Chapter 14 Beginnings of Revolutionary European Civilization, 1300-1650

Section 2 The Italian Renaissance

Between the 1300s and the 1500s,[xvii][xvii] a new movement swept through Italy that would eventually transform the nature of European civilization. At the heart of this movement was a "rediscovery" by Europeans of the literature and philosophy of classical Greece and Rome.  As they rediscovered the works of the ancients, and were exposed to the learning of Islamic civilization, a new curiosity moved many Italians to investigate the world around them. Soon, a whole new conception of the nature of humankind emerged, which placed human beings at the center of the universe.  

The Commercial Revolution

By the middle of the 1400s, European civilization had begun to bounce back from the challenges of the Black Death, starvation, and warfare that had overtaken it around 1300.[xviii][xviii] Ironically, perhaps, the enormous loss of population Europe experienced during this period may actually have stimulated the recovery, at least in economic terms.

            New farming techniques introduced during the Middle Ages had led to such a rapid growth of population that eventually, even with the new techniques, farmers could not produce enough to feed everyone. As large numbers of Europeans died, however, farmers could once again produce more food than was needed. Prices, which had risen during the worst years of the Black Death, began to go down. Basic commodities like grain became cheaper. The standard of living rose as people had more money with which to buy goods.

            As the demand for such items rose, the various regions of Europe began to produce only those products for which their terrains or climates were specially suited. In France, for example, farmers in many regions devoted their lands to growing grapes for wine. In England, farmers raised more and more sheep for wool. Parts of Germany specialized in grain. As European farmers produced the goods they knew best, they also had to trade for the products they did not produce. Through trade in basic commodities, a more integrated economy emerged.

            Urban areas also began to specialize, particularly in Italy. Venice, for example, became a center of glass manufacturing. Milan was known throughout Europe for its production of armaments. Many northern Italian cities specialized in producing finished silk and other textiles. Port cities like Venice and Genoa[xix][xix] became the primary importers of spices and other luxury items from the East. In northern Europe, the Hanseatic League, a confederation first of merchants and then of towns largely dominated by merchants (all Germans), controlled and expanded trade in the Baltic and North Seas. All this economic development led to improvements in business methods and practices, sparking what many scholars call the Commercial Revolution.

            At the heart of the Commercial Revolution were new attitudes toward property and money. In earlier days Europeans had thought of property as something solid and concrete—land, gold, jewels, or other valuable items. With more and more surplus wealth available, European merchants and landowners began to think of property in more general and abstract terms—as a source of income, a means to produce money with which to buy other things—what we call capital.[xx][xx]

            As merchants began to accumulate large amounts of money, they needed a way to keep track of it efficiently. They also needed a safe way to transfer the money from place to place in order to pay for goods and services. Drawing on their experiences with similar practices in the Muslim world, Italian merchants established banking facilities.

            By 1400[xxi][xxi] the great Italian banking families, like the Medici in Florence, were creating business methods that made possible international transactions on a scale never possible before. For example, bankers began to use a double-entry bookkeeping system that allowed them to keep better track of their profits and losses throughout Europe. Banking expanded and became more stable. Credit transfers between banks became common, which lessened the need to move money around. Anxious to minimize their risk of losses, merchants also began to develop methods of insuring their goods and expeditions. These new methods soon spread north, where banking families like the Fuggers[xxii][xxii] in Germany financed not only the Hanseatic merchants but also princes and emperors.

            The growth of banking had a profound effect on European economic development. Merchants began to devise new ways to raise capital through partnerships. Eventually, they developed joint-stock companies, in which people bought shares of an enterprise in exchange for an equal share of the profits. Such arrangements helped spread the risk involved in investment.

            With growing prosperity, Europeans’ expectations rose. After the gloom and depression of the Black Death, by the early 1400s[xxiii][xxiii] many Europeans had begun to concentrate less on the inevitability of death and more on the promise of living. The Commercial Revolution laid the foundations on which Europeans would soon transform their civilization into the first modern society in the world.

Rediscovering the Past

By the middle of the 1300s,[xxiv][xxiv] Italy had become the gateway for European trade with the peoples of the Mediterranean and Asia. Italian merchants traveled along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa bringing back to Europe silk and spices from Byzantium,[xxv][xxv] China, and India.

            Italy's growing wealth, combined with its location between the rest of Europe and the Islamic world, set the stage for a great burst of cultural development. In the 1400s, as the Ottomans advanced against the last remnants of Byzantium, the ships of Venice[xxvi][xxvi] began to carry a new cargo: scholars seeking refuge in Italy from the advancing Turkish warriors. These Greek scholars brought works by Plato,[xxvii][xxvii] Aeschylus,[xxviii][xxviii] Herodotus,[xxix][xxix] Thucydides,[xxx][xxx] and many other ancient authors—literature that their Italian colleagues had thought to be lost.

            Suddenly the gates to a whole new world opened for Italians who could read. Inspired, scholars began to scour old libraries in Europe, locating many forgotten manuscripts. In the pages of these texts, scholars rediscovered the splendors of ancient Greece and Rome. They sought the rebirth, or Renaissance, as we call it, of a civilization more spectacular than any they had known.


 It was no accident that the Renaissance began first in Italy. Surrounded by the relics of a glorious past—the broken remnants of marble statues, the empty, overgrown forums, where cattle grazed—no one could forget that Italy had been the heartland of imperial Rome. Even after Rome's decline, the imperial past remained alive, a fact symbolized by the pope's almost continuous residence in Rome itself.

            As they rediscovered the literature of the classical world, Italian scholars became intrigued by the worldly nature of Greek and Roman knowledge and by the beauty of the classical Latin and Greek languages. In the mid-1300s,[xxxi][xxxi] contrasting the ancient achievement with that of his own age, Francesco Petrarch (PEE-trahrk)[xxxii][xxxii] lamented: 

“O inglorious age! that scorns antiquity, its mother, to whom it owes every noble art—that dares to declare itself not only equal but superior to the glorious past . . . What can be said in defense of men of education who ought not to be ignorant of antiquity and yet are plunged in . . . darkness and delusion?” 

Petrarch was inspired by the classical commitment to leading a virtuous life, not only in private matters, but also in public affairs. The ancient writers seemed to provide a guide to morality he could not see in the church of his own day.

            Petrarch inspired a generation of scholars. Under their influence, the church’s scholastic education began to give way to one based on the classics: rhetoric, grammar, poetry, history, and above all, Latin and Greek. Consequently, the new approach became known as classical education. Those who studied these subjects, known as humanities, were called humanists. Style was as important as knowledge. “Information . . . which lacks all grace of expression,” wrote one scholar, Leonardo Bruni (BROO-nee),[xxxiii][xxxiii] “would seem to be put under a bushel or partly thrown away.” The new movement came to be called humanism.

            Humanism introduced a whole new conception of the nature of human beings and their role in the world. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (PEE-koh DAYL-lah mee-RAHN-doh-lah)[xxxiv][xxxiv] of Florence best expressed this new view of human nature and the worth of every individual. Quoting a Muslim scholar, he wrote, “‘There is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man.’” Pico went on: 

“On Man . . .  the Father conferred the seeds of . . .  every way of life. Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit. If they be vegetative, he will be like a plant. If sensitive, he will become brutish. If rational, he will grow into a heavenly being. If intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God.” 

This was a very different idea from the church's teaching that human beings were by nature sinful.

Renaissance Politics

Italy had remained the most urbanized and culturally sophisticated part of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. City life never really died out even under the pressure of constant invasion. While in the rest of Europe, knights, barons, dukes, and kings lived in great castles surrounded by fields and countryside, Italian nobles and aristocrats lived in great villas and palaces in the towns and cities. There they mingled with bankers, merchants, and other professionals. Soon, intermarriage between aristocratic, merchant, and banking families blurred such class distinctions. The result was a growing, wealthy, literate urban population ripe for cultural development.

            Italy’s political situation contributed to the emergence of a new urban elite. Ongoing warfare between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire had split Italy into two great factions: the Guelphs supporting the church and the Ghibellines supporting the empire. Families and even whole cities were forced to choose sides. Though fierce and bloody, the struggle allowed the cities to remain relatively independent by playing off popes and emperors against each other. Like the ancient Greek poleis, the Italian city-states became the center of most people's sense of identity and security.

            By 1300[xxxv][xxxv] most city-states had achieved the status of independent republics. As a consequence of the struggle between popes and emperors, however, factions and rival families often competed for power within the cities.  Plagued by constant riots, family feuds, and bloodshed, city politics descended into near chaos. Eventually strong rulers, such as the Medici  in Florence, the Este in Ferrara, and the Visconti in Milan, began to emerge in an effort to restore stability.

            Many of the new rulers did not come from an aristocratic background. In Florence, for example, the Medici, originally a family of doctors, made a vast fortune in banking. By 1434[xxxvi][xxxvi]  Cosimo de Medici[xxxvii][xxxvii] had emerged as the strongman of Florence. Medici control of the city was almost uninterrupted until the early 1700s. Although Florence theoretically remained a republic, the Medici ruled the city much like the tyrants of ancient Greece.

            Only Venice remained free of dictatorship. Venice was situated at the head of the Adriatic Sea[xxxviii][xxxviii] and built upon a series of islands protected from the mainland by lagoons. Looking mainly to the sea, where Venetian merchant vessels came to dominate the trade of the Mediterranean world, Venice carved out an empire of mainland ports and islands that stretched as far east as Crete. By the 1400s it was not simply an Italian power but a major international power. Even in Venice, however, government remained in the hands of a few—the Council of Ten drawn from leading merchant families.

            By the 1400s,[xxxix][xxxix] the ongoing struggle between popes and emperors had resulted in a rough division of the Italian peninsula into three major areas: Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples in the south;[xl][xl] the Papal States in central Italy;[xli][xli] and independent city-states in the north.[xlii][xlii] Between 1395 and about 1453,[xliii][xliii] the largest and most prosperous of the northern city-states began to gobble up their neighbors. Florence, Milan, and Venice emerged from this struggle as the dominant powers.[xliv][xliv] Genoa remained independent, but without expanding its influence. Thus, by mid-century, Italy was divided among five major powers: Florence, Milan, Venice, Naples, and the Papal States.

            In the struggle for power, many of the rising Italian families and city-states hired professional soldiers, known as condottieri, to fight for them. Even the popes used condottieri in their constant struggle to maintain control of the Papal States. Waging war with mercenaries, however, proved very expensive. Moreover, the mercenaries were not always trustworthy. They might easily change sides for more money, or go into business for themselves. In 1450,[xlv][xlv] for example, Francesco Sforza, one of the most successful of the condottieri, conquered Milan and made himself duke.

            As Italians became increasingly sick of war, rival city-states began to use new diplomatic methods to achieve their goals. Instead of the church, once the main institution regulating peace among all Christian countries, rulers began to use professional diplomats and resident ambassadors to settle disputes. In 1454,[xlvi][xlvi] the leading states signed a general peace treaty. For the next 50 years they did their best to keep the peace. If any state threatened its neighbors, others would join together to oppose it. This system became known as a balance of power.

Civic Humanism and Politics

In 1494,[xlvii][xlvii] the fitful peace of Italy was shattered when Charles VIII of France, drawn by Italy's wealth, began the first of a series of invasions designed to take control of the entire Italian peninsula. After more than 30 years of fighting, the French were finally driven out of Italy by the forces of Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor. Although ultimately a failure, the French invasions had ravaged the peninsula. They had also stimulated once again the rivalry between the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, as each side sought to play the French off against the other. In 1527,[xlviii][xlviii] for example, troops of Charles V sacked and pillaged Rome, forcing the pope to flee for his life.

             The ravages of war made life in Italy extremely insecure. The church no longer served as a source of stability and peace. To seek comfort and guidance amidst the destruction of Italian independence by foreign armies, many turned to a form of humanism developed from Petrarch’s ideas.

            Where Petrarch emphasized the importance of individual achievement and worth, later humanists increasingly emphasized aspects of his message that came to be known as civic humanism. The civic humanists argued that individual achievement and education could be fully expressed only if people used their talents and abilities in the service of their cities. Under their influence, the ideal Renaissance man came to be the “gentleman,” or “universal man,” well versed in the classics, but also a man of action—one who could respond to all situations.

            In his Book of the Courtier, the Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione[xlix][xlix] described how the perfect Renaissance gentleman—and gentlewoman—should act:: 

“I would have him speak not always of serious subjects but also of amusing things, such as games and jests and jokes. . . . He should always, of course, speak out fully and frankly, and avoid talking nonsense. . . .

      He should have a knowledge of Greek as well as Latin [and] he should be very well acquainted with the poets, and no less with the orators and historians, and also skilled at writing both verse and prose, especially in our own language. . . .

   [The lady must have] those virtues of the mind . . . in common with the courtier, such as prudence, magnanimity . . . , and also the qualities that are common to all kinds of women, such as goodness and discretion, the ability to take good care . . . of her husband's belongings and house and children, and the virtues belonging to a good mother. . . . Her serene and modest behavior . . . should be accompanied by a quick and vivacious spirit.” 

As nobles lost their military role, Castiglione gave them a new idea of refined and “courteous” behavior.

            Perhaps the most famous and influential of the civic humanists was Niccolò Machiavelli,[l][l] a citizen of Florence and an official in its government until 1512.[li][li] Serving his city as a diplomat, Machiavelli was acutely interested in the actual workings of government, and the nature of relations between states. Like many humanists, Machiavelli insisted that people should not try to live up to impossibly high ideals of human behavior, but instead should face life as it was and deal with it accordingly. In 1513[lii][lii] he wrote The Prince, an essay to serve as a sort of handbook for rulers. Observing the realities of Italian power politics in his own day, he argued that power and ruthlessness were more important to a leader than idealism. “If you have to make a choice,” he wrote, “to be feared is much safer than to be loved.” His advice to princes was purely practical; the only important thing was to succeed, and the means by which success was accomplished mattered little.

            Under the influence of men like Machiavelli, many European rulers began to practice politics and diplomacy with less emphasis on the ideal of preserving Christian unity and peace, and more emphasis on enhancing their own power and prestige. With this new approach to affairs of state, first Italy and then the rest of Europe finally gave up any remaining hope that Christendom should become a single political as well as spiritual entity.

The Arts

Even more than politics, the arts reflected the new humanist spirit. Giotto,[liii][liii] one of the earliest Renaissance painters, revived the Roman belief that observation was the key to artistic creativity. Whereas medieval artists had used idealized and symbolic representation to try and achieve closeness with God, Giotto believed that artists should depict the things they observed in nature. Above all, the human form took primary importance in Giotto's paintings. He tried to show human figures as if they were sculptures, just as he observed them. Because of his departure from earlier medieval traditions, many scholars consider him the founder of Western pictorial art.

            The humanist revival of ancient Roman culture took these developments further, particularly in the city of Florence in the 1400s.[liv][liv] Under the Medici family, the city was the scene of an intensive artistic awakening. Great competitions were often held to find the most talented artists to paint and sculpt decorations for public buildings.

            Out of the frenzy of artistic creativity came one of the greatest sculptors of the Italian Renaissance, Donatello.[lv][lv] Unlike many artists, who specialized in one type of person, Donatello was able to sculpt young children, warriors, church fathers, women, and many others with equal detail and convincing realism. Donatello also was greatly concerned with showing the human body in motion, just as ancient Greek and Roman artists had done. He wanted to convey the idea that the human body was not stiff, but rather designed for flowing movements. Donatello challenged later sculptors to depict the human form as it appeared in nature, clearly showing its beauty and grace.

            Like the Medici of Florence, many noble Italian families and wealthy merchants supported the efforts of Renaissance artists. Artists depended on wealthy patrons for their living. Ruling families became the greatest patrons, using the arts to proclaim their own fame and as political statements of their power and wealth. Isabella d'Este,[lvi][lvi] for example, who ruled the northern city-state of Mantua as regent for her husband and son, filled her palace with works by the best contemporary artists.

            BIOGRAPHY Isabella was born in 1474[lvii][lvii] to the powerful and well-educated Este family, the rulers of the Italian city-state of Ferrara.[lviii][lviii] At age 16 she was married to Francesco Gonzaga,[lix][lix] the ruler of Mantua.[lx][lx] Isabella was not to be merely a figurehead for the court. As she grew older, she exercised her keen intellect by engaging in the intricacies of politics among the city-states of Italy. She was well respected by many European rulers. Through careful negotiations she increased the wealth and power of her possessions. One of Isabella’s subjects once said of her: “She trusts no one and will know the motive of everyone.”

            Long a patron of humanist scholars and artists, in later life Isabella concentrated on filling her palace with the greatest works of art and literature of her time. Her court was home to writers, sculptors, and painters, and she had various rooms in the palace designed by leading architects of the day. Even after her death in 1539,[lxi][lxi] her legacy as a great patron lived on in the portraits she had done by two of the greatest Renaissance artists, Titian[lxii][lxii] and Leonardo da Vinci.[lxiii][lxiii]

             Da Vinci himself embodied the ideal of the Renaissance man. In addition to being a painter, he also was a sculptor, an architect, and an engineer. He was fascinated by nature and technology. He made sketches of plants and animals, as well as detailed drawings of a flying machine and a submarine. To make his paintings more realistic, he studied anatomy, dissecting human and animal corpses to find out how they worked. Yet his paintings were not simply anatomically correct. They also tried to capture the complexity of the human spirit, as his famous portrait the Mona Lisa[lxiv][lxiv] illustrates with its mysterious smile.

            Even the art commissioned by the church displayed the humanist influence. Pope Julius II,[lxv][lxv] for example, patronized perhaps the greatest and most famous artist of the Renaissance, Michelangelo Buonarroti.[lxvi][lxvi] Although Michelangelo preferred sculpting, one of his most famous works is the painting he completed between 1508 and 1512 on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the pope's residence in Rome.[lxvii][lxvii] The central feature of the painting depicts God transmitting the spark of life to Adam, who is portrayed with a sense of both serenity and power. Nothing better captures the spirit of the Renaissance and its vision of the nature and possibilities of humankind.

Section 2 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

standard of living

Commercial Revolution


joint-stock companies


Francesco Petrarch

classical education





balance of power

civic humanism

Niccolò Machiavelli

Isabella d'Este

Leonardo da Vinci


LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:




Kingdom of Naples

Papal States

1. Main Idea.  How did the growth of trade influence life in Italy?

2. Main Idea.  What was the focus of Renaissance art and literature?

3. Geography: Location  How did geography make Italy a logical place for the Renaissance to begin in Europe?

4. Writing to Explain.  Explain why, by the 1400s, many Italians felt that they could no longer rely on the church as a means of security and stability.

5. Synthesizing.  What did humanism and politics have to do with one another in Renaissance Italy?