Early Renaissance Thinking

Following the destruction created by the spread of the Black Death in the 14th century, Europe experienced a remarkable resurgence characterized by a flourishing of cultural, economic, and political expansion. The Renaissance – or rebirth – was centered in Florence, Italy and then spread throughout the remainder of Europe.  The focus of the Renaissance would result in a remarkable expansion of Western culture, producing global exploration and expansion by the 15th century.

The Renaissance was as ‘rebirth’ of culture and learning takes place in Europe over a period of several hundred years. Although it began in Italy, during the mid-1300s and ended in the late 1500s, it also spread northward, where it peaked in the 1500s before dying out in the mid-1600s. During this period, scientific and geographic discoveries were championed.

Throughout the whole of the Renaissance, spanning from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600’s, this time was seen “as the rebirth of our understanding of ourselves as social and creative beings.” (Sporre, 2005, p.278)  Copernicus discovered that the sun was indeed the center of the solar system and the planets, including Earth, orbited the sun. Exploration of new trade routes gained the support of ruling families. Major changes to the longstanding authority of the Catholic Church were being challenged by Martin Luther. The works of one of the best-known writers, William Shakespeare, were composed and performed in England. The Renaissance was a time in which the various possibilities of human expression and discovery within the world were investigated.

Even though this entire period of time is referred to as the Renaissance it can be divided into an early and high phase.  In this section, we will discuss the Early Renaissance.

During, what will become known as, the Early Renaissance from 1400-1500 two individuals stand out as beacons of light that will pull the whole of humanity out of the Middle Ages.  These two individuals are Petrarch, the poet and ‘Father of Humanism’, and Cosimo de’ Medici, a Florentine banker.  Of course, there were others who would create sparks during this time but without Petrarch and Cosimo there is no telling what course the Italian Renaissance may have taken.


Map 1. Major Italian City-States during the Renaissance. (Sayre, 2013, p. 208)

“It was Petrarch who rediscovered the forgotten works of the Roman orator and statesman Cicero” and with this discovery his passion for classical Greco-Roman culture would ignite a flame that would grow into a blazing inferno within 50 years after his death in 1374.  (Sayre, 2013, p.202)  As the ‘Father of Humanism’ he acted as the pivotal figure in turning literature from medieval to Renaissance thinking by ‘the recovery, study and spread of the art and literature of Greece and Rome, and the application of their principles to education, politics, social life, and the arts in general.” (Sayre, 2013, p.205)  His acts alone prompted a renewal in the value of the individual, leading to the idea of self-determination.


Fig. 1 Francesco Petrarch by Andrea del Sactagno. ca. 1450

However, much of Petrarch’s writing will remind a read of poems written by troubadours in the High Middle Ages.  His poems are about love and longing for a maiden named Laura, as seen in sonnet 338:

“Death, you have left the world without a sun
dark and cold, Love blind and unarmed,
Graciousness naked, and Beauty ill,
me disconsolate, with my heavy burden,

Courtesy banned, and Honesty in the deep.
I alone grieve, but not only I have cause,
that the brightest seed of virtue’s gone:
with the first value quenched, where is there another?

The air, and earth, and sea should weep
for the human race, that without her
is a field without flowers, a ring with no gem.

The world did not know her while she lived:
I knew, I who am left to my weeping,
and Heaven, so beautified by her I weep for.” (Kline, 2002)

Unlike the High Middle Ages, poems Pertrarch “has a stylistic elegance and strives for perfection of form in the classical tradition” found in works by Ovid, Vergil, and Horace. (Sporre, 2005, p.302)  The Petrarch sonnet would eventually be imported to England, where Shakespeare would adapt it to create Shakespearean sonnets over 200 years later.

As for the Florentine banker, Cosimo de’ Medici, he would be the man who would add fuel to the flaming embers created by Petrarch.  It was Cosimo who welcomed a flood of scholars into Florence after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  Some of these scholars would carry “precious ancient manuscripts” with them to the NeoPlatonic Academy founded by Cosimo “for the study of Greek literature, language, and philosophy” especially the works by or related to Plato.


Fig. 3  Image of Cosimo de Medici. (Cosimo, 2013)

It was while at the Academy a student named Pico della Mirandola would create one of the most influence documents about humanist thoughts called “Oration on the Dignity of Man”:

“The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.” (Sayre, 2013, p.219)   In Mirandola’s above writing he reinforced the idea of man’s freedom of judge.  He was, in essence, arguing “that humanity is completely free to exercise its free will” and how “this gift of free will makes humans ‘the most fortunate of [all] living things.” (Sayre, 2013, p.219)   Three other men who left an impression of Early Renaissance artistic thinking were the fresco painter, Masaccio, and sculptures, Donatella and Ghiberti.

Masaccio would create and develop a new style of painting that “employs deep space and rational foreshortening or perspective in his figures.” (Sporre, 2005, p.285)  His most famous image is The Tribute Money.  In this work he added another quality where figures had anatomically correct weight distribution, making them seem grounded and not as if they were floating in midair, which is especially apparent in the contrapposto stance of the Roman tax collection.


Fig. 4 The Tribute Money, Masaccio, c. 1427. Fresco, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy. (Sayre, 2013, p.213)

At first glance the image appears as just another scene from the New Testament in the Holy Bible.  However, when Masaccio painted the fresco there was “a debate over taxation going on at the time in Florence.” (Sporre, 2005, p. 286)  Therefore, many scholars interpret the fresco as an instruction to Florentine people, including the clergy, “to pay taxes to earthly rules for the support of military defense.” (Sporre, 2005, p.286)

It was with Ghiberti’s creation of the east doors to Florence’s Baptistery that a significant innovation in Renaissance art was acquired, the depicting of perspective naturalistically. When Michelangelo saw the doors for the first time he “reportedly remarked that the doors were worthy to be the Gates of Paradise, and the name stuck.” (Sporre, 2005, p.295)


Fig. 5 The Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti, c. 1424-52. Baptistery, Florence, Italy.  (Lubow, 2007)

Ghiberti treats each of the 10 sculpted squares as if they were a canvas he was freely painting on.


Fig. 6 Detail The Story of Adam and Eve, Gates of Paradise, Baptistery east door.(Sayre, 2010)

The best known master of sculptor to emerge during the Early Renaissance is Donatello.  Early in his career he had become “fascinated by the optical qualities of form and by the intense inner life of his subjects.” (Sporre, 2005, p.293)   By 1430 Donatello had created a refined style of sculpting with his most magnificent refinement being showcased in his work titled David.


Fig. 7 David¸ Donatello, c. 1430-40. (Sayre, 2013, p.214)

David commissioned by Cosimo de Medici was “the first freestanding nude since classical times…the figure exhibits a return to classical contropposts stance in its refined form” with the work also “symbolizing Christ’s triumph over Satan.” (Sporre, 2005, p.293)  This sculpture, like Masaccio’s The Tribute Money fresco, had a double meaning.  This is because “in an age when kings and emperors rules, the city of Florence and its surrounding territory was one of those rare places that ha a republic.” (Craughwell, 2008, p.170)  Furthermore, “the people of Florence liked to think of themselves as a political David pitted against a host of royal Goliaths.” (Craughwell, 2008, p.170)


The Early Renaissance was undoubtedly a time when a remarkable amount of creative activity was pouring out and into the homes, streets and religious building in Florence.  “Looking back we have the luxury of speculating on whether or why we should call it the Renaissance and to examine changes that occurred in how people live, in the way the political map(s) emerged, and in how people went about doing business and exploring the world.” (Sporre, 2005, p.303)  what we can safely assume is that the sheer amount of activities and connections being made at this time is amazing.  Scholars, and eventually artists, from all over the known world would flock to Florence to study art and literature from writing of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.  They would start to apply “these principles to education, politics, social life, and the arts in general.” (Sayre, 2013, p.205)


Craughwell, T. J. (2008). The book of art. New York, NY: Tess Press: Black Dog & Leventhal Publiusher, Inc.

Cosimo de’ Medici. (2013). The Biography Channel website. Retrieved 08:52, Mar 31, 2013, from http://www.biography.com/people/cosimo-de-medici-38096.

Kline, A. S. (2002). petrarch poems 306 to 366 of ‘the canzoniere’ . Retrieved from http://poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/PetrarchCanzoniere306-366.htm.

Lubow, A. (2007, Novmber). the gates of paradise panels from the italian renaissance sculptor lorenzo ghiberti tour the u.s. for the first time. Smithsonian, Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/gatesofparadise-200711.html?c=y&page=1.

Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.

——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.

Spielvogel, J. J. (2000). Western civilization. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Sporre, D.J. (2005) The Creative Impulse, An Introduction to the Arts, 7th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.


About kmjantz

My primary goal is to explore humanities existence to date as we know it. I also create works of art that search to understand and explain why humans die because of diseases has plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Until recently, artistic expression of said search was constrained by religious ideology and scientific understanding. Today modern artists have access to a multitude of scientific technological advancements and enjoy greater creative freedom. For these reasons, my projects combination of artist styles/movements, scientific discovery, folklore, and my own imagination. My overall goal is to introduce viewers to a world so small that most do not think about it until they must due to illness. This goal is accomplished by taking selected microorganisms (thought of as ugly, disgusting, and devastating annoyances) and illustrating them as beautiful symbols of humanity’s co-evolution with nature. Making art can be a way of simplifying complex thoughts and scientific findings imbedded in humanity’s narrative.
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