Useful Notes: The Renaissance

The dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi on top of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture.

"The Renaissance was a load of bloody Italians poncing around claiming to be the golden age of the Greeks come round again.''

A reawakening of Europe to the arts and sciences. This era took many distinct forms depending on decade and geographic location. In Hollywood History, The Renaissance is home to Tudor Mansions, Medici Palazzi and Valois Chateaus, William Shakespeare, King Henry VI and his eight wives (or was it King Henry VIII and his six wives?), Queen Elizabeth I, Mary of Scotland, Charles V, the Borgias, Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, global exploration, Ivan the Terrible, Mogul rajahs, Ming emperors and Sengoku warlords, and Leonardo da Vinci (who spent nearly all of his time painting The Last Supper or the Mona Lisa and working on that damn "code" of his...)

Actually, since "the Renaissance" as an overall historical phenomenon covered about 200 to 300 years, it can be portrayed in a variety of different ways depending on the exact year or decade. In the longest definition, it lasted roughly from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (others prefer 1492, the year of Columbus' first voyage to the New World) to the invention of the first steam engine in the 1750s; but it is more common to see it ending earlier and to refer to what came after ca. 1650 as the Baroque era and/or the the Age of the Enlightenment. The essence of the Renaissance also tends to vary according to geography, since the great artistic flowering associated therewith began in north-central Italy sometime in the 1300s (with Dante Alighieri, Giotto, etc.) and gradually (sometimes very, very slowly) spread throughout the rest of Europe after that. As a history buff, it can be quite annoying to see that most "Renaissance fairs" select England rather than Italy as their model, since England was slow to receive the Renaissance heritage and was still a fairly barbaric nation during the time of Michelangelo. So your average Renaissance fair in America will as likely as not feature a parade of dirty peasants and noisy farm animals - giving the impression that the Renaissance was a lot more backward than it actually was. Of course, it may also be because some people have a hard time in general telling apart the Renaissance from the Middle Ages aesthetics-wise.

How it all began

Arguably, the snowball began to roll with the birth of Humanism in the 1300s. Allegedly, the avalanche began with a Florentine poet, Francesco Petrarch, when he accidentally stumbled upon a box with old Roman letters, written by the known Roman orator Cicero. Petrarch was, on some level, aware that the contemporary Latin, used by the Church, needed some kind of revival, because terminologies used in the Medival Era, Vulgar Latin, had corrupted the language. So, Petrarch began to read Cicero`s letters, at first to study the Latin of the Classical Age, and then to study what Cicero actually wrote about. When he learned that Cicero stressed the point of "humanity" (Humanitatis), the idea of humanism took form, in the head of Petrarch, and of his circle of scholars. The revival of Latin led to the revival of historical science, a more thorough study of history, architecture and art, and then to political dreams and experiments involving a united Italy, a "renaissance" of the Roman age. Thus, a new concept of learning was founded, which led to new science, new political theory, and in turn, a massive upheaval of the medieval society. The pope, puzzled at first, let the humanists struggle on, dumbfounded when he was witness to the excavation of Ancient Rome in his backyard, a little bit frightened when the same humanists began to ask questions around the topics of God and Man, and seriously batshit when the movement in turn led to full religious and social revolution. But then it was too late.

The growing Humanist movement might have changed some ideological perspectives and politics, but had good support from:

  • The fall of Constantinople in 1453, which led to a number of Greek scholars fleeing westwards, taking their knowledge with them.
  • Which in turn closed the Silk Route to the east, and led to sailors trying to find another way to China. Cue Columbus, the Portuguese explorersnote , and circumnavigators like Magellan (who was Portuguese).
  • And then Johannes Gutenberg came along with his printing device, making it easier for people with bright ideas to spread them. Martin Luther was one of the first to use the press to address a mass audience, with great success.
  • To top it all, new mercantile power led to more use of money, and a breach with the old natural household. Cue Capitalism.

However, like the Enlightenment before the American and French Revolutions, the Renaissance, whether in Italy, or its offshoots in Holland, England, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal, was the province of intellectual aristocrats and emerging middle-classes, a small minority at best. The Reformation to some extent succeeded in weakening the hold of the Church and brought power to secular rulers, but it rarely resulted in mass movements, although the movements that resulted in the Peasants' Wars and the English Revolution were steps in that direction.

See also: The Renaissance


Popular tropes from this time period are

  • Antiquated Linguistics:
    • Altum Videtur: The choice language of educated scholars of the time since the revived Roman interest. And the scholars used Classical Latin, whose linguistic structure and terms was very different to the Latin used by the church, which used Vulgar Latin aka Plebeian Latin.
    • Everything Sounds More Profound in Ancien Regime French: French at that time was a major language of trade and diplomacy (although it still had to compete with Latin and Italian), and the language at that time was different to the French spoken today.
    • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Well, it's from this time that Early Modern English with thee, thou, yon, etc. originates. Most writers don't really know how to make an actual sentence in Early Modern English.
    • Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German and his countless other writings - catechisms, pamphlets, chorales etc. - turned the dialect used in Saxon chancelries into the standard literary form of (early) Modern High German.
    • In Italy, thanks to the predominance of writers like Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch and Machiavelli, the Tuscan dialect of Italian became the literary standard.
  • Art Evolution:
    • While medieval art was decent and colourful in terms of the illuminated manuscripts, the Renaissance suddenly went overboard with sculptures and paintings made out of egg yolk, and later oil, filled with historical, religious and mythological motifs, that were even more realistic, more detailed and more extravagant. And less clothed. It caused a major scandal all over Europe to see such bold, majestic masterpieces that the patrons and art enthusiasts immediately commissioned famous artists like Leonardo and Michaelangelo for more.
    • In music, after the monotonous, Latin-packed Ominous Gregorian Chanting stood its places in the churches, suddenly, out of the blue, came an influx of harmoniously vernacular multi-vocal pieces accompanied with harps, trumpets and newly invented instruments such as lutes, organs, keyboards and violins.
  • Corrupt Church: So much worse than before, that a priest named Martin Luther (name does not end with King) sparked a spiritual revolution that will divide Europe in religious conflict for over a century. A major irony noted by many historians is that Luther was protesting the Renaissance itself. The lax Church values and worldly nature led to greater intellectual influence and interest in classical knowledge, while the success of the Reformation led to a greater spreading of knowledge to the masses. The wealth and success of Florence and other city states, led to the The Papal States seeking to assert itself and this made Rome the center of gravity of the Renaissance during the early 1500s. It must be noted that Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope of excess was unusually tolerant in religious matters whereas Luther was vocally intolerant of Catholics, Jews, Protestant movements other than his own etc.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Henry VIII, Leonardo da Vinci, and Elizabeth I alone have probably clocked more time in fictions than their combined actual lifetimes. The Borgias are also fairly popular historical domain characters, though subject to villain upgrades.
  • Knight in Shining Armor:
    • For the first few decades of the era, it wasn't uncommon for knights to be employed. However, because of guns and cannons becoming more available to Europeans, wearing heavy, slow, armor became outdated when a simple musket ball would pierce it. In Italy, the Knights were not romantic or "shiny" at all. Many ex-Knights from France and even England (e.g. the famous Sir John Hawkwood) served as brutal Private Military Contractors. Indeed this led to Machiavelli starting the first civilian army of Florence and dreaming of nascent nationalism, only to be crushed by the Medici and the Pope.
    • This era also started to break down the elements of the chivalric knight as a stock character when knights and chivary started to become unpopular due to gunpowder, Machiavellian principles, and some guy who reads too much romances and jousting windmills.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Coffee imports, alongside cocoa and spices skyrocketed at this era. Initially resisted by Europeans due to being an Islamic drink, it became an popularly important drink to those from royals to popes to commonfolk who wanted to pace up their daily activities and all-night studies.
  • Only One Name: Generally used by people who were at the top of their fields; Michelangelo Buonarroti, Palladio, Petrarch, Dante etc.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: The Middle Ages actually had them rather low key. This is when they started to really get fancied up.
  • Renaissance Man: The Trope Namer. They tended to be more common in reality than fiction produced at the time.
  • War Is Glorious: When you have conquered Italy for the third time, beaten down the Swiss mercenaries and actually managed to grasp the entire lot out of the hands of the Holy Roman Empire, war certainly is...
  • War Is Hell: From about 1490 to 1530, Northern Italy was ravaged with war. Mercenaries (Swiss and Spanish) harassed commoners and looted the countryside, and French and German princes feuded with each other with local Italian princes and the pope for the hegemony over Italy. Different cities were sacked, most prominently Prato in 1512 and Rome in 1526. This was at the same time that many of the legendary artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael produced their greatest masterpieces.
    • Some other wars of the time also got very nasty, in particular the German Peasants' War (1524-1525), the Eighty Years War in the Netherlands, and the Wars of Religion in France.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: It was this era that saw the massive expansion of long-distance sea travel and exploration, and new ship designs such as carracks, caravels and galleons were created for these purposes. It was also around this time that the first true navies in the modern sense emerged. Medieval navies had usually been ad-hoc flotillas of merchant ships pressed into temporary service, with sea battles consisting largely of individual boarding actions. In the 16th century, however, Europe's increasingly centralised national governments started to build dedicated warships outfitted with cannon and gun ports, such as the famous Mary Rose.


Works set in this time period are:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • The Chibitalia chapters of Axis Powers Hetalia take place here. More specifically, the Chibitalia stories tell of the Holy Roman Empire's involvement and influence on the young Italy. Austria's artistic talent gives Italy the inspiration to develop his art skills, and an appreciation for music. Hungary lent Italy some of her clothes, because it wasn't until he actually matured that ANYONE knew Italy was male. Spain had his own hands busy dealing with Chibiromano (South Italy) and how much of a mean brat he was in comparison to his younger, more talented brother.

    Art 

    Comic Books 
  • The Abrafaxe in the original Don Ferrando arc (January 1981-December 1983) came to Spain in the early Siglo de Oro (in 1577, to be precise), before the Abrafaxe and the Don were sent back 300 years for the finale. In 1997 the Abrafaxe return to the year 1578, and Don Ferrando also makes a return appearance, this time searching for Eldorado. The adventure takes them on Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the Earth. (No. 255-282). The Abrafaxe's distaff counterparts, Anna, Bella and Caramella, had their adventure featuring Philippine Welser in 16th century Augsburg and Bohemia.
  • Marvel1602
  • Les 7 vies de l'Épervier, an seven-part series of historical adventure comics by André Juillard and Patrick Cothias. It is part of a larger cycle and set during the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIII of France.

    Film 

    Literature 

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 1962 British series Sir Francis Drake (26 episodes).
  • Blackadder, second series
  • Da Vinci's Demons
  • Elizabeth R
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII
  • Shogun
  • The Doctor Who episode "The Shakespeare Code" was set here, shortly after the premiere of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, and took remarkable trouble to get their dates right. The Doctor frequently quoted Shakespeare to Shakespeare, causing the playwright to say things like "I might use that," until he quoted Henry V, and got the response of "That's mine!" as it had already been written. Martha was surprised to learn that Shakespeare wasn't bald yet and hadn't written anything about witches yet.
    The Doctor: ... Rage, rage against the dying of the night...
    Shakespeare: I might use that.
    The Doctor: You can't, it's someone else's.
  • The Borgias, a series set in Renaissance Rome around 1500, which follows the schemes of Pope Alexander VI and his family.
  • Leonardo, set in 1467 Florence; a kids' adventure series about a teenaged Leonardo da Vinci.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade, a historical version of Mage: The Ascension, takes place in this period, covering from the early 1400s to the early 1500s.

    Theatre 
  • Henry VIII
  • The Alcalde of Zalamea by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, set during the reign of Philip II.
  • Götz von Berlichingen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's first play, set in 16th century Germany.
  • Egmont, another play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, set in the Netherlands in the 16th century.
  • Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua ("The Conspiracy of Fiesco in Genoa"), Friedrich Schiller's second play, set in the mid-16th century.
  • Maria Stuart, a play by Friedrich Schiller; adpated in to the opera Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti.
  • Don Karlos a play by Friedrich Schiller about Don Carlos, son of Philip II of Spain; it was turned into an opera by Giuseppe Verdi.
  • Wallenstein
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer's operas The Huguenots (about the Wars of Religion in France) and The Prophet (about the Anabaptists of Münster).
  • Anna Bolena (Ann Boleyn), an opera by Gaetano Donizetti.
  • Hernani, a play by Victor Hugo set in 16th-century Spain; adapted into the opera Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi.
  • Le roi s'amuse, a play by Victor Hugo set at the court of Francis I of France; adapted into the opera Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, who due to censorship troubles had to change the setting from Paris to Mantua.
  • Lucrèce Borgia, another play by Victor Hugo; adapted into the opera Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti.
  • Marie Tudor, yet another play by Victor Hugo.
  • Boris Godunov, a play by Alexander Pushkin, which became the base of an opera by Modest Mussorgsky.
  • Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner.
  • Dalibor, an opera by Bedrich Smetana.
  • Palestrina, an opera by Hans Pfitzner about a 16th-century composer.
  • Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht.
  • Mother Courage and Her Children
  • Luther by John Osborne, adapted into a film starring Stacey Keach.
  • The Devils of Loudun, an opera by Krzysztof Penderecki based on the novel by Aldous Huxley.

    Video Games