5.1 Renaissance: Why Italy?

The Renaissance began in Northern Italy in the 14th century. The Tuscan city of Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. Gradually, the movement spread north from Italy to other parts of Europe.

The most significant cultural developments during the Renaissance were in the fields of art, architecture, literature, philosophy and science. New trends and styles emerged as Italians attempted to imitate Europe's ancient Greek and Roman past. Italian scholars taught the public about the past by promoting the study of ancient writers like Homer and Virgil. These writers reminded readers of a glorious past. This past inspired people living in the present (14th century) to recreate the greatness of Rome and Greece.

The Renaissance did not begin all at once: it began with small changes in scholarship and artistic tastses in 13th century; and then, by the 14th century, it became a full blown intellectual movement transforming Western civilization.

Although Classical literature was studied in all of Europe's universities, Italy's unique combination of geography, economics, politics, and culture made it the most suitable location for the Renaissance to begin there:

1). Geography. Firstly, Italian city states like Florence, Milan, Genoa, etc. were located on or near important trade routes on the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. These cities weren't only important centers for trade goods; they were also important places where European and non-Europeans traded ideas.

Trade routes linked Italian cities like Genoa or Venice to the Middle East, India and China. Exposure to other cultures introduced important new ways of looking at the world to Europeans. In particular, these unfamiliar Eastern cultures encouraged Westerners to rethink the way they lived making social and cultural change possible in the West.

Also, Italy was the former seat of the Roman empire. After Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453 AD, intellectuals from Constantinople fled to Italy; they brought with them the written works of the writers of Greece and Rome. Italians were particularly fond of the Roman writers. The Romans reminded Italians of their former greatness. Also, Roman literature and ideas spread easily because of the similarities between the Latin and Italian languages.

2). Politics. Unlike in England or France, feudalism never took root in Italy. In feudal England, society was organized around a landowning class whereas Italy's cities were dominated by banking families like the Borgia and de Medici. People living in Italy's city-states were comparitively "freer" than the serfs working on feudal manors in France; however, it is important noting Italian cities were not democracies; rather, they were oligarchies and the Borgias and Medicis didn't tolerate challenges to their power.

3). Geo-politics. The Catholic Church was the single-most powerful institution in all of Europe and its capital was the city of Rome. Rome's central location in Italy, combined with the Church's power, made the city an attractive target for Italy's most influential families. Many Borgias and Medicis became popes. Incidentally, Rome's central geographical and political importance made it also the intellectual center of Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.

4). Patronage. Italian merchants and bankers like the Borgia and Medici amassed enormous fortunes. They competed with one another, as well. They wanted their city-states to be the best and most beautiful. Therefore, wealthy families financially supported artists, musicians and scholars to work in their city's universities and schools.

5). Philosophy. Finally, during the Renaissance humanism emerged. The Catholic Church taught that the present life was evil, it had to be endured, and that after you died all would be well in the afterlife. Italian humanists provided a more appealing worldview (at least to some): fulfillment could be found in the present life through the pursuit of higher learning.