Eras and Their Highlights

The Renaissance

How did the Renaissance begin?

Social and political developments in the late Middle Ages gave rise to the spirit of the Renaissance. The Crusades (1096–1291)—the military expeditions undertaken by Christian powers to win the holy land from the Muslims—brought Europeans into contact with other cultures and most importantly with Byzantine civilization. The remnant of the East Roman Empire, Byzantium had preserved the knowledge of ancient times. In addition, many texts thought to have been destroyed during the tribal ransacking of the West Roman Empire (in the fifth century A.D.) remained preserved in various translations throughout the Middle East. So it was during the Crusades that some of these were brought back to Europe, where classical scholars undertook the task of deciphering the West’s cultural past.

In northern Italy, a series of city-states developed independent of the larger empires to the north and south of them. These small states—Florence, Rome, Venice, and Milan, among others—gained prosperity through trade and banking, and as a result, a wealthy class of businessmen emerged. These community leaders admired and encouraged creativity, patronizing artists who might glorify their commercial achievement with great buildings, paintings, and sculptures. The most influential patrons of the arts were the Medicis, a wealthy banking family in Florence. Members of the Medici family supported many important artists, including Botticelli and Michelangelo. Guided by the Medici patronage, Florence became the most magnificent city of the period.

One way patrons encouraged art was to sponsor competitions in order to spur artists to more significant achievement. In many cases, the losers of these contests went on to greater fame than the winners. After his defeat in the competition to create the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral, architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) made several trips to take measurements of the ruined buildings of ancient Rome. When he returned to Florence, he created the immense il duomo (dome) of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, a classically influenced structure that became the first great monument of the Renaissance.


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