Chapters 14 and 15: The European Rennaisance and the Protestant Reformation

The European Renaissance (1300-1600) was a cultural revolution that began in Florence, Italy and transformed the western world. The artistic and cultural innovation of the Renaissance shattered medieval society, ending Europe’s dark ages of feudalism and superstition that began with the fall of Rome (500 AD) and brought Europe into the modern era.


1300’s Humanism and The Classical Revival

In the early 1300s scholars and thinkers, first in Italy and later in Northern Europe, began to discover the classic texts and achievements of antiquity: ancient Greece and Rome.  These scholars who dedicated themselves to the recovery, study, and transmission of the intellectual and cultural heritage of Greece and Rome called themselves humanists

Humanism focused on human beings, their intellect, creativity, this-worldly activities and achievements.  Humanism undergirded that modern worldview that put humans at center; this contrasted sharply with Europe's medieval worldview that was both deeply religious and superstitious and which emphasized otherworldly salvation.  Europe's medieval worldview emphasized church authority, conformity, and earthly activity as a means to eternal salvation whereas humanism stressed individualism and inquiry.

Europe's scholars of the Middle Ages were guided by the teachings of the church and were concerned with actions leading to heavenly rewards. In medieval Europe, the writings of ancient, classical, pagan Greece and Rome had been ignored. (The medieval Byzantines, however, preserved the scholarship of the classical Greeks and Romans and transmitted it Muslim scholars.) The European humanists of the early modern period learned Greek and Latin in order to study classical Greek and Roman manuscripts.

Humanists rediscovered writings on science, government, rhetoric, philosophy, and art. Influenced by the knowledge of ancient civilization, these thinkers, like the humanists of classical Greece, emphasized the individualism: man's intellect, his capacity to reason, his life on earth, and the natural forces and laws that govern life on earth.

The recovery of ancient manuscripts showed humanists how Greeks and Romans employed mathematics to give structure to their art. This relationship was most evident in architecture where numerical ratios used in building design. Renaissance architects, especially in Italy, went to the ruins of the ancient buildings of Greece and Rome to measure them and learn how proportion and symmetry were applied in real structures; this yielded a new philosophy of beauty in building. The gothic spires and decorations imitating movement towards heaven of the medieval period were replaced by elegant symmetry demonstrating man’s intellect.


Classical Connections: Art and Science

Renaissance paintings demonstrate the application of humanistic ideals learned from the ancients. In the works of the Middle Ages, saints and biblical figures were arranged in unnatural, geometric groups often with backgrounds that were washes of gold. Renaissance painters depicted the human figure more realistically (as did the ancient Greek sculptors), often with backgrounds of the natural world. Science taught artist how to show linear perspective--how to represent objects in relative sizes so smaller objects appear farther from  viewer than larger  objects. The use of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) made figures appear full, real. Renaissance painters not only portrayed objects with more realism than earlier artists, they often filled canvases with more objects, carefully and accurately depicted.

Music theorists studied proportions, a subject that Greek mathematician Pythagoras had written about. These theorists explained how to make different pitches on stringed instruments by lengthening or shortening strings by different proportions. Dividing astring in half (proportion of 2:1), yields a new tone octave above the original tone. Renaissance musicians carried on this idea in their own music. Renaissance composers incorporated the classics by studying Greek drama and discovered the art of making music reflect the emotion of the lyrics.. When they learned that ancient Greek drama (which featured music) brought audiences to tears with sad music, Renaissance composers tried to re-create that theatrical experience. Their efforts resulted in birth of opera.


The Medici Family

The Medici family (dynasty) of Florence, Italy were key players in the Renaissance as bankers, patrons, and ultimately popes. 15th century Florence was an exciting, self-governed, independent city-state. Because was not Florence not a port city like Venice, sea trade was not the primary source of income. A landlocked city-state, lending to support trade developed. Beginning in the 13th century, several Florentine families, the Medici in particular, developed into successful bankers. Florenence's gold coin, the florin, became the standard coinage throughout Europe. Florentine bankers became known throughout Europe, establishing banking houses in London, Geneva, and Bruges (Belgium).

The humanist movement was very strong in Florence. Cosimo de Medici, a banker and one of Florence's wealthiest and most influential citizens (his father, having come from humble beginning lent money to a man who became the Pope, established the bank of Medici and became known as "God's banker"), studied the works of ancient authors and collected manuscripts of classical writings. His delight in discussing humanist issues led him to organze the Plato Academy, where intellectuals gathered to discuss the ideas of the Greco-Roman classics. The Plato Academy continued even after his death.

Grandson of the influential banker and humanist Cosimo de Medici, Lorenzo grew up around the Plato Academy. As an adult, Lorenzo de Medici became patron to many of the greatest artist of the Italian Renassaince. For example, Lorenzo founded a school of art where he spotted a 13 year old artist whom he thought was exceptional and invited to live among his own children in the Medici compound. That young boy was Michelangelo. Lorenzo also sponsored Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Donatello, and others.

Although the humanist movement in Florence was very strong, Florentines, including Lorenzao, were also concerned about their spiritual lives. Thus, amidst their prosperity, a preacher named Savonarola was able to change thinking of many. Savonarola was concerned about what he thought of a abuses by the church and people's excessive interest in material goods. He preached against the accumulation of worldly possessions and called for a "bonfire of the vanities" in which people burned "immoral" paintings, cosmetics, entertainment-related items musical instruments and playing cards.


1450 Gutenberg’s Printing Press

The original method of printing, block printing, originated in China and the earliest known printed text, the Diamond Sutra (a Buddhist scripture) was printed in China in 868 A.D. The technique became known in Europe and was mostly used to print Bibles. Because of the difficulties inherent in carving massive quantities of minute text for every block, and given the levels of peasant illiteracy at the time, texts such as the "Pauper's Bibles" emphasized illustrations and used words sparsely. As a new block had to be carved for each page, printing different books was time consuming.

Movable clay type for printing was invented in 1041 in China. The clay pieces broke easily, but eventually Korea sponsored the production of metal type (a type foundry with brass was established by the Korean government in 1234). Since there are thousands of Chinese characters (Koreans also used Chinese characters in literature), the benefit of this technique was not as apparent as a would be with the alphabetic based languages which typically have less than 50 characters. Movable type did spur, however, additional scholarly pursuits in Song China and facilitated more creative modes of printing. Nevertheless, movable type was never extensively used in China until the European style printing press was introduced in relatively recent times (bringing the technology full circle).

The German inventor Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468) may or may not have been aware of the Chinese/Korean printing methods (there is substantial evidence for both sides of the argument). Prior to Gutenberg, each piece of type for the printing presses had to be individually carved by hand. Gutenberg developed molds that allowed for the mass production of individual pieces of metal type. Because of his molds, an entire upper case and lower case alphabet set could be made much more quickly than if they were individually hand carved. Soon printing presses began to spring up all over Europe.

Gutenberg is also credited with the first use of an oil-based ink and using "rag" paper that was introduced into Europe from China by way of Muslims, who had a paper mill in operation in Baghdad as early as 794.


 1517 Protestant Reformation

In 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther nailed “95 Theses” to the Wittenberg Cathedral. Martin Luther was outraged by the “Indulgences” that papal agents hawked to masses on the German street corners around him.  The Indulgences supposedly allowed people to buy their (or a loved one’s) way into salvation.  The 95 Theses criticized the greed and debauchery of the Church, particularly that of the Medici Pope, Leo X.

To Martin Luther, the idea of buying salvation was abhorrent, and he composed a vicious tirade against the greed and debauchery of the Medici Pope, Leo X. Luther's “95 Theses” soon became international bestseller. Thanks to new technology of printing developed a generation before, any literate man could read Luther's views and decide for himself. This fact, and the ideas that undergirded Luther's message--that people did not need a hierarchy of clergy to mediate their relationship with God, the individual's could and should be responsible for reading scripture themselves--all dovetails with modernity's new emphasis on individualism.

Despite Luther's continued provocations, including more than 20 pamphlets in 20 years, successive Popes couldn't punish the wayward monk. He was too well-protected. Luther's shrewd supporter, the Prince of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, saw that Luther offered an opportunity to escape Rome's control. It was also in Charles V's interests, as the Holy Roman Emperor, to allow Luther's opposition to the Vatican to go unchecked. Charles V, the leader of two thirds of mainland Europe, was reliant on the goodwill of the German princes for survival, and was frustrated playing second fiddle to the Pope. Luther's ideas swept across Europe like wildfire. He inspired rebellion in Germany and prompted new heresies in England, France and Switzerland. By 1540, Protestantism was born, and the followers of two competing churches began to tear each other apart. The Catholic era of supremacy was over. For the next 500-years Europe was to be plagued by brutal sectarian war.