From Gothic to Renaissance: 14th Century Italian Art
The essentially religious view of the world that dominated medieval Europe began to change dramatically in what is called the European Renaissance. Although religion continued to occupy a primary position in the lives of Europeans, a growing concern with the natural world, the individual, and humanity’s worldly existence characterized the Renaissance period. The Renaissance, which means “rebirth,” extends roughly from the 14th through the 16th centuries. In the 14th century, scholars and artists began to cultivate what they believed to be the rebirth of art and culture. A revived interest in “classical” cultures was central to this rebirth, hence the notion of the Middle Ages or medieval period as the age in between antiquity and the Renaissance. The transition from medieval to the Renaissance, though dramatic, did not come about abruptly. The Renaissance had its roots in the epochs that even preceded the Middle Ages, and much that is medieval persisted in the Renaissance and in later periods. The Renaissance eventually gave way to the modern era; the continuous nature of this development is revealed in the use of the term “early modern” by many scholars to describe the Renaissance.
The City States: Politics and Economics.
In the 14th century, Italy consisted of many city states that functioned independently. Each city state consisted of a geographic region, varying in size, dominated by a major city. Most city states were republics governed by executive bodies, advisory councils, and special commissions. Venice, Florence, Lucca, and Siena, were among these. Other powerful city states, including the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples, and the Duchies of Milan, Modena, Ferrara, and Savoy, as their names indicate these city states were distinct from republics. The uniqueness and independence of each city state were underscored by their separate economies. Italy’s port cities expanded maritime trade, whereas the economies of other cities centered on industries, such as, arms, banking, or textiles.
As a result of this economic prosperity, Italy was very powerful in the Mediterranean world by the beginning of the 14th century. Trades became organized into Guilds (associations of master crafts people, apprentices, and trade peoples). These associations protected the member’s common economic interests, against external pressures, such as, taxation, but also provided them with a means to regulate internal operations (such as work quality and membership training). The Guilds also dominated city governments.
Disruption and Change
The Black Death (bubonic plague) in the late 1340’s swept across the European continent, having originated in China. The most devastating natural disaster in European history eliminated 25 to 50 percent of the population in about five years. The Black Death had a significant effect on art, stimulating religious bequests and encouraged the commissioning of devotional images. It also stimulated hospital construction.
Disruptions in the religious realm also caused societal upheaval. In 1305, a French Pope was elected, Clement V, who settled in Avignon, as did subsequent French Popes. The Italians did not think well of this, since the felt Rome was the rightful capital of the universal church. The conflict resulted in the election of two popes in 1378, Clement VII, who resided at Avignon (and who does not appear on the list of popes compiled by the Catholic Church), and Urban VI (1378 - 1389), who remained in Rome. Thus began what was known as The Great Schism. After 40 years a council was convened by the Holy Roman emperor, that managed to elect a new Roman pope Martin V (1417 - 1431) that was acceptable to all.
Letters and Learning
Concurrent with these momentous economic, social, and religious events was the development of a vernacular (commonly spoken) literature, which dramatically affected Italy’s...