Historical Context





The Renaissance is a period defined by an increase in secular interests and the rise of a cultural movement known as humanism, which focused on Classical culture.  (Classicism and humanism are examined on the next two pages.)  Although rooted in the 14th century, the main movement occurred in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries in Italy and later in other parts of Europe.



The term "Renaissance" is derived from rinascita, the Italian word for "rebirth."


Adoption of the Term by Historians

The modern-day labeling of the period between the Middle Ages and the Baroque era as the "Renaissance" was initiated by the historian Jacob Burckhardt in his classic work of 1860, The Civilization of the Renaissance.


Early Usages of the Term

The Italian poet Petrarch was the first to compare the emerging appreciation of ancient Greek and Roman culture to a rebirth of intellectual enlightenment following the darkness of the Middle Ages.


The sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, who was an avid collector of antiquities, also expressed the notion of a rebirth in his Commentaries, which he wrote around 1450.


In the next century, the conception of the Renaissance as a Classical revival was a premise of Giorgio Vasari's Lives.





Multiplicity of Political Entities

In the fifteenth century, the Italian peninsula was made up of a multiplicity of political entities, and Italy did not emerge as a unified nation until 1870.


The southern and northwestern regions were dominated by foreign powers.  Much of the rest of the Italian peninsula was made up of many separate city-states, which had emerged in the eleventh and 12th centuries after the decline of the feudal system.  A city-state consisted of a city and the rural area surrounding it.


The character of the city-states varied in accordance with their governments.  Some were republics like Florence.  Some were ruled by an aristocracy that maintained a court like those of Mantua, Ferrara, and Milan.  Venice's oligarchy included aspects of both.  Around Rome, much of the territory was ruled by the pope.


Sources of Wealth in Italy

In the late Middle Ages, much of Italy's economic success was based on the textile industry, which spawned many occupations such as shearing, carding, spinning, weaving, and dyeing.  Goods of wool, linen, and silk were produced for both local use and export.


Substantial profit was made by textile merchants and exporters.  This wealth, in turn, made it possible to establish international businesses like banking and shipping, which brought additional money into Italy.


Growth of the Cities

The increasing importance of manufacturing and commerce contributed to the rapid growth of cities and to the eventual collapse of the feudal system.  Because much of the urban population was involved in making and selling goods, regulatory institutions called guilds evolved.





Definition and Function

A guild is an association of individuals in the same business or trade, such as merchants, bankers, wool producers, and various types of craftsmen.  Guilds were formed in order to promote the mutual well-being of the group.  They regulated production and the training of their members, thus ensuring standards of conduct and quality.  (To some small degree, both modern labor unions and government regulatory commissions developed out of the guild system).



Guilds, which were often linked to religious confraternities, were associated with individual cities.  They participated in local government by sending representatives to governing councils.  Wealthier guilds, like the guild of bankers and wool merchants, had more representatives than lesser ones like the guild of stone and wood workers.



Membership in a guild was essential for securing commissions, works that are contracted to be made by a buyer, called a "patron".  Many details pertaining to size, materials, and completion were specified in a contract between the patron and the artist/architect.


Guild members usually took pride in their guilds, and on occasion, guilds commissioned art for public display.  In Florence, guilds commissioned sculpture for the niches of Orsanmichele.






In the context of Italian history, the Italian term comune refers to a municipality, usually a city-state, or to its governing body, which was made up of individuals from the community.  Both the Italian term, which is spelled with a single "m," and the English term "commune," which is spelled with a double "m," are rooted in the Latin term for community.


Rise of Communes

After the collapse of the feudal system, which involved a hierarchy extending from the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire down through titled landowners, communes came into being.  They were established by local men of influence, like landowners, who banded together and undertook the responsibility of government according to a local constitution, which was refined over time.


Civic Palaces

The seat of government was the civic palace.  This building has been called by many names such as Palazzo del Comune, Palazzo Pubblico (people), Palazzo della Signoria (governing council), Palazzo dei Priori (Priors), and Palazzo della Ragione (justice).  These structures contained administrative offices and meeting halls for representatives.


See more about Civic Palaces


Governing Councils

The legislative body or council was often called the signoria.  Initially, these councils were made up largely of rich landowners, but as wealth increasingly came from manufacture and commerce, members of the urban sector like craftsmen, shopkeepers, and merchants were also included.  Over time, the membership of governing councils increased in size from several hundred to several thousand.


Concentrations of Power

Because conflicts between the many local factions paralyzed the workings of government, power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of individual party leaders.  Efforts to avoid such consolidations of power had often been sanctioned by constitutions stipulating that members serve in rotation and be chosen from lists of eligible citizens.  Despite such measures, individual families gained control of the governments in most cities, and by 1500, the only states that still maintained republican governments were Venice, Siena, and Florence.


Expression of Republican Sentiment

The citizens of cities that managed to maintain republican governments took great pride in their independence.  This was reflected in art by the interpretation of figures such as the Old Testament heroes Judith and David, who were seen as defenders of liberty because they killed the local oppressors Holofernes and Goliath.





Ruling Families

Among the most important ruling families were the Este in Ferrara, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Montefeltro in Urbino, and the Sforza in Milan.


Especially powerful was the Medici family in Florence, who ruled unofficially for much of the fifteenth century before being officially empowered in the sixteenth century through the intervention of Julius II in 1512 and of Clement VII and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530.


Means of Achieving Power

Individuals generally gained control of the state through election, appointment, the use of raw force, or a combination of these.


Election.  Charismatic leaders gained control by influencing members of executive committees.  By the mid-14th century, dominance by a single individual became formalized in most city-states by the establishment of an executive position.  In many cities, this governor was called a signore, and in Venice he was called a doge, which is the Venetian dialect for 'duke'.  Once elected, many signori managed to have their positions made hereditary.  


Appointment. Within their spheres of influence, popes, emperors, and regionally powerful princes appointed deputies, often naming relatives to these positions.  The word "nepotism," which refers to the practice of appointing relatives, is derived from nipote, the Italian word for "nephew".  


Force.  Military prowess enabled ambitious military commanders to come to power. Francesco Sforza, for example, who married the illegitimate daughter and only heir of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, the last of the Visconti rulers of Milan, briefly lost power after the Milanese formed the Ambrosian Republic. However, Francesco soon took control of Milan's independence-seeking subject-cities.  After forming an alliance with Milan's long-term enemy Venice, against whom he had previously fought on behalf of the Visconti family, he was soon able to topple Milan's post-Visconti government.  


Overthrow of Ruling Families

The stability of these dictatorships was to some extent determined by the level to which the individual families governed by consensus through councils.  High taxes were a frequent source of dissatisfaction.


Assassination was not an uncommon means of attempting to initiate an overthrow, but such actions often failed to remove the dominant family from power.  The Pazzi Conspiracy, for instance, failed to ignite a civic rebellion to overthrow the Medici and led to the execution and exile of many participants.  When ruling families were removed from power, they were generally exiled from the state.  The Medici were exiled from Florence three times: 1433-34, 1494-1512, and 1527-30.






A condottiere (plural: condottieri) was a professional military leader who provided an army and fought for a particular municipality or prince according to a contract, a condotta, which specified troop strength and fees. Condottieri were often regarded with gratitude by the cities they defended.  Typically, wealthy landowners took on this role because they were in a position to raise troops from the workers on their own estates.  Such armies were often hired to augment cores of full-time, professional soldiers.



The armies of condottieri had originally been cavalries whose main weapon was the lance, but with the advent of gunpowder in the fifteenth century, the infantry became increasingly important.


The use of condottieri first came into being in the thirteenth century.  In the sixteenth century, when French and Spanish forces invaded Italy, the use of independent Italian armies declined.  Successful Italian condottieri, however, often commanded Imperial troops.  Ferrante Gonzaga, for example, led part of the Emperor's forces at the Sack of Rome.


Political Ramifications

Because condottieri were independent contractors who generally lacked a patriotic commitment to the client city, they sometimes switched support on the basis of more lucrative offers.


Power as a condottiere not only brought ambitious individuals like Francesco Sforza to power but also enabled those in power to expand their territories.  The condottiere Federico da Montefeltro, for instance, tripled the area under Montefeltro control.


Monuments to Condottieri

Condottieri were often regarded with gratitude by cities they defended. Equestrian monuments were sometimes placed in public squares, and paintings were commissioned for town halls or churches.  Funding for such works generally came from the families of the men being memorialized.





Relationships Among the City-States

Throughout their history, the Italian city-states were involved in a political realm of territorial disputes, shifting alliances, and broken treaties.


Absorption of Smaller City-States

Larger city-states often expanded by seizing their smaller neighbors.  The five largest political entities of Italy in the Renaissance were the Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice, the Republic/Duchy of Florence, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Naples.


Encroachment by Foreign Powers

Warfare among the city-states contributed to their vulnerability to foreign aggressors.


From 1515 and 1518, the dates when Francis I, King of France, and Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain, came to power, they each became increasingly involved in Italian politics.  They repeatedly fought for control of the Lombard region, which had strategic importance to them both.


Instead of maintaining a balance of power so that neither could take over Lombardy unopposed, Pope Clement VII allied himself with Francis I against Charles V.  This situation reached a climax in 1527 when Charles V's troops laid waste to Rome, an event known as the Sack of Rome.


By the second half of the sixteenth century, much of Italy was controlled by the Spanish.  In Milan, where Charles V's son Philip succeeded Ludovico's Sforza's sons, the Spanish ruled directly, whereas in Florence, where the authority of the Medici dukes was backed by imperial support, they ruled indirectly.






The Holy Roman Empire, which was established by Charlemagne in 800 and dissolved by Napoleon in 1806, was primarily a political organization whose territory varied in size and included all or part of France, Germany, Austria, and northern Italy.  In the Renaissance, the territory belonging to the Holy Roman Empire was controlled by the Hapsburg dynasty.


Importance in the Renaissance

By the 14th century, the Holy Roman Empire had lost control in central and northern Italy.  This left a residue of political affiliations to the pope or the emperor, whose respective political parties were the Guelphs (papists) and the Ghibellines (imperialists).  Support for one or the other was more a matter of local politics than of philosophy.


After Charles V became Emperor in 1519, he dramatically increased Imperial power in Italy.  Within two years of the Sack of Rome (1527), he had permanently expelled Francis I's French forces.


Imperial Rank

In northern Italy, where the emperor had some measure of authority, the titles of marquis and duke were granted to powerful rulers, especially when financial inducement was available.  To gain their ducal titles, Giangaleazzo Visconti paid Emperor Wenceslas a bribe and Ludovico Maria Sforza gave Emperor Maximilian I a rich dowry when the emperor married his niece,  Bianca Maria Sforza.






The Roman Catholic Church was a religious institution that grew out of early Christian practices and beliefs and that became the predominant religious institution in Europe in the Middle Ages.  Christianity was named after Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings were first recorded in the New Testament.


Early History

Christ charged his disciple Peter with founding a church, which the latter did in Rome before being martyred.  After nearly three centuries of persecution under the ancient Roman Empire, Christianity was legalized in 313 by the emperor Constantine.  The Roman Empire's later split into western and eastern empires was later followed by the Church's split into the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.



The Church was governed by the pope, who was chosen and advised by the College of Cardinals.  For most of its history, the Church's headquarters was in Rome at the Vatican.  The Vatican complex included the Pope's church, St. Peter's, and his residence, the Vatican Palace.


Importance in the Renaissance

In addition to being a spiritual leader during the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church was both a major political force in Europe and a bountiful source of patronage of architecture and art in Italy and elsewhere that the Church was seeking to convert heathens or win back Protestants.  Churches contained dense concentrations of art and were themselves an important form of architecture.


See more about church architecture in the Early-Christian and Byzantine period. See more about church architecture in the Middle Ages. See more about church architecture in the Renaissance.






The Reformation was a movement in the sixteenth century in which Church leaders in a number of northern European countries, who had failed to stimulate the Church leadership in Rome to undertake reform, established new churches.  This brought an enormous loss of political power, prestige, and income to the Roman Catholic Church and stimulated it to reform itself in a movement known as the Counter-Reformation.


Calls for Reform

As its name suggests, the motive force of the Reformation was reform, which had been called for from within Italy as well as from other parts of Europe.


Much of the dissatisfaction came from practices like selling indulgences (pardons) to raise money for building a new St. Peter's in Rome.


Martin Luther and others also challenged certain tenets of Church doctrine because they lacked a foundation in the Bible (the Old Testament and the New Testament.)


The Ninety-Five Theses, which Luther is traditionally credited with nailing to the cathedral door in Wittenberg in 1517, were a list of his complaints against the Roman Church.  Leo X responded with Bulls demanding that Luther present himself in Rome.


Founding New Sects

Because the church disregarded attempts to bring about change in either clerical practice or doctrine, religious leaders in many northern countries began founding new sects.  These evolved into the non-Catholic Christian religions classified as Protestant in reference to the word "protest".


In general, the southern countries, principally Italy, Spain, and part of France, remained Roman Catholic, but the northern countries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, England, and the rest of France, became Protestant.


Counter-Reformation Measures

The Roman Catholic Church began to reform itself by instigating a number of measures.


Inquisition.  In 1542, Pope Paul III revived the Inquisition, a Church body founded in the 14th century to prosecute heretics, but which had fallen into disuse in the fifteenth century.  The abusive and brutal means often used by Inquisitors has given rise to the term inquisition being used to refer to interrogations marked by prejudiced investigators and threatening tactics.  Venice had a separate, more lenient branch of the Inquisition, which was fortunate for the painter Veronese, who had to use the idea of artistic license in order to defend parts of his painting, Feast in the House of Levi, against the Inquisition.  The most brutal administration of the Inquisition took place in Spain.  


New orders. Many reform-oriented orders were established.  The most significant of these was the Jesuit order, which was active in gaining converts in many undeveloped parts of the world.  These missionary activities brought much gold to Rome from the New World.  In addition to spreading Christianity worldwide, the Jesuits spread a version of the basilican church designed by Vignola, Il Gesù, which was the home church of the Jesuit Order. 


Council of Trent.  The Council of Trent (see below) was established to evaluate the Church's policies and make recommendations for improvements. 






The Council of Trent was an Ecumenical (pertaining to the worldwide Christian church) council that met in Trent, a northern city that was then part of the Emperor's territory.  It met in three sessions between 1545 and 1563 to consider reforming abusive practices within the Roman Catholic Church and to redefine Church doctrine, which had been disputed by Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation.  Compared with earlier Ecumenical councils, it was poorly attended.


Distribution of Power within the Church

One of the issues being debated was the power of the pope versus that of the bishops.  Italian churchmen successfully resisted pressure from non-Italian participants to increase the local authority of bishops, which would probably have resulted in a fragmentation of the Roman Catholic Church into a number of national sects.



A conservative policy permeated the specific rulings on both doctrines and reforms, thereby offering little chance of compromise that might have healed current divisions or, at the least, prevented further dissolution.  A number of theological rulings addressed particular theological issues.


Relevance to Art and Architecture

Of special importance to art history were the Council's recommendations regarding art and architecture.


Art.  The Council affirmed the spiritual value derived from both the use of images and the veneration of saints, especially the Virgin Mary.  The Council criticized representations that it did not consider edifying and encouraged the selection of pious scenes such as those involving sacraments.  The lesson of Veronese's experience with the Inquisition was not lost on other painters.  


Architecture.  The Council recommended that churches be designed to permit every member of the congregation an unobstructed view of the services under optimal conditions for seeing and hearing.  To this end, the pages that stood between the congregation and the altar were removed, and the clergy were no longer segregated in the chancel.    














Introduction 1 of 7



Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Good Government in the City,

Sala dei Nove, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, 1337-39



Martin Luther burning the Papal Bull

(document bearing the pope's seal)