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The Renaissance period (1400 to 1700) covered art, literature, philosophy and government. Renaissance culture spread outwards from Florence, to other Italian cities and then, over the following centuries, to the rest of Europe.

It is widely understood that it was a unique combination of several different influences that led to the Renaissance, with the social and political conditions of the era, combined with great wealth and the large number of talented artists and artisans in Florence; influencing cultural development on an exceptional scale.

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Europe in the 15th Century depended on Italy for much of its commerce. Italy itself was made up of city-states in which power was shared by leading families. By 1400 its leading city-state, Florence, had established stable self-government and great wealth through textile trading and banking, leading to a shared feeling of optimism and power. Responsible for the wealth of Florence, the ruling class of merchants, manufacturers and bankers were proud, competitive, academically curious and culturally astute.

This wealth made patronage of the arts and the growth of Renaissance culture possible. In turn patronage was a way of demonstrating one’s wealth and power. Wealthy families constantly tried to outdo each other with the extravagance of their commissions, with self-advertisement a key feature of Renaissance patronage. This is epitomised by Masaccio (1401-1428), in ‘The Holy Trinity’ fresco (1425) in the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. In it, the patrons, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife, kneel in front of St John the Baptist, Mary, Christ and God.

Rivalry pushed patrons and artisans to outclass each other, with revolutionary achievements such as the Santa Maria del Fiore in…

…n times. The ability to document individual achievement and the development of printing from the 1460s helped this – and also helped the Renaissance to spread outside Italy and throughout Europe from the late 15th Century onwards.

As the 15th Century drew to a close, the political and trading map of Europe was changing. In 1453 Constantinople, the seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire, was conquered by the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which threatened the Italian states to the east and enforced increasing commercial taxes against its merchants, France also laid claim to the region, initiating an invasion in 1494 that effectively destroyed Italy’s commercial and artistic authority. Gradually, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo fled to larger imperial courts, with Leonardo spending his last years working for the French king Francis I.

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