The High Renaissance, unlike the Early Renaissance, was a time of exploration, as well as a time for some of the greatest artists, writers, and musicians the world had seen. Just as the Medieval Ages had given humanity the feudal system, the Renaissance would give birth to a new economic system called capitalism. This new economic system “offered a person reasonable freedom to pursue a better material standard of living to the extent of his or her wits and abilities.” (Sporre, 2005) Capitalism, furthermore, would advocate a new system where both men and women could pursue their personal goals of wealth and happiness.
By the time of the High Renaissance exploration was considered the means by which new markets could be created to supply the goods needed to support a capitalists, or a business owners, way of life. In our modern times there is a good amount of debate over whether the capitalist economic system is better than the other two main economic systems of socialism or communism, of which we will not discuss here. What we do know is that capitalism during the High Renaissance brought about the expansion of trade and “high prosperity to four locations in westerns Europe in particular – northern Italy, southern Germany, the Low Countries (now Belgium and the Netherlands) and England. (Sporre, 2005)
Map 1. Trade routes from the 15th century. (Rodriguez, 2013)
As with any cultural advancement art plays a pivotal role. The High Renaissance will witness some of the most outstanding achievement in painting, literature, and scientific breakthroughs by Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and da Vinci, respectively. At the same time these great thinkers are exploring their artistic creativity the theologian Martin Luther will begin the reforming process of the Church that will end with the founding of Protestantism and a complete break from the Roman Catholic Church, not discussed here.
In the case of Michelangelo two works of art stand out as his crowning achievements in shaping culture, his sculpture David and the paintings on Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Fig. 1 David, Michelangelo, 1501-4. (Sayre, 2013)
The figures contrapposto stance is a direct reflection of the de Medici family’s revitalization of all things Greek and Roman. David’s stance embodies the “self-contained, even heroic individualism” by capturing “perfectly the humanist spirit.” (Sayre, 2013) No matter what impact the sculpture has on modern viewers, contemporary viewers – those living when the work was created – knew both the political and moral message behind the work. The de Medici family had been exiled from Florence and many citizens saw David “as a symbol of the city’s will to stand up to any and all tyrannical rule, including the Medici’s themselves.” (Sayre, 2013) Another sign of the changing times was the reaction to the statues nudity and “before it was installed…a skirt of  copper leaves was prepared to spare the general public any offense. (Sayre, 2013)
Michelangelo’s David was controversial but it was not the crowning achievement of the High Renaissance that award goes to his painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Fig. 2 (a) Painted image of the Sistine Chapel ceiling , Michelangelo, 1508-12. (Sayre, 2013), (b) Label scenes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Sayre, 2013)
Even though the entire painting of the Sistine Chapel is a phenomenal accomplishment, only one section stands out and truly captivates views. The panel called Creation of Adam.
Fig. 3 Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, 1510. (Sayre, 2013)
It was in this work that:
“The tension between the spiritual and the material worlds is nowhere better represented [than] on the ceiling in the Creation of Adam…Adam seems lethargic, passive, barely interested, while a much more animated God flies through the skies carrying behind him a bulging red drapery that suggests both the womb and the brain, creativity and reason…The implication of the scene is that in just one moment, God’s finger will touch Adam’s and infuse him with not just energy but soul, not just life but the future of humankind.” (Sayre, 2013)
If Michelangelo was the quintessential artists of the High Renaissance then Niccoló Machiavelli was his equivalent in all matters related to political philosophy. To modern, non-governing individuals his most famous work, The Prince, may seem at odds with our sensibilities of charity, compassion, and self-respect. The Prince comments a length about the responsibilities of a leader to their people, saying:
“A Prince…should have no care or thought but for war…for war is the sole art looked for in one who rules…we often see that when Princes devote themselves rather to pleasure than to arms, they lose their dominions.” (Sayre, 2013)
He continues with:
“need never hesitate…to incur the reproach of those vices without which his authority can hardly be preserved; for if he will consider the whole matter, he will find that there may be a line of conduct having the appearance of virtue, to follow which would be his ruin, and that there may be another course having the appearance of vice, by following which his safety and well-being are secured.” (Sayre, 2013)
To fully understand what The Prince means a reader must not approach his writing with modern sensibilities or the entire message will be lost. In this writing he is suggesting that the well-being of the prince is synonymous with the well-being of the state. In fact, this was more than likely a warning for “the absentee Medici popes” who were “far away in Rome not tending to business in Florence” and the lessons were ”drawn from Roman history” and “were intended as a guide to aid Italy in rebuffing the French invasion.” (Sayre, 2013)
Just as Michelangelo and Machiavelli have become well known for their art and literature, Leonardo da Vinci is well known for his art, literature and scientific inquiries, innovations, and inventions. But his scientific discoveries are what set him apart as a forward thinking humanist. In his notebook’s, one can see the beginnings of scientific discovery, upon which the great thinkers Galileo and Kepler will use and expound on in future centuries. His notebooks first date to 1488 and chronicle his restless imagination on almost everything from “natural phenomena like wind, storms, and movement of water; anatomy and physiology; physics and mechanics; music; mathematics; plants and animals; geology; and astronomy” but “say nothing of painting and drawing.” (Sayre, 2013)
Fig. 4 Embryo in the Womb, da Vinci, ca. 1510. (Sayre, 2013)
One of his favorite subject matters was the human body, of which he found both appealing and revolting. In the work Embryo in the Womb and the writing that accompanies it one starts to understand da Vinci’s thought process:
“I came to the entrance of a great cavern…There immediately arose in me two feeling – fear and desire – fear of the menacing, dark cavity, and desire to see if there was anything miraculous within.” (Sayre, 2013)
The explosion of artistic and technological innovations and expressions characterizing the High Renaissance include the works of artist by Michelangelo, the political and philosophical writing of Machiavelli, and the scientific breakthroughs of Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo (Spielvogel, 1999).
Indeed, the influence of the Renaissance resonates today because the Renaissance as an era is considered to mark the birth of modern civilization. From the Renaissance comes the foundation of modern education with a curriculum that focuses on a breadth and depth of critical inquiry and emphasizes well-rounded courses of study (Levack et al., 2007). Specifically, there was a focus on creating well-rounded people who have the ability to contemplate and master the world around them (Spielvogel, 1999). The legacy of the Renaissance remains visible today with the continued emphasis in education and an effort to try to understand the world around us through contemplation.
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Rodrigue, J. P. (2003). The geography of transport systems: Major global trade routes, 1400-1800. Retrieved from http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch5en/conc5en/tradeflows14001800.html.
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Sporre, D.J. (2005) The Creative Impulse, An Introduction to the Arts, 7th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.