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When you think of the Italian Renaissance, chances are you think of what it gave us. The extraordinary sculptures of Michelangelo. The incomparable paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. The immortal written works of Petrarch and Machiavelli. But have you ever wondered why there was such an artistic, cultural and intellectual explosion in Italy at the start of the 14th century?

Why did it occur in Italy and not another part of Europe, and why did it happen in certain Italian city-states, such as Florence?

Why did it ultimately fail in the middle of the 16th century?

Professor Kenneth Bartlett offers you the opportunity to appreciate the results of the Italian Renaissance and to probe its origins. You will gain an understanding of the underlying social, political, and economic forces that made such exceptional art and culture possible.

In this course, you will learn from two masters: Professor Bartlett himself, and the eminent 19th-century art historian Jacob Burckhardt, who created the scholarly model—cultural history—through which the Renaissance is still widely studied today. Burckhardt believed that the Renaissance was best understood by examining the culture from which it arose: its social relations, economic structures, political systems, and religious beliefs.

Dr. Bartlett believes that this approach is akin to creating a mosaic using tesserae, pieces that consist of questions about social, economic, and political history, and about the day-to-day lives of individuals and families of the time.

How did the city-states of Italy amass such enormous wealth, and why did states such as Florence invest so much of their capital in art and learning?

How people lived, worked, and learned

What was the relationship of parents to children, husbands to wives, and citizens to their community?

Who could hold political power, and why? How is it that the Renaissance manifested itself so differently in different political environments: in a republic like Florence, a despotism like Milan, or a principality like Urbino?

Even the geography and topography of Italy become surprisingly crucial pieces of the picture. How did the country’s unique shape—a peninsula with a mountain range running up its center—help to spark the Renaissance? Would the Renaissance have happened had Italy’s geography been different?

This course will teach you that the Italian Renaissance mosaic is incomplete without the large and small pieces, such as the sack of Rome or the French invasions of 1494, and the dowry that a woman’s family had to provide so she could be married. In addition, you will learn that some pieces you may have associated with another genre of history—the Protestant Reformation or the Council of Trent, for example—are a part of an accurate Renaissance depiction.

You will gain a sense of how the Renaissance really looked through the eyes of the men and women who lived it. In addition, you will appreciate the Italian Renaissance as the moment in history when culture reached a point that is still with us in the way we view the world and structure our lives, and in the Renaissance cities of present-day Italy.

The Mind-set of the Renaissance: Man as the Measure of all Things

If you could learn only one thing from this course, it would be this: The Italian Renaissance was essentially a mind-set, a collection of powerful attitudes and beliefs.

Renaissance thinking enabled Italy to emerge from the feudal, Aristotelian, God-centered society of medieval Europe. The Renaissance mind—informed by the new philosophy of Humanism and the rediscovery of Plato—was far more secular and focused on the activities of human beings. The great invention of the time was the creation of the individual, the notion that human experiences and abilities should not be trivialized but celebrated—that man was “the measure of all things.”

You will witness the creation of Renaissance attitudes and beliefs against a backdrop of the cultural circumstances that gave birth to it. You will see the origins of Humanism as largely rooted in the work of Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, who grew up in a family that had been exiled from Florence. Humanism’s emphasis on the individual grew out of the fact that Petrarch was forced to seek his own identity, to literally “construct” himself, because he was separated from the homeland that otherwise would have shaped his identity.

You will understand Petrarch as an example of the theory that “geniuses do not drive history.” Even the most powerful ideas cannot take hold unless they can connect with social, political, and economic realities—unless they are beneficial to a given culture’s day-to-day needs.

The Life of Latin

For example, Petrarch’s belief that the classical Latin of Cicero was superior to medieval Latin received support because it proved true in real life. Traveling notaries, who wrote contracts and letters in Latin for merchants, found that switching to the classical version made them more marketable. Similarly, Humanism became the philosophy of the Republic of Florence largely because it was seen as economically advantageous. Florence’s rising business class saw Humanism as a useful rationale for charging interest, a practice forbidden by the Bible.

What is perhaps most striking is the way Renaissance Italians came to see their beliefs as not simply abstract but tangible. Florence transformed Humanism into civic Humanism—the belief that citizens should contribute their wealth and talent to the city’s betterment—which it further transformed into an actual “built community”: its architecture and landscaping, its immortal churches, sculptures, paintings, and frescoes.

Finally, you will examine how Renaissance ideals were embodied in the work of writers such as Baldassare Castiglione, Francesco Guicciardini, and Niccolo Machiavelli. They considered their era’s values to be sacred, vital handholds to which civilization literally clung. Their works can largely be seen as an effort to adjust and protect these values, to preserve them against the assault of anti-Italian, anti-Renaissance barbarians of their time.

Renaissances of Florence, Venice, Urbino, Milan, and Rome

The city-states of the Italian peninsula were home to the money, intellect, and talent that were needed for the growth of Renaissance culture, especially in Florence.

In the Republic of Florence, you will find an enlightened society that reached its peak under Cosimo de’Medici the elder (il Vecchio) and his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and that considered itself “the enemy of kings and tyrants.” Fully 3 percent of its citizens were eligible to hold political office (a remarkable percentage for the time).

On the other hand, Florence’s Renaissance history was one of political instability, of factionalism and political experiment that eventually descended into disarray and decline. At the end of the 15th century, under the overzealous Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, Florence was a repressive theocracy that ruled through torture. Heretics risked having their tongues cut out, and specially trained groups of boys, called Bands of Hope, roamed the streets to enforce public piety.

This course will also show you how the Renaissance progressed in other Italian city-states that, due to circumstances of geography and history, had political and social structures that were very different from Florence’s. In fact, most Italian Renaissance cities were principalities or despotisms, governed by princes or leaders of ruling families who could be either benign or cruel.

In Venice, you will see how this Republic’s change from a maritime to a more land-oriented city more amenable to Renaissance Humanism, which affected the look of the city. Venetian visual arts and architecture changed from Byzantine to Classical, and a Venetian school of painting arose that gave us such giants as Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto.

Montefeltro, a Consummate Civic Leader

The tiny principality of Urbino and the powerful despotic monarchy of Milan produced several exceptional leaders. Sir Kenneth Clark described Urbino under Federigo da Montefeltro as the most civilized place on Earth at the time. Montefeltro, known as the Light of Italy, walked the streets of Urbino each morning to inquire about his subjects’ well-being. His sense of fairness was so strong that he once insisted that a merchant sue him for nonpayment of a debt.

The Milanese despotic monarch Giangaleazzo Visconti built Milan’s renowned cathedral, instituted postal and public health systems, and initiated an attempt to unite Italy that, had it succeeded, would have rewritten Italian and European history. His successors, Francesco and Lodovico Sforza (called il Moro, the Moor, for his dark skin) accomplished the Peace of Lodi, which sheltered the Renaissance in relative tranquility for 40 years. Sforza presided over a court—where Leonardo da Vinci resided—that made Milan a rival to Lorenzo de’Medici’s Florence as a center of art patronage.

Rome, in an eerie reprise of the Roman Empire, rose and fell during the Renaissance. The Middle Ages had made Rome a deserted city, overrun by weeds and animals. But after the embarrassments of the Babylonian Captivity (1305–77), when the papacy moved to France, and the Great Schism (1378–1417), when as many as three popes ruled simultaneously, a succession of popes embarked on a rebuilding program designed to restore the papacy’s dignity.

Martin V, Nicholas V, Sixtus IV, and Julius II made Rome a Renaissance city by instituting large-scale public works, and church buildings such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest construction project in Rome since antiquity. Unfortunately, Rome’s rebirth as a magnet for tourists and pilgrims ended in an orgy of violence during the sack of Rome in 1527. An army comprised largely of mercenary Protestant Germans committed wanton rape, slaughtered priests and nuns, and pried open the tombs of popes and cardinals to steal vestments and rings.

In the end, no more than 15,000 inhabitants remained in the city, and Italians lost significant faith in their Renaissance ideals of Humanism and the dignity of man.

The Renaissance in Daily Detail

  • The Italian Renaissance was the era that invented the concept of the state and the term “Middle Ages.”
  • The last non-Italian pope until John Paul II served during the Renaissance. But Adrian VI was so unpopular that after he died, happy Romans carried his doctor through the streets because they thought he had helped to kill the pontiff.
  • In wars between Italian city-states, hardly anyone was hurt, let alone killed. Renaissance cities hired mercenary armies to do their fighting for them, and mercenary captains fought not to lose soldiers, whom they considered to be investments.

Professor Bartlett’s presentation contains a wealth of details that will give you a feel and appreciation for the Italian Renaissance—its contributions to history, the ways it was similar and dissimilar to our times, and how it was experienced by the people, famous and ordinary, who lived it. For example:

  • To recover knowledge of classical antiquity, Renaissance scholars had to invent disciplines such as archaeology, numismatics, and methods to verify the authenticity and meanings of texts. Renaissance techniques proved that the document, the Donation of Constantine—through which the Emperor Constantine allegedly gave control of the Western Roman Empire to the church—was a forgery, and that the only full-size equestrian bronze statue to survive from antiquity, long thought to depict Constantine, was actually of Marcus Aurelius.
  • Florence invented several financial techniques now widespread in modern economics. In the 1340s, to finance a huge public debt, Florentines invented the Monte, or mountain. This functioned like a municipal bond, and paid a 5 percent rate of return. Florentines also created the Monte delle doti, which functioned like a modern college fund, to help fathers pay their daughters’ dowries, and an income tax complete with personal deductions.
  • So that aristocratic boys and girls wouldn’t feel too superior, many Humanist educators required some poor boys, selected for their intelligence, be educated with them. The poor students were taught for free, and their parents were compensated for the fact that the boys weren’t working and contributing to family income.
  • Ironically, women’s social and personal freedom was most restricted where political freedom was greatest, in Humanist republics such as Florence and Venice. Most Humanist authors advised that women not be taught classical languages, rhetoric, and other Humanist skills. But in principalities, noble fathers often found it beneficial to educate their daughters to make them more attractive to a suitor. In addition, duchesses or princesses often ruled when husbands were away at war, a role unimaginable in Florence or Venice.
  • In Renaissance cities, women had four life options: marriage, domestic service, the convent, or prostitution. Florence ran state-approved brothels so that “honest” women would not be assaulted. Many women, afraid of dying in childbirth, chose the convent.
  • Social rank and decorum required that boys and girls, young men and women, only play a stringed instrument or keyboard instruments. Brass instruments or woodwinds were forbidden because it was thought that playing these instruments distorted the face and was contrary to the dignity and natural beauty of the human form.
  • Trials were held secretly in Venice, and most sentences were carried out at night. If you were accused of a capital offense, of which there were many, you would often just disappear. You’d be sewn in a sack and, at midnight, dropped over the side of a boat.

In this course you will also study a time when popes tended to be truly extraordinary, both in their accomplishments and in their personal behavior. They include:

  • Sixtus IV, who probably did more than anyone to rebuild Rome, and for whom the Sistine Chapel is named. But he was also a conspirator to murder, plotting with the Pazzi family to kill the Florentine leader Lorenzo de’Medici and his brother Giuliano at Mass one Holy Week.
  • Innocent VIII, who presided over the marriages of his children in front of the high altar at St. Peter’s.
  • Alexander VI Borgia, who had four children with his primary mistress, known as the Queen of Rome. His teenage mistress convinced him to make her brother a cardinal, who eventually became one of the great popes of the 16th century, Paul III.
  • Julius II, who built the current St. Peter’s Basilica, commissioned Michelangelo to paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel, and was probably the 16th century’s greatest art patron. He took his name to honor Julius Caesar, and was known as The Warrior Pope. In his sixties, he would walk with common soldiers through waist-deep snow and said he preferred the smell of gunpowder to the smell of incense.

In addition to the great popes, philosophers, writers, and political leaders of the Italian Renaissance, you will meet those whose names may not be as well-known, but whose impact was in many ways just as significant:

  • Poggio Bracciolini, whose handwriting was the model for italic type, and who perhaps did more to recover ancient literature than anyone else. Scouring monastic libraries, he discovered the lost forensic orations of Cicero, Vitruvius’s complete manuscript on Roman architecture and building, and the complete text of Quintilian’s Instituto Oratoria—the education of the citizen orator.
  • Coluccio Salutati, who as Chancellor of Florence institutionalized Humanism in the city by actively seeking Humanist scholars for positions in city government.
  • Marsilio Ficino, best known for introducing the philosophy of Plato to Europe. He served as the first president of the Florentine Platonic Academy, which attracted the leading citizens, thinkers, and artists of Florence.

The Power of an “Energizing Myth”

This course will impress you with the fact that the Italian Renaissance is one of history’s most interesting periods as well as one of its most relevant. Its contributions made much of modern life possible.

Our concept of participatory government, our belief in the value of competition, our philosophy of the content and purpose of education, even our notions of love all have roots in the Renaissance period. Its loftiest ideals—the importance of the individual, the value of human dignity and potential, and the promotion of freedom—are ones we embrace as our own.

As Professor Bartlett stresses, the principal cause of the Italian Renaissance was simply the idea that it could be. The historian Federico Chabod proposed that the Italian Renaissance was really an “energizing myth.” Italians, especially Florentines, became convinced that they could do anything—so they did.

As you will see, the Italian Renaissance failed as an era when Italians lost faith in their myth. In the face of invasion and violence, they succumbed to failure, humiliation, and fear, and abandoned the values through which they had accomplished so much.

Professor Bartlett stresses that this is an important object lesson for us. Our world is a mirror to theirs. Could we make the same mistakes they ultimately did? Yes. Can we afford to? No. Today, the stakes are simply too high.

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