few in wealthy urban centers, the changes started by the Renaissance would not be felt for generations.
A young woman of European descent is painting at her easel and her gaze is looking straight at the viewer.
Self-portrait at the Easel, by Sofonisba Anguissola. © Getty Images.

An economic rebirth

The Renaissance is commonly called a European cultural movement. Its cultural and artistic elements get all the attention. Yet, the Renaissance was as much about trade as it was about art.
The Renaissance started at the end of some major upheavals. The Black Death had killed millions. The Crusades, the wars between Venice and Genoa, the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the Spanish Reconquista each created instability and hurt trade. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these upheavals settled down enough to allow trade networks to expand between Southern Europe and the Islamic world and between Northern and Southern Europe.
Trade connections made Italian bankers and merchants very rich. As parts of Europe emerged from the devastation of the Black Death, patterns of wealth and labor changed, with many people concentrating in urban centers and demanding higher wages. As more people could afford luxury goods, demand for trade increased. Italian merchants grew wealthy from trade, and Italian cities emerged as commercial hubs. Great banking families, like the Medici in Florence, dominated the politics of the region.
With their new wealth, these merchants, bankers, and rulers funded the arts and architecture of the Renaissance, patronizing artists like Donatello, Botticelli, and Titian. These patrons were not acting out of a sense of generosity or civic virtue. They wanted art and buildings that showed their wealth and power. In many cases, the wealthy commissioned elaborate portraits of themselves or had their family inserted into paintings of biblical or historical scenes. It was a bit like taking a selfie with a celebrity, but more expensive.
A long religious procession along a wall; some people are on foot while others are on horseback.
Adoration of the Magi, by Botticelli (left) and the East Wall of the Magi Chapel in the Palace of the Medici (right), painted by Benozzo Gozzoli. Both paintings depict a religious scene from the Christian Bible, but in each case, the artist has inserted members of the Medici family into the scene. Both images © Getty Images.
The great art and innovations of the Renaissance were made possible by Europe's integration into Afro-Eurasian trade networks. Trade introduced new pigments from Central and South Asian plants and minerals to the palettes of Renaissance painters. The advances in finance employed by Italian bankers relied on mathematical concepts developed by Arabic and Indian scholars. Even the technologies behind the printing press—which allowed Renaissance ideas to spread rapidly after its invention in the fifteenth century—were probably the result of Afro-Eurasian trade. Moveable type and papermaking were first pioneered in China, Korea, and the Islamic world.

Renaissance sultans

Another narrative is that Renaissance art and architecture was inspired by ruins from ancient Greece and Rome and by the rediscovery of classical art and literature. But that narrative is worth questioning, too.
Powerful Italians like the Medici weren't the only Renaissance rulers. To the east, the Ottomans rose to a position of dominance soon after their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. As Sultan Mehmet II expanded his empire into Eastern Europe, he also funded architectural, artistic, and intellectual innovations to showcase his power. He hired Italian artists and architects to work in his court. These artists in turn drew inspiration from the art and architecture of the great Islamic cities.
The Italian Renaissance is inseparable from cultural and economic exchange with the Islamic world. Muslim scholars preserved Greek and Roman texts. Renaissance poets and writers like Petrarch were inspired by themes in Islamic poetry. Much of the architecture of the Italian Renaissance was modeled on the great cities to the east, such as Aleppo, Cairo, and Tabriz. Paintings from European artists highlight these connections.
A large group of people dressed in various religious and cultural garb are gathered outside in a large courtyard listening to St. Mark preach from a slightly elevated small stage.
St. Mark Preaching in Alexandria, by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. © Getty Images.
The painting above depicts the Christian Saint Mark preaching in Alexandria. The painting shows him addressing a crowd of Muslim men (Islam was not founded until nearly 600 years after Saint Mark's death). The historian Jerry Brotton argues that the mixture of Christian and Muslim motifs in the painting "shows how the European Renaissance began to define itself not in opposition to the east, but through an extensive and complex exchange of ideas and materials." As Europe integrated with the expanding networks of Afro-Eurasian trade, the Italian Renaissance was as much defined by its exchange with Islamic culture as its rediscovery of Greco-Roman styles.

Legacies of the Renaissance

Trade also inspired some Europeans to sail south along Africa's western coast. European merchants bought silks and spices from the Ottomans with gold and silver, but Europe's supply of precious metals was limited. To gain direct access to West African gold, Italian merchants funded Portuguese mariners to sail further and further south, bringing gold back to the Mediterranean. These voyages also introduced Europe to West African art—ivory sculptures were especially prized—kicking off new exchanges in artistic styles.
A bustling waterfront scene on a cloudy day depicting people engaging in various activities both on land and in small wooden boats on the water right off the waterfront.
The King’s Fountain, a painting by an anonymous sixteenth-century Dutch painter, depicting the waterfront in Lisbon’s Alfama District. © The Berardo Collection, Lisbon, Portugal.
The painting above, by an unknown artist, depicts the waterfront of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. It illustrates the diversity of Renaissance Europe. If you zoom in on the image, you'll see that many of the occupants are Black. Many of these people are enslaved, but the painting features several free Black people. It shows Black and white people dancing together. And in the middle-right, a Black man rides a horse. He is a knight of the Order of Santiago. This painting and many others are evidence that the urban centers of Renaissance Europe featured a great deal of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity.
However, this painting is also a reminder that, just as Renaissance art and culture flourished, systems of racism and enslavement were also developing. The Portuguese voyages to West Africa—funded by Italian merchants and bankers—returned with enslaved Africans onboard. By the mid-fifteenth century, slavery was common in the Italian city-states and the Iberian Peninsula. The great cultural achievements of Renaissance art were made possible by the same economy that eventually created the institutions of the modern slave trade.
Author Bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a research associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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