Between 1348 and 1350 the Black death wiped out 1/2
of Europe. The plague continued every 20 years thereafter for
over four centuries. The social and economic changes that occurred
as a result were an important influence on the development of
the Renaissance. As huge chunks of the populace disappeared overnight
due to the plague and other ills, there were more houses, more
goods and more disposable income. As a result, commerce was on
the upswing. The cities of Northern Italy were at the height of
their prosperity, being led by a few select families lead by merchant
princes who had ousted the hereditary nobles of feudal times with
vast fortunes gained in banking and commerce. The Medicis, the
Strozzis, the Farnesis, the Rucellai and the Pittis, all important
patrons, must share with the artists some of the credit for making
15th century Italy such a land of painters, sculptors and architects
such as had not been known before and was never to be known again.
The Renaissance began in Florence in the 15th century.
It spread to Rome and other parts of Italy in the early 16th century,
then as the designers and artisans dispersed, the Renaissance
became a phenomenon across Europe.
One positive aspect of the Crusades was that trade
routes were stablished in the wake of the advancing (or retreating)
armies. Muslims, Jews and Christians could make use of these trade
routes for personal gain while expanding the channels of communication
in all directions. Due in part to the increased communication
network across Europe, innovations in arts, medicine, science,
astronomy and even clocks were being shared across the continent.
Scientists, artists and merchants gained a great deal from the
cultural exchanges opened up during those years. In the following
centuries, with the invention of the compass, technical advancements
in ship building, and prosperity in part caused by the frequent
devastating plagues, exploration and trade by water increased
this already fertile intellectual exchange.
By the 14th century, Europeans were becoming worldly,
informed, and sophisticated. Contact with other cultures made
them more aware of themselves. The renaissance embraced ideas,
be they artistic or scientific, regardless of the nationality
of the thinker. This attitude illustrates the growing concept
of the individual, a corner stone of Renaissance ideology. People
in all professions started to view human life in a new way. Access
to classical texts was one key element in the development of Renaissance
intellectual life. Starting with the Italians, there was a renewed
interest in human scale and human proportions.
The invention of the compass, unprecedented economic
prosperity, and advancements in ship building all contributed
to increased trade which lead to both expanded limits to the known
world and the dissemination of ideas. The invention of moveable
type in 1450 catapulted this exchange of ideas into
The Renaissance period saw the integration of the Pagan mythologies
left over from the Roman Empire with the growing spiritual values
of the Christian era. Painting, sculpture and architectural detailing
show an intermingling of these two influences. In one building,
even on one detail, you can find griffins, centaurs and images
of Mars or Aphrodite cohabiting with saints, prophets and even
the Madonna and Child.
When the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492, they
fled to areas where there was the same atmosphere of sophistication
and learning that they had become accustomed to in Spain's more
enlightened period. They brought with them their belief systems
and customs, some of
which were embraced by the forward thinkers of
the Italian Renaissance. One example of this is the Kabala, the
mystical basis of some Jewish practice, that was explored and
embellished by some esoteric minded Christians.
Magic and the exploration of the natural powers of the universe
were very much part of Renaissance life.
Italy was a series of city states until the 19th century.
In the 15th century, there was no central government. Instead
the various cities bore rule over the surrounding towns and villages.
The grouping of independent commonwealths is important for an
understanding of the dispersing of Renaissance ideas. Florence,
Rome, Milan and Venice were independent cities. They were constantly
feuding with one another. The nobles of each city were also engaged
in their own feuds, and the situation was further aggravated by
occupation by France. The most powerful empire in Europe was the
Large families had fortified houses or palazzos which
contained their family and friends, personal servants, and knights
for protection. Family crests were found on buildings commissioned
by these families as well as on the shields and armor of their
Renaissance and Romanesque architecture are both
based on Roman architecture. Romanesque architects adopted the
barrel vault and the Roman arch, but Renaissance architects made
a careful study of all Roman architecture and attempted to recreate
spatial magnificence of the Roman era without the cumbersome sizes.
Gothic architects created light filled interior space through
vaulting. Renaissance architects created interior space through
the harmony of perfect mathematical proportions.
When the Gothic style was being embraced throughout
Europe, only the detailing and the variations of the pointed arch
penetrated into Italy, and then only in the north. Italians disregarded
the structural basis of Gothic architecture. Italian buildings
dating from before the 14th century reflect the heavy structure
and sparkling surfaces of the earlier Roman times: marble faces
the walls, mosaics adorn the interiors, and the exteriors may
have Gothic detailing, but the structures are basilicas and the
insides have no triforium and much less interior light than the
Gothic equivalents. The exception is Venice which developed its
own version of Gothic.
In many parts of Italy, the Gothic simply never penetrated. Milan
Cathedral is the only Gothic cathedral, the structure being distinctly
different to anything found elsewhere. Sculpture and painting
all through Italy show the influence of the Romans more than of
the north. The figures are full bodied and muscular with minimal
cloth where in the north the figures are generally fully robed,
unless they are being consumed by demons.
"Concrete disappeared as Gothic architecture
continued to pare down the size of its structural members to achieve
pure skeletal forms, for concrete had been associated with the
massive Roman wall. It is significant that Alberti, for instance,
nowhere mentions Roman concrete, though he never forgets to cite
the opinions of classical writers, and had himself made a careful
study of Roman buildings." Siegfried Gideon