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Useful Notes / The Renaissance

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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 the decade and geographic location. In Hollywood History, The Renaissance is home to Tudor Mansions, Medici Palazzi and Valois Châteaux, 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, The Catholic Monarchs, Charles V, The Borgias, Martin Luther, The Protestant Reformation, global exploration in search for gold and spices, 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...). Outside of Western Europe, we have Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia, Ivan the Terrible of Russia, The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Turkish sultans surrounded by gorgeous belly dancers fighting great land and naval battles against Europe, Mughal rajahs building their pristine white marble mausoleums, Ming emperors in their Forbidden Palace whose halls are adorned with beautiful porcelain vases, Sengoku warlords served by loyal samurai and delicate geishas, and bloodthirsty Mayincatec overlords overlooking their rising empires only to have them crushed by Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro and other gold-hungry conquistadores.

Now when people talk about Renaissance they are really talking about two things. The art-historian Giorgio Vasari used the word "rinascita" purely to describe the revival of Italian painting and sculpture since the time of Giotto. The especially grand and overarching way that later historians use to tie together the power and growth of Italian City States as represented in its artistic and literary output, with the Age of Discovery, the dawn of humanism and the flourishing of classical literature is entirely a modern construction.

"The Renaissance" as an overall historical phenomenon covering about 200 to 300 years (from say 1350s-1620s), applied to an entire era dates to 1855. It was coined by French Historian Jules Michelet and later adopted by English and German historians. Modern historians, inspired by Postmodernism use the phrase "Early Modern Era" as a umbrella term of which the Italian Renaissance is merely one chapter, accompanied by the Age of Discovery, The Protestant Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and so on. Other definitions will date it from The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (others prefer 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World) to the invention of the first steam engine in the 1750s;note  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 spread gradually and sometimes very, very slowly throughout the rest of Europe after that.

For history buffs, it can be quite annoying to see that most "Renaissance fairs" select England rather than Italy as their model, since England was the last Western European state to be Renaissanced. At the time Leonardo and Michelangelo were in their youth, England was still mired in the tail-end of the Wars of the Roses (which cost the House of Medici so many florins that they quit banking and went into the hereditary nobility business). 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 late Middle Ages aesthetics-wise (also, it's a lot harder on a RenFaire budget to recreate a city like Florence than a village). Also, to be fair, once England did get "Renaissanced", they went for it wholesale and were on par with if not ahead of everyone by the 1650s, at least ideas-wise (when their civil war gave rise to some ideas that we moderns would recognise easily as, well, modern).

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.

It was Petrarch who coined the concept of the Dark Ages, which he used to lament the cultural wasteland of his era with the antique glories of Ancient Rome. 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. Thus, a new concept of learning was founded, which led to new science, new political theory, and in turn, a massive upheaval of 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 about the topics of God and Man and went seriously batshit when the movement, in turn, led to full religious and social revolution. But then it was too late.

It also had the unintended effect of turning Greco-roman culture into a worldwide Cyclic National Fascination; viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement and sought to be emulated.

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.note 
  • Which in turn closed the Silk Route to the east, and led to sailors trying to find another way to China. Cue Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gamanote , and circumnavigators like Ferdinand Magellan (who was also Portuguese).
  • And then Johannes Gutenberg came along with his printing device, making it easier for people with 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. Mediterranean sea republics like Venice and Genoa, as well as Northern European ports such as those of the Netherlands, were soon with their hands full of this.
  • Black Death: The Black Death had caused many of the Europeans to question the authority of the Catholic church, as many felt that god had abandoned man to fend for themselves. Even though the plague did hit Florence, the effects of the plague were not extreme in Florence when compared to other parts of Europe, as Florence was considered to be one of the wealthiest cities in Italy around the time period. The fact that the Black Death killed off a large number of lower-class citizens caused a drastic change in the social structure throughout Europe; peculiarly, it may have increased the well-being of those who survived, as (1) whole families dying meant that a lot property was left for the taking and (2) skilled laborers could now charge higher prices (on account of reduced competition).

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 some of the movements that resulted, like those leading to the Peasants' Wars and the English Revolution were steps in that direction.

Revisionist scholars inspired by Postmodernism point out that the Renaissance was not nearly as progressive as it believed or wished it was (no era is, but the Renaissance was the first which truly expected and believed it was). The Age of Discovery led to the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade and colonization of the New World, and this led to the depopulation of native peoples by smallpox and massacres. The Protestant Reformation unleashed witch-hunts and witch-burnings (actually hangings, usually) in their heyday, far more so than in the medieval period, and the Wars of Religion that followed led to horrific acts of violence unprecedented even in the heights of The Crusades. Antisemitism also reached new heights, what with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal orchestrated by Tomás de Torquemada.note  Furthermore, while serfdom ended in Western Europe, thanks to greater agricultural demand from Western Europe, serfdom which had never existed in Eastern Europe in any significant level and fashion increased and spread. Likewise, many point out that the cultural and intellectual glories of Italy so often celebrated in Historical Fiction belies the fact that the Italian Wars were ongoing and never-ending parts of this era, and that Italy was more or less colonized by neighboring states who repeatedly sacked and looted its wealth.

The importance of The Renaissance in the "longue durée" is that this was the moment when the Balance of Power shifted away from the Mediterranean (the center of Europe from Ancient Greece to The Low Middle Ages) to the Atlantic (Spain, Portugal, France, England), and thanks to the discovery and colonization of the New World and discovery of new trade routes and the accompanying revolutions in nation-states, military, agriculture and urban planing, Western Europe, and the West in general became richer and more prosperous than Eastern Europe, and the East. This was a true reversal of the status-quo and it has more or less remained the case into the early 21st Century. So in that respects, this was really a Dawn of an Era.

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Notable Renaissance Figures & Art

    Authors, Philosophers & Scholars  


Flanders / Low Countries:

  • Erasmus


  • François Rabelais



    Scientists & Inventors 

Flanders / Low Countries:
  • François Clouet
  • Jean Clouet

Holy Roman Empire:
  • Albrecht Dürer


    Works of Art 

The era as portrayed in fiction:

  • Antiquated Linguistics:
    • Gratuitous Latin: The choice language of educated scholars of the time since the revived Roman interest.
    • 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.
    • The Castilian language in its modern form took shape when Spain was wrapping up the Reconquista and expanding its colonial territory that ushered the country's Golden Age. Don Quixote was commentary of the language's shift. Judeo-Spanish and some Central American variants had retained much of the pre-1492 structures.
  • Art Evolution:
    • While medieval art was decent and colourful in terms of the illuminated manuscripts, the Renaissance suddenly went overboard with sculptures of bronze and marble, and paintings with binders made out of egg yolk, and later oil, and applied to wet walls, wood panels, and canvases, filled with historical, religious and mythological motifs, resurrecting ancient Greek tricks such as the Contrapposto Pose, 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 of Medieval Music 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.
  • Clock Punk: This is predominantly where Clock Punk borrows its aesthetics from if in a historical-based place. Given the higher rise of technology and the reintroduction of various classical studies and advances in sciences, it justifies the setting very well. This was the era of Leonardo Da Vinci after all.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The Middle Ages actually had them rather low key. This is when they started to really get fancied up. To break it down;
    • 15th century European clothing is characterized by high waists and heavy, draped fabrics, and is classified in three flavours;
      • Flemish, whose silhouettes are characterized by voluminous robes called houppelandes with its high necklines and long sweeping scalloped sleeves;
      • Burgundian, whose silhouette uses v-scoop necklines for women and high hemlines on doublets for men. Fabrics used generous amounts of fur and velvet;
      • Italian, one of the silhouettes we commonly see with early Renaissance fashion, characterized by bright colours, brocades and tight, slashed sleeves.
    • In 16th century European clothing, the emphasis had shifted lower to the waist and hips, which would gradually be exaggerated as the century progressed, and added layers in response to cooling temperatures. They are broken down into;
      • German, whose silhouette is unique on its own, and had merged and modified Burgundian and Italian styles, with added puffs and slashes on sleeves, and geometric lines — square for men, triangle for women;
      • Spanish, whose silhouettes are modifications of German styles, ruffs and farthingales characterize the form, and used sombre shades like black with accents of gold.
      • Elizabethan English, whose silhouettes exaggerated Spanish fashions, used brighter colours, stiffer ruffs, and even more adored with gems and pearls.
  • 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, and their sometimes allies the Medici behind them.
  • Only One Name: Actually averted for the most part, it's just that many of those still remembered today are mainly only known by a single name, often their first name (for some, the name that's remembered is their Latinate pseudonym, which is generally derived from their last name). A few examples are Michelangelo Buonarroti, Andrea Palladio, Francesco "Petrarch" Petracco, Dante Alighieri, Mikolaj "Copernicus" Kopernik, etc.
  • Renaissance Man: The Trope Namer. They tended to be more common in reality than fiction produced at the time.
  • Witch Hunt: Contrary to popular misconceptions, this—not the Middle Ages—was the heyday of witch trials.
    • Burn the Witch!: Though in Protestant countries, they were actually more likely to be hanged.
    • The Witch Hunter: This is who'd be carrying the witch hunts out.
  • 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 include:

    Anime & Manga 
  • The Chibitalia chapters of Hetalia: Axis Powers 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.
  • Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto is a fantastically detailed manga about Cesare Borgia at age 16, watching and reacting to the changing world around him in the year leading up to his father's election to the papacy. The series has Cesare encountering the full cast of Young Future Famous People, even those he never met until much later, or at all — Michelangelo, for example, was the same age, and was childhood friends with a few of Cesare's Florentine classmates.
  • One Winged Michelangelo depicts the youth of the famous artist — and his rivalry with Leonardo — as a shonen manga.

    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.
  • Suske en Wiske: The stories "Het Spaanse Spook" en "De Zingende Kaars".
  • The names (only) of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael were of course all Italian Renaissance artists.

    Films — Live-Action 


    Live-Action TV 

Italian Renaissance:

  • The Age of the Medici by Roberto Rossellini.
  • Da Vinci's Demons
  • In the Doctor Who episode “The Vampires of Venice” The Eleventh Doctor takes Amy and Rory on a date in Venice 1580, as a wedding present. Unfortunately, they come face to face with Vampires.
    • In the classic era arc "City of Death", The Doctor visits Leonardo da Vinci's studio to uncover why Leonardo painted multiple copies of the Mona Lisa. At one point, he briefly stands near a window in the studio, basking in "that Renaissance sunshine".
  • Borgia and The Borgias, two different series set in Renaissance Rome around 1500, which follow the schemes of Pope Alexander VI and his family.
  • Leonardo, set in 1467 Florence; a kids' adventure series about a teenaged Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Medici, covering the history of the titular family during the era.

English Renaissance:

  • The 1962 series Sir Francis Drake (26 episodes).
  • Blackadder, second series. For almost everyone.
    Blackadder: Baldrick, to you, the Renaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn't it?
  • The flashbacks in Ghosts (UK) episodes "The Bone Plot" and "En Francais" take place in this time period with the "The Bone Plot" featuring a Catholic plot to overthrow Elizabeth I.
  • Elizabeth R
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII
  • 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.
  • Upstart Crow: A sitcom about William Shakespeare.

    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.

  • 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.
  • Something Rotten!, an Affectionate Parody of both Shakespearean England and Broadway. The opening number is called "Welcome to the Renaissance".
  • Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto is about Cesare Borgia when he was 16 years old and in school with his Childhood Friend and future right-hand assassin Michelotto da Corolla, and Giovanni de' Medici, the future Pope Leo X.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood have both Renaissance Italy as setting and follow Ezio Auditore, a Florentine nobleman who became an Assassin. He has Leonardo da Vinci as close friend and Gadgeteer Genius, gets to buy numerous famous paintings of the era for his collection, and meets many historical characters of the era as either allies, enemies or neutral parties. Assassin's Creed II takes place in Florence, Tuscany cities, Forlì and Venice from 1476 to 1499, and Brotherhood takes place almost entirely in Rome between 1499 and 1506.
    • Assassin's Creed: Lineage (prequel Short Film to Assassin's Creed II), has Giovanni Auditore (Ezio's father) speculate on how history will view the Renaissance, given the outward rebirth of culture and the hidden corruption and the secret war between the Templars and the Assassins.
  • The Soul Series, although the culture is never directly described. Nonetheless, there's some mention of handheld guns popping up on battlefields while plate-armored knights still exist and one of the characters uses a rapier.
  • Roberto the architect's chapter in Eternal Darkness is in the time period, but uses Persia as the setting.
  • Holistic Design's Merchant Prince, Machiavelli: The Prince and Merchant Prince II are turn-based strategy game of political, military and, of course, economic conquest.
  • The start date for Europa Universalis is 1444, meaning it encompases much of this time period.

    Western Animation 
  • The Once Upon a Time...Man episode "The Quattrocento" is set in the Italian Renaissance and focuses on Leonardo da Vinci. Other episodes set in the 16th century include "The Golden Age of Spain" and "Elizabethan England."