History Podcasts

Italian Renaissance

Italian Renaissance

Toward the end of the 14th century A.D., a handful of Italian thinkers declared that they were living in a new age. The barbarous, unenlightened “Middle Ages” were over, they said; the new age would be a “rinascità” (“rebirth”) of learning and literature, art and culture. This was the birth of the period now known as the Renaissance. For centuries, scholars have agreed that the Italian Renaissance (another word for “rebirth”) happened just that way: that between the 14th century and the 17th century, a new, modern way of thinking about the world and man’s place in it replaced an old, backward one. In fact, the Renaissance (in Italy and in other parts of Europe) was considerably more complicated than that: For one thing, in many ways the period we call the Renaissance was not so different from the era that preceded it. However, many of the scientific, artistic and cultural achievements of the so-called Renaissance do share common themes, most notably the humanistic belief that man was the center of his own universe.

The Italian Renaissance in Context

Fifteenth-century Italy was unlike any other place in Europe. It was divided into independent city-states, each with a different form of government. Florence, where the Italian Renaissance began, was an independent republic. It was also a banking and commercial capital and, after London and Constantinople, the third-largest city in Europe. Wealthy Florentines flaunted their money and power by becoming patrons, or supporters, of artists and intellectuals. In this way, the city became the cultural center of Europe and of the Renaissance.

The New Humanism: Cornerstone of the Renaissance

Thanks to the patronage of these wealthy elites, Renaissance-era writers and thinkers were able to spend their days doing just that. Instead of devoting themselves to ordinary jobs or to the asceticism of the monastery, they could enjoy worldly pleasures. They traveled around Italy, studying ancient ruins and rediscovering Greek and Roman texts.

To Renaissance scholars and philosophers, these classical sources from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome held great wisdom. Their secularism, their appreciation of physical beauty and especially their emphasis on man’s achievements and expression formed the governing intellectual principle of the Italian Renaissance. This philosophy is known as “humanism.”

Renaissance Science and Technology

Humanism encouraged people to be curious and to question received wisdom (particularly that of the medieval Church). It also encouraged people to use experimentation and observation to solve earthly problems. As a result, many Renaissance intellectuals focused on trying to define and understand the laws of nature and the physical world. For example, Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci created detailed scientific “studies” of objects ranging from flying machines to submarines. He also created pioneering studies of human anatomy. Likewise, the scientist and mathematician Galileo Galilei investigated one natural law after another. By dropping different-sized cannonballs from the top of a building, for instance, he proved that all objects fall at the same rate of acceleration. He also built a powerful telescope and used it to show that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun and not, as religious authorities argued, the other way around. (For this, Galileo was arrested for heresy and threatened with torture and death, but he refused to recant: “I do not believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use,” he said.)

However, perhaps the most important technological development of the Renaissance happened not in Italy but in Germany, where Johannes Gutenberg invented the mechanical movable-type printing press in the middle of the 15th century. For the first time, it was possible to make books–and, by extension, knowledge–widely available.

Renaissance Art and Architecture

Michelangelo’s “David.” Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Sandro Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” During the Italian Renaissance, art was everywhere (just look up at Michelangelo’s “The Creation” painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!). Patrons such as Florence’s Medici family sponsored projects large and small, and successful artists became celebrities in their own right.

Renaissance artists and architects applied many humanist principles to their work. For example, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi applied the elements of classical Roman architecture–shapes, columns and especially proportion–to his own buildings. The magnificent eight-sided dome he built at the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence was an engineering triumph–it was 144 feet across, weighed 37,000 tons and had no buttresses to hold it up–as well as an aesthetic one.

Brunelleschi also devised a way to draw and paint using linear perspective. That is, he figured out how to paint from the perspective of the person looking at the painting, so that space would appear to recede into the frame. After the architect Leon Battista Alberti explained the principles behind linear perspective in his treatise “Della Pittura” (“On Painting”), it became one of the most noteworthy elements of almost all Renaissance painting. Later, many painters began to use a technique called chiaroscuro to create an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat canvas.

Fra Angelico, the painter of frescoes in the church and friary of San Marco in Florence, was called “a rare and perfect talent” by the Italian painter and architect Vasari in his “Lives of The Artists.” Renaissance painters like Raphael, Titian and Giotto and Renaissance sculptors like Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti created art that would inspire generations of future artists.

The End of the Italian Renaissance

By the end of the 15th century, Italy was being torn apart by one war after another. The kings of England, France and Spain, along with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, battled for control of the wealthy peninsula. At the same time, the Catholic Church, which was itself wracked with scandal and corruption, had begun a violent crackdown on dissenters. In 1545, the Council of Trent officially established the Roman Inquisition. In this climate, humanism was akin to heresy. The Italian Renaissance was over.


The Italian Renaissance - An overview of theatre: The History of Italian Theatre

The Italian Renaissance occurred from 1550 - 1700. The rapid economic growth in Italy during this time made it possible for the more wealthy citizens to endulge in alternate forms of entertainment. Wealthy families such as the Medicis began a system of patronage, in which they would finance artists to produce art in many forms. Italian theatre used the plays of ancient Greek and Roman theatre (dramas) as well as mediaeval theatre (religious plays) as a foundation.

The main style used by theatre groups in Italy during this period was called commedia or Commedia dell'Arte. Commedia dell'Arte or "the comedy of professional artists" was a mainstay in Italian theatre during its renaissance. This included bits of comedy performed by different actors called lazzi. The type of comedy used in the Italian Renaissance was what is now known as slapstick or farce. This was a comedy style, which highlighted pain or misfortune occurring to the actors in a humorous context.

For the most part the actors in these comedies used no scripts. The actors were given a plot or scenario and acted out these plots in a humorous way. These performances were often vulgar and obscene. Standardize characters developed and appeared in familiar costumes and wearing masks.

The character standards for Commedia included these general outlines:

- Pantalone: A greedy old man, merchant or fool, often lustful, conniving, and

- Dottore: A drunk, often proffesor or doctor dressed in a cap and gown.

- Capitano: A soldier who was braggadocios and cowardly.

- Inamorati: Young lovers who appeared quite normal compared to the rest of

- "zanni": Foolish servants. Usually two servants, one being drunk and

more foolish than his cohort.

Neoclassicists were rigid critics of Italian drama. They developed rules for theatre performances that survived for nearly 200 years in Europe. These mandates were claimed to have been derived from Greek and Roman models. Five central concepts of neoclassicism are as follows verisimilitude, decorum, purity of genres, the three unities, and two fold purpose.

Verisimilitude - The seeking of truth. An attempt to portray the performance as a reasonable interpretation of what is real or reasonably expected in real life.

Decorum - The way in which characters of certain classes behaved according to that class. Age, sex, rank, and profession would be acted out as if the characters held those standings. A strong sense of moral right and wrong was upheld, reflected by the punishment of evil, and the rewarding of good.

Purity of Genres - Comedy and tragedy were never mixed. The elements of one genre were never to be interspersed with the performance of another. The use of the chorus, the deus ex machina, and the soliloquy, was prohibited.

The Three Unities - The concept of the unity of time, place, and action. Unity of time required a reasonable time for the action of the play to take place usually no more than 24 hours. Unity of place required that the play should include no more than one place or location. Unity of action required that there be no sub plots, secondary plots or counter-plots.

Two Fold Purpose - The two purposes of neoclassical Italian plays were to teach and entertain.

Opera is the one form of Italian renaissance theatre that still survives to this day. It was developed in the late 1500s in Florence. Opera was originally an attempt to recreate a genuine Greek tragedy. Observing the Greek fusion of music and drama, the originators of opera attempted, and succeeded in, producing a completely sung dialogue in their interpretations. Opera is a form of drama that creates its mood, actions, and characters through music

The first opera on record is called Dafne (1597). The text of the opera was written by, Ottavio Rinuccini (1562 - 1621). The music was scored by, Jacopo Peri (1561-1633). The opera, which consisted of a prologue and six scenes, was performed during the pre-Lenten Carnival of Palazzo Corsi.

The Camerata Fiorentina, an academy of wealthy Italians who studied ancient Greek and Roman theatre, produced Dafne.

The actual textual part of the opera is called the libretto. One, two, three or four performers can sing the librettos these performances are called an aria (solo), a duet, a trio, and a quartet respectively. The visual display (intermezzo), along with musical excellence and strong performances, keep opera alive as a form of powerful dramatic art.

Staging, Scenery, and Lighting

The use of perspective drawing as a means to capture realistic backdrops was a common theme among 16th century stage designers. The illusion of depth was achieved through perspective drawing techniques using "vanishing points" as objects appeared closer to the horizon they were painted smaller and smaller on their scenic backdrops. The first use of this technique is believed to have occurred in 1508, for a performance of Ariosto's La Cassaria. A leading author and set creator named Sebastion Serlio wrote about this technique and other scene design methods in his book Architettura (1545). Different kinds of illusionistic backdrops settings were developed for the three major types of plays of the era (comic, pastoral, and tragic).

A three-sided revolving prism called the periaktoi, was developed to change between different settings. This was quite an innovation for its time, as the scenery could be changed right before the audience's eyes. Other advances included the proscenium frame and front curtain along with varied flying machines (glories) and other special effects.

Lighting inside the dark theaters of renaissance Italy also had to be addressed. Oil lamps and candles were the primary source of stage lighting. Though candles and lamps produced some smoke, they were placed in chandeliers and on the front of the stage. Placing translucent receptacles or canisters over them could dim candles when lower light levels were called for. Due to the size and lack of sufficient lighting of the theatres, artificial lighting was an ever-present necessity.


Early Renaissance

During the Early Renaissance, artists began to reject the Byzantine style of religious painting and strove to create realism in their depiction of the human form and space. This aim toward realism began with Cimabue and Giotto, and reached its peak in the art of the “Perfect” artists, such as Andrea Mantegna and Paolo Uccello, who created works that employed one point perspective and played with perspective for their educated, art knowledgeable viewer.

During the Early Renaissance we also see important developments in subject matter, in addition to style. While religion was an important element in the daily life of people living during the Renaissance, and remained a driving factor behind artistic production, we also see a new avenue open to panting—mythological subject matter. Many scholars point to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as the very first panel painting of a mythological scene. While the tradition itself likely arose from cassone painting, which typically featured scenes from mythology and romantic texts, the development of mythological panel painting would open a world for artistic patronage, production, and themes.

Birth of VenusBotticelli’s Birth of Venus was among the most important works of the early Renaissance.


The Rebirth of Classicism

Thanks to humanism, Renaissance-era Italians began to once again appreciate their classical Greek and Roman heritage in all its forms. The word “renaissance” means rebirth – in this case, the rebirth of the antique tradition. While the Italian Renaissance was still a deeply religious era, people became more comfortable with the idea that the pagan classical past could coexist with Christianity. As their countrymen embraced the classical past, Italian artists closely studied the classical statues being excavated in Rome. Classical myth and history became popular subject matter for Renaissance artists, as can be seen in Raphael’s The School of Athens.

If you like ancient Greek and Roman artwork, Italian Renaissance art may look very familiar to you. That’s because Renaissance artists often incorporated poses and compositions from classical artwork into their own pieces. Renaissance intellectuals believed that the ancients had already created the perfect solutions to all problems, so quoting from the classical masters was a popular strategy.

Such visual and literary quotations could be quite sophisticated, and some were legible only by the educated. This complex symbolism and subject matter helped raise artists’ status from mere craftsman to respected intellectuals.

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.


Italian Renaissance - HISTORY

The new Renaissance world view owed much to two innovative thinkers and writers: St Thomas Aquinas and Petrarch.

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who developed the concept of natural theology: theology based on reason and experience. He brought Christian doctrine and Aristotelian logic into a syncretic intellectual system. By inquiring into the nature of nature he laid the foundations of the scientific revolution. But remember, he was not suggesting that nature was anything else but created by God.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the garden evolved along side many other art forms and sciences, and the surviving examples, which have influenced garden designers down the centuries, are monuments to the ability of the innovative garden designers, sculptors and engineers who built them.

Today, however, the gardens tend to be seen only in terms of beautiful statuary, fantastic water works, and large evergreen trees. This is far from the whole story, but to understand these gardens, it is essential to get into the Renaissance mind, which saw the world as hierarchical, but with each part interrelated.

Put simplistically the new relationship between human and divine went something like this. At the top was God, who had created Man, and Nature. Man perceived the natural world in terms of its usefulness to his needs: plants and animals provided medicine, food, and clothing. Yet at the same time Nature was part of the divinely created cosmos, and so to understand Nature was to further understand God.

This interaction was especially subtle and complex in the garden where art and nature were united into an indistinguishable whole. Together they produced something that is neither one nor the other and is created equally by both. Sadly, because the planting and perishable features have disappeared, many surviving Renaissance gardens have lost much of their original symbolism. But it is possible to ‘recreate’ them.


4. Tempietto del Bramante

Tempietto del Bramante (Credit: Peter1936F / CC).

The tiny, round temple by Donato Bramante sits inside the courtyard of the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, on the spot where St Peter was crucified.

A small commemorative tomb, the Tempietto (“small temple”) is considered a masterpiece of High Renaissance Italian architecture and thought to be the prototype of St Peter’s Basilica.


Culture of the Renaissance in Italy

Though the origins of the movement had been confined mainly to the intellectual and cultural endeavors of the 14th century, many aspects of the society and culture of Italy remained medieval. These improvements were quite concentrated among the elite of the country, life for the majority of Italians remained unchanged since the middle ages.

Siena – Santa Maria della Scala – Care of the Sick by Domenico di Bartolo
Photo courtesy of Eugene_a/Wikimedia

However, things did begin to change for the better, as Italian city life would flourish. The centuries of the Renaissance saw the major Italian cities turn from dark medieval cities of wood into bright cities of marble. Dwellings began to be designed differently as life in the city emerged from the courtyards and into the streets and public squares.

Marriage and family life in the Renaissance

Weddings in Renaissance Italy took the customs of Medieval Italy to another level as even the poorest families attempted to emulate the rich. Even a peasant maid would need to provide a hefty dowry to catch entice another family to offer their son.

Modern concepts of marriage as an act of love were just beginning and weddings of the time were more a social contract between two families. However, they still were a time of joyous celebration, and guests often expected to be well fed and entertained. Before the Council of Trent, weddings were presided over by a magistrate and not a priest, according to Roman-based civil law.

Saint Anthony distributing to the poor

Women in the Renaissance began to take a greater role in social life, although their role of caretaker of the house and children remained unchanged. The reason for marriage was still to produce sons, and wives expected to raise young boys into healthy and educated young men. Daughters were expensive to raise, due to the need to provide a dowry, which could bankrupt lower-class families.

However, unlike the Middle Ages, Italian women of the Renaissance had much more freedom of movement, were expected to have a will of their own, and be able to form an opinion. Although they could not wield power directly, powerful women of the Renaissance were often the so-called ‘power behind the throne’.

Food in the Renaissance

The cuisine and eating habits of the Italian Renaissance were the beginnings of many of our modern concepts of food. The lavish banquets and the elaborate dishes of the time still had more to do with the Middle Ages, where wealthy diners often ate in pairs, sharing utensils and throwing discards onto the floor for the dogs. Food changed very little for the lower classes in Renaissance, which still relied on course dark bread, beans, pasta, or buckwheat polenta.

Meanwhile, the wealthy Italians of the Renaissance, especially the Medici family, would begin to break away from the eating traditions of old and create what arguably is the basis for modern gourmet cuisine. They began to incorporate new world ingredients like potatoes and peppers and they were they would also introduce a new utensil to the table, called the fork.

Christ at the Column (1480-1490) – Donato Bramante – Pinacoteca Brera, Milan
Photo courtesy of Red_devil_666/Wikimedia

Forks were first seen in Italy during a visit by a Byzantine princess to Venice and were originally frowned upon by the church. The rich also began to eat their meals upon plates of wood, metal, and later fine porcelain instead of hard bread (a trencher) like the poor. Naturally, the elite had access to finer ingredients and exotic spices to make their meals, but the people of Italy during the Renaissance ate many of the same foods, including pasta and polenta.

Festivals in the Renaissance Age in Italy

The Renaissance was a golden age of pomp and celebration as the wealthy attempted to outdo each other in public displays. The reasons were varied, religious or secular celebrations were held with equal enthusiasm as if the Renaissance was trying to forget the often dour times of Medieval Italy. These events also were times when the rich and poor mixed rather freely, processions could include every social stratum from Pope to a beggar.

As the time of knights on the battlefield ended with pike and gunpowder, their skills with a lance became increasingly popular as a sport. Jousting was very popular as a spectator sport throughout Renaissance Italy and numerous other public games, horse races, and even bullfights brought people into the large public squares of Italian cities.

Achievements in the Italian Renaissance

Italian Literature

The Renaissance era in Italy is mainly famous because of the various achievements in art and culture. Many famous poets had belonged to this era like Ludovico Ariosto, Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, Matteo Maria Boriardo and Luigi Pulci. Italian writers and poets had made several contributions to the world of literature during this period.

Italian Fine Arts in the Renaissance

The idea that the Renaissance was a rebirth or rediscovery is best exemplified by how its greatest artists used the works of ancient Greece and Rome as their base. In the fine arts of the time, the masterpieces of stone, bronze, and paint remain some of the greatest of human achievements.

Names like Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Botticelli are household names centuries after their deaths. Our modern concepts of artistic beauty are in many ways still defined by the achievements of this era. They took much from the ancients the art of the Renaissance also was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, creating something unique to that particular place and time.

Renaissance Architecture

Although the Italian Renaissance still had much in common with earlier times in Europe, it also began much that we still find in our modern world. So many achievements of the Renaissance have since been surpassed and yet others remain untouchable. Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa are perhaps admired even more today than when they were created, centuries ago.


I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History

Published in conjunction with The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, this series represents the very highest quality scholarship concerning the history of the Italian Renaissance from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. Within this broad chronological definition, the series publishes two to three volumes per year. Nicholas Terpstra is General Editor.

Below is a list of in-print works in this collection, presented in series order or publication order as applicable.

One of the leading humanists of Quattrocento Italy, Lorenzo Valla (1406&ndash1457) has been praised as a brilliant debunker of medieval scholastic philosophy. In this book Lodi Nauta seeks a more balanced assessment, presenting us with the first comprehensive analysis of the humanist&rsquos attempt at radical reform of Aristotelian scholasticism.

Alison Brown demonstrates how Florentine thinkers used Lucretius&mdashearlier and more widely than has been supposed&mdashto provide a radical critique of prevailing orthodoxies. She enhances our understanding of the &ldquorevolution&rdquo in sixteenth-century political thinking and our definition of the Renaissance within newly discovered worlds and new social networks.

This innovative microhistory of a fascinating yet neglected city shows how its loyalty to Venice was tested by military attack, economic downturn, and demographic collapse. Despite these trials, Brescia experienced cultural revival and political transformation, which Stephen Bowd uses to explain state formation in a powerful region of Renaissance Italy.

Leonardo Bruni is widely recognized as the most important humanist historian of the early Renaissance. Gary Ianziti undertakes a systematic work-by-work investigation of the full range of Bruni&rsquos output in history and biography, and assesses in detail the impact of the Greek historians on humanist methods of historical writing.

The Duke and the Stars explores science and medicine as studied and practiced in fifteenth-century Italy, including how astrology was taught in relation to astronomy. It illustrates how the &ldquopredictive art&rdquo of astrology was often a critical, secretive source of information for Italian Renaissance rulers, particularly in times of crisis.

Renaissance debates about politics and gender led to pioneering forms of poor relief, devised to help women get a start in life. These included orphanages for illegitimate children and forced labor in workhouses, but also women&rsquos shelters and early forms of maternity benefits, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and credit union savings plans.

In 1482 Francesco Berlinghieri produced the Geographia, a book of over 100 folio leaves describing the world in Italian verse interleaved with lavishly engraved maps. Roberts demonstrates that the Geographia represents the moment of transition between printing and manuscript culture, while forming a critical base for the rise of modern cartography.

Italian sermons tell a story of the Reformation that credits preachers with using the pulpit, pen, and printing press to keep Italy Catholic when the region&rsquos violent religious wars made the future uncertain, and with fashioning a post-Reformation Catholicism that would survive the competition and religious choice of their own time and ours.

In the sixteenth century, the city-state of Florence failed. In its place the Medicis created a principality, becoming first dukes of Florence and then grand dukes of Tuscany. The Fruit of Liberty analyzes the slow transformations that predated and facilitated the institutional shift from republic to principality, from citizen to subject.

Carter, Tim
Goldthwaite, Richard A.

This record of Florentine musician Jacopo Peri&rsquos wide-ranging investments and activities in the marketplace enables the first detailed account of the Florentine economy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and opens a completely new perspective on one of Europe&rsquos principal centers of capitalism.

In the first half of the fifteenth century, Rome and the papal court were caught between conflicting realities&mdashbetween the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, conciliarism and papalism, an image of a restored republic and a dream of a papal capital. Elizabeth McCahill explores the transformation of Rome&rsquos ancient legacy into a potent cultural myth.

In explaining an improbable liaison and its consequences, A Mattress Maker&rsquos Daughter explores changing concepts of love and romance, new standards of public and private conduct, and emerging attitudes toward property and legitimacy just as the age of Renaissance humanism gives way to the Counter Reformation and Early Modern Europe.

Dispelling the myth that Florentine politics offered only negative lessons, Mark Jurdjevic shows that significant aspects of Machiavelli&rsquos political thought were inspired by his native city. Machiavelli&rsquos contempt for Florence&rsquos shortcomings was a direct function of his considerable estimation of the city&rsquos unrealized political potential.

Cosimo dei Medici stabilized ducal finances, secured his borders, doubled his territory, attracted scholars and artists to his court, academy, and universities, and dissipated fractious Florentine politics. These triumphs were far from a foregone conclusion, as Gregory Murry shows in this study of how Cosimo crafted his image as a sacral monarch.

Using four notorious moments in the life of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, Valeria Finucci explores changing early modern concepts of sexuality, reproduction, beauty, and aging. She deftly marries salacious tales with historical analysis to tell a broader story of Italian Renaissance cultural adjustments and obsessions.

Ada Palmer explores how Renaissance poets and philologists, not scientists, rescued Lucretius and his atomism theory. This heterodoxy circulated in the premodern world, not on the conspicuous stage of heresy trials and public debates but in the classrooms, libraries, studies, and bookshops where quiet scholars met transformative ideas.

Meredith Ray shows that women were at the vanguard of empirical culture during the Scientific Revolution. They experimented with medicine and alchemy at home and in court, debated cosmological discoveries in salons and academies, and in their writings used their knowledge of natural philosophy to argue for women&rsquos intellectual equality to men.

Revealing an Italian Renaissance beyond Michelangelo and the Medici, Sarah Gwyneth Ross recovers the experiences of everyday people who were inspired to pursue humanistic learning. Physicians were often the most avid professionals seeking to earn the respect of their betters, advance their families, and secure honorable remembrance after death.

Dag Nikolaus Hasse shows how ideological and scientific motives led to the decline of Arabic traditions in European culture. The Renaissance was a turning point: on the one hand, Arabic scientific traditions reached their peak of influence in Europe on the other, during this period the West began to forget, or suppress, its debt to Arabic culture.

Roisin Cossar examines how clerics managed efforts to reform their domestic lives in the decades after the Black Death. Despite reformers&rsquo desire for clerics to remain celibate, clerical households resembled those of the laity, and priests&rsquo lives included apprenticeships in youth, fatherhood in middle age, and reliance on their families in old age.

Unn Falkeid considers the work of six fourteenth-century writers who waged literary war against the Avignon papacy&rsquos increasing claims of supremacy over secular rulers&mdasha conflict that engaged contemporary critics from every corner of Europe. She illuminates arguments put forth by Dante, Petrarch, William of Ockham, Catherine of Siena, and others.

Giannozzo Manetti was one of the most remarkable figures of the Italian Renaissance, though today his works are unfamiliar in English. In this authoritative biography, the first ever in English, David Marsh guides readers through the vast range of Manetti&rsquos writings, which epitomized the new humanist scholarship of the Quattrocento.

Salomone da Sesso was a virtuoso goldsmith in Renaissance Italy. Brought down by a sex scandal, he saved his skin by converting to Catholicism. Tamar Herzig explores Salamone&rsquos world&mdashhis Jewish upbringing, his craft and patrons, and homosexuality. In his struggle for rehabilitation, we see how precarious and contested was the meaning of conversion.

In Renaissance Italy women from all walks of life played a central role in health care and the early development of medical science. Observing that the frontlines of care are often found in the household and other spaces thought of as female, Sharon Strocchia encourages us to rethink women&rsquos place in the history of medicine.

John Christopoulos provides a comprehensive account of abortion in early modern Italy. Bringing together medical, religious, and legal perspectives, he explores the meanings of a practice that was officially banned yet widely practiced and generally tolerated, demonstrating that Italy was hardly a haven for Catholic anti-abortion absolutism.

In 1499, Milan was an independent state with a stable government. But over the next thirty years, it descended into chaos amid the Italian Wars. John Gagné details Milan&rsquos social and political breakdown. The Renaissance may have been the cradle of the modern nation-state, but it was also a time when sophisticated sovereigns collapsed.

Lorenz Böninger tells the story of Niccolò di Lorenzo della Magna, a major printer of Renaissance Italy. Niccolò&rsquos hitherto mysterious life and career provide unparalleled insight into the business of printing in its earliest years, illuminating the economic, legal, and intellectual forces that surrounded the publication and dissemination of texts.

Guido Ruggiero brings readers back to Renaissance Florence, capturing how the Decameron sounded to fourteenth-century ears. Giovanni Boccaccio&rsquos masterpiece of love, sex, loyalty, and betrayal resonated amid the Black Death and the era&rsquos convulsive political change, reimagining truth and virtue in a moment both desperate and full of potential.

The Renaissance was also the beginning of the Age of Empires, yet the Grand Duchy of Tuscany failed to secure overseas colonies. How did Tuscany retain its place in European affairs and intellectual life? Brian Brege explores the shrewd diplomatic moves and domestic investments that safeguarded the duchy&rsquos wealth and influence amid globalization.

Founded in 1540, the Society of Jesus was instantly popular, attracting thousands of candidates in its first century. Camilla Russell looks to the lives and writings of early Jesuits to better understand the Society&rsquos appeal, how it worked, and the ideas that drove Christian thinkers and missionaries during the Renaissance and early modern period.

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To celebrate Pride Month, we are highlighting excerpts from books that explore the lives and experiences of the LGBT+ community. This second excerpt comes from How To Be Gay, a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, in which David M. Halperin, a pioneer of LGBTQ studies, dares to suggest that gayness is a way of being that gay men must learn from one another to become who they are. &hellip


Nobles of the Italian City-States

At the same time that humanism was taking shape as an intellectual movement, central and northern Italy saw the rise of the city-states. The political situation in these Italian regions would play an equally important role in the growth of the Renaissance. The Italian city-states were often fiercely independent, and a strong sense of rivalry developed amongst them. Additionally, these city-states were normally led by new noble families, i.e. those that had risen to power not long ago.

One of the most notable of these new nobilities is the Medici family, which ruled over Florence for much of the period between the 15 th and 18 th centuries. The Medicis were originally peasants from Tuscany, and they trace their roots to the village of Cafaggiolo in the Mugello, the valley of the Sieve, north of Florence. Some of these villagers emigrated to Florence, due to the opportunities afforded by commerce, and grew rich.

Renaissance artwork of the Virgin and Child with St Anne and members of the Medici family as saints. (Giovanni Maria Butteri / Public domain )

The Medicis too obtained their wealth by these means, though they were not amongst the leading families. After 1340, however, many of these powerful families were forced into bankruptcy, as a consequence of an economic depression in Europe. Furthermore, around the same time, Europe was struck by the black death, which reached its peak between the 1340s and 1350s. The Medici family managed to survive these disasters, and even seized the opportunity to advance their position in Florentine society. Amongst the most famous members of the Medici family were Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Catherine de’ Medici.

The Medicis, as well as other noble families of the Italian city-states, needed to legitimize their new social and political status, and were keen to display their wealth. As these nobles were also heavily influenced by humanism, they decided to do this through the arts and culture. Thus, these powerful families became important patrons of the arts, and it was their great wealth that funded the Renaissance. As humanists, the Italian nobles had no qualms in drawing inspiration from both the pagan classical world, as well as from Christianity. Whilst the former allowed these nobles to link themselves with the lost glories of ancient Greece and Rome, the latter displayed their piety. Thus, the works of art of the Renaissance had both paganism and Christianity as their subject matter. For instance, at the same time Raphael was painting The School of Athens , Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , both are considered some of the best Renaissance artworks to be completed by two of the most influential artists.

The School of Athens by Raphael (‘Stanze di Raffaello’) in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. (Raphael / Public domain )

The generous patronage of these Italian noble families resulted in the rise of many distinguished artists, whose works are still admired even today. Some of the most prominent of these Renaissance artists were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, all of whom were patronized by the Medicis at some point of time in their careers. In the case of Raphael, he did not work under the Medicis in Florence, as they were in exile for much of Raphael’s life. Instead, he received patronage in Rome from Pope Leo X, who was himself a member of the Medici family.

Although the Renaissance began in Florence, it spread to other Italian city-states as well, including Venice, Genoa, Milan, and Bologna. The Renaissance even arrived in Rome itself during the early 15 th century, thanks to a series of popes collectively known as the ‘Renaissance Papacy’. Although most of the popes from this period were morally bankrupt, they invested heavily in the arts and architecture of Rome, as they saw it as a way to increase the prestige of the Eternal City. The rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, for instance, began in 1506, during the reign of Pope Julius II (who, incidentally, chose his papal name in honor of Julius Caesar, and is nicknamed the ‘Warrior Pope’), whilst the Sistine Chapel was painted during the papacies of Sixtus IV, Julius II, Clement VII, and Paul III.

Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican. ( Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe stock)


“Beauty Adorns Virtue”: Italian Renaissance Fashion

A round 1474-8 Leonardo da Vinci painted his iconic portrait of the Florentine noblewoman Ginevra de’Benci (Fig. 1a). The front panel displays the aristocrat’s face, while the back uses flora to represent her personality. The two sides blend together, creating a full picture of Ginevra de’Benci. The sitter wears a brown kirtle laced with blue ribbon, and a halo of tight ringlets surrounds her face. The obverse side of the portrait (Fig. 1b) proclaims Ginevra’s literary intellect with a laurel leaf, which intersects with a palm frond (a typical attribute carried by martyred saints) to suggest her strong moral character. Both symbolic branches encircle a sprig of juniper, a pun on the sitter’s given name. A banner of trompe-l’oeil paper intertwines all three plants, displaying a Latin motto: “VIRTVTEM FORMA DECORAT,” or “Beauty adorns virtue (Brown, 64).” Ginevra de’Benci is unique within Renaissance female portraiture due to its focus on the sitter’s individuality. However, the painted words “Beauty adorns virtue” reverberate across nearly all portraits of women from the period. Renaissance women were expected to use lavish clothing, jewelry, accessories, and cosmetics to adhere to contemporary beauty standards. However, Renaissance beauty was not skin deep. In order to be considered beautiful (and fashionable), an early modern woman must also be virtuous.

Fig. 1 - Leonardo da Vinci (Florentine, 1452-1519). Ginevra de' Benci, ca. 1474/1478. Oil on panel 38.1 x 37 cm (15 x 14 9/16 in). Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1967.6.1.a. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Source: NGA

Fig. 1 - Leonardo da Vinci (Florentine, 1452-1519). Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper with a Scroll inscribed Virtutem Forma Decorat, ca. 1474/1478. Washington: NGA. Source: NGA

During the Renaissance, creating textiles was extremely expensive and time-consuming, so clothing was often recycled. If a dress was torn, stained, or became too small for its wearer, it would be cut, re-stitched, and reused as a seat cushion cover, for example, or clothing for children. Further, fabric decays quickly relative to other materials. As a result, there are very few full ensembles surviving from the Renaissance. Because pieces of clothing (and complete outfits) are so scarce, we must instead rely on pictorial media to understand what Renaissance peoples considered fashionable. While paintings are not always perfect mirrors of the past, they give us the best available estimation. Italy was a fashion forerunner at the time, and as such Italian portraiture helps us understand what people wore in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Men’s dress

F ashion trends in this period were generally set by the aristocracy and upper-classes. A patrician closet relied on a vast network of tailors, dressmakers, purse-makers, metalsmiths, furriers, embroiderers, lace-makers, and leather-workers to stay abreast of the latest trends. Courts would often employ private fashion designers to clothe the royal family. A wall fresco of Ludovico Gonzaga and his Family and Court (Fig. 2) painted by Andrea Mantegna between 1465-74 elucidates what men wore in fifteenth-century Italian courtly circles. Men’s clothing in this period enjoyed a wide range of colors. The courtiers wear red, blue, gold, pink, or green belted tunics. They all sport red circle-brimmed caps. Men’s hemlines in the fifteenth century ended above the knee to show off two-tone hose. As the period advanced, men’s hemlines ascended higher and higher up stockinged legs, ultimately culminating in the need for the codpiece in the mid-to-late sixteenth century.

Fig. 2 - Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431-1506). The Court of Gonzaga, ca. 1465-1474. Walnut oil on plaster 805 x 807 cm (316.9 x 317.7 in). Mantua: Ducal Palace. Source: Wikimedia

This scene also gives insight into the ways clothing signaled authority and social connection in the fifteenth century. The men in the image all wear one white and one reddish stocking because this marks them as servants or household members of Ludovico Gonzaga’s (sitting on the far-right side of the fresco, wearing an off-red robe) Mantuan court. The ruler has marked his courtiers with his house colors. This helped visually identify men who had sworn fealty to Mantua, and promoted tonal unity in public settings. Clothes were also often used as payment for services rendered. Clothing, therefore, was a central facet of both politics and economic stability.

In the sixteenth century, men’s fashions turned towards darker, more somber hues in their fabrics. Baldassare Castiglione, writer of a popular book on etiquette, The Courtier (published 1528), tells upper-class men how to dress. Castiglione insists he:

“…would like our courtier always to appear neat and refined and to observe a certain modest elegance, though he should avoid being effeminate or foppish in his attire and not exaggerate one feature more than another.” (164)

Sixteenth-century men dressed down to display seriousness and sobriety. Men’s tunics, jackets, and stockings were generally tailored from black or dark brown luxury fabrics like velvet or silk. Women’s clothing, however, offered more complexity and variety throughout the Renaissance.

Fig. 3 - Fra Filippo Lippi (Italian, 1406-1469). Portrait of a woman, 1445. Oil on poplar panel 49.5 x 32.9 cm. Berlin: Gemäldegalerie, Ident.Nr. 1700. Source: Gemäldegalerie

Fig. 4 - Domenico Ghirlandaio (Domenico Bigordi) (Florentine, 1449-1494). Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, 1489-1490. Mixed media on panel 77 x 49 cm. Madrid: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Inv. no. 158 (1935.6). Source: Thyssen-Bornemisza

Fifteenth-century women’s dress

F ra Filipo Lippi’s Portrait of a woman (Fig. 3), painted around 1445 is a touchstone for fifteenth-century female beauty and dress. The unknown sitter’s lips and cheeks have been lightly rouged with cosmetics to highlight her youthful glow. Her fair complexion, bright eyes, rosy lips, and blonde, expertly-coiffed hair all refer to a popular fictional late Medieval lady, Laura. Petrarch describes his muse, Laura, in his humanist poetry collection Il Canzoniere or song book. Laura is also portrayed as perfectly virtuous and chaste in Petrarch’s poems, which enhances her unearthly beauty. This book was so popular in Renaissance Italy it inflected beauty standards thanks to Petrarch’s ladylove, early modern gentlemen preferred blondes. Even Christ’s mother, Mary, is depicted with golden hair in most period paintings. Women dyed their hair to achieve the desired tone. The Trotula, a twelfth-century text on women’s medicine, advises:

“For coloring the hair so that it is golden. Take the exterior shell of a walnut and the bark of the tree itself, and cook them in water, and with this water mix alum and oak apples, and with these mixed things you will smear the head (having first washed it) placing upon the hair leaves and tying them with strings for two days you will be able to color [the hair]. And comb the head so that whatever adheres to the hair as excess comes off. Then place a coloring which is made from oriental crocus, dragon’s blood, and henna (whose larger part has been mixed with a decoction of brazil wood) and thus let the woman remain for three days, and on the fourth day let her be washed with hot water, and never will [this coloring] be removed easily.” (Green 115)

Notice also that the hairline in Portrait of a woman is unnatural. Fifteenth-century women often plucked or shaved their hairline back several inches, towards the illusion of a lengthy forehead, a sign of intelligence. She has severely tweezed her eyebrows to complete the effect.

The dress style in Portrait of a woman is typically fifteenth-century. Fashionable gowns positioned female waistlines above the hips, accentuated the waist with a belt or girdle, and generously poured uninterrupted volumes of fabric towards the feet (Landini and Bulgarella 90). These gowns, which are referred to in period inventories as a gonna, gonnella, sottana, gamurra, or cotta interchangeably, could be hemmed at the ankles or floor. A wealthy early modern woman wore at least three—often four—complete layers of clothing in public. On special occasions a woman would wear another gown atop the gamurra called a giornea, usually patterned and made of velvet or silk brocade. The unknown figure in Portrait of a woman wears a green gamurra, while Giovanna da Tornabuoni (Fig. 4) wears both layers in her portrait. A woman’s exterior-most gown was the most expensive and ostentatious, as it faced the evaluating world (Frick 162). An outer garment alone could require eight braccia, or a little over five yards (4.5 meters) of fabric. Beneath their sumptuous gowns, women typically wore a chemise or camicia (Fig. 5), an undershirt that pressed directly against the skin. The white fabric peeking out from under the larger, green sleeve worn by Lippi’s sitter is an example. Between the camicia and gamurra women usually wore another over-dress. An upper-class woman’s clothing was thick, voluminous, and dense.

Fig. 5 - Maker unknown (Italian). Camicia or chemise (shirt), 16th century. Linen, silk and metal thread. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 10.124.2. Rogers Fund, 1910. Source: The Met

Fig. 6 - Maker unknown (Italian). Belt or girdle with a woven love poem, 16th century. Tapestry weave band with silk and metal thread 167.6 x 6.4 cm (66 x 2.5 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 46.156.73. Fletcher Fund, 1946. Source: The Met

While the ensemble in Portrait of a woman may seem simple at first glance, it is in fact very lavish when considered within the context of the fifteenth century. Her overgown is dyed a vibrant shade of green, as bright jewel-tones were very popular for women’s clothing during the Renaissance. Pleats begin just below the breasts and expand at her waistline. Her long sleeves are a symbol of wealth and status, as the extra fabric hinders manual labor. Her skirts bunch and spring from her waist. Neckline and sleeves are lined with a thick fabric, perhaps muslin or even fur. Small, decorative holes are bored into her belt and undershirt. A strand of identical pearls hangs from her neck. Though the sitter’s hair is covered, viewers can assume it is arranged in a complex up-do. Two types of lace make up the headdress, one porous with seamed holes. A sheer lace veil sweeps around her neck. The veil symbolizes her adherence to humility and religious norms. A closer look at the veil reveals how very expensive this accessory was: tiny pearls trim its outer edges and line the main body.

Portrait of a woman may be a marriage portrait. The sitter’s hands are dotted with six rings, which were exchanged during Renaissance engagement and wedding ceremonies. Her pinned-up hair also possibly attests to her wedded status, as young Italian women only wore their hair down to announce marital availability. Further, the pearls she wears on both her necklace and headdress may also be read as potent symbols of sexual purity. Across Western Europe, young women wore pearls to broadcast their virginity, considered the most desirable trait in marriage negotiations. Her white, stippled belt may be a further marker of chastity. Belts were closely associated with marriage, sexual virtue, and pregnancy, and were commonly given as gifts from groom to bride, such as this example in the Metropolitan Art Museum’s collection (Fig. 6), which bears a love poem stitched in precious metal. Women were expected to be unflinchingly loyal to their husbands. While men often waited until mid-life to marry (so that they had time to grow their estate or business beforehand), marriage age for Renaissance women was late adolescence or early adulthood, with the optimal ages for best childbearing potential falling between fifteen and nineteen. If an upper-class woman was fortunate enough to have her portrait made, it was likely in celebration of her engagement or wedding. Lippi’s sitter, then, is likely a teenager.

This woman is performing Renaissance decorum, from her gaze to the position of her hands. Not only is her gaze pointed outside the frame, her eyes are also half-lidded. Downcast or avert eyes were a sign of feminine modesty. Lippi’s sitter clasps one hand to her sleeve and the other lightly strokes her collar. A popular handbook for upper-class maidens, the Décor Puellarum (printed in Venice in 1469) urged young ladies:

“not to touch yourself, nor others, nor any part of the body with your hands, except when absolutely necessary. Your right hand must always rest upon your left, in front of you, on the level of your girdle.”

It was socially safer for women to touch clothing or accessories rather than allow their hands to wheel through open air, or make contact with their own bare skin. Notice also how the woman is painted obviously inside, as the public sphere was generally reserved for men. Again, the words unfurling across the banner in Ginevra de’Benci, “beauty adorns virtue” may be easily applied to this sitter.

Sixteenth-century women’s dress

W omen’s clothing in the sixteenth century remained similarly structured, with several layers beneath a sumptuous principle gown. However, a wider range of textures and additional detailing became fashionable. The Palazzo Reale in Pisa owns a rare, fully-intact Italian dress (Fig. 7) from the late sixteenth century, tailored circa 1550-60. This incredible survival gives a unique glimpse into changes to women’s dress in the sixteenth century. A tight, pointed bodice laces up the sides. Tassels accentuate the bodice and would have jangled as the wearer moved, adding to the gown’s lived intensity. The slits in the sleeves show off the underwear, usually made of silk or fine cotton, yet another hint that the wearer enjoys high status. Luscious red velvet panels are lined with embroidered trim. This dress is lavish in its sheer amount of fabric. The skirting extends in a bell towards the ground, and boasts a long train, heightening the public spectacle as the wearer walked through open streets. Typical Renaissance gowns covered the wearer from waist to feet, and were so long she was forced to carry her skirts to walk unhindered. Red-dyed fabrics have a long historical pedigree of association with wealth. A hue of such high saturation required the slaying of innumerable New World cochineal insects, whose bodies were crushed for textile dyes (Monnas 157).

Fig. 7 - Maker unknown. Gown, ca. 1550-60. Pisa: Museo di Palazzo Reale. Source: Pinterest

Tightly-laced corsets entered into popular fashion in the mid-to-late sixteenth century. The introduction of the steel corset into European female undergarments is apocryphally attributed to Catherine de’Medici in 1579 (Steele 2-7). According to a popular legend, the fertile Queen consort, who was with child nine times during her marriage to Henry II of France, desired a wearable instrument to shore up the contours of her postpartum figure. However, paintings tell us body-shaping implements were introduced earlier. Notice how stiff Eleonora of Toledo’s bodice is in Bronzino’s iconic portrait of the Spanish noblewoman (Fig. 8). Expensive accessories also grew more lavish in this era. Eleonora wears a snood (a hairnet) and a bavero (shoulder covering), both made of cloth-of-gold and decorated with pearls.

Fig. 8 - Bronzino (Italian, 1503-1572). Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni de' Medici, 1544-45. Oil on panel 115 x 96 cm (45.3 x 37.8 in). Florence: Uffizi. Source: Wikimedia

Fig. 9 - Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552–1614). Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580. Oil on canvas 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in cm. Washington: National Museum of Women in the Arts. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. Source: NMWA

Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a noblewoman (1580) showcases sixteenth-century Bolognese fashion (Fig. 9). A high collar and stiff, starched ruff surround the sitter’s face. A jeweled headband crowns her head. Her dress may be a wedding dress, as burgundy was a popular color for brides. This woman is careful to respect period sumptuary laws (civil restrictions on what could and could not be worn in public) women were only allowed to wear multiple necklaces if one hosted a cross (Murphy 96).

A small dog perches on her skirt beneath her caress. This animal is yet another signal to the viewer that this woman is extremely wealthy. Upper-class women often kept little dogs as luxury pets, as they were too small for hunting and thus only useful as companions and living accessories. The dog itself wears a gemstone collar. The creature is also symbolic of marital fidelity, as the animals were considered naturally loyal. The need to preserve a woman’s chastity was still tantamount throughout sixteenth-century portraiture.

It is possible the bejeweled martin head hanging from her belt (a popular accessory for women in the period) symbolizes pregnancy or the promise of future pregnancy (Musacchio 172). The head swings directly below her womb. Martins and weasels (a Renaissance person would not have made a distinction between species) were thought to reproduce rapidly, and so this fashionable accessory may double as a quasi-magical token used to generate future progeny. Ermines were also symbols of purity.

Clothing and jewelry, however, are the true subject of Portrait of a noblewoman. Every facet of every jewel, every stitch of the gown is rendered with high accuracy. Caroline Murphy argues that the extensive detail paid to the elaborate gowns and jewels of Bolognese noblewomen by Lavinia Fontana act as painted dowry inventories (Murphy 88). A dowry was a case of luxury items and cash a bride’s father exchanged with her groom. Upper-class Renaissance women did not work, but social norms required she wear ostentatious clothing in public. Clothing a wife was expensive, so families would often off-set the cost by providing the young bride with a set of clothing and jewelry to start her new, married life. In early modern Italy, it was possible for a woman to regain her dowry after her husband’s death, the first time in her life that she had access to its wealth. Paintings like this, therefore, may be so meticulously and precisely rendered to prove what made up the dowry, should its contents ever be called into question (Murphy 88).

Together, these images explain how fashion was bound up with beauty and social expectations for women. Female portraiture depicts not specific individuals, but rather their lavish clothing and jewelry. Women were meant to be decorous and decorative. Virtue, familial expectation, and attractiveness were deeply conflated. Leon Battista Alberti states in Della Famiglia, a treatise on living well (began 1432), that what makes a woman beautiful is potential fertility:

“Thus I believe that beauty in a woman can be judged not only in the charms and refinement of the face, but even more in the strength and shapeliness of a body apt to carry and give birth to many beautiful children.” (122)

In the very next line Alberti adds that “the first prerequisite of beauty in a woman is good habits” (Ibid). Alberti would have agreed with the mantra: “Beauty adorns virtue.”


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