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What did the Renaissance do for us?

The Renaissance was one of the great moments of the human spirit, comparable perhaps only to Athens in the times of Pericles. It was also the first time that Europe noticeably moved ahead of all other contemporary civilizations. As usual, the background was economic.

The Italian trading cities, especially Venice and Genoa, had taken the lead in international trade since the crusades. After the fall of Acre in 1291, Venice received its share of the goods from the Spice Islands and the far East through ports of Egypt, while Genoa plied more the northern route, through the Black Sea ports. This trade was profitable also to other towns in Italy. The Medicis of Florence, for instance, were important bankers and textile merchants, with branches from London to Venice, who handled the Papal finances and loaned enormous sums to the ruling houses of Europe. Indeed, they did so well that they became the rulers of Florence.

The court of Lorenzo the Magnificent was perhaps the most important centre of the 15th century Renaissance. But the Medicis were not alone. The German Fuggers had by the early 16th century, an even bigger banking and trading business, centred in Augsburg. In the 15th century France, Jacques Coeur developed a business empire of similar size and importance. This new wealth created a new middle class first in Italy, then beyond the Alps. New tastes, and a growth of “lifestyle” culture replaces simpler medieval standards. Town houses and country mansions were built with windows, elaborate ceilings, painted walls, and carpets. Artists, architects and craftsmen came into their own in this environment.

Italy became the school of Europe just as Athens had been the school of Greece. She produced great poets and writers such as dante, Petrarch, Bocaccio and Ariosto; scholars such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Pomponazzi; architects like Filippo Brunelleschi, Donata Bramante and Andrea Palladio; and of course some of the greatest sculptors of all time, including Verocchio, Donatello, and Michelangelo among their number; above all perhaps are the painters – men such as Giotto, Raphael, Giorgione, Botticelli, Leonardo da vinci and Titian. This scholarly atmosphere created the quintessential ‘genius’ that we call today, the Renaissance man; the polymath who is a jack of all trades, be they scientific or humanistic, and master of all. The Renaissance also created a new self-reliance in Europe. Until the 15th century, Europe had been the docile pupil of Greece and Rome. Now its thinkers dared to strike out on their own.

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