<< Back to Lessons Index

7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 1 - Renaissance in Italy

 What will we be learning in this unit?

  • Why were the Italian city-states a favorable setting for a cultural rebirth?
  • What was the Renaissance?
  • What themes and techniques did Renaissance artists explore?


The Italian City-states

 

  • The Renaissance began in Italy, then spread north to the rest of Europe. Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance for several reasons.
  • The Renaissance was marked by a new interest in the culture of ancient Rome. Because Italy had been the center of the Roman empire, it was a logical place for this reawakening to begin. Architectural remains, statues, coins, and inscriptions - all were visible reminders of Roman grandeur.


The Italian City-states

  • Italy differed from the rest of Europe in other ways. Its cities survived the Middle Ages. In the north, city-states like Florence, Milan, Venice, and Genoa grew into prosperous centers of trade and manufacturing. Rome, in central Italy, and Naples, in the south, along with a number of smaller city-states, also contributed to the Renaissance cultural revival.
  • A wealthy and powerful merchant class in these city-states further promoted the cultural rebirth. These merchants exerted both political and economic leadership, and their attitudes and interests helped to shape the Italian Renaissance. They stressed education and individual achievement. They also spent lavishly to support the arts.


The Italian City-states

  • Florence, perhaps more than any other city, came to symbolize the energy and brilliance of the Italian Renaissance. Like the ancient city of Athens, it produced a dazzling number of gifted poets, artists, architects, scholars, and scientists in a short span of time.
  • In the 1400s, the Medici family of Florence organized a successful banking business. Before long, the family expanded into wool manufacturing, mining, and other ventures. The Medicis ranked among the richest merchants and bankers in Europe. Money translated into cultural and political power. Cosimo de' Medici gained control of the Florentine government in 1434, and the family continued as uncrowned rulers of the city for many years.


 The Italian City-states

  • Cosimo's grandson Lorenzo, known as "the Magnificent," represented the Renaissance ideal. A clever politician, he held Florence together in the late 1400s during difficult times. He was also a generous patron, or financial supporter, of the arts. Under Lorenzo, poets and philosophers frequently visited the Medici palace. Artists learned their craft by sketching ancient Roman statues displayed in the Medici gardens.


 What was the Renaissance?

 

  • The Renaissance was a time of creativity and change in many areas-political, social, economic, and cultural. Perhaps most important, however, were the changes that took place in the way people viewed themselves and their world. 
  • Spurred by a reawakened interest in the classical learning of Greece and Rome, creative Renaissance minds set out to transform their own age. Their era, they felt, was a time of rebirth after what they saw as the disorder and disunity of the medieval world.


What was the Renaissance?

  • In reality, Renaissance Europe did not break completely with its medieval past. After all, monks and scholars of the Middle Ages had preserved much of the classical heritage. Latin had survived as the language of the Church and of educated people. And the mathematics of Euclid, the astronomy of Ptolemy, and the works of Aristotle were well known to late medieval scholars. 
  • Yet the Renaissance did produce new attitudes toward culture and learning. Unlike medieval scholars, who were more likely to focus on life after death, Renaissance thinkers explored the richness and variety of human experience in the here and now. At the same time, there was a new emphasis on individual achievement. Indeed, the Renaissance ideal was the person with talent in many fields.


    What was the Renaissance?

  • The Renaissance supported a spirit of adventure and a wide-ranging curiosity that led people to explore new worlds. The Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the Americas in 1492, represented that spirit. So did Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish scientist who revolutionized the way people viewed the universe. Renaissance writers and artists, eager to experiment with new forms, were also products of that adventurous spirit. 


What was the Renaissance?

  • At the heart of the Italian Renaissance was an intellectual movement known as humanism. Based on the study of classical culture, humanism focused on worldly subjects rather than on the religious issues that had occupied medieval thinkers. Most humanist scholars were pious Christians who hoped to use the wisdom of the ancients to increase their understanding of their own times.


What was the Renaissance?

  • Humanists believed that education should stimulate the individual's creative powers. They returned to the humanities, the subjects taught in ancient Greek and Roman schools. The main areas of study were grammar, rhetoric, poetry, and history, based on Greek and Roman texts. Humanists did not accept the classical texts without question, however. Rather, they studied the ancient authorities in light of their own experiences. 


 What was the Renaissance?

  • Francesco Petrarch, a Florentine who lived in the 1300s, was an early Renaissance humanist. In monasteries and churches, he found and assembled a library of Greek and Roman manuscripts. Through his efforts and those of others encouraged by his example, the works of Cicero, Homer, and Virgil again became known to Western Europeans. Petrarch also wrote literature of his own. His Sonnets to Laura, love poems inspired by a woman he knew only from a distance, greatly influenced later writers.


A Golden Age in Arts

  • Renaissance art reflected humanist concerns. Like artists of the Middle Ages, Renaissance artists portrayed religious figures such as Jesus and Mary. However, they often set these figures against Greek or Roman backgrounds. Painters also produced portraits of well-known figures of the day, reflecting the humanist interest in individual achievement. 
  • Renaissance artists studied ancient Greek and Roman works and revived many classical forms. The sculptor Donatello, for example, created a life-size statue of a soldier on horseback. It was the first such figure done since ancient times.


 A Golden Age in Arts

  • Roman art had been very realistic, and Renaissance painters developed new techniques for representing both humans and landscapes in a realistic way. Renaissance artists learned the rules of perspective. By making distant objects smaller than those close to the viewer, artists could paint scenes that appeared three-dimensional. 
  • Renaissance painters used shading to make objects look round and real. Painters and sculptors also studied human anatomy and drew from live models. As a result, they were able to portray the human body more accurately than medieval artists had done.


A Golden Age in Arts

  • Some women overcame the limits on education and training to become professional artists. Sometimes, these women kept their work secret, allowing their husbands to pass it off as their own. Still, a few women artists did gain acceptance. In the 1500s, Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian noblewoman, became court painter to King Philip II of Spain. 
  • Renaissance architects rejected the Gothic style of the late Middle Ages as cluttered and disorderly. Instead, they adopted the columns, arches, and domes that had been favored by the Greeks and Romans. For the cathedral in Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi created a majestic dome, which he modeled on the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.


Three Geniuses of Renaissance art

  • Renaissance Florence was home to many outstanding painters and sculptors. The three most celebrated Florentine masters were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
  • Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. His exploring mind and endless curiosity fed a genius for invention. He made sketches of nature and of models in his studio. He even dissected corpses to learn how bones and muscles work. "Indicate which are the muscles and which the tendons, which become prominent or retreat in the different movements of each limb," he wrote in his notebook.


 Three Geniuses of Renaissance art

  • Today, people admire Leonardo's paintings for their freshness and realism. Most popular is the Mona Lisa, a portrait of a woman whose mysterious smile has baffled viewers for centuries. The Last Supper, showing Christ and his apostles on the night before the crucifixion, is both a moving religious painting and a masterpiece of perspective. Because Leonardo was experimenting with a new type of paint, much of The Last Supper decayed over the years, but it has recently been restored.
  • Leonardo thought of himself as an artist, but his talents and accomplishments ranged over many areas. His interests extended to botany, anatomy, optics, music, architecture, and engineering. He made sketches for flying machines and undersea boats centuries before the first airplane or submarine was actually built.


    Three Geniuses of Renaissance art

 

  • Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was a many-sided genius-sculptor, engineer, painter, architect, and poet. As a young man, he shaped marble into masterpieces like the Piet, which captures the sorrow of Mary as she cradles the dead Christ on her knees. Michelangelo's statue of David, the biblical shepherd who killed the giant Goliath, recalls the harmony and grace of ancient Greek tradition.
  • One of Michelangelo's greatest projects was painting a huge mural to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It was an enormous task, depicting the biblical history of the world, from the Creation to the Flood. For four years, the artist lay on his back on a wooden platform suspended just a few inches below the chapel ceiling
  • Michelangelo was also a talented architect. His most famous design was for the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. It served as a model for many later structures, including the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.


 Three Geniuses of Renaissance art

 

  • A few years younger than Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael studied the works of those great masters. His paintings blend Christian and classical styles. He is probably best known for his tender portrayals of the madonna, the mother of Jesus.
  • In The School of Athens, Raphael pictures an imaginary gathering of great thinkers and scientists, such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and the Arab philosopher Averro. With typical Renaissance self-confidence, Raphael included the faces of Michelangelo, Leonardo-and himself.