Italian Renaissance

Why did Europe become powerful during the Renaissance?

The spread of knowledge & Higher literacy rates: The legacy of the printing press meant that no longer was knowledge confined to the priests and elite. Starting in Italy and spreading up to England, the pursuit of knowledge gave Europe a dramatic edge in terms of technological innovation and resources.

Starting with Italy and the De Medici story:

13th – 15th century AD

The Medici were not landed royalty, but cunning business men and traders in Florence. They moved from the country in the 12th century and spent the next 200 years amassing a fortune through trade, banking and more. As they became wealthier, the family plays a key role in Florentine politics.  Over time, family members such as Cosimo in the 1300s lay the foundation for the Italian Renaissance building libraries and restoring Plato’s texts. After a series of power struggles and a botched French take over of Pisa, in 1532 a new constitution establishes Alessandro de’ Medici as the hereditary duke of Florence and once again, the Medici family is firmly entrenched as one of Italy’s ruling families. Alessandro’s murder leads to the appointment of Cosimo as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569 and the De Medici becomes one of Europe’s most enduring dynastic families.

Members of the de Medici family like Lorenzo and Catherine would play a significant role in establishing Florence as the birthplace of the Renaissance

Lorenzo de Medici, known later as “Il Magnifico”, was born on January 1, 1449 in Florence Italy and became a statesman, ruler and major arts patron.

Lorenzo ruled Florence with his younger brother, from 1469 to 1478. After his brother’s assassination in 1478, he remained Florence’s sole ruler until his death in 1492. Lorenzo was not a good businessman himself and spent vast amounts of money on his lifestyle. Ironically, his biggest contributions were in patronizing some of the best Renaissance artists including Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo, among others. It was said that Michelangelo became a sculptor as a result of visiting Lorenzo’s intricate sculpture gardens. He also wrote poetry and authors his autobiography.

“So, fair Love, well-thankèd be, since at last I have found thee! How wondrous beautiful is youth, yet fleeting, so soon gone, in truth ! He who will, let happy be, 
The morrow has no certainty.
Ah!, fair Love, well-thankèd be, since at last I have found thee!
To this thief what fate now comes, who my heart did’st take from me? Mark the beauty of her charms, love within her face you see!
May her heart ne’er be released,
let it burn as burns mine own!” – From Poem V.

This is an avatar of Lorenzo De Medici


The Medicis and other Renaissance patrons wanted artists to illuminate and center on realism, human beauty and life’s pleasures. Renaissance artists brought back the ancient classic perspectives, but pioneered new techniques in design that actually helped scientists and doctors understand anatomy.  Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" (c. 1511)

Self Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci

Key Renaissance Artists –

Leonardo Da Vinci – Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452 in the village of Vinci and began his career working for a master painter. In 1478, he set up his own studio where he sketched and tested inventions and conducted experiments. Leonardo reasoned that by understanding how different machine parts worked, he could make modifications and combinations that would improve them. He also wrote some of the first clear explanations of how machines work. His most famous works, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper are memorable because he conveys different emotions in a realistic way.

“Among all the studies of natural causes and reasons Light chiefly delights the beholder; and among the great features of Mathematics the certainty of its demonstrations is what preeminently (tends to) elevate the mind of the investigator. Perspective, therefore, must be preferred to all the discourses and systems of human learning. In this branch [of science] the beam of light is explained on those methods of demonstration which form the glory not so much of Mathematics as of Physics and are graced with the flowers of both.” – Quote From Leonardo’s Notebooks, 1500

self portrait of Botticelli

Botticelli's self portrait

Sandro Botticelli – (1444-1510) was born in Florence around 1445 where he would live out the rest of his life. As the youngest of five children, he became an apprentice to a goldsmith, but after sometime, he decided to apprentice to Fra Filippo Lippi. Under his new teacher, Botticelli learned how to imbue his human subjects with emotion in their faces and gestures and he opened his own studio at the age of 15. By using many apprentices, Botticelli’s workshop was able to produce a lot of commissioned work.

His portraits seemed to have a melancholy or sad characteristic to them. Sandro stressed line and detail using them to bring his characters alive – as if acting out a scene. He included in his style a flowing characteristic that would clearly identify work as his. Botticelli’s overall style was Neo-Platonic in that he would bring together pagan and Christian ideas in one painting.  The Medici family became his biggest patrons and he used family members as his subjects in many paintings.

In 1481, Botticelli was invited to help paint the Sistine Chapel in Rome and he painted three large pieces, as well as seven papal portraits in the Sistine Chapel. However, as he grew older, he was influenced by Savanarola and became more disturbed over time. While many painters fled Florence, Botticelli painted religious altar pieces and continued to earn money. Botticelli struggled as a painter with the changing times at the end of his life, but he contributed greatly to the Italian Renaissance. Ironically, his work, the Birth of Venus is one of the most excerpted paintings next to the Mona Lisa.

It is said that Sandro was extraordinarily fond of those whom lie knew to be students of the arts, and that he made a good deal, but wasted all through his carelessness and want of control.” – Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’, published in 1550

Michelangelo, Master

Portrait of Michelangelo

Michelangelo – Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence was one of the greatest artists of all time and added light and realism to everything he did. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was a “Renaissance Man” of many talents. He was a sculptor, a painter, and an architect. When Michelangelo carved a statue of Moses, he included veins and muscles in the arms and legs. A devout Christian, most of Michelangelo’s contracts were with the Roman Catholic Church.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy, and from his childhood, was drawn to painting. His father tried to dissuade him, but at 13, Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494), considered the most popular painter in Florence at the time. He only stayed at the studio one year before he was “adopted” by the De Medici’s and looked after as they recognized his talent.

“The best artist has that thought alone, Which is contained within the marble shell; The sculptor’s hand can only break the spell To free the figures slumbering in the stone.” – Michelangelo 

His earliest sculpture, the Battle of the Centaurs (mythological creatures that are part man and part horse), a stone work created when he was about seventeen, is remarkable for the simple, solid forms and squarish proportions of the figures, which add intensity to their violent interaction.

Great Works: Sistine Chapel, Dome of St. Peter’s, David, the Pieta, Bacchus, Virgin and Child, Madonna of the Stars

Michelangelo excelled in poetry, sculpture, painting, and architecture. He was a master of representing the human body. His works continue to dazzle mankind.

Overall, the ideas and techniques of the Italian Renaissance artists would be copied and spread throughout Europe and to this day provide insight into how Europe became the center of the cultural world during this time.


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