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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Causes of the Renaissance

The right time, the right place--
Renaissance Italy
If you've ever taken an art history class, or even one in art appreciation, you know that the era they call "The Renaissance" is held in reverence something just short of the second coming. This "reawakening" is set up on a historic pedestal intended to inspire a worshipful awe as everyone from the highest high-priest-art-history-professor to the lowest graduate-student-teaching-assistant-altar-boy marches around it swirling incense, and sprinkling holy water while intoning the words of "Raphaellll... Michelangelooo...Leonardooo". Meanwhile all us art appreciators genuflect and murmur an appreciative background litany of gasping ooo's and ahhh's at every Madonna, David, and Mona flashed upon the screen for us to identify, categorize, memorize, and immortalize. Then when it is all done, we take an essay test and I'd bet dollars to donuts the very first question is: "Discuss the causes relevant to the development of the Renaissance and their effect upon the various forms of art of the time." (Or something to that effect.)

Lorenzo di Medici, Girolamo Macchietti,
the birth of banking, making money
with money
Well, let me answer the first part of that question in one word--money. Of course that's a gross oversimplification and would rate a single word response--explain! Actually, it's not only an oversimplification, it's also a bit inaccurate. Actually credit would be a better response. Now, let me explain. During the Middle Ages, there were two-forms of trade--gold, and barter. Gold was in short supply until the new world explorers robbed the native Americans and flooded Europe with it. And Barter was terribly inefficient. Credit, on the other hand (basically letters of credit), couldn't be easily stolen, weighed very little, and was an efficient way of transferring huge amounts of wealth. Which brings us back to the original answer--money. Without large amounts of it, there were only fortress prisons in which those who had accumulated some wealth relied upon ugly stone walls to avoid being murdered in their sleep. When it became economically feasible to enclose an entire city in fortress walls, then those with money could begin to relax and enjoy it, which meant a craving for beauty, which meant art. The city of Florence, Italy, is a classic example.

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Michelozzo, Florence
Italy (see map at top left), jutting its booted peninsula out into the maritime trade lanes of the Mediterranean, was ideally suited to taste, and enjoy this new found prosperity first. They spent the 13th and 14th centuries accumulating great wealth and the 15th and 16th centuries enjoying it. Even in Florence today, the palazzos of the Medici (right) and other wealthy families still have a fortress-like quality to them, but inside, as they open into delightfully sunny courtyards (bottom), there is light--light to see paintings hanging on walls, to enjoy tapestries, to admire garden sculpture, fountains, and manicured landscapes. And with wealth comes time--time to enjoy reading and writing poetry, music, great novels, opera, and high fashion. All of these things come together to define the Renaissance and to impact the arts. So, the next time you take an art history course, and it comes time for the final exam, just cut and paste this explanation and you'll be home free.
Palazzo Strozzi courtyard, Florence, Italy. Money=time=beauty=art. 

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