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Age of Exploration

Italian Renaissance
Cultural rebirth though intellectual inquiry

Italian Renaissance, Age of ExplorationMadonna of the Cherries

“Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” - Leonardo da Vinci

In feudal Europe, art and culture was inextricably tied to the Christian church. The massive gothic cathedrals and monasteries were the de-facto schools of the day, and both taught the arts, and funded artistic production. But in the early 15th century, in Florence Italy, a man named Cosimo de’ Medici was about to steal art back from the church and give it to business.

Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici was the head of the Medici Bank, the largest bank in Europe. In 1434, after more than a decade of political grappling with the previous Florentine dynasty, he gained the full support of the local government, and rebuilt Florence into the financial capital of the western world. With his family’s connections through marriage and trade, Cosimo was able to bring stability to Florence that soon spread throughout Italy. Flourishing trade spawned a wealthy middle-class, and connected previously isolated cities. The new commercial elite was hungry for culture and invention, and they had the money to pay for it. Capitalism wanted art.

And here we have the beginning of the Renaissance, a massive cultural movement that swept through Europe, and evolved distinctly in France, Spain and Northern Europe. For the first time in centuries, art was partially divorced from the church, and while religious commissions continued, artists and writers began to look back to classical antiquity. Wealthy patrons were immortalized in lavish portraits, and works like Botticelli’sBirth of Venus sparked renewed interest in Greek and Roman mythology and values. The foundations of humanism, laid nearly a century before by the scholar Petrarch, were built on by writers like Niccolò Machiavelli and even Pope Pius II, himself a humanist writer and diplomat.

At first, the Italian Renaissance flourished only among society’s elite. While most of Europe was still steeped in feudalism, in urban centers, painters, sculptors, inventors and writers like Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Raphael, Fede Galizia and Giorgio Vasari were sponsored by wealthy patrons to push art and science to new heights. To paraphrase author William Gibson, the future had arrived, but it was not evenly distributed.

Until 1440, when the German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printed communication with the invention of movable type. Gutenberg’s movable type and printing press allowed writings to be printed quickly and cheaply, bringing the ideas of the intellectual elite to the common people. Broadsheets, the newspapers of the time, could be typeset in an afternoon, and printed at the rate of 240 impressions an hour. Renaissance painting was still the purview of the rich, but the Renaissance ideas of human agency, rationalism and critical thinking began to take hold throughout Europe.


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Reed Enger, "Italian Renaissance, Cultural rebirth though intellectual inquiry," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 23, 2015; last modified September 25, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/timeline/age-of-discovery/italian-renaissance/.

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The Lives of the Artists, Recommended Reading

The OG! Giorgio Vasari was one of the first art historians, and this volume remains one of the most important sources of information about the artists of the Italian Renaissance. It's also surprisingly fun to read.

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