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The impact of the
Renaissance on Europe
Jacob Burckhardt best describes the renaissance as the prototype of the
modern world, for it was the period between the fourteenth and fifteenth century
in Italy, when the base of modern civilisation was formed. It was mainly through
the revival of ancient learning that new scientific values first began to overthrow
traditional religious beliefs. People started to accept a new rational and objective
approach to reality and most important of all to rediscover the importance of the
individual. The result in Burckhardt words, was the release of the? full whole
nature of man?. However the Renaissance biggest contribution was the way
different important individuals through their logical revelations managed to
diminish the power of the Catholic Church. (Craig, Graham, Kagan, Ozment,
Turner; The heritage of world civ; pg.493-494)
Medieval Europe before the Renaissance had been a fragmented feudal
society with an agriculturally based economy, and its culture and dominated by
the Church. After the fourteenth century was characterised by the growing
national consciousness and political centralisation based on organised
commerce and capitalism, along with the secular control of thought and culture.
It was in Italy from around the time 1375 to the sack of Rome (1527) that
the distinctive features and impacts of the renaissance era are revealed.
Italy having a geographic advantage, laying in the centre of the commerce
between the east and west. Due to this fact rich and urban cities were formed in
Italy. There started to be more Italian cities than there were people in them.
Trade monopolies were formed to ensure profitability of trade and manufacturing,
but only those with sufficient capital could engage in either. For example, in
Florence 10% of the families controlled 90% of the wealth. These wealthy
families established power over these city-states (just like the Greek polis) to
which the people inhabiting inside could say they belonged to. A sense of
competition was formed between families of different cities, and as one knows
competition somehow always leads to development. Each family then tried to be
better by building churches and sponsoring great painters such as Raphael and
Michelangelo (whom will be later elaborated upon). Even the Pope got in on the
During the era bread remained the most widely consumed foodstuff, but
even subsistence consumers were beginning to supplement their diets with meat
and dairy products. There would be more pork and lamb in the diet of ordinary
people than there would be for the next four hundred years. Therefore one can
argue that the standard of living was quite higher than before. However the
common enemy still remained, that I nature and its diseases. (Kishlansky, Geary,
O?Brien; Civ in the west; pg.329-330)
Although there were outstanding advances made in the renaissance era, it
has to be concluded that the three most important and most developed areas
have to the advances made in art, sculpture and painting. Few renaissance
artists restricted themselves to one area of artistic expression, and many created
works of enduring beauty in more than one medium. Of the many important and
gifted artists of the time, only three will be discussed. (Craig, Graham, Kagan,
Ozment, Turner; The heritage of world civ; pg.499-500)
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) exhibited the renaissance idea of the
universal person, one who is a master of many talents. Being a great painter he
was also a military engineer, anatomist and scientist. He dissected corpses to
learn anatomy and was an accomplished botanist. His brilliant mind even
managed to foresee such modern machinery such as aeroplanes, submarines
and tanks. However he is most remembered for his great skill in conveying inner
moods through complex facial features, as I am sure that the reader has the
picture of the Mona Lisa whom Da Vinci painted.
Raphael (1483-1520) was famous for his tender Madonnas, the best
known of which resides in the monastery San Sisto in Piacenza. He is also
famous for his other painting being the school of Athens involving all the great
western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) was renowned for his eight-foot sculpture of
David in which he glorifies the human form. Four different Popes commissioned
him, the most famous being the frescoes for the Sistine chapel painted for Pope
Julius II. His dedication to art was so intense that his work in the chapel left him
almost crippled (since he was lying upside down for about four years).
Now from the physical aspect of the renaissance we move to the mental
and idealist influences of the era. During this period scholars and philosophers
searched the works of the ancients such as Homer, Plato and Aristotle so that
they can learn how to improve the way they lived their lives. Thus this is where
the importance of the study of history is most essential, for it provides the base
by which societies can base themselves upon.
These renaissance scholars soon came to be known as Humanists. They
were advocates of the studia humanitatis, which was a liberal arts program of
study that embraced grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, politics and moral
philosophy. Of one of my favourites (and I think most important) figures of the
time was Pico Della Mirandola and his piece Oration on the dignity of man. Pico
believed and emphasised that humans could perfect their existence on earth
because humans were divinely bestowed with the capacity to determine their
own fate. ?O highest and most marvellous felicity of man! To him it is granted to
have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills?. (Kishlansky, Geary,
O?Brien; Civ in the west; pg.329-330)
Humanists however were not anti-religious, on the contrary most of
them were devout religious men, as Petrarch says ?Christ is my lord; Cicero is
the prince of the language I use?. Yet there has never been a controversial or
important than Niccolo Machiavelli?s The prince. It?s vivid prose being-? Men
must either be pampered or crushed ? ? has not stopped readers through the
centuries devouring its every aspect. With Machiavelli begins the science of
politics. (Internet 1)
Another development was the perfection of the art of diplomacy. Constant
warfare between city-states was aimless, and by the end of the fourteenth
century city-states began the practice of keeping resident ambassadors at the
major seats of power. At the same time this improved communication and
provided leaders with accurate information about friends and enemies.
Diplomacy became both an offensive and defensive weapon. (Kishlansky, Geary,
O?Brien; Civ in the west; pg. 340)
I would like to conclude with mentioning that Renaissance artists and
philosophers did more than construct, adorn buildings or write books. Inevitably
their work expressed ideals and the way their society worked. The emphasis was
more upon the here and now rather than the hereafter; and most importantly,
upon humanity and its capacity for growth and perfection.
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