Around 1450 European civilization is exploding with New Ideas that challenge authority and the traditional ways of doing things. Why Europe? Why didn’t China have a renaissance? Or the Middle East a scientific revolution? Why didn’t Africans created Enlightenment philosophy?
Europe was specially situated to do all of those things. Their fragmented states allows for competition (and place to go if you say something your ruler doesn’t like). So the English king wants to fund exploration so that his rival the Spanish king doesn’t get there first. Or Italian city states each wanted to finance the best art to make them the preeminent power in Italy.
On top of this, separation of church and state gives more freedom to speak new ideas (you’ll still probably be shut down. But maybe not in places that are developing a rule of law and a constitutional monarchy.
All of this allows for more entrepreneurial endeavors. People start trying out new things because it’s relatively supported by the government and there’s a space to study things outside the church’s watchful eye. The new wealth coming in to merchants after the crusades funds secular universities, for example.
Let’s think about China as a counterexample – they had been coming up with new ideas for centuries. But China is a massive land empire without real competition in the region to worry about. So there’s really no need to develop innovative military technology – their Great Wall is doing just fine. And their government is run by scholar bureaucrats who all have to take a rigid exam on Confucian ethics. By definition, everyone entering the government, and thus gaining privilege and the ability to study, is now confined to just studying the things that serve the government. Basically, most other civilizations on earth are so massive and powerful from the top down that people are not given the freedom or motivation to develop new ideas.
But mostly, I would just argue that Europe was coming up with their cool ideas at just the right time – the invention of the printing press and development of navigation (and military) technology allowed them to spread their ideas around the globe and make us always remember them as important. (Thanks China for all those inventions!)
A trend we’re going to see across all aspects of European culture at this time is called secular humanism. Basically, it’s the idea that scholars/artists/scientists/philosophers shouldn’t spend all their time thinking about God and the heavens – human beings and the natural world are also worth investigating.
This upends the medieval idea of scholasticism (the Church does not accept this – they excommunicate or imprison many figures because their discoveries will go against their teachings) but it inspires a lot of the rebels in Europe. Artists start thinking about human subjects and depicting the human condition; scientists study the natural world; and philosophers start thinking about how government could serve the people instead of the other way around.
For example, there is a Renaissance painting that I always show my class and it’s called The Bean Eater. And it is literally a poor dude, sitting in his tiny house, eating beans. That’s it. This is humanism – the idea that this guy was just as worthy of being painted as Jesus Christ.
origins of the Renaissance
So how did we get there? During the medieval era, really the only institution funding art and scholarship was the Church, so there were a lot of limitations as to what you could paint or study. You can only paint Jesus and Mary so many times before you start looking to other funding sources that will let you paint something – anything – else.
Similarly, the Church funded science and research but under the umbrella of scholasticism. Basically, people could study Aristotle and early Church writings, but not much else. And any discoveries that were made that contradicted Church teachings were immediately deemed invalid.
This all changes thanks to the Crusades. The Italian city-states that rose were home to many wealthy merchant and banking families that grew rich off the thousands of ships coming through the Mediterranean toward the Holy Land. The most famous, of course, is the Medici (thanks Netflix). Cosimo de Medici established his family as the political powerhouse of Florence with influence in Rome (the Medici family produced FOUR popes).
Italy was not united, but was made up of various city-states with powerful families running politics. And these powerful families wanted a way to showcase their wealth and influence – what better way to do that than by financing art and education? It’s the same today – go to a university and see how many libraries are named after rich donors.
The ninja turtles
Some of the most famous Renaissance artists in Italy are the ninja turtles. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Donatello. I’ve been told by another teacher that the creators of the ninja turtles wanted to name one after Titian (spelled Titian) but they were worried that kids would pronounce it Titian and create problems. We could talk about the Renaissance for hours, so I just want to focus on a few of the most famous works that you might have seen or heard of.
“School of Athens” by Raphael
My favorite is a painting by Raphael called the School of Athens that’s still in the Vatican. It basically shows dozens of important people from the ancient and classical era all lounging and mingling in a massive building that looks like the inside of a basilica. Flanking the painting are sculptures (well, paintings of sculptures) of Apollo and Athena.
At the center of the painting we see Plato and Aristotle walking towards us, in discussion. They are surrounded by tons of other people – we don’t know who each person is supposed to be but there are some pretty educated guesses that include Pythagoras (the triangle guy), Alexander the Great, Pericles, Socrates, Zoroaster (founder of the Persian religion Zoroastrianism), and Ptolemy – the guy that started the Egyptian dynasty that ended with Cleopatra. So you can see why I love this painting – it’s a Who’s Who of notable historical figures.
This painting epitomizes the spirit of the Renaissance. After the Dark Ages, Europe had been reintroduced to Greek and Roman knowledge through its interactions with the Byzantines and Muslims. And these artists, scholars, scientists, and philosophers wanted to pick back up where the classical era left off. A lot of their first non-religious art was glorifying the classical era, in fact, this is when we start to get the title of the Classical Era. Europeans very pointedly leave out other civilizations like Persia and China for the most part, but the time period of Greece and Rome is now talked about as the height of culture – it’s classic.
statue of david by michelangelo
My second favorite piece of Renaissance art is Michelangelo’s statue of David, which stands in The Gallery of the Academy in Florence. If you haven’t seen it, it is a massive 17 foot tall marble statue of David (from David and Goliath). Yeah he’s naked – but that’s in keeping with the ancient Greek tradition of celebrating the beauty of the body. But it does make for some interesting PowerPoints in class.
Apparently, Michelangelo specifically sculpted David’s hands larger than was proportional. A lot of artists did this to draw your eye to the hand – one of the notoriously hardest parts of the body to get right, especially in marble. By doing this he’s showing you just how skilled he was – you can see the delicate veins and muscles beneath the skin.
A lot of artists depicted David because he was seen as the defender of civil liberties against a tyrannical giant. This is in keeping with the idea of humanism – that individual people have rights and should defend themselves against oppressive forces who try to stamp out those rights. Side note: Donatello also sculpted a really famous bronze statue of David just 70 years earlier that everyone forgets about – sorry Donatello.
The mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
Finally, we have to talk about the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in Florence at the same time that Michelangelo was chiseling out David. Man, can someone invent a time machine already?! Leonardo was a trendsetter in the Renaissance. He created dozens of sketches of his subjects, which inspired other artists to do the same – studying the subjects from a variety of perspectives or being more free in some of their interpretations.
He was the quintessential Renaissance Man – he painted, sculpted, invented, and dissected. (One of the ways artists were able to depict the human body so accurately is because they would dissect dead bodies to study them. This also advances a ton of new medical knowledge and can really only happen in a place where there is some separation of church and state – since most religions at this time aren’t too keen on cutting up dead people.)
So who was Mona Lisa? There’s three main theories. First, is that it’s Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant who would have commissioned the painting (and if he did, then boy did he get his money’s worth).
The second theory is that it’s Leonardo’s mother – but this one mostly comes from Sigmund Freud. We get it Freud – everything’s about moms – just stop talking about it you’re creeping everyone else out.
The third theory – and my personal favorite – is that it’s actually a self portrait of da Vinci and he disguised himself as a woman as one of his famous riddles. I love this one but I also desperately hope that every single sentence of The Da Vinci Code is true, so I may not be the most reliable source.
I’ll be honest. I went to the Louvre, raced through the museum to the crowd of people craning to get a good look, pushed my way to the front to see the Mona Lisa and was incredibly disappointed. For one, it’s really small. But also, like, I just don’t get it. I mean, I trust the art historians and scholars who say it’s a big deal, but I like a ton of other Renaissance paintings way better.
So I googled “Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?” Really. And I couldn’t really find a great answer. Yeah, she has that enigmatic smile that Freud analyzed to death – as Freud does. And yeah, there’s depth and perspective in the painting, but I think the depth in School of Athens is way more impressive. And yeah, her eyes follow you. But that’s art – some people look at something and love it and others don’t get it. But a lot of people in Europe loved it – the Mona Lisa was eventually owned by French kings and emperors before it ended up in the Louvre.
Honestly, the painting might not have been the most famous painting in the world except for two things. In 1867 a famous poet wrote a poem about La Gioconda (the alternate name for the Mona Lisa).
But more famously, in 1911 an Italian employee at the Louvre took it off the wall and walked out with it. It was lost for two years before he was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Did he not think anyone would notice? But I also sort of get the instinct. If I were Italian I would be pissed too that arguably our most famous work of art is sitting in someone else’s museum. That must be how all of Africa feels.
the scientific revolution
At the same time that art was revolutionizing the way we see people, scientists were looking around at the natural world and figuring out some pretty cool things like gravity, microscopes, telescopes, and the fact that the earth revolves around the sun.
This is one that really made the Church angry – because if heaven was above earth, then heaven (and, also earth) would be at the center of the universe. Copernicus was so afraid of the repercussions that he waited until just before his death to publish his findings. Later, when Galileo confirmed the Heliocentric model he was convicted of “vehement heresy” and kept under house arrest for nine years until his death.
But slowly, secular institutions develop that protect artists and scholars who want to study the natural world. But once they start questioning things – like why can’t we just paint a regular dude eating beans?, they’re not going to stop at art…