The Italian Renaissance
'Venus, it's amazing how you balance on that shell!'
"The Renaissance." "Il Rinascimento." "The Rebirth." We've all heard of this period, but what exactly was it? One way to describe it would be this: Imagine you're fifteen, bored out of your mind, it's the summer, and you're visiting your grandparents an hour away from home. You've no friends in town, no Internet, no cell phone (we're talking the 1980s here), and you're not exactly looking forward to the soggy spinach and dry chicken for dinner. While futzing around one afternoon, you stumble upon a chest in the closet. You open it. A whole new and exciting world appears to you: photos of your father growing up, your grandfather's military uniform and medals, your grandmother's and grandfather's love letters, some old books, toys, souvenirs from trips, and, best of all, your great grandmother's journal. Hundreds of pages of family history. All of a sudden your summer got a lot more interesting. This was the Renaissance: the discovery of a past that made the present much more interesting.
The Renaissance started around 1400 A.D. and was guided by the principles of Humanism. It was the period when people began to discover and discuss with increased frequency the treasures of the ancient past; treasures locked away in chests, in basements, in attics, on the shelves, in the very soil beneath one's feet. The rebirth of Arabic, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian learning. The Renaissance made life interesting . . . again.
These great rediscoveries of the past lead to great discoveries in the present, things not only reborn but drastically improved upon. Major strides were seen across all aspects of human learning, from architecture (Palladio, Brunelleschi, Alberti), to painting (Da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Raphael), to sculpture (Michelangelo, Donatello, Verrocchio), to astronomy (Cardano, Galileo), to mathematics (Pacioli, Galileo); from philosophy (Bruno, Campanella, Pico della Mirandola), to poetry (Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Poliziano), to geography (Vespucci, Columbus), to politics (i.e., the birth of the city-state), and even to cuisine (Platina). Everything changed. But the Renaissance wasn't just a period of great flourish, it was also a period of great rupture and strife. With such changes came unrest and confrontation. Take, for example, the Polish astronomer Copernicus's fifteenth-century proclamation that the earth was not the center of the universe, but the sun instead. This major cosmological shift had repercussions that extended far beyond the halls of the university. Claiming the sun the center of the universe meant that perhaps man was not the center of God's universe. Giordano Bruno was burned on the stake as a heretic for espousing such beliefs, and Galileo Galilei, much craftier than Bruno, suffered exile and lengthy examinations by the Inquisition for similar ideas. But great things don't come easy . . . it was worth it. Without the Italian Renaissance there'd be no "America" (named after a Renaissance Italian!), let alone no America (no quotes!).
Take some time today to read up about this outstanding period in history. Let yourself wander much as those in the Renaissance wandered. Be surprised by what you may find. Rediscover names you've heard of, but never had the chance to deeply explore. Pick a less known name (not Da Vinci or Michelangelo) and follow it across the web and into books. See what you might learn about Italy and her genius (and not so genius!) contributions to our world.