The Italian Renaissance, which began in the city of Florence in the late fourteenth century and peaked during the reign of a local ruler named Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a period of tremendous political, religious, and artistic change. The term renaissance comes from an Italian word for “rebirth”, and for intellectuals, the Renaissance, indeed, felt like a rediscovery of the arts. It followed what some regarded as a thousand-year period of cultural stagnation in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Artists and intellectuals flocked to Lorenzo’s court at the city on the Arno. Famous painters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo, worked in Florence. Lorenzo himself wrote poetry and hunted game. The Renaissance marked a historical turning point, when the Middle Ages ended and the modern era began. The Renaissance spread from the Florence of the Medici to other parts of Italy, and then northward to the rest of Europe. Aided by the invention in Germany of a new kind of mass production printing press, the ideas of the Renaissance changed the culture of Europe profoundly.
The basic creed of the Renaissance was humanism, an intellectual movement that replaced blind obedience to religious teachings with a return to classical thinking. The willingness to cast aside tradition led to new forms of architecture, painting, and scholarship. The Renaissance was, above all else, a shift in mentality away from hidebound medieval traditions to a more inquisitive, modern outlook on the world.
- Occasionally, visitors to Florence are so overwhelmed by the magnificence of Renaissance art and architecture in the city that they faint—a condition Florentines refer to as Stendhalismo, after the nineteenth-century French writer Stendhal, who was reportedly unable to walk after arriving in the city.
- Movable type, which enabled the mass production of books in Europe, was invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1448. Prior to the invention, books had to be hand-copied. Completing a single volume could take years or even decades.
- The political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, who learned about politics and governance firsthand as an advisor to the Medici, dedicated his landmark treatise on power The Prince to Lorenzo di Pero’s son.
- Perhaps the most famous building in Florence is the city’s cathedral, which is spacious enough to hold 30,000 worshippers. The famous eight sided dome, completed in 1436, was the first of its kind ever built and is considered one of the first and finest examples of Renaissance architecture.